Day 22: On the Way to Thousand Island Lakes, Lunch at Garnet Lake
It’s a good thing I’m not Bill Murray and it’s not February 2 because if I had to do today over again I’d fling myself into the sharp crevices of the gorge between Olaine and Shadow Lakes. What a ridiculously tough day. It’s not that the trail was particularly demanding or the hiking was even that tough. I just felt DONE. I’m sick of climbing. Sick of slogging downhill. Sick of boring flat trails. Sick of walking. Sick of carrying 40lbs on my back and sick answering, “NO, I am NOT like Cheryl Fucking Strayed!
I’m feeling drained today; both physically and emotionally. I’m blaming physical on all the crappy processed food I ate at Red’s yesterday and maybe a bit of general fatigue, closing in on 200 miles. I’m tired. All the iconic peaks, passes, meadows, canyons and lakes are behind me and all that’s left is the in gentle path in front of me, leading me closer and closer to the end of this adventure that began 7 months ago as a dream.
The adventure has become my reality for the past 22 days and like any dream realized, there are ups and downs to it. The daily grind of hiking miles upon miles, up mountains, down gorges, through canyons and valleys, over scree and Sasquatch boulders has worn down my naive enthusiasm. The dream is all adventure and awe inspiring moments. The doing it is The Reality; the fun AND the pain.
As I get closer to Yosemite, the end of the trail, the end of a dream, I’m filled with relief, sadness and pride (not necessarily in that order). As I walk these past several days, I realize that is what I’m walking toward: the End. And the fear that I’ve missed something. The dream wants you to believe that every second of every day should be filled with awe, excitement, adventure. The reality is it’s uncomfortable, painful, achy, mind-numbing, cold, hungry, weak AND amazing and awe inspiring and beautiful and overwhelmingly life-altering beyond words.
I hike 8-10 hours a day with 42 pounds on my back, breathing air polluted with wildfire smoke. It’s hard work. I think I’m feeling disappointed in myself for not loving every single moment I’m out here. Because I know it will be over way too soon.
If it was easy, everyone would do it.
I guess what I’m saying is it has become routine. I wake up, pack up, hike, set up, eat, and sleep. Repeat
And not every day is filled with inspiration and green meadows with frolicking bunnies and deer. It’s fucking hard!
But now, as I sit on the grassy shore of Garnet Lake, watching the sun dance off the wavelets as the wind gusts across the frigid Alpen pool, the granite peaks with two small patches of snow framing the set as perfectly as only Mother Nature can do, I enjoy the painfully perfect moment and breathe deeply, inhaling all the gifts of the trail. I am one with Nature. I am one with the Trail.
.. and then the wind gets TOO gusty and now I’m cold and annoyed. LOL
Ok, time to hit the trail. On to Thousand Island lakes for the night!! The last of the iconic trail stops!
6 am: Brrrr.. what a cold night. I woke up to ice in my water bottles, so the temps dipped at least into the 3os, if not the 20s. Even my legs were cold with my midweight merino wool base layer, which is rare. Every time I woke up to feel cold air crushing against my legs I thought something had to be wrong. Is there a hole in my sleeping bag? Did all the down somehow leak out? This morning I realized the gray side of my Thermarest was facing the ground, instead of up. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but it seems to really make a difference. Maybe the gray side is some kind of heat barrier? I’m not sure, but even with the cold I got a decent night’s sleep thanks to the Advil PM I bought yesterday,
I’m still snuggled inside my tent waking up with my strong black coffee, anxious for the sun to warm me as it glides above the eastern peaks and paints the Kearsarge pinnacles in brilliant morning hues. There’s a chorus of birds awakening to a new day of life in the mountains. Some are ear-insulting yawpers that pierce the morning air with shrill squawks, some whistle dainty tunes accenting the stillness of nature and then there is my new favorite: what I call the “pew-pew-pew bird”. I usually only notice it in the afternoons but this morning they are wide awake and busily pew-pew-pewing away in the trees behind camp. It always reminds me of kids playing Cowboys and Indians, shooting play guns: “Pew-Pew-Pew. You’re dead par’ner”. Or Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory when he’s doing the same. It amuses me how a bird can make a pretend/ cartoon gun sound.
