Tupper's 2 Cents

Feet on the path and eyes wide open...

Tag: Trusting intuition (page 1 of 2)

Copper Ridge Loop — Day 4

Indian Creek to Egg Lake  — 9/13/17, 12 miles, 4000 feet elevation gain.

It took awhile for daylight to enter my deeply forested Indian Creek campsite. It was 6:30 before I emerged from my tent —  bankers hours for backpackers!  Over breakfast and coffee I considered the day ahead. First up were back to back river fords over Indian Creek and the Chilliwack River. Then a climb of 4000 feet, from the low point ((2225 feet) to the high point (6260 feet) of the entire Copper Ridge loop. Then back down to Egg Lake for the night — 12 miles total.

After breakfast and map study, I began packing up. I didn’t know what to expect with the river fords, as the rangers had said they could be “waist high”.  They also said that route finding “might be required” between the first and second crossings. All these uncertainties created more than a little anxiety as I transformed my sprawling campsite into a self-contained backpack. I left accessible sandals, extra socks, even extra shorts.  And I put my sleeping bag and tent in garbage bags, just in case.

River Fords

Ready to go by 8:15, I noticed that the couple camped just above me appeared packed up as well. I moseyed into their site, calling hello and asking if they knew anything about the river crossings. They didn’t, but we made introductions (Brian and Sarah, from Portland), and agreed we’d take on the unknown together.

It was .7 miles to the first crossing. When we got there, we looked at each other, surprised. The creek was low, and moving ever so gently. Brian decided to take off his boots and do it in socks, and I opted to do the same.  Sarah wore sandals. The first ford was barely knee high and very straightforward.  On the other side, Brian went first, easily spotting the orange tape that marked the location of the second crossing.  I walked the short distance between river banks (over rocks) in my socks. It seemed the easiest option, although a very painful one for my extremely tender feet! The second ford was equally as simple.  Again, barely to the knees. Mid-September and low water levels made these fords easy and painless.  At any other time of year, I can imagine it could be a whole different story!

On the other side, we chatted as we dried our feet and put dry socks and boots back on. Brian’s mom had just had knee replacement, and he was impressed that I was out backpacking ten months post-replacement. “You are an inspiration!” He said. “I am going to tell my mom all about you!”

They were headed to camp at Copper Lake. “That will be quick”, I said. “It’s only 5.7 miles from here.” Brian looked at me quizzically, but said nothing. That’s the number of miles I had in my head to reach the lake.

Copper Ridge Trail to Copper Lake

Copper Mountain

Brian and Sarah, clearly on a mission, shot up the far side of the creek, calling back, “See you up there!” I felt like saying “Not at that speed!” Clearly they were fast hikers, and I figured they’d be at the lake before I even reached the ridge. Plus I was camping at a different lake. I didn’t think I’d see them again, but I was glad they’d been there for the crossings. I stalled for time getting water and a snack, trying to rev myself up for the elevation gain to come.

At 9:45, I was as ready as I’d ever be. I hooked up my audiobook and headphones, wanting distraction from the inevitable challenge of hauling my 50-lb. pack up 4000 feet. After the previous day’s fall, I decided I’d take the ascent one slow, careful step at a time. The trail was steep, switchbacking relentlessly through forest. I could see why most people did the loop the other direction (the way I had previously done it). But hey, if I wasn’t going up the switchbacks, I’d be going down them, and frankly, neither option was a walk in the park! I thought of Dad again, reminding me to “put my nose to the grindstone” when undertaking challenging tasks. This was one of those times.

First views, finally!

Mt. Redoubt in distance

Eventually, the forest thinned, and I had views to further distract me. It felt like I’d been going for hours and making little progress. I was tired and wanted a substantial break, but I also wanted the sense of gaining the ridge before resting.

Boulder crossing, scene of fall #3

Finally, I came to a boulder field, and saw the first two people I’d seen all day since Brian and Sarah. I checked my watch. It was 12:45, I’d been going for 2.5 hours, and I honestly wasn’t sure where in relation to Copper Lake I stood. I asked a question I almost never ask: “Do you know how much farther to Copper Lake?”

“About four miles”, the woman, traversing the boulder field in the opposite direction, responded.

“Four miles!” I was stunned. That would mean I had only travelled 1.7 miles in 2.5 hours! That couldn’t be right. I was so rattled that I took my eyes off the ‘trail’  to look at her in horror, and tripped, again. This time I fell hard and ungracefully on my behind, a sharp rock impaling the right butt cheek. The pain caused a sharp intake of breath.

“No way,” I said. “It can’t be that far!” Her hiking partner piped up. “More like three. At the  most. It’s pretty flat along the ridge, though. And beautiful.”

I thanked him, still exasperated, and continued the short distance to the ridge. I thought about those numbers. 2.7 miles in 2.5 hours. I really was hiking slowly! Whatever — I tried to shake it off.  At the top, I plopped down, gently, for a lunch break. Sitting hurt after that fall. But the views were incredible, puffy white clouds against blue sky blanketing peak after peak.  I spent 30 minutes up there, taking in caloric and supernal nourishment.

Challenger Mt. and Whatcom Peak from Ridge Trail

View from Copper Ridge…

Mineral Mountain, foreground, Shuksan and Ruth Mt. in back

Mineral Mountain, foreground. Background, L to R: Icy Peak, Mt. Hagen, Bacon Peak.

Classic view of Mt. Redoubt

Mt. Lindeman, Right; Middle Peak, left

 

Copper Ridge Trail

Mostly revived, I hefted on my pack and moved along. The ridge trail wandered for however many miles, headed toward Copper Lake. I struggled to keep my eyes on the trail, the draw to unfolding views an incredible pull. I wasn’t sure when (if ever!) I would reach the lake, as apparently I was on the slow hiking boat that day. But unexpectedly soon,  at 2:15, I arrived.

Copper Lake

Looking back on Copper Lake

I filled up on water and took another break, this time only 15 minutes. The day was not over — I still had more switchbacks to gain Copper Mountain,  then a drop back down to Egg Lake.

Copper Lake to Copper Mountain Lookout

The clouds continued to thicken on my short break at the lake. I LOVE sunshine, and will take it anytime. But I was grateful for the cooler temps, as I could put a t-shirt on over my tank top. Carrying a heavy pack in a tank top always causes shoulder chafing, something I struggled with tremendously on my three weeks on the John Muir Trail. The extra layer between strap and skin brought instant relief.

Clouds building over Mineral Mountain

Looking up to Copper Mt. Lookout — finally!

Looking down into the Chilliwack River Valley, 4000 feet down

Copper Mt. foreground, Icy Peak and ridge leading to Shuksan behind…

My course after the lake was more steep switchbacks and more expanding views, including back to the shrinking Copper Lake. Soon I could see the lookout on Copper Mountain, and I knew I was close. I picked up the pace for the final distance, arriving just before 3:30. For that section, the distance I expected to cover in a set amount of time had returned.

Copper Mt. Lookout, actively used and maintained, but locked unless luck brings you there with a ranger present.

From lookout: Foreground, Hannegan Peak, climbed on first day, left. Granite Mt. right. Background: Shuksan, left, Mt. Baker right, in clouds

Looking down Slesse Creek Valley (Mt. Slesse prominent peak in distance), to Fraser River lowlands and North Shore Mountains far in the distance

And the lookout was spectacular! I’d been there twice before. Once, with Rob in 1997. As mentioned, we went the opposite direction, reaching the Lookout on Day Two. We spent the night right there, which I am not clear if you can still do. On that trip, I hauled in my pack a three-pound loaf of home-made zucchini bread and a bottle of red wine, among other things. I am not exaggerating when I say my pack then weighed over 70 pounds! I broke out the bread and wine at the lookout, and Rob was astounded, and grateful. We shared the bounty with two other guys also camped up there.  Definitely a highlight from that first hike.

