Tupper's 2 Cents

Feet on the path and eyes wide open...

Tag: mindfulness (page 1 of 2)

Copper Ridge Loop — Final Day

Egg Lake to Hannegan Pass parking lot  (8.6 miles) — 9/14/17

Egg Lake, morning view

Morning at Egg Lake was crisp and magnificent! Stiff breezes the night before blew out the few remaining clouds, and cool gusts still swirled around my campsite.  I put on all my layers, including down hat and gloves with hand warmers, ready to embrace my last morning of the five day Copper Ridge loop. When I backpack, my fear of cold usually causes me to bring too many clothes. But on this morning, it felt great to be all bundled up against the cold but clear morning of what was sure to be a fantastic bluebird day ahead.

I sat suspended in time as I watched the first rays of sun come up. Mornings are my favorite time of day, regardless of where I am. But my ‘outside’ morning routine of 3 cups of steaming hot coffee, oatmeal with an abundance of toppings, writing, and meditatively gazing at the trees, mountains, and lakes, felt especially significant.  I knew it might be the last morning I’d wake up and immediately commune with mother nature for awhile, at least in the belly of the North Cascades. Fall was just around the corner, and I wanted to fully embrace the exquisiteness that surrounded me.  It reminded me of the last morning of my solo hike of the John Muir Trail in the summer of 2016. The reality of a time of solitude in wilderness coming to an end, the strong pull and desire to capture the peace and integrate it into my very core, my deep reluctance to return to ‘real’ life.

But eventually, I had to get moving.  The day held 8.6 miles of hiking, and I had an evening commitment that I had to be home for.  Reluctantly, I performed the mundane duties of breaking down camp, stalling often to feel the sun on my face as it streamed it’s way into my campsite. For this I was grateful. Warm sun on a cold morning makes the actions of camp break-down ever so much more pleasant.

I headed out at 9:30. The couple from Virginia was gone, I noticed as I passed through their empty site. After climbing out of Egg Lake basin, the 4.6 miles to Hannegan Pass continued it’s ups and downs. I was tired from the previous days elevation gain,  and struggled each time the trail went up. Thankfully, there were enough views to keep me entertained, and I worked myself into a satisfactory hiking rhythm.

Left to Right, Icy Peak, Ruth Mountain, Mt. Shuksan

Mt. Baker (r) and Mt. Shuksan (l) paying last respects

I reached Hannegan Pass at 11:30, and decided on an early lunch. Why carry food in my pack when I could consume it and use it for fuel? At the pass, I encountered the same two folks I’d seen coming down Whatcom Pass, who’d camped at Middle Lakes, when I was heading up. They introduced themselves now as Walt and Haley. Haley was Walt’s niece from New York, who’d come out to hike with her uncle for a week. I thought that was pretty cool! Walt and I had a great time sharing stories of our respective trips, while Haley chatted with another woman, resting with her elderly dog at the base of Hannegan Peak, while her partner ran up the peak with their younger and more ambitious canine. The sun was out, the day was warm, and it was hard to leave the comfortable social scene.

But I had a schedule to keep, and I took leave just after noon. It was 4 miles to the car, and I wanted to be there by 2:00. I picked up the pace, now that the trail was flat or down hill. There were a TON of people coming up the pass, especially for a mid-September weekday. Albeit a sunny one. I only had one incidence of drama on the way out, while observing three middle-aged women with backpacks by the side of the trail.  Clearly, they were headed in for some female backpacking bonding, something which I have a desire to do, but never have. As I watched them with interest,  I tripped and fell, again, landing hard on my butt, practically in the lap of one of the women!  My legs were too tired and my knees too sore to catch the fall. And I couldn’t get up for the same reasons. One of the women asked if I needed help. “Yes please!” I said, relieved. A brief discussion of the knee replacement followed, and all three were impressed that I was backpacking alone with the knee issues. I didn’t tell them about all the foot and ankle surgeries. 🙂

After that, the remaining miles flew by, even with my trail hyper-vigilance. I arrived back at the car by 1:50 — ahead of schedule for once! I was supremely glad to dump my pack, this time for good. I counted 39 cars in the parking lot as I drove off. It was amazing how few people I’d seen on the whole loop hike, then to see so many on the last four miles of this last day. Inevitable reintroduction to society, I suppose.

Highlights of the Trip

There were so many positives about this trip, it’s hard to choose. But here are some highlights that come to mind:

  1. Getting out on a good backpack for the year. I’d just done the one overnight earlier in August, and I wanted to get in at least one long backpack trip for the year. The broken finger and subsequent time off provided a perfect opportunity to take a longer trip to a place that’s been on my list to revisit for years.
  2. The variety of terrain and campsites. Peak climbs, dense forest walks, river crossings, miles of ridge walking, a mountain pass, mountain lakes, a lookout tower with splendiferous views — what more could anyone want? Two campsites in forest, two with expansive views, few people at any site.  It made me appreciate that this place is so tightly permitted, as the trail was never busy, and the most company I had in any camping area was just two other people.
  3. People showing up at the right times. With the exception of having to do the cable car crossing by myself, I was struck by how well things worked out with this. Steve keeping me company on Whatcom Pass, Brian and Sarah at the dual river crossings, Walt and Haley going up Whatcom pass and again at Hannegan Pass. As any of you who followed my JMT trip know, I crave a combination of solitude and being with others when I backpack. This trip had a perfect balance of both.
  4. Knowing I still got it, and getting affirmation for that.  Yeah, it felt good to have atta-girls out there on the trail. I forget that many people don’t hike or backpack at all,  let alone solo, or with as many physical ailments as I have.  Don’t get me wrong — I KNOW there are those out there doing it under FAR more challenging circumstances! Or facing something different all together. We all have our own adversities to confront and obstacles to overcome. But this was my first real backpack post knee replacement, and I was grateful it went well. My favorite way to stay sane and happy involves immersing myself in an outdoor environment that brings huge reward, and sometimes has risk associated with it too. I will go there for as long as I can, ever mindful of the risk/benefit analysis. On the whole, this trip went as well or better than expected. Although, I could have done without the falls. Which leads to my last introspective thoughts…

Reflections on Falling

My sum total of falls, counting the broken finger before the trip and the four on the trail, could have stayed at five. But apparently things DO come in threes, or multiples there of…

A couple weeks after  my return, I fell in the bathroom, slipping on the wet floor while trying to steer clear of one of my cats who loves to race me to the bathroom. I hit my left rib cage on the corner of the bathroom counter, and fractured  the sixth rib. My sixth, most painful, and hopefully last fall for a good long while.

Another three weeks off of work, and a whole lot of reflection about why all the falls, why now, and what’s the learning here? Space, time and patience of readership all prevent me from getting too deeply into this, but here are a few reflections and explanations I have come up with:

  1. I am no spring chicken and must adjust my ambitions (and pack weight) accordingly!   Let’s face it, getting older makes it harder to act young.  At age 53, I can’t get away with carrying as much weight as I could when I was 33. When I did this loop 20 years ago, I carried over 70 pounds and it did not phase me. This trip, my pack weighed around 50 pounds, and that was, apparently, too much.  Simply put, when I tripped or fell, I couldn’t pull it together to implement the correct musculature to catch the fall, and instead, landed quite spectacularly. Four times! Two face plants, two on my rear. Something to pay attention to. What brought me a sense of accomplishment 20 years ago,  the success of carrying of a heavy pack, must now be replaced by the satisfaction of staying on my own two feet! There is an undeniable link with packing lighter and staying upright that I can’t ignore anymore.
  2. Balance is affected as we age. Duh. We all know this. BUT to hear it and live it are two different things. Everyone, including me, says “Work on balance as you age.” Great advice, but what does that look like from a person to person perspective? Standing on one foot? Doing yoga? Walking on a balance beam? Crossing log bridges? Working on balance is HARD, and, admittedly,  I don’t like it. After surgeries, I will work on balance for awhile to strengthen my feet and ankles. But it’s a discipline I am not drawn to, and too soon, I assume I’m fine to jump back in, full steam ahead.  Next thing I know, I’m doing a crazy thing like carrying a heavy pack through brush on soft ground that I can’t see. With balance already compromised, a small trip turns quickly epic when I can’t catch the fall. Time for some more balance work.
  3. The brain has to catch up to the body.  In the aftermath of all these falls, I spoke with several other people who also experienced excessive falling in their early 50’s. Then it stopped by the time they reached 55, and the falling prevalence did not return, even into their 60’s. What’s up with that? My theory is that it takes awhile for the brain to accept what the body is already saying. As we age, we develop compensatory patterns to deal with whatever life throws us. Those compensation patterns can be quite complex, and effective. But it takes time for the mind to integrate the changes in status of the aging body. IF we are going to pursue the activities of a 30 year old at 50 and beyond,  we must adopt an attitude of vigilance about what are bodies are telling us. Or risk continual face plants.
  4. Slow down, take it easy, life isn’t a race!  Is there any better way to get someone’s attention than by tripping them up on the fast road of life? Generally I move quickly, on trails and through life, and, for whatever reason, universal forces decided to throw me a powerful lesson, or two, or six, about slowing down. And breathing. That’s hard to do with a broken rib, but talk about an opportunity to practice mindfulness of movement and breath! I’ll take it, learn from it, and share my takes on Falling as Great Teacher about Life.

We all have similar, powerful examples from life.  What are yours? I would LOVE to hear your stories of getting slammed down only to pick yourself back up with new perspective. PLEASE DO SHARE! 

Last shot of Mt. Baker




Copper Ridge/Whatcom Pass Backpack Trip — Day 3

Whatcom Pass to Indian Creek Campground — Sept. 12, 2017

As I lay in the tent waiting for daylight, I thought about the elusive trail to the lakes (Tapto and Middle) that I’d failed to find the previous afternoon.  Mentally, I retraced my steps from campsite to Whatcom Pass and beyond. I remembered a trail to the left, just at the pass, but blocked off with logs. Universal trail speak for “don’t go that way”.  Of course that had to be it! I knew the trail went left, and I knew it went up. The “blockade” only indicated that it wasn’t the main trail. I had to laugh at myself. Sometimes, I miss the most obvious things in my desire to be a rule follower and conscientious hiker.

Inspired with my realization, I grew impatient for first light. Morning light comes earlier on the top of a ridge than in the forest, and I was able to get up and at ’em by 6:10. It was a beautiful dawn, sky mostly clear, last stars fading into the promise of a beautiful day. At least for the morning — Derek, the German, had thought the weather was changing, and I wanted to day-hike the lakes, return to my site, pack up, and get down off the pass before any weather came in.

Day hike to Tapto and Middle Lakes (4 miles total?)

I left my campsite at 8:15,  jacket pockets stuffed with provisions as I had no day pack. When I passed Forest Service guy’s campsite, I noticed he wasn’t there, apparently already up and about.  I crossed the small creek just beyond, the sun so bright I had to put my sunglasses on to see. The morning air was crisp with the coming of fall only days away.  I relinquished fully into the late-summer day that lay before me.

Challenger Glacier and Whatcom Peak from Whatcom Pass

When I reached the “blocked” trail heading left, I saw Forest Service guy coming down. Had he been up to the lakes already? He was holding a cup of coffee, so I gathered not.

“Good morning!” I called,  glad to see him and eager to pick his brain about the hike to the lakes. “Have you already been to the lakes?”

He laughed. “No, just out for a morning wander. Are you headed up?”

“Yes!” I replied, my enthusiasm bringing a smile to his scruffy face. “I want to do both Tapto and Middle before heading back down to Indian Creek for the night.”

He introduced himself as Steve, saying he was off duty and camping at the pass for a couple of days. As we chatted it became obvious how well he knew the area, including to the lake region where I was headed.

“Do you think I will see any bears up there?” I asked. Steve had come in late last evening, wandered into my site to see who was there. He’d scared the pants off me, convinced as I was that HE was a bear after my earlier bear sighting. I still had bear on the brain.

“Very possibly”, he drew the words out slowly. “Did you know that from here down Little Beaver Valley to Beaver Pass has the highest concentration of black bears anywhere in the North Cascades?”

“No way.” I replied, alarmed. “Seriously?”

“Yep. Do you have bear spray?”

“No, should I?”

He shrugged. “I don’t carry it. Some do. I am sure you will be fine.” He paused. “But just so you know, you will have to work for the lakes! It’s a steep and rugged trail.” His eyes danced as he said this, even through his sunglasses. I couldn’t tell if he was messing with me or just appropriately cautioning me.

For a brief moment, I reconsidered my plans. But I knew I’d go.  “I’m always up for a challenge.” I said. “But hey, are you going to be hanging around for awhile this morning? It would be nice to know that someone knows where I’m going.”

Again he laughed, held up his coffee cup. “I’ll be hanging here all day, gazing at the mountains and sipping coffee and vodka.”

“Together?” I wanted to ask, but instead said, “Ok, I plan to be back by 11:30, noon latest. If I am not back by 1:00, will you come looking for me?”

“Yep, you got it.” Steve answered, glancing at his watch.  “I won’t lose track of time, I promise. And have a great hike. It’s really beautiful up there. It’s why we come here.”

I thanked him, wished him a good morning, and headed off.

Challenger Glacier from trail to Tapto Lakes

Another view…Whatcom Peak (right) and Challenger (left)

Tapto Lakes

The first mile of the trail was incredibly steep, requiring hand over hand assistance in places to gain it. I wondered how the two hikers I’d met the previous day, who had camped at Middle Lakes, had done it with backpacks. I was grateful for no pack weight, and for my poles to help with balance and upward mobility.

After a mile or so, the trail split. To the left was Tapto, to the right Middle. I decided to go left first. The views of Challenger Glacier and Whatcom Peak behind me grew in magnificence the higher I climbed. The route was completely open, the trail faint in places, but easy enough to follow. I ascended a steep section of scree, but the trail didn’t in any way make me nervous. The two large, fresh piles of bear scat that I saw on the the trail? Those definitely made me nervous. And very watchful.