A loud pattering sound rushes above my head, like helicopter blades cutting through the still morning air. What the he… Oh, it’s ‘that’ bird again. There’s one bird that has the loudest wing flapping ever and it always sneaks up behind me furiously flapping it’s wings, causing me to shriek out loud and nearly jump out of my hiking boots. It sounds like someone – or something – is running up behind me. This is the second time on the trail it’s gotten me, and I nearly have a heart attack every single time.
As usual, I can smell the raging forest fires not-too-far from the trail churning out ash and soot, blanketing the distant peaks in a thin haze. As much as I’m looking forward to my rest day at Rae lakes tomorrow, part of me wants to move on: I remain optimistic that I will eventually hike out of the smoke. But I desperately I need a day off. I have to rest…
Dusk at Rae Lakes
Fuck today. Fuck the stupid mountains and fuck Glen Pass. Next time I think, “Oh it’s going to be an easy day”, I’m just going to reach right up and slap myself. I really have to stop thinking that, it only sets me up for disappointment and agony. Just face it: there are no easy days on the John Muir Trail (they don’t call this the toughest part of the PCT for nothing).
I swear, the map made it look too easy. I was expecting a 7-mile day with about 1200’ up an d 1300’ down a small pass I’d barely heard of (I think it was closer to an excruciating 2000’ up and down). So this morning, I cheerfully left my perfect camp on the shores of the serene Kearsarge lake and its majestic Pinnacles glowing brilliant shades of orange, wondering what I’d do with my afternoon since I’d reach Rae Lakes so early. I hiked toward Glen Pass, sluggishly climbing what felt like about 800 feet, feeling optimistic. Cool, I’m halfway there! And I climbed and I climbed and I climbed. I finally saw a pass and felt relieved to be nearly done. But then Mother Nature played her most cruel joke yet: Psych! As I climbed closer I saw a giant bowl carved out of the scree mountain on the other side. Wait, that can’t be the pass. There should be nothing but air and sky on the other side. Not MORE mountain. NO! NO! NO!
With my morale fading, I inched toward the stupid giant granite bowl and spotted another pass up a bunch of switchbacks above it. So I climbed and I climbed and I climbed. Up massive rock-steps and narrow screed trail, mentally kicking and screaming like a petulant 4-year-old who can’t have her ice cream. No, no, no! This is supposed to be the top dammit! I’ve gone at least 1200’. I just know it. Wah, wah wah.
As I slogged past the massive bowl toward the pass, all sweaty and tired and whiny, I realized how spoiled I am – how spoiled ‘we’ are: life is just too damn convenient for us. In our everyday lives, everything we could ever need or want is within arm’s reach, a short drive or just a few mouse clicks away. In nature, nothing is convenient. Out here you have to work for even your basics of survival: food, comfort, warmth – and Glen Pass. My Mt. Whitney mantra echoed through my brain: “If you want it, you have to earn it.” Hike on Whiner Girl…
My philosophical sojourn didn’t do much to soothe my agony and as quickly as those thoughts entered my mind they left again, leaving me to face the beast that was ripping me to shreds. mind, body and soul. My hate for Glen Pass consumed me. Fuck you Glen Pass and your cruel, sadistic self: toying with us mere humans who assumed you’d be so easy to conquer. Who the hell are you anyway? I never even heard of you til a few days ago. Some little un-famous pass: you were supposed to be easy. Fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou.
As I lumbered along the slippery narrow ridge of the uninspiring bowl I kept sneaking peaks at the saddle above… Ok. Well at least the end is in sight.Just hike. One foot in front of the other. Don’t stop. Move forward.
At last, I crested it. NOOOOOOOOOO! My heart sank and I felt a giant lump in my throat: THAT wasn’t the pass either. Ohmyfuckinggod. How many false summits can a single pass have? I seriously felt like I was going to cry.
Fighting back the tears and the frustration and the pain, I labored along using my trekking poles to boost my full pack and me up giant rock step after giant rock step. I went up and down and up and down again, nearly sliding off the edge of the slippery trail as I trudged over every size rock imaginable from the giant 2’ high boulder-steps to scree, to baseball sized busted granite that rolled under my feet and threatened to send me plummeting into the bowl of death. In my fatigued and frustrated state, I was clumsily tripping over my trekking poles, stumbling, barely catching myself before falling to the ground. I hiked on: hating the mountain, hating the trail, hating my current state of misery.
And then I realized: it’s not the Glen Pass’s fault.
