“It is not the critic who counts; nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of a deed could have done better.
The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually strive to do deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly.
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
-Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena”, delivered at the Sorbonne, Paris (1910)
(Bridge Crossing of Fish Creek; Tully Hole)
John Muir Trail, July 6th – 10th
Beginning July 6th, I intended to hike the entirety of the John Muir Trail –
212 miles along the spine of John Muir’s “Ribbon of Light”, the Sierra
Nevada. It runs from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney in some of the nation’s most breathtakingly gorgeous, yet inimical and arrogant landscapes. I completed the trail southbound last year in two weeks. I intended to do the same this year in 8 days. After I summited Mt Whitney (13 July), I was to spend a few days (14&15 July) recovering at Guitar Lake in preparation to return northbound on a supported fast-pack along the JMT with 3 days as a preliminary goal (16, 17, &18).
Anyone who has completed or will complete the John Muir Trail is of heroic substance. The trail demands nothing less, whether you traverse the 212 miles in 3 days or
This was my intent; here are the results:
Day 0: Transportation & Logistics:
The alarm has gone off several times already, blaringly loud, and I still lie unwilling to move beneath the duvet. I slide a finger blindly across the face of my iPhone, when the second alarm I set clicks on – an old-fashioned alarm clock with the bell and hammer system; quite possibly the most annoying way to wake up. With the hammering of the alarm still ringing in my ears, and through the fog of a newly awoken mind, I realize what day it is. I had been training for the past year with this day as my ultimate goal. Today was the day Natasha and I left for the John Muir Trail.
We had completed a section of the trail in 2012 (Happy Isles [Yosemite] to Red’s Meadow Resort [Mammoth]) with great success. We attempted the entirety of the trail in 2013, where Natasha had suffered some altitude induced nausea, loss of appetite, and general muscular decline. She went home the morning of the second day on the trail that year – I continued on with three friends to summit Mt. Whitney at the end of 212 long, beautiful, and arrogant miles. I finished with two from that group, and two more joined our trail caravan along the way. We summited Whitney 14 days after we set out from Yosemite Valley.
This year would be different, we promised ourselves. I laid out a very detailed plan of attack on the trail, beginning with a personal training plan for myself, purchasing, stowing, or repurposing gear to make a lighter pack, and hashing out an itinerary to meet our time table. We were going to be to Whitney in 8 days, and I was going to return in 3 days along the same trail – breaking the newly set Fastest Known Time (FKT) by a blazing 9 hours. From August of 2013 to this morning 5 July 2014, we had been preparing for this morning, and it was time to wake up.
I nearly jumped out of bed. I had fallen asleep in my trail ensemble (Orange Patagonia 5” running shorts and a navy blue Patagonia short sleeve shirt) so there was no need to get dressed. The car was loaded with the food cache we would take to Mt. Whitney for my return trip (we had mailed two 5 gallon buckets in early June to Red’s Meadow Resort and to the John Muir Trail Ranch, our two resupply points.
We were on the road by 5:30 am, with a LOT of driving left to do in the day. First stop: Yosemite Valley.
We arrived to the valley floor on schedule; I dropped Natasha at the backpacker’s camp, and proceeded to the Wilderness Center to retrieve our mandatory wilderness permit (I had spent several nights in February faxing applications to the wilderness center to finally reserve this date). By the time I returned to the backpacker’s camp, the tent was set up and our gear was neatly organized on the nearby bear box.
We left post haste to make our way to Whitney Portal. We would be hand delivering our final food cache and dropping our Subaru off for Natasha’s return trip. We drove for 5 more hours, arriving just before 7 pm.
