a walk in the high sierra

vale la pena

We were feeling as much pain as elation by the end of the second day in the mountains. Three nights at 10, 400 feet had us fairly well acclimated to the thin air before we set out, but the first two ten mile days, crossing passes of 12,300 and 11,000 feet with full packs had taken a toll on our bodies because of gear problems. My old hiking boots were falling apart.  The right boot’s sole was about 65% separated, but that wasn’t yet a problem.  A small hole had worn in the cloth lining of the boot and the torn edge of fabric had rolled up and began rubbing my heel.  The new high-tech blister cover that Lauryn gave me turned out to be a contribution rather than a remedy to the problem, and in a gorgeous camp at the west edge of a big marsh, with Mount Whitney standing in the northeast and the waxing moon rising from the crest of a ridge to the southeast, my heel was a disaster of raw, oozing flesh.

My new lightweight backpack, which I bought at impulse while shopping for other gear, turned out, despite its excellent design, to be like a crown of thorns. The advanced design with a hard plastic internal frame is molded with a curve to fit a man’s lumbar. My mistake in making the purchase was in forgetting that I don’t have a lumbar curve. My back is straight. This was the first test of the backpack, and after two days, dark maroon bruises lay on my iliac crest below two oozing sores where all the weight of the pack had been riding against my bony lower back, even though I taped my fleece hat onto my skin to provide a cushion on the second day.

Lauryn’s boots were giving her problems—a blistered heel and a black toenail—due to swelling of her feet at high elevation.

But Lauryn had, a bit more than a month ago, come to a spiritual awakening via intense email correspondence with me, so while we both suffered pain, we had no mental suffering about the pain, or about our situation—deep in the high mountains, and unable to walk in our boots, unable to carry my pack. We were literally in heaven.  The two day’s trek was mostly through woods when we weren’t gasping for oxygen while climbing steep, barren rock passes, and now we had arrived at a Shangri La, the marsh and it’s trouty stream offering a pastoral feeling of green grass and high tides below the granite peaks and swollen moon.

One result of awakening from the dream of self is that the world can be seen without the filter of self. On this remote trail, we had shed any mental busyness that we had due to the logistical preparations, and we have been witnesses to the divine reality of Nature. It was a pleasure to be among the ancient pines with a partner who saw them as they are—members of a truly enchanted forest, thrilling and filling us with appreciation of their wonderful curves, crooks, gnarls, spirals, and the overall sculptural beauty of each of these beings who have stood here for many centuries.

ancient pine

While that camp offered a feeling of wellbeing, we did need another dose of aspirin to ease the spike-in-the-back-of-the-head effect of exertion at high elevation.

The next morning my first steps from the tent caused my heel wound to crack and drip blood.  During my walk back from the large dead tree that I found to hang our food safely away from clever bears, I came up with a plan: to wear our camp shoes—heelless Crocs—to hike a half mile to a trail junction where we could leave some food and gear in a bear-proof steel box, then continue with a light load another three miles up the valley to the lakes I had been attracted to, from above, last year while climbing Mount Whitney.  My idea to use my sleeping pad as a full-length cushion between my back and my pack was a good one, and I carried the pack with tolerable pain.  Hiking in Crocs turned out to be much easier than I expected, and that evening we were entertained and enraptured by the light and shadows racing across the high amphitheater of granite below low fast-moving clouds. This so excited us that we continued on past our camp for another couple hours, exploring the higher reaches of the valley. By dusk we were cooking on the tundra, nestled into a niche in the lee of a rock outcrop, and after dinner we reclined in the heather, sharing a little airline bottle of Jim Beam, a piece of chocolate, and a good cigar while we watched the full moon crest the rim of this giant cirque and fly up behind the fleet of clouds, coming and going with elegant displays of illumination of the vapors.

the play of cloud shadows on granite

The plan for the next morning was to drop to our cache and put on our boots and continue on the trail with our full packs, but this turned out to be impossible, due to the pain of taking a single step in the boots. So we tried carrying a full pack wearing Crocs, and we were okay. It was a long three-and-a-half mile walk around the western flank of Mount Young, through another 11,000 foot pass, before we began to get through-the-trees glimpses of the spectacular high country we were headed for, filling us with enthusiasm, which we needed to push on.  After dropping to cross a river, we climbed up to traverse the barren Bighorn Plateau, where vistas of the entire region continued uninterrupted for 320 degrees. All the glory of the High Sierra was there, stark naked, and severely beautiful.

