Tupper's 2 Cents

Feet on the path and eyes wide open...

Tag: trail wisdom (page 1 of 3)

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

 

 

 

All about FUN at Lake Ann

Lake Ann

Lake Ann plus side trip to Curtis Glacier  (August 27, 2017)

A short work day on a sunny Sunday with no smoke (!) inspired Doug and me to take an afternoon day hike to Lake Ann. I have done this hike a dozen or more times, and it never disappoints. It’s also the rare hike that I have only done in perfect weather, and this time was no exception!

Stats on Lake Ann

LOCATION –– Off Mt. Baker Highway, (542), just before Artist Point.        DISTANCE — 8.2  RT, plus 2 miles to base of Curtis Glacier.      ELEVATION GAIN — 1900 feet to Lake Ann, 2300 to base of glacier.     HIGH POINT — 4900 feet (Lake Ann), 5300 glacier.        DIFFICULTY — Moderate       REQUIRED — Northwest Forest Pass

The Hike in

We scrambled out of town just as quickly as Doug’s car could drive us. The parking lot was packed when we arrived at 2:00 pm, but, thankfully we found a spot. Many hikers were already heading home. While packing my day pack, I noticed that I had only brought one sock! Major problem, as I couldn’t hike sockless in one hiking shoe, and Doug had no extra socks.  There was no way I wasn’t going, though, and my Keen work sandals would have to do. Not exactly trail worthy for these 8-times surgically altered feet and ankles! Aiming for optimism, I told Doug I’d give it my best shot. Luckily I had poles to soften the footfalls.

Note the hiking attire…sandals, bathing suit top, poles. Love the freedom!

We hit the trail by 2:10. Lake Ann trail is pleasantly variable in that it drops down for the first mile or so, flattens out, then climbs back up. The afternoon air was hot when we started and the crowds were dense. An enormous number of people were huffing and puffing their way back up as we breezed effortlessly down the first switchbacks. The crowds were a by-product of the perfect day, sunshine, and clear skies. And no smoke. The pattern for the summer had been with each rise in temperature, new fires would spring up and smoke would permeate the atmosphere. It made me giddy that we were hiking Lake Ann in warmth and blue!

Once down the switchbacks we were into the first meadow. Flowers lingered as we crossed rocky (and sometimes dry) stream beds. Views of Shuksan and Shuksan Arm beckoned us along. And more people. Both directions. Families, dogs, and a good representation of jog-bra’d females. I was wearing my bathing suit top and shorts, and I felt less self-conscious with the impressive number of other women doing the same. I loved the carefree nature of the day! We cruised the flat section for a mile or so, past the headwaters of Swift Creek, then began our climb up.

First views of Mt. Baker from Lake Ann trail

There were three boulder fields to cross on the approach to the Lake Basin, and I knew my feet might be crabby. Perhaps it was the exhilaration, the ease with which everything was coming to play out, but I didn’t really notice the lessened padding on the soles of my sandals. Or the increased discomfort. Views of Mt. Baker provided a great distraction, and we cruised at a great pace, happily passing the multitudes. A time check when we arrived at the Lake Basin said 3:55. We decided we’d climb towards the glacier until 5:00, then turn around. We still wanted to swim in Lake Ann before heading back to the car.

Up to the Curtis Glacier

A clear trail branched left toward the west face of Mt. Shuksan. The route services climbers to the summit via the Fisher Chimney route, with the upper and lower Curtis Glacier visible the entire way. Doug had never been that way, though I had been a couple of times before.  We crossed a perfectly situated stream, flowers in full bloom, and Doug was in heaven! His enthusiasm for places he hasn’t been is unparalleled, and made the slightly more challenging- for-my-feet-going more than tolerable. We passed a woman in a black dress coming down the trail, her foreign accent evident. We commented on how strange it was to see someone in a dress (and not a fitness style dress!) coming off a trail that dead-ends at a glacier.

View of Shuksan from Lake Ann trail

Perfect stream

Looking down on Baker Lake

View from glacier trail…Lake Ann and Mt. Baker

As we climbed, we could again see Mt. Baker, which had been hidden from view at the lake basin. We could also see down to Baker Lake, and the views of Shuksan just kept getting better and better. At right around our turn around time, we noticed a group of seven people just up ahead. They looked to be gathered at an end point, where the trail stops and glacier travel starts. Curious, we continued up to where they were.

The Dresses Party!

When we got to the group, it was instantly evident that something exciting was going on. The five women and two men were abuzz with activity.  They welcomed us with much enthusiasm, as if we were the king and queen arriving! The women were donning dresses, and I asked what was up. In accented English, they explained they were a group of Russians, doing some type of photo shoot right there at the base of the glacier.  I was impressed and excited about what they were up to, and commented on how cool I thought that was. The two most verbal women asked me to join in, pulling out a red dress that was an extra. I tried to protest, but that was not going to fly. Their enthusiasm, coupled with Doug’s for me to become instant “model”, made refusal impossible. I threw caution to the wind, abandoned my concern about time, and slipped the dress on over my bathing suit top and shorts. The women were thrilled! I felt silly but had a huge smile on my face.

Doug and the two men took photos of the five of us as we somewhat awkwardly posed on the rocks. Another women watched, seemingly not wanting to get in on the action. The whole experience was surreal, the primary gal, Alexandra, handing me a scarf to whip around in an attempt to look glamorous! I told her this was so far from my comfort zone it was ludicrous, but, in part that’s what made the experience so much fun! Who would have thought we’d encounter Russian women in dresses right at the base of the glacier? We learned that the woman we’d seen earlier was part of their group as well, and that there were others with them too spread out around the trail. A couple of them were from Bellingham, but the majority were from Vancouver. We didn’t know why they selected that spot for photos, but it was incredibly fun to participate.

At 5:30, we bid our adieu to the group.  We had just enough time to drop back down to Lake Ann and jump in the water for a quick and vigorous dip. There was still a bit of snow around the lake, and the water temperature was not warm! But the air temperature was, and we sat on a rock in the last of the sun before it dropped behind the far side of the lake basin, and ate a very late lunch (or dinner…). It was an entirely fitting setting for such a fabulous day.

Kathie and the Russian Beauties!

Take two!

Take 3!

Trying to look glamorous…

Easier without accessories!

The Hike out

We were back to the trail junction to head out at 6:15.  Alexandra and crew were just coming down off the glacier. Alexandra and I exchanged contact information, so we could exchange photos later. I loved the still-present energy in the group, especially Alexandra and Elena. We didn’t hike out with them as our pace was a bit faster, but the memories of the photos and the swim and the day kept Doug and me laughing and smiling the entire hike out. By this time, there were fewer people  on the trail, although still an impressive number remained. Everyone we encountered was in a celebratory mood.

We flew up the switchbacks, and arrived back at the car at 8:05, right at sunset. There were four more Russian women at the trailhead, and we conversed with them too. We assured them their friends weren’t far behind, and told them stories of the fun time we’d had at the base of the glacier. So much good will, joy, and excitement about being alive and out on the trail. I loved it, and I have to say the entire day made for my most memorable trip to Lake Ann yet!

Last light on Shuksan, headed back up the Lake Ann trail

Can you see the slight haze? Already, it starts to return…

In retrospect…

It’s been two weeks since the hike, and my recollections of the trip have gotten even sweeter with time. I know that’s partly because of what returned soon after, in the form of more smoke. Again. From BC fires, those in Eastern Washington, and perhaps most devastatingly, the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge. I won’t repeat news stories, as most have heard by  now that the last one was caused by human activity. I don’t need to say how tragic it is, as we have all felt it. Or how far reaching. Up until two days ago,  when it finally rained, Bellingham and most of the state was shrouded in smoke from all the fires. The tragedy of this for us hikers and backpackers is one thing, but when you consider all who had to be evacuated and their property at risk or destroyed, it’s another level of catastrophe altogether.

So my memories of Lake Ann’s absolute pleasure are in stark contrast to what’s happened since. I am still not sure how to make sense of all this. Is it selfish to be grateful that the smoke is gone so I can once again breathe clean air? Is it acceptable to happily go out and recreate again, now that the smoke has cleared up here, knowing that those down in the gorge can’t do the same?

Looking ahead…

Since the smoke has cleared, today I head out again. For five nights and four days, to Copper Ridge loop and Whatcom Pass extension. Solo. I go with appreciation, humility, awe, gratitude, and respect.  As I go, I will keep in mind how transient all of this is. One minute a person can be hiking in safety, the next swept up in something risky — or worse. It’s always with a measure of caution that I go out, particularly solo. On my toes (yep, my feet survived Lake Ann!), with meticulous planning, and watching for the unexpected. The wilderness contains the word “wild” for a reason. I honor that immeasurably.

Here is link to WTA’s Lake Ann information.

And, if you want to see where I am headed, Cooper Ridge loop information.

ENJOY BEING OUTSIDE IN THE CLEAR AIR WHILE IT’S HERE!!

Mt. Baker looking good in blue!

The Challenge of Vesper Peak — Take 3!

I have a complex relationship with Vesper Peak, located off the Mountain Loop Highway in the North Cascades. I am repeatedly drawn back, but each time I go, I am astounded at how physically and mentally challenging it is. It’s been nearly two weeks since I last visited Vesper (July 19), and I’ve spent that time reflecting on the difficulty of the hike, and what it may mean for my hiking future. The Vesper Challenge carried on after doing the doing the peak to processing the impact to now, finally, trying to capturing the Complete Vesper Experience in words. I’ve attempted Vesper three times, summited twice, and at last I think I am done — at least with the peak. The lessons learned will stay with me, no question about it.

Stats on Vesper Peak

A quick digression: Sometimes, the reported length of a summit trail varies greatly, depending on which information you look at. Vesper is one of those.  WTA (Washington Trails Association) calls it 8 miles round trip;  AllTrails calls it 5.5 one way;  Wikipedia calls it 10 roundtrip.  Which to believe? Based on what I know about my sense of distance and hiking speed, I am going with Wikipedia’s 10 miles RT.

 LOCATION— Off Mountain Loop Highway, 18 miles South of Darrington and 21 miles East of Granite Falls.    TRAILHEAD — Sunrise Mine trail #707      DISTANCE — 10 miles (give or take)      SUMMIT ELEVATION — 6214 feet      ELEVATION GAIN — 4200 feet     DIFFICULTY — Rated as Difficult

Previous Vesper Hikes

A current trip report would not make much sense without a mention of my two previous Vesper hikes…

First failed attempt, June 2015

On a cool summer day in mid-June of 2015, my son Kyle, his girlfriend Lauren and I made an attempt on Vesper. It was a low snow pack year, and the hike seemed doable even that early. Several things happened that day, however, such that we failed in our summit attempt:

My hiking companions, Kyle and Lauren

First, we lost the trail soon after breaking out of the forest and brush — about a mile in. I have since learned that this is very common on this unmaintained trail. Before this first attempt, I didn’t put much stock in WTA trip reports, and I rarely, if ever, took the time to read them. Now, two years and a few attempts later, I have read dozens of trip reports for this hike. It’s amazing how many hikers report losing the trail in this same rocky section!  What happens to others, happened to us, and Kyle, Lauren and I lost track of the trail going up the steep rocks. We got up high, then had to work our way back over to the trail on loose, unstable rocks.  Lauren took a fall, which made us all nervous. Once we got back on trail, we kept going, up to Headlee Pass (4600 feet). Confident again once we were en route, we continued our summit quest.

However, our second problem occurred because we had not taken time to read the route description up to the summit. I take responsibility for this — I was designated “trip leader”.  Instead of crossing Vesper Creek and heading up the rock face to the summit, Kyle, Lauren, and I innocently waltzed along the trail to beautiful Vesper Lake. Beyond the lake we could see something of a trail heading up to what we thought was Vesper Peak. We followed that “trail” as best we could, Kyle leading, but the going was hairy and challenging, sometimes in snow, and always steep and vague.  Lauren and I didn’t like it much, and, while Kyle did his best to be the cheerleader, I could tell he was a bit nervous and unsure too. We finally topped out on a pass, with a grand view, and we could see people progressing upward to what we thought was the summit of Vesper.