The mountain is just being a mountain. Innocently and cluelessly sitting there like it has for millions of years, doing its mountain thing. It’s not Glen Pass’s fault we humans have gotten so far removed from nature that climbing him is worse than getting all my teeth pulled without Novocain, getting stung by an entire beehive, being forced to listen to “Happy” by Pharrell Williams over and over again and getting run over by a Mack truck all at the same time.
So I turn my frustration to Tom Harrison; cursing his map for making it look so deceptively ‘easy’ – fooling me again! Fuck you Tom Harrison, why don’t you learn how to make a map! (No offense Mr. Harrison, I’m sure you’re a very nice guy. And you are a fine map-maker). (*smiley face*)
Then I realize it’s not Tom Harrison’s fault.
And I curse myself for my lack of attention to detail and not reading the topo lines right. Why don’t I try harder to read those stupid little brown lines that are all scrunched together? Why don’t I actually count them instead of guestimating so I won’t be surprised every time I encounter a challenging pass? Only on the trail has my stupid perpetual optimism turned on me: It’s going to be an easy day!! Woo- hoo, isn’t this great. Yay, let’s climb another pass!!! Fuck myself! from here on out every day, every pass is going to be really fucking hard!
Then I cursed the JMT and PCT hikers who have written about the trail: why haven’t I heard of this sadistic pass before? Here I thought this little not-famous pass would be of no-consequence; it doesn’t have the notoriety of Forester, Muir or Pinchot – or even Kearsarge. So when I was mentally preparing myself for the climb today I thought, how hard can this little not famous pass be?
And then a terrifying thought struck me: what if they’re all like this? What if all ELEVEN passes are steep and rocky and go on forever with false summit after false summit? What if it’s never been mentioned because it’s just another excruciating pass in a string of excruciating passes? Nearly in a panic, the comments of all the SOBO hikers I met on Forester came flooding back: “what an easy pass”, “Forester is my favorite pass”, they cheerfully exclaimed as they passed me on their descent. A panicky feeling fluttered in my gut like an angry wasp hive. For the first time in 9 days I questioned whether I’d be able to finish the trail. I’m exhausted. My hips hurt. My quads hurt. My hamstrings, feet, toenails and hands hurt (from swinging trekking poles?). And even though I’ve had challenging and excruciating days, I’ve still been mostly positive and happy to be here. But today, for the first time, I’m cranky and miserable. Today was not fun.
Yes, this is harder than I expected. Way harder. I’ve hiked only 65 miles over the last 9 days, but probably climbed and descended more than 10,000 feet without a day off and on fewer than 2000 calories a day (because I STILL have no appetite). I’ve trying to force myself to eat more but the altitude is affecting my appetite (mental note: savor those last 2 sentences, because I’m pretty sure I will never utter the words, “I have no appetite” and “I have to force myself to eat” ever again!). I know from training for the ½ marathon a couple years ago how important recovery days are. But I’ve kept pushing on with a goal and an agenda on my mind, ignoring the signals my depleted muscles are sending me. And now I’m finally here: Rae Lakes. I’m not sure one zero is going to do it. We’ll see….
I’m relaxing and stretching in the tent now. In my bed clothes eating trail mix. I’m too tired and not hungry enough to cook (again: savor that sentence!). There’s a sign at the bear box warning of bear activity in the area so I expect to get a visit tonight. I hope not, I just want to sleep forever….
When I was setting up camp I met my neighbor Michele, from San Francisco. She’s hiking SOBO from Red’s Meadow. She said tons of people are bailing because of the smoke. The trail is going to be quiet. And soon my only other NOBOers – my Arkansas friends – will be days ahead of me. The next few weeks will be interesting.
Ok, it’s early, but I’m going to try to take a nap and maybe get up and cook dinner later….Tomorrow will be a better day…
Day 5, August 21, 2015: Crabtree Meadow to Tyndall Creek
I HATE my backpack!!! HATE IT. HATE IT. HATE IT!!! If I had a temper, I’d have kicked the damn thing clear across Crabtree Meadows this morning. But I don’t. So I didn’t.
I’m sorry REI, I love you and most of your gear but the Flash 62 is a piece of shit. Ok, I’ll take some responsibility… I probably shouldn’t have waited until just 4 weeks before my trip to decide I needed a new backpack. I was trying not to spend a total fortune on new gear. I’d already updated my tent, stove, sleeping bag, cook set, boots, sleeping pad, base layer, socks, and even hiking pants (you can see my full gear list here). Did I really need a new backpack too? I tried to convince myself that it could wait.
