Every expedition has at least one moment that stands out from the faded memories of the actual adventure with color enhanced clarity. It’s that point where a day later, you laugh, go “I can’t believe that happened/you did that/we survived/oh my god you wouldn’t believe”, and then when you think about the trip twenty years later, the same memory creeps into your mind. It’s that story you try to relate to your friends with the disclaimer of, “you had to have been there, but, let me tell you…”, and then when they don’t laugh at your story, you pause, and go lamely, “well, you had to have been there”. Then, even worse, when your friends make the mistake about asking about the main, exciting part of the trip – for example, where you summitted the peak in gale force winds in snow both ways and found the lost Ark of the Covenant; you brighten and, before telling the story about how you made the summit and lost your nose in the process, you say, “but first, let me tell you a side story about the frozen macaroni squirrel incident”, which causes them to roll their eyes, groan, and regret talking to you in the first place. At the same time though, the thing that no one realizes about these stories is that without the frozen macaroni squirrel incidents, climbs are by and large similar. After all, mountains are the same in many ways – they are made of rocks and they are tall. Some have snow. Some do not. Some have climbers on them, some do not. But what differs on each climb is the experience and the stories that follow from the experiences – whether people want to hear them or not.
There were so many things that happened on this last trip to Whitney that made the experience an epic adventure. In general, one would think that since it was my seventh time on the summit, I’d have some insightful observations about the peak, or the conditions, but I’ve covered that already. All that I’m left with is that Whitney is a big mountain. Really really big. Biggest in the lower forty-eight states, I’ve been told, and if Wikipedia says it, it must be true. Also, having been up it a fair few times, I can attest that it is large. There are so many little things from the planning, and the drama that entailed, and the bookkeeping that followed it. Roughly, I can count over 234 separate e-mails between myself, group members, and prospective group members about the trip. In this respect, Whitney seemed less like an adventure, and more like bookkeeping. Or, I could talk about the training hikes, and using lots of mountaineering technique, while being told by group members, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but it just seems like we could go this way, with no problems, and not get lost whatsoever, but I don’t know what I’m talking about.” (Readers: note that “that way” was a random undefined direction. Also note that if someone tells you that you should go in a random undefined direction, contrary to what anyone tells you, you will get lost – at least for the short term. Long term, you might find your way back – eventually.)
Practically, I could also talk about the terror of watching people traverse in strange ways, or wondering at times where people were and what they were doing, or how they got lost when all they were supposed to be doing was following a silver car. Or I could cite to the numerous moments of comic relief, where people insisted on saying, “that’s what she said”, at every opportunity even though it wasn’t funny, and had never really been funny in the first place, and even though they weren’t drunk. But – and I say this with great difficulty (insert: “that’s what she said here” line to get a sampling of how it works), what really sticks out in my mind is the food.
That’s right, I said food. And not because it was bad. Too often on mountaineering, climbing, or any sort of expedition, the food is god-awful. It’s one of those things that ends up going by the wayside, in a, “I have too many things to do type of way, so I’ll just grab some nutrition bars”. Then, on mile thirty of the trip, you say to yourself, “for the love of all that is holy in the universe, why did I pack so many goddam nutrition bars!??!”. Placing aside Powerbars, Clif Bars, Luna Bars, Bar Bars, and whatever else comes in bar form, the other options aren’t usually good either. Although there’s been massive developments in freeze dried food technology in the last fifteen years (don’t ask me to name them), freeze dried food still tastes like, well, freeze dried food. Which is not good. It’ll keep you alive, but then again, so will paint chips, I hear – at least for the short term.
On this trip, the food was good because we had Chef Jaime and his miraculous grill. Miraculous is not too strong of a word in this respect. The grill took up a fair portion of the back of his truck, and had its own apparatus that you had to assemble to get it together, including its own supporting legs, side infrastructure, and propane tank. Someday, when I am old and wizened, I hope to have something as fancy as Jaime’s traveling grill installed in my house. It was that impressive. But, equipment is nothing without the right personnel to operate it (insert: “that’s what she said” again). Chef Jaime, for many reasons was an invaluable asset of the group, because he knew to bring and make the good food. On Saturday night, he brought fresh homemade salsa for the group for the carne asada, and then made fresh Pico de Gallo on the spot. (Honorable mention here to Rude Boy for trying to cook beans in a can over an open fire with nothing but a wooden spoon, but then rallying to make fresh guacamole that same night.)
Most people would take a break at that point – after all, we were camping and fresh salsa and fresh Pico de Gallo is hard to beat, but the next morning, Chef Jaime was back at it, brewing fresh coffee in his percolator, cooking free and non-free range eggs into omelets, cooking bacon, and grilling some champion non-cajun style flapjacks. As Pratt put it, “this is the one trip I’m going to gain weight on”. More than the fifty pounds we packed on before climbing the mountain, what I’ll remember about that trip to Whitney is that morning before at eight thousand feet, watching the sun rise, feeling full and content, and ready to take on the world, as I read lazily from the Kodiak Cakes Box to the group, while listening to the frequent “that’s what she said” comments. Even though my box reading skills are quite dramatic, none of that would have happened without the great food – so, thanks Chef Jaime, I’ll always remember that – and I’ll be dragging you along on whatever trips I can from now on. (“That’s what she said!”).