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My first attempt to a 10,000 feet mountain…. BIGHORN PEAK
by Chi Chan      8/17/1999

“Why don’t you sing, Charlie?”, with his usual soft voice, Mr. Michihiko Okamoto (Mikie), broke the silence. “I am concentrating on my breathing”, Charlie apologetically replied.
Three of us, Mikie, Charlie and I pushed ourselves slowly towards the hill.  We began our 3,000 feet ascent after a 4-mile relatively flat hike. A few seconds later, I started to feel a little bit shortness of breath.

“A flu-like symptoms, pulmonary and cerebral edema…swelling of the lungs and brain, these ailments can strike the strongest of climbers at any time during an ascent….even at a relatively low altitudes......” The fear of altitude sickness as described by Katie Arnold in the “Outside” magazine reminded me that I needed to slow down.  Nevertheless, it was my first attempt to climb a 10,000 feet mountain. As an inexperienced hiker for a high altitude climbing, I was nervous and I could not hide this fear from Charlie and Mikie. To calm me down, Mikie persuaded Charlie to sing, but in vein, Charlie was nervous too.   Mikie changed his position from watching over me from behind to leading Charlie and me up to the hill.  He told me not to rush, just walk on my own pace…. The night before, I carefully packed my backpack: lunch, water, fruits, and snacks.  I knew I would need lots of energy to reach the summit.  Besides the Gore-Tex jacket, I threw out all the unnecessary items from my backpack.  With two big bottles of water, my backpack was already heavy enough to carry.   The next morning, I woke up 5 o’clock, fully dressed and waited inside my tent patiently for George’s morning call.   As soon as I heard Charlie’s voice, I jumped out of my tent, forced the instant noodles that Mikie prepared into my stomach. I stood quietly beside George, Mr. Chan, Mikie and Charlie and waited for them to call on me.

Even in the summer time, the morning temperature in Yellowstone was brisk cold.  As we drove through the geyser area, the cool temperature intensified the steam rising from the hot springs and the entire region was covered with heavy smoke.  George had to slow down the vehicle to stay on the road. During the two hours drive, my mind wandered back to 4 years ago when my interest in mountain climbing began……..

It was Nancy and Allen who first inspired me into mountain climbing. I still have a vivid recollection on our Mt. Washington (6,228 feet) climb back in 1996.  Both of them seem to have endless energy to conquer one mountain after another.  Later, after I met George and Mr. Chan, their influence on me became greater.  I heard stories about them hiking 12 o’clock in the morning in order to reach a summit last year.  I was fascinated by their determination and was anxious to find out how it felt to be at the top of a 10,000 feet mountain with them.  Back in April of 1999, when George invited me to join the CMC annual hiking trip to Yellowstone, besides being excited and honored to be part of the team, I was also concerned about my ability to hike with George and Mr. Chan. 

Since then, I started my daily training.   After work, I would go jogging for 30 minutes, later increased to 45 minutes and eventually became an hour every day.   Even when the temperature reached 100 degree, it never stop my routine training. Jogging not only could build up my leg muscle, but also could help me to control my breathing.  Strong leg muscle is essential for a strenuous hike, whereas proper breathing technique is a skill for high altitude climbing.  Four months training prepared me for the today’s hike. My dream was about to come true.  The cool air outside our car woke me up from my deep thought. Looking over to George, Mikie and Mr. Chan, I knew it was show time for Charlie and I. “Is that Bighorn Peak?”  I pointed at the mountain next to our car and asked Mikie naively. “No, not that easy” Mikie charmed me with his shyly smile.  “You cannot see the mountain from here, we have to walk around a few mountains to get there. The trail head is right across from the highway, Why don’t you start first.”

The last thing I wanted to do to these four gentlemen was to slow them down. Without waiting for Charlie, I took Mikie’s advice and started on the trail immediately. I hiked with a rather rapid pace and Mikie was never more than 10 feet behind me. Later, Charlie caught up with me and warned me to reserve energy for the upcoming 3,000 feet ascent.  I no longer hold my emotion and I confessed to Charlie that I was indeed very nervous about this hike. Charlie had so much confidence in me that without second thought, he told me that judging our previous 18 miles hike with Hayden Valley, we should even try for the “Electric Peak”. (Electric Peak is the toughest 22.2 miles hike for this trip, only a few people are qualified for this climb) That is why I like about Charlie, always so optimistic, so cheerful, so wild and so fearless.  Everything for him is “no big deal”.    These past few days, Charlie and I were getting along so well as a partner.  We did hiking, sightseeing, cooking and even laundry together.  Since “Big brother” Allen was not here, Charlie automatically became my protective figure.  