But backpacking in Lassen National Park for 6 days during the eighth of my nine JMT training/shake-down hikes, I had to concede: the way my pack squeaked while I hiked and pulled to my right side causing me to constantly fidget and tug at the waist belt and load straps would be super annoying after a couple weeks on the trail. I couldn’t deny it any longer: I needed a new backpack.
I loved my old Flash 62, it served me well for several years, so after doing some window shopping, online comparisons, and trying a couple on inside the store, I decided the new Flash 62 would be a good choice. Then it went on sale at REI Outlet and I got a member’s only 20% off coupon – I ended up getting it for only $79. How could I refuse a deal like that?
I was so excited the day UPS dropped it off on my doorstep! But the excitement disappeared when I pulled the flimsy backpack out of the box. I’m not sure what I expected for a $79, but I didn’t expect “ultra-light” (2 lbs. 14 oz.) to be synonymous with poor quality. As I scrupulously inspected my new pack I had doubts the tiny compression strap buckles could hold up under the bionic-strength compression demands I put on my packs. And the “ActiveX LT perimeter aluminum frame” seemed way too frail for the rugged wilderness. I was skeptical this pack would be durable enough for 30 days on the trail, but I trust REI so I decided to give it a shot.
I took it out on a trial run for three days in Emigrant Wilderness, loading it with about 30 lbs. of gear and food. I liked how light it felt on my back and how it moved with my body effortlessly. The fit was ‘ok’, even though the shoulder straps sat a couple inches above my shoulders no matter how tight I pulled the straps. I’m 5’4” and I bought a medium. Even though every sign pointed to the pack being too big for me I just couldn’t accept that I’d wear a small anything. (I know, I know completely different than say, a shirt, but tell my old chubby-girl brain that!). Even though the fit was off a little, it felt pretty comfortable, so I didn’t think too much about it.
Then I discovered a bigger problem: my first morning out, as I slung my new Flash 62 over my shoulder to hit the trail, I noticed the top of the Activflex LT perimeter aluminum frame had popped out. There are little flappy cover things that fit over the frame to hold it in place. When it pops out the pack pulls away and bobs in the breeze. When I first discovered this on the trail in Emigrant, I took my pack off and tried to pull the flaps back over the frame, but it was impossible. Being full, everything was too taut. I decided to live with it for the day; we were only hiking a few miles anyway. I hiked all day with the bobbing and swaying, vowing to investigate the flaw and figure out how to fix it later.
When I got home and read the reviews I didn’t see any complaints about the frame. I thought that was odd because it was a definite pain in the ass. But I did learn that a “multi-day” pack doesn’t mean a “30 day pack” and the REI Flash 62’s max load capacity is about 35lbs and I’d be cramming about 40 lbs into it. I was just 2 weeks out; scheduling another outing to test a new backpack wasn’t an option so I decided I’d make the most of the one I had. I thought about using my old one, but the squeak and sliding seemed worse than carrying too much weight and remembering to put the frame in place every morning.
This morning I regretted my decision. Apparently, yesterday when I tightened and compressed all the straps to make it into a day pack for the Mt. Whitney climb everything came unhinged. I hadn’t had any problems with it so far on this trip so I forgot to check it before stuffing all my gear inside.
As I left camp and hiked toward the trail to Tyndall Creek I felt something jabbing me in the back. I squirmed and felt around with my hands trying to figure out what was poking me. I took a few more steps. More jabbing and poking. I’d squirm and wriggle under the weight of my pack some more. A few more steps, more prodding. What the hell? It couldn’t be ignored. The pack had to come off. Any backpacker knows the last thing you want to do after heaving a 45 pound pack over your shoulder, tightening, buckling, adjusting, bouncing and adjusting some more until it fits just right, is take it off. But sometimes you have no choice. I slid my nemesis off my back in frustration and let it hit the ground with a thud. There it was. Not only had I forgotten to pop the top of the frame into place, but a new flaw presented itself: the ends of the frame had come loose and were sticking out from somewhere. That’s what was poking me in the back.
