The One Where We Were Invincible
“They hold me and I cry silently while the sun slowly makes its way over the horizon. I’ve never felt so small and vulnerable as I did that morning”
The Sierras. I don’t know where to start. How can you describe in words an experience that changed your life. That turned everything you thought you knew about yourself upside down. How it swallowed you whole just to spit you out stronger and more capable than ever.
The words and pictures won’t make it justice. And that’s okay. Her grand beauty is something that can just be fully experienced when you’re there. In those mountains. In the wild.
*16th of June*
Day 1. The beginning
We started hiking up Cotton Wood pass. My bag felt like it weighed a ton and I was out of breath. I was worried that the week off trail on the road-trip would have made me lose my trail legs. But we were all excited. And nervous. We had no idea what laid ahead of us and if we would make it all the way through the 10 days to Bishop Pass.
That first day was beautiful and tough. I learnt how to tie my crampons correctly and we found a dry, flat spot, in the otherwise snow-covered mountains, where our four tents just fit. We pitched our two Zpacks tents together and it felt like we were all having one big sleepover.
Day 2. The High Sierras
The morning after our alarms went off at 2am and we started hiking under the stars. We hit our first big river crossing but found a log upstream where we could cross. I was scared but we all made it over safely using our trekking poles and micro-spikes. We found wild onion growing on the other side and ate it while the sun went up over the rosy mountains.
This day it felt like we entered the High Sierras for the first time. We could see the big peaks in the distance and I felt so small in the vast, white wilderness that surrounded us. We glissaded down the slopes and swam in a crystal-clear lake. In the water we had a snowball fight and afterwards dried ourselves under the warm sun. I felt so at peace.
Day 3. On top of the world
*Extract from diary notes*
“I count to twelve in my head. Over and over again. My calves are shaking and my hands stiff. I kick my crampons and slam my ice axe with all my force into the hard snow. My pulse is loud in my ears and my heart racing. 1-2-3-4-5… I keep counting to distract myself from the pain and the height and the fear. It’s 3am and we are summiting Mount Whitney. Its peak raising more than 4000 meter above sea level, making it the highest mountain in the contiguous US.”
I’ve never really climbed any big mountains in my life. Didn’t really think that was for me. That I was capable of doing it. But today we summited Mount Whitney. We started hiking at 11pm, to hike for 6 hours in darkness and reach the peak for sunrise. It was the biggest physical endeavor in my life. And that is not an understatement. The high altitude combined with the lack of sleep and the cold made it even harder. At one point we were almost climbing on the mountain side, making steps with our crampons and heaving us up with the help from our ice axes. I was shaking. Scared to lose my grip and fall down the mountain. Scared to see someone else lose their grip. But we made it.
When we reached the summit, it felt like we stood on top of the world. And we did. We were completely alone. Just me and my group of people. I was in awe. We cried and laughed and shared fireball in the warmth of our sleeping bags. The peaks surrounding us were colored from the sunrise and it felt like we could see for hundreds of miles. This day was so important for me. It became one of those moments where I could look back and think “that changed me”. I saw little Sara in front of me. A chubby little girl who never thought she was capable. Even Sara in the beginning of the PCT would have never dared to even imagine this. But here I was. It gave me a confidence and a strength that I think carried me throughout the Sierras and the rest of my thru hike.
When we finally reached camp again after hiking for more than 14 hours, I felt a tiredness I’ve never experienced before. I had to force myself to eat before we all passed out in our tents with the sun still up. Feeling such a strong gratitude and proudness for the people I had done this with.
Day 4. Shivering mornings
Another early start. (But is it early if it’s 2am, or just very, very late?). It wasn’t actually that hard waking up at that time. What made it hard was the cold and the darkness. Shivering under the stars we played music and took turns in who was leading and who was navigating. Because of the snow there was no trail to follow and usually also not a lot of footprints. Those first hours in the day were always the hardest, but we were always rewarded with the sunrise and the spectacular landscape around us.
This was a day filled with burnt nostrils, river crossings and naps under the sun. With newly gained confidence from the day before we kept pushing towards Forrester Pass. The next big challenge. The landscape kept changing and we decided to camp just a few miles from the pass on top of a ridge. To say it was beautiful was an understatement. The view was unlike something I’ve seen before.
Day 5. Highest point
Every day since the start of this stretch, I’ve been feeling nauseous in the morning. It’s hard to eat and sometimes it feels like I’m going to throw up. But it always goes away after a few hours. It was extra strong this morning and I kept telling myself “Not today, please not today”.
This was also the coldest morning during my entire thru hike. The wind was howling and we wore every single piece of clothing we had. We made good time because it was too cold to stop and have breaks and we reached the base of the pass before the sun had come up. With our crampons on we got ready to summit the highest point on the PCT.
We had heard so many things about this pass, how steep, dangerous and sketchy it was. But after what we had done on top of Whitney this felt like nothing in comparison. One at a time we crossed the infamous “ice chute”. We were all silent and so focused that the only thing you could hear was the ice axe in the snow from the person who was crossing. After reaching Forrester pass safely, we hugged with tears in our eyes. And at the top of our lungs, we howled. We sang Happy Birthday to Golden and had a silent minute for a relative to Spliffy. We drank and smoked and danced and I couldn’t stop smiling.
