July 18, 2016
Distance: 6 miles
Traveled: Crescent Meadow to Merhten Creek
“Through a meadow opening in the pine woods I see snowy peaks… How near they seem and how clear their outlines on the blue air, or rather in the blue air; for they seem to be saturated with it. How consuming strong the invitation they extend! Shall I be allowed to go to them? Night and day I’ll pray that I may, but it seems too good to be true.”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
Finally, I was back in the Sierra.
Last summer had proved a disorganized mess of failed plans, and I wasn’t able to make it back to the Sierra for my yearly backpacking excursion, so the relief that washed over me driving over the mountains of Death Valley and seeing the Eastern Sierra skyline in the distance was immense.
The plan was to meet my dear friend Caitlin at Whitney Portal, to leave her car there, and then shuttle in my car the 5 hours around the Sierra Nevada to Crescent Meadows in Sequoia National Park to begin our 76-mile journey on the High Sierra Trail.
An unfortunate way to begin the adventure is that I had woken up in Las Vegas that morning with vertigo, which I brought on myself by the stupidly long day the day before.
The day before I had woken up at 3:30 am, drove 2.5 hours to hike 9 miles in Ice Lake Basin, and after I finished the hike, I drove another 10 hours to Las Vegas. I arrived in Vegas to find that my hotel reservation had been screwed up and didn’t end up finding a room and getting to sleep until 2:30am. Nearly a 24-hour day, and by the time my head hit the pillow I was beyond exhausted.
I had been hoping to get into Las Vegas much earlier than I did, and to leave at 5:00am to drive across Death Valley before the heat of the day kicked in, but that was out of the question with how late I had arrived.
Instead, I ended up waking up at 6:00am to a spinning room, and a bad case of nausea. I had come down with vertigo one other time 2 years ago, and immediately recognized it for what it was. Vertigo is often brought on by lack of sleep, so I tried my best to escape the nausea and go back to sleep, hoping I would awaken to find myself magically cured. I snuck in another 1.5 hours of sleep, but woke up still feeling horrible.
As check-out time approached at my hotel, worry was setting in both because I now would have to drive across Death Valley in the heat of the day, and that I felt so dizzy and horrible that driving would end up being super dangerous. Even worse, the cell phone service between Vegas and Lone Pine would be spotty at best, and if something happened between here and there and I got really sick and couldn’t drive it would be super dangerous. I imagined myself in the heart of Death Valley, pulled over on the side of the road, curled up sick in the back seat of my car in 120-degree heat, and dying in the middle of the desert from heat exhaustion. Overdramatic? Perhaps. Or not?
I then remembered that I had a refill of Antivert from my first bout of vertigo still on file at a pharmacy back home in Colorado. So, I ended up calling and having the refill transferred to a pharmacy in Vegas. This was my one hope of relief at this point (outside of checking into an emergency room).
Comically, as I talked to the pharmacist when picking it up, I asked her, “It’s okay to drive on this, right?”
Her response: “Yeah, if you’re the passenger. But it’s definitely not safe to drive on it as it can cause dizziness and nausea.”
And then as if she thought I was going to be taking it to prevent car sickness, she warned me I should take it an hour before getting in the car, because it took a while to kick in.
I felt incredibly letdown knowing I couldn’t take it before my drive. Yet, as I walked to my car, bottle of pills in hand, it occurred to me that I already felt super dizzy and nauseous. So, really, it couldn’t make me feel any worse than I already did, right? (to the people shaking their head at me – I 100% acknowledge that this is a naïve and stupid assumption).
I decided to play it safe and take only half of a dose. I then went to Whole Foods to buy a ginormous pressed green juice with extra ginger to give my body some healing nutrients, a couple homeopathics for dizziness, some ginger chews, and I hit the desert highway.
The first part of the drive was horrible. I felt like total shit, and was so nervous about driving into Death Valley and losing cell phone service and dying. I put on good music and tried to keep my mind positive, but I was still incredibly nervous about the 4 hours ahead. And then suddenly, at nearly the exact hour mark when the pharmacist had told me the medicine would kick in, it did. A sudden wave of normalcy came over me in a rush. The nausea disappeared, my head cleared, and I felt like rolling down the windows and screaming “Hallelujah” down the highway. I felt amazing.
It kicked in in the nick of time, because I just then crossed the boundary into Death Valley where the temperature went from an already inhospitable 104 degrees to 118 degrees of pure death.
I love Death Valley, and I would venture to say it’s one of my favorite National Parks, but no one in the history of time has ever sanely or soberly said, “Hey! It’s the middle of July! Lets go to Death Valley!” July is why Death Valley is called what it is. Because, I’m convinced, it’s essentially the closest thing on planet Earth to the pits of hell.
