Monday, June 23, 2008

June 21, near Bishop Pass Trail

My camp site near Taboose Pass was such a great spot. It was mid-way on the descent toward the South Fork of the Kings River so it was toasty warm all night. I slept great and felt really good the next morning. Despite dreading Mather Pass, I decided to go for it.

For dinner the night before I decided I wouldn't eat one of my planned meals but instead eat one of the emergency meals I was saving. I was low on food. It was clear that to make it to Vermilion Valley Resort I would probably spend some days eating only peanut butter and jelly tortillas and whatever I could scrounge out of leftovers. So I made the leftovers and they turned out pretty darn good.

In the morning I looked at my food supply and realized maybe I should start eating the peanut butter and jelly tortillas now, too. I was also down to only 3 energy bars and a tiny bit of dried fruit so I knew I'd only be able to eat one bar and a small handful of nuts and fruit for lunch. I packed it in my waist pockets and off I went at 5:40am.

I came to the South Fork stream ford at 6am. It was the biggest ford yet and I sloshed into the water up past the zippers on my pant legs. The water was frigid and I moaned out loud in pain for 10 minutes when I got to the other side. My feet were frozen and painful.

I passed some people camping, including Boondock and his dad and somebody camped in a hammock all wrapped up like a giant burrito between two trees. I approached Mather Pass, steeling my will to tackle this pass alone again. Instead I bumped into Jarrow, all 17 years of him, and we tackled the pass together.

This pass at 12,100 feet was the most formidable of them all. There was a huge vertical snow field near the top and we could see 3 hikers walking an impossibly steep incline up it. As we neared this snowfield I became increasingly apprehensive. I knew I was going to have to put on my crampons and hoped I could figure out how to do it.

I did figure it out but it took at least 15 minutes to put them on. They worked like a miracle, however, and I took slow steps up the steep, nearly vertical snowfield with a lot more confidence if not any speed or strength.

We summited and I wondered if I should take the crampons off or leave them on. It's hard to walk on rocks with them on. We peered over the other side and the snow looked pretty easy to negotiate so I took them off. This was a mistake. The snow was icy, not soft and incredibly scary. I really should have taken the time to put them back on or just left them on.

At one point the foot steps ended on a steep snowfield and it was obvious whoever we were following had just slid down on their butts. I tried to walk down the path they had made with just my shoes but I could not do it. I decided to try to slide on my butt. I slid but I could not control myself on the ice. If it wasn't for Jarrow, who was a little below me and broke my fall, I would have crashed into some rocks below. Still, I thought the sliding was sort of fun and was grateful it didn't shred my pants.

Negotiating the descent was arduous. We followed footprints in the snow to a lemming-like cliff of rock with the trail visible and impossible distance below. We somehow climbed around and through the cliff on giant, sharp rocks barely clinging to the mountain. The rocks would come loose and crash into my ankle. I could break a leg up here, I realized, and walked very slowly and carefully, trying not to dislodge the rocks.

We finally got low enough we felt we could stop and rest and refill our water. Then Jarrow and I parted ways. He continued to rest and I made a beeline for the treeline. I hated these rocky, icy passes where human life barely can exist and sought a gentler landscape below.

Below Mather Pass are the Palisades lakes. The trail clings impossibly to a cliff above the lakes, but eventually it dropped right next to the lake. At that point I took everything out of my pockets and jumped into the lake with all my clothes on. I smelled really bad and wanted to wash it off if I could. I didn't even care that on the other side of the lake was a huge glacier melting. I've become quite immune to such extreme temperatures, it seems.

I sat on a rock waiting for my clothes to dry as clouds started forming in the sky. I thought it was possible it might rain this afternoon. It became colder and I figured to stay warm I better just keep moving, wet clothes and all.

I passed the second Palisades lake and reached the outlet stream. I saw a multitude of huge trout in the outlet stream. You could just scoop them up if you had a net, it seemed. I also passed someone sleeping almost on the trail. I considered waking him so he could find shelter from the coming rain but decided not to disturb him.

I crossed the outlet stream sloshing through the water because I was too tired to try to balance on rocks or logs. It seemed like I'd never hike with dry feet again.

The trail made an impossible descent along a "golden staircase" of switchbacks blasted into the cliff. There was a raging river plummiting this same descent on my left the whole way down, crashing with a noise that amplified the extreme feeling of the landscape. There were some snow patches obscuring even this trail and I hated them with all my might. The trail was long and arduous and bone crushing. I hurt.