My four cylinder ’87 Jeep Wrangler had been working hard since 5:30 am and had covered almost 400 miles by this point. It decided that it was tired and didn’t want to start again at the Whitney Portal store (7,851’). We tried everything we knew how – a battery jump, a coolant and oil check, removing and reinstalling the gas cap, fiddling with spark plug wires, a whack to the ignition coil with a BFH , a few slammed doors, curses, and tears. If the Jeep wouldn’t start, there was no way our time schedule would work – no mechanic shop would be open on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range until Monday; it was Saturday evening. We called roadside assistance anyway, and arranged a tow. As I sat in the parking lot, disparaged and forlorn over the turn of events, I continued trying the ignition. Natasha’s dad had said it may have simply been vapor locked – a condition by which fuel was trapped in a line somewhere and restricting the flow of vital gasoline to the throttle body, quite possible given the high RPM’s and change in altitude necessary to get to Whitney Portal. After several moments of holding my breath, and crossing all of my fingers and toes, the Jeep sputtered and choked a few times, but finally caught and roared back to life. We were back on!
We left Whitney Portal quite a bit later than we had intended, but arrived back in Yosemite within a few hours and immediately began studying the back of our eyelids. The adventure awaited, just one sunrise away.
(Campfire at Sunrise High Sierra Camp)
Day 1: Yosemite Valley to Sunrise High Sierra Camp
The morning began slowly, albeit well. We had decided the night before not to wake up as intended (4am) and instead slept until about 7:30. We had a long day ahead and wanted to start the long trail in front of us well rested rather than try and make up a sleep debt somewhere in the wilderness where every waking minute would be spent wisely in order to make the 212 mile trek successful.
We departed the valley floor, and climbed slowly along the John Muir Trail. Steep and paved immediately out of the valley, settling into a more gradual, yet continuous climb through sandy granite rubble up to the top of Nevada Falls. We stopped for water and a breath before continuing on – we weren’t making great time, but I had already come to terms with the fact that day one may very well have been the most difficult days on the whole trip – an unrelenting climb out of Yosemite Valley – a gain of more than 6,000’ in 11 miles – to Sunrise High Sierra Camp, over undulating terrain into Tuolumne Meadows, and finally flat for the final few miles down Lyell Canyon.
Natasha was feeling tired, probably from the emotionally charged evening we had had the night prior, I thought. She seemed to be moving strongly, despite the pace, so I guessed she would find her groove later in the day. I was wrong. By the climb to Sunrise High Sierra Camp – a steep, dry stretch with several false summits, she was still moving at around a mile and a half per hour; about half pace for what we had planned. It was approaching evening, and through several emotional discussions, we decided to stop at Sunrise HSC and sleep through the night to see how she felt the next morning. She would probably be going home: it’s a pretty simple equation – no appetite + nausea = no calorie intake = physical breakdown. I seem to be less hungry than usual, and nothing seems very palatable, but I’m forcing it down anyway.
On the positive: I’m keeping both of us on top of hydration – two 24oz bottles each, one with Skratch Hydration mix, the other plain water, both to be finished every two hours seems to be right on target as far as optimal hydration levels.
VESPA seems to be working nicely, although I need it far fewer times a day than I had anticipated. Without a way to send it home, I’ll be leaving a lot in the hiker barrels at resupply points.
My Mountain Hardwear Thruway 50 is holding up nicely – I didn’t really do much breaking in so I was nervous to take it on such a long trip, but after a few strap adjustments and re-locating the perfect hip support location, it has balanced quite nicely. I’m surprised at how sturdy and structured it feels for being a frameless pack.
I also was slow to pick shoes for the trip. I eventually settled on New Balance Leadville 1210’s (I bought them only a few days out…gutsy move, I know). They also seem to be very functional – a little bit more dirt on my feet at the end of the day than I had hoped for, and a little looser on the descents than I am generally comfortable with, but nothing that will cause any problems.
(New Balance Leadville 1210’s)
It’s truly stunning out in the high country. Despite the heat and bugs which prevail throughout the day, I can’t help but be blown away by the marvelous countryside – and I’ve seen this all countless times before (it’s a very accessible stretch of trail).
We make camp by 5:45 pm. Natasha naps while I set everything up. She is exhausted and I worry about her. Altitude sickness is not a condition I like to play around with – bad things happen to people who forget or refuse to listen to their bodies. I make her ramen noodles and miso soup. I made a small fire and invited her to sit with me, but she had already fallen asleep in the tent. I hope she feels better in the morning.
Day 2: Sunrise HSC to Tenaya Lake, and a lot more driving.
