What the fuck am I doing here? I mean seriously. I don’t even know where “here” is, and when you’re where I am, the “here” part is pretty fucking important.
All I can tell you – and all I could tell the rescue services if I could only call them – is that I’m up some bastard hill in the breathless altitude of Tuolomne, just east of Yosemite National Park. I’m totally invisible to the only people that know I’m here, a crew of outdoorsy types who marched off ahead of me a long time ago. They said, “it’s easy, you see how it winds up there, and goes round onto the ledge? Just get up there and you’ll see us.” Then they just went up the mountain at an unconscionable rate of knots and instantly – like snap your fingers – that ledge they were talking about disappeared and everything looked the same. It’s just trees and rocks and bushes in all directions, and all of it is steep as shit.
That was three hours ago – three going on five, going on 127 hours starring James Franco.
It wouldn’t be so bad if this were one of those bald, granite faces where a passing chopper could easily spot a yellow rucksack and a pair of stumpy flailing arms. Only it’s not – this hill is wooded and shaded, full of boulders and ledges and trees. I’m a speck here, lost among bears and snakes and monsters, because that’s what the great outdoors is like – it’s all beasts and death and bully weather. It’s a place where soft magazine hacks from the city may as well come in a brown paper bag with soy sauce and chopsticks and a couple of napkins.
I’ll tell you what I’m doing here. I’m looking for a way down – desperately – but I can’t find one. I tried to keep climbing. I heeded that voice that said, “find the other guys, it’s safer, you’re less likely to get savaged by bears.” But that was the first two hours, or seven. I got scratched up fighting through bushes. I climbed up into cul de sacs, and followed ledges to edges that just fell off and died. And every time I tried to retrace my steps, I ended up somewhere different. It was never quite the same rock or the same tree. I wasn’t going around in a circle so much as a spiral, and I never got back to where I started. Although of course I did.
It’s OK. I wouldn’t say panic has set in just yet. The sun’s still high, there’s plenty of time before darkness descends. And anyway, I’d yell my arse off long before then – that decision’s been made already. I can’t do the full metal scream like Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden (who was never lost in the woods for very long, incidentally), but I’d have a bash. If it’s scream or death, I’m not going to fuck around. But the trouble with panic is the more you tell yourself to “stay calm” and “stay hydrated” and “watch out for snakes”, the more you sound like you’re panicking.
OK, so breathe a minute. Slow the fuck down Sanj. In fact, that’s good – use your name, it might have a calming effect. Because you knew this was going to happen. You knew the minute you saw the rucksacks.
Here’s how it started: I came out here to do a story about this amazing rock climber called Alex Honnold, and he told me – “dude, we should hang out while I do some press shots with Black Diamond, they’re one of my sponsors. We’re going to spend a couple of days in Yosemite just taking some pictures basically, it’s going to be supermellow. Actually, you probably need to bring a book or something because most of the day, you’re going to be just hanging out while I climb.”
Mellow day in the country? That I can handle. So I brought my little pot pipe, some magazines and a couple of bags of Kettle Chips in case of munchies between meals. I couldn’t wait. The scenery looked gorgeous on the drive up.
But then we met the Black Diamond folks – every one of them in a puffy jacket and proper footwear. And they were on a mission, looking at maps and saying “we’ll go here for this shot and there for that shot” and no mention of a leisurely lunch and a pint along the way either. I watched them pack their rucksacks with sandwiches and trail mix and Gatorade and all kinds of other shit I didn’t have. And they looked at my little laptop bag with its dainty little side pockets and asked politely: “hey you want to borrow a rucksack? Might be easier for the hike.”
What hike? No one mentioned any hike.
“We have to hike to the rock face for Alex to climb. It’s about forty minutes, no big deal.”
I knew right then I was fucked. My gut told me. And you should really go with your instincts in the wild – I should have bailed right there, booked into a B&B, got zonked and ordered a bacon sandwich. Instead, I took their rucksack, and put my laptop bag in it, which made it kind of lopsided. And I pretended that everything was just fine.
The first hike started beautifully. They all set off, trudging quietly up into the woods, and I was marching along with them, trying to crack jokes and make friends. But after three minutes – a full three, mind – I felt it in my chest, the altitude. I started panting like a hound, just choking for oxygen in this monstrously pure mountain air. And pretty soon, I was lagging badly, like the fat kid on a cross country run – I was the pity case, the liability, the first one to get eaten. Swearing didn’t help, though I gave it my best effort: “fuck me, Jesus fucking Christ, oh my God, aargh…” And they just looked at each other wondering – he’s Esquire’s outdoors guy? Really?
There was this one bit where the snow had hardened on the slope and with every step I took in my smooth-soled Diesels, I just came sliding back down into the dirt. “Fucking bollocks fuck.” Five goes at this and I had to call for help. How did they just walk up this – was it a shoe thing, because if so, did anyone have any shoes maybe? A girl called Sandra turned around: “Just kick your toes into the snow to make a step, then push up.” And it worked. It wasn’t that I had the wrong shoes, it was that I don’t even know the most basic yellow belt techniques of, you know, walking.
I realize now just how poorly I fit in with this crowd. I’m OK to chime in on a debate about whether heinous is pronounced “heenus” or “haynus” (I vote “heenus” because it rhymes with “penis”, as in “that’s a heenus looking penis”). But beyond that, I’m from a different tribe. I hail from a planet of wine tastings and memory foam in the cushy endless summer of LA. This lot are from Utah and Colorado where they ski, snowboard, climb, absail, surf and wrestle, all of it on a diet of Gatorade and bark. They’re tougher than me, the girls included. They’re harder, fitter, stronger. And wilder too. I never heard so much burping and farting – proper growlers as well. And no one mentions it. It’s like that scene in The Nutty Professor, except no one laughs. Maybe farts aren’t funny in the mountains. Maybe farts are a matter of survival.
