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Change of Life on the John Muir Trail - September 2014

About this entry:

A friend from high school decided to compile a list of 50 things that he wanted to do in this 50th year of life. He has already accomplished some major things on that list including hiking the Inca Trail, running with the bulls, to name a couple. As the date of his next feat, hiking the John Muir Trail from Yosemite down to Whitney summit drew near, he posted an invite to have a few people join him for the last 6 days. I studied as much as I could in the month prior to departure, watching videos, reading blogs, looking at packing lists. Although I wanted to be with a lean pack of 26lbs, I find myself hovering at about 35lbs.

So tomorrow at 6:30 we will get a ride up to Onion Valley trail head and hike up a couple of thousand feet up to meet Craig for his last leg of his amazing 25 day journey. Heading up the group is Heather, Craig's wife, who is almost giddy about being able to join him. Eric, Craig's brother is coming in from Colorado to join the fun. Two other couples and I round out the group, all with varying degrees of experience. Mine being none.

Independence, California,

United States

Monday, September 22, 2014

Mt. Williamson hotel was a great choice for our stay for two nights before departure. Super friendly people run the place and had a great breakfast ready for us prior to heading out this morning. We wanted to do a trial hike to make any equipment adjustments as well as try to acclimate to the altitude a little bit. The drive up to Onion Valley is about 13 miles and climbs about 5000 feet. As we headed out of town and up the road we ran across a scruffy backpacker hitchhiking and we passed him. Heather said she thought she recognized him from when she brought in resupplies to Craig about a week ago on the trail. We debated about going back to get him and finally turned around and went back.

Cornelius F. is a 28 year old German Mennonite from deep in Mexico, who now lives in Toronto. He told us that he had been planning a great trip to Europe, then saw a film about the John Muir Trail and knew he had to do it before turning 30. So here he is almost complete, having started September 6th in Yosemite. He is carrying a very big pack and is really smelling like a backpacker, and looking about as happy and satisfied as any person could possibly be.

The trail head starts out from 9500 feet or so, so already some of us felt a little funky. Cornelius hefted on his pack and was gone in a moment but we started out a little slower. We hiked up past Pothole Lake and went a total of about 3 hours up before stopping to get some water from another lake and turning around to come back down. I got to practice using my water filter and was impressed at the ease of the whole process. It only took us about an hour to get back down to the car. It's hard to believe that tomorrow we go do that again, and then about another 4 hours up to meet Craig...and then another 2 miles until camp.

It was taxing today to be at a much higher altitude than I'm used to and carrying 35 pounds and that was just a fraction of what is to come. But it is beautiful and we really only got a quick sample.

p.s. I used hiking poles today.... gives a whole new meaning to "working the pole"!

Independence, California, United States

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Once we began the real hike up to Kearsarge Pass I had a lot of thoughts barreling through my mind. "I could turn around now and just wait for them to make it out in a few days.".... "I can do this"...."I will ask them when we get to the pass if they want to vote me out of the tribe because I'm clearly the weakest link"...."How embarrassed will I be if I quit now?" At the pass they all assured me that we were all in this together, so I was stuck and had to continue.

Getting over Kearsarge Pass was brutal for me. At this point I've taken up the solid position at the rear of our group and have given myself the trail name "Caboose"...maybe because it sounds much cuter than "Loser". I trudged along trying to stay positive and praying for strength with the rhythm of each step. I tried to look around, but the terrain was rocky and it required more looking down....and if I looked up I only saw people so far ahead of me up the mountain that it felt a lot like defeat.

Crystal, David and Erik were way ahead. They seem unaffected by the altitude and the physical / mental stress of it all. Heather has been fueled by the thought of finally meeting and joining up with Craig and was trekking along at a steady pace. Jody and Phil have been toward the back of the pack with me on most of the climb. Jody and I have traded some words of weak encouragement but quite often during Kearsarge and in the later miles/hours of the day traded looks of something, at least in my perception were of a little fear, pain and exhaustion.

