Secrets of the John Muir Trail: Silver Pass & Tully Hole

Day 19 or 20 on the JMT 14.5 miles (180 miles total)Tully Hole to Red Cones

It’s about seven I think.  I’m shoveling oatmeal in my mouth and writing frantically before I pack up and get on the trail.  I didn’t write last night because I had company. Yes, I had company, and he wasn’t from Arkansas!  My Tully Hole camp-mate, Etai, had is ultra-light tarp-tent all packed up and was finishing up his Power Bar breakfast when I emerged from my tent for breakfast this morning. We said a quick goodbye and he was off!

Yesterday, I left the company of the eerie mysterious voices at the cutoff at Vermillion Resort (VVR) junction to begin my three-thousand-foot ascent over Silver Pass. I was fueled with excitement about getting one day closer to Red’s Meadow, a veggie burger and a shower!!!  A Shower! Ohmygod I can’t wait for a shower!

The last three days of hiking have been mind-numbing.  This section of the JMT is B-O-RING! I hope this isn’t what the rest of the hike will be like. For three days, I’ve been ambling up and over forested hill after rolling forested hill. Seemingly for no apparent reason – isn’t there a way AROUND them?  Is it really necessary to go up, just so I can go down again? And then hike up another hill and then down, once again? Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. Alllll dayyyyy loooong fooor threeee straigggght dayyyyyys.

Tully Hole JOhn muir trail

I actually miss the giant peaks and long passes of the southern end of the JMT.  In the south, I was (mostly) either climbing up a pass, or down a pass, and the barren above-tree-line granite landscape couldn’t hide many secrets. In the north, under a canopy of thick pines, many secrets are kept: in the form of false summits.

Half a dozen times a day as another mountaintop preens masterly ahead, my relief and anticipation of summiting builds. Yay, I’m almost there, just a little further. I’ve got this! But with each painful and heavy step another rounded mountaintop peeks up behind it, like a rising moon cresting the horizon.

And just like that, the revolting secret of the hills is revealed: another false summit.  Mother Nature’s playful snickers kiss my ears as a breeze floats through the stoic trunks of lodgepole and foxtail pines. Once again, she yanks my finish line away and teasingly places it higher and further up the trail, along with my positive attitude.  “NOOOOO! NO! NO! NO!!!”  I try to fight the disappointment and frustration, but my cranky inner 6-year-old takes over and throws an internal temper tantrum. “I don’t wanna climb anymore! I wanna be done. I wanna go downhill now!  wahhhhh.”  The tantrum passes, I pull on my big-girl-panties and hike on. What else can I do?

Now I know why hikers half-jokingly say there are no flat parts of the JMT! When I think back over the past twenty days and 170 miles I have a hard time remembering any!

The last three days have felt like Ground Hog Day; same views, different day. No matter how high or low I am, all I can see are trees, the sandy-dirt path, more trees, more dirt path. Gone are the sweeping granite vistas of the Sequoia Kings Canyon Range. Gone are the 14,000 foot passes (not sure I miss those so much – although at this stage of my hike, a 3000’ climb is a 3000’ foot climb whether I’m at 14,000’ or 11,000’) where I can lounge atop the world and soak in hundreds of miles of Mother Nature’s rugged brilliance. Gone are the other-worldly moonscapes. Gone are the serene tarns, tucked away in majestic mountains, reflecting the dull gray smoke-diluted skies. It’s just forest. And more forest.

tully hole john muir trail
Camp at Tully Hole
packed up

I can see how hiking the JMT SOBO would be more rewarding; the best scenery is saved for the second part.  As my NOBO hike winds down, it’s feeling anti-climactic.  Maybe it’s because I’m hiking into familiar terrain? As I get closer to Yosemite, where I’ve backpacked for decades, I feel like I’m getting closer to home. It feels like I’m closing in on my final finish line.

So, for the last forty miles I’ve hiked in the forest.  Thick, view blocking, forest. Today I had the exact same view for ten miles; trees and more trees.  There wasn’t even a drop of water for a seven mile stretch; not a creek , lake, tarn, river, or even a trickling spring. Just Forest.  Dense, eerie, forest, full of stoic giants going about their silent big-tree lives like they have for hundreds, and even thousands of years. Hello tree! How are you today?

Luckily, I’d studied my map and listened to the SOBO hikers who told me about the seven-mile dry spell. I was prepared. Thirst wasn’t’ the problem. The lack of visual interest was the problem: not even a creek to break up the monotony.