After that first hike, I played up my weakness to fit in. A classic pipsqueak move – mock yourself, lest you may be mocked. They use a lot of words here that I don’t understand – like “beta”, “cruxing”, “burly” and “rally” – but the one I get is “hardcore”. Outdoors types love a bit of hardcore. So does that make me softcore, I asked? And it stuck. Softcore – that’s your name from now on.
The thing about Softcore, he gets treated like a lady. The photographer, Burr, offered to walk with me on the hikes, setting off a bit earlier so we had a head start and didn’t slow everyone down. Nice guy Burr, even offered to carry my rucksack in the steep parts. He made me feel I was part of the gang, albeit the soft part.
But today, the schedule was just too tight. There wasn’t time to walk me up at a ladylike pace, so they left me behind. And now I’m stuck, half way up the hill, sitting on a rock, trying not to let the bad thoughts breach the levees. Easier said than done.
Far as I can tell, my options are:
1) Stay put until I hear their voices on the way down, and then start hitting the high notes like this guy.
2) Accept that I may never hear a human voice again, so better to just write a lengthy note to whoever finds what’s left of me after the bears.
3) Go down to the road. Just do it. At least I can see it from here. Take a deep breath, quiet the terror and complete the mission. Be a man, Softcore, your time has come.
So off I go.
The road is my promised land, my Xanadu, I can’t tell you how beautiful it looks from here. A pristine flatland of tarmac, white lines and freedom, it’s so much more picturesque than all those blah blah mountains and lakes. Nature is an asshole, I’ve decided. It’s all peaks and glory with gentle, duck-down names like Cloud’s Rest and Wizard’s Hammock but the closer you come, the nastier it gets. Nature is granite and rabies and murder. It seduces you with picture postcards, and then feeds you to the worms. I can’t wait to get back to my high crime gang neighborhood in LA. I’ll be safe there.
Wait – is that something? There seems to be a ridge that runs diagonally down towards the tarmac though whether it reaches, it’s hard to tell from here. It’s not the way we came, but so what? In this confusion of trees and rocks, this ridge stands out like a big black arrow pointing off of this mountain and back to civilization. Fuck it, I’m going to try. He who dares, Rodney. And even if it doesn’t work, I’ll at least be visible to emergency services.
But the further I go down this ridge, the hairier it gets. Your eyes tell lies from up high. What looks smooth may be nobbled up close. Gentle slopes turn out to have steep and plunging dips. So when I get to maybe fifty feet from the street, it’s gotten treacherous – the last stretch is slick with water, and my bullshit Diesels aren’t feeling too clever.
So I crouch down and cling to the rock on one side. It’s like I’m clutching a banister with both hands and sliding down slowly, trying to get traction with my feet on the way. But the banister is a sharp Toblerone of wet rock, and my feet can’t always find support. At times, I’m just hanging there by my fingers, heart pounding. And what – only thirty feet from the street? Come on you bastard! Come on!
The home strait is pure drama. I reach for a hold and my backpack swivels around from right to left shoulder, throwing my balance completely. Immediately I feel the strain – this isn’t a position I can hold. So, clinging on with my right hand, I unclip the pack from my waist, switch to my left hand, and then let the thing drop, who knows where. I claw down a few more feet but then it runs slick again, and the ridge just stops. My knuckles are cut open and bleeding at this point, the blood runs down the rock with the water and it’s getting harder and harder to keep hold.
I watch my fingers sliding off.
There are two choices – either just slide off, and hope I don’t pitch back and land on my head. Or jump – push myself off the wall and turn around mid air so that I land on my front and not my back.
It probably looks comical from the road – a little Indian guy clinging desperately to a rock barely fifteen feet up from the street. But to me, it’s epic. When I hit the tarmac, I land true – feet and hands, like a panther, no scuffing, no foul. And the rucksack is reachable, caught in some roadside shrub.
When I get back to the van, about a half mile down the street, I wash my bleeding fingers with water, eat my Kettle Chips and wait till the guys come tramping down the hill at sunset.
Burr’s laughing. “Softcore, what the fuck happened? You took a piece out of your finger there.”
“These fingers are meant for typing, Burr. I get cut if I pick up a pencil the wrong way.”
I tell them what happened – how I lost my way, got scared, and found myself holding on for dear life. Alex says rock climbers have a word for that: Vision Quest.
“Vision quest is like when you’re out hiking on your own and you don’t know where to go, and you’re tired, you’re cold, you don’t want to be there anymore – you just want to be down. We say, ‘oh, I was vision questing’ – that’s like, ‘I was just kind of guessing my way through on instinct and hoping for the best.’”
Alex has been there, too many times to mention. He’s the best rock climber in the world. His stories are terrifying – hours spent in freezing temperatures, sometimes without even any shoes. But I got a taste of that on this little hill. This hill that, by his standards, is so unspeakably trivial, it’s like a stroll to the 7/11… if he lived right next door to the 7/11.
“Dude, everything’s relative,” he says. “What’s softcore to me is hardcore to you, but it could be the other way around depending on what we’re talking about.”
I doubt it. These are the things that world class athletes say to make the little people feel better. But I know this – my weed survived the tumble. So I’m going to stick to my own version of Vision Quest from now on.