After some hours of hiking, we came down in the valley. There was patches of dry spots and a big river running. We made a campfire and jumped into the ice-cold water. One of the guys started by diving into the water where there was a stronger current, and almost like a water slide got swept further down the river. Soon we all followed and did the same. We had so much fun. At night we cowboy camped, close together to keep warm.
Day 6. Snow to grass
It’s starting to feel like a routine. Alarms going off at 2am. Micro-spikes on. The sound of the crunching snow underneath our feet. The stars above us. The comforting sight of my group’s tired faces and strong hearts.
We summit Glen pass today. It was a strenuous climb but not difficult. The views were rewarding and the sky blue and clear. The lack of sleep during multiple days are starting to hit us but we manage to keep our spirits high and joke around a lot. Coming down from the pass we come upon a steep traverse and we all pull out our crampons and ice axes again. Spliffy (the mad dog) glissades down but the rest of us cautiously climb down the steep mountain side one at a time. At one point, Golden slips but luckily manages to self-arrest at the last second.
Afterwards we see a coyote run across the frozen lake in front of us. He’s so beautiful and stops for a moment to look at us before he disappears in the distant. We fill our bottles without filtering from the clean snowmelt rivers and we manage to find avalanche snow bridges instead of crossing by foot. By the end of the day, we reach what feels like summer. The snow free valley opens up in front of us and we blow up our sleeping pads on the grass underneath a big tree.
Day 7. The vomit and the bear
I wake up feeling weak and nauseous. My body is aching and I’m shaking from being so cold. With no other choice than to hike we slowly start moving into the night. We reach a big raging river and at this point I feel too sick to move. The group splits up in two, one going upstream and one going downstream, to find a safe crossing. I stay behind and when I see their headlamps disappearing in the dark. I vomit behind a rock until my stomach hurts. I’m shaking, and I sit shivering in Spliffy’s sleeping bag, unable to regain heat in my body. When the group returns, they make me tea and sit around me. They hold me and I cry silently while the sun slowly makes its way over the horizon. I’ve never felt so small and vulnerable as I did that morning.
As a group we had to make a decision. Keep pushing or set up camp. I take two Ibuprofen and decide to push on. Without my group I wouldn’t have been able to make it that day. They took most of my pack and gave me the strength to keep going.
And after what turned out to be my lowest moment on the whole PCT – the trail did what it’s known for. It provided. When we were standing and dividing my pack into the packs of my friends, a big black bear slowly walks past us. Not more than 10 meters away, it’s stops – gives us an unbothered look and walks away. That helped more than the Ibuprofen ever did.
We all struggled that day. The ascent up the pass was long and the sun blistered down on us. We all ran out of water and the sun-cups were terrible. It took hours until we finally reached the top, exhausted and dehydrated. The hard day all took a toll on us. Reaching camp, we had our first fight as a group, and I went to bed too exhausted to even cry again.
Day 8. The island
The morning after I felt better. Still sick with fever but no vomiting. We all became friends again and we agreed that one of the things we all have in common is our stubbornness. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be out here.
Today was Mather pass. It’s known for being the steepest pass in the Sierras and to be taken with caution. We make it just in time for sunrise and slowly but steadily we travers up the steep snow. I’m scared and I keep counting to twelve in my head, over and over again, to not lose my focus. With the help from each other we all make it safely to the top. Out of water again, which is a bit ironic considering we’re literally walking on it, we finally reach our lunch spot for the day. In a big lake in the frozen valley is a small grass covered island that we walk out too. Our legs hurting from the cold water we lay out our Tyvek sheets on the grass and fall fast asleep. This was the first time in the Sierras, so far, where we felt like we could finally relax.
After the hours spent on our island, we felt rejuvenated. We kept hiking down the valley, seeing marmots and deer. It looked like something straight from The Lord of the Rings.
Day 9. Last day
We meet a park ranger today for the first time. She gives me some more pills to take the fever down and gives us encouraging words. We make the last steep ascent towards Bishop pass and find a perfect camping spot on the mountain side. Crammed in between rocks we just fit two tents, and three places for cowboy camping. To warm ourselves and dry out our wet socks and feet we make a campfire. We sit around it, laughing and talking about the days we spent in these mountains. It’s our last full day in the Sierras during this stretch. It has felt like a lifetime. So much has happened. So much will.
Day 10. Civilization
We summit Bishop pass. Far down in the valley on the other side we imagine seeing civilization. We made it. We actually did. We move fast, all for different reasons – Spliffy for spliffies, Golden and Guardian for beer, Snooze and Bear for ice cream and me for a hot cup of coffee. We finally reach the car park to the national park. I look at my friends and see dirty and sunburnt faces looking back at me. We look wild. We are.
After apologizing for the smell to the kind people giving us a hitch into the town of Bishop, we all arrive to a fast food place. Spending 10 days in the wilderness, without seeing more people than you can count on one hand – it was all very overwhelming. Almost frightened, we sit down and stuff our faces with tacos and drink about 4 liters of sodas each. Completely wiped out, both physically and mentally we start to process what we just had been through.
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