I wake after almost 10 hours in my sleeping bag. In my mid-30’s, I’ve noticed I need a ton of sleep to recover from the first day of backpacking. It’s 5:30AM and I stretch inside my warm sleeping bag. I twist the knob on my NeoAir sleeping pad and listen as the cozy warmth escapes into the damp, cold morning air.
The stress and worry from yesterday washed away by a good night’s rest, I’m feeling good and ready to hike deeper into the backcountry.
I emerge from the tent and breathe in the cool air, causing me to shiver. I put on all the clothes I brought and begin packing up. Since we slept in relative proximity to another party, we decide to eat breakfast further down the trail. We pull down the food from the bear hang and I pack up a sopping wet tent. My fingers freezing from handling wet fabric and cold tent poles.
I shove my fingers into my pockets. Mele and I and take one last look at our campsite. No trace we were ever there. Perfect.
The upper lakes are cast in an early morning light, accentuating their aqua blue color. The water is perfectly still, and you can see every detail of the peaks above reflected on the surface.
About a 1/2 mile down the trail we encounter a wide, fast moving creek sourced from the glacier runoff into upper Lyman lakes. That water is going to be freezing. 100 yards from us the creek tumbles down a steep slope, hitting rocks and debris on the way. The sound of falling water cuts through the quiet like a knife.
It is time to ford a creek.
Jon and I have forded countless creeks. Usually our time on the bank deciding where to cross is directly proportional to how freaky the water looks. I’ll never forget our epic ford in the Sierras last year. We had to cross at the confluence of two infamous drainages: where Palisade Creek flows into the Middle Fork of the Kings River. Palisade creek was deep, wide and fast. I remember that after almost a 1/2 hour of hiking up and down the bank, we could not find a safe place to cross. In total, it took us about an hour to get across. Afterwards I sat on the other side of the bank, shaking with adrenaline. Goddamn Sierras.
Carefully inspecting the water before us, this crossing seems manageable. The current is moving, but not so fast that I worry about losing my footing.
Scanning the rushing water, I spot a large, flat rock. It could provide secure footing under the water, or it could be as slippery as an ice rink. We won’t know until we get there. Still, it looks like the safest route across. Mele suggested we take off our shoes for the crossing. Normally I’d cross in my trail runners, but it’s a cold morning and I feel pretty confident that this will be a straightforward ford.
I unclip the hip belt and secure my shoes to my backpack. Stepping into the glacier water, the blood instantly leaves my toes. Shit, that’s cold, I say. Eyeing the flat rock under the water, I gingerly make my way to it. Stepping down, careful to get a feel for the rock before applying all my weight, I test it out. It’s not too slippery, good. I step down onto it with both feet. A couple more steps across the rock and I eye the bank. The deepest part of the creek is in front of me. I estimate it’s about 2 ft deep. I step down and feel the tug of the water on my calves. Leaning against the current on my trekking poles, I climb up onto the bank. Whew!
Looking across the creek, Mele has her shoes off and has begun her crossing. It is her first time fording a creek. She’s anchoring her trekking poles into the water, and stepping over rocks, making her way to the rock. Her path similar to mine, I anticipate the risky step from the rock into the swiftest part of the current, and stick close to the shore, just in case she needs to grab my trekking pole. She crosses without hesitation and before we know it, we’re on the other side, drying our feet.
“That wasn’t too bad”, Mele says. “Yeah, congrats on your first ford!”, I say.
Shortly after our crossing, we reach a rocky clearing at the top of a steeply contoured hillside. The valley below holds a round lake, flanked by evergreens and green marshes. It’s a perfect place for breakfast, so we drop our packs. I heat my water. My mind and body are so ready for coffee.
Before long, I’m sipping coffee and eating müsli and granola in coconut water. I top it with dried berries. It is my favorite backpacking breakfast. Mele eats oatmeal and sips her coffee as we absorb the views before us.
Also enjoying breakfast: 1,000 mosquitos.
