Monday, September 21, 2009
Fear, Pain, Granite, Hope
About a mile into our hike to Twin Lakes, which perch in a cirque high in the Desolation Wilderness, I confessed to Anne that I had been fearing this two-night car camping trip more than any outdoor trip ever. This was astonishing to me, since I have been on some scary trips. In 1993, I got into a helicopter that dropped me, two other Americans, and a Russian photographer in the absolute middle of roadless nowhere in the bogs of Siberia. The pilot had a crudely drawn map of where to pick us up in two weeks. Scary. Rafting the Zambezi, a river with fierce crocodiles and fiercer hippos? Also scary. I liked to ensure that there was at least one person sleeping between me and the river.
But I had been absolutely petrified of driving up CA Highway 50, camping at the perfectly nice Wrights Lake campground (running water included, though the potties were pit, not flush), and going on a hike with Anne. I was afraid of full-body cramps and spasms that would make me cry out in the night. I was afraid of a week or more of relapse into fuzzy-headed, queasy, achy, crampy fatigue. I was afraid my various cranky and creaky bits would simply not allow me to sleep on the ground anymore, even with extra foam under my ThermaRest. I was afraid of seeing once again, in a new arena, how poorly my current state of fitness compares to my fitness of three or four or five years ago. And I was afraid that I would push myself beyond what I thought were my reasonable limits
I was not particularly afraid of being humiliated by Anne's superior hiking prowess. Even at my most mighty, I could never keep up with Anne on an uphill grind. And I tried really hard not to compare my un-hiking self of September 2009 to my backpacking self of 2002 or 2004. I even tried not to remember my backpacking self of 2006, when I developed full-body cramps for the very first time after a hard day's uphill work. Every time I moved any part of me, bits would spasm: rib cage, abdomen, back, inner thighs, shoulders - even parts that hadn't been very much involved in the climb. I cried out so loud and so often that Anne was kind of embarrassed about what the campers down the lake might think.
Just four weeks ago, a couple of days of hard physical effort getting ready for Mom and Dad's 50th anniversary party had brought on a slight reminder of the full-body extravaganza, as well as the week of mild relapse. So I had lots of historical data about what could happen to me during the kind of exertion that I could experience during a high mountain hike.
Twin Lakes was about the easiest hike out of Wrights Lake that would get you up into the granite, and granite was what this trip was all about. I love granite, especially the luminous Sierra Nevada granites, and I had been pining for it ever since our Alaska cruise reminded me of how great the mountains are just a couple hours from home.
So I laced on my new boots (REI swapped out the Merrells for lighter Vasques); we packed lunch and water and a layor or two against the uncertain-looking weather, and set off from our walk-in campsite to the trailhead on the other side of the lake. The first twenty minutes or so went quite well, as I concentrated on keeping my pace slow and steady, engaging my core for big steps up, breathing through my nose.
Pretty soon I had co-opted Anne's trekking poles and was beginning to feel my muscles fatiguing. It took what seemed like hours to reach the trail fork at 1.4 miles, but the sheets of granite, Jeffrey pines, and views down the western slope of the Sierra were amazing. It seemed worth it. After the fork we sidehilled over a bit before pushing up a wall of granite where the trail was mostly marked by trail ducks, piles of rocks set out at irregular intervals.
I was starting to feel queasy, lightheaded and uncoordinated, as well as extremely tired and dry-mouthed. A bit of altitude, probably, as we went up from 7000 to 8000 feet. I wasn't feeling too bad aerobically, though some of the steep bits made me pant quite seriously. I was just very, very tired. We came across a troop of Boy Scouts, loud and energetic, running up parts of the trail, ignoring their leader. Lots of other hikers passed us. I was used to that from my Slow Fat Triathleting.
At about mile 2.2, I started getting really cranky. We had been up another steep up, and the lake was nowhere in sight. I was seriously exhausted, but it's very hard to turn around on a trail that promises an exquisite alpine lake. I wanted that lake to appear and I wanted it NOW. "Where's the f---in' lake?" I yelled at Anne, who was ambling easily ahead. "Soon!' she promised.
It really did not feel soon, and my crankiness increased. But the lake was in fact exquisite, pure, blue, dotted with islands, nestled among peaks of at least three different kinds of granite. Lunch was accidentally sparse as we had left the cheese in the cooler in the car, and I was having a hard time choking down what we had. After some food and a rest though, things were better. Anne read a couple of chapters about Maud Flynn, who was plain, clever, and bad, and we listened to the Scouts running around the lake, and then leaving. Eventually, I plucked up my courage for the descent. A couple of cramps as I got up made me nervous. We set off.
Again, I had a burst of optimism at the beginning which proved wholly unwarranted. Leaning on Anne's trekking poles, I made my way painfully down huge steps hewn of the beautiful granite, among tree roots, through large rocks and small ones. I couldn't believe how steep the down was - but it certainly helped explain why the up had been so very trying. We missed the trail for a while, mistaking stray rocks for trail ducks, and scrambled across the mountain for a while until we ran into it. Usually we're prepared and have maps, but this was kind of a half-assed trip in some ways.
I tried to appreciate the beauty around me, but things were hurting and I was stumbling, twisting my ankles and jarring my back. The boots fit great though. No hot spots or blisters. Just aches from the pounding of my weight on the rocks below. Gravity plus weight equals less fun in the mountains. Having less weight would mean more fun.
Anne, bless her, went and got the car once we got to the trailhead. Along with the forgotten cheese, we had icy Diet Pepsi in the cooler, the best beverage I had ever consumed. I had some cramping, but I downed a massive amount of ibuprofen back at the campsite, and later on I was able to move around with just kind of average post-exertion soreness. We dined on Thai vegetable curry and chewy brown rice, pretending to be backpackers, a bit. I built a fire; we read more about Maud Flynn. The stars were blazing, and I felt content.
No screaming pain in the night, no pounding headache the next morning, altitude or no. I had pushed myself too far. A reasonable decision would have been to turn back after an hour of hard hiking or maybe an hour and a half. I had let my ego drive me; my eagerness to reach a goal; my idea of how fit I should be as opposed to how fit I am. I had ignored my body's pleas for mercy and forced it to endure past the point where I should have quit. The accomplishment of reaching the lake was memorable, and I think it turned out not to have been a mistake. I feel some glimmer of hope that I might be able to work up to some real mountain trips, maybe next year. But I have to do some practicing.