Days later and my calves still ache, my tailbone hurts from stumbling/falling, I have a black toe from dropping a book on it, as I cleaned out my car backseat to sleep in. . . all wonderfully painful reminders of the most amazing trip this year.
Once the itinerary went out a week prior, I went into a sea of deep-doubt. WTF am I doing? This is crazy! I’m going to cancel…. all the usual b.s. It took my friend Mike from SF to sway me (“if you die, at least your body will be eaten by adorable animals, you love animals” – DO THIS!) as well as my leader from WTC (“this is a normal itinerary, your leader is a great guy”) to get my butt to the McGee Creek trailhead late Friday night. My comfort zone was again, at the limits when the leader for this trip strongly suggested to campout in the Eastern Sierras, 5 hours north of LA, the night before our 7AM departure. For the first time in my life, I was going to sleep in my car. Okay fine. I’m going. Lets do this.
As I drove into the trailhead parking area around midnight, I was greeted by two bunnies, one giant bat, a panicked deer, some scurry-critters (unofficial) and a giant green meteorite or shooting star. I thought I was hallucinating from all the driving I just did but no, we were just beyond the peak of the Perseid meteor shower so it wasn’t a stretch to see what I saw. It. Was. Surreal. I’ve arrived.
I parked and stretched and inhaled the crisp air and then I saw a group of late night hikers heading out from the trail with their headlamps a-glow. Of course after that meteor, I thought I was seeing aliens but alas, they were my nature-compadres. I snuggled up in the backseat and surprisingly actually got some sleep, since I dreamt a little. I woke up a little past 6 and made coffee and ate a bagel and greeted the group for our 6mi -in reality- 8.5 mi. hike into our camp at Big McGee Lake for the weekend. There were 7 of us total and like most nature loving people I meet, we formed a quick bond. The hike in was tough but gorgeous. We shared the trail with a lot of horses and cowboys, since there was a pack station at the trailhead. The assistant leader told this horrible story of how they came across a horse once that just died of a heart attack on the trail. The horse was laying dead in it’s own piss from the shock of it all. There were two ways to get it out once that far into the trail; chop it up or helicopter it out. They left the scene before they knew the verdict of the departure and the horse was gone on the return out. I can see how a creature could go through such an extreme; this trail was brutal – with all the natural steps that just kept going and this empty promise of a campsite on a lake that never arrived. Until finally, it did.
We set up at Big McGee Lake (10,472′) roughly 8 hours later and I immediately laid out in my tent once it was up, for a nap. I needed to not be vertical, my body hated me. I drifted in and out of not-quite-sleep when I heard mumblings from the group. “Bear…………..coming to eat you Wasim………………..use you as a toothpick……………..it’s getting closer……………” and then finally JENNY GET UP! It was about 50 feet from my tent and our camp and I tried not to look at it, that is how in denial and terrified I was of it’s presence. I was locking up my bear vault when it occurred to me that DUH I NEED TO PHOTOGRAPH THIS AMAZING ANIMAL!! He leisurely strolled along the side of our campsite as we banged pots and pans to get him to leave. He disappeared down the hill and we never saw him again, thankfully. I didn’t get my picture but hopefully someone from the group did.
Soon after the bear excitement, we had happy hour and I tried to win the award for best contribution with my whiskey and hot chocolate combo but Wasim won with his eggrolls that he “homemade.” Just as the sky got dark, people were drifting off to their tents but I insisted on staying up until the stars came out, which I did. When you do all that backpacking, going to bed early like 8/9, is pretty normal.
The next morning we left our camp as is, at about 6AM and started back on the trail for Red Slate Mountain (13,123′); 6 hrs of class 1+2 terrain over 2,900′ of gain. This was supposed to be easier than the day before but it had it’s own challenges, despite not having a 35lb backpack on. The trail started off gorgeously next to a stream and waterfall, up more natural steps and past Little McGee Lake and Junior McGee Lake (unofficial). Then the nice dirt trail disappeared and we were ascending up talus and large scree for the remainder of the climb. It took a while into the hike to finally see our final destination, Red Slate is a shy peak. Apparently this was a big occasion for some members of our group. They had tried several times before to summit but couldn’t because of weather and had to turn back. We left early enough to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms that usually happen in the Sierras.
