I wish I could tell you all about Cuba. But I don’t know enough.
I wish I could tell you all about the history of Cuba, but I am unqualified.
I wish I could tell you all about Cuba today, but there are too many things I didn’t even see.
Cuba seems to change on a daily basis, a world shifting and changing to suit its own needs. I say that only as a tourist. I don’t know what it is like to be Cuban, or to live on an island nation governed by a unique set of principles. There seems to be a purposeful divide between the local daily life and the tourist tableau on display. Perhaps this is not all that different from the way other countries allow tourists to see their world, but it is the most apparent divide I have seen.
Even so, the Havana I saw in a measly five days was full of magic, where around every corner I thought, “I did not expect to see that.”
Restaurants that were open and thriving three days ago, recommended by our Cuban hosts, were closed for renovation, or gone completely when we tried to visit them.
Three dogs ran by on the street, all wearing t-shirts, two wearing hats, and one with a nametag.
The only salsa dancing I did was a doorman to a bar, egged on by a drunk American tourist (that I did not know).
I’ll go into depth about our trip, my usual, day by day, but I have to tell you that visiting La Habana was surreal. More so for me than other Latin American countries. There is something unique to Habana, maybe the communism hosting capitalist tourists, maybe a crumbling city that is nearing its 500th birthday, or perhaps being in a country where knowledge is open and free to any citizen who shows interest. The art on every street corner surpassed anything I’d seen in American tourist galleries. The bands in almost every bar starting at 4 o’clock in the afternoon were better than most thrown-together bar bands in tourist districts I’ve been in. And that was just them playing covers.
But to all of these there is a caveat, a wondering what the real Cuba is like, because we saw the Instagram profile of the country: beautiful cars, intriguing sunsets, and even the crumbling and disarray of the old town fell apart in an elegant manner.
Despite my suspicions, make no mistake, there is magic in Cuba. It isn’t big magic, the hit you over the head kind, but rather the shrugging, of-course-it-is type of magic that citizens accept and visitors marvel over.
There are many sports metaphors that equate to struggle. Marathons, extra innings, overtime: all of these immediately conjure up the physical struggle of a human being. But perhaps we need a sports metaphor for the less demanding endurance trail. Romanian Rib could be just such a metaphor for patience.
Romanian Rib is a specific route near Red Rocks National Park. The climb itself is about 1000 feet of vertical. There is a parking lot on the side of the road, and a marked, maintained trail for about half of the 1.5 mile hike-in to the base of Romanian Rib.
That morning we got started a little later than usual, despite our promises to be out the door early. While inconvenient, in hindsight, an extra hour of daylight would have made little difference.
We sorted gear in the back of the car, loaded up packs and ropes, and hiked in, hoping we didn’t forget anything. The base of Romanian Rib is not marked, nor on a trail, so we bushwhacked through the prickly manzanita bushes to get to a place where we could set ropes.
The vertical was 1000 feet. Our rope was 180 feet. Quick math: if we need to climb 1000 feet, we would need to do at least 6 pitches. But! The rope was tied to both of us, needed to have enough slack to thread through protection easily. As the Mountain Project predicts, 8 pitches seemed to be a good theory for how long it would take.
Romanian Rib is rated as a 5.5 using the Yosemite Decimal System. The first number 5 in this is meant to discuss the class level of hike/climb, which is the kind that requires the use of a rope. A Class 1 hike is easy, hiking boots likely required, each higher level getting more difficult until Class 5, which requires a rope. I’ve seen grocery store parking lots more treacherous than a Class 1.
After Class 5 is reached, the decimal point describes the rating system for the actual climb. The higher the number, the more difficult it is. 5.0 is a treacherous parking lot, while the peak of 5.15 seem to require not just a rope, but superpowers.
Climbing a multi-pitch 5.5 seemed like a good fit for our quartet. Wendy and I are not fast climbers, but at 5.5, we would be well in our comfort zone, so even with the fatigue of a day-long excursion, there would be no problems. For Will and Andy, they needed to be able to free-climb without fear of injury, and a 5.5 would be very doable.
Crack of ten a.m., we were climbing. While Red Rocks is a sandstone formation, our particular route also had iron deposits. As the wind eroded the sandstone over time, shaping the formations, the iron deposits did not erode. So the face was covered in these reddish warts, which provided easy and abundant handholds and footholds. Climbing through those wart-fields went fast, and even I felt like Spiderman, scrambling up as fast as I could clean protection out of the fissures.
There were snags, of course. Because the shape of the rock meant we were often out of visual and audio range, I had to rely only on the patience of knowing I had literally no place to go. Clipped into a rock 600 feet off the ground, patience is not so much a virtue as a hobby.
Along the way, we anchored at some large ledges, and then some places that weren’t ledges at all. Those were the stations that made my feet hurt, “standing” in an uncomfortable way so as to competently belay my partner.
We also discovered that our rope was about ten feet shorter than Will’s rope, meaning that on two occasions, Andy had to downclimb from where Wendy was set up to make a new anchor for us.
After eight pitches, I stopped counting. We did a few really short stints in order to reach those monster resting ledges. Despite what Mountain Project recommended, we did at least ten pitches (if not more).
By the time we reached the top of the climb (not the top of the rock), it was almost four o’clock in the afternoon. We’d been in shadows most of the day, and it was definitely beginning to look like dark would fall quickly.
Must Come Down
We hiked across the rock to get to the rappel stations. These are where metal bolts have been anchored into the rock permanently. To speed the process, Will tied the two ropes together. Andy set the rope and headed down first. After him, I went, then Wendy, then Will, then we pulled the rope and started again, descending 180 feet at a time.
I felt comfortable repelling, as we had repelled 300 feet into the Natural Well earlier that year. Down we went, moving fast, trying to be efficient. Sometimes it was easy, walking down the rock backwards, moving my prusik (small knot type used as a safety back-up) until both that rope and my metal ATC (rappel device) were hot to the touch.
By the time we had made it down 3 pitches, it was dark. The Las Vegas Strip was visible, the floodlight at the Luxor pyramid beamed into the sky directly behind where our car was parked. I mentally marked the location because it was already clear we would hike out in the dark. To the right was the small, twinkling town of Blue Diamond.
