This report summarizes a two-night solo trip I took last weeke—
Uh, Adam? Last weekend? Wasn’t that Father’s Day?
Aren’t you a father? Shouldn’t you have spent it with…you know…your son?
Ahem. Let me try again.
This report summarizes an expedited two-night solo trip I took last weekend. The hike took me on a straight-forward out-and-back from the Maxson Trailhead, near Courtright Reservoir, via Hell For Sure Pass into Goddard Canyon, then up to Wanda Lake in Evolution Basin. Although there are a plethora of off-trail options for exploring in this area, I stuck to the trails—my real purpose was simply to see Goddard Canyon; a canyon I’ve seen on the map and passed by so God-dard (ha!) many times that I finally dedicated a trip to visiting it.
I’ve never been good at doing so, but I’m going to try to keep this brief. This report is also available as a .pdf here. The pdf version includes higher resolution photos, and other delightful nuggets, like footnotes, the maps and notes I brought with me, and my gear and food lists.
If you're just here for the eye-candy, the photos are uploaded to Flickr, and are viewable here.
This trip was in the same vein as the last few I’ve taken—cram in as many sights as possible into as short of a time as you can. Visit some places you’ve always wanted to go, and if possible, also visit some places that you’ve always wanted to go back to. If it hurts—if it’s hard, if it’s painful—that’s fine. Maybe that’s good.
Don’t bring much. Go lightweight. Float over passes, and glide down descents. Don’t fight the mountain; befriend it.
Day 1 was a 26 mile day that started with the 4h:15m drive from the bay area to Courtright Reservoir. I climbed from the reservoir over Hell For Sure Pass, and descended Goddard Canyon, to end the day on the PCT/JMT at the Goddard Creek footbridge. +5,200/-4,800 ft of elevation change.
Day 2 was a marathon (well, 1.5x marathon) 40 mile day that took me up into Evolution Basin and back, then back up Goddard Canyon, and over Hell For Sure Pass to finally camp on the west side of the LeConte Divide. +7,800/-6,500 ft of elevation change.
Day 3 was a quick and straightforward 12 miles back to the car. +1,000/-2,600 feet of elevation change.
All in all, it was about 78 miles with +/-14,000 ft of elevation change. I was out for about 47 hours.
Where I went in orthogonal planes:
Where I went, displayed on a 2D horizontal slice of cartesian space (top) and an orthogonal 2D vertical slice of cartesian space (bottom); known colloquially as a “map” and an “elevation profile”.
Only the first half is shown on the elevation profile—it was an out-and-back, so the second half is identical, in reverse.
Things I brought to stay alive
Below is everything I brought. In the bear can are 10,841 calories. Everything—food, gear and weights—are listed in excruciating detail on the last two pages of the pdf version. Excruciating. I just got a scale that can measure down to 0.005 oz, so I had a field day remeasuring everything I own to finesse the last few tenths of oz of uncertainty out of my gear. Yes—I do have a problem—but this isn’t even my biggest one.
The base weight of my gear including bear can was around 8.37 lbs; total starting pack weight was around 14.5 lbs.
All the stuff I brought:
First column: Stuff I wore (visor + bandanna, shirt, boxers, running shorts, gaiters + socks, shoes)
Second column: Packed clothes (fleece beanie + headnet, shell + puffy, silk weight long john’s, wind pants, two pairs of socks)
Third column: Gear (first aid kit (includes oodles of miscellany), TP, Steripen + DEET, maps, tarp, bivy, quilt)
Fourth column: Pack, food and water storage (Pack, bear can, gatorade bottles)
Friday: two electrical engineers meet on a footbridge
Once again, I’m out the door early on a Friday morning. I want to get to the High Sierra District ranger station in Prather shortly after 8:00am, when they open—I need a permit. Sierra National Forest has some silly rules for walk-in permits. Like, you can get them 48 hours in advance, if you show up in person at a ranger station. So—Friday’s walk-in permits could be gone by Friday, if hordes show up on Wednesday and Thursday, and get their Friday permit, then fart around for two days. I don’t have time to fart around—these days, I have so little free time that I’ve optimized my farts into shock waves.