Tapto Lakes

L to R: Unnamed Ridge with Easy Peak, Mt. Shuksan, Ruth Mt. (from Tapto Lakes)

I reached the overlook to Tapto Lakes, and opted to drop part way down into the lake basin. I could see I wasn’t going to gain much by going all the way down. I sat on a rock for 15 minutes, gazing down at the lakes and up to the surrounding mountains, taking it all in. I embraced the feeling of being nestled in while watched over, embraced by the clear mountain air, one with the stillness, and completely at peace.

I retraced my steps back to the junction with Middle Lakes, taking photo after photo as I went. It’s often difficult to capture moments in photos, and I never used to even try. I’d just immerse myself in the experience, believing that photos took me out of the moment. But with time, I’ve accepted that I LIKE to look back at my photos, and they’ve also become a way to visually share with others my adventures in the mountains.

Middle Lakes

The trail branching toward Middle Lakes was also vague. At first it followed a mostly dry creek bed surrounded by blueberry bushes, then turned upward. On this short section I saw three more piles of bear scat, for a total of five. Same bear, or several? I tried not to think about it.

Soon I reached a large scree and boulder field, the way marked with the sporadic cairn here and there.  Just enough to get a sense of where to re-enter trees on the other side. After a  brief tree section, I was in a wide expanse of mostly boulders, the early stages of fall color apparent on the slopes of Red Mountain, which I knew guarded the Middle Lakes.

A bit of route finding was required to find the first lake, as the trail disappeared into rocks.  I made sure to pay attention to landmarks so I could find my way back. Quickly I dropped down to what clearly was the lower Middle Lake, and, while nice, it wasn’t that spectacular. I returned to my boulder landmark, and headed up to what had to be the upper lake. This lake was much more spectacular, steep snowfields coming right down into it. I sat briefly and gazed, remembering Steve’s comment: “This is why we come here.”

Challenger Glacier from Middle Lakes

Lower Middle Lake

Fall Color on Red Mountain

Upper MIddle Lake

Windy selfie at Upper Middle Lake

At 10:30 I headed back. I kept a watchful eye, both for potential bears and to make sure I stayed on trail. It was a steep and fast descent, and I was back at camp by 11:15. A few clouds had gathered, and I was eager to get down  off the pass while I still had sunshine. I broke camp and was set to leave by noon. Since Steve’s site had been empty on my return, I left him a note, telling him I was back safely, and thanking him for his information on the hikes.

Whatcom Pass to Indian Creek  (8.1 miles)

The way down the pass on Brush Creek trail was uneventful.  I listened to an audiobook to help pass the steep 5.4 miles. I saw no one. Clearly not many people camp at Whatcom Pass, at least not mid-week in mid-September.

Clouds building up as I head down…

Creek headed down from Whatcom Pass

At the junction of Brush Creek and Chilliwack Trail, I continued straight to reach Indian Creek Campground. It was only 2.7 miles from the junction, and I was making decent time. I wasn’t in a hurry as I knew I’d reach camp plenty early. The trail was once again brushy and thick, sometimes hard to see, and, remembering my fall on day one, I was careful with my footing.

Cool log formations on trail to Indian Creek

Despite my best efforts to stay upright, however, I tripped and fell. Again. This time,  I tried to save the fall with my left hand, instinctively protecting the broken finger on the right. In the process, I hyper-extended my left thumb. It hurt, and I instantly remembered my dad dislocating his thumb in a similar type fall skiing once when I was a child. An orthopedic surgeon, Dad put his own thumb back in place right there on the slope, the pain evident on his strong face. The memory made me cringe, as I lay face down in the dirt, pinned once again by my pack, but extremely thankful I wasn’t injured.

It did give me pause, though, two falls in three days. Was I a has-been with heavy pack hiking? I decided not, but I did feel shaky as I unbuckled my pack so I could crawl to my feet. I’d just have to further up my care and vigilance with footing. I hate falling, and twice was more than enough.

I knew I was close to Indian Creek, and I finished out the last half-mile ever so carefully. And humbly. A suspension bridge over Indian Creek brought me to the campground at 3:45.  I dumped my pack with relief and went looking for a campsite. There were several, and no one else was there. I chose one close to water and the bathroom.

Suspension Bridge over Indian Creek

Chilling in the River!

I felt dirty and tired, and a dunk in Indian Creek was calling. I headed down with a change of clothes plus extra warm clothes, my camp towel, and water bottles to fill. I thought about going in the creek in my dirty clothes, but since no one was there, I stripped down to nothing and waded in. It was cold and invigorating! There was no place deep enough to dunk, and the water was moving rapidly, so I had to make do with cleaning up via bandana, splashing around happily like a bird in a bird bath. I even dunked my head to get the grime out of my hair. I felt cleansed and revived as I dried off on the shore. And glad no one had showed up! I filled up my water bottles, plunked in chlorine tablets, and returned to my campsite.

Bathing spot at Indian Creek

Back at camp, I set up my tent and prepared my space. It was a large site in which I could sprawl, my favorite. I cooked, ate, and was writing when a couple showed up about 7:00 and took a site up above mine. While I was prepared for solo camping, I’ll admit it was nice to have company. Eased my bear anxiety for sure.

Through my writing I processed the various events of the day. The interaction with Steve, the solo day hike to the lakes, the spectacular views, the fall on the trail, and the rejuvenating bath in the river. Another day that had it all.  I reveled in gratitude as I prepared for bed: grateful to be there, uninjured, and ready for a good night’s sleep. I knew I’d need it, as the next day held longer miles with intense elevation gain.

Campsite Day 3

















Copper Ridge/Whatcom Pass Backpack Trip — Day 2

Mt. Challenger, (L); Whatcom Peak, (R), from Whatcom Pass

U.S. Cabins Campground to Whatcom Pass.  Sept. 11, 2017

I was stiff and sore when I woke up Monday morning. I felt about 100 years old as I literally crawled out of the tent at first light.  Maybe I am not so cut out for backpacking with a heavy pack as I thought! But after walking to the pit toilet, which was a LONG way away, and some stretching, the aches and pains started to dissipate. I settled myself around the huge fire ring, breakfast makings at the ready. I felt more like myself with each breath of clean air…and hot cup of coffee!

The morning was as quiet as the previous night, with only a few birds and the nearby river lending auditory company. I contemplated the day ahead. I knew nothing of the trail up to Whatcom Pass except that it was steep, but I had all day to cover the 7.2 miles. Plenty of time to arrive, get settled,  and still get in a day hike from the pass, I reckoned.

U.S. Cabins to Brush Creek Trail Junction

I took my time packing up, and didn’t hit the trail until 9:45. The first mile was flat, the trail loosely paralleling  the Chilliwack River. It was wet and brushy, and I was careful not to trip. I was all up in my head about the cable car crossing just ahead. I had a multitude of memories and some concerns about my mode of transportation across the river:

First, I remembered with hilarity this crossing from 20 years ago. On that hike, my ex-husband Rob and I had our dog, Magnum, with us. An 85-pound yellow lab, Magnum was not even supposed to be with us. Dogs are not allowed in National Parks, and, I confess, we snuck him in. Back then it was much more lax than now. Rest assured, I would not do that now!

We had no idea what we were in for with Magnum and the cable car. Somehow, we loaded him into the cable car, with me as his escort. Rob hauled us both across, hand over hand, as I tried to calm a very nervous Magnum in the swaying car, far above the river below. We unloaded at the platform on the other side, and waiting while Rob came over with both packs in the second round.

There we all stood, looking down the straight up ladder, about 12 or 15 feet (see pic) that we had to descend.  How do you get a large animal down a steep ladder? Always good problem solvers, we put Magnum “on belay”, such that he was roped up in an improvised chest harness.  Rob “lowered” him down from above, as I went down step by step, attempting to calm the flailing (and flying!) Magnum as we went.  It was both nerve racking and hysterical, and a true highlight of that trip!

The infamous Magnum belay spot!

Cable car

Pack’s in, now to load in self…

But this time, there was no Magnum. Or Rob. Or anyone. I was on my own, not having seen a soul all morning. The car was “parked” on the other side of the river, so I had to haul it back over before I could entertain my current worry:

The rangers, when I got my permit, said there had been a hornet’s nest in the car, but they didn’t know if it was still there. Stuck in a car with angry hornets would surely be worse than any challenges with Magnum! In that case, I’d have to ford. But once I got the car to my side, I checked it out. Thankfully, no nest.

I loaded in my pack, then myself. I began the slow process of pulling myself and my pack, at least 175 pounds total, back across the river. I wore gloves, and this helped some. But I also had the broken finger to deal with, and the process was tedious and tiring. The rope was that old yellow kind, not super keen on sliding easily through the cables. Each pull was a Herculean effort! Even under the best of circumstances, but the finger (splinted for protection) made it even harder.

When I finally reached the other side, my arms were burning with the effort. It was one of those times when I realized that backpacking alone ain’t always easy! Where was that partner when I needed him? (or her)?  BUT, it also gave me an immense feeling of satisfaction to have done it, and I was relieved it was over.

Pack back on, I clamored up the river bank, the trail nearly hidden by the wet and heavy brush. No rest for the weary! Finally, I came to the junction with Brush Creek trail.

Brush Creek Trail to Whatcom Pass

Normally, I don’t haul a heavy pack up to a place like Whatcom pass just to spend the night. Usually, I’d day-hike it instead. But I’d heard great things about the pass itself, with it’s views of Challenger Glacier and Whatcom Peak, as well as down to Little Beaver Valley, and a collection of lakes above that I also wanted to explore. Since I had time, I decided to camp at the pass and enjoy all that in a leisurely time frame.

Heading up, I had my moments of doubt! Brush Creek trail gained gradual elevation for the first 2.5 miles, but steepened dramatically after that. My pack felt heavier with each upward step. I kept thinking the trail would break out and I’d feel the sunshine I was so craving after yesterday’s forest walk.  But the trail stayed mostly in the trees, with peek-a-boo views coming into play only periodically.

Whatcom Peak making an appearance.

One of many creek crossings headed up the pass

Glad the trail isn’t going that way!

But I was in no rush, and took frequent breaks in those rare moments of sunshine when they arrived. Near the top, I encountered two people coming down, the first I’d seen all day.  A 60’s-ish man and young woman, who said they had camped two nights at Middle Lakes, one of the day hikes I was coveting. They said it was serenely beautiful and well-worth the effort to get there. That spurred me on to the top.

I reached Whatcom Pass at 3:45. No speed record for sure, but I felt great to finally arrive. I found Derek, the German dynamo, in one of three campsites. His previous night had been much closer to the pass, and he seemed like a go-getter. I asked him when he’d arrived “Oh, about 10:30” he replied.

The site I chose was open and windy, but just what I needed. It overlooked a sprawl of  peaks I couldn’t name, and the sunshine I’d been craving was full-on when I arrived. After last night in the forest, I really wanted air and exposure.  I dumped my pack in relief. Wanting to explore while the sun was still relatively high, I chose not to set up camp, but took off instead with my coat pockets full of provisions.

Day hike exploration — Little Beaver Trail and Whatcom Arm

I chatted briefly with Derek on my way past his camp. He gave me what I thought were directions to head to the lakes. Said it took him “an hour up, and 45 minutes down” for his day hike to Tapto Lakes. I knew I’d have enough daylight to do that and get back to set up camp. He said something about trying to camp at a different site than he had a permit for, but I only half listened. I wanted to get hiking while daylight was still on my side!

At what I thought was the left hand turn he’d mentioned just over Whatcom Pass, I left the “main trail”.  Quickly I realized this trail was dropping down, switchback after switchback, instead of going up toward Tapto and Middle Lakes. I realized I was on the Little Beaver trail, which heads down valley for seven miles to Beaver Pass. I decided I’d follow it for a half hour then turn around. Some views of the glacier appeared, and I was happy enough with my wander. The sun was too low to shine on me, though, so mostly I was back in shade.

Top of Whatcom Pass, with Challenger Glacier

Challenger Glacier

Looking down into Little Beaver Valley

After thirty minutes, I took some pics and turned around.  Maybe I’d still have time to find the lakes, I thought. Distracted, I didn’t notice the black bear feasting on berries a mere 20 feet away. He (or she) saw me though, and bolted up the steep hill, in the direction I was going (of course!) Scared the crap out of me! I had just seen a bear on Mt. Dickerman 9 days previous, and two bear sightings in 10 days was more than I wanted. I scurried back up the hill just as fast as I could!

At the junction where I turned down, I went straight and headed toward Whatcom Arm. I knew this wasn’t in the direction of the lakes, but I wasn’t ready to head back just yet. I wandered a bit on a ever-diminishing trail that got rockier and rockier as it went, and soon deposited me in a scree field that went straight up. I wasn’t into a scree scramble, so I turned back towards camp.

Campsite excitement!

As I passed Derek’s site on the way to mine, I noticed it was empty. This puzzled me greatly. It also alarmed me. Now I was alone on Whatcom Pass with a bear nearby! I felt a bit anxious, but decided to embrace those feelings and be brave. I recited one of my self-compassion phrases to myself over and over: “May I stand strong and courageous in the face of fear!”  I did all my camp set up with a watchful eye, and cooked my dinner as far from my tent as the site would allow. I had great rocks for sitting and cooking, and I let myself relax into contentment.

Campsite at Whatcom Pass

View from my campsite

I was in this reverie of enjoyment, watching the setting sun. Suddenly I heard something moving into my campsite! In a split second, all calm was broken as I turned toward the noise. I thought for sure it was a bear! But instead, it was a burly, bear-like man coming round to my site. “Oh my gosh!” I said, totally startled and rattled. “I thought you were a bear!!”

The guy apologized, said he had just arrived, and wanted to see if anyone else was camping at the pass. Recovering my composure, I told him about my earlier bear encounter. “Don’t worry”, he said, “I’m with the Forest Service, and I will be right next door. If you have a night time visitor, just holler!” Apparently he’d set himself up in Derek’s vacated spot.

My sense of peace returned. I watched the light do it’s last dance on peaks across the valley, the colors of the sky gradually fading from their dramatic oranges and pinks. I settled myself in my tent and prepared for sleep. The wind had died, the night was still, and, admittedly, I was happy not be alone on the pass.







