Sunday morning we woke up surrounded by towering peaks, clear skies just starting to get light, and Guitar Lake glassy. The peaks were reflected back and their immensity was hard not to miss. We pack up all of my gear and most of Johnny’s. He was planning on slack packing to the summit and returning to camp while I was planning on going down Whitney Portal Trail. The thought of getting back to the Subi, hugging Lexi, eating the world’s biggest burger, and taking a shower that night were the bright spots in my life at that moment. The 4,000 ft elevation gain over the next four miles on a trail that I was unable to see was looking very daunting. We set off still sore and tired from the previous days.
The following hours were filled with lots of stops to catch our breath, which conveniently allowed us to also take in the immense views. I don’t think I’ve felt so small in my life. To say it was awe inspiring does not do it justice. It was incredible, absolutely incredible.
That is, of course, we finally reach Trail Crest. Up to this point we had crossed several snowy patches and every crossing left me with a racing heart. I’m super cautious by nature and heights totally freak me out. So, add in some snow, and I’m pretty much a borderline wreck. But, at Trail Crest, I started to panic. While it was only another mile and another 1,000’ of elevation gain, the trail was covered in snow and ice. To make matters worse, it was starting to melt. Basically, it was a mess. I wasn’t having any of it. It was taking people another two hours to push on to the summit. Plus, there were clouds moving in from the East. As we couldn’t see to the East we didn’t really know what to expect. Finally, I decided it was beyond my skill and tolerance level and I wasn’t going to do it. Whitney would remain un-summited by me.
We hiked along Trail Crest a ways to see how bad my hike down to Whitney Portal would be and this is where I lost it. All of my composure and fortitude failed me. The trail was less than a foot wide, with snow on both sides. I’m not talking about flat level snow you can walk on. I’m talking about snow sheets that drop for several thousands of feet and that rise above you hundreds of feet. There was nowhere to go. Dozens of people where hiking up and if I continued forward I had no idea how I was going to get around them to get off this god forsaken mountain. It wasn’t long before I totally freaked the fuck out and started crying and hyperventilating. I could just see myself careening down those icy snow covered slops to my death and that wasn’t how I wanted it to be. My fear of heights was in overdrive. I was sweating even though it wasn’t above freezing. It was then that I made the decision to go back the same way I had come. Back the almost 40 miles it had taken me to get where I was standing. It was my only option. So, with calls to our parents (there’s service on Whitney – who knew?), we turned around and started the long walk back to the trail head we had started from on Friday morning.
Heading down didn’t take us long at all and before we knew it we were back at Guitar Lake and back at the campsite we had left hours earlier. It was time for lunch and time to break down the rest of the gear. While we ate lunch we watch about a dozen marmots frolic in the meadows and boulders around us. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a sucker for Marmots and eventually started naming them. There was a smaller one that I thought looked like she could be an Angelina. Then there was one who looked much larger than the others so I named him Sal. If Marmots had any mob affiliations, Sal would have been the boss of the whole Guitar Lake operations. Then there was Patricia and I actually thought she looked like a very nice marmot, but boy was I wrong. Angelina got to close and Patricia chased her screaming bloody murder across the meadow, over and around boulders, and across the creek that feed the lake. Up to this point in my life, I had never heard a marmot make noise, and definitely not one that sounded like someone had just stuck the cats tail in a light socket. Wow! So much for thinking Dexter needed one as a buddy.
Once we were all packed we headed out for the long walk back. We had told Johnny’s dad that we would be at the trailhead Monday night. In order to make it there we had to push on and push hard. We hiked… and hiked… and hiked… and then the clouds opened up and started pouring. That didn’t deter us. We put on our rain gear and put our heads down.
When we finally reached Crabtree Meadow it started to stop raining which was a good thing because we needed to stop to filter some water. We were crossing the creek and head a helicopter coming in. Our initial thought was “Oh god, someone got hurt on Whitney”. But, that wasn’t the case a guy ran out into the field and started to signal the helicopter. There was a woman in her tent alongside the meadow and she needed help. We dropped our packs and went back to lend a hand. The helicopter landed and they helped the woman on while other hikers packed up all of her gear. Within minutes the helicopter was back up and circling out of the meadow on it’s way to Southern Inyo Hospital located in Lone Pine on the other side of Whitney. Whitney by this point was shrouded in ominous dark grey clouds and there was no way that the helicopter would be flying through that. They would have to head south to miss the storm on Whitney. We chatted with some of the other hikers who had set up camp in order to get out of all the rain that we had just been hiking through.
