Am I Going To Die Today? – Day 12 on the JMT
Am I going to die today? That’s not a thought I ever think will cross my mind on a backpacking trip, but it sure did cross my mind many times today. As I sat there, clutching my quilt for warmth, I wondered, how did I get here? I’m smarter than this, aren’t I? But here I am, sitting in a snowstorm, only a day away from the terminus, but none of that matters anymore. I just want to make it home, on my own, without hitting the SAR (search and rescue) button on my satellite device.
A Whitney Sunrise Summit
This morning I woke up at about 3 a.m. I had already woken up a few times before and I thought maybe this was a sign that I should try and summit Mt Whitney at sunrise. I check my messages to see the latest weather reports from Garmin and David and it doesn’t look bad. Even the sky is mostly clear and I can see the stars under my tarp. Ok, let’s do this! Let’s summit Whitney at sunrise!
With that, I begin my routine, only this time in the dark. I plug both my phone and flashlight into my battery banks so they are ready to go. I change my pants and socks, but figure my shirt doesn’t matter so I keep on my wool base layer shirt instead of switching into my sun hoodie. Once I shimmy out of my bivy I begin with untying the tarp. I look at the sky and mountains again starting to question my decision. Do I want to do this? I probably won’t even see a clear view through the cloud cover today. What if it starts to snow? Inside I’m torn, but in the end, I decide to go for it.
When Plans Are Foiled
Down goes the tarp. I deflate the air mattress and pack up all of my extra clothing. All the chargers, cords, and electronics go in my hip pocket, and my water bottles go in the side pocket. I wish I had filtered water yesterday before going to bed. Oh well. I’ll have to do it on the way up the mountain. Lastly, I roll up my bivy, stow it away in the other side pocket, and load up my bear can. After one last sweep of the campsite with my flashlight, making sure I didn’t forget anything, I am ready to go. With my pack on my back and poles in my hands I step forward to conquer the towering Mt Whitney. “Ding!”
My Garmin has an alert. David has messaged me. “40% chance of snow up there tomorrow and cold AF. Literally, the worst day to try to summit. The next day will be clear with a high of 38,” he advises me. Well, shit! I just packed up my whole camp. Fuck! With that, I drop my pack and systematically proceed to re-set up my camp. I’m too tired to set up the tarp so I do everything except for that. If it starts to rain or snow, I’ll set it up at that time. By now I’m a pro at setting up camp in the dark.
I quickly crawl back into bed deciding not to change any of my clothes with the exception of my socks because my puffy socks are so much warmer. Hopefully, I don’t regret not changing my pants. Tight pants aren’t good for keeping warm because they restrict blood flow, but I’m tired… so tired. Sleep, I’ll just sleep… all day.
A Day Of Sleeping
Later that morning I woke up again at 7:30. I could hear another hiker coming down the hill, but I was too tired to poke my head out to see who it was. Instead, I fall back asleep, trying to follow through with my plan to sleep all day. I wake again a little later, and this time I do poke my head out. Maybe I should hike out. It’s so sunny.
Upon closer observation though, I see that white dots are covering my bivy sack and shoes. A moment later, I start to see more white dots wisping through the air. Darn! Snow! Ok, that cancels hiking out. Instead, begrudgingly, I shimmy once again out of my bivy so that I can set up my tarp. Looks like I’m hanging out here for the day. With all of this practice, I’m able to complete the setup of my tarp in the snap of a finger. Just in time too. The flurries begin to increase and I crawl into my bivy to sleep it out.
I drift in and out of consciousness, always deciding to go back to sleep until about noon. I can’t do this all day! The flurries are still all around me, but the sun is shining and the flurries melt instantly upon impact. Reaching out of my bivy, I grab my bag of dried apricots and my phone so I can check for messages. I don’t want to use my phone too much though. My battery banks are getting low and I’ll need my navigation if the snowpack ends up hiding the trail up to Whitney. So for now, I wait. If things are good, maybe I’ll move my tent setup closer to Whitney later today.
Sheltering In Place = Boredom
The day creeps on slowly. I know I should take this time to explore and enjoy the beauty that is all around me, but it’s so cold and it keeps snowing and hailing constantly. Not a lot, but just enough that I want to hide away in my bed. Once in a while the sun shines bright and it feels so good on my skin. I love the sun. I spend my day eating beef sticks and trying to stay hydrated. Sometimes I write in my journal, but mostly I just sit and stare at the tiniest objects around me.
