Tuolumne to Tahoe, Day 6: A Little Pile of Calcium and Carbon

July 28, 2018

I leave Lake Harriet behind early, feeling more than ever that as my elevation gradually drops lower and lower as I move north, I need as much of a jump as I can get to beat the heat.

The PCT winds gently north through thin pine forests and some swampy tarns, often sidewinding along rock slabs. At first it’s the familiar silvery granite, but soon veins of red volcanic rock snake through in steadily increasing proportions. By the time I reach the West Fork West Walker River, the red rock emerges as the victor, a fitting companion to the sagebrush now dominating the landscape.

I slide my pack off and feel the cool air from the river graze my soaking wet back as I fill my water bottles. I take off my shoes and socks to let my feet breath for a bit while I filter, namely my left big toe which is still too swollen to bend and adorned in a shade of reddish purple that could be considered pretty if encountered under different circumstances.

Noticing a hard line of swelling where my socks have been removed, I frown and rub the skin. I have been battling swollen ankles all week and have developed an obnoxious pattern: each day the swelling grows a little worse before deflating most of the way overnight, but not quite back to where I started in the morning. Nearly religious consumption of electrolyte tablets and volumes of water don’t touch it, so each day my baseline of swelling grows a little larger. Between my puffy ankles and my swollen toe, my lower half is turning into somewhat of a horror show.

Leaving the West Fork West Walker River behind, the climate immediately changes and it is hot. I walk under my sun umbrella for awhile as I edge around the entrance to Kennedy Canyon, but the air is still so warm I find myself moving from one island of shade to the next to cool off for a few seconds before re-entering the sun.

Kennedy Canyon’s striking red walls rise on each side while the like-named spring flows out to the east through an emerald channel of grass, willow brush, and yellow wildflowers. Within 30′ on either side of the creek, the land returns to dry sagebrush. The sky is clear and bright blue with the crispest horizon line I’ve seen in days.

While the trail up Kennedy Canyon should be easy and gradual, it is slow going with the heat. I stop at the final easy water for a shamefully long time–an hour–soaking my unhappy toe in the icy water and basking in the creekside shade. The spot is overflowing with waist-high yellow wildflowers which sway gently in the breeze, disappearing back into the pine trees as far as I can see. Hundreds of little orange butterflies are clustered in the sun alongside the creek, lazily opening and closing their wings. I enjoy the shade while they enjoy the sun, but I think we all agree that this is an absolutely perfect spot.

I focus my efforts on eating, which has been a challenge. Accustomed to the insatiable, bottomless pit that is my usual backpacking appetite, I’ve been surprised that this trip has been a different experience. The hot weather has evaporated my appetite entirely and it’s a struggle to get enough calories down. Thus far, I have been able to consume 1,000-1,200 calories per day — not enough, by far, and roughly half of what I have packed.

Lunch proves no different. I manage to get some gummy bears and a couple handfuls of salt & vinegar almonds down, but then the nausea puts a hard stop to that as I dry heave. I attempt a Snickers, but no dice. I wrap up the remaining 75% and put it back in my pack. Beyond frustrating. I drink two liters of water, pause, then another half liter with an electrolyte tablet for good measure. A big climb awaits me.

Leaving Kennedy Canyon Spring behind, I begin the approach to Sonora Pass. Plumes of forest fire smoke are rising in the air, marking the smoke’s afternoon pilgrimage as the shifting winds push it around.

I pause at the last easy water to filter another three liters, which should be more than enough to get me to Latopie Lake, my stopping spot for the day. Straight up the spring, I spy the notch in the ridge that marks the top of my pass.

Let’s kick this pig.

I reach the junction with the trail leading beyond the next ridge over into the main portion of the Emigrant Wilderness. I turn right and start the upward slog, sun umbrella out.

Even in my overheating, sweaty, kind of delusional state, the climb up Sonora Pass is hilariously purgatorial. The target of the climb is visible from the bottom of the canyon and has the illusion of being right there but never appearing to get any closer. The way up involves some of the longest switchbacks I’ve ever encountered, swinging to and fro across the entire slope at a painfully inefficient slope angle. Just when I think I’m going to round into the final straightaway, another leg of switchback reveals itself.

Looking back from from where I came, noting the trail leading into Emigrant Wilderness. Urge to return and see what’s on the other side is hopelessly strong.
PCT threading slowly towards the pass. Slowly.
Oh come on.

About 2/3 of the way up a climb I should be able to fly through with ease, the bottom drops out. I feel a bonk coming on around the edges. My body feels heavy with walking labored as if I were wading through molasses. This sensation causes my mental game to slip. The glory and joy of the last couple days starts to crumble out of reach as negative affirmations take their place.

I stop to shovel more gummy bears in my mouth, the only form of quick energy I seem to be able to get past my tantrum-prone stomach. I summon enough of a boost to slowly crest the top and see what’s on the other side.

