Monday, June 23, 2008

June 22, lessons learned

I woke up very early, set upon doing Bishop Pass. I packed up, ate some cereal knowing I didn't have to ration it anymore, and selected a tuna packet and a ramen to leave for Casey. I left it with a note thanking him for his kindness and set off before anybody was awake.

I soon crossed a creek over a steel bridge and wondered why they put bridges in over some creeks but not other potentially fatal ones. I passed Walt's campsite as he was packing but didn't speak with him. I found the turnoff to Bishop Pass, sighed and took it. I began to cry again.

The hike was going to be 6 miles up and 6 miles back down again to civilization, plus a 19 mile hitchhike into town. Along the way up I hiked switchbacks carved into a cliff with an enormous creek frothing in a big sheet over the smooth cliff face. It was amazing to look at.

After I crested the cliff where the creek roiled over the top I climbed through a valley full of fallen logs and eventually reached a beautiful place called Dusy Basin. There was a lovely meadow and flowers and up higher, a lake.

I passed a large group of people camping. I could smell their campfire. This made me angry because campfires are illegal above 10,000 feet and specifically illegal in Dusy Basin and these inconsiderate people had one anyway, risking the access to this place for everyone.

Despite these feelings, I tried to say hello, but despite 2 hellos they did not respond except to stare at me. That's when I realized I'd begun the transition away from the community of The Trail back to the coldness of regular life.

I plodded along at a pretty good pace despite the altitude. I could see a pass up ahead covered in snow and it filled me with dread because I was sure I could see switchbacks in the snow. I summoned up my fierce determination, knowing it would be my last pass and that I would make it somehow. Then miraculously the trail turned toward a nearly snow-free pass that was much closer. I felt relief.

There was only one large snowfield that I mostly could avoid and then I was at the summit. There were two signs up there indicating that campfires were illegal and I thought again about those inconsiderate campers below.

I crested and began the long climb down. I could see a pretty lake with trees far below and it appeared the way down would be nearly snow-free. It turned out there were only a few scary spots where I had to negotiate either slippery snow or loose rocks.

The descent went on forever. I felt so weak and sore and exhausted. My knees hurt. My right shoe broke. It has those stupid thin laces with the draw string thingie. The thin laces not only broke in 3 places but also severed the things they lace through so I couldn't replace them with more sensible laces. I walked very slowly with all these impediments.

I passed lake after beautiful lake thinking I must be getting close but never actually arriving. Some Boyscouts said I only had 3 more miles at one point but it felt a lot more like 15 miles in the end.

I met two backpackers by the side of the trail doing a loop involving South and North Lakes. They asked how far I'd come and I said I'd come up and over the pass. They were amazed I'd come from all the way down in that deep canyon on the other side. They asked how far total. When I said 800 miles they at first thought I'd said 18 miles. When they realized 800 they were amazed. How could anybody walk so far?

I started to realize that my failure was not really a failure at all. I, a woman alone, had walked 800 miles through desert and high mountain passes including the highest one on the PCT, 3 of those passes completely alone, which is stupid but still an accomplishment. I may not have hiked the whole trail but I had accomplished a great deal. Nobody in America likes a story of failure and I realized how American I am inside, feeling so dejected for failing, being so typically American by pushing myself relentlessly beyond my comfort zone, beyond my abilities, beyond my own needs for rest and recovery. I'm so typically American, too, for trying to keep up with young men almost 1/2 my age, trying to prove I'm as tough and strong as anybody.

I thought about all that and how it's really more of a weakness than a strength. The nurturing I lacked was partly my own toward myself. I felt better about my decision to go to Bishop because I was taking care of myself.

As I dropped altitude I felt stronger and less emotionally volatile inside even though I felt physically exhausted with my legs and knees nearly buckling beneath me.

It occurred to me as my mind became clearer that what had happened to me up there was that I had combined a severe food shortage with altitude, setting the stage for mental and physical exhaustion. Those two things allowed a crack to form within me for my "weaknesses" to magnify and take over. The loneliness was amplified in this crack. My desire to be independent of others, to never ask for or accept help if I can manage -- my biggest weakness of all -- was able to get in there and sabotage me.

It also occurred to me as I continued downward that I did not want to leave the trail. I just wanted to leave the scary parts of the trail. I would think about this in Bishop and try to design an alternate route that avoided these high passes and scary creeks and the long stretch of emptiness after Tuolumne Meadows.