All that aside, when we had the opportunity to look up and around, the scenery was breathtaking and awesome and I wished my head hadn't be down for quite so much of it. After taking a break at the top, Kearsarge Pass (11,760 ft.), going down hill is a completely different experience which really breathed new life into me. You can look forward, which in this case, meant looking down toward Bull Frog lake which stood in stark contrast to Beige Shale Desolate Mountain. As much as I wanted to be able to capture the reunion of Heather and Craig at Bull Frog, I would have needed a four foot long lens to capture it from my position about a quarter of a mile behind. It was sweet and emotional though to think about how happy she was to join him after his long, personal stretch alone on the length of the JMT.

We took some time to rest, gather and filter our water and have some lunch on the lake shore. Craig mentioned later how good and strange it seemed to have so many voices and chatter around him at that point. I changed my socks and put on clean, dry ones (that would be the last clean socks. From that point on "dry" was the best it would get. Clean was a thing of the past. And then I learned how to discreetly potty in the wilderness.

At that point "we" decided that we would push on for an additional few miles beyond our previous plan in order to leave less to conquer on Day 2, which was promising to be even more brutal in altitude climb and miles covered than Day 1. (I kept hearing the words "Forester Pass" and apparently it was to be a monumental climb and we didn't want to have to tack on a lot of additional miles to it if we could avoid it.) I say "we" because, at that point our group had joined up with Craig, who clearly knew far more about the reality of trail mileage and altitude climbs and endurance, and "we" nodded and marched on because he said it would be better.

NOTE: Sign of a good who leaves you thinking that you had input in a decision.

The speedier and the stronger went ahead of us for the last mile and 1/2 to get camp set-up started and as the sun was getting frighteningly low, Heather, Jody and I pressed slowly yet steadily on and finally arrived at camp at Center Basin Creek (10,400 ft.).

There was a communal relief and some humor circulating, but personally I was completely taxed, disheveled and having difficulty managing tent task and ridding all things from my pack and pockets that needed to go into my bear canister. This would be the first time to set up my tent, sleeping pad and all, and use my stove to cook a dehydrated, freeze-dried backpacker meal. Once I got the tent set up and could try to rally my mental and physical energy to cook and eat I was all at once delighted in how easy it was to prepare my Chicken and Rice Dinner and astounded at exactly how very much 700 calories of Chicken and Rice Dinner was! I ate until I was sick but came no where near finishing it. I was shivering from cold and fatigue and was completely spent. I asked Craig if I could just bury the remaining meal under a rock so a bear would think he "found" it, but he let me know that "Leave No Trace" meant just that, and that I would have to zip up the bag and pack it out. My bear canister was already quite full but I shoved it all down in there, which unsealed the pouch and baptized everything else in my bear can with chicken and rice juice.

With all else cleaned up and after having put on all of my clothing, in fear of freezing, Craig walked with me to place my bear canister away from camp for the night and I climbed into my tiny tent and watched the lights in the other tents go out one by one. I can't remember ever being so dehydrated and still having to go to the bathroom. But here I was, scared to death of bears and alone-ness and the dark of night and having to get up twice to go potty. I've never seen a sky so full of stars. The rest of the night was pretty tough for me though. I lay awake shaking with fatigue and fear with a racing heart that I couldn't slow down, praying myself back from the edge of freaking out. A panic attack was rising. If today was hard and has left me in this state, then how am I going to be able to handle tomorrow...longer, higher...less oxygen, can't sleep, can't eat enough, cold, tired, scared, alone. I found myself very much in the situation that I willingly put myself the edge of myself. I had to ask myself how much I really believe what I say I put my faith in? If I say that God is sufficient, then why do I feel compelled to run to the tent next to me and climb in with strangers? As morning has come and I lay writing this, I am happy to report that God and the peace he provides is sufficient. He is faithful. His promises are true and good.

Sore, tired, cold and with not much sleep we rise and face the daunting "Day 2" .

Day One

11.1 miles

Onion Valley (9600 ft) to Center Basin Creek (10,400)

highest altitude - Kearsarge Pass 11,760

Center Basin Creek, California, United States

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

We were glad to have taken on those couple extra miles yesterday in order to start out further up the valley today. Craig kept talking about Forester Pass but that was all an unknown until I put my eyes on what that meant. We camped with Vidette Peak in view and it was a serious mountain and all we knew was that we were going to be going up higher than it was. After Day 1 it was hard and horrible to imagine that Day 2 would require more.

