My Week in the High Sierras – August 2018

img_4916My wife married a guy with a hiking problem.  This problem is one of my life’s great joys.  Not the same kind of prideful joy that my kids give me or the kind of loving joy I feel when I’m around Cindy either.  It is a joy of being free from worry and the fullness of being centered without the commonness of today’s distractions.  You see, hiking follows a daily rhythm that by definition drives you to do little more than a single thing, hike.  You cannot be more centered than waking up to do nothing more than to hike.  If you choose not to hike, then you aren’t doing that very thing.  

A hiking day is simple.  Worry-free.  Thought-filled.  While your head might cycle through many, many thoughts in a day, and yes, there’s the occasional worry about that which you largely can’t control, most thoughts come free from stress or negativity.  Life’s basics, eating, drinking, breathing, staying cool, staying warm, staying protected from the sun and resting come into complete focus while life’s extras fall almost completely away.  Your cell phone mostly doesn’t work, news largely does not exist and weather, while a factor, is pretty predictable in the Sierras.  Cold at night, warm and sunny during the day on most summer days and dry.  Dryness that seems unnatural to a right coaster like me.   The biggest daily worries come in the form of the basics:  Can I stay healthy?  Will I find water?  Will all of my gear remain reliable?  Where am I and where am I going (literally and sometimes figuratively). In short, I like this rhythm.  A lot.  What better way for me to share why then through another 5,000 words or so on the absolutely mundane?  To bribe you through it, I’ll pepper in a few pictures along the way.  Enjoy. 😉


A hiking day is fairly repetitive.  I like this.  No.  I LOVE this.  When I get off of the trail I yearn for such repetitiveness.  Most days I wake with the sun between 5:45-6am.  When I hike out west this feels late and indulgent as my internal clock largely wants to already be awake. Once up, I dress in reverse layers.  This means I put on what I want to hike in first and then layer up over that as most mornings from 6:30-8 are in the high 30s, low 40s at 10,000 feet.  Then I remove any extra clothes from my sleeping bag and stuff the sleeping bag into its stuff sack.  Doing this warms me up from the chill that sets in for those first few minutes when you are out of the bag.  Then I repack clothes into their respective stuff sacks.  Camp clothes in one stuff sack and extra hiking clothes into another.  Next I pull on my Dirty Girl gaiters, something I frequently forget to do before putting on my shoes which requires a loud I’m-an-idiot groan and then the removal of your recently laced up shoes since these gaiters won’t slide over shoes.  Then unzip the tent, lace up each shoe just right (tied tight as the laces allow is the way I like my hiking shoes) and finally step out of the tent.  All of that takes 8-10 minutes most mornings, maybe more if meditation is part of the scene – it wasn’t for me on this hike.

Once out of the tent I found myself hustling off to the bathroom.  Again, my internal clock wondering why I didn’t take care of this 2-3 hours earlier.  Dig hole, do business, fill hole and walk back to camp as if you were just out for a morning stroll but knowing you aren’t kidding anyone.  Back to packing up.  From this point, camp is all about one step after another to eventually get started hiking.  Remove all items from the tent.  Take down tent, roll up tent, collapse tent poles, gather stakes.  If we are eating a hot breakfast, Tom boils water.  Sometimes I filter water during this time, sometimes after breakfast.  Pack packing depends on breakfast.  The bear bin goes into the pack second which typically requires pack packing to pause until breakfast is done and teeth are brushed so the bear bin can be closed back and stowed.  In my pack, the bear bin only goes into the pack vertically.  It simply won’t fit horizontally.  Then clothes sacks are crammed into each side of the bear bin for balance, followed by the sleeping bag and then random items that don’t have a great home.  Cinch the top of the pack only to invariably realize you left something out.  Uncinch, add in aforementioned item that was left out and recinch.  Snacks, maps, phone go in the top pouch.  Water filter, extra layers, sleeping pad in the outside mesh area.  Then tent poles and water bottles.  Almost there. 

During this time of pack packing, there are days where push-ups occur (6-8 sets of 20 reps with a minute of rest between) for no reason other than Tom started doing this many hikes back and we tend to keep doing it.  This may or may not cause you to pull a pectoral muscle and possibly contemplate if this is what a heart attack feels like, right Tom?  All while doing this the sun comes up more and more, the layers continue to come off as you warm up and you can generally pack, put sunscreen on and be ready to walk immediately after the last rep.  From this point we make camp look like we didn’t stay there, grab our hiking poles, hats and sunglasses, take one last peak at the map or the Guthooks app (online hiking map that leverages GPS for location) and hike on.  There is sometime an unsaid negotiation on who hikes out first – this is a bigger deal on the AT than out west where the first hiker out tends to clear the spider webs spun overnight.  Elapsed time:  45-60 minutes from the time you emerge from the tent.  Hiking before 8am feels right.  After 8am feels late.


