Mistakes and Mishaps and Meltdowns, Oh My!: A Backpacking Origin Story

The upcoming episode of my backpacking saga will take place on the approximately-165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail in June of this year. To a non-backpacker, that seems like a grievous undertaking. Yet to accomplished thru-hikers, that seems like a quick jaunt. To me, it seems like the exactly right challenge for where I am on this journey of mine.

My first-ever backpacking trip was nearly six years ago. I approached the odyssey with a doe-eyed naivety, believing it would be a transformative Muir-Thoreau-Ansel Adams-esque endeavor where I would come closer to nature and discover myself. The experience I had was all of that and more…it came with mistakes, mishaps, and meltdowns.

The Maiden Voyage

My first bold steps with a fully loaded pack were on the western terminus of the High Sierra Trail in Crescent Meadow of Sequoia National Park. The 50ish-pound pack on my shoulders caused my new hiking boots to sink into the soil a bit deeper. I had spent what felt like hours the night before scrutinizing every item that went into my hopelessly heavy backpack. Would I really need that much trail mix? I’ll be out there for ten days…what if I go hungry? I had to wrestle the bag up from our hotel floor and into my Prius that morning. After wrestling it from my Prius onto my back at the trailhead, I was thrilled to begin the adventure, though skeptical of my own success.

At the western terminus of the High Sierra Trail, 2018 (Also, RIP Flannel; it did not survive the first night…)

This was in the summer of 2018. A coworker, Kisha, whom I did not know very well (yet), and I had resolved to take on the seventy-three-mile High Sierra Trail. We would begin at the western end in Sequoia National Park and end at Whitney Portal in the east. Neither she nor I had ever backpacked before. I had been an avid hiker, and she had been an avid trail runner. For the two of us novice backpackers, this trek amounted to ten days. Was a ten-day and seventy-three-mile traverse of the Sierra Nevada with a person you are only slightly acquainted with the wisest choice for a first backpacking trip? The looks of several passing (and obviously more seasoned) backpackers eying our severely overpacked packs on our first day suggested “No.” The transformative experience that ensued retorted with an unequivocal “Yes.”

Day 1 on the High Sierra Trail (feat. absurdly overstuffed backpack, complete with bag of white cheddar popcorn)

But Why?

So why did I commit to such an intense hike for my first foray into backpacking? Honestly, it was a bit of summit fever. I had my eye set on summiting Mount Whitney. My dad has always fascinated me with numerous stories of his outdoor escapades. None captivated me more than his stories about climbing California’s highest mountain. For years, I had applied for the Mount Whitney lottery in the hopes of getting an overnight permit out of Whitney Portal. I even tried for the one-day permit, an option I was much less enthused about. After trying and failing to obtain a permit for any number of days, I looked into alternate routes. I found one that began in Sequoia National Park, a favorite place since my childhood, and would take approximately seven to ten days. Thus, my High Sierra Trail trek was born.

Mistakes and Mishaps and Meltdowns, Oh My!

The experience on the High Sierra Trail was, as my slightly-acquainted coworker turned one of my closest friends has stated, a singular one.

We made our mistakes, like when I had the (misguided) forethought to pack an entire bag of white cheddar popcorn yet neglected to pack bug repellant. By day three, mosquitoes had absolutely ravaged my feet. (My face and even my buttcheeks were a treat for the next day’s mosquitoes.)

Learn from my mistake: always pack bug repellant. If not, your feet could end up like this.

We had our mishaps, like when a deer ate my sweat-soaked flannel hanging from a tree on night one. Or when Kisha heard said ravenous deer, yet allowed it to devour my shirt out of fear that it was a bear.

We had our meltdowns, where tears were shed in the most spectacularly serene sceneries: the shore of a frozen alpine lake (that was a messy one), along endless switchbacks overlooking the ridgeline we had crossed over days before, and the most mega-meltdown of all, at the top of Mount Whitney.

Through the mishaps, mistakes, and meltdowns, the nature of our limitations became evident, but our ability to go beyond those limitations surpassed my expectations.

Kisha and me at the summit of Mount Whitney on Day 9 of our trip: June 30, 2018

Eight Epiphanies from Episode One

All in all,  I could write an entire novel about the lessons learned on this first venture of mine into backpacking. (The aforementioned mistakes, mishaps, and meltdowns are truly the tip of an iceberg.) It would encompass several themes about perseverance and capability, and how those apply both on and off the trail. But for now, I’ve summed it up into the following epiphanies I had (or that Kisha had, that I have duly noted) that I have carried into my successive expeditions:

  1. Always pack bug repellant during the summer in the Sierra (your feet and face will thank you).
  2. Let your body, not your itinerary, decide how many miles you make in a day.
  3. Backcountry pit toilets have some stunning views. 10/10 would recommend!
  4. Take the long lunch break at a backcountry waterfall with a breathtaking view (you may just make a treasured memory there).
  5. Do not, whatever you do, eat too many dried apricots at once…not when you’re miles from the nearest restroom.
  6. Invest in a two-way satellite communication device (it will save your worried parents or loved ones some stress).
  7. You will not eat all those Clif bars.
  8. If you can get over a mountain that seemed impossible to get over, you just might be able to get over the hurdles that hold you back in your nontrail life.

Expanding the Backpacking Resume

Following that behemoth of a maiden voyage, later outings have been opportunities to continue to hone the expertise one develops for this rigorous activity some of us call a hobby. In the years since my first backpacking trip, I have trekked a collective two hundred-or-so miles spread over nine different excursions. The majority of my backpacking has been in the wonderful wilderness areas of Arizona: Mount Baldy, Superstition, Tonto, and Coconino. Kisha and I did return to the Sierra to take on a section of the John Muir Trail in 2019. However, the snow level was above our skill and comfort levels and ultimately stopped us in our tracks. With each new voyage, despite its location, distance, or time, I have gleaned new knowledge and aptitude that I continue to develop with every mile.

Tonto National Forest, AZ; I still overpack, but I’m getting there! (Fall 2023)

The one-hundred-and-sixty-five-or-so miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail will nearly double my lifetime backpacking miles. It will take longer than any trip thus far. Undoubtedly, I will make some more mistakes, encounter more mishaps, and likely have more meltdowns. However, that just means that there is that much more to learn, not just about backpacking, but about myself.

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Comments 1

  • Richard Karlsson : Feb 5th

    Hey Rachel,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog. It’s fun for me reading about you, your adventures, and your Dad;) I look forward to your next post and in the meantime…Take care of those feet 🦶!
    Uncle Richard


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