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Monday, October 20, 2014

John Muir Trail 2014 - Perspective

I have nearly forgotten; forgotten the pain, the utter fatigue. I have nearly forgotten how intensely I wanted to quit hiking, set down my backpack, be done with the adventure.

And could not.  I couldn't quit hiking any more than the salmon can look at the thundering rapids and turn back to the sea, or the deer disregard his flight from a hungry pack of wolves.  The salmon must go on; the deer, surely must go on.  I also had to go on, committed to a course in which the impossibility of abandon was suffocating.  Possibly it was only the tissue thin air we gasped and sucked that gave the sense of suffocation, or the confinement of another night inside a sleeping bag that made the vastness of the Sierra Nevada mountains seem confining.  More likely it was the fact that we were in nearly every sense - trapped.  We walked about inside one of the most spectacular confinements in the continental United States.  Eleven, twelve, and thirteen thousand foot walls surrounded us.  More than that, I had committed to a course, the abandonment of which would be infamous and humiliating. The irony was ever-present - we had gone there to "get away."

We were on day 4 of a rather optimistic trek along the northern two thirds of the acclaimed John Muir Trail (JMT).  Chris and I had left behind our 3 companions, Matt, Grayson and Jake, only hours before and were already reconsidering the wisdom of our plan - to reduce an 11 day journey (optimistic in itself by many standards) by 3 days and hike from Toulomne Meadows in Yosemite to Bishop, over Bishop pass, in 8 days.  We  had heard of people fast packing the entire trail in under a week, and even running it in a handful of days - so why couldn't Chris and I hike a mere 127 miles of it in 8 days?

The journey had officially started on Monday morning, July 7, 2014.  Sunday had been a whirlwind logistical adventure that began with packing in the hushed blackness of San Francisco's East Bay. We had caravaned over Sonora pass to deposit 2 vehicles near Bishop at the far side of Bishop Pass, then shuttled our 5 man party in a third vehicle to Toulomne Meadows where we set up tents, ate at the fabulous Toulomne Meadows Restaurant (where we chatted with 3 crunchy though charming ladies - long time veterans of the Yosemite High Sierra Camp circuit), and finally crawled into sleeping bags for the first of many long quiet nights under the stars.

Monday dawned brilliant and humid, then stayed humid and clouded over for the 15 mile climb along lazily meandering Lyell Creek, through Lyell Canyon, and over snow-specked Donohue Pass.   The Lyell Glacier leered from around a monolith to the southwest as we summited the boulder strewn pass.  Curtains of rain drifted slowly and fell softly across our path as we descended the far side. We set up camp under re-emerging filtered rays of a golden sun backing into the west, and rose happily with it again on Tuesday morning.

Tuesday, we experienced Thousand Island Lake.  You do not merely see this lake - you experience it.  Imposing Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter presiding over the panorama are jaw dropping as reflected in the island studded cobalt mirror.  Descending toward it from Thousand Island pass, the lake slowly emerges from the valley, and refuses any other focal point to the powerless observer.  We added a dip in its 50 degree glacial fed waters to the experience.

 Trickling into camp like the drought parched streams we crossed, our wearied company stopped for the night at Rosalie Lake, where we enjoyed our first camp fire and feasted on Mountain House meals augmented by the remaining stock of cheeses and fresh bread that Chris had been mysteriously and generously metering out for the last 3 days.  It was almost miraculous to see gourmet cheeses and loaves materialize alongside freeze dried rations, but alas, his immense pack and generosity would cost him more than he had anticipated.

With clean clothes and good rest we donned packs Wednesday morning.  This would prove to be the first in a series of trying days.  Chris's troubles began in earnest this day.  Before lunch, he and I side-tracked to the top of Devils' Postpile, where his pace had noticeably slowed, before regrouping at Red's Meadow. To this remote spur on the edge of western civilization, we had each mailed ourselves a re-supply of food.  We re-packed alongside shabby, ragged, Mexico-to-Canada Pacific Crest Trail hikers bearing trail names such as Prometheus, Giggles, and other alarmingly appropriate monikers, scavenging the castoff supplies and rations of we who had overestimated.  We willingly donated a fair amount of food to the tribe, having literally weighed the benefits of extra food against the burden of added pounds.

The trail from Red's Meadow followed what must have at one time been a shady, gradual climb in the company of sweetly aromatic Jefferson pines and shimmering aspens.  But the 5 of us soldiered up a dusty parched trail with only the periodic shade of blackened trunks, and the buzz of bees busy among the wildflowers - remnants of a recent devastating fire which had altered the one-time forest into a paradoxical meadow of brilliant flowers and mangled charred stumps.  Matt had been sick at Red's Meadow adding anxiety to fatigue, and we all regretted the increased weight of restocked packs and 3 straight days of hard hiking. We had no campfire where we collapsed along Deer Creek.  Our feet grew numb soaking in the water, where I saw Chris's dilemma for the first time.  His feet had taken a beating.

