This weekend, on an educational field trip to the White Mountains in the Inyo National Forest, I found myself higher than I'd ever been before—literally reaching a peak elevation of somewhere over 12,000 feet, and spending most of the time around 10,000 feet.
And now I know: The air feels different up there. It's so thin that it feels like it's barely there at all.
I've been on mountains before—even at their peaks—but none quite so high as these.
When I was a kid, my father drove us up Whiteface Mountain, Mount Marcy, or maybe both during our trips to the Adirondack Mountains. Those highest peaks in New York State are only about half as tall as the White Mountains.
I've stood on top of Mount Wilson and Mount Waterman, looking out over the Angeles National Forest, feeling only a slight thinness in the air and a slight shortness of breath.
But out there in that desert landscape, across from the Sierras and near the Nevada state border, the White Mountains quite literally took my breath away.
Sure, I could breathe if I wasn't moving—but what would be the point of driving five or six hours north to this remote landscape if I wasn't going to explore it, on foot or by car?
Why not get as high as I could possibly get, where the new bristlecone pine trees sprout out of the dolomite, slowly on their way to becoming ancient? Besides, as high up as we were, we were still on the former ocean floor.
I tried to tough it out—despite the headaches, wooziness, confusion, nausea, and congestion of altitude sickness. I hadn't slept much, but I pressed on, until I reached my limit at the trailhead for White Mountain peak.
We'd braved some rough road conditions to get all the way up to the Barcroft research station at just over 12,000 feet, which added a good dose of car sickness to my altitude sickness. And since everybody else seemed ready to climb, I gave it a try.
I didn't make it very far. With no one sweeping the back of our group, I got left behind. And at that dizzying elevation, I wasn't in my right mind. I didn't know whether or not I was OK. I couldn't catch my breath, and so I found myself hyperventilating. As much as I wanted to see the view from above, I didn't want to pass out on the trail alone. So, in tears, I turned back and waited an eternity fo the rest of the group to return to the parking lot.
The next day, on our last morning at camp, I had one last chance to redeem myself—by hiking up an old wagon road looking for birds.
Once again, I didn't make it all the way. But as I sat on a rock looking out over the landscape—knowing that there was still some distance to climb—I saw a bright mountain bluebird fly over me and land on a nearby rock, where it stayed just long enough for me to get a good look at it. And I knew that that spot was exactly where I was supposed to be at that moment.
For most of the trip, we were so high that it seemed as though we could practically touch the moon. And yet somehow, it was never high enough. There was always more to climb.
But for me, since my body kept me from reaching the absolute highest elevation possible, I had to be happy with "high enough."
And I didn't know how high would be enough, until I got there.
Photo Essay: Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
Knowing My Limits
Reaching My Limit
Elevation: Sea Level