Tales From the Trail-Guitar Lake to Mt Whitney

Into the mountains I go. To lose my mind and find my soul. img_0570

When we woke it was cold. I had smartly decided to wear a base layer under my hiking pants. I layered on a top base layer, a cold weather fleece, my down jacket, beanie, buff and my gloves. I was cold now but knew I’d warm in the climb. I put on my headlamp and unzipped myself from my tent. Immediately I noticed what appeared to be fire flies out in the night sky, which after taking a second look I realized where the headlamps of the hikers climbing Whitney ahead of us. Their lights danced in black space as they made their way up switchback after switchback in the freezing cold of the night.

The terrain of Whitney is rough and jagged. It’s granite boulders unfriendly. Sharp and serrated. As we started our way up we sludged through water running down the grassy slopes. The only green laying like a skirt at the bottom of this giant, granite treasure. My breathing was out of rythym and I wasn’t sure if the cause was the frigid cold, the accent or fear that had a grip on me. I can’t tell you why I was experiencing fear, other than worrying about altitude sickness, climbing in the dead of night or falling or quite possibly it was the fear of the unknown or the fear of failure.
As we climbed I could look out into the dark abyss below us and see the bobbing head lamps that reminded me of twinkling stars. I wondered how many would join us at the top for the sunrise.

Making it to Trail Crest was surreal. I had that a-ha moment of “I’m actually doing this!” Adrenaline rushed through my body. Trail Crest is the turn you take to the summit where the trail from Guitar Lake meets the Whitney Portal trail. It’s a staging area for the summit. Large packs are dropped and left here and slack packs are put on. The trial gets steeper and narrows at this point.

Previous to going to bed, we had packed our slack packs. Since we were returning to Guitar Lake we didn’t have to bring our big packs. We packed a small amount of food and enough water to get us to the summit and back.img_4946

Shortly after leaving Trail Crest I got ahead of K and K. J had decided that morning that she was going to skip the summit due to an injury from the day before. Being up Mt Whitney before she decided it wasn’t worth the risk to possibly take her out of the rest of the trip. At this point I was climbing alone in pitch black. No one ahead of me or behind me as far as I could see. I’m not gonna lie I was terrified! It was very empowering, scared me to death and allowed me to overcome some fears. I shook as I walked. I was cold and spilling over with unease. I had to get myself under control and allow my bravery to kick in. It was completely silent except for the wind on the side of the granite slab to my right. The other side a sheer drop. I learned right then I am a lot braver than I think I am. My entire world existed in a tiny dot of light from my headlamp. I couldn’t see further than 5 feet. As the trail narrowed I had a hard time being able to tell where I was going, a couple of times climbing over waist-high boulders dead center in the trail and watching every step I made as to make sure I planted my foot wisely. It was getting colder and colder and I was starting to get in to some snow and ice. I was anxious to reach the top and I was worried that I wouldn’t make it before the sunrise.img_0569

I prayed  and knew that God is not a God of fear. This calmed me. I was quickly reminded of all the fearful things He’s brought me through only to step to the other side of that fear and feel accomplished, free, able, unrestrained and….enough. I think moving past fear is healthy.  To do so is liberating. It changes you. You no longer feel the need to compromise or settle. And what’s funny is after you’ve smiled in the face of fear, you know you can never go back. You can’t go back into the unhappy relationship, the dead end job, the unhealthy friendship, the uneventful life, or the unloved and given-up dreams.  You won’t allow fear to trample you again. You may have the occasional whisper of fear, a hint that reminds you that you’re human, but it will never overtake you enough to disable you.

When I turned the final switch back I saw it. Silhouetted by the faint glow of the pre-risen sun. The hut! I made it. A sob choked out. Relief from my discomfort and a complete sense of joy filled me! A feeling of success washed over me. I went inside just enough to warm up a bit (the summit was in the low 20’s with a sharp, biting wind)  then I walked out to the summit table where ten others were perched waiting to be kissed by the sun. I sat alone and cried. I was overwhelmed, so caught up and grateful to be there right in this moment and as the sun rose I sat in praise! How awesomely, magnificent this gorgeous country is! How strong I am. How great our God is.

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*As I finish this blogpost I have just received confirmation of issue for another wildernesses permit for the JMT hiking southbound this time (SOBO) this July/Aug including, God willing, another summit of Mt Whitney!!

**Mt Whitney summit 14,505 feet

                                       May you always do what you’re afraid to do.

Tales From the Trail

*My next few entries are straight out of my JMT trail journal. They are unscripted and raw, but exactly what I was feeling at the moment.

~A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. The plan backed by your action makes your dream come true.

