Grab Life and Run With It, Because You Never Know…

“Now, you’re going to take it easy this weekend, right?” the doctor asked, pointedly. I had already confessed to my plan of heading into the Desolation Wilderness for the weekend, and his look over the top of his glasses wasn’t going to change my plans hugely. Although I did, for a moment, think about settling in for a nice weekend of strolling along lower-country trails and gaze hopefully up to the peaks. But who was I kidding? I figured my knee wasn’t going to hurt any more than it already did, so what the hell. The doc recommended a fantastic eatery in South Lake Tahoe (Freshies!!), where I watched the sunset over the Lake, beer in hand. The parking I found at Echo Lakes was a bit off kilter, but I soon dropped into dreamworld, waking only to turn over against the pull of gravity towards the other side of the TOF.

I had to stop a few times while climbing the colouir, mostly to contain my excitement and maintain focus on the last few hundred feet. A fall at this point would prove, well, probably a little more than painful. but the conditions were just so perfect that I couldn’t help but smile and laugh. Two days after being chased off a mountain by a raging thunderstorm, here I was under perfect blue skies, a light breeze, and firm snow ideal for front-pointing my way up for 1200 feet. I wanted the chute to continue, so I took my time and savored every moment, every step of the climb. I watched the light shifting, felt the snow change from shade to sun, paused long enough to look in all directions — even down — and really grasp a sense of where I was and what I was accomplishing. Topping out, I hooted and hollered for joy, then found a big rock to doff my crampons and have a nice snack before slogging up the remaining talus to the summit.

Gaining the ridge the next morning was simple enough, save the weight on my back of my overnight gear. My GoLite pack fit my back snugly, though, and after departing the PCT, I wandered beneath tall pines as I headed north. Needles and sand cushioned my steps, an occasional pile of bear scat providing fair direction until I stumbled across an actual use trail. I shook my head as trail cairns peeked above rocks and logs, but hell, I wasn’t complaining. Below to the east, I could hear the roar of engines as boats criss-crossed Echo Lake, taking families to the vacation cabins ringing the shoreline. “Now that would be taking it easy,” I smiled, imagining myself sitting on the deck, pole cast into the lake, beer cooler near one hand, bag of chips near the other. Sweat dripped from my ball cap, and I leaned into the slopes, picking my way around the tall boulders lining the edge of the ridge, finding hidden pockets of wildflowers scattered on both sides of the ridge. The scramble up Becker Point was trivial on the big blocks, then across to Talking Mountain. I stopped once to see that some plant had willfully attacked my poor shoes and socks, leaving round sticker-seeds covering every surface. The pine trees were shedding like mad at the slightest touch, and I carried their smell, along with pounds of needles, between my back and the pack. At long last, the sand and boulders gave way to talus, and I picked my way down and around the knife-edge portion of the ridge to finally reach the gentle slopes of Mt. Ralston. From it’s summit slabs, I gazed into the Desolation Wilderness for the first time, soaking in the vastness of Lake Aloha and the Crystal Range with widened eyes. Other hikers waited on the summit, some with raised eyebrows at my pack, especially when I pointed from whence I had come. Chuckling, I heaved to and sauntered off down the trail, dodging remaining snow drifts and dropping to the PCT once again. There was one last up of 300 feet or so to Keiths Dome, with a wonderful view of Mt. Tallac and Falling Leaf Lake, before heading at last to the shores of Lake Aloha. While dinner was unremarkable, I sat on the shoreline sipping red wine as I listened to the thunder rumble in a storm to the south, the cloud rising and spreading in the hot afternoon air, the breeze dancing across the top of the water.

I had the summit to myself for a few minutes, but I had spotted the lone hiker about 1/4 mile below me right after I had dropped my pack. I was giddy with excitement after climbing the colouir, and I was snapping pictures and videos like mad to share and report once I got home. A few minutes later, the older gentleman reached the summit, and I greeted him with a hearty hello. His smile was as broad as mine as he dropped his pack and looked over at my giant boots and gaiters, my helmet still on my head. “Where did you come from??” he asked. Excitedly I led him over to the edge and pointed down to the snowy chute below, and that’s when he launched into his own hikes in Nepal. “If you like this, you’ll LOVE it over there,” he exclaimed. His face positively glowed as he described climbing Island Peak, and I could see the happy memories flooding back to him. After he kindly snapped my summit photo (“You’re not going to do some sort of victory pose, are you?” he teased.), he found a rock on which to sit, with me at his feet, as we each talked story in turn. Others arrived at the summit, including a father and daughter who recognized me from my own stories. Our group of four sat happily munching away in the sunshine, trading histories and background. It came out that I had grown up in the Bay Area, that my pop had worked for years in silicon valley. “Where at?” the older gentleman asked. “GTE Sylvania for the bulk,” I replied, “and then Lockheed-Martin and TRW.” “No shit,” said he, “What’s your dad’s name?” He nearly fell over when I said Gabe Molnar. “Of course I know Gabe Molnar,” he said. “He’s famous at GTE!” Once again, the smiles flashed through both of us, and we laughed at the connection, naming a few people each that pop would know. “What’s your name?” I asked him. “Gene Hall.”

