Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Incomplete (High Sierra Trail Take One)

Ian and I had backpacking ambitions. We had a few camping trips and outdoor adventures under our belts, but we wanted to really get our feet wet - without actually getting our feet wet. Because we live less than an hour from the world famous West Coast Trail, we concluded that our first hike should be in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, several thousand miles away. A little bit of Web research later and the High Sierra Trail was decided upon, and booked for 6 months away. Plenty of time to train, research, and buy gear, right?

Right. We got straight to it, borrowing and buying gear, stuffing food in ziplocs, and even going on two or three training hikes. Then we got busy with working overtime, new relationships, and all the other things that are part of life. Suddenly it's time to cram everything into our backpacks and get in the truck. We're feeling pretty good, but both wish we had spent more time training. Still, the summit (Mount Whitney, 14,495 feet) is on day 6, so we'll be in good shape by then. Our adventure begins.

A brief stop near Seattle to visit some friends and load up on Papa Murphy's Take & Bake (a treat for Canadians, we don't know the concept yet here), a quadruple Americano from a drive-through coffee stand (also a rarity in Canada) and we're on the way. California, here we come!

It's the night before the hike, and we're in our motel room in Three Rivers. We had to rent bear cannisters, which are rated to hold 5-7 people days' worth of food each. We opt to get 3, figuring it should be enough for our 10 day hike. About half the food fit in on the first pack. Slightly better on the second, but still nowhere near. Uhoh - perhaps we packed too much food? We proceeded to stuff our faces with trail mix, sort out the essentials from the treats, and repackage everything. We finally fit what we consider to be necessary into the three cannisters, proceed to trying to fit them into our backpacks. This next step proves to be even harder, and the feeling that we may have overpacked starts to make its first appearance in the back of our minds. A few hours of stuffing and sorting and we eventually have everything into, clipped to, or balanced on our packs. Time for a beer.

Shortly after stupid o'clock the next morning, we help each other carry our packs to the truck and drive up the windy mountain road to Crescent Meadow. At the trailhead there are bear-proof storage boxes in which we stored our scented items that we weren't taking. It seems that the bears here break into cars, just like my neighbour's friends do. No more stalling, it's time to begin our adventure in earnest.

The first section of the High Sierra Trail takes you through beautiful Sequoia groves with soft, pine-needle trails, then ejects you onto canyon edges with eternal panoramic views. Or so I'm told, I couldn't lift my head as my pack was too heavy. We took regular breaks, but ignored the burning feet and sore shoulders. We were here to hike, not complain! The pain was beginning to be unbearable, but it could only get better -- we were going to eat the food in our packs, break in our boots, and be in far better shape by tomorrow!

It's tomorrow, and we hurt. Due to the heat (100F) and altitude (over 10,000 feet) we have lost our appitite, so our packs don't weigh any less. Blisters have formed on my feet as my two training hikes of an hour each weren't enough to break in my boots. My shoulders are so sore that putting on the pack feels like receiving acupuncture from a manic depressive bear. Bravado wins in the end, and we manage to get going after a lot of creaking joints from me, and various old-man noises from Ian. "chin-up" we're told from fellow hikers: there's a beautiful lake ahead where we can stop for lunch and go for a swim. It's uphill all the way, but so is most of this trail, especially on the way back.

Despite our body's best efforts, we make it to Hamilton Lake. Everyone says it's beautiful, but we're in too much pain to notice. A lunch-time meeting is in order. After weighing the pros and cons, so we decide that we just can't continue. Suddenly a weight is lifted off our shoulders (literally and figuratively) and we start to notice the beauty around us. We set up camp, and decide to spend a few days at the lake, day hiking and swimming. For the first time in days we're having fun, smiling, and absorbing the incredible scenery. A day hike takes us to the top of Kaweah Gap (10,700 feet) and we realize that we never would have been able to drag our packs up to this height. The decision, although painful to make, was the right one.

The next day we hike back to the truck, covering the distance in one long day. We agree to make ourselves remember how painful this was, and make a pact to remind each other of this if someone suggests we try it again in five years. The drive home is uneventful, the Sierras put behind us and our regular lives resumed.