Third, as we ate lunch, watched and evaluated, several things became clear. The day was cool, some clouds had come in, and it was quite windy. None of us were dressed warmly enough for the conditions. And the route the climbers were taking was steep and snowy, and looked treacherous. We only had lightweight hiking shoes and no traction devices. Kyle and I wanted to continue, despite our lack of preparedness. But Lauren, thankfully, was the voice of reason. She said she would not go, but would wait for us there if we wanted to proceed. I didn’t feel right about leaving her waiting on a cold and windy pass, and deep down, I knew she was right in her assessment. So we all turned back.

Later, Kyle and I looked carefully at the map, and learned that we were going for the wrong summit! The mountain we were actually attempting to climb was Mt. Sperry, Vesper’s next door neighbor. It’s much less popular, and is even more of a “climbers route” than Vesper.  I am grateful to Lauren (and eventually common sense) that we turned back on that day. Vesper stayed on the brain, though, and I wanted to go back…

Second (successful) attempt, July 2015

Ready for conquest, Kyle and I returned to Vesper a month later. This time, Lauren bowed out, and instead Kyle’s buddy Jack came along. Many things went right on this trip — unfortunately,  weather was  not one.

This time, we learned from our previous mistakes.  On the steep rock slope, we paid careful attention and followed hard to see cairns (rock piles) along the way to the more obvious route up to Headlee Pass. It was a struggle for me to keep up with mountain goats Kyle and Jack, but they were nice enough to wait for me at regular intervals. I noticed the challenge of the trail more this time around, as the faster pace combined on the loose rocks required constant vigilance. But  I fed off Kyle and Jack’s youthful energy and enthusiasm, and we reached Headlee pass quickly. Beyond the pass, we did not make the same mistake in heading to the lake, but crossed Vesper Creek and headed up toward the summit.

Kyle foreground, Kathie background, headed up Vesper Peak

Vesper in the fog

The summit approach was a bit of a challenge, somewhat increased by our weather conditions of drizzle and fog. It wasn’t an ideal day for a summit bid, but I am not sure any of us cared. We were all on the same mission! The rock slabs were snow-free but steep,  and I followed the boys as they picked their way up. Thankfully, I only had to focus on my footing, not route-finding — as long as I could see one of them, I just headed in that direction. I’d requested they keep me in sight, and, with the fog, that meant they couldn’t get too far ahead.

We made the summit,  but, unfortunately, couldn’t see a thing from the top.  It was cold, and this time I was prepared but Kyle wasn’t. He put on a shirt of mine to keep warm. He termed it “feminine green” in color, and his hefty arm and shoulder muscles nearly burst it’s stretchy seams!  We stayed on top long enough to eat a quick lunch, then headed down as fast as we could. The entire hike down was just as hard as going up for me, with lots of loose rock and uneven footing. I tried to keep up, but constantly fell behind. Kyle and Jack were patient with me, and we all had a grand time, even though the weather was poor and the path challenging.

Kyle in “feminine green”, after Vesper at Lake 22

Fun loving Kyle and Jack!

Back at the car, our spirits were high. We’d done it! None of us felt ready to call it a day. So we drove the several miles from the Sunrise Mine trailhead to the Lake 22 trailhead, and whipped out that hike too. The whole thing made for a 16-plus mile day with lots of elevation, and the whole adventure was fun and invigorating, despite the dreary weather. I felt good and strong throughout, even though I was bested by the boys. Together we’d bested Vesper, and pulled off a phenomenal hiking day, and I got to feed off the energy of two of my favorite hikers for a day.

But still I couldn’t rest on the Vesper desire. I desperately wanted to be on the summit with sunshine and a view, and so I went back…

Vesper Take 3 — July 19, 2017

Two weeks ago, I went alone to the family summer home at Lake Goodwin planning for a couple days of writing. Proximity to the Mountain Loop Highway and nice weather prompted me to say “WTF, I think I’ll take a hike!”  for one of those days. I decided on a solo bid of Vesper, on what promised to be a sunny Wednesday.  I was confident I would succeed, and drove to the trailhead in good spirits.

The way up

There was a road washout leading to the trailhead, but reports said it was easy to navigate around. It was doable enough, and I arrived at the trailhead at 11:30 am. I had an online class at 6:00 that night, and figured I’d have plenty of time to whip out Vesper and drive the 1.5 hours back to the lake in time for my class…ha!

From the get go and as I remembered, the Sunrise Mining trail required careful footing. At first it was roots, rocks,  and careful stream crossings (four) for the first mile, until I broke out into the opening. Then I was into brush so dense and overgrown that at times I couldn’t see the trail. Always, the footing underneath was uneven and tricky and required that constant vigilance I remembered from before.  I knew and expected this, but it still gave me pause and kept me going at a slow enough pace to keep from turning an ankle or twisting my knee. The unfolding views across the valley to Mt. Dickerman and up the valley towards Morningstar and my old friend Sperry kept me moving.

Looking up toward Headlee Pass

Looking back down…

Once onto the rocks, I made sure to follow the cairns. The path was an often vague traverse and upward progression on small boulders and loose rocks. Sometimes the rocks held, and sometimes they did not. Since my last time here, I’d had knee replacement and bilateral foot and ankle surgeries. That brought my total to five knee and eight foot and ankle surgeries, and, frankly, I felt tentative and cautious as I worked my way across the boulder field. I had to keep a frustratingly slow pace,  and anything resembling a hiking rhythm eluded me. I greatly missed my younger hiking companions, Kyle, Lauren, and Jack.  I felt lonely on my vigil, despite encountering a handful of other hikers.

Headed up to Headlee pass, I encountered the first snow. Most times, the trail went around it with ease, but sometimes a bit of scrambling was required to skirt the snow fields. I was amazed that we had done this route in June and early July of 2015, since in the second half of July this year I encountered more snow than on either previous trip.  Once at the top of Headlee Pass, the views start to really open up, and I felt rewarded for my efforts. Again, I was amazed that the trail never eased up, as the route continued across loose rock. Brave Penstemon bloomed right out of the rocks, and the beauty of that was inspiring.

Rock Penstemon

Rocky trail continues….

Crossing swift Vesper creek was relatively easy. Very quickly I was into snow, and I stopped to put on traction devices. I enjoyed the views down to mostly snow-covered Vesper Lake, again reflecting on how different it was two years ago when it was snow-free.

Then “the trail” was in and out of snow all the way up. I followed foot prints, as at least four people I’d seen on the way down had been on the summit that day. Sometimes the route went up through tree gullys, slick with mud, and was barely discernible. I remembered this from the previous time, and knew I was on the correct route. The snow towards the top got alarmingly steep, and I looked at the multitude of glissade (“sliding on your butt”) paths right down the mountain. Clearly, people were just letting it fly once they were up, but I knew I would not do that. I felt cautious going up and knew I would need to be more careful coming down. The idea of losing control on snow freaked me out.

Vesper Lake in fog, 2015

Vesper Lake in snow, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Carefully and meticulously I worked my way up. I could see a couple leaving just as I was approaching the summit, which meant I would be alone. Normally, I crave solitude on the trail, but this time, I was hoping for company to share the victory with. I arrived at the top at 2:30, three hours after I started. A slow pace for me, and I knew it was unlikely I would make it back in time for my class. I tried to relax with this reality, enjoying the truly spectacular summit views. I could see Mt. Sperry right in front of me, Mt. Pugh, Sloan Peak, and Mt. Baker to the north, Glacier Peak to the east, and Mt. Stuart, Mt. Daniel, and even a glimpse of Mt. Ranier to the south. Perhaps most spectacular was the sheer 1000 foot drop on the north side down to Cooper Lake below. I enjoyed circumferential views and took a few selfies, but I was nervous about going down the steep upper section of the snow. I wanted to get down before shade or cooling temps, and kept my summit time to thirty minutes.

 

Glacier Peak!

Looking down to Copper Lake

Vesper Selfie

Peaks — Gothic Peak (right), Morningstar (foreground)

Looking across Sperry toward Mt. Baker

The way down

As expected, going down the snow was more challenging than coming up. I stuck to my own foot prints as best I could, one at a time, using my poles for added braking. As mentioned, multiple glissade paths indicated others had simply slid down on their butts. They must have had ice axes or been more risk takers than me, or both. Not willing to risk a fall, I picked my way down like I came up, slowly and carefully, checking each step to make sure it would hold. Once off the steep stuff, I breathed a sigh of relief and took off my YakTrax.

But I still had to get down all the rocks that I came up,  and it seemed to take forever. Slowly progressing down, I vacillated between frustration and amazement with the effort involved to secure each step.  I could never relax and just cruise along. Literally, there was not one section of this trail that didn’t require precision with foot placement.  Descending the endless rocks was tedious, and, even with extreme caution, I still tripped and slipped at least 15 times. I stopped counting at ten. This was not a reflection of fatigue or carelessness — it just happened. I had to remind myself to slow down with each slip, and this took a mental and physical toll. When I arrived back at the car 2.5 hours after leaving the summit, I felt completely drained. And late. I knew I wouldn’t make it back for my class in time, but I was relieved to at last be done.

Why was Take 3 SO DIFFICULT?

That night I was completely wiped out. I felt utterly mentally and physically drained. Not from the cardiovascular output, as I couldn’t go fast enough to get that. But from the constant vigilance required to manage the perpetually challenging footing. My right arthritic ankle hurt more during and after this trip than at any time since surgery, and I couldn’t walk without sharp pain.  My replaced knee was fluid- filled and sore, although it mostly recovered after a day or so. But overall, that ten mile endeavor seemed, frankly, all my orthopedically challenged body could handle. I struggled to accept this, and my feeling of near-despair lingered. This hiking experience, instead of uplifting me, put me into a week-long funk! That doesn’t happen often, so I paid attention.

I kept asking myself, Does this experience mean that my hiking future can only be on established trails,  that I can no longer go to places that are only accessible off the beaten path?  I felt intensely conflicted even thinking about this, as there are still SO many hikes I want to do that are like Vesper, and the idea of having to give that up made me feel old, defeated, and on the way out. But I also don’t like to suffer, and there was a fair amount of suffering on this last Vesper excursion. How do I balance my strong desire to go with the reality of my current physical being?

As I grappled with these questions, I went back and looked at each of my three Vesper excursions. How could I take what I learned on each trip, successfully apply it to my current processing, and let those lessons serve as a guide for the future?

The Vesper Lessons

Trip One

The most obvious lesson here is know the route and nuances of the trail. I have gotten much better at this, and, as mentioned, I have become a huge fan of WTA trip reports. Both errors, getting off trail and heading to the wrong summit, could have been avoided if we had paid more attention. The extra time and effort spent getting off trail and  then back on is sometimes immense. Lauren’s fall and recovery not only cost us time, but also emotional energy. And going for the wrong summit actually prevented us from making it to the top of Vesper. As trip leader, I felt responsible and worried, and like our errors could have been avoided.

Second, it was great to have Lauren as a voice of reason. I have learned from that experience that I can say no, can turn around, and it can be OK. That was the first time I can remember NOT going for a summit, and I am thankful we did not. Lauren’s common sense eventually filtered into mine, such that I KNEW without question that we made the right choice. Since then, I have backed off on my need to always push on to the summit.

Kyle and Lauren at Mailbox Peak, near Seattle. Thanks Lauren for your presence of mind and keeping us sane!

Trip Two

The lessons here are mostly all positive. Simply put, I felt less pain, discomfort, angst, and displeasure with the weather and trail since I was hiking with Kyle and Jack. I love to hike alone and do so often. But sometimes my head space gets more cluttered with negativity and what’s not going right when I’m alone. This trip, while not favorable in weather, was successful and fun despite conditions. Under those positive circumstances, going on and pushing the limits like we did, had a huge pay off. And it was great to share in it together.

Trip Three

Trip three taught me about time. I put pressure on myself by starting late, and trying to knock this one off too quickly. Once I realized the difficulty I was having, I could have slowed down, enjoyed my surroundings,  and not felt so frustrated by slow progress. Had I done this, my whole trip might have gone differently. Racing the clock, trying to make the summit in a certain amount of time such that I could be back in time, affected my enjoyment.