I was simmering in frustration. I just wanted to be on the trail! I didn’t want to be dealing with this! My head resounded with the piece of mind I wanted to give REI: This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen! Who designed this piece of crap? Some nerdy engineer who has never been outside before, much less worn a backpack on an actual trail? I imagined a team of backpack-design engineers holed up in a basement lab with no windows, geeking out over the load-to-weight ratios (not sure if that’s even a thing…) and getting orgasmic over saving nano-grams with their fancy Activflex LT perimeter aluminum frame as they drew it out in complex algorithms and formulas on a white board. Finally “testing” it on a virtual backpacking trip on a reality-sized screen while they sipped Mountain Dew from cans and watched. “Yep, looks good to me.” “Yep, me too, let’s sell this thing!”
I found two tiny pockets near the waist belt that house each end of the aluminum frame. The frame isn’t sewn in (no… 4 cms of thread would have added way too many nano-grams!), it was just supposed to slide right in and magically stay there! No one every bothered to turn the empty pack upside down, apparently! (Maybe they should have had the Samsonite gorillas test it instead of the engineers). This is the stupidest design I have ever seen. REI your design team should be fired.
I vigorously tried to squeeze the “Activflex LT perimeter aluminum frame” back into place without emptying the pack: no such luck. I had no choice, I had to do what I least wanted to do: unpack.
I can live with a pack that doesn’t fit quite right. I can even live with the discomfort of carrying more weight than it’s meant to (that problem solves itself as my pack gets lighter every day) but having to fight with this damn frame and remembering to squeeze all four points back in place – and make sure they stay there as I fill my pack – every day, stretched the limits of my patience. There’s no excuse for it – it’s just poor design. But I’m 50 miles into the wilderness. There’s not much I can do. Fix the damn frame and move on.
Unpacking my gear, I found a puddle of water in the bottom of the bladder sleeve. Oh great. Is my bladder busted now? I pulled it out and inspected it, finding 4 little punctures. I flashed back to when I’d absent-mindedly plopped it down on a rock at camp. Note to self: rocks are hard, bladders are soft. Do not slam soft things onto rough rocky surfaces. I really need to pay closer attention to everything I do out here!
I was grateful for the brush-on superglue I accidentally bought on one of my last-minute trips to Target. I couldn’t find the superglue aisle and ended up in the crafts section. Happy to find anything that resembled a tiny tube of superglue I grabbed the first one I saw. To my surprise when I opened it to repair my cracked Nalgene bottle a couple days ago (yeah, I guess I’m kind of hard on my gear – who breaks Nalgene???), I discovered I’d grabbed brush-on superglue! Pure genius! No mess, no fuss, no fingers permanently stuck to my water bottle! Within minutes the holes were sealed and the Camelback was good as new. Victory!
I tried to comfort my annoyed self by searching for a logical reason for all this shit going wrong on my fifth morning on the trail: maybe the trail gods weren’t sadistic meanies out to fuck with my head, but popped the frame out of place in order to protect me from some bigger catastrophe. I reasoned with my inner tantrum-prone 5 year old: Ok so maybe the whole frame thing happened so I’d discover the leak before I had 2 liters of water all over the inside of my pack. The truth is my trash compactor bag would have protected my important gear – but it was worth a shot!
Ok, bladder fixed. Check. Stupid frame in place. Check. Time to finish packing so I can get on the trail…. SNAP! The flimsy buckle that vertically compresses the main compartment of my backpack busted a tooth as I tightened the strap down. Great. Just great. I had to laugh. It was either that or lay on the ground, curl up in a fetal position and cry – and that’s not how I roll. Instead I laughed like a lunatic… because crazy is how I roll.
Gear Report Card for the day: Super-Glue, A+. REI Flash 64, D-.
On a brighter note you may have noticed by now that I did NOT get evacuated last night. When the helicopter landed several hundred yards away as I made dinner and rested in camp, I attempted to jump up and run down to see what was going on. I say “attempted” because my body quickly reminded me that I had climbed a pretty big mountain: 16 miles and 8000’ in elevation, I wasn’t doing anything quickly.
I crammed all my food back into my bear can and hobbled the three hundred yards to the other end of the meadow with my Soloist pot full of rehydrating chili in hand (it didn’t fit in my bear can and I didn’t want to leave it for the marmots and bears), pleading with some invisible magical force that had power over the mission of the helicopter: Please don’t be an evacuation. I don’t wanna go… What if it is an evacuation? What if this is the end of my trip?
