When the thought of climbing Boundary Peak, the highest point in Nevada, originally came up it was as a "Hey! That's cool - looks like California has already been climbed, so why not just knock this out and have some fun?"
What a naive thought.
Sure, the climb did not seem that bad. What's 13,000 feet to when compared to the Rocky Mountains or even some of California's summits? The U.S. Air Force 50 Summits Challenge was the perfect opportunity to get outside and check out what the mountain ranges of California and Nevada have to offer. After all, Boundary Peak is named for the eponymous state line separating it from California, just across which sits a slightly taller Montgomery Peak, as if taunting its smaller counterpart as part of a man-made geographical tease.
The USAF 50 Summits Challenge was something really unique: the opportunity to be part of a group that was the first military service to climb all 50 high-points in the United States. How awesome is that?? After how many decades of having a military, and we are just now coming up with this idea? "Oh well, all the better for us!"
So a few of us in Los Angeles (complete with counterparts from San Diego and even Washington State) decided to take on the "little brother" and proudly wave the Air Force flag as part of the process. All we had to do was... get an Air Force flag. Right?
Well, not entirely. We did need to get a flag, but the internet took care of that quite handily - a few clicks and it was on the way. What took a bit more coordination was lining up all the participants. First we had a solid 11 or 12 folks. A respectable showing! Everyone was excited - we were a month out and things were looking fine. We knew roughly what gear we needed by a couple weeks after that, and a week out we had a plan to secure food, a bear canister (Park Ranger approved, of course) and knew how the carpool plan would work out.
At one point a couple of enterprising members pointed out that some preparatory hikes would be a good idea, given the altitude. This was a solid recommendation, but one that never quite materialized as our weekends mysteriously filled up with other activities and we all looked forward to what seemed like a rigorous-but-manageable hike.
As the fateful departure day approached, strange things started happening. Emails about "work priorities" and "other commitments" appeared out of nowhere: a merry band of at possibly 12 was shortly halved. Still, six intrepid hikers, ready to conquer the hills! The 21 gallons of water acquired for a larger group would more than tide the small crew over, and the great thing about freeze-dried food is there's no need to eat it right away. (That used to be the only great thing about freeze-dried food, but it has actually improved quite a bit over the last decade.)
"Piece of cake, we're still cruising." Right.
Everything was going according to plan as we pulled out of Los Angeles Air Force Base the morning of October 8th. Oh, yeah, that's the point of the USAF 50 Summits Challenge: groups of Airmen, friends and family take a turn getting outside to build resilience and encourage each-other. Although there are probably a lot of different meanings, the Air Force focuses on resilience as a tool to help balance the stresses of military life and build a more effective team. Concepts like balance, spiritual wellness, physical fitness and mental engagement all come together throughout the year at different units, but this challenge was different.
So we loaded up our tents and sleeping bags and packs and headed out. I say tents for the six of us, but we did have an eight-person tent as well as a three-person tent and also a bivouac. And then another two-person tent showed up when we rendezvoused with the crew from San Diego. A solid 1.5 people per tent. We had a great ratio going!
Oh, and sleeping bags. Most of us had bags good down to 32 degrees, which we expected the temperature might dip below. One daring teammate brought what the rest of us thought could only have been his grandfather's old sleeping bag, or possibly just sewn-together horse blankets. We weren't sure, but there were concerns. As it turned out, another member of the team, who thought he was generously bringing two sleeping bags "in case someone else's didn't pan out," ended up making use of both, as they turned out only to be rated to 40 degrees "in dire conditions." That member was me. And the horse blankets were more than sufficient. #irony
The drive north was expected to take between five and six hours. Our first stop was Bishop, where we needed to pick up bear canisters to prevent the overnight theft of breakfast and snacks by omnivorous bandits. The local Forest Service office rented them for a few bucks, so, despite the slight inconvenience of re-routing, we had no excuse for not picking one up. And, aside from enjoying breakfast and snacks, I would be surprised if anyone particularly relished the idea of Ursus americanus cuddling up next to them after gorging on Clif Bars.