Without the rain fly in place, I woke several times overnight to just look at the stars. Rolling over, I grudgingly cracked my eyes open again to see the grey glow of pre-dawn, the sky warming above the crags of the Crystal Range. Small clouds dotted the morning sky, edging pink, and reflected in the still waters of the lake. I unzipped my bag and threw on my down jacket in the light chill, stretching tight arms and legs from Saturday’s exertions on the ridge. Just as the first light touched the tip of Mt. Price, I wandered down to the shoreline from camp, camera in hand. The glow resonated and spread across the rock faces, stretching to the lake’s far edge as it shifted from magenta to pink to orange-gold. The clouds made me mildly nervous, knowing the forecast prior to my leaving had called for possible thunderstorms, so I took my time in making breakfast and coffee, watching the skies intently for consolidation. When they blew off to the north, I happily threw my pack together and headed out to explore the basin and aim for Pyramid Peak.

I wandered almost aimlessly through the slabs and channels, trying to avoid the shallow remaining tarns but equally amazed at the lushness of the meadows and the colors of the flowers erupting all around. Lily pads coated a few of the larger lakelets, as I tried to gauge where to cross. Finally, I wandered into a campsite of thankfully friendly guys who told me about the dam. Of course there was a dam. Of course that’s what the guy was talking about yesterday when he mentioned “draining the lake for the season”. Uh-huh, OK, so where was this dam? Within 10 minutes I was across the spillway on the dam’s middle ledge and traversing the pine bonzai fields of slab to the base of Pyramid Peak. I tanked up from the base of a snowdrift, it’s surface alternating pink and brown from the dirt and arctic algae, the moss in the flow sodden and brilliant green, smelling of earth. I scrambled up the sticky slabs to the plateau beneath the summit, the rock transitioning to steep talus blocks all sharp enough to bruise, but fairly stable for one person. I looked over to the ridge heading north, grimacing at the awkward tower, but noting a possible ascent/descent route on a point beyond emptying to my current position. I was sick of listening to myself suck wind, so I popped on my headphones and motored my way to the top as best I could, the rocks sometimes falling away under my feet.

From the summit, the views were restricted only by haze in the west, higher mountains to the south and east. The northern skyline had a few high points, but the hills rolled away under heavy forest. I sat quietly while two other gentlemen on the summit chatted, only really responding to a few of their questions, lost somewhat in my own thoughts of the moment. Even for some as gregarious as me, there are some moments where I just enjoy being quiet and inside myself, planning the rest of my day or staring off into the high spaces attained from these summits. I studied the ridge to the north, and headed down to discover any possible bypass of the pinnacle, and found a lovely class 2 chute emptying to the cirque between the cliffs of Pyramid’s north face. I stumbled more than a few times on the blocks, but made my way across to the slabs running just under the ridgeline, past a few sapphire tarns half-filled with snow. This was almost too easy, I thought to myself, as I pulled up the sand to the south edge of Mt. Agassiz. But, true to my word to the doctor, I was taking it easy, right? A fun scramble to the top of Agassiz, and I was dashing through the boulders again to the north, headed for Mt. Price. Two men strode towards me, headed the opposite direction, and I waved a greeting as we came together. “I know you from somewhere,” the man squinted at me from behind his shades. “Summitpost?”

I sat on the summit with the new group of friends for well over an hour, but it was so early, and I was in no particular rush to descend. At last, I shouldered my pack, shook hands all around, and smiled broadly at all there. I couldn’t wait to call my pop and tell him that it was HE who was famous today, to talk to him about the smallness of the world and the people we touch both directly and indirectly. You see, I get these traits from him, of being outgoing, talking easily to new people, finding those connections that bring us together. Gene had been just as open that day, openly sharing so much of his excitement and warmth. He was so thrilled to be back in California, and Yosemite, after moving north with his wife to be closer to family. He was scheming, with a twinkle in his eye, about eating at the high camps to avoid bringing the weight of food in his pack. As I danced down the trail, I glanced back a few times to see Gene wandering through the talus as well, a spring in his step. Below the plateau, emerald meadows were alive with color, mid-summer flowers still peaking in their brilliance and the warmth of the early afternoon sun. The air was so fresh, and I breathed deeply to pull as much of it inside of me as I could. From the nice hike up; to the climb of the couloir; to meeting new friends; to perfect weather and unrestricted views, the clouds reflecting in Mono Lake; to the colors of the meadows and lakes below; it truly was a perfect day.