Pre-Wedding Hike

Me and the boys on Dickerman

Mt. Dickerman, round two, with the three stooges!  (9/1/17)

My daughter got married two weeks ago, and what a celebration it was! She and Kevin tied the knot on a sunny Sunday at Marine Park in Bellingham. What timing — it was the day before smoke from more forest fires descended, unfortunately and again. Such a glorious occasion, and the day could not have been more perfect. As were the days leading up to the wedding…

Set up for the hike

The Friday before the wedding, I had the opportunity to hike with my son Kyle (in town from Atlanta with his girlfriend Lauren, both in the wedding), and two of his long-time buddies, Jack and Elijah. This adventure was similar to the one Kyle and I took last time he was in town in June (see Green Mountain trip report). Not so much in terms of epic-ness, but with regard to taking full advantage of a very small window of time to get out into the mountains for some fast hiking and quality relation time. This time with three young bucks, as Kyle had invited along long-time friends Jack and Elijah.

I picked Kyle and Lauren up at the airport very late Thursday, about midnight. We drove to the Lake Goodwin summer home for some quick sleep. In bed by 1:30, I was up at 5:30 Friday morning, energized and ready to start making pies for Shannon’s rehearsal dinner. I had to make five pies that day, with the hike sandwiched in between, in preparation for the weekend of wedding festivities.

I made four pies before we even left the house at 8:30. Two cooked, two in the oven. Lauren, unfortunately, couldn’t hike with us, as she had Shannon’s bachelorette party that late afternoon (Kevin had already had his bachelor party). But fortunately, she COULD and DID take the second round of pies out of the oven for me after we left, while waiting for a ride up to Bellingham. Already by 8:30, then,  I had a huge sense of accomplishment as we drove to meet Jack and Elijah (coming down from Bellingham) at Starbucks to carpool the distance to Mt. Dickerman. I had recently done Mt. Dickerman with Doug, and a previous Trip Report details the hike. I chose Dickerman this day for it’s distance (8.2 miles RT), elevation gain (about 1000 feet a mile), and views from the top. I knew all three young men would love it as much as I had a month earlier.

The Three Mountain Men

Kyle, Jack, and Elijah (and me) go way back. I’ve known Elijah since he and Kyle started playing Cal Ripken baseball back in fourth grade. They played competitive basketball and baseball together all through middle and high school. I’ve known Jack since the summer before high school, when he and Kyle formed a fast friendship that continued all through high school and attendance at the same college. Jack had been on previous hikes with us, including the fogged in Vesper Peak trip of 2015. He had hiked the entire El Camino trail in Spain earlier that summer, and it turned him into a major hiking advocate.  I hadn’t seen Elijah since high school, when he and Kyle played one final summer of baseball. Back then, Elijah wasn’t a hiker type. Always an athlete, he’d been much more of a gym guy.  But I knew from Facebook that he’d turned into a true mountain man since I’d seen him last, long hair and all!

Mountain Man Elijah
From Elijah Christie photo library

After a round of vigorous hugs in the Starbucks parking lot, we piled into my car and were on the way.

I loved listening to the buzz of conversation as we drove. Jack had just returned two months ago from a year-long stay in Spain. He didn’t just love the El Camino trail, he fell in love with the whole country and made arrangements to go back and teach English abroad for an entire year! Elijah had just returned from a solo trip to Thailand, where he’d hiked and explored the country. All three talked injuries, physical bodies, and recoveries. They bantered back and forth, each coming from a different perspective. Jack, the most soft-spoken of the three, was just getting his bearings back after returning to Bellingham, and was still nursing a long-time groin injury. Elijah, a personal trainer working and power lifting at a gym, offered a different perspective on all kinds of things I never even think about. The conversation about the intricacies of the grab and snatch (at least I think that’s what it’s called…), lasted at least ten minutes! And Kyle, having just finished his first year in his doctorate program for physical therapy, asked questions and offered insights on everyone’s physical well-being. The hour drive flew by.

The hike up

We were on the trail by 10:30. I psyched myself up properly, as I knew these guys would be fast. The starting hiking order was Jack, Elijah, Kyle, then me. Some relief in that, as if I couldn’t keep up, I could trail off. But I was determined to do my best,  and was looking forward to the inevitable physical effort required to do so.

After a fast 15 minutes, Jack called back,  “Pace Ok?”

“It’s great!” I replied, trying not to sound winded. As long as I didn’t talk too much, I could keep up. My only conversational need was to answer direct questions or insert the occasional anecdote as appropriate. Mostly,  I listened, and concentrated on how my body felt as I put one foot in front of the next, alternating feet and poles as I powered myself up. I felt the burn in my quads and loved it.

Kyle turned around periodically to check on me. “Doing OK, Mom?” He’d ask. I’d nod and smile. I was doing great, loving the work out, and being in the presence of that much positive physical energy.

We passed people as we went, though not too many for a sunny Friday. In seemingly no time we broke out of the forested switchbacks. Right at the first meadow, conversation and hiking ground to a halt as Elijah suddenly said “Whoa, dude, there’s a bear!” Jack hadn’t seen the black bear feasting on berries a mere 30 feet in front of us. We all stopped and stared.

Kyle looked at me, eyebrows raised. “Mom, should we be worried?” Suddenly I was the bear expert! I’d seen a few, and  I’m the first to admit that the idea of bear encounters makes me very nervous. But with this guy? He (or she) looked innocent enough, adolescent age, not huge, but certainly no cub. And he was just minding his own business, just feasting on berries.

“I think he’s fine.” I answered, trying to sound confident.  “Let’s just hang for a sec.” We stood and observed, talking in hushed tones, like we were on safari watching lions court.  Soon the hikers we’d passed caught back up, and it was a regular bear watching party. But then we heard people coming down the trail, loud to our quiet,  it was evident they had a dog.

Kyle looked at me again, concern in his eyes. “Don’t you think somebody should warn them, Mom?” I didn’t necessarily want to send my son into the path of a bear, but he seemed up for the task.

“Sure, Kyle, go for it. Just move slowly.”

Once Kyle started walking, the bear lumbered in front of him, across the trail and off to the other side, He was out of sight in a second. But not out of mind. We told the group coming down they’d just missed the bear, and they were relieved. So were we.

Kyle and the bear…photo courtesy Elijah Christie

A bit farther along, Elijah announced “Hey guys, I need to consume calories. Very soon.”

At this point, I was in the lead. “OK, there will be a spot up here.” I answered. The open area I was looking for didn’t come quickly, so we stopped mid-trail for a quick calorie break. “Do you keep track of how many calories you eat every day?” I asked Elijah, as we dropped our packs and food came out.

“Yes. It’s mostly 3600, unless I am training for something specific.”

“Wow. That’s precise!” I answered, impressed. “How do you do that?”

“With an app, of course.” He smiled, chowing down.

Jack, meanwhile, pulled out a huge burrito. “Hey, I bet nobody can top this monstrosity! Beans, rice, cheese, onions, even brussel sprouts! Made it myself.”

“That’s impressive.” I observed. “Too bad it’s not gluten free.”

After a few minutes, Elijah commented, “Just 300 more calories and we can go.”

Calorie consumption break — L to R, Elijan, Kyle, Jack

But just at that moment, all the people we’d re-passed after the bear caught back up. The boys re-shouldered their packs with a haste rarely seen among my-age hikers. They were gone in a flash, leaving me scrambling, as they headed off merrily toward the top, Elijah munching his 300 calorie bar on the fly. I looked at the emerging hikers, shrugged, and pulled myself together as quickly as possible. Now I was behind.

For that final stretch of trail, I scrambled to catch back up. The views were magnificent, and I’d call ahead “Hey, guys, don’t forget to take in the views!” I wanted them to stop and wait for me, as I was going just as fast as I could, but I could never quite catch up. At one point, Kyle, aware of my challenge, glanced back.  “You hanging in there, Mom?”

“Oh yeah”, I panted. These boys were booking it, sensing they were close. And that’s how the last 3/4 of a mile went. The three of them flying, with me a tad behind, behind, breathing hard, trying to close the gap before the summit. A matter of challenge and pride.

And I did. Barely. We all four summited together, coming out to the broad opening with views of Baker, Shuksan, Glacier Peak, dozens more, even Mt. Ranier off in the distance. Glorious sunshine, circumferential views, and only a few people adorned the vast base of the summit.

Top of Dickerman (Photo EC)

At the top

Elijah and Jack stayed on the highest level taking photos, and Kyle and I dropped down then popped back up to almost just as high. We pulled out sandwiches made that morning, and relaxed in the sun, gazing around and watching Jack and Elijah revel in the surroundings.

Sweaty Kyle settling in for lunch.

Soon they came to join us, and pulled out their lunches too. We all compared our stash. The bulk of Jack’s burrito, something densely caloric for Elijah, my mostly spinach sandwich with some turkey, Kyle’s pile of turkey and no spinach. I pointed out my mound of spinach to  Jack.

“Your brussel sprouts ain’t nothing compared to this greenery!” I said, munching happily.

Elijah, the photographer, zoomed right in on my sandwich consumption, and we all talked, ate, laughed. I felt surrounded by goodwill and positivity, and like I could hike with these three anytime.

The spinach sandwich. Photo by EC

Quality time and views with Kyle. Photo by EC

Candid lunch photo. By EC

As we chatted, I learned more about Jack’s job at a brewery, cleaning kegs. He’d just taken it upon his return. I asked him how that could utilize his chemistry degree. For the record, Jack was a 4.0 student through high school and college, but he marches to the beat of his own drum. He laughed. “Not sure yet, but maybe brewing my own at some point in the future. For now, it’s a job, I get to sample beer, and it’s low stress.”

L to R — Jack, Elijah, Kyle

I watched Jack and Elijah, room mates since Jack’s return, posing on the top of the highest rock, hamming it up, Kyle eventually joining in too. All three took off their shirts, asking if it was ok to get topless on a summit. “Of course!” I said, taking photos. “Better you guys than me!” The three looked so comfortable, compatible, and cohesive. Like three souls come together again on a mountain top.

The hike down

A plan was hatched for all three to come back to the lake to swim, then Kyle would catch a ride back to Bellingham for dinner with his Dad while I made the final pie. Reluctantly, but with the promise of cool water on the unseasonably warm day, we headed down.

Love this shot with Kyle…he’s really not that much taller! Photo EC

At first, they all flew, and I struggled, again, to keep up. Going down is harder than going up for this aging body, and I really had to focus on my footing.

At one point, Elijah asked me a question about my experiences in the mountains. At first, I answered vaguely, but then, realizing his interest was genuine, more intricately.  That led us into a conversation that lasted for miles, on topics of our mutual passion for fitness and the outdoors, how he got into backpacking, finding our solace in the mountains, meditation, ways to enhance life experience, and a variety of other related topics. Talking to this 25-year old, insightful Elijah proved to be a highlight of the trip. I didn’t realize what a deep thinker he had become, or that we connected on a multitude of levels. The conversation was inspiring, informational, and fun. And it made the miles fly by. Kyle and Jack, perhaps tired of our conversation, moved ahead while Elijah hung back with me.

Eventually, we all regrouped a half mile or so from the trailhead, and continued our fast and furious descent. We made it back to the car in 1.5 hours, not bad for 4+ steep miles.

Finishing one adventure, and on to the next…

Back at the lake, we jumped in the water, ate chips and salsa on the diving board, and discussed our day. We agreed we’d all had a blast, we all liked the bear, and the company as well.  I felt a part of this group, and I knew on some level they admired that I kept up so well. It’s nice to be THAT MOM, the one that can still keep up with a group of 25-year olds.

With some sadness I watched them leave. I launched into my final pie and ate a solo dinner. I knew I’d be surrounded by family over the weekend, and focused on Shannon’s needs for the next two days. I let myself move in that direction. Hiking puts me in a great frame of mind, and I knew I would be centered and ready for all the events in the two days to follow. What a perfect pre-wedding adventure we’d had.

A big thank you to Kyle, Jack, and Elijah for such a great pre-wedding hike!

And a HUGE congratulations to Shannon and Kevin as they embark on the next stage of their life!


The happy couple!






Post John Muir Trail — Last Day — Virginia Lakes Day Hike

Virginia Lakes Day Hike, onto the Reno Airport, then back to Bellingham

Miles hiked — Approximately 9

This is it, there is no way around it. At the end of this day, I will be on a plane flying home to Bellingham and my JMT adventure will be over. I am sad to know this when I wake up on this last day in Bishop, but I’m ready to face it. Ready for one more day of adventure and hiking, and ready to return home and back to “normal life”….whatever that means at this point.

I make another egg scramble for breakfast, just like the previous day. Today over breakfast, I pick up Dave’s Book,  The Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, by Steve Roper.  It’s the same route the guy from the rental car place was talking about, and the same route that I encountered backpackers doing when they would drop down from the high route to the JMT. The route is about the same distance  as JMT, 195 miles, but at higher elevation and mostly off trail, and with many more passes to cross, lakes to encounter, and much, much more seclusion.  It’s an intriguing idea, doing this route, and the idea again enters my mind for future consideration.

But for this day, I will pack up my stuff, and head up Highway 395 North towards Reno. I have one stop planned along the way. Just past Lee Vining is a turn off to the Virginia Lakes Road, and there I will go to find my last day hike in the California Sierras. I know nothing of Virginia Lakes except how to get there, and I have no real agenda except to hike for as long as seems reasonable before I have to turn around to get to the airport in time for my 7 pm flight.  It’s an easy and straightforward adventure.

After goodbyes and heart felt thank you’s to Dave and Michelle, I am on my way by 8 am. I stop at the corner market for fresh fruit, and I hop back in the Prius rental. I am liking the car, and the gas gauge hasn’t moved despite yesterday’s trip to Bishop Pass! It’s under two hours to the trailhead, and, even with all my putzing around, I am on the trail by 10:15. The trailhead is just under 10,000 feet, and the day is mostly clear, but cool and windy.  It’s a day for extra clothes, headphones and an audiobook, lunch, and more great scenery.

Beautiful vivid sunset at Big Virginia Lake, Eastern Sierra Nevada. California, USA

Beautiful vivid reflection at Big Virginia Lake, Eastern Sierra Nevada. California, USA.