Here, I admit that Will tied me into the rope. My knots are slower, my fingers clumsier. He would tie, I would double-check, Wendy would give me a big smile, and I would slide down to meet my husband at the bottom of the rope. When it got dark, it was still the same process, just with heightened senses.
The moon hadn’t risen yet, and the starlight was barely enough to see what we were doing. Fortunately, the white rock reflected what little light we had. Only Andy had remembered to bring along a headlamp. Wendy’s cellphone battery was near dead. Andy and Will’s were about at half, and I had about three-quarters. It would be enough once we were on the ground, but there was no way to use the cell phone lights while rappelling.
We had gone down ravines, around trees, each of us had scratches from the ubiquitous manzanita leaves. Finally, Andy said he thought we were near a walk-off. This rappel would be the last one. We set the rope around the trunk of a large tree miraculously growing in this outcropping of boulders. Unlike other sections, this one had plenty of room to sit together comfortably. Andy headed down, and the three of us huddled against the rock, enjoying the last bit of heat the rock retained from the desert sun. Directly in front of the tree was a large boulder. After Andy had been gone a few minutes, the rope slid around the surface of the boulder, straightening out due to the tension below.
Wendy asked what we should eat for dinner. I had seen a Mexican restaurant on the way into the park the other day (I have a radar for this sort of thing). We waited for Andy to call back up to say he was safe and for me to tie in. But we heard nothing.
Then came the fantasizing about burritos the size of footballs, the discussion on what makes a good guacamole great. Finally, we heard Andy’s voice yell up from the rock. We looked at each other, all of us asking, “What did he say?”
One of the least effective things to do in this situation is to stand on the edge of something and yell “WHAT?” as loud as you can.
I’m not saying we did or did not do that. But finally, when we understood an “OK” from Andy, I tied in.
I started down the rope, picking my way through the vegetation that had started to dominate our landscape. Much of it was safe to downclimb, but in the dark, we didn’t want to risk it. Instead, I slid the rope through my equipment as I walked backwards, until I got to this strange plateau with a small manzanita tree and a cave opening roughly 18 inches tall.
Out of nowhere, I heard Andy’s voice loud and clear: “I’ve got you.”
I looked around me, not seeing where he could be, then finally realizing his voice was coming from the small hole in front of me. “Where are you?”
He explained that there would be a free-rappel after this plateau. He said to follow the sound of his voice.
“Into the cave?” I asked, because that did not make any sense whatsoever.
“Just follow the rope,” he said.
What else is there to do at this point? There’s no light, I’m tied to a rope, and I have a massive craving for a burrito football.
Peering over the ledge near the small manzanita bush near the ledge, I saw how the rock dropped away into nothingness. Andy turned on the red light of his head lamp to show me how close I was, maybe another 30-40 feet. Going over the ledge seemed like the hardest part, so I took the plunge, holding my feet straight out as I sat myself into thin air, as if sinking into a dining room chair.
I held my prusik still, giving myself a second to collect myself.
“I’ve got you,” Andy reminded me. “I can control the rope down here.” By pulling tension at his end, he could give a safety stop.
I nodded, but before I could move the prusik and finish my descent, the rope dropped, and my body jerked downward.
My heart stopped. Above me, the rope had rolled over the first boulder, just as I had seen it do while Andy descended. Shaking, I moved the prusik to end the rappel. I slid down the remainder, the scaly sound of the rope shushing through my equipment the only background to this activity.
My feet touched the ground and I untied quickly. Both of us screamed “OK” back up at Wendy and Will.
“I hope the rope doesn’t get stuck,” Andy said.
I stopped him. “Let’s get them down first.”
Then I did what I do best: I got out of the way. I clambered over to a rock outcropping to look at the valley below us. When I looked up, I began whooping.
“The moon is rising!” I yelled. “It’s big and orange and perfect!” We were only one day past a full moon. The extra light was almost immediate. By the time Wendy reached us, the moon was fully risen.
Will came down next, and after he detached himself, Andy pulled on the rope like ringing a bell in a belltower. Nothing happened. Will grabbed the rope and they pulled again. Nothing. I tied into the back of the rope, Andy climbed up a few feet, and the three of us put all of our weight against it. Nothing.
“Well,” Andy said, hands on his hips.
“Yup,” Will said, same stance.
I returned to my pack to eat some trail mix and a honey packet since I was getting to the point of shaking from lack of calories. By the time I got called back to the rope, Will had attempted an ascension system, then Andy tried, and I got tied into the rope that was supposed to be pulled up, around the tree and then back down again. That way, when Will climbed up again, he wouldn’t fall on the ground from a sudden rope-slip.
There is probably not a way that I can both accurately describe the ascension system as well as convey how much physical exertion it took for Will to climb up the rope that hung away from any wall. Watching Will roll himself up over the ledge alone was exhausting.
None of us were talking, so it was easy to hear the animal noises near the overlook. Andy was controlling one end of the rope, I was tied into the other, and Will was ascending, which meant Wendy was left to investigate the strange noises near our packs.
She disappeared over to the ledge where our backpacks were, and then we heard the sound of small rocks hitting the outcropping. There was some more shuffling, and then Wendy returned.
“Sorry Andy, I think a fox peed on your pack. But he’s gone now,” she said.
It’s funny now, but at the time, it was difficult to even register. I was thinking about how we might just sleep there, huddled in a big puppy pile and wait for morning when we could find a way to retrieve the rope in daylight.
Once Will had accomplished the ascent, however, he went back up to the tree, freed the rope and downclimbed to the ledge where he re-set the rope and descended again. This time, when we pulled, the rope came down.
During all of this, Wendy and I had investigated whether or not this was our walk-off point. We both thought so, but it had not been borne out. There was still a possibility that we might encounter another rappelling situation. Still, we changed out of our climbing shoes into hiking boots and our quartet set off in the moonlight.
There were a few points where we had to turn back on our bushwhacking trail to the car, but for the most part, the 1.5 mile return trip was pleasant. We sang childhood camp songs, I belted out a few choruses of Pocahontas (“Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?”), and we fantasized about crispy tortilla chips, hot with grease.
We were giddy with relief: relieved that we wouldn’t be spending the night in a manzanita bush tangle, relieved that we would eat hot food that day, relieved that everyone was safe and unscathed.