Even the people I met today were boring. Nothing but bouncy Shiny Happy People (SHP) out for the Labor Day Weekend in their brand new, crisp-clean name-brand hiking clothes and freshly washed hair, clean fingernails, giant backpacks and fishing rods.  They’d cheerily bounce past me leaving in their wake clouds of perfumed soap, shampoo and cologne (yes, cologne!). Even their sunscreen and Deet annoyed the hell out of me, because I know they’ll all be jumping in the lakes and creeks without washing it all off first.

Oh, they weren’t that bad… just slightly annoying and an insult to my hypersensitive senses.  I’ve been out here mostly-alone too long and maybe more than a little self-conscious about my 20-day unshoweredness (like that new word I just made up?) state. Yes, I felt a bit like Jodie Foster’s Nell as I tried to put coherent sentences together to answer their annoying questions: “Where’s the next water?”; “How’s the fishing?”; “can I see your map?”; “Do you have any extra cologne?” (ok, I made the last one up).

I met one person today who neither shined nor bounced, nor reeked of cologne. As I trudged up the trail toward Tully Hole at the end of a long day, looking for a spot to camp, I met Etai. He’s a 22-year-old guy from Israel. He was headed south and I north and we stopped each other to ask if there were any good camping spots back in the direction we’d each come. “No” I said. “Nope, he replied. just a long climb ahead of you with nothing but steep hills and canyons; no good camping.”

We’d crossed paths at the bright green meadow in, what I’m assuming was Tully Hole. “There’s a tiny spot in the woods about a quarter mile behind me,” I said, “but I don’t really want to camp there, it’s tiny, wooded and kind of eerie.”

We both walked back in the direction I’d come to check it out.  We stood on the trail, just feet from the tiny clearing in the dark woods next to the creek. It was barely big enough for one person, much less two and there was nothing but rocks and steep hills all around us.

“I was thinking about staying here, but I’d rather sleep out in the open,” I said pointing toward the meadow where we’d met. “I don’t really like camping in the woods.  I’m kinda scared of the woods. “I laughed self-consciously as I confessed my irrational fear to the young stranger.

“Me too! I hate the woods, they’re creepy!” he admitted and we both laughed at the irony of two solo-hikers in the woods, admitting to be afraid of the woods.  “Let’s go check out the meadow.”

With packs still on, we headed back to the meadow and then parted ways to scout for camping spots.  I slopped around in the soggy mess trying to find a spot dry enough to camp. I felt guilty for traipsing through the delicate eco-system of the marshy meadow.  Not exactly the best Leave No Trace (LNT) move, but it was necessary if I didn’t want to get eaten by forest-monsters in the middle of the night, I told myself.  After stepping ankle deep in mud and mush a couple of times I looked over at Etai who was busy sloshing around and scouting for a spot himself, wondering if he was having any better luck.

tully hole selfie

I slogged back to the trail where he joined me. No luck. So, we headed back down toward the eerie wooded site.  He pointed to a steep bank across the creek that appeared to be flat on the top. “I’m gonna ago check that out.”  By then, we’d pretty much decided we were camping together for the night. I don’t know if we even talked about it or it was just assumed.

He was half my age, in great shape and was on day four of his South Bound John Muir Hike, compared to my day twenty, so I felt no guilt in sloughing off my pack and resting against a tree as he rock-hopped across the creek and easily scaled the steep bank on the opposite side.  As he disappeared into the woods above I had  a few fleeting concerns about camping with a strange man; is he up there preparing a torture apparatus? Finding a tree to tie me to to leave me for dead?  Plotting how he’ll chop me up and bury me far off the trail where no one will find me? I entertained the thoughts for a few minutes and then weighed the more real threat of being alone in a spooky forest full of unknowns. I decided to take my chances with the mortal stranger.

A few minutes later he was careening down the bank toward me with a huge smile on his face. “It’s great! There’s a ton of space and plenty of flat spots to camp! What do you think?”

Great, so you found a perfect tree to hang me from, huh? “Awesome! Let’s go!” I said out loud as I pulled my pack on and followed him up the bank. Once I crested it, a whole new flat world of forest splayed before me! Yay!!!  My new non ax-murderer friend found us a perfect home for the night!

We ate dinner together, shared hiking stories and I enjoyed hearing about his life in Israel and his summers spent in the U.S. taking youth on backpacking trips into the wilderness.  See, serial killers don’t take youth on backpacking trips, you have nothing to worry about!  

