Though my whole life didn’t run, film-like, before me in those seconds, I was aware that if I couldn’t catch myself, my kids could be orphans. It was happening in micro-time. Flip-flopping, as I desperately tried to find purchase on the slope, to dig my feet in, slow my fall. To my right ahead, I saw a small, twisted shrub. I almost sailed by, but reaching and grabbing, my right hand clasped a rough something solid and luckily it held. I was jerked to a twisting stop, lying on my right side at a steep angle. The stiff, weathered branch held. I laid on my side holding on for what seemed a century but was only a few minutes, catching my breath, my heart pounding. One freaking moment, one lousy careless step, in one stupid moment, it could’ve been “buh-bye, Bubbie.”
Looking down, I was chastened. Boy, was I ever! How the hell did I make it up this way in the first place? I didn’t realize how steep it was climbing up looking at the top until starting down. I caught my breath, my heart stopped pounding, and I focused, figuring I better be damn careful just getting vertical. I angled my boots into the slope, got up slowly, knees bent trying to keep my center of gravity low and not lean into the slope, lest my feet slide out again. My right hip felt bruised and my sleeve was stuck to my flesh, from a bleeding right elbow. I had half a dozen scrapes, but I was okay.
Looking at the “shrub” that held me I was aware it wasn’t a “shrub” but a twisted, gnarled, whitebark pine (Pinus abicaulis), perhaps five hundred feet above its cousins at timberline below. Carefully standing, again keeping knees flexed and center of gravity low and vertical, I proceeded heading slightly up again instead of down but to the west and higher altitudes to meet the trail, perhaps a thousand feet below as it, too, led upward.
That was it. Nothing more happened. Gingerly, still on insecure talus—rocks on rocks—on a slope but in control, keeping my balance, traversing across and down, across and down, until I gradually reached less steep ground, going due west until I intersected the trail as it, too, angled upward miles above where I first left it.
I reached the safety of the alpine meadows and breathed a huge sigh of relief. However, instead of feeling proud or exhilarated by my little traipse, I felt chagrined, foolish, or rather, concerned over my carelessness. Thinking of the kids, I chastised myself. Dammit. I had responsibilities, kids who recently lost their mother. I took off my pack, which while helping buffet the bruises as I toppled, added to my clumsiness. Relaxed, sitting on a boulder, the bleeding elbow was minor.
I needed to still my pounding pulse, chill, eat some trail mix. Clark’s nutcrackers soared overhead. I love those nervy Corvine birds, cousins of the ravens and crows with their raucous “caws,” their sleek grey with contrasting black and white flashes. Their swooping flight and energetic life force suddenly made me laugh with pleasure. Something nutty then clicked in my brain—an epiphany. As a matter of fact, I “epiphanied” all over myself.
This is why: I was saved by those very birds! Or rather, one of their ancestors! A bird! A blasted bird saved me, broke my fall! How?
The “nutty,” wonderful connectedness of it all made me grin. I’ll explain: Gaby, who had moved to the eastern Sierra, had told me of a scientist, studying how Clark’s nutcrackers survived in snow and freezing Sierra winters, had spent a year at Crystal Lake in a glacial basin at about 10,500 feet above the Mammoth Lakes region. He noted that the bird’s favorite food was pine nuts, particularly the nuts of the whitebark pine.
They would cache them away in summer and fall (like squirrels with nuts) in places he diagramed on the cliffs. He discovered through patient observation and charts, they found them in the winter and would survive when there seemed to be no other food. He estimated they remembered two thousand hiding places in a pea-sized “bird brain.” (I can’t find my car keys from one day to the next.) Occasionally they’d miss one, which eventually would germinate. So, Nutcrackers, whitebark pines…symbiosis…the trees fed them. They disseminated the pinecone seeds, planting new trees on rugged cliffs, on talus slopes.
Nutcrackers are amazingly smart and do astonishing things.
I was now aware of the relationship between the trees and the birds—like moths pollinating orchids, or bees, wildflowers. My conclusion then, unintentional and convoluted maybe, is that I was saved by a bird, because five hundred years past, a Clark’s nutcracker missed its pine nut, which then had a chance to germinate, grew into the twisted whitebark pine hanging mid-cliff that I grabbed, that saved my silly ass. It is a story as twisted as a whitebark branch, but no less true.
