After a difficult year, a runner finds life anew in the Sierra.
When you met me in Garmisch, did you ever think we’d be standing on the summit of Mount Whitney?
We ask each other this same question in big, beautiful moments. We’ve asked it just as often in the most absurd and mundane and gutting. Whitney has also been Gokyo Ri, the Mönch, Wetterhorn. When you met me in Garmisch, did you ever think we’d run through the Khumbu? When you met me in Garmisch, did you ever think we’d be stranded in a broken-down “Bukhanka” on the roadside in Kyrgyzstan? When you met me in Garmisch, did you ever think you’d give me a haircut in the desert without a pair of scissors? Pelt me with snowballs outside the tent during a diarrheal attack caused by freeze-dried chili? Did you ever think all your hats would be too small because I’d adjust them when you weren’t looking? That we’d be on opposite sides of the planet during a global pandemic? Did you ever think that you’d sit beside me, when I was bald and broken, finishing my final round of chemo?
“When you met me in Garmisch, did you ever think we’d be standing here after all of that?”
He asks again, like so many times before. This time, we are on the top of Mount Whitney, on the winter solstice.
“Yes, of course. Where else would we be?”
He doesn’t hear my answer. The wind steals it across the valley. I spread my arms against the wind, stunningly cold the second we stop moving, and holler: “No, Mister! I never thought.”
We stand there º the highest point in the lower 48. My first summit in the Sierra, with endless peaks and valleys spread out on all sides.
“Don’t call me Mister.”
We pull on extra layers for the run back down.
Dan hated when I called him that. But when he started using “I’m old,” as an excuse for anything he didn’t want to do, it was an invitation to prod at our 13-year age difference. He hated it until he realised that he didn’t actually give a shit about grey hair and age and all that.
Dan Patitucci takes a snack break. Photo: all photos by Dan Patitucci.
Dan Patitucci: He’s been running up mountains, making photos, living on the road and dirtbagging around the world since before I was allowed to ride my bike around the block. While we drive into the foothills of the Sierra on this California road trip, his attention wanders sideways and up toward the peaks. I know he’s got a story or two from each one we pass, someone or something down each dirt road. His stories range over decades. It’s the hero’s journey over and over again, with more lifetimes than I can imagine for one man.
“You know all my stories,” Dan grumbles when I pry for conversation to pass the hours on the road.
I do pretty much know them all. But I know he’ll tell them again. I like to hear his memories improve. “One time on …” “My first time up …” “See that line …” “I was running out here with …” The setting, these mountains. The Sierra.
Warm in the sun, cool in the shade.
We speed along Highway 50, slick from what would be one of only a few storms this season. “The bus came by, and I got on. That’s when it all began:” The Grateful Dead on the radio interrupts our silence, reminding us both to embrace this ride.
Dan insists on wearing real pants to drive. Chalky, gorge-dirt-stained cotton pants. He hates that I wear sweats on the road and travel with a pillow. He has rules. Everything must be in a bag. No loose articles floating around in the backseat. Nothing gives him more pleasure than everything being organized in efficient systems.
As we pass Pyramid Peak, Dan tells me about running up it and climbing at Lover’s Leap and Sugarloaf. Stories that all begin with drives in pre-dawn darkness, a coffee thermos clutched between his knees and whoever riding shotgun.
“Nothing’s changed but who’s in the passenger seat,” I snark, rifling through the glove box for my pocket-size notebook that isn’t there.
In this particular story, it’s me.
I take off my socks and press them, deliberately, in a wad into the door handle. Not where they belong. With crumbs cascading from my lap, I stretch into the back to fumble for carrots when we don’t have anything more fun to eat and scan for a radio station that hasn’t tuned to fuzz. A stray elbow catches Dan’s shoulder, and I spill some coffee in the process.
I’m not sure when I became a total shit show, but somewhere along the way, a simple “How ya doing?” started triggering one or more of these responses: “Got cancer,” “Got divorced,” “Dad died,” “Got COVID-19,” “Thought I got cancer, again,” etc. Yep, a pretty gnarly tally to fit inside a matter of months. Always coming back to, “but good. Still running.”
The windfall: “Good” is honest. I’m probably even better than before the ground crumbled beneath my feet.
Exploring Sierra trails.
I find my escaped notebook under the seat along with stray peanuts and another sock. It’s where I keep a few scraps of paper, envelope flaps with addresses, a stamp from India, a dried daisy and the business card Dan gave me on that day we joke about meeting in Garmisch. I fan the pages with tiny-printed story notes, quotes and pretending poetics until they become unreadable scribbles from doctor visits, survival rates, misspelled drug names and notated symptoms. Then from one page to the next, my prescription list becomes the packing list for this trip. I thumb those pages until I find space to scrawl about the face-sized apple fritters we got on the side of the road not too far past Placerville.
I’ve just finished a year of breast cancer treatment. I don’t know how long I would have put off diagnosis if Dan hadn’t strong-armed me into a doctor’s appointment after conceding I found a lump.
The things I let you make me do.
When it all began, I waited alone for biopsy results in a sad brown hotel room with dingy curtains too thin to hide the view over a tangle of railroad tracks. When the doctor called to confirm it was cancer, I went for a run. On my way out, I abandoned a bag of sweaters at a donation drop and put holey running shoes and shards of a life beyond repair into the alley dumpster. Things I couldn’t carry with me anymore.
Maybe that’s when I became a shit show, but more likely it happened with indetectable slowness over a much longer time frame, somewhere under the surface until it protruded like my tumour.