In truth, so too did the terrain. There is nothing I can do to change that. But I can change my approach for the future, if I choose to go off the beaten path, I have to plan for, and accept psychologically, that it’s only going to happen slowly and carefully. When I encounter tricky terrain with a Kyle in my future, perhaps I can turn it on. But for now, I will be content with slowing down on trails that are less than straightforward.

However, I know now I won’t give up. That first week following Vesper, I thought that was it. That I would have to put my ambitions of other such endeavors to rest. Now, 12 days after the fact, I feel confident that I can slow down enough to have the enjoyment of such a hike take precedence over the discomfort involved with doing it.

Know if you go…

Vesper is very worthwhile if you are willing to pay attention to every step and take care with route finding. It’s not a trail for beginners, or those wanting to zone out. WTA calls it a step beyond…I would say it’s many steps beyond. Worth it? Yes, if you are physically in good shape, and don’t have an abundance of lower body ailments. And don’t do it on a tight time schedule. My six hours was as fast as I could go safely, and it would have been even nicer to have had more time to relax and enjoy the spectacular views once I reached the summit.

Snowking Mountain and Mt. Formidable, background, Mt. Pugh and Sloan Peak foreground

Sperry Peak (foreground), Glacier Peak in back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One more note: by the time this post gets up, snow will all but be a memory for most of this route. It’s melting quickly, and subsequent hikes I’ve taken have all been mostly snow-free. Yep, I’m still out there hiking! Stay tuned for more posts to come.

 

Birthday Hike to Green Mountain

My yearly trip around the sun culminated (or began again…) with an epic journey up Green Mountain with my son, Kyle, on Friday, June 23, 2017.

The Circumstances of the Hike

Kyle, age 24, is getting his doctorate in Physical Therapy at Emory in Atlanta. He is into his second of a three year program, and I have only seen him once since he left the Northwest over a year ago.  That was at Christmas time when he was home for a few weeks. Normally, when Kyle and I get together, we hike, as he is one of the only people I know who will take on some of the crazy, ambitious hikes I sometimes like to do. He has an infectious energy and enthusiasm about anything trail related — actually anything physically related — that is unmatched. He is a great hiking partner! When he was home last winter, I was unfortunately rehabbing both knee replacement and foot/ankle surgeries, and there was no hiking to be had.

About a month ago, Kyle let me know he’d be home the weekend of June 23 -25. His step-mom had bought him a ticket to come home for a surprise visit with his dad for a late Father’s Day. I was beyond excited, as that Friday was my birthday, and I could think of no better way to spend my birthday than hiking with Kyle.

Immediately, the wheels started turning, and a plan began to hatch.  Kyle’s dad, Gary,  is a teacher in Ferndale, and their school year was delayed by weeks due to snow. He would still be teaching that day, June 23, for his last day. So it was feasible, if we could play it out correctly, that Kyle and I could squeeze in a hike while he was here and before he went to Gary’s for the surprise visit, AND it would be on my birthday. I couldn’t ask for a better birthday present!

Hike Preparations

The window of opportunity created, I started thinking about what sort of hike we could do to fully maximize the day. It had to be alpine, a peak, and challenging but doable within a day’s time frame. I had put in a request for sunny weather for the event, and it appeared mother nature would deliver! Ten days out, a week out, days out, all the forecasts showed that the weekend of June 23 -25 would be a beautiful scorcher with record temps in and around our potential hiking playground.

I decided on Green Mountain. At 6500 feet, the trail up is a reasonable 8.5 miles round trip with 3300 feet of elevation. It’s off the Mountain Loop Highway, near Darrington, and near our family summer home at Lake Goodwin, where we’d be stationed for the adventure.  I checked recent online trip reports to see what hiking conditions were like at Green Mountain, and found a mixed review.  A few hikers were making it to the top, others were bailing out at lower elevations because of snow. But all reports agreed that the snow was prevalent enough that route finding was an issue. I did my best to prepare for both of us,  as Kyle would be flying in from Atlanta and we’d head straight to the lake then the trail. I secured YakTrax for both of us, gaiters, and poles, one with a ice axe head.

I picked Kyle up at the airport at the Seattle airport at 11:30 pm Thursday night. We drove to the lake, got to bed by 1:00. I was up at 5:00, sleep deprived but ready for the day. I made pies with my sister Kari for the birthday dinner that night, and then got ready while Kyle and Kari ate breakfast together. Kyle consumed five scrambled eggs, two pieces of toast with peanut butter, and a huge bowl of Cheerios with local strawberries. Wow! I didn’t realize the kid ate so much.

Off to the trailhead

We were on the way by 7:40, only ten minutes behind schedule. Google told us the drive would be 2 hours and 22 minutes.  Google doesn’t know how Kathie drives on logging roads when she is mission oriented! We made the drive in just under two hours. The time flew by, with Kyle updating me on school, and me updating him on family. My 90-year old mom had died on June 1, an event that I am still processing. I shared events of her death, the challenging aftermath, and the memorial service the previous weekend. It was good conversational time, and kept us both awake.

Somewhat surprisingly, there were no other cars at the trailhead when we arrived. We were packed up and headed out before 10:00.  The first couple miles of trail are straightforward switchbacks through forest. We continued our conversation, Kyle asking questions about my writing and all the associated aspects of that. It was very cool to share something as significant as the memoir writing process with my son, and I delighted in his interest.

Traversing meadow before the snow

In no time the forest disappeared and we broke into our first meadow. Kyle was absolutely enthralled, taking pictures and exclaiming over and over “THIS is what I most wanted. THIS is what I’ve missed so much. You just don’t get this in Atlanta!” His enthusiasm matched the unfolding views as we continued our switchbacks up through the meadow. Avalanche Lily’s, Indian Paintbrush, Columbine, and Lupines all dotted the landscape as we went. We even saw a smattering of late-blooming Trilliums, one of my favorites.

Lupine

Paintbrush

Trillium

 

 

 

 

 

Into the Challenge

Too soon, the trail hit snow. We put on our YakTrax, and moved into navigation mode. I had done the hike twice, and had a sense of where the trail went. But everything looks different in the snow. There was a stream to cross, and we did so on a snow bridge.

The way up, just before the traverse that put us off trail

Once on the other side, I had a vague recollection of where we should be, and it was definitely not where we were! We wandered some, ending up too high, then dropping down this incredibly steep but short slope, not on snow but dirt, branches, and plants. At the bottom, we could see the lookout on the top of the mountain, high above, and with a huge field of snow at it’s base. I knew from previous hikes that the trail traversed quite far around before heading up, and so we didn’t even consider heading right up the snow field. In retrospect, that may have been the easiest (and probably safest) route to the top. But we didn’t go that way.

Instead, we traversed. And not on trail. I kept thinking the trail would appear, as we continued across a very steep slope that was just about all I could handle. My right foot, ankle, and knee all complained, as that appendage bore the brunt of each and every step of the uncertain traverse.  This went on for far too long, Kyle moving ahead then waiting for me, each of us continually looking for the trail. After what seemed like ages, I told Kyle I couldn’t keep traversing. It was just too painful. I stopped while he went ahead, around the next bend, to see what other options might show up. He returned with the news that none did.

We stood together, on this incredibly steep slope, looking up. We could see a way up that was snow-free, but with loose rocks, plants, and a grade that was so precipitous as to appear almost  unmanageable. In these types of moments, you have to make a decision. Move up, or backtrack and go back down? For the record, I am am not a “go back” kind of gal, but I seriously considered it here. We only had so much time to work with, as we had to be back to the car by 4:00 at the latest for the events that came after the hike (Kyle getting to his dad’s, and my planned birthday dinner). But going back felt like defeat. And then we’d still have to figure out a different way to the top, or just give up the summit altogether. Kyle felt confident he could go straight up, but was (appropriately) worried about me. Especially my recently replaced knee. It’s still not fully recovered, and anything that puts stress on the artificial joint causes swelling and a lot of pain. We both knew I could push through only so much.

Kyle looked at me expectantly, eye brows raised, concern not able to mask his eagerness. I took a deep breath, nodded, smiled. “I’m game if you are.”

“I’ll go first”, Kyle declared, quivering with excitement and raring to go, “and let you know what it’s like.”

“Okay, just don’t get too far ahead, I need to be able to see you and check in with you.”

I’ve done this a couple of times before, headed straight up a mountain off trail but not on snow. It’s physically challenging and guilt producing.  Walking on newly appeared flora and fauna feels terrible to this trail-conscious hiker. It’s not an approach I would recommend, as it is so important (and so much easier) to stay on trail.  I had to attempt to put my guilt about that aside, as even if we turned back we’d still be off trail.

So up we went.  We were still wearing YakTrax, which actually helped with traction on the steep and loose terrain. Sometimes poles were helpful, sometimes not. At times it was an all-out hands and knees type of ascent, using the sparse plants that looked sturdy enough for upward progression. It was a combination of scrambling, using my rock climbing skills, and keeping my wits 100% about me. It felt absolutely important to not fall, and that was my focus with each step. More than once I stood, precarious balanced, not at all sure how to make the next step up. It doesn’t happen often that I get right to the edge of what I can do on a mountain side. This experience put me there. I kept watching Kyle’s progress, believing that if he could do it, so could I.

Eventually and mercifully, our efforts finally brought us to the ridge! In my previous climbs of Green Mountain, the ridge was the most challenging part. Here, after what we’d done, it frankly seemed like a cake walk. Yes there was snow, and some exposure with fall potential on both sides, but plenty of room to navigate up all of it. Both of us were exhilarated to have made it that far, and we knew we’d make the summit. Soon, we could see the lookout, and it was only a matter of time before we’d be there.

As we happily climbed this last part, we made sure to look for a different way down. I told Kyle, no way would I be able to go down what we’d just come up. He agreed, and we scanned for a doable decent even as we continued up. We saw a snowfield that angled over towards the main snowfield, and it seemed manageable. We decided to return there after summiting for our way down.

The Summit!

Summit, with Lookout in back

 

The lookout at Green Mountain was locked, but we dumped our packs and wandered around it’s somewhat rickety deck. This lookout, like so many of the dozens that remain on mountain tops in the Cascades, had to fight to be preserved. As recently as 2010 dismantling was threatened, as environmental groups protested the use of helicopters to rebuild and maintain it after Obama signed the lookout into preserved status. Instead, a group called Friends of Green Mountain biked and hiked with 50 pound packs to rebuild, and continue to maintain, this lookout. Something seemingly so simple as a lookout on a mountain top is never without a story!

The sky was a deep blue and cloudless, and the number of peaks in our view was endless. I could point out Glacier Peak and Mt. Baker, but dozens of others I did not know the names of, sadly. “What’s that peak?” Kyle’d ask. “Sorry, Kyle”, I’d reply, “You came with the wrong partner for peak naming! We’ll just have to sit and immerse ourselves in the wonder of it all.”

And we did. We sat on my designated favorite flat rock 20 feet below the lookout, munching on turkey sandwiches, cherries and grapes. It was an all encompassing sensory feast. We talked of both serious and light topics, and my heart was completely full. It simply doesn’t get any better than being on a peak, with a loved one, sharing meaningful conversation mixed with moments of silence, surrounded and enveloped by snow-covered mountains everywhere you look.  I felt like I could sit there forever.

But time vigilance sat with us too. We had agreed to leave by 1:30, and right on the dot, we were packed up and headed down.

Down the Snow

We descended quickly, back down the steep patches of snow mixed with rocks. After 15 minutes or so, Kyle called up to me. “Do you think we’ve gone too far, Mom? Did we miss that chute we saw on the way up?” I’d been thinking the same thing. I’d been looking carefully, seeing nothing resembling the slope we picked, but also knowing that everything looks different on the way up than down.  Perhaps we had missed it…

“I don’t know, Kyle. Maybe. I’ll wait here, you go ahead a bit more, see what you think.” I was dreading the idea of going back up, again, what we’d just come down.

I watched Kyle, contemplating. Time was ticking by. If we were going to go back, up, we had to move. Kyle turned around quickly, probably thinking the same thing.

“I don’t know what happened, Mom, but we probably should go back up.”

I agreed, and reluctantly, we started back. It was easier this time on the snow sections, as we’d been here a couple of times before. “If we do this enough times”, I commented, trying to keep it light, “we’ll have established a regular highway up here!”

