Strange Bedfellows in the Sierras
In this odd-couple pairing, the mountains were the least of our problems.
Mt Williamson & Mt Tyndall
August 24-28, 2019
This was my first climb with Tuck. We’d met through his brother Wes, my former fraternity brother. Online, Tuck struck me as arrogant, condescending, and self-aggrandizing, hardly the type of person you’d want to spend a few days stuck beside. But on Wes’s assurance that he was a solid climber, we agreed to try a short trip to the Sierras to climb Mt. Williamson (14,379) and Mt. Tyndall (14,025).
We drove from San Jose to Lone Pine, a journey of seven hours. Tuck is a relentless chatterbox, enough to make any introvert seek solitude. So when we pulled into a rest stop for the night, I opted to set up my bed in the parking lot while Tuck slept in the car. Not great for sleep, but the stars were well worth it. Sleep time: two hours
It’s always tough to know how you’ll fare with a new partner. If they’re too slow, you’re in for a long, dreary ride, but even worse, if you’re too slow, you feel like you’re holding them back. Luckily, Tuck and I were a nearly perfect match. We kept up a quick pace, cruising from the Shepherd’s Pass trailhead up to Anvil Camp, where we had a quick lunch and water refill, then up to The Pothole. At every rest stop, Tuck would take out his pipe and smoke some marijuana. Amazingly, it seemed to lift his spirits and increase his speed, much like caffeine.
While we were physically a great duo, our clashing personalities were a constant headache. Tuck kept up a steady stream of dialogue, ranging from insults about my looks (repulsive) and my goal of climbing the 7-Summits (too pedestrian) to the pearls of wisdom he’s gleaned over his thirty-one years. One particularly enlightening segment was: Why white women are inferior to Asians and Latinas.
Both informative and racist. What a delight.
We set up camp at the Pothole, and with such relentless sun, Tuck decided to go find a campsite that was shaded. His “perfect” find was on a slightly sloped hill, but in a shady grove. He reasoned that two semi-intelligent people could dig out the ground and make it level. This proved to be incorrect.
With the previous night’s lack of sleep weighing on me, I went to bed first. There was a slight dip in the ground, but I wasn’t sliding, so I didn’t think anything of it. Less than an hour later, Tuck joined me. I was having trouble drifting off, perhaps from the effects of altitude, and in a rather sweet, (and unexpected) gesture, Tuck offered to rub my back to put me to sleep. In the end, all he managed to do was lull himself to sleep. By now, the slope was becoming more evident. Tuck is no featherweight, and he had a sleeping pad that looked like a small raft, far eclipsing mine in every dimension. No longer bracing his weight, he and his sleeping pad were like a glacier, slowly closing over me. I braced myself between the ground and his body, trying to hold onto any space I could claim as my own. Finally, hours later, he reached critical mass and swallowed me entirely. I was mashed into the ground, pulling the tent sideways with me.
I remembered my hiking partner, Doug’s, parting words: “Don’t let that idiot steamroll you.” If only Doug could see me now.
“What the—?” Tuck asked, waking up to a sideways tent and a missing partner.
Realizing I was beneath him, he grabbed me under the armpits and tried to yank me out of the sinkhole, only to realize half my body was trapped under his. Tangled in our gear and each other, we scrabbled our way toward the exit, further upsetting the tent in the process. With our departure time looming, I grabbed my sleeping bag and pad and pulled them outside in the hope of salvaging whatever was left of our night. But without Tuck’s furnace-like body heat, sleep was impossible. I lay awake, shivering, for hours.
Sleep time: two hours.
Alpine start at 3:30am. We climbed up to Shepherd’s Pass, about 1,000’ of gain that gave us our first clear view of Tyndall. Tuck had a smoke, and with the burst of energy it granted him, began rattling off all the climbs he’d done, focusing heavily on the latest Class 4 terrain he’d conquered for a summit. He suggested that if I wanted some real climbing, not the pansy peaks I’d done, I should go to South America and immerse myself in the Andes. I pointed out that he was, once again, being an insufferable braggart.
“You honestly think I’m bragging?” he asked. “This is me being humble. You have no idea how good of a climber I am. Our mom taught us humility, and I take that shit seriously.”
What followed was a twenty-minute back-and-forth insulting each other’s character, until we finally agreed that we had no interest in ever being friends, and trying to resolve our differences for the sake of peace was pointless. Strangely, admitting this out-loud seemed to instantly snuff the tension, as if it had removed the pressure of creating any sort of bond. The rest of the ascent passed without argument.
The next obstacle, the Williamson Bowl, loomed ahead. A mishmash of lakes, ice fields, boulders and scree, it had a demoralizing drop that erased all of our elevation gains for the day. We rock-hopped our way across, until finally landing at the base of a massive scree slope—our last big vertical push before the summit.
