peak bagging

Memories from Mount Isolation

Maybe it’s because I missed out on the experience in high school.  Maybe it’s because I come from a competitive family.  Maybe it’s just because I’m a millennial.

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Autumnal color palette

Whatever the reason, I appreciate superlatives.  They help me to remember things, to categorize experiences and file them neatly for retrieval even when Lyme reshuffles and upends up the files.  By this system, the summer that I spent “peak bagging” the high peaks of the White Mountains and sleeping in my old station wagon was the most fun.  And, of those peaks, Mount Isolation was my favorite.

The day I’d planned to hike Isolation, I’d almost chickened out.  In the valley where I’d spent the night, the day dawned gray and overcast; as my schedule was flexible, I considered whether it might be wiser to save the hike for another day.  But, my legs were too eager to get going; I decided that I might as well head out.

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Felting wild-blown evergreens

My ascent began through quiet, rain-soaked birch woods, where golden leaves were strewn all over the ground.  I was alone in the wet woods as I focused on climbing higher, walking quickly to warm myself – and for the shear fun of exertion.  I climbed through thick fog, feeling myself enveloped in mist, and then, just as I cleared treeline, I rose though the fog, too.

I found myself in paradise.

Below me, the day appeared undercast, and neighboring mountains rose through a sea of clouds.  Above me, the sky was that gorgeous Windex blue of northern fall days.  Isolation was adorned in all the brilliant colors of fall, and her Glen Boulder was now in view, perched on the edge of a shrub-covered false summit.

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Canadian gray jay

I don’t know whether I can attempt to describe the elation I felt, the buoyancy of my heart.  Just a few months before, still in bed with an undiagnosed illness and preparing for kidney surgery, I’d doubted whether I’d ever hike again.  And yet, there I was, climbing alone toward the summit of a mountain of a range I’d long considered a home, even while I lived 1000 miles away.  I didn’t want to blink for fear of missing a moment, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

When I reached the large, flat summit, I rested in solitude, enjoying the view of the Presidential Range across the valley.  At least, I did until my solitude was interrupted by a couple of gregarious Canadian gray jays.  Then, with good company, the day was truly perfect.

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“Companion in the Krumholtz”

“Companion in the Krumholtz” and my other felted works are available at wanderstruckstudio.storenvy.com.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.