Climbing Bloody Mountain
By Gina Gemma Lopez - Mammoth Lakes, California, USA - 19 August 2012
How are we set free? By an event! By a hike, a poem,
a companion, etc. In that moment, Someone else prevails over
all our concerns and preoccupations. For this reason,
the challenge is to be like a child. –-Fr. Julian Carrón.
It was only 2 o’clock. She had reached base camp a few hours ahead of schedule, thanks to the friendly young married couple who offered her a lift up most of the riverbed-like, four-wheel-drive road as they made their way up the valley to shoot the fall color. The lakes were only a few miles farther, but her pack, almost the same length as her own petite frame, had become too cumbersome to carry. Fatigued, she freed herself from the pack and did some reconnaissance of the flat alpine land.
Situated at the base of the mountain, surrounded by steep walls of pale orange and gray talus, she unrolled her sleeping pad and sleeping bag, careful to stay out of lightning’s potential path. Although rain was not in the forecast that day, Eastern Sierra storms are unpredictable. On late afternoons, as clouds gradually pass over the western slopes, they tend to build over the jagged peaks and precipices to the east.
After setting up base camp and eating a slice of left-over pizza, she felt uneasy. She had never backpacked alone or climbed a mountain peak alone. This trip was spontaneous, thought of only the day before. She considered turning around. Yet, having come this far, she resolved despite her hesitations to go forward with the solo climb to the summit of Bloody Mountain.
Her unease was not just from fear of being struck by lightning, or of becoming incapacitated while climbing with no one to rescue her, or of disappearing and causing her mother unthinkable grief. The unease was also about something that had been swimming in the deep of her heart for years, occasionally surfacing only to become confused and then submerged in a self-protective numbness also deep within her. It was a question -- one that she has been grappling with over and over again, or rather trying to quell. What is my vocation?
Like Christopher McCandless, she had chosen a walk into the wild in the hopes it would bring her clarity and revelation. But there she sat in her sleeping bag with the sun still up, too sluggish and apathetic to venture further along the alpine trail.
Becoming fed up with her pathetic state of mind, she found the motivation to hike a half-mile to where she would begin tomorrow’s assent. It was now almost 5 o’clock. With ease and agility, and without her pack, she hiked up the switchbacks as if it were flat land at sea-level. In the valley below, the autumn sun cast golden rays onto the golden leaves of the aspen and illuminated the reddish brown rock of the mountain. It even made the surrounding slopes of dull gray and pale orange talus dazzle.
She reached the point of departure for tomorrow’s assent, gaining perspective on the landscape from 8,000 feet below the mountain’s peak. Satisfied, she made her way down the switchbacks. The setting sun evoked purple majesty from the mountains and pink whimsicality from the clouds.
From her sleeping bag, she prayed the evening hours aloud to the elusive alpine critters and wrote in her journal until the colors of the ink and the paper blended into each other in the shadows. It was now dark, and the pink clouds were now ominously gray, hovering over the plateau.
She wished now that she had just gone on a leisurely day hike or that she had waited to do this trip with her boyfriend.
She periodically awoke to find the moon lingering high, keeping vigil over the cloud cover. Whatever clouds the breeze from the west blew away, the breeze from the north replenished.
Eventually, the moon set, the clouds disappeared, and the stars came out. This is why I have no tent, she thought. This was why she kept her eyeglasses on while sleeping and did not mind waking up with a shiver or in an uncomfortable position.
Pondering the vastness of the night sky, she recalled a documentary she had recently seen on TV about ancient marvels. It aggravated her to hear “alien experts” insist that Mayan calendars or Egyptian pyramids were created by alien intelligences, because such conclusions underestimated human creativity and ingenuity and the human desire for the infinite. She herself found gazing at the stars so intriguing that it seemed hardly a wonder at all that so many ancient cultures formed around close, worshipful relation to the constellations or that pyramids were raised up to touch the sky.