The altitude was now beginning to affect me, and Tuck pulled into the lead, though he was mindful not to go to far ahead. As we trudged up the sandy slope, what I lacked in speed, I tried to make up for with relative grace. Tuck had a knack for setting off minor avalanches. (RIP anyone below us.)
On a pee-break, Tuck ran ahead to scout out the terrain, and when I caught up, he mentioned a “gnarly Class 4 route” he had taken to get to that point, bragging about what a tough climb it had been. Knowing his tendency to exaggerate his own prowess, I was skeptical, and frankly, I was tired of him by this point. So I asked him to point it out to me. I’ll admit, I’m no expert on the fine lines between terrain classes. But looking at the “gnarly Class 4” that could easily be walked down, I felt confident that neither was Tuck.
Our final obstacle to the summit was the Chimney, a thin chute extending vertically through the rock to the ridgeline above. After hours of trudging through scree and loose rock, climbing the Chimney was heaven. I only wish it was longer, because less than ten minutes later, we were on the ridgeline, back to trudging. A short walk brought us to the summit, where Tuck took some naked summit photos. (As one does, naturally.) He waxed poetic about the beauty of the surrounding landscape, but honestly, I thought it was all a bit brown and dusty looking. I’ll take my “lame” 7 Summits any day.
Descending back into the bowl, we were in high spirits, knowing the most difficult ascent was behind us. In a celebratory mood, Tuck smoked a double dose of weed, giving him a manic energy. With both of us feeling strong, we decided run back across the boulders, jumping from one to the next, racing across the labyrinth of obstacles. The last uphill landed us both doubled over, gasping about whose stupid idea this was in the first place. Choking and coughing, we crawled the rest of the way out of the bowl, our burst of energy spent.
On the way back down to camp, we passed a campsite where an older man and his grown son flagged us down. “Can we ask you some questions about the Williamson route?” they asked. Ever the social butterfly, Tuck stepped right up, telling them what direction to climb and how good of shape they needed to be in. Hearing him talk about the many Class 4 routes they needed to be prepared for caught my attention.
The son looked at his father. “Really? I thought it was just the Chimney,” he said.
“And the bowl is full of Class 3’s,” Tuck added. “You need to be in really good shape to get across. Especially for all those Class 4s right after.”
By this point, I was starting to wonder if Tuck just had a sick fascination with saying “Class 4.”
“That’s not what it says online,” the son said. “I don’t think that’s true.” He looked at me for confirmation. I just shook my head, knowing Tuck was embellishing the truth by quite a stretch, but not wanting start another fight.
“I’m not so sure you guys want to do this climb,” Tuck said.
I wanted so badly to grab his arm and drag him away from the conversation. I’ve been on the receiving end of one of his “you’re not good enough” shakedowns, and it has never led me to feel anything but belittled. I made a show of stowing my water bottle and starting down the trail, hoping he’d take a hint.
Luckily, he said his goodbyes and followed, but not before saying, just a hair too loudly, “There’s no way in hell they’ll make it. Did you see those two guys?”
The irony was lost on Tuck, an overweight stoner with an impressive beer gut.
A smatter of irritated voices drifted back to us.
“I think they heard you,” I whispered.
“Good!” he shot back. “I’ll say it right to their f-ing faces!”
He spun around, mouth open to yell back, and, mortified, I grabbed his arm and shoved him down the trail. This was an especially ugly side of him that I knew existed. In texts, he would often build up his own accomplishments, while tearing down those he deemed “unworthy” for whatever reason. He’d done it to me when I first told him I was climbing the 7 Summits—a meaningless accomplishment in his eyes. But to see it in person was unsettling. The whole attack seemed needlessly cruel and ultimately pointless, as the two men had already reached high camp, and just needed some route beta.
“You didn’t have to say that,” I said. “Just keep that shit in your head.”
He shook his head. “I could be the last voice of reason they ever hear. I had to tell them the truth.”
Sick of whatever God/Savior complex he was playing into, I chose to ignore him.
We dropped through the Pass and headed for the only obstacle that could end in serious injury below the Pass line. A steep ice field cut across the trail, with a narrow ledge to carefully walk across. A slip could send a climber zipping a few hundred feet down the ice to boulders below.
Tuck bounded toward the ice—whether with the gusto of his extra celebratory weed smoke, or the righteous joy of telling two men they were inferior—and jumped from the surrounding rocks onto the narrow ledge. (Note: he later claimed he was stomping the ground, not jumping. But I was right behind him and I’m nearly positive he jumped.)
The extra drug use, plus the spat up above, plus the un-Tuck-like unsafe behavior immediately rang my alarm bells. I never like to mother people if I can avoid it. It usually changes the team dynamic for the worse. But not knowing Tuck’s drug habits, I was suddenly very worried about him climbing across. The thought of calling Wes to let him know I’d gotten his brother killed suddenly seemed a tad too likely.