The other time I was there was with an old boyfriend, Gregg, in the summer of 2014. That was an extremely low snow year, and we hiked up to Silesia Ridge for the night in early June — unheard of in all but the most unusual year. We set up camp in one of two always popular sites, but saw not a soul. After dinner, we hiked up to the lookout, again seeing no one. We stayed almost until sunset, dropping down the 1.5 miles to camp in a show of spectacular colors I won’t ever forget.

Mt. Shuksan from lookout

Southern Pickets! Including Mt. Fury and Phantom Peak

Shuksan and Baker…Baker can’t seem to lose her cloud topper

To my amazement, there was no one at the lookout this year either. I stayed up there for a good half hour, enjoying views in every direction. I kept hoping the cloud topping Mt. Baker would lift, but it persisted. The wind was brisk, and I had to put on more layers. The sun stayed mostly behind clouds, and the cloud formations in the distance made for spectacular viewing. And photos. I took a ton in each direction, trying to remember which peaks were which…

Panorama from Copper Lookout

Copper Lookout to Egg Lake

When I finally decided to leave, I wandered down slope. I found one obvious campsite, surmising that must be the place where Rob and I had camped. I noticed something that could only be a compostable toilet just below, completely out in the open. WOW, I thought that’s a toilet with a view! But also a view for everyone else too. I didn’t remember the toilet from a few years earlier, and figured it must be new. As I dropped down, though, the trail got more and more faint, and I realized I was going the wrong way. The trail down had to be in a different direction.

Toilet with a view!

Windy selfie, Mt. Redoubt on my shoulder

I retraced my steps to the lookout, and, in my short absence, a person had appeared.

“Where did you come from?” I asked. The guy looked at me very strangely, like did I think he dropped from the sky…?

“Uh, Silesia Ridge….” He answered. “Why do you ask?”

I told him about the toilet, and heading down the wrong direction. He said simply “The trail down goes the other way. Just on the other side of the towers. You can’t  miss it.”

OK then, clearly he didn’t know me and my propensity for missing obvious trails! I thanked him, and returned to the tower, and, sure enough, there was an obvious trail down. And another hiker coming up, who was the first guy’s hiking partner. I asked this guy for a photo, and he obliged.

Headed down the correct trail from the lookout

On the correct trail now, all was familiar. I remembered heading down the steep switchbacks with Gregg as the sun got low on that gorgeous June evening. It was pretty now too, although cloudy, and I was tired of hiking and wanted to be at Egg Lake. The day, while grand, felt like it was going on forever.

Once down the switchbacks, the trail headed back up.  Again. I was tired of gaining elevation! I could see the lake basin, but still the trail climbed. Finally, I came to the signed junction for Egg Lake.  Then it was just .3 miles of elevation loss, and I’d be home for the night.

Egg Lake, finally!

Campsite at Egg Lake

Egg Lake Campsite

The first campsite contained a woman and gear.  She explained that were staying in that site, but her husband was off checking out the other two sites, each of the three spaced far from the other. “Hey, honey!” She called to him, “Which site is the best over there?”

He started reporting back from the other side of the lake the specs on the two available sites. I’d call back a question, he’d shout the answer. Realizing how silly this was, he finally said,”Let’s wait until I get closer.” He came back, and gave me the low down on the other options available. We chatted for a good 15 minutes, and I learned that they were from Virginia, here for a ten-day North Cascades backpacking and hiking trip. The distance they’d come to immerse themselves in this beauty made me incredibly thankful that I could attain that so close to my home.

While I enjoyed the chat tremendously, I had to get my pack off.  I thanked them and moved out of their site. I decided on the site farthest away, and with it’s own compostable toilet! But not one that was visible to all the world. It was a great site, high above the lake, with views back towards the lookout tower. And exposed. The wind was brisk, and I changed clothes before setting up camp and getting dinner. I kept thinking about the surreal nature of the day, in terms of how long it took me to cover distance, and I finally pulled out the map while I waited for my backpacker meal to rehydrate.

That’s when I learned that I’d transposed numbers. What I thought was 5.7 miles to Copper Lake was actually 7.5! No wonder it had taken so long! While still no speed record, at least that helped explain why it felt like I was hiking but getting no where. The steep section was nearly two miles longer than I thought.

Somehow this reassured me that I was still in the game. I didn’t feel terribly old or slow throughout the day, but it did get my attention. Now, I realized it was just a mis-read of the map. I contemplated this while I ate. How a belief about something can hold strong even in the face of contradictory evidence. I know generally how fast I hike, yet by believing the incorrect number, I believed I was way off my normal pace even though I was not.

Evening light from Egg Lake campsite, looking back toward Copper Lookout

Reflectively, I watched the colors of the sky turn their oranges and pinks, staying up until the last bits of light had faded away. The encroaching night air was cold and windy.  Gratefully, I crawled into my tent, satisfied and with a sense of great accomplishment about the day. The mysterious pieces finally all fit together.

Alpenglow on Copper Mountain, end of a great day!

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back on the Bike!

Trees were calling me to ride…

I told myself this year I would wait until I was ready.  Normally, I pull my bike out of storage sometime in March, regardless of physical health or weather or anything else. But this year, March came and went, and my bike sat in the garage, still waiting patiently for that first ride of the season.

I came close a month ago. It looked like a friend and I were going to form a woman’s Ski to Sea team, and I would do the bike leg. With that race at the end of May, I started feeling anxious and pressured to get on the bike. After recent knee replacement in November and foot and ankle surgery in December, I was still feeling cautious, and that added to my anxiety. I’d been on the stationary bike a handful of times at the gym, but it’s definitely not the same as getting out on the road.

Then, several things happened that made me stop and re-think everything.

Second Thoughts

No Ski to Sea

Come late March, it became evident that Ski to Sea was not destined to happen this year. I absolutely love the Ski to Sea race and all the festivities associated with it,  and I have been involved dozens of times — as participant, support crew, and spectator. However, after losing several team members, and not finding replacements, my co-captain and I made the decision that it was not going to happen this year. Frankly, I was relieved! I was still not feeling ready to ride.

The Fatal Bike Accident in Fairhaven

Right about the time we were debating Ski to Sea plans, a cyclist died in a collision with a car a mile from my work. Not only did this hit close to home proximity-wise, but it was also at an intersection that I have ridden through more times than I can count.  I used to live at the top of the hills that the biker was coming down, trying to make the light, just as a left hand turning car was also trying to make the light. They collided, and the 51-year old biker died on impact. He left six kids behind. I have done that exact same thing at that exact same intersection, pushed the light from yellow to red, carrying a lot of speed coming down those hills. But I have never been hit by a car. There or anywhere else.

Bike at Memorial Site “Bicyclist and Vehicle Collided here – March 23, 2017”

To make matters worse, the cyclist that was killed was a huge proponent of bike safety, teaching classes and such. How much more tragic can this story get? I did not know him, but I can totally imagine the mindset that caused this to happen. As a fellow biker, I admit that I have pushed lights, not wanting to stop at intersections, especially when speed was in my favor. But one mistake can be ever so costly. And now, the cyclist leaves behind a confusing legacy, as he was such a proponent of safety, yet met his end with a seemingly innocent misjudgment.

This accident gave me huge pause. I decided to wait on getting on the bike…

My Ex-Husbands Shoulder Surgery

Also right at this time, my ex-husband, the father of my kids, had shoulder surgery for injuries related to two serious bike accidents in the last year. A committed bike commuter, from Bellingham to his job in Ferndale, the first incident occurred when he was struck by a car last Spring. He broke his leg and injured his shoulder in that incident. After much rehab, the leg healed, and it seemed he might be able to resume activities (including riding) without surgery on his still-iffy shoulder.

