At 13,141 feet, California’s Mt. Baxter isn’t that impressive a peak on paper. (For comparison, 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, sits just down the John Muir Trail from Baxter’s post in Kings Canyon National Park.)
But with no real marked trail, and a series of chossy shale chimney chutes marking the only visible route up, Baxter presented plenty of challenge, and its high point was a suitable White Whale on the longest day of a week-long backpacking trip.
After a challenging-but-stable push up to one of the area’s countless clear blue alpine lakes, we eyed a route that looked the least steep and unstable, set a firm turnaround time of 1:45 pm, and started scrambling up.
From the get-go, the rocks were dislodging under our feet with alarming frequency, though the worst scenario was usually just a frustrating struggle to gain solid footing and momentum. A couple of large rocks dislodged in my hands and, luckily, stopped before crushing both legs; but we were careful to avoid climbing directly in the line of kicked-off debris, and I was surrounded by three MDs. I figured we were being as safe as possible.
Tony and Max got sketched out about 200 feet from the top, when a particularly loose chimney of rock and gravel required a few off-balance, insecure moves in a row. Teddy and I – fortunately or not – had already scampered scared through this, and figured we would give it ten more minutes.
That was when even the biggest rocks started moving under our feet. Realizing we were essentially standing on an active rock slide, we simultaneously said “nope,” snapped a quick couple of pictures on the most secure footing we could find, and slowly retreated back down to the lake.
In ultra parlance, “DNF” is sometimes jokingly referred to as “did nothing fatal.” I’ve always thought that was dramatic (albeit poignant) since the support system at most races is so stellar and the number of places where you can fall to your death are more limited.
But that phrased definitely resonated with me after this. I hate quitting, and hate compromising on a goal. That’s prerequisite to running 50 miles in a row, finishing your degree, or chasing a career goal. But in the mountains, that’s only an admirable outlook to the extent that you come back under your own power, able to do it again. There aren’t as many checkpoints and supervisors to keep you from teetering over the edge in the high alpine.
People talk about “conquering” mountains, which makes me wince. If you behave right, the mountain might let you up, and even then it might not. And on this particular day, with this particular mountain – this mere “thirteener” – I was 100% okay with that.
We gathered Stew back at Baxter Lake, hiked the six miles back to camp at Rae Lakes, and slept outside next to an empty whiskey bottle. It might have been my best day yet.