As I rushed forward on Cottenwood Pass Trail, a sense of calm and peace filled my heart. Perhaps it was the thought that I will soon be united with my family. Perhaps it was the sun's ray piercing through the forest by Horseshoe Meadow casting a beautiful warmth. Perhaps it was me stepping over the last creek on my 40 mile journey, grateful for what Nature has provided for me, feeling content.
It all started on Tuesday, September 13th 2016. The day we checked out of the hotel we stayed the night prior in the small town of Lone Pine. Damian, Lucious and I drove our car north to Onion Valley, where we were suppose to end our 5 day (originally 4 day) backpacking trip. It started snowing soon after our arrival. It was beautiful. And then we locked our car key in the car. Instead of trying to figure out how to get the key out we decided to enjoy our trip and get into the shuttle van where our driver Tanner dropped the three of us off at Whitney Portal, base camp #1 at a little over 8,000 ft. From there, we started our hike toward the top. Each of us had our own backpack, mine weighed about 50lbs (WTF was I thinking?!). Lucious quickly began his wining and I forged up leaving behind Dad and Boy to their "negotiations". After a couple of hours I arrived at the sign pointing to Lone Pine Lake. Straight ahead of me I could see a couple of hikers coming down the trail passing by a couple of deer.
"Are you guys heading down?" I asked. "Yeah!" they replied.
"Could you please do me a huge favor?" I said.
"My husband and my son are on their way up, would you please tell them to turn down to Lone Pine Lake when you see them on your way down?"
"Of course, no problem!" the two gentlemen replied happily and moved on.
I turned down the lake trail and soon was greeted by a magnificent view of Lone Pine Lake. It turned out that Lucious started showing symptoms of elevation sickness - vomiting, so we camped by the lake for the first night, elevation about 9,000.
Wednesday, September 14th, 2016. It was Damian's 40th birthday. This was his birthday trip. But now we had a decision to make. Obviously our son was not physically able to move on to 14,505 ft, would we turn back as a family? Or would I hike on on my own? It was a hard choice. I would have loved to stay with the boys, it was Damian's birthday after all. But with a huge project ahead of me, I did not foresee anymore time off in the near future. And so we said our see ya soons and up I went.
Lesson # 1 - Sometimes you have to make the hard decisions
The goal of Wednesday was to make it to Trail Camp, elevation 12,000. It took me about 4 hours but eventually I arrived at Trail Camp, considered base camp #2. Most over night hikers would make it up here, camp for a night and summit Mt. Whitney the next day then back down to Whitney Portal. However my itinerary was much longer than that, I planned on summit, descent on the other side of the mountain and finish up my hike at Onion Valley. Immediately I scouted a camp site, claimed it by setting down my heavy ass backpack on the spot. (If your plan is staying over here, keep in mind that this camp site gets crowded.)
Then I took off of my boots and socks, walked about 60 seconds down to the lake with my bare feet and plunged them into the cold water. Slowly situated my butt on a rock and began to cry... I felt lonely. The supposed birthday hike with my partner of 8 years had suddenly turned into a "woman up, tough luck with your amateur backpacking skills out in the middle of nowhere" adventure, and "oh, by the way, don't forget your backpack weighs 50 pounds, have fun!". I was not afraid of being in the wild, after all, this was what I've dreamed of doing for so long, but I missed my boys. I missed that one of us would set up the tent and one of us would make food while the crazy little person run around acting, like a crazy little person.
"Time to get back and set up my tent, make dinner and turn in early as tomorrow is a big day." I thought to myself. Not realizing "big" was not big enough of a word to describe what was to follow the day after. Filled up my water pouches and headed back. One of the hikers saw how full my hands were and offered to help, one of many kindnesses I encountered on the trail. I later made him miso soup as a thank you.
