I’ll make the long story short.
Two years ago, I led my friends in a hike to the summit of San Jacinto Peak, the 2nd tallest mountain in Southern California (10,834 ft). Nothing went right. We started up late in the morning and trudged through thick, wet snow before reaching the windy summit in the late afternoon. On the way, we separated from a member of our party, who subsequently got lost (not unlike ourselves who, on the way down, also got lost and spent many hours aimlessly wandering around the mountain long after the sun went down). After returning, we contacted the sheriff, who called a search party to find our lost comrade. The search continued for most of the following day until he strolled into Palm Springs, dazed and dehydrated. We thought he had died. It was also his mom’s birthday.
If you live in Riverside County, you might’ve read about it in the local news.
Ever since that hike, a curse has befallen my hobby. I am unable to summit peaks. I look back on San Jacinto as a sort of summit that should have never been, and because my party dodged the misfortunes of failure (because we actually did reach the top) and death (because everyone lived) in spite of Fate’s strongest efforts, I am forever barred from successfully completing a hike again as a punishment for reckless ineptitude and the endangerment of my friends. It’s incredibly frustrating, because if there’s one thing I like doing in life, it’s mountaineering.
But really. For the past two years, I’ve attempted to summit nine peaks. I’ve failed all [but one] of them, and it’s eating away at my machismo. And it’s not just because I suddenly suck at hiking. The reasons are varied and often bizarre. I’ll start with my lone success, which I still somehow consider a failure…
White Mountain Peak (14,252 ft) – My team actually did summit this mountain, but the experience was so miserable that by the time we got down, we felt like failures. Allow me to explain: the hike stays between 12,000 and 14,000 feet, and we attempted without acclimation, which was fine until our oxygen-depleted brains and bodies slowly began to chip away at our exuberance and morale until, by the time we reached the trailhead on the way back, we all inexplicably hated each other.
“Hey, who wants a victory beer?”
“Victory beer? Fuck that. And fuck you too.”
That’s a failure.
Varful Omu (8,218 ft) – This peak lies in the Carpathians of Romania. As it turns out, I can’t read Romanian, and my partner and I turned around when we figured out it probably wasn’t a day hike. Oops.
Rabbit Peak (6,623 ft) – There is no trail to the top of Rabbit Peak, but it’s rather prominent and in the barren Anza-Borrego desert, so I figured it would be easy to see the peak and scale it by sight. As a result of my poor navigation and leadership, I led my cohorts into a trail-like wash that led us deep into an unkempt canyon. The wash slowly gave way into an unfriendly rattlesnake-infested cactus forest with impassable cliffs (that we tried to pass anyway). Upon consulting the topographical map after we accepted defeat, it became clear that we weren’t even close to being on the right path.
Desert hiking protip: wash =/= trail
San Gorgonio Mountain (11,503 ft) - The team, learning from our previous mistakes, set up the snowy peak of Southern California well-equipped with crampons, snowshoes, warm clothes, and ice-axes. Also a map and compass. While slowly navigating the snowy trail, it became clear that my snowshoes were a joke when my comrade began sliding down a hill as if on skis before tumbling head first into a ravine. A little cramping and a little cussing later, we decided to turn back, which was good because the sun went down before we got to the car.
Santiago Peak (5,689 ft) – “Santiago Hill” would be a more appropriate name. It’s the tallest mountain in Orange County, CA, but it’s still in Orange County, so my partner and I figured it would be a pleasant stroll up a fire access road… which it was until we ran into six inches of fresh powder snow. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, but my partner, expecting pristine Southern California trail conditions, brought his Vibram FiveFinger shoes, which, while superb on dry trails, have absolutely no defense against frostbite. We had to turn around.
Did I mention it was May? In Orange County?
Mount Shasta (14,179 ft) – Serious mountaineering. Crampons, ice-axes, helmets, glaciers, multi-day backpacking. Shasta is not a mountain to scoff at. My partner and I camped the night on the slopes of the mountain in what was the worst night of sleep I have ever gotten. The wind was so powerful that at one point the tent was flattened on top of us, and for a brief moment we were sure we would be blown away like a kite into the Siskiyou Daily News. When we woke up in the morning to start our early ascent while the snow was hard, we were socked in by a cloud that limited our visibility to nothing, and thus were forced to wait and get a late start on our attempt. We gave up when the shitty weather and downward trajectory of the sun seemed foreboding.
Guadalupe Peak (8,751 ft) – Desperate to summit a mountain, and especially a state high-point, I set out to conquer the highest point in Texas. To make the long story short, I hiked the wrong trail. Apparently I can’t read junction signs.
Wheeler Peak (13,161 ft) – At this point, I felt the Curse of San Jacinto Peak run deep within me. I needed to break the curse, and I saw an opportunity in New Mexico’s high point. I wanted to do everything right: I studied the trail map. I talked to the forest ranger about the weather (forecast: windy, but otherwise good – no snow, clear trail, sunny skies). I brought extra food, extra water, warm clothes, survival gear, and camped at the trailhead to get an early start on the hike. All was going to plan. It was a beautiful day.
And then, a mere two miles into the hike, I ran into snow. Not just some snow, but a wall of snow, that somehow burst forth from the dry and snowless path and continued up the forested slopes into the oblivious distance. Again, snow is normally not a problem, but this was waist-deep powder that had been untouched, as if all hikers before me had walked up to the wall, gave it a good hard look, and said, “Well, shit,” and turned around. The trail was gone, with absolutely no indication of where it might be. And believe me, I spent about a half an hour looking for alternate routes…
…after which I spent about five minutes cussing at the indifferent peak and cursing the ruthless apathy of fate before turning around, shuffling slowly down the mountain while muttering something about “Where’s the justice? …where is the godd*mned m^therf@cking justice…?”
But I could not let San Jacinto win, which brought me to Arizona…
Humphreys Peak (12,637 ft) – Again, preparation. An early start. The weather was windy, but exquisitely beautiful. My partner and I started up. I was determined. I felt fortune was on my side. I would defeat the Curse of San Jacinto Peak.
The wind got worse and worse. It got to the point we had to shout to each other to be heard. But the summit was near. We got closer. The wind got stronger. And suddenly we encountered a crowd up people huddled beneath the summit.
“What’s going on?”
“Someone died up there.”
Apparently an hour or so previously, the harsh winds caused a lone hiker to fall off the ridge on the way to the summit. As other hikers told us, he had probably broken his legs and died of either shock or hypothermia.
I turned to my partner. “Let’s keep going.”
“…are you serious?”
We continued to battle against the wind. The hikers coming down had death in their eyes. The fallen hiker was on everybody’s mind. But I had to defeat The Curse. I had to…
A hiker was coming down from the summit.
“How are the conditions up at the summit?” we asked.
“The wind is too strong. You have to crawl on your hands and knees.”
At that point, my partner turned around. And so did I.
And therein lies the number one rule of mountaineering:
Failure is always an option.
I have failed on my last eight mountaineering attempts, and I will continue to fail as long as necessary. It doesn’t matter how angered or frustrated I get, there is one thing every hiker should know – If you don’t accept failure as an option, you accept death as an option. Pride can be the difference between living to laugh another day and perishing in the cold, barren, unforgiving wilderness.
We must be humble before our earth. We are at its mercy. As much as the Curse of San Jacinto Peak plagues me, it also forces me to understand the fragility of my being and the precariousness of my hobby. My punishment for ineptitude is a morsel of wisdom.
Rest in peace, Mr. Lone Hiker of Humphreys Peak. May your family take solace in that your resting place is a formidable shrine of a majestic Earth. Greater tombs have never been constructed by the hands of Man.