Then last winter, during a cold snap, he was again riding to work, when he hit some ice. Another fall on that same shoulder, and surgery became necessary for a torn rotator cuff. He had this surgery a couple of weeks ago. These two were just the most recent in a series of bike accidents for him. Each time the kids report to me “Dad had another bike accident…”, I wonder if I should stop riding.

I know people who ride regularly increase their odds of getting in an accident. I have been riding regularly for 15 years, and thankfully, have never had an accident with a car. But still I had to wonder, was my number coming up?

Bike Accident of Other Family Members

My brother, also a bike commuter in Seattle, has been in many serious bike accidents over the last 15 years. Four of those accidents involved collisions with cars, one involved a slip on ice, and one involved him hitting a pedestrian in a cross-walk. He has suffered multiple injuries, including a broken hand and arm, and still has the litigation pending from that most recent accident with the pedestrian. That incident involved him coming down a hill fast, trying to make a light, and not seeing a pedestrian who started walking just as the light was getting ready to turn. My brother collided with him, flew off his bike, and the kid suffered a major head injury. Terrible all the way around. Brad will admit that in some of his multiple bike accidents he shared fault, but some were clearly cars not paying attention to what bikers are up to.

My niece’s long-time boyfriend was also in a bike accident last June, while riding his bike to work on quiet Bainbridge Island. He was broad-sided by a left turning car who did not see him, and was thrown 20 feet. He hurt his foot badly, and incurred $5000 in medical bills which the driver’s insurance still has not paid. He finally had to borrow the money to pay the bills, and to hire a lawyer to try to recover his medical costs. A huge price to pay for an accident where he was clearly not at fault, and there is still no resolution.

Was I ready to get back on the bike after all of this??

All this presented a serious dilemma, as March turned into April and I continued to feel uneasy. I asked myself, over and over, To what degree do I let fear interfere with things that I am passionate about?  I had asked myself that question all last spring and early summer in preparation for my solo JMT hike last August. There, I methodically went about naming and confronting those fears — then went out and had a fantastic three-week trip!  But on the bike, the fear is more widespread, as the variables and possibilities of accident or incident are only so much in my control. I look at all these people I know, and those I don’t but feel like I do now, who have been in serious bike accidents, and I have to ask myself is it worth it to keep riding? Is it just a matter of time before it’s me, or can I continue on in my safety bubble if I continue to be as vigilant as I can when I ride?

Deciding to ride.

Daffodils bring promise of sunshine

I’d be lying if I said weather wasn’t also a factor in my procrastination getting back on the bike. It’s been a cold, wet spring, and I don’t like to ride in wet and windy conditions, or below 50 degrees. But last weekend the forecast provided a favorable weather window, and I decided it was time to get over myself and all my fears and just do it! I brought clothes and food to work on Friday, in preparation to ride to work Saturday. I brought my bike in from the garage Friday night, and we had a stare down as I went about my evening. Who would win? My fear, or the bike’s desire to be ridden? The bike of course, because I wanted what it wanted. Just before bed, I confirmed my decision by pumping up my tires in readiness for the following morning.

I live up such steep hills, that I can’t make it back up if I ride from my house. Instead, I drive my bike down all the Sudden Valley hills and start my ride on Lake Louise Road. It’s still an iffy ride no matter how you dice it, as the roads to and from Sudden Valley are not bike friendly. When I first moved here, my landlady told me she strongly recommended that I not ride at all, as there have been many documented accidents on these roads in which the biker did not come out well. I made my decision to ride anyway, and did so last spring, summer, and early fall without incident.

But with all the bike accidents and the fatality so fresh on my mind, the nervous anticipation of the first ride was higher this year than ever. Plus I was worried about my knee, which still does not feel like a part of me, and does not bend well without pain.

The First Ride Happened!

I threw my bike in the car, dressed in warm clothes, and headed out Saturday morning. It was cool, and still drizzling. But the weather promised clearing later in the day, which would be good for the longer anticipated ride home.

A Biker’s Memorial

There are many ways to get to and from my house to work, but I chose the most direct one to get there. It’s about ten miles, give or take, and it’s mostly downhill. The ride went smoothly enough, although my knee felt like it was completely not mine for the first several miles. But with persistence, patience, and paying attention to what was really going on, the knee became less of a nuisance as I rode. Instead, I focused on the rain stopping mid-way, the clouds lifting, and the freshness of the morning air. I arrived at work, without incident, under partly sunny skies. A good omen, I figured. I’d purposefully ridden a different way so as to not pass the biker’s memorial. But he was on my mind, and I said a silent thanks to the biking gods for keeping me safe.

The Longer Ride Home

Lake Samish

Like some hikes, there are some places to ride that I am very drawn to. One of those is Lake Samish, about 7 miles from my place of work. For years I’ve combined a ride to or from work with a ride around Samish, as it makes me ecstatically happy for some reason. Now that I live farther away, to bring Samish into the bike commute makes it about a 22 mile ride. Not an easy task at the end of a long work day, and as part two of the first day’s ride.

Ready for the ride home

But I was committed and ready. I got out of my office by 5:45, with what I hoped was enough time to make it back to my car before sunset. The sun was out with conviction, although temps were still cool.  I’ve done this ride dozens of times, but I still never know exactly how long it will take.  I wanted to stop for pictures of the inevitable spring flowers and trees I would see along the way. In early spring, I just can’t get enough of the progression of blooms that takes place — from the earliest flowering plums and daffodils,  to the later tulips,  rhododendrons, and  flowering cherry and apple trees that line the route. It’s a flower-lovers paradise for sure!

First Rhodies on my favorite stretch of Samish

Lots of stops and starts, but the ride went smoothly enough. Over the course of the ride, I passed five lakes, including Samish. All were glittering with late afternoon sun, their very presence implying peace and serenity. My only troubles were that I was freezing in the shade, and had to pull out my hand-warmers six miles from home. My knee admittedly struggled with all the uphills, and my back made me feel 100 years old!  With two previous back surgeries, it takes time each year for my back to acclimate to riding.

 

Last sunlight…

But with sun glinting through the budding and occasional flowering trees, I had plenty of things to distract me from pain. A curvy road high above Lake Whatcom finishes off the ride. It’s somewhat risky, with little shoulder and so many wild turns. But, what views! Mossy trees, huge gullies, spectacular lake views from high bridges. My turn off came at Lake Louise, with one very steep hill to master, then I was back to my car. I arrived at 7:55, five minutes before sunset. Relieved to be safe, happy to be done.

Driving home, I again asked myself the question, How can I experience these types of things if I stay home from fear? I don’t have the complete answer. I only know I am drawn to do it again and again. I love being on the bike, and I especially love the long ride home, even with it’s rough, curvy roads with high speed limits and little shoulder.  Many say I am crazy to do it. But I always feel safe. Enough. So far…

Did the ride help me to solve my dilemma?

Yes. And no. There is no definitive resolution when the question of personal safety is involved. I never go on a ride without proper clothing, a helmet, and extreme vigilance. It’s the only way I know to do it, and, so far, it has worked. It was a hard decision this year, and one that I chose to think on for a month before I acted. Now, my bike is ready for action, and I am too. I will keep riding.

When I ride, I will do everything I can to be careful and cautious. It’s the best I can do. And I will remember all those who have not been so lucky — and hope my luck holds. With that in mind, I look forward to six great months of being on the bike!

 Ride Happy and Ride Safe!

