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The Climb

Silence.

Silence.

Silence.

THUNK.

It sounded like someone threw a marble in to the lake.

I batted my eyelids and managed to hold them open for some moments as I thrashed and rolled violently a quarter turn like a bratwurst might do as it pops and convulses in its own grease.

I had become able to sense when Lindsey was around. It may have been because she exuded a lot of heat and gave her sleeping bag a lumpy texture and appearance. Lumpy in the best of ways; as if a svette hiking machine of a human were resting inside of the contorted down and nylon lumps. I knew immediately that she was not in the tent, and confirmed it by flopping my arm around blindly and recklessly where she should have been lumping. I stared off and contemplated.

“Eating, maybe…”

The sensible, simple side of my brain was first to the punch in this dialogue.

“Or eaten… and If she got eaten then that bear is coming for us, and we can finally execute the black bear attack protocol.” The nefarious and angry-to-be-awake counterpart of my mind offered.

“That’s stupid, and will get us killed.”

“OR it’ll get us on good morning America…”

“Your idiotic plan of drop kicking the bear and putting it in a sleeper hold while someone records the footage is entirely contingent upon someone recording it. There’s no one else here.”

“That’s a good point.”

 So I settled back in for more sleep. Didn’t matter what time it was, it was too damn cold and too damn early. Besides, I was fairly sure I caught a glimpse of Lindsey wandering around out there. A few more spastic sausage-roll maneuvers in my mummy bag, a couple of blinks, and I prepared to enter back in to the amazing world of rest and recuperation in the great outdoors.

Silence.

THUNK.

THUNK THUNK.

Physics made the sun rise; noisy ass fish made me rise.

The sun served as a morning breakfast alarm and the lake came alive. The trout and cohabitating creatures of Dollar Lake feasted on morning swarms of bugs, dragonflies, and whatever small insects dared get too close to their hungry fishsy mouths. This ritualistic daily feeding of the fish was a cruel mockery. Our bear canisters were nearly empty and held only the remnants of the things which we wanted to consume the least. Some oatmeal. Peanut butter (which had surprisingly taken a long time to reach the point of overstaying its welcome, but it had by now) and some small fillets of mackerel in a vacuum bag because that seemed like a good idea at the time when we were shopping.

It was ironic in some ways because as the food chain goes, we could have eaten those fish in the lake. We were heading home because we were out of food. And here these fish were…eating because they were home, because they know how to survive, because they don’t store their food in a lexan container, because their fish societal structure doesn’t require that each fish talk to the Dollar Lake Fish government to obtain a license to eat bugs. In eyeshot and earshot, there swam a multitude of cold, delicious, white, fleshy, nutritious snacks…

I popped out of my sausage casing (if we’re still using that metaphor) and walked in to the cold mountain morning air to stare at the land under an eastern sun’s light. Finn dome towered on the skyline as dollar lake served to be a reflective backdrop of the green and gold and grey landscape. Behind it all was a bold, blindingly blue morning sky. The early light came on fierce and bright, but as ever, we were sheltered from the direct glow of the sun by rounded ridges and elderly pines. The morning was cold, maybe 30 degrees; colder than any of the other mornings that proceeded but this morning seemed especially clear, bright, and still. No one ever came to join us and camp at Dollar Lake, and we’d not seen anyone pass us on the trail yet. For the night and the better bit of a morning, we were the only ones in the world. It was us, our gear, and the symphony of splashing fish.

Not long after rising from the frosty tent, we’d gone through our own morning rituals, packed our gear and loaded up our backpacks which at this point were svelte. Moving meant warmth, and warmth was my only motivation for ever moving in the morning. If it were up to me (and even when it wasn’t up to me) I’d stay in the sleeping bag until 10am or 60 degrees, whichever came first.

Layering really is all that it’s cracked up to be, and we had become proficient at it on this trip. As I suited up in the morning I skipped the base layer pants because I knew I’d be taking them off in short order. I opted for my cut off shoes, Icebreaker merino wool socks, icebreaker 200 weight boxers, mountain hardwear canyon shorts, long sleeve REI prototype base layer, Columbia omni-freeze shirt, down sweater, and turtle fur beanie.  Lindsey bundled up in layers that would make the Michelin Man look like a slut. Ready to endure what may come, we wandered southerly on the unbeaten portion of the trail.

Through the gently radiused valleys of gray rock and granite peaks that had been rounded by time, weight, and ice, the trail snaked towards Finn Dome winding its way between robust, thick, hard scratchy golden grasses, andcold, shady pine trees. The path paralleled a softly spoken creek that fed the life from Arrowhead lake in to Dollar Lake.

