I’m Skipping the Sierras (and other things I think at a creek crossing)
Right now I’m camping on the south side of White Fork Creek (pictured above) at mile 801 after watching my fiancé and hiking partner, Henri (Rooster) just barely make it across safely. He suggested I wait until morning to cross, as the current will be a bit lower by then. I am trying to distract myself but the sound of the river, along with the danger that is separating me from the person that makes me comfortable, is too overbearing and stressful. This is not a campground or tent site. I am tucked under a tree near piles of rocks on the only flat space I could find, right by the water. I put on headphones and look trough my photos. And for the first time on this trip, over 800 miles in, I finally have the urge to write a post of some substance.
In addition to the river crossing, or maybe because of the river crossing, I am thinking about the people in my life who keep telling me to be safe and stay safe and have safe travels and I hear that but there’s a part of me that’s realizing that my safety out here isn’t always in my control. How safe can I truly be if I’m nowhere near town, with no cellphone reception, and voluntarily walking across a dangerous creek, or getting severe vertigo on the edge of an ice and snow covered pass? I promise that I am doing what I can, and I am. I’m hiking in a group. I’m unbuckling my hip belt, facing my feet upstream and focusing more than I ever have on every step each and every time. I’m using my microspikes and ice axe and mapping out each foot placement on this 6 inch wide traverse. Because for the first time in my life, I’m in a situation where my life depends on it. But being as safe as possible – is that actually going to save me? Maybe. And maybe is a questionable answer but it’s an honest one. Do I feel safe? Sometimes. Again, I’m just being honest.
What I can confidently state is that I’m impressed with myself. Each time I successfully ford a river or climb over icy peaks, I feel strong, blessed, lucky – have your pick at the adjective (I prefer all 3). Even more than feeling impressed, though, is the complete exhaustion. If I’m not getting through these obstacles I write about, it’s the alternative of not getting through them. She was just feeling weak. She was unlucky. It could happen to any of us. And no, I don’t feel like I am overreacting because injuries, near-death experiences and death have all happened to many experienced hikers on this trail.
“Yes,” some of you fellow thru-hikers will say, “but it’s more dangerous to drive a car or cross the street”. And you do have the statistics in your favor. In fact, I’ve justified my lifestyle choices with those same lines. But in my current state, I don’t feel there is much truth there. Crossing a street or driving a car, even after knowing people who died in both situations, is not nearly as paralyzing of an experience as the situation I’ve found myself in now.
Next will come the phrase, “Well, if I’m going to die, this is how i want to go.” And again, I’d like to truly be connected to that overused statement, but I’m not. You see, simply reciting those words amongst other hikers at the bar in town is not an accurate environment to truly assess how it would feel to die. Funny how that’s always said in a comfortable setting, but never used as a reminder when someone is falling and needs to self-arrest.
So, although I myself have said those words, I want to retract them. I’m more confident than I’ve ever been in saying this is NOT how I want to die. In fact, NO WAY is how I want to die because, well, I don’t want to die. I keep thinking of a conversation with a trail angel (now friend) Rachel said when we were talking about vertigo and a nervousness around heights: that the older we get, the more we realize we want to live. I mean, I REALLY don’t want to die. And I won’t! I want to live and I want to have experiences, which is what brings many of us ambitious thru-hikers out here, but I don’t want those experiences to feel as though many of them could so easily be my last.
As you can tell, my mind is running fast. It’s midnight and I should mention that I’ve only started writing after being woken up by a panic attack. I’ve had a couple tonight alone and if you know what that feels like, it’s a heavy dose of overwhelming anxiety paired with an even amount of physical pain. While I am familiar with what’s happening, I feel crushed. The safest space and greatest sport to combat my anxiety is currently the cause.
Alright, so. Deep breath. It’s time to admit, to the disappointment of many of my fellow hikers, I will most likely be hopping forward from Bishop Pass in a couple of days.
Currently in the Sierras, I look back on my idea of what this section would be like. I was nervous and excited and brave. I didn’t decide to skip this section when random people in towns as far back as Idyllwild told me I was crazy for attempting this year. I didn’t skip when the PCTA put out warnings about the severity of the snow and creeks. I didn’t skip when the word “impassible” was the most commonly used word by fellow PCT hikers. I didn’t skip when I heard the stories. If I do wish to do so, it is because of my own stories and on my own time. Still, there is certainly a part of my stubborn and determined self that will feel inadequate. I want to call myself a PCT thru hiker so that I will have the same pride as I do having thru hiked the AT. So that I can hold the title of “Triple Crown” by next year. And while I would still do my best to make up the skipped section, I recognize that there’s more to life than my pride and a title. Gasp! Eye roll! Whatever! I said it.
Having said all of this, if you are comfortable with mountaineering and strong currents, it’s not impassable, and I don’t wish at all to discourage anyone from hiking their own hike. I’m just getting close to my own personal limit. I am seeing the beauty and fragility of my own life in a few specific moments over the past few days. I am learning to truly listen to myself in nature, and also just listening to myself in general, which is more of an accomplishment than any mile on any trail.
In just 40 minutes, my alarm will go off. I will wake up, pack up my belongings, and hopefully ford the creek safely. I cannot wait to be with Henri. I cannot wait for the next couple of hours to just be over. Whatever happens, I want this to be posted. Too often, I write when I’m in town; where my reflection of the trail is skewed by either the beer that I’m drinking or the bland and familiar decor of a motel room. This, on the other hand, is a real time recap of my headspace on trail.
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