Good Trail Karma.
It was my first night on trail and I was set up among 25-plus hikers in the tiny campsite next to Hauser Creek (Mile 15). I stared at the ceiling of my Nemo Equipment one person tent and wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. It was a 100+ degrees that first day on the PCT and I couldn’t have been more relieved to finally be on alone in my tent.
Being surrounded by strangers that day had seemed a little bit like the first day of school. Everyone was awkward and making small talk and you tended to look at people and wonder who you were going to be friends with, hike with or just never speak to, despite constantly running into them on trail.
About 30 minutes after I had laid down and was editing photos on my iPhone. As I started to get ready to close my eyes I heard a new hiker roll into camp. She set up camp in between me and these two brothers who I had met earlier in the afternoon. They greeted her and she introduced herself. Her name was Annie and she was from Seattle.
I didn’t meet Annie until the next morning, but from listening to the conversation the night before, I decided I liked her. She took the whiskey the brothers offered her and I could tell by the tone of her voice, that she wasn’t flattered at all by their flirtatious conversations.
That second morning Annie and I hiked the 5 miles to Lake Morena. We covered the basics; jobs, inspiration to hike the PCT, family life. She was out here on the Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiking without her husband Spencer. Spencer owns an outdoor retailer in Seattle, and from what it seemed, he was very supportive of his wife of 5 years on her solo adventure.
A lot of things drew me close to Annie; the fact that she was my first trail friend, our congenial sense of humor, her gigantic smile and a laugh that makes you feel funny even if you’re not. And also the fact that I gave her her trail name.
I named her “Karma”. Her first day on trail she packed out a can of green beans that someone had carelessly left on the trail. Our second evening, as we sat with our new hiker trash friends, she got the green beans out and we mixed it with a miso soup packet I had in my food bag.
We took a few turns passing the camp stove back and forth and eating the delicious concoction. Side note: Miso soup packets can really elevate any backpacking meal.
“Annie picked up this other hiker’s trash. Isn’t that good trail karma?” I said as she took another bite. The squad agreed.
Well, I spoke too soon because right when I said that (like, really, it couldn’t have been timed more perfectly) a bird shit right on her forehead. We all lost it. Annie sat there stunned for a second and then joined in laughing. From there on out, she was Karma.
The last time I saw Karma was at Hiker Heaven before she had to push forward to Tehachapi to fly out for a wedding. I gave her a big hug, and I’m glad I did because I didn’t see her again on trail. She pushed through the Sierra’s while we skipped to Northern California, where I eventually leaving trail altogether. Our mutual hiker friend Soul Shine and I agree, “It’s always hard to say goodbye to Karma.”
While I have many great memories and personal experiences with Karma, this article is her story about hiking through the Sierras and the challenges she faced hiking solo.
1. After hiking through the Sierra section, I’m sure inquiring minds would like to know: Was it as terrifying as people had expected?
Short answer, no. Slightly longer answer, 10% of the time yes, 90% of the time no. Leading up to the Sierras there was a lot of fear mongering going on. The closer you got to Kennedy Meadows the more people talked about steep snowy traverses and deep, fast flowing river crossings. I tried my best not to let it get to me, but every once in while images of me cascading down the side of a mountain or being swept down stream would pop into my head and freeze me in my steps. Like any other terrifying task though, when I was in the middle of it it was not as bad as all the hype. I’m not saying it wasn’t scary, there were plenty of nerves, but after I had made the decision to continue into the Sierras I took it one moment, one step, at a time and just dealt with things as they came. As long as I kept the “one step at a time” mentality the dangers of what could be stayed at bay. There were terrifying moments, like when my trail family got half way up Mather Pass and had to just sit and watch Physsie, who had gone the wrong way, vertical climb in quickly melting snow to the rock pile we were on. Watching him use all of his energy and concentration to get to safety was one of the more nerve racking situations on trail, and it was made worse by the fact that I couldn’t do anything about it. I think the lack of control is the thing most people were actually scared of when going into the Sierras. You can be extremely careful and still something bad can happen, but that is true on any other part of the PCT. Everyone had a different experience in the Sierras this year, but for me, looking back now, I don’t see it as a terrifying one, but an extremely beautiful, challenging and rewarding part of my PCT journey.