We both kept peering over the edge, looking for a way down. We analyzed one snowfield, but there was an area with potential rocks that we just couldn’t see. Kyle was semi-game. “I’ll go first”, he offered. “See what it’s like…” But I couldn’t help remembering a snowshoe hike he and I had done three summers before. On that hike, fearless Kyle took off down on a steep slope that almost put him over a waterfall on an unexpected cliff that he couldn’t see from above. He was able to self-arrest and stop just in time. There was no way I was going to let him do a repeat.

“I don’t feel good about that, Kyle.” We looked at each other, he nodded. “Yeah, me neither.” He said. We were definitely on the same page.

The only option was to return almost all the way to the summit, and drop in just below. Kyle lead, and he stopped at a place where a steep entry point looked possible. It required a drop of 20 feet through trees and brush so steep that both hands and feet would be required. Kyle went first, leaving his poles with me, aptly maintaining his grip on the available limbs and the overall situation. “You can do it, Mom.” He looked up encouragingly. “It’s not that bad.”

I tossed him all four poles, so I too could use my hands. The tree trunk and branches and brush provided enough hand holds such that, while the footing was unstable at best, I felt safe enough. But at the top of the snowfield, my confidence wavered. It was a long, steep, snowfield, that would put us up back where we had began our errant traverse on the way up. I desperately wanted to be there, but I did not want to slip and fall. It felt of crucial importance to stay upright. Kyle was eager and willing to try glissading (sliding on one’s butt, basically) down the whole thing, but I knew I couldn’t do that. I was too anxious, too worried about my knee, too fearful that if I started slipping, I wouldn’t stop. Too fearful that one or the other of us might sustain an injury, and that would present a whole different set of challenges.

“I can’t glissade this, Kyle. I am sorry.” I said simply. “I need you to go first, and kick steps on the steep sections. I know you want to let it fly, but safety has to come first. I’m worried that I won’t be able to recover if I fall.”

The snowfield down. The small dot just above the rock is Kyle

And Kyle obliged. The sun was directly on us as we went down, so bright it almost hurt. I focussed on each step, one at a time, knowing that if I was safe in one step, I would likely be safe in the next. Kyle kept turning around, making sure I was okay. At one point, I slipped and dug in a pole so hard it bent. Severely, about 8 inches up, such that it was now a hook more than a pole. Kyle offered to switch poles with me. The role reversal we were in here did not escape me.

As the grade eased, I gained some confidence. Kyle was able to do his boot-skiing, and I relaxed into a walk/slight slip, caught by the traction of the YakTrax. I was relieved when we hit the bottom, with no incidents other than the bent pole.

Back to the car

We regrouped for a moment, trying to figure our way back from here. Clearly, we’d gone wrong on the way up, and now I led intuitively with what seemed right. I prayed for trail gods to guide us to the trail, as I was pretty much spent. Rarely do my legs feel like jello, but they resembled that here. And time was going way too fast. It was past 2:30 at this point, and we still had some navigating to do to get out of the snow for good.

But apparently, we’d paid our dues and the trail gods did smile on us.  Our path led us right to the trail, and we were able to follow it with relative ease even as it moved in and out of snow. None too soon, we were out of snow for good, and we both whooped and hollered. “YES!” Kyle declared once we hit predictable ground. “We did it, Mom!” I was ecstatic and still adrenalized, but trying to relax after the challenging descent. We whipped off our YakTrax, the relief as welcome as the easy trail ahead.

“We gotta move it, Kyle.” I said, again checking my watch. “I am not sure how many miles to the car, but we have an hour to get there. You go first, go as fast as you want, I’ll let you know if I can’t keep up.”

Kyle’s legs were as spent as mine, a fact that made me feel good. We’d both pushed a physical limit.  While my knee hurt a lot, it didn’t seem any worse for wear. I wondered what the knee doc would have thought about what we’d just done. I am not sure he would have endorsed it.

We hoofed it going down. At one point I said to Kyle “If you want to go a little faster, I can do it.” He turned around, looked at me semi-incredulously. “You want me to go faster? OK, I’ll do my best!” We didn’t run, but we were close, still on track to make the car by 4:00. We made it  — barely. It was 3:55 when we flew out from the last switchback. We hopped in the car, this time switching roles with Kyle driving and me navigating. Only one obstacle came our way on the tedious, 20-mile logging road headed out. We came up on a camper pulling a horse trailer, who would slow way down for the pot holes, almost stopping so we could pass, but then speeding back up again as soon as Kyle would start to edge around. It was extremely frustrating, but something you can’t do anything about. With Kyle’s patience just about completely tried, the guy finally moved over — once we hit the paved road and could have passed him anyway.

It all ended up OK. We made it back to the lake right at 6:00, where Kyle took off on his trip up north to Bellingham to surprise his dad, and I had my birthday dinner at the lake with Kari, my daughter Shannon and her fiance Kevin, and my brother Brad and his daughter. It was a great ending to a fantastic day — and  superb birthday.

What I’d do differently next time…

While many things went right in the day, there were some valuable things I learned form this trip. Always, the learning. What would a trip into the mountains be without that?

ALLOW MORE TIME.   This is a common theme in my life, and I am constantly working on it. I am one to cram in as much as possible into any given time period, and this hike and day was no exception. With the exception of our 40 minutes on the top, and later, after dinner sitting at the picnic table with Shannon and Kevin, there was really no down time in this very busy day. I loved it, but the constant time pressure, especially on Green Mountain, did affect my ability to fully relax.  As I move into my next year of life, easing up on time, and trying to do less and enjoy it more, is a focus.

CHECK ROUTE DESCRIPTIONS AND MAP MORE THOROUGHLY.  I had glanced at a couple of trip reports, and had Kyle read a few too. But neither one of us paid much attention to details, and we did not have a map of the route with us. Kyle took a picture of the route map at the trailhead, but that proved useless once we were off course and into snow. Navigation and map reading are not my strong points, and I realized here, again, that these skills would have come in handy here. Perhaps a navigation class is in my near future….

CONSIDER ALL OPTIONS BEFORE COMMITTING.  It would have unquestionably been easier for us to head straight up the snow, or certainly switchback up the snow, than the route we chose. But honestly, I didn’t even think about that as option, I was so focused on the traverse. I certainly missed the forest by obsessing on the trees here! Slowing down to analyze and being less impulsive are also directions I want to move in the coming year. 

TURN BACK WHEN IT LOOKS UNREASONABLE TO CONTINUE. Again, this is one we should have considered long before we got so far in. It’s always hard to explain, or rationalize, the need to push on in such situations.  Going back probably would have saved us time, and certainly energy, but I felt that we needed to either go on or bail. In the end, we probably worked even harder. In the coming year of hikes and adventure, I will remember to explore the option of turning back. 

To our credit, there were things we did do right. We prioritized safety, we moved with care and caution, we had good supportive team work, and, most importantly, we kept our senses of humor and adventure. And certainly we had fun!  All in all, it was a fantastic day, and the adventure was well worth the cost.

Green Mountain is a great hike! As snow continues to melt off, it will get easier to navigate. Here’s a link for more information: Green Mountain Trail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post John Muir Trail — Bishop Pass to Dusy Basin

Day hike to Bishop Pass and Dusy Basin

I wake up early at Dave’s place in the small twin bed. I haven’t slept great, but it’s still so nice to find myself in a bed and not a sleeping bag in a tent. I meditate in bed until 5:00 am, as I don’t want to wake Dave and Michelle too early. Dave’s house is small, and I know they will likely hear me get up. Or at least Gigi the dog will!

Gigi in her natural element. Photo courtesy Dave Grah

My breakfast!

I am excited to make breakfast at Dave’s. Dave and Michelle brought home eggs and veggies last night per my request. I carefully and methodically assemble my scrambled eggs with salsa, broccoli, zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, a multitude of spices, and even guacamole! It’s quite the ensemble for my first breakfast off the trail. My creation takes up an entire plate, and only loosely resembles something like an egg scramble when I am done. I am just getting to the table with eggs and coffee when Dave comes out. He is suitably impressed with my huge breakfast. So am I! It makes me happier than I can express to have the luxury of this amount of food and a warm environment in which to eat it. I enjoy every bite.

We chat about the plans for the day. I plan to rent a car, and Dave will drop me at the rental place in town on his way to work. Bishop is small, and there isn’t much option for renting a car. But I have found one for $161 for two days that will get me two day hikes and a drive to the airport. While more expensive then taking the bus, it’s worth it for the independence and flexibility. I have basically two full days, as my flight does not leave from Vegas until 7 pm that following night

My plan for this day is to drive to South Lake Trailhead, 20 miles from Bishop. I will take that trail all the way to Bishop Pass (six miles in) and drop down into Dusy Basin. This is a somewhat common exit pass for hikers on the JMT who are going into Bishop to pick up food or provisions. I will likely see people doing what I have just finished doing. But today, I will be hiking  free and easy, with only a day pack to carry. I am stoked.

I pick up my Toyota Prius rental, and I am off. I have my headphones, a downloaded audiobook, lunch, water, chlorine tablets for additional water, camera, clothes, and the usual sunscreen and lip stuff. I stop at the corner market for some fresh fruit to accompany my remaining backpack lunch extras. I contemplate life as I drive to the trailhead. Everything seems so different, even being in a car. It’s a mixed “different,”  as I love and appreciate the ease of things, but I am very aware of how much I still want to be on the trail. The scenery is gorgeous, as the mountains come closer with ever mile. Soon I will be right back in my desired environment — enveloped in sunshine, and wandering into miles of peaks, lakes, streams, and all the beauty of the Sierras.

The trailhead is surprisingly full for a Tuesday morning. I know a lot of the cars are overnighters, as this trail is a feeder for multiple over night trips and nearby peak climbs. I have never hiked this trail, and I am excited. I hook up my headphones and audiobook, hit the bathroom, and I am off. It’s still a noticeable luxury to sit on a toilet seat, even at a trailhead privy!

When I hit the trail I am already into my book and I don’t feel like talking. I hope my headphones will discourage people from making conversation. I have to pass several parties right away, as they are taking their own sweet time and I am raring to go. Soon I pass two older men. They talk to me, even though I have headphones on. I politely take one off. They make some comment on how if they were as young as me, they’d be moving as quickly as I am. I tell them I am not that young. The ring leader wants to make a bet that he is at least ten years older than me. Sure, I say playing along so they will leave me alone. He wants to bet a quarter, and I say OK. I am not in the mood for games and just want to keep moving. But they have sped up since I passed them and keep talking to me. He asks how old I am, I say 52. “Ha! I knew it! You owe me a quarter! I am 63”. Close enough, and whatever I think. I don’t have a quarter and I tell him that.  He starts hounding me, telling me I am a bad bet. I dutifully smile and laugh, apologize, and move quickly ahead, thinking I am done with those guys.

Saddlerock Lake selfie!

The scenery is magnificent. I pass signs for lakes with names like Treasure Lake, Marie Louise Lake, Bull Lake, and my favorite, Chocolate Lakes. If I had more time I would explore them all! But I stick with my plan to do a straightforward trek up to Bishop Pass, then drop down into Dusy Basin for whatever amount of time I have until I have to turn back. I have promised to make dinner for Dave and Michelle tonight, and I don’t want to get carried away with my day.

I continue to Long Lake, which is, indeed long (.7 miles). It’s also beautiful, and I stop for an energy bar by it’s shores. I take fifteen minutes or so here, unfortunately long enough that the two men catch up. Thankfully, they just say hi and “You still owe me a quarter!” and go on by. I know I will pass them again in just a few minutes. The elevation gain on the trail to Bishop Pass is quite gradual, only 2200 feet over six miles, and the miles sail by.  I enjoy listening to my book and passing people as I go up and noticing others as they go down. I’m sure some of the latter are JMT hikers heading for resupply, and I smile especially warmly at those carrying backpacks. No one knows I’ve just come from there. One solo gal asks how far to Bishop. I say maybe four miles, trying to remember how far I’ve come. I learn she is also a solo JMT hiker, headed to town for supplies. For her, I happily take off my headphones to converse!