 

 

Snacking on Humble Pie

I originally intended to call this post “Eating Humble Pie”. If I am fully honest with myself and my readers, however,  I realize I am not ready for a whole pie or even a whole piece. But I know I can handle a few bites. Let me explain…

The Humbling Situation

I’ve had complications from recent surgeries, as many of you know. Some of this I’ve said before, but in this recounting, I am being honest as to my responsibility in pushing too much too soon, the part that is hardest for me to admit — to myself and to others.

Right knee replacement, 11/14/16.

The aftermath of this has been pretty good, although I still have significant pain at times. Never having had a joint replaced, I don’t know how much of this pain is “normal” and when I should be concerned. I also have a distinct “clunking” noise and feeling in my knee each and every time I move it in a particular way. Part of the plan, or something awry?  I don’t know. I have been assured and reassured that my knee replacement is solid, and that I can’t hurt anything. Those are dangerous words for someone like me, who can and will put up with a lot of pain to do what I love. I was out on trails and walking as early as 3 weeks after this surgery. The  complexity of  the knee replacement was furthered when, at just 5.5 weeks post op, I had foot/ankle surgery on the left side.  I was on crutches in various capacities for 5 weeks after that surgery, using the right leg for full weight bearing. That was, simply put, hard on the new knee. Now, 3.5 months post-op, I am still with pain and uncertainty about the status of my knee.

Left foot/ankle surgery, 12/22/16.

This recovery started out fantastically, the best yet of all eight foot/ankle surgeries. I was walking without crutches early, and taking long hikes in the post-op boot —  feeling on top of the world and certainly my recovery. Then, a fall in the snow over three weeks ago caused an initial setback, from which I recovered quickly after five more days in the boot.  I took myself out of the boot and started walking again, believing I was ready. On each of my first five days post-boot round two, I walked. The mall on day one, Lake Padden on day 2 (2.6 miles),  the interurban trail on day 3 (4 miles), adding slightly more miles each day. Each day I noticed a bit of pain in my forefoot, but told myself it was nothing. On day 4, I walked Lake Padden before work, worked all day, then walked it again after. A very normal activity for me, usually.  But by the second walk, I could barely do it and hobbled all the way around. I knew something was up. Again, I told myself it was just muscles in my foot getting used to working again after being on vacation for 7 weeks…but deep down, I recognized that the pain was different. Stubborn as I am, on day 5, I took a scheduled walk with a friend, but I was limping so badly I could barely walk. I am embarrassed to say I walked five miles like that, each step a painful reminder that I shouldn’t keep going.

It was all I could do to keep a shoe on after that walk. My foot was swollen and very tender. But I  went about the rest of my day, which involved an outcall massage, all the while trying as hard as I could not to limp. It was almost impossible, but I am good at compartmentalizing pain and discomfort, physical and emotional, and did what I needed to do. The massage finished and back home, I took my shoe off to rest my poor foot. It was inflamed and exquisitely alive with pain, the kind where you don’t even want to touch the affected part. I hoped and prayed it would recover overnight. That wasn’t completely out of line, as many times on long hikes or after intensely physical days, I go to bed with significant aches and pains that DO almost magically go away overnight….or at least move again to a manageable level.

But this was not a normal ache or pain, I could tell. Tuesday morning, day 6 out of the boot, I still couldn’t walk without a significant limp. The pain was intense with every single step. Fortunately, I had my six week post-op check that morning. (I was actually almost eight weeks post-op: for various reasons, all related to weather, either the office or I had to cancel two previous appointments). The reason I mention this is because I had to, or chose to, make decisions during this two week time frame about how and what I would do. I even went so far as to email the PA and tell him after the first appointment cancellation that I was taking myself out of the boot, and I hoped that was ok. To his credit and my discredit, he replied that he could not medically authorize that without seeing me and getting x-rays first. I chose to be rogue and go AMA (against medical advice), and I paid the price  — twice. First with the fall on my first day in round one without the boot, then with the whole episode of progressively worsening pain in round two walking in shoes. THIS was my first inkling that there was pie to be eaten…

The current reality…

I hobbled to my visit with the PA, on day six of round two AMA. I told him the whole story, and confessed all my transgressions. I’ve seen the same PA for most of my post-op visits, and he has been involved in at least two of my four foot/ankle surgeries with my foot surgeon, Dr. T.  Both Dr. T and the PA know my feet, ankles, and psychology well! Including my desire and need to get back out on the trails as soon as possible after surgery. To a degree, they both endorse this, as long as it doesn’t jeopardize their surgical work and my recovery in any way. This time, though, the X-rays showed a new stress fracture in my foot, and that really put me in my place. The surgical sites and structures were well healed, but this new problem had crept up quickly. In short, my walking too much too soon once out of the boot led to the development of a stress fracture in the third Metatarsal bone.  Perhaps the bones were softer from not being used, and apparently I went at the walking too aggressively, relieved as I was to finally be out of the boot. I have had a stress fracture before, and the pain and symptoms certainly fit with his diagnosis. The way I left it with the PA is that I would rest the foot for four more weeks, then return for further X-rays. And no more walking of any distance without the boot. I left the office humbled and depressed.

The aftermath…and a few words about my psychology.

End of the Lake Whatcom Trail…this is why I walk.

I lasted three full days without a walk. During that time, I sunk deeper into depression. Here is where things get interesting.  I write this believing that some of you can relate to my struggle for balance. Sharing and being honest and forthcoming about this part of my psychology is both an attempt to explain WHY I continually push the limits of what my body will allow physically, and an exploration into the whole question of “how much is enough, and how much is too much?”  I am not ignorant or unaware of the risks or trying to put my recovery in jeopardy. I do these things because, deep down, my NEED for some type of physical movement and especially contact with the outdoors is deep seated and real, such that I will go to extremes to make it happen. THIS particular struggle and balancing act, how much I can do following injury, surgery, or some other medical issue, has been a constant companion in my life for over 30 years. My stories about getting out too soon following something run round in my head like a broken reel tape. Why, then, don’t I stop pushing so hard? Why not just sit around and do nothing for days or weeks on end, letting my body heal and trust that things will take their course? To my credit, I can and do usually do that for at least a week following surgery. Then, my restless nature gets to me and I start scheming ways to get out and about.

It’s always the same, the struggle to know how much is enough and what is too much. I tend to err on the side of the latter, yet my ongoing quest is to find the former. Exercise and endorphins are addictive, yes, but I don’t need that so much. What I need is to be outside. Some part of me dies when I can’t be. For me, walking trails and being in nature feeds my soul to an immense degree. Hence the name of this blog, and my whole pursuit of walking, hiking, and backpacking. I am driven to go and to be there, in whatever capacity I can, and as soon as I can. So, after three days of no walks, being inside and sinking further into depression, I decided to go back into the boot for walks and hikes outside. The boot was and is trashed and duct taped almost beyond repair, and had to be retrieved out of the garbage.  But I made a decision on that Friday, three days after my visit and diagnosis, to go back into the boot and hike for the remaining weeks until I return to the PA for x rays. I had to restore balance.

The next steps…

Lake Padden with recent snow…

It’s been two weeks and a handful of days, and the hiking in the boot strategy is working! My foot is much better, and I have stayed 100% true to my pledge and promise not to hike in a shoe. I have taken hikes to places and in conditions that I would have missed had I not gone back to the boot. I am working and doing daily life in street shoes, a compromise the PA and I agreed upon. I can say with conviction that healing is taking place, and I am happy about that. And I know I will stick with the protocol. My knee, always troublesome, is another story. In the spirit of non-denial,  I made an appointment this week to see the knee surgeon, to determine if the pain and clunking is normal or something to be concerned about. I will take his advice to heart, and that’s a promise too.

