Day 9: Kearsarge Lakes to Rae Lakes via Glen Pass
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…