Saddlerock Lake

Trail heading up Bshop Pass, Hurd Peak in back

Crossing Bishop Creek before heading up Bishop Pass

Long Lake leads to Timberline Lake and Saddlerock Lake. They are all sublime, and I am grateful to waltz among them. Next is Bishop Lake, at which point the trail ascends the pass. Like other passes in the area, the final switchbacks to Bishop Pass are somewhat steep, open, dry, and rocky, but thankfully short. It’s an easy pass, or seems so after all the one’s I did on the JMT. I top out at 11,972, with views of Mt. Goode, Mt. No Goode, and Mt. Agassiz all welcoming me to the pass. I only stop briefly here, as I still want to drop down into the basin.

From Pass — Spearhead Lake and Long Lake

Dusy Basin is as lovely as advertised. I can see why so many people come here. It’s like a mini version of the JMT. Peaks, lakes, streams, and fantastic granite rock formations are everywhere. I am overwhelmed by the feelings of freedom, joy, and pure gratitude that I am here. I drop down for about an hour, the amount of time I can spare before turning back. I see a weather station by a very small lake, and this looks like a good place to stop for lunch before I head back. I see just one other guy on the opposite side of where I drop my day pack and prepare to shed boots and eat lunch. I still have my headphones on when I settle, but take them off to eat and enjoy silence.

In Dusy Basin, with Columbine Peak (right) and Mt. Giraud (left)

No such luck. The guy, who upon examination is really quite strange, is listening to some type of broadcast. Very loudly. It sounds like a football game, or some type of sporting event. I am puzzled and watch him for a bit. He is clearly in his own world, and it actually looks like he is playing with himself. This instantly gets my attention, and, for the first time on my entire JMT trip, I feel nervous and not safe. I can see two other people off in the distance, so I know I am not in jeopardy of this guy harming me, but his behavior is totally off for the setting and it really upsets me. I am already without boots by this time, so I stay where I am but eat a very quick lunch. I am sad and distressed that the guy and his weird behavior and loud broadcast have pretty much ruined my lunch.  I am determined not to let it ruin my day though,  and I pack up and head out as quickly as I can.

On the way back up to Bishop Pass, I think about this guy. I feel lucky that I have not had encounters on this trip with men that scared me until this day. I know they are out there, but I have luckily escaped them until today. The first two men were annoying, but harmless. This last guy, I don’t know. It does make me think about how much I hike alone, and I wonder (not for the first time) if it is always safe.

Long Lake and Mt. Goode. Photo courtesy Dave Grah

As I get close to the bottom of the trail, I encounter the first two men again. I decide to play nice, and I ask them about Chocolate Lakes, which I learn sits below the Inconsolable Range.  I am incredibly drawn to the names of the lakes and the range, and I am still considering a detour there. They say it’s back up  trail, I have missed the turn off, and it would be another mile of backtracking, plus two miles round trip into the lakes. I don’t have time to do that, unfortunately. Reluctantly, I thank them, say a final goodbye, and continue back to the car, certain I will come back another time.

Saddlerock Lake in early summer. Photo courtesy Dave Grah

Despite the miles hiked that day (14 or 15, I am guessing), I have ample time to stop back at the market to get stuff for dinner. I arrive back at Dave’s about the time he and Michelle get home from work. I make chicken, rice, a vegetable and a huge salad for dinner. It’s another very mellow evening, as they prepare for a sailing trip over the upcoming Labor Day weekend, and I relax with a book I’ve borrowed from Dave. I go to bed early, preparing for one last adventure on the drive to the airport (Virginia Lakes) before flying home.

Highlights of the Day

Off Trail — The simple stuff  — Plus the sense of knowing what I had done.

As I’ve said, it takes awhile for the novelty of everything to wear off. I made sure to enjoy all the small things of the morning — at  Dave’s (like making my fabulous breakfast!), at a coffee shop in Bishop while waiting for the rental care shop to open, and at the car place with other waiting customers.  In town, I noticed both my sense of wanting to share my victory with the world (I wanted to tell the barista and anyone else who cared to listen “I just finished a solo hike of the JMT!!”) AND my sense of having a secret sense of accomplishment that I wanted to keep for myself. With the barista, I chose the latter. But at the car place, one of the other customers waiting on their vehicle was a man, approximately my age, who had made a half-hearted attempt at the High Sierra Route (HSR), the 195 mile route that loosely parallels the JMT but is mostly off trail, with many more passes at much higher elevation, and is much more physically challenging. He and his son had made a stab at it, and quit after four days out! I shared that I had just finished the JMT solo. He was impressed and said that would have been a much  more realistic adventure for him and his son. I was impressed that they even attempted the HSR, and the idea of doing that route crossed my mind, not for the first time…

On Trail — Being back so quickly into my preferred environment.

Upper Dusy Basin

In some ways, it felt like I never left. I was able to pick back up right where I left off, and do a day hike that I had always wanted to do and explore a basin I have heard so much about, from both Grah brothers (Dave and Oliver). It was just as magical as they said it would be. My transition from trail to life was tremendously eased by this day hike. I got to spend hours in bright sunshine, in an environment I absolutely love, and by myself (mostly), and in my own world. I also got to listen to a book, which I did not do at all on the JMT. While I have mixed feelings about listening to anything out in the wilderness, over the past several years I have softened my position on this, and find the distraction of a book incredibly welcoming at times. After 20 days of silence, I was in that space.  Also, as mentioned, I enjoyed seeing the JMT hikers headed out the pass for provisions, and especially the solo woman with whom I briefly conversed. It made me feel that sense of community to go along with my preferred solitary mode.

L to R Mt. Agassiz, Mt. Windhell, Thunderboldt Peak, North Palisade

Lessons of the Day

There ARE people out there to be careful of…

So this is a tough one for me. I do a lot of hiking and now backpacking alone. Of course I am not always alone, as others are usually present But sometimes those others raise suspicion or even downright alarm, as in the case of the one guy by the side of the small lake right near the trail through Dusy Basin.  I can probably count on two hands the number of times I have felt alarm out in the woods or on trails by my home. And I have been doing this regularly for over 20 years! But it made me realize that there are dangers out there, and, sadly but for real, more so for women than men. SO MANY people asked me before JMT if I was worried about encountering strange men on the trail. My standard answer was that I was more afraid of animals (especially bears!) than men by a long shot. Partly that has to do with how safe I have felt and continue to feel on the trails, even as a woman alone. BUT, this incident got my attention. It won’t necessarily change anything about what I do, but it does raise my awareness of the risks out there. Like anything else, we all must choose what risks we take in life. For me, the very small risk associated with hiking alone continues to be one I am willing to take, with caution of course, because the payoffs remain so very great.

Follow your instincts…

Dusy Basin with Giraud Peak

I can’t begin to cover this fully at the end of an already long blog, but this day, like so many others, was all about that. I knew I needed a diversion, an activity, and one of great pleasure at that, to take up my first full day back. The idea of lounging around Dave’s house all day, while pleasant in and of itself, was very anxiety producing for me. So I took action to do what I knew would work for me to ease back into real life…and that, of course, was to go on a hike!  I similarly followed my intuition about WHERE to go, as I wanted a particular environment (similar to JMT), and one that I am not likely to get back in the Pacific Northwest. And it had to be long enough that I could go for awhile, and turn around when I needed to. And it needed to have some challenge, but not so much that it stressed me out. Bishop pass and Dusy Basin was perfect for all those things. It brought me all the calm, peace, joy, beauty, and sense of (another) accomplishment that I needed and wanted on my last full day of vacation before my return home.

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 19 John Muir Trail

Arctic Lake Outlet to Mt. Whitney to Lone Pine Lake

Total JMT miles  —  12.1            Elevation Gain/Loss  —  +3035/-4495

First light on Guitar Lake

I wake up earlier than usual on this last full day of my trip. I will officially complete the JMT proper today, and hike most of the way out of the wilderness before spending one final night at Lone Pine Lake, just 3 miles from civilization. I am saddened by this reality but ready to take it on.  I am up and out of the tent even before first light. I want to get as early of a start as possible without feeling stressed. I am not in any real hurry, but I also don’t need to hang around for any reason. The summit of Whitney awaits!

As I prepare to depart, I can see a steady throng of people hike by just off in the distance, all headed towards the Whitney summit. At first it’s a constant stream of headlamps.  When first light emerges, the headlamps gradually disappear but the people keep coming. I eat breakfast, pack up, and get ready to join the masses. It’s a perfectly clear, crisp, morning and the sunrise colors are stupendous. It’s a perfect day to summit. I am completely ready by 6:45, my earliest departure time on the trip so far.

Looking down on Arctic Lake and peaks behind

Morning light reflected off Guitar Lake

Psychologically, I prepare myself for the people I will encounter on this day. The park service issues 150 permits to day hikers on Whitney, and then there are all the people who summit in conjunction with backpack trips (not only the JMT, but also other permitted trips in the area). Despite it’s daunting 14,505 foot summit, Mount Whitney in August is a busy place!  Surprisingly,  by the time I am headed up the switchbacks from Arctic Lake to Trail Crest, where people dump their backpacks to summit with less of a load, I don’t see any people. Not a one. Clearly, everyone is ahead of me. I climb that entire three mile section in utter solitude.  It’s quiet, eerie, peaceful and surreal.  But such is the nature of summit expeditions. Everyone wants to get up and at ’em, and I feel behind schedule already even though it’s barely 7:00 am!

Just before Trail Crest, I hear someone call to me. “Hey Kathie!” I don’t at first recognize the voice or face, as it’s all covered in hat, scarf, and other cold weather gear. “It’s Emily!” Now I can recognize solo hiker Emily, who I haven’t seen for two days. She slept right at Trail Crest (elevation 13,460), and has already been up to the summit to catch the sunrise from there. Now she is packed up and ready to head down. I am impressed at her organization and determination to make Whitney at sunrise and camp right out in the elements just below it. We chat for a moment, and I hear about her last couple of days and share details of mine. I am quite sure I won’t see her again, as she will be down long before me, and headed for hamburgers with her family.  I wish her well on the hike out and in her future, and tell her I am extremely glad to have met her and that I am impressed with her confidence and ability at the tender age of 21! She thanks me, wishes me well, and says I’m not too shabby either for a 50-something. She snaps two pictures of me, and we say our goodbyes.

Just below Trail Crest, where I found Emily

At Trail Crest, the trails from north and south merge. One comes up from Guitar Lake (where I have come), and one comes up from the Whitney Portal. Here, action definitely picks up. It’s two miles and just over 1000 feet elevation gain to the top from here. 30,000 hikers try for the summit each year; 10,000 make it. All 10,000 aren’t here today, but plenty are! I have an instant flashback to other wilderness experiences I’ve had in my life where it seems, from the environment and surroundings, that there simply should not be so many people present. The wild and extreme surroundings and the numbers of people simply don’t make sense together.  But alas, it is what it is, and I am determined to make the best of it. I dump my pack at Trail Crest. I plan to take only some food, water, my camera, an extra layer of clothes, and basic toiletries to the summit with me. I make sure to put all of the rest of the food in the bear canister to keep the marmots out. Marmots stand watch 24/7 here, and they keep a constant eye out for careless food security.

Similar to previous times both this year and last, once I am rid of my heavy backpack, I get into serious cruise mode. The final two miles to Whitney isn’t technical, but it is exposed, and people get cautious. It’s also relatively thin air, and that gets to people too.  I move past everybody, and no one passes me. I am not rushing to summit, it’s just what happens. I pass people in tennis shoes, sandals, and even one woman in flip flops! There are people in tank tops and some wearing enough clothing to tackle Everest! There is such a diverse array of clothing, levels of experience, and comfort vs. obvious discomfort with this last section of trail that it makes for great people watching.  But it’s difficult to navigate passing all those going up and those coming down. It’s simply a lot of people traveling up and down a narrow, rocky, and sometimes very exposed trail.

Hitchcock Lakes and Mt. Hitchcock from summit trail

Same view, slightly different lighting. Mt. Chamberlin in background

Since this is nearly the end of my journey, I want to make sure to enjoy every step. I feel conflicted as step by step I close in on the summit. I feel like I am reaching a pinnacle in more ways than one, and that life will never be quite the same once I have finished this trek, and I am not sure if I am ready for that.  I know there is nothing inherently life changing about the summit itself, since I reached it last year. But what it represents this time, at the end of this magnificent solo trek, feels momentous.

