On the PCT: Mount Whitney, Part Two

According to Pine Nut, there’s an accomplished mountaineer who often asserts during his presentations that a hike is only half done when the hiker reaches the summit.  I learned that lesson at the end of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike on Mount Katahdin, and it was reinforced a couple days ago, after Pine Nut and I successfully summited Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.

On the day that we were to climb Whitney, I woke up at 1:19am and couldn’t get back to sleep.  No amount of meditation could stand up to the excitement and anxiety that were keeping me awake.  As planned, I woke Pine Nut up at 3:00; at 4:00, we hit the trail.

The vast majority of White Mountain hikes begin with a walk along a brookside approach trail; therefore, the first mile of our hike, alongside the stream that coursed between Upper and Lower Crabtree Meadows, felt familiar and special to me.  That’s where the familiarity ended.


Mountain reflection

From Upper Crabtree Meadows, the trail to Whitney turns and takes hikers up above treeline and past a series of pristine high-elevation lakes.  As the sun rose and lit the landscape, I was astonished by the beauty surrounding me.  Timberline Lake was probably my favorite spot along the trail, with the squishy mounds of grass that bordered it and its gentle outlet that meandered through the meadow.

Leaving Timberline Lake and approaching Guitar Lake, the world around Pine Nut and me changed.  Tiny patches of alpine vegetation were the only signs of life that remained; even they disappeared after some more climbing.  After a week in the hospitable mountains and meadows of the Southern Sierras and “Section G,” we were back in an area where we were clearly just visitors.


Guitar Lake, still in shadow

My stomach, which had been uncooperative all morning, kicked its complaining into high gear as we cleared treeline.  After using my “Wag Bag,” the Sierras’ solution to high-elevation cat-hole-ing too many times, I took a couple Immodium and ate a ginger chew from Pine Nut. I didn’t feel much better, but at least I didn’t need to find secluded spots on the switchbacks that comprised the climb proper.

When the climb began in earnest, it was apparent that a couple inches of snow had fallen on the mountain during the previous night’s rainstorm.  Fortunately, earlier-rising hikers had packed down the trail a bit, but I found it startling to be suddenly in a white world, where snow covered the trail and snow and ice patches comprised the trailside landscape.

As we climbed higher, I watched as the mountains nearby, which had appeared gigantic only an hour before, grew smaller and smaller.  Sunlight highlighted their peaks and began working its way into the valley.  As I continued my climb on the dark side of the mountain, I put on an extra layer and hiked on.


Dazzling sunlight near the summit

Around 13,000 feet, I began to feel dizzy.  One thousand feet before that, I’d become short of breath.  Knowing that I was simply feeling the elevation, I was actually amused.  I’d felt strong and capable, and it was fascinating to me that climbing a few thousand feet could have such a huge impact on my body.  Noticing my struggle, Pine Nut explained that it was perfectly reasonable to slow down a bit:  I didn’t need to Rainbow-Dash to the summit.

We went a little slower and took a few more breaks.  My nausea made me less hungry than I’ve been in two months, but I nibbled at crackers and a Clif Bar.

When we reached the Trail Crest, where the trail we were on meets the trail from Whitney Portal, we cheered and kept walking.  The trail was snowier at that elevation, and my shortness of breath was more pronounced.

When I climbed up into the sunlight, I felt an instant sense of peace — and one of the greatest hiker’s highs I’ve experienced.  I may have found myself in a place with little oxygen and with nothing but rocks and snow surrounding me, but there was sunshine here.  I felt a little more welcome in the stark environment.  I also put on sunscreen to protect myself.


Looking down on the valley

As the sun warmed the snow underfoot, it became slushy.  On flat, wider sections of trail, this wasn’t a problem at all; on steeply sloped areas, where the trail dropped off significantly to the valley below, this was unsettling.  Pine Nut, who’s much more familiar with snow travel, offered to take the lead, and I relaxed ever so slightly when I got to follow her footprints.

Rounding a contour, we looked ahead and saw the final ascent to the broad peak.  Along with other PCT hikers, JMT hikers, and dayhikers, we continued to the summit.  The snow sparkled in the sun, and we emerged from the hazy valley to find ourselves under a deep blue sky.

When the summit shelter, adorned with prayer flags, came into view, I started to tear up; finding that crying and breathing were incompatible, I composed myself and hiked on.  A few more snowy footsteps, a few more deep breaths.  And, then, we’d done it!  At 10:40, Pine Nut, Canada the Kidney, and I were on top of the Lower 48!