As I was setting up my 2 person REI tent, four women hiked up and one of them recognized me from the small climbing store in town. We started chatting about how Damian and Lucious had to turn back and gave them a hand on the finishing touches of their tent set ups. Feeling lonely, I grabbed my freeze dried pouch and invited myself over to dinner with the ladies. I had gluten free penne that night, which was not very tasty. Lights out was 7pm. I cried a little before dozing off.mtmt
It was cold, but not as cold as the first night. Soon I woke up with a pounding headache like nothing I've ever experienced before, "11 PM" said my iPhone. And so I caught the altitude sickness at 12,000 ft. It was dark out. "I don't think I can summit tomorrow if this persist." I took out the emergency aid kit in the side pocket of my backpack, hoping to find some type of headache meds within. "YES!" neatly laid in the pouch were two small packets of non-aspirin. I didn't think I've ever been so happy to take these tiny little pills. I laid back into my sleeping bag like a mummy with my hat and gloves on, tightly zipped all the way up to my face and closed my eyes. I knew I had to wake in just few more hours and I needed all the rest I could get.
I was woken by the sounds of hikers unzipping and zipping their tents. I looked at the time. 3:00 AM. Still dark. I unzipped my sleeping bag and sat up. Technically my alarm would not have gone off for another 30 minutes. But I felt good. The headache was gone, I felt energized regardless the little food I had at dinner. "Alright, let's do this!" I put on my head lamp, which I had set out the night before for easy access, and gone to work on making some hot water. I made some coffee and gooey eggs (they were gooey because I didn't read the instruction correctly...). Then, it happened... I had to go, number two. For those that have not been to Mt. Whitney Trail before. This is what's up: due to the popularity of the trail, everyone is required to carry a "wag bag". Yes, you poop in a bag and stuff it back into your backpack and carry it with you until you leave the trail. Yes, that's how we keep this place beautiful. So... at the most crowded camp site, where the f*%k do you go to lay out your nice a$$ wag bag and do your business? Anyway...
I quickly broke camp and repacked my backpack, made sure I had enough water for the next hike and set out in the dark onto the infamous 99 switch backs of Whitney Trail. Soon the sun started to rise and it was incredible.....ly heavy with my backpack. 7 out of 10 hikers passing would make a comment about it and I would reply with "yeah, it's heavy." or "um, 40 or 50 lbs?" or "well, I'm not coming back down this way." Most of the hikers would leave their stuff behind at Trail Camp, carrying only enough water and food for the summit, descent, break camp and down to Whitney Portal. However, my plan was to finish my trip hiking the John Muir Trail, which begins on the west side of Mt. Whitney. Each step was coupled with great effort. The encouragement of other hikers pressed me on. By the time I reached Trail Crest, about 13,800 ft, I was spent. It had been 6 hours. I felt I made little progress. I had met Jesse (thanks for the ibuprofen) who was showing a bit of altitude sickness and decided to stop at Trail Crest and forgoing the last 2 miles to the summit. I had made the same decision, uncertain if the 4 mile round trip to the top would benefit the rest of my trip. I had a timeline to follow after all. And so we bid our goodbyes and went on our separate ways.mt-w
Lesson # 2 - You meet people along the way and most of the time they are glad to lend a hand, especially if you have the same goals or ideas.
Lesson # 3 - When something does not support the bigger picture or the long term goal; don't be afraid to change course, even if it may pain you to do so. It is the best in the long run.
The scene of downhill hiking was so welcoming that I completely forgot about the pain from my hips. I guess I could be skipping down signing merrily if not for my heavy ass pack. The hike down was pretty easy after the 6 hour climb on the east side. But I was running out of water. I could see lakes from where I stood so I kept on, passing a marmot taking a sun bath. Then I had to..... again... Imagine this: you are on the side of a mountain (Mt. Whitney in this case). There is the trail you are traveling on, that's it, nothing and nowhere else. Where do you go? Lucky for me, the trail on the west side is less traveled (but you gotta "time it" right regardless).
I stopped by the first water source, which was a pond, filtered some water and made lunch. Lunch was not very appetizing... So I supplemented with a green smoothie (yes, I love my greens so much I made sure they would be available to me no matter what. That, ladies and gentlemen, is dedication).
Lesson # 4 - Do your research on your food before heading out. Actually cooking a pouch of freeze dried food (for each brand) at home to make sure you can stomach it.
Time to move. Repacked my backpack and onto the John Muir Trail I hiked. I've wanted to get on the JMT and the PCT for quite a while so I was really happy to be walking along this famous trail. My goal for the day was to get to Crabtree camp site. I heard there is a "restroom" at said site. The sun was starting to set. I kept re-checking my map to see how much progress I had made. I hoped that I was close because night hikes are just not that appealing to me. I heard foot steps approaching behind me and there he was: the gentleman I had crossed path with on the west side of Whitney. He had mentioned that he was camped at Crabtree and invited me to stop by if I made my way there. He introduced himself as NTN (No Trail Name). I followed him to Crabtree, he showed me his tent and invited me to set up close by. It turned out that he was from Alaska, retired, and had been hikinmt-wg the Pacific Crest Trail for a while and had covered about 1,500 miles. We had dinner together and talked about our hiking plans. I told NTN that I'm planning to hike through Kearsarge Pass and exit Onion Valley on Saturday.
"You'll have to hike through Forester Pass, which is back up to 13,000 ft." said NTN.
"Well, I really don't wanna do that after today's climb..." I replied.
"It's unlikely you'll get out by Saturday if you stick with your original route." he said.
And so we went on looking at the maps trying to figure out what other trails I could take to leave the park on time. I had no cell reception and there was no way to get in contact with the boys. We decided that in the morning we would talk to the ranger at Crabtree to see if he had any suggestions and communication with the outside world. Therefore a partnership was created.
Oh, by the way, did I mention that I got to pee in a toilet? :)
Lesson # 5 - When others offer you help, take it. Especially if they have walked the path before you.
Day 4, I slept in compared to the day before. I didn't get out of my sleeping bag until it was actually light out. It was much needed. I was glad the 10 tough miles on day 3 was behind me. I said good morning to NTN and boiled some water for us for coffee. Then I looked at my trash bag and decided that some of that stuff can go into the toilet to lighten my load. The half eaten food and um, whatever was in the wag bag. I dumped whatever I could down in the hole, toss the non-compostables back in the trash bag and sighed with relief. "Hopefully 2 pounds lighter." I thought to myself.
"Horseshoe Meadow is actually only 20 miles away." NTN stated. Realizing that the route he had planned for himself was 10 miles shorter then originally anticipated.
"You are welcome to join me if you like, we get there by Saturday morning."
"That would be amazing!" I replied, glad that a solution was found.
Lesson # 6 - There are different paths that will lead you to the same destination, some will be easier, some will be harder; some will be shorter, some will be longer. All you need is a bit of flexibility.
I did my best to break camp as soon as I could but I was moving slow. I was tired, wishing I could just sit around for a little bit longer. As much as I enjoy being self sustaining and being in the wild. It was taking a toll on my body. I didn't train for 10 mile a day hikes. I was under nourished. But at least now I was not alone. I had a new hiking partner. NTN and I walked towards the ranger station and were informed by another hiker that the ranger is out on patrol duty and would not return for a few more days. So NTN whipped out his GPS device and said "try to send a message to your husband with this, hopefully it'll work."
"Hi Love, it's Sway. I'm using NTN's GPS. Will not arrive at Onion Valley tomorrow. Be at Horseshoe Meadow instead. ETA noon. Reply to confirm." and pressed the send button.
Back on the PCT we went, along the beautiful creek, with my heavy backpack still on my back. Minus the wag.
We decided to hike to Rock Creek for lunch, which was about 5 miles from Crabtree. On the way we met a nice family of four, we stopped for snacks and chats then headed to Rock Creek. While there we chatted with other hikers who were setting up camp for the remaining day and checked the GPS to see if Damian had gotten my message.
"Horsehair Meadow." said in a reply text. Which put a big smile both on my face and in my heart.
After restocking some water supply NTN and I continued moving forward, we had to make it to Soldier Lake to camp for the night. We passed a beautiful meadow when the sun started to set. Casting a photo perfect image with the grazing family of deer in it. Regardless of being in his sixty's, NTN was trail blazing in front of me for most of the trip. Seeing my struggle, he offered to switch packs to lighten my load. Boy, did this guy know how to pack for the backcountry, I straddled NTN's backpack on my shoulders and immediately let out a sigh of relieve, glad to have half of the weight off of my back.