We wake again at our leisure, essentially with the sun. It’s pretty much been decided that Natasha is going home. It’s a short 5 mile jaunt to Tenaya Lake from Sunrise HSC. We can catch a shuttle to Tuolumne Meadows and then down to the valley from there.
Progress is slow, and Natasha feels worse than yesterday. She couldn’t even stomach ibuprofen this morning. She has eaten maybe 100 calories total this trip. It is best this way – she needs to get home to recover and take in some food.
(Natasha rests on the climb to Sunrise HSC, Mt. Starr King as a backdrop)
We make our way up and over the ridge towards Tenaya lake and a storm gathers above us. It’s overcast, which keeps it relatively cool today. It is still fantastically scenic even with all the negativity. We pass several lakes and a few hikers making their way to Sunrise for the weekend. I’m glad we’re descending this ridge, it’s steep and technical – the people climbing it seem to be having a hard time of it.
We reach the shuttle stop several hours and a few mental breakdowns later. We hitch the ride to Tuolumne where we settle in for a brief lunch. We have an hour before the Valley shuttle will come and pick us up. I force a ginger ale and about 2 pounds of grapes into Natasha, and devour a bacon cheeseburger myself before the bus comes.
The bus arrives at 2:15, it costs a few dollars, but it’s worth it for such an easy trip down to the valley. I don’t sleep much, but Natasha seems to fade in and out several times during the ride. It’s good she’s resting.
We get to the valley, which is much hotter than the high country, and quickly load the Jeep with our gear. Back to Whitney for us: Natasha needs the Subaru to get home.
I was originally intending to start again from Tuolumne Meadows and make up a few miles each day over the rest of the trip, but our timetable is cut very short now, so I decide to rejoin the trail at Red’s Meadow tomorrow morning.
We make the long, dusty trip down to Whitney Portal, for the second time now, pick up the Subaru, and make our way back to Mammoth Lakes. We camp out in the ski resort parking lot to take the shuttle to Red’s Meadow in the morning. It will be another late start tomorrow, but it will have to work.
Day 3: Red’s Meadow to Lake Thomas Edison
Woke up at 6 am this morning. Quickly re-organize my pack and jump on the shuttle, which leaves at 7:30 to drop us off around 8:15 at Red’s. I pick up our first resupply – not really needed at this point, but I sift through and re-prioritize my food stores anyway. We sit down for a quick breakfast at the infamous Red’s Meadow Café. Coffee, eggs, bacon, and a giant flapjack prime my fuel stores for today’s big push. I have 28 or so miles to Lake Edison to stay on track. I’d like to do it before the sunset, so I only have about 8 hours left in the day.
After a tearful exchange of goodbye’s and I love you’s, I turn down the trail out of Red’s Meadow Pack Station and Resort, and make my way up the first ridge and towards Lake Thomas A. Edison. The loss of Natasha on this trip weighs heavier than my pack…
I make good time, passing a few hikers later in the day. Most people seem to be headed northbound, but I think it’s too late in the season to be this far behind on the PCT. It must just be a lot of day/weekend/vacation hikers. I only pass a few groups headed southbound, most of which seem to be taking their time – stopped at stream crossings and such.
I stop as necessary for water and food. I set an alarm on my watch reminding me to take a swig of water or electrolytes. 15 minutes, water; 15 minutes Skratch. It’s tedious and repetitive, but it works.
Water sources are plentiful. I haven’t run out of water yet, although I fill up just about every chance I get. I don’t mind carrying the weight of something so vital.
I climb for what seems like forever, all the way to Lake Virginia, then descend steeply into Tully Hole, a mosquito ridden crevasse in the mountain range. It’s beautiful, but I can hardly stop to refill my water from the stream without being ardently attacked by hundreds of blood-thirsty pestilences.
I move as quickly as I can out of Tully Hole, past the Cascade Valley trail junction and begin climbing again: this time, to Silver Pass.
The climb takes longer than I expected and I feel strangely exhausted. My feet are clumsy, even over some of the more relaxed and flat terrain. I roll my ankle several times. My legs seem to be functioning fine, but my body won’t move any quicker. I struggle to find my breath, and I can both hear and feel my heartbeat in my head. I push on, hoping that as I descend off of the relatively low pass that I will feel better.
