On the Summit of the Mountain

In May of 2015, I hiked with four other people to the summit of Mt. Baldy, the mountain officially known as Mount San Antonio although hardly anyone calls it that. At just over ten thousand feet, it’s the highest point in the San Gabriel Mountains, the transverse range that rises north of downtown Los Angeles and runs due east for forty-five miles to the Cajon Pass, the depression created long ago by a violent shudder of the San Andreas fault. Interstate Highway 15 slithers through the pass on its way to Las Vegas with busloads of gamblers going to and from Las Vegas, and beyond the pass the San Bernardino Mountains run east for another forty miles before giving way to the sand and creosote bush and vast arid silence of the Mojave Desert.

I had trekked to the Mt. Baldy summit a half dozen times, on the trail we took that day, and on longer routes with different trailheads. I had hiked to the summits of the only Southern California mountains higher than Mt. Baldy, San Gorgonio Mountain deep in the San Bernardinos, and Mt. San Jacinto in the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs. I had hiked to the summits of lesser peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains, and in what qualified as my only experience of true mountaineering, with crampons, ice axe, and rope, I had summited Mt. Shasta, the 14,170 ft. volcanic peak in far-northern California.

The four of us reached the Mt. Baldy summit after a hard, three-hour climb and found rocks on the mountain’s barren dome for sitting and eating lunch. On the ascent we had overtaken a group of a dozen or so men and women speaking Japanese, and once on the summit they gathered nearby in a rough circle and appeared to celebrate some kind of occasion, with animated gestures and laughter. A man in our group walked over and asked one of the women what they were doing, and she answered in English that they were celebrating the 80th birthday of a man in a bright red jacket sitting on a rock at the center of the circle. Even though my own 80th birthday was seven years off, I was almost immediately seized with the idea of replicating this man’s feat.

On the descent, we talked of the Japanese man we knew nothing about, and speculated about his motives. I said I was motivated by the challenge of reaching a mountain’s summit no matter how high or difficult the ascent, but the only woman in our group said reaching the summit hadn’t been important; indeed, for her it was the journey, being in the natural world with trees and rocks and brisk air and silence unbroken by anything other than the calls of birds and sigh of the wind. She could have happily turned around at some point, she said, without feeling that she had failed a challenge or squandered an opportunity.

I delivered some less-than-poetic musings about how it feels to be in high places with views that go on for miles and miles, but one of the men in our group who is known for his sometimes acerbic sense of humor said—I don’t remember his exact words—something to the effect that I was just an old man “terrified of dying.” I decided to ignore this stab at humor, insult, whatever it was. Yes, I was old or certainly getting there. But I wasn’t terrified of dying, or at least I didn’t think so. But maybe I was wrong about that.

The first time I hiked to the 11,503 ft. summit of San Gorgonio Mountain I was with an organized group called the Outdoor Club. I didn’t know any of the others, and as we gathered at the trailhead I heard a conversation about “bagging” peaks and another concerning someone’s “BMI.” Within a mile I had lost sight of the others ahead of me, and didn’t see them again until we met when I was still ascending and they were coming down. When I finally got back to the trailhead, dusk was turning the firs and pines and rocky outcroppings that surrounded me in a shadowy blur.

I was then in my early sixties, but the lesson I drew from that day was that if I wanted to keep up with people like that I needed to get into better shape, not that I had the excuse of being older than the others. I didn’t consider that maybe their concerns with BMI and bagging peaks meant the activity was essentially performative, and as such had something to do with defiance of the natural order, which in all species is a process of slow decay and ultimate death. A kind of forced march to a mountaintop for the purpose of bragging rights is also antithetical to the experience the woman on our Mt. Baldy hike valued, getting away from the clamor of the city and immersing herself in the sights, sounds, and odors of a world untouched, or just lightly so, by civilization.

The more I thought about celebrating my 80th birthday on top of the mountain the more the idea surrounded itself with uncertainty. For one thing, my birthday is in late December, and as often as not there is snow on the summit and upper elevations. While it’s possible to hike to the summit under those conditions, crampons or other devices have to be worn to avoid slipping and falling, and even then an abundance of caution is required. But more importantly, the people I want to celebrate with, my wife, close friends, children and grandchildren, could not be expected to hike that steep, strenuous trail under any conditions. Finally, unlike that Japanese man, I’m not sure I could even reach that summit now, seven years later.

In fact, I doubt that I’ll ever stand again on the barren dome of that mountain so aptly named. Or on the rubble-strewn summit of San Gorgonio Mountain, or the top of Mt. San Jacinto, with its piles of gray boulders and bushy shrubs. I’ll never stand again on the summit of Mt. Shasta, one of my most thrilling experiences although the ascent was profoundly exhausting. Maybe the adage about the journey being more important than the destination isn’t just pop psychology parlance, but wisdom.

If resisting the terror of death requires feats of strength and endurance, better to stop, look around, listen, breathe in the unsullied air.

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