The Hike Over Kearsarge Pass from Vidette Meadow
August 23, 2015 Day 7 on the trail and 68.4 miles completed.
This is now officially the longest backpacking trip I’ve ever been on (previously was a 6 day trip) and the most miles I’ve ever done on a single trip (previously was 50 miles in 5 days).
Welcome to civilization – or at least my current version of it. Sure, most of society would consider Onion Valley Campground the exact opposite of civilization; 13 miles from the nearest town with no running water or showers and smelly pits for toilets. But to me, today, it may as well be Times Square. “Civilization” like so many other human inventions is relative. Regardless of what you call it, being here sucks. I’m back to the land of car campers “getting away from it all’ in their forty foot, hundred-thousand-dollar Holiday Rambler buses fully equipped with DISH satellite TV so they don’t miss a single episode of Dancing With the Stars, clumped together, relaxing in their fancy LaFumas, and sipping Budweisers and Cokes.
Pardon my crankiness, it’s been a rough day…
Actually, “rough” doesn’t even begin to describe my day. “Brutal”, “painful”, “soul crushing” might come close. The hike up – and down – Kearsarge pass was so much more challenging than I expected. Yeah, I was warned; everyone I talked to and everything I read said it was tough. But for some reason, looking at the map I thought – “it won’t be that bad.” I figured I’d climbed to over 14,000’ a few days ago and 13,000’ yesterday, how bad could 11,845′ be, right? ….Right?
The first 500′ out of camp at Vidette Meadows wasn’t too bad. I’d taken my time over coffee and breakfast with the guys, and got a later start than usual. Despite my sore legs and feet, I was feeling refreshed after finally getting a good night’s sleep (thanks to the Xanax). The trail led up a steep wooded path and the greenery of the valley walls enveloped me as I climbed. It was a cool morning, the trail was soft, sandy dirt and my pack was lighter than it’s been in 7 days: life was as good as can be expected after 7 days, 60 miles and something like 20,000 feet in elevation gain and loss.
Despite leaving camp before the Arkansas Four, it didn’t take long for them to catch up to me. We hiked together out of the valley and up steep screed slopes before our trails split. They were planning a short day to set up basecamp at Kearsarge Lake and then slackpack over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley tomorrow where their pre-dropped resupplies awaited them in the bear boxes by the trailhead. They’d then turn around and head back over the pass with just their food: going up and over the pass in a single day but with minimal weight.
I, on the other hand was going over Kearsarge pass and into Onion Valley tonight –fully loaded with all my gear. Since I’ll be hitchhiking 13 miles to pick up my resupply at the Independence post office tomorrow and I have no idea how remote this campground is, I thought it would be best to sleep at the campground and get an early start – or better yet – meet someone tonight who is heading into town tomorrow who will give me a ride.
We said our goodbyes-for-now at Bullfrog Lake, with Lee vowing to leave me a note at the trailhead if they decide to move on to Rae Lakes tomorrow night. I appreciated the gesture and looked forward to catching up to them again. They’re great company.
Bullfrog Lake was the highlight of my day. The most picturesque and idyllic alpine lake you can imagine: a bowl of glittering mountain water framed by grayish-white granite boulders, late-season grass turned yellow from summer heat and the lack of rain and patches of lush conifers bringing it all to life. The small lake rested peacefully in the shadow of a set of jagged sierra peaks, whose majesty refused to be dulled behind the layer of smoky haze. And like a faithful lover, Bullfrog Lake honored the peaks, triumphantly reflecting them from the surface of its still waters.
I couldn’t resist. Once the guys were out of site, I found a perfect spot on the nearly-white boulders, stripped off my filthy hiking clothes and dove into the inviting water. It was cold, but not knock-the-breath-out-of-you cold. I swam without inhibition (well almost), basking in my freedom and the luxury of having this utopic spot completely to myself: an entire lake – all mine! I felt like the luckiest woman alive.
When planning my trip, I imagined having moments like that every day, but the smoke dulls the sun into gloomy orange orb every afternoon, chilling the air too much to think about jumping into icy water. This morning, I took advantage of the relative warmth and not-horrible smokiness and enjoyed my first real swim since Chicken Spring Lake. It was a moment to remember, for sure.
The euphoria of the 30 minutes spent luxuriating at Bullfrog Lake slipped away almost as soon I started hiking again. Within a few minutes I was hit with waves of dizziness and vertigo. My brain felt sludgy and slow, like it was swimming in an ocean of thick oil. Then the trail before me twisted and contorted and fractured into some weird kaleidoscope dream. My legs were weak and I struggled to put one foot in front of the other.
Being my normal stubborn self, I kept hiking, trying to ignore the strange feeling away… whoaaaa…. a flash of white blinded me, causing me to stop dead in my tracks. For a split-second the world went blank and my head got even woozier. What the hell is this? Worried that I couldn’t just push on and will this away, I bent over, resting my hands on my knees and took a couple of deep breaths. I don’t have time for this. I just want to go… I resumed hiking at a snail’s pace, hoping the strange sensation would pass… But the kaleidoscope vision and dizziness persisted.
