And my back didn't ache because I'd been to 13,000 feet twice that week on Mt. Dana, and before that my Yosemite Bum pack weighed a good 80, and in between those I'd just lived my usual summer running around Rock Creek Canyon, and the rest of the High Sierra, doing whatever.
The stars started coming out as I saw a lake in front of me, and desperately looked for a flat spot to camp, I had contemplated the fate of walking around rolling granite glacial terrain all night till I collapsed, but fortunately I was saved. In a field of Elephants Head, I put up my blue lil' home, had some tea, and slept the sleep of the dead.
The morning was the sun as it lit the basin long before it showed its bright eye over 14,000 foot Thunderbolt Pk. and burned a blazing spot on the wall of my tent. I woke up, got up on one elbow, rubbed my eyes, and looked out my door at Isoceles Pk. The mountain is a granite spire that for all its High Sierra qualities has a bit of Patagonia in its demeanor. Boiling water for oatmeal, cranked back in my crazy creak, I sipped tea and just marveled at Life.
High peaks, broad basins, big granite, rushing creeks, and endless talus. I think there's a saying, "The world is your island" or something, or maybe I'm just making it up in my own head, but I felt like I was the island in a world of nature.
That first day I hiked back up to Bishop Pass and wandered up Mt. Aggasiz. The summit view was one of the best I'd ever seen. From Ritter and Banner all the way to Williamson and Whitney, the deepest valley in North America at my feet, and Telescope Peak high above Death Valley off to the southeast. I sat there and looked down on Dusy Basin, which looked massive, wide open, all granite, a few lakes, and just a scattering of trees; and it occurred to me that I would have the next two weeks to explore this wild place, to climb the wild peaks, and to just live the wild life.
The second day I swam in the lake that was in front of my camp. The water was warm for an 11,300 foot high lake, and I just laid out on a granite block and let the sun work its magic. No one was around. I didn't hear a single sound other than the wind, and the lapping of the lake. The bird calls were infrequent. I laid there and I was totally satisfied, totally at peace. I didn't need more.
The next morning I went out to climb Columbine Pk., following talus to Knapsack Pass, and then a wonderful second class ridge to the summit. Now I had the full frontal view of Dusy Basin. Looking right down on my tent, and down on the lower basin as well. I could see the Muir Pass area off to the northwest and if I turned around I could also see into Palisades Basin, the backside of North Pal dominating, and off to the Middle Fork of the Kings River. At this point in the day, the sun was bright and warm, and so I felt obligated to partake in a favorite tradition of mine. No, not nude climbing, but shirtless, at over 12,000 feet, scrambling along a rocky ridge.
I came down off Columbine Pk. and looked over at Isoceles. I figured, ah what the hell, I'll climb it too. So I scrambled up the sandy chute on the southwest face, and traversed class four terrain around a steep class five granite spire to the crest of the East Ridge. A level, class four, traversing ridge, going around pinnacles, and across hand traverses, it's very jagged, with steep faces falling away on both sides, and you're hanging it out into the open space. Then I reached the summit slab, just this walk up low angle block that peaks at the high point. I was the first person to sign the register in two years. Sitting there, now on top of the very Patagonian monolith that towered above my tent, I understood the mountain rhythm. I made an interesting decision in choosing to down climb the southwest face. I took the path of easiest travel, angling ever so carefully down the ever steepening, very exposed face. In the midst of certain moves, like down climbing a short lieback, that feeling, if anything slipped, if that boot I had frictioning on that corner, or that hand that was holding that edge, goes, I'd be dead, that terrible thought, tried to push its way into my mind. No painful fall, no heroic recovery story, just plain grim reaping death. I know when I get in those positions that I've pushed my limit, that I'm walking down the line of my physical ability, and that if I can just push on through I will have carved new ground on the other side. Taking the line just a step further.
Down climbing the southwest face was chock full of serious positions. Reaching across and around a block to find two big inviting hand holds completely loose, with nothing but air and far away talus between my feet. Reaching successive small ledges and having to stare straight down at the ground and contemplate the slab, chimney, blocky descent below me and somehow keep it mentally together.
