Adventure Fiction Contemporary

         Trudging through the verdant scenery up to Lone Pine Lake but seeing only the small oval of her headlamp light was frustrating sine Maia knew they would be too exhausted to appreciate it on the way back down in the afternoon. She couldn’t believe that despite logging on only 45 minutes after the permits became available, despite remembering to do this even tipsy and euphoric from her thesis defense celebration, they had not been rewarded with an overnight camping permit and instead were stuck trying to summit Mt. Whitney in a single day. 

              As she stewed over the permits, Russ was taking huge bounding steps and alternately whistling and saying “hello bear” in a sing-sing voice to avoid startling any nearby bears. Maia resented this too, she had enough to worry about without being reminded of the possibility of startling a large predator in the dark. She was used to hiking in the Pacific Northwest, where there was more than enough space for bears to roam miles away from people. Before hiking around Mt. Hood alone the previous summer she had gone down an internet rabbit hole of scanning hike reports for mentions of bears and found only one reference to “what looked like a large brown rump crashing into the bushes a hundred yards ahead.” In contrast, the ranger station where they had picked up their permits the day before had photos of bears all over the parking lot, campground, portal, and even sitting in the driver’s seat of a truck at the trailhead. 

              “Can you please be quiet?” she finally snapped, immediately feeling guilty for putting a damper on Russ’s enthusiasm. His relentless optimism was usually an endearing quality and would certainly be needed later in the day. 

              “Sounds like you need a Snickers bar for second breakfast,” Russ chuckled, which was a fair point given that she had barely been able to choke down a dry granola bar before they started up the trail two hours ago.

              As the first hints of purple crept up on the horizon, they sat on a large rock to have a snack. Russ talked about how excited he was to get to the ninety-nine switchbacks while Maia tried to perk herself up with some coffee from a small thermos. She pulled out her phone to check the weather but of course didn’t have cell service. It was the last week of August and the forecast had been perfect, but she knew how quickly the weather could change at altitude. After sweeping the area with their headlamps to make they hadn’t dropped anything, they shouldered their heavy day packs and continued. Passing Trail Camp, where most of the overnight campers were starting to stir or already continuing upwards, they were treated to a gorgeous sunrise and paused to take photos though the gap in the mountains behind them.

              Continuing upward they settled into a good rhythm, mostly lost in their own thoughts but checking in with each other frequently. Maia had been off for a month but had spent most of the time moving to Chicago in preparation for starting her post-doc position right after Labor Day. She was confident in her baseline fitness but nonetheless wished she had spent more time at altitude instead of just relying on the Diamox tablets (which had the unwelcome side effect of making seltzer taste contaminated). Russ, who had never summited anything close to 14,000 feet before and fought to keep his 140 pound weight on 3,000 calories a day, had trained by taking laps up the hills near his father’s house in Ohio with a weighted backpack. The weather stayed cool as they made their way up the 99 Switchbacks. Russ had to stop to catch his breath every few minutes but insisted he otherwise felt fine, reassuring Maia he had taken the Diamox exactly as she had. Did she remember him taking the morning pill before they left? She had been so bleary and paranoid about bears in the parking lot it was hard to remember, but she believed him. 

              It was a relief to arrive at the junction of trails and sign marking Trail Crest where they stopped to drink more water. They were both giggling as they watched three incredibly fat, bold marmots snuffle around when Maia was suddenly dismayed to notice dark clouds over Sequoia National Park to the northwest. The clouds looked far away but they seemed to be gradually moving towards them. 

              “Russ, those clouds make me nervous. That could be a thunderstorm,” Maia said. 

              “Oh come on, they’re so far way, and I haven’t heard any thunder. Look at all the blue sky above us!” Russ replied. He was right, the sky above them and in every other direction was a perfect cerulean.

              “We’re so exposed up here though, it’s just a pile of rocks up to the summit, there’s no cover,” Maia replied.

              “Come on babe, we’re really close and it’s early. We should be up and back down here before any storms move in.”

              “I don’t like this. Do you know how you die when lightning strikes you?”