Uncomplaining, Chris had hiked for these 3 days in a practically new pair of untried trail shoes.  It was a mistake that he readily conceded and the gravity of which was only beginning to manifest.

Thursday, Day 4, we all agreed that Chris and I, who were both expected back in civilization by Monday, must accelerate away from the group today.  Multiple recalculations had demonstrated that leaving any later in the week would make for some prohibitively difficult and long hikes in order for Chris and I to emerge on time.  Outside of man hugs and hand shakes, no one showed emotion as we separated, but all felt the loss.  

Twenty-four miles Chris and I hiked that day, up and over Silver pass ending in Quail Meadow.  It rained on and off all day, and the clouds growled with thunder as we skirted the Hans Brinker-like fantastical Silver Lake.  At the top of the pass Chris half jested of bailing out early, and on the descent, suffering from his feet, he grew morose.  This was a new side of Chris.  I had never seen my friend demoralized.  It was curiously infectious.  My journal that night records "I certainly hope we can continue," but admits later, "I am really missing my family."  I was not altogether opposed to finding an early exit.  Leaving  behind my wife, 2 daughters, and 2 month old son was proving more lonely than I had imagined.

Yet my truest emotion was frustration verging on anger.  I had relied on Chris's bravado and charisma on many adventures to pull me through the tougher sections.  His drive and stamina are legendary.  I had been struggling all day with my own willingness to press on - as if we really had any choice - resisting twinges of melancholy, depending on his positive energy to buoy my spirits. I have often relied on his encouragement and now felt he had failed me.  When I needed a boost - in the middle of an epic adventure - he was flagging.  I knew it was my turn to carry the torch, and through valiant effort maintained a feeble flame. But still I was angry - he had a reason to quit - and I had none.  Quitting was an option now arguing for a hearing, and I chastised myself, ashamed of having given it legitimacy.

There are a handful of difficult exits along the trail.  All of them might include long hikes to out-of-the-way places, climbing mountain passes, ferrying lakes, hitchhiking, or all of the above.  All of them include fewer miles of walking.  All of them included failing our objective.  When Chris began to question the moral significance of quitting - I knew he was in trouble.  My only hope was that quitting was likely to be nearly as difficult in every way as pressing on - yet with one exception - there would likely be less walking.  It was misery just watching him walk.  We pitched tents and turned in undecided.

We woke on Friday to clearing skies and the sound of cascading water.  Climbing out of a tent in the middle of the wilderness is like being born with the capacity to appreciate.  Everything is new.  New sky.  New birds singing.  New smell of damp soil.  New hopes.  We reopened his map and made comparisons to my elevation profile.  We recalculated again.  And then recalculated another time.  It appeared possible to make it to our waiting car in 2 more days of hard hiking, rather than 4.  Our hopes climbed with the sun and we set off rejuvenated toward Selden Pass and an amazing Saturday night exit.  Only one more night in a sleeping bag - was our mistaken hope.  The gloss of a new day and thin air had somehow skewed our calculations and logic.  But once the decision was made, although we had miscalculated and wouldn't realize our mistake till late in the day, the decision to press on had set precedent.  I felt we would prevail.

I was now the one metering out rations.  Chris's bread and cheese were long gone - replaced by 2 ibuprofen every 4 hours.  Chris's feet had become pitiable.  The assortment of blisters were manageable, he claimed, but the arch was badly wrong.  I had accidentally dumped a copious pile of generic ibuprofen into a Ziploc bag back at home nearly a week earlier.  Rather than digging them out, I zipped the bag and tossed it into my backpack.  The accident had turned me into a pharmacy.  Every 4 hours I was passing out the drug to my friend.  The medication, he claimed, made the hiking tolerable.  I dared not count the pills - we just pressed on.

We re-opened the maps at the top of Selden Pass.  Mountain passes are great for reflection and congratulation, for high spirits and bravado, for relief from mosquitoes and fighting off hungry marmots.  We recalculated our progress once again and the bravado instantly deflated.  We re-recalculated.  Impossible.  We had to finish the second half of this 28 mile day, and then still had 36 miles and 2 mountain passes to go.  Re-calculate.  64 miles and 3 passes in 2 days - on severely inflamed feet. Impossible.

The blow to our morale was palatable.  We hiked in silence.  Chris started using my trekking poles to take weight off his feet.  It helped.  We grasped at hope again and began imagining scenarios that would still get us out the next day.  Hike into the night?  Get up early and hike - sleep in the afternoon - then hike all night Saturday?  36 miles.  We were hiking downhill at the time and the trail was easy - bravado roared back.  Then so did the pain.  Not just for Chris, but for me too.  I was weary and started dipping into the Ziploc bag.  Misery not only loves company, it silently corrupts it.  This was our second day of what was rapidly becoming a forced march - 50 miles in those 2 days.  Our optimism rose and fell in inverse to the grade.