At the "bottom" where the trail finally leveled out in some nice shady trees I saw three thru-hikers resting. I plopped down my stuff for a snack and a rest, too, and they moved on immediately, leaving me there alone.

I rested only long enough to eat my snack and went in search of a creek to make some lemonade. My new strategy for stretching out my food was to fill my belly with Crystal Light. No calories but it seemed to satisfy me anyway.

The trail kept descending for several more hours. There were many downed trees which, like the snow, left me searching cross-country for the trail every now and then. It was frustrating. Between the downed trees, the snow patches and all the water on the trail I felt like I only walked on the actual trail only half the time.

The further down I went the better I enjoyed the beauty. Trees, flowers, meadows. Why can't we just stay down here? Why is it when we get down to this beauty it is only to prepare for another arduous climb up to another scary pass? Surely John Muir enjoyed the meadows, too, didn't he?

I realized I hadn't been taking many pictures of these pretty places that I liked best, trying to take pictures of the passes and craggy, impressive peaks that people might ooh and ahh over. It was silly to be recording the landscapes I hate rather than the landscapes I loved.

When I reached the junction with Le Conte Canyon where the trail would begin it's climb up toward Muir Pass, the 3 thru-hikers were again taking a rest. I stopped again, too, but sensing that maybe they didn't want an old lady cramping their style, I didn't try to make chit-chat. They pointed out a deer grazing very close by, unfazed by us yet aware of us. We watched the deer for a while and then I felt some sprinkles. I decided to keep moving rather than just sit there and get rained on.

I started up Le Conte Canyon toward Grouse Meadow. Grouse Meadow was so serene and beautiful. I stopped under a huge boulder with a perfect overhang to wait out a storm and watch the fish jump in the oxbow creek in the meadow. How I loved this kind of scenery! I played my pennywhistle for a while to celebrate how lovely this was.

Unfortunately it didn't rain. But I took some time to think as I enjoyed the meadow. I just couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't stand anymore high passes. I couldn't stand being scared and alone and risking my life anymore. I dreaded Muir Pass, described in the book as being one pass that often times has snow all summer long. I dreaded even more the Evolution Creek crossing, described as potentially fatal should you slip. I slip all the time, constantly falling in the snow, landing like a turtle on my back, struggling to get back up. I don't even try to do most of the log crossings since I'm pretty sure I'm likely to fall in anyway.

It became clear that I didn't like the High Sierras. It became even more clear that nobody was forcing me to do it. I could quit. I could take the Bishop Pass trail to Bishop, hop a Greyhound home to Santa Barbara and be back to Tony and my birds, my music and bike rides, and my gentle Santa Barbara wilderness. I could leave these scary passes, the loneliness, the climbing a huge mountain every day while starving and tired and just go home. I made up my mind to do that and began to cry.

I cried all the way up the canyon, huge tears falling on my pants as I walked with surprising strength up the hill. I felt relief knowing I'd soon be done with this and sadness at my defeat.

I reached a couple of men camped near the trail. I asked them if I was near the turnoff to Bishop Pass and they said yes. I started to cry in front of them like a blubbering idiot and they invited me to come sit and talk about what was bothering me.

The one man, named Casey, must have been some kind of minister or counselor because he wore a huge cross around his neck and whipped out this laminated chart of emotions and the unmet needs that go with them. I pointed out my unmet needs were nurturing and belonging. I felt all alone out here, scared most of the time and beat up by the harshness of the landscape. He encouraged me to camp nearby and maybe I'd feel better in the morning. He also said he, too, had insufficient food and if I did decide to leave the trail in the morning and I had any food to spare, that he'd be grateful to have it.

As I ate dinner with him, Walt walked by. I had thought Walt would have been way far ahead by now. Walt sings and plays an awesome bluegrass guitar and still had it with him, along with a fishing pole. How anybody finds time to go fishing is beyond me. I struggle just to try to keep people like Walt within distance enough to enjoy a zero day with them. I also learned from Casey that Hawkeye and Danger Prone had passed by only 20 minutes ahead of me. That's a cruelty of the trail that you can feel so incredibly alone even when your friends are a mere 20 minutes ahead. Just 20 minutes and you may never see them again.

I went to bed that night thinking about what I should do, dreaming of my gentle Santa Barbara wilderness and my genteel life with Tony and the birds, only one more scary pass away.

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