The View From Here

Thursday, December 17, 1998, Picacho, Arizona - It's four O'clock at the ranger station at the base of Picacho Peak. The ranger tells me it will take me between four and five hours to scale this rock, and that it will be dark in about two hours. I probably shouldn't climb after dark, he tells me; "because there's some loose footing up there," he says.

Noting that he didn't actually say I couldn't climb after dark, I decide to take my flashlight with me. This may be foolhardy; climbing a mountain alone, after dark, with a hurt foot no less, but this is no ordinary mountain. Picacho Peak has been on my hit list for six years, since my first attempted ascent in 1992 and I'm not about to let her slip by me again.

We're not talking Everest, here. Heck, this peak gets mounted by more tourists each year than Fuji. It's practically a walk in the park - a steep walk. My first attempt at climbing her, I made it up to the saddle, the point on this rock that separates the mountaineers from the mouseketeers. Someone had removed the sign pointing to the west face and I tried to scale the east face, which is a sheer cliff wall - it was sheer madness. I hiked back down that day, my big ears flapping in the desert wind.

My second visit to Picacho was called off because my climbing partner backed out - she had a big exam the next day. Try number three was with a Scottish friend who I traveled with from L.A. to Orlando. She was in excellent shape - played tennis every day - but before we cleared the base, the heat got to her and she nearly passed out. I almost had to carry her back down.

So, it has been a dream of mine for several years to catch the view from the top of this rock, and this True America trip is pretty much all about chasing dreams - as foolish as they may be - and I have to get an early start tomorrow, so this is it. She will be mine tonight.

"I have a pretty good reason for climbing mountains, and believe me, it isn't to hang around at the top."
I pack a little canvas bag with gear; a raincoat, leather gloves, a flashlight, extra batteries, a half-liter of Diet Pepsi and a small bag of pretzels. Sir Edmund Hillary would scornfully donate these to the sherpas before an ascent, along with my sneakers and jean jacket, but then - I repeat - this rock is no Everest.

I start up the trail, as I have done twice before, and I take an account of my liabilities. I hurt my left foot a few weeks ago, but it isn't bothering me too much. The last time my knees really blew out on me was during my last 150 mile bike ride, oh, years ago. I think I have a pretty good chance here.

At the top of the base I meet a young couple on their way down. "How was it on top?" I ask. "OK," he says. "We didn't stay long - it started raining." I commend myself for bringing a raincoat. A few minutes later, I meet another young couple, Frank and Olga - they are on their way up. Olga looks weary. Frank didn't bring a raincoat, but he did bring an umbrella, the type you see on patio furniture, and some things in a plastic shopping bag. "Wish I'd brought a backpack," he says. I wish he'd brought the patio table. "I'll go on ahead," I say. "so you can pass my body on the way up." Ha.

By 4:25 p.m. I'm at the bottom of the front face, heading for the saddle. I yell for Frank and Olga, to encourage them, but I get no answer - I think I see them heading back to their car. A good hike around a bowl and I am on the saddle. This is where I got lost six years ago, and where I have found myself today. Everything from here on up is pure success, new and different. Happy time.

A trail marker points to the back (west) face and I start back with a sense of glee - a little spring in my step - but there's trouble. Looks like I have to go back down at least 300 feet before I start going up again. And this is no easy descent. They have steel cables drilled into the rock for handholds. The agony of it is that I know every step I take down, I'll have to take another step up again. Then I'll have to do it all over on the way down, or up, or... whatever.

With the steel cables and rods and the huge rocks looming overhead, I feel like a worker on Mount Rushmore. I keep thinking of the thousands of people who have done this before me as I scale the crazy rocks and loose gravel below my feet.

One reason why I love this mountain (or peak - it's not really a mountain, I guess) is the view. I remember climbing mountains in Maine, where all you see is the bark on trees all around you. Once in a while, you'll hit a precipice where you may snag a partial view. Picacho Peak offers an incredible view the entire way up and down, with only a few cacti and Paloverde trees in the way.

The sun is setting on this side of the rock and it is beautiful, with a spansive vista below - it is like watching a sunset from a low-flying airplane. I figure I have about an hour of light left. I hadn't really decided to climb in the dark, but it looks like I may have to. The ranger gave me five hours for this trip, but that's probably a long-shot - for elderly with children or something - and I figured I could do this in half that time, maybe, and it looks like it will be dark before then.