Summit Hut

But the heavy introspection soon gets tedious even to me, and I lighten up and finish it off. What greets me is the summit hut, the huge summit register, and throngs of people milling around the thankfully large area, toasting their success with miniature alcohol bottles and rampant photo and video taking. It’s predictable and yet totally spectacular, because the views really are circumferentially breathtaking!

I find Ginnie and her crew right away, and get in on some picture action. I have them take several of me, and offer to take group photos of them. It’s fun to feel a part of something — although I am not in their group photos, I still feel welcomed at the fringes. I am sure I could insert myself into a photo with them, but what would be the point? I have come this far alone, I will stick to my solo guns on the summit as well.

Photo time!

You can get a sense of the size of Whitney’s summit from this photo…

I try to take it all in before heading down: the fact that I have done it, the fact that I did it alone, and the fact that I did it without serious incident or accident or anything going wrong. It is a weird feeling, being up there like that, knowing how much went into the trip, all the planning and organization, and to have it all go off so well, but to be done. I keep thinking I should keep going. I know I don’t want it to end.

So while I do turn around and come down after an hour on top, I am grateful that I have only decided to go as far as Lone Pine Lake instead of all the way out. The first 100 plus switchbacks down from Trail Crest are tight, steep, and relentless. I am back with my backpack, and I remember how little I like this part of the trail. I move down a step at a time as quickly as I can, ignoring all pain in my arthritic knee and just getting it done. As soon as I am off of that section, I feel I can breathe again. I stop at what’s called Trail Camp, a large, crowded, popular campsite for hikers coming up from Lone Pine to summit in two days…or those doing the JMT South to North. There is only a small water source, and the sanitation of the place scares me. Too many people camp here, and it just feels dirty and over used. But I stay long enough to eat my lunch, write in my journal, and begin my trip reflections in earnest. I see Ginnie and her crew again, and consider hiking the last few miles with them, to pass the time. But I don’t seek that out, they start down ahead of me, and I start out alone.

Headed back down, just below Trail Camp

Just below Trail Camp, I catch up to one of Ginnie’s crew, Mike, a “trail parent” to her mixed up group. He starts up a conversation, explaining that he is slow because of a bum knee. I can relate, and I am in just the right mood to continue it, and we end up hiking out the last three miles together.  I have to say it makes that stretch of trail go very fast, and a part of me wonders why I didn’t hike with others more on the JMT. But I also know if I had done it the whole hike, it would have made me crazy. It’s a fitting way to spend the last miles of the last full day, and I happily say goodbye and part ways with Mike at the turn off to Lone Pine Lake. Alone again, I look for a campsite.

I had expected Lone Pine Lake to be busy with day hikers, as it is so close to the Whitney Trailhead. But there are only a handful of youngsters just getting out of the lake after a swim when I arrive. I walk past all the obvious campsites and go around to the far side of the lake. I believe there is camping there, and I don’t want to be in anyone’s obvious path. I am still seeking seclusion. I find a spot, which is large and open and just above the lake, where people have obviously camped before. It’s a bit more on the beaten path than I would like if someone actually walks around the lake, but I take it. By now, the typical afternoon clouds have come in, and I am less enthusiastic about the swim I was so looking forward to. I do it anyway, but it’s cool and windy and I am and out quick as a flash. Dressed and warmed up,  I set up camp, and wonder how to while away the hours until darkness. It’s only 3 o’clock when I arrive, and my quick dunk and setting up camp only takes a short time. I have almost finished my book, and I find my thoughts being overtaken again by some heavy introspection about the trip being almost done.

Afternoon clouds obscure my sun for swimming at Lone Pine Lake

I see just two more people all afternoon. One guy who comes through my site tries to tell me I can’t camp at the lake. I assure him that my JMT bible says I can! He looks at me skeptically, and I worry that I am doing something wrong. But I stand my ground and choose to stay. The next person is a female, heavily, accented, who inquires “Are you Kathie?” This totally and understandably surprises me! “Ginnie sent me.” She explains. “I am headed up Whitney, from the Portal, doing JMT South to North. I meet nice woman Ginnie on the trail, she tells me you are camped here and how nice you are! She says to come find you.”

I am impressed that this woman has come here to find me, but I am unsure what she needs. The site really won’t hold us both…it could, but I would rather not camp with a stranger on this last night. The reason I didn’t go all the way out was because I wanted one more night alone to sort out my thoughts, etc. All this is on my mind as I finally say, “Yes, Ginnie. She is sweet too! What can I do for you?” I don’t know how else to phrase the question, to try to figure out what she wants or needs from me. We chat for a bit, and eventually it comes out that she is also doing the JMT solo, and has some uneasiness about this. Some part of her wants to camp this first night with someone, or near someone, and she has settled on me! We also discuss options farther up for her, like Trail Camp, 3 more miles up trail, where I assure her there will be plenty of  people. She wonders if she can make Trail Camp before dark, and I tell her I am confident she can. I also tell her she is welcome to stay with me, and make sure I am in the correct headspace for this once I make the offer. I watch her waffle as she tries to figure out what to do.

Eventually, she re-shoulders her backpack, deciding she will go on. I am semi-relieved, but also touched that Ginnie, who I really don’t even know, thinks highly enough of me that she would send a solo female hiker my way for some reassurance or guidance or something. I hope I have offered it. I wish the woman, Anna, well, and off she goes.

Campsite at Lone Pine Lake

The lake now is utterly quiet, and I have the place completely to myself. It’s still early, way too early to call it a night, but I am restless and tired of writing and thinking. I simply don’t know how to make better sense of the end of this trip at this point than I have done in my journal writing so far.  I know more sense will come in the days, weeks, months, and even years to come. For now, on this last evening alone on my trip, I just sit and watch the sun dance in and out of the clouds and reflect off the nearby peaks, and try to embrace as much of the actual experience as is humanly possible. Everything about this trip thus far has been magical, and this last evening is no exception. I feel a sense of deep peace and complete appreciation for the entire adventure. I enjoy a final embrace from mother nature as she works her magic color schemes as the light fades around me. It’s truly a perfect ending to a perfect trip.

Highlights of the Day

Solo hike up to Trail Crest

Early morning sunlight on Mt. Hitchcock

Sometimes, I gear up for something that I think will be emotionally taxing for some reason, and then, when it doesn’t happen, it’s just such an unexpected relief. I fully expected people on that first 3 mile stretch, as the previous year Gregg and I had encountered a bunch. Starting off heavily clothed, that meant stopping to shed layers, and the people we’d pass would re-pass us, and we would then have to pass them again.  And getting rid of the morning coffee also proved difficult on the entire stretch of trail from Arctic lake to the summit of Whitney. That’s what I was expecting. To get that full three miles completely alone as the morning sun gleamed off all the surrounding peaks, it was simply beautiful, calming, and completely peaceful. A great way to start the day.

The summit of Whitney

Mts. Muir, Newcomb, Mallory, Le Conte, and Langley from Whitney summit…Just five of the multitude!

The time on the summit was precious. Last year, I was caught off guard by the numbers of people, and that people were drinking and celebrating at 9 or 10 am. This year, I didn’t expect otherwise, and so I wasn’t thrown off at all. The views were similar from year one to year two, as smoke had mostly cleared out in year one. But let me tell you, the views from a summit that high never disappoint, and to wander all around and look out from each direction is an experience that every human should have!

The last three miles of hiking…with someone!

I am not sure why I so enjoyed hiking with Mike for that last three miles, but it just really felt good to connect with a human on the level that we did. Partly it was because we were both of similar age, and both addled by a combined multitude of orthopedic injuries. It started out with him dumping his orthopedic woes on me, as I am a good listener and I definitely get it. But, as I felt brave enough to share some of mine with him,  it shifted to more even ground, and we were able to have a mutually uplifting and encouraging hike, as opposed to a suffer fest about all our ailments! I was able to talk with him about my probable upcoming knee replacement, and some of my thought processes in coming to that decision, which I hadn’t really talked to anyone about until that point.  It felt like a good and solid connection for that hour and some until we parted ways, and left me with a smile on my face.

Lone Pine Lake…alone

Parting shot of final campsite

I started the day alone and ended it alone. And it was very fitting to be camped at Lone Pine Lake! Again, like the start of my day, I had no expectation of solitude at the lake, and was unexpectedly blessed with such. I could not have asked for a more beautiful setting for my final night. I was close to civilization such that the morning’s hike would be a walk in the park. But clearly enough away that I got to experience one final night of just me and the mountains and chipmunks and whatever other wildlife joined me and my thoughts and introspections.

Lessons of the day

The recurrent theme and contrast of time alone vs. time with others

This day was similar to the whole trip which is similar to my whole life…the quest for balance between time alone and time with others. For whatever reason, on the trail and in life in general, I have a need for vast amounts of time alone. And yet, within that, I also am deeply drawn to people and conversations and connection and feeling a part of something much bigger than myself. This day had it all — time alone, and time with many, and the noticing of that and seeing how I can and do flit in and out of it all. The entire day just fit in so well with the big picture of  my life. I don’t have the balance mastered, and I still long at times for one when the other is missing, but I do understand how important both are for my well-being, happiness, and very survival.

It’s simply impossible to sum up something as big as the JMT in one final day

I stayed at Lone Pine Lake to try for closure or ease the challenge of re-adapting back to “real life” by one more night. But I realized that it can’t happen in a time-compressed fashion. Processing the trip, and getting all there is to get out of it, takes much longer than the end of the day on which it finishes. While it was a heavy thinking day, I was also able to eventually let the day be and just take it for what it was…the last day of a fantastic trip that will likely take years to finally settle into my life. And I found that thought reassuring, the knowing that I didn’t have to have it all figured out by the end of the last full day. There is much writing about and pulling together still to come!

Day 18 John Muir Trail

Lake South America Junction to Arctic Lake

Total JMT miles — 11.8        Elevation gain/loss  —  2070+/1410-

I awake early this morning, hours before daylight, with a keen awareness that the end of my Great Journey is inconceivably near. This time tomorrow, I will be headed up to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the “official”  end of the John Muir Trail.  While the trail officially ends on the summit, you still have to hike out the ten miles to the Whitney Portal and back to civilization. Nonetheless, tomorrow I will be done with the official trail, and the next day I will hike out of the Sierras for the completion of my trip. I lie awake in the early morning darkness considering how I want this day to look. I feel reflective, contemplative, and aware of the slightest beginnings of sadness. I make a pledge to myself before I leave the warmth of my tent to enjoy and embrace each and every minute of this last full day on the JMT proper, whatever may come to pass.

Again it’s cold at the campsite, and I struggle mightily to get myself packed up without freezing. Thankfully, I have hand warmers for each of my last two super-cold mornings, and I enjoy the small amount of warmth they exude inside my gloves. I do all my morning tasks while deep in thought, and I want to slow down time so that the day never ends. It’s an easy day in miles, just under 12, to hike above Guitar Look, to the outlet of Arctic Lake, guarded carefully by Mt. Whitney herself. There is nothing particularly challenging about the day, except my reluctance to start it. I know that once it starts, it’s conclusion is the inevitable outcome. But eventually cold and the need to move forces me to turn it on, and I get packed up and move out.

Craggy trees to start my day

Craggy trees to start my day

First up is a bit of forest, and I move quickly to warm up. I am grateful that there is some elevation gain here to get the blood flowing. Soon the trail opens up, and I emerge onto a flat barren of sand. The views are vast and open, and I can see peaks in all directions. The trail crests at what’s called Bighorn Plateau, a place named after a long ago sighting of sheep off to the east.  My book says it’s uncommon to actually see sheep here, but coyotes and soaring birds of prey are commonly sighted. It’s a pretty magical place on the whole. Last year we took off from Bighorn for a quick jaunt up Tawny Point for a full panorama; I consider that side trip briefly, but after the previous days challenges on the Lake South America Trail, I decide I don’t feel like going off-trail. But the views are fantastic, and I take lots of pictures.