We dropped into the next river valley and continued upstream ‘til we left tree-line, and found stepping stones across the water to camp in a grassy area that delighted our bare feet. Our tent seemed to be at the center of a vast basin, which reminded me of Alaska—wide open, tundra, rock, and mountains in all directions. When the sun dropped below the ridge to the west, the temperature dove steeply, and we went from bathing in the river, naked, to bundling up and drawing the sleeping bag tightly to our chins in the course of an hour. All night the moon flooded the basin while water in our bottles solidified in surface shards.

The route we had planned required us to cross Forester Pass, the highest on the Pacific Crest Trail, at 13,200 feet, and one that intimidated us both. In the morning we set off for that pass, and every step from the tent site was up. The final climb of the trail was a beautiful work of trail construction with rock cribbing supporting the path along sheer granite walls.  For the first time in my life I felt good and free of any sickness at 13,000 feet and I was buoyant in the pass, absorbing the unending views on both sides.

Continuing down, past snowfields and decaying cornices, along a ridge with ridiculous views of the valley it penetrated, we were  “mountain drunk” as they called John Muir—laughing at our inability to contain the overwhelming storm of beauty. Soon we dropped to a gorgeous turquoise tarn flooding a talus basin, and I suspected the sun-baked rock could warm the little pond even though it was freshly melted snow, and it did—enough for a dive into the irresistible pool. While drying I allowed myself to be mesmerized by the yellow refracted light tickling the bottom after passing through the surface ripples.

Onward, down valley, we entered one of Edgar Payne’s great works, in oil and pallet knife, of the high Sierras. I actually felt like I was walking through a painting. The environment was to his liking—a prominent granite peak standing over a glaciated valley full of ponds and small fir trees, all in that late afternoon light with deep blue-grey shadows.

And we continued to descend a full three thousand feet from the pass through the forested glacial valley, until we entered an avalanche zone.  It took a while for me to see it, but suddenly I saw the cause of this clearing.  Not too long ago, an unstable deep layer of snow let go of the wall of the cirque standing high to the west, and roared out of that bowl and down the slick granite slope into the floor of this valley, and the wall of snow charged up this side of the river.  This is why the next hundred yards of trail is through what looks like blow-down timber, with all the trunks snapped at snow-depth – about 6 feet. And I would have thought it was blow-down if the trees had been laid up or down valley, but the cross-valley orientation made me look up and see the steep wall of the cirque.

the falls beside our tent

This clearing allowed us to have another camp with overwhelming views in all directions: the high peaks we had left to the south, the cirque to the west, and below it a waterfall,  in the northwest we looked down the valley into Kings Canyon National Park, the Kearsarge Pinnacles stood immediately to the northwest, and they took on the evening rays of sun like a coat of copper paint. Even though this was our lowest camp, it was cold, and we were in bed before eight.

The morning was our coldest.  I finally broke down and put gloves on. But after an hour on the trail we were back in shorts, approaching the low spot of the entire trip, where we dipped below 10,000 feet in the valley floor before climbing the wall of this ‘U’-shaped valley to travel up another valley towards our exit—Kearsarge Pass—at 11,800 feet. We laughed at the relentless beauty, which continued to dazzle us all the way up the route, spotted with lakes and ponds among forests at the bases of granite peaks.

All this travel, forty miles of which was done wearing Crocs and, for me, with a pack slowly removing the flesh covering my hipbones, had been wearing us down, but our spirits soared. Eventually the limits of the body were catching up with us, and the pass challenged Lauryn, even though we were now used to such elevation. So it was without remorse that, upon descending to Lauryn’s car waiting for us at Onion Valley, we happily rolled down into the valley towards a shower and a steak dinner with a fine zinfandel.