In spite of last night's internal fear struggles, I was able to wake up, pack up and add a little warm water to my Chicken and Rice Dinner from last night in an effort to make less to carry the rest of the hike with me. I didn't make much progress with it. My bear canister is stuffed and since I don't feel like eating, I am sure I will be carrying as much food home as I brought with me. I moved some snacks from my bear canister to a pocket in my pack for easy access on the trail, but wouldn't end up touching it at all during the day.

The morning was cold but quickly warmed up as we began to hike. Craig has decided that he would bring up the rear and I had to just accept that he'd be breathing down my neck for the day. The climb through the valley and trees was steadily up but beautiful, however, as we came out above the tree line it became just rocky and severe. Along the way we would cross some streams and grab up some water, especially as we could look up at the behemoth ahead of us and know that once we began the switchbacks up to the pass, there would be no water to be found. It was crazy to come to a place on the trail where suddenly we would see a glacial lake, deep blue-green and in stark contrast to it's harsh, jagged stone surroundings. Craig kept reminding me to look back at how far we'd come. Vast and Huge don't describe the view all around us and what lay ahead was daunting. Erik, Crystal and David have kept a consistent and substantial lead and Heather was soon nothing more than a black and purple dot on the path far above. Phil, Jody, Craig and I made our way up, with Phil and Jody pulling away too. My feet, and muscles were ok but I just had to stop about every 100 steps to take a few deep breaths. Craig was patient and encouraging the whole way and when I could talk we had some conversation but during the parts where I was struggling he sang a little. About, what I guess was about 2/3 of the way up he told me about a time on the trail when he had a "near spiritual experience" encounter with Bob Seger's song, "Like a Rock". He began to speak the words to me verse by verse. It was kind of funny...kind of inspiring... heart warming and encouraging. I barely knew Craig in high school, and yet, here he was, walking with me as I struggled...not trying to make me dig deeper, or overcome, but just encouraging me in each next step.

That climb was clearly, far and beyond, the hardest thing I've ever done. It took hours. I couldn't look up to see how much more there was because each step was the last one I had in me. Finally, with the cheers from the rest of the group and Craig, threatening to keep singing Barry Manilow songs until I made it, I hit the top of Forester Pass. I couldn't help it, but from sheer exhaustion and a sense of triumph and personal victory I was overcome with emotion and put my face in my hands and wept. There were two other couples up there besides our group and I'm not sure and didn't care what they thought. Even though the rest of the group had been there a while I appreciated their patience and encouragement... a lot. I gave Craig a hug, which apparently he doesn't really go for, but I couldn't help it. He stuck with me. Later Jody shared with me that he had said at some point that he really didn't know if "we" (I'm sure-ME) would make it. I'm glad I didn't fold physically or mentally and made it through.

Side note: I'm not accustomed to being the oldest, slowest or the weakest link. I've always hated to be last or have people wait for me. When possible, I would always choose to be ready to go first and wait for others. I felt a real breakthrough in the pride arena...being the weak link, needing others, taking their encouragement and having to be ok with it.

OK, so Forester "up" was behind us, but Forester "down" lay ahead and some / several miles beyond that into the lengthening shadows until we'd set up camp for the night. So we started down. It's a stark, goat trail with a unnerving drop on on the "down" side of Forester. Some were battling with their fear of heights. I decided not to see if heights were an issue for me and to look at the next step instead of the drop off and happily trotted down the mountain... a different person than the one who labored up.

Down in the valley below are several lakes and sweeping views to Forever and way off on the horizon somewhere was our camp for the night. We still had about 5 miles to go once we reached the base of Forester. The scenery changed again to what, in my head I call Marmot Meadow. There were tufty grassy mounds with rocky outcroppings and little streams zagging their way through. Marmots were peaking out of the rocks and looking at us like we might have a drumstick or some Oreos that we might drop along the way. We tried to shift gears into flat-land-speed in view of how far we still had to go and the chill and falling shadows pushing us in hopes we would not have to come in and set up camp in the dark. There were some beautiful meadows with deer that we sped past, wishing we had more time, but forging on with the hopes of an easier day tomorrow. With the others gone on ahead.

