The day I chose life
On confronting thunderstorms and mortality in the High Sierra
Above me it sounded like someone threw a fistful of marbles at plate glass. The lightning skittered across the valley, and deafening thunder followed immediately. I was at about 12,500' in the High Sierra and literally in the storm. It rolled in so fast that the clouds surrounded me before I realized what was happening. It was 12:20 p.m., and my morning walk around Nine Lakes Basin was now a survival situation.
I enjoy solo backpacking, and I highly recommend it to anyone with some thinking to do. This past September, I spent a week on my own in Sequoia National Park. It was the longest solo trip I’d taken in over ten years. The last long one was three weeks, and it had broken me down and built me back up better — and happier — than before. I returned from that trip glowing. Gratitude and love dripped off of me. While planning this most recent trip, I was hoping hard for the same.
My first day was 22 miles, hiking from Crescent Meadow over Kaweah Gap to Nine Lakes Basin. (I like high-mileage days.) My map said it would be 18.7 miles. My GPS and the signs on the trail ended up disagreeing with the map many times over the course of the week, which kept things interesting during my trail days.
I drove down from Reno late Saturday and slept in my car near the ranger station where I picked up my wilderness permit the next morning. A ranger told me that they were expecting thunderstorms to roll in Monday afternoon and last all day Tuesday. My plan was to push it to Nine Lakes Basin the first day and spend two “rest” days there. My first rest day would be a leisurely day exploring the basin, and I was hoping to climb Black Kaweah, called “the most formidable peak in the Sierra,” on Tuesday.
Like many peaks in the Sierra, Black Kaweah has a history. In the first-ascent party, an Eagle Scout left before everyone else, eager to claim the summit for himself and be the first human atop the craggy peak. The rest of the party never caught up with him. His body was found the next day, and Eagle Scout Peak, which looks across Nine Lakes Basin at Black Kaweah, was named in his honor. The original 1920s summit log for Black Kaweah stayed up there collecting the signatures of famous mountaineers until around 2012, when it seems someone pilfered it.
Mountaineering is broken down into five classes. First class is your typical trail; fifth class is technical roped climbing. The easiest route up Black Kaweah is rated class three, which means you have to use your hands to scramble up. The remoteness of the peak and difficulty of the ascent keep most folks away. Add to those the facts that the craggy Black Kaweah is part of an older range within the Sierra Nevada made up of dark volcanic rock and the mountain creates a local magnetic disturbance that throws off compasses by up to eight degrees, and you start to get an idea of why it’s called “the most formidable.”
I am a climber. I have over a decade of experience climbing on all kinds of rock. There was something about Black Kaweah. The guidebooks mentioned loose rock. I’ll be honest when I say that I thought attempting to summit Black Kaweah could be a fatal endeavor, even without the thunderstorms. I started this solo trip thinking that I might not make it back and was left unfazed by the idea. It would be a death that my loved ones could explain away easily. “He died doing something he loved,” and all that. I’ve climbed many things taller and more difficult than Black Kaweah, and I had no reason to expect that I’d fail, that I’d fall, but that didn’t stop me from imagining it.
Maybe it was just self doubt. Maybe it was just anxiety. The point is moot because I did not end up attempting Black Kaweah. When I heard about the worst day of thunderstorms falling on the day I had planned for the summit bid, I told myself that I’d wait to feel out the weather. I was once rained off of the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral in Yosemite Valley. The sky unzipped when we were 600' up, still 500' from the top. The route turned into a waterfall. I had ropes, gear, and a partner that time, and it was still a harrowing experience. Without those things, Black Kaweah, while much less technically difficult, could get a lot more serious, but again, my plans changed.
When I woke up Monday morning, I had the place to myself. There wasn’t another soul in Nine Lakes Basin. I took my time getting ready, sipping my coffee, packing a little backpack for my walk. I’ve spent a good amount of time at altitude. I know about the hazards that can crop up from nowhere, so in my pack I had extra layers, a rain shell, a headlamp in case I was unexpectedly benighted somewhere, some extra food, and enough water to keep me well hydrated for the duration.
From my camp at the back end of the first lake, I followed rushing water and wildflowers up to the second lake, which was only little higher than the first and about 300 yards away. The lakes don’t go in a line, so there’s no straightforward way to work them all into a stroll. I chose to head for the highest and furthest back and began making my way up the hill toward it.
The Kaweahs (apart from Black Kaweah, there’s also Red Kaweah, Gray Kaweah, Big/Mount Kaweah, and Queen Kaweah) are gorgeous. They feel ancient. Against the granite, the dark reds and blacks of the rock really stand out.
As I climbed, it got colder and then started to sprinkle. This is an important detail. Typically, the trick for finding out if you’re in danger of being struck by lightning when you’re out in the mountains is watching the hair on your arms or your buddy’s hair. The electricity in the air will make it stand on end. I was wearing my rain shell, hood up, oblivious to the voltage difference growing in the air around me.