But here is what I know. I know this “enough/too much” battle will continue. I am not out of the woods yet, I may never be completely. I get humbled by these experiences, and I do learn my lessons. I do take bites of that humble pie, and I think about what it would take for me to eat the whole thing.  But even as I do so, I know my tendency will always be too get out just as soon as I can, and sometimes that will be sooner than ideal. SO many people in my life have told me to be careful, to slow down, to not be so driven, to cut back. For all of those, I take a bite.  I am aware I “use” exercise and movement as tools to keep myself sane, no question about it. I am reliant on that, and it is hands down may best coping mechanism for dealing with stress. Sometimes it’s too much and too soon.  What I want to say is that I AM listening, and that I am getting the message!

It’s a work in progress, and a repetitive theme of my life — not just with exercise, but in all areas. As I work on writing my memoir, I am exploring this theme of how much is enough and what is too much, in depth. I have settled into my exploration, with full awareness of my tendencies, and full commitment to discern for myself my own boundaries in this area. I will continue to share on this topic, and would welcome your thoughts. EVERYONE has an area of life in which they must ask themselves these same hard questions.  I believe that by getting open and honest about our deepest areas of struggle we can make headway into dealing with them.

My hope is that, by writing this post and laying it out there,  you may be inspired to ask yourself the same hard questions. Where in life do you push too hard and pay a price? Work? Over commitment? Lack of sleep? Poor nutrition? Substance use? Care-taking others over yourself?  Too much electronic escape? When is it all enough, when is it too much?  Unquestionably, life is a long , sometimes arduous, complicated journey filled with ups and downs. Sometimes, it’s only about surviving and making it through one day at a time. We all have our fallbacks and coping mechanisms that we use to get through these times. Some are clearly more destructive than others. I am the first to admit I have dabbled and jumped head on into far more dangerous territory than reliance on exercise in my past.  I have conquered significant mountains of overcoming, the specifics of which I am currently reliving as I write my memoir. On the whole I feel quite satisfied with where I am in my ongoing quest to find balance in life. Right now the exercise vs. rest is my biggest challenge.

What is yours?

 

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 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 8 John Muir Trail

Rose Lake to Goddard Canyon Junction

Total JMT Miles  —  15.7          Side trip miles  —  3.5      Elevation gain/loss  —  +1450/-3000

Early morning at Rose Lake

Early morning at Rose Lake

I awoke early at Rose Lake after a night of relatively poor sleep. I had set up my tent on a slight downhill slant, and ended up sleeping with my head tilting down.  I had the feeling of a head rush all night, despite my best attempts to bolster with pillows, and consequently it was a rough night. I was ready to leave Rose Lake at 7:30.  I felt some sadness relinquishing my solitude, and took a last lingering look and photo of the lake backdropped by a cloudless morning.  I knew I had a very long day ahead of me. My plan after backtracking to the JMT was to knock off as many miles as I could, including a brief side trip to Muir Trail Ranch (MTR).  I needed to get in the miles, as I had an arrangement to meet my food drop party the following day at 5 pm at a designated spot. I had 27 JMT miles to where I was meeting them, and my logic was that, if I put in a long day on Day 8, about 19 total (counting side trips), that would leave me with just 11 for the following day. I really didn’t want to feel anxious about meeting them on time, and I was willing to push hard on day 8 to avoid that.

The conditions were good for putting in miles. The weather was clear, and, while there was one pass to climb, on the whole it was a day of more elevation loss than gain.

Marie Lake from Selden Pass approach

Marie Lake from Selden Pass approach

But 19 and miles is still 19 miles, and I wanted to stay focused and deliberate in my plan to pull it off. I was bolstered by the fact that the day’s mileage held the promise of several stellar lakes. The first lake I encountered was Marie Lake, and she’s a beauty. Rob and Marcus had camped at Marie Lake, and were still lingering in camp when I came up around 9:00.

I talked with them for awhile, taping my chafed shoulders and shooting the breeze about the backpacking life and our trail experiences of the past 24 hours. We had a relaxed, easy conversation as they packed up their camp, and I enjoyed the camaraderie immensely. I left them still packing, progressed around Marie Lake, and began the ascent to Selden Pass. The climb up the pass was easy, helped by the outrageous views looking back at Marie Lake as I went. It doesn’t get much better than that!

 

Celebrating the top of Selden Pass

Celebrating the top of Selden Pass

I reached the pass with ease.  Marcus and Rob arrived shortly after, and flew right on by. I stayed a bit, as I was thoroughly enjoying the peaceful morning and being on the pass. I didn’t want to rush off, but a goal is a goal, and I made myself get up and at ’em. After the initial steep descent off the pass, the trail passed by several other fabulous lakes and crossed and re-crossed their incoming and outgoing creeks. It’s here one starts to run out of superlatives, as the views in the area are breathtaking. Heart Lake is followed by Upper then Lower Sallie Keyes Lakes. As I hiked,  I felt like Alice dropped into a  wonderland of lakes, creeks, and peaks.  Pictures do more justice than words…

Marie Lake

Marie Lake

Heart Lake

Heart Lake

Sallie Keyes Lakes

Sallie Keyes Lakes

Then, rather suddenly, the lakes were all gone and the going got tedious. It’s another long slog down the JMT to the cutoff to MTR, then another steep descent to get there. I had mixed feelings about going into MTR. It’s a strange resort, with a clear tier of acceptance. If you are a guest of the ranch, you pay dearly financially, but get to use all their amenities, including shower, toilet, meals, and a place to sleep. If you are a through hiker resupplying there, you can pick up your food, and peruse the vast food bins that are full of other hiker’s items they didn’t want or need, from food to TP to batteries…you name it, it’s there. You can take what you need and leave what you don’t want. You can also fill your water bottles  and shop in their very limited store as a resupplier, but you can’t use their bathroom.

Ashley and Marcus at MTR

Ashley and Marcus at MTR

Last year, we picked up a large, ten day food supply at MTR, which lasted us the rest of the trip. It was fun and interesting perusing the dozens of food buckets…I am convinced you could live off the food in those buckets for six months! This year, I had not mailed my food there, and my status was reduced to a mere nobody! I worried that I may not even be able to dump my garbage, but decided I would just do it anyway. I also wanted to see Ashley, Marcus, and Rob one more time. I was fearful that the two upcoming days with my friends who were hand delivering my food would put me far enough behind that I might not catch back up to them,  and I wanted to get their emails for future communication. And so, despite the intensely warm day (the temperature at MTR read 87 degrees!), I took the side trip. All was accomplished, as I did see the three soloists turned triad, and I got rid of my garbage. I left MTR at 2:00, to beat a hasty retreat back to the JMT and finish out the last 7 miles of my day.

It was a couple of miles after I returned to the JMT that I started getting “weird in the head” again. This had happened on Day 1, heading up Sunrise Mountain. It’s a hard feeling to explain, but I was lightheaded, spacey, and ungrounded, and felt like my head was almost disconnected from the rest of my body. None of those are good ways to feel while backpacking! This time, I attributed it to the heat more than anything else. Since I had just taken a break at MTR a couple miles before, I kept trying to keep going and ignore my weird head space. But I asked myself, is it worth it to stay mission oriented, if the result is to pass out or fall?  I realized that I just needed to take a break, and abandoned my determination. I dumped my pack, ate, drank, and sat. I still had about 5 miles to go, the last 4 uphill. I began to worry I might not be able to do it. I let myself give up the expectation that I HAD to do it, and decided I would check in with myself again at Piute Junction, a mile or so further along.

