It all started with Bob Burd.
How I first stumbled on his trip reports is a mystery to me, though this holds true for most of my online browsing. I may have been researching used car tires for all I know, but I soon found myself pouring over Bob Burd’s website.
You see, Bob is among the Sierra’s premiere mountain scramblers — a very specific subset for whom avoiding lethal plunges is a central hallmark of each weekend. Within this cohort, Bob Burd stands peerless, having reached the mythical status of, say, a mountain Gilgamesh. Stories of his exploits are legend, largely because Bob himself broadcasts them in the form of copious, if understated, trip reports. With little more concern than most pay for summiting an escalator, he writes of jaunts up Class 4 chimneys and malicious jags of granite, tackling more altitude in a day than do most commercial airlines.
This nonchalance hardly surprised me. Having no background in climbing myself, I had long regarded mountaineers as having a unique psychological makeup. After all, while my love of long-distance hiking was far from what polite society might call a sensible endeavor, it was still many shades more acceptable than this outlandish form of self-dismemberment.
Perhaps the basic irrationality of thru-hiking is concealed by its length—a woman boxes up her apartment, shelves her career, shutters her home-life, and straps a nylon pack atop her shoulders to trudge from Mexico to Canada—the sheer enormity of it defies all comprehension. But watch a man rise in the morning, take leave of his spouse and children, drive several hours to a trailhead, make for the region’s most glaringly unclimbable feature only to scrabble directly up it, and then be home in time for dinner, and one could reasonably assume his neurochemical balance to be that of a late-stage game of Jenga.
All that to say, my fascination with Bob Burd was entirely unexpected. As was the notion I soon developed that I might wander off and scale a peak myself. Or “bag” it, as they say in the parlance, as though it were as simply done as packaging a round of groceries.
So, without any undue research, or much forethought for that matter, I motored out to Onion Valley and made a run on Independence Peak. Despite my best intentions, I found myself stymied midway up the mountain by the sudden realization that I very much valued survival. Whatever Bob Burd had confronted during his climbs in the Sierra, it was nothing like the murderous ramps of scree that I encountered.
“Yeah, there’s a Burd-factor, I call it. When you read his trip reports, you’ve gotta check your expectations.”
This from Jason, whom I met in the parking lot of Onion Valley. We were both recuperating from long days in the mountains — though Jason’s far more successful — on our car’s respective bumpers while eating bland meals of Ramen. I told him of my trials on Independence Peak. Oh yeah, sure. Independence. Jason knew it well. In fact, he seemed intimately familiar with every rock in the Sierra. He dragged a cuff across his lips to sponge the excess broth and then fashioned a mountain of his open hand, indicating across a knuckle precisely where I had blundered.
It was a bad route I had taken. “See, just here you should have made a beeline up the sand slope. You’d have topped out on the ridge, then it’s a clear shot to the peak.”
That he did this all from memory, and with impeccable accuracy, was shocking. I had before me a true peak-bagger. Could be a Bob Burd in the making.
Perched on the bumper of his 4Runner, slurping discreetly at his noodles, Jason appeared trim, well-groomed, and dependable. Hardly the mountain madman I had expected. No, here was a gentleman of a perfectly stable career, honorable social standing, and respectable homelife, who seemed hellbent on putting the lot of it at hazard. Why, just that morning he had stood atop University Peak, a prominent and notoriously bloodthirsty summit, which he had climbed in order to inspect the summit register. Jason had run across a man whose close friend had died there the day before and who felt it monumentally important to discover whether he had fallen while on the way up or the way down. That is to say, whether he had summited.
Jason had photographed the register but, understandably eager to return, had not taken the time to study it. He enlarged the picture on his phone and we leaned in close to look. And there, in shaky ballpoint, the victim’s signature.
He had made it.
We whooped and beamed at each other a moment before realizing what an empty victory it was, that this man had touched the apex of some rock whose meaning was entirely subjective before crashing into an eternity that was painfully unambiguous.
We ate in silence for a time, and the night began to darken. The wind laid down. The pines grew quiet. Jason glanced at the horizon, and there it was — the madness in him. He flashed a smile, a manic gleam.
He said, “Tomorrow, you should do Bago.”