For the past five years, I have played in the Sierras nearly year-round. This year, a busy schedule, the flu, and an injury conspired to lock me out of my home away from home. I did some local southern California peaks, but it’s just not the same. I was finally able to block a day on the calendar and do an “easy” Sierra Peak Section objective: Kearsarge Peak.
There is a cluster of mountains on the Sierra Peak Section that are accessed from Onion Valley: University Peak, Mount Gould, Mount Rixford, Dragon Peak, Kearsarge Peak, Mount Bago, and Independence Peak. I am hoping to check all these off my list this year. Kearsarge Peak seemed like the easiest place to continue since it was short and steep.
I drove up to Lone Pine in the afternoon, had dinner at The Grill (a tradition of mine), then got to bed early at a local hotel. It was over 100 degrees at 5:00 pm in the Owens Valley, so camping was out of the question.
Three Weeks Earlier…
I never take being in the Sierras for granted, but today I felt an even stronger sense of gratitude. Three weeks ago, I did a CrossFit workout called The Seven at our 4:00 pm class on a Thursday. I missed the workout on Memorial Day, but Jenn, our trainer, was kind enough to have me make up the workout :) It took me nearly an hour. The recommended weight for the deadlifts for men was 245 lbs. which was a bit much for me. I can lift 315 lbs. on a deadlift – once. Considering I would do 49 deadlifts in this workout, combined with a crazy amount of other workout volume, I downscaled my weight to 205 lbs. But even this weight felt close to my limit.
It took me 51 minutes and 43 seconds to complete it. My Garmin watch calculated that my heart rate stayed between 150 and 190 and that I burned 815 calories during the workout. For me, this was a nine on a scale of ten in terms of intensity and duration; by the end of the workout, I could barely do one deadlift at a time – and my form was getting sloppy. I didn’t feel any injuries at the time, but I felt a deep fatigue that I knew would take me days (or maybe a week) to recover from.
I should have stretched and foam rolled in the following hours, especially the next day. But I didn’t. I was utterly exhausted. So I sat in front of the TV in the worst possible position for my back. The next morning, I felt a mild pinch in my back (about a three on a scale of ten). I made a mental note that I should do some stretching when I finished work that afternoon. Of course, I should have stretched immediately, but I sat in my office chair for three hours and worked on the computer.
I made a mental note that I should do some stretching when I finished work that afternoon. Of course, I should have stretched immediately, but I sat in my office chair for three hours and worked on the computer.
When I decided to take a break, it was too late. As I stood up, I felt that telltale sharp, electric pain shoot up my lower back. If you’ve ever injured your back, you know what I am talking about. This time the pain was a ten on a scale of ten. I cried out for my wife, Bec, because I couldn’t move. She ran to help from across the house, and I put my arms around her while she lowered me onto the floor. After that, I could barely crawl to the living room.
I cried out for my wife, Bec, because I couldn’t move. She ran to help from across the house, and I put my arms around her while she lowered me onto the floor. After that, I could barely crawl to the living room.
Now I was flat on my back with my knees elevated on the coffee table. I was in so much pain I couldn’t even make it to the bathroom. I had to pee in a Nalgene bottle. At that moment, it felt like life had just ended.
I got some muscle relaxers and pain meds from Kaiser, and within five days, I could walk with a walker without much pain. Those first days of recovery felt like months. I saw a physical therapist who gave me some exercises to increase my hip rotation. Surprisingly, my back began to feel better within days of starting the exercises. Seven days after my injury, I took a 3-mile walk around the block – albeit very slowly. Ten days after the injury, I hiked Telegraph Peak – over 5,000 feet of elevation. This was truly a miracle. In fact, it was the fastest recovery I had ever experienced in over 30 years of recurring back issues. So I decided to test my recovery on Kearsarge Peak.
Just Like Old Times
I got up on Tuesday morning, drove to the Onion Valley, and got started at 5:00 am – right at first light. The alpine glow on the mountain and the cool breeze on my face immediately put me into some kind of unexplainable Sierra euphoria. I was finally in the Sierras, and I was under their magical spell. The hiking was very steep from the start, gaining 3,500 feet in three miles across loose scree most of the way. There was also some bushwacking in the first mile and only faint signs of a trail. But I didn’t mind. I didn’t even feel tied. I was just so glad to be there.
There is an old mine about a hundred yards off the trail near the summit. I pondered the ease of my modern life, and it boggled my mind to think about how hard it must have been to work in that mine in the late 1800s. But am I really better off in my modern world? I’m not sure.
As I got closer to the top, I remembered how Wes, Liz, and I had tried to climb this a couple of years ago. We hiked in the short days of winter in a low snow year. About a half mile from the summit, we realized we would run out of daylight, so we turned back. There is not much of a trail, so getting lost in the dark would be quite easy. Turning back was the right move.
Making the Summit and Getting Down in a Hurry
After some easy class 2 scrambling, I made the summit at about Noon. The views reminded me of how much I have missed the Sierras. It was the perfect temperature, and the sight of University Peak surrounded by clouds was magical. I am hopelessly in love with this place. While the clouds made for great photos, I noticed the weather beginning to turn, so I headed down after 15 minutes on the summit. Daily thunderstorms in the afternoon were almost a given for the past month in this area.
I moved down the mountain as quickly as possible – even jogging in some sections. Unfortunately, the clouds above me grew more consolidated, turning dark and ominous. In the last quarter mile, I expected rain, lighting, and thunder, but thankfully, I made it to my car unscathed.
Never Take the Simple Things for Granted
Kearsarge Peak wasn’t the most exciting summit, but being here was like coming home after spending a year abroad. Three weeks ago, I was flat on my back, thinking I had injured my back permanently. Now I’m here and hiking up steep elevations with ease. It felt like a miracle. I asked a lot of people to pray for me, so I’m pretty sure it was. I can’t help but recall Psalm 103 when I think about being on the mountain today…