Saturday, January 24, 2009

Villager Peak (5755 ft.)

Late again, wasn't out of the car and on my way until 11.
I picked up a hitchiker 2 blocks from my house on the bridge before the 5 freeway entrance. He was lanky and dressed in levis from head to toe, his face was clean but dark and worn, and he told me his name was Rafferty and he said he was headed to Tucson, Arizona and he couldn't tell me what for but he gave me the rest of his life story. He used to work on every sort of plane, he was a riveter, but he could work on engines too, and somewhere along the line the Government put a chip in his brain that enabled him to speak every language in the world. He doesn't know why they did that to him, and he said he didn't remember performing any missions but it could be that they were erased. So somewhere along the line, his chip is damaged and now when he speaks in different languages they all come out at the same time and he'll talk for example in "Eskimo-Hungarian-Lebanese" or "Chilean-Japanese" and what he saying will make sense but other people ust dont know those dialects. "So you can see the difficulty I have in communicating with ordinary people who don't have the chip." I drove him as far as the Golden Acorn Casino then turned back around to get on the 79. Rafferty I hope you find your Big Rock Candy Mountain in Tucson! Where dreams go to die!
Villager Peak came into view as I drove down the S-3 into Borrego Springs. Speeding towards it, it seemed to shrink away into the distance the closer and closer I got, it seemed to runaway from me, and I became so anxious and aware of the time I was losing that I'd catch myself staring at the peak and yelling at it to stop running away, instead of looking at the road. Finally I hit S-22 and was headed towards the trailhead where I would retrace a failed 12 mile route from before (I had underestimated the climb and run out of water in august 109 degrees, I turned back only a mile before the summit). Instead, I remembered what I'd read about some Italian climber who'd said something like "Let a drop of water fall from the summit, that is the line I will climb." and I decided to climb in style instead. I did a u-turn on the highway and turned onto a dirt road and drove straight towards the face of the peak, past some trailer camping sites,to the edge of a dry lake bed. A sign said no unauthorized vehicles were permitted to drive on the lake bed so I parked my car and began my hike from there.
I ran across the entire dry lake bed, anxious to get started on my way UP, I couldn't stand wasting any more time moving on flat ground anymore. Dust devils danced and dissolved around the bleached lake bed, egging me on. I still had more than a mile of mazing of washes and rock slides to get through before I'd be on my way UP.
An hour after leaving the car I came to the base of the peak and found what I thought was the steepest route of ridges and started up in what was now a race against time because although this time I'd brought along 2 flashlights, I'd realized that I still had no way to find my way back to the car at night, there being no markers around the lake bed. I came up with the idea that I could use lights on highway as sort of moving fixed stars like a sailor. I took note of the distant reflection that was my car, its position to the highway and to the start of my climb, then tried to formulate a triangle to remember and follow on my way back. I hoped it would be enough to get me near enough to my car in the dark to locate it with the car alarm on my keys.
Sprinting up the ridge I was constantly checking to see how much further I had left to go, trying to calculate if I would make it to the summit and back down in time to find the car. After a while I decided I should just dedicate myself to reaching the peak no matter how late it got, I took my watch off and stuffed it in my pocket and kept up my burning pace. I ditched the helmet I'd brought and my extra jug of water to shed some weight.
The peak kept up to its old tricks, moving further and further away, this time as I approached on foot. As always, what looks like an easy jaunt up a nothing hill turns out to be a death march up a mounatin that felt like it was growing bigger and bigger underneath me. I weaved up boulders and thornbush on a 60 degree incline, occasionally sparking a rock slide but nothing ever serious. I never stopped to eat or rest for more than 2 minutes, eating and drinking on the run. Heat and solitude played the same 20 seconds of a song on repeat over and over in my head all the way up and I couldn't wait to wash them out of my head with something new once I got back to the car radio. During moments of lucidity I took a look around me and smiled at where I was, tromping up a very beautiful very inconvenient piece of the Earth, where only mountain lions and bighorn sheep bother to walk. It refilled my heart with enough gasoline to blast up a dozen Villager Peaks.
During last 1000 feet before the summit an old toothache kicked in with the altitude and colder air (below 5000 ft and above 8 or 9000 ft my tooth is fine, weird), blind with pain and out of breath I finally hit the summit. I stayed just long enough to carve my name in the register with a pen that didn't work, and I took only one picture with the camera on timer and hoped that I would come out in it. I had a glance at a sliver of the Salton Sea on the other side of the peak but couldn't make myself care enough to spend 5 extra minutes hiking to a good viewpoint, by now my toothache didn't even let me walk straight. My tooth blowing up trains inside my head, and my small hope for making it back down the mountain before dark, I just needed to get back down as fast as I could.
In my rush down I made my descent following a different set of ridges, and several times I ended up slipping into some loose rock slides and had to backtrack onto one of the main ridges. I never found my helmet or extra water so I began saving my drink for when it would be dark. I also started a lot more serious rock slides on my way down, after every one I would sober up and concentrate on better steps. Better to make it down late and in one piece than battered and dashed on a bunch of boulders and cactuses. I came to terms with having to suffer a much slower and laborous descent in the dark and dedicated myself to slower smarter footwork. It did get dark before I was off the peak, but my salvation I suddenly saw a half dozen campfires starting up around an oasis at the edge of the dry lake bed. I headed staright for it.
Making my way back over the washes, my first flashlight died after half an hour and I was still only a third of the way down the rocks. I recalled getting stuck lost at night with my friends Will and Kevin outside of Alpine two years ago and us finding our way back using a cell phone and holding it to the ground for miles, for 4 hours, following some old tracks in the dark. Covering this much ground covered in boulders and no trail, using my cell phone to find my steps, I wouldn't make it to the car anytime before the middle of the night.
Bless my preparedness for once, the extra flashlight. While I continued heading towards the set of campfires, three times I clearly saw pairs of green eyes in the bush. I always forget what color lions have and I hoped that they were only the coyotes I'd heard earlier. Just to be safe I barked and yelled threats to whatever mountain lions there might've been and gripped my axe ready to swing it at a missile of fangs that I kept imagining leaping at me out of the darkness.
And now the campfires were running away form me too. I had walked for what felt like another hour but the fires were still just as small as when I'd first seen them. They refused to get any bigger and offer me any comfort. Then suddenly I could hear voices in the close distance and gasps and headlights turned to look at me. Turns out the fires had been tiki torches all along, setup by a desert touring company who had a wine and cheese dinner going on for a dozen people under the stars. They had a fancy little camp setup, and they offered me a glass of Pinot Noir and some melted camembert and I promptly accepted, but then something in me told me I had to finish before I could start relaxing, and I wouldn't be finished until I was driving away in my car. I told them I had to go. I thanked them over and over for just having been there and explained how lost I would've been otherwise, I thanked them 2 more times, and I was on my way.
My plan was to follow the tour company's truck tracks back to the trail where I'd left my car. Halfway across the lake my second flashlight began to die. I began running. I used up everything left in me real quick and then decided I'd keep the light off and turn it on every 100 steps or so to make sure I was still on trail. When I turned the light off it was another piece of luck, the lake bed was so white that even under only starlight the wheel tracks that had dried months ago in the mud stood out of like a great black snake against the white. I made the rest of the way back in the dark, worried for a second that somewhere along the way I might follow the wrong set of tracks and end up on some empty side of the lake but I convinced myself I could head towards the moving lights of the highway and I'd be fine. I sang loud underneath the million desert stars, an entire repetoire, until eventually the reflectors on my car shone back from my flashlight and I made a beeline for the nearest gas station to get a celebratory Coke in me and then home, to ice my legs for the next 10 years.