At the gear shake down before we left, I noticed Mele packed a formidable can of bug spray. The ultralight backpacker in me wondered about weight-to-value ratio of this “luxury item”, but as I watched a cloud of blood-suckers descend on me, I was instantly glad she had it. After I sprayed my clothes and hat, I had a halo of mosquitoes around me.
We get down to the lake and walk past several little tents, the backpackers still asleep inside. I’ve always tried to be an early riser in the backcountry. Better to get your miles in when it’s cool, in my opinion. The afternoon can bring more unknowns like bad weather and soft snow. The more miles you cover in the morning, the less you have to do in the evening when you’re tired and hangry.
Soon we’re at the base of a wooded hillside at the end of the valley. It’s an 800 ft climb to Cloudy Pass, one of the most scenic and open vistas we’ll encounter on this trip. I’m excited, so I set off in the cool morning air. My legs and heart pumping in unison. My body settles into a rhythm of climbing that it knows well. My breathing aligns with my legs, and my mind hums a little tune that syncs to my breath. I am a happy little climbing machine. Up, up, up and it feels so good. Bring it on! Fresh Air! Endorphins!!
The final push to Cloudy Pass was through a huge meadow. It is still a bit early for wildflowers, but the openness of the alpine does not disappoint.
At the pass, we stop to have a snack. Some other backpackers are arriving now, taking pictures and walking around on the snow. I always appreciate people in the backcountry, those other souls who are willing to abandon civilization for the wild embrace of mother nature. Out here the world does not accomodate to us. We must bend our wills and sacrifice our comforts in the name of survival. Out here our fortitude is tested with real consequences.
What do little humans do in the wilderness? We run from the weather, try to stay warm and dry, seek shade, eat, listen for wildlife. We get tired and thirsty. Our muscles burn along with our skin. Yet, there must be something ancient and rewarding about this sort of reality, because for those who backpack, there is no greater joy.
We descend from the pass and meet up with the Pacific Crest Trail. Last time I was standing in this spot, my friend Mandy and I were hiking southbound on the PCT. I guessed it would have been day 2 or 3 into our trek from Rainy Pass to Stevens Pass. I felt overcome with nostalgia. I wished for the n-thousandth time in my short life that I could just hike all the time.
Our afternoon hiking was pleasant on the PCT, and little more busy in terms of people. The trail was in excellent shape and we made great time.
The final climb of the day was 1,700 ft up out of Miners Creek drainage over an ambiguously named feature on the map called Middle Ridge. It was scenic and strenuous hiking. It was just after 3PM and I had climbed out of the trees and back into the rocks and slopes of the alpine. To my right was an aptly named Fortress Mountain, which had a square block of granite perched on top of it.
Reaching the top of the middle ridge, I felt drops on my arms and legs. Rain. It had been cloudy and overcast the whole trip, and the rain finally came. I put on my rain jacket and ate some dried mangos. As I rested, an older man with tattered pants and a pack from the 70’s crested the top of the ridge. I recalled that I had seen him napping in the meadow below.
“Hello”, I said. “Hi there”, he responded. “Have you seen my hiking partner? Older guy in a white t-shirt?”. “No, I haven’t”, I responded. He smiled at me and continued his unhurried stroll into the woods. I watched him pick huckleberries, and extract trail mix from a mysterious hip-belt pocket, unconcerned about the weather or his hiking partner. I liked him. He reminded me of Jon in 30 years.
Around 5PM, we made it to our camp for the night. We were perched on a comfortable pad next to a rushing creek. The pineneedle floor of the forest was soft and inviting. Trees draped in moss created a soft green haze in the forest.
I made a dinner of cheesy noodles with dehydrated spinach and onions. It was an impromptu meal because I had only just thought of it. I had noodles. I had cheese. That combo sounds amazing. Apparently, it worked out really well. “Wow, you look like you are really enjoying that”, Mele said. I could not stop shoveling noodles into my mouth! I could only imagine how that looked to my hiking partner. “Yeah, I guess so”. We both laughed.
That night we rested to the sound of water. Rain pattered gently onto the tent and water crashed on rocks in the creek below. Nestled in our tent, we were warm, dry, and happy.