Words by Sara Aranda
July 11-13, 2016
The Incredible Hulk, Hoover Wilderness, CA.
The trail went from dirt to river-crossing to steep to talus, a tunnel in a patch of dense trees, then back to endless switchbacks across old granite bones: large fragments of time, now steps to the cathedral we were about to enter. “You know it’s big when it never gets bigger,” someone in our party let out between elevated breaths. The Hulk, despite our progress, yes, seemed so far away. We were approaching 9,000’ and the wildflowers were in full bloom, the sun piercing our skin with harsh intention.
I was drawn to addressing the Hulk as she, for she had been the siren of our dreams. She was a beacon, in essence and in light, like a fiery gemstone, the alpen glow like nothing I had ever seen. Her geometry was unlike her siblings, her beauty, absolutely bewitching. I couldn’t believe we were finally there. Waterfalls bounded off cliffs and snowfields were carved at their edges in wavelike structures by thaw and warmth from rock that traced them. We had stumbled upon an alpine jungle. I was wanting to hear animals wail and mist to billow up from the creek – it was Shangri-La, Patrick joked, but it was true. And as we carefully kicked steps into the soft, white breast of the canyon, the Hulk remained the centerpiece, her crystalline edges giving her a mystifying face.
We were told, but could have never imagined the beauty of this place. Here, was where Patrick and I would be wed – up there, on top of a quasi-prism, a formation with so much history, life, and wisdom. From the depths of the Earth she was born, and there she loomed. It had been more than 6 months since I came up with the wedding idea, and after whiling away to an unfulfilling job for the sake of living in Yosemite National Park, I was so relieved that we were finally living it, stabbing our trekking poles into the snow to steady our shoes.
We set up camp a few hundred feet below her base, where the last remaining trees offered comfort from sun and wind. We gathered fresh water from a melting snow pile and settled into warm clothes for the evening, lit up the JetBoil and threw in our Ramen, cracked some eggs into the broth and topped it all off with zucchini and hot Expedition Sauce. We were after cheap luxury – thankfully Rocky hiked in all our food. The previous night, Patrick and I slept at 7,500’ to help prepare ourselves for the altitude. We were closer to 9,900’ now, after 6 miles of heavy packs, and definitely fatigued.
First sunset was of course the most magical. The glow was hot iron right from the starry forge, the Hulk the knife-edge blade – an ode to its time spent as molten stone. The shadow of the mountain horizon, however, slow and silent, crept up her face in a matter of minutes. It was time to sleep.
Mountain, My Witness
She unsettled more than my consciousness. Months of stress regarding time away from work, of training enough and dealing with a foot injury that I still don’t know if I should see a doctor for, left me with, more or less, a bit of stage fright. I can’t fail. But I also wanted to respect her, remain a guest, and keep expectations neutral. While we slept, I tossed from side to side. In the middle of the night I was startled from sleep by a yell – rather, a death-fearing scream. In my daze I imagined someone falling, my eyes staring at the tent wall, listening. It had come from Cheyne and Drew’s tent, and Brian piped up, “Are you guys alright?” Something about nightmares, Cheyne casually answered. Was this a warning? Was Drew dreaming of tomorrow?
No, was what I finally decided. I won’t let it be.
Patrick and I both awoke sometime later with the need to pee. We sleepily rose and waddled about the stones. The canyon was surprisingly lit in a blurry twilight. I glanced up and was immediately transfixed. Absolute bliss. Purple hues and glowing dust clouds, backlit by the darkest of wombs. It was hard not to stare at the Hulk, too. Her presence demanded my thoughts.
And so the stars rotated around her and the moon rested light upon her silent face. She continued to haunt my dreams and remained in shadow all morning. We geared up, taped our hands. I donned my short veil and a garter for my leg. I so desperately hoped that the rock wouldn’t be frozen. I didn’t want to deal with the “screaming barfies”, but it was something I told myself I’ll just have to push through – this wedding is going to happen, damnit, my gut confirmed.
She was cold and still when we first touched her. But she beckoned. We asked for passage and she let us dance into the crawling sunlight. The wind howled and hissed as we placed hand and foot. Time had no meaning. We were without need, only want: to be there, and forever change ourselves.
Patrick told me in the car ride to Bridgeport that he saw this as rebirth in a way: marriage. But not in the sense that things would change, because we knew nothing would, but in the sense that we are offering ourselves to the other, entirely, for the purpose of a redefinition of life together. He would give the climb everything he had, leave nothing to fear. The symbolism of adaptation, of union, we felt went hand in hand to the art and experience of trad climbing. And to make things even more interesting, we were doing the route for the first time.
We shivered at the belays. Yet, the cold was manageable – maybe it was the excitement that kept me warm in the end. I led the first two pitches, and Patrick took over for the crux. He hid it well, but later confided that he was fighting nausea.
