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Photo credit: Jeff Achey

They looked down upon us with horror. Peering over the edge the Asian hikers with fancy cameras and funny hats recoiled back, out of sight. I feel terrific, on top of the world in more than a metaphorical way. I’m leading the final rock climbing pitch to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the loftiest peak in the lower 48. And the frightened folks above us do not understand; they’ve just hiked up the 11 miles of tortured steep hairpin-turns from Whitney Portal. I’m scaling the final few moves on 2000 feet of sheer vertical rock described by someone saying, “…you could free-fall parachute from the east face summit.”

The elevation on top, 14,495 feet surpasses my previous highest point ever by almost a vertical mile. Camp the previous night at 12,500’ was higher than I’d ever been before. Lack of oxygen at that height and pure rushing excitement caused a complete lack of sleep. But here I am, sleepless near the summit, and life could not be finer.
I received a phone call less than a week ago inviting me on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. My roommate Pat, a professional mountain climbing guide offers his doubtful advice, “Maybe you should try something less ambitious,” until I informed him from whom the invite came: Jeff Achey, the editor of the national magazine Climbing. I’d met Jeff the previous year at a climbing competition in Arizona. My VW bus sports a vanity plate concerning climbing which Jeff photographed and used, a short piece in his magazine. What a fantasy come true; a casual meeting becomes the peak experience of my life!

I have never climbed at altitude. I know it will be very, very strenuous and dangerous. Rock climbing gear I’m OK with but this trip will require more than I have. Pat lends me high performance clothing and rock boots. An ice axe loaned from another climbing friend feels like a lethal weapon; I’ve never even held one let alone used one to save my own life. Pat tells me not to worry about it; he knows Jeff. There could be no one more qualified to teach and guide.

Jeff meets me at Whitney Portal, 13 miles west of Lone Pine; we become re-acquainted as we sort gear and pack. I learn why Pat has such confidence. Jeff has spent most of his life hiking, climbing, backpacking, guiding, all the wilderness skills to assure my safety.  Most people purchase this type of security in survival sports. I pay for my protection sweating blood. Ascending Lone Pine Creek, leaving the worn hiker’s trail behind, may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Little did I realize, the approach to the rock climbing involved such unbelievably steep and rugged terrain.

Mt. Whitney rises impossibly distant and far, far above.  Each step higher than the last but no step is solid. Often, I take one step up only to slide back, out-of-balance down a few inches. Or the rocks underfoot, each big as my head, tip threatening to break an ankle. I am SO thankful for the ski poles I’m using to remain upright with a 30lb. pack on my back. My experienced roommate Pat suggested them. He also recommended, oddly, a long skirt with nothing underneath, a trick he says he’s only heard about.  Tromping through the creek in very warm July weather, keeps my skirt wet, a kind of free-flowing air-conditioning tent. Lacking underthings, it’s now oh-so-easy to squat (ahem).

Compared to Jeff, I move slowly and without grace. He’s often far ahead, out of sight waiting. He talks into a tiny recording device, noting his thoughts and experiences. Once I came upon a particularly slippery creek crossing. Jeff waited on the other side but not to give me support. Somehow, he knew I would fall in, and he’d set up his camera, including tripod to capture the moment. I came up sputtering, laughing and how I treasure the resulting photo!

This precipitous backcountry lacks a real trail. We burrow into brush so thick and close, my shoulders bend near my knees as I scoot along in agony. My breath heaves with the effort as my backpack snares the branches above. Stream water beneath me rises over my boots. Dead end. We must back out. There’s no way to even turn around.

Hours later, I drag into camp utterly exhausted and absent any sense of humor having traversed the wildest, steepest terrain I’ve ever seen. We will bivouac for the night in an enormous rocky bowl, many, many times the size of a football stadium. Mt. Whitney rises on one side, majestic, scintillating crisp violet and neon-peach in the fading light. On the other side, an equally enormous waterfall fills an icy lake with a thunderous cascade. I’m awestruck by the beauty. We’ve not seen anyone since Whitney Portal. I drag myself to the little shelter; Jeff already has rainwater boiling for past and tea, scooped from depressions in the rock. During the long night, I gaze out of the tiny tent often at the spectacle of the stars. At 12,500 feet the clarity and numbers stun me beyond description. I curl up comfortably on a thin mat inside an oversized goose-down sleeping bag. I’m happy and very wide-awake.


Photo credit: Jeff Achey

Sunrise. The early morning sunlight on the mountains dazzles. The towering rocks seem lit and glowing from within and the landscape takes away my breath. John Muir’s famous ‘Range of Light’ spread before me. Jeff instructs, “We take only what we need to summit. Back here this evening.” He quickly brings me up to speed in using the ice axe. Between us and the spot we will rope-up lies a year-round snow and ice field. We’re able to move quickly despite very slippery patches and a steep snow bank right up to the rock. Now we shift sports: I swap hiking for rock boots, the ice axe slips into a loop on my backpack. As I tie into the climbing rope, I look straight up 2000 dizzying feet and feel giddy.