I’m in luck, because they have a permit for me. I’m leaning on the counter of the permit office, eating a banana. There are two rangers staffing HQ this morning—while one is diligently filling out my paperwork, the other regales me with a tale about a youtube video, where someone un-ripens an overripe banana by putting it in a bag with rice, then blows it with a hair dryer. My inner-economist is already optimizing her droll tale: how much does the rice and electricity cost? Don’t bananas still cost, like, $0.19? What price do you put on your own labor? I think banana bread is probably optimal here. That assumes that this scheme works—I don’t think fruits magically un-ripen with desiccation, but I don’t mention this to her. On the jerk-scale, I guess I’m somewhere between “you make nice conversation, and I call you a moron to your face”, and “I write passive belittling remarks on the internet about nice strangers”
Permit in hand, I resume the drive to Courtright Reservoir, and arrive around 10:00am. The drive—including a stop for gas, and the stop for banana tutorials—took around 4h15m. That’s not bad, because now, I realize—as I look around—I’m at 8,000 feet and surrounded by granite domes.
Within ten minutes, I’m on the trail. In Maxson Meadow—within the first mile—mosquitos descend on me. I’m no stranger to mosquitos; I grew up in Wisconsin. But in Wisconsin, bad mosquitos just mean they’re the size of hummingbirds, and are rude and unfriendly, like they’re from Chicago or something. In the Sierra, bad mosquitos mean eleventy billion of them descend upon you and coat you in a writhing charcoal carpet, and feast upon your blood until you are a shriveled corpse that even rice and a hair dryer can’t save.
Unfortunately, I wore shorts. Fortunately, I brought DEET. With DEET on my legs, and a head net on my head, I am shielded from The Horde.
The hike begins like my last hike, with a hum-drum walk through the woods. But this time, it’s only that for the first 12 miles. For those 12 miles, I do the things that hikers do: I pass through meadows, and hop across streams, and climb and descend the oscillations in the trail.
As I pass through sandy meadows, I am offered glimpses of the LeConte Divide—the massive granite barrier I’m headed towards, and must traverse.
Lots of this
Soon, I’m expelled from the woods altogether, and find myself following a trail of moderate quality that winds along tilted granite slabs. I’m spoiled by trails like the JMT, that are superbly marked and maintained. This trail is marked in some places by cairns, and in some places by rows of rocks that have been tediously arranged. In some places, it’s not marked at all—in those places, I look around to find it and sometimes give up, just heading the direction I know it must go. Whenever that happens, I find it again shortly.
I pass Disappointment Lake, and then some smaller unnamed lakes. These deep-blue, cool gems are nestled in the pink rosy granite, and are too beautiful to pass by. I take a break for lunch. I’m at about 10,500 feet, and there’s a little breeze, but not enough to keep The Horde at bay. Head net on. I lay on my back in the soft grass, looking up towards Hell For Sure pass, periodically sneaking bites of tortilla in under my head net. This…this is a pretty nice place. I have to give it to California—it keeps delivering new gems like this.
I lazily take to my feet to continue winding my way towards the pass, but am waylaid by the spectacular Hell For Sure lake. It is—perhaps—the image of perfection for a high Sierra lake: it rests in a shallow granite depression, surrounded by patches of verdant grass and rosy granite. The dark gray massif of Mount Hutton looms behind it, laced with veins of white snow. The occasional tree dots the shoreline, and—to make it’s perfection almost comical—several small islands rise peacefully from it’s glassy, azure waters.
The top image is a photo I took, the bottom image is an excerpt I printed from Google Earth and brought with me. I know where I’m headed! The round peak to the left is Red Mountain; the trail ascends Hell For Sure Pass just to the north of the Red Mountain. Google Earth even got the weather right!
Disappointment Lake. Nobody visits Disappointment Lake without commenting on the name. According to Browning’s Sierra Nevada Place Names: “Rae Crabtree, the Coolidge Meadow packer, reported in 1945 that the lake was named by some tourists who had poor fishing there.” I am doing no fishing, and therefore experience no disappointment.
I tried to look up the etymology of Hell For Sure before I came on this trip, but all I could find was that 1) the Hell For Sure Pass trail used to be an old sheep trail named the “Baird Trail”, and 2) Joseph LeConte was the first one to put the name “Hell For Sure” on the paper. Now I wonder—did LeConte have a sense of humor? Heaven For Sure, perhaps.