I finally start climbing up again. Then, I have to work my way around a bowl and take some treacherous steps up the side of a rock wall. This is all with the help of cables and bars and even steel ramps secured to the rock, but it is still a hefty climb. This stuff looks so old, like World War II vintage, and I feel like I'm attacking Sicily or something.

After the climb up Etna, I lose the trail and wander to the right, along the back face. This takes about ten minutes before I decide that I am real lost. This mountain (there I go again) is filled with false trails that people - lost, like me - have made. In fact, most of the trail markers are here to keep you off of these false trails and off paths made by washes from heavy rains. I realize I am lost because my right view takes a sheer dive about 200 feet and my left view is solid rock wall.

This is the first time I consider the option of panic. Partly because I am just a stiff breeze from tumbling to a mangled death and partly because I am freaking lost and I may not make it to the top by sunset. I resolve that, if I do not make it this time, there will be no more Picacho - I've had it with her. I am determined to get up there today, but I realize that this mountain - excuse me, but take a look down from here and tell me this is no freaking mountain - could kill me. Why the heck do they call it "Picacho Peak" anyway? "Picacho" is Spanish for "peak" - this is crazy. I don't argue this point right now, I just very carefully turn around and backtrack for a while.

I find the trail - it goes up along the front face, and is just a gradual climb, like having a par three on eighteen. I practically break into a sprint, and at 5:06 p.m. I am at the top - not just at the top of this stupid mountain, but on top of the world!

I have a gorgeous view all around me. The countryside is just incredibly brilliant in its simple, flat landscape - I can see for miles and miles, and it seems so quiet. There are large plots of farmland all around, an RV park, a highway, a train passing by, and several mountains which seem to sprout up from the horizontal plane, like someone just placed them there. And the weather is putting on a beautiful show for me, with a major storm to the northeast. I sit down and have some dinner.

My body is coated with sweat and the wind, pretty perky up here, is chilling me. A white-throated swift flutters by and lands on a rock next to me. "Hello there! Thanks for visiting. Think you're pretty special, huh? You just flew up here in a few seconds, and it took me over an hour. May I have your wings? Could I try them on for just a minute, please? Hey, don't leave! Well, thanks for visiting..."

I don't stay long either. I have a pretty good reason for climbing mountains, and believe me, it isn't to hang around at the top. By 5:17 p.m. I am heading down. Now for the hard part. I put my gloves on and stuff my canvas bag into my jacket.

I expect to lose all sunlight when I pass over the saddle and get on the east side, but this doesn't bother me. Just so long as I can get past the WWII obstacle course and around the bowl. Going down is always tougher than going up - you can't choose your footing so well, and, since we're not built like monkeys, you can't support and protect your backside. I stuff my raincoat into the seat of my pants to cushion my coccyx should I slip. My left foot is doing very well, thank you, but I notice it is now taking a pounding, as I am jamming it down more often.

The sun is nearly gone and I start to use my flashlight, and somewhere between the bowl and the ascent back up to the saddle I get a little lost. Not much, but enough to realize that without my flashlight, I will be spending the night up here with whatever animals and reptiles would like to join me. I decide to somehow lash the flashlight to me, so I won't sacrifice it to the Gravity Gods, and I take an inventory of everything I have (like you would do on day one in the lifeboat.) I have a piece of string tied to my key ring and clipped to my belt loop. It is the same string they use to sew NFL football together, so it is strong. I take that off, tie it around the flashlight and clip it to the third buttonhole of my jacket. Now I won't lose the torch off the side of a cliff, but if I can only avoid smashing it on one of these rocks.

Stress aside, I am really enjoying this nighttime trek. What a great departure! It is so relaxing up here; very quiet, with twinkling lights all around. I recall the night a friend and I paddled a canoe from our town to Portland harbor. I watched the phosphorescence around the paddles, I watched the silhouettes of islands, trees and boats lurk past, I felt the creepy vulnerability when you do anything at night. It was a beautiful, incredible ride.