With the hard-sided plastic vaults secured, we decided it was time for some lunch, since we needed to meet up with the party from San Diego and top off the gas tank. A barbecue joint nearby, complete with giant, metal smoker out front, took the cake, and we pulled in, suddenly quite hungry. After acquiring a sufficiently delicious amalgamation of brisket, pork and chicken slathered in freshly made sauces next to Texas toast, we knew we’d made the right choice. Copper Top BBQ… you win. [NOTE: It turns out we were not alone in enjoying the food: Yelp picked the same joint as its #1 Place to Eat in the US in 2015.]
Having filled ourselves with the last fresh food for the next couple of days, we waited for the San Diego crew to arrive and jockeyed for spots underneath the shaded umbrellas. Although we knew the next day would be chilly while hiking up the mountain, the weather gracing our barbecue adventure was certainly on the warm side. We decided to swing by a local grocery to check for any last provisions and made sure the gas was on “F” before rendezvousing with the remaining two teammates in their car and heading back out on the road.
The drive from Bishop through the mountains was winding and had at least one harrowing point where the road narrowed to one lane between towering rock walls. This would not have been so concerning had the opposing lane not been coming from around a blind corner and over a hill, but we made it through safely. After passing a surprisingly-remote brewery and eventually finding our dirt road, we turned towards the slowly-setting sun and charged on, ignoring every bump along the way and trying to keep track of the trailing car amid all the dust.
We arrived with more than enough light to make the 500 foot walk from our cars to a sensibly flat campsite. We could have been right next to a delightful creek in a grassy meadow had there not been a very large posted sign that read: "No camping in the meadow." It turned out were not the last to have that idea, but we were the only group who complied: a couple hours after we set up camp, another couple hikers pitched their tent and built a fire right next to the sign that said to (a) not camp in the meadow and (b) not have an open fire. Our consciences were at ease, despite lacking the lullaby of a babbling brook or crackling fire.
Nor were our meals cooked over an open flame, though the roar of JetBoils and warmth of rehydrating food packages tucked inside warm coats to "cook" were a surprisingly pleasant alternative. Fancy-sounding pasta dishes, brought back to life by hot water, proved more palatable than expected. Combined with hot tea or cocoa, we all ended the night full and ready for a good night's sleep.
Awakening to the cool air and the sun illuminating our rocky goal, we packed up and loaded the cars with all but our day packs and water, excited for the challenge ahead. Walking at a steady clip, the six of us made quick progress along the brush-bordered trail, cutting across cattle trails and through bent boughs to a meadow, past which the gradual ascent began. All-told, we ascended about 1,500 feet in the first 45 minutes. With an estimated 4,200 total feet of altitude to the summit, it was a good start.
Then we reached the scree. 2,900 feet of loose pebbles, rocks and sand lay between us and the peak, interwoven only with the occasional boulder. Not a tree, shrub or leaf was present for encouragement. There was nothing to do but continue, so we agreed to slow our pace, reordered who was leading the group and enjoyed some water as we psyched ourselves up for the next few hours.
The hard thing about scree is that it’s pretty much a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of game. You’re sliding down with every step you take, which gets old pretty quickly. Sure, you’re making progress (ish), but you’re also inhaling all the dust you kick up and finding magical new ways for small, sharp rocks to end up inside of your boots (even if, like several of us, you decided to wear gaiters). Having hiking poles makes a big difference, as does not carrying a heavy pack (should you have that luxury). All in all, even if you know what you’re getting into… scree will wear you down.
Although slow, the ascent was not bad. Tiring? Yes. Were a couple of us surprised at the degree the altitude affected us? Definitely. But we kept going, keeping a pace of waking for 15 minutes, then resting for 5, repeating the cycle until the saddle was within sight. Covered with boulders and delightfully solid-looking, we all looked forward to a rest at the top, by which point at least half of us would be quite ready for the break.
