Sierra Rising

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

Today we are featuring a piece by Max Lam, a member of the Washington chapter for Outdoor Asian. Max, thank you so much for sharing your voice with the rest of the community.

We are now officially inviting guest writers and contributors to the Outdoor Asian blog: let's hear your scary, inspirational, funny, emotional, weird, and most of all, genuine stories! Email OutdoorAsian.info@gmail.com

Without further ado, we present you: Sierra Rising, by Max Lam


Californian sunlight crept through my window blinds, and the intruder cast an image onto my dark computer screen. A pair of sallow eyes, hollowed into a colorless face, stared at me. It was an unwelcome reminder that I had neglected food, human companionship, course attendance and hygiene.


My room had devolved into a sty of empty Vitamin C jars and bottles of aloe juice. I lived and obsessed over books and articles about 18th Century America in an attempt to forget the world of 2011 America.


Instead of class, I consumed my 5th or 6th book about the Age of Exploration that week. I was lost chasing an ahistorical fantasy; a dream of vast tracts of wilderness devoid of cities and people. Maybe then, I would feel comfortable existing in this world.


My agoraphobia had left me crippled with fear to leave my room, and I no longer had the energy to put on a mask of normalcy. The thought of people made me recoil. The outside scenery of palm trees, sun and skies would have many people running to the beaches nearby, but it was an annoying reminder of what I couldn’t do.


That October day, I stared at the reflection of a face I refused ownership of. Dots of sunlight scattered throughout my barricaded room, and they reminded me that I couldn’t hide myself from the world. Something had to change. I went online and searched for local communities. Music Lovers? Too much noise. Dancing? Clubs? Not interested in paying money to be in a tight enclosure filled to near maximum capacity with homo sapiens. Singles? No interest in mating.


Then my finger stopped scrolling, “Orange County Hikers.”


“This looks interesting,” I thought. I looked at the number of attendees at each event and felt nervous. “George Washington hiked,” I tried to soothe myself, “By the age of twenty-one, he was an experience frontiersman and surveyor. You’re twenty one; what are you doing?”


I scrolled through the event page until something caught my eye. “Hike to Thousand Island Lake.”

“There’s a lake with a thousand islands?” I thought to myself, impressed. “Sounds like a place you’d go to change your life.” I hit confirm immediately, not bothering to scroll down to learn that the trail was twenty miles long or researching to know there would be snow, talus fields, rivers and alpine altitudes.


Kind members of the hiking group drove me six hours from Los Angeles valley to Mammoth Lakes, a town hidden in the eastern face of the Sierra Nevadas. My heart fluttered as we left the gray jungle of highways and into the lonesome woods. Bright colors peppered the green trees nestled in the granite crags of the mountains. Autumn won over summer the further north we drove. The waves of foliage were dominated by gold, orange and red.


Mammoth Lakes

When I appeared at the trailhead to Thousand Island Lake in Agnew Meadows, the event coordinator was aghast, “My God! I would have never let you come if I knew this was what you were going to wear.”


I had socks and sneakers with holes, cotton jeans and a t-shirt and a tattered Jansport backpack (with my self-selected life-changing trail name, “MAX” puffy glued to the side).

And the biggest problem was, I couldn’t see the problem.


. . .


By mile two of trekking, the skin on my heels peeled. By mile five, my feet became aware of every jagged, granite rock beneath my soles. Mile ten, I had eaten the small, single loaf of bread I bought. Mile something-something, the snow melt crept into the holes of my sneakers, and stung my worn, bleeding skin like angry hornets.



Infographic of how dumb I was

I summited Mount Stupid that day, but for Thousand Island Lake … I didn’t make it.


But even with my deeply instilled sense of shame and perfectionism, I felt no failure. Any dark thought I had slipped through my fingers with the waters of the San Joaquin River. My breath melded to the air and with each gasp, I took in pure, unfiltered life. While my legs screamed and swore with each step, I couldn’t stop smiling, and that remained true with all the countless steps to follow.


On my trek back to Agnew Meadows, I caught sight of a shadowed mountain shrouded behind a thin curtain of sunlight. It’s prominence stood with dignity and power; it had loneliness that I commiserated with.


Banner Peak, I later learned, stood watch over my intended destination.


Banner Peak from Clark Lakes

I thought how much of my life was confined to the digital world. Each day I would glance through thousands of pictures online, and I thought I had seen it all. This was different; it was visceral. I felt what I saw: the coldness of the October sky, the gust that swept through the swaying trees and the crisp air I took in intertwined with my body.


My “condition” and unwanted memories had left me scared of the world. Fear became my king, and he ruled with me with despotism. But in these lonesome woods, it was quiet, even as an abundance of life stirred around me.

Here where the Sierra rises, the wind is the only song.


My heart yearned to stand by Thousand Island Lake, and see Banner Peak unobscured. I chose to live up to my “self-selected, life-changing trail name” and push myself to the max.


. . .

After regaining my ability to walk like a modern homo sapien a few days later, I signed up for the next adventure, headlined: “Hike through a snowstorm! (MT. BALDY).”

I rolled up to the trailhead, proud of my new hiking shoes and a backpack. I glanced around the circle of hikers on this trip, and realized I had dressed two or three layers too thin. I also lacked a strange item that sounded like a feminine product, “crampons.”


The coordinator looked at me from head to toe. I stared sheepishly at the ground, expecting the same admonishment from last week. Instead, he laughed and dug in his trunk for extra clothing and we set off.


That day, I summited a peak that was also named Mt. Stupid, but for Mt. Baldy …


I didn’t make it. Somehow, I felt no shame. I signed up for the next trip, I rented those crampons which turned out to be a set of gnarly spikes attached to your feet, not shark week’s little helper. Somehow, I found myself on my first summit the following weekend.