The trail is advertised as popular and crowded, but there is hardly anyone there on this late August weekday. It starts at Big Virginia Lake, with Little Virginia Lake just beyond. The trail is easy and straightforward, passing five lakes in a mile and a half. The others are Trumbull, Red, and Blue Lakes. I am not sure what the colors mean. I pass a few folks, but not many. The colors of the surrounding hills and peaks are fantastic, reminding me of the North Cascades in early Autumn. Views open up as I go. It’s another great day hike, and I am super happy to be here.

View from Burro Pass

Looking down into Green Creek Basin

Eventually the trail crosses between Frog Lakes and steepens to ascend Burro Pass. The pass is 11,120 feet and a pretty typical pass — barren, dry, semi-steep switchbacks over loose rock and boulders. I will miss these California Sierra Passes, and it makes me sad to be doing my last one. Everything about this day has a “last” attached to it — last day hike, last pass, last stream to cross, last lake to traverse, last peaks in the distance to gaze at. I try to appreciate all of this and not let the “lastness” get to me.

On the other side of Burro Pass, the trail drops back down. I am in the Hoover wilderness headed for Hoover Lake. I wonder if a vacuum cleaner aficionado discovered the area…? Regardless, it’s beautiful, and I follow the path down into Green Creek Basin for about a mile and a half. I don’t know exactly where I am going, but run into a couple with a dog coming up. I ask them what’s ahead, and they tell me the trail will split to head up to Summit Lake, or drop down to Hoover and another Lake. I wish I could keep going. I want to do Summit Lake. But I know I have to catch a plane, and I don’t want to risk being rushed. I think on another backpack trip where we did “one last hike” and very nearly missed the plane, and another that was so incredibly stressful getting to the airport that I couldn’t even sit with my hiking partner on the plane. Such stress is definitely NOT what I need or want on this day.

Looking down to Hoover Lake

So I stop on the steep switchbacks, find a large rock to sit on, and eat my leftover chicken (cold, from last night’s dinner), fruit, and an energy bar. It’s another last…my last lunch on the trail. I want to make all this last forever, and I try my best to burn the image of Hoover Lake and Green Basin into my head and heart. While it’s not as mystically magical as some other spots I have recently been, I know it is the last such view for awhile. I stay 20 minutes and take it all in.

Reluctant but  resigned , I turn around and head back. I keep telling myself to relax, this isn’t the end of my hiking career.  It IS, unfortunately,  the end of a fun, successful, and hugely meaningful trip. The mile plus back up the pass flies by, and it’s all downhill from there. Back to the car, step by step, analyzing each rock and foot placement, being extra careful that I don’t turn an ankle or have a slip or fall so close to the end. I am amazed that I have done this whole trip, all 250 plus miles in total, with no real physical mishaps. I want to get back to the car unscathed and whole, both physically and mentally.

There are more cars at the trailhead when I return, and it’s still wickedly windy. I want to organize everything for airport readiness, so when I drop off my car it will be a simple process. Everything I put outside the car to organize inside either blows over or blows away. I find myself chasing empty water bottles and even clothing that flies away with each wind gust. It’s humorous, my determination to do it all here. Change clothes, get everything packed back up. But I would much rather do it here in the wind than in the chaos and finality of the rental car lot. It’s another way to prolong my stay in the beauty of the mountains for as long as possible.

Finally I am dressed in the only airline clothes I have (a lightweight skirt that I carried all the way on the JMT so that I would have something to wear besides my preferred hiking shorts, which are running shorts that are too short for comfort in real life!) And I have clean upper layers thanks to Dave’s washing machine,  so I feel moderately put together and ready for the trip home.  It’s about 2.5 hours of driving to the airport, and I will be one step closer to of the end of my journey.

My previous audiobook conveniently finished at trails end, so I start John Grisham’s “Gray Mountain” for my drive to the airport. It’s fitting in that it’s about a young corporate lawyer who ends up trying to find herself and make a difference deep in Appalachia. I can relate, as I sometimes feel like the mountains are my home and I have to struggle to fit in back in my real life. It’s the opposite problem she has, but it helps me put into perspective that who and how we are in our environment is a matter of choice. Always. And while the mountains has been my environment for weeks, I must make the adjustment now to my other life back at home.

Everything goes smoothly at the rental car place and I arrive at the airport in plenty of time. A totally lame salad from some coffee shop serves as dinner. It actually makes me miss my backpacker meals! I have a layover in Portland, and my plane won’t arrive in Bellingham until 10:50. Thankfully, my daughter Shannon has agreed to pick me up so it’s an easy ending. I survive both flights, and Shannon is there to meet me curb side after I’ve claimed my bag. It’s great to see her, and I give her a big hug…even though she doesn’t much like hugs. It’s cold outside, and Shannon tells me summer has abruptly disappeared in the last day or so. Back to 50 degrees and cloudy, and I know I am really back on my home soil now.

My welcoming committee: Sapphire (left) and Indigo (Indie)

Shannon has driven my car to pick me up, so I only have to drop her off and then it’s 20 minutes back to my house. The place is dark and quiet when I arrive just before midnight. The welcoming committee is my cats, who have been without me for almost a month. Thankfully they remember me, and seem moderately excited to see me. It’s weird to be back, and I remember similarly how weird it was to be back from JMT 1. I assure myself that I will readjust, and that all will be well in time. It’s nice to stand in front of my own sink, look at my deeply tanned and newly washed face, and welcome myself home! I am proud of my accomplishment, and tell my reflection just that before heading for bed. As I climb in to my blessedly queen size bed, I realize that it’s an anticlimactic and fittingly simple end to this whole adventure. I am safely home in bed after my fantastic event, and, somehow I know, life will go on.

Highlights of the Day

The last hike to Virginia Lakes

Virginia Lakes Trail

I could have just driven straight to the airport and hung out in Reno, or any of a number of other options for this last day. But I did what fit ME the most, and that was to take a hike. I am not a gambler, never have even been to Vegas except to fly in and out of. And the idea of crowds and people overwhelms me. So I chose wilderness, high elevation lakes and peaks, and as much solitude as I could get on the last day. I could have saved myself $100 bucks by taking the bus to the airport, which is what we did on JMT 1. But six hours on a bus and missing out on a hike just wasn’t going to work for me. I am grateful to Dave for the suggestion of Virginia Lakes, and grateful to the trail for being so close to the highway! It made for a fantastic diversion as I wrestled with my thoughts about coming home, and gave me something tangible to hang onto for my last day in the Sierras.

Coming home…

Paradoxically, the other highlight of the day was getting home. It was great to walk in my door, see that the cats were still alive and thriving, dump all my backpack stuff on the floor, and sleep in my own bed. In theory, I could stay on the trails forever. In actuality, it was a relief to be back to the comforts of my own living space.

Lessons of the Day

All good things must come to an end…

It had to happen, and it happened with ease. My JMT trip ended as it started — with everything falling into place. I am not sure why everything went so smoothly for me on this trip. Sure there were a few glitches, but all in all, things fell remarkably into place. I felt blessed and watched over each and every step of the way. I don’t mean that in a religious sense, but definitely in a spiritual way: I knew I was intended to do this trip. And even though I was alone for much of it, I never felt lonely. I always had the sense that I was just where I needed to be, and knew that things would work out. And they did. Going to bed on the last night, I similarly knew I would be OK with moving ahead.

Or do they?

All that day and in the days following, I kept thinking about how I would share my trip with others. I came up with this plan, a day by day recounting which you have just finished reading. And the next step of sharing my trip is already in progress. I am currently taking a 9 month writing class, with the trip as the basis of an upcoming memoir. So while I will leave the JMT for awhile in my blogs to come, inevitably, I will circle back. Stay tuned for more information on the book as it develops. And I will keep you abreast of plans for my next big trip…maybe the High Sierra Route, back in the Sierras which I have come to love so much, and now call my second home.

In some ways, the journey has just begun!





Day 20 John Muir Trail

Lone Pine Lake to Whitney Portal…and on to Bishop

Total JMT Miles — 2.5       Elevation Loss — 1680 feet

This is it. The end is near. There is no way I can stall any longer the completion of my trip. I know all this as soon as I wake up at Pine Lake on day 20. It’s bittersweet, this last morning camped above 10,000 feet. I don’t want to leave, but I am also ready for a shower, to make coffee without my hands being so darn cold, and especially to spend the night in a bed and not a tent. I consider this while still in the tent waiting for daylight to come, and realize that I have spent 23 nights in a  row in a sleeping bag and tent, counting the days driving down, and that’s more than plenty.  Crawling out one last time, I can see that the clouds from the day before have cleared, again, and I know it’s going to be a gorgeous day for my grand finale. The bulk of all my hiking is done. I only have 2.5 miles of steady downhill to reach the Whitney Portal. Then it’s a relative hop, skip, and a jump (with a fair number of details) back to civilization. I am not sure how I feel about that part, and it weighs heavy on my mind.

As I drink coffee, eat breakfast, and gaze out at the lake, I am not sure how to make the most of these last moments. I know it will be awhile before I wake up at a mountain lake again, and having it entirely to myself just adds a layer of sadness to my pensiveness. I let myself think ahead just a bit. Will I backpack again before summer turns itself over to fall? I’d like to think so, but I know realistically it probably won’t happen. And even if I do manage to squeeze in one more overnighter after I get back to Bellingham, I know it won’t come close to this experience of utter solitude at a high mountain lake. These moments will have to tide me over for a good long while. I do my best to fully embrace my surroundings and soak it all in.

Morning light on Mt. Muir from Lone Pine Lake

Mt. Whitney (far right, far back) and Mt. Russel just visible from my campsite

From Lone Pine Lake campsite

First light beams off the peaks, and I can just see Mt. Whitney in the back. I think back to yesterday’s summit, and reflect on how far I have come. I do a quick run through of my entire trip as I sit there by those perfectly still waters with the sun turning the mountains all kinds of colors.  I pull out my journal and try to write. I am certain my greatest feeling of the moment is gratitude, for all aspects of the trip and that it went so incredibly well. I pinpoint my greatest uncertainty as not knowing how to share my story with friends and family. And I identify my greatest fear as the challenge of integrating back to civilization. I try to sort out some of what each of those last two will look like. Both seem like very challenging tasks. Finally I decide I to trust myself, be present in all the moments of the day as they unfold, and not try to second guess how I will do with either of these things. One step at a time, I tell myself, and the first steps are down the trail and out the Whitney Portal.

I am on the trail by 8:30. It’s sunny, the day is warming up, and I shed  layers as I go. I am dropping elevation quickly, and the trail is one of open, steep, and dusty switchbacks. I remember this part from last year, and it’s partly why I wanted to camp at Lone Pine Lake. Last year these last miles literally seemed to never end, and I didn’t want it to be like that this year. Since it’s all I have to do and I am fresh from a night of sleep, I cruise right along. I greet the folks coming up, getting a “late” start on Whitney, at least compared to the many people who begin the day hike to summit Whitney from the portal in the dark.

It takes me no time to get down. As I get close to the end, I start looking for someone to give me a ride into Lone Pine. It’s 12 miles, and I certainly don’t want to walk! I encounter two older men towards the bottom of the trail.  I ease up close enough behind them to eves drop. I want to know what they are up to before I spring on them my request for a ride. I learn that they have been out on a simple overnighter and are headed back to their car then back to town. Sounds good so far! I get close enough to talk to the one behind. “Good morning!” I say. “I overheard you say you are headed back to town. I just finished the JMT and I need a ride into town. Is there any way I can hitch a ride with you and your buddy?”

“Go ask Bill”, the one says. “He’s in charge!” I thank him, ask his name (Jim), and move past him. He is friendly, seemingly harmless, and just the kind of guy I was hoping to run into to ask for a ride.  I catch up to Bill.

“Hey Bill! Your buddy Jim says you are the one to ask for a ride. I have just finished the JMT and could use a ride into town. Would it be possible for me and my pack to hitch a ride with you guys?”

Bill turns around. “Of course!” He looks skeptical. “You did the whole thing?  You look pretty good for just finishing the JMT! How many days were you out?”

That makes me smile. “20 days” I say.  I am sure they would probably give me a ride even if I was frumpy and smelled bad, but my last painful jump into Lone Pine Lake, clouds and all, ensured that I am not too bad.  I decide it pays to look and smell semi-decent on the last day of a long back pack trip. If nothing else, it makes me feel better about asking for a ride.

At the Whitney Portal, either Bill or Jim in back

At Whitney Portal…all those warning signs, I am glad none of that happened to me!







We make arrangements to meet at their Jeep Cherokee. I am thrilled! I weigh my pack as I exit the trail for good. It’s down to 38 pounds! My pack has lost 20 pounds on this trip. That makes me feel good, and I am all smiles as I take it off the hook. There are two other men, younger than me, waiting to weigh their packs. They have just finished a five day trip. They are astounded that my pack still weights 38 pounds. “How much did it weigh to start? What the heck did you have in there? What the heck do you still have in there?” they ask.

“I don’t know.” I laugh. “Too much. Way too much! But it got me through three weeks, and I am just ecstatic to be done!”

The two older men are hanging around during this exchange The younger backpackers ask how I am getting into town. I nod in the direction of the older guys. “These two offered me a ride. Or rather, I asked and they took pity and said yes.”

The younger guys look at the older guys. I can see the wheels turning in the heads of the younger two. “I hate to ask”, says one, “but is there anyway WE can get a ride into town too?”  The older two look at each other, shrug, laugh, and say sure, we can probably make it happen.

And that is how I end up heading into town with two rather stinky hikers (who have NOT recently been in a lake!), our three backpacks, and Jim and Bill in the front seats. Because Jim and Bill also have a bunch of gear, complex stuff like fishing gear, sleds to get out of the sand if one gets stuck (Bill, it turns out, lives in the desert), plus their backpacks and other gear, the logistics of getting everything in is technically complex. The front passenger seat is taken up not only by Jim, but several fishing poles and the huge sled that had been in the back seat. I sit in the middle of the backseat, stinky hiker on either side, and all three of us hold our backpacks on our laps as there is no where else to put them.  It’s a humorous situation, and thankfully we all approach it as such. I am so relieved to have a ride, I don’t complain.

