“I ate it,” she said. “An hour ago.”

That’s when I knew we were in trouble: it was 10:00 a.m., we were four hours and two extremely rough miles up a mountain on what was meant to be a nearly ten mile hike, and my mom had already eaten her lunch. An hour ago.

Her water bottle was empty, too, and she held out her hand for my sister’s bottle. I seethed.

When my dad had asked my little sister and me to come summit what might be his last mountain, we’d agreed immediately. He picked the mountain – no surprises there, it was the first one we’d done together, a 9,500 foot peak that looms over the little valley we grew up in. That one had been our first failure as well as our first success, turning us back with late-spring snow and a vanishing trail before we made the summit the next year.

We were better prepared this time: we’d been up several times since then, alone or together. We knew the hike, a 3,000+ foot gain over a scant four miles, and we knew that the trail would vanish at the timber line, leaving us to pick our way through talus and scree along the mountain’s spine. We were going at the right time of year. We had water bottles, some frozen against the heat of the day. We had trail mix and sandwiches and dried fruit. And we had a heart monitor for my dad.

My dad had been under a doctor’s supervision since he finally aged into affordable medical care. Doctors like to have fancy words for stuff. A heart attack is a myocardial infarction. Pooping blood is hemorrhagic gastroenteritis. Bruises are contusions. And the thing my dad was at risk of, if his heart rate went and stayed too high for too long, was sudden death.

So, at over a mile of elevation, climbing a trail as steep as any stairway, we took a lot of breaks. Because, sudden death. The heart monitor would beep, we’d stop, my dad would glare at the monitor until the numbers came down to an acceptable level. After a lifetime of being able to force his body to do one more thing, climb one more foot, grit it out and just keep going, he’d found the one thing he couldn’t tough his way out of. Sudden death.

Sudden death we prepared for as best we could. My sister, the medical professional, hiked closest to my dad. My own CPR certification was years out of date and I’m not even sure we’d covered resuscitating adults. In the event of an emergency I was the one who was supposed to call 911 and hopefully get a helicopter.

What we hadn’t prepared for, of course, was for my mom to invite herself along. She’d walked a half-marathon the year before, a completely flat one at sea level with water and food along the course, and she insisted that made her prepared to come along on what we’d all thought was a father-daughter trip up an unforgiving mountain.

She’s not going to make it, I’d warned my sister.

She’s in better shape than you think, my sister shot back.

Not for a mountain. 

Mountains aren’t just a physical challenge; they’re an emotional one. You can’t do it mad. And you can’t do it casually. Now I was mad; she was casual.

I’d already caught her eating out of the pre-packed trail mix that morning. With our breakfast still cooking on the stove she’d opened her pack and dipped into the ziploc bags of soft dried strawberries, the sweet and salty nut mix. There’s plenty of food here, I’d reminded her. Have a bagel, don’t eat our trail food before we even leave the house.

My sister and I exchanged glances and I put my water bottle back in my pack, untouched. Still water makes my stomach turn when I’m hot; I doubted anyone would notice if I just skipped drinking on breaks. It was a glaringly sunny day, and we’d slathered on SPF 75 sunscreen before starting the climb, but I could already feel myself burning even in the shade of the pines that surrounded us. I didn’t want to think about the rocky slopes ahead.

At 1 p.m. we’d have to turn back, whether we made the summit or not. My mom reached for more trail mix.