At the top of the contiguous US

We smiled and snacked and took photos and had our photos taken.  We congratulated our friends and received their congratulations.  I used Pine Nut’s Delorme to send my family a message from the top of the contiguous United States.  I wanted to linger at the summit, basking in the warmth of the sun, but my dizziness was becoming a headache, and I was worried about the snow’s melting in the sketchy sections of trail we’d encountered on the climb.

The descent was long and difficult for me.  The snow wasn’t as treacherous as I’d worried it might be, but it didn’t make for easy walking, either.  My stomach and my head were conspiring against me, and I fought to keep the little food I’d been able to eat inside me.  I tried to stay singularly focused on the task at hand and press on, but it was so very difficult.

When we got to the little lakes in the valley, I stretched out on a rock and worked on stilling my head and stomach.  I was hungry and tired, and all I wanted to do was make camp.  Pine Nut must have felt that way as well, but she stayed with me.

The final 3.5 miles to camp were painful and slow but also beautiful.  I fought to stay awake and upright, and we slowly made our way to camp.  Pine Nut read aloud from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” which was a welcome distraction.

Around 6:00, the woods opened up, and we found ourselves back in Lower Crabtree Meadows.  In spite of my headache, nausea, and utter exhaustion, I was elated.  Climbing Mount Whitney was certainly not easy, but don’t they say that nothing worth doing is?

On the PCT: Mount Whitney, Part One

As I’m writing this, I’m stretched out under my quilt, in my tent, at the base of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.  With any luck, by lunchtime tomorrow I’ll be atop it.

Words can’t express my incredulity at being here.  In March, I doubted whether I’d ever be healthy enough to backpack for an extended length of time again; in Warner Springs, I priced tickets back to Kentucky.  And, yet, here I am, in the Sierras, at the base of Mount Whitney.


Lower Crabtree Meadow

I’m doing my very best to think of tomorrow’s hike up and down Whitney as just another hike, a peak-bagging adventure of the sort I love doing in New England.  But, I know it’s more than that.

Today, Pine Nut and I descended to the meadow at the junction with the Whitney Spur Trail nearly speechless in awe.  Thunderstorms darkened the sky, their thunder resounding in the valley.  Twisted red sequoias rose from the rocky earth, standing guard over the meadow.  In the grass, deer grazed; along the boulders at the forest’s edge, a marmot watched us hikers.

As we made camp and ate dinner, we noticed snow accumulating on the jagged, craggy peaks surrounding the valley, worried what weather Whitney might have in store for us.


On the descent to Crabtree Meadows

We made contingency plans — and contingency plans for our contingency plans.  We longed to climb to the top of California.

This forest is magical, and Whitney is the king of it all.  It’s been the most-anticipated landmark on this hike since before I left Campo, and I’m astounded to be attempting to summit it tomorrow.  I feel grateful, humbled, and — to borrow a phrase from a friend whose Katahdin summit I witnessed — not worthy.

On the PCT: Kennedy Meadows, Part Two

I haven’t looked in a mirror since Mojave.  That was roughly eight days and 150 miles ago.  In the time since then, I’ve sweated while going up, down, and around beautiful mountains, walked through sandy desert, gotten some sunburn, and been rained on twice.  I’m sure that, by general United States standards, I look a mess.

But, when I arrived at the Kennedy Meadows General Store with Pine Nut, it simply didn’t matter.  Hikers crowding the store’s deck and overflowing onto its lawn cheered and hollered and clapped as we made our way to the deck.  I threw my hands in the air in gratitude, and they cheered louder.  We had done it:  We two tired, hungry, filthy hikers had made it to the Sierras.


Arriving at Kennedy Meadows

Kennedy Meadows has been an anticipated milestone for a long while now, since before I’d set out on the hike.  It marks the end of Southern California and the start of the Sierras, home of giant trees, water crossings, and Mount Whitney.  It means sun shirts get replaced with T-shirts and food bags get traded for bear canisters.  It means that we’ve gotten our trail legs and that the rush to Canada before the snow moves in is on.

Before the dash begins, it’s customary for hikers to spend at least a “nero,” a near-zero-mile day, at Kennedy Meadows, and that’s just what Pine Nut and I are doing.  Ant, who’s been really struggling with plantar fasciitis, will be arriving by bus in a few hours, at which point logistics will need to be worked out, as there’s virtually no cell service for a few hundred more miles.


The South Fork of the Kern River

Until Ant arrives, it’s all about catching up on blogging and letters and food.  Catching up on the last involves a fair bit of people watching, as the General Store’s deck, where the food lives, seems to be the favorite destination of hikers.

