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On Top by Sun-Up

I was as snug as a slug in a mug in my 12,000-foot loft with a view — a five-star mountain for one. A screen of ebony stretched above me, a star-sprinkled ceiling with a clarity only the high country can give.

Alone on the slope, en route to the summit of Mt. Whitney, I'd flopped to the ground when I found acceptable lodging (meaning a spot with no rocks).

Suddenly, night-training F-14 Tomcat jets screamed from one end of the cosmos to the other. They slipped and veered off as though little boys were playing with models. As powerful as the draw was to watch the display, I couldn't keep my eyes open. I lost the fight to stay sleepless in the Sierras.

I was on day 10 of a trek through the High Sierras, having covered 20 miles since dawn. Wrung weary from sweating up slopes, I'd stumbled over a maze of jagged rubble, stopped for the night, and stuffed cracker crumbs and jerky into my mouth. Before retiring I looked down to see the horizon brushed with strokes of rose and peach, casting a shimmery glow on Guitar Lake. I'd passed the lake earlier and had hoped to camp there, but a cacophony of campside revelries kept me climbing to a place of solace.

A few hours later, as I drifted in and out of sleep, I heard the crunch of footfalls coming my way. "What kind of a nut would climb a mountain at night?" I thought. Whoever it was, they were coming fast. I called to the peregrinator, "Hel...lo."

"Whatcha doin in the trail?" a woman's voice answered. " Get up and hike with me. We'll be on top by sun-up."

I raised on my elbow and mumbled, "Sounds good to me... just wait while I grab my gear."

I donned my garb, laced my shoes, and stuffed my blanket in my pack, while the woman (who'd introduced herself as Deborah) perched on a rock, panting like a racehorse. Her frame was lean, her posture erect. But I saw only shadow for face as she told me of sampling wild onions and yipping with coyotes. I told her of playing peekaboo with a pika and of watching a thick-chested buck browse on the prickly mountain grasses.

"Where'd you start?" I asked. Deborah didn't seem like one of the noisy Guitar Lake crowd.

"Onion Valley... at noon."

I heard the crackle of an energy bar as she unwrapped it and twisted off a chunk with her teeth.

I bit my lower lip and cogitated. Wasn't Onion Valley... like... on another planet? "Are you... a young sort of person?" I asked. Always one to create my own adventure, I guessed I might be in for it this time.

"Oh no," she laughed, "I'm 44."

"Well, I'm 53," I said, as if to give excuse to my dalliance.

"Don't worry, we'll take it slow," she said. "Rest when you want. I usually stop every 200 vertical feet." She tapped her altimeter. "This is my eighth trip up."

Deborah snapped on her disco green LED flashlight and took the lead, assuring me she'd announce every drop-off. Deborah slipped up the incline like a gazelle. I puffed along like the Pillsbury Doughboy, layered like a baklava.

But I kept up.

While climbing, I learned Deborah was an ultra-marathoner, having just finished a 50-mile race. This day she was on a 50-mile excursion (with Whitney thrown in for good measure) and in training for a 100-miler in Colorado. In that race, two weeks hence, she'd struggle up 15,000 feet of elevation and finish in less than 23 hours. Now, I've run marathons and hiked hundreds of miles. But I never bit off her kind of ordeal.

Yep, I was in for it.

We turned up a switchback and were treated to a spectacular moonlit route. Deborah killed her light and we trekked on with perfect visibility. The moon splashed light on our stony tread and uncovered a view of gossamer haze hanging above the basin below. As we climbed higher, stars encircled us like a curtain. Though I struggled to keep up, I was thankful I wasn't back at the lake among the comatose, cocooned in goose down.

Deborah interrupted my thoughts, "I love it when I do it this way. I'm halfway down the mountain and meet those early birds just getting started. Love to see their expressions. "Here..." she said, pointing to a boulder. "A perfect spot. Care for a strawberry candy? It helps with the nausea. Everyone barfs up here, you know."

I accepted the candy. Deborah turned on her flashlight and pointed the beam down a crevasse so deep it looked as if the earth had split open to make a humongous knife holder. "They call this The Needle," she said. "There's another up higher. Don't get close to the edge."

I stood, took a careful step and planted my feet firmly to look over the brink. There, scattered in cracks of the barren crevasse were clumps of lush blue blooms. Deborah told me they were sky pilots — the true High Sierra flower, growing only above 10,000 feet.

We crunched over a patch of late summer snow, labored across more boulders, and stood atop the 14,494-foot peak. We bent into the wind, inched our way to the shelter, and creaked open the door. It shut behind us, turning the hut coffin-dark. I felt my way to the bench and sprawled upon it.

Deborah sank to the floor urging, "You got to eat before you sleep."

Though our fluttery stomachs protested, we rummaged through our packs and ingested needed carbohydrates before succumbing to a sleep only exhaustion can bring.

An hour later, Deborah braved the cold to check the sky and reported back, "Think I'll head down. No view this morning... the smoke from the Owens Valley fire has obscured everything. You gonna be OK?"

I assured her I would, and she pulled the door shut, leaving me isolated in the cold cubicle.

Often when I'm cozied up at home reliving escapades, I remember my moonlit trek up Mt. Whitney. I picture my bed on a ledge with a view. I recall the blue sky pilots now laying dormant under a carpet of snow... and I think of Deborah, the faceless wonder whose infectious energy urged me on. I picture her pushing herself over miles of mountain passes, while an old woman struggles behind. And I hear her pant, "Come on, Tresa... we'll be on top by sun-up."

Tresa Finchum lives in Gold Hill.

On Top by Sun-Up