img_8640This is the easy part.  Left, right, left, right, left…  One foot in front of the other.  A normal hiking day of roughly 12-14 miles will get you about 22-25,000 steps.  Add in another 3,000 or so steps in each camp (morning and night) and you easily find 30,000 steps a day.  These steps come in all shapes and sizes.  Out west, they are typically dusty steps.  Sometime rocky.  Rarely level.  Rarely shaded and even less frequently wet.  Out east, the steps are damp, sometimes rocky mostly shaded and also rarely level.  Most trails frequent or follow water.  Water is life.  Truly rejuvenating to your physical body but also to your mental body.  Listening to water while walking is deeply calming even while at times quite loud.  There’s something mysterious about water near trails.  Where is it coming from?  Where is it going?  Mostly, it is inviting.  On the hottest days, it is hard not to think about being in it.  On the coldest days, getting in it is a life-arresting thought.  As you walk your mind changes.  Early in a hiking day or shortly after a rest break your mind is fresh, walking is effortless and your destination is nowhere near the front of your mind.  Late into a hiking day or several hours without a break your senses desperately put together images of your destination.  A flat shaded rock or sometimes even a building in the woods.  A great place to rest or an even more inviting place to camp.  As you hike further and further seeing this spot your mind starts to compromise on what would make an acceptable camp or break.  These times can be the toughest of the hiking day as stopping at a great place, with great access to water and a breathtaking view is always the goal.  After a full day of hiking, not attaining the goal can make for a tougher evening.  But, when the goal is met…those are the camp spots I most remember.  Each week of hiking has at least 3-4 of these spots.  The spots are never the same.  Often hard to describe or compare.  But always leave an indelible mark on your hiking memory.  I have dozens and dozens of these spots amongst the stuff in my memories. 

img_8635The hiking day is a time for thoughts and a time for no thoughts.  Tom and me make agendas each time we start out on our hike.  There are times in the day where agenda topics are just perfect for hiking and there are times of the day when they would never fit.  These times are rarely spoken or negotiated.  Speaking on the trail is nuanced.  If you are the primary speaker than positioning yourself behind who you are speaking to is best.  If there’s intended to be a dialog then sometimes these are best for camp or a break.  Tom and me often, again without speaking about it, leave topics to tougher spots on the trail.  Big climbs, technical ascents or descents or long flat stretches work well for agenda topics.  Mostly, the topics are best addressed when we are hiking near each other.  Early mornings are best left for thoughts.  So are late afternoons.  The time where you are walking alone with your thoughts are some of the best parts of hiking.  As I get older, I find myself praying or spending time in gratitude.  Each hike I typically bring a few thoughts that I need more time with.  This past hike, my Mom and oldest son Will filled these spots.  Mom’s memory isn’t as good as it once was and that worries me.  Thinking how to be a better son to her as she ages took up more of my thoughts. My oldest is less than three years from leaving home for the next phase of his life.  Finding meaningful time with him gets harder and harder.  Seeing more and more of me in him is also hard.  Sharing a few words with him on how proud he makes me is the hardest of all at times.   These thoughts filled my head.  Are there solutions to thoughts like these?  Not really.  I wish I could say that these thoughts chart a different course for me but I’m not sure that’s fully true.  Can small changes come from being aware of these thoughts?  I hope so.  I do feel grateful to spend time with these thoughts because they are so fleeting and pushed around by so many other of my life’s daily distractions when I’m not hiking.  Hiking is about an offering of time and focus.  This is the most rewarding part of my journeys.  Never the destination.  In fact, the destination achieved comes with much sadness.  The end of the journey.  The end of the quiet.  The end of less over more.  The return to so much in an odd way can feel like less.  Finally, the hiking comes with some truly incredible thoughts.  Hiking brought me marriage.  The undeniable thought that I want to be around Cindy always.  Hiking brought me courage and confidence.  The thought that I can do anything I give my time and focus.  Hiking reminds me of all of the good things I can miss while focusing on so many little things.  Friendships.  The power of doing nothing.  Seeing nature.  Being uncomfortable.  Seeing discomfort bring new comforts.  Living simply.  Oh yeah, and hundreds of pictures of landscapes that never look as good in the picture as they do when I’m there.   


img_8653An ideal arrival at camp in my opinion is 4pm.  This comes with some caveats.  First, at least 12 miles must have been hiked.  I rarely feel good stopping before 12 miles. Earlier is ok if you crushed it to get there or if the weather says so or if the day before of after calls for extraordinary mileage.  Last caveat?  Camp must be a good spot. Typically this means an inspiring view but it can also mean access to water.  There’s a sweet spot when it comes to altitude as well.  Especially out west.  Below 9,000 feet and your are likely to be warm and the bug count is higher.  Above 11,000 feet and you might be getting into the tent early to stay warm.  Lastly, the spot should be suitable for the size of your hiking party and should avoid being in a spot not designated for camping unless you are desperate.  Once camp is selected the next decision is where to put the tents.  This can truly only be determined by laying down in the spot prior to putting your tent down.  Eyeballing a flat spot will almost guarantee your feet are higher than your head (not great) or your are shimmying back to the uphill side of your tent all night.  Once determined the pack is unpacked, the tent ground cloth, a plastic sheet for me, goes down, then the tent gets staked, then poles and depending on altitude and weather outlook, the fly to cover the tent.  A tent fly equals both warmth and protection from weather.  Whenever possible, it should be left off.  This said, there’s nothing worse than scrambling in the middle of the night to pull it to your tent.  On this past hike, I slept without my tent fly exactly one night out of six – a night at 8,500 feet of altitude without a cloud in the sky.  The star-filled view is hard to describe at 3am in the darkness and desolation of the Sierras.  One note, tent fly or no tent fly, I find my mid-forties self seeing these stars at least once a night where in hikes in the past this was almost never the case. img_8648

