Yes, I am an idiot, and this blog series is intended to lay this out in some detail. But first, a bit of background. So, my academic training is in cognitive neuroscience. Back in the day that meant strong training in classic psychological learning theory – think pavlovian (does the name Pavlov, ring a bell?) and operant (pigeons pecking at keys) conditioning. Herb Terrace, a giant in learning theory, made quite the mark by demonstrating the phenomenon of “errorless learning”. But, I’m here to tell you that in my personal opinion, in mountaineering (and I think life in general), the concept of errorless learning is a lot of dog dookie.
My first taste of this came the year after falling in love on the Muir Snowfield. Following that, I asked Guy to set up a “complete mountaineering experience”. Guy came back with a great idea – I would meet him and his brother, Gary, in Oakland and together we would drive to Yosemite where in 4 days we would hike into the Lyell River Canyon, set up a base camp and then climb and summit Mt. Lyell, the tallest mountain in Yosemite, complete with a bit of glacier climbing. It sounded like the real deal and, I thought, a piece of cake. Lyell was only 13,000 ft high. I had already been to 10,000 ft at Camp Muir. How hard could another 3000 ft be? My response was to buy a backpack big enough to carry 4 days of gear, go on a couple of hikes in Maryland where I lived and read some (more) books on mountaineering.
Guy and Gary met me at the Oakland airport and we immediately drove into Yosemite. It was my first time there. I’ll say it here – Yosemite is truly the freakin’ Garden of Eden. But, we didn’t spend any time in the valley. Instead we headed immediately to a lodge in the northeast section of the park, had dinner and went to bed. I woke up at 2 AM with a splitting headache and sick to my stomach. I immediately thought “I’m screwed, I’ve come all this way and I came down with the flu, what bad luck”. I came down for breakfast the next morning and told this to Guy – he immediately diagnosed me with mild symptoms of altitude sickness. I had gone from sea level to roughly 10,000 ft in altitude in a matter of a few hours – this was my body telling me that this was a very bad thing to do. So came my first lesson in mountaineering – respect altitude.
Fortunately, we were to begin our hike at Tuolumne Meadows – 1500 ft lower. By the time we were checking in at the ranger station, I was feeling much better (second lesson – if you get altitude sick, immediately descend). We loaded our packs, which included a bear canister for our food – bears are to be taken seriously in Yosemite. And literally, within 10 ft of our hike which was to be 25+ miles round trip, I knew I was in big trouble. I had never carried so much weight in a pack on my back in my life. And, I had not seriously considered doing any real training. Third lesson – respect your objective and your body. But I was here, with Gary and Guy, and somehow I needed to get through the next 4 days. So we started out, each step felt literally like an almost insurmountable effort. I knew within the first 10 minutes that I was totally screwed. Not a good feeling.
The plan for the first day was to hike about 10 miles along the Lyell River Canyon and camp that night. All day long we slogged forward, taking breaks at least every hour, the pack was burning on my back, to say nothing of my legs. But it seemed manageable, and this was Yosemite and a beautiful summer day, so the scenery was gorgeous if you weren’t too miserable to miss that bit. Then, at the end of the day, as I was growing tired and ready to stop, I wondered where the camp site was. We had about a mile to go. Soon, I thought, this would be over and I could relax a little. I looked up and realized that the last mile was about 800 ft up the canyon. If I had any hope at that point, I lost it there. We had to get up, so we went up, and up. It felt like a death march. Every step I had to convince myself to take another. It went on and on. Finally, in darkness, we hit the campsite, which I am sure was spectacularly beautiful, if you could see it. But, of course it was dark. I sat there, pack off, completely and utterly drained, unable to move, and completely useless while Guy and Gary started setting up camp. Finally I dragged myself up and tried to help, saving just a smidgen of pride, wondering what they were thinking of my performance that day. But also thinking “I have 3 more days of this?”.
Miraculously, the next day was better. We didn’t have that much additional altitude to gain, and the mileage was much shorter before we set up our base camp. And it was beautiful. That night, when I was out of my tent for the call of nature at 2 AM, I was able to pee by absolutely spectacular moon light – a full moon poured light into our campsite between rough mountain peaks, including Lyell itself. We were alone in the world and you could actually see the Milky Way! Guy declared an “alpine start” for the summit climb on day 3 – I learned that meant getting up at 4 AM.
What can I say, summit day was a struggle – at this point I expected it. We had some route finding problems and were doing a lot of scrambling on granite slabs – the Lyell glacier had really retreated. And, surprise!, we were having a slow go of it. Finally, at around 10:30 AM, we stood just below the lip of rock that marked the beginning of the glacier. Guy and Gary conferred and declared the climb to be over. We had run out of time – no way at our pace to summit, return to camp, pack up and come down to our first night camp site. My first, but certainly not my last, experience with needing to make a decision to face facts and turn around, to avoid having foolish decisions lead to a dangerous situation. Fourth lesson – make good decisions, they might save your life. I was unhappy, embarrassed, apologetic to Guy and Gary (and extremely tired).
The rest of the trip was uneventful but, did I mention this?, exhausting. I have never felt so relieved as I felt at the Tuolumne Meadows Ranger Station when I finally dropped my pack and knew that my “complete mountaineering experience” was over. What a fiasco. Fortunately, neither Guy nor Gary seemed to mind my performance. I guess that is when you know you have real friends. I returned home having learned, I thought, many important things, most of all, that this mountaineering thing wasn’t exactly a walk in the woods. Having read a number of books on climbing, I came away with the distinct impression, that authors for this genre of literature might have a tendency to, just a tad (?) underplay the level of effort involved in climbing even peaks not in the “extreme” category.
Almost miraculously I had not fallen out of love. Instead, I thought I had learned “my” lesson. While mountaineering might not be possible as errorless learning, maybe it was one trial learning? Oh boy.