Hell For Sure Lake from the bottom of the pass
Hell For Sure Lake panorama
I continue the ascent, and it quickly begins in earnest. My body not-so-subtely reminds me that I slept at sea level last night, and the last few hundred vertical feet towards the 11,200 foot pass seem to take forever. It’s not so bad—I just pause, catch my breath, and look back towards Hell For Sure Lake—but the name Hell For Sure doesn’t seem as outrageously out of place any more.
Hell For Sure Lake, from near the top of the pass
My stuttering ascent continues, and by 3:15pm, I’m on top. 11,200 feet.
The views are spectacular. There is a rainbow of color in front of me: I’m standing on the orange rock of Red Mountain, which falls away in front of me, and as it does so, is speckled with the lime-green vegetation of June, and here and there, patches of ivory snow. Rising out of the other side of Goddard Canyon is the looming dark gray massif of Emerald peak, painted with slashing ribbons of lighter rock, dotted with dark green trees, laced again with ivory icing. The rock transforms to lighter grays to the north, where Peter Peak and Mount McGee rise out of the same massif. These peaks reach into a brilliant blue-bird sky, which would be a pristine canvas were it not for the wispy cirrus clouds stretched across it.
I just took a break below the pass, but the vista in front of me forces another. As an added bonus, it’s windy up here, and that keeps the mosquitos at bay.
I spend ten minutes doing nothing—sitting, staring ahead. Entranced, absorbing.
The rainbow view from the top of Hell For Sure Pass
Panorama from the top of Hell For Sure Pass. Goddard Canyon is ahead, to the left--Hell For Sure Lake, where I came from, is to the right
Eventually, I bring myself to my feet, and begin the descent. The trail is windy and smooth and fun, and I move quickly. As I descend, the views to the north open up—I see Mount Gabb, then Seven Gables. Seven Gables—the peak that lords over Bear Creek, in an elusive, remote part of this gran sierra nevada. Hello, stranger.
Panorama taken along the descent of Hell For Sure Pass
Looking north from the descent. Seven Gables is the peak to the far left.
The trail levels out, and begins to disappear and reappear. Sometimes I lose it, but then find it again. I spent a fair amount of time researching this trail before the trip—it did not have a great reputation. But I knew the general route, and was in the mood for an adventure—so here I am.
Looking south from the trail further along the descent—why hello Mt. Goddard!
I round a corner and she is there: fifteen feet away a bear is looking back at me. For microseconds, we’re both paused—eyes locked, faces blank. The bear reacts faster than I do, and is crashing away before I’ve even begun to process the interaction. She’s a fat, cinnamon photogenic fur ball. I’m sad to have missed the photo op, but glad to have not become a chew toy--that's closer than I've ever been to a bear in the wild.
Soon the descent halts, as I arrive at a long bench, and begin to follow the trail south along it. The trail up here parallels the trail at the bottom of Goddard Canyon, but is going the wrong way—it travels two miles or so to the south, while ultimately, I am headed north. That’s no matter to me, because I’m here to see Goddard Canyon.
I wind my way south, and eventually north, along Goddard Canyon. At the bottom of Goddard Canyon, Goddard Creek has created quite a respectable gorge. I am reminded of my visit last year to the gorge of the Middle Fork Kings. Both are spectacular gorges that few seem to visit.
Water is everywhere. It cascades down the opposite face of Goddard Canyon, in voluminous white horsetails that meander and fall, and meander and fall, until they meet the mighty Goddard Creek below. Goddard Creek itself has a few surprises in store for me: massive falls that—if they existed in the midwest—would harbor their own national monument. I discover these not once—not twice—but three times.
Nearing the Evolution Creek/Goddard Creek/South Fork San Joaquin Junction--it's the obvious junction ahead
By 6:30pm, the footbridge emerges, and I’m at the bottom. There are many campsites at the Goddard Creek footbridge, and it’s along both the JMT and PCT. I’m expecting hordes of campers here—hordes. I’m kind of looking forward to it, because I’ve been lonely all day—I haven’t seen anyone since mile 4 or so.
The thing is, it’s deserted here. There’s no one around. Do JMT hikers hike longer days now? I thought they were in camp by…3pm? PCT hikers hike longer days. Maybe they’ll roll in around 8:00pm. The sun won’t go down until 8:30pm.