Later, as I laid in bed with my ears perked for signs that he was sharpening his hatchet, something else about him struck me: he’d started his JMT hike out of Yosemite four days ago.  And a reality that I’d been ignoring hit me; I’m almost done. I’m fewer than 60 miles from Yosemite Valley. I can probably be in Tuolumne Meadows in three days. A sadness and panicky feeling spread over my tired and aching body as I snuggled into my bag to keep out the cold night.

I’m almost to Yosemite. I’ve hiked from Horseshoe Meadows all this way. I’ve hiked one hundred eighty miles. I’ve been out here twenty days.  I felt a surge of pride at my accomplishment.. an unfamiliar feeling -and it brought tears to my eyes. I must be exhausted… 

As I slid into sleep I thought about checking on Capone when I got to Tuolomne Meadows. I miss y buddy and can’t wait to see him, but what will it be like going home? What will home feel like after this?

It’ll be interesting to see what comes of this experience.

********

(Epilogue: When I read that last line in my journal entry I was blown away. Yes, interesting, indeed. for those of you who don’t know, this is my new life: http://CarolynsRVLife.com  and on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/CarolynsRVLife)

 

 

People are Strange, Passes seem Wicked (When You’re Alone)…

Day 13:  Unnamed Creek below Mather Pass to LeConte Canyon

August 30, 2015 at 5 am: Waking up below Mather Pass

I had a rough night. It was freezing and the rocky ground causes every muscle and bone to ache, even through my Therm-a-rest. It’s definitely not as cushy as the dirt floor below the tree line. Even with Advil PM, I tossed and turned all night, feeling every scrape, rash and sore muscle.  (I scraped my fingertip on a rock while soaking yesterday and it’s throbbing!).

On the bright side, every time I got up to go to the bathroom (which was a lot) I was thrust from the comfort of my tent into the desolate and barren landscape of Upper Basin, in the shadow of Mather Pass.  The near-full moon cast an eerie glow onto the other-worldly bouldered moonscape.  I paused: acutely aware of my alone-ness and a tranquility so smooth and silent.  Have I woken up to a dream? Is this real? I pondered how a place so devoid of sound and movement can exist on the same planet as my every-day world  full of hustle-and-bustle and noise and light.  I took a long slow breath, inhaling the cool night, and slowly turned.  All around and above me, millions of stars carried out their nightly duty:  twinkling innocently and ignorantly in a far-away universe.

I ached to absorb every atom of the extraordinary  world  enveloping me.  It pulled me in, seducing me  with it’s  silent tranquility. As I stood motionless, my Earthly Being  merged into the landscape.  Once again, I became Nature and Nature became me. I  reveled in the power it had over me and in the knowledge that I was a mere speck on the ancient historical timeline of this place that now held me.

day 13 somewhere

Chilled – and maybe a little spooked – I’d hesitantly crawl back into my tent and try in vain to get a few hours of sleep….

I’ve finally given up. I unzipped my door and rainfly to enjoy the view from the warmth of my sleeping bag:  the bright sparkling star of The Hand Constellation is just above the eastern peaks of Cardinal and Split Mountains.  The world is silent and still.  I’m sipping my coffee, anxious for the sun to rise. I’m ready to get on the trail, but for now I’m enjoying the silent serenity of a world that I have all to myself… just the stars and the sky and the fading moon to keep me company.

12:30 – Lunch – Descending into Leconte Canyon from Mather Pass

No wonder most of the South Bounders I’ve run into today have been grumpy. Mather Pass is a bitch; my irritating descent is their horrific 4100’ never-ending ascent.  How I missed this on my maps, I’ll never know – oh wait, that’s right I fucking SUCK at reading topo map! Plus, I keep making the same mistake over and over again; thinking it’s going to be an easy day.  I was so full of excitement and optimism as I half-assedly studied my map this morning, broke camp and merrily skipped along the trail toward Mather Pass. I was like the Mary Poppins of JMT hikers, all that was missing was the umbrella and the “Sound of Music” piping through the mountains as I frolicked.day 13 waterfall and bp

You’d think that after my Glen Pass melt-down I’d have learned my lesson. Repeat after me: THERE ARE NO EASY DAYS ON THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL! When will that sink into my head? Damn my optimism and willful ignorance! It bites me in the ass every single day out here. On top of a grueling 4100-foot descent down rocky slippery, torturous trail, my quads and hips are achy (despite handfuls of ibuprofen), I think I’m getting blisters, a couple of my fingertips are cut and bleeding and throbbing and the rash on the back of my legs is burning. Yeah, this shit is real. Being out in the elements and hiking 100 miles over 13 days takes a toll on my fragile ill-equipped human body!

