Monday, August 6, 2018
Last night was rough. I woke up in the night with a night terror, yelling at a bear. There were none nearby. Yet, I sat awake with concern, and toiled in the thoughts I had packed along this trip – the ones I could not leave behind.
This year has been rough. This summer the worst of all. It’s hard for me to even acknowledge, to speak out loud of the pain, the goodbye to a friend that Rachel and I had to endure. Even now I don’t want to face it. Just recollecting my recollections, it’s still too painful to write.
Doggie, Black Licky, Loaf of Love, Log Dog, Brownie. Anisa. She was a dog of many names, and much love. She was a kind friend that I never deserved, a sweet soul in a world that too often fosters bitter fruit. I awake at night and think of her. I scratch at the surface of memories looking to uncover what I could have done to keep her with us longer. I kick myself and bite down hard, I don’t deserve to express the pain. But it tares through all my might, opening up the night. I scream.
I thought there was a bear. But more likely it was my memories, fragments of fear jarred loose, that normally lay nestled in my mind.
For a full summary and map, check out our guide to The Big SEKI Loop.
I flip over to my stomach and my eyes roll up to meet the meadow. The peaks stacked on top are golden at their crest. The air is cool here, and I see promises for what the day shall bring. Today we pass our highest point, Forester Pass. It’s the pass that’s filled our imagination now for days. At approximately 13,200 ft it imposes a daunting challenge to these chicken legs. But, I cannot wait to meet it.
After our camp is loaded up, we pack our pockets with nuts and return to our rugged highway. Although we’re quiet, our minds buzz with anticipation.
From our camp we pass through green meadows, damp with dew that cools the air. The temps are just right, and the skies are clear. It’s the perfect day for an upward slog, I think.
Bubbs Creek is on our right, and it slowly gets smaller, the higher that we go. It babbles over rocks, and cuts through shades of green, gently encouraging our footsteps as we lift them ever higher. The landscape turns to green and grey.
“Phew, we’ve got a good pace going” I say to Rachel as her long legs effortless stride over streams that split the trail.
“Yeah, I’m feeling hungry. Let’s pull off into this shaded spot.”
We plop our packs to the ground again, maneuver out our bear bins and our eyes navigate to the yellow bag of dried mango… mmmm… sugar.
Rachel happily sits under a pine tree chewing mango and Brazil nuts.
“Hey, who’s that guy!” I say pointing to a rock alongside our temporary encampment.
Perched on a rock, with fur like a broom sits a marmot. He appears pleased to see us here, yet annoyed we haven’t invited him to our picnic. His nose quivers in the air, as his eyes remain set on Rachel’s mango.
As we pack our bags he watches. Like an IRS accountant he tallies each crumb and notes the location where it falls. Soon he’ll collect his bounty.
We say goodbye to our broom furred friend with new momentum in our legs. Rachel places her eye on a ridge up in a distance.
“That’s where we must be going” she says lifting her trekking pole to place her target.
“That’s not too bad” I say. “We’re moving pretty good. This doesn’t feel too bad.”
As we wind along the trail we cut through patches of trees that spot along the alpine. As we gain in altitude the surroundings become blue and gray. Whew! My legs are tired, I think to myself. We’re really going up.
After several roundabouts we stop for a sip of water.
I sit in a pile of granite and catch my breath, and let my heart slow. Ahhh, the alpine always comforts.
Marveling in the beauty we decide to capture our joy with a selfie. I extend my arm and we tilt our heads trying to orient our faces in the right direction.
“Looking good dear” I say as I examine our photo.
Again we push on forward through the rubble. Patches of grass appear and then turn to granite. Ugh, we most be getting closer. The weather is wonderful but this air is feeling thinner. We push up some switchbacks that are surrounded by gray rubble. We then emerge to see peaks in the distance with a trail that follows. Well, looks like we still have a ways to go. But little did we know how far.
We don’t know how far we’ve come, and we don’t know how far left we have to go. But, we know that Forester Pass is about 7 miles from our camp we left this morning. The air is thin, and there are few peaks much higher than where we stand. We must be getting close.