As we rode the elevator down from my sons apartment in LA I could feel everything inside of me tingling. He and his fiancée would be driving me to San Bernardino to connect with two more of our group heading to Lonepine to start the JMT. My son, stood in the elevator staring at me. He said to me “Mom, I cannot believe you’re doing this! But then again I can!” He explained to me that within the last few weeks anyone with an ear to listen was hearing from him about this adventure I was about to embark on. He said his friends sat slack-jawed as he explained the journey I would make over the 230 mile John Muir Trail. He hugged me. Tight. And told me he was so incredibly proud of me for what I was doing. “You gotta have big dreams, Kid. Dreams that are so big they are frightening, but you dream them anyway.” They dropped me at a Starbucks in San Bernardino to meet the rest of my group. I tried not to make too much eye contact with my kids. I knew they were having a little anxiety over all of this. We quickly explained that the itinerary that we had given to the family was going to be off after the first day as we had decided to make a slight adjustment. I asked if he could call dad to let him know. We hugged quickly as tears choked out of my throat. And I threw my pack into the back of a SUV heading for Lone Pine.

We got to Lone Pine to pick up the golden ticket AKA our wilderness permit and to meet with our fourth hiker.  From the office where you obtain your permit you can see Mount Whitney in the background. There she was. Jagged, ruthless, uninviting but one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever laid my eyes on. She stood out, but how could she not, being the highest peak in the contiguous US? I whispered a silent prayer asking for an able body, to be able to stand on her summit in a few days.

That first night we were dropped off at Horseshoes Meadows after a farewell pizza and beer in Lone Pine. We made camp at Cottonwood Pass Trailhead. The night was already cool as we met some fellow JMTers. I slept like a rock and was so overwhelmed and grateful for the fact that I was finally out here. It’s been a long time coming.

Day 1. We broke camp pretty early. Made a quick cup of coffee and ate a packet of oatmeal. We packed up and hit the trail by 8:15. The elevation was tough as we made our way over Cottonwood Pass. It was only a 5-mile day as we left Horshoe Meadows a day early to acclimatize to the higher altitude. My skin was already seeing the affects of being at altitude and I feared already it may never regain its moisture. When we got to camp and I sat on the edge of the first lake I realized I have NEVER in my life seen a bluer sky! I decided before we left that although alpine lakes are freezing cold, I had to submerged into as many as possible. It’s all part of the journey and I knew I would regret it if not. So I did. Fully submerged into the first lake. Chicken Springs lake. I knew had I not jumped in my husband would’ve been horrified. All in!

Day 2. Still staying a bit ahead of schedule we hiked 10 miles today from Chicken Springs Lake to Rock Creek. When we arrived I went into the creek fully submerging and then sat and soaked my legs and feet. I am SO dry! We met a guy yesterday solo hiking and we leapfrogged with him for most of the day. He is 60 years old. Jim. He is hiking the PCT. 2500 miles. He started in April. (This was now Aug) His advice “keep going and never stop!” I thought a lot about his advice and how pertinent it was for not only hiking the JMT, PCT or any other through hike but also in life.

This meadow we are camping in is gorgeous. I had a couple of views today that stole my breath. I cried a few times as we hiked totally astounded by the beauty and splendor of God’s creation. Have you ever seen anything so beautiful that it has brought you to tears? I highly suggest it. The stream we are camping next to is so clear you can see the trout swimming below the surface. I took a bath and did laundry today. Completely overcome with joy and gratitude.

Day 3. We hiked out of Rock Creek today and rested at Crabtree Meadows. I was very “into the hike today” and kind of stayed back from the rest of my group. At Horshoe Meadows we took our boots off, ate and soaked our feet before continuing on to Guitar Lake. This was our staging of Mount Whitney. Guitar Lake is our basecamp at 11,500 feet. I felt pretty good with the elevation gain so far after the first day at Horshoe Meadows only suffering from severely dry skin and a slight dull headache. This country is so gorgeous! We had our first water crossing today leaving Rock Creek and again at Crabtree Meadows. The water was low. Low enough we did not have to remove our boots. Guitar Lake is devastatingly stunning. We were ALL ready to be done for the day. The terrain was steep and rocky with no shade along the entire day. We set up camp above the water, Mt Whitney at our front door. It’s daunting. Guitar lake is like being on the moon. Completely surrounded by rock. The only way we were able to pitch our tents was to hold the guylines down with small boulders. I sat and was grateful to watch such an extraordinary sunset. I thought about my guitar playing husband and how much he would love this place. I felt an ache in the depths of my stomach, missing him. But I knew I was only a few days in to an almost month long hike. I needed to find the strength to put that ache to the side and just, Be Here. To shut off any of the outside world and tune in to what God would be revealing to me.

All of us by this time have been given trail names. A trail name is given to you by fellow hikers either from your group or others that you meet along the trail. K was given the name Under Duck by a PCT hiker he met at Chicken Springs after she saw him fully submerged and swimming in the lake. K was given the name Double Duece for her reoccurring walks for her morning constitutional. J was given the name Tadpole. When filtering our water that afternoon in a shallow pond teaming with tadpoles, she kept saying her water tasted like tadpole. And I was deemed Urban Hilary for my characteristics of loving a great metropolitan downtown (city girl) but with the heart of sir Edmund Hillary.