The large, red dihedral served as a temporary wind block, but I could still hear it. Sounds of crinkling grocery bags, or windbreaker jackets, or the clothing of a falling person (which I’ve witnessed before) – it all would come suddenly, almost violently. I kept looking around, frantic, for the source of these strange sounds, expecting things (or people) to be plummeting down, but they were just invisible sweeps, all crashing, twirling, dancing, diving off one ledge to another in pure abandonment. Was she toying with us? I couldn’t help but feed off that energy, and laugh.
Patrick made the crux move look very effortless, he was so focused. His foot came up and he placed it. But I watched his foot bring with it the nut he had set to protect that very move, the blue sling draped over his shoe. I froze. If he fell, he was looking at a 40+ foot plunge into a corner and I would have to undergo a potentially violent catch at a gear belay. I didn’t have much area to move, so I breathed slow for him, kept quiet. He held his head straight, placed a shitty piece for mental ease, delicately reached down to his foot, grabbed the nut and replaced it into a crack at his chest. Bomber. When he finally traversed over to where Cheyne and Drew were, I heard him laughing and energetically explaining what he narrowly avoided.
I rounded the corner of the dihedral for my next lead and stepped out into the sun for the first time. I wandered from ledge to ledge and checked my topo constantly as I linked pitches. There were moments where I felt truly alone, despite the context of the whole situation. We were the only ones on the route. There were several parties, but all on different lines. I couldn’t see anyone anymore. It was beautiful. My breath echoed and my mind read the rock, read the stories of her fissures – you would look up, speculate, but had to remain without expectation, be present for every movement. A meditation, just me there, ringing metal sounds, pulling rope from an abyss, this mountain, my witness.
The higher we went the looser she became. Chockstones as big as cars teetered so delicately. For an alpine route, it’s pretty darn solid, Cheyne had commented. Patrick led the way to the notch, a false summit, and it was there that we decided to hold the ceremony, 7.5 hours in. I changed into a knee-length dress and scrambled barefoot to a sublime overlook. The wind was cold but we found refuge in the sun.
And so it began.
“This is a celebration of love, commitment, of friendship, family, and two people who are truly in it forever,” Drew read from our script. Patrick and I cited a poem by Pablo Neruda. We said our I Do’s, read our vows. “Our entire lives have brought us to this very moment,” I wrote for mine, “[…] These mountains echo our truths, forever change us, and will now bond us beautifully.”
The canyon below was stunning. Two long alpine lakes glistened a dark turquoise. The wind played with my veil. I would squeeze Patrick’s hands to keep warm. I could barely make out a red dot, Cheyne’s tent, from the patch of green trees. Granite blocks balanced in seemingly gravity-defying ways and the sky was a splitter blue.
After changing back into our climbing gear, we finished the final pitch to the summit of the route, where we signed the register, more or less at 11,300’. We managed 9 pitches for the 1200’ ft of climbing, not too bad. Patrick and I stood, raised our hands and cheered several times. Our voices echoed loudly off all the surrounding walls, then faded into the sky and on to somewhere else…
Having to descend, in the midst of our euphoria, we had to remain aware and calm. The sun was beginning to ride the westerly ridgeline. It took us about 9 hours, including the ceremony, to finish the route, and Patrick and I had only consumed 500 calories each, at most, during that time. And as we rappelled and de-harnessed for the “hike” down the enormous scree gully, I was really starting to feel hunger pangs. Our feet slid with every step as mini rockslides echoed like shattered stones do. Occasionally I’d send a football-sized chunk rolling down, and I’d stop to watch it tumble towards Patrick, but they’d never catch up to him, so I eventually relaxed, let my feet glide, almost like ice skating.
Sunset happened and it was just as fiery as before. We were still close to the base of the Hulk, so I watched the light burn away what we’d all just climbed, almost in ritual, as if cleansing herself, to remain pure for the morning. Now an ode to the transience of life – she was already moving on and so were we.
“It didn’t erode, it arrived,” was the conclusion that Brian and Patrick came to that first day. The Incredible Hulk is more than her name, she has come to represent something absolute, a tangible thing, place, experience – yet, she has become elusive again, now in memory. But we did it. It was more than we could have ever asked for. And this is only the beginning, a glimpse to what Patrick and I will do in our lifetime together.
We hiked out on day three, after a windless, mosquito-infested morning. Hours in descent, across stone and trail, back to the aspen grove, where the leaves clapped and the grasses whispered their content. Patrick and I sat among them for a little while, as Cheyne gathered some audio. We couldn’t help but smile and giggle, lost to the music of this wild world and these happy little aspen songs. Shangri-La, I kept thinking. Just beyond the sawtooth. A paradise manifested from our motions, our psych, and our love.
Want to watch the wedding video? Click here for Cheyne Lempe’s short film, As Long As Life Endures.