There is road construction on the 12 mile section to Lone Pine, and we sit a lot. Thankfully with windows open! It takes us an hour to get there, and Jim and Bill drop me off at a Mexican Restaurant on the corner where I plan to have lunch. It’s the same place that Gregg and I ate when we first arrived in town last year after JMT 1, and I know they will happily accept me and my backpack. I call a happy goodbye to the backpackers I’ve been sandwiched between, and heartily thank Bill and Jim for the ride. I prepare to sit outside the restaurant until it opens at 11:00 am.

Despite all that the morning has held, it’s only 10:50. I spend the next 20 minutes texting friends and family that I am out safely. I have been without cell service since Red’s Meadow on day 5 of my trip, so it’s been awhile. I call my sister Kari for an update on my mom. She was put onto Hospice care just before I left, and, while I am certain I would have heard if she had died while I was gone, I want to make sure I didn’t miss that or anything else of crucial family importance. Kari and I talk for long enough for me to learn that basically things are just as they were before I left.  It’s weird being out of touch for so long then to suddenly be back in it.

The restaurant is late opening, and the gal comes out very apologetic at 11:10 to say they are ready for me. I haul in my pack and find a booth.  I am the only one there besides the skeleton staff. I’ve been in communication with Dave, who lives in Bishop, an hour away, to say that I am eating and will be ready to go by noon. I have 50 minutes to order, eat, and be ready for a ride. I enjoy every minute of it! I order a diet coke, and drink it and two refills while eating chips and salsa and waiting for my chicken fajitas with extra salsa and hot sauce. Everything tastes so good, and I relish every bite.  I also get to wash my hands and face in the bathroom with hot, running water — before and after I eat. So much luxury I can hardly stand it! I briefly imagine that the restaurant staff thinks I am nuts appearing so grateful for all the small things. But I AM grateful, and I am sure they get just-finished JMT hikers often enough that my strange behavior doesn’t seem all that strange.

Right on schedule Dave arrives to get me. Talk about service! This is the same Dave who has been involved in two food drops already, and I am scheduled to stay at his house with him and his girlfriend Michelle for my last two nights before driving to Vegas and flying home. The hour drive back to Bishop with Dave is fun, and I get to fill him in on the last five days of my trip since I last saw him at Kearsarge Pass with food on Day 15. We talk about what our respective plans are for the next two days. Since it’s a Monday, both Dave and Michelle will be working. I tell Dave I would just love a ride to his house, for laundry, a shower, and maybe internet connection. And that I will probably rent a car the next day so that I can get around, specifically and ironically, to do a long day hike. I explain that I need to ease myself back into normal life, and the best way I know how is to head out on a long day hike! He questions if that is normal, but we both acknowledge it’s normal for both of us, this desire to be out in the mountains as much as is humanly possible.

Dave, Michelle, and Gigi at Bishop Pass. This is the pass I decide to hike on my one full day in Bishop. Photo courtesy of Dave Grah

Dave drops me at the house. He instructs me on the laundry, and heads back to work. I start laundry, shower, and get organized in Dave’s daughter Olivia’s room where I will sleep. Olivia has gone back to college since I saw her last, after food drop #2 (Day 10). I check out her bed, which is a twin, but it will do and it sure beats a tent! After my shower, I head outside to lie in the hammock. It’s 100 degrees in Bishop, and I can feel the heat. I am actually glad the hammock is in the  shade.  I take a book, my phone, water, and pillows. I lie there, alternately reading, napping, talking to my kids on the phone, and texting, until Dave and Michelle get home at 5:30. They have brought fixings for a simple dinner, and the three of us (plus Michelle’s dog, Gigi!) spend the evening eating, chatting, and relaxing. I brainstorm with Dave what day hikes I can do over the next two days, one near Bishop and one on the way to the airport in Las Vegas. I am in no way ready to commit to just hanging out for two days, and I am relieved to have a plan of action.  I am ready for and in bed by 8:00, my standard bedtime for the entire JMT. I go to bed thankful for real pillows, and excited for some more adventure the next day.

Highlights of the day

The ride into Lone Pine from Whitney Portal

This whole situation made me smile. First, there were the circumstances and ironies themselves. I was worried that I would be too “stinky and gross” to ask for a ride into town. How ludicrous this was in and of itself, as I was really fine. It was a total needless worry (remember that file from Day 1?) AND, I ended up crammed in a back seat with two guys much riper than me, and I honestly didn’t care! But the BEST part of this whole thing was that it reminded me of when I moved to Blaine from Bellingham about 10 years ago. My kids were teenagers, and we took one last load to our new home from our old home. The distance was only 19 miles, but for that 19 miles we had SO MUCH STUFF crammed in the car, there was literally no room for anything else. In the back seat were my daughter Shannon, our Golden Retriever Lily, and a whole bunch of stuff that wouldn’t fit in the hatch of my Subaru Outback. In the front passenger seat were my  son Kyle and Shannon’s friend Julia, double buckled and with stuff at their feet. Literally, there was no room for anything else in the car. We drove like that to Blaine, with me constantly worried that I would get pulled over and ticketed for having two kids (14 and 16) in a single front seat,  and absolutely no visibility out the back as the car was jam packed to the roof.  The Jeep Cherokee headed into Lone Pine was not THAT bad, but it was close in terms of how tightly all five of us and all of our gear were packed in.

Appreciation of everyday amenities

There is nothing better than three weeks in the wilderness to bring about immense appreciate for those things I often take for granted. Each time I ran water, used soap, washed a dish, sat on and flushed a toilet, ate food that wasn’t “backpack food”, washed clothes in a machine, showered, and slept in a bed I felt extremely thankful. I remembered from JMT 1 that the novelty of these things took awhile to wear off, and I reveled in the simple pleasure associated with doing all those things. Anyone who has travelled in a foreign country where amenities such as these are not available, or spent time in some other environment where everyday luxuries aren’t available will appreciate this.

Sharing the victory with family and friends!

Some of this was via text, some by phone, and with Dave and Michelle in person. It felt great to say “I did it!” and to really grasp the significance of that. Sharing with others who matter to me that I had completed the JMT solo started to solidify the achievement. I still wasn’t sure how to recap the trip, that was too much to expect in less than 24 hours from completion. But to have done it, and to have had it be such a success, and to let others know this, was a start.

Lesson of the day

Coming to the end doesn’t mean it has to end!

There were two parts to this. The first was that it was apparent and important to recognize that I didn’t have to get to that place of summary and conclusion  just like that.  I could say “I did it”, and when people asked how was it, I could give basic information without having to make sense of it all right then and there. I saw that I could let things sink in gradually, and figure out how and what to say, both in the immediate and the time to come. Just because I finished didn’t mean it was done…the processing was (and still is) ongoing.

And secondly, I made the all-important decision before going to bed on Day 20 that I would theoretically extend my trip for two more days until I returned to Bellingham. That way, I could both ease back into life more gradually, AND forestall any great conclusions until I had a couple more days to process.

Readers, I hope you will stick with me for two more posts. Then I promise I will somehow bring all of this to completion! 


Day 16 John Muir Trail

Charlotte Lake to “Lake 12,250”

Total JMT miles — 8.5          Side trip miles (including climbing Mt. Bago)  —  4

Elevation gain/loss  —  +4340/-2290

I awoke this morning determined to be nice. I decided I wouldn’t get up until I was sure I could be friendly to my very nearby neighbors. Despite my hope that they would be early birds, packed up and ready to go before I got up,  they were still sleeping when I emerged at first light. I promised myself I would say hello just as soon as there was obvious life outside their tent, and pretend like the awkwardness of the previous evening (when they had looked up from my campsite to see me using the toilet!) hadn’t happened. My determination seemed to have, in fact, reawakened my normally generous spirit, with the help of a decent night’s sleep. 🙂

When the two men stepped out of the tent, first thing I noticed is that they were older than I had expected. One of them had been wearing a fluorescent pink t- shirt when they showed up in camp the previous evening. That is not something you see too often on older males, and especially not hikers in the mountains! In some way, their age in conjunction with the pink shirt offered some sort of explanation of why they chose to camp so very close. Perhaps they just didn’t have a good sense of awareness about how to pick a site, or of the trail “rule” to give others as much privacy as you can. I can be OK with this, I reasoned, as I value individuality and being your own person. So I went to say hello and good morning with an open mind, and inquire what they were up to.  They were not JMT hikers or Sierra High Route backpackers,  but were doing a three day loop of some kind. They similarly inquired of my plans, and I told them I planned to climb Mt. Bago before returning to the JMT for some undetermined amount of miles.

After morning pleasantries, coffee, and breakfast, I broke down camp and moved out. I was excited to climb Mt. Bago, a 11,870 ft. peak. I assumed it would be a piece of cake compared to Day 12’s Split Mountain (14,042 ft.). I desperately wanted to knock off one more peak before Whitney, a mere three days away. I dumped my stuff just off the trail heading back up to Sandy Junction. It looked to be a fair amount of scrambling off trail, which I wasn’t looking forward to. I knew it was short — less than two miles to the top from where the cross country trek began. Excitement combined with nervousness about climbing this peak  — most peaks bring this on, especially when I know I will most likely be the only person there. It was a similar feeling as to when I did Split Mountain…heading off trail, into the unknown, climbing a peak without an obvious  route, and without anyone to bounce the route off of.

From Summit of Bago -- Charlotte Lake, Mt. Rixford, Dragon Peak, and Black Mountain

From Summit of Bago — Charlotte Lake, Mt. Rixford, Dragon Peak, and Black Mountain

From Bago, North Guard, Mt. Brewer, South Guard

From Bago, North Guard, Mt. Brewer, South Guard

I worked my way up, though trees, boulders, scree, and loose footing. The going was relatively straight forward until near the top, when I ended up on some steep, red, loose rocks that I had a hard time navigating up. After a small fall and blessedly easy recovery, I topped out. In retrospect, I realized I should not have gone that way. While it appeared to be the most direct route, sometimes the quickest apparent route takes longer because it is much more dicey.  Mt. Bago is not as high as many surrounding peaks, but  it is the only one in the area — hence, the views are stupendous all around. I took my time eating, taking photos, and trying (in vain) to master the art of the selfie. Selfie stick, where are you when I need you?!?

And again...

Bad selfie!

The way down Bago was much more straight forward. I avoided the place where I had fallen, and worked my way down slowly and cautiously. I was back with my belongings by 11:00 am. I decided on an early lunch before climbing out of the Charlotte Lake basin and back to the JMT. The sun was out, it was a fantastically warm day,  and I felt good and strong. I knew I had a varied course ahead of me once I returned to the JMT. I set a tentative goal of reaching the highest lake just below  Forester Pass (13,110). The lake, aptly named “Lake at 12,250” gets you within shouting distance of Forester, and would set me up to accomplish my final pass until Whitney early the following morning.

Headed down into the valley, West Spur in foreground, Center Peak in back

Headed down into the valley, West Spur in foreground, Center Peak in back

The trail past Sandy Junction drops 1190 feet, through White Bark and Lodgepole Pines. At times the forest was dry and sparse,  at times lush and green, and at times very woodsy. It was both varied and familiar, and I remembered this stretch well from last year. Two significant things happened on this stretch —  one this year, one last year. This year, I quickly passed the hikers from the previous night. I recognized them by the one’s fluorescent pink shirt.  I made sure to be super friendly as I passed, and asked questions about their morning. They asked me about Mt. Bago, and we chatted for a good bit. All in all, I felt great about my decision to be friendly with them, in the morning and on the trail, as I would end up passing them yet another time on that day, before they finally turned off to complete their loop via a different route.

West Spur, right, Deerhorn Mountain in back

West Spur, right, Deerhorn Mountain in back

Bubbs Creek and Center Peak

Bubbs Creek and Center Peak

And second, last year, Gregg and I were trying to find a place to camp for the night during this stretch. We settled on a campsite in Lower Vidette Meadow, right on the trail, and with a bear locker in the site. We had been warned of bears in the area, but a combination of fatigue and disbelief that we would actually encounter one prompted us to set up camp in the first spot we found. Long story short, we DID have a night time visitor, in the form of a black bear running off with our mesh bag of clean dishes. Gregg performed heroics and scared off the bear, while I cowered in the tent, scared speechless. The bear eventually dropped the bag a ways  away, and Gregg went to retrieve it. We had had everything else in the bear locker, but didn’t think to put the clean dishes in there. Lesson learned, but the experience stayed with me on my solo hike each and every night as I prepared for bed. I did not want a bear in camp at all, as clearly there was no Gregg this time around to scare one off. In honor of this memory,  I asked a fellow backpacker to take a picture of me sitting on said bear locker…and thanked my lucky stars that, so far, I had not had a bear encounter myself.

Infamous bear locker at last years campsite, Lower Vidette Meadow

Infamous bear locker at last years campsite, Lower Vidette Meadow

Once all that was done, I was in for a climb. I had 2700 feet and seven miles to reach the lake at 12,250. With a myriad of peaks standing guard, the trail passes meadows, creeks, and piles of talus as it climbs. This type of terrain hosts chipmunks and pikas, with their cheeps and whistles. . The whole seven miles was unbelievably scenic, and soon there were no more trees, and it was just a talus scramble. At one point I glanced up to see a coyote, highly camouflaged in the rocks it traversed, sneaking slyly away. It’s beauty struck me, and I felt awed and amazed me to have come through so much variety in one day. I knew I was on track to make Lake at 12,250, but it seemed to never come. I asked at least five people if, in fact, there was even a lake up ahead, fearing that both my memory and the maps might be wrong as it took so long to appear.

