If you can’t walk, then crawl (PCT Days 57-62): Part 2

“It’s not your fault,” said the triple crowner (someone that’s hiked the AT, the PCT, and the CDT) sitting beside me. I was staring into the campfire dejectedly and not really participating in the boisterous conversation.

One of the thru-hikers was missing and I was the last person that saw him. It was not a good feeling. The hiker that was missing (I’ll call him Terry to preserve his anonymity), was the same hiker that had freed my leg from an impossibly deep posthole about a mile away from where I was now camped. After that, Terry and I had braved the snowfields and postholing mine field together as we descended towards RAE lakes.

At the edge of the lake there had been a sign indicating that sixty lakes basin trail peeled off to the left around the lake and the PCT veered to the right. I’d remembered from the map that the PCT crossed an isthmus between the RAE lakes and that the campsite we were headed for was on the far side of that isthmus, definite towards the right. Unfortunately, however, with all the snow and rocks the path across the isthmus was unclear.

“I’ve got a dead end,” said Terry who was slightly ahead of me. “I know the trail crosses the isthmus,” I said as I looked for a path on the boulders above and Terry looked for the path amongst the boulders and snow below.

“I’ve got trail-trail here,” I said as the muddy crease of the trail become obvious on the far side of the snow and boulders. “I’ve got trail on the lake shore here,” Terry countered. We were each on a trail and we were both confident that we were following the PCT. “This is definitely the trail,” I shouted towards him as our paths clearly diverged.

I’d hiked for another couple of minutes and then pulled out my GPS to double, triple, and quadruple check that I was on the right trail and that I had remembered the map correctly since the snow was still mostly obscuring the trail and I was completely exhausted. Yup, I was on the right trail… Just half a mile to go to the campsite.

Terry and I had had similar exchanges both going up and coming down Glen Pass, with me shouting “I’ve got trail-trail,” and him rerouting back towards me after he’d convinced himself that it was true, so I figured that that was what was going to happen this time too.

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When I got to the campsite I dropped my pack, and plunked myself down… I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been that tired. Kearsarge Pass and Glen Pass all in one day, with 9 days of food, tons of postholing, and a scary steep descent had left me both physically an emotionally worn out. Food and water… That’s what I needed to figure out now… I was guessing that my blood sugar was a little low and at least in part responsible for my miserable mood.

I went about my normal camp chores until about an hour later when Terry’s hiking partner Lisa (name also changed) arrived at the campsite. “Has anybody seen Terry?” She asked.

My heart sank, he should have arrived at the campsite long before Lisa did… She hikes much more slowly than he does. “I saw him about an hour ago, heading towards sixty lakes basin trail,” I said. I then explained to her the conversation that we’d had as we parted ways.

She was worried about him, but also exhausted. They’d gone over Forrester Pass that morning and then Glen Pass in the late afternoon and had had a very long day. She figured, like I did, that when he didn’t find the campsite or any other thru-hikers his way that he’d turn around and make his way back to where we were especially since he knew that I’d been on a trail going in a different direction than he was going in.

30 minutes later when three new thru-hikers showed up and hadn’t seen any sign of him Lisa started to worry more… 30 more minutes and another couple of thru-hikers arrived and still no sign of him… At this point I’d been at the campsite for about 2 hrs and he shouldn’t have been more than 15 minutes behind me… I was definitely worried, especially since Lisa was so worried. “It’s just so unlike him,” she kept saying.

I knew what direction he’d headed in and what trail he was probably on, but I didn’t know what we should do about it so I consulted with the other thru-hikers at the campsite. “Terry is missing, his hiking partner is here and I last saw him about 2 hours ago on the other side of the lake. What should we do?” There was some discussion, but the general consensus was that we should do nothing… Just wait and see if he showed up in the morning… He was a thru-hiker, he had everything he needed to survive the night.

As I sat and ate my dinner I was feeling pretty uncomfortable about things. I knew that it was too soon for us to mount a search and too close to dark, but I had to do something. He’d literally pulled me out of a low spot earlier in the day and doing nothing somehow felt like abandoning him… Lisa was also starting to get a bit frantic.

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I had to concede that I couldn’t do much. I looked at the map and it looked the the trail he’d headed out on was a couple miles long. If he’d gone that far before realizing his mistake and turning around he’d probably be getting close to the initial intersection we’d had our debate about around now.

It was dusk, but still light enough to see the trail so I decided that going the 0.5 miles back to the split in the trail was something that I could do safely, especially since one of the other thru-hikers had offered to accompany me for the walk back down there. I didn’t know if it would help, but it would make me feel better, and I hoped that we’d find him walking up the trail towards us.