By the time we got back to the car, it was after 10:30 pm. Andy and I split a hot, stale vanilla zinger stashed that morning in the driver’s console. The sugar had crystallized and melted on our tongues.
Once again, Las Vegas came through: despite being 11 pm on a Tuesday night, the Mexican restaurant was open because it had video poker, and was technically a gaming establishment. 24 hour chips and salsa. Our waiter literally ran across the restaurant to get us our hot, crispy chips, and bowls of red salsa, green salsa, and bean dip. I ordered a cervezerita for the first time in my life.
We ate like animals, though none of us could finish. All of us were tired, endorphin-flooded, and ready for few more days of climbing (and a good night’s sleep).
Our first major multi-pitch climb was a good adventure–and as Andy likes to say, “It’s only a good story if something goes wrong.”
Red Rocks is an incredible formation of sandstone 15 miles outside of Las Vegas. One of the best things about a trip to Red Rocks is that all of the gambling and drinking of Vegas tourists subsidize the inevitably less expensive food and lodging of a climbing trip.
We stayed at an AirBnB on the West side of Vegas, near Red Rocks, big enough to have plenty of room for four people. Though only 15-20 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, we were also 15 minutes from the garage to touching sandstone rock.
The first day we arrived, Andy ran up Mount Wilson (I do not use the word “run” in any sloppy way. He ran up that mountain). I stayed at the condo, working and then walking to a grocery store for supplies. The grocery store walk ended up being almost as many miles as Andy’s trek, though mine was all flat while his had a gain of 7,070 feet.
That night we walked the Strip until it was time to pick up Will and Wendy at the airport. The Strip is always great for people watching and that night was no exception. We watched a “Day Club” let out and a group of young drunk people try to fight another group of young drunk people.
It made me feel old. And glad that I was old.
The next day the four of us sorted gear and headed to the Rocks for some practice runs. The day was crowded, but we found a niche to climb in to get our stuff sorted and then went around the backside of the park to climb a bigger route.
Physical Graffiti & Multi-Pitch Climbing
The route is called Physical Graffiti and requires two pitches. What that means is that one person lead climbs the route, attached to a rope to the bottom person (who is on-belay). The lead climber places protection (cams or nuts which are two types of gear that fit into the rock) to thread the rope through just in case this lead climber falls. The protection means that if a fall occurs, the lead climber falls the length of the last protection, not all the way to the ground.
Once the lead climber reaches an anchor station (a place where either a permanent bolt is set into the rock, or a nice ledge that seems like a good stopping place where the lead climber can build an anchor securely with the various cams or nuts), the roles of the two people switch. The lead climber up above belays the person below, who begins to climb. Along the way, the bottom climber cleans the route, meaning that all of the cams or nuts have to be taken out of the rock and brought with up to the anchor station.
In other scenarios, once the bottom climber reaches the anchor station, s/he could pass right on by, cruising up, becoming the lead climber. This works when you have two climbers of equitable skill levels.
But hey! Remember that other post I wrote about not being a very good climber? Yep. This is an excellent instance where my lack of skill comes into play. Instead of cruising by Andy when I got to the anchor station on the first pitch, I handed over all the gear I had cleaned from the route, took the rope from Andy, and belayed him as he lead-climbed the second pitch as well.
Climbing the Crack
So on Physical Graffiti the second pitch is actually a crack. I had climbed exactly one crack before this, a possible less than 5.4 rated (read: very easy) crack system on the opposite side of the rock about 90 minutes prior. Sure, I’d read a How-To-Climb-A-Crack manual the night before and have watched other people do it. Theory is great and all, but definitely not a substitute for actual attempts.
I try out some of the new methods, the chicken-wing: shoving your entire arm inside the crack system, bent at the elbow, and levering pressure between flat hand and shoulder. I had the most success with that. Then there was the fist of power maneuver, shoving your hand inside of a crack, then making a fist and using that to keep your place as you move upwards. That one was harder as my hands are not terribly wide, so it was a little loosey-goosey.
But let me back up and say the best part of new experiences is meeting new people. We had chatted with this guy named Skyler at the bottom, who was waiting for some people to climb up this route again. Wendy and Will began climbing first, so Andy and I had time to chat with him. Skyler was waiting for his new friends, Andrew and Katherine (weird, right?), to get there so he could climb up again with Andrew.
By the time I got to the anchor and Andy took off, Andrew arrived at the anchor and clipped in. Then Skyler arrived not long afterwards. The three of us were all clipped in on the same anchor, mine on the bottom. The guys exchanged information while I belayed Andy on the second pitch. Skyler got out his cell phone to get Andrew’s number. I kept belaying. Then, I was supposed to leave on my climb, but I had to clean the anchor of all my stuff–which was on the bottom of this pile of gear. I was all the way to the right, closest to the route and farthest from the anchor. Andrew rearranged some of his gear, Skyler helped with my carabiners, and then I started to climb.
Not a minute after, Skyler unhooked from Andrew’s system, and Andrew rappelled down from the anchor. Skyler was on the ledge below me without a harness or a rope. He intended to free climb the crack.
Of course he did. He tried to be encouraging (as almost every single person I have ever encountered in the climbing community), calling a “nice move” when I chicken-winged. But really, like many introverts, I would like to pretend you can’t see me at all. Obviously, I *know* I’m not invisible, but I’m probably doing something dumb, and would prefer to struggle along in anonymity. Later, when I feel better, I will call attention to my ridiculous flailing, at which point, we can all laugh about it and I won’t feel humiliated.
I made it up the crack with some difficulty, much of said difficulty due to the fact Andy couldn’t hear me and I couldn’t hear him. If he yelled something, I could tell he yelled, but I had no idea what he was saying. Same went for him. So when I yelled for tension, fearing my right foot was slipping as I tried to wriggle my left foot free to wedge above the right foot, he gave slack.
My slightly louder, slightly more desperate scream of “Tension!” gave me a desired result, but also a note from Skyler below me to shout my partner’s name ahead of the command.
The shadows were long by the time we got down, so we went to the car and hit the Red Rocks Casino buffet for dinner (deee-lightful). This casino, near the actual Red Rocks entrance is out-door themed, and left us to speculate as we waited in line, how to climb the decorative stone-work.
But, now that I had climbed (2) crack systems, and (1) multi-pitch climb, tomorrow was all set for a 1500-foot climb.