Backpackers relaxing at Piute Creek

Backpackers relaxing at Piute Creek

Piute Junction held special significance for me from last year, and I knew I would be STRONGLY tempted to stop there and camp. Piute Creek crashes down into enchanting pools, into which we had dunked the previous year, and it’s very soothing and relaxing. It also marks where the JMT leaves the John Muir Wilderness and enters Kings Canyon National Park. This boundary designates the High Sierras, and, the peaks just keep getting higher and the views more and more spectacular after that. But it’s also an uphill stretch from Piute Junction to Goddard Canyon Junction, where I was planning to camp. At Piute, I analyzed my options. One part of me wanted to keep going, and I knew I would feel better about the next day if I did. But I felt equally as pulled to stay and set up camp and reminisce. Last year after our swim I had done a solo day hike (the only one of the trip) up Piute Canyon while Gregg read in camp. I think in some way, my enjoyment of that solo hike planted the first seed of thought to do a solo trip of the JMT, although it would be four months after my return before that thought took concrete shape. I loved that afternoon hike, and I was drawn to the idea of just hanging and writing and remembering. But eventually my desire for a short day the next one won out, and I re-shouldered my pack and continued.

Soutn Fork of San San Juaquin River

Soutn Fork of San San Juaquin River

Views to keep you moving!

Views to keep you moving!

The last four miles were physically some of the hardest of my whole trip. I was tired, not mentally really there, and still feeling dizzy. I had food, water, and resolve, though, and that got me through. Also, the views looking down at the South Fork of the San Joaquin River, as it tumbled over the dark, metamorphic rock kept me satisfactorily enthralled, and on my toes. Drop offs were intense, and I made sure not to get too close in my dizzy head space. Finally I arrived at Goddard Canyon Junction about 6:00 pm. In my semi-desperation to be done with the day, I did not take time to look around, and took the first campsite I found. It was a crowded place, with large campsites shared among multiple users. I ended up camping at the edge of a site taken up by a large, multi-tent party with long clotheslines strung out across camp. Honestly, I was tired enough that I didn’t really care. I set up tent, cooked my dinner, and got in the tent even before dark to read and write. While I was certainly aware of the crowd of surrounding campers, I was spent enough that I didn’t really give them a second thought. I was proud of myself for doing the long day plus the side trip, and I went to bed tired but relieved that I had properly set myself up for the next day.

Highlights of the day

The contrasts of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, solitude and people.

It was unquestionably a day of big variety. I started out completely alone at a magical high elevation mountain lake. I witnessed and hiked past many more lovely lakes and crossed the streams heading into and out of them multiple times. I reached the top of a pass with unparalleled views. Then I headed down, down, down, into the heat of the day and the curious setting of MTR. I got email addresses from my friends, then left them at MTR to continue on alone. I struggled with my headspace and inclinations for the entire next 7 miles. I felt physically challenged but emotionally confident in pressing on. I knowingly slept amongst the masses as I was too tired to look for my coveted solitude.

My sense of accomplishment about the day…

On the whole, the feeling I had at the end of the day was satisfaction and great relief.  It was a bit of a stretch to get the 19 miles in, but it didn’t deplete me.  I didn’t run out of daylight, which of course I worried about, and I still had enough energy to set up camp and eat and do all the necessary end of day things.  I let myself feel the victory of a job well done, managing a day of calculated decisions that led to me being in the place I wanted to be at the time I wanted to be there.

Lessons of the day

Pay attention to the ground beneath you when putting down roots.

I learned a much bigger lesson at Rose Lake than just how to position my tent. Let’s face it, it’s not always flat out there! Sometimes we are forced into “setting up camp” when the ground is tilted or uneven. When that happens, it’s highly beneficial to set yourself up as carefully as possible at the outset, to maximize the possibility of comfort and ease. There are several things I COULD have done differently, both in my choice of site and in how I set up my “house”, which I didn’t realize until I was well into the night of challenge. First, I could have looked for a slightly different site, as there were others just a bit up that were flatter then the one I chose.  I was so happy to be at Rose Lake, I rather impulsively chose the biggest site, although in retrospect it may not have been the best. You know what they say about that…Secondly, in my site, I could have and should have set up my tent to angle down, head higher, feet lower. I simply didn’t think about it, and instead thought of where I wanted my head to be in relationship to the lake. How often in life do we act based on the thoughts and desires of our heads, not our hearts??  And finally, I could have reconfigured myself inside the tent early on in the night, once I realized my mistake. I could have turned around, literally, to reposition myself with head high and feet low. But I didn’t do that either, telling myself it was too much hassle and I should just tough it out. Like in life, a small adjustment early on could have entirely alleviated the following 8 hours of discomfort.

Trust your intuition.

I have a life-long habit of pushing things to the extreme, especially physically. I have trained for 5 marathons, and run zero because I got injured during training every time. I have struggled finding the balance between my desire to be physically active and accomplish great feats, and work with the orthopedically challenged body that I live in. It’s an ongoing day by day endeavor, and I came to the JMT with the resolve to NOT push too hard physically, so as to make sure I was enjoying the process and respecting my body physically. On this day, that boundary was blurred by my strong desire to get somewhere to set myself up for an easier something to follow. I asked myself over and over, should I stop or keep on? In the end, my intuition won out. I strongly felt that the satisfaction associated with being there would be worth the challenge to get there. And it was.

It’s all a matter of perspective…

It’s worth noting here what the range of time frames is in which people undertake the John Muir Trail. Some plan 30 or more days for the 220 miles. The fastest recorded record of a single person doing the trail (with support) is 3 days, 7 hours, and 39 minutes! There is a lot of room in between those time frames. The “average” person plans 21 days. I planned 19 or 20, which equals out to about 11 miles a day. Incorporate in some side trips, and the average comes closer to 13 or so. I knew I had to average 14 in the first 9 days to reach my party on Day 9. That’s not counting any side trips. I felt challenged by 19 miles, but 14 felt fine. For some, 20 is a short day. Some choose long days in a very short overall time frame, so as to travel light and fast. Some choose short days in a long time frame, to really take it all in. I chose the middle ground. While intention is always good, flexibility, allowing for variation, and maintaining a positive outlook even when things don’t go as planned is what it’s really all about. I was to keep learning that lesson in the days and weeks to come.

A parting shot of the view from Selden Pass, courtesy of Adobe

A parting shot of the view from Selden Pass, courtesy of Adobe

Third and Final (mostly) Solo Backpack Trip before I go…

Ptarmigan Ridge and Chain Lakes Loop

For my third solo backpack trip, and final trip before heading out for the John Muir Trail, I wanted to get in some “serious backpack miles”. I was hoping to find a loop that would give me 14 – 17 miles on each of two days, with one overnight in between. I told myself that’s what I needed, to feel “completely ready”, and to give my legs, feet, and equipment one final test.  DSCF0187

But once again, some voice of reason inside me said, “No, Kathie, that’s not what you really need. Take it easy, don’t push so hard…just enjoy the heck out of this last experience before you embark on the big one…”  And so I did.

Trip Overview

I started at Artist Point, at the end of the Mt. Baker Highway. I did a straightforward trip to Ptarmigan Ridge with a friend on day one, then played on the Sholes Glacier below Mt. Baker for the remainder of the day. I spent the night at a private and hidden campsite on Ptarmigan by myself after my friend hiked out, with Mt. Baker as my guardian. For day two I did a longer route out, incorporating in Chain Lakes Loop. Back at my car, I did a final day hike of Lake Ann and went swimming.  The weather was absolutely perfect, and I had more views of  Baker, Shuksan, and multitudes of other peaks that I wish I knew the names of but can never recall. I don’t know if it’s possible to get enough of the magic of being so closely intertwined with all those peaks and in that environment, but I was darn close. I immersed myself from 8:30 am Wednesday until 6:30 pm Thursday into pure heaven.