We retraced our steps for 0.5 miles around the lake… The scenery there, nestled amongst the lakes and mountains as the sun was setting was absolutely spectacular, but we didn’t see any sign of Terry. At the edge of the lake near the trail intersection we called out his name hoping to hear a response, some sign of where he might be. Nothing.

We turned around and headed back to camp… There wasn’t really anything else we could do until morning, other than hope that might show up sometime in the night or at least hope that he was ok. When we got back to camp someone had made a fire and everyone was sitting around the campfire warming their toes and chatting.

I sat down and just stared into the fire, “it’s not your fault,” said the triple crowner. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but I wished that I had been more forceful or insistent about being on the trail when we’d parted ways. I didn’t know Terry very well, I’d just met him that day, but I sincerely hoped he was ok. Lisa tried to reassure herself (and me) that he was fine… “He’s an experienced backpacker,” she said. “He knows what to do…” And he had his own sleeping bag, tent, and food, he should be fine… “It’s just not like him…” She trailed off.

As I headed off to bed I did not anticipate a good nights sleep… I was worried about a man that I hardly knew, but that I’d been the last person to talk to. All the stresses and emotions of the day erupted into a silent sob… It was all just too much.

One of the other thru-hikers walked by me on the way to his hammock and said, “Here Patches, you look like you could use some whiskey.” I choked back the sob and tried to smile… “Probably so,” I said as I took a swig.

I curled up in my sleeping bag and stared at the stars… It was going to be a cold night.

I spent a lot of that night gazing at the stars and trying to lose my thoughts in the Milky Way… I didn’t sleep well… Not at all. Morning came and there was still no sign of Terry. I packed my stuff up so that it would be ready for whatever we decided to do and then Lisa and I called another group meeting… What should we do?

First things first, we decided that we should go down to the lake and call out for Terry, hopefully he was just somewhere along the shore and would hear us.

Down at the lake we shouted for him a couple of times, but there was no response. We shouted a few more times just for good measure… Suddenly we heard something at the far end of the lake. We shouted again just to be sure and there was definitely a response!!! “Are you ok!!!!” Shouted Lisa. A garbled multi-syllable response came back, but the voice didn’t sound injured or panicked… We had at least some idea of where he was!

After talking to Lisa we decided that she would stay put and I would follow the PCT North (with a buddy), towards the far end of the lake, where it sounded like the voice was coming from. We assumed that as I got closer we’d be able to pinpoint where Terry was. We agreed that two short bursts of my emergency whistle (repeated after a delay) would signal that we’d found him safe and sound and that she could proceed up the trail to find him whenever she was ready. SOS (three short three long three short) would mean that we needed help and we’d send my buddy as a runner back to camp with details and figure out what to do from there.

I set off up the trail with a huge sense of relief. We had a plan and had an indication of where he was and that he was ok enough to shout, which meant he was pretty ok. A mile or so up the trail we found Terry, looking wornout, but completely fine. “Lisa’s been worried sick about you!” I said as I dropped my pack and pulled out my whistle.

“I got lost and bushwhacked my way around the lake. With all the postholing, by the time I got here I was just too exhausted to go any further,” said Terry. I nodded and gave two short blasts of the Emergency whistle. “Do you think I should head down the trail to where Lisa is?” He asked. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea,” i said before giving two more short toots of my whistle, happily signaling the all clear. As he trotted down the trail to meet up with Lisa I happily signaled the all clear on the whistle one more time.

I wasn’t sure whether Lisa was going to hug Terry or kill him when she saw him, but I had no doubt that there was going to be a long and interesting conversation when they reunited in a few minutes.

As I put the whistle away and hoisted my pack back up onto my shoulders my camera crashed to the ground, my beautiful telephoto lens separating from the body of the camera. I picked up the pieces… The camera still worked but the telephoto lens was busted. *sigh* No more bird pictures for me, but in the grand scheme of things loosing the lens seemed like a very small price to pay for finding Terry ok.

Mount Whitney (PCT Days 52-54)

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“Wooooah!” I was on a steep incline trying to traverse a snowy slope in the dark when the snow beneath my right foot collapsed and skittered down the slope leaving my foot dangling without the foothold I’d hoped for.