The north ridge from Price looked sketchy, the snow extending up too high for me to avoid it to descend directly to Mosquito Pass. With a sigh, I grudgingly turned back south to traverse the ridge once again, crossing Agassiz’ shoulder and heading for the bump in the ridge north of Pyramid, hopeful that the chute I had spotted that morning would go. After stumbling and bumbling down the loose rock, my knee aching and reminding me of this whole “take it easy” thing, I reached the gentle slabs angling down into Desolation Valley. I angled southeast a bit to explore the region further, the broad ledges green with sawgrass and corn lilies, crimson columbines hugging the seeps. Critters emerged as I passed: a lazy marmot sprawled across a boulder; a frog hopping into a puddle; a pika dashing out and back into its hole. I strolled along, the late afternoon sun angling long shadows back among the solitary pines. At long last, I reached the dam, then followed the lake’s edge to another wall and apparently the efficient route back to the main trail and camp. By now my knee was really aching, but I was exuberant at my explorations of the day. I laughed at myself, musing on the wackiness of my SPOT track cutting back and forth above and across the basin. But even with the pain, I had made it safely up and down without incident. I sipped at the remaining wine, warm from the limited shade where I had tied my bag, while the water boiled for dinner, the spiciness of the vintage  as soothing as the fading light against Cracked Crag above camp.

The next morning, I hoofed it back to Echo Lakes, cruising the trail in just over two hours back to the TOF. On a whim, I turned on my phone, and then listened to the voice mail from Pop saying that a missing hiker in Yosemite, named Gene Hall, had been found in his tent near Vogelsang. Pop was hopeful in his message, saying that it might be a common enough name, and that it might not be the same person I had met on Mt. Dana’s summit the weekend before. But the coincidences pointed to only one conclusion.

I didn’t know Gene: I only met him for an hour on the summit of a grand mountain. But in that hour, he shared so much with me, was so open and willing to convey his own history and personality. His smile told the best story of all: that he had lived well, and was happy with his position in life. But as someone who shares stories, I appreciated that time spent at his feet as he offered his story to me. I could see a parallel in that short time: we both lived each moment of that day to its fullest, enjoyed what that day had to offer. Instead of taking it easy, we were grabbing hold of what we could and soaking it into ourselves. In that brief time, Gene helped make an incredible day even more so. And as I go forward towards other adventures, I’ll remember the man whose great big smile matched my own.

RIP Gene Hall.

From the luckiest girl in the world:

Climb Hard, Be Safe.

My new friend Gene and I relaxing on the summit of Mt. Dana.


11 Responses to “Grab Life and Run With It, Because You Never Know…”

  1. Very touching tribute Laura.

  2. WOW! nice Laura! What a great message for us all to remember “Grab Life and Run With It, Because You Never Know…” Thanks for the reminder my friend!

  3. Aww, that is very sad, but the smile on his face says he was where he loved to be.

  4. Awesome Laura. Thanks for taking the time to share this story. Your writing is wonderful! And your adventures inspiring!

  5. Apeman (Terry) Says:

    Great writing as usual Laura! That was a bittersweet day on Dana. I always feel blessed just being able to be in such places and then to meet awesome people to share it with just makes it that much sweeter. I got the same traits you mention from my Dad as well and enjoy meeting new people in the wilderness. Drives my daughter crazy sometimes but she enjoys the stories and the people and especially the places. We were pretty lucky that day to get to spend a little time with Gene. I enjoyed meeting you and was honored to get to take your summit pose. Congrats on the couloir!

    Hope you had some good northern Sierra time in Desolation. My daughter’s 1st summits were Tallac, Ralston and Pyramid. Hope that knee gets better. Mine’s still killing me too but I just got back from a 3 day trip to a secret place in Grouse Ridge area. Doctors can fix us in the winter.

    Be careful out there!

  6. God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy…

    Very nice, Moose.

  7. Hi Laura,

    Thank you for the picture, and the story. I’ve been friends with Gene’s daughter, Lucie, for about 30 years, so I’ve known Gene a long time. Really glad you’ve given his family and friends the opportunity to glimpse into his final, happy days. Glad he had someone warm and friendly with whom to share some last moments on this beautiful earth.


  8. Thank you Laura for sharing this wonderful account of your meeting with my brother, Gene. We will miss him greatly, but take comfort in the fact that he died in his favorite place in the US., doing what he loved. Dina is right on.

    Ron Hall

  9. Hi Laura, I’m so glad Gene had such a great time on what turned out to be his last days here with us. It seems like a cliche but it is SO true – you never know what days will be the last….
    He was a sweet sweet man and I feel SO lucky to have been his partner for 26 years. Our motto–“Never postpone a vacation”!!!!! And how true! Thanks so much for writing this. Karen – his wife.

  10. Laura, Thanks so much for this final glimpse of my awesome brother Gene. Your story gave me comfort. I loved the picture of him smiling. Wow!

  11. This is such a great story..thanks…keepin it all in perspective!


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