I had not slept well. The first few nights of sleeping on the ground were great, straightening out my back in ways I didn’t know it was crooked, but the last night was painful. My side of the tent was on a gentle slope, so I tended to slide to the edge of the tent, waking every few hours, pressed against the canvas. My right shoulder hurt from my fall, so I couldn’t put my arm over my head if I laid on my stomach, and I certainly couldn’t lay on my right side.
Andy got out of his bag first that day. The next water wasn’t for another two and a half miles, and we had another pass to get through beforehand, so I forewent my morning tea. My feet still hurt from the day before, the toll of fifteen miles on tender soles. Had we more trail time, I would have been able to accustom myself to that much mileage and more, but at the time, my body faced the consequences. Given how swollen my feet were, I tied my boots looser than usual. We ate our granola and folded up camp.
I took a last look around, the tall pines waving in the breeze of the early morning. This was our last camp. We had nine more miles until the Lava Lake Trailhead, so barring any unforeseen issues, we would literally be out of the woods that day. The packs were again lighter as we suited up for our last big day.
But first, the pass: The Opie Dilldock Pass.
Yeah, you heard me.
As we had done on our third morning, the bulk of our elevation would happen first thing in the morning. We had camped less than a mile from where the topographical lines started to get close together on our map. And once again, we had patted ourselves on the back for our cleverness.
“At Mile 41.2 (6900′) is Opie Dilldock Pass. Very Alpine Area. Great Views.
This did not at all prepare us for what was in store. We kept our pace intentionally slow, winding our way through the trees and around the mountain, when we came out of the forest. Perhaps, indeed, the Alpine area the author of our guidepost had mentioned.
But the pass itself was far more like Mordor in Lord of the Rings than any alpine area I’ve ever been in. The ground was dry and barren, the volcanic rock gray now, crunching beneath our feet. We climbed up and up and up, me falling behind because I could not manage Andy’s pace. When we came around a corner, a fierce wind waited for us, blowing us both off-balance. My eyes teared up against the wind, my hat catching each gust, despite my ponytail threaded through the back. We had to lean forward into the wind to keep moving up the trail.
The ascent kept going and going…until it didn’t. Like any struggle, once we discovered the plateau, it didn’t seem so hard. The wind skirted past us, barely ruffling the rat’s nest in my ponytail.
Minnie Scott Spring
“At mile 41.7 (6700′) is Minnie Scott Spring. First drinking water since Sisters Spring and Glacier Creek. It’s easy to miss the spring late in summer. It appears about 100′ East of the trail and forms a stream that may peter out before it even reaches the trail. You have to engineer a dam to form a pool, then let the mud settle before getting water. Seems to be reliable year round. Nice campsites down a trail to the West. Next drinking water is at South Mattieu Lake.”
This description was why I had no tea this morning, and the thought had occurred to me that Opie Dilldock Pass (really? really?!) had challenged me even more because of the lack of tea in my system.
But Minnie Scott Spring appeared like an oasis of “Alpine” in an otherwise Balrog-infested area. We filtered our water here, despite our belief that the spring didn’t require it. We were too close to a successful trip to be stricken mere miles from the car. I eased off my feet, reclining on a rock. They ached still. In fact, I also had patches of skin on each hip that were being rubbed raw by the pack’s belt. After five days, I had managed to figure out a specific way to set the pack on my hips that made carrying it possible in the long-term. The margins of success were very narrow. My right shoulder ached.
We did not have to engineer a dam to filter the water, thankfully. Now that we had plenty of drinking water on board, we both relaxed some. No matter what happened, we would be fine. Shouldering the packs again, we set off down the trail, now only seven miles from the car.
The volcanic landscape overtook again, now red basalt as far as we could see. The wind kicked up and threatened to take my hat–once ripping it right off and I had to chase it down, afraid my Big 5 Dive trucker hat was gone forever. We traversed through the Yapoah Crater, but it looked a lot like the rest of basalt formations.
There was more hills and valleys than we anticipated, the wind constant until we crossed into the trees. Eventually, we returned to the alpine areas again, where we rejoined the Scott Trail, and then the Mattieu Lake Trail.
I was slowing, getting quieter, focused now on the discomfort in my shoulder and my feet. We stopped to eat, despite my protestations, at South Mattieu Lake. I ate not only a Clif bar but also high-graded both the banana chips and cashews out of the gorp.
I did the math and realized I had eaten at maximum, 1500 calories the day before. Not enough for a fifteen mile day. My exhaustion made sense. I ate until I pictured my stomach overflowing with layers of banana chips, stacked unevenly, like a slate retaining wall.
Groups of retirees trickled down to the lake. The silver hair was the first giveaway. They had picnics in their daypacks. We were three miles from the trailhead.
It made me smile–they were clearly a very successful outdoor club for seniors. They wore technical hiking gear, many had trekking poles. But they were all enjoying themselves (well, except this one guy, but he looked like the type that had only recently quit his job, and only under protest. He was the kind that didn’t know how to not be in charge and was unhappy about the whole thing.).
Sitting had improved the discomfort in my shoulder and my feet. We had covered a fair amount of tough ground already, and we were close now. We hefted our packs and set out for our last leg. The trail was back to my favorite kind: soft, but well-packed, with good tree cover so as to provide ample shade. We wore sunscreen everyday. I wear sunscreen every day of my life, regardless, but reapplying can really be a hassle.
My feet had stopped aching, finally, and a snack always improved my mood. But then, just like after Opie Dilldock Pass: there we were. In front of us, a parking lot. Behind us, wilderness. It seemed so strange to stand on the cusp, covered in red dust.
I had been content in our world of two. We were well provisioned, mildly comfortable, and completely out of range of any electronic world. But taking steps forward brought the rest of the world crashing at our feet (or in my case, crashing at my blisters). I had never been in the woods that long before, had never gotten accustomed to that kind of walking. It would have been easy to step back in, melt into the trees, a way to say “forget it,” and cocoon away, just ourselves.
But I hadn’t brushed my hair in five days, nor showered. My hips were rubbed raw, my feet swollen and blistered, the ache in my shoulder was intensifying, even as light as my pack felt now compared to the beginning of the trip. The world beckoned, bright and candy-like. It had video games and restaurants. It had my family, my friends, more books, and hot tea. We stepped past the trailhead signpost. We were back.