The day was going to be a battle, that was apparent from the time the buckles on the backpacks clicked and load lifter straps were pulled tight. It’d be a mental battle more than a battle against the elements or terrain though there was no mistaking the physical obstacles ahead: Two mountain passes of great renown and great height- Glen and Kearsarge.  The miles between them couldn’t be construed, shortened, or shortcut. (I only know that because I stared long and hard at topo lines to find an off trail shortcut without any success…) These physical struggles of pumping lungs and pounding hearts and fatigued muscles are straightforward, and the outcome is almost always a certainty- we will make it. Whether it’s a frozen creek, a smoke filled valley, an afternoon thunderstorm above tree line, a multi-thousand foot climb to a mountain pass: We would make it. With time and food and movement, we’d make it. That is the simple eloquent beauty of living out of a backpack in the mountains. Given the time, and given the movement- You’ll make it anywhere you can see and many places you only imagine.

Internal battles, mental and emotional, aren’t so clear cut. A battle between triumph and failure had been simmering for days as the fuel for our physical battles which was stored in the bear canister evaporated. Could we stretch out what food we had left? Could we find some strangers who’d lend us their refuse food? Would ranger stations have snacks or rations? Can we hike faster? All of these things played out as potential moves on the chess board. All with the same end- checkmate. We knew the night before what our plan was. But as the night grew dark and light again, and even as we walked down this trail, it was hard to accept the reality. This was no longer a battle, it was a surrender. This day was in every way THE end. The end of the miles, mountains, dirt, dust, sweat and sun. The end of the high altitude air, cold wise rocks, gossiping creeks, playful clouds…the end of it all.

Sure, we missed home. God damn right I missed cheese burgers. And pizza. And refrigerated foodstuffs, and vegetables, and cold drinks, and ice cream, and hot water, and being clean, and soft beds, and internet, and the convenience of civilization, but I did not want it to be the end. Lindsey did not want it to be the end.

On the trail we marched at two miles an hour, wafting a gentle fragrance of ripe human in to the atmosphere in our wake. Two kids who saw a name on a brown sign during a ridiculous trip to Yosemite 6 years earlier. Two kids who’d never backpacked more than 1 consecutive night prior to this. The solemnity of the situation bounced around with the gravity of consequences in my head, and our boots shoes unwaveringly poured forth the steps that would make the miles that would lead us to the home that we were excited to see, but didn’t necessarily want to be at. 

Rae Lakes is one of the areas of the JMT that seems to stick in your head more than others, possibly because it’s beautiful and oft talked about by hikers, schemers, and locals. Possibly because there’s a ranger station and a lot of hiker traffic there. Probably both of those things. It snuck up on me because I was mostly anticipating and mentally preparing for the climb up to Glen pass. From Dollar Lake to the summit of the trail on Glen pass is only slightly more than 3 miles ahead and 1800 feet above.

For those 3 miles, yellow rays of sunlight gradually oozed in to the darker grey spaces around the trail like honey and began to warm the ground. We passed a small creek that was covered in a fraction of an inch of the clearest ice I’d ever seen. Naturally we broke it with our feet. It yielded with a satisfying crack after a little pressure, its presence alone a testament to the night time temperatures in this basin.

Ahead on the trail- an idyllic setting of clear, cobalt blue water, dirt, trees, and relentless granite rocks.

On a glowing granite mound by the waters of the northern most Rae Lake, we stopped to adjust our layers and make breakfast.  Those hikers who hadn’t hit the trail by now were just starting to rouse from their camps near the lake basin. I fired up a hexamine fuel tablet to boil some UV purified high sierra water inside a titanium cup while Lindsey grabbed our last 2 prepackaged custom made oatmeal baggies. Lindsey created a lot of the food back in Texas. The freezer bag creations were delicious. This particular one was your standard oatmeal goodness with added craisins and powdered milk and some nuts. Our last breakfast meal that we had.  I set out the goal zero solar panel to steal some of the sun’s energy for my battery pack and took the opportunity to lay on a rock and absorb as much of the warmth and light as I could while we cooked, ate, and reshuffled clothing.

We stayed there longer than we should have, but most of our stops had this same ambling ambiance.

Blanketed now entirely in light, warmth, and fueled by the recent nutrients, the hiking began in earnest.  Mountains awaited, the only way forward on the trail was climbing over them. With a final cinch of straps and a matter-of-fact exhale as if to finally resign ourselves to our impending fate, we took a step down the path.