I reach the top of Silver Pass (10,705’) around 5 pm, with 7 or 8 miles left to go – easily done in two hours on steady legs. My head is screaming, and I can hardly think. What is going on? I haven’t ever been this affected by altitude, especially not this low of an altitude. My legs are wobblier than overcooked spaghetti noodles and I make my way down what should have been a very easy descent at about 2.5 to 3 miles per hour – still fast, but not what I’d expect to be doing.
Regardless, I moved as quickly as I could down from the high mountain pass. I made pretty decent time, getting to camp somewhere around 8:30. I camped near the boat launch for Lake Edison. A few bars of service had found their way through space to my phone, so I got a call and some texts out to Natasha. She encouraged me on, and reminded me to listen to my body, not my head. I would find myself repeating that over and over the next day.
I am slow to go to bed, sipping on green tea and just sort of picking at my food. Nothing tastes good, it’s more of just eating because I know I have to. I tried to light another fire, but it burns out quickly and there’s not much to chose from as far as fallen wood goes. I will see how I feel in the morning; make my decision then.
It has been very warm overnight this trip, so my 32° bag has kept me warm every night until just before dawn. I seem to have forgotten to pack my secondary sleeping pad (Klymit X-Frame) when I re-organized this morning, so the small dense foam pad that is included in my pack will have to do. It’s not very comfortable, and doesn’t extend all the way down my legs, so I supplement it with my pack for the lower half of my body. Necessity begets innovation. I switch from my ski socks (Columbia Omni Heat) to my compression socks (Nike Elite Compression) for tonight, hoping it will speed up my recovery and lighten my now leaden legs. I drift into a tumultuous sleep, stirring often and waking multiple times. Tomorrow may turn out to be a long day.
(Skratch Labs Hydropro Purist Water Bottles, refilled straight from the source; #nofilter)
Day 4: Lake Thomas Edison to John Muir Trail Ranch then to Florence Lake.
I wake up to my second alarm, set for 6:30. I rest my chin on the ground and stare at the zipper to the tent. I don’t want to move, but I force my muscles to cooperate. I gather all my gear from inside the tent and heave it out of the vestibule. I boil water for oatmeal and coffee and begin camp tear down. I start with my tent, rolling it carefully inside the rain fly and securing the roll with hair ties (I ditched the stuff sack at Red’s Meadow to try and save a few tenths of an ounce). I fold and replace the sleeping pad as the cushion in my pack, shove my sleeping bag into it’s stuff sack, and put both into the bottom of my bag. Next is the bear can. The big lumbering tube of plastic every high sierra wanderer is mandated to carry. Mine (Bear Vault 500) isn’t the lightest, but it was functional and relatively cheap (some of the carbon fiber ones are hundreds of dollars). They serve more as a chipmunk deterrent than stop bears from offing with your food, but the NPS says you carry it, so you carry it.
My oatmeal is bland, but I choke it down, livening up my taste buds with some Starbucks instant coffee. I make another cup of coffee. I’m just wasting time now. Anyone watching would have been able to see how hesitant I was to get going. But I was going. I would hike all day, and into the night if I had to in order to get to my next stop, or so I thought.
I finally get moving around 8:45. I walk back up the river to the bridge and immediately begin climbing Bear Ridge, a relatively steep and generally dry section of the trail. It’s not so bad if you just keep moving, but there’s no real sign that you’ve reached the top, so you’re mentally broken by about ¾ of the way up. I pass several people who seem to be struggling, or at least meandering, up the ridge, and gain some confidence. Cell service will be non-existent from here on out, so I use the last few minutes I have with signal to chow down on some home-made trail mix (chocolate covered espresso beans are magical) and call Natasha. I update her about my physical state, and tell her that I’m still cautious, but optimistic.
(Overlooking Sunrise Meadow; Tenaya, Tressider, Cathedral, Echo, Cockscomb, & Unicorn peaks, as well as Matthes Crest in the background)
I keep moving after a few minutes on the phone, and am almost immediately overwhelmed by the vastness of the remaining trail. I reflect on last year’s trip, and despite my best efforts, continually remind myself of how much more I have to do.