Finally, I gave in, dropping my pack on flat shady spot under a clump of trees next to the trail, and plopped down next to it. Is this a side effect of the Xanax? Am I getting sick? Is this exhaustion? Oh my god, am I dying? I’m dying, aren’t I? Alone out here on the trail, I’ll be left for dead like some plague-stricken squirrel, reduced to coyote and vulture food. I got a hold of myself and realized I probably wasn’t dying, just exhausted.
I laid in the cool grass and watched the clouds lazily waft the day away. I got lost in their gentle movements and felt my body melt into the earth. I inhaled slow, deep breaths, trying to heal myself through mediation, focusing on two willowy masses perform an exquisite pas de deux; their edges drifting together and floating apart until they finally melded into one giant bulbous cloud. I laid still, breathing slowly, mesmerized by the exquisite slow-motion cloud ballet playing out thousands of feet above: oblivious to me and my ailments. It was strangely comforting thinking that even if I were laying there dying, the clouds would go on dancing above me.
When my head stopped swimming and the world transformed back into its normal non-kaleidoscope self, I slowly stood up to test the ground. My head swooned a little, but not too bad, so I strapped on my pack and cautiously resumed my climb. And I climbed. And I climbed. Up the rocky western slope of Kearsarge pass, not feeling 100% but determined to reach my destination. It was hot, it was smoky, it was brutal. Not baby-stepping Mt. Whitney brutal, not even endless switchback, Forester Pass brutal, but, “I just want to be off this fucking mountain,” brutal.
When I finally reached the summit of Kearsarge Pass, it was completely socked in under heavy sooty gray smoke, adding to the misery of my day. I could barely make out Kearsarge Lakes 1000’ below and longingly searched the shores for signs of my friends’ camp. I couldn’t see them but I imagined they were relaxing in their luxurious camp chairs lakeside and enjoying the afternoon without a care in the world… I was so jealous. I just wanted to be done.
Going down Kearsarge Pass was no easier than going up Kearsarge Pass: 4.7 miles over 2660’ down. It went on FOR-E-VER. Down. And down. And down. The trail meandered back and forth and back and forth as if it had nowhere to be. This trail… let me tell you about this trail: think about normal switchbacks, compactly carved into a mountain to get you up – or down – efficiently. These switchbacks were neither efficient nor compact. Some of them stretched clear across the entire side of the mountain, we’re talking at least ¼ mile – at least. I’d look down and see the trail wrap clear around the damn mountain, back toward the wilderness from which I’d come, before switching back, thinking, that can’t be MY trail. It’s another trail heading into SEKI, right? And I’d trudge on and soon realize, no, it was indeed my trail. Seriously? What the fuck? Who designed this stupid mess? I fantasized that it was some spiteful engineer whose father made him hike when he was a kid, when all he wanted to do was stay home and build Lego bridges and skyscrapers. So now he works out his daddy issues by building sadistic, never-ending, meandering switchbacked trails. I could just picture him sitting over his blueprints splayed about his gigantic drafting table, with a sinister sneer on is face, “ You want switchbacks father? I’ll give you switchbacks! I’m going to teach all the hiking-daddies of the world a lesson! Muah ha ha ha ha…”
It just. Would not. End.
Two huge passes back-to-back have taken their toll on my body. Yesterday, Forester Pass: 2300’ up and 3665’ down and today Kearsarge Pass: 2300’ up and 2660’ down for a grand total of 10,900 feet in elevation in just about 32 hours. And every achy muscle, tendon and ligament below my waist feels every single inch of it. I’m grimy, sunburnt, exhausted, emotionally spent and over the whole, “Ohhh hiking is so grand. Ohhh I love nature..Ohh it’s so great to be out here”, bullshit.
Today hiking the JMT became REAL – not just some fantasy hike that would be so awe-inspiring that the challenges would seem mild in comparison. No. The thrill, excitement and raw enthusiasm of being out here is G-O-N-E and has been replaced with…. With what? Apathy? Reality? I’m not sure, but the romanticism of the thru-hike has been slowly slipping away day by day, little by little, with every ache, pain, challenging climb, and smoke-obstructed view.
The reality of the thru-hike is so much more demanding than anything I had imagined. I hike. And I hike. And I hike some more. It’s not always awe-inspiring and exciting and adventurous. Sometimes it’s just grueling, sweaty, dirty, mind numbing, aching hiking. Then you get to set up camp, eat rehydrated mush, sleep on the ground, wake up sore and achy and do it all over again…
I’m not saying I want to quit. Voluntarily leaving the trail has never crossed my mind. Even for a second. I’m just saying that as beautiful as it is out here and as awesome as this adventure is, it’s hard work. Really fucking hard work.
I think I need a zero day. And something cold to drink. And maybe a giant Snickers bar…Tomorrow I resupply, but first I have to get to Onion Valley…