There were two gentleman with their covered truckbeds open, clearly returned from their morning excursion. It was noon, and they were having post-trail beers. We asked them to take a picture of us. We were one week shy of our seventh wedding anniversary, and we had never felt closer.
Our photographer told us a funny story about a newly married couple going into the woods for a week-long honeymoon, only to come out a day later, with implications for the rest of their marriage.
We laughed, declined his offer of a beer, and picked around until we found our car in the dusty lot. Easing the packs off, Andy hunted for the car keys. He pushed the fob, and the truck popped open. We pulled out our waters and more gorp, as well as the charging equipment for our phones. The packs slid into the trunk. Andy flipped his pack the bird.
I sat down in the passenger seat and laughed. I hadn’t sat in a chair in almost a week. It was a Kia, and it was SO COMFORTABLE. The revelation came fast and harsh: how overly comfortable we are in so many respects. How easy our lives are, and how we wallow in it only to declare it unsatisfying.
We resolved to never complain again.
So we drove to Bend to eat. We took turns washing up in the bathroom, I washed up to my elbows three times before the water ran clear. There was a Buddha on the wall watching as I performed my ablutions. We were in a small fusion restaurant called Spork, which I cannot recommend enough. Dee-licious. Also: we had been in the woods for six days, so grain of salt.
We drove to Crater Lake, but by then I had taken my boots off. My loose-tying approach that morning had left me with a large blister on my toe. The bottoms of feet still tingled, and with the boots off, unweighted in the car, once again, my feet swelled to a shape nearly round. My right hip was near bleeding from the belt of my pack, but not quite. My left hip felt bruised, but it wasn’t discolored.
It was the National Parks’ 100th birthday weekend, so we cruised in for free. Due to my injured status, we did not do a hike, but drove half of the perimeter. We saw a deer, which felt like vindication for the fact we had not seen anything larger than a squirrel during our week in the woods.
We got a hotel that night. I hadn’t brushed my hair in a week. My calves were stills stained with ash from before The Burn. I knew I smelled, even if I was having a hard time recognizing it. When I took my shirt off, my right arm was decidedly swollen compared to the left. The bruising would be slow, and indeed, when it came, it covered an area from my bicep down past my elbow. I couldn’t sleep on my right side for two weeks after.
The waistband of my pants chafed the raw skin on my hips, but that went away after a few days. Andy was, of course, completely unscathed.
This was one of our best trips together. Maybe even better than when we spent three weeks in Honduras scuba diving. Definitely better than when we tried to motorcycle the Blue Ridge Parkway and got washed out by a Nor’easter.
The reason why it was so much better was because we walked out of the woods being a better team than when we entered it. It wasn’t a hardship, our hiking and camping adventure, but it was a shared experience where we both carried our weight (not just figuratively).We had set daily goals and frequently exceeded them; we communicated, taking the time to really look at each other. We had lain next to each other listening to elk calls at dawn.
There’s magic in the in between times, and we’d seen it together.
***Continued from yesterday’s blog, where Katie and Andy had made it through the Wickiup Plains, Katie had fallen with her pack on, and they had encountered a pixie-ish couple from Seattle who had lost some clogs…
Leaving Team Seattle behind us, we continued our slow but steady pace outstripping a few other hiking teams. I was proud of us, even though I know it wasn’t a competition. There was a small, unnamed lake that we were on the lookout for, a site we had thought to camp yesterday if we had energy after summiting South Sister (no.). So far, my knee was holding steady. We blew past the lake, small and filled with debris.
Not far from the murky unnamed lake, a man stood on the side of the trail, looking at his map. He stopped us, wanting to know where the closest water was. He held a tin cup in his hand. His clothes were light, good hiking gear. His pack was concise, he clearly had a well-used system. But then he had this purple tote bag slung over one arm. Zinc was poorly rubbed onto his nose.
Andy pointed back the way we came. “Barely a quarter mile,” he said.
“Thanks,” the guy said, and then he wrangled us into another conversation.
We tried to disentangle ourselves but when we began to hike, he fell into rhythm with us.
“Huntsville, Alabama, huh?” he said from behind me.
Because this was my father in law’s pack, he’d put his address all over it. So we talked for a minute about Andy’s dad, his job as a scientist. Andy picked up the pace. It was grueling, but I knew what he was doing–trying to shake our new companion. I kept on Andy’s heels. We trucked mile after mile.
We passed a few meadows, and when we entered heavy tree cover again, we come across two women who appeared to be in their seventies sitting on a log. There wasn’t a trailhead for about eight, maybe ten miles.
“Oh, hello,” they said, as if we happened upon them in a cafe.
Since our grueling pace wasn’t dislodging our new friend, maybe a long break would. We stopped, chatting for almost twenty minutes with these two women. One of them was wearing a hat sporting the Lake Tahoe Rim Trail logo. They had hiked that one not long ago. Make no mistake, these women were sleepers–they looked like your frail grandmother, but could likely out-hike even a seasoned PCT-er.
“You all came together?” one of them asked.
“No,” I said, motioning to me and Andy.
The woman nodded, and then looked at our new friend. “What’s in the satchel?”
The man stared into the distance as if he hadn’t heard. She repeated the question. He shrugged and held his purple tote closer to his body. “Stuff,” he said.
That didn’t make us feel any better. The man then went and sat down on a log behind the two women, clearly waiting for us. Team Seattle passed us, giving us a strange look, as if we had wanted to collect these other hikers.
Finally it was clear that we had to keep going. Satchel wasn’t going anywhere. We said goodbye to the ladies and returned to our grueling pace, fast enough that conversation was impossible. Before long, we were at Reese Lake, our destination for the night. It was about noon.
Team Seattle was setting their camp. Andy refilled our Nalgene bottles. Satchel took off his shoes and waded in the water. I went over to Team Seattle to tell them the secret water source hint the ladies had clued us in about from the Obsidian Limited Use Area. I also told them to watch for Satchel.
He just set off all my alarm bells, and then being cagey about this totebag he had. While open about living in Eugene, he’d said he was hiking the loop as well, but it just didn’t make sense, as he would get suddenly close-lipped about which direction he was following on the loop. I did not want to sleep at the same site as him.