A quick second thought: Paula’s ashes, which we had scattered near a stream at Sky Meadow, might be nurturing one of the exquisite and delicate columbines that blossom above timberline, as well.
Eating my trail mix, hearing cawing nutcrackers commenting on my presence, I thanked them for their great-great-grandparents, and cast out some nutty “thank you” trail mix. They deserved it.
AUTHOR’S NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS
I was on a south slope. If it were a north slope, which is colder, that sweet whitebark pine couldn’t have made it, and neither would I. I would have been tail-over-tush and not writing this ramble.
To call the whitebark a shrub demeans it. It is an amazing tree, perhaps not as long-lived as the Bristle Cones that can live to 5,000 years, but as it ages in extreme climates, buffeted by wind, buried in snow, surviving freezing temperatures, they suffer, as the philosopher, Paul Tillich, says, “wounds of existence,” and survive to become natural Bonsai. They might lose the symmetry of youth, the succulent freshness, but in their very survival they achieve another more intense beauty: varied, textured, twisted, each one unique. I appreciate Wabi-Sabi, the Japanese expression for appreciating things as they change, age, and become beautiful in other ways. Maybe because I’m such an old codger myself, I’ve become a Wabi-Bito (I think the word is) that allows me to appreciate the weathered lines in an old face. There’s more than one lesson here.
One more thing about these self-same trees: Once I was hiking along a barren stretch of pumice at 11,000 feet, treeless, except for a few ancient whitebarks. Feeling dizzy from the glare, the altitude, and tired from trudging in pumice, I squirreled myself into deep shade under a “krummholzed” and flagged* whitebark pine. Judging from scats, so had mule deer, rabbits, and other varmints before me. The tree formed a refuge for not only me, but an assortment of other animals. I read later a passage in John Muir, confirming the same.
*Krummholz simply refers to the horizontal growth of trees exposed to extreme constant winds, or the weight of snow—so instead of growing vertically, they grow outward, flat. Flagging is simply the thrusting growth sideways caused by constant wind.
A Tutorial For Those With Curiosity. A few words about the eastern Sierra. If I’ve been obsessive about swims and climbs, so am I about the “range of light” as John Muir dubbed these mountains. Despite the popularity of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in the west, my love is the eastern slopes.
When the first astronauts circumnavigated the earth from space and were asked the most striking landmark on earth seen from space, they specifically mentioned the Sierra Mountain Range of California. Of course, the Andes, the Himalayas, are higher. It seems the 400-mile-long granite block of the Sierras not only rise to 14,500 feet but drop off dramatically in the east to the desert plateau. It leaves not only a shadow, a penumbra, but a rain shadow as well. (Nevada to the east is the driest state in the union.)
For me it makes the eastern slopes much more interesting than the west, because, within five horizontal miles, you can go almost three vertical miles, from the desert plateau at Lone Pine to Mt. Whitney, perhaps 11,000 feet higher, and from 200 feet below sea level in Death Valley to almost 15,000 feet higher. In my hiking in the Alps in Europe, or the Rockies in Canada and Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, etc., although beautiful, I did not see the variety of our own California Eastern Sierra. This escarpment encompasses every life zone vertically, going from lower Sonoran to Arctic-Hudsonian within five or so horizontal miles. You can enjoy amazing changes of flora and fauna as plants and critters adapt to each zone.
In the Sierra, there are well over 1,500 lakes—from Olympic pool size, to the second deepest freshwater lake at that altitude in the world, Tahoe—plus a godzillion streams, waterfalls, small glaciers, and cascades.
Everywhere you hike in the eastern escarpment, there’s water running. Moisture-laden wind from the Pacific, hits these peaks, condenses and drops its bounty as winter snow. It is melt-water that all of California depends upon. Near Whitney there are twelve peaks above 14,000 feet, with more than 500 peaks exceeding 12,000 feet. Dunderberg is one. Mount Whitney is higher than any peaks in the Rockies, Colorado, or Wyoming, Montana, and the Cascades, until you get to Alaska.
A Final Statement. The very fact that in the east the flora is more open, allows wonderful chances to hike, to wander cross-country, to observe rock formations, 28 species of coniferous trees—28!!—and observe an ever-fascinating panoply. It’s a tutorial for those with curiosity.