On top of all that, my pants have become annoyingly baggy (I would have never thought in a million years that I would complain that my pants had become too baggy.  Sear this moment into your brain and forever cherish it.) They’re falling from my hips and drooping all down my ass, chaffing my already rashed butt and legs.  Seriously, I’m getting the weirdest ailments. I planned for sore muscles, minor cuts, scrapes, infections; but fingertips that split open and throb constantly, a rash on the entire back of my lower body; who would have thought to prepare for such nonsense?

After what felt like decades of trudging downhill, I finally stopped to eat lunch on a huge flat rock overlooking a gorge with a cascading waterfall. As I devoured my favorite Cashew Caramel Go Macro Bar and handfuls of trail mix, a tall lanky dude about my age stopped next to me. He just stood there for what seemed like a ridiculously long time without saying anything to me. He stared at the river flooding through the narrow gorge. Does he not see me, I wondered.  How can he not see me? I’m RIGHT next to him.

“HI!” I yelled to him over the roaring noise of the water, trying to snap him out of his clueless trance.

Not taking his eyes off the gorge, he mumbled something I couldn’t hear.

“Excuse me?”

He mumbled again.

Ok, now this mumbling intruder was just annoying me, “I can’t hear you over the waterfall.”

He raised his voice about a half a decibel, I think he asked, “is this the Golden Staircase?”

“I don’t think so. Isn’t the Golden Staircase further north near Donahue Pass?” I answered.

“No. I think this is it,” he replied, still studying the gorge and not looking at me.

Okay, if you’re so damn sure,  then why did you ask??? “Hmm. I’m not sure then…”

Then he suddenly jerked his head around as if noticing me for the first time and just stood in place on the trail a foot away from me,  watching me pick cashews out of my trail mix.  He was starting to creep me out.  I was sitting on the edge of a gorge after all and there was no one around for miles. Will this be the day my flippant, “No one hikes into the wilderness to kill people” reply to “aren’t you scared hiking alone?”  bites me on the ass?

Why was this odd tall man watching me eat? Finally he mumbled,  “where are you from?”

I’d been meeting people from all over the world and  I never assume anyone knows where little Concord, California is, so I replied, “The Bay Area – San Francisco, Bay Area.”

The odd man snarled at me, turning up his lip in disgust. Showing obvious contempt, he  snapped, “you could have been more specific!”

I gave him a questioning look. His annoyance caught me off guard and I wanted to reply, “Ok, is “none of your fucking business”, specific enough for you?”  but since I was sitting on the edge of cliff overlooking a gorge  I thought it best to not provoke the odd man.  “Ok, I’m from Concord, Concord CA. Why, do you know the Bay Area?”

Again with his annoyed tone, “Yeah, Orinda.”

“Oh.”

Silence. He just stood there. Looking at me. Looking at the gorge. I started packing up, I wasn’t taking any chances that he was trying to figure out  if he could push me over without taking himself down in the fall too…

Finally, he mumbled something and moved on. I watched him hike up the trail (that suddenly seemed an awful lot like a staircase…) and out of sight. Relieved to be alone again, I laid back onto the rock and let the warm sun wash over me, thinking, What is up with today? I have not met one “normal” hiker today, just a bunch of people who seem like they’ve never been on a trail before and absolutely hate being out here. But then,  I suppose the people who passed me climbing Glen Pass could’ve thought the same about me. Trudging up this hellacious mountain must kill every ounce of joy in even the best and most optimistic hiker.

I have no idea where this is, I think it was on Day 13 below Mather Pass, before the Golden Staircase, maybe?
I have no idea where this is, I think it was on Day 13

So today it was the Mather Pass descent, more than the ascent  that killed me. Really, that fucking mountain just went down for days.

With all my odd physical ailments and wavering mental fortitude I’m realizing that my fantasy of dropping out of society, loading up my backpack with as much survival gear as I can carry, grabbing Capone and traipsing deep into the wilderness to live off the land probably isn’t a realistic option.  Besides being completely grossed out by the idea of having to kill things to eat, I’ve only been out here 13 days and already I miss my warm comfy bed, hot showers, soap and shampoo, fresh veggies, real coffee and lotion (my skin is so dry).  Yes, that fantasy has died within me over the last several days. I would surely starve and die a slow and wholly uncomfortable death without  Peet’s coffee and 900 thread count sheets.