Andy helped Satchel with his maps, which were old–from the seventies, before the creation of the PCT, which did not appear on the maps at all.
Finally, Andy did this polite kiss-off move he does so well. Satchel had kind of a hurt look on his face, but when we finally found a place to perch over the lake to eat lunch, Satchel had disappeared.
I took my boots off while we ate, as we meant the lunch break to be long. If we pushed ahead, our next water wasn’t until the Obsidian Limited Use Area, where we didn’t have a permit to camp. We would have to hike through it, refill our water and then camp on the other side of it.
There was a possibility of water earlier, if the streams on the map were still there. We had asked the older ladies about this, and they said all of the creek beds were dry. So we took a deep breath, feeling good, and pushed on. The topography on the map looked fairly flat, and had we not just run down eight miles of trail in less than three hours? With stops and injury!
Boots on, we continued. Once we were safely away from Reese Lake, we gossiped about Satchel, but we never saw him again.
“At mile 37.4 is the beginning of the Obsidian limited use area. Camping is only allowed with special permit you can get from Detroit Ranger Station. There’s a quota on the number allowed. I’ve never had anyone check this so you might take your chances and camp discretely. Like there’s an area about 0.25 mile Northwest of Sisters Spring that is far enough off the trail no one would notice you (maybe).”
We cruised on, dreaming of food we wanted when we got off trail. The Obsidian Area was definitely a change–small chunks of the volcanic glass littered the trail. We climbed up to higher altitudes to view a waterfall. Then we found the Sisters Spring, and following it back to its source, the fresh water was incredible.
The sun was low, my feet were swollen. We’d already hiked well over 10 miles, much at a grueling pace. We didn’t bother filtering the water, just dipping the Nalgene into the pool. The water tasted incredible–cool, crisp and almost sweet.
“Mile 39.1 is the end of the Obsidian Limited Use Area.”
In a little over a mile, there was a sign posted announcing the end of the Obsidian area. Immediately we began to look for a flat spot. The trail hugged the side of a mountain, so flat spots were few and far between. Andy spied what had been someone else’s campsite. We picked our way down to it and made camp. In less than fifteen minutes we had tent up, boots off, dinner made.
The trees were tall pines, the peaks soaring above us by what seemed a hundred feet. The wind made them sway, a soft ruffling sound to lull us to sleep. I wrote in my journal and we took turns licking the inner liner of the Chana Masala we ate for dinner. Neither of us even wanted dessert.
My feet throbbed. I doctored my knee again. My whole body felt shot through with nerves. I could barely lay still. I turned circles in my bag while Andy snored softly next to me. The charms of Merlin and Arthur in my book couldn’t hold my attention.
Finally, I gave into the restlessness and stared up into the tips of the trees, watching them sway in the dark, resigning myself to exhaustion the next day.
No matter how tired I was, I still felt good, flooded with endorphins. My feet bloated, tingled. Sleep would come some other day.
Day 5 Statistics:
On Trail: 9:00 am
Off Trail: 5:45 pm
Total Miles: 15 miles
2 granola rations
2 cups gorp
1 Clif bar (macadamia nut, natch)
BackPacker’s Pantry Chana Masala freeze-dried entree (I starred this one three times it was so good. I highly, highly recommend. Also some of the most protein we’d had and yet also vegan.)
For the first time, we slept in. I had doctored my knee as best I could the night before, using anti-inflammatory cream and sleeping in a compression sleeve lined with voodoo.
As usual, I was out of my bag first, sweating on the backs of my knees and on my scalp, while Andy looked snugly content in a beanie cap and light fleece tucked into his bag. I made a cup of tea on our camp stove, looking out over Moraine Lake. I watched as a few hikers made their way up to South Sister.
After replenishing calories the day before, having a long talk over a card game about what was happening in my head and what happened in Andy’s head during the slog of South Sister helped put me in a better mood. Even better, my knee felt great.
Last night I had gone to bed with swelling, and we were both nervous. Waking with no swelling, full mobility and no pain was definitely good news. Andy got up and we ate a leisurely breakfast before striking camp.
When everything was put away and all we had left was to shoulder the packs, we both stared at them, laying on the ground. It was like wearing a four-year-old. At least it couldn’t put gum in my hair. We still had to stop at the lake to filter water before we started our hike.
Andy is more pragmatic and shouldered his bag. I had more sighing to work through before I could manage it.
Moraine Lake was still in shadow, and the water was cold. The water filter was getting less efficient. Water was spilling out of the intake hose. Luckily, a quick scrub with its cleaning kit solved the problem. Twenty-five miles without a water filter would not go well.
After we filled all four Nalgene bottles, we started on our trek. This day would bring us onto the Pacific Crest Trail. We had a couple of potential campsites, the most solid being Reese Lake, which would make a distance of eight miles. Unsure of how my knee would do, we figured if we could just make Reese Lake, we could make it back to the car with three days worth of eight mile days. We had more than enough food for it, even though we only packed for six days, the food situation was abundant.
We had packed roughly 3000 calories per day, which Andy had believed was not enough at outset. If we were young people, maybe it wouldn’t be, but we aren’t exactly young anymore. I mentioned before that each day’s worth of food was in its own freezer bag. So each bag had:
2 rations of 1 cup granola, 1/2 cup powdered milk
2 morning clif bars
2 rations of lunch gorp (2 cups each)
2 afternoon clif bars
1 freeze-dried entree
dessert: candy, a freeze-dried dessert, or pudding with powdered milk
We never got close to eating all that. We had leftover Clif bars for days, more gorp than we could manage, and we had gotten to the point that eating the dessert was an act of will, not desire.
Well-fed, we could manage an extra day if need be. But we would be crossing the Wickiup Plain south of South Sister, and I was optimistic about the flat ground. I knew we could really make some good time.
“At mile 26.1 (6135′) is the junction with an un-named trail that goes right crossing Wickiup Plain. Take this trail. There are a couple nice places to camp just before this junction, but no drinking water.”
Admittedly, junctions with no names were not our strong suit. We went slow, not wanting to miss anything. Then we found a pair of pink crocs on the trail. Andy picked them up–far smaller than either of us could use.
“Should we take them with us?” he asked.
I shrugged. “What if the person is going the opposite direction?”