Watching lots of tanned and muscled hikers interact, I thought about how the last 700 miles have done much more than give us our trail legs.  Over these miles, backpackers new to the long trails have gotten their trail identities.  Most everyone has a trail name by now, lots of hikers are sporting unruly hair grown over the last weeks and months, and the group’s adaptation to this lifestyle seems to have occurred.  No longer are showers and laundry the priority after getting to town; they’re important, for sure, but hikers don’t become what Ant calls “fluffy” until they’ve filled their bellies with at least one burger or hot dog, chips, and a cold Gatorade.


The deck of the Kennedy Meadows General Store

Talking with other hikers, I didn’t think about the dirt smudges or streaks of zinc sunscreen on my face that a Wet One later demonstrated I’d had.  I didn’t care that my clothes smelled as though I’d walked from Mexico in them or that my hair was a wild mess under my ball cap.  I just smiled and laughed and shared stories with new friends and old.


Hikers napping behind the store

On the PCT: Kennedy Meadows, Part One

A wise friend once told me that not all fun is created equal.  There’s Type I Fun, the type of fun we’re all most accustomed to.  It’s the type of fun involved in a day at the beach, a visit to an amusement park, or a night out with friends.  Then, there’s Type II Fun, fun which is probably not Type I Fun at all in the moment but a whole lot of fun to talk about after the fact.

The day before Pine Nut and I arrived at Kennedy Meadows was full of Type II fun.

In many ways, thru-hikers are like little children.  Because of the demands we put them through, our bodies are our greatest priorities, so when our bodies demand food or water or sleep we tend to appease them quickly.  If we don’t, our bodies usually get cranky.

The day before Pine Nut and I arrived in Kennedy Meadows was our first day with rationed food supplies.  Ant had been able to accompany Pine Nut and me for our first two days out of Mojave — which was wonderful — but his plantar fasciitis made us go slower than we’d anticipated and our hunger made us eat more than we’d anticipated.  By the time we got up in the mountains north of Walker Pass, our food supplies were barely adequate for two more full days of hiking, and they certainly lacked the cushion we all seem to enjoy having (and consuming).

The few snacks and meals we had remaining didn’t just need to last us forty miles; they needed to last us forty miles and quite a bit of elevation.  The first several dozen miles out of Walker Pass are some of the most demanding of Southern California, with lots of ascending and descending and very little contour walking.


Camping at Joshua Tree Spring

Moreover, the day before we arrived in Kennedy Meadows was one of the first days I’d felt humidity on the trail.  At first, it was a welcome change, but, as the day grew hotter and our path continued to leave us exposed, it just felt like another hurdle.

In the desert, humidity is a good indication that some sort of other-than-sunny weather is coming.  Sure enough, just after noon, the trail wound us around a hill and took us under storm clouds.  As thunder rumbled above Pine Nut and me, I prepared my pack for rain and got out my rain jacket.  Two minutes later, as a light rain fell, I put my jacket on.


Getting ready to hit the trail

As Pine Nut and I hiked on, we tried to take our minds off of food by talking and storytelling and playing games, to no avail.  Eventually, hungry and wet and tired, we gave up and decided to play the Alphabet Game, finding a food we wanted to eat at Kennedy Meadows for every letter of the alphabet.  We got lost in a few fantasy meals as we walked over white rocks and under sparse pines.

The first rainstorm was short-lived, but that wasn’t the last of the day’s precipitation.  After we’d filtered water and had dinner and talked with Cat, a friendly and energetic hiker who gave us Ramen and coconut oil when we mentioned that we’d had a rough day (Thank you!), we hiked on, hoping to get a bit closer to the General Store before the day was over.

As we walked out of a meadow and into the forest, the rain began falling in earnest.  This time, the rain was cold and steady.  Needing motivation, Pine Nut and I split up; she listened to music on her headphones and I sang in the rain, a standard Rainbow-Dash-on-the-AT behavior.


Approaching Kennedy Meadows

When we got to camp, we were cold and hungry and wet and tired — and proud, as we’d put in a solid day of hiking despite adversity.  We knew we’d laugh about the day later, over platefuls of food in the sunshine near the General Store, but as soon as we’d made camp we just wished each other “good night” and crawled into our sleeping bags.


Just south of Kennedy Meadows

On the PCT: Mojave-Acton, Part Two

A few days ago, I wrote about the most trail-magical experience of my life, my meeting Acton’s Teresa and Laurie.  The experience touched Ant, Pine Nut, and me deeply, and we thought about it often in the miles from Acton to Mojave.  It helped us through tough days, when Ant’s feet refused to cooperate, when I came down with a fever, when we were simply foot sore and road weary.

