A walk through my name sake – The Sierra

As a Sierra growing up in Scotland it went much like this:

Hello! My name is Sierra

Hi Sarah!

No, no Sierra

Sienna!

No, no S-i-e-r-r-a

Oh….Sierra? Like the ford Sierra truck?

Well, yes, but more like the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not to be pretentious but why be a truck when you can be a whole darn mountain range?! Also, my mom is from California so it is actually from the Sierra Nevadas that my parents chose to name me after.

Before entering the Sierra

So safe to say Sierra is not a common name in Scotland so whenever I would hear my name it was pretty much guaranteed to be directed at me. Then the couple weeks leading up to the Sierra, EVERYONE was talking about me. Ok, ok it wasn’t about me, but my brain felt like it was and it took me a good week to stop listening into all the conversations around me.

I arrived at kennedy meadows (south) on June 2nd and everything was looking good, it was a below average snow year, no storms on the horizon and lots of happy hikers eager to see what the Sierra have got. Then ‘did you hear about the girl that died on forester last week?’. Turns out a 23 year old girl succumbed to altitude sickness just days before on a section we’ll be traversing in just days to come. 23 YEARS OLD. Not only did the reality of the scale of these mountains we’re about to enter hit, but I felt this internal bitterness. That’s my name sake, and like a toddler in a huff, I felt this madness at the mountain for taking such a young life.

Kennedy Meadows South to Bishop

The first 10 miles into the Sierra were a little underwhelming actually and I started to wonder if I had built them up to be more than they were. But, as they say, patience is a virtue, and it didn’t take long for the mountains to work their magic. The third night out of Kennedy we rolled up to camp, a picturesque river separated the camping spots from the glowing green meadow and just feet away stood several deer grazing. I cowboy camped that night, with the noise of running water and I literally got to watch the deer graze from my bed. It was one of those ‘THIS is why I’m out here’ moments.

In amongst the beauty I still struggled to let go of my thoughts about the young girl who had passed the week prior, especially as we got closer to Forester Pass. To know she had taken the same footsteps we were now taking. To know she had the same hopes and dreams about getting to Canada as we all do. But to know how fast that can all be taken away. Even at a young, healthy age. It’s scary. As all these thoughts are running through my mind I look up and it’s the first sighting of Whitney. I consciously choose to accept my emotions, acknowledge I’ll take extra precautions to stay safe, but ultimately I’m not out here to be scared so I fuel them into determination. I’m fortunate to be here now and I’m going to go climb that mountain.

Whitney is a side trail to the PCT so you are able to set up camp and leave a lot of your weight at camp, taking only what you need up with you. We decided to summit Whitney for sunrise so we got to camp around 2pm the day before, I had a huge dinner, drank lots of water and got into bed at 6pm with my alarm set for 11:30pm.

At midnight on the dot M&M, Zippo and I hit the trail. Once we hike past the river and get out from under the trees you see the first glimpse of the valley lit up by the moon. I truly felt like I was walking through an Ansel Adam’s photograph.

By the time we hit the switch backs the moon had disappeared behind the mountains so we were reliant on our head torches again. Back and forth, back and forth at a snails pace up the 97 switch backs. There were a handful of us all leapfrogging each other as we all adapted to the lack of oxygen. Many around me would go a little faster then pause and stop to get their breath back and I would catch up again, I personally just kept moving without any breaks but just going super steady and consciously drinking lots of water. Aside from feeling slower than a turtle through peanut butter I felt pretty great. About 4 hours in I start to realize no one had passed me for a little while, and from what I could tell there were no headlamps ahead…could I be the first one going up this mountain? That thrilled and scared me all at once. It was pitch black so I really had no idea what was around me. Occasionally my headlamp would light the rocks up to the side of me enough to know that I didn’t want to get too close to the edge!

As I make the final push over the rocky terrain to the summit I realize I am the first person to summit the highest mountain in the lower 48 of America on June 10th and it feels INCREDIBLE. This was the beginning of a two day buzz. It was like a whole new hike heading down, the rock formations blew my mind, the lakes below were glistening and the vastness of the land below us was now visible.

The following day we summited Forester Pass, the highest point on the PCT and the climb down from that encompassed all I wanted the mountains to be. The rushing rivers, iced lakes, green meadows, jagged mountain tops…I couldn’t get enough. And I AM NAMED AFTER THIS PLACE. What a privilege.