2. What was your inspiration to hike the PCT in the first place?
When I was 14 I hiked the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska with my Aunt and Uncle. It was my first backpacking trip and the freedom of having everything I needed on my back combined with the six days of open trail in front of me left me with an urge to explore nature I still cannot shake (not that I want to). Part way through that trip I met a couple that talked about the PCT. The only part of the conversation I remember catching was the bit about a continuous footpath from Mexico to Canada. When we got back after trail I asked my Aunt about the PCT and she gave me a book about it that I still have to this day. From that moment on I was hooked on the idea of exploring the areas that I had road tripped around with my family growing up and I have spent a good portion of the last 12 years planning and dreaming of the hike.
3. What was your scariest moment on trail?
Originally I was going to talk about falling and being swept down Tyndall Creek, but after answering the last question I realized the times I was most scared on trail was when I was watching others do sketchy things. Holding my breath as Physsie scaled across Mather was one of those moments, but there were many more. Like when I watched Soul Shine lose control completely on a really steep glissade on Kearsarge Pass. Nirvana had gone down first and made it look easy, so we decided to follow suit even though it was a steeper than normal ones. Soul Shine went first and after only a few feet of sliding I watched her start to loose control, eventually rolling down the hill ice ax, water bottles, and crocks flying in all directions. It all happened in a matter of seconds, but again I had no control over it and I was frozen in terror as I watched one of my best friends catapult down the mountain. She ended up walking away from that one, but it could have been a lot worse. Another time was when I watched my trail family cross a large snow bridge over the White Fork river. We got to the crossing late in the day and the section of river the trail crossed was impassible, so we worked our way up river to find safer crossing. The whole trek up stream was sketchy. We were walking on loose rock at a steep incline and having to scale around rough bushes; the whole time looking down to the fast flowing water as the light quickly faded. I was towards the back of the group and remember looking up to see the guys stopped next to a snow bridge that stretched across the river. The white water gushed out from underneath the ice hanging over it and although the layer of snow looked thick we had no idea if it would be that way the whole way across. Sun was almost set though and it was either cross now or hike back two or three miles to a decent campground. Have you heard the expression “having children is like letting pieces of your heart go out into the world”? Well, I felt like that as I watched each individual in my trail family gradually make their way across the snow bridge. We all played it safe using our trekking poles to tap the area in front of us to make sure it wasn’t going to collapse under our weight, but I knew a single misstep, or misjudgment would mean a quick fall into the river and well… They call it a trail family for a reason. You spend so much time with that group of people, being vulnerable, experiencing the extremes of life together, that you become family. Each person I hiked with found a place in my heart and the scariest moments on trail were definitely when I watched those I cared for most in dangerous situations.
4. What did the Sierras teach you?
1. Don’t get cocky about stream crossings 2. If you know how to use your ice ax, snow traverses become a lot less scary 3. Having a good support group (aka trail family) can do wonders for your general moral, confidence, and ability to not be paralyzed by your fears.
5. What was your favorite trail angel memory?
There’s too many! One of my favorites though was the family that helped me in Wrightwood. Two brothers on trail had heard I needed to get to LAX so I could fly to a wedding. They told me they were staying with their sister in Wrightwood that weekend and I was welcome to crash. Not only did I crash, but their sister kicked her son out of his room so I could have a bed. She gave me free range of her bathroom, let me ditch the majority of my stuff at the house for the weekend, and took me to and from LAX (which isn’t a quick or easy trip from Wrightwood). Their family also fed me that weekend and drove me around to run errands and find a dress for the wedding. Every trail angel I encountered on trail renewed my faith in humanity a little more with their unselfish generosity to help strangers. I hope to repay the favor some day for other hikers in need.
6. What was your most profound realization upon leaving the trail?
People man! I seriously went into this hike barely thinking about the fact that I would meet some really cool people and life long friends, but I did it! The people I surrounded myself with on trail, the random conversations I had with hikers, and the magical interactions I had with trail angels made my hike the incredible journey it was. I think I could hike the PCT a dozen times and each time it would be a different experience depending on the people. It made me realize how much relationships affect life in general and how lucky I am to have such an amazing group of friends and family to call my support group wherever I go. Our relations are one of the main things that make us human and good or bad they help change and form who we are. The trail helped me open my eyes to this and be able to see even a bad interaction or relationship as a beautiful thing and not a regret.
