Fighting Ageism on a Hiking Trail
At Great Basin National Park, a couple discovers possibilities are as important as goals
This is a story about me, a woman of a certain age, gray-haired and a little thick through the middle who, a few summers ago, asked a much younger, positively lithe national park guide ...well, I asked her a question I didn't really want answered. At least not the way the guide answered it.
The park was Great Basin National Park in far eastern Nevada, just over the Utah line. I was nearly overwhelmed with the remarkably remote beauty of the region. It is located in a huge geographic basin — spanning from the Wasatch Mountains in Utah to the Sierra Nevada in California, which, according to the National Park Service, is a "200,000 square mile area that drains internally. All precipitation in the region evaporates, sinks underground or flows into lakes (mostly saline). Creeks, streams, or rivers find no outlet to either the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean."
Anyway, the question I asked was this: "Do you think I can do the Wheeler Peak hike?" And the answer I got was, without hesitation, "No."
"Is it technical? Is that why? Is it very long?" I asked.
"No, it's not technical or very long, but there's the altitude. It's 3,000 feet of elevation gained in four miles — most of the gain at the end,” she said. “No, I just don't think you could."
Wheeler Peak summits at something over 13,000 feet. The only reason I even considered it possible ws that my husband and I would drive up to the trailhead at 10,000 feet.
"Did you tell her you bike 50 to 60 miles a week?" my husband asked, firmly in my camp. But by now I was miffed, feeling subject to ageism and determined to prove the guide wrong.
A Scheme for Summiting Success
The next morning, after picking up lunch and driving up to the start of the hike, my husband and I imagined coming back to the ranger station later in the day with tales of summiting the great Wheeler Peak.
The trail started out in a slight descent, which when you think of it is not a good thing: a “minus” in the “elevation gained” column. Then for two miles, it climbed pretty gradually, through alpine meadows and past pristine lakes.
Because my husband is a wonderful man, we followed a scheme for summiting success: 10 minutes hike, five minutes rest, even when the hiking was easy. What couldn't be accomplished with 10 minutes of walking and five minutes of resting? Although when we rested, flies buzzed about and their drone reminded me we forgot the EpiPen my husband uses for bee stings.
We also forgot the map.
Negotiating a Rocky Trail
As we approached the tree line, we encountered our first patch of rock trail — pretty big stones making up the whole pathway.
"Scree!" I shouted with glee. (I have a thing for certain words, and this one means loose rocks covering a trail.) By contrast, on the way down, when it seemed we'd never return to a trail that was not pure, continuous rock underfoot, we'd navigated yet another switchback corner when my husband, somewhat uncharacteristically, muttered, "More damn rocks."
In fact, on several occasions on the way up, I considered how this was all going to go coming down. The last time I descended such a steep, rocky trail I'd made good use of some hiking sticks. Which I hadn't brought along. But we were still going up, right?
At one point, I swore I heard a rattlesnake.
A few hikers passed us, coming down as we ascended — one before the trees disappeared, telling us we had completed just short of half of the hike, and another when the trail had turned entirely to rock and the summit was intermittently visible.
"All you've got left is this bunch of rocks here — oh, and the next one too, but then there's only one more hump to the top,” said the last hiker.
A Kind of Epiphany
We went a couple more feet — in my case, literally on hands and knees, and now resting every five minutes because, good Lord, it was hard to breathe — before I came to a kind of epiphany.
"I don't think I can do it," I said.
It absolutely surprised me: at a certain point in time that day, I really thought I could.
"Last 15 minutes kind of rough?" my husband asked, more than kindly. In truth, he was breathing hard, too.
"Try hour," I said. An hour in which I more or less constantly imagined precipitous falls, sprained ankles and heart attacks. Emergency rescues. Pain. It was actually a variety of pure terror, overall.
"How about lunch?" said the fine man who is my husband. "Good idea," I said. So we sat, and stared up for a while. But then, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we looked down, and around.
Imagining the Possibilities
It's not always necessary, is it, to reach the imagined goal? Doesn't failure, in some respects, increase possibility?
After lunch, I patted the rocks in acquiescent defeat and my husband and I started down. It took nearly as long to descend as ascend. When we got back to the ranch and looked over the map, my husband proclaimed we'd made it to within about a half-mile of the summit — only an eighth of the distance of the whole hike — but a distance in which we'd have to have ascended perhaps a quarter of the mountain's elevation gain.
And, no, we didn't go back and tell the park guide she'd been correct. Instead, we had dinner and sat in the hot tub, imagining a next time. A next time we were quite certain would never happen. A next time that, even so, was forever and irrefutably possible.