Alone. Me. By myself. Just me. I’ve only made it 10 or 12 miles so far, and I have 31total in order to be in McClure Meadow in the Evolution Basin. My body is distant from my head, like all the nerves that connect my limbs to my brain have been severed. I’m still stumbling and rolling my ankles over easy terrain. Several times, I take half a step up, only to stop mid-cycle and step back down. I need to catch my breath, I need to stop for water, I need to stop.
I keep repeating Natasha’s mantra “listen to your body, not your brain”. Even still, I’m here alone, and my brain is all that keeps me company. It’s not been a great companion thus far, and seems to continually degrade in inspirational quality. I can only focus on the negatives. Even the scenery around me seems to dull and fade into a granite blur. What was so stunningly beautiful just a few hours ago is now nothing more than a conglomerate of synapsial impulses – grey and green beneath my feet, blue smear above. Several times I sob out loud – I even try to cry, but my body won’t let loose the salt it is working so hard to employ in order to propel me forward – Not out of sadness or pain, but frustration. I have done this. I am BETTER than this. I worked hard to get here. It can’t be done yet. Not yet.
I’m climbing again. This time, up to Selden Pass. It’s a relatively mellow approach, with a steep section just past Marie Lakes. I see several people relaxing by the lake shore. A group of 4 women stripped down to just underwear, enjoying the high altitude sun, and the cool alpine tarn. Further down, I pass what seem to be more PCT-ers. Heavy laden packs, deep rich tans, and sinewy arms and legs – completely shed of all excess fats to keep their bodies moving.
My breath continues to be labored. I start counting my steps. 50 steps, stop. Breathe, repeat. 25 steps, stop. Breathe, repeat. 10 steps, 5 steps. Stop. STOP.
My stomach twists into a pretzel, and hardens like stone. I can hardly even open my mouth to force a ProBar down. I chew my first small bite without swallowing for most of the climb – probably 30 minutes.
At least my head is sound. I don’t have much of a headache. I’m grateful for that.
I reach the top and am greeted by 3 hikers: 2 men and a woman. They had been hiking since Tahoe, completing the Tahoe to Yosemite Trail and now Southbound on the JMT. They were doing maybe 7 miles a day, and one of them had a 60 lb pack – DSL camera and kit included.
These three are very friendly, and seem sympathetic if not empathetic to my plight. They chat with me for a while, making jokes about the type of hiker we had seen throughout the day, discussing their trip so far, their plans for the future trail. Eventually we get to my plans. I tell them of my trail experience this far – everything very generalized, but they get the idea. I tell them my original plan – 8 days SB, then 3 NB. I tell them I’m thinking about leaving. They seem taken aback at my planned pace, and saddened that I would want to leave, especially given the coming scenery – with every step southbound, the trail intensifies exponentially in beauty.
The next topic of discussion is the most disheartening of all. They had been talking to someone with the trail name “Trailblazer” – apparently a speed demon in his own right, probably a PCT-er. He had informed them that, apparently there was a new trail record. His claim was that some ultra-runner had come through, slept 2 hours in a 48-hour period and had incidentally covered the entire length between Mt. Whitney and Yosemite besides. My heart sank. My brain shrank into the darkest corner of my skull, and tears welled behind my eyes. I kept my composure, and discussed the logistics required for such a feat – possible, but difficult. That would essentially mean two 100 milers, both tougher than Western States at an under 24 hour pace and including rest/fueling/crew time.
I have no evidence that this claim is true. Nevertheless, I was deeply affected by it. I soon said goodbye to the Selden Pass trio, and made my way down the pass. I pushed as hard as I could, emotionally charged yet still only barely scraping a 3 mile/hour pace. My stomach refused any food, and I marched on.
I descended from Selden Pass, wrapped around Mt. Senger, past Sallie Keyes Lakes, and finally got to the Sallie Keyes Cutoff Trail at around 4:45pm. I needed to be to the John Muir Trail Ranch by 5 to pick up my resupply. It was HIGHLY unlikely, but I pushed down the steep descent anyway, almost running, skipping sections by balancing my weight on my Black Diamond Trekking Poles and swinging between them – I could cover twice the distance of my stride this way, despite it’s unsafe and precarious nature. I reached the turn-off for the ranch at about 5:10. A group of hikers were leaving and reminded me that they were closing up shop, but let me pass them quickly anyway, sensing my urgency. I thank them, and move as quickly as I can into the wooden stable fence that marks the boundary of the ranch.
