It was the night before the hike up the Mountains to Mt Whitney. The husband and two friends had arrived at their hotel after an uneventful journey taken photographs of their backpacks.
“We will be back in 16 hours – max, 17 if we slow down due to fatigue!” said the husband. They were to leave at 3 a.m. so as to be able to make it back to the trail head before sunset. “Expect to hear from us well before 8 p.m.” were the exact words if I remember correctly. I wished them all luck and went to bed. Usually, I only need to think of that beautiful, restorative nurturer of the soul (sleep) and off I go feeling sleepy. Within minutes, I can barely stifle my own yawns. (I just yawned as I typed this out, if you have trouble believing me) Yet, this time I tossed and turned. I was unable to sleep. Could it be the excitement of the upcoming hike for the trio, or worry or a mixture of both, I could not tell, but there I was messaging him at 2 a.m. and waking them all up. When I finally flopped to sleep a little after 4 a.m. I had received a note from them saying they were about to lose connectivity and from now on, they were one with nature.
It was easy to imagine them sighing over the stark beauty, breathing in the fresh mountain air, singing as they walked up the trail and watching the sun rise over the mountains.
The husband, however, hotly denied this state of euphoria. “Did you know I threw up within an hour of starting to hike?” he said with an unpleasant look on his face. I tutted and said that a gulp of the fresh air might have been the key. To which, he eyed me like a lizard eyes a fly and said there wasn’t much air to gulp. The high altitude was affecting each of them differently and every time they attempted to walk slightly faster, they clutched their heads and sat down. To hear them talk of the Diomox (high altitude sickness pill), is like hearing a child talk about candy during Halloween. A warmth infused with definite longing, and gratitude at the bounty. The mountains were good enough to make each of them succumb to this high-alt-sickness at different points in time though and they could help each other out. The silver lining.
Now, I have worked long enough in the software industry to know what to expect when people tell me that they expect something to be done in a day. I mentally make a note that it could, possibly, be 3 days, or more. Yet, I did not apply this logic to the hiking estimate that the three software engineers came up with. When they said 16 hours, maybe 17, I was liberal enough to give them 18 hours. The clock was now ticking on to 10 p.m. and there hadn’t been a peep from them. It was already 19 hours and the first twinges of anxiety started to manifest themselves. I swiftly diagnosed it as hunger and ate a piece of cake, 2 biscuits and drank a cup of milk. It was, as I was polishing off the milk, that the husband called. He said, they were 2 miles from the trail head and that they had grossly under-estimated how long it could take on the way down. He tried to sound upbeat, but there was no masking the fact that he was enervated. None of the waspishness in his comments, no smile lingering behind the words. Just a sober line saying he expects he is 2 miles from the trail head. Most uncharacteristic and caused me to furrow the brow.
One of his younger hiking pals had run down earlier and was, therefore, able to give us spotty information. But it had truly been hours since he had seen them too. I settled myself down to just wait for a few minutes, make sure they got themselves into the right car and headed back to the hotel. Another friend of ours was a tower of strength as he relayed information from the trail head to us. He even managed to find a GPS tracker on the phone the trio was using. Apparently, he had the same misgivings that I had when I heard their voices at 10:30 p.m. He said he would be much more peaceful if they just got back. Slowly, we watched the GPS tracker move away from the trail head going far away from the designated trail in what seemed to be a large circle. Could they have be delirious and therefore, not able to see where they going? We had no idea and worse, could do nothing. We were miles away watching a signal bobbing up and away from a path they were supposed to take.
The one who had run down all the way was back at the trail head with a welcoming pizza for sustenance. It was now 20 hours since they started and the parathas had long since disappeared.
For one moment now, I would like you to switch claws and start thinking like a bear. There you are, sitting by yourself, just waiting for Winter to come, so that you can start hibernating and be done with this gnawing feeling of near-constant hunger. Food gathering in these drought-hit times is challenging. You have had enough of bees and fast disappearing trout in the dry streams and rivers. There you are minding your own business and pondering on Life and whether good food has its place in the Meaning of Life, when the most deliciously esculent smell wafts up your nostrils. Is that cheese? With a whiff of garlic, and oh…some mushrooms too? That tomato sizzling under the cheese, over the fresh pizza crust – heavenly, simple heavenly! How some smells can convey how hot the food is, one never knows, and this bear was not waiting to find out. And so, it was with the friendly neighborhood bear. He smelled the pizza miles away and made for the car in with his tongue hanging out. He probably was higher up the mountains than the h and f were when he picked up the smells, but he beat them to the car face down.
In between GPS signals and maybe, lost, hikers, there was a thrilling bear adventure tucked into the whole thing. The pizza had to be taken back to the hotel, the windows of the car opened and aired out before taking the car back to the trail head for the h and f. One will never know whether a bear would have reacted better to Indian foods or Pizza. It is an experiment for whoever tries Mt. Whitney next.
Finally, after 22 hours of hiking, we heard from the h. and f. They had made it back. (Don’t ask anything more for now. Don’t dream of doing this pesky hike! )
Soon, all the right people were in the right cars, the bears were deprived of a most enticing pizza and the hotel room welcomed them.
Mt. Whitney was truly in the bag. The joy would come later – long after the intestines gorged out everything it had taken in over the past 96 hours in restrooms along the way. A short while after the Facebook post was out and had gathered an impressive number of likes. About the time, folks thumped them over the shoulder and hankered to hear their tale.
P.S: Our friend has written about the journey here, and he is also the one who gave me the pictures for the Mt. Whitney posts: