The Straw that Broke the Camel's Back, Or, the Log that Killed the Hiker's Mojo

June 21, 2017
Mile 778 (just before Forester Pass) to Mile 788 (Bullfrog Lake Junction)
Bullfrog Lake Junction to the foot of Kearsarge Pass
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 47

Happy summer solstice, you very wet notebook.

We are camping at the foot of Kearsarge Pass, and there is a beautiful sunset. We so badly wanted to get to Bishop tonight and be there for my birthday tomorrow, but we absolutely killed ourselves today and I did something reckless just to make the miles. I crossed a river on a sketchy wet log that I was completely terrified with, and that killed it for me today. My momentum crashed. We pushed on, but there was no recovering from the mental trauma of choosing a pass/fail situation over a longer, tougher, but ultimately safer option (searching for a place to ford).

The day started with Forester Pass, and I got at least a half hour start on everyone else. Of course, we were at elevation and over snow so with my ultra-heavy pack, that still put me last going over the pass. I watched 6-and-a-half-foot Bam Bam scale the near-vertical snow slope approach to Forester and thought it might be easy for me too. It wasn't, and I had elevation nausea, weakness, and brain-pounding the whole time, but I at least felt bolstered by the fact that everyone else (except Bam Bam) was using Forester to learn how to use their ice axes. The first time learning how to walk with an ice axe in the wilderness. Terrifying. Thank you, Greg Glass.

For my approach, it only became scary when I was halfway up the slope and out of gas, with wobbly legs and arms from over-exertion and under-oxygenation. I took my time, and we got up there as the rest of the crew was finishing their rest break. Story of my life. Sonya took a video of us and it perfectly captures the frustration. When I watch it, I wish I didn't wear my heart on my sleeve all the time, but I do, and the video of me cresting Forester Pass shows exactly how I felt at that moment. Our trail family was nothing but gracious, excited, and welcoming. And I was having none of it.

I was so ready to keep moving and stay with the pack that I jumped on being the first to glissade down the north side of Forester (after Bam Bam, who went fifteen minutes ago). I felt comfortable after ice axe training and the snow was slushy enough, but the steepness of the mountain prevented me from seeing the glissade path in its entirety. I could see the ant-shape of Bam Bam traversing around the lake far at the bottom. He turned around, gave the thumbs up, and then shouted something across the void. He said it a few times but I couldn't understand it, so I decided I would just go slowly and be safe. As I sat down at the top of the butt-sledding hill to begin the glissade, the foggy words snapped together in my brain. Go slow, there are boulders below.

I went slow and as I hit the steepest part of the glissade, I saw the boulders. A field of massive rocks right in the middle of the glissade path. I was going slowly enough that I could slow down and scoot over across the slope to avoid them, but with at least six people behind me I decided to wait for someone to pop over the horizon to pass on the news. After a minute or so another head popped over, ready to start their own glissade. I passed on the news, and everyone started their glissade slightly further north to avoid the rocks.

I was so proud that we did Forester, and we had fun glissading and walking and talking on the descent, even though my notebook got wet on the glissade. And then it became exhausting not being able to find any of the trail or keep up with anyone. Everyone trying to rush to get to Bishop, and we couldn't keep the pace. Rather, I couldn't keep the pace and Alex would never leave me behind. So there we were. It was horrible, and the black mental spiral of doom began. We pushed on.

The last two obstacles before the Onion Valley Trailhead were a final creek crossing and Kearsarge Pass. We hit Bubb's Creek after hustling hard to keep up with everyone. The approach was slippery snow that led into roaring whitewater. It was a monster. I slipped in my hustle to keep up, and a little branch saved me from sliding into the river. Alex helped me up as my frustration burbled to the surface, foreshadowing what the next few minutes would explode into. We got to the crossing, and it was a log. A small, slippery log over frothing whitewater. Nearly everyone was across, and all I could think of was how the fuck I should definitely not do this. It goes against my common sense rules of what is slow and safe versus what is quick and deadly. But everyone was already across, shouting encouragements. Everything was moving so fast, and my nerves were not in the right place to cross safely. I tried scooting across with my pack on, and got stuck a few feet from the beginning. There was a stick poking out from the log that I hadn't seen before. My pack was too heavy for me to lift myself over it. I couldn't do it. I also couldn't back up, but I tried to as much as I could. Alex got my pack off and I was able to go forward again and get over the stick without the extra weight. I scooted across the rest of the log to the other side. Alex crossed with his pack, went back to the other side of the creek and crossed again with my pack. I kept it together as much as possible while the trail family was still around. They were congratulating everyone on a successful crossing (ha. ha.) and we told them to go on ahead, we needed to stop for a moment to gather ourselves. I melted into shame with myself that I had gone with the group across the log instead of doing what I felt was right and safe and smart. My momentum collapsed, but I knew we had to keep moving, so we did. I couldn't stop shaming my decisions, and I said 'never again'. No more logs. No more choosing the group over myself. No more.

The slog continued, and as we left the PCT toward Kearsarge Pass, the trail became invisible. We were too far behind the rest of the group to see their footsteps in the snow and follow the path, so we navigated as best as our weary minds could. On and on, until we were at the foot of Kearsarge Pass. We still had time to cross, but given how I was feeling about my choices for the day thus far, we decided to camp.

We are camping at the foot of Kearsarge Pass, exhausted and shaken. But it's not all bad. If I wake up tomorrow, on my birthday, in the heart of the beautiful High Sierra, next to the person who makes me feel more loved than I ever knew possible, that'll be an okay birthday. Even if we don't make it to Bishop. I made the right decision to stay on this side of the pass, to have a warm meal, to go to sleep, and if the universe decides it so, to see my trail family tomorrow. If not, then the worst that happens is I wake up to this view and have a day of slogging. We got this far, and I'm okay. I am okay.

Bam Bam set up his camera to film the approach, then hightailed it over the pass and into Bishop the same day. He lost (or broke?) his sunglasses and expected he couldn't survive two days over snow without getting snow blindness.

Bam Bam set up his camera to film the approach, then hightailed it over the pass and into Bishop the same day. He lost (or broke?) his sunglasses and expected he couldn't survive two days over snow without getting snow blindness.

Two miles of suncups before the real climbing begins.

Two miles of suncups before the real climbing begins.

Forester Pass looking South

Forester Pass looking South

It looks like the ice chute is so close, until you see the people way further up the snow slope for scale.

It looks like the ice chute is so close, until you see the people way further up the snow slope for scale.

Alex's feet and ice axe, 'Lagatha'

Alex's feet and ice axe, 'Lagatha'

View from the top of Forester Pass

View from the top of Forester Pass

Forester Pass looking North. There's a snow path to the left, and a drop-off to the right. We take the steeper route and glissade to the bottom.

Forester Pass looking North. There's a snow path to the left, and a drop-off to the right. We take the steeper route and glissade to the bottom.

Over the River and Through the Creeks

June 20, 2017
Crabtree Meadows (Base of Whitney) to Mile 778 (just before Forester Pass)
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 46

Tonight, we are camping two miles from the top of Forester Pass. It looks like a giant ice chute. Terrifying. Today we crossed three raging creeks, Wallace, Wright, and Tyndall. We met Convict, a hiker who fell in Wallace, and was pulled out by Bam Bam and Tofu. She said "just keep walking upstream and you’ll find a place to cross, just wait until you find a place where you’d take your dog across."

She did all today’s crossings alone. Incredible. 

We met Convict on the far side of Wallace Creek, when we were still trying to convince Ben and Sara to try cross again. Telling them that one woman had crossed alone, fallen in and still made it, well, we thought that would help. It didn’t. Here’s what happened.

I started out an hour earlier than everyone, with four miles to go before Wallace. As it happens, everyone passed me by the third mile. There’s a mild climb, and then the trail starts heading down towards Wallace. The descent is mostly snow covered, making for very slow going. Crampons on, crampons off, trying not to fall down while navigating the drifts, checking the GPS every two minutes to make sure we’re still on trail. 

Long after everyone is well ahead of me and Alex, we hear a roaring, and come to a creek. Wow! Wallace came a lot faster than expected, we must not be moving as slowly as I thought! It’s not as bad as Rock Creek but it is wild, deep, and really, really fast. We look for a better crossing, and don’t find it. The creek only gets deeper and the water thrashes and surges over debris caught in its banks. While we search, I think to myself that it’s reasonable the group didn’t wait for us to cross Wallace. We have three creeks to cross today, and have to keep moving. We head back to the place where trail crosses the creek and I suck it up and go first.

It’s my first whitewater ford. It’s only up to my knees, but when the water hits my legs my feet are numb instantly. Justin told us this would happen, so I use my poles to find rock-free spots to step. When the water hits my legs, the obstacle of my body causes it to surge to mid-thigh height. The creek is narrow, so the crossing only takes a few seconds and I’m done. Alex crosses, and that’s it. We’re across Wallace. Something is bothering me. Was that too early to cross Wallace? And, though powerful, was that creek severe enough to cause hikers to turn around? Alex checks his phone, and we haven’t crossed Wallace at all. We have crossed an unnamed creek. Insubstantial enough that it doesn't even warrant a name.

Wallace comes half a mile later, and the group is waiting at the edge. They’ve already scouted for better places to cross, packed their electronics in dry sacks, and stripped down to their skivvies to prevent warm clothes from getting wet. Justin plans for us to cross in pairs, which we’ve practiced on dry land but not yet in a creek. He reminds us that we have about 20 seconds to cross before our leg muscles start failing because of the sub-freezing water temperature.

Here's the rub: Wallace is about 30 feet across, which makes 20 seconds a snap of the fingers when you're trying to carefully choose every step, every placement of your pole. That’s also not the amount of time you have full control of and strength in your muscles. That’s the amount of time you have before your legs can’t hold you up anymore. Your muscles start to shake nearly the instant you're in the water.

Tyler and Madison start off straightaway and make it across. Sonya and a new addition to our group, Trail Name, head out second, and make it across, with Tyler waiting on the other bank, arm stretched out in case there’s any trouble. Ben and Sara are third, and as they head out into the creek I notice that they are sorely mismatched in size, and both quite skinny. No anchor weight or stable center of gravity between the two of them. Ben is at least a head taller than Sara, and they are both feather-light.

Ten feet into the crossing, in the section just above the rapids, they falter. Sara falls. Ben holds his ground for a moment, and then he’s down. Shit. Their heads are above water, but they’re in it. Not being swept, but the scene is frozen in time. 

Then everything speeds up. Justin is hollering at them to stand up. Get up! Get up! Get up! By some miracle, they manage to do it. They stand up, and for a moment, it seems like it might last. Just a moment. In a flash, they’re down again. Justin plows into the creek and drags Sara back to shore, then heads back in and grabs Ben, dragging him back. To the crossing side. They are soaked to the bone, but Ben and Sara have polar opposite reactions. Sara is visibly shaken, panicked, and scared, while Ben looks as if he’s been meditating for hours. Alex and I rip our fleeces and rain pants off our packs for Ben and Sara to put on. They’re both shivering, soaking wet, and have been submerged in freezing water for a scary amount of time.

I have two dialogues running simultaneously in my mind. The first is listening to Justin curse the stupid idea of crossing this creek, that we should’ve never tried to in the first place. The second is the alternative if I don’t cross, and that’s going back over the Whitney Portal. No. Fucking. Way. I turn to Alex and say, evenly and quietly,

I'm going.

And I do. Alone. And so fucking determined to get across this creek I feel like a machine. I step. Move my pole. Move my other foot. One foot. One pole. Other foot. Other pole. I'm walking through liquid ice. My legs wobble under the pressure of the surging water and the depths of cold that fill my muscles, but I keep moving. Completely focused. There is nothing on this planet right now between me and the creek. Focus. Every muscle in my body is rigid. Time is frozen. And then, there’s Tyler on the other bank, reaching his hand out to me. I blow right past him to finish the crossing, and run to the fire that Sonya and Madison started. Every part of me that touched the water is completely numb. Alex left the opposite bank the moment I'm across the creek, so he makes it ashore soon after me. We’re warming up by the fire, half of our warm clothes on the other bank with Ben and Sara, and I realize we still have to get them across. 

Justin is acting as the spokesperson for the far bank and tells us he’s going to build a fire for them to warm up and then see if they want to cross. We wait, warming up, and Convict joins us by the fire. She is a friend of Daniel Winsor, the hiker who has kept such good track of creek crossings this year. She tells us how she fell in, got pulled out and still decided to move forward. That bolsters our confidence. We wait for Justin to give us the signal to talk. Soon, he is standing at the bank waiting for communication, and what feels like a series of negotiations begin.

They are not going to cross. They have decided to go out over Whitney Portal. Immediately, everyone on our side of the creek starts running through every possibility for convincing them to cross. The strongest among us could cross again and carry their packs. We could make a human chain across the creek to get them across safely. Convict crossed alone, they can do this. And so on.

It’s fruitless, and after about an hour of negotiations, we know we have to move on. With every minute that passes, Wallace Creek is rising, visibly. If we’re going to make it across the rest of the creeks before they are too swollen, we have to go. Food is short for everyone, and we have a group consensus to move on. Justin uses a dry sack with a rock in it and a rope to send Alex and my clothes across the creek. We put out the fire and head out. 

The second crossing is Wright Creek, and by the time Alex and I arrive, the group has already spoken with a couple that tried to cross yesterday. The girl fell in and was swept downstream. Her partner had been running along the bank but the current was so fast that she was getting swept faster than he could run. She somehow managed to pull herself out, but was pretty banged up, so they were resting. The guy told us that about a mile upstream the creek braided at a meadow, and we were off to see the wizard. With six of us, we crossed in pairs. Tyler and Madison first. Sonya and Trail Name second. They were swept off their feet, but were close enough to the far bank that Tyler and Madison were able to pull them out. We expected that to happen to us too, and were able to plan for it. The current got faster and deeper right before the opposite bank, but with the others’ help, we were able to climb out.

Elated at having crossed two of the three, we plowed on. Tyndall required a two-mile snowfield hike upstream, but we found a safe spot to cross, and that was it. We climbed out of the snow to a clear spot below the treeline, changed in to dry socks, had a snack, and saw humans! Bam Bam and Tofu! The feeling of accomplishment was strong, and as we sat, Convict ambled up the trail. Convict! She had crossed all three creeks alone, and there was a pang of knowing that Ben, Sara, and Justin would have been able to make it this far.

The best surprise of the day came after we made camp. Far above the treeline, in sight of the famous Forester Pass ice chute, we sat around making dinner and counting the few calories we had to sustain us until Bishop. Everyone was running low, and then Convict, as if a gift from the universe, asked if anyone wanted food. She had taken four weeks off and lost her hiker hunger, plus was dealing with altitude nausea, and had no appetite for her food. Politeness made each person hesitant, but after enough coaxing, we were devouring cookies, chips, gummies, tortillas, and anything she offered up. We were fed, her pack was lightened. The major creeks were crossed, food was no longer a concern, and we could all rest easy knowing we were only 18 miles and one mountain pass outside of Bishop.

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The Day We Summit Mount Whitney

June 19, 2017
Crabtree Meadows, up to the Summit of Mt. Whitney, down to Crabtree Meadows
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 45

Exhausted, worried about food, worried about stream crossings, worried about Forester Pass. Pretty much worried about everything coming up, mostly because, for the first time on trail, I could get stuck in the wilderness with no food. What I expected to be a moderate day, what with packs that are at least 30 pounds lighter and only 7 miles to the summit. It was a slog, and I probably should have turned around.

I woke up at 3 am, made coffee and cereal, made sure I had the essentials in my pack, and we set out with headlamps and light packs just as everyone else had started rustling in their sleeping bags. The trail was straightforward enough for hiking in the pitch black, though sounds were magnified and eerie. There’s a creek that runs along the trail up to the summit, and sounded thunderous. We couldn’t see it, but finally sloshed through muddy trail alongside the swollen banks. The creek was relatively innocuous. We made progress for half an hour with flattish, open-ish trail. Then the trail turned and we hit snow. Navigating in total darkness with no sight of trail is slow going. The rest of the group quickly caught up to and passed us. 

With the sun’s glow beginning to show on the horizon we could see that the next mile or two would be completely snow-covered, until we hit the switchbacks criss-crossing up Whitney’s rocky face. I felt nauseous, but had a long talk about elevation sickness with Justin last night, brought Tylenol up the mountain to help keep my oxygen-aching brain quiet, and made a conscious effort to take my time and drink plenty of water. It wasn’t difficult to take it slowly—any more than five consecutive steps across the field of suncups and my brain turned into, what I called, a ‘boom boom room’. The edges of my vision flashed like I’d stood up too fast, and my head pounded along with the beat of the strobe. I stopped, closed my eyes, caught my breath, and rinse, lather, repeat. Add constant waves of nausea, plus the luck of a lady to have today as the most painful day of my period, and I march on.

We continue the climb, trailing further behind the rest of the group with every step, but at this point it’s clear that I will need to use every ounce of my concentration to get to the top, not focusing on when I get up there or who it’s with.