While descending from a Patagonian peak that I climbed very early one morning, an Argentinean was on his way up, and asked, “Vale la pena?” “Is it worth the trouble?” while gasping for air. I have to admit that if I had known the degree to which I would suffer on this trip, I may not have gone, but in hindsight I’m elated that I went—that I crossed such magnificent country and introduced my friend to the High Sierra in a memorable way.

As I sit here in Lone Pine with calendula salve under bandages, and ice on my foot that worked too hard to carry the load forty miles in Crocs, I revel in the memories of the experience and am anxious to get out there again—out into the cathedral that brought us face to face with the divine, and led us to realize that face to face, we are looking at the divine in each other, for nothing else exists but that.

What are superficial wounds and strained muscles compared to the experience of the sublime realms of this planet? These experiences seem to be what I am here for—to have them and share them through word and photograph.


6 Responses to “a walk in the high sierra”

  1. 1 joe
    August 26, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Great photos! Absolutely you are the master!

    Next on Tom’s list of accomplishments; learning about foot-gear! Crocks! They don’t call ’em Crocks for nothing, do they.
    \Was this recently, or from another time?

    What are the coordinates on a map for this area?

    • August 30, 2010 at 12:43 pm

      the crocks were a life-saver. i was SOOOO grateful to have them with me, and so was lauryn. the blisters came from trusty old boots that had a new rip in the internal fabric. then, i made the mistake of using a high-tech blister bandage instead of trusty duct tape.
      the trip originate just south of lone pine, CA at horseshoe meadows, ended west of independence, CA at onion valley. we did the trip last week, and are healed up and headed out on another 6 day now.

  2. 3 basil gavin
    August 27, 2010 at 9:05 am

    Tom and Lauryn,
    Whew. I envy the hike but I’ll pass on the Troubles.*
    Janis and I, when a wee bit younger (81&80),spent many a long weekend in the Sierras, usually closer to Berkeley. There were many a night that we would roll out sleeping bags after midnight friday.
    The closest we got to where you traversed was when we went up Bubbs Creek to see Lake Reflection, west of Forester Pass. We never got to do the Lone Pine/Onion Valley trip, though had it on our list. Walter Starr was our mentor. His guide book has an excellent map. (You might like to read ‘Missing in the Minarets: The Search for Walter A. Starr, Jr.’)
    Look forward to meeting you. We live on Navarro Ridge. Another flickr site I have is to be pictorial tour of our family history with interest to you perhaps on how we put together our place here fro scratch http://www.flickr.com/photos/freebern32. More Serious stuff at finfin1.
    * I too had troubles with my heel. The “fatty” tissue on the bottom of the heel had spread due to wearing thin tennis sneakers for many years, yes in the Sierras. A good solution was reached. I wear a thin heel cup which capture the fatty tissue and give me the cushion I need.

  3. 4 Chad
    August 27, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Si, claro que vale la pena!!! When I was 13, I spent 80 days on the trail in the North Cascades, with new boots and a new pack…. I learned a lot of spiritual lessons, but the most important practical one: never take untested new equipment on a long hike. I sympathize with your pack troubles. My pack turned out to be the squeakiest piece of garbage, and my boots basically took care of my high-arches… for the rest of my life. Pero, si, valio la pena. c.

  4. 5 Irene D. Thomas
    August 29, 2010 at 10:30 am

    hi Tom,

    Your writing rises with your elevation! Tales of your adventures still make my heart beat faster. And now, knowing that you’re with a partner who is as tough and fearless as you warms my old-fashioned heart too.

    May you indeed heal quickly.

    News of us will come by email.

  5. 6 Vicki
    September 5, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    How I envy you two! You experience for me, and your heartbeats fly through the air to my own.
    We are planning a cruise up the North Atlantic from New York to Montreal. October 11-22. Can’t fly but can ride on the sometimes turbulent water which has a thrill all it’s own.
    I feel your love, for me and for each other, and I love you for it.

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