Monday, November 25, 2013

Sierra Majesty - Tuolumne Meadows to Kearsarge Pass

September 30, 2013

I have no words to describe the beauty of the High Sierra. We climbed up Donohue Pass at over 11,000 feet to be presented with amazing views. We walked past countless peaks and alpine lakes. There was this jagged ridgeline that looked just like a dragon's back and tail. We went over Island Pass and descended to Thousand Island Lake. It was surreal and gorgeous and I really wanted to swim but the sun had just dipped below the horizon and it was WAY too cold to be jumping in lakes at 10,000 feet. The JMT and PCT diverge for about 14 miles and we took the JMT route as it is believed to be more scenic. So far, it goes past a chain of pristine lakes. We skirted Emerald and Ruby Lakes and are camped on the banks of Garnet Lake under a sky full of stars.  

Leaving Tuloumne Meadows

October 3, 2013

After a stopover in Mammoth, we are back on trail this afternoon. On October 1st we walked 14 miles to the road and I got to take a very brief and very cold swim in Gladys Lake along the way. For some reason I love that feeling of not being able to breath and having pins and needles all over your skin that comes from jumping in near freezing water.

Shortly after we got to town, we got a call from Nat and Jane, our buddies we had hiked with in Washington who have been right behind us the last few months. It was so awesome to see them again, we went and had dinner and drinks and shared trail stories. It was a reunion long coming.

Yesterday, we hung out with Nat and Jane for the first part of the day and neglected to do any town chores. They headed back to the trail in the afternoon and we went off to the grocery store to resupply for our longest leg – nearly 160 miles and 9 days to Lone Pine. Let me tell you, we have A LOT of food and our packs are HEAVY. We did make the executive decision to mail our bear canisters home. There are a few short stretches of trail ahead that require them, but we plan to camp elsewhere or utilize bear boxes along the trail. They are heavy and awkward and I hate them, plus I highly doubt we would have been able to get all of our food in our packs with our bear canisters.

I found myself much more concerned and connected with the outside world during this town stay, probably because there are things going on that that affect us and our trail family. Washington has had horrible storms and already has substantial amounts of snow. There are PCT hikers that have required search and rescue and at least two hikers that are still unaccounted for as I write this. Many hikers have made the decision to take alternate, lower altitude routes or save the rest of the trail for another time. My heart goes out to all of the hikers and their families. It was been weighing heavily on my mind and I have been praying a lot that all of our fellow hikers find their way to safety and warmth.

Our other, and certainly lesser concern is that the Federal government shutdown means that National Parks are currently closed. We have yet to pass through Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks but will be doing so in the next few days. To me, it seems ridiculous for the forest to be “closed” and unfathomable to skip around these beautiful sections of trail after all we have gone through to get here. And so we will walk on.

Devils Postpile National Monument, near Reds Meadow

October 4, 2013

This morning we were exhausted and slept until 8:30. While we were breaking down camp, we ran into Andrew, a southbound JMT hiker. We all set off, glad for a bit of company. The weather is clear but cold, with wind that continued throughout the night and into the morning. The wind died down in the afternoon and it was actually pretty warm. Due to our late start I sadly did not have time to swim, but we did walk past many enticing lakes. Maybe swimming will motivate me to get up early tomorrow.  We trekked up and over Silver Pass at around 11,000 feet. It is lovely to walk through the Sierra in the autumn. The aspen trees are turning color, their delicate leaves rustling in the breeze like golden coins.

We walked about 19 miles to camp, which was Andrew’s longest hiking day to date. He was a rock star and super fun to talk to. We camped near a northbound JMT hiker, Kevin, and all had dinner together. Ben seems to have another cold coming on, so hopefully he will feel better in the morning.

Fall colors! 

October 5, 2013

I am super tired, so tonight’s entry might be brief. We woke up early this morning, and immediately started climbing up Bear Ridge. Aspens line the trail, ranging from gold to rusty orange-red. My ascent was slowed by taking a million and a half pictures of their beautiful leaves. Nat and Jane left us trail magic in the form of ice cold Dr. Peppers, which truly made our day.