Impending darkness made selecting a campsite an urgent undertaking.  The last climb was a breathtakingly beautiful ascent up Evolution Creek.  As at other times, the beauty briefly overwhelmed any pain or fatigue.  The golden rays of a sleepy sun seemed to curve up the canyon selecting this tree, and that rock to paint in late afternoon brilliance.  A western peak then extinguished the orb, and all hung misty in anticipation of darkness.  We had to stop.  My journal records it best.

"26 [miles] today was hard, 36 seems impossible. We rolled into camp at the entrance to Evolution Valley around 8:30pm. I got clean in the river before dark, but that was all."  Here, fatigue claimed another victim.  As we retired the following night, Saturday, I recalled, "I fell asleep writing last night.  That was a very discouraging and hard day."

Saturday held the long anticipated Muir Pass.  We rose slowly and hiked even more so.  We lingered along the beguiling river taking pictures, hopping around on rocks, and looking over waterfalls.  Time refused to wait.  Our only river fording was on this ascent, and we again spent generously from our limited supply of time wading in the cool water.  Because time refused to wait, we pressed on.

Hours of slow climbing passed. Running out of oxygen and water, I called for a rest alongside an unnamed lake below Muir Pass.  The emerald velvet tundra grass was seductive.  It was a deception.  Stubble and spines pierced my thin shirt as I reclined in uncomfortable indecision.  Lay at rest, or sit on a rock?  I found a rock big enough to lie down on in fitful compromise.  The pass was still 700 feet above us and the sun was already in retreat.  Weakened by fatigue, I soon rose to collect water: dubious of the need to filter crystal clear ice water; seduced by it's evident purity.  I recalled the velvet deception and kept filtering.

The descent from Muir Pass was intoxicating.  Lack of oxygen and the ease of descending were liquor to our state of mind.  I said something profound (I don't recall now what it was) and Chris made me repeat it for the video camera.  I had run the final half mile and 400' of elevation to the top of the pass, tapping an unrealized reservoir.  I hooted and howled as I ran around the Muir Hut, shouts echoing from the adjacent peaks.  The high followed us down the trail and with it the tantalizing possibility of hiking through the night.  Bishop Pass, our 12 mile exit, still loomed ahead, but we were manic charismatics staggering down the twisting trail, the arduous ascent of a 12,000 foot mountain pass rapidly shrinking into the queue of repressed memories, corralled till weakness, self preservation, pain, or fear would summon them out of the darkness.

The pain of descending for 4 hours summoned those memories.   The pounding descent had stifled our capricious early enthusiasm.  We crossed a wood bridge and stared through the gloom up the final trail.  If we committed, the first possibility of a camp site was near the summit, 6 miles of difficult dark climbing away.  Chris declared it impossible considering the condition of his feet.  I was in no mood to argue.  We camped Saturday night at the base of Bishop pass.

The following day we rose early, only to find that we were in the company of many hikers attempting to beat the sun over the pass, each climbing at his own lonely pace.  I was exhausted and irritable at the pass.  Chris, in spite of the pain, had passed me near the summit, but was slow on the descent.  I could think of nothing but finding a phone to call my wife, "Baby, we're on our way home."  Then, just as strange as Gouda cheese showing up in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, we emerged from the rocks and trees, started a gasoline engine and headed for home.

How is it that 3 months later, the emotions I recalled and recorded in my journal no longer have any effect on me?  How can I look fondly back and longingly forward to backpacking the John Muir Trail?  What I record above is as accurate an account of my emotions as possible.  It is idiomatic when we say that no woman would choose to have another child if she really remembered the pain of childbirth. Similarly, I have forgotten the labor of literal marathon days, freeze dried meals prepared in the dark, and a blister on my heel the size of a quarter.  All I now remember is what I can see in the guileless pictures we took along the way, and the blurred highlights of what we managed to accomplish in only 7 days.

 This is not a travelogue or tale of undaunted courage.  This is a true account of our audacity and disposition during a long week of hiking the John Muir Trail.  Honest accounts of difficult journeys are hard to find, so I chose to provide one here.  This was our experience - no point in regret and no need for mendacity.  Our adventure was not heroic, nor unique; rather, a bit manic depressive as I think back on it.  But just possibly it is a small analogy for life.  I have forgotten the pain.  I hope Chris has too, because I will return, and wouldn't go back without him.

Psalm 139
Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all.
You have enclosed me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is too high, I cannot attain to it.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.
For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.
How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand.
When I awake, I am still with You.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.

1 comment:

  1. This is the first I have seen or heard of this. Oh my, my, my,-----I am so glad I did not know what was going on then.

    And now, I think it is just craziness.