We backpacked forty miles in four days, with an elevation gain of five-thousand-five-hundred feet, and in many ways, I consider it a failure, or at least more of an ordeal than an adventure. I suffered dehydration, hit the wall, and failed to complete the originally planned Rae lake loop trail.
We drove up the day before to Sheep Creek campground, listening to Kim Stanley Robinson’s (KSR) “The High Sierra: A Love Story” to pass the time and set the mood. One thing I know for sure, the title of this article will not include the words “A Love Story.”
The following day began discovering that a bear had violated my Prius. I heard something loud in the early night that woke me. I cowboy camped the whole trip, so I glanced over to look in the car’s direction, but a bear container obstructed my line of sight. I chalked it up to something at one of the other campsites in the distance. In the morning, the trunk was open. The doors were opened. The heavy battery charger was on the road, and the access to the spare tire was strewn about. But my expensive camera and my buddy’s cell phone and wallet were unmolested. I was lying in the open just twenty feet away. I’m curious what I would have done if I had seen a bear sniffing around in the trunk of my car. We reported the bear incident to Morgan, the Park Ranger that checked us in at Road’s End. She told us to act big and yell, “Bear Away!” They are trying to condition the bears to recognize the word bear as a warning. Although we heard reports of a bear on the trail on the last stretch just below Mist Falls, we never had a sighting of a bear.
The first-day hike began at 5000 feet altitude and ended nine hours and ten miles later at 7000 feet. Mist Falls put on a great show at the four-mile marker, with mist drifting down the river for hundreds of yards raining on everything in its path. During the last visit, another buddy reclined dry and comfortably on a stone in front of the falls. With significantly more volume in June than in late August, the rock was barely visible through the volume of water and spray.
KSR introduced us to psycho-geology as a way to explain the love of backpacking. KSR informed us that the Sierras are written in the language of glaciers. The whole valley is the remnants of glacial action. Aside from all the problems mentioned below, there is something special about looking down a glacier-carved canyon surrounded by spires three thousand feet over your head. One of the prominent features in the main valley is the horns left by a melted glacier.
The hike above Mist Falls is a stair-climbing and exposed grind. I stopped to talk with a girl and two guys sitting on a rock on the way up because that is what you do when you are getting your ass kicked by the hike. She complained about her short legs and climbing over the two-foot stone stairs. I told her I would trade my old body for her short legs. She asked about our backpacking experience. When my buddy mentioned this was his first one, she told us it was a hell of a hike on which to pop your backpacking cherry. Indeed.
By the time we reached Upper Paradise Valley, my ass was officially kicked. The heat wave had something to do with my dehydration, but so did the thirty-five-pound backpack, the exposed trail, the 2000 feet of elevation gain, old age, and the simple failure to drink enough. By the time we reached Upper Paradise Valley camp at the end of the day, my red shirt was stained with white salt streaks, and I hadn’t pissed since I left the campground and experienced mild cramping in my feet while trying to sleep. I wasn’t the only victim. Later, one of the guys of the cherry-popping trio, an experienced backpacker we were told, was puking but still made it all the way to Woods Creek. A couple of women hikers told me they lost a buddy to the heat and wasted most of the day waiting to figure out if their friend would make the hike or not. On the flip side, we passed by an older lady with more wrinkles than the canyon itself, covered from head to toe in clothing, making her way up to Woods Creek. Either she was more dehydrated than a raisin, or one tough old cookie. I am humbled.
I had already dug a deep hole for the rest of my trip, not the kind you take a crap in. I didn’t expect eighty-degree heat in the June mountains, but dehydration was mainly on me. After that first day, I forced myself to drink more, even when drinking water became almost repulsive.
The second day started with a river crossing. I watched Amanda cross with her backpack, poles, and swimsuit. While my buddy explored for a dry crossing downstream, I stripped to my skivvies, donned my water shoes, and followed her lead. Even at the widest point, the current was strong and the water cold, but I prevailed. When he saw me on the other side, he flipped the bird at me but found his dry log bridge.
After, we hiked the fifteen-hundred-foot climb from the Upper Paradise campground to the dully named Woods Creek, most of the ascent occurring in the first three miles. We trekked through pure KSR psycho-geology swallowed in the immenseness of the canyon. Vertical rivers cascaded down the sheer sides of mountains. A spire towered over, reminiscent of the Matterhorn. The distant mountains had a hazy view as if from an airplane window.
At about the end of the three miles, I hit the wall for the first time. If I were hiking solo, I would have turned back at this point, but my buddy said he wouldn’t make the decision for me. So stubbornness trumped common sense, and I pushed on. I wasn’t eating enough. In retrospect, my meal planning was downright foolish. I figured on two packs of dehydrated food daily and some snack bars. My total (un)planned packed calorie count was about fifteen hundred calories. I didn’t really do the math until after the fact. In reality, I should have planned on something like four-thousand calories for each day of the ascent. I don’t offer a defense for my abysmal planning, but those packets of dehydrated food are essentially worthless. They pack five hundred or so calories per meal. The containers claim to contain two servings. That joke is on me.