8:30 pm at Le Conte Canyon

 I hiked 16.4 miles today!!!  And I finally broke my 100-mile mark! Woo hoo!!

After a long and strange day with lots of cranky people and a brutal 4100’ descent I finally stumbled into LeConte Canyon around 6 pm. I was determined to make it here tonight, so for the first time I hiked past 4:00. Why have I been stopping so early? I got an extra 3 ½ miles in! (That’s right, “I’m not in a race. I’m supposed to be enjoying the journey… blah, blah blah… Yeah, I’m pretty much over that – I’m ready to be home!)day 13 deer

Guess who’s here!?! Arkansas Tim and Tony!!! I was so excited to see my old trail friends!  But I quickly noticed they were one short, “Where’s Robert?” Tim told the story of how his knee got worse after tweaking it coming down Pinchot Pass and he had to exit. They’d gotten to LeConte Canyon yesterday and hiked Robert out to Bishop over Bishop Pass today so he could get medical help. Having hiked their friend out over a brutal pass, sharing the weight of his gear and their day packs, and then back to LeConte Canyon in one day, they were physically exhausted, emotionally drained and worried about their friend. But there’s a hiker code: you do what you can for your injured comrades-in-boots, but in the end you have to hike your hike.

It made me sad to hear the bad news and missed Robert’s big happy smile and his familiar “you just never know who you’re going to meet out here” greeting. Knowing that fit, tough Robert – the happy-go-lucky workhorse of the group –  had to exit the trail was another reminder that this endeavor is no joke.day 13 pinchot and mather sign

They invited me to camp with them so I excitedly pitched my tent and ate dinner with them.  And while we shared stories of trail challenges and triumphs, the concern over our friend’s  health hovered in the air like a heavy fog.

(Oh and-Tony confirmed that mumbling, Specifically-Orinda guy was right, it was the Golden Staircase I was descending. How did I not know that?? *Sigh*)

I’m relaxing in my tent now, getting ready for bed and studying my maps.  Tomorrow will be a tough day: 7.9 miles to Muir Pass. (7.9 TOUGH miles, I KNOW this one won’t be easy… see how I’m reversing the psychology on this one?? I hope it helps!). Then on to Evolution Basin and Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) for my next resupply!!!

I had a low point today coming down the endless 4000’ Mather Pass Golden Staircase (more like “Staircase of Hell”) where I was bored with being out here and ready to be done. I don’t want to quit, but I wouldn’t mind picking up the pace to get out sooner than 30 days. I miss Capone terribly and I worry about him being at puppy camp all alone. I miss my bed. I miss showers. I miss not having every inch of my body ache or burn or pulse in pain. Maybe I was just a little tired and lonely and I was reacting to all the negative people I ran into. Being with Tony and Tim has made me feel better. All in all, I’m happy to be here and tomorrow is another day…

 

Sidenote: A thought I had on the trail today after the Golden Staircase:

Ahhh,  I’ve descended to 8700’!   I’m speeding along the trail and the little hills, my muscles feel less fatigued and I can breathe!  I mean REALLY breathe!  I feel like Super Woman! I can do anything at 8700’!!!

I can only imagine what it will be like when I get home to sea level! Watch out Bay Area. When I get home I’m gonna go on a huge Oxygen bender.  I’ll be sucking in all that thick sea-level ‘O’ the Nine-Two-Five is known for! Oh yeah! My lungs are jonesing for a big whiff of that good stuff! I’ll be running the streets  and doing cardio like a mother-fucker! Watch out Bay Area, here I come! 

Yeah- the trail gets boring and you find interesting ways to amuse yourself! 🙂

 

Hanging out on top of Mt. Whitney

Inching closer to the hut, now in sight, I finally gave in to the the swells of tears flooding my eyes.  Like the stones that tumbled off the trail into the steep abyss under the weight of my feet, they spilled out and rolled down my face until evaporating in the warm thin air.  Elation, exhaustion, and triumph all brimmed inside me.