I consider going further, but I want to sleep low—this campsite is at 8,480 ft, and if I begin ascending into Evolution Valley, I probably won’t be able to camp below 9,200 ft. I throw my pad and bivy and quilt onto the ground, and begin eating. I wash the DEET off my legs, and don my wind pants, even though the mosquitos aren’t particularly bad here. I have a headache—a bad headache—I don’t know if it’s from lack of caffeine, or from altitude, but I tag-team it with two Excedrin, and a Starbucks Via added to my usual end-of-day cocktail consisting of Recoverite and protein powder. I’m sipping my cocktail, wondering what to do.
Hmm. I’m not usually bored while backpacking.
I see another hiker, standing on the footbridge, and decide to go chat with him. I haven’t spoken to anyone all day—really, since the rangers in the permit office. The social drought has left me chatty.
His name is Eric, and he has an adventure ahead of him: he’s going from Florence Lake to Whitney, then out via the High Sierra Trail. This is his first night on the trail. I’m jealous of him—not because of his long trip, but because of what he’s about to see for the very first time—places like Evolution Basin, and the Palisades, and Upper Basin, and Rae Lakes, and the Kaweahs. You only get to discover those once, and he’s about to.
We talk for a while—half an hour, maybe. We talk about all sorts of things. Kids, family, obligations…life, work—turns out we’re both electrical engineers—jobs, gear, the mountains. He’s carrying a 55 lb pack due to all the food, and he usually carries a 40 lb pack. It’s oppressive.
When we bid farewell, I tell him that I’ll see him tomorrow, since I’m doing an out and back up to Evolution Basin.
I retreat to my quilt, and look at maps and elevation profiles. It was a good day—I finally visited the elusive Goddard Canyon, and saw some awesome sights on the way. Tomorrow…tomorrow is going to be a full day. I’d pop up to Evolution basin, which would be a stroll down memory lane. I planned to turn around at Wanda Lake, then retrace my steps to here, then ascend Goddard Canyon and Hell For Sure Pass, to camp on the other side. It is a great idea in theory, but the math has me worried…it looks like I’ll be about 36 miles into the day when I stand atop Hell For Sure Pass again. 36 is a big number. Hmm.
It sounds like a good dilemma to ignore until I’m atop Hell For Sure Pass again, so I put the maps away, send off a SPOT message, zip up my bivy, and close my eyes.
A frequent cough keeps sleep at bay—I have a cold or virus or something, and I almost abandoned the trip. But I decided that walking was one thing I could do. So here I am.
Sleep doesn’t come, but relaxation does. The mosquitoes have gone to bed, so I unzip my bivy. Soon, the moon has set, and the expansive milky way stretches across the sky. I’m toasty warm, and there’s the teensiest nip in the air on my exposed face. Erratic meteorites flash and zip past wearisome satellites that drone uninterrupted across the night sky.
Around 2:00am, I try to sleep in earnest, and it works.
Saturday: Me and my eleventy billion closest friends
My alarm doesn’t go off. With my Android phone, if I set my alarm, then turned the phone off, the alarm will still go off. I guess it doesn’t work that way with iPhones.
Oh well. I’m up at 5:10am, and on the trail by 5:40am. I’m climbing immediately—switchbacks that lead up to Evolution Valley. I feel good, despite getting only a few hours of sleep.
In no time, I’m at the ford of Evolution Creek. Usually I’d take my socks and liners out, and put on my shoes, and plod across. But it looks benign, and dry footwear is enticing, so I cross barefoot.
Next I’m in McClure Meadow, and it’s spectacular, as always. I haven’t seen them all yet, but so far, this is my favorite meadow in the Sierra. I take a break, and stare.
McClure Meadow: Meadow of meadows; meadow perfection.
McClure Meadow panorama
Soon I’m climbing the switchbacks into Evolution Basin. It’s harder than I want it to be—my pack is light, my legs are strong…is it the altitude? I slept at 8,500 ft last night. Why can’t I just breathe thin air better? What do I need to do?
Then, I’m there—Evolution Lake. It is, of course, beautiful, because Evolution Lake is always beautiful. It’s 8:30am, which is a good time for a snack, and a good time to do some more staring. Hello Mounts Darwin and Mendel. Hello Spencer, hello Fiske.