We turn a corner and walk up a hill. A small pond sits to our left. I spot a wooden sign ahead. Peculiar. I wonder what that’s for.
“No fires above 10,000 ft” it reads. Oh no, that’s what I was afraid it would say. But we couldn’t possibly be just reaching 10,000 ft. That would mean we still have over 3,000 ft to climb, and the air already feels thin. My legs argue with the elevation marker. It doesn’t seem to care.
Unable to comprehend the reality of the trail marker, we decide to misinterpret it.
“The sign must be there as an extra warning to people as they come down” I say to Rachel. “It’s probably just meant to remind people not to have fires until they get down to 10,000 ft. This place looks like a nice place to camp, so they probably just put that there to let people know they can’t have a fire there.”
The logic makes some sense. But it really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. But, that’s okay because we like the idea that we’re beyond 10,000 ft. It’s much easier to keep moving if we think we’re getting close. Now we know that we’re probably not. But, we have 3,000 ft to deal with that. So, we’ll handle it as we go.
The Air Thins
We thought the air felt thin before. But now it’s even thinner. I’m not sure if that trail marker was lying. But all I know is we’re still going up. My lungs know it too. They pass along the message to my heart, who fields the complaints from my muscles.
My muscles: “Hey man, pick it up up there! We need some blood. How am I supposed to move these legs up this hill? We’re going to collapse if you don’t pick up the pace!”
My heart: “I’m doing the best I can up here! Look, I’m pushing out 150 beats per minute. You think that’s easy? I’m trying to get all the blood I can to you. You need to talk to the lungs!
My lungs: “Don’t look at me! I’m operating at maximum ventilatory capacity. But the blood cells aren’t transporting all the oxygen I’m giving them.
My Blood cells: Sorry guys. There’s something going on. I can’t seem to let go of the oxygen. It’s sticking to me. I’m trying. It must be something about the pressure. Give me a few days and I should have this sorted out.
As my body battles it out, I stop to look at Rachel. Both of us feeling tired, little breath for words.
“Ugh, this is hard. Don’t feel like I can get enough air” she says.
We stop to rest and catch our breath. As we sit still we gain control.
“You’re doing great dear” I say. “I think we just need to keep a moderate pace, and take it slow. Just take it one step at a time and focus on our breathing.”
Step by step, we slowly chug along the switchbacks, winding through the granite. Ruble skews the landscape like stones that once fell from the heavens. An alpine lake provides a landmark to our left.
We scan the peaks in each direction. Where do we top out? The path is still not clear. But, the trail leads to the right, upward and away from our frigid lake.
“Up up up, we’re going up” Rachel softly sings as her lungs pass oxygen to her blood cells.
We pass through several more switchbacks, our breath in rhythm with our stride. We top out on a ridge and I look back to where had came.
I don’t know how far we’ve come. But it’s lain out before me, and I feel it in my chest. Every step is worth it I think as I shake my head blown away by the beauty.
I turn back to the trail I need to finish. Finally, we see where it leads. A small party of three is approaching us. As we pass them they ask “is it much further down?”
I laugh in my head. I want to say “Are you kidding me? Down down down, you’ll be going down for hours.”
But I don’t. Instead I say something along the lines of “you’ve got a ways to go.”
Summit in Reach
Now with the summit in view, Rachel and I talk our legs into keep walking. We barter and offer them water, snacks once we reach the top.
After several more granite laced switchbacks, we sit below a steep ascent. A series of steep winding switchbacks lead between two gentle peaks. That’s our pass. I don’t feel like my legs can do it, but they lift and shift, slowly making progress. I stop at every corner looking back where we came. We’re higher than any point I see. I take a breath and shuffle forward. Suddenly, in what feels like a quick forever, I lift my eyes to see Rachel slink between the peaks. I’m fifteen feet away. I could crawl if need be. But my legs maintain their dignity propping me up like heroes, carrying me to the summit. My pack slides across my pack and lands upon the stone.