I was overjoyed when my boot hit sand at the bottom of the face. I jogged down the sand and out across talus and took a photo of the face because I knew mentally I'd never remember much about it, the adrenaline memory wash; all I would have was a deep feeling that I pushed my limit, bent my line, and purified my existence.
I cruised over the talus back to my tent, hurried down to the lake, jumped in, got out, laid on a granite block and just breathed. Easy and deep, and gave thanks for still being alive. Feeling relief, accomplishment, overwhelming joy, as I laid there on my granite block and let the sun warm my cold but sun burnt body, I stared up at the clouds, watching them build, and wondered if it was going to storm.
It did storm, and while I was sitting in my tent waiting it out, having tea, I flipped through R.J. Secor's guidebook to the High Sierra. My ascent route was not among those listed for Isoceles Peak.
Lazy day mornings and afternoons were the norm. Kicking hacky sack in front of my tent, or going off to explore the basin. One afternoon I grabbed my slippers and headed around the corner from my camp spot and found several amazing boulder problems, all very moderate, as I'm rather a mellow moderate climber. I subsequently spent a few afternoons climbing on the best bouldering walls I've ever seen. Not even chalking up to work a problem, with just the birds, crickets, and lapping of the lake as my back drop. It seemed my existence in the basin was peaceful anonymity among a sea of granite, and a lil' sticky rubber to keep me among the living.
One clear morning I got up, ate a pop tart and a clif bar, and took off for Knapsack Pass again. This time a little bump to the south of the pass was my goal, for a quick morning climb. I reached the pass in no time, and even found some incredible cracks and liebacks that I messed around on along the way. Up along the ridge I was in pure heaven. Following class three flakes on the crest, the moves up solid granite and slabs were just effortless and smooth. I reached the summit and found a small film canister size register, placed in 1980, by the legendary Andy Smatko and Bill Schuler. Apparently, as I sat there reading the register under early morning sun, it was Bill's thousandth summit in the Sierra, so they named it Tausende Gipfel, or Thousandth Peak. Mine was the fith entry in the 19 years the register has been there. I down climbed back to Knapsack Pass and ran talus till in ran out in a beautiful meadow. With my long hair, knapped, and dirty, flying behind me, and god damn my shirt was off again, I felt that I was sharing in a bit of the past of Sierra climbing.
I decided that climbing for me was an egoless, carefree experience in the essence of freedom; just gettin' along a ridge line, and feeling the mountain's power through each move. I realised that truly the joy of climbing peaks and bouldering around in the backcountry, mostly in boots, is why I moved out of the city and into the mountains in the first place. I walked along the glacial polished granite, with 12,000 to 14,000 foot peaks all around me and saw myself as a grey bearded bum in fifty years, nothing different, nothing the same.
The thunderstorm cycle was relentless, almost every afternoon. Mid way through my stay, it snowed for seven hours straight, leaving the basin and peaks covered with an inch of snow. During the snow storms I would sit in my tent and meditate on things. Read books, from Kerouac's Pomes All Sizes, to Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, to Goethe's Faust. Write crazy prose and poetry and haiku. Poke my head out mid storm to snap a photo and get a look about, and then just relax and have tea.
It was very intense camped out by myself, as I found deeply who I was and what I cared about, and it has stuck with me. My 15 days in Dusy Basin changed my mind. My city mind, city boy mentality, buried deep down after some time living in the mountains, was erased forever. I no longer heard the bird calls, I listened to them. The granite passed under my feet, through my hands, and I just sat there. My heart beat to the sunrise and sunset, and my soul flourished on Life in the basin.
Amidst all the opinions that my way of life is complete failure, and virtually devoid of anything materialistically successful, I now see so clearly what it is that inspires me about my bum life. I just close my eyes, or maybe look at a picture on my wall, take a deep breath of the high mountain air where I live, and smile because there is nothing tangible about my life, there is nothing materialistic, there is nothing successful; it is all philosophical and within the moment, it is all pure being.
On the 15th morning, I packed up, and with everything ready, sat down, and meditated a farewell and thank you to the basin which had filled me with such new depth. I'd found a perfect way of life. But I didn't care, I just smiled, and walked to the rhythm.
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