Shuffling to the broken sign marking Sonora Pass, I lift my gaze and peer ahead. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The PCT fades into the distance, a highly unlikely line wobbling along the top of what looks like an impossible slope.

It looks like Mars, or the end of the world.

The ridge tilts up at a jarring angle, like a crack in the earth or the edge of a crater. Jagged red rocks crunch underfoot and sparse, dwarf plants wave frantically in the strong gusting wind that makes my eyes water.

And then there’s the smoke. Gone are the clear skies I enjoyed in Kennedy Canyon below. The difference from one canyon to another is a stark demonstration of how unpredictable the winds are, and the channels in which they blow. The smoke from the Ferguson fire — now quite far south of me — has been thinning out, yet here, looking due north, it is the worst it’s been.

The horizon appears a dingy brown and visibility is limited. The valley below is barely perceptible, with the pine trees appearing as dusty navy blue smudges eventually dissolving into the haze, causing the illusion that the ridge is a chain of islands.

I recognize, almost robotically, that this remote place has taken the throne as my new favorite, but the emotional thrill that should come with this realization isn’t registering. The bonk that I’ve barely held at bay for the last hour pushes a little harder while I walk, head down, against the deafening headwind blowing thicker smoke in and the dregs of my morale and physical endurance away with it.

And then, I hit my wall. On this lonesome stretch of exposed 40-degree ridge with no flat spots in sight, my head grows fuzzy and my legs refuse to move. I try to work through my options but my brain runs slow. Making it to Latopie Lake is out of the picture; it’s too late in the day and my body is done — multiple days of too-low food intake has caught up and my glycogen stores are depleted. With only 1.5 liters of water on me and the next easily accessible water many miles away…not great.

Through the mental fog, a lethargic panic rises.

I look at my Guthook app and see a campsite marked about a half mile ahead. Looking along the steep ridge stretched out in front of me, it’s hard to imagine any viable flat spots existing. Tears well up in my eyes and I feel that uncomfortable pre-cry burn in the back of my throat, but I’m too tired to actually do it.

I don’t know how to explain what happens. Whatever part of my mind I perceive as my conscious self lets go and is gently pushed aside by a part of my brain I’ve never activated before. It feels like softly falling backwards, tucked aside by a different, deeper gear. It’s a complete surrender to this other unknown part and I watch in third person as my body pushes forward at a glacial pace.

In what seems like years, I watch myself find the space about 20 feet up and off the trail sheltered by shrubby pines. I watch as I drop my pack, remove my tarp, and slowly set up my shelter and bed, stopping every few seconds to rally energy for the next task. I watch as my hands’ muscle memory ties a particular knot around a rock to secure the tent. As my body methodically goes through the steps of setting up camp, I feel like I’m watching a long drive from the backseat, purely a passenger.

I watch as my hands dump out the bear canister and find a tortilla, peanut butter, and honey. It takes me a half hour to finish it in slow, small bites like a child whose parent says they can’t leave the table until finishing dinner. I comply.

Next on my list of basic needs is water, which I must ration. I divide it into two bottles to avoid the temptation to drink it all at once, then drink 3/4 of a liter and save the other 3/4 of a liter for the morning. It will need to get me to Sardine Creek about 6.5 miles away tomorrow. I move it from sight to eliminate the temptation.

Basic needs temporarily appeased, I crawl under my quilt and stare at the ridge and peaks above me, watching the long shadows stretch even taller. The red rock lights up sunset’s bright orange glow, artificially amplified by the increasingly thick smoke in the air. My body is still on the brink, feeble and recovering from the crash. I feel like a stowaway in my own body and nothing more than a pile of calcium, carbon, and other elements arranged in a person-shaped mass. This is true always, of course, but what I sense as “me” now feels like a detached, desiccated walnut rattling around in its shell. It is perhaps the most honest moment I’ve ever had with my body.

I fall asleep before the sun has finished slipping below the horizon.

Several hours later, I wake up and it is dark and still. No longer can I hear the wind whipping the scrubby pines around me, the comforting white noise replaced with a quiet so complete my ears start to play tricks on me. And why is it so dark? Where is the moon that has been such a bright, full pest for the last week?

The smell of smoke is thick, not traces of woodsmoke in the distance like much of the trip has been, but a warm, coiling, blanket-like entity. It is not far away but all around, suffocating. I unzip the tent and peer out into the darkness, scanning the ridge-line.

When I find the moon, I curse. It isn’t missing after all, but appears fat and dark burgundy along the horizon. The smoke is so thick it’s almost entirely obscured the moon’s light, and I’d give anything to have its assertive, bright light beaming in my face again as opposed to this sickly, rusty orb the color of dried blood.

Panic wells up, but again the other voice, that deeper gear, steps in to keep me from spinning out. I lay back down and pull my quilt over my face to mask the smoke. I’ll figure it out in the morning.

It will work out.

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