Back when I was a young and stupid 20-something, I hiked to the top of Mount Whitney with a couple of friends. I first made the summit when I was 10 after my mother and my soon-to-be-new-stepfather decided the two of us needed to do some male bonding. My step-dad always said I was the first person to ever climb Mount Whitney on his butt because I sat down and rested so much, which drove him absolutely crazy because he was a fit young man in his late 20s. So much for the male bonding experience.
In the years in between that trip and this one, I’d made the summit a couple of other times, too. No reservations, permits or waiting lists in those days. Just come and climb.
Ah, but on this trip to the highest point in the contiguous 48 states I determined in my wisdom I had to bring along two important items — a large can of pineapple in sweet syrup to give me a little energy for the hike back down and the biggest, nastiest, ugliest green cigar I’d ever seen to smoke in celebration of the conquest.
Yep, there I was in the early afternoon alpenglow, perched on a sliver of grey, decomposing granite at the very edge of the Western Divide, 14,497 feet above sea level, ravenously munching pineapple from the tip of a double-edged dagger, slurping juice from the can and puffing away on my big cigar like there was no few minutes from now in my future.
My fellow mountaineers — those I knew and those I didn’t — couldn’t believe I was smoking a cigar up there. I offered a taste to every one of them so they could share the thrill of victory with me, but there were no takers.
Now I’ve got to tell you that cigar tasted fabulous at first. Why, at that rarified elevation where you breathe like you’re jogging when you’re standing still, the effect of a single puff on a cigar is better than how I imagine sniffing nitrous at a Grateful Dead show in Golden Gate Park might be. My eyes watered. My head spun. But who was that playing drums softly in the distance at the top of the world? That was good. Now take another puff, would you?
Suddenly the spinning turned into a bouncy, lopsided throb, and I noticed this bright yellow and dark green upset that turned almost instantly into a full-scale upchuck. I knew there was only one thing to do — get to a lower elevation.
I lurched and barfed my way a couple of miles down to Trail Crest at 13,600 feet where a hiker could easily fall one way toward the Owens Valley or the other way toward Crabtree Meadow.
I sat on the edge of the Whitney Pass Trail and its infamous 99 switchbacks, dangling my feet into a steep couloir that dropped some 2,000 feet toward Trail Camp.
A friend asked me how I was feeling, and I told him I’d be better as soon as I got lower. Suddenly I felt a foot in the middle of my back and whoosh, I was headed down the couloir at breakneck speed. I pulled up both of my feet at the knees because if my heels dug in I’d be catapulted off into space. The downward pace was so fast I could actually watch the mountains to my left and my right rising from my perspective.
In what seemed like no time I had glissaded to where the mountain flattened out, and I came to a stop.
My friend was a few seconds behind me. He said after he kicked me down the pass, it was only fair he should share whatever fate I might enjoy. My second friend was close behind him. He said he jumped off the mountain because we all might as well die together. Obviously his mother never asked him that famous question about jumping off cliffs.
So that’s how I feel about this election right now — slightly nauseated and like somebody just pushed me over the edge without an ice axe.
Hang on tight folks, it’s about to get pretty interesting.