As my lung demanded for more oxygen, Mikie switched his role as a leading man among three of us. Mr. Chan and George, for some reason, had not caught up with us yet.   With the help of his two walking sticks, Charlie stayed right behind Mikie.  I did not let these two males escape from my sight and clung closely to them.  Every upward step, I took a deep breath, kept the air in my lung for a few seconds and slowly blew it out from my mouth - the technique I learned from my daily jogging.  After a while, my breathing seemed to become evenly smooth.  Even the hill kept going up, but my lung was no longer demanded for more oxygen. Three of us ascended the entire first 2,000 feet without resting. We slowly adjusted our body to the high altitude climbing. To my surprise, I was as if hiking on a flat land. My training indeed worked!! 

At the short break, Mikie took out his map and showed us where we were.  He told us we had already half way through the hike and we had made a very good time.  He looked at Charlie and me and confessed that he was too old for this.   Looking at the fine lines around his eyes and across his forehead, I could not help but admiring this Japanese man. This is the first time I met Mikie, but he had left such an impression in my mind. Mikie has a quite personality. He plans his mountain climbing carefully.  A detail map, description of the trail, location of the mountain and its surrounding area are known to him in advance.  Even as an experienced hiker, he does not take any mountain for granted. The respect he has to nature, no doubt, has rewarded him a safe and successful climb each time.  Mikie is also a simple man. He does not need any famous brand name sport clothing, a simple T-shirt is his climbing gear.  Looking at this man, there are so much we can learn from him. I smiled and shouted at him teasingly: “NEVER!! Never too old for anything!”

As we looked around, goldeneye, mules-ears, alpine sunflower, showy daisy, paintbrush and mountain gentian wildly spread across the hill.  Suddenly, a wild mountain chicken flew pass us.  If it were not the climb, we would have caught it for dinner. From a far distant, Mr. Chan was sending us a shouting signal.  They finally caught up with us. Mikie suggested that we should go and united with them later at the summit.  Our last 1,000 feet ascent was not difficult except the hill was getting steeper. When we joined Mr. Chan and George at the summit, it was before noon. We had made an excellent timing accordingly to Mr. Chan.   Five of us standing at the top of the mountain and we saw:

Mountains, countless layered all under one cloud,
Heaven and earth, indistinguishable greeting at horizon,
Electric Peak, powerful guarding the earth, and
Alpine flowers, easy spirit wavering in the wind……
Nature, indeed is the best artist!

As we continue to study our surrounding, we noticed that unlike most 10,000 feet alp, Bighorn Peak does not have a rough and rocky summit.   On a contrary, its peak is covered with meadow.   Bighorn sheep are the frequent visitors of this pastureland.  That is how this mountain gets its name.    About a hundred feet from us, Mr. Chan spotted 10-12 White Mountain goats walking idly along the cliff. Some babies were fearlessly strayed from their mothers and it caused the entire group to start the chasing.  As they finally disappeared from the horizon, we realized that it was one of the awards for our today’s hike. 

Since we had made such good timing, Mikie suggested that we should conquer another summit, which is not far from us.  We had to first made a 150 feet descent and climbed back up for another 200 feet.  The rocky trail leaded us to the other summit with minimum difficult. Looking back at the Bighorn Peak from the other direction, we discovered a completely opposite condition of the mountain.  While the south side of the mountain is covered with meadow, its north side bears nothing but crumbling rocks and sands. This extreme condition can be explained by its geological location.  During the summer time, warm air and moisture travel to the south side of the mountain.   Due to its high elevation, the mountain blocks those entire warm air and moisture from going across to the north side of the mountain.  The dry condition dampens any vegetation from growing on the northern part of the slope. In addition, the northern hill exposes to the sun only a few hours everyday.   Before the ice has the chance to melt completely, it re-freezes back to ice again at night.   This frozen process continues breaking rocks into pieces. Years after years, the mountain crumbles into loose rocks, ravines and, hoodoos:Standing at the peak with these three experienced hikers, my dream eventually came true. I saw what they saw; majestic mountains, grandiose bounders, dangerous cliffs, frozen ravines, various alpine flowers, wildlife animals, bluest sky, whitest cloud, endless horizon and many many more.  You need to hike with them, suffer with them and at the end you will feel and enjoy what they experienced.  I guess that is how it felt to be at a 10,000 feet mountain with George, Mr. Chan and Mikie. This hike, after all, was an educational and memorable one.

When we left the summit, it was 1:00 p.m. and we reached the parking area at 3:10 p.m. In 2 hours and 10 minutes, we finished 7.5 miles.  Mr. Chan, George, Mikie did not hike down to the mountain, they RAN! Charlie and I had no choice but following them.   That entire running created a stomach problem for Charlie and I suffered by running behind him.  Right before we arrived at the parking lot, I saw Mikie taking advantage of the nature.  He was bathing (with his pants on, of course) himself in the river. For him, that was the treat for his hard work. 

Back in the parking lot, Charlie and I asked whether we should try the “Electric Peak”, Mikie smiled and said: “ you both are over qualified!” Mr. Okamoto may not mean what he said, but his remark definitely gave me the biggest encouragement to hike with them next year. George, Mr. Chan and Mr. Okamoto, I will be ready!

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