Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Big Bend 4 of 6

Day 4: Emory Peak

I was glad to be in Big Bend, don’t get me wrong, but I was mildly disappointed with the cupcake feel of it all. (mildly because Death’s (or at least Pestilence’s) hot breath had never been heavier than it had been two days prior, and I’d amended my ideals for the sake of being alive.) The trails through the most scenic areas were preconceived and if I didn’t hike them, I knew I’d be missing something. My ridiculous pouting came to an end, hiking the 12 miles of Emory Peak. (12, including my march to the trail) You might be thinking that 12 miles is nothing to sing about, and it’s not. But, the Emory Peak Trail starts at the basin and climbs 7,825 feet to the highest point in the park. We’re talking 6 miles straight up and 6 miles straight down with dozens of spotty-visioned breaks in between, in at least 106 degrees of heat. (That’s 41.1C for all you sensible non-Americans)
It was tiring.
After hours of solitude, the gnats and flies that swarmed my delicious stink started taking on human characteristics and I’d often pause and listen, thinking their buzz was someone speaking to me. I just ignored them after a few false stops. They weren’t, after all, in my head and they weren’t instructing me to murder anyone so I knew I’d be fine. The trail seemed to go on forever and I spit out exhausted expletives pretty much from start to finish, though not out of frustration or discontent. You could easily replace my gasping “f” words with “hallelujahs” and understand the same appreciation. Pain aside, the mountains were so imposing and sheer that being among them was simply marvelous. That’s such an underappreciated word: marvelous. But they were marvels and I was overwhelmed by them.

Mexican Jay
Agave havardiana
The trail ended near the peak so I climbed over boulders and under low-hanging tree limbs to a sheer rock face. It wasn’t the 360 degree view I had expected. Sure I could see in a wide half circle but there was a giant rock wall in my face. If there hadn’t been a pair of hikers 30 feet at its top, I would have assumed I went the wrong direction. “Hello there!” a man said from the top. I was looking through a gap in the rock at what scenery was visible from my position. “It’s a much better view from up here,” he said. Pampered by the pre-cut path I had enjoyed for the past few hours, I told him that I couldn’t seem to find the trail. “You have to climb up,” he said. Climb? I watched in disbelief as the man and woman slowly inched down the steep rock face. This wasn’t a hill, people. This was a damn near vertical climb and my legs already felt like noodles from the miles of zigzagging switchbacks. I sagged against the rock in despair.
Heights and zombies are my two things. I jumped out of an airplane once. I was stoked too until I opened the tiny plane’s hatch and saw the ground thousands of feet below. In fact, “jumped” out of a plane is probably the wrong word. I went rigid in paralyzed fear and my tandem partner shoved me out. On Emory Peak, I was experiencing the same moment of dumb paralysis.
The two hikers reached my level and began a long trudge away from the peak. My thoughts immediately searched for a rational excuse not to climb that rock, and it didn’t take long to find one: if I fall, I’m dead. It was that simple and there was no question about how dead I’d be. This was the highest mountain in the park and I was 30 feet from the top. I wasn’t fearfully exaggerating the severity of a fall. You fall, you die . . . unless you fell in one small area. Then, you’d just break some bones or your crown or whatever and have an even more uncomfortable hike back to camp.
What a bastard. Victory 30 feet up and I was too terrified to even try. The ascent was doable. It was the descent that had me frozen in indecision. Do you know how many rooftops I was rescued from as a child? Lots. I could always find impossible ways to the tops of buildings and trees but getting down often required a shrieking leap or the assistance of a grumbling adult.
I peered over the cliff where I’d potentially be free falling and sighed. The hike back would be long and shameful, and I knew that because it was pure cowardice that kept me from reaching the peak I would obsess over my self-inflicted emasculation for a long, long time. Chickening out would be a severe blow to my ego and could potentially take years of personal recovery. This moment could ruin the whole memory of Big Bend. So, I packed my water skin and camera into my daypack and reached my nervous hands for the rock.
5 feet.
10 feet.
15 feet.
I looked down. The sloping mountainside, hundreds of feet below, hypnotized me and I became dizzy. I tore my gaze from the fall and stared at the rock I was holding with my white fingernails. My mouth was dry and my backpack felt like a swinging lead ball.
20 feet.
Made it.
If I’d had a flag, I’d say then was an appropriate time to wave it around and plant it, cautiously of course.
There was no wind or sound at the top and the rocky circumference was probably a narrow 10 feet. You could see the whole park from that tiny spot and by George, I did. All it took was the shriveling of genitalia, the tightening of orifices, and the unforgiving American stigma of failure.

Notice my stabilizing foot? Safety first.

The descent was as horrific as I expected. On the more shelf-like outcrops, I inched down on my clenched buttocks. For the more vertical spots, there was no way to avoid hugging the rock tightly and blindly lowering my feet to jutting fractures an inch wide. I did a lot of quiet reassuring on the way down. “Okay. Okay. It’s okay. Just don’t look down. You’re almost there. Who’s the man? Who’s the man, Carlos? You’re the man.” When I reached an acceptable level of injury, fear completely vanished and I made it to the bottom with hand-dusting bravado.  “That wasn't so bad,” I thought. “I could probably even do it again!” I didn't, but I started my stroll down the mountain with a whistling strut. (I reached the basin a few hours later practically crawling with exhaustion (and I napped and read until the sun went down))

Scott drove by my campsite before total darkness and we kept each other company on the balcony of an employee lodge until I was too tired to keep my eyes open. A storm rumbled and lightning flashed all around the mountainous enclosure and with a heavy heart, I staked the heat-containing rainfly over my tent so I wouldn’t have to do it in the middle of the night, in the rain. I’d figure out my next hike in the morning.


JennAventures said...

I have very strong feelings about heights.

My fear of hieghts kept me from cliff diving in Greece. Do I feel regret? You bet. Am I glad I didn't die? Hells Yes.

I think I can go my whole existence without heights.

Julie Buz. said...

This had me on the edge of my seat! I'm so glad you went for the climb in the end - you would have forgiven yourself broken bones, but you would never have forgiven yourself that you didn't try. :o)

You're tha man, Carlos!

f8hasit said...

" the gnats and flies that swarmed my delicious stink"...
LOVE that line.

You are definitly 'the man' Carlos. I don't particularly have a problem with heights. I love roller coasters and such, but when I know that IF I fall; I die. Yeah. I think I might have stayed at the lower level and said, "Cool".

HOWEVER, thank you for going to the top and taking the pictures. Fabu.

Heather said...

Wow! Who's the MAN? Carlos is!!!

I have the same issue with heights, I can go up just fine, it's the coming back down that has me white knuckling it!

Well it was well worth it, cause those pics are awesome!

Dreamfarm Girl said...

Wow. If there's ever been anything worth giving into that bullying voice that makes you think you're worthless unless you do some really really dangerous crazy stunt, a view at the top of a Big Bend mountain has got to be it. way to go. (not that I'd ever do it.)

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