I stopped to refill my water bottles and was struck for a moment at who I had become. So far from Stay At Home, Carpool Mom, Fighting with my weight Mom. I had become Mountain Over-coming Mom, Getting my own water from the stream Mom. I Can do it by my own self gal. No longer defined by my former tame daily routine. (...and obviously, not concerned with any glamour or vanity issues) Surprisingly the idea or fear of running into a bear had fallen way back on my list of thoughts. This had actually become enjoyable for me maybe because the whole thing feels a lot like Survival. I know there are people who do this kind of thing all the time and might laugh at that statement. But this is WAY out of the box for me and I'm doin' it anyway.

We finally arrived at camp, still with enough light to get set up, change into my multi-layered evening attire and fix dinner. Dinner was something I really didn't look forward to.

The night before when I encountered my first huge serving of Chicken and Rice dinner left me afraid to open another dehydrated meal. I was thankful for a small package of Tuna in Sunflower oil that I spread onto a piece of bread. A second piece of bread I choked down with some coconut oil that I had thawed into a semi-liquid. I know that we are burning about 4500 calories per day and we need to eat, but I don't feel like eating. However, last night I was kept awake by horrible pains in my belly which I later realized was hunger. Side note: so thankful my kids have never suffered real hunger. God bless the mother who has to witness that.

After a quick clean up, which for me means brushing my teeth with water only and wiping my face with a baby wipe, I tore open my little chemical heating pad/hand warmer and threw it into my sleeping bag and climbed in. The thing I hate about the bears is that I can't have any chapstick with me in my tent and it is very painful! My lips are getting trashed. Thankfully, I figured out how to use my solar charger and was able to get my phone up and running for some music and the playlist I chose caused a lot of emotion to well up as I reflected back on the days thus far. I can't believe what I was able to do, and yet I know the victory was not mine alone, but through me I had power because of God's promises, and was so thankful for the encouragement of Craig and the others.

One of the things I wanted to accomplish on this trip was a sense of independence and self reliance and yet I think we as people are created to connect and to lean on one another. But at the same time, signing up for something like this, without a partner along, assumes a certain degree of set up camp, cook my food, get my own water, and hoist my own pack, and I'm doing it. And inspite of the pieces and parts that hurt, I feel pretty good about myself. The idea of crossing a stream and getting water resonates with some pioneer woman deep inside of me. I still don't like pooping in the woods. But I have...and will again.

The sun is creeping up over the hills around Tyndall Creek and we will rise to take on Day 3, which is supposed to be an "easy" 9 miles to prepare for approach on Mt. Whitney. The weather report is threatening lightening and hail so the summiting may not be possible. One day at a time. Last night I took a Vicodin for the overall soreness and fatigue. I have just one big blister that hasn't bothered me in the least. Everyone is wrapping their feet with moleskin and lambswool. I feel like if I meddle with my feet it will make things worse, so if it ain't broke...

Day 2

Center Basin Creek toTyndall Creek (10,880)

10.4 miles

9 hours hiking

Forester Pass elevation 13,200

John Muir Trail-Tyndall Creek, California, United States

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Last night was very restful and I marveled at the fact that I was as warm as I was, fell asleep as quickly as I did and feared not as I went out to peep at night. I couldn't help but acknowledge that the weight of "Forester" was over and met with victory and the idea of an "easy day" ahead helped relieve any angst. I also had my phone charged and was able to listen to my music, which helped. I was able to wake up early and write about the previous day, get up, have black coffee (ick) and a piece of bread with peanut butter and raisins, frowning at the trouble of making the oatmeal which I'd planned on having daily. I started the day empowered and ready... But this photo captures the wear and tear on my physical situation. Maybe from altitude or from dehydration, my face is swollen and my lips are sun and wind burned.

Day 3 - "Green Day"was supposed to be our easiest day but with the most mileage covered. It was actually pretty taxing due to the multiple ups and downs that were viewed as "easy" because there were no major passes to cover, but took their toll.