They’re just numbers, these elevations. But they can be daunting numbers. Your body becomes better conditioned and you get faster as you become accustomed to the altitude and weight and regiment of walking all day, but nothing ever gets easier. The endorphins and the happiness far outweigh any pain and struggle, true.

I tend to make a bigger deal of the elevations in my head than any normal  person, which affected how much I could just sit and enjoy the moment by Rae Lake(s).

Back on our first round-the-west trip, we stopped at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and hiked down to Roaring Springs. Easiest half of a hike I’ve ever done. We practically skipped down the soft dusty trail, whistling a tune as we sped past massive mounds of mule shit. The red dirt on the trail, the canyon walls, the steaming piles of wretched urea smelling excrement all flew by. It was a hot, dusty, clear day. I was a 300+ pound mass of man bounding down a well graded slope with precision at speeds previously thought to be impossible for a man of my girth. So I thought.

As we tore ass down the trail, a man with one leg passed us…

This is what exhaustion and defeat in the Grand Canyon looks like. 

After about 4.5 miles of our high speed sauntering we reached Roaring Spring. I was never one to plan things out. Lindsey would pick a place or a hike that sounded good based on her readings in a paper or guidebook, and I’d oblige. I’d know the name of the trail, what it is we were going to see, and I built a world in my head of what I thought it should look like. This waterfall/spring was a total let down. What I had imagined as Havasu Falls was an uncorked flow coming out from a cliff that looked like we couldn’t even get close. Disappointment set in, not too dissimilar from the feeling that fogged me over after learning I would not be getting my hamburger at Red’s Meadow. After snacking and resting  at a hot sandy picnic table at damn near the bottom of hell’s drainage ditch, the inevitable ascent back to the top of the canyon loomed large.

Seeing no use of prolonging the inevitable, we reversed our direction and headed back up the trail. I still remember those first handful of steps ascending back up the trail. Hiking in to a canyon is the exact opposite of climbing a mountain as it turns out.

“You practically sprinted down this canyon, so all you need do is power walk up it. You can do that. You’re an athlete.” Said the part of my brain that thinks all homeless people write the honest truth on their cardboard signs.

“It’s a long hike. Go slow…You have all…”

“Shit, we’re out of breath. Let’s take a break.”

The climb out of the canyon was slow. So slow. I’d walk some steps and then rest a good minute.  Lindsey did fine. She was hot and tired, but I was the limiting factor of speed.  We stopped along some huge cliffs for a rest as they afforded some respite from the brutal sun.

I’ll be damned if that old one legged man didn’t come hauling his happy half an ass up the trail leaving a cloud of mule feces tainted dust suspended in the thick, hot, dry air behind him. I was appalled. He was moving at thespeed I envisioned myself moving. Assaulting the gradient, leaving his tell-tale track of one audacious boot print and 2 lateral crutch dimples in the sand.

“But…but that man. He only was one leg.” Pondered the part of my brain that doesn’t understand how reeces peanut butter cups are made.

“You’re fat and slow. Why are you shocked?” replied the part of my brain that’s not responsible for my hunger.

For hours we walked up and up and up. Lindsey’s cheeks turned a bright red from sunburn and heat and dehydration.  I can feel my heart in my ear drums and my pride had gone somewhere inside of me where broken things are stored. We reached the car as shadows were long. It was still light, but a quickly fleeting illumination that said we were slow…slower than 1 mph slow.  I was all too happy to jump in the Tacoma and head down the road. I had driven not even one mile down the road back to Jacob’s Lake where we were staying. I remember distinctly that my mouth was silent, but the internal dialogue was omnipresent.

“Don’t do it…don’t you dare do it.” Said the prefrontal cortex.

“blah.” Replied the hippocampus.

“Do not…”

“Tell the human to pull the car over.”

I don’t remember if I rolled down the window or walked around to the passenger side, but what spewed forth from my innards was an awesome fountain display that an uncultured homeless man might mistake for the Bellagio. I’ve never thrown up so hard or so much in my life. All of the water I drank over the course of the day. The hand full of trail mix…all of the snacks and drinks and nourishment. None of it went in to my body in those hours of hiking out. It all just sat inside my stomach for some reason. And after I’d pulled my sorry ass out of the canyon (no thanks to the energy and electrolytes that I tried to provide) my body decided to get rid of all of that.

I felt great afterwards. My heart rate didn’t come down until a day or two later in Bryce Canyon. In retrospect, that may have been due to a severe state of compensated volume shock.  That Grand Canyon hike has given me PTSD when it comes to hiking canyons. And that is why I tend to find altitude a significant psychological factor.