First view of the Whitney Hut
View of the Whitney hut – the finish line

The summit was abuzz with chatter and activity as hikers rested and celebrated. I hadn’t expected to see so many people and I felt a little self-conscious. In my real life, I don’t cry.  I might get a little choked up now and then, but actual full-on waterworks crying:  not so much. It’s not something I’m bragging about or proud of, I just have a really hard time crying. In fact, I had a therapist once who made it her personal mission to try to get me to cry during our sessions, which only served to make me clam up even more – and look for a new therapist.  So standing alone on a mountain leaning on my trekking poles weeping wasn’t exactly a normal thing for me. I bowed my head and used my dirty shirt to dry my face while I tried to collect myself.

“I’ve climbed this mountain four times and I cry every single time”.  The man’s voice caught me off guard: I thought I was doing a better job of hiding my tears. I lifted my head and looked toward the voice. A tall man with a grayish-brown beard, probably in his mid-to-late fifties was leaning against the hut cooling off in the shade a few feet away.

I wiped my face with the back of my hand and smiled, “Yeah, it sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?” Any embarrassment or awkwardness I was feeling evaporated as the realization that this might be a normal reaction to climbing Mt. Whitney sunk in. As usual, I couldn’t recognize the magnitude my own accomplishment. I needed a stranger to tell me it was ok to cry because climbing Mt.  Whitney is a big fucking deal. Such a big deal in fact, that less than 10% of the population ever even attempt to climb a 14,000 foot mountain.  It was so much easier to see the accomplishment looking at a 55 year old graying man with a little paunch in his gut than to see it in myself.

I hope this journey will help me recognize my own strength, courage, and accomplishments.

The summit of Mt. Whitney
The summit of Mt. Whitney

The tall nice man continued, “Yes it definitely sneaks up on you. It’s a beautiful thing. And that climb isn’t easy. It sure seemed a lot easier the last time I did it.”

“Oh my god it was hell! I am so happy to be here. This is just…Amazing… ” My voice trailed off as I soaked it all in.

“I haven’t been up here in 20 years and man it was it a lot harder than I remembered.  I’m here with my brother and his boy. It’s my nephew’s first time. He’s 17 now. My brother did it with me last time. But he’s been sick and couldn’t do it…. ” And on he went, telling me every detail of this and past hikes up Mt. Whitney.  As grateful as I was for his comforting words, I’d stopped listening.  With my composure regained, I looked for the one thing I wanted to take care of first.  My eyes darted around, searching…. where is it?

“Wow, good for you – and congratulations,” I absentmindedly responded. “Well I’m going to look for the register now, I want to sign in.”

“Oh, it’s right over there by the door,” He pointed to a big metal box sitting atop a pile of rocks right next to the door of the hut. Somehow I’d missed it. I’d been looking for a rock pile with a cover on it, out in the open like I’d seen at the top of Pyramid Peak in Desolation Wilderness 20 years ago: the last – and only time – I’d bagged a peak.

Mt Whitney Shelter
Mt Whitney Shelter

“Oh yes, I see it!” As I walked toward him and the hut, I paused to look him in they eye, “thank you very much!”  I wanted, in some small way, to convey my gratitude. Not for pointing out the Summit Register, but for sharing his own teary-eyed experience in an effort to comfort me.

“No problem. Enjoy!” He looked me in they eye, smiled and gave me a slight nod.  I think he knew.

I was excited to sign the Registry: proof that I was actually there!  As I signed my name and read others’ entries I wondered:  What do they do with this registry anyway? Do they keep it? And if so, why? And where? Will I be able to use it as an alibi someday?  — “No Your Honor Ms. Higgins couldn’t have committed this murder, you see, she was on top of Mt Whitney at the time – look I have proof. Right here – Carolyn Higgins signed in at 11:33 am on August 20, 2015 right between John Climber who signed in at 11:32 and Mary Hiker who signed in at 11:34.  Therefore Carolyn Higgins is innocent!!!” Oh how I love my courtroom dramas!   (NOTE: I was really curious about what they do with the registry so I looked it up. My findings are at the end of this post, in case you’re curious too…).

After signing in and lingering over the registry a few minutes to fully absorb the moment, I entered the hut. The Mt. Whitney Summit Shelter is officially named the Smithsonian Institute Shelter and was originally proposed after Byrd Surby, a U.S. Fisheries employee (OK, the irony is killing me: his name was Byrd and he worked with fish???  It doesn’t take much to amuse me!), was struck and killed by lightning on the summit in 1904.  But it wasn’t built until 1909, to house scientists who used the 14,505-foot summit to study high-altitude phenomena in the time before sustained high-altitude flight was possible. In 1909 the site was also used by Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory director Charles Greeley Abbot to conduct spectroscopic observations of Mars to investigate the existence of water on the planet. (Source: Wikipedia. Ok, so I’m a bit of a history geek…. I had to look this up when I got home…)

Whitney Spires
Whitney Spires

It now serves as protection for hikers in case of electrical storms. Standing inside the barren stone hut, I imagined what it would be like to be holed up inside with thunder clapping and lightening flashing outside. A familiar excited nervousness fluttered in my gut as I thought of how scary – and exciting – it would be!