I watch a fly trying to bury its face into my bivy against the cold wind. In a daze, I examine the grains of sand, consisting of varying shapes and sizes on the ground. Repeatedly, I watch the tiny dots of hail as they hit my tarp then fall to the ground and melt. I think I stared at the stitching on my bivy for at least fifteen minutes; each tiny square perfect, somehow making the fabric strong and waterproof. I forget the exact mechanics of each fabric type used in backpacking. A year ago, I remember listening to a podcast describing their properties, but my memory has never been that good. The lines of thread that make up my Dyneema tarp are much less perfect, but I remember there being a reason for that as well. My mind drifts to my insecurities for a while and I start to cry. Shake it off! You’re letting your mind wander too much. I think it’s time to take a walk.
Time To Explore
Grabbing my water bottles, I decide to head over to the creek to filter water. Across the way, I see a marmot and abandon my water-filtering quest to watch the wildlife for a while. I love marmots. They’re so cute! Eventually, he runs off, but I notice that there are marmot holes all over the surrounding terrain and in the distance, I see more marmots eating in the warmth of the sun. Making my way down the Guitar Lake inlet, I examine all the flowers, plants, rocks, and holes, until I reach the lake. At the lake, I see footprints in the sand and listen to the gentle lapping of the water against the shore. It’s so relaxing. I’m mesmerized, but eventually, I snap myself out of it and head back to filter water. Business before pleasure. I need to get this done.
And The Snowstorm Begins
At 3 p.m., with water bottles in hand, I decide that it’s time to move on. I should make my way closer to Mt Whitney so that my hike tomorrow is short and easy. It was a good thought, but short-lived before I realized that operation, “Move My Camp up to Trail Crest,” was a no-go. Just as I head back to camp to tear down, another storm starts to roll in, and this looks to be the worst one yet. Within thirty minutes the alpine meadow is covered in snow, whereas before there wasn’t a single speck of white. It doesn’t look like it’s going to let up anytime soon either. As beautiful as it is to watch, I realize that my food and battery life are dwindling. Looks like I’ll be here until tomorrow, and then I hike out, snow or shine.
The remainder of my documented journal for this day is broken up. As the snow levels increase, my stress levels increase. With each half hour that passes, I wonder if I should have just hiked out with the rest of the hikers when this storm was forecasted. Can my sleep system hold up to a snowstorm of this magnitude? I sure hope so. Although I have a Garmin device for emergencies, the last thing I want to do is push that button because I made a dumb decision.
A Timelapse Of Survival
Up until this point I was entertained watching the snow fall all around me. I love snow, and it was exciting to see the ground change from shades of green, brown, and gray, to a vast blanket of white. That is until I started to realize that this storm was a little stronger than the rest, and the snow was accumulating at a quick pace. As I sit in my bivy under my tarp only an hour after the snow has begun to fall, I notice that the left side of my tarp which is lower to the ground, is now completely closed off with snow.
As the snow falls, I see it building up on my tarp above me. Every five minutes I tap the top of my tarp so that the weight of the snow doesn’t cause my shelter to cave in, but this causes the accumulation of snow on the sides to increase at a quick pace. Eventually, the tent wall begins to give way leaning inward and causing the trekking pole support to lean. The warmth of my breath warms the interior space and the snow is melting a tiny river under me. I start to panic and text David for a weather update hoping that the storm will end soon. Unfortunately, he says it’s not going to let up for at least a few hours and I begin to cry. This is going to be bad. Why am I here?
At this stage, my tent’s wall has bowed inward to the extent that it rests against my body, sending chills through me. In an attempt to alleviate the tarp’s strain and create more space within, I vigorously strike the side walls with my fist, causing the snow to scatter, and offering a momentary reprieve. While addressing this issue, I become aware that the river beneath my sleeping pad is gradually sapping warmth from my sleep system. In a rush, I excavate a trench around my bivy to redirect the river’s flow. By this time, the opposite wall is now entirely encased in snow as well, leaving me with a feeling of entrapment.
To my relief, the snowfall starts to lighten, but won’t stop entirely. I’m still on snowpack watch duty, which basically means that every five minutes, I need to tap the top of my tarp with my trekking pole so that the snow will slide to the ground and not cause my tarp to cave in.
