Sunday, August 15, 2010

Highs and Lows

June 18: It was Summit Day. It was the day we would conquer Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet above sea level. If there was going to be issues with snow, today would be the test. Charmin and Hasty woke up, joking to bring the "22-season tent" to climb "Mount Everest." Haha.

Early in the morning, four us had to cross a wide stream. It wasn't dangerous or deep, but we still had it in our minds to keep our feet dry. I examined the possible routes across and caved immediately--I just walked through. My feet were wet, but hopping from rock to rock seemed a bit sketchy. If I missed, I'd be a heck of a lot more wet than just my feet. Sneezes examined the options, and decided to do the rock-hop method. He almost fell in once, and still ended up getting one foot wet at one point after losing his balance. Charmin examined the river, sat down, took off her shoes and socks, then walked across. And Hasty followed the stream upriver for quite a lengthy distance until he found a better place to cross. Four people, with four completely different methods for crossing a creek. We all made it across, however, some with wetter feet than others. =)

Near the ranger station, Charmin dropped off most of her food in the bear canister in a bear box--along with many other hikers headed to Mount Whitney for the day. Mount Whitney was about 8 miles off the PCT, so once we reached the summit, we'd have to backtrack back to the PCT. No sense carrying a boat-load of food all the way to the summit and back again! I decided to hide my own bear canister on the trail itself a short ways ahead. It seemed kind of pointless to put a bear canister in a bear box!

Hasty and Sneezes hiked on ahead, which left Charmin and I alone, which I took the opportunity to use for a little talk. The day before, it became painfully obvious that Hasty had a huge crush on Charmin. He hiked 35 miles out of Kennedy Meadows in a single day to catch up with her (using the flimsy excuse that we wanted to "get away from the Michigan boys"--hikers that hadn't even arrived at Kennedy Meadows yet). It was also painfully obvious that Charmin enjoyed his company. And he had this annoying habit of following Charmin around like a lost puppy dog.

So now that there was a brief period of time when I had Charmin alone without Hasty hovering nearby, I asked her if she still wanted to hike with me through the Sierras. Given the surprising lack of snow, it didn't seem as important for us to watch each other's backs anymore, and I didn't really want to get between any budding trail romance between Charmin and Hasty. That's just awkward.

But she convinced me that I was still needed, and comforted that our partnership was still strong, we continued on. A short ways later, we caught up with Hasty who was sitting on the side of the trail, and I started taking out my bear canister to hide it among some rocks or bushes when I heard Charmin say some comment about spending the night on Mount Whitney.

I turned around. "What?" This was news to me. Mount Whitney was only about a 12 mile hike away from where we camped, and I expected us to do the full round-trip from the PCT and back. I didn't want to hike a measly 12-mile day. Fine, if the snow hindered our progress or something, but to intentionally hike only 12 miles? And why? To camp on a cold, exposed mountaintop for the night?

"But the sunset tonight and the sunrise tomorrow morning will be spectacular!" Charmin insisted. Hasty was watching us, and didn't seem the least bit surprised at the revelation. I was pissed, but didn't really want to argue about it with Charmin right there with Hasty watching and simply grumbled. Fine, I'll survive one 12 mile day, but the decision made me angry, and it made me angry that she popped this information on me at the last minute. I was about to leave behind all of my food except for snacks for the afternoon, and now I needed to make sure that I had enough food for a dinner, breakfast, and snacks for the next day. If she sprung this information on me five minutes later, I wouldn't have even had the option to spend the night at the top of Mount Whitney--I wouldn't have had enough food to last the night.

As the trail ascended ever so higher, the snow got progressively more challenging. We finally lost the trail completely in the snow, but navigating its approximate route wasn't particularly challenging. It wasn't even particularly dangerous. The blanket of snow we walked on was relatively flat. We could slip or fall, but it wouldn't lead us down a steep slope to death. For the highest peak in the contiguous United States, the trail seemed remarkably flat. A little postholing was happening, but even that wasn't especially bad.

Charmin told me she had a headache, and I worried it was a symptom of altitude sickness. (Another good reason not to spend the night at the top of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, I thought!) But she said she got them all the time back in Switzerland, every couple of weeks or so, so it wasn't that unusual for her. Except that this was the first headache she'd had since starting the PCT.... I told her if gets any other symptoms of altitude sickness, though, I want to know about it.

Further up, we stopped to rest and eat a few snacks. Hasty continued to hover over Charmin, asking about additional symptoms she might be having of altitude sickness. Which annoyed me to no end--I'm the one who's supposed to be watching her back. Charmin went on about feeling guilty that she was slowing us down, and Hasty replied that it wasn't a problem, "We have all the time in the world."

