Trying to arrest tyrants like Robert Mugabe is a tiring, stressful business. Even I need a break. So I headed for Palm Springs, California, to indulge my passion for mountain hiking.
Palm Springs is no ordinary desert resort. A mere half a mile from the main street, mountains rise steeply to nearly 11,000 feet. During winter, while the town basks in 28?C sunshine, the peaks are sub-zero and snow-capped.
The morning after my arrival, I set off for the summit of Mount San Jacinto (10,804 feet). Surprisingly, I was the only hiker. But that was fine by me. Like Greta Garbo, sometimes I love to be alone. From 8,000 feet upwards, the air was a chilly 2?C and the trail was dotted with snowdrifts. With the sun blazing fiercely through the cloudless, thin atmosphere, I soon worked up a sweat. Everyone warned me about the cold, but not about the heat. I didn’t bring any shorts. What to do? Since no one else was hiking, I did the practical thing. Stripping off my jacket, shirt and trousers, I stuffed them in my backpack and headed upwards through the snow, wearing nothing but my boots and underpants.
The combination of icy wind and warm sunshine on raw skin felt deliciously exhilarating and vaguely sensuous. Or perhaps the oxygen-deficient atmosphere was messing with my brain cells. Hiking through boulder-strewn pine forests, across wildflower meadows and up snow-covered valleys, I was deliriously happy. As I progressed higher, the snow got thicker and the trail vanished under deep drifts. Eventually it became ascent by trial and error. I began to leave marks in the snow to aid my return journey.
At lunchtime I reached Wellman’s Divide, a ridge between two valleys, at just over 9,000 feet. Climbing on a giant boulder overhanging an escarpment, I had an awesome view of a dozen lower peaks. My glorious solitude was, alas, rudely interrupted by the sudden appearance of a panting, unsteady fellow hiker. Gary was a macho, all-American kind of guy in his mid-forties. My near-nakedness startled him. His obvious exhaustion alarmed me. I asked whether he was fit enough to make it to the top of San Jacinto. He appeared to take this suggestion as a slight to his manhood, and took off along the summit trail.
After lunch, I resumed my upward trek. The snow got deeper, the trail tougher and the temperature colder. Time to don my shirt and look respectable again. I soon caught up with Gary. He was puffing and disoriented. Despite my attempts to dissuade him from continuing, he remained adamant. Concerned for his wellbeing, I felt obliged to walk with him.
After another half-hour, I suggested we turn back. From 4 p.m., when the sun falls behind the mountain, the temperature plummets and the light fades. But Gary wouldn’t entertain the idea. His mission was to get to the top and prove his machismo. Not wise at all. On an icy mountain, safety sense is more important than macho bravado.
I was now faced with an awful dilemma. Should I look after myself and head back down the mountain? Or should I stay with Gary? I knew it could be fatal to get stuck on San Jacinto in sub-zero darkness, but it was too risky to leave him. Gary continued climbing, like a zombie. Then, near Miller Peak (10,500 feet), he collapsed, too weak to go forward or back. This was serious. Do I go for help? By the time I got to the rescue service it would be dark. They wouldn’t be able to reach him until the morning. If he were trapped in the snow overnight, he could freeze to death.
My first task was to get Gary to eat energy foods and put on extra clothes. This took ages, because he was so weak and cold. While he fumbled, my mind wandered. If we were forced to spend the night on the mountain, we would have to build a snow hole and curl up together to stay warm. Could Gary cope with cuddling a man? How would I feel about hugging a straight guy?
After much delay, we started descending. Gary was slow. As I feared, the trail proved hard to follow. My markings in the snow on the way up helped, although some had melted in the sunshine – proof that I never mastered my ABC of scouting. From 4.30 p.m., the temperature was below zero and falling. My hands and face turned numb and blue. It was also getting darker. We chatted and joked inanely to maintain our spirits. It was a race against the diminishing light and temperature. As the big freeze set in, the trail became treacherously icy. Semi-delirious, we stumbled many times.
During the descent, there were moments of selfish introspection. If I had left Gary behind, I would now be warm and safe. Instead, I was a frost-bitten, hypothermic, whingeing, self-pitying mountain drama queen. Pull yourself together, I told myself. And, in the end, I did. Against all odds, in semi-darkness we staggered into the ranger station, frozen and exhausted – but alive and with no permanent damage.
And the moral of this story? Trying to prove your manhood can be dangerous and could result in the ultimate humiliation for a macho man: being saved by a nancy boy.
Information on hiking in Palm Springs can be found at www.PalmSpringsUSA.com.