Squirrel Tales and Gear Fails

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.

REI Flash 62 - A love-hate relationship
REI Flash 62 – A love-hate relationship

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.

crabtree marker sign smaller

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.

Packing up at Crabtree
Packing up at Crabtree

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.

See the animal on the rock? This is the trail to Whitney from Guitar Lake
See the animal on the rock? This is the trail to Whitney from Guitar Lake

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. 

Trail scenery day 5
Trail scenery day 5

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!

Another view of Mt Whitney trail
Another view of Mt Whitney trail

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 goWhat if it is an evacuation? What if this is the end of my trip? 

Crabtree Meadow area in the smoke
Crabtree Meadow area in the smoke

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.”
Wait… WHAT???

“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..

Guitar Lake views day 4
Guitar Lake views day 4

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.

Happy Trails!

Day 4 – Climbing Mt. Whitney

Day 4: Thursday, August 20

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….

Guitar view heading into guitar lake smaller 1000 px
View heading toward Guitar Lake on the JMT from Crabtree Meadow

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.

Heading toward Guitar Lake from Crabtree
Heading toward Guitar Lake from Crabtree

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. 

Guitar Lake
Guitar Lake

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.

View of whitney and trail
View of whitney and trail

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.

The trail to Mt. Whitney - last mile
The trail to Mt. Whitney – last mile

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…

The harrowing Trail to Whitney
The harrowing Trail to Whitney

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….  

Whitney Spires
Whitney Spires

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!”

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

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. BreatheThe 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.” Whitney view 20150820_115650

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. 

Whitney feet 20150820_120509
My tired feet at the top of Mt Whitney. Great views!

 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!

Me on top of Mt. Whitney.
Me on top of Mt. Whitney.

Click here to read the next post:  Hanging out on Mt. Whitney

Reaching the JMT- Crabtree Meadow Basecamp

(Still Wednesday, August 19, 2015)

Welcome to the JMT! Upper Crabtree Meadow  

7:30 pm– I’m almost too tired to write.  I’m going to call this a 12 mile day with the hike out from my camping spot far away from the trail at Soldier Lake and my wandering back and forth for 15 minutes when I got back on the New Army Pass Trail and couldn’t figure out which direction to go. Maybe it’s 11 ½ miles… Who knows, it depends on which map or trail signs I follow – they all say something different.

53 decent over guyot where ran into trail crew and asked about wag bag
Trail on the North Side of Guyot Pass

After hiking for 10 hours through red fir and lodgepole pine woodlands, crossing drought depleted streams, hearing a crazy coyote kill, climbing 2000 feet up Guyot Pass where I experienced my first false summit at Guyot Flat and  finally climbing a gentle trail that meandered along Whitney Creek, I reached the John Muir Trail and Upper Crabtree Meadow!  It’s quite a sight: stretching from maybe half a mile to my left toward the sharp granite peaks near Mt. Whitney, to the edge of the forest I just climbed out of on my right. I breathed a sigh of relief. I made it! I can rest!

I was greeted by a crowded and bustling backpacker camp – obviously a Mt. Whitney base camp.   There are at least 20 – and maybe as many as 30 – tents tucked into the pine trees bordering the meadow as far as the eye can see.  It reminds me of a refugee camp (not that ‘I’ve ever been in a refugee camp, but I imagine it would look something like this- only with not as much expensive ultra-light gear). It was also a bit of a shock to my senses after being mostly alone for 3 days.

I was obviously late. Finding a private spot to pitch camp was going to be a challenge. I headed to my right toward the line of trees that marked the south edge of the meadow – there were only a couple of tents tucked away in the trees against the hill that dropped down to the trail on the edge of Whitney Creek, where women were bathing and hikers were filtering water. But way down on the southernmost tip, there was no one. It was a bit out in the open, but at least away from the crowd.

I finally settled on a flat spot tucked against the trees that spilled down a big hill toward Lower Crabtree Meadow.  I dropped my pack and started pulling all my stuff out: my bear can, tent, sleeping bag, Thermarest, and sleeping clothes. I was anxious to get set up.  I sat in the dirt nibbling on a Cashew Caramel Macro Bar while I organized my gear. I was happy with my spot and couldn’t figure out why I was the only one who thought of camping here.

I laid out my tent and as I was attaching the poles to the grommets I happened to catch sight of something at the tree line on the east side of the meadow that I’d missed while scouting for a campsite.  To my complete and utter horror I was looking directly in the face of a man  sitting on a wide-open, for- the-world-to-see outdoor toilet, no more than 25 yards away. He was just sitting there, wad of toilet paper in hand,  shrinking down on his wood-instead-of-porcelain throne trying to hide from me. But there was nowhere to hide. The only privacy this outdoor toilet lent were two crudely built walls on the OTHER SIDE of the toilet.  My camp was perfectly positioned to get a straight-on view. Well that answers the question why I’m the only one down here.

crabtree toilet
Outdoor toilet at Crabtree Meadow

I was mortified. How the fuck did I miss that?  I was so embarrassed (I can only imagine how he felt!). I felt like such a back-country campground rookie (like I was supposed to know there would be a toilet perched on a wooden stage in the middle of a wilderness campground! Sure there was a sign pointing in this direction, but I was expecting something a little more obvious!)

I quickly plopped my ass down with my back to him and pretended to fidget in my backpack for a good 15 minutes to give him plenty of time to finish what he was doing.  Then I haphazardly crammed my gear back in my pack and dragged it and my tent over to a new spot, BEHIND the toilet wall. I’m still close, but at least I won’t be watching people use it while I eat my Pad Thai.

