Mileage: 11.5 (219.1)
Lights play on the wall of my tent. A gentle “pop-pop-pop” has struck up a rhythm and finds a nice beat. Headlamps and rain. Its 3 a.m. and all across the campground people are scrambling to cover their packs or bring them under shelter. I consider just letting my pack get wet; rain in the night is usually light and comes and goes quickly. No, I say, it will only take a minute. So I brush away sleep and crawl out into the night, barefoot. The soft pine needles are damp and the dust hasn’t turned to mud. The trees will keep me dry. I cover my pack and lift it off the ground, onto a rock. Safe and dry. I get back into my tent and fall asleep.
Thirty minutes later and again lights flash on the wall of my tent. A loud rumble echos across the mountains and brings me awake in a second. Lightning and thunder. Its almost 4 a.m. and all across the campground people lie awake in their tents, counting the seconds between flash and boom. Sometimes the strikes come from the south, and sometimes from the north. A thunderstorm in the middle of the night worries me because it brings with it a whole new set of implications. In the mid-west this kind of occurrence is usually associated with a big weather system, which would mean violent storms. Nothing like the mountain rains and lightning that die out with the setting sun that I’ve gotten used to these past few weeks.
Before dawn I notice my sleeping bag is wet. Water has flooded my shelter, which isn’t the best for dealing with big storms. Everything is soaked, and I stay inside as long as I can. In the pale light of early morning, I step outside. Low grey clouds cover everything, and the rain is heavy. The storm doesn’t look like its going to break. My campsite looks pathetic; the tent has nearly collapsed from all the water weight and appears to have resigned itself to letting everything inside get wet.
I decide to get off the trail. The temperature is dropping and I have no way of drying out. Once I cross over Glen Pass in 2 miles, I can leave the JMT on a side trail. From there, I will have to cross over a second pass, Kearsarge, and hike down to Onion Valley Trailhead. Then, find a ride from someone and get into town. I look at my map; 2 mountain passes and nearly 12 miles stand between me and warmth.
Once I make my decision to leave the JMT I start shoveling trail mix into my mouth. I eat one cup, which I hardly chew. I pull out my big bag of soggy almonds, cashews, and M&Ms and tear into it with an abandon previously reserved for climbing The Golden Staircase. Little pieces of partially chewed food fly all around me.
The hunger stops.
I sit in the rain and think about how nice it is to feel full. I don’t care that I’m cold and wet because I’m not hungry.
I quickly pack my things, not caring about how everything is put away. Voices that sound like Monique and Aaron start up and I walk over to their tent. I tell them I’m getting off the trail, and they tell me they’re doing the same. We agree to meet up later that night, or the next morning. I talk to Jeremy, then Karley, Phil, and Carol. The four of them plan on continuing to Mt. Whitney. I wish them luck and make my way to the trail.
I pause before taking my first step. I realize this is the end and if I’m going to cover these twelve miles I can’t stop. Keep hiking, keep warm, keep motivated.
And then I’m off and hiking hard and fast. The water in the Upper Rae Lake is blowing across the surface in waves and I begin the approach to Glen Pass. I look way up and think I can detect movement coming down the side of the mountain, which means other hikers have already been up and over. This gives me extra motivation as I hike into a rain cloud. Violent wind shakes my jacket and I don’t know how long it will be able to keep my torso dry, maybe an hour? My pants are soaked through and cling to my legs. I keep my gloves in my pack, hoping they stay dry so when the rain stops at least I’ll have something warm to put on my hands.
I cross paths with the hikers coming down and talk briefly with the man in front. They are considering stopping and finding shelter near the lake and I wish them luck. The switchbacks are lonely and steep. My legs begin to burn and I start to wonder if I can do this, but only briefly. By the time I reach the top of Glen Pass I’m exhausted but I only stop for a moment to snap a quick picture. Glen is basically a ridge line, so I can see all the exposed landscape to the north and the south. Either way, the view’s the same today.