Two packets a day is only a thousand and some calories. Using those numbers, I should have packed eight packets per day for the ascent and four packages per day for the descent. I stuffed my bear canister full with only six meals and eight energy bars. If I had packed appropriately, at ten dollars a pop, I would have paid two-hundred and forty dollars for a four-day outing. On previous one or two-night backpacking trips, a couple of meals per day worked out fine, considering that I started the one-day uphills on a big-bought breakfast, spent the next day at location, and the last day coming down. My novice was showing, and it was embarrassing. The lack of proper food planning was entirely on me.
I suspect another downside of the heat was a mosquito and gnat bloom. I choked down a handful of gnats that got caught on deep inhales. On the upside, I’ve never seen so many bugs. Butterflies alighted two, three, and four to a flowerhead. Bees, flies, and bee flies buzzed about. Lizards sunned themselves on rocks and the trail, narrowly avoiding the tips of poles. If there is a psycho-geology, there ought to be a psycho-biology brought about by immersion in the wildflowers, insects, pine-scented trees, and animals. I was fortunate to spot deer, marmots, grouse, and a pika.
Having made it to Woods Creek at 5.1 miles and eighty-five-hundred feet elevation and eating a meal, I decided to shoot for Dollar Lake, a mere (haha) four miles and two-thousand-foot climb. My buddy took on my bear canister to lighten my load. Embarrassing.
On a four-foot creek crossing, I managed to step on a log that gave way and I ended up soaking my right leg. About a mile and a half up, I hit the wall again. For the first mile and a half, I would take a hundred steps and then stop to check my heart rate and take a second to get my breathing back to a normal rhythm. For the last two-and-a-half miles, I would take about twenty-five steps before being forced to stop to catch my breath. The air became thinner. The pauses became longer and the sit-downs more frequent. We passed a sign that said no fires above ten thousand feet. Near the top, when my buddy disappeared out of sight, I took a full-on, sprawled-out lay down on the rocks, entirely spent. My buddy reappeared a few minutes later without his backpack, bearing the good news that I was only a few minutes from Dollar Lake. He carried my backpack the rest of the way. Double embarrassing. The four miles from Woods Creek to Dollar Lake took five hours.
We made camp at the trout-leaping and beautiful but mosquito-infested lake donning the netting and Deet to ward off the blood-sucking brutes that wanted to drain what little energy I had left. Strangely, I had to force myself to eat my chicken and rice packet, the tastiest meal in my grocery bag of dehydrated food.
This brings me to my original mistake. I should have planned on a five-day trip instead of four. I overestimated the value of my training. I was routinely hiking eight to ten miles a weekend in my peak-a-week training hikes but at sea level and with a light ten to fifteen-pound pack. Of course, I expected the backpacking trip at altitude would be more difficult, but I did not expect it to push me beyond my limits. Given that I corrected my other mistakes, a five-day trip with one major climb per day might have been manageable for me. A good trip would be from Road’s End to Middle Paradise Valley on day one, from Middle Paradise Valley to Woods Creek on day two, and finally from Wood Creek to Rae Lakes on day three. Each segment is about seven miles and includes one major climb per day, leaving two days of ten miles downhill each.
In the morning, my buddy wanted to go back the way we came. Thank god. Just squatting to take an outdoor crap left me breathless. I don’t see how I would have survived the one-thousand-plus feet ascent over Glen’s Pass. If I did manage it, it would have taken me four or five hours to make the two miles with another seventeen miles of travel. Extending the trip to five days was out of the question because I would be out of food and out of TP.
We packed up and headed down the way we came. We met the two healthy members of the cherry-popping trio headed up as we were headed down. They left their puking buddy down at Woods Creek while they made a long day hike with light packs to Rae Lakes. She told me the whole point was to see the beauty of the lakes. Thanks. Yes, I have a regret. It was a disappointment to not make the round trip and see the lakes, but it was the right decision.
As it was, we made the trek back to Woods Creek in just over three hours, down to Upper Paradise Valley in another four, and to Middle Paradise Valley in less than two for a total downhill distance of thirteen miles in yet another nine-hour day. On the last day, we hiked out the remaining 6.8 miles in less than four hours, stopping briefly again at Mist Falls, powered by the self-promise of a Diet Coke at Grant Grove Market and a burrito in Visalia.
Of course, downhill was much easier than up, but it was not without pain beyond mere fatigue for me. During my training hikes, I suffered from sprains and foot issues. On one hike, in particular, I experienced a knife-cutting pain in my right knee. I wore a double layer of socks, a knee brace, and ankle supports to combat these mechanical problems. I had no issues at all, possibly owing to my countermeasures. But on the ups and downs, I experienced burning pain in my hips. I tried to counter this with an Ibuprofen diet starting at two pills a day and increasing to six. Even though I had the energy and stamina to make it out, I still found myself frequently breaking to let the burning subside, to make the walking bearable, if only for a short distance.
We finally made it out. My buddy’s backpacking cherry was popped, and my backpacking naivete was exposed. Grant Grove Market didn’t have a Diet Coke, so I settled on a quart of Gatorade, which I made short work of. It turns out I hate plain water as a drink. Visalia came through with the best burrito. And I ended up at home, back to wearing my comfortable blue jeans, which KSR says are absolutely worthless. And loving it.