Report from the Frozen Wastelands of the West

I am writing this from a High Sierra peak at 12,000 feet in the dead of winter.

It is 15 degrees and the wind is gusting at 70 miles an hour turning by backpack into a sail and practically blowing me off the mountain. Over the side, the next stop is 1,000 feet below. I am thirsty but the water in my canteen is frozen solid.

I had planned to follow my tracks in the snow back down to my car, but the wind has totally obliterated them. So I am using an old-fashioned army compass to navigate back in total whiteout conditions. Good thing I got the letter out early today!

Actually, I am not writing but rather “thinking” all of this. If I took my hands out of my heavy mittens, my fingers would freeze in seconds. Remember, no fingers, no Trade Alerts!

A couple times a year, I feel the need to abandon civilization and contemplate the meaning of life while accomplishing a great physical challenge. For me, this is a mandatory religious experience.

This time, I attempted to emulate one of the great physical feats in history. In October 1847, the Donner Party’s wagon train was hopelessly snowed in at a Sierra pass. Starvation loomed. When word reached Sacramento, four rescue parties were sent out only to be repulsed by driving blizzards.

Finally, a giant of heroic strength, the famous Snowshoe Thompson who stood at 6’6” broke through. He emptied his massive wood frame backpack of food and then stuffed it with the two smallest children he could find. He snowshoed back to safety 120 miles over three days, nonstop. The kids grew up to become the founding fathers of modern-day Marin County, California.

I thought, “Gee, I wonder if I could do that?”

So I sought to replicate the feat, subject to a few modern compromises. Today, Interstate 80 sits astride Thompson’s original route. Instead, I determined to snowshoe 120 miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail around Lake Tahoe with an average elevation of 9,000 feet. I figured that the 60-pound pack I usually carry was worth the weight of two kids.

My one concession to my advanced age was that instead of going nonstop or camping out at night, I would break the epic trek into ten days at 12 miles each. That allowed me to repair to my Tahoe lakefront estate nightly to thaw out my toes, treat injuries, and get some shuteye. Howling winds keep you awake at night.

I fasted while accomplishing this, eating only 600 calories a day of raw fruit and nuts. I’m down about ten pounds since I began.

Hint to readers: almonds have unique, hunger-fighting chemical properties. Eat a handful before you go to sleep, and hunger pangs won’t wake you in the middle of the night. I plan on doing some industrial strength eating this Christmas, things like Tom and Jerry’s and Sees peanut brittle, so I need to get ahead of the curve. (Note to self: 223 calories in a cup of eggnog).

My friends call this a death march, make excuses why they can’t come and worry about my sanity. I think of it as a cleansing and a general stocktaking, and I feel great! I always go alone. How many other 67-year olds do you know who are in condition to do this sort of thing?

Sure, I might break my ankle someday, die of exposure, and have my bones scattered by wild animals. Who cares? It would be a good death. It’s worth it.

The scenery up here is so spectacular that I almost didn’t feel the pain. Almost. On more than one occasion, while gazing at the endless shades of blue the pristine waters of Lake Tahoe offered, I tripped on my snowshoes.

Once, I landed on some tree roots which cut right through to the bone in my left forearm. I managed to stop the bleeding by tying off a tourniquet with my teeth. When I got home, I then soaked the wound in Jack Daniels to ward off infection. It works every time! (See pics below). In a pinch, Stolichnaya Vodka works just as well. It’s an old combat first aid trick.

While hiking along the East Ridge, succeeding mountain ranges in northern Nevada explored every kind of purple. I managed to summit each major peak around the body of water the Washoe Indians called “da-ow-a-ga”, or edge of the lake, which they considered the origin of the universe. Those included Squaw Peak (8,885), Mt Tallac (9,735 feet), Monument Peak (10,067), and Mount Rose (10,776 feet). When the trail got too steep, my trusty ice ax and crampons saw me through.