We made those faces at each that means neither of us knew what the right thing to do was. We both wanted the right thing, but what was that, exactly?
I finally insisted that we leave the pink clogs where we found them, hung like star on a cobbler’s Christmas tree. We continued on, taking the trail down mild forested switchbacks. Andy told me stories of his most intense wilderness experiences from when he was in his big mountain phase in Alaska.
Sometimes, when you hear those kinds of outdoor stories, you get a little jealous, like man, I totally want to do that. I wish that happened to me.
Let me just say that I did not feel that way about his stories.
The forest fell away and we were in the open grassland of the Wickiup Plains. A lava bubble had created these strange formations we had seen from our vantage point on top of South Sister the day before. The trail was soft, sandy dirt. Rocks the size of cabbages delineated one half of the trail for hikers, and the other side of for horses, even though the trail was not that wide.
The lava formations are black basalt, rocky and menacing-looking, pointy and scratchy. It was far from the volcano itself, so it must have bubbled up from a vent in the earth. I couldn’t help but stare.
Those damn cabbage-sized rocks got underfoot. I staggered, catching my weight, but the heft of my 40 pound pack begged to differ. In slow-motion, my bag ricocheted against me, pushing me (and my head) down. Face-first. I put my arms out to the soft ground. I hit another rock. I had a face full of dust.
My arm throbbed and I tried to push myself up to my knees, but Andy stopped me.
“Nope. Let me get this off of you,” he said, unbelting me from the beast that had willfully and maliciously pushed me to the ground.
I sat up, spitting dirt, holding my right arm. For some reason, people seem to know when a bone is broken–I had broken my left arm as a kid, and I knew what a break felt like. This was not that. But man, it hurt like nobody’s business. The only thing I could think to do was cradle it, rocking back and forth. I was just glad I wasn’t crying. I was sick of crying.
When I stood, I wiped my face with my shirt. I felt like Pig Pen, stuck in a cloud of dust. I wanted my pack back, and to just get a move on. Andy made me take a minute longer. I paced in a circle, my arm still throbbing.
Because after South Sister, after river crossings, after a day through The Burn, of course I eat it in a grassy plain, literally devoid of anything larger than a loaf of bread.
When we get to the junction with the PCT, I feel better, though no less ridiculous.
“At mile 28.4 (6100′) is a small stream, the first drinking water since Moraine Lake. There are several drinking water streams between here and Separation Creek.”
We stop to eat, and while we’ve joined a young couple, both with the look of hipster pixies, I strip off my dusty shirt and soak it in the creek. I am typically very modest in front of basically everyone, but after five days in the woods, I’m over it. Also, I want to look at my arm to make sure I am right, and everything is fine.
It turns out the young couple is from Seattle, and this is the first time the man has done any overnight hiking. We are shocked to find they have the printed guidepost we have but NO MAP. I am shocked, but perhaps appalled would be the better word for Andy’s reaction. He hid it well, but after they left to continue on, he expressed himself. I mean, looking at the map was his favorite activity.
Stuffing ourselves on gorp and water, we waited until my shirt was almost dry (it was a technical button-down) before we headed out. Despite the fall, I felt good still, optimistic despite the dull ache in my arm.
A little while later, the trail well-packed and forested, we found Team Seattle trailside, taking a break. With so many trees, the weather feels perfect, not too hot, not too cold, shade covering most of the path.
“Have you seen a pair of pink clogs?” she asked.
“Yes,” Andy said. “Back at the junction with the Devil’s Lake Trail.”
We all pulled out our copies of the guidepost. Six miles back.
The woman sighed. “I guess those are gone.”
We told them how we’d found them, but couldn’t tell which direction they had been dropped, so we left them there. “Trail magic for someone else, I guess,” the man said.
***Pick up the rest of the story tomorrow, where Katie and Andy meet Satchel, get called out by two older ladies, drink straight from a cool mountain spring, and crunch across a field littered with obsidian. All. In. Part. The. SECOND.
We woke early, this time on purpose. The campsite would remain intact, as we would only summit South Sister and return that same day.
Full of hubris from our previous days, we discussed the possibility of striking camp after the summit and continuing on another five miles until the next available water. But we would wait to see how it felt when we returned to camp.
Of the Three Sisters, South Sister is the tallest at 10,358 feet. Nicknamed Charity, it is the most climbed of the three volcanoes, probably because it has the least amount of erosion and the most glaciation. The Middle Sister is noted to be “unremarkable,” both in its ascents and descents, and isn’t that just the way middle children are treated? North Sister is the steepest, with loose terrain, making it a formidable summit, even if it isn’t *quite* as tall as South Sister.
Each of us carried a fanny pack–Andy had his red one, and his super awesome custom-ordered backpack had a removable section to convert the bottom into a fanny pack as well. We took two liters with us (there was water half-way up at a bench, and then also at the top at Teardrop Pool), several Clif bars and our trusty gorp.
The first section of the climb was enjoyable–we were early enough in the day that we hiked in the shade, the alders somewhat sparse, but giving interest to the terrain. But then we hit scree, and I definitely stopped enjoying myself.
The scree was well, scree: it was a field of loose rock, some the size of cabbages, clouds of dust plumed from each step that melted back down the trail. Then it got worse. The scree became finer and finer, we lost a trail completely. My throat felt like it was closing up due to the dust. My chest began to ache. Breaths came shorter and shallower, until finally I couldn’t breathe without a horrible sound emitting from my throat. These were all my clues that I was having an asthma attack.
I’d had asthma attacks before, obviously. I had been proud of myself for remembering to pack my inhaler, as asthma attacks only ever hit me with some pretty heavy duty exercise. Of course, my inhaler was in my pack–back at camp. I’d forgotten it.
But if I catch the signs early on enough, as long as I slow down, I can stop it. I tried to keep the signs from Andy, which was ridiculous, because I was wheezing like an accordion. We scrambled up to the ledge above us, leveraging weight onto bigger boulders.
We reached the shoulder of the mountain and I sat down on a large boulder to rest. There was a glacier pool behind us. I put my hands on my knees and concentrated on opening the back of my throat, breathing deeper from my diaphragm: old tricks from voice lessons in college. Keeping calm, my heart rate slowed and I could feel my chest loosen, and I was grateful I had gotten the attack under control before it had started to really hurt. There is a point where things get worse, and even if I calm them or have my inhaler handy, my chest hurts for a few days afterwards.
