Fear is a wonderful thing.
For over five years I was focused on reaching the foot of the Palisade Glacier just over 12,000 feet in the Eastern Sierra. I had attempted it once before with my nephew but after we reached Sam Mack Meadows at 11,000 feet it was clear that it wasn’t going to happen that day. As a result, I became obsessed with the idea that I could return and do it solo as a day hike.
It’s a 19-mile round trip hike from the trailhead with a net gain of 5,000 feet. It is a haul but it wasn’t too strenuous. Once you climb beyond Sam Mack Meadows you eventually reach the base of the moraine — a mass of rocks carried down from the surrounding 14,000-foot peaks that are piled in a deposit creating a large field of semi-stable talus rock.
My judgment on where to attack the moraine was a tad faulty. Several hikers on the way back down that I passed advised me to stay to the left. When I got to the point where I had to determine a route to cover the rock field I looked at what was ahead and decided to go to the right. It seemed a tad steeper but I was leery of a good drop of 300 or so feet that awaited me on the left side.
Long story short I precariously made it to the ridge but to reach the top of it there was a vertical pull up of close to five feet. This was not good news given my forte thanks to some shoulder issues is not doing pull ups at 12,000 feet on large rocks and debris. Moving sideways I found a spot where I could pull myself up enough to peer over the edge of the ridge. What I saw was amazing. The turquoise pool of water at the glacier’s base was glimmering in the mid-afternoon sun below the largest cluster of 14,000-foot plus peaks in the Sierra. Before I lowered myself down about five seconds later, I noticed the top of the ridge was barely half a foot wide and the drop on the other side appeared steeper.
As I balanced myself on a large rock I tried to reach into my pocket to pull out my smartphone. Each time I did so I teetered a bit and stopped. I was determined to get a picture of what I saw and kept trying to keep my balance which wasn’t easy while strapped to a backpack.
What you are about to read will make you think I must be certifiable crazy. I reminded myself that I was afraid of heights. I always have been and always will be. In the years since I started hiking I’ve managed to turn it down a notch or two into a healthy fear.
I then started to visualize what would happen if I was successful in getting the smartphone out of my pocket and if my footing became more nebulous as I had to try and maintain my balance by having a borderline death grip on a rock with my left hand. What crossed my mind was far from pretty.
I was in no mood to bounce down a steep rock field. It likely would be a bit embarrassing but in reality, it wouldn’t matter since I likely wouldn’t be around to relive the moment as my body wasn’t designed to survive being repeatedly slammed into large boulders.
It also was clear that working my way back down off the moraine would be a serious undertaking and that by the time I got to stable and relatively flat footing to do another assault it might push me well past the turnaround time I set for myself so I wouldn’t be descending back to the trailhead in darkness. Even though I always carry a hiking headlamp with enough backup batteries to power a Third World village, finishing up a 19-mile hike with a few sketchy spots isn’t something one wants to do when it’s dark and you’re fatigued regardless that you have a headlamp.
I plan on returning this summer and this time will cross the rock field to the left.
What prompted me to relive my Clint Eastwood moment (“every man has got to know his limitations”) is a recent study that documented 259 people died between 2011 and 2017 taking photos. Strike that. They were taking selfies.
I’m not going to lie to you. I wanted a selfie with the glacier behind me but that was scratched from my list when I realized I was rolling the dice just trying to take the smartphone out of my pocket.
When you read what people were trying to get a selfie with when they got killed you realize there is a common thread — lack of fear.
There are the infamous selfies taken in 2014 at the Lake Tahoe Taylor Creek Visitor Center during the creek’s annual salmon run of bears standing right behind them swatting at dinner. I’ve come across bears in the wild three times. Rest assured I did not turn my back on them and the first thing that came to my mind was not whipping out my smartphone to take a photo let alone a selfie. Black bears are cool as long as you don’t startle them, they’re not real hungry, they don’t have cubs nearby, and a couple of other nuances. It’s the Sierra, not Disneyland. I wouldn’t let fear stop me from going out and hiking peaks and wandering canyons but I also wouldn’t leave fear in the car when I start a hike. The same applies to walking or driving down the street. Fear should temper your decisions but not paralyze you. It’s the theory behind defensive driving. Steering a vehicle is a much more deadly and dangerous pursuit than hiking but as long as you are acutely aware of the drawbacks and threats then act accordingly your odds of surviving anything are greatly enhanced.
Last October two travel bloggers fell to their death in Yosemite from Taft Point. It’s a rocky outcrop on the southern rim of the valley that has a sheer 800-foot drop.
I’ve hiked to Taft Point two different times. The first trip I got on my stomach and crawled to the edge so I could take a photo looking straight down. Before I started clicking away, I reminded myself that should I lose grip of the i-Phone to not try and make a move to catch it. The chances of that happening were small but it was clear from where I was that if I made a wrong move my day would not end well.
Some behavioral scientists contend the reason some of us will go to extremes to take selfie photos in precarious situations runs the gamut from building self-esteem and a need to chronicle our personal history to building a personal brand on social media.
I used to eschew taking photos hiking realizing that if I can’t relive the memories and vistas in my mind that having a bunch of photos and videos wouldn’t help. Hiking photos and videos account for well over 90 percent of what is on my phone in terms of images and gigabytes.
I admit I’ve taking my share of selfies on remote peaks in Death Valley and from ridgelines in the Sierra as proof that I was there.
But I never let my safety take a back seat or taking photos supplant the reason I’m there. It’s to remind me of the great beauty and vastness of the world while calming me in ways I can’t begin to explain. It isn’t about me being the center of the universe.
Living the experience and storing it on the ultimate hard drive — your memory — and sharing it with your soul is the best selfie of all.
You don’t need to craft a personal brand; you just need to live life.