HItting the switchbacks would be better, but I am so dizzy and nauseous that I’m not eating and barely drinking, moving forward one or two steps at a time. The trail is thin, the fall down is long. The view is beautiful, but it’s hard to appreciate when I’m one wobble away from toppling over the edge. I take my time, pretty certain I won’t make it to the top, when we come to a fork in the road. Traverse a snowy slope, twice, just to follow the switchbacks, or rock scramble straight up the face of Whitney to the next switchback? Decisions, decisions. A descending hiker (WTF, people are already coming down?!) opts for the rock scramble, and my scrambled brain does two things. One, realize that, oh fuck, I have to come back down this way, and the other is to decide that if someone else picked rock scramble, I’ll pick rock scramble too. Here’s what it feels like: put a floppy half-full backpack on, haphazardly shove your trekking poles somewhere out of the way, do 15 spins on a dizzy bat, then climb 20 feet straight up a face of dislodged rocks above a 2,000-foot drop. The dizzy bat component really ices the cake. 

Since I’m writing this, I didn’t die. I didn’t even cry. I just kept plugging along, persistent as ever. Justin said if the headache is in the back of my head, I should descend. Well, it’s only swallowing the front, and if I go slow enough it only manifests as extreme nausea. So, I’m fine. Up and up. It’s surprising how much more terrifying the trail is when you feel severely unsteady, like you’re walking on a wire instead of a foot-wide trail. I lean into the mountain. I think we’re close now, it’s seven hours in and I can see the trail family starting to descend. They can’t have left the summit long ago, so we must be close. When we finally cross paths, Chris tells me and Alex to scramble across the boulder field before the summit instead of following trail. It’s a good day for a scramble, I think, and we follow his advice. The slope of the field is much milder and the rocks less slippery than what we did earlier today. We reach the summit at noon, on the dot. Look at that. Impeccable timing.

The view is stunning, even for an oxygen-depleted, nausea-ridden brain. I am deeply satisfied at making it this far. I sit and take in the view, try to eat a few bites of food, try to to enjoy the moment. My brain is confused, but if I move slowly and carefully my body does a fine enough job following directions. While most hikers spend a few hours at the top, 15 minutes was enough in my mental state. I told Alex I was ready to get down, and down we went.

I felt better with every step. I even managed to finish the Kate’s bar that I started eating on the ascent. Like clockwork, a mile away from the summit and less than an hour past noon, the storm clouds started their approach. They look worse than yesterday, and we picked up the pace. The slippery scramble on the way down wasn’t great, but we managed and kept trucking. With a long glissade (sledding on your butt down the snowy part of a mountain) to cut out a mile of switchbacks, a trek across the two miles of slushy suncups and the final bit of trail, we were back at camp just 4 hours after hitting the summit.

Sitting at Crabtree Meadows under a big tree, the family sprawled out and gave us a warm welcome. They debated between heading out for the creeks tonight or staying and leaving early in the morning. The group decided to stay, thank goodness. As we sat and ate our dinner, watching the storm clouds roll in around the summit, we had our own storm roll in. In our time spent at Crabtree Meadows the past two days, we hadn’t seen any hikers coming from the south. We hadn’t seen any hikers attempt the creeks ahead and turn around, nobody at basecamp with plans to exit over the Whitney Portal ( up the Whitney trail and one mile from the summit). As we sat and ate our dinner, three men walked up and joined our crowd. They would be the first of the folks we met that decided to bail. They made it across Wallace Creek, got to Wright, and couldn’t do it. It did not sit well, but we still needed to see the creeks. My food supply whispers to me that it's not big enough to add any extra days to the itinerary. There is no getting across two creeks and turning around because the third is impassable. I'm either crossing all three, or I'm not crossing any of them.

It starts to rain, and we head off to bed at 6pm. We’ll need to head out early if we want to cross Wallace Creek with everyone else, and I’m exhausted. Worried, and exhausted. A thunderstorm breaks over the camp. The thunder booms and echoes and shakes, resonating against the mountain peaks. I am glad that I summited the tallest mountain in the continental United States, and I have no desire to ever do it again.

Thrilled with how long this is taking (probably about 7 hours to hike 6 miles at this point, with another 2 to go)

Thrilled with how long this is taking (probably about 7 hours to hike 6 miles at this point, with another 2 to go)

The final boulder field before the summit. If you look hard enough at the center of where the boulders meet the sky, you can see the pinprick of another human. 

Fifteen minutes of sitting still, swimming inside my confused brain

Fifteen minutes of sitting still, swimming inside my confused brain