Walking in the Mountains
Meeting Tom Hornbein
John Severinghaus introduced me into the world of research, a world that became my life’s work and passion. However, John was instrumental in stirring another passion: mountains!
In 1963, John invited me and others in the laboratory to his house to hear an anesthesiologist from the University of Washington, Dr. Thomas Hornbein, talk about his climbing Mount Everest that spring. I wasn’t interested, and nearly didn’t go. Who has time to climb mountains when there’s so much exciting discovery about anesthesia uptake and distribution? However, John’s invitation wasn’t to be refused. Time was as valuable to John as it was to me. If John thought it was worth listening to Dr. Hornbein talk about climbing Mount Everest, then there must be something to it.
I listened to John’s sunburnt guest, an anesthesiologist with a passion for the outdoors, describe the reasons that he climbed mountains. Dr. Hornbein told us that he wanted to find his physical and mental limits. He explained that in finding these limits, he was finding himself. The more he spoke, the more I was drawn to this philosophy. Something resonated.
I had been a weakling all my life. My lifestyle was that of a couch potato. Dr. Hornbein’s talk changed that. Everest! Imagine that! As had happened so often before, John Severinghaus opened a door and, to my surprise, my life changed when I walked through.
Tom and I became good friends. He was my guide into a new world of demanding physical and mental exertion. I never became a serious mountain-eer. However, the Sierras and backpacking became part of my life. Tom included me in an expedition he organized to climb Mount Rainier. It was just half the height of Everest (14,416 ft vs 29,029 ft), but tall enough for me.
Inspired by Tom, each summer from the late 1960s through the 1970s, I would take one or more of my children backpacking in the high Sierras. Sometimes I would walk with just one child as when Dori and I found Hidden Lake (Figure 10.1) and Lake Zitella (Figure 10.2), the latter a shallow high alpine lake that became warm enough in late summer to swim in comfortably. Sometimes all the children and I would walk together. Accompanied by one child or all four (Figure 10.3), hiking changed my life.
The John Muir Trail
In the late 1960s, two of John’s fellows, Steve Bahlman and John Henry, joined me for a hike along the John Muir trail, a 211 mile footpath beginning at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley and ending at Whitney Portal, just below Mount Whitney. At 14,505 ft, Mount Whitney was the highest summit in the contiguous United States. We divided our trip into roughly 60- to 75-mile segments. We started (and ended) each segment at a location where we could pick up food. We carried tents, sleeping and cooking gear basics, and dehydrated food. We had a grand time. Steve and John were amiable companions and able hikers (although I remember John Henry mumbling as we ascended the steepest grades: “Why me, Lord; why me?” At the end of our journey, we took the side path to the top of Mount Whitney.
Figure 10.3 My son, Ed, daughter, Dori, me, and daughters Renee and Cris return from back-packing about 1970.
In the mid-1970s, I repeated this hike with my daughter Dori. Larry Saidman, my former fellow and then Chair of Department of Anesthesiology at the University of California at San Diego, joined us for the first portion of this adventure. While Dori and I made preparatory hikes up and down neighborhood hills, Larry attended to his chairmanly affairs in San Diego. He had little time to test the fit of his hiking boots. Larry was a bit apprehensive at our rendezvous in Yosemite Valley. On the quiet, he asked me if I thought he could keep up with me. “Sure,” I said, “But I’m not the problem. Keeping up with Dori is the problem.”
The first day we were scheduled to hike only 7 or 8 miles, but we hiked twice that. And the next day we also hiked much more than we had anticipated, reaching Tuolumne Meadows in record time. That sort of thing happened when Dori set the pace. Larry was a bit frazzled but game to go on. We rested that night in Tuolumne Meadows and the next day struck out for the Devil’s Postpile, 30 miles away. The day was cold and windy, and clouds gradually filled the sky, pushing us to hike faster. We reached Donahue Pass at 11,000 ft and Dori and I were smiling (Figure 10.4). Larry was grim (Figure 10.5).
It began to rain, and we slogged on, up over ridges and down again into valleys filled with streams and lakes. It rained harder. We were to stop and set up camp, but we’d come so far that we hiked on, thinking of a warm motel bed at the Devil’s Postpile. At one point we lost Dori who had hiked too far ahead of the old men. Frantically we pressed forward until we connected again, everyone wearing ponchos to ward off the rain. We finally reached a gravel road, perhaps 5 to 6 miles yet to go to the Devil’s Postpile. We were a droopy, soggy, sad trio.