I know I will make it back down. Yes, there are many things that could go wrong while climbing along these rugged rocks; I could twist an ankle, break a bone or even fall off the stupid edge. But I just don't see any of that happening. Call it ignorance, because it is. Until something bad actually happens to you or someone close to you, it's hard to give yourself a mindset that it can happen to you, and in all my years of playing on rocks and in the forests of Maine, I have yet to get in trouble. Oh, right. There was that time Elizabeth and I were mountain biking near Sugarloaf Mountain, and... well, we made it out alive, didn't we?

I climb up the back-side gangway to the saddle and am ready to begin my descent down the front face. The trek down this hill can be perilous, but it can also be completely safe - it's all up to me. I have many things on my side; it isn't raining, cold or windy, and I am in no hurry. All the really freaky climbing is behind me now, and the only way I can get in trouble is if I screw up. If I just take my time, carefully choose every step and don't get lost, I can do this. If I don't panic, this hill is mine. One step after another, one careful step...

You know, I had completely forgotten about snakes. I sure wish I'd brought my snake bite kit. A lot of darned good it's doing in my trailer. At least I brought my gloves; they're a great help on this steel cable, and especially on the thorny Yellow Paloverde trees, which I try to avoid, but I use to avoid a rapid descent. Spread before me is the town of Picacho, with the Interstate going in and out of it, and there are twinkling lights everywhere - man, the view is beautiful from here. There's no sign of Frank and Olga.

I start to worry about my batteries. I have a fresh set in my pocket, but this confounded thing takes four of them, and they must be installed in some crazy, zig-zag, special code, sort of way. If my light does go out, I'll have to sit down, take a deep breath and do the whole procedure by feel, being careful to study the way the old ones come out and then putting the fresh ones in the same way - one chance is all I get. If I screw up the secret code that the morons who built this thing devised, or if I mix up an old cell with a new one, I'll be in deep cactus. Just the thought of snakes keeps me in fear of sitting in one place for too long, and I pick up the pace - a dumb move.

So now I'm lost. Damn. No, I can't be lost - just go downhill. What could be easier? As long as I lose altitude, I am sure to pick up the trail again. I take one long step on the incline and land in some loose gravel, kicking up a few stones. It isn't the silence I hear shortly after my step that bothers me, but the sound of pebbles bouncing off rocks seconds later. During that silence, my debris must have fallen fifty feet. I shine my light just ahead of me and it disappears, sucked up by blackness - I have no idea how deep the chasm is before me.

This is the second time I entertain the concept of panic. I turn and climb up to a level area. "OK, down isn't always good," I say. I collect my thoughts and try to recall the trip up. "Hug the wall." I actually say it aloud; "Hug the wall, Mark." Sure, I need to just go around this man-eating pit. I turn my back to the lights and creep toward the face. After about thirty yards, I find what looks like the trail and then - a beautiful sight - I see a trail marker. These things are great, not only for showing you which way to go, but for letting you know that you're back on trail.

The rest of the hike down is simple, with plenty of trail markers and stair steps and cables to lead the way. I take my time, knowing that the times you screw up most are when you let your guard down. By 5:45 p.m. things are looking very familiar and I emerge from the trailhead to see my Harley. Man, I love that bike.

Sitting in my camper at the base of Picacho, I feel pretty darned good. Again, this was no Everest, but hey, in my book, maybe it is. We all have different levels of achievement and the only real measure of success is how you play against your handicap.

If you don't take a chance, if you don't take a dream and give it your absolute best shot, you'll spend your life running in the rear of the pack, and we all know how the view from there never changes. When you achieve something that is important to you, no matter how insignificant it may be to other people, it is a little piece of success for you, and from here, the view is incredible.

THE MORNING AFTER my ascent on Picacho Peak, I talk with Park Ranger Scott Simms about my fears, accomplishments and mistakes of the night before.

About Nighttime Ascents: "We don't encourage it, but we can't tell people not to."

About Dead Climbers: "We've had only one in thirty years - a guy fell off the mountain because he didn't know what he was doing. Every year I'll have to do a few rescues - sometimes with a helicopter."

About the Climbing Aids: "Most of the cables, stairs and bridges on the west side were put there in the 1930's by the Civilian Aviation Administration - they had a light up there."

About the Flora: "This is the lushest desert in the world. Come here between January and March, when the wildflowers are blooming."

About the climb: "There's a 1,400 foot difference between the peak and right here, but you do climb down and up, so you are climbing over 2,000 feet."

About Snakes: "No problem this time of year - it's too cold."


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