I made my way outside and behind the hut to the eastern side of the summit where there was a crowd of people laughing and talking, taking pictures and eating. I ran into the nice man again and he offered to take my picture. After returning the favor, taking pictures of him with his brother and nephew, I headed to the edge of the mountain to see the views.  Everyone seemed to know one another and I felt like an outsider as I approached.  Sometimes I really hate being an introvert.

I faced my anxiety head on, put a smile on my face and walked into the crowd saying hello to anyone who looked at me. No one really seemed all that interested in chatting.  I was disappointed; I expected a big happy inclusive community at the top with a bunch of people I could celebrate with. Instead it felt like high school all over again and I was walking into the quad where all the popular kids were hanging out. Only in high school I would slink by hoping no one would notice me because if they did, it was just to torment me about my weight or my Big Yank jeans and Kmart sneakers. Being quiet, fat, and poor in high school was the trifecta of dweebdom. It’s amazing how you never really get over that stuff.

But there on the top of Mt. Whitney 30 years later, I realized everyone was probably just going through their own range of emotions absorbing their accomplishment, just as I was. Or they were just as shy and didn’t know how to respond to this dirty middle aged woman geekily smiling at them.  I continued toward the edge of the mountain, navigating around the couples, threesomes and bigger groups to take my turn on the popular vista points, pausing a couple times to offer to take pictures of the groups.  Each huge rock that jutted out from the tip- top of the mountain lent a new jaw-dropping view of Lone Pine, Independence and Death Valley 14,505 feet below. I smiled. Excitement fluttered inside me. This is so freaking awesome! 

View toward Guitar Lake from Mt Whitney trail
View toward Guitar Lake from Mt Whitney trail

I found a flat rock the size of a Prius on the south-eastern edge of the summit to claim as my own for my lunch break.  I was surrounded on the side that wasn’t a cliff by a group of Whitney Portal day hikers all bright and cheery in their clean clothes and shiny hair with their LL Bean day packs, Gucci sunglasses and Movado watches.  If I had to guess, I’d say they were from Los Angeles… just a hunch. I felt conspicuously grungy next to them. I’d only been out 4 days and already my REI hiking pants and light green shirt were dingy with trail dust. I hadn’t showered in 4 days and my red hair streaked at the roots with gray was haphazardly pulled into braids just so I wouldn’t have to think about how dirty it was.

Oh well, I’m a thru-hiker. I’m supposed to be dirty. I laid my dirty self down on my rock languishing in its warmth penetrating my tired back. What a gorgeous day!

 It was sunny and 75 degrees – surprisingly warm for 14,505 feet. And although I could see the smoke from the wildfires in the distance, it hadn’t blown east yet. I was enjoying the warmth of the sun and resting my eyes when, among the chatter of the crowd I heard the magic words:  “I have Verizon Service.” A fit, sparkly clean man in a skintight lime-green Under Armor T-Shirt was standing on a rock with an iPhone in his hands announcing he had 4G.

Yay! I grabbed my phone from my pack.  First I checked my texts to make sure my assistant hadn’t texted me with any work emergencies. The plan was, if anything critical came up that my back-cup colleague couldn’t handle, she’d text me and whenever I got service I’d respond. I was happy to see no texts from her.  I willed myself not to check work email. I’m on vacationRelax, my team has it covered. Everything is good.  Next I checked in on Facebook and texted my friend and emergency contact, Laurel. ‘”I made it to the top” – at Mt. Whitney.  Within seconds all of the “congratulations” and “way-to-go’s” came pouring in from my friends and colleagues.   My feelings of aloneness and isolation disappeared instantly. I was grateful for this connection: to have people at home who cared about and supported me. It was a nice contrast to what I was feeling on the mountain surrounded by clean strangers.Whitney view 20150820_115650

I heard the LA group talking about all the switchbacks they climbed coming up from Whitney Portal.  My friendly smiles hadn’t succeeded in engaging them so I thought I’d try to actually speak to them, “I heard there are 99 switchbacks. It must have been brutal!” They all paused and looked at me.  I smiled and went on, “I mean, I had a lot of switchbacks coming up from Guitar Lake, but I don’t think it was even close to 99…”

*Crickets*

Finally one of the kids of the group, a boy about 14 said, “Yeah, I counted, there were really 99 switchbacks.” And they all just turned toward each other and continued their conversation. Okie Dokie. I can take a hint… And I looked back down at my phone and continued texting my friends.