“Holy shit, it’s beautiful.”
I look to Rachel who looks elated. Exhausted and exalted by the beauty of the mountains, and the tenacity within.
“That’s the hardest thing I’ve done” she says, then quickly moves to admire our view on the other side, looking to the south.
To the south the landscape again changes. Forester sits like a gateway, an entrance to a new world. We revel in the landscape, and the pride for which we’ve done, the miles that we’ve trekked.
We made it to our highest peak. This was the pass we’ve been thinking of, all throughout our trip. Here we are.
Feeling triumphant I pose for a hero shot.
We snack and lay in the sun, slowly soaking in the air. It feels good to feel triumphant. We take a picture of ourselves together, happy with our surroundings. In love with every minute. Connected in this moment.
The Descent from Forester Pass
It’s easy going from here after what we’ve seen so far. There’s no more up today.
As we make our way down the south side of Forester Pass, we notice a sharp contrast compared to the north side. The trail is completely different. On the north side we had a grueling slow climb up accented with false summits. To the south the trail is etched into the a solid rock, with steep switchbacks that drop you down to a gentle arid plain. It’s marvelous yet different.
Amazed by the trail we wonder aloud “how did they build this?” Stones sit precariously placed where erosion has run its course. The whole experience has you feeling exposed. A simple tumble could be deadly.
Eventually we emerge onto level ground again. Another landing on the moon.
Rachel is excited.
We stop at a brook and rinse our feet. A gentle alpine carpet soothes my feet as I step into the water. I could camp here in this alpine oasis.
I want to kiss the crystal clear water.
Reluctantly, I shove my feet back into their dusty wagons, and follow my love into the wonderland.
The trail weaves through a land that feels like magic. Ponds appear and appease my mind. I lose myself in walking.
We dip into a gentle valley, where the trees begin to thrive. It must be getting close to dinner. We assume we’ve traveled about 12 miles now. We plan to stop at the creek ahead.
As the trail dips down closer to Tyndall Creek, we see campers speckled in the trees. We stop in a spot along the creek and decide it’s time to enjoy dinner.
Rachel digs out the camp stove and I fill our bottles with water. She then begins to boil water. Tonight meal is simple. We’re using packaged meals that just need water. I skip down the edge of the stream barefoot to scope out potential camping spots.
I return to let Rachel know, and we decide we will eat and then hike just a little further. It’s a beautiful evening and the sun shimmers off the creek. An older couple approaches the creek from the other side and navigate the stones across. I pull out my phone and make notes on today’s journey.
“Ouch!”, I jump.
“What?” Rachel responds.
“There’s a bunch of ants crawling on me. Get off of me ants!”
“You can come up here. I don’t see any up here.” she says.
“No, I’m okay” I say as I brush more ants from my legs. “I like this spot by the stream.”
I notice several more ants crawling around on my shoes. They think they won the jackpot. Yet, I have no clue what they’d do with it even if they could carry it. Silly buggers.
After dinner we pack up our snail shells, lace up our dust wagons, and get ready to hop back on the pain train. With full bellies we’re feeling comfortable, and we skip across the creek. The sun lands on our shoulders and illuminates our hearts.
About a mile or so later we find a bear bin and notice some camp spots. Behind some trees we spot a pond. We drop our bags and explore the area.
It’s perfect. We’ll take it.
Pleasant, calm and beautiful.
We set camp and sip on chocolate.
And I settle into my stone chair.
I sit and enjoy the moment. Rachel laughs out loud then shuffles around our campsite snapping photos from different angles.
This stone seat is really nice. You have to appreciate the aesthetics.
Today was a good day. We gained at least 3,500 ft. to meet the formidable Forester pass. Rachel and I agreed, it was one of the hardest hikes we’d ever done before. We had to control our breath, and we had to find a pattern just to calm our minds.
We made it though at times our minds questioned if we could.
We made each step together, and now here we are living the good life, sipping chocolate, kicking back in stone recliners.