I started out with Crystal and we enjoyed some easy conversation as we ticked off some miles. After clearing the tree line we crested a hill and were surrounded with this barren moonscape...of course, not a tree around when I needed a moment of privacy! While stopping for a snack with the group we took a minute to contemplate our first view of Mt. Whitney looming ahead of us...but clearly with many, many hills and valleys between us and it. As we ventured down the next hill and hit up a stream for water we began to thin out as a group. Again, I assumed my position in the back, but I looked forward to it because I could lose myself in my music and hear things in my ears that inspired me more than the sound of my own breathing.

It ended up that I hiked the bulk of the afternoon by myself and I enjoyed that I was alone in the midst of such an incredible landscape. It was very empowering. The trail would wind up some switchbacks through the weathered trees then open up into a sweeping view down through a valley that would literally make me gasp. I didn't feel hurried and allowed myself to take it in both visually and emotionally.

It was getting a little late in the afternoon and I stopped where I saw Erik was loading up his pack after getting some water. At that point I didn't know how much farther I had to go, or how far everyone else was in front of me...or how much more time I had to hike before dark. I couldn't believe that I had no fear...not of being alone...not of the Wild...not of bears. It was truly amazing. I filled my water bottles, put on a sweater and put my headlamp around my neck. Still, one of the hardest parts of the day is always hoisting the pack back up on my back and starting back to walking. So, I wanted to have my headlamp on in case I would be getting to Guitar Lake after dark, so I wouldn't have to take it off, get what I needed and hoist it again.

The scenery was spectacular that day and as I filtered my water I watched a couple of deer grazing just yards from me. Once my pack was back on, I followed the trail around the meadow which was nestled in between two rocky mini-mountains. The tall grasses were golden and the low sun made everything, all the colors and shadows pop like high def. resolution. I took in as much as I could of what was behind me as I had to keep moving forward. At one point the surroundings looked like a great place to be if you were a bear. I had to laugh at myself as I realized how weird I look with the bandana tied around my face to protect my chapped lips and head wrap to hold my hair back, and I was walking alone, singing "No Bears.....No Bears...." Throughout the day the mouth piece of my water bladder was leaking down my frontside so I finally clipped it onto the edge of my head bandana which just completed my Weirder By The Day Look.

Eventually I made it to the top of the ridge and saw that I must finally be at Guitar Lake. I could see one tent on the far side of the lake that I didn't recognize (later I found out it was dear Cornelius, and as I descended further down toward the lake I, with relief, saw our group of tents. Heather showed me a clear spot next to their tent where I could set up and Erik quickly came with his axe/hammer/tool to help me drive my tent stakes into the hard, unyielding earth. I ate a tuna pack and rolled into my mini-tent while whimpering a bit. I was scared of what the night at this barren, wind swept lake bed was going to be like. Craig said we should expect a cold and brutal night. I never wanted to cry from exhaustion or frustration or anything like seemed like a waste of time and energy, but the whimpering was definitely an expressions of my fatigue. I spent some time trying to quit shaking and trying to slow my heart down. Heather offered for me to send a message to my family on her satellite phone. I finally accepted and sent Steve a cryptic message that I was cold, scared and exhausted. I just kept thinking about the harsh wind that I could hear sweeping down from the mountain like a freight train and wondering if it would tear my little tent down. Probably six or more times the sound of that wind woke me up and I prayed for protection from it. Though the wind howled down, the tent never even ruffled much during the night and between the wake ups I slept soundly.