I turn, and am greeted by an older woman who, again, reminds me of the time. I say, I know, and apologize for my tardiness, but notice that the food storage shed remains open. I implore with them to gain access to my food cache, and after stating that I would take no time, was granted a couple seconds to get what I needed and give the bucket back.
I took the BabyBel Edam cheese and Hormel Pepperoni, and the two cans of fruit, handed the bucket back and said thank you. I had made up my mind – I was going home. It was a 9 mile hike to the other side of Florence Lake – the location of another mountain resort, where hopefully I could get cell service and find my way home.
I open the first can of fruit, drink the juice and start picking out pieces with my grimy hands. It’s the first thing I’ve been able to stomach relatively well all day.
I hike the 9 miles as quickly as I can muster, trying to get to the other side of the lake before nightfall. I am covering the same distance as if I were continuing southbound on the trail, sort of mentally defeating. I contemplate returning to the trail several times, but keep coming to the same conclusion – even if I turned around, I’d have to wait until the morning when the ranch re-opened to get at my food again. I’d be starting late again AND I’d be 10 miles behind. I needed to go home.
The Florence Lake Shore Trail is easy on fresh legs, but in a mentally defeated and physically depleted shell of a person, every 200 foot climb seems a mountain. Pointless ups and downs have never been my favorite part of any trail and they were especially bothersome today.
I finally get to the other shore by dusk. Light is fading fast, and I have no idea where I’m allowed to camp, the store is closed, and I’m frustrated.
After some time, I get someone from the store – apparently they live there – and ask where to camp. A younger lady with dreads informs me that since I’m so late to arrive, I can set up in the “day use” area. I’d have to be out of the camp by morning, but that was no issue. She also informed me that it was at least 2 hours to Fresno by car and there were no busses, so I’d have to find someone to give me a ride out. I have had a few bars of extended service and struggle to send out a text to Natasha. I didn’t want her to have to drive to get me – I was in the middle of the mountains, on a road that my GPS maps didn’t even know existed. She responded, saying it would take her 6 hours to come and get me, and not to move.
I made camp. I chose the closest campsite to the store, and started tearing down my pack to make a functional camp.
I boiled water from the lake, and made 2 cups of green tea before anything even remotely sounded good to eat.
As I was boiling water, two cars pulled into the day use parking lot. I overheard some of their conversation, and I heard a loud CB radio. Apparently, they were looking for a hiker who had been gone since July 3rd. They asked if I had seen anyone, and showed me a picture. I told them about everyone I could remember. They transcribed my information into a SAR interview, collecting evidence.
I had also overheard that one of the men had satellite texting ability. I asked, very politely if I could use this to get a half conversation in with Natasha. I needed to think through my decision, and my befuddled brain was no use. He agreed, and I began quickly typing.
We talked for a few minutes. Natasha assured me that whatever I did needed to be what was going to make me happy AND keep me safe, the latter of which being most important. I settled on going back on the trail, feeling good after having rested for a while. I was at an altitude below 8k, so of course I felt good.
I went to bed around midnight (way later than I should have for starting again the next day) and restlessly stirred my way through sleep. I wore my compression socks again – they seem to be working well as far as muscular fatigue goes.
(John Muir’s Range of Light)
Day 5: Recovery
Morning came far too quickly, but I was eager to wake. I quickly collapsed my campsite into my bag, ate my oatmeal, and was walking toward the store, up a very shallow incline. My breathing was STILL labored. I sighed heavily in despair. I couldn’t climb thousands of feet, up mountain passes, and summit Mt. Whitney if I couldn’t even climb a hundred feet of paved road. I would have to go home.