Center Peak and University Peak, gaining elevation out of VIdette Meadow

Center Peak and University Peak, high above VIdette Meadow

FINALLY, about 5:45, I arrived at the lake! It was as spectacularly barren as I remembered, with Junction Peak jutting up right from it’s shores. I felt an anxious thrill about camping here, as it was highly exposed. But mostly,  I was ecstatic to have made it. I immediately began setting up camp, and just as I finished and was working on dinner, Emily showed up! I hadn’t seen her since the last rain day, and we had more stories to swap. I was impressed by her decision to camp at this high lake, and she might have been at mine too. We were definitely two solo female backpackers open to the adventure of high elevation camping. There was one other person down below, a man, age undetermined, who greeted neither Emily nor I. A safe loner, I presumed.

Campsite at Lake 12,250

Campsite at Lake 12,250

The night was peaceful, despite the wind and cold. I loved being there. I felt again that huge sense of accomplishment — a peak climbed, plus a good long ascent, to reach the place where I most wanted to be at the close of day 16. There is no way to fully describe the joy and satisfaction, and sense of a job well done, that I took to bed with me that night.

Highlights of the day

Climbing Mt. Bago

Simply put, I do like climbing mountains. I have an appropriate mixture of fear, awe, and draw, that keeps me coming back. I have done glaciated peaks (Mt. Rainer, Mt. Adams, and Glacier Peak to name a few) in my “youth”. I am not so much drawn these days to climbing volcanoes, as I prefer peaks that require less preparation and no roping up or glacier travel. But I do love being on top of the world, even if only by definition of being on top of the highest peak around. There is nothing quite better, in my view, than having an entire mountain range laid out before me. The only thing missing? I wish I had the wherewithal or interest in identifying surrounding peaks once I am there. I do have interest, but I never remember the names anyway, and they all tend to run together as simple, ultimate beauty and majesty in my mind. And that is enough.

Still trying to master the selfie, on summit of Bago

Still trying to master the selfie, on summit of Bago

The Coyote sighting

It’s hard to explain why this was so meaningful. It happened within the last 1.5 miles below Lake 12,250, when I was debating if I could or should continue. I was tired, weird in the head, and pretty much psychologically done for the day. Yet I wasn’t where I really wanted to end the day. I was sitting there debating what to do when that coyote waltzed across high rocks right in front of me. It felt like a clear sign to keep on. And so I did, and I was rewarded in my decision.

The campsite

Last year, when we went by this lake, I commented to Gregg how cool it would be to camp at the high lake right below the pass. I am not sure why I was so drawn, but I kept it in my mind as somewhere I definitely wanted to spend a night. To reach the lake, then have Emily unexpectedly show up too, just felt perfect. Enough company such that I wasn’t completely alone (or with the one solo guy), but not at all too crowded that we didn’t all have our own ample space. It was a perfect spot.

Lessons of the day

Mindfully take things one moment at a time

This theme, of approaching things mindfully and with presence, was one I was able to do well on this day. It started with my mindful approach to greeting my neighbors in the morning, continued with my ascent of Mt. Bago, and the careful descent. Then the steady miles of forest, with my thoughts about last year and gratitude for safety along the trail thus far. The last seven miles called for mindful hiking the most, though. It was a steady up, and I wasn’t exactly sure how it would end, or when. I lost hope a couple of times, fearing I was on an “endless” slog with no certain destination. For that last mile or so, it was all about putting one foot in front of the other. Similarly to previous days when I was tired at the end of the day, I knew if I could just keep at it one step at a time, I would get to just where I wanted to be.

It’s better to be nice than not…

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I will say that again, on this day, I learned this lesson in spades. If I had chosen to be rude and ignore my morning campsite comrades, it would have been awkward seeing them two more times throughout the day. My small amount of effort to say hello and be friendly made it so much easier for all of us, and, while I am sure they didn’t analyze what had gone on as closely as I did, I think my kindness probably made a difference in some small way for their day as well.





Day 14 John Muir Trail

Main South Fork Kings crossing to Dollar Lake

Total JMT miles  —  15.7               Elevation gain/loss  —  +3800/-3620

Truth be told and not surprisingly, I didn’t sleep well on the night of Day 13. Every noise from nearby campers filtered right into my tent, and I struggled with dampness in my internal and external environment. I was up in my head through the restless night about how I wanted to interact with my neighbors in the morning, my concerns about the weather, and my need to make up the previous days lost miles. However, things always seem brighter in the morning, and I remembered my pledge to myself from Day 2  —  May I awake each day revived and refreshed. I know well enough that this is a chosen state of mind more than a reality, and I adopted that motto on Day 14 with wholehearted optimism.

I could hear people up and about even before first light, and I organized myself to emerge from the tent as well. Inside my tent, everything was still damp, but manageable. I had slept in many clothes, and had put others in my bag with me, in an effort to utilize whatever warmth and drying capacity my body heat might offer.  Nothing seemed any wetter than it had the night before, which was the best I could hope for. My tent and fly had proved worthy, and I was thankful for the extra room provided by the two person tent. While it weighed an extra pound, it’s larger capacity made it much easier to bring things in out of the storm. My pack outside was still dry enough, covered with it’s large Hefty trash bag.

Again I cooked a meal with Ginnie, my closest neighbor and a woman of similar age (mid-50’s) and physical aptitude. A road biker at heart, she had ended up on the JMT on a bit of a fluke, after securing a permit and posting her intentions on her local bike club’s website. The only person to take her up on the offer of hiking the whole JMT was her current tent mate, Tracy, who was a mid-30’s, outspoken woman with little backpack experience. They made an interesting and interdependent pair, and I enjoyed watching their interactions as much as I did chatting with Ginnie. As we drank coffee and ate oatmeal, Ginnie shared that she had miscalculated and was low on food. She asked if I had any to spare. I was surprised, as she seemed so organized, but volunteered that I did have a bit to spare. I was meeting Dave for another food drop the following day, and mentally calculated what I had and what I could do without. I was able to give her a hearty ‘protein puck’, and two energy bars. It wasn’t much, but she was grateful, and I felt really good about the opportunity to help someone when so many others had helped me.

I watched other neighbors from my flat rock perch as I lingered over cups of coffee. I recognized a couple from Day 4 Red’s Meadow infusion, Katie and Ian. Happy in love despite the rain, they had laughed and giggled all night long it seemed, and I was both envious and frustrated by this. Chatting with them in the morning, though, all was forgiven.  I made a point to introduce myself to everyone in camp, in an effort to make up for my seclusion of the previous day and night. The conversations helped to keep my mind off my freezing hands as I attempted to put my sprawl of gear back together. Everything was wet, and the day at hand was thankfully clear but consequently cold. I was still conserving my few remaining hand warmers, so I did without. It was one of the coldest overall morning pack-ups,  in terms of my hands, and everything was a struggle. I was the second to last person of the nine of us to leave camp, finally packed up and on the trail by 8:15.

On cold mornings with cold hands, I am all about setting a fast pace as quickly as possible. I carefully crossed the rushing S. Fork Kings River out of camp, calling a happy goodbye to my longest campsite to date — 20 hours in the same wet spot. I climbed the switchbacks I’d visited the previous evening as quickly as I could, welcoming the warmth from exertion and the promise of sun. At first forested, then gradually opening up, I could see from the trail that the sky was blue and the sun was out just up ahead. I was ecstatic, and my mood elevated. I came up to the Bench Lake cutoff, where solo hiker Emily had camped the night before. At the cutoff were Ginnie, Tracy, Katie, and Ian, all of whom I had caught up to in my quick ascent. Emily traipsed in from Bench Lake after a couple moments, and we had a great little gathering for a few minutes before the first four moved out. Emily and I shared stories of our wet and stormy afternoon and night. She had experienced hale and snow at Bench Lake, and her pictures, while beautiful, convinced me I’d made the right choice in staying down below with just the rain.

At Bench Lake cutoff, with Mt. Ruskin in back

At Bench Lake cutoff, with Mt. Ruskin in back

I was able to shed all my layers as we chatted, and I was down to my preferred shorts and a tank top again. Life was grand! I knew the next miles were open and gorgeous, past lakes and headed up Pinchot Pass. I anticipated the day to be one of much elevation gain and loss. Up 2090 feet to Pinchot Pass, down 3620 feet to Woods Creek, then back up 1710 feet to Dollar Lake. That was my plan, a total of nearly 16 miles, and I was starting to believe the weather would cooperate and I could do it. Emily and I discussed our plans, and hers was right on par with mine for the day’s mileage goal.

Lake Marjorie, with Mt. Ruskin (center) and Vennacher Needle (right)

Lake Marjorie, with Mt. Ruskin (center) and Vennacher Needle (right)

Lake Marjorie, with Mt. Ruskin, Vennacher Needle, and Middle Palisades off in the distance.

Lake Marjorie, with Mt. Ruskin, Vennacher Needle, and Middle Palisades off in the distance.

As we hiked separately and in our own heads, we criss-crossed paths multiple times, past lovely Marjorie Lake and all it’s magical tributaries. I was incredibly distracted by taking pictures, as the previous day I had taken none after the rain came. I stopped multiple times, for photos, food, and water, so I was bringing up the rear as I headed up the pass in earnest from Marjorie Lake.

Lake Marjorie

Lake Marjorie

There I hit my stride. I was suddenly back in powerful female backpacker mode. As the switchbacks wound tightly up the pass, the winds picked up, clouds started to come in, and I sailed past everyone. I made the top before all five of my current comrades, and they were impressed with my determination. It reminded me of ascending the Golden Staircase on Day 11, when I found a burst of energy that impressed other hikers. I don’t think of myself as being particularly fast, but sometimes the pieces all come together, and I feel like I can fly up anything.  As I hiked, I felt light, unencumbered, and free. I focussed on how each step felt, and relished that my body could haul a 50-ish pound pack up a pass with such ease.  I love that feeling of power and competence, and, while it doesn’t always happen, when it does, it’s magic.

Unnamed lake above Lake Marjorie, headed up the pass

Unnamed lake above Lake Marjorie, headed up the pass

Unnamed lake below pass, Mt. Ickes in background

Unnamed lake below pass, Mt. Ickes in background

The views from the pass were simply stupendous, despite the incoming clouds. Ginnie wanted a photo with me, whom she now called her “trail angel” after I gave her food. I happy obliged, again experiencing that welcome feeling of camaraderie. The warmth of connection, the physical beauty of the pass, and my current confidence in my physical strength, all created an overall sense of being on top of the world. It’s difficult if not impossible to qualify ‘peak’ experiences on something like the JMT. Each day offers something, and it feels like one peak experience naturally flows into the next. Instead of trying to make one be better than another, I was learning to take them all in, and fully embrace each on its own terms as it came. In some ways, I could have stayed on that pass in that warm happy glow forever. But all things must end, and I was back to mission orientation after 30 minutes of pure heaven on Pinchot Pass.

With Ginnie at Pinchot Pass

With Ginnie at Pinchot Pass

View from Pinchot pass

View from Pinchot pass

Looking down into Paradise Valley

Looking down into Paradise Valley

Tarns in Paradise Valley

Tarns in Paradise Valley




As I dropped down the tight, steep switchbacks into the Woods Creek Drainage, the views remained. A series of tarns (small mountain ponds) dotted the surroundings, and I could see exactly how and where the trail went through and amidst them all. I love looking down from a pass when your next few miles are laid out before your very eyes. It’s easy to transport oneself from here to there. While I didn’t want to rush the getting there,  I was getting nervous about clouds and weather on the pass. I could again FEEL that the cloud cover was thickening, and with it, my fear of rain. I hiked quickly down the pass, and continued my rhythm that I had found going up. Again, I passed all hikers I encountered, though not without calling a hello as I went. Emily and I continued our back and forth on the trail. It entered my mind we could hike together, but I was still much too in need of space to do that. So we’d chat briefly each time we passed and re-passed each other, as the trail stayed high up in the alpine meadows of Paradise Valley, where the JMT repeatedly crosses Woods creek and it’s multiple tributaries. A simply tranquil and splendid stretch of trail.

Mt. Cedric Wright

Mt. Cedric Wright

Mt. Clarence in distance

Mt. Clarence in distance

Mt. Baxter

Mt. Baxter

White fork of Woods Creek with Monkey Flower

White fork of Woods Creek with Monkey Flower

I kept moving. I was definitely feeling the steady elevation loss in my arthritic right knee. The knee was a hindrance, and it slowed me down some. It wasn’t just painful, it was also feeling unstable and unpredictable, which had my attention. But I knew rain was in hot pursuit, and I was determined this time to stay ahead of it. I finally took a lunch break at the White Fork of Woods Creek, a beautiful setting with late blooming Monkey Flowers. I allowed myself 15 minutes, then scurried along. It was within a half mile of Woods Creek Junction, the low point of that day in elevation, that the sky opened up and rain hit. I watched everybody stop and put on rain gear. I debated what to do. I didn’t want to stop, as I knew I was close to Woods and I would evaluate there. I kept going, feeling silly hiking in my tank top and shorts in the rain.  Emily joined me for that last half mile, and we debated our course of action. We independently and together agreed we would take a break at Woods and each decide there.

Waterfall running into Woods Creek

Waterfall running into Woods Creek

Woods Creek Suspension Bridge

Woods Creek Suspension Bridge

We came to a super cool suspension bridge that I remembered well from the previous year. It’s supposed to be a one person bridge, but Emily came on it right behind me. It swayed and bounced crazily as we crossed the roaring creek below! I knew we’d be fine and I didn’t want to say anything. We sat (again!) under a big Pine tree just across the bridge. Other hikers were doing the same thing, clearly debating what to do. It was 3.8 miles to the next decent camping, and space at Woods was ample. But I was envisioning a night like the previous one at S. Fork Kings — rain, too many people all on top of each other, plus giving up because of rain before I was ready. Both Emily and I decided to move on, rain be damned. There was no thunder and lightning this time, and I figured a little rain wouldn’t hurt, despite having no backpack cover.  Emily left first, and I trailed a bit behind, to create that hiking alone phenomenon I was still craving.

The next four miles were tough. I was tired, my knee hurt a lot, and it was all up hill. It was another 1710 feet of elevation to gain in that 4 miles — not a ton but I felt every step. The rain kept me moving, though, and I was very focussed on the destination. I did not remember Dollar Lake from the previous year, and the guidebook said the camping was limited. I knew many others were doing the same exact thing as me, and I hoped and prayed for a decent campsite. I played out my strategy for finding a site in my head as I went. I would get to Dollar Lake, take in the scene, then leave the obvious trail in pursuit of something up above the usual campsites.