Day 3

Tyndall Creek to Guitar Lake

12.24 miles

Ascending: 2558 ft

Descending: 1911 ft

John Muir Trail-Guitar Lake, California, United States

Friday, September 26, 2014

Sleep has been light in spite of the exhaustion. So at 5-something-am I heard Craig unzip his tent (knew it wasn't Heather!) I clicked on my phone to check the time and Craig must have seen the light and gave me a Good Morning. It's interesting now for me to evaluate what went into the process of getting ready and walking that morning. I would have thought that WHITNEY would have dominated my mind as Biggest, Baddest, Hardest, Highest and would have really messed me up mentally. However, looking back, there was very little thought or emotion involved in getting off that day. Again, I knew I didn't want to be the last to pull it together, so I jumped into action right away. I put on my headlamp and started deflating my sleeping pad and packing up my clothes and loose items. I heated some water to drink and tried to choke down a frozen Clif bar. That is quite a challenge, by the way. It kept me busy chewing as I rolled up the mat, stuffed the sleeping bag and dismantled and rolled up my tent. The process went down without much thought beyond what needed to be done next. I don't recall thinking at all about what lay ahead, about what lay beyond just what I was doing next. The glow of a sunrise was creeping up behind Whitney and the stars were fading out one by one. Before too long I was ready to go although the rest of the group was still pulling their things together. It occurred to me that I should just begin, and so I did.

I was so thankful for my music and I plugged in my ears and my head and my soul and let it be my focus as I picked my way up among the rocks and the icy run off that has probably defrosted and refrozen many atime. The walk/hike/climb up from Guitar Lake to the junction near the top of Whitney is 2.7 miles. I still marvel at how that little number can become so monumental when it is Up rather than just To. I wouldn't think anything of walking 2.7 miles To the store. But walking/climbing Up 2.7 miles to the sky comes with a new appreciation! It was a long way for sure, and took me about 3 1/2 hours. Of course, though I started out first, I didn't remain first, and Heather, then Craig and Erik passed me up and I could only look up to see them far above and take some encouragement that at least I could still see them.

Breathing was the biggest challenge. I just couldn't seem to absorb as much oxygen as I needed to breathe comfortably. I appreciated just being able to hike at my own pace and stop for a few deep breaths as often as I needed. was bloody cold! The leaky spout on my water bag was a problem. It was dripping down the front of my jacket and was freezing into little icicles on my chest. Honestly, that period of time is a bit of a blur and in what seemed much less than 3.5 hours I was being cheered on to the junction plateau by Craig.

A couple of times in the prior days and even on the trail up the mountain I had gone back and forth in my mind about whether to try to summit Whitney or not. Along the trail up from Guitar Lake I decided that I wouldn't make the decision until I reached the trail junction. From the plateau at the junction up to the summit of the highest peak in the contiguous United States is a meager 1.9 miles. However, having just hiked 3.5 hours to cover 2.7 miles I didn't have to actually think at all to know that the summit was not something I felt I needed to do. I had no hesitation or feeling of defeat in that decision and enjoyed the sense of wisdom and clarity I had in it. As everyone ditched their packs to lighten their load for the summit, I hunkered down in the sun and the one square foot behind a rock that was most sheltered from the gusting wind and steeled my mind to hang tough for the 2 1/2 to 3 hours that it would take them to get back to me. I don't want to try to make a guess at how hard the wind was blowing. I'm not good at that. But I will say that it was super windy, sometimes literally blowing us off balance...kind of scary!

I realized then that after the pass at Kearsarge every step I had taken over the past few days was mandatory. Going to the summit was optional and I opted out!

The Junction was an interesting crossroad in the sky. There were day hikers who were blazing up from Lone Pine to summit in one day. There were people who had camped half way up from Lone Pine and then summited and return down. There were thru hikers, like Craig who were finishing up their whole JMT trek with a summit and then exiting. There was a young gal ranger who showed some concern for me (my fetal position may have been alarming) but gave me a thumbs up for knowing my limits when I explained why I was there. Most disturbing was a man, spongy, office worker type guy who showed up from the Lone Pine side of the mountain in tennis shoes, shorts, a light jacket and a day pack who was stumbling around looking rather discombobulated and finally turned to head to the summit. I worried that he might have altitude issues and was headed to hypothermia.

As I held firmly to my place in the rocks, having conversations with a tiny and solitary chipmunk, I felt dizzier with time and was increasingly uneasy about having to stand up in the fierce wind and head up the narrow, steep, precarious trail that would lead to the JMT trail crest and the to OUT. I was also uneasy about staying put at the junction. I was pretty cold and seemed to be getting dizzier with time. I really wanted to begin down, but had told Craig I wouldn't go alone. It was a tremendous relief to see Jody and Phil returning down from the summit. Sadly, Jody had succumbed to altitude sickness and in weighing her fear of heights against the desire to summit, it suddenly just didn't seem like "the hill she'd choose to die on" and they turned back. Personally, I was very happy to see them and it took no time for us to have packs on and start down.

