The wind howled down the canyon, a banshee wailing and moaning, whipping the giant trees back and forth. I was pelted with pine needles ripped from their branches as equally as I was pelted by the slashing rain. If the temperature dropped much more that rain could easily turn into sleet but since the day should be getting warmer I didn’t think I needed to worry about that too much.
“At least it isn’t hailing.” It’s the little things in life. “Yet…”
Several hours had passed since leaving the camp next to Palisade Lakes and I hadn’t made it very far. The conditions had deteriorated with the wind picking up speed and the rain falling harder and harder. The trail had become a raging torrent as water from the higher elevations rushed down it. The sections that weren’t under water were muddy and slippery, making every step treacherous.
Plus, the trail had gotten exponentially steeper the further away from the lakes I climbed. So, on top of the weather I was also fighting a losing battle against gravity while working on thinner and thinner oxygen. Conditions were not ideal.
Knowing that the trail was going to be in poor shape and that climbing up to Mather Pass was going to take a lot of out me, I had waited for as long as possible to consume my granola bar. The time had come, though, and I withdrew it from my pocket, while seeking temporary shelter under a dense canopy of tangled branches, and proceeded to make it disappear. I didn’t savor it. I didn’t enjoy it. I solely craved its hidden energy.
When it was gone, I left my temporary shelter, my little place of sanctuary and respite, and re-entered the storm. I really had hoped that the worst of the weather was behind me. After enduring what I’d already been through it was only natural to assume and hope that things would be good for the rest of the trip. I didn’t fully believe in karma, but as I liked the idea of it, I wondered what I had done to bring that sort of treatment upon myself.
“It must have been a doozy.”
I trekked on. And up. And on and up some more until I reached the last stand of trees I could see before the long unsheltered climb to the pass. The electrical storm hadn’t been nearly as bad as some of the previous ones, but it was still up there and I didn’t want to attempt the pass until it moved on. Rain and hail were fine. Even snow would be okay. But I did not want to make the mistake of being the tallest thing up among the clouds with all that electricity bouncing around.
I found as secluded and sheltered a spot as I could, swung my pack off my back and rested it up against a tree, and then I rested my back against it to wait until the lightning had moved to a different valley, preferably, or, at least, until it moved a few miles further away.
Then, I waited some more.
When I was done with that, I kept on waiting.
At first, I entertained myself by watching the rain filter through the trees and by counting the time lapse between each brilliant flash of lightning and the ground shaking thunder that followed. When I tired of that game I pulled a deck of cards out of my backpack and played a handheld version of solitaire. That didn’t last very long as the moisture in the air started to “melt” the cards and I had to put them away before they were destroyed. I was going to grab a book and spend some time reading but decided it would probably face the same fate as the playing cards so I opted against it.
Instead, I decided to pull out my lunch supplies and eat a bit early. There was nothing like some canned ham, crackers, and dried apples to really pick up my mood on a miserable rainy day in the backcountry. In truth, it worked. Part of that was just because it replaced the nutrients and calories I had burned off that morning, and part of that was just because I really liked it.
What’s that old adage? “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Well, there you go. Some canned ham and crackers and I’m all yours. Yes, I really am that simple.
As I ate, the rain seemed to start to let off a bit. It was still coming down consistently but the drops were getting lighter and smaller. The storm was moving on. I wasn’t really counting the gap anymore but the time between lightning flash and thunder peel was increasing. From my vantage point I could even see the lightning strikes, cloud to cloud and cloud to ground, moving down the valley away from the pass.
By the time I had finished eating, put away my lunch mess, and repacked my backpack the rain had stopped completely. I forced myself to wait a full twenty minutes after my last bite before I hit the trail again. It was an agonizing twenty minutes. I was worried about the storm turning around. I was worried about having enough time to make the pass and get down to a decent camp on the other side before it got dark. I was worried that I was once again summiting a pass in less than ideal conditions by myself.
After the twenty minutes had come and gone, I hit the trail with renewed energy and vigor. I still had to be careful with every foot placement as the rocks were still slick with rain and the trail was a muddy mess but not having the driving rain pounding down on my head made it all seem so much easier. I had the extra spring back in my step that I had been missing all day.