Evolution Lake from the northern shore. Mt Spencer rises proudly in the background. Mount Huxley is the darker prominent peak to the right.
Evolution Lake panorama
Looking back towards north Evolution Lake. The dark peak to the right is the east face of Emerald Peak. I’ll end the day on the opposite side of it, after circumnavigating it.
I’m off, and I’m whisked away to Sapphire Lake, a literal gem. Marmots are scurrying about, taking care of the business of their apparently thriving empire. One poses, so I oblige and take a picture.
Sapphire Lake. The prominent peak to the left is Mt. Huxley. The snow-laced peak in the background is the east ridge of Mt. Goddard.
Soon I’m climbing towards Wanda Lake. The trail is more monotonous here than I recall—I remember Evolution Basin being a thrill-a-minute, but several minutes have passed. It’s just a lot of granite—and this coming from a person who loves granite. I keep checking my barometer, and know when I’m getting close.
A reverent view of Fiske
And then I’m there, and it’s fantastic: Brooding Black Giant looms behind Mt Solomon, both laced with puritanical white ribbons of snow. They are reflected in the still, glassy, deep blue waters of Wanda Lake, the northern shoreline of which is ringed with dark mossy vegetation. The sky above is a dark blue—so dark, it seems like part of the atmosphere is missing; like I’m closer to outer space than I am to the earth’s surface. The notch of Muir Pass is in the background, and the ascent doesn’t look too snow-laden. I ponder, and look at my watch…If I ascend Muir Pass, will I have time to make it back over Hell For Sure Pass today? I verify my decision not to—I don’t want to find myself 40 miles into the day, descending Hell For Sure Pass in the dark. Besides, I’ve ascended Muir Pass, and recently—last year, my dad and I did it twice in one day, after taking a break right where I am now.
Wanda Lake panorama. Heaven for Sure...
A crop of the above, because BPL makes panoramas tiny
I linger for a little while longer. The mosquitos have found me up here, surprisingly—I thought 11,400 feet would be high enough to avoid them. These are a determined brand of mosquito, but the DEET and head net are enough to preserve my sanity. I lay down, and spend more time absorbing my surroundings, alternating a nutritious lunch of Reeses Pieces and Pringles.
By 10:30am, I decide it’s time to descend. I brush the Pringle crumbs off my shirt—a gift to the Marmot Empire—and begin the 13 mile trek back to where I camped last night.
It’s the same sights, but in reverse—and I haven’t seen these sights in this direction since 2010, so it’s welcome. So—this is what it’s like for PCT hikers. I can’t really fathom it…Muir Pass, then what…Selden Pass? Then Silver Pass? It’s foreign and confusing—it’s like trying to recite the alphabet backwards for the first time.
Near the bottom of the descent to Evolution Meadow, I run into Eric—the engineer from the footbridge. He’s still fighting his 55 lb pack. Maybe it only weighs 53 lbs today. We both get water at the base of the switchbacks, and we bid each other adieu again. I give him my contact information—I want to find out how his hike ends up.
At the Evolution Creek ford, there’s a crowd. I trek across, and chat with a PCT hiker named Taxi. He loses his sunglasses in Evolution Creek, but miraculously, finds them. He’s full of vigor and energy, which is refreshing—the other PCT hikers are glassy-eyed and somber.
On the descent to Goddard Creek, I think of the glassy-eyed PCT hikers, and decide that I have seen enough hikers in my past few trips to develop accurate stereotypes for categorizing hikers using only brief visual cues:
(disclaimer: these are tongue-in-cheek!)
The PCT hiker is a lean, dirty 20-something speeding along in running shorts and gaiters. When she looks at you, her stare is empty—she’s a little shell-shocked. The desert was one thing—all she had to worry about is water—but the Sierra? She didn’t sign up for this shiite: the snow, the climbs, the elevation, the mosquitos, the rocky descents. She’s now willing to admit that she wanted to walk 2,660 miles, but she was never sure why. She’s thinking of leaving at Mammoth, but she won’t tell you that—she won’t tell you anything, because she’s got her earbuds in. She knows she went over a pass today, and has to go over another pass tomorrow, and it doesn’t bother her that she has no idea what their names are.