We took lunch at Marie Lake, and I went for a swim. It was actually warm today, and I sat and soaked in the sun, marveling at the sapphire water surrounded by bright granite peaks. While Ben took a nap in the shade, I spread BJ’s ashes in the water and listened to The Postal Service and Placebo. It was so vast and so quiet; my only company a hawk circling above the water. I felt so at peace.

After lunch, we went over Selden Pass and made our way along two more beautiful lakes. We walked about 22 miles before calling it a night.

Looking down on Marie Lakes

October 7, 2013

To me, thru-hiking means so many different things. Not only walking through country, walking across states, walking miles, but walking through seasons, walking through weather, walking through obstacles. The trail presents both mental and physical challenges.

Yesterday and today are a like a two-sided coin. I am walking through some of the most beautiful country I have witnessed, and I am also having a very hard time. Yesterday I was an emotional wreck. I spilled some of BJ’s ashes in my hip belt pocket and just started crying. Shortly after, I was rock hopping across Evolution Creek when I stepped on a wobbly rock and fell in the water. I was so mad and so frustrated I started sobbing all over again. Over wet feet.  It was truly a bit pathetic. Ben kindly did not laugh at me and instead made me lunch.

We walked on, but he started feeling increasingly sick. Ben wanted to take the rest of the day off, and I was initially frustrated, feeling the ever-present neurotic need to move forward. Once we set up camp beside a stream, I relaxed and decided rest was probably good for both of us. We had a lazy afternoon and were asleep by shortly after 7:00 pm. I tried to deny it, but last night I started feeling sick too. And this morning, I woke up feeling awful. Congested, runny nose, cough, headache, sore throat.

I am nothing if not ridiculously stubborn, and so we got up and started walking. We climbed up toward Muir Pass, passing several lakes on our way. The gold brush on the shore was a striking contrast with the deep blue of the water. It was cold and windy this morning, with threatening clouds moving in. Muir Pass is our highest pass to date at nearly 12,000 feet. It also thankfully has a really cool stone shelter at the pass, in which we got some respite from the wind. It is built from irregular granite blocks and was built by the Sierra club in honor of John Muir.

The topography of the High Sierra passes is beautiful in a very desolate way. There is not much up there but crystal clear lakes and granite. We made our way down the other side and the wind died down and the sun came out. We followed the Kings River down a canyon system and it was pretty much gorgeous. Cascading water, blue skies, peaks towering above, my golden aspens dotting the hillside. We saw many deer that were largely unafraid of us, including a very stately pair of bucks. We stopped for camp before dark and covered about 21 miles. Not bad for a couple of sick hikers. Tomorrow is a big day, with two passes and about 6,000 feet of elevation gain in the first 20 miles. I hope we feel stronger in the morning.

Evolution Lake, on the way to Muir Pass

View from the top of Muir Pass

Muir Shelter

Happy hiker

Hiker trash sculptures! 

October 8, 2013

We did not feel particularly strong this morning. Between both of us coughing and blowing our noses all night, neither of us got much sleep. I started walking in a daze, like the trail is a dream world. I feel so exhausted and rundown. We did take a very nice break on a rock ledge overlooking Palisade Lakes. Then we really started climbing up Mather Pass. When I’m going uphill, my throat feels raw, like I am breathing shards of glass. Every once in while I would have a coughing spell, but I did manage to make the 4,000 feet up to the top of the pass. We had lunch and enjoyed 360 degrees of incredible views. A huge basin is stretched out ahead of us, and I don’t think I have the words to explain how big and untouched this land feels, or how small it makes you feel. We didn’t see another soul all day. One thing I love about walking in the Sierra is that the country is so open that you can really tell where you’ve been and where you’re headed. Today we walked up a valley, up and over a pass, across the basin and are climbing toward Pinchot Pass. We are camped at Marjorie Lake, about 1.7 miles short of the pass. Today we made it a bit over 17 miles and climbed over 5,000 feet. This is fairly impressive considering that I basically sound like I have emphysema when walking uphill. I am seriously ready to feel better tomorrow!!