To those that may not be familiar with the landscape of Death Valley, it is far from a flat desert – within the boundaries of the park lie 8 different mountain ranges (I’m pretty sure it’s 8?). When driving across the park, one must travel up and down many hot, winding, twisting, mountain roads that require significant use of both brakes and engine power. As if the heat alone wasn’t enough to kill your car, throw in miles of braking and steep uphill climbs, and you have a recipe for all sorts of automobile failures or protests. If your car makes it through there, you’d better buy that Honda a cold one on the other side as a demonstration of gratitude.
A favorite were the road signs that instructed me to turn off my AC to prevent engine overheating.
Um, yeah… so it’s recommended that I risk heat stroke in order to protect my car from overheating? I have Scandinavian blood in my veins. My personal engine verges on overheating at 90 degrees – but 120 degrees? Might as well write me off as dead.
I turned my AC down to 85 degrees. That was the most reasonable sacrifice I could make.
Bless my Prius for getting me through there without issue.
After 4 hours of perilous driving, I came to the crest of a mountain pass and saw the Owens Valley and Lone Pine spread out in front of me. Mount Whitney and the rugged Eastern Sierra standing on-guard to the West. I couldn’t wait to get back in those mountains.
I arrived at the Portal around 5:30 in the evening after driving from Vegas that morning. The parking situation at Whitney Portal this year is quite a nightmare due to road construction, and therefore we had to park our car 4 miles down the hill at the Lone Pine campground, rather than at the Portal. A little inconvenient, but fortunately it’s pretty easy to hitch down the hill.
I met Caitlin at her car just outside of Lone Pine. I couldn’t help but gaze endlessly up at the summit of Whitney from the parking lot, knowing I would now get now get retribution from the misery I felt the last time I danced with her. In less than a week we would be standing on that summit.
We spent a bit organizing our gear and our cars, and then we hopped in my car to drive the 4 hours around the Sierra to spend the night in Visalia before heading back up the western slope the next day.
I was looking forward more than anything to a good night sleep that night, hoping my vertigo would be cured when I woke. I just wanted to feel normal again.
Unfortunately, I woke in the morning still feeling crappy and dizzy. Not crappy enough to call the trip off, but crappy enough that I was frustrated. I took another half of a pill and started to feel a bit better by the time we left the hotel, but still no where near 100%. Still nowhere near as good as I would like to feel upon embarking upon a 76 mile walk across the Sierra.
We managed to get out of the hotel by 8:30, and headed up to Sequoia National Park to start our adventure. On the way up, I took another half of a pill as I wasn’t feeling spectacular. Once that kicked in, I felt much better.
The permit office released the next days permits at 1:00, and we were promptly there to get the 3rd spot in line. I felt complete relief knowing we would get the permits we needed. After dealing with the ridiculous competition in the Yosemite permit system several times I was quite nervous we’d arrive to a line of squatters that had been there camped out since the night before – ‘twas not the case though, thankfully.
The heavens must have been shining upon us, because they actually ended up having two High Sierra Trail permits left over to leave that day. We gladly scooped them up. This would put us on the trail a day early and we were looking forward to getting 6 miles in that afternoon, which would give us a little breathing room in our schedule the rest of the days.
We filled up some on water, savored a veggie burger from the store, and then headed out to Crescent Meadows, to begin our journey.
…well, not quite “begin”…not just yet. We wouldn’t get on the trail until near 6:00, which was about 2.5 hours after we parked the car.
You backpackers understand this delay (those that arrive by plane to their destination not so much). You think you’re ready to throw your pack on and go. “I just have to organize my food real quick”. Real quick? Next thing you know the contents of your pack and car are sprawled around a parking lot. You’re sitting down snacking on foods you have deemed as “extra”, staring at your mess. Adjusting things. Asking your friend, “We won’t need microspikes, right?” as you throw them back in your trunk. Tossing things out. Throwing things in. Realizing you’ve forgotten something. You’ve been there, too. For us, this process somehow took us 2.5 hours.
Finally, with the beep of my car locking, we were off.
We didn’t make it even to the official trailhead before making our first stop.
Funny enough, we had been talking about it when getting ready, but the last time I was here at Crescent Meadows two years ago, I was doing a day-hike on the High Sierra Trail and stumbled upon a sleeping bear with two young cubs just off the trail. Not what any sane hiker wants to run into, but nonetheless kinda cool (and frightening). You can read about this encounter here.
As we were going to be walking through the area close to sundown when animals start stirring, I thought there might be a good chance we would run into a bear in the meadow again. Sure enough, right near the edge of the meadow was a mom and two very young cubs. I actually feel pretty confident this is the same bear I saw there two years ago, as the coloring was very similar. Both were a beautiful cinnamon color. After watching the cubs play and climb trees for a bit (and us swatting at mosquitos), we decided it was getting late and we really needed to get rolling.