When I finally got to Dollar, the rain had temporarily stopped, and I acted on my good instincts of where to camp. I passed the small but beautiful lake, then headed up through still vacant sites far off to the side. I kept climbing, despite my fatigue and readiness to dump my pack. I worked my way up and over boulders, looking for flat sites as I went. I lucked out! High up above the lake, but not so far as to make the retrieval of water a project, I found a large, completely hidden flat spot, that clearly had been used before. I could see down to the lake, but others couldn’t see me. I knew I would not be joined for the night, and I dumped my wet self and stuff gratefully into my home for the  night.

Evening at camp, with Fin Dome and other peaks watching over me for the night.

Evening at camp, with Fin Dome and other peaks watching over me for the night.

I immediately went down to get water. I knew I was on borrowed time from rain reprieve, and I wanted to get everything set up before it came back. I hurried down and back up with my bottles, and quickly but meticulously set up my camp.  The sky was thick with clouds, but enough blue to create a spectacular scene. I took it all in as I moved quickly to establish camp just as I like it — sprawl and all. Just as I finished, the skies opened up, again, and rain returned. It was just a shower, I could tell, and I made a quick decision to cook dinner under the tent’s large fly. I had not done this before, and I know ‘they’ say not to use a stove under a tent fly. But I felt confident in my ability to keep everything safe, and I was in a state of very high presence and awareness. I cooked, ate, and peered out at my surroundings. It was a truly gorgeous evening, with the wild clouds and late sun glinting off nearby Fin dome and other great peaks. I felt again that sense of peace and calm that only comes with being in the mountains in a beautiful spot, watched over by giants and surrounded by peace. It was a fittingly spectacular end to a phenomenal day.

Highlights of the day

Being a “trail angel”

It simply felt great to help someone out with a supply need. I was  happy I had some food for Ginnie, and that I could return, in some small way, the generosity that so many had shown me. From the get go, I had multiple “trail angels”.  Ashley on Day 7 with the tampons I so desperately needed; Oliver, Dave and Olivia with the first food drop; and Dave trekking over again the following day with another drop. Not to mention the people who helped so much to make the trip happen in the first place! I felt great gratitude as I reflected on these helpers as I hiked, and I was thankful to be able to return the favor in some small way. So much of that goes on on a hike like the JMT — hikers sharing and helping others. Because I was a determined soloist, I mostly wanted to rely on myself or my planned helpers (food resuppliers). But it was nice to step into the spontaneous role of trail angel, if only for a moment.

My campsite at Dollar Lake

It ended up being one of my favorites of the whole trip, this site high above the main group of hikers below. I felt close enough to others in case some bad thing happened, like a bear coming into camp, but far enough away and hidden from view that I had the serenity and solitude I was so craving. It was a perfect site after a perfect day.

Lessons of the day

I can hike in the rain and survive!!

I did it, hiked four and some miles, in rain, without getting so wet that I could not recover. I don’t care so much about my person getting wet, but I do care about my stuff getting wet. I have a down bag and coat, and I hate the feeling of dampness in my tent. But I made a calculated decision at Woods Creek that the rain was not so bad that I would be soaked beyond repair. I gambled some, but used common sense and my admittedly limited knowledge of weather patterns to determine that it didn’t look too risky to continue. My gamble paid off. I was wet, but not soaked. My gear was not much wetter than it had been when I started the day, and for that I was grateful. And I got where I wanted to be, and did not have the feeling of disappointment of giving into the elements. I felt really empowered by this!

I can cook under the tent and stay dry

This sounds silly, but it did open up a feeling of greater flexibility for me. I like to relax while I make dinner, and it’s hard to relax sitting outside in rain for 30 minutes of cooking and eating. So to be in my tent, cooking under the fly, and able to look out periodically but stay dry in the process, was all just a big bonus. Again, I was grateful for my tent (MSR Nook, two person), which allowed me to do all of this — comfortably, safely, and all undercover. I was proud of my problem solving on this front, and I went to bed feeling good about myself and my day in all respects. What a difference a day makes! 


Day 10 John Muir Trail

Wanda Lake to Unnamed lake at 11,460

Total JMT miles  —  4        Side trip miles  —  about 2.5         Elevation gain/loss  —  +1000/-500

Day 10 was different than any other day of my trip. While it wasn’t a true “zero” day (the term that describe a full rest day with no miles hiked), it was an easy day of low mileage and hours of unstructured time spent hanging around in good companionship. Our original plan for my second day with Oliver, Dave, and Olivia had been to climb Mt. Goddard.

Mt. Goddard aka "The peak that cannot be named"

Mt. Goddard aka “The peak that cannot be named”

At 13,448, it’s not the highest peak in the area, but it’s a prominent one,  jutting up beyond Wanda Lake. Dave had wanted to climb Goddard for many years. Unfortunately it looked unlikely that we would be able to do the peak, and still have time for them to hike out Echo Pass and back to Bishop in time for Oliver to catch his flight to Bellingham. So, much to Dave’s dismay (we weren’t even allowed to refer to the peak by name after our plans changed!), that mission was aborted — which left us with an entire day to hike a mere four miles of the JMT, then another 1.5 miles up to a lake below their planned exit route, Echo Pass. Frankly, the idea of an easy day rather appealed to me.

With no tight schedule to keep, the morning at Wanda Lake was relaxed and leisurely. It was also cold, as the previous night had been windy with freezing temps, and a chill definitely lingered.

Morning light, Wanda Lake

Morning light, Wanda Lake

I had experienced another poor nights sleep due to technical difficulties with my tent. I had set it up rather hastily the previous evening in the cold wind, and that resulted in some carelessness. I did not get the cross bar on top of the tent secured properly, and, as the wind blew all night, my tent blew with it — sideways, and collapsing onto me. Also, I had not properly secured the flaps on the tent fly, and they  thrashed around all night. In my usual nighttime paranoia, I thought at first it was a bear trying to join me! But even as I realized it was just my poor tent set up, I still couldn’t sleep. I lay there much of the night, wind howling, tent collapsing, and the fly blowing great guns. Not a restful night, and I was grateful to get up and out of the tent by first light.

As usual the morning was beautiful, which removed any residual fatigue. After breakfast and tent breakdown (what remained to be broken!), I leisurely and carefully packed my pack with all it’s belongings.

Contents of my pack...

Contents of my pack…

I now had the extra days of food, and I took care in packing. I took a picture of all that went in my pack, each and every day on the trail…the only variable being the amount of food in the bear canister. My pack, an Osprey Ariel,  could hold it all. The larger pack was one of the best investments I made for this trip, and I was very thankful for it’s 75 liter capacity each morning when I put everything back in. I felt more organized on this morning than any other of the trip so far, simply because there was no time pressure.

Heading out for Muir Pass

Heading out for Muir Pass

We left Wanda for the short ascent to Muir Pass. From our campsite, the elevation gain was only 600 feet in 2.3 miles. A piece of cake, really. However, the views, vista, and overall presentation of the path as it traverses Wanda and gradually ascends the pass were anything but mundane. We definitely took our time. For Oliver, it was a time of heavy nostalgia, as he had not been over Muir Pass since the 70’s! He was truly in another world of reflection and memory, and it was really cool to be witness to that.


Top of Muir Pass, Black Giant (left) and Mt. Solomons (right) in back

Top of Muir Pass, Black Giant (left) and Mt. Solomons (right) in back

With Rob

With Rob

With Ashley

With Ashley










I was hoping to reconnect somewhere along the short JMT stretch with Rob, Ashley, and Marcus, the three soloists who had been hiking together since Red’s Meadow. Low and behold, as I was doing the final 1/2 mile up to the pass, I could see Rob’s easily identifiable blue shirt and assured gait gaining on me. I let him catch me (easy enough, he’s a faster hiker), and we climbed the last bit together. Shortly there after, Ashley came up. It was like a family reunion…I got to introduce them to Oliver, Dave, and Olivia, and vice versa. I felt surrounded and loved, and definitely part of a bigger something. At Muir Pass I consciously immersed myself in being present to it all —  enjoying hanging out, taking pictures, chatting, and relishing the spectacular views.  We stayed for at least an hour, a record for me on any pass.

After goodbyes and such, we dropped down to Helen Lake, named after John Muir’s other daughter. Wanda and Helen — great names for great lakes, and a visionary father who made the very trail through this incredible wilderness possible. I felt supremely grateful, happy, content and contemplative as we hiked. That stretch was some of the coolest geologically, as the lakes are surrounded by glaciated slabs in a myriad of colors, and dark, metamorphic rock from the Black Giant Divide covers the trail.  Gregg and I had wanted to climb Black Giant, which sits enticingly close to the trail, last year, but we did not because of smoke. I thought about proposing it for this year, but we were on the slow and easy train, and it seemed best to stay on board.

Helen Lake with Mt. Wallace in back

Helen Lake with Mt. Wallace in back

Black Giant...another peak for another day

Black Giant…another peak for another day

We stopped for an early lunch, just below Helen Lake, at an unnamed lake. As we ate, Ashley, Rob, and eventually Marcus all passed us. I felt sad as they went by, unsure if I would see them again on the JMT. My sadness was easily replaced by enjoying the moment, however, as I watched Dave jump right in the cool water, shirt, shorts and all. I wanted to join him, but knew that more backpack miles were to come, and I didn’t want to be wet for the remainder of our hike. Our plan after lunch was to hike a short but not easy 1.5 miles off the JMT, up and into another unnamed lake basin, below Echo Pass. I was nervous about the access to the lake, as it was all boulders, somewhat steep, and with no path at all. This type of hiking, called cross country, I love in theory, but I am really bad at it. You take off from point A to reach point B in the quickest, most direct fashion possible. I simply don’t have the right stuff to be comfortable with this style of hiking at this point in my life. It’s hard on my feet, ankles, and knees, and I become very slow and cautious. I joke that I feel like a grandma when I am put in a cross country situation, especially with a heavy pack.

We started up,  Dave, Oliver, Olivia, then me bringing up the rear.  As I tried to stay with them,  all my anxieties were triggered. I felt fearful of falling behind, of being abandoned, and mostly of losing my footing or balance and falling. I realized intellectually that most of my fears were overblown, as the distance was short and I could see them ahead.. But fear got the better of me, and I DID take a good fall on a particularly hairy traverse close to the top. I lost my balance, my pack went over, I went over, and I landed face down on the rocks. Unstable, pack on top, and face planted in the rocks, I called for help. Olivia was first on the scene,  and she took my pack off of me so I could get up. I got a bit teary, not from pain or being hurt, but from the scare of it. I only suffered abrasions on my knee and chin, and banged up my jaw.  But I was shook up, and gratefully accepted Dave’s offer to carry my pack the rest of the way.

Our unnamed lake

Our unnamed lake

Dave and Olivia at unnamed lake, Mt. McDuffie (left) and Black Giant (right) in back

Dave and Olivia at unnamed lake, Mt. McDuffie (left) and Black Giant (right) in back

I was relieved to get to the unnamed and sublime lake where we would spend the rest of the day and night. It was early afternoon, so we had plenty of time to relax, rest, and go for a swim. By this time, clouds flirted heavily with the sun, and the sun breaks became progressively less. After choosing sites for our tents, we all hung out and wondered what the weather would do. I kept waiting for a convincing patch of sun to entice me into the lake. That didn’t happen, but I went anyway. Sadly, no one joined me. As always, swimming in a lake of that elevation was cold, deeply invigorating, and very refreshing. But also punishing in the aftermath.

The start of our lake walk, Black Giant as our guardian

The start of our lake walk, Black Giant as our guardian

Scene from our lake walk

Scene from our lake walk

I put on all my warm clothes, and still couldn’t get warm. About 4:00 pm, Dave announced he was going to hike around our unnamed lake, and I invited myself along. As always, movement is the best remedy for me in the mountains when I just can’t get warm any other way. So Dave and I did a fun and interesting loop around the lake, which both warmed me up and also gave me a chance to really chat with Dave. At 56, he is fit, ambitious, and embarks on adventures readily and enthusiastically. I loved hearing about his adventures, past and upcoming, and the hour passed very quickly. And I shed two coats in the process..  warming mission accomplished! After an early dinner, it was an early to bed for all of us that night. I was in the tent and writing by 7:30, tired, relaxed and happy after an easy and largely uneventful day.

Highlights of the day

Hanging out at Muir Pass

Muir pass is simply very cool. The Muir Hut, built in 1930, provides “temporary shelter” for hikers from inclimate weather. An early Sierra Club supporter, George Frederick Schwarz, gifted $5,810.48 to build it. A good chunk of that money went to pay for stock and packers who hauled the materials necessary to build the hut up to the top of the pass. Seeing it, being in it, it’s easy to take something like that for granted…and yet, the materials weren’t dropped by helicopter, and I can only

Dave, me, Olivia, and Oliver in front of Muir Hut

Dave, me, Olivia, and Oliver in front of Muir Hut

imagine the effort and organization it took to build such a structure.  It’s neat inside and out, and that plus the views from the pass create a warm and inviting atmosphere. Add to this the plethora of hikers who linger there, and it just doesn’t get much better than that. The mixture of folks and their conversations, both the one’s I observed and the one’s I participated in, made the pass feel even more alive and magical.  The top of a pass is like the top of a mountain…everyone works hard to get there, the views are stupendous, and the mood of folks is always keen. Smiles and goodwill abound and are very contagious 🙂

The ease and simplicity of our time in camp

I really enjoyed having an easy day with low miles and almost no agenda. To arrive in camp at 1:15 and just spend the afternoon hanging out was fantastic, albeit a bit different for me. My pattern and habit over summers of backpacking had

Hanging out waiting for sun

Hanging out waiting for sun

been to hike all day, set up camp, eat dinner, go to bed, then get up and do it again the next day. This break in the routine, and my willingness to relinquish into it, really felt good. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly WHY just hanging out for any period of time is unsettling for me, but it’s always been that way. Even in my home life, I tend to go all day, then finally let myself chill and relax at the end of it all. It’s not that I don’t take breaks or relax, but I live with a constant awareness of the next activity or event coming up. To consciously sit, chat, and relax for hours on end was both welcoming and enlightening.

