Lessons in Embracing the Cold from Week 1 in the Sierras

Let me start this off by saying that I am most definitely not a fan of the cold. Yes, I grew up in rural Indiana, where winters consisted of mornings helping dad shovel the driveway and afternoons sledding or building snowmen. And yes, I went to college in upstate New York, where a polar vortex was a annual occurrence and students often had to trudge through multiple feet of snow to class. And yes again, I now reside in Colorado, a state well known for it’s unpredictable cod fronts and winter activities. It’s not like I don’t have experience in the cold or avoid it completely. But anyone that has known me long enough, knows that most of the time, unless bundled up in a cozy sweater or a large coat I do not, I repeat DO NOT, function well in the cold. Well, at least not right away.

So since the time I started planning my PCT attempt, I have always looked forward to the Sierras. When I entered the desert, I discovered my longing for the high mountain passes to be even stronger. Especially after weeks of hiking in 90 degree temperatures, counting the steps till the next water source (usually a slight trickle across trail, a cache, or a leaky faucet) it’s no wonder PCT hikers long for raging rivers, green grass, giant lakes, and cool breezes.

I will be the first to admit that my intention to jump into every single body of water I could was only slightly less of a priority to me than the actual hiking. I couldn’t wait to go for a morning swims and spend afternoon siestas with my feet in the water. And I knew it would be cold to some extent, but hey, as a later season hiker at least there was minimal risk of snow right? So it couldn’t be THAT cold.

When I reached Kennedy Meadows, I laid out a plan for the next 7 days, notably including camping by the one of the first rivers and first alpine lakes. My trail family was equally interested in this plan and, after a long, hot climb out of the desert, we made it to night 1’s site without a hitch. As we sat in the grass, eating our dinner and looking out at the water, I couldn’t help thinking that this was it- we would soon be doing this every day for the next few weeks.

Day 2 started out normal. It was chilly but not too cold and the mountain breeze felt welcoming and exciting! But as a cluster of clouds rolled in and the wind picked up, our ascension to above 10,000 feet quickly became filled with a chorus of expletives as we began adding jackets, long pants, hats, and gloves to our hiking attire. With a quick check of the weather on our Garmin in-reaches, it was clear that a cold front was upon us.

The next few days were, in brief, a freaking slap in the face. The mountains would show no mercy to the newcomers from the desert. When we arrived at the much anticipated first alpine lake, the temperature quickly began to plummet below freezing. In an attempt to enjoy the moment, we sat watching the sun set over the lake as we polished off our assortments of ramen and  soup. And then of course the sun’s rays disappeared behind the horizon, accompanied by a gust of cold wind. We scattered to our tents and the safety of our sleeping bags.

This leads us to one of the coldest challenges yet: Whitney summit day. Climbing out of my tent at 4 am, the cold immediately hit every exposed piece of skin on my body. Even with  gloves providing a thin layer of protection from the wind, I could feel my fingers begin to freeze around my trekking poles. This was about to be miserable.

But as we moved through the dark and the sky grew ever lighter, the outline of the mountain before us rose into view. I stopped my internal chant of cold related expletives and stared up at the challenge ahead. Suddenly, the words of a dear friend of mine popped into my head: “Mountains humble us. We have a lot to learn from them.”

It was then that I realized that I was going about my battle with the mountains’ cold all the wrong way. I was letting it get in the way of enjoying myself in the moment, rather than embracing what it could teach me. I would not, could not, let the cold get the best of my Sierras journey.

And with this new found respect and the self promise of an instant coffee and hot chocolate concoction on the summit, I pushed up the mountain. I left my fear of the cold at the base, appreciating the way my body could continue to climb and expressing gratitude every time the sun shifted behind the ridge line to cast warm light on the trail.

4.5 hours later, I stood on the summit, gazing down at the valley I had just come from and across the mountain range I was about to hike through. The Sierras were going to throw us many challenges. Each one would need to be faced head on, and just like with the cold, I needed to be ready to adapt and learn from them.

This mentality carried me through the rest of this week, and continues to provide perspective in the hardest of moments in the mountains. It isn’t always easy to be humble in the face of a challenge, yet doing so allows you to remain open to the many possible ways to take it on and grow from it.

And as far as the cold is concerned, I’m still not a fan, but I’ve adapted. I’ve added a few layers to my wardrobe and some emergency hand warmers to my pack. I’ve admitted when the cold got the best of me, and allowed my friends to help. I start every day with a warm cup of coffee and end it with cocoa or tea. I’ve also begun to push my comfort zone, diving into alpine lakes with my trail family, soaking my feet in ice cold rivers, and even going topless on top of Forester Pass on the notorious “Hike Naked Day”.

So bring it on Sierras. I’m ready for the next lesson.

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