Part Twelve – Faster Alone, Further Together: The End of the Sierra

The morning following my fall, I woke up to the Milky Way gently shining in the dark sky. I took a moment to appreciate the view, to appreciate my being here. The evening before, my group had told me that my gaze wasn’t the same after the incident, that it looked as though my eyes were staring into complete emptiness. Flashbacks from yesterday still haunted my mind. Thinking about what almost happened sent shivers down my spine. But I also knew one thing: it was hard to measure “almost,” because “almost” didn’t matter.


Down by the River

Their rumbling sound pierced through the silence of the forest, showing off their devastating power before even seeing them. We had entered their territory: rivers. 

We knew about them, dreaded them, feared them. But to reach our ultimate goal, we knew we had to go through them. Until now, we had been able to cross most of them on snow bridges. But in the middle of June, the snow was melting and bridges disappearing. We considered ourselves “lucky” if we found a log to go across, even though the effort required to stay balanced despite our heavy backpacks was probably as nerve-wracking, if not more. One misstep and your dream hike would suddenly turn into a nightmare — probably your last.

Still in the dark, we reached the first river crossing of the day. We found two logs laid one after the other that would allow us to get to the other side. Although quite narrow, they weren’t like nothing we had seen before. I start walking on it carefully, as always. One step, two steps. Out of nowhere, my ankle twisted but I was able to regain balance. Suddenly, I froze. My legs started to shake while flashbacks from the day before came rushing through my head. A battle raged in my mind as panic tried to take over. My first reflex was to take back control of my breathing and slow it down. This calmed me down almost instantly. My second reflex was to keep going, and not let myself time to think. After a few more difficult steps, I finished the crossing successfully and at the same time beat panic.

A few days later, we had a quick but well-needed break from the trail in the town of Mammoth Lakes. We made the final preparations for what would be our last stretch of the Sierra Nevada. We were close to the end, but it wasn’t going to be easy. We were about to hike through Yosemite National Park, infamous for its wild and dangerous river crossings. What we had experienced so far was just a little taste of what was to come.

Yosemite National Park

We officially entered Yosemite National Park territory after climbing over Donahue Pass. We then descended toward Tuolumne Meadows and enjoyed a few miles of dirt trail walking alongside the Lyell Canyon River. The scenery was again, beautiful. Tioga Road, the paved road that ran through Tuolumne Meadows (the first road we had seen on the trail since Kennedy Meadows South), was closed and had been taken over by wildlife. Deers, marmots, and even bears were relaxing all around us, minding their own business just like us. It suddenly pained me to think about how much disruption Men had created in their world. I thought about the times I read about when humans lived with the land, not on it, before they let themselves be poisoned by greed. I thought about these times, and how this journey brought us closer to these ideals. That’s what I liked about it.

We made a quick (but not easy) side trip to Yosemite Valley, where we resupplied while being swarmed by the stereotypical flip-flopped and selfie-stick photo-taker tourists. I have never wanted to go back into the wild more than during that stop. Back on the trail, we crossed the first of ten rivers without any problems: Delaney Creek and Tuolumne River. The first one had a log, and the second wasn’t deep enough to make it difficult to ford. We were relieved.

The following days, we crossed five different rivers; each bringing its own set of difficulties. We found logs for two of them and had to wade through the remaining three. While the water only reached up to our thighs at the most, the current however was strong enough to challenge us. Still, it was far from the horror tales we had heard before entering the area. After several discussions, our group decided to split up in two: Buddy would stay with Shortcut and Twigs so that they could take their time, while Beer Slide and I would go ahead on our own. I needed to reach Sonora Pass before the weekend when the Post Office would still be open. Although that was my main reason, part of me also wanted to do part of the Sierra alone. A way to prove to myself I could do it by challenging my orientation skills, my decision-making and problem-solving, and my physical and mental aptitudes when being alone in a hostile environment. While I was ahead, I would message the group behind with my Garmin to give them information on the rivers I had just crossed.

The next day, I was hiking alone in the slushy and tiring snow, going over Seavey Pass. On the other side, the terrain went down steeply towards Rancheria Creek, one of the last rivers to cross. When I got there though, I was welcomed by a raging and swollen river. It was uncrossable. The official trail followed the river down for a few miles before crossing, so I headed in that direction. However, each side of the river was covered by snow creating a steep slope leading straight down to the river, with at the bottom overhanging slabs of snow ready to collapse into it. Hiking alongside the river meant following a dangerous and slippery traverse, where a fall meant sliding down and falling into the river, probably to your death. This was a no-fall zone. In the distance, I could see a snow bridge. My goal was to get to it. Slowly but surely, I managed to make it, my adrenaline levels to a high. After crossing the snow bridge and being done with the traverse, I let out a quick sigh of relief. 

A few miles further, I found a great spot near the river to camp for the night. Later, after dinner, Beer Slide came out of behind a brush. He had set up a few yards away from me but was hidden by a tree. We shared stories of our solitary experiences. It was good to see a friend after a long day.


Home Stretch

Journal entry from June 29th, my last day in the Sierra: 

“You wish that it was easy in the face of hardship. But if it was easy, everybody would do it, and therefore the value of it all would be lost forever. Do not settle for easy, look for hard. It may get you the respect of others, but it will certainly get you the respect of yourself. Be uncommon.”

I woke up at 2:30 am, determined to make up the miles from yesterday. In the afternoon, a thunderstorm had broken out near me and forced me into my tent earlier than expected. Today, I was determined to get as close as possible to Sonora Pass. Although my experience in the Sierra was one I cherished and would forever remember, I couldn’t wait to get out of it. It had been rough on everybody, physically and mentally. But still, we had made it through, with no experience or no support. Only by the sheer power of our determination and the will to achieve our goal. This journey not only grew us but also made us discover the untapped reservoirs of our strength within.

Music in my ears, caffeinated and determined, I raced through the valley and over the hills still covered in snow. At 7:00 am, I made it to the last pass of the Sierra and took a quick breakfast break eating Mac & Cheese, my last meal left in my food bag. Yummy. The last big climb of the day was full of slushy sun cups making the exposed ascent long and nerve-wracking; a last “fuck you” from the Sierra. Finally, over the top and on the other side, I hiked for another half mile on dirt before setting up camp about 7 miles from Sonora Pass. I would reach Kennedy Meadows North tomorrow morning. Later in the evening, Shortcut, Twigs, and Buddy caught up with me, to my big surprise and great pleasure. They had made it a goal to catch up with me to make it to Sonora Pass together. A sense of relief, joy, and pride flew over our campsite that night. I thought about what they said:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. But If you want to go far, go together.”

The mountains around us were changing. We were out of the Sierra, but not out of the snow.

From left to right: Yeehaw, Twigs, Buddy, Shortcut, Beer Slide

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