Backpacker

A Man and His Mountain

SAM WAS LATE.

Evening had slipped into night, night had faded into dawn, and the driveway in the Culver City neighborhood of Los Angeles where Sam’s car normally sat remained empty.

It wasn’t unusual for Sam to keep odd hours, but his wife Sunny and his son David worried all the same. What in the world was a man of Sam’s age doing climbing mountains?

It wasn’t the first time Sam had stayed out overnight—he would sometimes sleep in his car so that he could hit the trail at sunrise—but it was the first time he hadn’t returned home without calling. The next morning his phone was going straight to voice mail. Sunny was worried enough to call one of Sam’s friends to see if he had heard from him. He hadn’t.

David, who lived just a few miles away from his parents, tried to fight the anxiety by reminding himself how tough his father was. Sam had survived the L.A. riots of 1992, been robbed at gunpoint, and had hiked millions of vertical feet, many of them after his 60th birthday and on the most difficult trails in Los Angeles County. He had come through it all with the grit of those who seek better lives in America. And he had always come home.

Sam clocked more miles the older he got. At age 75, his current obsession was Iron Mountain. With a 7,200-foot ascent up a rock-strewn StairMaster, and 15 miles roundtrip, it is considered by many the toughest dayhike in the San Gabriels, a mountain range imposing enough to halt L.A.’s sprawl on the northern edge of the city.

Sam was known to set grand goals and it surprised no one when he vowed to climb Iron Mountain 100 times in a single year. And having already summited dozens of times, he was on course to reach the goal before his 76th birthday. He was a year-round creature of the mountains, so much so that it was impossible to imagine anything happening to him. And so David and Sunny did what Sam would have wanted them to do—they waited.

Finally, Sam called from the road to say he was on his way home. And, sure enough, a little after noon, he

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