Besides the 10-year-pill plan, I’m done with treatment. My infusion port was removed two weeks ago. That was our green light for Dan’s mission to show me the Sierra.
My hair is already growing back. It’s a cross between my grandma’s helmet perm, my middle-school-gym teacher’s mullet and Dan’s own unruly coif. We both attempt to tame wild curling ends under our hats.
The author in treatment, daydreaming of mountains.
When you met me in Garmisch, did you ever think we’d have the same haircut?
When we did meet in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, almost five years ago, we were there to run. I took a bus more than 12 hours because it was the cheapest way to get there from where I lived in France at the time. I was about to move to Italy, then Germany, and had no idea I’d end up in California in a few years. He lived in Switzerland, by way of Italy, after living more years in California than I’ve been alive. I’m pretty sure he started seeding legends of the Sierra in the first stories he told me about this place. “You’d like Bishop,” he’d say.
Bishop meant scruff and sage and tall spires. Going to Bishop meant getting back to higher altitude after getting by at sea level for 13 months. I won’t complain about abundant sunshine and rolling hills, healing companions during my time on the Central Coast, but I’d grown a longing for Bishop, sight unseen, and a pining to move on from Mission Hope Cancer Center, where I’d spent a lot of hours in the corner chair of its third-floor infusion room. As we drive, I remember the spot by the windows with the best view to watch the hills green, fade, burn and green again. It’s the spot I did my longing, while nurses in white hazmat suits monitored the drip of chemo into a room full of drained daydreamers.
I watch it shrink in the rearview mirror.
The plan is to base ourselves on the east side, tuck away in the foothills and run as much as we can. The plan is to not have too much of a plan. The plan is to take it day by day, since we know we can’t plan, and plan to fail. To focus on hopes rather than expectations and fully accept we might need to adjust for my physical ability, the weather and general unpredictability.
All kinds of weather, even on a dry Sierra year.
Despite our intention to be flexible, we do have a few ideal objectives, hopeful missions. A few high passes, an easy 14er, but we didn’t think Whitney would be one of them. Whitney, after my barrage of treatment and in winter, might be hoping too high. Finally driving south on 395, the Sierra seemed dry. The conditions seem to align.
“Let’s have a look.”
He says it with an all too familiar glint. Plenty of “When you met me in Garmisch …” scenarios started with a look.
At Whitney Portal Road, there’s no gate. He skirts past the closure sign leaning in the middle of the road.
“Road closed doesn’t mean road closed,” he instructs without slowing down.
I squirm under my seatbelt, giving away my discomfort. Somehow, he exists outside the rules, outside natural laws, probability, logic and even gravity it seems. But for a fleeting instance every now and again, he makes me believe I do too.
The things I let you make me do.
We add to the full parking at the trailhead and start up a few miles. It’s snowy right from the start. Our wet feet are cold, the sun tracks too low along the ridge, and we don’t leave the shadows. Bits of trail emerge from under the snow as we make our way back down. If we wait, with a few warm days in the forecast, the snow will melt from the lower trails and what remains higher up should be worn into a track. We’ve seen the potential. Whitney becomes a “maybe” on our growing list of possibilities.
Before and after the Whitney recon, we do more of what we refer to as “the usual” and bound again into life before the chemo chair: camping at trailheads, running up to Horton and Langley Lakes, taking naps on rocks in the middle of a run. We run Baker Creek, Birch Lake, Black Lake, Baxter Pass, plus a few others that look good on the map but don’t actually exist. Waiting for Whitney, we climb. We try to, anyway. I get two bolts up on a top rope in the Alabama Hills and sob—scratch climbing for now. We haul over to Telescope Peak hoping for warmer weather above Death Valley. Our 5-gallon water jug freezes into a 5-gallon ice cube. We run in puffies, but it’s good for acclimating. We do roadside yoga to break up long drives, and I sit on my fingers inside my sleeping bag to warm them enough to strum a few chords on my ukulele to pass the long December nights. Between cold nights, we sunbathe on boulders and sprawl our gear and tired legs across a closed Onion Valley road. We get snowed out of Taboose Pass, eat hefty foil-wrapped burritos and drink salsa from the jar. We run and revel and revive.
Did you ever think?
Burritos are the best road food.
Back at the base of Whitney, Dan’s headlamp strobes a pre-run dance party while I try to huddle deep in my sleeping bag, at least for the 20 minutes before the alarm goes off. We drive up to the trailhead drinking the cold coffee I’d had the brilliant idea to make the night before to save time in the morning. Barely behind on being ready, thermos steadied between my knees and toothbrush dangling from my mouth, I fold under the dashboard to tie my shoes. In the first pink light, we spring our way up a pine-covered trail that’s only ours today. I set our pace. Banter carries us into the golden alpine as we chat up snow-filled switchbacks, flow over rocky trail and laugh until there is only wind and breath. Toes to the edge and arms flung. There’s no more mountain above us to climb today. I look back to see he’s slowed to let me run ahead the final meters to the top.
After all of that, that’s how we end up on the summit of Mount Whitney, for just a few moments on the shortest day of the year.
When you met me in Garmisch, did you ever think you’d be standing here looking out to all the mountains you still have left to climb?
With the back of a gloved hand, he wipes both eyes. I pause too long, so he elbows me, “You think too much.”
No, Mister. I never thought.
It’s always just nice to be running.
Banner Image – Less oxygen and the best views on the way up Mount Whitney.