Jeff takes off leading and I’m treated to the ride of my life. The climbing is technically easy and with Jeff assuming all the risk by going first, all I must do is enjoy. Four hours later, as we near the top, Jeff offers me the opportunity to take the lead. I see tiny silhouettes up there and occasionally hear voices in the wind.

The climbing remains easy and Jeff poses me this time for the photo-op of a lifetime, heck, 3 or 4 lifetimes! I’m ecstatic. I do believe I’m levitating the last few feet! I pull up and onto horizontal for the first time in hours. The astonished hikers fall back as though I were The Alien emerging from movie-flesh. I smile expansively, looking around 360 degrees, 100 miles in every direction, easily the most unrivaled view I’ve ever seen.

Light lunch on top, the obligatory summit photos and brief exploring, then Jeff searches out the decent. Whitney’s northeast corner shields a couloirs or snow gully. We pick our way carefully across the ice to what is known as the Mountaineer’s Route, a glassy smooth chute. I think I’ve had a splendid ride already. Now I get to glissade or slide on my butt all the way back down. Special pants and judicious use of the ice axe make for a joyous slide I wish would never end. Tears of elation are blowing into my ears.

The trip back across the high-altitude bowl to camp seems much longer than this morning’s trek. I persist against a delirium of pain and loss of light. Finally, I collapse thankfully into the small shelter. On this night at altitude, exhaustion wins and I sleep like the stones around me. I awaken to the sound of Jeff’s camera shutter; methodically mechanical CAH-lick….CAH-lick. I look out the tent and to my amazement, the sunrise is even more exquisite than yesterday. Jeff is capturing stunning unparalleled radiance. The rocks do not merely glow. They sing with superlative light. Overcome with the moment, I begin to weep silently. I’m thinking, “One day I will own these magnificent pictures.” And, indeed, I do.

Not content with the adventure thus far, Jeff coaxes me into skinny-dipping in the nearby lake. Floating just off the rocky shore, small icebergs convince me I’m in for an icy shock. This certainly redefines the word ‘exhilaration.’ A momentary splash, enough to remove trail dust and then the warm summer sun bathes me, stretched out on a flat rock.

Jeff is “on assignment”: journalism-speak for this trip into the Sierras, inspired, he writes, by images and quotes from long ago in a 1972 equipment catalogue. His quest seems equal parts empirical and introspection. The resulting article, published the Climbing edition #160, speaks to ‘feelings of accomplishment alternating with a sense of loss’. He’d pushed me beyond my limits; I appreciate accomplishment on a grand, never-before-imagined scale. Jeff records in his notes and shares with me months later: “She has never climbed in the mountains and is slow but never stops, though we hike and climb all day. She reaches camp at dusk two days in a row, exhausted, moving methodically, prepared to go until it’s over. She is fearless, and learns quickly to use an ice axe.”

I lose myself in the long trek back down to Whitney Portal. Later I don’t recall most of those hours lost in the glory of reminiscing. Our parallel and briefly co-incident paths are about to part. I’m quite ready for something more homespun and familiar. His article includes my parting words: “Tonight I get to sleep in my waterbed with my kitty cats.”

Jeff goes on to question the very human search for comfort and loss is a sense of the past. He spends the next several days in the mountains, pushing himself, summitting, free-solo-ing. I arrive home, return the items borrowed to my climber-type friends while babbling incessantly about the trip of a lifetime. That memory infuses the next several years, fills my head with a tenuous reverie of the possible. In a lyrical epiphany Jeff quotes from the Rolling Stones, “Lose your dreams and you’ll lose your mind”.

Thanks, Jeff. My mind remains sound and my dreams intact.


MBA1996In discussions with the Emergency Department (ED) nurse Colleen after the miracle, I witnessed a pivotal moment. She had not yet experienced that elevated point of instruction, which Protestants call ‘Born Again’; but she would. That was in her future. Instead, this most sublime Christmas gift enticed from the privileged few of us working that Christmas, wonder and a mystic curiosity….

It is Christmas and I’m working: 2 unremarkable statements until you string them together like that. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1996 and I’m pulling shifts at Morongo Basin Ambulance instead of at home with my family. I’m very pensive regarding this noteworthy piece of scheduling. In my 46 years, I’d been at home with Mom and Dad for 45 consecutive Christmases! This was going to be the 1st deviation in a life-long unbroken cavalcade of warm-n-fuzzy family celebrations. All the sisters and grandchildren, maiden aunts (including me) are ALWAYS there! And we’re good at this family stuff! Often beginning at dawn (following late night services) we’ll open gifts non-stop until noon or later, pausing to receive visitors and enjoy home-baked goodies. We have traditions dating back almost half a century. So what am I doing at work? Who calls 911 on Christmas?

