The Sierras, Risk, Death, and Flipping

As we made our way towards Forester Pass, we passed hikers bailing out. As we got more information, we knew we had to do the same. The Sierras are magical, and the views are amazing, but I knew I was in over my head, lacking mountaineering skills. The thru-hike quickly turned from 25-mile days to a 10-mile slog through snow. Even having to self-arrest for the first time with my ice axe.

If I were in my 20s I probably would have ‘sent it,’ as did many inexperienced hikers heading towards dangerous passes that the rangers were trying to keep hikers from attempting. There seemed to be two types of people heading further into the Sierras, those with mountaineering experience and those who had never seen snow before. The people with some experience, like me, knew enough to know what they don’t know. Snow backpacking is much harder than the summer or shoulder seasons; everything is harder and slower. Things can go bad quickly, and you need to trust the people around you to rescue you. Trust for your teammates is more critical than even the gear you carry.

For me, turning around was a frustrating and hard decision that my team made, but it was the right one. Talking to hikers exiting that went though the same thought process as us cemented our decision. Search and rescue had to rescue a hiker the day we bailed which made us content with our decision not to test fate.

This decision and process made me think of how I take on risk and death.

As a young autistic kid in high school, the cafeteria was too overwhelming, so I would sit in the hallway near my locker reading the Hagakure. I would read it, finish it, and start from the beginning. One of the most important passages to me was:

“The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the way of the samurai.”

The Hagakure

After high school I became an alcoholic. I didn’t expect to live long, and I didn’t want to. I caused problems and fights, living my life as if I were already dead so there were no risks. I have fond memories of this time but knowing that I was a young person with no hope of a future. I got kicked out of home at 17 and moved into a frat house at a local college. Technically I rented a closet, but it fit a small bed and dresser.

Eventually, I joined the Marine Corps, and it changed me immensely. I wanted to deploy and get to Afghanistan as soon as possible. It took a few years, but when I did deploy, I accepted death. I was going to die in Afghanistan, and I processed that before I left, and because of that I was never scared.

After being medically evacuated from Afghanistan, I was alive again. I had all my pieces and my life again. Luckily the Marine Corps taught me a lot about risk and risk mitigation. Anytime I wanted to take my Marines off base, I had to fill out a form that showed the risks involved, the risk mitigation I implemented, and if those risks after mitigation were worth taking.

After the Marine Corps, I felt quite lost and eventually got into riding motorcycles – Harleys, of course. Once again, I accepted death. I was going to die sliding across the pavement, and I hoped that the pavement would take my life rather than my limbs. I drove fast and recklessly around Southern California, because anytime I got on my bike, I was dead already. Lane splitting was a high – having car mirrors flying by my face as they drove fast and I drove faster.

After I moved to finish my degree, my one remaining Harley sat gathering dust. Before I managed to get it registered – it didn’t have mirrors or any of the things the state wanted for it to be registered – my acceptance of death wore off. I no longer accepted sliding across the pavement and fear is dangerous. I sold my last motorcycle and moved on. I packed what few belongings I had and drove to Portland.

With backpacking, and now thru-hiking, I accept very little risk. I’m older, maybe wiser. I apply the risk mitigation tactics that I learned to my life. Mitigating risk with technical skill or safety measures. I could fall down a cliff or get mauled by a bear, but those risks are somewhat low, and I accept them. Many of the risks I face are mitigated just by carrying my Garmin InReach so that if I am injured or in trouble, I can contact search and rescue.

Everyone needs to ‘hike their own hike.’ The purists or worse – Facebook commenters – can judge all they want, but we are all here for our own reasons. My reason for being here is healing and growth – part of the growth in my life is taking fewer risks. Also, getting older, I have less ability to recover and I think at some point I wore out all of my luck.

There was a time in my life where there were seemingly no consequences. Waking up after a giant brawl with a black eye or broken nose and just living like nothing happened.

When I first moved to Portland, I couldn’t find a job I wanted, so I became a bouncer to pay the bills. Unlike my bravado as a teenager or Marine, I was restrained. People like to engage with bouncers because they think they can get away with anything. I also worked for a security company that was primarily Samoan men who were twice my size. Anytime someone wanted to fight a bouncer, I was the better choice since they had a chance.

Instead of taking every opportunity to brawl or being enraged when insulted or called names, I constantly de-escalated conflict. I can’t wake up in the morning after a fight like I could when I was a teenager. Even when I come out on top, I wake up in pain, hands hurting and aches all over. It was kind of funny explaining to angry drunk people I would be happy to fight with them, but I’m just doing my job and would rather have an easy night.

Now I live with the consequences of my youth and my time in the Marines. A healed broken bone in my foot that aches, my boxers fracture in my wrist that pops at times, my knees that don’t track right, my new nose is probably the only thing that got better after being broken.

However, it’s not my broken bones, injuries, or scars that bring me to the PCT. It’s the wounds scarred into my brain, my psyche. The trail is almost an irrelevant catalyst to my healing, my journey. Or as my therapist says, trauma.

I’ve lived in chaos and trauma for so long that it felt so natural that I created so many of my own problems. The PCT is the first time I’ve felt at peace, being able to process so much of my thoughts and feelings. So much so that it’s hard to leave.

Originally, as I got closer to Kennedy Meadows, I had accepted that this was not the year or the time to do the Sierras. However, my friend ‘Hips,’ who was part of a trail family I was with weeks earlier, asked me to join him and a new group going into the Sierras, and I decided to give it a shot.

From Kennedy Meadows to Trail Pass was easy, even getting in a 20-mile day despite the snow. I knew there was almost no chance I do the whole Sierras, but I needed more. So I agreed to do the next leg of the trail. We were going up Cottonwood Pass out through Kearsarge Pass to Bishop.

As soon as we hit the top of Cottonwood Pass, it was clear that things had changed. Trekking poles were packed away, and ice axes were absolutely mandatory. Of course, I made the mistake of buying crampons that did not work with my Viviobarefoot trail runners and just used my microspikes. Without crampons, I climbed rocks where possible to bypass the snow and do some impromptu bouldering.

The Sierras were amazing. Unfortunately, my common thought was that I wished I was there in a normal year where I could hike instead of mountaineer. I will absolutely be back this year or next to complete the section.

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Comments 1

  • Dottie Rust : Jul 3rd

    Justis, I enjoyed reading your trail story. I hope you find peace, resolution for your past…and that you find your skills…you really have amazing gifts as a human. Seek them, learn to use them & share with others who need what you have.



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