Up until then the snow had been moderately firm, and each foothold had been secure, but beneath an icy crust my foot had just discovered a foot and a half of light, fluffy, non-load-bearing powdery snow. A wave of adrenaline surged through my body as I took a deep breath and tried to find another foothold… It was a long way down…

Anytime I’m on terrain that feels sketchy or exposed I pretend that I’m rock climbing and make sure that I have three good, solid points of contact at all times before I try to move forward. In this case I was very thankful for that instinct. I could afford to replace my floundering foot without panicking.

I reseated my foot and this time it held. “Phew!” But my relief didn’t last long, my second foot didn’t hold either. The snow beaneath me was skittering to a stop somewhere at the base of the cliff… Not exactly reassuring, but my pervious foothold was solid and once again I was able to recover and find better footing.

It was just those two steps that stood out as hair raising moments as I night hiked Mount Whitney so that I could watch the sunrise from it’s summit. The rest of the climb was just hard work and beauty.

As we set off from camp at midnight the sky was clear and amazingly beautiful. There were so many stars that you couldn’t count them and the Milky Way was awesomely obvious. We knew if nothing else, we would remember the stars of this night.

As we ascended the mountain the snow got deeper and the temperatures dropped. We donned our microspikes to help with traction and additional warm layers of clothing. Before long the water in our water bottles had frozen and we were wiggling our toes trying to remember what they felt like. At that point I switched to my neoprene socks, which definitely kept my feet warmer.

As I hiked the tune from the Christmas sing “silver and gold” got stuck in my head, but I replaced the lyrics with “fingers and toes, fingers and toes, everyone wishes for warm fingers and toes.” I had plenty of warm clothes, but my fingers and toes were definitely cold. Though it was a hard, slow climb, we made it through the snow and up to the summit of Mount Whitney for sunrise. It was a truly spectacular experience!

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As dawn broke on top of Mount Whitney the temperatures were in the teens… It was definitely cold up there! 10 PCT hikers curled up in sleeping bags and crammed into the tiny shelter on top of Mount Whitney. We were all anxious to warm up our poor fingers and toes before spending more time outside enjoying the amazing vistas.

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As soon as my fingers and toes warmed up I was anxious to go back out and enjoy the views. I had insulated pants and an insulated jacket (or two) on so that I could stay warm out on the summit. In many ways, the scariest part of the day was when the door to the shelter jammed and I thought we were all going to be trapped in the shelter at the summit of Whitney!!

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Lucky for me, the jam was only temporary and I was able to escape the shelter and get outside to enjoy the impressive vistas! After soaking in the views I was actually both excited and impatient about heading down. Since our entire climb had been in the dark (literally), everything was going to seem new as we descended.

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Somehow in the daylight it seemed like there was even more snow than we’d realized as we were going up. Lots and lots of snow. We were amazed that we’d gone through so much snow during our night hike! On the way down I pulled out my ice and used it as I traversed the sketchier sections that we’d come up over. With ice axe in hand I tried to cut better, more stable steps into the snow/ice. I didn’t want to have any of those adrenaline inducing steps on the way down… The two steps of that going up had been more than enough for me!

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After I got through the short, sketchy part, I relaxed and enjoyed the stunning views around me. People had been telling me for months about how amazing the Sierras are and now I was finally there. It would be hard to be more Sierra than this and it would be hard to be more spectacular than this.

When asthma forced me to leave my job, I never would have imagined that a year later I would be standing on the summit of Mount Whitney in May with a bunch of my fellow thru-hikers! Sure, at below freezingf temperatures at 14,000ft I’d had to warm up my inhaler so that I could use it, but I was there… Doing amazing things… Doing things that I hadn’t even dared imagine a year ago!

I’m looking forward to the rest of the Sierras and to what my future holds!

(Rumor has it that I’ve gone through the scariest part of the Sierra, so now I get to sit back and enjoy the snow and the stunning scenery.)

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Kennedy Meadows (PCT Days 43-45)

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“Kennedy Meadows population 200,” the local guys laughed, “maybe there are 200 parcels in Kennedy Meadows but there’s no way there are 200 people, 20 would be more like it.”

I’d hiked through 700 hundred miles of desert to get to Kennedy Meadows, the gateway to the Sierras. As I’d hiked northwards it seemed like everyone was excited about getting to Kennedy Meadows… Overtime it became an almost mythical place: the point at which you leave the desert and enter the Sierras.

When I remarked on the spectacular beauty and amazing views of the desert the people around me would smile at me and say, “if you think this is amazing, just wait until you get to the Sierra.” It seemed almost akin to people smiling at young children and saying, “just wait until you’re older.” Lots of people were looking forward to getting out of the desert and into the Sierra and getting to Kennedy Meadows was symbolic of that transition.