              Ignoring her question, Russ answered with his own, “What else are we going to do, turn around and hike down without summiting?”

              Maia wanted to say “yes” but she understood that this was the only chance they would have to summit for at least the next few years. She knew the developmental biology experiments she would be doing on sheep tissue could not be scheduled around mountain climbing expeditions across the country. Even worse, Russ was starting boot camp in 3 weeks after abruptly leaving his civil engineering job a few months ago in what Maia privately regarded as a quarter-life crisis.

              “Let’s give it a few minutes,” she said. She still couldn’t get a cell phone signal and the personal locator beacon she was carrying didn’t have two-way communication, but she hoped another, better-equipped hiker would pass by and have more information. As Russ took photos and cooed at the marmots, she tried to be rational and not think about the episodes of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” that started a similar decision. It was hard to tell but the clouds seemed to have moved a little bit farther north since they had been sitting at Trail Crest which was reassuring.  Russ was eager to start climbing again, and Maia knew that they should plan to be off the summit before noon to reduce the chances of getting caught in an afternoon storm. They bid the marmots farewell and turned north for the final push. 

              An hour later, the wind picked up substantially and the clouds were definitively moving towards them. They started hearing faint rumbles but it was hard to tell if it was truly thunder or the small rockslides they had been hearing all along in the distance. Maia had a sinking feeling in her chest as she turned around to Russ and said “We can’t do this. We have to turn back.”

              Russ was quite for a moment before saying “How much farther do you think we have to go?”

              Maia wanted to scream. She understood the difficulty of getting a permit and the desire to summit but couldn’t believe it was still his only focus.

              “I’m not sure, half a mile? Maybe less?” she replied. They had passed a series of landmark gaps in rock where they could see back towards the lower trail, and now the roof of the hut on the summit was in view above them. 

              “But the hut at the summit, what about that?” She could now see the fear in Russ’s face, and he made an interesting point. The stone hut on the summit had a metal roof but did it have a metal antenna? Did that matter? Surely the parks service wouldn’t have built a hut on the summit that didn’t offer shelter from the weather, metal roof or not, right? How could she not know more about lightning, or at least not remember anything besides the fact that lightning strike victims die from cardiac arrhythmias? She had been hiking her whole life but in the last few years had been focused on learning safe glacier travel and avalanche precautions. Also, no one had passed them for at least the last half hour, but what if the hut was already be full of other stranded hikers? 

              Maia had assumed the safest thing to do would be turn around and head back down, but she estimated they were two miles away from the Trail Crest junction. The trail back down in that direction was mostly protected by large rocks to the south but exposed to the north, the side of the storm. Thinking about trying to rapidly descend a slick trail while not sliding off a cliff was not appealing, and the bad weather should pass quickly based on the wind speed, likely before they got halfway back to Trail Crest junction. Should they stay put? It seemed insane to stand on the side of the mountain completely exposed and simply wait. As she debated their options, huge fat raindrops started falling and they both flinched at a definitive crack of thunder. Taking a deep breath, she said, “Let’s try to get to the hut at the top. Be careful, it’s going to be slippery.”

              Russ nodded, trusting her.  He tried not to think about now having to hike 11 miles down soaking wet, and tried not to worry about the mild headache and nausea that had been creeping up on him over the last hour. They started moving quickly and deliberately. Heads down, they couldn’t see the direction of the lightning but both realized how close the flashes and thunderclaps were to each other. Neither of them spoke, but Maia could hear Russ moving right behind her up the steep, rocky trail over the cacophony of pelting rain. 

When they were about 100 feet from the hut, the rain turned to a sprinkle and the thunder receded. Maia thought Russ’s breathing sounded more labored and a little distant.  As she turned to check on him, her left foot slipped off the edge of the slick rock and she fell to the left. She rolled once but her hands shot out and grabbed boulder, keeping her from tumbling farther or hitting her head. Blinding pain shot up her leg from her left ankle, and she looked up just in time to see the neon green personal locator beacon bouncing down the rocks into oblivion.  

May 20, 2021 23:38

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