Over the coming months, I spent more and more time in the lonesome woods. I learned what to bring, what to wear and expect. I ate only chicken and fish to fuel this all consuming drive to see Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak. Nothing would stand between myself and my training.


I had planned to hike the Grand Canyon, and overslept my ride playing video games. In sheer desperation to go, I hitched a ride with a stranger from India who wanted to see the stars in the desolation of Arizona’s deserts. When I arrived, I was two days without sleep, and had no reception or contact with my party to go home. In mild delirium, I proceeded down and up the South Rim anyhow, and bumped into my company along the way.


I wandered around Morro Canyon and the trail named, “I Think I Can.” I turned to my friend, “Josh, can we?” “Hell yes.” He replied. We bolted up the hill, losing our breath within 1/5th of the mile and stumbled on our knees panting. Somehow, we crawled to the top with all we had.


I explored Southern California from the cold peak of San Jacinto above the golden desert of Palm Springs, the desolate canyons near Mexicali, the chaparral-covered hills by the sea. My body had changed into a vehicle. For once, I felt ownership of it. I regained self-determination I had lost to the hands of men years ago.

. . .

By May the following year, I sat by the waters of Thousand Island Lake. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a thousand islands in it, but that’s alright. It was still the most beautiful place in the world.

Though I made it to that coveted spot, I never stopped my walks in the lonesome woods because I had changed. I now lived for them.


Even when my life became a revolving door of diagnoses, antipsychotics, goodbyes, death, bouts of unemployment and binges of vodka … The mountains were still there. As it had been for centuries before, and it will be for centuries after. Life in there stirred, but was also still.


In the lonesome woods, there is reason behind everything: You are hurt because the animal was hungry, the rock was loose, the snow hid the river, the tree was about to fall when that gust of wind passed. In the world of people, there may never be a reason. A man open fire on a crowd of strangers enjoying music, kills 58, injures hundreds, kills himself. The finest, brightest investigators in the world never procured a reason. The leader of the free world mocks a woman recounting her nightmare. My nightmare. His people, half of my countrymen, laugh.

What is so funny? I can’t surmise a reason.


People see the wilderness, they think of an organic chaos, dangers, and inexplicable mysteries and wonder. I saw sensibility and order. Here in the lonesome woods, I never felt safer or saner.


It had been a few years since my walk in the Sierras. I stared at the blur of pine, as my friends drove through Sonora Pass on our way to Thousand Island Lake once more. My mind drifted to my acceptance letter to University of Washington, and then I thought of what my 5th or 6th psychiatrist had said, “You won’t be able to live an independent life.” He added, “You’ll just drop out, go into student debt and be unemployed.”


Those words still haunt me. Long after he was proven wrong.


“Should I chance this?” I thought then, “Can I handle being surrounded by people and navigate this complicated, scary world?” I decided to ask Banner Peak. That mountain that looked as lonely as I. That mountain that had changed my life. Surely, it holds the answers that doctors could never give me.


“If I could summit Banner Peak, then I have the strength to go to Washington.”


But I did little to help my chances. I had been busy the night before, swirling a tincture of vodka and random antipsychotics down my throat. When I opened my eyes, my friends had rolled up to the driveway and I scurried to their car, forgetting my jacket, trekking poles and countless other essentials. By the time I had hiked to Thousand Island Lake, my skin looked diseased from being torched by the sun and consumed by bugs.


I sat by the lake, exhausted from the self-harm I had put my body through. Banner Peak, my dearest friend, had never looked so intimidating. I was so angry. I had no one to blame but myself. I trudged back to camp and met a surprise.


“Happy birthday!” One of my childhood friends presented me with a freshly made cake.


How funny. I went into the wilderness to run away from people, yet here I found humanity in others and myself. I thought of all the friends I had made, and the reality was, I was rarely unaccompanied and the woods weren’t all that lonesome.



But my friends were much too nice. I didn’t deserve their kindness or hopes. I was messed up person who couldn’t be fixed by a line of doctors and a lab of medications. My irresponsibility, my incapability would cost them the summit.

After a sleepless night, we set off for Banner and it wasn’t too long before we ran into obstacles. The Sierras were blessed with snow that year to our detriment. We slipped on its slick, wet surface and decided to veer to the side in an attempt to scramble on the large granite rocks. The ice covering the rocks froze my fingers numb. The wind no longer sang. It howled and ripped what moisture I had left in my burnt and bitten skin.


We spotted another climbing party ahead of us, dressed in thick jackets and snowshoes, making their way up the slopes with ease. I was grossly unprepared, and the coldness of the high alpine didn’t diminish with the morning sun.


Somehow, we hobbled to the saddle of Banner Peak. I had never been both so close and far away from the mountain before. I huddled behind a large rock, as the gusts continued to cut my arms and face. It was apparent to me a safe summit wasn’t possible.


“I don’t think we’ll make it guys,” I said, holding back tears, anger and self-loathing. Was this my answer? Failure?


“Khuyen!” My old friend called, “Let’s go on a little bit more. Lake Catherine is just ahead.”


I followed him and dragged my feet across the snowfield. Every step felt heavy with thought, and the lack of fire in my heart made the chilling wind hurt all the more. But with the embers of my ambition, I made my way up the snowy hill and until something stopped my feet.


A gorgeous glacial lake rested at the heart of where the Sierra rises.


Even though I would turn around, I smiled. I smiled like I always do in the woods. I didn’t summit Banner that day. I never did, even in the years that followed I chose to not look back.


Because where I stood was more beautiful than what I thought was my peak.











The original piece is at this link.

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