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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

From Metaphor To Reality

If you have been reading this blog from the beginning, you may remember a discussion about the problem of advancing in a career as a professional pilot seeming to be a metaphoric mountain.

I was just talking to my son, Mike, about a friend of his, who is a mechanical engineer, but is contemplating taking flying lessons and perhaps working toward becoming a pilot.  That reminded my of how things looked and felt when I was at the earlier stages of that process myself.  When you look at the point where we are in the story now, I am a first officer, a co-pilot on a Boeing 747, flying around the world for one of the wealthiest companies in existence.

This struggle, the climbing of this metaphoric mountain, is what this blog is all about.  Remember, the sub-title is How Not To Build An Aviation Career.  Observing the young man sitting in the right seat of that 747 and not knowing the story of the preceding 25 or so years, you could see the achievement as a forgone conclusion.  If you have read the entire blog, you know it was not.

Sometime, during the 5 years I flew the 747, I had a weekend layover in Ontario, California, where UPS had a fairly big west coast hub.  I had learned about a cable tram from Palm Springs California, up the eastern slope of Mt. San Jacinto, during my time flying for Pacific Express Airlines.  The tram rises from about 2,500 ft. above sea level to about 8,500 ft.  From there, you can hike about 5 miles to the summit at 10,800 ft.  The drive, from our layover hotel at that time, to the tram is about 70 miles and a little over an hour, depending on traffic.

These are pictures of the current tram cars.

This car is from the time that I first rode the tram.

I decided to rent a car and drive to Palm Springs to give it a try.  I decided to drag the captain I was flying with, Mark W., out there with me.  He was dumb enough to go for it.  As we were eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant, another 747 captain, Keith, walked in and joined us.  I threw out the lure and he went for it too.

This was probably the most unprepared mountaineering expedition I have ever been on.  It was also my first.  We were wearing our airline pilot layover clothes, shorts, t-shirts and white running shoes.  I may have had a baseball cap to block the sun.  We brought a small duffle bag one of us carried some of our stuff in while traveling and bought bottles of water on the drive to fill it.

As you drive eastward on Interstate 10, you realize this area is really a desert.  Mt. San Jacinto is visible almost immediately, if the sky is clear.  You can also see Mt. San Gorgonio, with the Banning Pass between the 2 mountains.  As you clear the pass and turn toward Palm Springs, you see the wind farm.

This is hog heaven for my lefty friends.

We drove up the steep, 2 lane road to the lower station, parked the car, walked up the steeply inclined parking lot, entered the station and bought our tickets.  There are 2 cars traveling in opposite directions and we did not wait long for our ride.  The transition in topography on this ride is dramatic.  The ride is only about 10 minutes and it quickly takes you from the hot desert to the cool, lush forest above.  

On a later trip, in the winter, there was a cloud layer to be penetrated about halfway up and there was deep snow at the upper station.  We popped out of the clouds and the transition was from a warm, summer like day, to harsh, cold winter.  I always describe it as a Jack In The Beanstalk experience, because it was like a fast trip to another mysterious world.

The upper station is a large, 2 story building with a couple restaurants and a small nature center discussing the wildlife on the mountain.  When you learn that there are black bears and cougars up there, you realize you are not at the top of the food chain.

I have made so many subsequent visits to this station, I don't remember exactly what my 2 fearless captains and I did there on this trip, beyond passing through and starting down the winding, paved path to the trailhead.

After a short walk, we arrived at the ranger station in Round Valley to get our permit.  Off we went, looking like a small group of dorks.  Western trails are not nearly as steep as those in the Appalachian Mountains, back east.  These trails were designed and built for pack animals and were much more humane.  Everything is based on switchbacks, which can be boring, because you feel as if you are not changing scenery very quickly.  They add distance, but they save you from steep climbs.  Because of the higher elevation, breathing was difficult and the switchbacks were appreciated.

We had bought a map, which is always a good idea.  The trail junctions were fairly easy to identify and navigate.  Most of the climb was under the forest canopy and it became a little cooler as we climbed, compensating for the increasing body heat as we burned calories.

Near the summit, we finally broke out of the forest and all that remained was a rock scramble of 100 feet or so on hands and feet.  The view in all directions was spectacular.  We could see Mt. Gorgonio to the north and on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean is visible at Los Angeles, 100 miles west.

This was really cool and I now had some inkling of the thoughts and feelings experienced by those nut jobs who climb dangerous mountains all over the world.  I was hooked.

Somehow, my earlier obsession with the mountain metaphor of my career building experience had now merged with the reality of hiking to the tops of serious mountains.

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