The hike around “our” lake with Dave

Similarly restless, when Dave needed an activity for the late

Looking down at our campsite

Looking down at our campsite

afternoon, I was all over that. The lake appeared small, and I figured the way around would be a quick and easy. But it had ups and downs, scree fields to scramble, and enough variation and challenge that it took us a full hour to get around.  I really enjoyed the interesting route finding required, and the conversation. It also provided a useful and healthy transition from just sitting around to more sitting. As I have said so many times, movement is key for me, and my body (and soul!) don’t do well with hour upon hour of prolonged inactivity. Our

Last supper

Last supper

short walk also helped restore an appetite for dinner. My dinners on the trail were ample, and I would eat the entire thing each night. Most days, it wasn’t hard to be hungry for dinner, after hiking all day.  But occasionally I had to gear up for full consumption, as I didn’t want to waste or carry extra food. So it helped to at least do something to stimulate an appetite for our final dinner together.

Lessons of the day

Sometimes falls happen when fear gets the better of you.

I am not saying that my fear of lagging behind or even of falling caused my fall on the cross country portion heading up to our campsite. BUT what I can say is that I was more in my head and worried about the overall process than focussing on each step. Frankly, I just wanted to be there, and I grew careless with my progress. I could sense that this was happening, but I felt a sense of urgency to being there instead of being where I was.

AND, you can fall on rocks with a heavy pack and still survive!

My greatest fears while backpacking probably involve falling and/or getting lost. When I hike, I am extremely careful not to fall. Often I don’t feel like my body can handle a fall, and I get alarmed when I so much as trip. When I trip or fall, I try to do so gracefully (?!), whatever that may mean, to protect myself from injury.  What I have found as I have gotten older and more orthopedically challenged is that there is simply no safe way to fall. So I make every effort not to go there. period. The fall on the traverse represented in many ways my greatest fear. I lost my footing, couldn’t regain it, and went over anything but gracefully. And landed on my face! BUT, the bottom line is, I survived! It was extremely reassuring that I could fall that spectacularly and nothing bad happened. I got up, dusted myself off, and the day continued. I experienced one of my worst fears, and easily lived to tell about it. One down, one to go.

Short days are fine!

A zero day would probably be just fine too! These concepts, of short mileage or no mileage days are ones I have mostly applied to “other” backpackers, telling myself I don’t operate that way. Is it a matter or pride, somehow thinking I am “superior” in that I can just hike all day every day? Or is it a matter of drivenness, that I feel compelled to crank out as many miles in a day as possible on all days? Or is it my inherent restlessness, that keeps me moving and going and doing, sometimes long after the point at which to do so has any redeeming benefit? THAT,  I think the real issue. It’s why I took up mindfulness and meditation, so as to bring in another way to settle myself that is a non-doing way. It’s partly why I went on this trip in the first place, to see how I would do and be with (mostly) just my own company for three weeks. Not surprisingly, my tendency on the trail was to do just what I do in my daily life — keep busy for most of the day, and feel unsettled when I am not. I observed myself on days 1 – 8 doing very much that same thing. On day 9, and certainly day 10, the presence of my friends, and the desire to just be with them as fully as possible, slowed me down.  I was and continue to be aware that this more relaxed pace represents the exception, not the rule in my life. But what I can honestly say is that I feel myself moving towards this place of greater ease and let up in my rather compulsive need to push things quite so hard. Day 10 laid the foundation for and commitment to a zero day on my next long backpack…and in the bigger picture of my life as well.

Parting shot -- The four of us at Sapphire Lake

Parting shot — The four of us at Sapphire Lake





Day 5 John Muir Trail

Red’s Meadow to Virginia Lake

Total JMT miles  —  15.7            Elevation gain/loss  —  +2950/-330

I awoke on Day 5 in a surprisingly decent mood after the previous evening’s events. Getting myself worked up  over the crowd of late-arrival backpackers, I didn’t expect to sleep much at all. But surprisingly, after everyone settled and the over-packed campsite quieted down, I did sleep some. I awoke with a fresh perspective, and a realization that I had perhaps over reacted in my strong initial response to the late comers. As I wrote in my journal over breakfast and coffee, what came to mind was a sense of a “Restored faith in Humanity”. People ARE basically good, and not as “inconsiderate” as I had termed the masses to be the previous evening. This made me smile, as it was something my dad would say, and I felt incredibly close to him in that moment. He has been gone almost five years now, but in times like these I strongly feel his presence. I felt comforted and no longer quite so alone.  I also chewed on the reality of my own seriousness, another trait of my dad’s, and why it is difficult for me to be happy-go-lucky, and fun-loving, as were the post-drinks and dinner crowd from the night before. While I am usually accepting of my tendency to take myself seriously, I do pay attention to opportunities to shed light on this, as well as learn from those that do less so. Sometimes the weight of being serious gets to me, and my renewed perspective on Day 5 allowed me to shed some of that. I left the Red’s backpacker camp at 7:00 am, my pack and spirits light. Just in time to pick up five more days of food and weigh (at least my pack!) right back down again!

Red's' Meadow Resort

Red’s’ Meadow Resort

At Red’s Resort, I paid $5 for a five minute shower. It was fantastic! I also spent some time problem solving my right foot. I had come to the realization that there was nothing wrong with the foot itself…the problems with blisters had to be related to what was inside the shoe. I took out both the orthotic and insole, borrowed scissors, and started cutting away where I could tell it was rubbing. I am embarrassed to say that it took me four days to figure out that the problem wasn’t with my foot, but with the orthotic and insole in the shoe. I kept reasoning that if no problem was happening with the left foot, why would the right orthotic be so troublesome? Instead of getting to the source, I kept taping over the problem, thinking that would solve it. Not so…definitely a time when using “bandaids” to cover something up did not serve me well. My initial cut-away job of the morning seemed to help some, although I left my tape job on as the blisters and hot spots were still there. I committed to careful observation throughout the day of how my foot was feeling in the shoe, instead of just ignoring it and trying to tough it out.

Clean and ready to go!

Clean and ready to go!

I packed up my pack with the five days of food, which added at least ten pounds to my pack.  As I prepared to leave Red’s,  I felt great despite the pack weight…clean, in good spirits, and ready for the day’s challenges. It would be the reverse of the previous days elevation loss…Day five, I knew, would be mostly a day of elevation gain. It would also be a day of more trail monotony, but I felt psychologically much more prepared for that. I wasn’t inclined to let any demons in that day, (another favorite expression of my dad’s) as I wanted to redeem my poor attitude from the previous day.

I left Red’s with the masses. There was a steady stream of folks doing just what I had, getting their food and moving out. For some reason, most of these were women, or at least it seemed that way. I saw solo-hiker Ashley from Ohio again, as well as Alexis from day 2. I met a mother/daughter combo, which I thought was very cool. I also met Ginnie, a friendly Labor and Delivery nurse from CA, and her hiking pal Tracy. All these women and more I leap-frogged with over the first few miles after Red’s: I would take a break, they would pass me. They would break, I would pass them. I liked meeting and briefly exchanging hello’s, but I was definitely in the

Feeling good on the trail

Feeling good on the trail

mood to hike alone.  Eventually the pressure of having people right on my tail after I had passed or re-passed them inspired me to keep a good and steady pace, and I gained distance on the group. I was in a good hiking rhythm, making good time, and feeling strong and empowered.

After five and a half miles,  I came to Deer Creek. This is the last water for another 5.5 miles, and,  while it was early for a lunch break, I knew it would be a good place for one. I sat on a rock in the sun, and took off my shoes for freedom and further evaluation. I decided to ditch the tape on the right foot for good, washed my foot in the creek, and let it dry before applying simple moleskin. I cut away a bit more of my orthotics. I sat and ate and people watched for about 40 minutes, letting my feet and mind be worry-free. The Red’s group came and went, and I observed that no one else was deliberately sitting in the sun. While the day was warm, it wasn’t too hot, and I loved being there in the sun on a rock. I was trying to gear up for what was to come…my trail book called the next 5.5 miles “some of the most monotonous on the trail”, due to the lack of a change of scenery and no spectacular views. I remembered this from last year, and we camped at the end of the 5.5 miles that year. This year, I fully intended to press on to Virginia Lake, another four miles beyond that. There was a fair amount of elevation and 9 miles remaining to get there, and I wanted to stay in my good head space.

Feeling strong at Duck Crossing

Feeling strong at Duck Crossing

Fueled up, hydrated, and with a new freedom for my right foot, I left Deer Creek. As I hiked the dry, unchanging, uphill terrain from Deer Creek to Duck Crossing, I remained strong and steady. I got into mindful hiking, putting one foot in front of the other. I let myself focus on just that, and being ok with the monotony. The 5.5 miles went quickly, with just one packs-off short break. At Duck Crossing I felt good. I remembered being completely spent at this point last year, and barely being able to navigate the necessity of finding of a campsite. This year, I knew I could make the remaining four miles to Virginia Lake. Two things were pushing me toward Virginia…First, I had learned during the day that the Red’s masses were

Purple Lake

Purple Lake

camping at Purple lake, two miles past Duck and two miles before Virginia. While a beautiful lake, camping was limited and restricted at Purple lake, and I knew it would be hard to find a spot. And secondly, I remembered Virginia Lake as being one of THE most beautiful of all lakes from last years trip, and I really wanted to immerse myself in that pristine environment.

I coursed around Purple Lake, waving and saying hello to the campers that had already arrived. I gained the elevation to  Virginia, and it was just as gorgeous as I remembered. There were campsites all along the lake, but many were taken, and I desperately wanted to be away from people for the night. Though I was tired, I continued around the lake, past the people and the inlet, and on the far side of the lake I started looking for a site. I found one just up and off the trail, but out of view of passing hikers, and definitely by myself. It was perfect, and I was incredibly relieved and happy to be there. The day had not been easy, with nearly 3000 feet of elevation gain, a later start than normal leaving Red’s, and some challenging psychological parts of the trail. But I knew I had handled it all very well, and I felt proud of myself for that. And I was oh so

Virginia Lake, images from 2015 JMT hike

Virginia Lake, images from 2015 JMT hike

virginialakevery happy to be camping alone in my perfect little spot!

Highlights of the Day

The shower at Red’s Meadow

Simply put, it was nice to get cleaned up. It’s funny, the psychology of trail cleanliness. There are lakes to swim in, rivers to get refreshed in, but it’s never the same as a real shower. My pledge to myself on the JMT was to try to “clean up” in some capacity every third day. I slept better and generally felt better about myself. Getting that shower in, with soap and hot water, gave me days in the cleanliness bank, where I didn’t have to think about that for awhile. I could focus on the trail and knocking off the miles to come, and enjoy my illusion of cleanliness.

Getting a handle on my foot issue

This was a relief beyond belief!  I was imagining hiking the rest of the JMT with complex taping, the drawbacks being running out of tape and the dislike of having that much “stuff” in my sock, as well as the fact that my strategy wasn’t working! So I finally took the time and effort to get to the root of the problem, and cut away at the orthotic and insoles. And noticing throughout the day that that really WAS what I needed to do, fueled my sense of effective problem solving. It’s difficult to explain why I didn’t think of it earlier, but I suppose I thought it was the “job” of the Physical Therapist who had done my orthotics to “decide” if they were fitting right and working right…or not. Since he was not there, I just had to go for it and start tinkering on my own. I reached a good compromise of cutting away enough to get pressure off the hot spots and blisters, but not so much so as to render the orthotics ineffective. A great place to finally arrive on day five!

The campsite at Virginia Lake

Virginia Lake campsite

Virginia Lake campsite

Reflection time at Virginia Lake

Reflection time at Virginia Lake

And again...

And again…

When I went back at the end of my trip to rank my overall favorite campsites, Virginia lake came in second (stay tuned…the best is yet to come!) It was perfect in so many ways, and I felt a sense of profound relief and peace being there. Part of it I am sure was the direct contrast to the previous night’s chaos of so many people…here, not another soul was seen or heard from where I camped. I had a lovely backdrop of boulders and mountains, and the full-on view out to Virginia Lake. I got to watch the sunset with it’s alpenglow on the surrounding peaks, and the morning sun reflecting off the lake soon after waking. It was clear, cold, and just downright beautiful for my 14 hour’s there, and I loved every minute of it.

Lessons of the Day

Acceptance of self as Solitude Seeker…

I got clear on this, that it’s OK to prefer solitude while out in the mountains. It doesn’t mean I am a loner or somehow flawed. I am generally a social being and very much enjoy engaging with people. But on this day I craved and made happen the necessary solitude I was seeking, by hiking in the “gaps” between people, and camping alone. And instead of making it be about something negative, like I should be engaging or conversing more,  I let myself absolutely enjoy and accept my preference for time alone…with my thoughts, feelings, and the majestic and calming surroundings as my only companions.

Sometimes, putting one foot in front of the other is the best I can do…

As mentioned, the mantra one foot in front of the other, just focus on the trail and take it a step at a time, worked well for me this day. I got through the tedious parts of the trail with relative ease. I called upon and utilized my mindfulness training, and let myself BE IN THE MOMENTS  as they unfolded, without thinking too much about being anywhere else. I did well with this strategy, and it paid off with a day of good miles achieved over potentially challenging psychological conditions. And I knew that, having done it on this day, I could successfully do it again in the days and weeks to come.

The trail, like life, has good days and bad, and they can come in quick succession.

A final view of Lake Virginia, courtesy of Adobe Stock photos.

A final view of Lake Virginia, courtesy of Adobe Stock photos.

This sounds incredibly obvious…but trail as metaphor for life gelled in a new way this day. I noticed how quickly things turned around, in large part from my change in attitude, my surroundings, and by prioritizing what matters to me. A difficult and discouraging day was immediately followed by a day of renewal and strength. I have seen that in my life so many times. I knew the trail would be no different. Yet to see it so cleanly played out in such a short period of time was both reaffirming and grounding.











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