The trail down is made of up big, like 1 1/2 to 2 foot step downs that can be brutal on the knees and it goes on for hours. One part of the descent is called the 99 switchbacks. I loved it and had a hard time reigning my energy in. I used my poles to plant and take some pressure off my knees and galloped down the mountain. It really was beautiful, especially when I hit the tree line. The trees are red and gnarled, twisted and so beautiful. I loved crossing the streams and getting some fresh cold water. I thought it would get warmer as I got lower on the mountain but it didn't and the wind burned my face and lips. I really appreciated this part of the hike because I could finally just thank God instead of having to ask for strength and help.

At one point my phone started going off with all the text tones. I thought maybe I could return the calls and texts but I couldn't. A little later Nate called but the call failed. I was really excited to feel that hint of connection.

I really miss everyone and recognize that even though I wanted to know if I could handle this alone, I need people. I need people for encouragement and support. Last night at Guitar Lake Heather knew I was having a hard time and she called out from her tent "I love you" to me. It meant an awful lot. Being alone with my struggles had left a raw spot and those words were a salve.

Eventually I made it to Outpost campground and looked around for a good place for us to pitch our 5 tents that might be out of the fierce wind. I didn't feel qualified to make the decision for the group and was glad to see Erik arrive after about 30 minutes. He didn't feel qualified either, and we waited for Craig to appear. I ended up choosing a spot away from everyone else that seemed more sheltered and quickly ate a tiny can of chicken salad and went to bed. I threw caution to the wind and kept my baby wipes in my tent. I'm fearless like that.

So, it's 7:30 pm and I'm in my tent shaking and knowing I really need to brush my teeth, but my stuff is in my bear canister and I don't want to go out and get it. Last night I picked my teeth clean with a cable tie. I'm doing that again tonight. Tomorrow I'll enjoy a toilet, a shower, hopefully a bath and a frightening look in a mirror.

Day 4

Guitar Lake to Outpost Camp

2.7 miles to trail junction, 1.9 to summit (14,495 ft)

Trail crest is at 13,600 feet

Miles from trail crest to Outpost Camp 5.1

Outpost Camp to Whitney Portal, California, United States

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Last night was my coldest night, for sure. I felt colder and tireder, with some body fatigue from the trauma from the big steps down the mountain. I kept my chapstick in my tent, wrapped in a dirty pair of socks figuring that would mask the scent if a bear came around. I also decided that every sound I heard, I would consider "the wind" and went to sleep without fear.

Fear is something I dealt with on this trip. Walking alone, sometimes late in the day, no map, no idea where I was going, or how much further I had to bear country and marveling at the fact that I was ok in the midst of it was a wonder to me. So often we just live in the fear. It was interesting to me that when there was no other choice than to just walk ahead in it, in spite of it, it fades back and loses it's power. That's a powerful thought, and actually the definition of courage...being afraid and doing it anyway.

I woke up early again this morning...about 5:30. I decided to do some journaling while still "warm" in my bag. Once there was some sunlight, I realized that I could actually see some of my own face out of my left eye. I knew that there was some swelling around my eye / eyes and my poor burnt and blistered lips. Having still a tattered shred of vanity, I felt the need to get up and heat some water to try to somehow manage the beast that I'd become and hopefully better my appearance before anyone else got up. The problem with heating water and soaking a cloth to wash your face is that in a flash that wet cloth and your hands and face are FREEZING! Anyway, I tried to nurse myself into something somewhat acceptable and decided that I'd wear my sunglasses regardless. I was up, fed and packed up before anyone else had even unzipped their tents It would be a long, cold morning waiting for the gang to be ready to hit the last 3 miles down.