Come to find out the woman had Lyme Disease and had been in her tent for the last three days unable to walk. Another hiker had gone back to Cottonwood Pass in order to get a ride into Lone Pine to get her some help. Rumor had it that she had a Spot. If she did and didn’t use it, I will never understand. That’s the whole point of having a Spot. But, anyway, she was rescued and taken to the hospital for treatment. We later found out that she was going to be okay.
We filled up our water bottles and I changed out of one of my shirts that had gotten wet in the torrential downpour of a hike that we had just been through. We pushed on, back the same way we had come. The further south we traveled the further away from the storm we got. It wasn’t following us any more, and for that, I was grateful. My entire body by this point was starting to hurt. My feet in particular were getting tired and sore. But that didn’t stop us. We had to get back to the trailhead by the follwing night and still had many miles to cover. So we hiked on until it got dark. We camped at Guyot Saddle, just a couple of miles from Rock Creek. In the morning we would be hiking down hill. Okay, down hill at lest for two miles, and then back up hill, but that down will was something to look forward to. For dinner, I had my first ever cold instant mashed potatoes. To be honest, I had my doubts at first, but boy was I wrong. They were amazing! Possibly, because there’s enough sodium and fake crap in them to make them survive the apocalypse, but I didn’t really care at that moment. I was just happy not to be on my feet any longer. I was sore and kind of felt like I might be catching a bit of a cold. To say that my spirits were low, might be an understatement. The thought of possibly waking up with a full blown cold was devastating to my moral. I just couldn’t quite see the silver lining in an all day hike with a runny nose, cough, and headache on top of all the ouchy-ness that was going on. My feet were a borderline hot mess. Sigh.
In the middle of the night I woke up and had to pee. Everything still hurt. Getting out of the sleeping bag and then out of the tent was probably hilarious but I found no humor in it. Nor did I find humor in putting on my flip flops and realizing that my feet were still hurting, like really, really bad. Oh, and peeing when it’s about 30 degrees outside is not exactly what I would call a good time. Burr!! Then there’s getting back in the tent and back in the sleeping bag. Oh, how I wished Lexi and I were home and snug as a bug in our own beds. Twelve more hours is what I told myself as I went back to sleep only to be awoken by Johnnie a few hours later. The sun was coming up and it was time to push on. We packed up, took some drugs, and started down the trail. I said a little prayer that my cold like symptoms would go away and stay away thanks to the day quil. I hoped also that the ibuprofen would help with my ouchy feet.
Down we went over some of the worst parts of the trail. It was sandy and rocky. There were small rocks and boulders. Our new hiking vocabulary was put through it’s paces as we made our way down, down, down. We arrived at rock creek just as the other hikers were getting up and starting to get themselves in order. We stopped to filter as much water as we could carry. It would be miles before we make it back to Chicken Spring Lake and I’m terrified of running out of water. We drug our gear into the meadow and found a dry patch of ground under a big ol’ pine. We ate our breakfast and shed some of our layers for the uphill hike we now faced. Away we went. The final stretch. We did this before in like half a day. We thought we would be able to make it back to the trail head by 3pm. Our spirits, okay, my spirits at least, were a little brighter.
We stopped to chat with other hikers who were headed north while were were headed south. Some where headed for Whitney while others were staying the PCT course and heading to Forester Pass instead. Every stop meant a little break, but every little break ended up making it harder for me to start hiking again. My boots were failing me. It was time to retire these bad boys. I was looking forward to getting rid of them when we got back to the car. Oh, the car. The car would have Lexi and it would take us to get a giant burger the size of Wisconsin. A burger with bacon and cheese and onion rings and a milk shake and all other glorious things that one dreams about while hiking. Hiker hunger was in full effect now. I thought day two was bad. Day four was twenty times worse. Why would any one do this to themselves? While last night potatoes were really good, they were no burger, or fries, or tomatoes, or mangoes, or avocados, or corn dogs, or anything of the like. We talked about food to pass the time. But we also talked about a myriad of other things to.