I put on my best serious voice. “Tuck, get off the ice. Now, please.”
“I’d like to lead this section.”
“I can self-arrest in my sleep! I’m completely fine!”
“I’d still like to be in front.”
When he continued to glare at me, I softened my tone. “Please. I’ll feel safer if I’m up front, okay?”
He glowered at me, but moved back onto the rocks. I began a slow crossing, forcing him to move at a safe speed and kicking in deep steps for him to follow. Or if, as I suspected, he was high as a kite, to give him a reminder of what he was supposed to do.
He giggled. “Look at the 7-Summiter with her fancy kick-steps. I didn’t think you guys knew how to do that.”
If it hadn’t been antithetical to what I was trying to achieve, I would’ve turned around and swatted him. Crossing complete, we walked in silence back to the camp, me fuming at him internally.
As if sensing my mood, he offered an olive branch. “I don’t actually think you’re that ugly,” he admitted. Not receiving any response, he continued, “You’re really muscular. You’re built like a brick shithouse.”
“And you have these big, crazy eyes. And a giant smile with, like, a thousand teeth. You look like an owl with dentures.”
“Let’s just stop talking, okay?”
At camp, we made dinner, dug out the campsite to make the tent more level, and settled in for the evening. As the sun sank down, Tuck’s mood seemed to lift, and I caught glimpses of the man without the armor of bravado and arrogance. How he wanted to find love; how he wanted to be respected by his peers; how he wanted to be the kind of person someone might look up to. How can you possibly tell someone that the facade they’ve constructed is exactly what makes them unlikeable? Still, it was nice to see that softer side, and we spent the evening telling stories and jokes while sipping cheap liquor. Far too late, we decided to go to bed, where he pulled me close for warmth, as if we’d never fought that day.
After about an hour and a half of sleep, we woke up for another alpine start. I idly wondered how long a person could go without sleep before they collapsed. Tuck was also feeling sluggish, so we climbed up to Shepherd’s Pass at a “slow” pace, only to reach the top ten minutes faster than yesterday. Even feeling lousy, it seemed like our bodies had gotten used to the altitude.
After a quick smoke, Tuck’s peppiness returned full force, and he lead the charge up the North Rib of Mt Tyndall, a mix of scree, talus, and flat, granite slabs. I was more than happy to shut my brain off and just follow his footsteps up the slope. After a fairly quick climb, we popped out on the summit ridgeline, a string of exposed Class 4 terrain—exactly what Tuck had been yammering on about for days. I was thrilled to see some actual rock climbing, as moving through loose rock had gotten tiresome.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be so exposed,” Tuck said, eyeing the steep drop-offs. “I’m not sure I’m emotionally ready for this today.”
I shot him a look of exasperation. How many times on this trip had he bragged about his skills on this exact type of terrain? Not only that, but he had berated two men because he didn’t think they could handle it. I resisted the urge to call him a pussy as he gingerly stepped out onto the rock, slowly easing across the ridge. After only about twenty minutes (why is the fun stuff always the shortest?) we reached the summit.
I took my topless summit photo (as one does, naturally) and we started back across the ridge. As we neared the more difficult sections, Tuck turned back to me and said he wanted to bail on the route. Once had been enough. I fought to hide my irritation, since I’m sure it took guts to admit he was uncomfortable with the climb. But this was the most fun I’d had on the trip, and he had made it a point to repeat, ad nauseum, how much he excelled at this exact situation. Having him quit was a huge letdown.
Disappointed, I dropped off the ridge, onto the sheer granite slabs below. How this felt safer, I have no idea. With no holds of any kind, only friction kept us from sliding down the face of the mountain. Tuck seemed perfectly at ease, walking upright, while I kept all four limbs on the ground, lest anything begin to slide.
“We left the fun stuff for this shit?” I called out to him.
Seeing me splayed out on the rock, he laughed. “What’s wrong with you? Just stand up and walk!”
I made a mental note to never again show him kindness when he’s scared.
The rest of the descent passed in a blur of stone and sand. We dropped back down to camp, packed our bags, then set off on an eight-mile hike back to the car. For the entire journey, Tuck was unusually silent.
“You okay?” I asked. “You haven’t said anything in hours.” The end of a trip can sometimes bring on the blues, and I hoped he wasn’t feeling down.
“I just know you’re tired of my jokes,” he said. “Everything I say annoys you, so I thought you might like this better.” He paused. “I think we’re a great team, and I want you to like me so we can do more of this stuff together.”
Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment. Perhaps I think I can somehow unearth that sweet, kind Tuck that’s buried under bravado and bluster. Or maybe I’m just happy to find someone who’s willing to climb some gnarly rocks with me (at least in one direction). Whatever the reason, I felt my icy heart melt a little.
He may be arrogant, socially inept, and sometimes even downright cruel, but maybe, just maybe, he’s worth one more try.