Kern Ridge from Bighorn Plateau

Kern Ridge from Bighorn Plateau

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Unnamed lake and Kern Ridge

Unnamed lake and Kern Ridge

Mt.Hale (foreground), Mt. Whitney (back, right), Mt. Russell (back, left)

Mt.Hale (foreground), Mt. Whitney (back, right), Mt. Russell (back, left)

Kaweahs from Bighorn Plateau

Kaweahs from Bighorn Plateau

Leaving Bighorn Plateau, I drop into the Wright Creek drainage. It’s a minor elevation drop with multiple stream crossings adding to the magical surroundings. I am once again walking in a wonderland of meadows and creeks, surrounded by peaks, and I feel blessed and lucky with each step. I am really enjoying myself, and feel as if I am walking on air in spite of the weight of my backpack. The trail goes up and down repeatedly. None of it is difficult. Soon I come to the place where the JMT and PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) split for good. Prior to this, the JMT largely follows the much longer PCT, but at 202 miles in,  I head east toward the summit of Whitney to finish off the JMT, and the PCT heads south towards the Mexican border. Briefly, I wish I was on the PCT just so my journey wouldn’t be so close to an end. I let myself entertain for a moment the idea of doing such an adventure in the future. Realistically, I know I won’t, as 2650 miles is just too much,  and I have no desire or inclination to be out on the trail for five months in a row! But it’s fun to day dream on this already dreamy day, and I let my thoughts wander along with my feet.

In no time I am at the junction to Crabtree Meadow. The JMT actually bypasses this gem, by you can enjoy it if you head a mere two tenths of a mile south. Crabtree Meadow, just 3 miles from where I will camp and 7.5 miles from the summit of Whitney, has ample camping, food storage boxes, a ranger station, and even a sit down toilet! It also has a lovely creek that runs through it, Crabtree Creek,  and a great potential lunch spot that I discovered last year when I left the trail to find water. All morning I have looked forward to having a long lunch in this meadow by the creek, and I am ecstatic to actually be here.

I immediately pull off my boots, socks, and get down to as few clothes as I can — jog bra and shorts. I plan for some serious sunbathing and relaxing. It’s only noon, and I have nothing else to do this afternoon but complete the three miles to Arctic Lake outlet. I figure I deserve a good long break. I eat slowly, taking in the views. No one else is around, which amazes me. After I eat I lie back and let the warm sun sink right into my weary body. I wonder if it is a mistake to get so relaxed mid day with a handful of miles still to cover. But I can’t help it. I am in heaven. It’s far and away the most relaxed I have been on this trip. The time with Dave, Oliver, and Olivia, (Day 10) when we spent much of the day in camp, I was relaxed, but it was just cold enough that I had a hard time totally letting go. Here, the sun at 10,700 feet feels fantastic, and I seriously don’t want to move. I consider just camping here for the night.

Crabtree Meadow and Creek, Mt. Hitchcock behind.

Crabtree Meadow and Creek, Mt. Hitchcock behind.

Instead, I pull out my journal and write, to capture the essence of where I am. Here is what rolls off the pen:  “Midday at Crabtree Meadow — So peaceful, sunbathing, eating lunch, boots off, and I could not be happier. I am liking this day because it is SO relaxing, I can barely stand it! When I think of what I could possibly feel stress about right now, there’s nothing. I have a great lunch spot, I am alone in the meadow by this lovely creek, with just a little farther to go today and ample time to get there. The weather looks good, and all seems to be totally in line for a relatively relaxing and easy summit tomorrow. I have enjoyed this trip beyond belief. I have gotten so comfortable with myself in all ways out here. I have seen bobcats, a coyote, deer, marmots, and tons of small critters. I have blessedly not seen a bear! I am absolutely loving this trip so far, and I wouldn’t want to change a thing. I am completely in sync in all areas of my life right now. There is simply no other place I would rather be than just where I am.”

It’s hard to top that, and it’s hard to leave. But I want that coveted spot up above Guitar Lake (most people camp at the lake the night before summiting Whitney). Last year Gregg and I made the extra half mile push up above the lake, and the views down to the lake were spectacular, as well as the fact that we were well away from all people. Since I am still seeking solitude, I push on from Crabtree after a fantastic two hour break.

Mt. Muir from trail leaving Crabtree

Mt. Muir from trail leaving Crabtree

Timberline Lake

Timberline Lake

West side of Mt. Whitney

West side of Mt. Whitney

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Whitney's getting closer!

Whitney’s getting closer!

Look closely and you can see the helicopter...

Look closely and you can see the helicopter…

Some clouds come in, and the air is noticeably chillier. I am aimed straight at Whitney as I hike, and I have a sense of my destiny emblazoned in my soul. I know how it all ends. I am starting to become more okay with things ending, and in particular I am ready to be done for the day. My legs are feeling especially fatigued, as if they know the end of their responsibility on this trip is drawing near. I tell them to hang in, we are almost done! Thankfully, the miles pass quickly, as I head past Timberline Lake and on towards Guitar. Between these lakes, I first notice helicopter activity. I start paying attention, assuming it is some type of a mountain rescue. Last summer, I had a front row seat to a helicopter rescue of a dead body in the Enchantments, outside of Leavenworth, WA (see Day 2 Enchantments). I am instantly taken back there. I hope it’s not a dead body, or any body for that matter, that they are currently rescuing. But the helicopter keeps on circling and circling. I don’t like that the noise breaks up the quiet, and I don’t like what the helicopter may represent. This stays on my mind, the first time I have let worry creep into my head all day. I try my best to let it go, as I ascend the last bit up to Guitar Lake.

When I arrive at Guitar, friends from Day 13‘s rainstorm, Ginnie and Tracy, call a hearty “Hey Kathie!!” I feel like a celebrity! Their group has grown, to about eight in all, and I immediately drop my pack for a quick hug and hello. These are the gals that set up tent so closely in the rain, then we hiked more or less together until Mather Pass on Day 14. I lost track of them after that, and I am really glad to see them.  I ask them about the helicopter. “Just training sessions,” they assure me. “They have been at it all afternoon!” I am relieved about that. I ask them their plans for the morning. They expect to leave to summit by 5 am. I tell them I am headed up to camp at Arctic Lake outlet, and don’t expect to be on the trail quite that early, but that inevitably we will run into each other on the summit. This makes me super happy, as I have lost track for good of my former comrades Ashley, Rob, and Marcus, and I would love to at least be on the summit with some folks I feel like I know well enough to celebrate with.

I do the last distance to Arctic Lake outlet on a high. There is no sad mountain rescue at hand, I have encountered friends I will see on the summit tomorrow, and I will be at camp and set up in plenty of time to enjoy the sunset over Guitar Lake.  I am in for a surprise, though, as, where last year there were just two other campers up above Guitar, this year, there is a throng. At least 20 backpackers are there, evenly spread out over the meager camping spots available. I am determined not to let this discourage me, and I set about trying to find a perfect spot for myself. I wander amongst the open slabs of rock, with their shelves on which one can barely fit a tent, and look for a spot away from the others. Eventually, I find one, and it’s actually pretty perfect. It has a ledge up above the flat rock below, which makes a built in table for me to spread my stuff out. It even has a seat off to the side of my tent slab, for writing and reading. It’s all rocky and exposed, and I know it will be cold, but it looks down over Guitar Lake, and it’s away enough from others that I don’t feel like I am right in anyone’s back yard. It’s more than good enough, and I happily begin making myself at home for the night.

Guitar Lake from my campsite

Guitar Lake from my campsite

The evening passes slowly, after an early dinner. I still have hours before darkness, and I finish a book and then do some more writing. Finally, I can’t think of any reason not to, and so I get into the tent even before the sun goes down. I think maybe I will get that early start in the morning after all, depending on what time I wake up and get moving.

Highlights of the Day

Hanging out in Crabtree Meadow

I am not sure why it took me until Day 18 to achieve complete relaxation on the trip. But for my time at the meadow, I was there. Surprisingly, I only saw a few other people the entire time, and mostly, it was just me by the creek, enjoying the peaceful sounds of water dancing as I rested, ate, and wrote. Perhaps it was my intentionality to enjoy the day that created in me such a sense of peace. Perhaps it was that I was so close to the end of my trip that there was just plain not much left to worry about. Perhaps it was that my body finally said, “Hey! We deserve a break here!”, and I listened. But for whatever reason, that time in the meadow was not only a highlight of my day, but also of the entire trip.

Campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

My campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

My campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

For whatever reason, my sense of being relaxed and accepting of everything continued into the evening and my time above Guitar Lake. I was just plain not stressed out.  About anything. I kept thinking there must be something I should worry about, at least I could get nervous about summiting in the morning. But even that didn’t do it for me. I just felt calm, cool, and collected, and very at peace in my environment. Like I fully belonged there and was one with my surroundings.

Lessons of the Day

When the pieces fall into place, it simply feels great.

I came on the trip to relax into being by myself in the magnificent beauty of a somewhat extreme mountain environment. I wanted to feel peaceful and calm and a part of that world. I wanted to be comfortable and at ease with myself and my natural companions of weather, animals, lakes, creeks, and stark mountain peaks surrounding me on all sides. I wanted to feel at home here. I finally got that in spades on Day 18. I was finally and completely at peace. Everything about the day was just like magic. I HAD fully and completely embraced all parts of the day, and it felt just great.

The realization that I was going to make it finally set in.

This wasn’t so much of a lesson as a realization. As I write and reflect back on this day, the magic largely had to do with knowing I was going to make it.  I knew it with a certainty that was as complete as my peace — I was going to complete my solo trip of the John Muir Trail. I let the magnitude and emotion of that really started to sink in on this day. Nothing stood between me and the end.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 17 John Muir Trail

Lake at 12,250 to Lake South America Junction

Total JMT miles —  5.9        Side Trip miles — 8?

Total elevation gain/loss —  1670+/2870-

First light at Lake 12,250 illuminates Junction Peak

First light at Lake 12,250 illuminates Junction Peak

The morning at Lake 12,250 dawns clear, cold and stunningly beautiful. Words can’t capture the sheer beauty as the first hints of light bounce off the peaks surrounding the lake. It’s too cold  and windy for easy conversation, so, while our tents are a mere 30 feet apart, Emily and I eat and pack up our belongings in near silence. We are both on track for an early assault on Forester Pass (13,110), the highest pass on the official JMT.  We watch the lone, older man who camped down closer to the edge of the lake pack up and hit the switchbacks even before first light. His progress seems painfully slow, and we comment that it’s a good thing he got an early start.earlysunlake12250

I have never camped so close to a pass before, and I am excited for an early ascent. It’s just under 1000 feet of elevation from where I am camped, and I don’t remember it being particularly challenging. However, one IS at high elevation, the air IS quite a bit thinner, and, as I have said before, a pass IS a pass! So I approach it as smartly as possible in terms of clothing to wear and an appropriate pace. Emily gets on the trail just before me, and I follow her up at a good clip. As I climb, I take photos and thoroughly revel in the early morning sun as it dances off the peaks and lakes below.

Center Peak, right, and University Peak behind, heading up Forester Pass

Center Peak, right, and University Peak behind, heading up Forester Pass

Lakes and peaks seen from trail to Forester

Lakes and peaks seen from trail to Forester

Looking back near the top of the pass

Looking back near the top of the pass

We pass the older guy not too far from the top of the pass. He introduces himself as John, and, frankly, he’s a nearly toothless wonder!  It appears that he’s been out in the mountains for quite some time, with his raggedy clothes, antiquated backpack, and less than Martha Stewart clean appearance. He joins Emily and me at the pass, and the three of us enjoy remarkable views and pictures at the top for 15 minutes or so. It is cold, windy, and beautiful on top…but there isn’t a lot of space, and John seems determined to talk all four of our ears off! So both Emily and I bid our adieus quickly, relieved to get away from the lonely mountain man with his abundance of stories. It’s not that I don’t like stories, but at 9:00 am on the top of the world near the end of a three week solo journey….well, you get the gist. I am okay with choosing my need for silent appreciation over his need for a sounding board.

The switchbacks down are steep, dramatic, and exposed. At times, they are cut right into the rock, and at other times, built atop stone walls. It’s remarkable the amount of effort that went into the making of the JMT trail generally, and this portion is a striking example.  A bit down the pass, at 12,500 feet, sits a memorial plaque to an 18 year old that died during the building of this section of the trail. After igniting dynamite for trail work, Donald Downs hid with his co- builders behind some large boulders off to the side. This was standard practice at the time. Unfortunately, rocks shook loose from above, and pinned Donald’s arm and injured three others. The boulder was successfully removed off Donald’s arm, but the arm was shattered. A doctor came to the scene as quickly as possible to perform amputation, but infection set in, and Donald died before he could be evacuated. Reading this story, and passing this plaque for the second year in a row, touches me greatly, as well as gives me an even greater appreciation of the dedication and sacrifice that went into the creation of this fantastic trail.  I say a silent thank you to Donald as I pass.