I pick up my pace as I hike downhill, down into the basin, so by the bottom I’m almost running. My foot snags a rock and nearly sends me falling and I remind myself to be careful because I don’t want to get an injury here. The rain begins to freeze and the wind drives it at me horizontally. Little stinging needles batter my face and hands and make a pelting noise on my rain jacket. Many sections of trail have flooded and I walk right through the standing water.
I take out my maps to see where the cut-off trail over Kearsarge Pass is and can’t get them back in my pocket; my hands can’t work the zipper. I need to go to the bathroom, but my fingers can’t unlock my hip belt. My hands are frozen stiff and numb, stuck in their claw-like position from gripping my trekking pole. I carry the maps in my hands as I walk on.
The hike over Kearsarge Pass would be stunning in even poor conditions: it looks out over a broad valley and what I assume are mountains on the other side. But I’m in a white out of clouds and rain and ice and what appears to be wet snow now. I feel like a miner lost in a cave without a headlamp.
Near the top of Kearsarge I begin to hear a long low rumbling sound that reminds me of thunder, but is actually just little rock-slides. I tell myself that if I’m on top of a pass, there won’t be any rocks above me to pose a threat, so I hike on.
Four hours after I started hiking I come to the top of my final mountain pass, Kearsarge.
I stop for only three minutes, which is long enough to gasp for air with my hands on my knees and feel pretty miserable about the whole situation. I tell myself that its all downhill to Onion Valley Trailhead, which isn’t a lie. On the hike down the rock-slides continue, but I don’t care anymore. I’ll hike through them if I have to. I worry about flooded rivers, of which there are thankfully none. I meet a duo of cousins on the way down and one of them offers me a ride when we get to the trailhead, which I quickly and gratefully accept.
When the road came into view, way below me, I was convinced it was a winding muddy river. I didn’t get excited, because I thought I’d have to cross it. But soon more people were around me, and some of them were running down the trail. There, I saw the parking lot and with it rows and rows of cars.
I rush onto the asphalt and it feels strange to my feet, different. I come to a real, genuine bathroom with walls and door and a roof covering it all. Its unlocked and I step inside. The rain/ice/snow didn’t stop and I never used my gloves, which are still nice and dry in my waterproof stuff sack. I bang on my hip belt to try and unlock it and take my pack off. No luck. I ram myself against a wall. No luck. Finally, I use one hand as a guide, and press it against my other hand, which I placed on my hip buckle. I lean down with all the force I can muster. Snap.
The road to Independence is winding and covered in rocks. My ears pop as we ride along and I behold the great eastern expanse of land opposite the Sierras, land that falls away and stretches out and resigns itself to just being flat. The heater is going full blast and the windows are fogging up.
In the town of Independence there is precious little. I buy 2 foot long sandwiches from a Subway, a family sized bag of Sour Cream & Onion chips, a 2 liter of Coke, various candy bars and a box of laundry soap. I check into a hotel room and nearly faint when I get in the shower. I eat all the food and lay down. It’s 5 in the evening, and the rain is subsiding in the valley. I set my gear out to dry in the evening sun and look at the mountains. Low thick clouds cover the range and I know I had no shot at staying another night in the wilderness. No way. What is the weather going to be like over 10,000 feet tonight?
I get a call from Aaron. They got out safe, as did Karley, Jeremy, Phil and Carol, who were persuaded by a number of hikers who warned them about the conditions further up the trail. Not a one of us will reach the summit of Whitney. All the towns along the eastern edge of the Sierras are full of hikers pushed off the mountain. No vacancy signs at the hotels. I lay on my bed and write in my notebook. I watch TV. I blink and look around. A woman is speaking in Spanish. I blink and look around and then get up. I turn off the TV and walk over to the door. My pack sits nearby, propped on the wall and looking deflated. Inside I can see my blue bear canister. I unlatch the lid and pull out a soggy bag of almonds and cashews and M&Ms: I’ll need something to eat. I put on my shoes, and walk out the door, shutting it behind me.