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The walls were covered with dew from the night’s mist. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and put on my cotton sweats over my wool long johns and unzipped the tent. The crisp morning air felt like a soft slap across my face. Pops was already up, sitting by a low fire overlooking the fog rolling across the lake. Maiz was sitting on his lap with his tongue hanging out, mesmerized by the flames. I grabbed my enamel camping mug and stirred together a pack of instant coffee, cocoa powder and some water Pops had boiled. I don’t usually add chocolate to my coffee, but I had to mask the stale taste of instant coffee.
“Hey Pops, did you draw the map to Kaster Peak?”
“Yes, I have it right here.” He shuffled Maiz to his side and pulled out a folded piece of paper covered in charcoal stains.
“The dotted lines are the main path. That will be easy to follow and the trail goes for about 4 miles until you get to a fork. There will be a sign that points to Kaster peak and another that points toward the PCT. The trail will get narrow and harder to follow but you will begin to ascend and you’ll see the peak. Follow the cairns until you get to the Summit. It’s very important you observe your surroundings while you go up and make markers in your head so you don’t miss the path on your way down. Pack a lot of water, it’s going to be hot today.” He handed me the map, smiled and turned his view back towards the lake.
“Thanks Pops.” I smiled and then got up, eager to pack my bag. I grabbed a couple Cliff bars, and filled my 32oz nalgene. I changed into shorts, a tshirt and a fleece. I put on my New York Yankees baseball cap and waved good bye to Pops.
Tall fir trees towered over me as a hiked along the pine needle beds beneath me. I was making good time when I arrived at the fork. I saw the arrow shaped driftwood with the name Kaster scratched in, pointing NW. I followed the sign and and soon after I was gaining elevation fast. The path was getting narrower and steeper. The abundance of fir trees was decreasing and the ground was becoming sandy and rocky. Finally, after being lost in the trees and abundance of wildlife I could see the whole peak right in front of me. I stopped, propped my foot up on a rock and stood like Meriwether Lewis with my hands on my hips staring at the tip of the peak.
Every summer my Pops and I drive up to Summit Lake and spend a week swimming, and fishing. We had a goal to hike Kaster Peak, but Pops has gotten a lot weaker over the years and his worn body wouldn’t make it. I decided I would go alone so I could share my experience with him before he’s no longer with me.
I gulped some water, adjusted my backpack and buckled the strap across my chest. I saw the first cairn a couple meters in front of me and a second one not far from it. It was reassuring to see them so close. I was a little nervous of losing my way, but I felt confident it would be easy if I just followed the cairns. The last 4 mile segment was harder than I anticipated. It was steep and there was a lot of scree. Every step forward was a couple steps back. My calves were burning and sweat poured out of my body, but I trudged on. The last ½ mile turned into endless boulders. Every other step a rock would shift and I would freeze, praying not to start an avalanche of rocks, dirt and a 17 year old girl. I summited safely and found a secure boulder to sit on. Sweat dripped down my body forming streaks through the film of dirt that covered me. I gulped most of my water and ate my Oatmeal Raisin Clif bar. The sky was ombre blue and endless mountain ranges covered with dark green shrubs surrounded me. A gentle breeze cooled my beaten body as the sun burned my flesh. I dreamed of having Pops here, playing cards on the peak while discussing our blistered feet and how we almost got crushed by boulders on the way up. It hurt to daydream of the impossible so I shifted to thinking of how I would describe the view to Pops, drinking hot cocoa by the fire. On my way down I pictured Pops and Maiz eagerly waiting for me.
I was ¾ of a mile down the peak, when my stomach twisted into a knot and my mind began to panic. I completely neglected to keep an eye out for the cairns. I whipped my head all around searching for a cairn, but there were none in sight. I realized I had no idea if I even descended off the right side of the peak, my mind was lost thinking about Pops and camp. I calmed myself down and decided to hike back up and search for a cairn. I started hiking up but the scree was so bad I could barely get anywhere and rocks were falling all around me. It was too dangerous and would take me hours to get back to the top. I only had one choice and that was to go down, back into the trees with no view or sense of direction. I kept my eye out for cairns and familiar landmarks but I couldn’t find anything.
After an hour I was at the bottom of the peak completely emerged in fir trees. I was tired, dehydrated and afraid. I sat on a fallen tree, drank the last 5 oz of water I had and ate half of my Crunchy Peanut Butter Clif Bar. I took off my tennis shoes that were once violet with a coral nike swish. They had turned brown and the seam by my toes was starting to rip. I poured out the sand and rocks that had snuck in during descent. I stared at the 6 inch mound of rubble as it sat anomalous on the bed of pine needles. My stomach kept churning every time I thought about Pops worrying about me. He doesn’t have the strength to worry and the guilt I felt was overwhelming. I walked another mile and didn’t see any sign of a path or cairns. I kept on walking towards the unknown.
Miles and hours later I was stumbling. Dehydrated, exhausted, hungry, I was a zombie hoping for luck. Pops said to pack two water bottles, and to look for landmarks. I ignored him, I was arrogant, too confident in my capabilities. Tears started dripping off my red, crusty, burnt cheeks. My face was burning, my feet were ripping and shins cracking. I was dizzy, fading into hallucinations. I heard a yapping echo in the distance. I wanted to yell. The noise was so loud, it irritated me. How could something be so obnoxious in this forest of beauty.
“SHUT UP! I’m resting!” I yelled more irritated than ever. Then a huge slobbery, stinky tongue slapped me on the face. Suddenly I felt calm again. A sense of relief and happiness rushed in my body.
“Maiz… Is that you?” I started weeping and looked Maiz in the eyes and confirmed my discovery.
He led me to a path that I immediately recognized as the path we hike our gear in on every year. I saw Pops, stumbled over and fell in his arms.
“The sky was baby blue, like the bike you first taught me to ride, the mountains were endless and they looked like they were covered in green rugs, like the one grandma kept on the porch, raggedy, knotted and covered in different shades of brown and green. The wind was light, enough to blow out a candle, and give oxygen to a fire. Can you see it Pops? Does it sound familiar?” Pop’s was carrying me, he looked worried before but now he was smiling and nodding.