Fifty Peaks

by Dinesh Desai

We climbed three peaks in Mt. Diablo State Park. The year before, Joy and I had hiked all the trails of the park. We had to cover many miles each day and never had the luxury of spending much time on any of the peaks. It was different this time: we would sit and leisurely eat our lunch. Later, as if to reminisce, we spent the night at the same hotel at which we had stayed the previous year and ate at one of the excellent restaurants we had dined at before. It was like a mini vacation.

Apparently, I had some natural talent to trade the markets successfully. In a Wall Street Journal poll, 74% of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies ranked commodity trading at the top of the most stressful activities. This was followed by 42% for advertising and 21% for investment banking. I could handle stress and I continued to do well. I had my fame, fortune and fun; what I was missing was someone to share it with. I had a brother, a sister and many other relatives in India, but none in the U.S. I needed a spouse. I was in my early thirties, and unlike today, most people were married by the time they were thirty. Though the pool of available women near my age was shrinking, it hadn't dried up. Barbara and I dated for about nine months and got engaged, but a couple of weeks later she got cold feet. She had become a Christian Scientist not too long before. She wasn't comfortable with my agnostic/atheist beliefs. We are products of our life experiences and mine had made me turn away from religion. I was crushed, but in retrospect, it was for the best. I wouldn't have been happy with an extremely religious person. Then I met Joy. That meeting was to be the third seminal event of my life. She was recently divorced and had two boys, five and seven. When we got married a year later, I caught up instantly with my friends who had married maybe ten years earlier. All four of us had to learn to adjust to the new family unit. It wasn't easy, but slowly things fell into place. There was a silver lining to the fact that Joy was divorced. During school vacations, we were able to travel to offbeat places while the boys stayed with their father. The more memorable ones were our trips to India, walking safaris in Africa and staying with native Fijians in Fiji. Of course, we took all the usual "All-American" family trips with the boys and went car camping and hiking too.

Dinesh and the boys in Maui, Hawaii

Dinesh and the boys in Maui, Hawaii

We had spent our honeymoon in the Caribbean Islands. One afternoon, Joy was reclining on a lounge chair after taking a dip in the pool. As I approached her after finishing my drink at the bar, she asked me if I could get her a towel. After I handed her the towel, a woman sitting a couple of chairs away asked me if I could bring her one too. After a week in the tropical sun, my skin was several shades darker than it normally is. She had assumed that I was one of the hotel staff. I took no offense, and not wanting to embarrass her, I got her a towel. I felt that if Joy were Indian, the woman would have associated me with Joy and wouldn't have mistaken me for a hotel employee. Many minorities in my situation would have been very upset. I had never felt racial discrimination and maybe I am just more self-assured, but this incident didn't bother me at all. In fact, I felt good that I had helped her out. I have a different perspective. We all survive by continuously profiling people and situations, notwithstanding the current political correctness about such things. And many times we are wrong. I too have misjudged people and I am willing to cut slack for others.

In 1984, I became interested in a political issue. Senator Hayakawa and the U.S. English action group he founded were pushing hard to make English our official language. I grew up in India where a number of languages are in use. The state boundaries have been drawn based on language use. Hindi is the national language but it is not the native language of more than three-quarters of the country. To me, one of America's great strengths is its common language. I can pick up a phone and converse with anyone in the country. This is not true in the majority of the big countries of the world. I joined U.S. English and soon was actively involved in the Proposition 63 campaign. The constitutional amendment would make English the official language of California. I made numerous TV appearances and debated the issue on radio shows. I rubbed shoulders with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Yakov Smirnoff, both strong supporters. Though the political establishment, the liberal media, and most immigrant groups opposed the measure, it passed easily, approved by 75% of the voters. We rejoiced, but not for long. I was naive and thought that our job was done. But the political establishment chose not to enforce the law and threw roadblocks at every opportunity. I was disillusioned and vowed never again to be too active in the political arena.

