In The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo wrote,
“…when you can’t go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward.”
One of my favorite ideas in history and literature is the idea of someone’s weakness becoming a source of their greatest strength. Malcolm Gladwell once wrote a book about it called David & Goliath, which was about how we perceive our circumstances to be weaknesses when they’re actually advantages.
However, the inverse is also true: sometimes our greatest strengths hinder us. This entry is about how I got my friends lost and forced them to sleep out in the open at 14,000 feet.
In the late summer of 2016, I joined my friends—experienced backpackers—for my first backpacking trip. Among them were my friends Isaac and Shayna. Isaac was an Eagle Scout, but Shayna was like me: short-legged but determined to finish.
We were hiking the High Sierra Trail—a 70-mile trek through some of the highest, steepest, and most beautiful terrain California has to offer. (We were also hiking the John Muir Trail, which is an additional 200 miles, but I didn’t make it that far). To give you a little background on what I was facing, I weighed 250 pounds and I had asthma. Santa Clarita is at an elevation of about 1,200 feet. The High Sierras have an average elevation of 10,000 feet, meaning the air was even thinner than I was used to. On top of that, I had bought boots that were just slightly too small for my feet, but I hadn’t realized it until days after this point.
No one had told me that when you’re walking for 14 miles a day with 30 pounds on your back, your feet will go up a size.
My feet were in constant pain. Every morning and every night I had to administer first aid…but there was nothing else I could do but walk.
The Hike Up Mt. Whitney
The High Sierra Trail ends at the peak of Mt. Whitney—14,508 feet, the highest point in the mainland United States.
Heavy, exhausted, and in pain, I was madly determined to make it to that peak. I didn’t care how long it took or how hard it was, I was going to walk up there. That was my first mistake.
The plan was we would walk up to Trail Junction—a roomy campsite about 1,000 vertical feet from the peak of Mt. Whitney–and camp there for the night. We’d get some rest, eat breakfast, then hike up to Whitney from there. However, two members of our group decided they really wanted to talk to their girlfriends that night, and Whitney actually gets signal at the top. So when we arrived at Trail Crest around 8:30 pm, they decided they would push on for the peak. Since they were both incredibly fit and incredibly tall, they would be able to make the last couple miles in a couple hours.
Me, being neither of those things, declared (seriously, I actually yelled this because I wasn’t really thinking straight) that I was going to follow them.
Keep in mind that we’ve already hiked 12 miles and climbed 3,000 feet.
Also, keep in mind that Isaac and Shayna hiked ahead and had alreadyset up camp on Trail Junction.
Also also keep in mind that this is the highest elevation my body has ever been at, and every step is only going to get harder and slower. Isaac and Shayna knew they couldn’t let me hike the trail up to Whitney alone. Because they were decent people, they packed up their tent and followed me up the mountain.
Life on the Moon
Here’s the thing about Mt. Whitney—there are no trees or plant life. It’s too high. From anywhere on the trail, you can see the top. You just can’t see how to get there. The trail is essentially a dirt and rock path caught between an enormous wall of boulders and a steep fall onto more enormous boulders.
At 10:30 PM, we were about halfway to the peak—it took us two hours to travel a single mile.
We were miserably cold and silent.
I didn’t feel terrible—I just felt determined. But then something dangerous started to happen: we all started getting confused. See, if your brain isn’t used to that elevation, it starts to make poor decisions because it’s running on low oxygen. We would start up a path we thought was the trail—only to realize that it wasn’t the trail at all. We started stumbling a little bit, which is dangerous when a stumble at the wrong time could leave you with broken legs at 14,000 feet.
The bad news was that we had gone too far to turn back—it would have been just as dangerous to continue as it would be to return.
A Night Under the Stars
So we made the decision to sleep on the trail at 14,100 feet.
As we set up camp, we got more bad news: my friends’ 2-person tent would not fit anywhere on the trail. They were forced to sleep exposed to the wind and the cold. Now, at this point, at freezing temperatures nearly 3 miles above sea level, I started to feel bad. So instead of sleeping in my tent, I huddled with them and used my tent as a blanket. It didn’t really work that well, but hey—at least I was suffering with them.
So we huddled there, sleeping for a couple minutes at a time on the ground squished together off the edge of the world.
As if things couldn’t get worse, I started coughing. Badly. And I was paranoid about a condition where a blood clot forms in your lungs due to elevation. The first symptom is violent coughing. So, when I coughed something up, I had to check it with my phone to make sure it wasn’t blood, then go back to sleep. This happened a few times—my friends were convinced I was going to die.
At 4:30 AM, we decided to get up and hike the last mile. We were a little better rested, and we looked forward to dawn. As I arrived at the top, utterly exhausted but victorious, I felt proud. But I also felt…foolish. I had dragged my friends away from a safe campsite and put them in danger because of my ego.
Because I couldn’t handle being left behind.
The Hard-Earned Lesson
In the end, it worked out. I learned that I could accomplish anything through determination. But I learned a harder lesson too: that my determination, without wisdom, could lead me to do some truly stupid things. Wanting to accomplish something “at any cost” does have a dark side, a trade-off.
And sometimes, when you fight to accomplish your goals at any cost, other people might end up paying the price too.