I first hiked to the summit of Mt. Whitney when I was 10 years old. My father had died a few months before, and my mother’s new romantic interest (who would later become my stepfather) took me on a long hike above timberline. Now that I’m older, I realize it probably was a ploy to separate me from the rest of the family, do a little male bonding and hopefully get me, the oldest son, to play along with the new arrangement. It worked. I did.
Over the next 25 years I frequently returned to Whitney Portal and headed up the steep trail for the highest point in the contiguous United States. I didn’t always make it to the top, because frankly sometimes I just didn’t want to work that hard. I was happy to spend a couple of days camping and relaxing.
But one year in the middle of my brain-dead 20s, I decided it would be a good idea to hike up to 14,500 feet and celebrate my accomplishment by smoking a big, fat, green cigar. I still don’t know what possessed me.
Yeah, there I was perched on top of the world near that little stone summit cabin looking down on Wotan’s Throne and Consultation Lake with Lone Pine and the Owens Valley far, far below. Basking in the sun with my hair blowing in the wind, it was just me, my bag of gorp, a stick of dry salami, a warm water bottle, a can of sliced pineapple and my very own big, old cigar.
Despite the raised eyebrows from the others on top of the mountain, I puffed and puffed and puffed away, laughing to myself at their disdain.
Then after one really long drag it suddenly started. I don’t think anyone could see it because I don’t think there were any outward signs, but I definitely began to feel just a wee bit green. And then just a moment later down in my stomach the gorp, salami and water began to mix unfavorably with that sweet, syrupy pineapple, and I knew I had to start heading back down the mountain as quickly as I could.
Altitude sickness had grabbed me pretty hard as I paused to rest and regroup at Trail’s Crest — 13, 777 feet at the top of Whitney Pass, a place where the trail narrowly crosses from behind the range of peaks to their steep eastern face. Directly below me was about 1,500 vertical feet of snow-covered slope. I felt a boot on my back, and I was gone, glissading down faster and faster with no way to stop. Jim, my friend who pushed me over the edge, waited about 30 seconds and then jumped after me. He said if he had killed me by pushing me over the edge, he might as well kill himself, too, rather than live with that unfortunate result for the rest of his life. Besides, he’d have to confess to my mom.
Now that’s kind of how Christmas always hits me. It comes in a rush. Try as I may I just can’t hold back the days, and before I know it — bam – I’m in a head-first collision with Christmas Day.
Thankfully, I still have time this year to set a more even course, time to avoid the long lines to ship packages off to distant friends and relatives at the last minute, time to savor and enjoy the gift giving part of the holiday. All I have to do is get myself moving.
If you’re a Christmas procrastinator like me, it’s time to begin. We’ve already slipped over the edge of the holiday cliff, and let me tell you — Christmas is coming soon. It’s less than three weeks away, folks.