Erik and Craig emerged and before I knew exactly what was happening they had a P90X mountain session going on. Eventually Craig dismantled the tent with Heather still in it and then she popped out and was ready to go. Heather, Erik and I went ahead and took off for the last leg. They blessed me with the honor of leading our little band of three which was a change of view for me. But I was thrilled to be on the steady downhill, my strength. We made it down in a few hours and walked through the wooden structure that signifies the end of the JMT at Whitney Portal and we rejoiced!

All morning we had noted wet and cold clouds that were rolling up through the valleys and heading toward the peaks. Selfishly, we couldn't help but feel lucky / gratitude that this weather was coming in while we were heading out. Once we off loaded our packs at the end of the trail we noticed some droplets of rain here and there. Not too long after we arrived, Craig came down that last switchback. It was a moment of real victory and triumph for him. I felt it, knowing that the magnitude of my own triumph was dwarfed by what he accomplished. It was emotional for me, and yet it wasn't "mine". I felt blessed to observe his tender celebration with his wife, the acknowledgment from his brother, and his moment alone to sit down, done and feel all that that was. Jody and Phil were next and shortly afterward Crystal and David. Crystal seemed to really be feeling all those miles and hours downhill without trekking poles to take some of that pressure off her blistered feet and sore joints. At some point on the sheer down hill slopes, David dropped a pole. They made a valiant effort to retrieve it and allllmost were successful, until it plummeted downward and they realized they'd done all they could and had to walk away. So, here they were, the two of them and one pole between them. And we were down. Done.

The Whitney Portal Store is like a Mega Mall for the JMT hiker. In no time, we'd off loaded our "personal hygiene waste bags" in the garbage and made our way into the store. We shared a plate of chips and the best french fries on earth and grabbed a drink of choice from one of the fridges in the store and we shared a great camaraderie that comes from having done something hard together. As we enjoyed a brief celebration, it was all punctuated with the fact that it was Full on Snowing outside at that point. All I could do was marvel at the timing and think about my mother praying at home, and think that the timing may have had something to do with that. From my understanding, that weather was supposed to have arrived the day before. How different that day would have looked for us had the weather soured a day before... maybe no summiting for Craig and the others? What a bummer that would have been to come all that way, and miss that high point.

There was a hanging scale at the base of the trail and we all weighed in. My pack, which I thought started at 35 pounds, weighed in at 37... I guess I was better off not knowing that I probably started at 40lbs. Coming home with more than half my total food didn't help!

We loaded into the cars to head down toward Lone Pine and laughed at how fast and dangerous it felt to be traveling in a car. We had to drive back up to Independence, CA to the Mt. Williamson Motel to get our other cars. As we drove the 16 miles from Lone Pine to to motel I took in the now snow coated mountain range that I've seen so many times while traveling the 395 to Mammoth. I remembered looking up at those mountains and wondering what was behind them. I could just barely wrap my mind around the fact that over the past five days we had walked through those ominous mountains. 55 miles up, down and around. Stretched and strengthened, powerless and powerful. Alone and supported. Afraid and Fearless. Beaten up yet triumphant. Changed.

Post Script...

So I write from the Best Western Plus, Lone Pine. We've had a nice dinner together reflecting on the victory, the gear we carried, food we won't eat again for a long time, etc. I enjoy the fact that for the most part several of us are strangers and yet have this great bond of a common experience. I personally am impacted that these same strangers waited for me, cheered for me, offered help and encouragement. I'm touched and grateful. As I write this I understand that the words that I choose will sound dramatic and exaggerated, but, it really was survival for me. There were hours that every step I took was the last one I could possibly take, but another came. It was a time of looking at my faith and really living out what I would say I put my faith in...and it was sufficient...and powerful. I didn't know when I came to the edge of myself what I would find. When I'd spent everything within me, what would be there? What would happen? I have to say that God met me. I'd say that He began where I left off, but the truth is that He was there with me all along. What I found out about myself? I am a survivor and an optimist. I'm steered by hope, not fear. I'm a victor.

Day 5

Outpost Camp to Whitney Portal

@3 miles (goes fast when you're filled with glee)

Whitney Portal to Lone Pine to Independence

to Totem Cafe

to Season's Restaurant

to Jake's Saloon

to a second shower...'cause I could

to bed, ahhhhhhh...... my next "mid life adventure"...

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