7. What were the pros/cons of hiking without your spouse? How did people react when you told them you were hiking without him?
One of the reasons I hiked the PCT was to get out on my own for awhile. I’ve been married since I was 20 and for a few years leading up to the hike had an urge/need to do something independently. So that was probably the biggest pro for me: getting a chance to stand on my own two feet without my husband right there holding my hand, or having to turn to him for all decisions. We have a pretty non-dependent relationship in general, but I tend to fall back on him for everything when he is around, so it was nice to find my confidence and listen to just my own voice for awhile. Another pro of not hiking with your spouse is that you have an amazing built in support system at home. Your number one life cheerleader is there for you, slightly removed from any drama going on right in front of you, and can be there with loving words and a clear perspective. The cons are many, and to be honest I’m still working through some of them now. The obvious one is that you don’t have their immediate companionship with you and you sometimes have to go days without being able to contact them. Another is that you are experiencing this amazing, life changing journey without them and because of that you are going to feel a disconnect with them on trail as well as after. They will never fully understand what it was like to be out there, or how the trail changed you. When people heard I had “left my husband at home” they would usually ask if he doesn’t like hiking, or say it was awesome he let me do it alone. My husband loves hiking, but that many continuous miles really isn’t his thing and we had both decided this was my journey. It was his journey too though. A spouse goes through their own set of trials and elations when their partner takes off for any lengthy adventure, but rarely gets the praise and attention the actual adventurer gets. I have still not found a proper way to thank my husband for his sacrificing support and love while I was on trail, but I can say straight up it takes one hell of a person to watch their partner go on a thru hike without them and still show the grace, love and understanding that mine did and is still doing for me to this day.
8. Describe your best and worst day on trail.
There were countless best days and only a few worst, but I am going to change this slightly and describe the most emotional stretch on trail. It was the section between Lone Pine and Bishop, the start of the heart of the Sierras. Soul Shine, Nirvana and I left Lone Pine nervous and excited to summit Mount Whitney, do our first river crossings, and practice our mountaineering skills up Forester Pass. This stretch of trail kicked off on June 22nd: Hike Naked Day. Sadly a drone crashed into the hillside outside of Lone Pine, so we were delayed hiking out of town and didn’t actually get to trail till night fall. We were determined to salute Hike Naked Day in one way or another, so opted to streak naked around the gorgeous alpine meadow in the moonlight. This playful, care free attitude followed us the entire next day as we hiked back up into the Sierras and through the towering pines to Crab Tree meadows. The night before summiting Whitney had us all a flutter. The group of people at Crab Tree Meadows that night were a combination of what were and would become my trail family for the rest of the trip. It was a fabulous group and we all sat around in a circle that night story telling and laughing, eventually going to bed with the thought of an early morning and a big climb. I don’t remember what time my alarm went off, but Nirvana, Soul Shine and I were some of the first out of camp and we were over halfway up the mountain when the sun finally rose. We took off in the dark, head lamps aglow and sleepiness put aside for the moment thanks to the cold night air and the thought of what was ahead. Soul Shine and Nirvana made me lead the way. I have no idea why. My night vision is the worst and I really don’t have a good sense of direction, I’m also rather afraid of the dark. Regardless, I did my best to keep us on trail, or when you couldn’t see trail, heading in the right direction. The sky was clear and the stars and snowy mountaintops reflected in the alpine lakes we were passing- it was as if we had been placed in the middle of the Milky Way. We took a break part way up the climb to eat breakfast and enjoy the sunrise. The climb up Whitney was slow going because of the incline and quickly decreasing oxygen, but once we got to the top it was worth every step. It had been a dream of mine from a young age to summit a mountain and here I was standing at the top of the highest one in the lower 48 states. There was nothing but snow covered rocky peaks and blue skies for miles around and as Soul Shine and I posed for a topless (with matching underwear) picture I truly felt on top of the world. That feeling came crashing down moments later though when I tried to contact my husband. There is cell signal on top of Whitney, so I wanted to call him and tell him what I had just accomplished. We had been having a bit of a rough time recently, but I still wanted to share with him my joy. After several unsuccessful phone calls though I received a text from him telling me to check my email. When I did my heart sank as I read his response to a recent letter I had sent him. He told me he did not want to talk for awhile, essentially