My friends in the Sierra Club could have warned me. But they wanted the satisfaction of hearing the reaction of an innocent to the culture of the Hundred Peaks Section of the of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club.
It was early in the 1960’s and I was was working as a Research Engineer at the Autonetics Division of North American Aviation. I had joined the Orange County Chapter of the Sierra Club and had gone on several day hikes, but this was to be my first overnight backpack with the Sierra Club. There were many more Sierra Club outings in my future, but this one is still one of the most memorable after 50 plus years. Partially because before this outing I would have never imagined what some people do in the wilderness.
The event was an East-West transverse of the high sierras. The starting trail head was the end of the Onion Valley Road winding up into the High Sierras east of Independence, California. We would then hike over the Kearsarge Pass bagging peaks along the way for those so inclined, sleeping over night, and then coming out near Kings Canyon National Park Headquarters on the West side of the Sierras.
A bus picked us up in the Los Angeles area and dropped us off at the Onion Valley eastern trail-head. The bus driver then drove the hundreds of miles around to Kings Canyon to pick us up at the western trail head two days later. Then the drive back to Los Angeles. The size of the bus limited the party to 40 maximum.
Novice back packers, like myself, not members of the Hundred Peaks Section, were welcome, but there was a strict limit on the weight of your backpack, 25 pounds, and your pack would be weighed at the trail head.
The bus picked us up in Los Angeles Friday afternoon and headed up highway 395 to deposit us at the Onion Valley trail head at an elevation of 9,189 feet. The leaders suggested we sleep at elevation to get partially acclimatized. All the good sleeping spots were taken and I slept on the gravel skirt of the parking lot.
A couple in their 40’s ignored this advice and decided they would do better by sleeping in a motel in Independence at an altitude of 3,900 feet and start well rested and refreshed in the morning. A bad choice. They dropped out of the hike with altitude sickness before a thousand feet elevation gain and returned home.
When I weighed my pack it weighed 26 pounds. I said I had a pound sack of Boston Baked Beans candy I could take out to lighten it but I would like to keep it. The weight gatekeeper let me take my Boston Baked Beans.
Two young men in their early twenties, who looked like they spent a lot of time muscle building in the gym, slept high and made the weight, but thought they would do better on the hike by taking muscle relaxation pills. They offered me some which I declined. It was a bad choice on their part. They took the pills just before starting up the trail. Soon their legs turned to rubber and they also had to terminate their hike.
I made Kearsarge Pass OK using a technique I had learned on day hikes for climbing a steep trail. Take a step up and bring the next foot up above it, resting on the lower foot with no weight on the upper foot. If you are breathing hard, you take a breath while you rest, then repeat. If the going is easy, it just looks like you are walking up the trail, if difficult you take one, two or more breaths between steps as you rest with no weight on the upper foot. You adjust your steps to keep an even, somewhat-out-of-breath, breathing rate. Most of the other hikers passed me, but I made the 11,823 foot pass with no problems. The problems came later.
Lunch was with several others at the top of the pass where we admired the spectacular scenery. Three of the others decided to leave their backpacks and climb a nearby peak. It looked like a climb that I might be able to do, but I did not want to slow the more experienced hikers, and not knowing what was ahead, decided it was best to conserve my energy. Good decision!
Coming off the pass and reaching below tree level, what I thought at the time was altitude sickness struck. It was twenty years later that I found out that what I thought was altitude sickness was a Migraine, the infamous sick headache. I have since learned the symptoms, how to avoid triggers (high altitude is one), and carried medicine to take at the beginning of an attack.
But all I knew at the time was that I felt nauseous, threw up my lunch and went into the dry heaves, had a bad headache, and felt very tired. I found a level spot in sight of the trail, and lay down for what I thought would be a twenty minute break. It turned out to be more like an hour and a half before I felt well enough to get back on the trail. Everyone who passed stopped and asked if I was alright. Stretching the truth to the limit I said yes, I was just taking a rest.
I came into camp late, found a level spot under a tree about twenty feet from the campfire and crawled exhausted into my sleeping bag, a good place to observe the events of the evening while staying warm and horizontal. Too tired to heat water for my freeze dried dinner I was glad I had my pound sack of Boston Baked Beans candy. I placed my bag of Beans on the ground in front of me and started to nibble, one candy coated peanut Bean every few minutes.
At first, I thought I was hallucinating.
The hikers across the fire from me pulled out a white linen table cloth and placed it on a small table they had carried in. Then they set the table. Two china plates, a full setting of silverware, and glass champagne flutes. Then they retrieved a bottle of champagne from the ice cold snow-melt creek running by the camp, popped the cork and poured the champagne. I vividly remembered their first course. They each had a half avocado stuffed with crab served on their china plates. The following courses are blurred in my memory because I was distracted by other hikers, who retrieved long-neck beer bottles from the creek and started to drink as they laid out almost as fancy gourmet dinners.
Still somewhat nauseous, my dinner consisted of one Boston Baked Bean candy carefully chewed and swallowed with a wait in between each Bean to make sure I could keep it down.
From a horizontal vigil in my sleeping bag, I witnessed the evening progress. Story telling, guitar playing, some singing, and finally the fire was quenched. The only light was from the startling large blanket of stars in the sky with a clear view of the milky way. The only time I had seen a sky like that before was in a planetarium show at the Griffith Park Observatory. Now I was observing the real wonder of the sky as I had only before seen it in high altitude locations away from light pollution. Nothing could be more beautiful, or so I thought.
Then as I started to doze in the stillness of the wilderness I heard it.
A soft clear sequences of notes from a musical instrument I had never heard before came from a distance edge of the camp. The melody was simple and beautiful. When mankind impinges on nature, the spell of nature is often degraded. Not so this magical evening. The melody perfectly matched the beauty of the day and the magic of evening sky.
The next day I learned the instrument was an alto recorder played by a very talented musician. But knowing what it was could not explain the magic of hearing it well-played under the dome of the star-filled night sky after a day of exertion and beauty in the wilderness.
This is an amazing earth we live on, but there is both war and suffering. Common elements in most visions of heaven are peace, elimination of suffering, and the loving company of friends and family. My hope is that we also don’t have to give up the beautiful things we experience here on earth, like a recorder in the wilderness.
Another story told over coffee and biscotti during our morning talks.