I just didn’t understand how we were going to get up there. I thought there were switchbacks hidden on the side but that wasn’t the case. We were actually going to climb, straight up the face – no trail – no switchbacks – just pure torture and that constant clanking sound of walking on talus and large scree. I wanted to cry, it was so hard and the altitude made it even harder to breathe and move. Eventually the talus turned into straight up scrambling with large rocks that moved when you stepped on them. I kept reminding myself not to turn around or look down. We were high up and there was no escaping the fact that one slip back and you could be tumbling down the jagged talus. I thought we’d never get to the top but I heard Wasim yell – “this is it, we are here” and then miraculously, we were.
I was elated, I was alive! The view was unlike anything I’ve seen yet. All these alpine lakes below us, a panoramic view of mountains above us, we could even see the area where our campground sat. No picture could do justice but I tried to capture some semblance of the 360 degrees of uncorrupted beauty.
We hung out there, on top for a good 30 minutes while we snacked, snapped pictures and signed the registry. I wanted to be in the moment as deeply as I could and tried not think about how the hell we were going to get back down. I wished for a magical keg of beer to be hidden up there, somewhere. But just trailmix and poweraid for this girl.
There was no secret, easy, dirt trail that went down the other side of the mountain. Surprise, we were to go down the way we came up. Jesus H Christ. I just made every step count and really concentrated – this was not a daydream and enjoy the beauty type of hike. You really had to think, every step of the way. It payed off, I only slipped and fell once and it was closer to the bottom so I didn’t go too far. It happened while I was looking for heart shaped rocks, there weren’t any. It was brutal, severe and relentless – no hearts. The way down seemed even longer than the way up.
We made it back to our camp just after noon and had the whole day to do nothing. It was glorious. I just laid down for a second and tried not to sleep. There was a looming storm in the distance with the sound of thunder and faint lightening. The sun didn’t come out for the rest of the day. We avoided the storm and even saw a double rainbow and a negative rainbow (unofficial) that looked like a line of gray across the sky. We had another happy hour and this time I won with my pasta dish, which wouldn’t of won shit in the real world. But camping has simple pleasures. Warm food/drink wins people over. It got cold and people went to bed earlier than the night before. It started to rain a little and that’s when I went into my tent for the night, soon after the stars came out.
We debated our 8AM departure time and came to that consensus. It was even more beautiful on the way down because I wasn’t dropping f-bombs in my head constantly, and got to enjoy the scenery more. Definitely a better state of mind. We passed a group of hikers doing Red Slate as a DAY HIKE. Friggin bat shit cray. I just couldn’t even imagine going all the way up there from the parking lot and back, in one day. I digress, the descent was great until we got to this insanely exposed meadow that never seemed to end, the tradeoff was that it was flat. The final stretch is always the toughest. I start thinking about taking off my pants and putting on a shirt-dress, eating Taco Bell, Starbucks drive through – VENTI ME PLEASE!, peeing in a toilet…. all the luxuries of civilization. Multiple costume changes and “mexican” food in an instant. I digress, again….
Once back down we hug, we congratulate, we say our goodbyes and I’m back on the road home, finally hitting that thunderstorm off the 14. Like a boss, I just casually drove through, passing all the wimps hiding under the overpasses.
What did I learn on this trip? Well, for one, is that I can do it! I might have been the slowest but I did it and felt great after. I learned to trust myself and my instincts. I chose this trip; leave it there and not succumb to the doubt-sea. I learned that if a chill-bear is near, take a damn picture of it! I need to bring more naughty snacks. All those nuts and trailmixes are boring! I was having cheeto envy. I learned that having generous backpacking friends who lend out their gear can make a trip less stressful (thanks Gabe!). I also need to live near mountains which I also learned on this trip. The Sierras left a huge impression on me this time and I might be moving closer to a proper range, in the near future….