Artist Point to Ptarmigan Ridge and Sholes Glacier

If you have never been to Artist Point, drop everything and go there! You can drive your car to the front row views of Mt. Baker and Shuksan, without having to hike at all. Or you can knock off an easy 1.2 miles on Huntoon Point loop, climb Table Mountain (3 miles steep but worth it), embark on Chain Lakes loop (6 – 8 miles, depending on how you do it), or take off for Ptarmigan Ridge (9 – 12 miles). On a sunny day in summer, anything is possible!

Beginning Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

Beginning Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

My friend and I hit the trail for Ptarmigan Ridge at 8:30 Wednesday morning. I carried both my backpack and some of his gear, as he does measurements on the Sholes Glacier and was hauling in drills and solar panels and other assorted heavy items. Point being, my pack was good and heavy, so I got to test that out. The vistas on this hike simply never disappoint. Neither words nor photos can do justice to the magnificence, but I will give it my best shot.

The trail DID have some steep snow traverses. Early on, I was tentative and felt uncertain. I had poles, but no crampons. Normally, I don’t feel anxious about snow, but with the weight of the pack, I noticed a tendency to feel off balance. I also noticed that the more we hiked on snow, the

One snow traverse at a time...

One snow traverse at a time…

more comfortable I became. Hiking on snow always brings fond memories of being in the mountains, of spring skiing, and multiple positive associations. In no time I was into a rhythm, and stopped worrying about slipping or falling. One step at a time, one snow field at a time.

The 4.5 miles to my designated camp site went quickly. We arrived before noon, and I dumped my backpack and went down to fanny pack for our glacier travel.

The time on the Sholes glacier was fun and informative. My friend measures snow loss and glacier melt by various means. He had been up there merely six days prior, and in that time frame, up to 20 inches of snow had melted off. It was great fun cavorting on the glacier, but sad to think of it’s decline. I enjoyed being there and learning about glacial melt-off, and what it means for the bigger picture. A humbling and awe-inspiring experience.

Sholes Glacier

Sholes Glacier

Glacier time!

Glacier time!

As we returned from the glacier, we were in for a real treat. A herd of 26 mountain goats were munching their way along the route back to my campsite. I have to say, I have seen many mountain goats in my time…but never a herd of 26, and never so fearless and close. What a great way to cap off a great day!

I kept thinking, it just couldn’t get any better. Back at camp, I set up my tent and made food. Each action witnessed by Mt. Baker, standing guard over me. I stayed up until sunset, as I knew the alpenglow on Mt. Baker and Shuksan would be fantastic. It did not disappoint…

Mt. Baker from my campsite

Mt. Baker from my campsite

Last light on Mt. Baker...

Last light on Mt. Baker…

And on Shuksan...

And on Shuksan…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out Ptarmigan and around Chain Lakes loop

I awoke Thursday morning, well rested and beyond content. I took my time packing up, and was on the trail by 8:30. I planned to incorporate Chain Lakes loop into my return hike, both because I wanted the extra backpack miles and because it’s simply a lovely trail. I have run this trail multiple times in my past when I could still run, and I have also snowshoed it one early June with my son. Positive associations and memories abound, and there was no way to go wrong on this beautiful day. I felt strong and capable, and again totally immersed myself in the experience. Here are some views along the way…

Iceberg Lake

Iceberg Lake

Mt. Shuksan from Herman Saddle

Mt. Shuksan from Herman Saddle

Mt. Baker from top of Herman Saddle

Mt. Baker from top of Herman Saddle

From the trail...

From the trail

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I hiked the loop, I thought about how I have come to readiness for the upcoming John Muir Trail. I transported myself in my mind to the trail as I went up and over Herman Saddle, and ascended the top. I fluctuated back and forth between full presence in the moment, and visualizing myself on the upcoming trip. I ran into multiple hikers on Chain Lakes loop, some of whom I chatted with and shared my upcoming adventure. All of this helped the trip to take on a new reality.

It hit me that I am ready, and I am there!  I have done the preparations and tested the waters along the way. I have put in the miles, revised and refined the gear, and come to a place of acceptance with my physical self, limitations and all. The only way to describe how I felt as I completed this loop, back up to Artist Point, is to say that I felt at great peace. When I first set out on these solo hikes, I was worried and anxious. Now, completing my third and final, I felt confident and certain that I will be OK on the JMT.  I am ready.

 

For more information on these hikes:

Ptarmigan ridge trail

Chain Lakes loop

Table Mountain

Huntoon Point trail

Hanging with the Mormon Ladies!

Second Solo Backpack Trip

Mormon Ladies Lakes Loop

Lake Edna, one of Mormon Ladies Lakes

Lake Edna, one of Mormon Ladies Lakes

For my second solo backpack trip, I planned to have another go at the Enchantments. After an unsuccessful attempt at such for the fourth of July trip, I still had Enchantments on the brain. I planned for a three-day, two night excursion, but stormy weather kept me in a campground in Leavenworth instead of in the mountains for that first night. I was set to hit the ranger station early Tuesday morning  to put in for a one-night stay in the Enchantments, hoping that on a Tuesday following a day of thunderstorms, competition for permits would be less.

When I arrived at the ranger station at 7:30, however, I could see that was not the case. Eight parties put in for the Core Enchantments, giving me a 1 in 8 chance to secure one. I honestly didn’t care that much if I got it or not, as I had a good back up plan.  And it’s a good thing I did, because again I was not selected. My usual good lottery karma seems to be on hold for this year…or maybe the universe knew that I really needed to go and spend my time with the Mormon Ladies, a group of lakes that I had heard about from the ranger after our previous failed enchantments permit attempt.

The Mormon Ladies Lakes loop takes off from the end of Icicle Creek Road, a popular road for hikes, backpack trips (including the Enchantments), campgrounds, rock climbing, and anything else outdoorsy you can think of. I’d never been to the end of the road, and I had never heard of the mormon ladies until earlier that month. I was drawn to the name of the lakes, the descriptions of them, the beauty apparent from my guide book, and the desire to simply get up into alpine lakes quickly and relatively easily. The lakes are apparently named after Brigham Young’s wives…Mary, Margaret, Florence, Flora, Edna, Ida, and Alice, to name a few. How many wives did he have?? There is also a paternal lake, aptly named Brigham Lake.

Icicle Creek Trailhead to Upper Florence Lake

In so many ways, this was the perfect backpack trip for me. I arrived at road’s end by 9:15 am, the Icicle Creek Trailhead. There was just one other couple there also getting ready to go. They were headed to Lake Leland, and would branch off from me at 4.5 miles. I realized that I could have near-complete solitude on this trip, which amazed me since my guidebook called this loop extremely popular and heavy with livestock.  Having done a solo backpack trip previously, my anxiety about being alone was much less acute this time around, and I relished the idea of quiet after anticipating the idea of crowds.

Frosty Creek

Frosty Creek

The first 4.5 miles of the trail meandered ever so gently through forest, gaining just 400 feet in that distance. Now that’s a great way to start a backpack trip! I loved letting my body warm up and get used to the weight of the pack on a flat stretch. And the trail was in great shape too…I felt like I was in heaven! I knew Frosty Pass was coming up, when the trail split off to Lake Leland and I continued up. My book described the switchbacks as hot and dusty, although the day was temperate and still held clouds from the previous day’s storms. I was prepared for anything, frankly, and enjoying just being out and on the trail.