View from the top of Mather Pass

Basin on the south side of Mather

High altitude yoga! 

Sierra sunsets

October 9, 2013

The good news – my cold does seem to be getting better.

The bad news – we are tentbound in a snowstorm at nearly 11,000 feet with two major Sierra passes yet to cross. I am trying not to freak out but it is certainly a concerning situation.

The day started out just fine, we climbed up Pinchot Pass in the first hour. There were a few snow flurries and it was very cold. It snowed lightly as we made our way down valley, but no snow accumulated. And then it stopped and I breathed a sigh of relief. Until, as we climbed up toward our next pass, it started snowing again. This time much harder, with at least six inches accumulating in less than four hours. It became more difficult to keep the trail, and treacherous to walk blindly on top of wet snow-covered granite slabs. We both slipped several times and it seemed unwise to even thing about attempting to cross the steep pass.

And so, with very cold fingers and toes, we set up camp. I don’t know what will happen. It’s only been snowing harder since we got into the tent. I hope and pray we will wake up to a sunny day and be able to walk on. Even still, the pass will be dangerous. It is a powerless feeling, being out in the weather and having no idea what the forecast brings. It is terrifying when there is no way to descend to lower altitude to bail, we will have to go up to get out.

Ben has just gotten out of the tent and informs me we have at least two feet of snow outside. Another 24 hour storm system or winter descending on the Sierra? I’m scared. There is no way out except one of the two 12,000 foot passes we are stuck between. We are going to eat some fettuccine alfredo, have some tea, try to sleep and see how things look in the morning.

Weather moving in on Pinchot Pass

October 10, 2013

When I woke up early this morning to pee, I was overjoyed to see a sky full of stars! Orion seemed to shine the brightest of them all (it’s my brother’s favorite constellation). My next thought was one of dread – “Oh great, now we have to try and walk out of this.” It hadn’t snowed much more as I slept, but there was still a solid two feet of snow on the ground.

Ben and I talked over our options and decided we would walk toward Glen Pass and if it looked too dangerous to cross we would reassess the situation. It took a long time to break camp. It was so cold and it was awful to put on my literally frozen rain pants and jacket. We did take the time to make hot cocoa to drink to warm us back up after we broke down the tent. As soon as I put on my frozen shoes, my feet got so cold and started hurting so badly I could not sit still. I was running in place and hopping around frenetically whilst trying to dismantle an entirely frozen tent. Finally we got the tent put away and were able to start walking to warm up.

Although treacherous and slippery and cold, the snow made for a stunning landscape. I am actually glad I have had the chance to see the Sierra in dazzling white. The Rae Lakes were smooth as glass and reflecting the peaks above. There was a large group of an unidentified black waterfowl swimming and diving in the lakes that seemed to genuinely be enjoying the frigid morning. Some creatures are better built for these environments than we are, I suppose.

We saw fresh footprints and came across four guys out on a backpacking trip. They were going to hang at camp for a day and wait for the sun to consolidate the snow, but they wished us luck and thanked us in advance for route-finding.

At this point the trail was climbing very gradually and I was still slipping from time to time. I kept thinking, “What about when we start climbing the pass? And what about the way down?” From a distance we could see the unmistakable switchbacks of the PCT zigzagging up to the pass. It looked pretty ominous. We made our way up slowly, checking each step. It was very exposed. We both slipped a few times but were able to quickly recover.

At the top of the pass, the trail traversed a narrow ridgeline before descending. This part was probably the scariest for me, with steep drop-offs on either side. We took a break to gather ourselves for the way down. We took our shoes off and wrapped our numb feet in our insulating vests. I left BJ’s ashes on the top of the pass, overlooking the beautiful yet unforgiving landscape, thanking him for being our guardian angel. We made our way down cautiously, and thankfully neither of us slipped. The grade of the trail eased, and I started breathing easier.