“Ready” was actually something of an understatement in my case. Growing up in Colorado, this trip struck me as right on the edge of the doable without training. At under 14,000 feet, my inner gauge for the “suck factor” was not pegged, but I knew that scree was a major factor, and I had not dealt with altitude in years. Two members of the team had climbed Denali together, so I had no concerns there, and another was routinely out hiking and climbing, so that made three solid folks. The two remaining teammates admitted to limited experience, but did not seem too worried. In retrospect, my mindset almost mimicked the Mad Magazine tagline: “What, me worry?” Still, at 11,500 feet, sucking more wind than I would care to let on, my lungs deemed the reality less than comical.
After a few minutes to regain our composure and snack on some Pringles, the summit, now in sight, seemed almost within reach. Sure, we weren't quite in agreement about which peak was the one we intended to target, but GPS and maps would make quick work of it when we got lost, not to mention official brass markers left by the US Geological Survey. No longer protected from the wind, we all added or swapped various layers, took a few more sips of water and re-clipped our sternum straps.
It was at this point that having two hikers with experience on Denali came in handy. It had been nice all along, but those of us (at least me!) who were lagging a bit were very interested to learn about “pressure breathing.” Let me take a moment right now just to remind you that pressure breathing is designed for use by incredibly in-shape people on arduous and intense pursuits where oxygen is at a premium. That’s what I told myself as I forced the air out of my lungs with a loud “hOOOooo” and received the associated influx of fresh air as a result of the lungs regulating ambient pressure. My description might not win a gold star from the World Anatomical Society (in no small part due to the fact I just made that organization up), but you get the idea: force air out, air naturally wants to come back in.
Nature abhors a vacuum.
And how much I rather would have been vacuuming once we started peeling our way around boulders along ice and snow-covered paths following cairns… or maybe just a small rockslide… no, definitely a cairn. It was hard to tell, but our lead picked his way smoothly and confidently through them all without qualms, giving us all at least a little more comfort as we pressed on like exhausted owls: “HOOOOOoooo”…”hoooOOO”.
Whichever yogi said breathing is a form of relaxation clearly needed to climb higher mountains. My abs strongly disagreed.
[NOTE: When this portion of the story was first drafted, I used the term “power breathing,” which is what it felt like at the time. Goes to show what limited oxygen will do to the brain.]
After the initial disappointment of a false summit (it was expected, so we weren't actually that disappointed), we all reached the top, looking out over the rest of the range over the California and Nevada border. It was awesome!
The oddly-shaped summit area had plenty of room to spread out, so we took the obligatory photos with the peak, geo-marker, and summit sign (left kindly in a retired ammo box by a previous hiker) and broke out some snacks. It's amazing how delicious Pringles taste when you know your body needs more water but you just can't summon the excitement to drink another sip. I probably could have licked an entire can worth of those chips and been content (which would likely have been as gross as it sounds, but, hey, altitude... more of an impact than I expected). A prescient choice by one team member to bring cookies along probably saved four lives… at least, that’s what the responses might have been at the time.
Once the camera clicks subsided we chose the best location and all lined up, corners in hand, for our photo with the American and Air Force flags. With both an iPhone and a professional camera as options, the snaps turned out all-right. Chalk one up for technology.
Up until this point we had all worked hard, exerted ourselves and taken things seriously. Our breaks along the way were coordinated so as to keep the team together and make sure no one got sick or became too exhausted to keep going. It was a physically-challenging task, and we had worked together as a team to get to the peak. But building resilience, one of the primary goals of the 50 Summits Challenge, is more than just a physical characteristic: it is emotional, mental and spiritual as well.
After we finished our flag photo one of our team members took those components to heart, asking anyone who was willing to do some memorial push-ups with her in recognition of a fallen comrade. In many circles, particularly those in the Special Operations community, this combination of exercise, remembrance and teamwork is practiced on a daily basis. It is a solemn reminder that the work carried out is done in unison with many others, that communication is key, and that individuals often sacrifice their lives for the sake of the team.
