But we pick ourselves up and struggle on, like Napoleon into Russia, toward the JMT’s hardest climb–a 4,000-foot ascent to 12,100-foot Mather Pass. We scale literally hundreds of switchbacks, shooting-gallery ducks ticking back and forth. Squinting into the nuclear sun, my brain insists there are turkey vultures circling overhead, waiting to peck my blisters. I’ve known tired intimately: College wrestling practices that left me unable to lift my arms. A seven-day ski traverse in Yellowstone made epic by a five-foot dump of snow. But this takes the feeling to a new level: My mind seems separated from my body, insisting on uphill step after uphill step while my flesh moans silently. I reach the wind-chilled pass at 7:30 p.m., today’s mile 27. The sunset lights up lenticular clouds that crown nearby peaks like orange toupés. The lakes below sparkle like costume jewelry. My legs are cement posts. It’s absolutely spectacular. Todd is waiting in a thin down jacket; Stumbles has forged ahead to find a campsite in the dying light. We’re too gassed to wonder if this is a good idea.
Morning six. We’re descending mutely from Pinchot Pass when a voice calls from below. Mark Godley, a friend who’d planned to meet us for the hike’s final two days, snaps us from our walking coma; his freshness infects us. He’s arrived just in time: We have 60 miles to go by tomorrow night.
Afternoon six. Again, the Sierra resuscitates us. We take a quick dip in Dollar Lake. Then, a bit later, we scramble onto enormous glacial-erratic boulders for an elevated view of pearly Rae Lakes. Flirting with heat exhaustion on the 3,500-foot, nine-mile ascent to Glen Pass, at 11,978 feet, we string out.
Alone, Stumbles pauses to grab a snack from his lid pocket and notices the sack containing his eyeglasses and contact-lens kit is gone. He’s suddenly consumed by the terror that he’ll be unable to clean his hard lenses for the rest of the hike, and they’ll dry out and get itchy and sticky and cause him permanent corneal damage and quite possibly blindness. Moments later, Godley trots up to find Stumbles’ pack contents strewn over the ground. The man is sweating like Chauncey Billups, swearing like Samuel L. Jackson. "You gotta be kidding me! So stupid! I can’t keep going! It’s over!"
Speaking slowly and calmly, as one might to heavily armed hostage-takers, Godley reassures poor Stumbles that he’ll be fine, talks him out of his delusional plan to backtrack, and persuades him to continue on.