I felt like throwing Hasty off a cliff. My pack only had enough food for seven days, and I'd already eaten three days of it. I'm glad Hasty had all of the time in the world, but I certainly didn't. I was still pissed that I'd only be hiking a piddling 12 miles that day already. Though admittedly, I wasn't exactly in a rush to get to the top of Mount Whitney either given that fact. If Charmin wanted to sit around and do nothing for an hour, it certainly wasn't a problem. It just meant that I'd have an hour less at the top to sit around with nothing better to do.

As we got closer to Mount Whitney, the trail's slope increased dramatically. The tread itself was still gradual, but the slope along the mountain rose to near-vertical positions. This had two effects: It cut the amount of snow dramatically (it couldn't pile up very deeply on such steep slopes), but it make the little bit of snow that was sticking to the slopes considerably more dangerous. The "you slip here, and you'll slide down a long, long ways before your body comes to a stop" kind of thing. To avoid the snow, I'd cut switchbacks and scramble directly up the mountain. Which had its own little dangers. The rock was not solid--much like a sand dune with a bunch of larger (and still unstable) rocks piled on top. I caused more than one rock slide in the process, but it still felt safer to me than going across the treacherous snow traverses.

At the last trail junction to the top of Mount Whitney, the slope largely leveled out again. And we seemed to be above the snow level--the trail still had a few small patches, but it was once again easy and largely non-threatening. We passed a dozen or so hikers already heading down the mountain.

I let Hasty and Charmin pull ahead of me. I was in a foul mood and didn't really want to be around either of them at the moment, and I certainly had no rush to get to the top just to sit around for hours to wait for the sun to set. I hadn't mentioned it to Charmin, but I suspected I was starting to feel mild symptoms of altitude sickness myself--fatigue, and even a little dizziness. Walking across a field of boulders where I lost the trail, I'd have to carefully set my foot down, make sure it had a firm setting, then put my weight on it.

I had failed to fill up with enough water to last the night--I kept thinking I'd find another creek. At the last patch of snow I could find, I realized that there were no more creeks, so I filled up my bottles with snow right then and there so I wouldn't have to come back down for snow again later. And I rested. I sat around for a half hour or so, admiring the view. And it was a beautiful view. On top of the world.

Eventually I continued on, thinking that Charmin would probably start to worry about what happened to me. At the summit, I saw two hikers I didn't recognize come out of the hut, and Charmin and Hasty were nowhere to be seen. Probably in the hut trying to stay warm. It was blistering cold, and the wind was ferocious. The hut had two doors, so I walked up to the one I saw the two hikers come out of and whipped it open to see an enormous pile of snow blocking the door, and Charmin and Hasty cry out, "Tortuga!"

It took a moment for me to process the unexpected pile of snow in the doorway. It was rather a surprise. The room in the hut was a lot smaller than I expected, like it had been divided into several compartments, and why would they have done that? And the inside was dark. None of the windows were open, and almost all of the light coming into the room came in through the door I had open. On the other side of the pile of snow, Charmin and Hasty were sitting down, shivering. I scrambled over the pile of snow--more challenging than you might have expected--and Charmin told me, "We're going back down."

I was thinking slowly, I guess. "We're going back down Mount Whitney?"

"Yes, it's too cold up here. Drink and eat what you need, then we're going back down."

I started doing the math in my head. It was already late in the afternoon, and there weren't exactly a lot of places to stop and camp halfway down the mountain. If we go back down, we had to make sure we could get all the way down before dark. Frankly, I was happy at the idea of not camping at the top of Mount Whitney since I never liked it in the first place, but I found myself annoyed once again that Charmin is making decisions without even consulting how I feel about them. And once again, Hasty seems to already know about these decisions before I'm even aware of them. Guess Charmin forgot to bring her 22-season tent.

Even trying to keep warm in the hut seemed like a bad idea on Charmin's part. It was like an icebox with the pile of snow in it. A dark, cold icebox. She'd probably be warmer by finding a windbreak outside and laying down in the sun. She'd probably have found it warmer had she arrived earlier in the afternoon instead of taking her sweet old time hiking up in time for the sunset. Needless to say, I was more than a little annoyed by her.