One of the things, I kept coming back to was why do people hike the entire PCT? What’s the motivation behind it? I can understand the physical challenge or the desire to set some sort of record but I didn’t understand how or why people would walk away from their lives for up to six months. This fascinates me. Probably because, I don’t think I could do it. But also, the stories of the people who are out there hiking. What inspired them? What keep them going? What do they hope it will bring? What experience are they looking for? What are they trying to change? Is this a challenge because of a physical set back they had in their life and they want to prove to themselves they can do it? What are they running from? Or what are they running towards? Are they escaping their life because of something that happened to them? What are they seeking? A deeper connection with God or the natural universe? A deeper connection with themselves? Will nature heal them? Will it break them? What’s their limit or threshold? So many questions. These questions kept running through my head but I felt it would be rude to ask a complete stranger, “What in the world are you doing out here?” I hike for a bunch of reasons, and one of those reasons, is to find some place quiet. I wouldn’t want to be asked a bunch of questions by some deranged woman in the woods who then followed up her questioning with “Where’s the nearest place I can get a burger?” How random would that be? So instead, I pestered the person who drug me out here in the first place.
Finally, after many hours of slow going, and I mean sllloooooowwww going. I swear a herd of turtles plodding along through quicksand would have been faster than us. it was getting bad. I couldn’t go any faster and thought you might not make it back to the trail head until the middle of the night. But there was no way I was spending another night out here without Lexi. Damn it, come hell or high water, I was getting myself back to the trail head. And so, I kept going, very, very, very slowly. So slowly, that we may have taken a nap on the side of the trail in which I took my boots off to let my feet breath and swell up to twice their normal size. Good times!
Eventually, we spotted Sharon, aka Mama Goose, coming up the trail. I had met her several times before in San Jacinto and Big Bear. She has a black lab too who’s home in North Carolina while she’s out here with her Warrior Hikers (you can learn more about Warrior Hikes and donate at their website warriorhike.org). She had just re-supplied in Lone Pine and was heading into the back country for 12 days. I was dying after four, so I basically thought she was a total badass, and I told myself “Suck it up, buttercup”. I was almost back to the car…just a few more miles. After catching up, we pushed on, again very slowly, to Cottonwood Pass. Oh, thank the heavens above! We were almost there. It’s was well after our hopeful 3pm arrival, but we were almost there. All that lay ahead of us was some downhill and a flat stretch. I could totally do this. We stopped for a snack and to drink some water before the final push.
How can I describe the next leg of our journey? Those last couple of miles where a bitch. I was done. The trail was way worse than I remember. It was filled with potential twisted ankles just waiting to happen. I was tired, sore, and hungry for real food and not just a boring ol’ Cliff Bar. After what seemed like an eternity we finally made it to some level ground. Ground not littered with rocks and boulders. This part I had been looking forward to. I had thought, naively, that I would be able to set myself on cruise control and just walk on to the end. Oh, how I mis-judged. I kind of waddled or shuffled or something along those lines. Walking was not something I was capable of any longer. The hiking poles that I had just bought for this trip were the only things keeping me upright. Thoughts of taking off the boots and leaving them alongside the trail in order to hike in just my socks back to the car was sounding better and better. But, that darn “leave no trace” rule made me keep them on and made me keep going. There was a trashcan at the end of this god forsaken hike and these boots were going in. If only, I could hurry up and make it there.
Finally, I started talking to myself. This wasn’t the first time either. The first time was when I was hiking up Whitney and I was counting my steps. This time, it was to get to my Lexi. She would get me out of here. Well, not her exactly, but the thought of her. I just needed to get back to her. Four days without her was just not okay. So, I kept going, whispering her name over and over and over. It worked. About a mile before the end, there she was. Johnnie’s dad had walked out, he was tired of just waiting for us to take our sweet time getting to him (little did he know where were going as fast as we could – this hiking stuff is hard!). He let go of her leash and I crumbled to the ground. She ran past Johnnie and into my arms. Obviously, she has her priorities straight! 😉 Dear God, that was the best moment on the trail. I cried. Hell, I’m crying as I write this. She ran over to Johnnie to say hi and then back to me. She jumped around like a puppy and she’s eight years old. I’d day this was the happiest moment in the last four days for her as well.