When I got there I found a couple guys camped in the trees on the edge of the meadow just feet from where the helicopter landed. There were people busily working around the chopper; pulling things out, putting things in, and mulling about. My fellow campers’ backs were to me as they watched the excitement.
“Hello!” I yelled through the heavy chopping sounds of helicopter blades cutting through the smoky air. One of the men, a rugged-looking mountain-man close to my age turned around and said hi back. His friend was holding a cell phone up, filming the whole event and didn’t acknowledge me.
“Do you know what’s going on?” I asked, “Are we getting evacuated?”
“No, we aren’t getting evacuated. The Ranger said it’s a Medi-vac”
Relief swept over me. Yay! I get to stay! Then what he said hit me… Oh wow, someone is hurt though… “A medi-vac!?! What happened?”
“They’re medi-vaccing a squirrel.”
“A squirrel?” I was sure I misheard him.
“Yup, the Ranger found a dead squirrel up on the ridge and because of the plague that closed Curry Village in Yosemite this week, they aren’t taking any chances. He called in the state and they’re flying it out for testing.” The rugged man my age was clearly as amused by this as I and laughed incredulously as he told me what he knew.
A squirrel. All this fuss over a dead squirrel. I’m who-knows-how-close to a raging wild fire and they flew a helicopter in for a squirrel??? A DEAD Squirrel… not even an alive squirrel!!! I’ve seen a lot of crazy shit in my life, but this one takes the cake..
I chatted with the two men while we watched the official-looking helicopter crew back and forth from the Ranger’s cabin to the helicopter doing serious official-looking dead squirrel re-con work. Once I saw them ceremoniously carry the tiny shoe-box sized coffin to the helicopter and fly way, I went back to camp.
Just kidding, there wasn’t really a tiny coffin. But for all the fuss, I wouldn’t have been surprised – I mean it did get its own helicopter!
What really happened is I watched until it got boring and then limped back to camp to eat dinner and entertain myself with how I would tell this story to everyone I met on the trail for the next 25 days. I chuckled to myself: here I thought a helicopter was flying in to warn us the fire was close. I expected to hear a stern voice over a loud speaker. “The Kings Canyon fire is a mile away. All backpackers must exit the forest NOW. We can’t take you with us. We need to warn the rest. Just hike east, don’t worry you can outrun it. Good luck!”
Or I expected to see Military Seal-like teams drop from the sky on rope ladders to search the area for hikers, rounding us up and hoisting us into the chopper to carry us to safety.
But no. Despite the proximity of the fire – which seemed way too close, the official helicopter was there to take away a dead squirrel. Really, you can’t make this shit up!
So I wasn’t evacuated last night and my gear is now all in order. I’m finally ready to get day 5 going and hit the trail toward Tyndall Creek.
It’s 5:20 am and I’m huddled in my sleeping bag inside my tent sipping coffee and soaking my oatmeal with dried raspberries. It’s still too cold to be outside. It was a chilly night but I stayed warm inside my bag with just my base layer and beanie. My guess is it’s about 40 degrees out now, even though the tiny key chain thermometer I picked up at the last minute while standing in line at REI says 48 – I don’t believe it.
For the brief time I was outside to retrieve my bear can and stove I noticed the last of the nighttime stars earnestly fighting to keep their place in the morning sky against the imperious rising Sun. I was relieved to see them – that’s a good sign it’ll be a smoke free morning. I thought about hurrying and hiking in the dark to get an early ascent on Whitney but I hear coyotes howling and the trail to Guitar Lake is in the woods. Dawn is not a time I want to be alone in woods. Starting my day as prey to pack of wild hunters is not how I envisioned my 4th day on the trail going for me.
The Starbucks Via’s bold French Roast flavor and jolt of caffeine are warming my insides and waking me up. I’m preparing my backpack for the day’s climb, tightening all the straps to make it smaller and more compact and filling it with what I’ll need for the day: Mary’s multi seed crackers and Justin’s Almond Butter for lunch, a couple of Lara Bars, Gorp, Orange Stinger Energy Chews and Nuun tablets for electrolytes and flavor. I’m also packing my rain jacket and pants, headlamp, first aid kit, Swiss Army knife, SPOT, phone, journal, map, and my Tyvek ground sheet. I’ll wear my down jacket since it’s still cool. I think that should give me all I need for the day and in case I fall off a cliff and need to survive a couple days before Search and Rescue finds me….