After the tent, the the sleeping bag is unpacked and left to air in the tent with any items that won’t be used at camp.  It should be noted that outside of dirty clothes that have been dried, a first aid kit and maybe the empty pack itself, very little falls into the category of items that don’t get used at camp.  After shelter, the next priority is typically either “clean” camp clothes or water filtration.  I like to sit in my sweat-soaked hiking clothes as long as possible to speed the drying process which typically means water filtration happens.  On days at higher elevations where it is colder, I typically just layer camp clothes right over my hiking clothes as every layer tends to be needed.  As I have aged, my passion for changing out of my hiking clothes has waned.  I almost always get out of the hiking shorts, but the shirts I typically wear as the base layer.  Judge away – I can take it.  This past trip water filtration mean pulling out the Sweetwater filter and pumping between 90 and 150 times a bottle to fill up the 64 ounces each that we carry.  We’ll drink between 64 and 96 ounces in a typical night (often 128 to 160 ounces during the day).  Of all the camp chores, water filtration is easily my least favorite.  Tom and me have a slightly unspoken rule that he cooks (i.e. boil the water) and I filter (i.e. pump the water).  Sawyer gravity filters on our next trip might shake up these separation of duties a bit…  #NoMorePumping 

After camp prep, the next job is nutrition.  Freeze dried meals are our go to main course.  Think 700 salt-filled calories in a bag.  We supplement with aged gouda cheese, some form of crackers, maybe a bar of some kind, trail mix and dark chocolate-covered almonds. This eating happens over 90 minutes while sitting on our sleeping pads against a rock of some kind and map-gazing, view-watching and journal-writing.  These last hours of light go by fast and when gone your goal is to extend warmth against the ever-dropping temperatures long enough to see a good view of stars before calling it a night around 8:30pm and crawling into the tent.  Once in the tent I might take a few minutes to read, get a little homesick with pictures from my iPhone and general rustling to set the tent up just right before dozing.  A good sleep consists of 4-6 hours of sound uninterrupted sleep and then the tossing and turning begins.  This means about every 30-45 minutes you have to turn over to avoid soreness setting in.  While this isn’t deep sleep, it tends to get the job done.  A night’s rest on the trail is incredibly restorative.  You can get done hiking with little left in the tank, feel slight soreness set in as you cool down and settle into camp and amazingly after 10-11 hours of laying down in the tent you wake up with a great bit of energy and little residual soreness.  I should heed this lesson more at home where I tend to get 4-5 hours less sleep each night than I do on the trail.

So that’s the routine.  Yes, quite routine.  Hiking days are all different and always have their own set of challenges, highlights and lowlights.  Highlights are typically a super peaceful resting spot, or an agenda topic where time (and miles) fly by or the achievement of a tough stretch of hiking (typically ascending or descending) or something dealing with cold water.  It’s possible that great memories hiking can be made in the interactions you have with other hikers.  Like the time Tom and me met Elizabeth Gilbert’s (author of “Eat, Pray, Love”) father in Vermont on the A.T. or some guy in the sierras who hiked the A.T., the P.C.T. and the Continental Divide Trail, some of them multiple times. 


This August (2018), Tom and me called an audible from the trip near the Oregon border to revisit a loop trail we hiked in 2005, thirteen years ago.  Arguably, the best Sierras section we have yet to hike.  The concern over smoke north of Tahoe helped us call this audible.  This year’s forest fires in California have been some of the worst on record.  Note that I’m avoiding all political or climate change commentary on this point.  We hike the 60 mile loop from North Lake to South Lake, spending time on the John Muir Trail (this guy spent his life hiking the Sierras and mapping out the best for a trail named after him) and Pacific Crest Trail.  The section is filled with amazing glacial lakes, forest-filled canyons, large running streams (filled with water after a heavy snow season) and multiple high passes nearing the 12,000 mark.  Once we completed this section we tacked on another 20-25 miles (?) of side trails taking us over very lightly used trail and connecting us to where we started with very little road walking.  One of my cherished friendships is with Tom with who I have been fortunate to hike most of my A.T. miles and all of the P.C.T. miles.  He’s a great friend who defines hiking compatibility.  I often wonder whether I would have the courage or desire to hike if I didn’t have a friend like Tom to hike with.  I hope I never have to find out the answer to this question.  At the same time I hope I can provide my kids with the experience that my Dad had the courage to provide me and my brother with when we were younger.  Hope needs to be action or they may not fully experience the joy I have felt from my days outdoors putting one foot in front of the other on a trail.

Click here to see the photo album from this trip.