I set up camp and took a walk to get water for dinner (up creek!) and explore the camp. I talked to a few people who confirmed they’re here to acclimate for their Whitney summit. I haven’t met anyone doing the whole JMT, they’ve just come in from the south (like me) and are out here for a few days to do Whitney.

climb toward whitney view of valley below
view toward Crabtree meadow from Whitney descent

I met a guy (Tom) who was sitting on the edge of the meadow near a camp with four tents eating dinner alone.  We struck up a conversation about the dozens of adorable marmots scurrying about in the meadow. I asked if he was heading to Whitney and he explained that his group is still on the mountain. He’d started out with them this morning but had to turn back at 12,000 feet because the elevation got the best of him.  He said he was too dizzy and short of breath to continue and “it wasn’t worth” his health and safety to push on. He tried to make light of it but his disappointment shone through as he tried too hard to convince me he was ok with it. I listened, told him “good for you for making that decision” and walked away thinking: Wow, Ok this Whitney climb is the real deal!  I hope that doesn’t happen to me!  That will NOT happen to me……Right???  

It never crossed my mind that I might not be able to summit Whitney (or finish this trip).  I tend to do things without overthinking them: forging ahead and working things out on the way….  Hell, preparing for this trip pushed my planning and organizational abilities to the limits with the food and the gear and the maps and the permits. But I never really considered I couldn’t do any part of it –  I’d just do it. (One of my favorite slogans!). Put one foot in front of the other and just go. I half-jokingly told my friends the only way I’m coming out before Happy Isles is by helicopter.  I don’t quit. Talking to Tom was the first time it dawned on me that there was a very real possibility I physically may not be able to climb Mt. Whitney.  That no matter how much my mind and stubbornness wanted to summit, my body may not allow me to. I couldn’t accept that and quickly put it out of my mind.


crabtree camp 2 branded
The big rock that became my dinner spot at Crabtree Meadow

I’m back at my camp now leaning against a big rock about 20 feet from my tent on the edge of the trees that line the meadow,  eating dinner and watching excited and exhausted hikers get back from Whitney, campers carry their pots and Nalgene bottles to the creek for water and others languidly organize and tidy up their camps. I get curious looks and enthusiastic hellos from passersby on the way to the outdoor toilet. I’ve only seen two other solos here – and I’m the only solo woman.

I look around camp and soak in the vibe. I like it here.  There’s an excited and adventure-filled energy in the air.  I’m conscious of my feeling of belonging, despite being alone.  A warm contentment washes over me as I reflect on this. I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere!  I’m happy. Content. And happy to be solo.

camp at Crabtree without the view of the toilet
Camp at Crabtree without the view of the toilet

Later –  It’s not quite dark yet, but I climbed into my tent to rest for my big day tomorrow. This will be my first night in my tent. It’s nice to be in here away from the crowd, and it’s cozy, but I think when I’m alone I’ll go back to no tent. I feel too cut off from nature.

Reflecting on my day,  I feel like I completed my first real hiking day; 12 miles, 10 hours and about 2000 feet in elevation – and it wasn’t easy. I’m still feeling the effects of the high altitude.  At 10,958 feet with a 40lb pack, Guyot pass was no walk in the park! I purposely did short days up until today to give myself plenty of time to acclimate before climbing Mt. Whitney. I hope I’m ready!

The trail was pretty desolate most of the day.  I only saw 3 people until about a mile out of lower Crabtree. It was also a day of wildlife sightings: the near-deadly coyote incident, mama doe and babies, a marmot (there are a lot here at camp) and another doe.

My body is feeling pretty good, except the muscle or tendon I strained behind my left knee when I slipped in the mud getting to camp at Soldier Lake yesterday.  It’s a recurring injury that I always tweak when I fall (and I fall on every backpacking trip).  It’s a little painful today, especially when I land on my left foot a certain way that twists it slightly. The tendonitis in my left foot is acting up too. But it’s not horrible, I can walk. It’s a good thing I brought lots of Ibuprofen!  Other than that I’m just feeling your run-of-the-mill tiredness. I wonder what I’ll feel like in a week?  Two weeks? Three? It’s only day three, I could be out here another twenty seven days!

I had to remind myself a few times today that this isn’t about rushing to a destination. It’s about experiencing every single moment this journey has to offer. I relished in my breaks; on the shore of Rock Creek, at the top of the rocky and picturesque Guyot Pass with it’s view of Whitney Meadow, and IN Crabtree Creek at lower Crabtree meadows. (I literally pulled off my hiking pants and sat on a big rock to soak my painful muscle/tendon. But when I spotted a couple having a nice picnic across the way, I slipped on my pants, grabbed my pack and headed down creek. I couldn’t find a big rock so I just plopped down in the icy cold creek!)

Foxtail Pines on Guyot Flat
Guyot Flat

At times, I find myself rushing: gotta get the miles in. Gotta get there by 2:00. When the fact is, getting to camp early is boring. Yesterday I got to camp at 1:00 and I was bored to tears all afternoon. Slow down. Enjoy the journey. This is why I gave myself 30 days to do this. I hope as the days pass, I shed the hustle and bustle mentality of real life and settle into nature’s rhythm – and my own hiking rhythm. I have time, I don’t need to rush.

Tomorrow is the day I (hopefully) summit Mt. Whitney!!!! It’ll be 15 miles round trip with over 4000 feet in elevation gain (and loss! I do have to come down…). The good news is, I only have to carry a day pack! Everyone’s been telling me to get up to the summit early before the smoke gets bad – usually by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. (I chose to hike the JMT the year half of California is on fire – and it’s definitely affecting air quality and views). I’ll shoot for leaving right after sunrise. That should put me on the summit around 11am.

Time to get some sleep. Tomorrow I climb to the top of the world (well the top of the lower 48 anyway!) I’m excited to get this done and start hiking the JMT!

Next – my climb up Mt. Whitney!