My renewed energy didn’t last too long, though, as the terrain took its toll on me. The muddy trail turned into loose rocks and hard granite slabs where it felt like a giant slip and slide and every step forward resulted in sliding back an equal distance. My knees screamed at me. My hips burned in protest. My shoulders cried out for relief. My leg muscles argued with me every step of the way until finally going numb from the exertion.
“They won’t be numb tonight though,” I grunted as I hauled myself up another set of granite stair steps cut into the canyon wall. I often wondered if the trail crews that had constructed the staircases in the Sierra were comprised of giants due to the extreme height of some of the steps. Under normal circumstances they were difficult. With a heavy backpack on your back they became painful. In the conditions I faced I marveled that I was able to overcome them at all.
“Yet another reason why backpacking in the Sierra is not for the faint of heart.”
I finally reached the top of Mather Pass and while I normally would have dropped my pack, enjoyed the panoramic views and rested for a few minutes, I didn’t do any of those things. I didn’t want to take the time. I didn’t want to waste the energy or the daylight. In any case, I was no longer in a good enough mood to enjoy the views anyway.
I knew that all I needed to do was drop down into the Upper Basin area and there would be plenty of places to get fresh water and therefore plenty of places I could camp if I needed to. But, I really wanted to make it to where the trail intersected the South Fork of the Kings River because there would be two things that would make the evening more bearable: better tree coverage for sheltering purposes and the potential for a fire if the weather permitted. The spot I was thinking of was only a few miles away, and in good weather wouldn’t have been a problem at all to reach.
However, as painful and tiring as uphill is, in wet conditions downhill can be far worse. Every step can literally turn into a slip and slide that sends you plummeting down the trail or, worse case scenario, off the trail into a chasm. There are plenty of places where a misplaced step can send you tumbling hundreds and even thousands of feet.
In my youth, my invisible and indefatigable youth, I hated switchbacks. They seemed like a giant waste of time and energy. Why would I want to hike back and forth up and down the side of a mountain when it would be quicker and shorter just to hike straight up the side? In the wisdom, and humility, that comes with age I had completely flip-flopped on the matter. Switchbacks were life savers. They kept you from picking up too much speed going downhill and they kept the angle of descent a little less anguishingly painful on your knees.
Well, that’s how it was for me, anyway. I know there are some seasoned packers out there that never outgrew the opinions from our younger years. They still saw switchbacks are more of guidelines on where the trail should be rather than feeling obliged to stick with them all the time. “There more of a set of guidelines than actual rules,” I said in my best Geoffrey Rush impression from The Pirates of the Caribbean.
“Oh, what I’d give for some rum right now.”
I didn’t actually want it right then, but it would have been nice to have it tucked away in my pack somewhere (in a bear canister) to enjoy while sitting around the fire. It would certainly help the fire warm me up. Alas, I had none.
Over the years I have contemplated various ways of packing in one form of alcohol or another. But, eventually I have always decided against it. Beer, liquor and wine all violate my first rule of packing: they work against staying properly hydrated. It was a shame though, because it sure sounded good.
The weather stayed clear on my entire descent. I made it through the Upper Basin area without any problems and was making good enough time that I continued down to the spot I had hoped to make it to along the Kings River. Once there, I set up camp, including the rain fly on the tent and putting my backpack back into its trash bag, and set about getting dinner started so I could get some warm food into me.
There would be no fishing. There would be no fire. I didn’t have the energy or time for either. And, after I finished eating it began to rain again anyway so I quickly secured my hastily assembled camp and then dove into the dry comfort of my tent. I did remember to grab my book out of my backpack before scrambling to safety so I would have something to pass the time until I either feel asleep or the cloud burst ceased.
I hoped it would only be a short lived squall and I’d be able to stretch my legs and walk around a bit before returning to my tent to sleep for the night. But, based on the recent days, I wouldn’t have placed any bets on that hope. And I am a betting man.
Word Count: 1,919
Total Word Count: 20,682
Story progress: While this chapter is sort of a return to “filler,” I was fairly happy with how it turned out. I’m trying to really lay a ground work for the extreme conditions faced while traversing through the backcountry and think I’m doing an okay job of that at least. Passed the 20K word mark so that is fun. I wonder what is going to happen in the next 30K?