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Taking life one step at a time at 9,900 feet
Dennis Wyatt

Life is taken best in a bunch of small steps.

You understand that when you're perched 9,900 feet up gingerly stepping across loose granite boulders on a razor thin spine with a drop-off on one side of 5,000 feet with another 2,000-foot or so drop on the other side.

I'd been focused on hiking to Cloud's Rest in the Yosemite high country for close to six months. I had even arranged to take my 15-year-old nephew Garrison MacQueen on the hike that I sandwiched between a hike up Mt. Whitney the day before and then the tourist magnet that is known as the Mist Trail the next day.

Then about two weeks ago I made a mistake. I looked at a YouTube video taken with a video cam by a hiker covering the treacherous spine dubbed "The Razor." It was 21 seconds long but long enough to make me question my sanity.

It didn't help that Internet postings of the hike described the narrowest part as being between six and 10 feet. Nor was it reassuring that some postings focused on a 53-year-old woman who went over the edge in 2009, bounced a couple of times, and came to rest 80 feet below on a ledge just short of a long drop-off.

After hiking just over 7 miles from the Sunrise Lakes Trailhead with a net gain of over 1,700 feet we arrived Thursday at "The Razor" that stretches for some 1,000 feet before you reach the summit that is a generous 50 feet wide.

Garrison was following me, making it all that more important to make sure I selected the right steps across the uneven granite boulders across the ridge that often required a careful three to four foot step up. This wasn't a good time to suddenly discover one of us had vertigo.

There were two spots that sent off "this-isn't-a-good-idea" alarm in my head. Before me was a granite rock with a four-foot wide surface that was about a three-foot step up. There was probably a good two feet on either side of it wouldn't do that much good if you lost your footing stepping up.

For whatever reason, I remembered advice given to me from a judge from Exeter I was with bicycling up an 18 percent grade on my first trip to Death Valley 26 years ago. Instead of keeping an eye on the crest, he told me to focus down on the ground and gain strength in covering short distances while periodically glancing up quickly to make sure you were still on course. His theory was simple. Herculean tasks become do-able if you break them down into small steps. It helps build confidence and fights becoming disheartened to the point you give up on the journey.

Even though "The Razor" was somewhat dangerous to cross - I wouldn't do it in high winds nor in wet weather - it didn't warrant a panic attack.

Once at the top, the views were incredible especially the smile on Garrison's face.

Garrison is convinced I'm crazy. He told my sister my idea of resting while hiking uphill was walking instead of running. While that is a bit of an exaggeration, what isn't is the fact I gained strength from Garrison.

The day before at just below12,000 feet on Mt. Whitney Garrison developed altitude sickness. He had been moving at a steady pace before it hit. He started getting sick to his stomach and got a throbbing headache. I suggested we go back. He wanted to keep going. I figured as long as we took it easy we could see what happened. The time between stops kept getting shorter and shorter. That said, Garrison's smile never disappeared. Finally, it was clear that going on would just make it worse and would make whatever additional net elevation gain we managed to put behind us toward the 14,505-foot summit not just painful but problematic if it created lasting problems impacting our descent.

Turning around was a blessing. On my two previous trips up Mt. Whitney, I didn't take time to explore the scenery I passed. It is a demanding 22-mile day hike that you start an hour or so after midnight so you can summit early enough to beat the darkness on the way back.

On Wednesday, though, we had time to take in a lush sliver of an alpine meadow at just below 12,000 feet, talk about life while watching fish jump out of the water at Mirror Lake, and stand for 10 minutes at one point of the descent around 9,000 feet and debate whether five birds that were making cooing sounds some six feet in front of us on rocks were some type of quail since all we saw them do was hop around.

And although I was disappointed for Garrison that we didn't summit, I can assure you his company and unbridled enthusiasm about what we were able to see as far as we got made it an even more rewarding experience for me than the time I actually did make it to the top. The view from the summit is nothing but miles of vastness defined by endless granite. In terms of sheer wonder it can't compare with seeing the world through the eyes of a 15-year-old.

A 15-year-old who, by the way, was downright fearless when we talked about hiking Cloud's Rest and saw not an exhausting hike but an amazing adventure.

And no matter how hard or tired he got, he never stopped smiling.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Courier or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.