I was constantly reminded that I was in the “Old West” by the many artifacts I encountered. Prominent granite boulders displayed prehistoric Indian petroglyphs. I found a few abandoned log cabins, complete with potbelly stoves and canned food from the 1950s. Rusted out cast iron mining equipment was strewn about everywhere, covered with snow. Along the old Pony Express Trail, one finds old horseshoes and the occasional ancient bottle turned purple by the sun.

Lake Tahoe supplied all of the water and bracing wood for the Comstock silver mining boom of the 1870s. A hundred years ago, not a single tree was left standing except for the southwest section of the lake owned by mining baron “Lucky Baldwin” who won it in a card game and made it his private retreat. It was all covered in meticulous and colorful detail for the Virginia City newspaper, The Territorial Enterprise, by a budding young newspaperman who went by the name of Mark Twain.

My ambitious goals often saw me hiking well into darkness. After the batteries died on my three backup headlamps, that flashlight app on the iPhone 5s proved a real lifesaver. It’s good for a full hour and illuminates the eyes of onlooking wildlife a bright yellow up to 200 yards.  

One night I got back to the car and found that my keys had frozen. So I sat on them. In 15 minutes, the car flashed its lights and the doors magically opened. There was barely enough charge to get the engine started, a trick I accomplished by holding the key right up to the ignition button. Toyota designs them to do this. It’s no fun getting stranded at 10,000 feet at 10 degrees in the middle of nowhere. No Auto Club here!

I often looked behind to make sure a mountain lion was not stalking me. Don’t worry. Only 20 people have been killed by mountain lions in California over the last 100 years. More are killed by their pet dogs every year in the Golden State, mostly by pit bulls. Besides, I am good at staring down mountain lions and black bears. It is just a matter of attitude.

The old souvenir stand for the Ponderosa Ranch of the TV series Bonanza fame is now the Tunnel Creek Station Café and bike rental. Good luck to Patty and Max! The nearby Flume Trail offers some of the best cross-country skiing in the world.

Of course, I am not just thinking Great Thoughts during these hikes. An endless series of economic and market data points are constantly churning around in the back of my mind, and I occasionally reach a “Eureka” moment. I keep a pen and notebook in my pack so I don’t forget these earth-shaking revelations.

It was during a similar expedition up the face of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps (14,692 feet) last summer when I realized that the S&P 500 was beginning a long run up that would take it to 1,800 by yearend. I’ll never forget the expression on my guide’s face when I stopped midpoint through an abseil and started feverishly writing notes. That little maneuver cost me a bottle of schnapps. The readers and Trade Alert followers prospered mightily.

What is this year’s “Eureka” conclusion? The stock market could keep going up in 2014, but with more volatility. This year was a cakewalk, as my 60% return testifies. After that, stocks will be unable to ignore an impending “taper”, or the complete end of quantitative easing. The bond market has told us as much already.

I have been doing this sort of thing since I was 22 and in somewhat better shape. Then, I was one of the few foreigners attending karate school in Japan, learning the iron discipline and focus of samurai warriors, known as “bushido”. The actor, Steven Segal, studied at a competing school down the street.

Every February, we underwent “kangeiko”, or known as winter training. This involved the entire class running the five miles around Tokyo’s Imperial Palace in a pack, suffering freezing temperatures, barefoot, every day for a week. When we returned to the dojo, we were hosed down with ice-cold water, our feet senseless, bloody stumps. Then we would train for three more hours.

The idea was that the extreme pain and exhaustion would deliver insights into ourselves and the world at large. It worked. At least one current reader endured the experience with me and is still alive. Remember that, David? By the way, thanks for knocking out my front teeth.

On the way home I stopped in Sacramento for a well-deserved double cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake at In and Out Burger. You can’t take this diet and health thing too seriously. Snowshoe Thompson would have envied me.

Well, next month, it is back to normal. I’ll be glued in front of my screens scouring the planet for the next great trading opportunity, although, I’m not sure I’ll find many. Buying market tops is against my nature. What are you supposed to do when all of your forecasts and predictions come true? I have a feeling that the answer is not to make more forecasts and predictions.

Perhaps, the right answer is to take another hike. Anyone care to join me?


Your Intrepid Reporter

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