Did you notice my use of the phrase "the liberal media" in the preceding paragraph? In 1964, even though I was ineligible to vote, I had joined the campaign for the re-election of President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat. I had not studied in any detail the platform of the two parties. The principles of the Democratic Party sounded good. But ten years later I found that my thinking aligned more with that of the Republican Party. India had socialism for forty-five years and it fell behind other Asian countries that had switched to capitalism. Mumbai had instituted rent control. As a result, no new rental housing was built and the landlords stopped taking care of their properties. The goal was noble, but the solution was a failure. I was dismayed to see San Francisco, New York and other cities follow the same disastrous path. As if to validate my thinking, India changed its model in 1991 and the growth since has been phenomenal.

On a rainy Sunday in 1986, April 13th to be exact, I had my fourth seminal event. I read a travel article about how an average, reasonably fit person can climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Though it soars to a height of 19,340 feet, there are routes to the summit that require no technical climbing skills. I was intrigued and the same day, Joy and I decided to get in shape and climb Kilimanjaro the following year. One thing I had learned from trading was the ability to make quick decisions. At the time of our marriage, Joy and I looked to buy a house. After not being happy with any of the ten previous houses we saw, we went to look at the house we now own. Though the house was quite modest, it was love at first sight. It was just three years old. The owner was selling it himself. We sat down, completed some standard agreement and the house was ours, two hours after we had first walked in. Joy was a bit distressed that I had not checked the backyard or that I wasn't quite sure how many bedrooms it had. Well, isn't that what love at first sight is about? Letting your heart rule rather than your brain? We still love our house.

A week after deciding to climb Kilimanjaro, I hiked from Rancho San Antonio to the top of Black Mountain, about a twelve-mile hike with an elevation gain of around 2,800 feet. I was sore most of the week. It wasn't that I hadn't hiked previously; just that I was used to the easier family-type hikes. Then I received another shock: I was informed by a fitness assessment center that I was too fat and that I needed to lose fifteen pounds. I never thought I was overweight. I started eating a little less, and it helped that I exercised vigorously. It took me fifteen months, but I did lose fifteen pounds. I am happy to say that I have kept the same weight for the last twenty-five years. I am convinced that rapid weight loss makes keeping it off very difficult. Off and on, I have given classes teaching people "my way" of losing weight and, more importantly, keeping it off.

Dinesh and Joy walking

At my heaviest; am I really fat?

We joined the PCS, the local Peak Climbing Section of the Sierra Club, to meet fellow peak climbers and climb peaks with them. We enjoyed hiking and being outdoors, but we especially liked climbing mountains that had no trails. We were novices and it was dangerous, but that's what turned us on. This was our new hobby and we couldn't be happier. There was a bonus too. Even though we both became quite fit, my fitness had a greater impact. For reasons not yet known, people from the Indian sub-continent have a three to four-fold higher risk of heart attack than the general population of the country in which they reside. On a treadmill stress test, I was easily able to last fifteen minutes. Joy was happy. There was a good chance I would be around for a while.

One year, we flew to the island of Hawaii to climb Mauna Loa, the world's most massive volcano. We were planning to backpack a total of five days to reach its 13,679-foot summit. Instead of a bathing suit and some shirts and shorts, our luggage consisted of backpacks, sleeping bags, a tent, a stove, and winter clothes. We carried fuel and freeze-dried foods too, as we did not know if we could buy such items on the island. We began our climb in good weather and trudged up to the first camp, Red Hilton, so nicknamed for the surrounding red soil. After another day of carrying our backpacks 3,500 feet up the mountain, we reached the cabin on the rim. We were the only occupants. It was absolutely quiet as not even planes flew over. Though exhausted, we were in heaven. The true summit lay on the opposite side of the rim. The crater is so huge, that it took us the entire next day for the round trip to the summit. Though we did not have any lunch, we felt energetic, as we had to carry only our daypacks. We had planned on eating Power Bars, but they had become rock hard in the cold climate. (They were reformulated later to stay soft!) After our successful climb, we rewarded ourselves by spending a few days at the Mauna Kea, the island's number one resort. On the third day, while having lunch in gorgeous surroundings overlooking the blue Pacific, we lamented that, as wonderful as it was, the experience was no match for our time at the Mauna Loa cabin. Never mind that, up there, we were cold, hungry and exhausted. Such was the lure of the mountains.

