During the past couple of weeks we hiked from Kennedy Meadows (which had a huge selection of medicine called Ben and Jerry’s) at the Southern end of the Sierra Nevada to Mammoth Lakes in the heart of the Sierras. We left Kennedy Meadows with our packs filled with 10 days of food to get us through 200 miles of the trail. You never realize how much food you eat until you have to carry it all on your back. Our packs all weighed in the 44-54 pound range as we set out. Our spirits were high since we believed that we were finally out of the desert. The excitement of being in the mountains offset most of the weight in our packs. Little did we know that we still had nearly 70 miles to go in a mostly dry, waterless environment. The first water source that we reached was the South Fork of the Kern River. There were swallows flying upstream pooping in the water as well as cows grazing and dropping cow pies all around it. The water smelled funky and we could see little birdy turdys in the water so we aptly renamed it “Dookie River” or “Giardia Stream”. This was representative of our water situation in Southern California; water was physically scarce and when we would come across a water source it tended to be of low quality. Occasionally we wouldn’t filter the water and it was like playing Russian Roulette, only you did not know your fate for a couple of weeks. None of us have been stricken by a water-borne illness yet which is a testament to the quality of our water filters.
After a few days of hiking through desert mountains we reached Sequoia National Park and the first of many alpine lakes.
The next day we arrived at Crabtree Meadows and set up a base camp for our day hike up to Mount Whitney. As we slowly trudged up the rocky granite trail we saw many day hikers in jeans who smelled fresh and clean; a foreign sight and scent to us. We reached the summit in the late afternoon. While we were up there we discussed the irony of how the tallest mountain in the continental United States (14,505 feet) is accessible by a strenuous day hike. It seems as if all difficulties are not expressed by any elevations, lengths, or numbers and are often hard to account for before they are encountered.
The next 100 miles of the trail was a roller coaster of altitude change. Looking at the elevation profile for the trail reminded me of looking at a tide chart for Commencement Bay. We would rise up to a pass and then descend in to a valley and then go up just to go down again. The passes generally had at least one set of gnarly switchbacks which made it seem as if we were climbing a mountain every day. The most memorable pass was the first pass, Forester Pass, which at 13,200 feet is the highest point of the entire trail. We reached the pass and were all taken by an ethereal euphoric feeling. I have to admit that walking all day, everyday is rather tedious, exhausting, and not all that enjoyable, but it’s the moments like reaching Forester Pass that make this whole enterprise worth it. These kinds of places and times are my church and religion.
As we continued through the mountains it became more and more apparent that the hike was not going to become much more enjoyable as we had imagined. In my mind I figured that with plentiful water, lower temperatures, and scenic views, everyday would be a happy stroll through wonderland. This fantasy was quickly destroyed when we woke up to bone-chilling temperatures and frozen water bottles.
It took an hour of walking in the predawn chill before we regained some feeling in our toes. We even got some midyear snow as we descended from Glen Pass. After seeing the sunshine for 40 days straight, it was exciting to see a change of weather even if it meant that we might be drenched by nature’s super soaker.
As we neared the end of the long stretch of unsupported hiking, we began to hear horror stories of the mosquitos to the North from Southbound hikers. We reached the infamous mosquito infested valley one evening and it was infinitely more hellish than we could have imagined. Ceasing walking for a couple of seconds resulted in tens of mosquitos on any open flesh. At one point we had to ford a creek barefoot and neither Carter nor I stopped to put our hiking shoes on on the other side; the bugs were too aggressive. Simply breathing resulted in an undesired high protein, low calorie insect snack. Eventually Carter and I put our shoes back on (Elena wisely did this after crossing the creek) and we all hiked for hours until the temperatures dropped enough for the mosquitos to head to bed. Ironically, this evening was one of the most fun nights on the trail so far. Anything that spices up the hike and breaks through the monotony of walking is viewed positively in my mind. Since arriving in the mountains, the freezing cold has been substituted for blazing heat of the desert, the weight of food has been substituted for the weight of water, and now we have to deal with Mosquitos as well. The grass is always greener on the other side. That’s the curse of expectations; if you have any, then they will let you down. We have spent the past few days resting our bodies in Mammoth Lakes. Tomorrow we are going back on the trail and into Yosemite National Park. We will keep on keeping on without anymore expectations and slowly, but surely, make our way home.