And the trail up to Frosty Pass was definitely more challenging. There were lots of obstacles and blow downs, and much to climb up, over, and around. I had experienced lots of downed trees on my previous solo trip, unexpectedly, and it got to me. This time around, I fully expected challenge, and it didn’t phase me. I took it one step and obstacle at a time, and really did encounter each obstacle as a challenge instead of a discouragement. I was proud of myself and my attitude, and relished that the miles to the top of Frosty pass flew by.

View from Frosty Pass

View from Frosty Pass

In no time, I was at the turn off to Lake Margaret, the first of the ladies. I had no desire to camp there, as I was just hitting my stride. The trail had opened up, and cloud cover was increasing, with a threat of rain. But since it wasn’t too ominous, I continued on toward Mary Pass at 6900 feet. I had considered Lake Mary for a camping spot, but I encountered another solo female hiker heading down the pass as I was heading up. She said the bugs were REALLY bad at Mary, and she had opted to pitch her tent almost at the top of the pass to get a breeze and some reprieve. She was wandering and exploring after setting up camp, in an effort to stay moving and be less bothered by bugs. A mentality just like my own!  She had a dog with her, otherwise, I may have asked if I could join her little party. I liked her style, and she seemed to be about my age. (Note: it’s not that I don’t like dogs. But I do prefer my wilderness experience without them…just saying.)

View from Mary Pass

View from Mary Pass

On Mary's Pass

On Mary’s Pass

I topped out at Mary pass by 3:30, and I was feeling strong. I’d gained 4000 feet of elevation for the day, and, honestly, I barely felt it. Maybe it was my mindset of anything goes, how well my backpack was fitting, or the cool temperatures that were perfect for hiking…but I felt like I could go on forever. However, I had to figure out where to stay the night, as my camping options would be limited if I opted to go much further. The book had described Upper Florence Lake as THE place to camp (besides Mary)…but warned that one

Upper Florence Lake from Mary Pass

Upper Florence Lake from Mary Pass

could never find a campsite there. From Mary pass, I could see down to Upper Florence, and it looked like a great option to me. I dropped down, and actually missed the turn off to get to Florence, so intent was I on studying the lake for all those backpackers I was sure must be down there somewhere. I backtracked after I realized my error, found the trail to the lake, and dropped down. I’d seen clearly from my vantage point high above the lake the campsites, and felt certain that NO ONE was there. I thought maybe there was something wrong with the sites, or that I had the wrong lake. Not a soul was present, and I had my pick of sites.

Camping with Florence

My campsite

My campsite

View from my campsite...

View from my campsite…

It wasn’t even 5:00 pm when I dropped my belongings at my chosen site. It is unusual for me to stop hiking so early, particularly when I still had so much energy. But I took my time setting up camp, washing my feet in the lake and putting on long pants and sleeves. I could tell right away that the bugs were bad…they swarmed me constantly and relentlessly. I do not like bug spray and almost never use it. However, on this evening I did, and rubbed my bug hat and flaps with it to try to keep the bugs from driving me nuts. I have good bug tolerance overall, and rarely get bit. But these guys were plentiful and hungry after the previous day’s rain, and I was their only target!

I set my tent up and made dinner, all the while doing the bug shoo. It was distracting for sure. After dinner, I thought I’d go on an evening hike up to a nice knoll I could see from camp, to get away from the bugs. The clouds were coming and going, mostly coming, and the weather had a dramatic feel to it. Surprisingly, once I was done with dinner, I didn’t feel like putting my shoes back on and going anywhere. Instead, I crawled in my tent with the rain fly open…and the sun gleamed in as it flirted back and forth with the clouds. It was pleasant and lovely, and I was out of the bugs. I wrote and read some, until an acceptable amount of near-darkness allowed me to call it a day and try for sleep. I felt peaceful and satisfied with the day, and slept reasonably well.

Florence to Chatter Creek Trailhead

I was awake before first light. I lay in my tent until just after 5:00, when there was enough daylight to get up and moving. The morning was cold, and a heavy dew had settled in overnight. I actually relished this, as one of my fears for the JMT is that of trying to pack up and get ready to hit the trail when the morning is cold. My hands get cold easily and then they don’t work well or warm up well. I had brought hand warmers for this trip, and I decided to try it. I stuck a pair in my gloves, and made breakfast and coffee while alternately taking my fingers out of the finger compartments in my gloves to wrap around the hand warmers. This strategy worked well, and I was able to get everything broken down and put away without too much cold-hand trauma. The sun had entered the campsite by the time I was ready to go at 7:30, and the day looked to be lovely.

View from Ladies Pass

View from Ladies Pass

Marmots atop Ladies Pass

Marmots atop Ladies Pass

Ladies Pass was the next event on the trail. Just a mile or so away, it was all flowers, beauty, and views to get there. There was also snow, and the snow was too hard to traverse in the early morning chill, so I climbed up and around. The views were stupendous, and I felt like Maria in the Sound of Music! I came up and over Ladies Pass, and before me lay four mountain goats taking a rest above Lake Edna. The scene was pastoral and perfect. By the time I was camera ready, the goats had ambled off…but Marmots remained, and the lake below was serene and other-worldly. It reminded me of the Enchantment Lakes, and I was truly in awe of the splendor.

Lake Edna

Lake Edna

The trail wound down and around Lake Edna. I embraced it all, not wanting it to end. The trail splits shortly after Edna, and I would be heading back to Chatter Creek. Briefly, I entertained continuing along Icicle Ridge Trail. I knew you could go for many more miles, and still work your way back down to Icicle Creek Road via Fourth of July Creek Trail. But my car was already 3.5 miles from the trailhead I would come out at, and to go farther would be ludicrous. I didn’t want to leave the ridge, but reason won over. I turned for the Chatter Creek trail.

View from Lake Edna

View from Lake Edna

I assumed the trail would start to drop immediately. I had 4000 feet of elevation to lose. But instead, it went up and down, over boulder fields and more snow fields, and navigation was challenging. I had to stay on my toes, and try to keep track of the trail when it disappeared in rock and

snow. Eventually I topped out (again) at a pass, and the trail began to descend in earnest. Steep, open switchbacks, lay before me, and flowers and creek sightings. It didn’t look like too bad of a way to get back to the trailhead.

Chatter Creek

Chatter Creek

Down into the valley...

Down into the valley…

And it wasn’t. The hike ended as it started…quite perfectly. The trail past the last pass,  while steep, was in better shape than Frosty Pass, and easy to follow. I felt totally zen, and marveled at how good of a fit the trip was for me overall. I felt really good physically, and like I could have continued on for many more hours and days. THAT is what I wanted to feel, like I had gas in the tank at the end of the trail. I saw just one more lone hiker almost at the bottom of the Chatter Creek trail…for a sum total of four other hikers the entire 20 miles. On the road back to my car, I had nothing but positive thoughts about the trip overall.

What went right…

Altra Trail Runners and Dirty Girl gaiters...the perfect combo!

Altra Trail Runners and Dirty Girl gaiters…the perfect combo!

As I walked those last 3.5 miles on roads, I thought about what all had gone well. My gear was good, and my feet were good. I have come back to the great combination of trail runners and gaiters…and that’s how it will stay. I felt “one with the backpack”, similar to how I feel with my bike when I ride. At all times during the two days, I was at peace with my solitude, surroundings, and even the obstacles I encountered. I had lakes and flowers and mountains spread out before me like a first-class buffet. I got to do a loop hike, where each step took me somewhere new. And since it was a hike I had never done, it truly was all a new experience. I returned to my car with energy to spare, and ready to take on more. JMT here I come!

I simply could not have asked for more on this trip. It was perfect in every way.  (Well, except maybe the bugs…)

 

For more information on the Mormon Ladies Lakes loop, click HERE

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