But on a Thursday in late September, the granite wonderland of the Sierra Nevada offered no canyons, only towering mountains and rocky passes of similar relief to that grand canyon hike. 

The Rae Lakes basin is tightly confined. The valley is runs almost perfectly in a South to North direction. Snow from Mt. Rixfordin the steep cirque-like southern confines of the valley feeds the 3 Rae Lakes to the north. Water eventually winds its way to hit Woods Creek and eventually the South Fork of the Kings River.

Once we arrived at the lower (northern most) lake for breakfast, the trail skated South for us on the eastern edge of the lakes for only a mile before quickly turning Southwest to cross a small almost-island just north of the upper most lake. This is where the climbing began.

With relatively light packs (25 pounds or so) and a final destination in mind, the ascent started in a benign fashion. The trail climbs the igneous chunks of crumbled mountain to the South West of the first Rae Lake but the path is mostly in soft, green woody areas where vegetation has taken up residence.  Intermittent shade, perfect temperatures, deep blue skies, deer grazing as they people watch made it the regular scene in the Sierra that was all too common- absurd perfection.

Less than a mile from leaving the first Rae Lake, the idyllic woodland walk gave in to a scene in the Sierra that was also all too common- the trees and shade cleared and before us was a bright grey mountain that was decaying. Boulders the size of school busses littered the land in front of us. The trail went up, but was visually lost very quickly in the cacophony of scree and mountain detritus towering in front of us.

Welcome to Glen Pass.

There is no real “base” to the mountain, but Lindsey and I stopped along the trail for some rest and electrolyte replenishment before the serious switchbacks started.  It is a beautiful area. Like Muir Pass, there’s no way with words or photos to give any justice to the size and scale of earth that is out here. It’s a sobering reminder that even at the point in my life when I felt physically the strongest, I was powerless compared to the wars that created and were destroying this huge spire. You can almost feel the tension and power and anger and noise of the earth that existed over hundreds of thousands of years during this orogenic phase. I imagined the ground shaking, sky shattering, furious noise as this monster was born and subsequent intermittent bursts of screaming agony as billions of tons of rock and minerals broke off in unimaginably large chunks as the mountain slowly weathers back to the ground from whence it came.

The mountain was silent but the wind whirred like a jet turbine. Up ahead was the infrequent but unmistakable sound of rocks hitting other rocks. Humans massaging some of the mountain’s smaller offerings under their feet.

A map would tell you it was only 800 vertical feet from where we were stopped under the watchful eye of the Painted Lady to reach the top of Glen Pass. Those 800 feet of vertical elevation were the most gnarly, intimidating, and bad ass looking feet ever. It wasn’t daunting, or a cause for worry. Glen Pass is actually quite simple in the sense that it’s there. All of it. Right in front of you. You can see the top. You can see where you are. You can see the terrain you have to overcome to get there.

So it went, sucking in lungfuls of clean and bright sierra air and walking the well-built trail that was created between the boulders. Lindsey and I and a handful of others walked to the top of the pass that day.  Nearly half way up the mountain near the end of some steep switchbacks we met a couple of women on their own adventure. We traded photographer duties, all four of us realizing that this was most certainly a “I can’t believe I did that” moment.

With my hiking stick in tow but not really doing much work, I plodded ahead. Lindsey and I would swap positions but 90% of the time she set the pace.  Following the switchbacks the trail mercifully levels out a bit and gradually climbs a long gradient to the pass. When we arrived, Lindsey and I were the only ones up there. The world we’d come from that morning looked small.

The terrain on the other side of the pass looked just the wasteland as what we’d climbed. We couldn’t see where we’d end up. The shape of the valley didn’t afford that opportunity.  

It was about mid-day by the time we crested. We didn’t linger long on the mountain pass. Lindsey wandered off behind some of the more modest sized black boulders to pee.  I stood on the pass penultimate to the peak as I pondered our position.

“Just recall that at the end of today, you will be sleeping in a hotel and have hot food and access to a shower at the end of today” the part of my brain that doesn’t waiver and accepts the inevitable facts of time said.

The wind swirled around the pass like an invisible hand vigorously stirring a cauldron. It seemed to come and go in all directions with a purpose. Staring south and looking in to the vast, sharp terrain that lay ahead of us I replied to my prior thought aloud: “I don’t see how that’s going to happen…”

Lindsey popped back up from behind her black and white speckled diorite boulder.

“Ready?” I inquired

“Ready.”

Those words were carried away by the breeze and probably still lie stuck on some craggy scree slope of an unnamed mountain. 

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