“It is ordained that three dry round grains of barley make an inch, 12 inches make a foot, [and] three feet make a yard.” -AD 1303. Henry III in the “Composition of Yards and Perches“
And 14,000 feet make a significant mountaineering challenge.
As your “Guides to the Sierra Mountain(s)” we are forever reaching further and further into the corners of the world’s greatest mountain range. We are on an undying quest to find the best of the best and the wildest of the wild. For instance, witness Howie’s latest post enumerating the options in, and appeal of, Sequoia National Park’s Tamarack Lake and surrounding ridges, peaks, and domes. Looking forward, Viren and I are going to head tomorrow into yet another new zone to scope sweet technical objectives on the huge peaks. However, the big, classic peaks will always be big and classic. Whether it’s the technical objectives that draw you to the classics, or the fact that the fourteen thousand foot threshold guards a difficult-yet-attainable “life-list” of California’s best peaks, you are going to want to go the Palisades and the Whitney Zone, and we want to take you there.
Mike started the process of ticking his home state’s “14ers” more than a decade ago. He has just a few left now. While he is more than capable of busting them out, he seems to dread the end of this pursuit. And he’s not wrong to be worried for this approaching end. For many, the trips up and down the range chasing these 15 summits are the highlight of years of vacation time. Wrapping up a goal like this is intrinsically bittersweet. In the beginning, the idea of spending weeks and months of your life chasing the quixotic dream of climbing this arbitrary list seems extremely daunting. Most 14er aspirants have limited mountaineering experience. The technical and physical challenges, all set in a wild and dynamic backdrop, are indeed daunting for the neophyte. Having such a well-defined list inherently quantifies and loads on the stress and intimidation. However, as with any good life goal, the steps unfold, the journey satisfies, and the skills and realities take care of one another.
Countless Sierra Mountain Guides guests follow a familiar progression. You hike Langley or White Mountain or Mount Whitney. You like it. You do another of these mellow peaks. You try one of the easier technical peaks like Mount Russell or Middle Palisade. Maybe you make it and like it. Maybe you don’t make it, but still like it. Either way, you read up a little more, ask for some help from friends, and step it up further. Mount Sill is commonly next. You have a grand adventure. You are learning, you are hurting, you see beautiful things for the first time. It’s life, microcosm style. Your loved ones are concerned while your coworkers are jealous of the sunburn and Instagram photos. On that trip to Mount Sill, you look around. To put it mildly, you “are not in Kansas anymore”. The Palisades are a rollicking torment of walls, ice, and intimidation. How will you ever tackle those peaks? Make no mistake, to complete the list of California Fourteeners, you will make the leap from casual peak bagger to technical alpinist. “Technical alpinist”. Look it up, that’s what you’ll be; that’s what is required to tackle the Palisades. From here you have two choices. At SMG we see those that take option A. Option B is the self-taught alpinist. Those taking the independent, self-taught road will have their own pace of progress, their own journey, and experiences suitably unique and authentic. Many, and the demographic from which I draw most of my experience, will hire Sierra Mountain Guides to tackle the more technical peaks. You too will have a unique, challenging journey. However, we’ll fast-track the geographic learning process, smooth out the inefficiencies of inexperience, and deliver at least a slightly better margin of risk. (As an aside, let’s be honest… As compared to unguided alpine climbing, an SMG trip with a formally trained guide is considerably safer. However, as compared to a trip to the beach, any sort of alpine climbing brings inherent risks. I don’t need to tell you that. On your first trip to the hills, you gleaned an innate understanding of risk and reward).
Mike is fully embracing his mountaineering journey. His life plugs on at home with all it’s twists and turns. Life brings him challenges, as it does for all of us. He faces them head-on, as he should. If anything, life has dealt Mike more than his share of heartache and challenge in the past year. But he continues to seek out difficulty in the mountains. Why is this? Each of us faces challenges we do not choose. Why do some choose additional stress in the peaks? I’ll never know, but I do find inspiration in this apparent paradox. My perspective is a bit skewed, as I see people well after they have chosen a path for the mountains. But it seems to me that the chosen challenges put those not selected in perspective, and vice-versa.
Another long-time SMG guest finished his “fourteeners” a couple years back. A die-hard peak bagger, he can be paraphrased as saying, early on in his quest, that the fourteeners are all that he cared about. He and I, on a sweet “up-and-over” itinerary, ticked his final summit back in 2012. It was on exiting from that peak that John demonstrated a 180 degree turnabout.
With his new-found confidence, technical skills, and familiarity with the High Sierra, he was excited to realize that “now that I’m done with the 14ers, I can do all sorts of other cool peaks!”
Some video highlights from Mike’s trip: High Sierra rambling outside the threshold summits is starting to sink in. Finishing the 14ers, like many of life’s “endings”, is simply the beginning of what is next!