It actually got really warm, slogging through the snow in the sun above 10,000 feet. Another few miles and we arrived at the turnoff for the Onion Valley Trail. 7.6 miles and one more pass and we are out of here! Route finding was much more challenging for a bit, and we used the GPS intermittently to make sure we were on track. Kearsarge Pass was nowhere near as steep as Glen and we climbed to the top without much trouble. Clouds did start rolling in and the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. On the other side of the pass, you can see all the way to the desert, thousands of feet below. And that is where we are headed! We called Ben’s Dad, who had planned to meet us further south tomorrow and he is able to pick up at the Onion Valley Trailhead tonight because we are bailing! I called Mom to let her know I was okay, and thankfully she had no idea there had been a storm the day before. The worst part of this experience had been imagining her worrying. She also let us know that the missing northbound hikers had made it out safely. We walked down and down and it got dark and I didn’t even want to stop and get my headlamp out – just want to get the hell off of this mountain. There is a half moon and the moonlight reflecting off the snow is actually quite bright. We got to the trailhead and I was so happy! I yelled up to Ben – “I’m standing on pavement and we didn’t die in the Sierra!” We boiled water for cocoa and Smooth Aviator (Ben’s Dad) showed up to rescue us. I ran over and nearly tackled him in the parking lot, I was so relieved.

A few hours later and I have hot food and warm bed to sleep in. It’s almost like this whole terrifying and stressful day has been nothing but a dream. I am so grateful that we are safe and sound. 

Reflections in Rae Lakes

On top of Glen Pass

New Sierra snow on the north side of Glen Pass 

One pass down, one to go! 

Kearsarge Pinnacles

Sunset on a lake nearing the Onion Valley Trailhead

October 13, 2013

We have been in the comforts of town for a few days now, resting, contemplating, recuperating. I have made the indescribably difficult decision not to continue on with my hike. Honestly, I knew when I was walking out that I would not be back. Not this season, at least. I looked around at the mountains I have called home for the last four months and said goodbye. I feel like I’ve made my peace.

For the last several months, I’ve identified myself as Hot Mess, as a thru-hiker. When people would ask me what I was doing, I would say I’m walking from Canada to Mexico, and I would take pride in it. Now, I’m not really sure who I am or what I’m doing. I do know that I am going home, and I feel immense relief in this.

What happens when a journey of self-discovery leaves you more lost than you were in the first place? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t want to feel like I did that night in the snow, in potential danger, worrying my loved ones. It’s simply not where I want to be or what I want to do, and I don’t have to. Free will, the power of choice, is such a gift. This is what I realized as I walked out of the Sierra a few days ago.

I don’t want to over-dramatize the situation. I know that Ben and I were very prepared. We both have experience traveling in the snow and the necessary set of backcountry skills. I also know that in addition to being a hiker, I am many things to many people, and I find these relationships and my life at home to be of immense value. It’s not necessarily that I think something bad will happen if I continue on, but that I know I would regret hiking back out. If I continued on, it would be for the wrong reasons. I just feel done.

Today I went for a walk, and as soon as my legs started moving, I felt at home. An hour passed before I even thought to turn around, and I wished I didn’t have to. I have become very accustomed to walking all day in a southbound direction. I passed a small creek running parallel to the road and I thought, “That’s a good water source.” I guess my perspective has changed a bit.

I will say, with regard to my current decision, I may have learned to accept my failures with a bit more grace than I used to be able to. And maybe I have learned that things don’t always turn out like you fantasized they would, and that is okay. And maybe walking nearly 1,900 miles away from home makes you realize how much you appreciate and miss everyone and everything you had there.

Sunrise from Half Dome

On top of Half Dome

The abyss

Ben making his way down the cables

Nearing Tuolumne Meadows

Break time!