Soon we saw the bear vaults and knew that the nights rest was close by. We made it just in time before the dark sky completely took over and went down to the creek for water to make dinner: miso soup and more freeze dried pouches!
Day 5, woke to the sound of the alarm urging me to get up and get on with my day. Although pretty tired, I was also eager and excited, as this was the day that I would sleep in a real bed, eat some real food, and, use a real toilet! I excitedly made the rest of my egg crystals for NTN and I to fuel for the day's hike.
First stop, Chicken Spring Lake, about 5 miles without water source. I realized my snack source was scarce so I dumped the rest of my chia seeds in my water bottle for some sustained energy along the way. We broke camp and made our way back on the PCT and followed the trail toward our destination. It started off with a lot of climbing, again... We were passed by two packs of horses which was super fun (and got me kinda jealous)! I made a joke to the man leading the first pack about giving me a ride but he didn't seem to be amused... My steps were heavy but the PCT was beautiful, and as soon as I got to the top (at this point NTN was probably waiting for me at the lake already) I stopped for a few minutes to take it all in. "It is all worth it..." I thought, my emotions took over and tears once again ran down my face. The sun, the smell, the trees, the cold nights, the lack of water, the aches, it was all worth it.
Lesson # 7 - The climb may be hard, but the journey and the view! Oh, how amazing the view atop!
Smiley soon became my best friend as I looked down to see Chicken Spring Lake, I started booking down the the trail as at this point I had already consumed all of my supply. I was thirsty and hungry. I have never been so happy to see water, even it was still a hike away, the view of it gave hope.
Long and behold, the sight of NTN sitting and chilling on a tree log enter the view. This kind soul promptly offered his freshly filtered water to me reminding me don't be shy, as there was a huge supply close by. I quickly gulped down the bottle and went on to fetch for more. The only snack I had left for the day (energy jelly beans) was already digesting in my tummy at this point, so I took courage and asked NTN if he had any additional snacks I could have. He gladly handed me a power bar which I gobbled down within a couple of minutes, yum.
After a short rest we headed back on the trail again, the hardest part of the day was over. I was leading this time around because it was mostly down hill, yay! After about 15 minutes we came up on the signs with the trail split offs. I had decided to take Cottonwood Pass so I could be out of the wilderness a couple of hours earlier. For NTN, it was best for him to stay on the PCT for a little longer to re-connect back on the trail after the weekend. So we exchanged big hugs with each other and said quick goodbyes, and promised to come back to give him a ride to town in the evening.
Lesson #8 - We may not have the same goals or destinations, but that doesn't mean we can't offer support to each other for some parts of the journey.
The descent on Cottonwood Pass and the thought of reuniting with my boys brought plenty of joy to my heart. With each step I took toward modern convenience, I reflected. The mental and physical challenges in the past few days presented the opportunity for growth in self-awareness and spirituality. The kindness I have received from numerous strangers and Mother Nature was truly affirming. I was full of hope. I was humbled. I was so, so grateful.
With each step I took, I was holding on. I was keeping the smell of the trees and dirt close to my heart. I was holding on to the feelings of the wind caressing my face and my arms. I was holding on to these lessons I've just learned.
With each step I took, I was letting go. I was crushing all the burdens underneath my feet. I was letting go years of fear and uncertainty. I was letting go of those lessons of "success" that was taught to me growing up (those lessons don't mean sh!t when you are out here by the way).
After about an hour of hike I came to the bottom of the mountain, I was already running behind the timeline I had told the boys so I sped up. It was truly a bitter sweet moment. Oh, did I mention that I saw a couple more hot guys on horses?
As I walked toward the clearing of the meadow, confused by the different sets of foot prints going two separate directions. "You must be kidding me!" I said out loud to myself. But soon recognized the make shift arrow sign that pointed to the right passage. I charged on and knew that I was close to the trail head when I started passing more and more hikers.
And there it was, the first sign pointing to the parking lot, I got emotional again and started to tear up. My step quickened. Soon I would make out the outlines of cars and the color of the asphalt; soon I would be hugging my husband and my son; soon I would be eating hot fries and fresh salad and sleeping in a warm bed.
It was truly a bitter sweet moment.