Hail and Equanimity

Hail and Equanimity

I knew the forecast could go either way.

It was a bluebird day over the parking lot, the most marvelous weather, arguably the perfect day for a big day. But I eyeballed the medium-grey clouds lurking beyond the trailhead, knowing they could dissipate into nothing, or spend all day brewing before cracking open.

Either way, I'd been wanting to do this point-to-point route for months. With a course high point around 10,000 ft on a late summer day, anything could happen. Well anyway, I'm committed. I stepped out on the route.

The first couple hours pass uneventfully. I trace the Yosemite Creek drainage all the way to its origin point, dropping down on the other side of Ten Lakes Pass, scooping some drinking water from the lakes, climbing up the other side of the basin. The grandeur of the scenery was enough to make me jittery. The rolling granite sprawled out before me hinted at the Grand Canyon of the Tuolomne River just on the other side, beckoning--the grand prize of my Yosemite point-to-point objectives.

From there, the trail cuts back and heads downslope. As I dropped down to the basin of the South Fork of Cathedral Creek, the whole day changed.

By the time I'm climbing up out of the creek drainage and along the edges of Tuolomne Peak, I'm nearly soaked. The rain started in the creek drainage and simply refused to quit.

Earlier, I'd fumbled a crossing and dunked my shoes in Cathedral Creek. I considered briefly how my shoe water would make its way to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and after a long aqueduct journey, eventually might find itself in some San Franciscan's morning cup of coffee.

The creek was exploding with late-season wildflowers and grasses. The vegetation crowded into the trail, transferring sheets of water onto my running tights as I brushed by.

Then came the hail.

As I broke above 9000', my second big climb of the day, pea-sized pellets come down hard. I'm generating a lot of heat from sheer exertion, but there's not much to be done about ice raining down on my bare hands. The pellets beat my shoulders, my forearms, the tops of my shoes, stabbing and stinging.

I've been out for hours and with the weather turning, morale is trending negative. It's surely less than 40 degrees this high on the mountainside. I'm soggy, hurting from the hail, hurting from the effort. I'm barn sour but still have multiple hours left. My head swims with the most ardent fantasies of slipping into a warm bath.

This was the pits.

In the midst of all this, icy water dripping off my nose, a mantra bubbles up: don't wish it away.

I don't know why this one comes to me, but I pull on the thread.

Mental toughness, as I usually experience it, is knowing how to white-knuckle it through the gnarly bits. It's learning to keep pushing when I hate what I'm doing without letting it break me. In those moments, I often feel like a wild animal, bucking and thrashing against the flood of sensations, waiting for the unpleasant bits to subside while promising myself that they will. Gritting my teeth and goading myself on, tunnel-visioned, with the promise of climate control, pizza, and being horizontal in my future.

I often think of the painful slogs and the micro-epics as an unfortunate tax to pay to earn the electrifying highs. A necessary evil, the occasional but inevitable bad luck that comes with showing up day after day. A tithe owed to the gods of the land.

I also think of these days as edifying. I think about the pedagogy of thousands of hours outside in all manner of conditions. Raw experience means I've accumulated a sizable pile of tools to do damage control on days that go sideways. I tally a few of them up. I'm wearing a merino shirt and socks, so despite my soaked shoes and my lack of a rain jacket, I'm not really cold. I've stayed on top of my nutrition and have plenty of gas in my energetic tank. I've studied the route and know the topography and water sources. I can quickly, intuitively recalculate possible exit routes and contingency plans. I have a dry hoodie and good snacks in the car. I feel a momentary swell of pride, because I know this day could be worse if my decision-making was less dialed in. I feel confident and competent, if a bit annoyed.

These perspectives on bad days are not wrong, but I haven't found the root of the mantra yet. Don't wish it away. I keep pulling the thread, searching for that next layer, another lens to view my stormy alpine plight.

I think about how this big day through the high country is one I'll remember for a long time. I think about the ridiculous privilege of just being here at all, the Yosemite wilderness, able to move my body like this and experience this place like this.

Just a little earlier along the route, I'd been nearly in tears from the splendor of being alone in this landscape and the joy of doing my favorite thing on my own terms. Shoot, savoring the wild swings--that's why I'm here. It's only a few short hours, but the time feels longer and richer than nearly any other way to spend a Saturday.

I've earned the ability to be out here, in this mess, making it through it and being totally fine. Being better for it, actually. Isn't that more than a little rad? More than a little metal?

Isn't this moment, with my popsicle hands and my prune feet and my sour attitude, also one to be cherished? Isn't this also inherently valuable, not in spite of the challenging conditions, but because of them?

This, too, is what I'm here for.

Being present, sitting with it, practicing non-attachment--whatever you want to call it, it hits different when you're under a deluge of visceral unpleasantries.

It's not that I want to trick myself into thinking I'm not uncomfortable. For sure, I'm mega uncomfortable. At the same time, I realize I don't want to diminish these experiences. I don't want to mentally abbreviate my time in these spaces by sweeping the less palatable moments under the rug. I don't want getting hailed on to just be a goofy story I make jokes about later, a bit I play out for my friends. I want to sink my teeth into it.

I want to feel it all.

I've been skirting Tuolomne Peak for what feels like forever, trying to stay in the present, trying to settle into this version of equanimity.

The going is slow this high up. Water floods the trail in places. Even though it's late in the season, a tarn holds snow around its rim from last winter.

Lightning floods my vision and thunder tears into my ears, too fast and too loud. I check my watch, cursing the reading: 9600'. I drop into a squat on my toes, clapping my hands over my ears. My calves and quads are screaming from the thousands of feet of elevation change I've already put on them, and holding my full bodyweight on my forefeet isn't exactly helping.

Another wave of protest hits and I'm basically seething, perched in my awkward squat: screw this, get me OFF this damn peak.

I would really like to wish away the possibility of my salty meat-sack body getting zapped right into the afterlife.

I'm not scared, at least, just grumpy as hell.

After a few minutes of enduring the lightning position, the cell seems to ease, or at least it seems to have moved on. I reason the better option is to move, continuing downslope and dropping elevation as fast as possible.

Equanimity, equanimity. I jettison my tantrum, rein it back in. I'm fine. This, too, is part of my story. I'm fine.

Pushing the pace, the storm cell gives me more renewed vigor than the carbs in my pack ever could. It's actually a fun, flowy descent, if you set aside fleeing possible electrocution. I check my watch every few minutes, breadcrumbs of relief in my nervous system every time I see another 100, 200, 500 feet drop off the altitude reading.

By the last couple of miles, the rain has eased and I haven't heard thunder in at least an hour. I mentally mark my transition back over to the Merced River watershed, my home side--another sign of my progress.

At long last, I find my car tucked into a corner, right where my roommate had promised to shuttle it. Climbing into the cabin, I strip several soggy layers, wrapping myself in the junky bedsheet I keep in my car that always seems to find a way to be useful.

Twenty alpine miles. Nowhere near my longest day, but I've been on a damn vision quest.

I lay in the back seat just staring up at the headliner, propping my feet up against the door, drunk off the glorious sensation of my skin drying out. My head is empty of anything other than decadent relief, the utterly simple pleasure of being done.

Eventually, I fire up the car, heading down the hill that winds its way to my house by the river. I'm in slight disbelief at how long it takes me to pass the trailhead where I began my long and strange day.

By the time I reach the house, 8000' lower than my highest point that day, it's 91 degrees. I never took that hot bath.