Thus was the case with Lt Col Bill Schroeder, an Air Force combat weather officer and squadron commander that was killed protecting his troops when a disgruntled airman decided to become violent in April 2016. By several accounts, Lt Col Schroeder saved the life of at least one individual in the room when events unfolded and was unwavering in his choice to prevent harm coming to others. Remembering his leadership, service and sacrifice was not only an homage to such an amazing man, but a reminder to each of us to take care of ourselves and each other.
After the exhilaration of finally reaching the summit and subsequent reflection on that work and the lives of men like Lt Col Schroeder, we realized it was time to head back down the mountain. We were all pretty excited to get down, though some of us were more vocal about it than others.
Along the way, right as we started traversing the bouldery section again, we ran into a pair of other hikers who had actually seen our flags pose from their position and snapped a photo, which they offered to email us. Just goes to show that you never know who's watching.
Still, a small voice in the back of my head made note that rolling to the bottom of the boulder-strewn hill would probably be an unpleasant descent as well, so after those first few mis-steps things leveled out and the plodding began again. Some of the team were cruising, which would seem to make sense: going downhill should be easier, right? Others of us (this guy) found the descent much more… engaging. At this point, water was at a premium. The fact that we had at least 15 gallons still in a vehicle clearly did not do any good, so we shared bottles around and kept moving.
I would just like to take a moment here and let you know, in case you, like me, did not understand their purpose, that the little ski-pole-style hiking sticks are a lifesaver when hiking, especially on a slope, especially when it's uneven, and especially when you are tired. We almost rented some for a few members of our team (myself included) prior to the start, but decided to save the trouble and expense. Thank goodness others knew their way around and had a pair, because they proved quite useful.
By this point the sun had started to set and we were racing the shadow on our path down as it crept further and further in front of us, as if trying to remind us that our cars and the drive ahead were just a few more steps upon steps away. Also it was getting much cooler as the shadow enveloped us, a factor only exacerbated by our sweaty descent. I’ve got one word for anyone who wants to manage hiking well: layers. Having a few different light jackets to shift around was key, and making sure that they wicked away sweat mades such a difference. If you go into an REI and some guy or gal comes up and starts explaining why you should get a non-cotton base layer… don’t blow them off.
While a few of us had joked about hitting up Las Vegas on the way back, the concept now sounded like lunacy. And not the kind of crazy that takes you to Vegas in the first place, or inspires one to go high-pointing. More like the kind of hilariously poor life choice that keeps you away from a good night's sleep and warm meal. I can't be positive that everyone else felt the same way as me, since this conversation took place entirely in my head as I looked for mental distractions from the next step.
After descending the scree slope, the remainder of the hike back to our cars was quite pleasant. The creek we passed on the way in was surrounded by dense scrub and foliage, and it was interesting to see it wind its way through the landscape as we followed along the paralleling trail. Deer paths strayed across our own, which was a great reminder of how, despite the well-worn path we were on, there were others here before us, others who depended on us to be respectful and take care. It made our choice of not building a fire the night before that much better of a selection.
Before we knew it, we were back in our cars headed along the dusty road back to civilization. As we pulled back onto the tarmac of the newly-paved highway the ride suddenly became more comfortable. With our soft beds, hot showers and something non-freeze-dried awaiting our stomachs, it would have been easy to count the hike as a win, an exciting opportunity and a great time. But there was more to it than that. We all had the opportunity to work together and accomplish something, a key component of what the military expects. We volunteered and stepped up to the task, taking care of each other when things did not go as expected (or just plain sucked). We took time out to remember those who were no longer with us, and shared our own experiences along the way. We were more than just accomplished: we were stronger for it, more prepared for the next task, better able to bounce-back from whatever may yet lie ahead.
There are many things that resiliency means, but for us, at that moment, it meant the feeling of being able to do again what we had just done, knowing that there were others there we could rely on, that we were not alone. And none of us are alone - we are never alone.