Putting on our packs again, I was reminded how heavy 6 days of food can be. I couldn’t wait to get a few days in and have eaten my way through a few of the pounds I currently had on my back.
We rounded Crescent Meadow, admiring the golden light on the surrounding Sequoias.
The sequoias in this end of the Giant Forest are not the biggest in the park, but still pretty damn impressive.
Even on this mild uphill, Caitlin was feeling the elevation. It was fortunate for her acclimation that we were now starting with such a short day, as her body would now have a chance to ease into it at least. But I still felt bad for her struggle. Now that I live at 8500’ it’s quite a different experience starting out on trails in the Sierra, but when I lived at sea level I vividly remember the shortness of breath and pounding heart that would happen the first couple days.
Soon we arrived at Eagles View.
This is a vista I have admired many times. It was this view of the Great Western Divide and the Kaweah’s that inspired me years ago to start backpacking. When I first laid eyes on them, the remote peaks of the Divide beckoned me and I needed to know what was on the other side of them. A dayhike wouldn’t get me there, and I began to crave the multiple days and long miles that would take me deep into the backcountry. Many years of backpacking later, I now finally found myself walking towards those mountains that inspired me long ago. I would finally walk over them and learn their secrets.
On a less romantic note, you could also see down into the smoggy Central Valley to the west.
Leaving the lookout, the trail traverses the walls of the Middle Fork Kaweah River’s canyon. We started hustling a bit at this point, because we knew we were losing sunlight and we still had 5 miles to go before dark.
Across the canyon, the views of Castle Rocks in the low afternoon light was beautiful.
The sun was setting low and falling behind the canyon walls to the west, and soon the forest around us fell pretty dark. Unfortunately, my vertigo came back to haunt me a couple miles in. I wasn’t dizzy enough that I felt unstable, but the world was spinning enough that I couldn’t wait to stop walking. I stopped for a break to eat something and take more medicine. All I could hope was that I would get good sleep and wake up in the morning and feel fine.
The trail as we headed up the canyon was so interesting in it’s traverse. At points we’d be walking through dark, dense, (boring) conifer forest, kicking up a cloud of gross dust (the pleasures of hiking on a trail frequented by pack mules) and then we would round the canyon wall to an open gorgeous view up the canyon toward the Great Western Divide.
The trail crosses tributaries of Panther Creek many times, and at each of these crossings there were beautiful wildflowers. We were starting to feel the excitement of being in the Sierras in high summer.
The sun kept sinking lower and we began to hustle ahead as fast as we reasonably could to reach camp while we still had a little light. Though the miles were short, the walk was proving to be exhausting with our full packs, and Caitlin began to feel a hot spot on one of her feet. She didn’t want to stop and tend to her feet though (which is always a lesson we learn the hard way), and figured she would just tend to it in camp.
Finally we reached Merhten Creek, and scrambled up a rocky hill to the west of the creek to reach a nice campsite with a bear box and a gorgeous view.
We setup camp, and enjoyed the sunset and the moonrise, taking it all in. It was a beautiful spot to spend our first night.
Unfortunately, Caitlin’s hot spot had become a ginormous blister on the side of her heel. It was quite impressive in size to have only come to life in the past 6 miles. My guess was it was brought on by carrying the weight of her pack. It looked quite painful, and she was super worried about it. She bandaged it up, and hoped for the best the next day.
As the night grew darker we noticed we could see the city lights of the Central Valley far below to the west. I realized then that I have never camped anywhere in the wilderness with a view of city lights, it’s was a little weird to feel both so far from civilization, yet be reminded that it was still right there.
The night was calm and quiet, and though I wished I had been carefree, my vertigo still lingered. It made me nauseous enough that I had absolutely no appetite and ate barely 2 bites of dinner before deciding to switch to ginger chews to calm my stomach. I didn’t want to mention it to Caitlin, but I was nervous about the days ahead. I know of people that have had vertigo that lasts for weeks, and I truly hoped this would not be the case for me. I didn’t feel my condition was dangerous at this point, but it was comforting that we were still close enough to the trailhead that should I feel worse I could easily turn around. After Hamilton Lakes we would be more than a days walk out and it would be much harder for me to get off the trail if I needed to. My biggest concern though was Whitney. I had felt so horrible last time I was there that I was still a bit scarred from the experience. Though I had climbed several 14ers without issue since then, I had no idea what could happen to me if I still had vertigo and was feeling the effects of elevation. Even on climbs when I feel great, I still feel some effects of the elevation around 13,500’ – if I was dizzy when I got there that might be dangerous.
All I hoped as I closed my eyes that night was that I would wake up feeling better.