A Solo Journey, Stepping off Trail, Getting Lost – Sierra High Route, Day One

Nothing goes the way we plan. This post was supposed to be about blisters, mosquitoes, gear, endless uphills, and me cursing at Steve Roper’s casual descriptions. You know, trail things. This post was not supposed to be about my personal life.

I agree with Badger in Appalachian Trials: the most important piece of hiking gear is your mind (Badger, you can mail me my endorsement check anytime now). Hiking is far more psychological than physical. Well, I’m fucked. Four days before this trip, out of the blue, my husband told me he is leaving me. I canceled the trip. We went to an emergency couples therapy session. But his mind was made up and now he’s gone.

With three weeks of vacation already approved, I figure hiking will probably be the best thing for me. The trip is back on.

Sierra High Route Day One

I didn’t sleep last night. Literally zero hours. I made coffee, said goodbye to my husband for the last time, and started driving at 5:50 a.m. before the LA traffic could start. When I come back, he will be moved out. For once the answer to “why am I out here?” is clear. I need to escape.

Six hours later, I turn up at the ranger station at Road’s End. I pick up my permit and learn that there are two other hikers starting the Sierra High Route (SHR) today, Charlie and Ken, two guys probably in their late 30s or early 40s.

Starting at Copper Creek Trail Head

Starting an exposed trail during the heat of the day. Smile on the outside, numb on the inside.

The three of us happen to pick the exact time to start: 12:40 p.m. Who wouldn’t want to start an exposed uphill slog during the hottest part of the day? Steve Roper has the most delightful description of the first part of this journey. It’s a section I read many times before starting:

“It is hardly surprising that the initial stage of most mountain journeys involves laborious uphill hiking. Coming at a time when the typical hiker is out of shape, unacclimated, and transporting the heaviest load of the entire trip, the seemingly endless hillsides can elicit rumblings from even the hardiest backpackers. The first section of the High Route qualifies as a splendid example of such unremitting travel, for the hiker must toil up 6,000 feet to the first major pass, a disheartening prospect.” – Steve Roper

One of two meadows on the way up to the first saddle.

I’ve always told myself that long uphill slogs are my superpower. In trail races, uphill is where I pass the most people. I don’t listen to music today. Instead, I keep my head down and find some mantras to repeat as I slowly watch the elevation tick away. I have a feeling this trip is going to be a roller coaster of emotions, but today I am mad at the world. Today I am full of self-righteousness. On the 6,000-foot climb I repeat: I am strong. I deserve better. I am free. I am free to do what I want. I deserve to be loved. I deserve to be someone’s first choice.

For over six hours I hike. I chant. I pound my hiking poles into the ground. I don’t take any breaks longer than five minutes. I push myself to exhaustion.

Taking my first step off trail and onto the route

First step off trail. The route has begun.

At the top of the saddle I step off trail for the first time. I try to see this as a new beginning and a metaphor for my life. My goal is Grouse Lake. I immediately go the wrong direction and end up at the wrong tarn. I have to check my GPS, because I can’t figure out where I am on the map. There are more trees than I expect and it’s hard to see around for landmarks. I use dead reckoning (the only land navigation skill I am truly competent at) to get to Grouse Lake. I add an extra uphill mile to the end of my day. Maybe this is metaphor for my life.

First campsite at sunset

First campsite with no one but mosquitoes for company

The first campsite is buzzing with mosquitoes and I cover myself with all my layers while I eat dinner, even though it’s still hot out. I brought a bivy for this trip, so I don’t have a tent that I can eat in away from pests. There are no other campers in this area. I haven’t seen Ken or Charlie all day.

Me in layers to avoid mosquitos

In all my layers, hiding from mosquitoes as I attempt to eat dinner.

I can’t wait to sleep.

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