I stopped for a few minutes to rest at the top, then left the hut to take photos of myself at the tippy top of Mount Whitney and to look for a letterbox. Admittedly, I was anxious to get back down the mountain before dark, but Charmin's attitude had pissed me off enough that I liked the idea of spending time to look for the box if for no other reason than I knew she was freezing her ass off waiting for me to finish. And thinking, how ironic--because I thought we were spending the night up here, I probably took a good half hour longer getting to the top than necessary. Charmin spent the last half hour freezing for no other reason than bad decisions she had made. It was petty, but it made me feel good. Even then, had she stuck with me instead of Hasty, she could have told me that she changed her mind much earlier and she still wouldn't have had to sit around waiting for me to show up.

I found the letterbox, then went back to the hut to stamp in where I didn't have to fight the wind. When I opened up the door, Charmin and Hasty had each other in a hug, and jumped back from each other like I caught them having sex. Hasty stuttered something about Charmin being cold and trying to keep her warm, and I just rolled my eyes thinking, "Yeah, good line. That's why you two look so guilty. I don't want to deal with this @*%#*"

I stamped in and rehid the letterbox, then the three of us started down Mount Whitney. We were the last ones left on the mountain, and would likely be the last visitors of the day.

Going down, Hasty stuck to Charmin like glue, and I took my own route off-trail through the rocks to avoid patches of snow. I'm not sure exactly when it hit me, but somewhere coming down that mountain, I knew Charmin and I wouldn't be hiking together anymore. Mentally, I tallied up the reasons:

* She had Hasty watching her back. She frankly didn't need me for anything. I was feeling pretty darned useless at this point.
* The snow in the High Sierras hadn't been anywhere near as bad as I feared, and I wasn't entirely convinced that I needed someone watching my back anymore.
* It was awkward getting between Hasty and Charmin's budding trail romance.
* Charmin's making decisions--big decisions--that I not only think are stupid, but she's not even getting my opinion on the matter. Hiking together was supposed to be a partnership, but I was feeling more like a lap dog trotting after wherever she told me to go.

Basically, it wasn't working out anymore. I wanted to talk to Charmin about the problems, but held off since it was important that we get into camp before dark, and I didn't really want Hasty around to listen in either.

Eventually, I passed Charmin and Hasty in my quest to make camp as quickly as possible. Charmin told me that she'd like to camp in the trees, which I would have liked too, but I eventually stopped short of the tree line. The sun had set and it was getting dark. I didn't want to set up camp in the dark. But I found a nice piece of dry ground next to a creek and set up.

I wondered if Charmin and Hasty decided to camp further up the trail than I did, also choosing to stop at sunset, but they eventually passed through my camp a half hour later. It wasn't pitch dark yet, but it was getting close to it when they arrived, and I expected that they would want to stop and set up camp, but Charmin didn't.

"I want to camp in the trees," she said. Hasty wore a blank expression on his face that seemed to say, "I want to camp wherever Charmin camps."

This really pissed me off some more. I don't think Charmin would have continued on by herself, but with Hasty hovering over her, she wouldn't be by herself. I felt outvoted, two to one, and Hasty didn't actually put out a vote. Charmin came over to me--I was in my sleeping bag trying to stay warm--and whispered that we really needed to talk, and I agreed whole-heartedly, but that she really needed to get into camp before it got any darker. "We'll talk tomorrow," I told her.

She suggested meeting near where the trail intersected the PCT again, where we had left our bear canisters, to which I readily agreed, then she told me she'd be there by around ten or eleven o'clock. "It can't be more than an hour walk away!" I said. "Yes," she said, explaining that she wanted to take an easy 12 mile day tomorrow and intended to sleep in.

#*@$! I didn't want to sit around two hours waiting for Charmin so we could have a "talk." I want to do MILES! I waved Charmin off. "Fine, I'll meet you there in the morning." I was pissed at the idea that I'd have to wait for her for a couple of hours so she could sleep in late, but I swore it would be the last time I would ever wait on Charmin again. Tomorrow morning, I we'd have our "talk," then I'd start hiking on my own, at my own pace, as far as I wanted to each day.

Charmin gave me a hug, then her and Hasty were off to find some trees to camp in.

During the month of August, I'll be participating with Amanda in the Washington Trail Association's Hike-a-Thon. If you haven't already, please consider sponsoring us. (Especially me!) The folks do great work helping to fix up and maintain trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail and help make thru-hikes such as mine possible. If you enjoy reading this blog, consider giving something back to the trails that make it possible. Thanks!


Greg said...

If anyone is interested, Hasty has his own journal. Nowhere near as many entries, but with some references to Charmin. His picture's there too.

I don't mean this comment as an endorsement of Hasty. Would never have heard of him if not for GT's journal.

veganf said...

Stunning scenery!

Anonymous said...

wow, it's like a reality show where the drama on the trail is in the interpersonal relationships!