We thought that the goodbyes we’d wished Teresa and Laurie at our parting were at least for a year and hoped they were not permanent.  Imagine our surprise when we turned on our phones in the middle of the woods and found an invitation to return to Teresa and Laurie’s!


Laurie and the "Rainbow Bugs"

As though the message were a friendly reminder from the Universe that all would be well, we received it on a particularly difficult day, when Ant’s feet were keeping him to a very slow pace and when he and Pine Nut were pushing themselves to get to Hikertown, a quirky hostel where Ant could rest.  At mile 500, we celebrated for a moment and consulted each other about how to respond to the invitation; some easy consensus calculus elucidated how very excited we all were at the thought of returning to Acton.

It was the incentive of camaraderie and relaxation at Acton that spurred us all on to Hikertown and motivated Pine Nut and me during our epic 30-mile day and the next day of hiking.  On the day we were to meet Teresa in town, Pine Nut and I hitched in early and enjoyed the bustling metropolis that is Mojave; we went to the post office and a donut shop and then filled two carts with food at the grocery store and sat out front of the closed library enjoying food, shade, and 4G service until Teresa arrived.

Seeing Teresa again, I was suddenly shy.  The last eight days had been trying, and I was covered in dried sweat and desert filth.  Apparently, she didn’t care about any of that.  Teresa approached Pine Nut and me with open arms and wrapped each of us in a hug before helping us load our groceries into her truck.


A far cry from hiking in the desert!

Before long, we were catching up on stories from the time that had elapsed since our last visit as we drove back to Acton via Hikertown to pick up Ant.  An hour later, we were back in Teresa and Laurie’s beautifully-smelling home, taking turns showering and eating Laurie’s world-class zucchini bread and chopping veggies we’d purchased for a cookout we’d planned with our hosts.

As evening fell, the five of us gathered around a table out back and ate one of the best dinners I’ve ever had.  I savored veggie burgers and hummus and veggie shish kabobs and a giant salad with avocados.  Perhaps even more than any of that, I relished the conversation.  Sitting in the glow of the lantern, looking at the faces of four kind, genuine people I’d come to love, I marveled at how it is that people can come into our lives and touch us deeply, changing us forever.

What if I hadn’t needed to spend a week in Warner Springs on antibiotics?
What if I hadn’t worked up the courage to sit down with Ant and Pine Nut there and strike up a conversation?
What if I’d fallen back into my old habits and dashed off once I’d left town?
What if the KOA had let me charge my phone and I hadn’t hitched into Acton with Ant and Pine Nut?
What if we hadn’t been sitting out front of that post office at the exact moment that Teresa pulled up?


Enjoying the pancake cook-off

The next morning was spent logistics planning and doing standard zero day errands, but the afternoon involved a pancake cook-off of sorts (in which I simply enjoyed being an indecisive taste-tester), swimming, another fabulous dinner, and Doctor Who.  Our dinner conversation stretched well into the evening as we talked about everything from our pasts to our futures.  As we asked Teresa and Laurie for their thoughts and advice about such disparate things as adopting children and traveling and finances, it seemed at though we’d gained a pair of aunts sometime over the weekend.

That feeling only increased late the following afternoon, when Teresa and Laurie drove us back to the trail and hike almost three miles north with us.  As sunset approached, there were lots of hugs all around as we wished each other the happiest of trails.

When we left Teresa and Laurie’s the first time, I’d thought of them as trail angels.  I’d treasured the time I spent with them, but that was in large part due to the trail magic they created.  Hiking between Acton and Mojave, I’d thought about the shower and food and Doctor Who time I’d had at their home.

When we left their home the second time, no longer were Teresa and Laurie simply the best trail angels in the world.  They’d become friends.  Tearing up in the kitchen at the thought of saying goodbye, I tried to express to Teresa how much knowing her and Laurie had meant to me, but I’m not sure whether I could adequately put the sentiment into words.  I still doubt whether I can.

Instead, I’m going to rely on the words Stephen Schwartz wrote for the libretto of Wicked, words that I once wrote in the most sentimental trail register on the Appalachian Trail as I thought about the friends I’d made over the summer:

“I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason,
Bringing something we must learn,
And we are led to those
Who help us most to grow if we let them,
And we help them in return.

Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true,
But I know I’m who I am today because I knew you.

Like a comet pulled from orbit as it passes a sun,
Like a stream that meets a boulder halfway through the wood,
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”