I saw some people stirring in their cars, unpacking, or re-packing – I couldn’t tell. I turned to inquire with them. They laid out their plan – a ferry ride to the other side of Florence Lake with their food cache, then back on the next available boat, back to their car, and off to Yosemite, where they would wait in line for their wilderness permits. They were Florida transplants, living in Charleston, SC, had just quit their jobs, seeking refuge from the complexity and stresses of city life. They travelled westward like pioneer era adventurers, and sought out a life that can only be dreamed of on the Eastern Seaboard, but can be lived out in the promise of freedom that the open expanses of the West hold.
I help them get their food cache across the lake and to the ranch without them needing to ferry it themselves, and ask, humbly with head bowed and tail between my legs – disappointed in myself – for a ride to Fresno, or even as far as Yosemite. They agree, and start picking my brain for tactics and strategies for trail living. I give them all the information I can, hoping they will store some of the information and put it to practical use. They seem particularly worried about bears, something I tell them I’ve been lucky enough to have a particularly low encounter rate with.
We make our way down the mountain in their Nissan, struggling at just over 25 mph on the rough, narrow, single lane mountain road. Eventually we are back in the Fresno area. We stop at a Denny’s for some food, and turn northbound to Yosemite Valley.
I’ve finally got good service, so I get a phone call to Natasha. She assures me that I’ve made a good choice, despite whatever I may be feeling.
Before long, we are back to Yosemite, staring up at the huge granite walls that make even seasoned visitors feel insignificant. It’s nice to see the awe in the faces of these two road and city travellers. I’m excited for their pilgrimage to Whitney. This trip will surely change their lives forever.
We meet Natasha at the Yosemite Village Store, I switch my gear into our Subaru, and we head Southbound to Mt. Whitney once more.
The miles roll by slower than I’d like. Every mile south along CA 395 is another moment I have to reflect on my failure. It’s a drive of shame, and I’m silent for most of the trip.
We get to the Whitney Portal store around 8, I walk in with my head hung low, huffing at 7k feet from the short walk up the ramp and through the door. I take my bucket, and we’re back down the mountain, through Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, and Bishop.
My Jeep is parked at the Mammoth Ski Resort. We take a few hours of sleep in the parking space next to it. We stir awake at just past midnight, and I step over to the drivers seat of my Jeep.
The drive home is a blur. Despite the nearly full moon (which was to be a Super-Moon on the trip) I can see nothing about the landscape we pass on our way. We take 395 to Hwy 89, then Hwy 50 all the way through Sacramento and finally back to Travis. Several instances of altitude gain make me sorry we are taking this route. My sleep deprived and oxygen sensitive brain are screaming at me, all the while, my eyelids are threatening to close and re-open to the sight of my Jeep falling off of a mountainside.
We finally make it home at 6 am, the morning of July 11th. My trip was over, and I’d have to come to terms with it.
-Negativity begets negativity – the overall mood of the trip has had underlying tones of negativity and failure has resounded throughout the trip. A lot went wrong.
-Sometimes the mountain wins. When she does, there is nothing you can do to stop it happening.
-History of wellness at altitude does not ensure a problem-free trip at altitude. Aside from acclimating well ahead of time, I’m not sure what will ease this.
-Failure is a state of mind. I did not reach my goal, but that does not define me as a person, nor as an athlete. My dreams are still very real and very attainable, they simply didn’t happen this year. I refuse to let this setback mar my progress.
-My plan was good. I set out with a plan, followed it as best I could, given the circumstances, and it still didn’t work. And that’s okay.
-My gear was good. I had just enough to be comfortable. I didn’t carry excess. I didn’t carry too little. All of my gear worked as planned, and without incident.
-The pain of failure is indescribable, and yet entirely insignificant next to the pain of never having attempted for fear of failure. Failure is nothing more than progress.
-Soloing is hard. When you are your only company, and especially at speed, the prevalence of your mindset is all encompassing of the outcome of your trip.
I will return to the John Muir Trail, and I will claim the Fastest Known Time. In the meantime, I will be training and racing hard. I’m proud of my attempt, and I will not let this instance of failure be a deterrent to future attempts. I will take from this experience, and apply all the experience from it to better equip me for the next attempt. I am planning a trip for 2016.
(The Siren of the Sierra: Mt. Whitney)