We had decided on a sunrise summit of Mount Whitney. I was very happy because I had really hoped to do this. Our wake time would be 1 AM to summit by 6:00AM. We went to bed early. I tossed and turned with a lot of excitement and anticipation and a little anxiety if I were being honest. Tomorrow morning we would see the sunrise from the highest summit in the contiguous United States!

The Last Supper. Pizza and beer in Lonepine California

Food and anything with any smell into a Bearcan. Check. Check. And double check!

And off we go….

Camp at Horseshoe Meadows

Chicken Springs Lake

My first swim in Chicken Springs Lake

Laundry Day

Rock Creek camp

First water crossing. Low water. Easy peasy.

Heading into the Whitney zone

Setting up camp at Guitar Lake

Guitar Lake camp. Base of Mt Whitney

When on the surface of the moon….

Lost and Found

It’s a shame when I look back and realize that the last time I wrote on this blog was January. SERIOUSLY?  Ive slipped and let it go and I’m not overly thrilled about that. Although in my defense in the time between then and now I’ve trained, traveled, had our last baby graduate high school, had parties, had visitors, hiked mountains, packed and sold a house, unpacked, packed and sold a house again.  It’s been a roller coaster that seems to have an operator that allows you to keep riding even when you’re waving like a maniac to get off!

The last time we visited I was still steeping over the “patience” thing and thinking it was pretty….amusing that my word for the year was PATIENCE, because quite frankly that word is rarely used the vocabulary of my life.

Let me tell you what, God knew exactly what he was doing laying that word down on my heart.

When May rolled around and race season started to heat up, I flew to Pittsburgh (the city of my birth) to run the Pittsburgh Marathon with my cousin. It was one of the best I’ve done, from start to finish. I had the most incredible time visiting with my family. I just soaked in the love of it all. Imagine, crazy cousins and aunts laughing hysterically over nights of wine, dinners, painting and ball games.  I also ate some AMAZING food (HELLO Primanti’s) -Ok, I have to side bar here for a second about Primanti Brothers…can I just get a shout out for those sandwiches? I mean, the genius behind a sandwich with grilled meat, coleslaw with italian dressing,  and FRENCH FRIES (yes, on the sandwich) is mind blowing!! Ok, lets stop the drooling and get back on track. The race went excellent, but MAN, was it hilly!! It was a great celebration to do with my cousin, who had decided to get back into running after taking some time off while raising her babies. We ended up doing the 5K the day before (Saturday) and the marathon on Sunday to get our extra Runner of Steel medals! Who doesn’t love that extra bling?

In June I had the inaugural Ironman Coeur d’Alene 70.3. How could I not race the half-Ironman in my own city? It was an amazing day! Being on a hometown race course with so many people and friends was truly incredible. The race brought out seasoned racers, and newbie’s looking for that next challenge. It was motivating and encouraging being out there. I think every time I looked up, there was a friendly face. It was such a fun day and I learned that I really REALLY love that half-Ironman distance.

After Ironman, I went into a waiting period. I guess this was my season starting with patience. I went into a waiting period for the month that had consumed my entire mind and calendar for the year…. August! August was the month I was going to set out to through-hike the John Muir Trail (JMT) in the Sierra Nevada’s of California. A journey that would take roughly 3 weeks and was 230-miles long.

Although I really only had a few weeks to wait after IM until I left for CA, it seemed like an eternity. I spent the time with family and friends, who asked a million questions. I studied blogs and websites about the trail. I made trial runs with my gear (I’ll post a gear list later) I doubted my ability on some days. I wondered if I could really do some of the things required of me out there in the wild. Could I make the distance daily? Could I survive almost a month on nothing but dehydrated meals? Could I deal with the cold? The altitude? The heat? The animals? Could I seriously NOT shave my legs for 3 weeks? And mostly, could I honestly not shower for that long? And HOW could I possibly carry a WAG bag (waste alleviation and gelling bag) with my waste for the entire time after coming off of Mt Whitney? Thankfully, we ended up hiking in the opposite direction and this was unnecessary, praise God! Although, having to carry a cat-hole trowel and find a decent enough place to dig a hole and “do my business” wasn’t a piece of cake for me either. ALL of this was going to be a learning experience as this was my longest through hike. AND it was going to stretch my patience in ways I couldn’t imagine.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been in a place where you’ve lost and found yourself? Where every fiber of your being seems to dismantle, peel away and come completely undone only to have the most beautiful restoration happen? To unravel to be delivered? This…this is my John Muir journey. It’s amazing that God had to get me alone and into the wild to do that type of work on me. That Ive allowed myself to get so busy at times, too busy, to sit and pay attention. That I had to be so far removed from my normal day to day life, and SO challenged, crying an agony a few days, to hear His still small voice. That he had to take me off the grid, in the middle of nowhere in the wilderness to find me. He’s always been there. He’s never left me. BUT I’ve allowed the business and the clamor of life to pull me off track. It was as beautiful as it was brutal and a journey of losing myself to find His love at an even deeper level than I could ever imagine.