I wasn’t sure what I expected or what to expect as I approached Kennedy Meadows, but I do know that whatever it was, it was something completely different than what I found…

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Entering Kennedy Meadows as I Ieft Sequoia National Park I passed by a few small homes and some land that looked like it was used for cattle and headed towards the general store. It looked much like a small store you might find in any southern or western mountain town. There were chairs out front with local folks relaxing and enjoying some beers, and then a side porch where the thru-hikers were sorting through their gear and preparing for the Sierras.

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The two porches felt like they were two different worlds of completely alien peoples. I kind of enjoyed the watching the people on both porches… The locals seemed relaxed, and happy to drink their beers and marvel at the thru-hiker show with all of its bustle, boisterousness, excitement and beer.

Every now and then there was an alien encounter and a few words were communicated between the thru-hikers and the locals. I get to talk to other thru-hikers all the time, so when when of the locals started up a conversation with me I grabbed a beer, sat down, and joined them.

“That’s a mighty fine knife you’ve got there,” was the conversation starter. “Why yes it is,” I smiled and replied. “Mind if I take a peak at it?” I handed him my knife. He recognized the make and model of the knife (as did his two friends that were sitting there drinking their beers) and they admired it thoroughly.

Before I knew it, I was on the porch in Kennedy Meadows fully embroiled in a conversation about knives, guns, and the government. “I’ve stumbled into the wild Wild West for the first time,” I thought as the conversation went on. “The nearest law enforcement is at least three hours away and that’s the way we like it,” continued the conversation. “If the government stays out of our business, we’ll stay out of its business,” contributed another. And they tried to explain what life out in Kennedy Meadows was like.

With less than 20 full time residents and cold snowy winters, you have to be ok with a lot of solitude, and since the nearest law is 3 hours a way you learn to trust and rely on your neighbors. Are there small town politics, heck yeah. The smaller the town, the bigger the politics, and this may be the smallest “town” I’d ever seen.

What Kennedy Meadows has is a general store, a road, a trailhead, and solitude and independence for those that want it. The general store is the gathering point for both the locals and the thru-hikers with its nice shady porches for beating out the heat of the day. It’s not a big store, or a new store, but it’s Kennedy Meadows’ Store and that means something. There’s no cell phone reception in Kennedy Meadows, none. And the electricity for the store comes from it’s own generator. There’s no public power, public water, or public sewage in Kennedy Meadows. There’s no post office in Kennedy Meadows. There is, however, a pay phone… The first pay phone that I’ve used in over a decade.

As we were relaxing on the porch the guy with the black tank top and cammoflauge hat received a package. “You better look out man, could be a bomb,” said one of his friends. He looked at the package, turned it over in his hands, looked at the other guy and said, “f*** man, you may be right. Plenty of folks looking to take me out.” He then stood up and walked to the far side of the driveway to open the package. They seemed legitimately concerned that the package might be a personal bomb. I was definitely in a different world.

A couple minutes he jogged back beaming, “it’s a book!” He yelled. A book about the history of the American Civil war. As we chatted the afternoon away I grew fond of the group of locals and one of them offered to let me and some friends come back and sleep in his cabin instead of pitching our tents at the back of the parking lot.

With a couple of friends in tow, we piled into his pickup truck and headed for a new adventure in Kennedy Meadows… We’d found an unlikely trail angel!

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The cabin was beautiful and had been completely constructed by our trail angel. He gave us the tour and showed us the solar panels, batteries, and generators that he uses to power everything in his house. It was really cool to see. Then we went inside, relaxed, ate roasted pinyon pine nuts that he’d collected from his own trees, and listened to him play guitar. He was a really good guitar player!

In between sessions we played with his punching/kicking bag a bit. I was pretty entertained at one point when he turned to me and said, “damn girl, you’ve been trained. You don’t land a kick six feet up the bag like that unless you’ve been trained.” It was good to see that I haven’t forgotten everything :)

There was more discussion about guns, conspiracy theories, the government, and what it meant to be a true patriot before he said, “you wanna really hear something?” and went downstairs to turn the generator on. When he came back he went to town on one of his electric guitars. This guy was definitely a real musician.

Though Kennedy Meadows may not have been what I expected to find, it was full of awesome and amazing adventures!! I can’t wait to see what awaits me in the Sierras… The trip has been incredibly amazing so far.

p.s. Still having trouble with the newest revision of the blogging software, hopefully it will get resolved soon!

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