When semi-smart people do not so smart things

From trip #3 in 2005. This trip fell on a landmark year for me as I celebrated 10 years of sobriety in late July. Due to a back injury early in the year and a couple of poorly timed sinus infections, my training was disjointed and I wasn’t nearly in good enough shape for a realistic chance at reaching the summit. Instead, I considered Trail Camp at 12,000′ elevation a respectable and viable goal. It was still a 12 mile hike up and back from the Whitney Portal Trailhead at 8200′. Upon reaching Trail Camp, I was in a mood to celebrate.

Cigars: Not recommended above 12,000'



I like to think I’m a smart person, but every once in a while…

I’m still in no rush to head back down the mountain so I sit back down behind the boulder and take a cigar, a Fonseca 5-50, out of my fanny pack. When I was packing for the hike, smoking a cigar seemed like it would be a pleasant way to relax at Trail Camp. Given that 45 minutes ago I was out of breath and ready to collapse as I made my way the last mile or so to Trail Camp, I’m not so sure. Nevertheless, I feel recovered enough to give it a try.

It takes an almost comical amount of effort to light the cigar in the wind with only wooden matches. The usual ‘cupped hand’ technique is useless as the matches are blown out the instant they are lit. Next I get on my knees, facing the boulder to try to block out the wind, but again the results are the same. Finally, still kneeling, I duck as low as possible against the boulder. To someone passing by, it might look like I’m trying to scrape some of the lichens off the rocks with my teeth. I unzip my North Face jacket about halfway and use it to form a windproof cave around my head. I achieve a successful light of the cigar, but the accumulated smoke in the confined space of my jacket almost chokes me.

Once it’s lit and the cloud of smoke around my head has dissipated, I recline against my packs and the boulder, ready to relax. I can’t tell whether the cigar is dried out from improper storage or lack of humidity, or if it’s simply my fatigue and the altitude, but the taste is just about the harshest I’ve ever experienced. I stop for a few moments, drink some water and then I try a few more puffs. It still tastes offensive and I find myself getting queasy and the mountain is starting to spin . I drink more water and give it one last try. I might have given up trying to climb the mountain, but I’m sure not about to give up on a $7.00 cigar even if it tastes like I’m licking a charcoal briquette.

The next puff causes my stomach to convulse and I’m dangerously close to vomiting. Not only do I want to avoid puking for the obvious reason that it’s an unpleasant activity, but I have a long ‘no vomiting’ streak going. This streak is only 4 days shorter than my sobriety and while I don’t celebrate it and I have no fancy chips to commemorate it, it’s a streak I’m quite proud of. The date was August 4, 1995 and I threw up after getting sick from eating the continental breakfast at a motel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I suppose I should’ve asked which continent the breakfast was from. At the time, I was driving cross-country in a rented moving truck to relocate to New York City. With my 16-year old brother, Phillip proudly looking on, I made it to the parking lot behind the truck and puked on some ivy. Phil had joined me in Nashville and was driving with me the rest of the way to Manhattan to help me unload the truck when we arrived.

Since that day in 1995, through all my illnesses, real and imagined, I’d managed to keep the contents of my stomach moving in the desired one-way direction. Now, in a moment of what I suddenly realize is stunning stupidity, my long streak is in serious jeopardy. Thankfully though, my cigar-induced convulsions slow and eventually stop, but it’s another couple of minutes before I feel that the danger has completely passed. This episode will undoubtedly get filed in the ‘what not to do again’ compartment of my brain. This compartment, somewhere between the hippocampus and medulla oblongata, is so full of hard-learned lessons and ‘learning experiences’ that it’s surprising it hasn’t burst and caused me an aneurysm.


About victorvolta

I am a freelance photographer/writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I grew up in the very suburban city of Santa Clara. Education: San Jose State University (class of '84) BA degree in Journalism with concentrations in Photojournalism and English. Favorite Foods: Ribeye steaks and Stan's Doughnuts (separate plates, usually). Favorite Drinks: Strong gourmet coffee and Trader Joe's Blood Orange Italian Soda (separate cups).
This entry was posted in Book III Excerpt - 2005, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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