7:30 am at Guitar Lake
Where the hell is Guitar Lake? I’ve done at least 3 miles, I should be there by now. I was growing impatient that the trail seemed longer than I thought it should have been. But I quickly forgot my frustration as I hiked out of the tree line and into the land of majestic granite mountains and peaks jutting toward the sky. I strained my eyes – and my neck – to find the peak I’d be conquering. Honesty I had no idea what I was looking for. This is where I usually regret my lack of attention to detail and planning. It would’ve been nice to know what Mt. Whitney actually looked like. I expected to see one giant peak rising high above the rest, but that wasn’t the case. Everything around me was giant! All I knew was there are jagged ridges and a hut somewhere near the top, but from my angle I couldn’t distinguish Mt. Whitney from anything else in the vast range that lay before me.
As I continued up toward the expansive granite sierras I was still searching for the elusive Guitar Lake. Another small hill to climb. Please let Guitar Lake be on the other side of this ridge. I reached the top of the hill and breathed a sigh of relief: there it was. I was looking straight down on a guitar shaped lake. A wave of emotion swept over me as I froze in my tracks. I was awe-struck. Tears flooded my eyes and my jaw quivered. I can’t begin to describe everything I was feeling standing atop the little ridge at 11,460’ overlooking Guitar Lake. A jumble of happiness, peace, pride, accomplishment and even a little sadness swirled deep inside me while my mind quickly took inventory of all I’d been through and overcome to get me to this very spot: standing alone on the John Muir Trail overlooking Guitar Lake at the foot of Mt. Whitney. My eyes devoured the scene before me and I reveled in my aloneness: a tiny speck amidst nature’s enormous beauty. Standing in the silent and crisp morning air as the sun’s orange glow illuminated the gray-white peaks to the West. I’ve reached another milestone. I am at the famous Guitar Lake. The very place so many of my hiking heroes visited and wrote about. My heroes- all those people who seemed bigger than life doing things that “people like me” don’t do. And yet here I am. Doing it.
I took my first break to shed my down jacket and have a snack before heading up. I plopped down on a big rock above the lake writing, nibbling on a peanut butter Lara Bar, sipping Nuun infused fizzy water from my Nalgene, and gazing upon the very same Guitar Lake about to summit the very same Mt. Whitney that before today had only been places I fantasized about. I let it sink in. I’m here! Pretty surreal.
Shit got real about a half mile above Guitar Lake: right on cue, at 12,000’. I became lightheaded and even a little disoriented as my brain sluggishly tried to function normally. My legs felt like oversized granite boulders that instead of doing their job and carrying me to my goal, had to exhaustingly be lugged along. The thin air felt like a giant invisible hand reaching out of the sky and wrapping its greedy little fingers around my lungs squeezing the oxygen from every cell in my body. Suddenly a climb that felt challenging felt almost impossible. My already slow progress halted to a crawl as I began the slow ascent up what seemed like a million and one switchbacks to the top of the highest mountain in the lower forty eight.
So this is what all the fuss is about! This is why people turn back (usually at 12,000’!). I pushed on, going slower than a sunrise on a frigid morning. It was frustrating, but it was either go slow or not at all. And I’d made up my mind: Unless I’m puking my guts out or so dizzy I can’t stand up by myself I am NOT turning back so just keep moving forward, this isn’t a race. I have all day… One foot in front of the other. You got this. My supportive inner voice was wide awake and doing her best to coach me through as I battled every impatient cell in my body that ached to go as fast as possible and be done with it. Slow down. This isn’t a race. Take your time.
I had to stop and catch my breath after every few steps (literally, like 5 steps). After doing this for who knows how long, I’d sit and take a real break to drink some water and eat a snack which would energize and invigorate me. Feeling refreshed I’d leap up and forge ahead all Gung-Ho again. I quickly learned there is no Gung-Ho above 12000 feet. Each time, the thin air would immediately zap the Gung-Ho right out of me. And literally within 10 seconds every muscle in my legs was spent and I couldn’t breathe again. My stubborn and impatient “fuck it, just push through as fast as possible” self was defeated. I began to accept that wasn’t going to work on this one. As soon as I tried to pick up the pace Mother Nature’s invisible hand pushed against my chest holding me in place despite my earnest attempts to hike forward. I could hear her admonishment reverberate through my brain, “this is not your mountain, it’s mine. And if you want it, you will do it my way!”