You see, I’m her person and she’s my dog. It hasn’t always been like this though. When we lost Abby last year, our relationship changed. She used to be little Miss Independent. We’d go hiking and she was off doing her own thing. Her and I had never developed the same type of bond that Abby and I had. But now that it’s her, Dexter, and I, we have a different dynamic. Now, don’t get me wrong, she still has her independent streak and we still have discussions about things like not eating all the cats in the neighborhood, those things I don’t think will ever change. She goes everywhere with me and there have been very few days since I adopted her that we have not been together. If I could take her to work and everywhere else I totally would. Even on the weekends, she goes with me to the grocery store and she hangs out in the back of the Subi, watching the birds and the people in the parking lot. We pretty much go everywhere together and we always have. So, being apart for four days is hard, like really hard.
With brightened spirits, at least on my part – I had Lexi after all, we made it back to the car. We loaded up and headed down into Lone Pine. Burgers lay ahead of us. But first we had to stop for a quick photo op. A photo op that consisted of me not getting out of the car to take this picture.
After days of talking about it for days, a burger was in order, even before driving up to Whitney Portal to get the Subi. So, we headed to the Mount Whitney Restaurant. It was a beautiful drive and the thought of real food was awesome. The one thing I didn’t think to consider was getting out of the car. Those few minutes, okay, it was more like 30-45 minutes, it took us to drive into Lone Pine, really did a number to me. For when we stopped and everyone got out of the car, I hobbled around the back to find my flip flops. These boots had to come off. With some very careful work I was able to get my flip flops on but holy hell were my feet swollen. After shutting the car door, I tried walking, the best I could over to where Johnnie and his dad were talking to Erik on the side of Main Street. Wow. I’m still not sure how to describe the weird gyrations that allowed me to get there but when I finally arrived, I was greeted with basically, “You’ve got a nice case of Hiker Hobble”. It was official. Between the hiker hunger and the hiker hobble I officially transitioned from a hiker to a long distance hiker. Nothing like a thru-hiker, but none the less, on my way to greater adventures…not anytime soon. I still needed to decide if this whole thing was a success or not. I was still alive to there were signs pointing to the affirmative.
We talked of the PCT, food, resupplies, hiking, and a whole bunch of stuff over burgers. We left and I felt full of food, conversation, and gratitude.
Bringing Up The Rear:
It’s been a month know and I’ve had some time to digest this whole adventure and come to some sort of conclusion. Yet, I’m not sure it’s really over. You see, when I got home that night, took a shower, and slept in my own bed, it was like heaven. However, I would not want to give back my memories of what I saw or what I experienced. Without those cold nights, torrential downpours, lack of oxygen, aches, and pains, I would not have appreciated that hot shower and cozy bed as much as I did. Also, I would not have appreciated my ability to walk prior this experience. Running a marathon was easier than those four days but definitely not as stunningly gorgeous. Maybe I just haven’t found the right marathon course. Haha. In all honesty, I’m not sure there’s a marathon around that can compete in sheer spectacular breath taking beauty. It is this beauty that is haunting me. It is this beauty that is stirring something in my soul.
Where will this take me? I am not 100% sure. I do know that there are places I am now itching to go see. For if this, was but a taste of what’s out there, I have to see the rest. Many of these are along the John Muir Trail. This might have to be added to the list for next summer…except I think I’ll leave off Mt. Whitney. She won and I am totally okay with that. Heights are not my thing and neither are tiny trails and lots of people. I’m not sure I’ll do the hike all in one go but maybe a few extra long weekend will allow me to section hike it and see everything it has to offer.
Has anyone hiked the JMT? If so, what are your thoughts, impressions, suggestions, or advise? Also, what would you recommend as conditioning training? Should I South to North or North to South? Any recommended reading? Who is planning on hiking it next summer (2016)?