Bishop to Mammoth

The last section was where I got to fall in love with the Sierra, this section is where the mountains tested me to see how much I really loved them.

Pass after pass, up and down, physically and mentally pushing me every single day. In 7 and a half days we did 7 passes and a total of 25,000 ft elevation and 27,000 ft of decent. I was tired of the mental stamina needed to summit a pass every day. The views were incredible, and I definitely did want to see them, but those passes whipped my butt, my brain, my feet, my everything.

Some days I felt strong and powered up the steepest of ascents, others (Pincho Pass I’m looking at you) I’d sit down every 10 minutes, eating my days allowance of snacks just wondering how the heck I was ever going to make it to the top, let alone the destination for the day. It definitely was rewarding, but after 7 days I was starting to be ready to sacrifice the incredible views for some easier terrain so I could go back to enjoying the more simple things.

On top of the physical challenge, Muir Pass threw us a snow storm to keep us on our toes. I’m hiking with my Sierra-sidekick Zippo and it starts to get a little cloudy as we’re heading up the 11,955’ pass. Clouds eventually turn into light snow, then within minutes the light snow turns into winds strong enough to knock you sideways. Growing uncomfortable with the situation I ask Zippo, ‘Is this a bad idea?’. We weigh up the options: 1 – to turn around, undoing our hard work and attempt setting up a tent in this storm. Or, 2 – power through the remaining 1.3 miles and make it to a hut on the pass. Knowing the hut is made of stone and safe from lightening we settle on the later. What we both failed to consider was how much longer 1.3 miles takes in a storm with inches of fresh snow, when you can’t see where you’re going in winds you can barely progress forwards in. Safe to say it was a slow, miserably cold and pretty scary situation to be in. As you can tell, of course we made it, but that situation humbled us, taught us respect for the mountain clouds and honestly physically and mentally wiped us out.

On top of the challenges of this section, from day one of the Sierra I had been battling a leukotape rash. Leukotape is a staple in most hikers gear, used to help with blisters and as a ligament/tendon/joint support. I was using tape on both ankles to help combat the overpronation of my feet. I wore the tape on and off through 702 miles in the desert without a problem, but night one in the Sierra and I’m woken up with incessant itchiness where the tape was. Through the entire Sierra (almost all 4 weeks of it) the rash worsened, spreading to most of my foot and the worst parts of it turning to blisters. The storm on Muir was the most effective relief I found, the icing effect of being pelted with snow for two hours numbed it enough for it to eventually start the healing process and by the time I entered the last section of the Sierra it was mostly healed. This rash is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with on the hike so far and it’s safe to say I’ll be keeping my distance from leukotape from now on!

Mammoth to Kennedy Meadows North

This was the section where the mosquitos got worse, but the passes got easier. Easing up on the physical challenge allowed me to start noticing and appreciating the detail around me again, all just in time for Yosemite. Unlike most, I wasn’t at all bothered about approaching Yosemite, I had been twice before, and thought I knew what to expect. The first time I visited the park we drove through it with just the odd short stop, and where as it was enjoyable it really wasn’t that mind blowing. The second time, last year, we did a day hike up to Clouds Rest which did teach me how getting above the tree line was where the magic was, but the hike itself still wasn’t all that. This time I appreciated the park in a whole new way. Several days in the backcountry boasted glistening green meadows, granite rock formations towering above the pine trees and rushing waterfalls. I found so much to love in the small details of the trail.

As we prepared to leave the Sierra, one final view point boasted the dramatic view of granite turning into Mars-like red rock. Just like climbing out of Walker Pass where I could see the desert turning into the Sierra, I could now see the Sierra transitioning into Northern California. We work so hard to get to these important milestones, so the visual representation of where we’ve been transitioning into where we’re going is really impressionable for me.

Leaving a little bit of my heart in the Sierra

If it weren’t for being named after the Sierra, I don’t know I would have ever ended up on the PCT. I have so much to be grateful for towards this incredible mountains range and being able to call her home for 4 weeks will stay in my memories for a life time. She’s challenging, keeps you on your toes, a little bit moody, but all in all, worth it if you stuck at it….a little like someone else I know?! 🙄😂 Thank you Sierra, from Sierra

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