As I neared the end of the trail I passed more and more people who looked more and more fresh and perky and were less and less friendly. I was returning to civilization where people are more closed off from each other.

At long last I reached the parking lot. I celebrated with some lemonade and ibuprofen. Now around cars, people seemed to look upon me not as a fellow hiker on the trail but as some kind of alien being, dirty, smelly, almost a threat. I was afraid to beg for a ride and decided to just begin walking the road and see if anyone would take pity on me and give me a ride.

I stuck out my thumb as people went by and got a couple of rides part way down the road. The second one dropped me off at the intersection where the road to North and South Lakes converged. The nice couple were certain I'd have better luck getting a ride all the way to Bishop right there. I tried, but had no luck.

There was a sign there saying Bishop was 14 miles down the highway. Fourteen + 12 is only 26, certainly not the longest day I've done so far so I started walking down the road. Whenever there was a place to pull over I'd stick out my thumb. People driving their cars at high speed now were very unfriendly, either giving me a huge berth to indicate their aversion toward me or else trying to show their aggressive hatred of me by buzzing me closely.

Eventually a car went by with peace symbols on it. As it blew by me I thought so much for your peace and love, buddy. Then miraculously the car stopped and turned around toward me. The man inside rolled down the window and hollered out, Hey Piper! (Piper is my trail name.) It's Rick, he said. Oh my god! Real trail magic was happening to me! Rick is the same man who gave me a ride last week into Lone Pine and here he was again. It seemed like a sign from the Universe that maybe I was doing something right.

He gave me a ride into town and I patiently and hungrily sat through haircuts and a shopping trip to the outfitters where his wife bought new sandals and I got some new shoes (some La Sportiva shoes that are mesh upper with really good hiking soles on the bottom.) Then they dropped me off at the hotel and said good-bye.

I showered and washed all my clothes except my pants and went out to dinner with dirty pants and a just a tyvek jacket on. I ate at Jack's where I devoured a hot meatloaf sandwich with real mashed potatoes all smothered in a huge layer of gravy.

I went back to the hotel and called Tony. I told him about all my struggles, how much I missed him, how it felt so wrong somehow that I was doing this alone without him. We decided on a plan that I would try to come home for a few days and next week when he's got time off from work, we'd return to Mammoth, skipping Muir Pass and deadly Evolution and Mono Creeks, and do our own hike together. We'd still have to do Donahue Pass, but I wouldn't have to do it alone. After enjoying the beauty of the High Sierra together he will drive me to wherever on the trail I'd like to continue.

My hike will not be pure, but at least it will not have to end.

After I hung up the phone, feeling so happy that I'd made such a good decision to come to Bishop, I realized my stomach was not full so I went in search of sorbet. As I searched this town depressingly devoid of any Sunday evening sources of quart-sized ice cream, I bumped into Daily Special and one of the 3 Amigos hanging out. I stopped to talk to them for a while. I was so happy to find a little hiker culture here in Bishop.

Then along came a huge entourage of people surrounding Tigger and Chuck Norris. They, too, were in search of ice cream so I joined them. Along with them were Simon and Alex, two women who I had last seen way back in Warner Springs. I had wondered how they were doing. They were the two hikers Tony and I saw preparing to begin at Lake Morena on the second day of my hike. They were doing fine. Everyone had come over Kearsarge Pass and since Independence doesn't have much, had driven up with Tigger to Bishop for some rest and relaxation in the "big" city.

As we all talked of our experiences and struggles, injuries and illnesses it became clear that a pure thru-hike experience wasn't all that common and there was nothing to be ashamed of that I couldn't "make it" and that I needed to take a little time away from the trail. Many of them were planning a "vacation" from the trail down in Los Angeles and some were planning to skip portions of the trail they didn't like, too.

After finding ice cream at Denny's and enjoying their company, I walked back to my hotel feeling pretty good that I had gotten as far as I did, which was actually further than a lot of people, and that I had done it by myself. I am not a failure. I am a strong woman. I had made a good decision by turning off the trail and coming to Bishop. It was what I needed. And my hike isn't over yet.


  1. You are truly NOT a failure! As I was reading your posts about the "CREST" trail I began to think you could skip some portions and about how beautiful the wooded areas of Oregon and Washington will be for you when you get there. Keep on keeping on making this YOUR OWN experience and inspiring others!! THANK YOU!

