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Old Partners

Posted on: June 29, 2008

When we were students, the mountains were an obsession, no, a religion for us, and we were their most loyal disciples. The spring break of our senior year, Gabe and I decided to make a trip into the Eastern Sierra, to an area known as the Devil’s triangle of the west. We had a hankering to be first on something, and after perusing survey photos and old articles from Alpine Journals we found what we thought to be our line. A just less than vertical crack that split the face of Mount Chouinard, a quiet little 11 thousand foot peak, that like many others in the Sierra, had jagged snarling teeth and a soft, flabby ass, making for an easy hike down. Gabe and I were not vying to be first to stand atop its summit, some surveyor while drawing the first maps of the Sierra Nevada probably did the smart thing and hiked up the backside. No, we wanted to find a new route to scale our way up the nearly vertical East face of the cliff. There were several photos taken in the sixties by some climbers who ascended a series of cracks that split the face neatly into two separate sections. We were going to climb some other cracks that meandered a bit, interrupted by big ledges and a few low angled sections; nothing too proud, but it would be our baby.

Gabe and I prepared for the hike into the canyon that surrounded Mt. Chouinard loading our packs with our climbing gear and either running stadium stairs, or dripping sweat on the Stairmaster at the gym. When we worked out, other students would stare at us as we cranked out endless chin ups, weights dangling like giant iron testicles from our climbing harnesses. We were consumed by the absurd notion that our climb was somehow important, and would change ourselves on some fundamental level. We knew our route wasn’t the most difficult line on the face, and if it were any other place in California, closer to the highway, and not in the Devil’s triangle; the East face of Mt. Chouinard would have seen thousands of climbers each season, with dozens of routes and variations reaching the summit.

Mt. Chouinard though, provided Gabe and me with the perfect opportunity for a real adventure without getting ourselves killed in the process. We both heard the stories of the Devil’s triangle - tales of compass needles spinning like helicopter blades, weird weather changes, hauntings - even Bigfoot. There is an abandoned Ashram built by an eccentric railroad executive that was the site of sexual magic rituals in the 1950’s. These stories kept many from venturing onto the bleached granite that Gabe and I longed to touch more than the power these campfire tales had to contain us.

Our routine was simple, it worked for all our other trips, and we were a superstitious lot, so we stuck to the comfort of repetition. After Gabe’s Molecular Bio class ended, I was standing in the chilly fog next to the van with a hundred pounds of climbing and camping gear swelling the stitching of my backpack. Gabe arrived, the big cargo door of the Stinky Dodge opened and I tossed my backpack into its open maw.

Six hours, several pee breaks and a kidney rupturing dirt road ride later, we were parked at the trailhead. The desert night had vanquished the air of everything but the cold. We crawled into our sleeping bags leaving only the tips of our noses exposed, and attempted to sleep in spite of the growing excitement.


Three hours or so slip by; I had fallen into a meditative bliss, shrinking into a tiny embryonic version of myself that one is solely capable of while sleeping under the stars. We are awakened from this near nirvana by the dull thud and sharp ping of something soft being hurled at Gabe’s van. The sound was like an empty fifty five gallon drum being hit by giant spit balls " solid and thunky, but a little moist. The next sound though was Lovecraftian in its indescribability " a single note, A above high C, but wrenched and angry. It entered my head rattling around inside looking for something soft to pummel. The shriek was followed by more pelting of the van and a low shuffling sound that indicated movement.

I needed to pee, and I almost did…

I looked over towards Gabe and he lay almost perfectly still. I was hoping that his academic knowledge of animals coupled with his family’s ranching background would lead to some reasonable answer to the immediate question in my mind: JUST WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT THING!?

I was afraid to move out of the combination of two separate fears, the general fear of being devoured by another creature balanced by the fear that Gabe would ridicule me for being terrified by the mating call of a Stellar’s Jay or some such ridiculousness. I put my faith in the childhood logic that as long as you don’t move, the monsters can’t get you.

Silence again, this time pregnant with the potential energy of another shriek, or something worse.

The sound came again, louder and sharper, ricocheting off the steel of the Dodge. Gabe turned toward me and said:

“Let’s get in the van.”

For some God awful reason, I started shrieking back at the noisemaker, jumping around in the chilly night air waving my arms like the robot from Lost in Space. Gabe looked at me like I was completely batshit, but then joined in making an inhuman high pitched wheeze and gurgle. Soon, we were collapsed on the floor of the van laughing nervously at the re-enveloping silence; whatever it was had gone.