Ok fine, I don’t need you snotty LA people anyway.

But then the oranges came out…

A man sitting inches from me pulled a gallon-sized Ziploc bag full of quartered oranges from his dainty day pack and handed them to his friends. “Here eat these, I don’t want to carry them down.”  He passed the bag around, but only one or two people took some. The rest just passed it along to the person next to them.  My head was about to explode: How can you pass them??? Oh my god TAKE ONE!  Why aren’t you eating them? Give them to me!   My mouth was watering.

He must have had the sliced oranges inside a cooler with ice, because they were perfectly plump and juicy and fresh looking with droplets of  crisp clear water and fresh orange juice sliding down the inside of the bag.  I’m used to eating fresh fruits and veggies every day and was already craving real food that didn’t have to be rehydrated.  I couldn’t take my eyes off the beautiful oranges as they passed them around a second time. Please offer me one. Please…. They didn’t. And the half-full bag just sat there within arm’s reach. I desperately wanted to ask for one but I felt so dirty and grungy next to them, asking for food was just more humility than I could muster in my current state. “Brad, do you remember that weird dirty lady on the top of Mt Whitney who was begging for food? That was sooo weird…. “ I imagined them saying, in full Valley-Girl-speak, as they gathered around their 1000 inch Ultra HD 4K TV in their 10,000 square foot McMansion sipping Dom Perignon  showing their friends their pictures of the trip.  No, I definitley could not ask for an orange slice, and Yes,  I hated them for not offering me one. whitney summit plaque small

I’d had enough of the LA crowd with their fancy sunglasses and fresh fruit so I packed up all my stuff and went to find a nice quiet spot away from them all (actually, I just had to pee). I hobbled over the loose granite boulders and past the rock wind shields built by people crazy enough to spend the night up there. They reminded me of graves; rock walls built around a patch of dirt just big enough for a person to lay in. I backpacked with a guy last year who had spent the night on Mt. Whitney. He said it was miserable: windy, cold and he had a headache and nose bleeds all night. No thank you.

I found a new spot on the Northern edge of the peak – far away from the people and their stupid fresh fruit.  I spent about an hour relaxing, rubbing my feet and sore leg (it hurt a little on the way up but was starting to throb as I sat still), soaking in the views and writing.  The smoke was starting to roll in from the West. I could see the vast white plumes billowing toward the sky from the various fires: the Cabin Fire in Golden Trout Wilderness in Sequoia National Forest, The Rough Fire, also in Sequoia, and the fire in Yosemite near Lee Vining plus others further to the north.  It literally looked like half of California was on fire from my perch atop the United States. I decided it was time to pack up and begin my descent.  I still had 7 ½ miles and at least 4 -5 hours of hiking to get back to Crabtree Meadows and I wanted to try to stop for a swim in one of those tarns!

I popped a couple more Ibuprofen, sipped my water and packed up. Down I go…

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What really happens to the Whitney Summit Register? Here is the best information I could find.

“What happens to the register books when they are full, where are they stored?”

Answer:  The 1883-1941 summit registers have been preserved as part of a collection at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library titled “Sierra Club Mountain Registers and Records 1860-2005.”

All the Mt Whitney registers since 1979 are stored in the Park Archives at the Park Administrative Offices in Three Rivers. The official US Government register paper is supplied and removed from the summit register by the Crabtree ranger. The stack of signed sheets for a year (containing thousands of signatures) typically stands one and a half inches high. Thus, it does not present a storage problem. The existence/location of Mt Whitney registers for 1942-1978 remains an unsolved problem. No other summit registers are kept by the Park.

Periodically, summit registers from other Sierra Peaks make their way to the collection at the Bancroft Library. To learn of an effort to care for summit registers on the other big peaks in the Range of Light, one is referred to Harry Langenbacher’s Sierra Peaks Summit Register page (http://summitregister.langenbacher.org/).

Source: Whitney Zone Archive 

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