When the voltage gets high enough, it breaks down the dielectric constant and leaps through the air. This is lightning. I was at about 12,500' — in the clouds, a few miles from my tent, and well above treeline — when it started. The sound is hard to describe. Before I heard it, I was enjoying myself. One of my favorite mountaineering quotes, “There’s no such thing as inclement weather, only inappropriate clothing,” was running around my head as the water soaked the landscape. I felt a thrill from being in the storm, but it was the thrill of witnessing something amazing in a safe way. I could see where the highest of the nine lakes should be, and I was making good progress in spite of the storm and figured it would pass. That’s when I heard the most terrifying sound I’ve ever experienced: the sound of those electrons jumping the gap.
A switch flipped in me. I went from enjoying the tempestuous landscape to “I need to get down NOW.” It was dramatic. Sometimes the line between a survival situation and just a sticky one can be blurry, and you only see the moment things shifted in retrospect. This was not one of those times.
Feeling a bit safer after a bit of running away from the storm, I thought I’d record the experience.
At about the 45-second mark, I said something that I didn’t catch until later: “I don’t think I’m going to do Black Kaweah tomorrow — because I don’t want to die.” The first part is just there for context. The weather was supposed to be worse the following day, and the prospect of repeating the whole thunderstorm fiasco in a decidedly more vertically oriented place a thousand feet higher than I already was, well, it wasn’t particularly appealing. The second part, “ Because I don’t want to die,” that’s the money line.
Neuroscience research shows depression and anxiety being rooted deep in the brain, in the limbic system. Beneath that is an ancient brain, something commonly referred to as the “lizard brain” that evolved before the more mammalian and human parts of our brain. As Carl Sagan put it:
“Deep inside the skull of every one of us there is something like a brain of a crocodile. Surrounding [this] is the limbic system or mammalian brain, which evolved tens of millions of years ago in ancestors who were mammal but not yet primates. It is a major source of our moods and emotions, of our concern and care for the young. And finally, on the outside, living in uneasy truce with the more primitive brains beneath, is the cerebral cortex; civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.”
It felt, to me, that the aforementioned switch was flipped deep in my lizard brain. That part of me heard the thunderstorm, a collection of sounds older than life itself, and it sent a signal: “Get. Down. Now.”
Strange as it sounds, the admission that I didn’t want to die really struck me. For a good portion of my life, I’ve been sort of passively trying to kill myself, daring fate to do its thing and take me out. I’ve climbed for many years without a helmet. I’ve ridden my bicycle without a helmet, too, and crashed many times, occasionally ending up with a concussion that could have been prevented. I’ve annihilated myself with booze, flirting with alcohol poisoning and incapacitating myself until I was a danger to everyone, not least of all me. And then there are the times that I’ve genuinely, actively wanted to die. Now here I was, on video, saying unequivocally that I did not want to die. Talk about a turning point.
I started Wellbutrin about two months before this trip. My depression and anxiety got the better of me this summer, and I needed help. As someone who’s called antidepressants “lobotomy pills” in the past, I can’t say enough about how wrong I was and how much bupropion (the generic name for Wellbutrin) has helped me. I’m pairing it with talk therapy now, too, and things are really improving for me. At the time of the trip, it was definitely clear that the pills were working. Despair was knocking at my door less and less often. I didn’t realize how deeply I’d been affected, though. Instead of meeting the thunderstorm with an indifferent, “Fuck it. Maybe getting struck by lightning is my ticket out of here,” my will to live kicked in with full force and ushered me down the mountainside as quickly as my feet could carry me.
The feeling stayed with me through the rest of the day. It felt like I was a concerned loved one tenderly taking care of myself, while also being a lightning-addled me. One my way down, safe but still a ways from the tent, I started to hear jazzy elevator music. It was so out of context that it took a few beats to place it. It was the daily alarm I set for myself to remember to take my afternoon pill. I pulled out my phone and read the label for the alarm: “Pill up, broh.” The juxtaposition of strung-out-on-adrenaline me and this snappy tune encouraging me to take an antidepressant had me laughing for a good fifteen minutes. It seemed almost dystopian, like I was popping a soma to deal with this brave new world that has such weather in it. Later on, another storm rolled through, bringing hail, high winds, and some humility.
Tuesday’s weather ended up being perfect for a summit of Black Kaweah — not the stormy day of reckoning it had been made out to be — but I stayed near enough to the tent that I could beat feet back there when the storms that were due showed up. They never arrived, but I didn’t once regret my decision to stay put, something I would have berated and insulted myself for in the past (wimped out, too much of a scared little sissy, lazy, not trying because I secretly knew I wouldn’t be able to climb it, weak — I had lots of options in the self-hatred department).
The following day, Black Kaweah was visible and taunting me for hours. I’d see it peeking through the trees every ten minutes or so, looking more and more glorious as I climbed up the other side of the valley. All I could think looking at it was, “I’ll be back for you,” which was nice. Knowing I had not only a future but a goal I was looking forward to kept me smiling as the miles slipped by underfoot. The next time I’m staring into the abyss and ending it seems like the only way out of the despair, I can look back and know that, when it came down to it, I emphatically did not want to die. That’s solid evidence of wellness, even if it’s just a start.