I got up at 2 a.m. Drove two hours. Hiked 9 miles so I could perch myself on the precarious ridge on a moraine at around 13,000 feet. I then hiked back down to 7,700 feet and drove two hours back to the motel. All that so I could see a big piece of ice.
The big piece of ice was the Sierra’s largest glacier — the Palisade — above Big Pine in Inyo County. I don’t know what was more impressive: The glacier and the series of turquoise lakes it feeds or the fact the Palisade Glacier is guarded by four peaks in excess of 14,000 feet or a third of California’s peaks exceeding the 14,000 foot mark. As a wimp, I’ve only hiked two “Fourteeners” — Mt. Whitney three times and White Mountain once. If I had the athleticism — read that the ability to tackle Class 3-4 climbing challenges — I would be planning ascents of the more doable remaining “Fourteeners”.
My visit to the Palisade Glacier was one of six day hikes in the Eastern Sierra I did during my vacation last week. Altogether I covered more than 70 miles on foot and well in excess of 15,000 feet of elevation gain.
And while I’ll admit to my feet killing me on more than one hike — I had enough moleskin on my toes and heels to make Dr. Scholl a rich man — thanks to a pair of bunions and two hammertoes that have made physicians wince just looking at them, the hikes didn’t kill me. It was the four mile jog I took along June Lake on the final day that had me crying uncle. My concern was how my feet would hold up to a pounding from jogging after six days of hiking. Never once did I think my breathing would do me in especially after 40 hours or so of combined hiking lugging roughly 15 pounds on my back given water isn’t light. I actually stopped to catch my breath a mile into the jog that started out uphill. I was more than embarrassed as I jog starting out uphill on my final day of my annual trip to Death Valley until I reach the 1,000-foot market and then turn around and jog back down. But then it dawned on me. In Death Valley I start jogging along the highway out of Stovepipe Wells at sea level. June Lake is more than a mile high at 7,621 feet. I finished the run without stopping again. To be honest, I didn’t feel any better about it based on the altitude as I figured I should have adjusted after six days.
In short exchanges with others I came across more than a few thought I was kind of of nuts for my hiking plans. This came from backpackers who think it is pure lunacy to go from 7,700 or 8,000 plus feet up to 10,000, 11,000, or 13,000 feet and then back down in one day and get up and do it again the next day. Most of them were hiking to my halfway or turnaround point for the day and staying put for a day or so or hiking further into the wilderness the next day.
To be honest the idea of backpacking leaves me cold. Don’t get me wrong I’ve done 22 mile hikes in one day in the mountains. The idea of camping in the great outdoors once I reach a lake, peak or pass in the Sierra is not appealing. The combined smell of sunscreen, Deet, dirt and sweat has something to do with it. But in all honesty I could never survive a multiple day backpack trip due to my feet. Besides, my idea of roughing it is a Motel 6.
If it wasn’t for Bag Balm — dairymen know what that stuff is — and being able to soak my feet in warm water after I get back to my motel room it would be more like a death march by the second day.
My idea of the perfect vacation is to hike, eat, sleep and read. It doesn’t include playing keep away with bears, being breakfast for hungry mosquitoes, or seeing how repulsive I can be to people who pass me while breathing after the third day on the trail.
Hiking never fails to provide surprises. This trip there were three notable moments.
The first was heading up Burro Pass out of Virginia Lakes. I did it last year but two thirds of the trail was covered with snow more than two feet deep in early July. This year it was a breeze to reach the pass allowing me time to venture down the western side to what struck me as heaven on earth — Summit Lake and Hoover Lake. The beauty of the Sawtooth Range is hard to describe. I also learned how far off I was from the snow buried trail last year and now realize I unwittingly went up to the pass the steepest way possible.
The second was stopping perhaps a 100 feet short of the top of Lundy Pass after gingerly making my way up a massive boulder field. After realizing I was not in a safe place and was likely way off the safest route up I calmly — and ever so slowly — was able to find my way back down.
The last was being able to look down on Sam Mack Meadow at 11,040 feet from 1,500 or so feet above it as I was making my way back from the glacier.
It was that moment that I fully understood what John Muir meant when he penned “the mountains are calling and I must go.”
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.