Mt. Barnard and lake below Forester Pass

Mt. Barnard and lake below Forester Pass

Caltech Peak, right, and Kern Ridge, back, headed down Forester Pass

Headed down the pass

Headed down the pass

At the bottom of the pass, the trail crosses the Tyndall Creek for the first of multiple times. Then it follows  a simply divine course through a broad and gentle valley for several miles. The path and landscape are sandy, punctuated by boulders. Emily and I hike at a similar pace for these first few miles. Soon we encounter the spot where the first trees appear, a mixture of lodgepole and foxtail pines.  I remember this place from last year…suddenly there are trees, where previously there were none. It’s just so incredibly distinct, and something that happens often at this elevation, the moving above and below tree line, into and out of forest. At just below tree line, we reach the signed junction for Lake South America. This is definitely on my to do list since it didn’t happen last year. I call a goodbye to Emily, and decide to go find a campsite, dump my stuff, then day hike the 6.5 mile loop that goes by Lake South America. I like the name of the lake, and Elizabeth Wenk, the author of my JMT “bible”, says it’s worthwhile. Two good enough reasons to spend an afternoon there, I reason, as it’s only 11:00 am and the day is young.

I deliberately cross Tyndall Creek before looking for a site, to get away from the crowds that might descend as the day progresses. I follow the Kathie Tupper site finding process, of leaving the trail, then wandering up, looking for flat spots that have been camped in before, but are not obvious from the trail. I find a perfect site, and this time I set up my tent and establish camp before taking off. While the skies were still mostly sunny, clouds are coming in, and I don’t want to get caught in another (albeit unlikely) rain storm while I am away, without my gear being stowed safely. She can be taught, I think with a smile 🙂

Just before Lake South America Junction...notice where the tree line starts

Just before Lake South America Junction…notice where the tree line starts

I pack up my daypack — lunch, water, dirty clothes I envision rinsing in Lake South America, and a change of clothes that I envision putting on after rinsing myself in the same lake. I return to the signed junction off the JMT, and take off on a quite well established trail. The trail splits in less than a mile, the right fork going to several other lakes then eventually Lake South America, then around into the headwaters of the Kern River. The path straight is where the loop comes around, after you have toured the lakes and river basin. True confessions, I don’t have a good map of the area, only the rather inadequate map in my John Muir Trail book. Plus my book contains a three-line description of the 6.5 mile loop hike.  I am not particularly worried, however, as I figure the trail will be popular enough to be at least somewhat well-travelled and, hopefully, easy to follow.

Scenes from Lake S. America Trail

Scenes from Lake S. America Trail

lakesandpeaksfromsat

From Lake S. America Trail

From Lake S. America Trail

The terrain is initially flat, open, and vast, and the trail is easy to follow. I encounter several lakes after a couple of miles, each time wondering if it is THE lake I am looking for. I am in a mood of second guessing everything. In my hometown of the North Cascades in Washington,  I think little of heading out on a day hike, even if  I am less than 100% confident in the route, and don’t expect to see many people. Here, in such unfamiliar territory, it feels risky and a bit scary. I let my imagination get to me, worrying that a storm might come in, and I will not be able to find my way back. I also worry that the clouds are going to keep me from being able to clean up in the lake if I ever find it, as it’s cold and windy when the sun plays hide and seek with the abundant puffy white clouds. I try to laugh at my anxieties, as none of them are founded in anything other than my imagination and fear of the unknown.

I come to a Lake that I am certain is Lake South America. It’s cold and cloudy, but I strip  down and jump in anyway, before I can talk myself out of it. It takes a bit of courage, as the lake, at over 11,000 feet elevation, is very cold.  I do the deed quickly, then shiver my way back into dry clothes just as fast as I can. I eat my turkey jerky and dried fruit by the side of the lake, teeth chattering uncontrollably. Ever tried to eat jerky with chattering teeth? It’s not easy!  I keep hoping the sun will reappear,  but it is now pretty convincingly cloudy. I feel silly for having jumped in the water, but also refreshed and very invigorated. As soon as I finish my food, I pack up and hit the trail again. At the far end of the lake,  I see the sign for Lake South America — .2 miles off in a different direction. I tell myself it’s not worth it, I have seen enough beautiful lakes. I  want to keep moving around the loop, towards the headwaters of the Kern and back to the JMT. I figure I’ll warm up on the trail, and I don’t want any diversions. I am on a mission of movement!

Lake I bathed in...that wasn't Lake S. America, after all!

Lake I bathed in…that wasn’t Lake S. America, after all!

I follow the trail past more lakes, and into the river basin. The trail becomes progressively more difficult to follow, and several times I have to go back up to where I last had it to try to determine where it goes. The setting is distractingly magical, with the Kern river valley laid out at my feet. Plus, I warm up as I walk, and that greatly helps my state of mind. I pass a set of two female backpackers, who are headed to Lake South America for the night. They are the only hikers I see. As the trail continues to be difficult to follow, I start getting nervous again. I assume there will be some sort of sign pointing me back to the JMT, as the trail thus far has been well-signed. But I spot no signs, and again, start to second guess myself. I let worry get the better of me.

First views of Mt. Whitney, far, and Mt. Muir, close, from Kern River Basin

First views of Mt. Whitney, far, and Mt. Muir, close, from Kern River Basin

Kern River Basin

Kern River Basin

Upper Kern River Basin

Upper Kern River Basin

At one point, the trail begins to drop down steeply. I look at my inadequate map, and notice that there IS a trail that drops down into the Kern River Valley, that will NOT take me back to the JMT. I become convinced that I am on that trail, and headed toward the bottom of the river basin. Immediately, I head back up to see where I have missed the turn back to the JMT. I wander around for quite some time, looking for the trail I am sure I have missed. By this time, I am beyond nervous. I feel incredibly silly that I might be lost in such a place, but I really don’t know where the trail is, and have no means to find it besides “looking around” for it. That is almost pointless in this type of environment, as nothing stays self-explanatory for long, and you are soon traipsing up and over scree fields, boulders, and basically doing the “cross country” thing which I so dislike!

I do this for about an hour, and then say to myself screw it. I take off cross country in earnest, in the direction that I think the trail must head. It’s a rough go, as I quickly discover. I am traversing steep scree fields, having to gain ridges, and dropping into lake basins that I have no idea where they lead, but it’s continually not where I expect. It’s about 4:00 pm by this time, and I am worried. I fear that I will be caught out after dark, and I have NOT brought a flash light, and I don’t not have enough clothes to spend the night at 11,000 feet without getting very chilled. I feel really chagrinned that I am not more prepared for these potential challenges on my “easy” 6.5 mile trip!

Shortly before taking off cross country...note the faint trail visible, from which I could not find the trail back.

Shortly before taking off cross country…note the faint trail visible, from which I could not find the trail back.

The best I can do is to just keep moving in the general direction that I think I should go. I know the loop trail is a loop…it stands to reason that it will come out or be visible at some point during my efforts. The hardest part is that I just keep going up and over things…and this isn’t easy. I know a trail would be much more straightforward, and I am incredibly frustrated that I can’t see it and I am most definitely not on it! I make my way down yet another steep lake basin, convinced that if I can just get up and over the ridge on the far side, I will know where I am. I slip and fall down the steep, loose scree. But I don’t  sustain injury except to my pride. Thankfully, I have my poles to assist with my less than graceful descent.

Last scree field and last lake before I finally came into view of the trail

Last scree field and last lake before I finally came into view of the trail

Finally I come up over the top of a small ridge on the other side of the steep lake basin. I look down, and there, right in front of me, is the junction to the trail I left five hours before. I have come out less than 100 feet away from where the trail from the Kern River returns to the main trail, which leads back to the JMT. I dump my pack, throw my arms in the air, and give a dramatic “YES!!”, complete with fist pump. I sit down, drink the last of my water, and eat my last bar, letting the joy of knowing where I am embrace me. I feel silly about my fears and doubts of not finding my way back. I am thankful that no one was with me on this journey, at least not in my head. It takes me awhile to collect myself back into feeling like a “successful hiker.” My self-confidence and self-image both took a hit, no doubt. But I take it all in, the relief and feelings of embarrassment at “getting lost”. I reason it’s all part of being an adventurous hike, and I am just thankful I am found!

My campsite

My campsite

I return to my campsite via the JMT. I pass several women camped right off the trail, who comment that I am “traveling light”. That’s not the normal response to my usually heavy backpack, but of course I am just carrying a day pack. I tell them I have been on a day hike, around the Lake South America loop. I don’t tell them I missed the trail back and hoofed it up and over wild terrain, cross country style. I am happy that I crossed the river earlier in pursuit of a campsite, as I find that no one else is camped on my side of the creek. I need the solitude and reflection, the privacy and seclusion, to sort out my thoughts and be with my intense pleasure and relief of being back in my comfort zone. I can watch the folks across the river, their distant enough presence adding to my feeling of being safe and cozy in my surroundings.

Highlights of the day

Forester Pass

With Emily at Forester Pass

With Emily at Forester Pass

While the conditions were less than optimal with chatty John, I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment sitting atop Forester Pass. It’s hard to describe what it feels like, to be sitting up there, so close to the end of the trail, with so much of the trip behind and yet a whole mountain to be climbed before it’s all said and done. The environment at 13,000 is stark, the peaks and valley extend out below as far as the eye can see,  and there is an incredible sense of spaciousness. I felt simultaneously minuscule AND a part of something wildly vast and mystical.

Chilling at Forester Pass

Chilling at Forester Pass

Finding my way back to the trail

I did not like the feeling of being lost. I did not like the feeling of being unprepared. I did not like that I let these things get to me so much. BUT, on the whole, I DID like my adventure, because it all turned out well in the end.  It’s ironic that I never made it to Lake South America, because that it what I was aiming for. But I did take on an off-route loop, and I made it back without incident, and I saw a whole lot of beautiful country along the way. Most of what “bad” happened took place in my head. I never was in any real danger. Being in that whole circular loop, both in my head and in actuality on the trail, taught me some valuable lessons…

Lessons of the day

Don’t second guess everything!

If I had a dime for every needless worry I had on the trail, I’d have come home financially set! It still amazes me how much I get in my head and have anxiety about things that just plain don’t come to pass. I do this in my regular life as well as in my adventurous life. How does one get beyond that? Maybe by jumping in and doing it anyway. I watched myself on this day, on the lake loop, worry about everything. The weather, going out alone, believing I might get hypothermia after jumping in the cold water, getting off trail, believing I’d lost the trail, worrying that I tried to forge a way back that wouldn’t actually work….and on and on. And again, none of those things happened. If I spent more time…in preparation, having the right maps and knowing how to read them, and less time in needless worry, who knows how the adventure would have felt in the aftermath. Possibly less adventurous, but certainly less dramatic.

Carry a map and compass…and know how to use them

I am embarrassed to say that my knowledge of map and compass is limited. That’s partly why I chose the JMT as my solo trail, as it is relatively straight forward and I had done it before so it was familiar. I wish now that I had had a map and compass on my Lake South America loop, so I could have experimented and learned something actual and concrete about taking care of my self when going off-trail. Since that’s not what happened, next time I WILL be prepared. I see now that just “winging it”, while it worked here, is not always the easiest solution.

Trust your intuition

All of the above being said, and after all of the self-reproach about not being prepared and worrying about everything that was unfamiliar on the loop, the thing that I did right and that ultimately led me back was that I trusted my intuition. I knew which direction to head, and I trusted that if I followed my inner guidance system, it would not lead me astray. In so much of my life, whether it’s out in nature, or back home in the humdrum of every day life, when I tune into, trust, and follow my intuition, I am never steered wrong.

It’s a complex world we live in, whether it’s on the trail or in life. Relying on what we know is good; having tools to add to that is very helpful; using the tools to contribute to  that which we know intuitively is the best possible combination.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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