Fuck!Ok Mountain you win.
Baby steps…Left foot. Right foot…Just take baby steps. Baby. Steps. Right. Left. Tiny little steps. Step. Step. Step. Just 6 inches at a time. No big steps…
And for the next 3 ½ miles and 3000 feet up I was forced to give in to the mountain, dragging my heavy legs one tiny baby step at a time. Repeating to myself over and over and over again: baby steps, breathe, and don’t look up. Nothing matters but the 2 feet of trail right in front of me. Baby steps: left… right…. left…. right…breathe….
After a little while I entered an almost peaceful Zen-like state. My mantra pulsed through me, pushing the pain and the exhaustion and every other thought out of my brain. Left. Right. Left foot. Right foot. Left…..Just a tiny step. Just worry about the 2 feet of ground in front of you, don’t look up. Just another 6 inches – left… right…..left… breathe…
Omg this is so hard. Why are my legs so heavy? FOCUS: Breathe. In and out, in and out. Right foot…. Left foot….. Right… Left…. Right…
My impatient self was not digging this baby- step shit at all. Frustrated with my snail’s pace and anxious to be done with this sadistic mountain I’d lift my head and sneak a peek at more than 2 feet of the trail in front of me, totally killing my moments of Zen. How much further is it? Am I there yet? FU-UCK! Am I moving backwards??? Ohmygod. I’m going backwards!!! The next switchback is actually farther away! Am I walking so slow that I’m actually going backward??? Oh my god I’m in hell. FOCUS. Baby step. Baby step. 2 feet in front. Breathe. In and out. In and out. Breathe. Left….right…. Leeeeftt… riiiiight….
And so my Mt. Whitney assent went: climbing up and up and up, dragging my heavy legs, looking no more than 2 feet ahead and moving no more than 6” at a time. As much as I wanted to rush and have it be over with the mountain demanded: “if you want me you have to earn me…MY way!”
Every once in a while I’d break my 2 foot rule and lift my head to soak in the jaw-dropping views surrounding me. I’d gaze yearningly at the crystal blue tarns below, teasing me with their serene and inviting waters. I’d pass the time fantasizing about diving off the side of the hellish mountain directly into their crisp sapphire waters, washing the salty sweat mixed with zinc oxide and dirty grime off my exhausted body. How I wished I could plunge into the pure high Sierra holy water and cleanse myself of this brutal and unforgiving mountain. Later. I’ll jump in later. I promised myself a refreshing dip in one of the tarns on the way out as my reward. But now. I must. Climb. Baby steps. Breathe. The earth 2 feet in front of me is all that matters – don’t look ahead. Just keep moving these leaden boulder legs up this mountain. 2” at time.
The mountain whispered in my ear, “If you want me you have to earn me. If you want me, you have to earn me. If you want me, earn me.”
There I was at nearly 14,000 feet, totally exposed, on a trail carved out of the edge of a vast granite mountain, succumbing to Mother Nature. Understanding that if I wanted to reach the summit, I’d have to do it her way. Woman vs. Nature. My will to get it done fast versus her will to make me honor the challenge of conquering her. She demanded my respect: “If you want me, you have to earn me.” I had a sudden and stark realization: I could learn a lot from this mountain. And up I went, one tiny baby step at a time.
11:30 am: The summit of Mt Whiney.
I’m here! I made it!! (Not everyone did, I passed several people on the trail who turned back before reaching the top- many half my age! This was no joke.)
The last leg of the climb seemed to have no end… The summit hid from view on the other side of a huge field of broken rock with a narrow and harrowing trail blasted into the side of the mountain. You can’t see the summit until you’re just a few hundred feet away – and before that you just climb and scramble, and climb and scramble- hoping you don’t get a bout of dizziness and tumble 4000 feet down the steep western slope of the mountain.
I’d caught sight of the hut at one point and then lost it again. Where is that damn hut? And finally about midway up a humongous 45 degree rock slope I felt I was close. And when I finally reached the last 1/8 mile of the trail and spotted the tiny rock hut sitting amidst giant pieces of broken mountain. , I cried from sheer exhaustion, relief and immense pride. Another milestone. I’m here! On top of the tallest mountain in the continental US. I made it!!! Holy shit, I made it!