A station wagon came from behind and Larry put out his thumb. The car stopped, and we gratefully got in, sighing with relief. The occupants of the car were a grandfather and his grandson who had come to fish. Larry thanked them for picking us up and his comments became grandiloquent. He promised them they would, the next day, catch many fish, big fish! The fish would be so big they would fill the car! There would be no room for passengers in the back! They would catch the biggest fish ever caught in the Sierras! Maybe the biggest fish in the world! I don’t know if Larry was hypoglycemic, hypotensive, or exhausted to the point of delirium, but he had obviously lost it.
Still babbling thanks, we reached the Devil’s Postpile and the warmth of a motel room. Larry announced that he had developed Achilles tendonitis, and he was going to abandon this adventure. He never hiked the rest of the John Muir trail.
Larry reviewed this autobiography as I was preparing it. Time hasn’t softened his memory. Larry still recalls this trip as among the worst experiences of his life.
Continuing Without Larry
The remaining story comes from pleasant 50-year-old, fragmentary memories.
Dori and I resumed the trip the next morning, walking South from the Devil’s Postpile, a collection of basaltic hexagonals. We adopted a routine for each day. We rose with the sun, walked an hour or two, and then stopped for a cold breakfast of Pop Tarts. We had lunch from noon to 1 PM, and then hiked on to our camp for the night near some lake or stream. When possible, we tried to end each day at low elevations where the water and air were warmer. We hung our packs from a tree to protect them from bears. We built fires from downed wood, placing our grill over the fire using flat rocks to support the grill. Each night we cooked dinner—our only hot meal for the day. Initially we walked 10 to 14 hours, covering 12 to 15 miles a day. That increased to 15 to 20 miles each day toward the end of our adventure.
On the first day, the weather was moody. It began to snow as we ascended later in the day. We didn’t encounter a blizzard, but there was enough snow to cover the trail. I worried about losing the trail and getting lost. We opted for putting up the tent and holding for the night somewhere past Lake Virginia, perhaps near Silver Pass. Our stove depended on a wood fire (different from today). The weather had soaked the available wood, so we had a cold dinner.
By morning the weather had changed to clear and pleasant. It stayed that way for the remainder of our journey. Our wet clothes quickly dried.
I don’t remember exactly where we stopped the second night after we left the Devil’s Postpile, but I think it was near Bear Creek. We passed Marie Lake on the third day, crossing Selden Pass at just under 11,000 ft. Every day we crossed at least one pass and on a good day we would cross two. We dropped down to Heart Lake (which, of course, was shaped like a heart), and then passed between
the two Sallie Keyes Lakes just below 10,000 ft. It would have been a pretty, if barren place to stop.
the two Sallie Keyes Lakes just below 10,000 ft. It would have been a pretty, if barren place to stop.
On day four we replenished our supplies of food, a stop we had arranged weeks before. We had plenty because we walked faster and farther than we had predicted we would each day. The pickup was just below the climb into Evolution Valley. I remember that the climb seemed steeper than the map seemed to show, perhaps because of the extra food we now carried. We stopped in Evolution Valley for the night and added wild onions to our dinner.
As we started out in the morning on the next day we met two mules amiably walking down the valley. They were followed several minutes later by a wrangler carrying halters. “They went that way” we pointed. We crossed Muir Pass at 12,000 ft where the map said, “avoid sleeping in hut” (rodents?) and continued by the Le Conte range, soon to cross Bishop Pass, also at 12,000 ft.
Much of the next day was spent between 10,000 and 13,000 ft The map showed mostly granite and little forest. We passed the Rae Lakes and ascended Glen Pass, at 13,000 ft. Hot and sweaty, we descended a bit from the pass to an unnamed pond with a small waterfowl in it. We removed our boots and waded into the cool water, pushing the waterfowl ahead of us. It was a dreadful mistake! The cooling of our muscles made it painful to then use them. Ignoring the pain, we walked on a mile or two to our night’s campsite.
To the Top of Mount Whitney
The next day we walked toward Whitney Portal on a high plateau which continued for miles, and we camped two nights on this plateau.
Although the top of Mount Whitney is not a part of the John Muir trail, it is only a few miles from the trail. We couldn’t resist! We deviated from the trail to ascend Mount Whitney. We reached the summit in the afternoon and decided to stay to watch the sunrise from atop this high place. As I was writing this, Dori reminded me that we found a package of Mother’s Cookies at the summit. The cookies were hugely welcome, and amazing to taste. It was also amazing that the mice had left them untouched. Or, perhaps, the mice had added their own special ingredients. Maybe that says something about what’s in Mother’s cookies?
A hut at the top of Mount Whitney was filled with ice. We put up our tent and climbed inside to escape the cold. We awoke before light and put on all our warm clothes to watch the sun rise. A geologist joined us and told us about the origins of the rocks that surrounded us. The sun was bright but sterile. To the South we could see smog from Los Angeles streaming East.