The JMT hiker is a clean hiker with a huge pack. He’s either a 20-something college student who has only been backpacking three times before, or a 50-something who—let’s face it—is carrying a little extra weight up those passes, and it’s not in the huge pack. The JMT hiker spent just as much time planning as the PCT hiker for a distance that is ten times shorter. They know everything there is to know about the JMT—they know what time VVR closes on Tuesdays, and how many switchbacks there are up bear ridge. As a victim of their over-planning, they carry far more than they need too—the Yahoo JMT group scared them into that. You’ll spot them grimacing up a pass—usually taking a break.
The weekend warrior is wearing a cotton T-shirt, hiking boots, and has an external frame pack. You’ll see him within five miles of the trailhead. He’s always wearing aviator shades—I have no idea why. He packed in beer—he’s out to have a good time—but he doesn’t know what LNT stands for.
The backcountry wizard usually appears as a mix of the three above, but there’s always one or two things off in their appearance—like, they’re wearing a ziploc bag under their beanie, or they have an empty ketchup bottle strapped to the outside of their pack. You’ll know it’s a backcountry wizard when they casually describe their route, and use words like “col”, “arrete”, or “bench”. When you visualize their route, you’ll realize they’re magically weaving all over these mountains. They don’t count walking on trails as “hiking”—that’s just riding a conveyer belt.
The fast-packer—these are my brethren. We look like the PCT hiker, but are cleaner, with a smaller pack, and a lot more energy. You’re not quite sure what we look like from the front, because if you encounter us head-on, it’s pretty blurry. When we stop to chat with you, we throw darting glances around and look at our watches nervously—like sharks, our life-force drains when we’re not moving. We won’t admit it, but we’ve all tried to pee without stopping. We started our hike yesterday at a place you didn’t realize was even connected to where we are now, and we’re finishing it tomorrow at a place you’ll be in four days. What? There are roses up here?
By the time I’m done formulating my offensive stereotypes, I’m back at the Goddard Creek crossing. So are many others—using visual cues, I determine that they’re a mix of JMT and PCT hikers. This is validated when (no joke) overhear:
“Oh, you’re thru-hiking the JMT? I’m thru-hiking the PCT…”
I continue on without joining the gaggle—the fast-packer in me doesn’t want to stop, and the engineer in me worries about where velocity-times-time is going to land me at the end of the day—it’s 2:30pm now.
I begin the climb of Goddard Canyon, and after a mile, run into a Backcountry Wizard. We chat for a while—fifteen minutes. He had an adventurous hike, and I’m jealous of his willingness and ability to veer from the well-traveled ribbons that I glue myself to. We bid adieu, and I continue. The climb is gentle, but the trail more rugged than the JMT. Instead of up, up, up, it’s up, up, down, up. I turn at the unmarked junction, and begin the ascent of Hell For Sure Pass. The trail seems easier to follow from this side. I don’t feel familiar with it—but am I, subconsciously?
Goddard Canyon beauty
The trail steepens towards the top, and my pace is slowed. I’m starting to tire, and my body is beginning to whine: a chafed back, a heel blister, an achy knee. It’s the elevation, right? That’s why this is hard? I’m not sure. I hoped it would be easier. I take breaks every hundred feet of ascent. The final push is me vs. the pass, but eventually, I win: I’m there.
The setting sun bathes the western flank of the divide, casting long shadows throughout the ever-spectacular granite bowl of Hell For Sure Lake. I pause for a few minutes. It’s 6:15pm.
One more time--Hell For Sure Lake, from near the pass
Choices…choices. I can camp at Hell For Sure Lake, but it’s high—it’s at over 10,742 feet. That’s a bit aggressive, altitude-wise. Just below it is Disappointment Lake, at 10,342 feet. That would be better, but both of those would mean a 4-5 mile hour hike tomorrow morning.
Below both of those, at 9,750 feet, is Fleming Lake. Perhaps I could camp a bit above it, to stave off mosquitos? It’s only 12 miles from the trailhead, and it’s mostly downhill, so I should be to the car within four hours…with a 4.5 hour drive, that gets me home in time to be father on Father’s Day. The decision is made, and I plod along in the twilight, down the mediocre trail on the granite slabs, through the trees, across the creeks, to Fleming Lake. I arrive around 7:40pm.
fill up my water bottles, and head away from the lake and stream, towards higher ground—hoping to avoid a few of the mosquitos. I stop periodically, but am swarmed—I take that to mean I haven’t gone far enough. But, I find a good spot—swarm or not—and set down my pack.