take a break. The tears running down my face quickly went from joy to sorrow as I sat in silence on what felt like the edge of the world. It is strange to get news like that in such a location. Still on a high from my recent accomplishment and in such a beautiful place, the rest of that day and the whole day following were a mix of emotions. I tried to live in the moment and focus on what was around me- who knew if I would ever be there again. The day before Forester Pass was another one spent frolicking in the woods, boot skiing down mounds of snow, and merry trail finding. Soul Shine, Nirvana and I had apparently taken our time and were the last to show up at Tyndall Creek that night. It was close to sundown and not the right time to do a crossing, but there was a group waiting for us on the other side and everyone had made it across safely, so we figured we better had too, so as to avoid an early morning crossing before Forester. Soul Shine crossed with Denied and then Nirvana and I took our turn. River crossings, although a big challenge this year, had never been something I was worried about. The higher than usual snow fall was what had worried me because snow isn’t something I’m particularly comfortable in. But water, water is something I grew up around. Rather it be river, ocean, or lake I have been swimming, crossing, and diving my whole life. I also have the advantage of height, so as Nirvana and I stepped out into the freezing cold waters of Tyndall Creek, I had no thoughts of not making it across successfully. Mother nature had other plans though. One misstep and I was down and quickly following my escaped trekking poles down the river. I remember just being focused on grabbing hold of anything, anything at all that wasn’t being quickly pulled to the white waters farther down stream. Out of the corner of my eye I saw some of the guys run to the shore, probably hoping to get to me somehow if I made it that far. I was able to grab hold of some reeds sticking out into the water and I pulled myself to shore. Unfortunately those reeds were on the opposite side of the river than I wanted to be, so I still had to cross. My saint of a hiking buddy Nirvana (okay, maybe not a saint, this guy really liked doing stream crossing, so it was probably fun for him) came back across with a spare pair of trekking poles and cut the water for me as I walked my shaky self to the other side. What ensued next fully embraces that piece I mentioned in question 3 about the power of a good trail family. As soon as I was out of the water Nature Monster, who is a nurse, gave me a big hug and immediately went to work making sure I was okay. Wet clothes came off, someone gave me dry clothes to put on. Physsie depleted his band aid supply so my leg, which had taken a gnarly hit when I fell, could be bandaged up, and when I arrived to camp word had been sent ahead and Lysol had a cup of hot chocolate from the group waiting. I am extremely grateful to have had such a group around to take care of me and make sure I was okay. Even after a night of snuggling with my trail fam though my confidence level was low as I forced myself out of the tent for a very cold, grey, and damp 5 am start time. If it hadn’t been for Soul Shine’s shared feelings of “this getting up early and walking in cold wet shoes, sucks” and Nature Monster’s overly cheery, loud voice I think I would have just curled back up in my sleeping bag and hoped that i somehow, magically, got out of the Sierras. One step at a time, and a few miles of sun cups later I found myself looking up at a wall of snow and Forester Pass. It was literally a wall of snow. I started laughing and wondering how the hell I was going to get up that thing, but once again Nature Monster was on it. She had been a guide for Mount Hood earlier that year and knew just how to use her crampons and wield her ice ax to get up and over the pass. With her peppy instructions Soul Shine and I began the climb up Forester. We were seriously step for step with each other the whole way up. It was nerve racking, all of it, but as long as I didn’t look down and kept breathing I was able to not loose my cool. At one point one of my micro spikes slipped out of place and I had to pause to try to put it back. Stopping was a bad idea. It gave us time to realize how easy it would be to fall and I remember Soul Shine asking, as nicely as possible, if I could hurry it up so we could keep moving. The top eventually came and once again I felt on top of the world. With the elation of getting up Forester came a regaining of my confidence as a hiker. I had just made it up the highest, most technical pass in the Sierras and I practically skipped my way to camp that night, not even blinking once when I came to another stream crossing. The next day meant heading back into town, which brought on another wave of sad emotions. I was suddenly out of the beautiful back country wilderness of the high Sierras and my marriage issues came floating to the surface again- town always brought about a stark shock of reality. To top everything off, on the drive into town I checked my messages and found out my Grandfather had passed away two days ago. It was extremely hard to know I was so far away from family and unable to comfort, or find comfort in them, but it was also the perspective I needed in regards to Spencer and the strength I needed to continue into the rest of the Sierras.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.