September 3, 2014
Distance: 16.3 miles
Traveled: Reds Meadow to Lake Virginia
“Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.”
– John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir
In reflecting back on this day, there is really only one statement that does it justice: it sucked.
Due to the overwhelming suckiness of this day, I feel like I suppressed much of my memory of it. Living in that day, I can assure you I was miserable for the majority of it. But now, looking back with the time that has passed, I can find little gems and moments that I should have been more grateful for – but I was too exhausted to take note of them at the time.
The melatonin I had popped at 10:00 the night before (waaayy past hikers midnight at 8:00 PM) worked beautifully until about 3:00 AM, when I woke to a racing mind, and a back that hurt horribly. My back had hurt the day before (which is why I bought some icy hot on our Walgreens run), but nothing compared to how it felt now. I lay there for hours, trying to get back to sleep. My head was in a panic of indecision. Between the internal debate, and my aching lower back, there would be no more sleep.
My options were:
1) Stick to my schedule. Veer off the JMT today and head to Iva Bell Hot Springs tonight for a hot soak under the stars. Say bye to Friz and Patrick this morning.
2) Forget the awesome hot springs. Bust out two 20-mile days to keep pace with the guys. After two long (tough) days, we’d be back on a reasonable schedule for the rest of the hike. But I was hesitant to rush, when I didn’t really have to – mostly because I wanted to be able to take it all in. 20-mile days would equate to a decent amount of rushing.
I was so incredibly torn. This is a little video of the hot springs I was dreaming about (taken by John Hutchinson on YouTube):
At some point I finally fell back to sleep and woke to my alarm. I felt like I could have just slept through the entire day. I was tired. I took another shower (why not?), and then sat down with my maps, counting miles and debating everything. I broke down and cried at some point out of exhaustion and indecision.
I organized and re-organized and eventually made my way outside to find Patrick and Friz and tell them of my decision –I would stick with them.
Things probably started to go wrong with our late start, that I take full accountability for. It was 10:30am and we were just then getting our packs on to leave. It was my fault – I was totally lagging sorting my resupply and deciding what to dump and what to take.
On our way out I was surprised to run into Jim from Tennessee again! The last time I had seen Jim & John it was before Thousand Island Lake two days before. Jim was also carrying an inReach, so we exchanged inReach numbers so we could keep in touch down the trail. On the maps, the water situation looked iffy and sparse for most of the climb out of Reds, so I told Jim I’d send him a note when we got to Deer Creek and let him know what the water availability ahead was.
I wouldn’t see Jim & John on the trail again, but thanks to our inReach messages, we stayed in touch for the rest of the hike. We checked in almost every day with some sort of update on our progress. I know some hikers prefer to totally unplug when on the trail – but being able to keep in touch with other people I met along the way was pretty cool, and was an experience I didn’t anticipate when I bought it. Three of the friends I made along the trail were carrying one, and though we were all hiking at different paces, we were able to stay in touch and check in with each other. My inReach would prove to be one of my favorite investments for the hike.
Saying bye to Jim and walking out of Reds, I ran into another JMT thru-hiker. . His name was Bill, and he was built like a hiking machine. I talked to him briefly, and learned he had already done some decent miles that morning. I told him we were trying to put in 20 miles to Squaw Lake that day – and he said he was trying to do the same, so we’d definitely see each other down the trail.
So, there was the reasonable and good part of the day. The rest was ‘ugh’.
One of the reasons I had planned on veering off the JMT at this point and heading to Iva Bell for the night was that everything I had heard about this section of the trail was that it was “the worst”, “ugly”, “hot”, “boring”, “the best part to skip”…etc…essentially, no one had good things to say about this section.
The trail passes initially through a burn area from the Rainbow Fire – and it was super-hot and exposed. We walked and talked, and the conversation proved to be a good distraction. Then at some point, when the conversation faded, the day just became two things: hot and up.
Dusty and hot and up.
The day was honestly a miserable monotony. There is some proof, in that I only took 3 photos for the first 15 miles of that day.
Up. Up. Hot . Up.
We finally made it to Deer Creek and stopped for lunch. The creek was flowing, and I sent Jim a message to let him know. It seemed everyone on the trail that day was stopping there for lunch. There was a group of 4, whom we would end up leap-frogging the next few days on the trail – they all worked at some start-up in Silicon Valley and since we couldn’t remember any of their real names, we just began referring to them as the “Start Ups”. Anita, a woman I had been in touch with through Facebook was also there, and it was nice to finally meet her in person (we knew we would both be on the trail the same dates, so it was only a matter of time before we met up). A few other random hikers passed through as well.
I soaked my dusty hot feet in the river, ate lunch in the shade, and filled up with water. Bill came through as we were packing up, and we all ended up heading out together and talking our way down the trail. He had thru-hiked the PCT the year before, and was known as “Chops”. It all made sense.
This is where the misery started to kick in full-force and my memory gets foggy. At some point Chops went on his way, and Friz went off ahead – and Patrick and I trudged upward through the dusty day together. After what felt like forever, finally a view opened up in front of us….a much appreciated overlook into Cascade Valley, and where we were headed.
It was thankfully downhill to Purple Lake, and the sun was quickly fading. It was about this time when I started to feel particularly spent. Patrick and I were both super tired. There would be no making it to Squaw Lake that night – Lake Virginia would have to do.