The warmth from my toes is beginning to drain, so I change out of my hiking compression leggings, and into my looser wool sleep leggings to help blood flow. Additionally, I warm my last frozen Snickers bar under my shirt before popping it piece by piece into my mouth. I know that consuming something containing nuts will prompt my body to exert extra effort during digestion, thus aiding in generating heat to combat the cold. Not to mention, Snickers is my chocolate bar of choice and at this moment, I could use a little happiness.
I can’t locate my flashlight. With frustration, I look everywhere, but it’s nowhere to be found. I check my backpack, in my bivy, in the bottom of my quilt, and the pockets of both my fleece jacket and my puffy jacket. Nothing! I slide my hands under my sleeping pad thinking that it might have migrated under there. Nothing! I repeat this process at least three times. Nothing! It seems like it’s just me and the dark. On the plus side, I’m back to being warm.
Tears well up once more. Even if I manage to make it through the night, the prospect of hiking out in such deep snow appears daunting. I’ll give it my best effort, but I’m growing increasingly concerned that I might have to resort to pressing the SAR button. I hope that I’m wrong. Maybe the snow is not as deep as I fear. Without my flashlight, there is no way of knowing.
The snowfall appears to be gradually diminishing, though it hasn’t completely stopped. Fortunately, I’m still comfortably warm, but sleep is not an option. I must maintain my routine of clearing snow from the tarp, fearing that if I doze off, it might accumulate to the point of collapsing on me. Thankfully, the intervals have extended to every 15 minutes, a slight improvement from the previous five. I long for the arrival of tomorrow more than ever.
It appears as though the snow has stopped, prompting me to cautiously peek out from under the tarp, hoping for signs of a clearing sky. The gentle tug on the fabric causes the rock that is supporting the back half of my tarp to come crashing down from above. Fortunately, my bear can, backpack, and the trekking pole I’ve wedged as a center support manage to keep the shelter from collapsing entirely. It’s a setback, though not a disaster. Now that the snow has ceased and I no longer need to maintain my roof-tapping routine, exhaustion takes over. I decide to accept the half-collapsed tarp as sufficient for the night, as my primary goal is to rest and gather the energy needed for tomorrow’s hike. Only 8 more hours until daylight.
Regrettably, sleep continues to evade me. With the tarp now collapsed over the top of my bivy, I begin to feel the chill, compelling me to get out of bed and rectify the situation. After slipping on my shoes, I swiftly stow everything inside the plastic bag that encases my backpack and zip the opening of my bivy closed, just in case the snow decides to cave in. Slowly, I lift the tarp, shaking off the remnants of snow. Thankfully, nothing collapses, but a bit of snow does encroach into my space from the sides. The full moon illuminates the area, allowing me to easily locate the rock and guy line nestled in the snow. However, something else captures my attention before I address the tarp’s support
An instant wave of fear washes over me as I survey my surroundings. The landscape appears entirely different from what it was earlier today. Everything is now buried under a thick layer of snow. The trail has vanished, and the bushes and boulders are nowhere to be seen—just an unbroken expanse of white. Although I can’t gauge the snow’s depth yet, I fervently hope that this was the final outburst of the storm. Regaining my composure, I lift the rock back into place, secure the line, and then reattach the tarp. Returning to the shelter, I employ my bear can to push the snow to the edges, reposition my bivy away from the snow wall, and retreat inside. My throbbing headache prompts me to take two Advil, in the hope that sleep will finally find me. I’ll need it for the challenges of tomorrow.
Finally, I am able to sleep, but I wake up freezing an hour later. I try shifting my insulation to the top of my quilt, blowing up my air mattress to increase the distance from the ground, and tightening up a loose end of the tarp that is flapping in the wind. Hopefully, the changes help, but in order to increase my body temperature quickly, I decide to make a hot cup of tea.
The heat from the flame of my burner feels good against my fingers, but regrettably, in my delirious state from lack of sleep, and while not paying attention, I lean my ankle too close to the fire and melt the outer lining of my Torrid puffy pants. Damn! It’s only a tiny spot, but the mistake angers me as I think about how much I paid for these pants. I shut off the burner, place my teabag in the water, and exercise doing flutter kicks while I wait for the tea to steep. Anything to keep my body temperature up is worth a try. My only goal tonight is to stay warm and survive the night. I owe that to my kids, my fiance, my family, and my friends.
What happens after that is a blur. I drift in and out of sleep, waiting for the dawn of the sun to come; waiting for this nightmare to end.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.