  2. You attacked the mountains knowing not what altitude and cold would do to you. You have done very well and every step you covered is a significant accomplishment. Every step you covered is one step more than 99% of the population of this country has ever covered. Your only mistake was to set too fast a pace for the trail. My wife used to run ultradistance races. She now just walks. Back then she was successful because she was relatively slow, but held a steady pace for 100 miles at a time. You have survived, you have learned, you are now stronger than when you started. Be proud of what you achieved.

  3. The funny thing about the altitude is that I have been to 18,000ft before so I know how altitude affects me, and 12,000ft is really nothing by comparison. The trouble is that it affects my mind and once affected it doesn't reason as well as it should. In any case, once you're out of food and your shoes are broken you really should get off the trail.

    The guide book for Section H is quite sparse compared to previous sections. All it said about Glenn Pass was "after very steep switchbacks you are suddenly at Glenn Pass." That sounded to me like it could be quickly done, so I did it on the same day I did Forester Pass. There was no "suddenly" about it. It was long and I thought it was scarier and more difficult due to snow than Forester.

    I hadn't been planning to hike much of Oregon and Washington. I was going to end in Ashland. But now I'm starting to wonder if I should do more above California. It depends how long I want to be away from my family.

  4. Hi Piper
    A number of thoughts came to mind reading your last posts...I really love the Southern Sierra and I have been over those passes. But, I wouldn't do it in June for all the reasons you detail. It is scary, esp. the stream crossings. In July/August it's a different world, all those flowers and birds you like are out there. I'd take a month or two off and start again. It's even worse above Tuolumne, btw, steeper, harsher, rockier. Til Tahoe anyway, I don't know after that. Definitely wait for decent weather to do that part.
    As for the failure thing - after 800 miles of hiking? Come on now. You know better.
    Hope to see you in SB
    PS Reeses Peanut Butter Cups will get you through almost anything.

  5. The whole failure for "not making it" thing is so American, don't you think? Would the French think anything of the sort?

    I've decided I will skip ahead. First Tony and I will hike from Mammoth to Yosemite Valley and then he'll take me up to Sonora Pass and I'll continue on from there.

    The altitudes are lower, there are no warnings in the guide book about potentially fatal creeks and maybe I can catch up to people that I know on the trail.

    Maybe, since I'm skipping so much and there are some fires ahead causing closed trail, I will change my goal from Ashland to Crater Lake. (It was never my goal to go to Canada.)

  6. Diane:
    You are my local Los padres idol. I remember you once saying you were only a day hiker and loved the Los Padres with a passion. So i was very very surprised hearing about your 800 miles and especially the high passes in June. I looked at your picture posts and see all the snow/ice up high and say whewwwww.....scarry. I have decided to delay my Yosemite/Toulomne loop for a month after reading your comments and also comments from others. Like you, I like being a loner and doing my own thing -- but only for 1-2 weeks at most. You are my heroic hiker. Last year when I did the North to South Lake loop and 3 passes in SEPTEMBER, I men a PCT hiker from Georgia who hiked the Appalacian trial twice. He said his plans were to do the PCT in 2 consecutive summers. He said the scarriest time was the mountain lions in the Tehachapi area. but I think of your high passes in the snow/ice and crampons and worry about you alone. Glad that Tony will do some of the High Sierras with you. Again you are my hero for what you did. DennisM

  7. Hi there. I looked you up after reading your comment in the LA times about no regrowth after burns you've seen on the PCT. scary!!
    I enjoyed reading your blog. Especially the comments about quitting, trying to reach beyond, etc.

    I've also hiked solo in the sierras, much shorter distance than you. i surprised myself about feeling so lonely, too.

    I've also hiked in the Alps, where my husband is from. It is a different experience there, because there are signs of human presence way up there, like cheese huts, little farms, signposts. not ugly things, but comforting signs of humanity.
    It struck me that here in the US, we have this ideal of getting away from civilization, about being pure in that way. But perhaps that comes from having a civilization that can be very disappointing. Or something like that. 2 extremes.
    i remember when i hiked in the sierras that people had removed trail markers, thinking they were a blemish on the "untouched" landscape. whatever...

    I also liked what you wrote about the decision to cut off to Bishop being in the end a nurturing decision for yourself. i agree.