The blood moon crept west above Thor Peak as I turned the first corner of the main trail above the Portal. The edge glowed white as it emerged from the shadow, bathing the trail in a wan light at first. All was quiet, save for the trickle of water in Carillon Creek; the seeps maintained their frocks of greenery despite the draught. I knew better than to look at my watch, buried under a few light layers and gloves. The reminders rang out: slow and steady; slow and steady.
All the footsteps and holds in the north fork remained the same since my last journey eighteen months before. The easy scramble between the boulders; the open-sesame tree lying prostrate from the windstorm of three years ago; the washout on the far side of the creek; the endless short and steep switchers climbing the south wall of the canyon. I had never seen the waterfall below the ledges so dry: a mere drip against the rock, the logs dry and smooth instead of greasy-slick. From the first ledge, a glow in the crease at the top of the canyon stopped me. The moon, hidden from sight, had placed a beacon at the outlet.
Something about the stretch between the ledges and Lower Boy Scout Lake always turned my stomach, and that morning was no exception. By now the crest of the Inyos warmed, grey broadened to rose. The smell of the water and plants was acrid. Sweat dripped from my hat. But I didn’t stop much. It felt so familiar and friendly to walk up the dirt; to reach the flats around the meadow, which housed a shrinking puddle of algae-rich water. No one was camped in the trees, and I marched on.
The headwall. I can’t really pass by there now without seeing Len falling. Even though he’s fine, it all turned out OK, I performed well and did right by him and my partners that day: I can see the snow and ice, watch him grab for his pack and tumble. I watched now as a party of four picked their way across the top to the big boulders at the corner. There were smiles all around. “Where did you go?” “How was the chute?” “You came up the ledges in the dark?” “How far are you going?” “As far as I can or want to.”
The slabs were afire in the sunrise, reflected the glow in the thin sheen of water trailing across the rock, falling to the Valley. I stepped into the sun just below the break rock by the creek, water-diamonds danced and sparkled as they chased each other. I pulled deeply on my water bottle, coughed when the cold hit my throat. The willows warmed, deep red and gold, and the falls from Thor Lake crackled and shook a few shards of the night’s frost to the meadows. A breeze tickled the sweat on the back of my neck, sent shivers through me as a reminder to not linger long.
I drifted back to my first ascent of this drainage: spring; sloppy snow; how every rise looked so tall and long; how I fought upward, desperately tried to keep up, terrified of being left behind. Now, my footsteps were sure in the sand, the views familiar. I knew precisely when to lift my head to view the sweeping face of Whitney and the Needles; when to aim high on the traverse to scramble up near the waterfall; when to watch for ice just under the sand and scree; when to brush the ledge of loose rock so my foot would stick after mantling. All the while, the Mountains watched.
Lunch rock at Iceberg Lake. I finally succumbed to a glance at my watch, and somehow I knew I was right on time. The flat surface was plenty large to lay out wet shirt and shell, puff my pack under my head, and lie back, wrapped in my warm hat, down puffy, and gloves. I had a project to complete here, and now, well above 12,000ft, I was forced to finally confront my deepest shame.
I had to get in the lake. I had to be in what amounted to a two-piece suit. I had to be on camera; had to convince others to love their bodies and perform breast checks; had to try and help friends raise money for a cause.
There was just one problem: in no way did I believe I could do it.
I don’t love my body that much.
In fact, I hate it most of the time.
I am stuck in an eternal loop of memory from 2010, when I was in the shape of my life; when I looked in the mirror with pride at what I had done for myself.
And how I let it all go.
Now, there is no looking the mirror, god forbid when I’m naked or out of the shower.
But the conflict raged on inside me: Look where you are, Laura! Your body brought you here! It didn’t complain!
The Mountains stared down at me in silence as the battle forged on.
When Tony and Saya finally made their way above the lip, I knew it was time. And so I did what I always do: gathered my gear, took a deep breath, and strode to the lake. “This is not comfortable for me, at all,” I whispered to Saya, as I handed Tony the camera. “Don’t worry,” she whispered back. “You are among friends.”
I looked to them both, then to Whitney, the Needles, Muir, McAdie, Irvine, Lone Pine, Thor, Carillon, and Russell. The wind died, the water still; as if this grand cirque held its breath.
Tony started filming, and I took off my jacket.
The water gave me a boost of energy for the fun climb out of the lake basin. The chute’s middle section was as loose and steep as I remembered, but most of the bigger rocks held. I remembered the sequence to enter the Final 400 with ease, but Tony gave me a nice spot anyway when I asked. Having tried all variations, I went with a little of everything on the climb: left, center, and right to exit. The Hut was exactly where I left it. I made sure to get pictures of Saya, on her first ascent of the Mountaineer’s Route, as she topped out.
It felt so good to be home.
We didn’t linger long on the summit, as a grey wall was creeping around the Kaweahs, showering the Great Western Divide to the northwest. The sky dogs growled in the distance. The rumble rolled deep into the Kern Canyon, spilled up again onto the slabs through Crabtree and Guitar Lake. Flurries danced on the breeze and landed lightly on our eyelashes and noses. The climb back up to Trail Crest was as hard as I remembered. The switchers to Trail Camp were endless.
I led my friends to Consultation Lake, descended the slabs to Trailside Meadow. Even in the fading light of an October afternoon, each stride was clockwork, regular. When we hit the trail, my stride opened even further. There was a strength that I have felt often, as if my legs knew they were headed to the end of the day. I only finally clicked on my headlamp at Outpost Camp so I wouldn’t scare anyone.
In the soft duff below Lone Pine Lake, each step raised a small cloud. I paused only a moment at the North Fork turnoff, enough to acknowledge the closure of the day’s path.
In the moonlight, the Mountains glowed: tall, strong, proud.
When I looked up from the Valley that night, I made them, and myself, a promise.
I will try to see myself that way, too.