And… who responds?

Emergency medicine requires 24-hour/day coverage irrespective of holidays. Many of my co-workers with young families really needed this time off. My personal family traditions didn’t carry so much weight in comparison. That explains the ‘why’ of working my very first Christmas. I had no concept of the lesson to be learned from the ‘who.’ That is, I had no conception, yet.

We received a call late 12/25 to the apartment of a 100-year-old female in an independent living facility. We would learn her name was Lily. The dispatcher informed us she had been the victim of a fall.  Numbers of centenarians are surely increasing but never had I attended a patient of that age living independently. Lily’s apartment was tidy, decorated sparsely for Christmas, tiny and endearing. She, too, was tiny and endearing though in obvious alarming distress. She attempted to maintain her composure, smiling and trying to be helpful through her wincing and guarding.

My partner and I performed a primary assessment; it looked like dozens, perhaps hundreds of similar calls I’d seen and heard phoned in as senior fall victims. She sustained shortening and rotation of the leg and foot on the affected side, increased pain with palpation to the hip; the classic fractured hip. Dan and I gingerly moved her to the gurney for transport to the ED.

For an emergency responder, trained to do no harm, the reversal in status of a patient rings responder bells. To watch this dear one slide from sweet sufferer to ashen shadow, withering but not complaining, brought an answer of sorts to my Christmas self-inquiry. The ‘who-calls-911-on-Christmas’ took graphic form inside me. I began to suffer with her, dangerous for those of us in the business. I’ve heard how excruciating femur fractures can be, intense beyond description. Where Lily had been smiling half-heartedly, conversing between small gasps, now she lapsed, Deteriorated. Caved-in, barely able to whisper.

Oxygen was not reviving her and the hospital was too close to obtain morphine orders. The bumpy ride from the back of the ambulance into the ED further challenged Lily’s strength. She sank, grey and wilted into the bright white of the hospital setting. We moved her as carefully as possible to the hospital bed, hooked her up to the cardiac monitor and pulled the privacy curtain. Little Lily was safe for the moment if exhausted by protracted pain.

Meantime, a look around the ED confirmed we were far from alone. Many unfortunates answered further my Christmas queries. Nurses and EMTs hurried to help. Too many patients. Too many unfortunates. Lily may have a regrettable rest before further assessment and much needed help. I glanced back behind the curtain one last moment before beginning my paper work and chores that would lead me back down the dark streets toward the station. Lily sat propped up against pillows, eyes closed, breathing unevenly, sunken somehow smaller than real life.

I completed my restock and paperwork in no hurry. Dan and I prepared to push the gurney back out to the ambulance when I noticed Colleen peer back around the curtain separating Miss Lily from the rest of the ED. She looked both puzzled and amazed. I know her to be a competent, experienced ED nurse, unlikely to be taken unaware by any bizarre emergency room action. But something had derailed her. I approached as she drew back the curtain to reveal a beaming Miss Lily, perky on her pillows, sitting up straight and magically larger-than-life.

Shock did not have time to register. I felt the way Colleen looked and drew in closer to learn more.

“Lily, dear, you look much better,” I offered in the form of a question.

Little old lady apples-and-peaches round cheeks bobbed below penetrating blue-grey eyes. “Yes, yes,” she responded cheerily, “The medicine worked wonders, just wonders! I’m feeling much better.”

“Which medicine was that?” I look at Colleen but direct my inquiry to Lily. There hadn’t been anyone to administer any medications.

“Why, the little pill the nurse gave me, the nice nurse with the white cap,” Lily beamed, smoothing the bedclothes across her lap. I pictured the crisp, starched-white pointy hats worn by nurses’ years ago. My own RN sister hated wearing hers for even the graduation photo.

I lifted Lily’s hand gently and with the kindest of eye contact wished her a Merry Christmas. As we departed the peaceful bedside, I turned to Colleen, my expression mirroring hers: incredulous, baffled, stunned. We’d just witnessed a miracle.

“Do you believe in angels?” she asked, in an almost conspiratorial murmur.

There simply existed no rationale to account for this experience. No nurses had been available prior to Colleen, let alone a nurse from an old movie in a white hat. Pain medication in a case such as Lily’s would have been administered intravenously, not orally, and in any event, Lily already had an IV line established courtesy of transport protocol and my partner Dan.

Yes, I do believe in angels. Angels guarding my family as they traveled the Western states to celebrate together without me. Angels whispering in my ear to relieve my co-workers of their Christmas shifts. Angels preparing the path for Colleen’s eventual salvation. Angels intervening in remarkable and unremarkable ways everywhere, all the time.

Dr. Karen Tracy is a retired dentist living in Joshua Tree with her kitty Bela. She has lived in the Morongo Basin since 1984, weekending here since 1977. She worked from 1991 to 1998 as an EMT with Morongo Basin Ambulance where she learned much and acquired material for many stories.

Dr. Karen Tracy