The scene: Mission Peak summit. I’m looking due west at a layer of clouds — a flat, fluffy white lawn of condensation — at eye level.
The whole valley has been fogged in all morning, and the only way to get out of the fog is to trudge three miles of steep trails to the top of Mission Peak. It’s not exactly a mountain, but bigger than a hill. The 90-minute hike to the summit provides a sweaty, heavy-breathing example of an aerobic workout. It’s a hundred miles from your Stairmaster.
Four years ago I got it into my head to climb Mission Peak. I drove past it every day for three years when I lived in Fremont — it’s the highest hill along the way, and it sits there like a dare. In the summer of 2000, I went to the hill every day for two weeks but never made it more than a quarter of the way up. The paths were too steep and I was too far out of shape. So it never happened.
But since I’ve moved to the hills east of San Jose last month, I’ve been taking morning walks of about 5 miles every day or so, with quite a bit of hillclimbing. Friday morning I walked a mile down the hill and survived the mile back up, which made me wonder if I was ready to take another crack at Mission Peak.
Yesterday morning I gave it a try. It felt like the hardest thing I had ever done. I didn’t take my camera so words will have to suffice.
The trail is dusty but wide — lots of people are coming down as I go up. Moms, dads, kids, teenagers. Without words, they tell me: we made it, so can you.
The first half-mile is the toughest. I’m sweating and my heart is racing within 15 minutes. My lower calve muscles are starting to scream, but I’m used to that. I make it to a rocky outcropping that marked the point where I’d gone the highest before. I pause for a few minutes to catch my breath and realize: wow, I don’t feel worn-out at all. Let’s see how long it lasts.
From here it’s one switchback after another. It amazes me how few of the hikers are caucasians. Asians and Indians (the ones from India) outnumber the white folks by at least three to one. Most are speaking their native languages. Provides a bit of backdrop on why those Brits who went to the Himalayas found Sherpas willing to help them scale Everest. It’s universal: people see a hill, they want to climb it.
The climb is never easy, but I get used to the strain, and rest every 10 minutes or so. About halfway, I look toward the peak and see the cloudy mists passing a field of blue sky. It’s sunny up there, and fogged-in down here. Another motivation. I’m going to need all I can get.
About three-quarters of the way up, I’m starting to tire out. I walk five minutes and my heart is beating like mad, so I have to stop and let it calm back down. My calve muscles have gotten used to the strain but the rest of my body is telling me: stop this nonsense now, dammit.
But I round a bend at the top of a ridge and the sight gives me fresh inspiration: it’s a view of the back side of Mission Peak that I would never have seen if I hadn’t made the climb. Makes me realize why people get hooked on hiking. The view is different up here.
I turn to my right and the summit is in clear view, maybe a quarter-mile away. “You’re almost there,” says a beefy guy who passes me on the way up. Must be my heartbeat is audible to pedestrians.
Here the trail turns really steep and rocky. There’s a guy up ahead of me who has hiked all the way to the top carrying a huge backpack. I’m tempted to ask “does a hundred yards from the summit count?” But I know the answer of a veteran mountaineer, and trudge on.
I’m taking mostly baby steps, picking my way though the rocks, but I’m getting very near the top. The beefy guy is on his way back down, he says, “don’t worry, this is the hardest part,” and I say, “oh, no, the first half-mile is the hardest.” He smiles indulgently and picks his way back down. (Actually this stretch is much harder on the way down because the footing is a lot more treacherous).
When I get to the top I want to scream, “Look, Mom, I made it.” But I’m seriously winded, so I sit on a rock to rest up for the hike down. I start a conversation with the huge-backpack guy, who’s resting, too. He tells me Mission Peak is great training for hiking in the Sierra. He hefted that pack all the way up there for practice. Now that’s a hiker. I’m a hacker by comparison.
After my body recovers from the shock of the ascent, it’s time to head back down. The rocky area near the top requires tiptoeing and stepping with extreme care. I lose my footing once and land on my butt, but luck is with me and nothing is injured. But I’m a lot more careful after that slip.
After I get out of the rough patch, this Indian guy in his late 20s walks up on my left and we start gabbing. He’s a software guy who’s been in the U.S. since the late 1990s. It’s an hour’s walk to the bottom so we have plenty of time to chat. We talk about movies and arranged marriages (he has one, and assures me it’s going really well. “It’s all about learning to make accommodations for the other person,” he says in his Abu accent.) He’s funny and charming with a quick, bright smile.
At the bottom of the hill we shake hands and part ways. “Maybe I’ll see you up here the next time,” I tell him. “Well, it’s a small world,” he says.
(Here’s one guy’s Mission Peak hiking pictures. His route wasn’t exactly the same.) If you’re thinking of hiking in the Bay Area: Mission Peak is a hard slog even for people in good physical condition, but if you’re used to going uphill for a couple miles at a time, it’s really no worse than an invigorating workout.