Several times over, she quietly recited some lines from the poet Giacomo Leopardi, hoping somebody would hear:
Musing, I say within me:
‘Wherefore those many lights
That boundless atmosphere
And infinite calm sky? And what the meaning
Of this vast solitude? And what am I?
Waking from sleep and peering out of her mummy sleeping bag, she was surprised to see how high the sun already was. She had figured the night before that since she was already accustomed to early rising, she would wake up at dawn to make an early assent. But she was glad after all to eat breakfast without a headlamp.
The air was still frigid and prickly sensations went through her hand as she packed up her sleeping bag. Shivering and sore from the hike, she was once again overtaken by a sense of frustration and loneliness. But she was not going back home without climbing that peak.
With the backpack a few ounces lighter, she made her way up the switchbacks and over some mounds of snow from the previous week’s unusually early storm. In a stand of krummholz lodgepole pine directly at the base of the mountain, she stashed her sleeping bag and other equipment, except her journal, camera, wallet, water, and snacks.
The sky was clear and the mountain was all in morning shadows, save for the crest. Feeling content and looking forward to the trek, she began the climb. The first part of the climb was rather steep and involved careful scrambling. The trail was not marked. Slight depressions in the loose talus from numerous trekkers were the only confirmation that she was on the right path. Most of the trail, however, was erased by rockfall or covered in snow. So she stayed along the ridge, avoiding scrambling over steep and loose talus.
A third of the way along, she stopped where the ridge was wide enough to rest her pack without worrying about it rolling over a precipice. She looked behind, to the northeast to see the body of water she had noticed along the trail revealed in its full form. It was Crowley Lake, named after the beloved “Desert Padre” John C. Crowley who had brought the Faith to this region. Looking down at the twelve-mile, trout-stocked lake surrounded by glorious mountains and valleys, she felt it was like looking at a bronze statue of a saint surrounded by heavenly columns and chapels of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Content with what she had accomplished so far, she sat there taking in the view and munching on a meal of cheese and granola. It was a wonder to see from a high vantage the mountains and valleys she had been exploring and the town where she had been residing since the past summer.
The thought of hiking alone on loose rock began to set in and she prayed for protection through Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. And she reminded herself, a little sternly, that the objective of climbing the mountain was not to reach the peak for the sake of reaching the peak, but to reach new heights, physically and spiritually, and also to see where she lived from a new perspective. To see her her land, as far as she had ever seen -- that was her desire. This land of lodgepole and Jeffrey pine, sagebrush and bitterbrush. This was her home, her land -- her realm of exploration.
She looked up from where she was resting and saw what appeared to be the peak. She determined it was safe to continue and that it was necessary to finish, being so close. But once she got to the top, she realized there was more to go. As she headed farther up the mountain, she paused occasionally to gaze farther into the distance at more peaks, more of Mono Lake, more of Owens Valley.
At each new height, she offered herself a chance to head back. But halfway up the mountain, she saw a clear trail and made her mind up to go all the way. She left her pack along the trail to make a quicker assent. The top was within reach and her spirits lifted with each step up the slope.
At last she reached the top. The breeze was swift and icy. With eyes wide open, she gazed at the awesome landscape into distances she could not have imagined. She could see Yosemite and the gentle slopes of the Western Sierra. Had there not been a haze that day, she probably would have seen the Pacific Ocean. In her mind, she quietly and slowly named each peak, valley, and lake that she knew, intentionally gazing at each landform and body of water, letting their images and details engrave themselves onto her soul.
Secured in between some rocks and snow was a metal tube containing a logbook and a pen. She was moved to write, triumphantly, “October 23, 2011. First solo summit. AVE MARIA! Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, ora pro nobis!” and she signed her name. And, like a pilgrim in a procession, she concluded her journey by chanting the “Salve Regina” -- sending up sighs and hopes to the Mother of Mercy atop nature’s altar.
The question of her vocation had not been answered that day. But she was reassured, with new conviction, that in spite of her questioning -- and her hesitations -- she had not actually climbed Bloody Mountain alone. She had been accompanied by Another who would be with her, too, back home below in the valley.