Now, a little background to give some reference to many experiences to come:
About a month before heading off on the hike I was diagnosed with asthma. I had never had asthma attacks as a kid, and other than experiencing some occasional symptoms of exercise-induced asthma (coughing) when running or doing cardio. I would have never guessed I could possibly have ‘real’ asthma, though looking back there were clues (particularly my sensitivity to the smoke on my first shot at the JMT).
For the past 7 years I’ve been telling the different doctors I’d see as we moved around the country that I was feeling fatigued for no reason. It progressively got worse– and every doctor had a different (incorrect) notion of what was wrong: I wasn’t getting enough protein (because I don’t eat meat, of course….it’s not like plants have protein, or anything), more iron, B12, hormones, adrenal fatigue, more sleep, less sleep, thyroid issues, stress…blah blah. Nothing worked. Eventually, to my favorite diagnosis: “Maybe you just overestimate how much energy an average person has.” Good lord.
Then we moved to Denver, CO – the Mile High City and lived at 5600 ft above sea level. My fatigue became unbearable. I could barely function and make it through a day. After 12 hours of sleep, I would feel like I needed to go back to bed. I was starting to get worried about if I would even have the endurance to do the JMT. I couldn’t focus. I was foggy-headed. I searched for the right doctor – and I found him. Practicing both eastern and western medicine, as well as holistic therapies, he wouldn’t give up the search for what was wrong with me. After tests upon tests I found out I had uncontrolled asthma, and essentially my body wasn’t getting enough oxygen. Moving to altitude, where there was only 81% of the oxygen at sea-level had made it noticeably worse. After a few days on two different inhalers, my energy was incredibly better – better than it had been in years.
Obviously, I still decided to continue with my JMT plans. I hiked a couple 14ers in Colorado before I left to see how my body did at super high elevation, and it all went perfect. I had done a few other backpacking trips at elevation, and everything was normal. I brought extra inhalers with me, and I suppose I assumed that as long as I took my inhalers regularly as I had been at home, that I would be totally fine. (and, the cause of my asthma is actually believed to be a previously-unknown wheat allergy…but that is a different story. I now avoid wheat.)
Fast forward to the JMT, and afterward – I would learn something interesting about my asthma….when I am physically exhausted, and especially if I’m not getting enough sleep – my lungs get pissed. But, I didn’t know any of this at the time, I would figure it out after I got off the trail. And this would all come into play many, many, times in the days ahead.
So, back to Purple Lake….
I was beyond exhausted. Patrick was beat, too. We caught up with Friz, and Anita. Coming down the hill to the shore of Purple Lake, I saw out across the lake, gracefully diving (naked) from a boulder: Chops. This moment would become typical of Chops’ legacy on the JMT. Just when I feel like I’m dying, and miserable, and can’t go on – there’s Chops, who has already hiked many more miles than us and passed us,…with enough time and energy to spare to dive naked into some alpine lake at sunset and go for a swim. I wouldn’t be surprised if he swam with magical dolphins in there, and lassoed a unicorn after emerging from his alpine bath. Chops was a trail enigma.
I wanted to just take off my pack right then and there and collapse immediately into deep sleep in the middle of the trail, but we all decided that Lake Virginia was a more reasonable place to stop for the night. It was 4 miles short of our 20-mile goal of making it to Squaw Lake – but it would have to do.
We then had to start the uphill climb from Purple Lake toward Lake Virginia. Patrick and Friz went on ahead – when I started moving I just couldn’t breathe. I stopped, and started, and stopped again, trying to catch my breath – and then I started to have an asthma attack. I used my inhaler, I tried to relax and catch my breath, I started to cry. I was over it. I was over all of it. I was embarrassed to break down in front of the guys – but there was no hiding it. All I was thinking at that point was: holy shit this is hard, this is not easy, why are my lungs stupid and dysfunctional, I’m not having fun – why can’t I just be leisurely diving into lakes at sunset?
I slowly moved ahead. The sun was falling low behind the mountains, and I had enough sense to at least recognize through my tears and frustration that what was around me was pretty and I should take a photo.
At some point we finally made it to Lake Virginia. I had been told many times, that Lake Virginia is one of the most beautiful lakes along the trail. It was on many people’s “must stay a night there” list or “at least take a long lunch there” list. It was huge, and so different than I had pictured it in my mind. But I was so tired I was having a tough time really appreciating it.
The Start Ups had beaten us there and had taken an awesome spot right on the shore….we wandered for what felt like forever trying to find a spot for our 3 tents.
When we finally did find our camp, it because a short and solemn night. We were all beyond-tired. We were all questioning and debating our future plans on the trail that night, which I think put us all in our own heads. Patrick was still trying to figure out if he needed to bail early, Jeff was trying to figure if he should speed up or slow down, and though I hate to admit it, I was feeling like I wouldn’t mind just quitting and hiking out at Vermillion Valley Resort the next day after such a shitty day. For the first time I was questioning if my lungs could keep up with me.
It started to get frigidly cold as we were all getting ready for bed. This would be the highest elevation we had slept at so far (10,354 ft) – and it would also end up being the coldest. I woke in the middle of the night and checked the cheesy little REI thermometer hanging from my pack – it was somewhere between 20 and 30 degrees.
That night as I lay in my sleeping bag writing in my journal I made the decision I couldn’t make the night before – I had to slow down. I couldn’t do a 24-mile day the next day – my lungs couldn’t do it, and I honestly didn’t want to. I wanted to summit Whitney with Friz and Patrick, and I really liked walking and camping with them, but I had to hike my own hike. If I was going to enjoy this walk through the Sierras, I had to do shorter days. I would tell them in the morning.