I didn’t come for solitude, but here I am—me and eleventy billion of my closest friends.
I have a well-thought out plan:
Clean DEET off legs
Don mosquito-proof outfit
I accomplish 1. and 2., and…hmm. They’re still swarming on me. My mosquito-proof outfit consists of fleece beanie, then visor, then hooded rain shell, then head net on top; windpants, over silk long-johns, gaiters and shoes on the bottom. Fleece gloves on my hands. If I stand still, fifty land on me. Moments later, there’s a hundred. I don’t think they can bite me, but it doesn’t really matter—I feel the tiniest hint of an itch, and I assume they’ve squirmed through an orifice somewhere in my armor, and I react. So although it’s mosquito-proof, it’s not doing a satisfactory job of preserving my sanity.
While wearing my bee-keeper suit, I mix up my evening cocktail. I try to sip it by quickly lifting my headnet, but the only way to accomplish this is by pacing ten paces, then lifting the head net for a swig, then pacing ten more, and repeating—otherwise, The Horde is already there, and in attacking-the-Death-Star fashion, they scream in in organized waves whenever the head net is lifted. Pacing is not my idea of fun—I’ve gone about forty miles today. I don’t really want to go three more while eating dinner.
I look at my bivy and sigh. Time to climb in. My bivy is kind of like a man-sized trash bag. It’s meant for times like this—when the alternative is even less pleasant than temporary mummification. I unzip my bivy, squirm in, and zip it up behind me. I leave my head net on, and spend a few minutes killing the ten that made it inside. When I feel it’s safe, I take my head net off, and breathe a sigh of relief when I’m not devoured immediately. I imagine this is what it feels like when you re-enter the space shuttle after a spacewalk, and depressurize the suit: Did my head just explode? No? Good.
It’s actually peaceful. I’m lying on my 1/8” closed cell foam pad on the hot sandy spot where I threw down my gear. It’s soft and warm, and I’m not moving. I’m looking straight up, through the crescent-moon-shaped mesh patch above my face, watching The Horde deal with their frustration. They land on the mesh, and take-off, and land again, and swarm around the warm air exiting my bivy.
I sip my cocktail, and relax. The secret fast-packers won’t tell you is that we love not moving, but we’re too insecure to do it when it’s light out.
I’m done with my cocktail and look at my watch. I still have stuff to do before I can go to sleep for the night—my bear can is open, next to me. My empty cocktail bottle is cast aside in the sand. I should probably eat more, but I’m not hungry. Lack of hunger aside, I feel pretty darn good—that was a 40 mile day. Hell, I still had an hour of daylight—maybe I should’ve kept going. But I had assumed The Horde would gain strength as I descended. In fact, there might be elevations where The Horde would’ve won this battle. No, this was a good choice. But should I have gone all the way to Muir Pass today? Hmm.
I close my eyes, and open them periodically. I take my watch off, which has a barometer and thermometer in it, and set it off to the side, hoping to watch the temperature drop as the sun sets. I assume it will cool off enough to cause The Horde to subside—or at a minimum, to be too lethargic to wage a war worth discussing.
By 8:15pm, it’s still 68 degrees out, and there’s still 50 above me.
I decide to wait until I can only see five on my mesh portal to the world.
I close my eyes.
I open them—there’s twenty. I close my eyes.
I open them—there’s…still twenty. I close them.
This plays out for a while. The sun sets, and it starts to cool. I pull my quilt around me, and doze off.
At 9:30pm, I wake up. I hear crickets, and see a few stars in the dim night sky. It’s deathly still out. There are four mosquitos on my screen. Jackpot.
I wander down to the creek, and get water, and clean my cocktail bottle. I decide not to eat any dinner, because I’m still not hungry. I don’t have to feel great tomorrow—I just have to hike 12 miles, which is mostly flat or downhill. I know I’ll lack energy tomorrow if I don’t eat dinner, but I don’t care. I’m not hungry.