Joy on the crater rim

Joy on the crater rim

A few months after we had joined the PCS, I learned about the State High Pointers Club. The goal of its members was to climb the highest peak in each of the fifty states. We did climb about twenty state high points in later years, but at the time, we settled on climbing the high points of the nine Bay Area counties. The first business was to ascertain the high points. Another PCS member, Bill Hauser, was interested in the project too. Bill and I quickly put a list together. Joy and I climbed the nine peaks in a couple of months and celebrated. Bill was very knowledgeable about mountains near and far, but as we later learned, we still had the high points of three counties wrong. Then we set a bigger goal: find and climb the high points of the fifty-eight counties of California. Bill and I spent many hours going over the USGS topo maps. It was a lot of tedious work, but we didn't mind. The quest spanned several years, and it took Joy and me to parts of California we wouldn't have set our foot on otherwise. Along the way, we met a few other high pointers who had the same goal. We formed an informal club and exchanged notes. One problem was that several county high points were located on private property. Joy, Bill and I climbed a couple of such peaks, but Joy didn't like trespassing and sneaking around. Bill and I did manage to climb the other four such peaks, albeit with some problems. Once, along with a third sneak-peak climber, we boldly drove thru the gate of a large ranch, parked our car at an out-of-sight spot and climbed the peak, only to find the gate locked on our return. I had to use all my charm to convince the ranch manager that we meant no harm.

Shadows of hikers

Ninja hikers. You don't want to show your face on stealth climbs.

Dinesh with stakes on the ground

Yes, Virginia, there are stakes on Mt. Stakes.

Still, I had climbed only fifty-four of the fifty-eight county high points. I had two problems. I lacked essential mountaineering skills such as ice ax proficiency and rock climbing ability. The other was my slow pace, especially on steep cross-country routes. By high school, I had realized that I was not a born athlete. I did poorly in all track events. I just didn't seem to have those fast twitch muscle fibers. With training, I was able to increase my endurance; I could walk the 20th mile at the same pace as the first, but the increase in my speed was minimal. On Kilimanjaro and other high mountains, I slowed considerably when the terrain became steep. As a result, I had to forego four county high points. It was disappointing, but prudence called for staying within my limit. On the other hand, the journey towards our goal bought Joy and I immense pleasure, and bonded us like nothing else could have.

May is the best month in the Bay Area for hiking and peak climbing. It has the combination of little or no rain, mild temperatures, long days, wildflowers and the green hills. We had invited our friends Patrick from Colorado and Sandy from Washington state to join us on our fifty-peak project. Patrick loves to join us on our yearly adventures and this would be his fifth time. His work schedule this year would allow him to join us for just one day. His philosophy? One day is better than none. He too had a goal of climbing the California county high points. Insane for a Coloradan? Yes, but his quest began when he lived in Reno. For him, I scheduled a hike to a county high point: Discovery Peak, the highest in Alameda County. We had a beautiful day on our long, all-day hike. There were good views along with wildflowers. Chuck, Frank, Skip, Patrick and the two Steves from my hiking group were on the hike too. Skip remarked that this was one of the more beautiful hikes he had the privilege to be on. Sandy spent three days with us, but the weather on her last day was not our usual May weather. We got hailed on! No matter, she relished every moment in the Bay Area. I suppose a little hail/rain is nothing to someone from the Seattle area. There is a story about a young woman who had lived in the Bay Area all her life. She moves to Seattle to start her new job. As she is unloading her car, it is drizzling. It is still raining when she goes to work the next few days and more of the same as she sat one day eating her lunch. Exasperated, she asks a little boy walking by, "Hey kid, when does it stop raining here?" The kid shrugs and says, "How do I know? I'm only six."