I relax my defenses to ThreatCon 1: I take off the headnet, and rain shell, and inflate my air mattress inside my bivy. I get everything squared away for the warm, fuzzy night ahead. I run my hand over my bivy, and am disappointed to shake hands with a cold wetness. There’s already condensation on it. I look around. I look up. I’m not terribly sheltered from the cold dark universe above me. I look at my watch—it’s already 43 degrees out, and it’s not even 10:00pm yet. It’s going to be a cold, still night. Radiative cooling is going to make that a wet, cold night, for me, in my exposed bivy. Reluctantly, I pitch my tarp. I haven’t pitched it in a year, and the resultant pitch is pathetic; a saggy, wrinkly circus tent. It’s deathly still, so I don’t care.
I climb in, and don’t even bother zipping up my bivy. I nod off quickly.
On and off throughout the night, I wake up. Each time, I check my watch. The temperature is dropping. I’m pleased with my decision to pitch the tarp—I’m warm and comfortable. By 3:00am, the mercury has dropped to 27 degrees, and that’s inside my tarp. The forecast low was in the 40s—a meteorological swing-and-a-miss. The stillness of the night keeps me warm, so I have little to complain about.
Sunday: Fun day
I left my phone on overnight, so my alarm would go off—and it does. But I hit snooze. Twice. Adam the responsible parent may be in a rush to get home for Father’s day, but delirious, sleep-induced Adam has different priorities. Eventually, I goad myself out of my quilt to fetch my bear can. I climb right back in, and eat breakfast.
Having skipped dinner, I have an appetite. I eat a Honey Bun, then some cheddar. Then some beef jerky. Then some tortillas, and some more cheddar. I don’t know it at the time, but there’s a Payday buried in my canister—if I would’ve seen that, I would’ve eaten it too.
By 5:45am, I’m on the trail. The sun is up, and it’s a fine day to hike. It’s still cold out, and deathly still.
I’m in and out of the woods, checking progress frequently. Soon after starting, I need to peel off some layers—it’s cold out, but not cold enough to hike in a fleece beanie and a rain shell.
The trail. The trail. I often think about my relationship with the trail. Today, I realize, the trail—the trail is a jerk. The trail does whatever it wants. It doesn’t care that I don’t want sandy meadows or ascents today. It doesn’t care at all. I follow the trail begrudgingly.
It’s in this begrudging march that I realize something. It’s a sudden, obvious truth that’s a slap in the face.
I’m not enjoying myself. At all. I don’t want to be doing this.
I don’t want to be doing this right now. But I have to—I don’t have any choice. For twelve miles today, I’m doing this, and I don’t like it. And then I’m driving for four hours. Eight hours of my day are going to be donated to this thing that I don’t even like.
I value my free time so much—so much that I crammed this huge thing into a 48 hour hike. And I don’t enjoy it?
I look at my watch, and realize that Henry is probably waking up right now. He’s excited, and saying “big trucks”, over and over. He’s hugging his mama, and he’s saying “mama”. He might even be saying “dada”.
Sigh. This was my choice. Left, right, left, right.
At least I’ll get to see him this afternoon. Then it’s back to work on Monday. Next weekend, I promise, I’ll do things—I’ll take him to the zoo, or something. Something new. Something awesome for him.
Two nights ago, on the footbridge, Eric had said:
“But you have to do it. You have to get out, and get into the backcountry. You need it. It’s good for you. Don’t ever give it up.”
I agreed with him at the time, and a part of me does now. But I didn’t factor this new variable in—do I enjoy this? Do any of us?
Left, right, left, right.
I take a break in Post Corral Meadow, and it helps to lift my spirits. I am standing in a snapshot of time—a painting that’s too perfect to be real. The bright sun illuminates the grassy meadow and the dark verdant foliage. The trail winds through the trees on soft, spongy soil. It’s the early morning, when times moves slowly, but nobody notices, because nobody is in a rush at this time of day. Time takes a little liberty at this time of day, and in this meadow, time is frozen.
After getting water from Post Corral Creek, my hands are frozen too, so I continue. The humdrum walk continues—over footbridges, up a ridge, down a ridge. It’s not so bad, but it’s not so great.
And then, I’m on a 4WD road, and I know I’m close. I see a car, and it’s one last ascent—I see my car. Done.