Andy was not happy. I had forgotten my inhaler which meant I needed to return to camp. In my mind, the danger had passed, I no longer needed the inhaler. So I told him I wouldn’t go. We were too close–I could see the top! I wasn’t going to go all this way to stop. So he said he wouldn’t go either, and we could both descend, returning to camp.
I pleaded. I promised I wouldn’t have another asthma attack (not really a thing). I said I was going up the mountain with or without him, and it would be much safer if he came with me.
By this time, the stream of other hikers thickened. One of them gave me a strange look as he passed, overhearing my promises. Finally, Andy gave in. We drank water and ate a snack.
Above us, the trail turned bright red with volcanic rock, and the soft scree we had just climbed through was solid compared to what was ahead. The hour was later than what we had anticipated, but it was still well before noon.
To the Summit
Opting to not refill our water bottles at the glacier pool, we headed up the volcano.
Each step sunk deep into the ashy ground. The trail was non-existent. There were two women hiking up who each had trekking poles. We normally don’t hike with poles, but on this particular mountain, a trekking pole would have been handy. They passed us and then rested, while we passed them. We traded position over and over as we climbed. The crowd around us grew.
Climbed is a misleading word. We slogged. Every single person on that face slogged, regardless of how fit they were. And there were so many people. We were amazed–it was not an easy peak, and it wasn’t even a holiday weekend. Is this just how people in Oregon are? we wondered.
I have an urge as a writer to draw this part out, to make you, as a reader, understand how long and miserable this portion of the climb was. But there’s nothing to say, other than it got hotter. Everyone’s pants were rusty-colored as the basalt dust clung to legs.
And then we were on top. Teardrop Pool filled the caldera, mostly covered by the snows of a glacier. Windbreaks constructed of stones ringed the volcano top, campsites if one should be inclined to spend the night on top. The stars would be spectacular.
We followed the trail around to the Geologic Marker and took pictures. A small squirrel stole food from the hikers that littered the area, all taking lunch with views of the other two Sisters, Mount Washington, Jefferson, and Mount Saint Helens.
According to hikers we met on top of the mountain, the air was cloudy due to forest fires, but usually they could see Ranier, too.
We sat and ate our lunch, more gorp, more Clif bars, more water. The squirrel successfully carried off a peanut from another hiker while they took pictures of his triumph.
After we finished eating, we circled around the caldera. A murder of ravens came and parked on top of the glacier, shining wet in the sun. The trail became convoluted and difficult to pass.
No were alone–no others opted to explore the caldera. We followed a set of crusty footsteps out onto the edge of the glacier, hugging the rock.
I was relieved when we had completed the circuit, and were back at the trail, ready to descend Charity.
Then, something surprised me. As we started down the sloppy, ashy face with me in the lead, I panicked. Like, blinding sort of panicked. I had never felt something like this before. Normally I would not categorize myself as a fearful person, but here was fear like I’d never had before. Out of nowhere, I became certain that my bad knee would fail me and I would launch myself off the face of the volcano into the gorge below. Not just fear, it was fact that hadn’t happened yet.
I tried to rationalize; I knew my knee was fine. But how would the soft terrain react? It seemed unpredictable. I had hiked down snow-covered mountain faces many times and had never encountered this fear. Why now? No idea. Andy didn’t understand why I wasn’t moving. I tried to explain, but it only forced me to tears. Fortunately, I managed to tell him that he needed to go first, so I could see how and where he stepped. So he did, his hand out, available for me to grab if I needed to, as if I were Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
I was just plain me, though, covered in rust-colored basalt, trying not to cry as we passed hiker after hiker on the ascent, me grabbing Andy’s hand as we skidded down the mountain. Then my fear: my knee did give out. I had taken one of the bounding Moon-style steps, and my knee buckled underneath me. I slid down the face, but the soft basalt absorbed all of my momentum, and I stopped only a few feet from my failure. I did not fall off the mountain.
Another hiker remarked how steep it was as they passed, Andy ran back up to check on me, but as it turned out, I was fine. What I had feared did go wrong, and I remained perfectly healthy. When we made it past the red basalt, and arrived in the firmer yellow band, I felt better. We stopped again at the shoulder to drink water and snack, and we checked in with each other. I was shaky from the echoes of the panic, but otherwise, completely fine. We descended through the scree field in the same way, Andy first, hand out to help should I need it.
The afternoon sun started to beat down on us, this time, there was no escape. We were close to the bottom when my bad knee started to hurt, the one I had been scared would go out on me completely in the red basalt band. So we slowed even more. Like the asthma, punishing my knee often meant an inability to walk on the following day. We still had another 25 miles of walking before we returned to the car. I couldn’t afford to kill my knee.
Stopping more frequently to rest and taking our forward progress slow, we descended back down to Lake Moraine. We stopped at the lake to refill our empty Nalgene bottles. Andy waded into the lake, cleaning himself and his clothes all at once. I waded in up to my knees, enjoying the cold, knowing I was already sunburnt. My legs felt shaky, my arms seemed to belong to someone else, even my head felt off–I’d had adrenaline coursing through my body for hours as we made it through the soft terrain on the descent. Even though I could force mind over body, the adrenaline had continued.
I helped filter the water, but headed back to our tent alone, leaving Andy to enjoy the lake at his own pace. Even the sun was too much on my skin. Once back at our camp, I stripped down, took another towel bath and laid on my sleeping bag. I was angry at myself for my asthma attack, humiliated for having this weird panic that I’d never had before. I didn’t even understand how to process the event because it was new and irrational. I was physically tired from the ascent/descent, the sunburn, the lack of enough caloric intake, but more than that, I was emotionally wrung out.
We decided to stay the night again, as we had originally planned. Our hubris was gone, and I felt bad about being the one to give it away.
Day Four Statistics:
On Trail: 7:00 am
Off Trail: 3:00 pm
Total miles: 7 miles
Elevation gain: 4,000 feet
Elevation loss: 4,000 feet
2 granola rations
1/2 cup gorp
3 Clif bars
Mountain House Chicken & Dumplings freeze-dried entree
Mountain House Mocha Mousse Pie freeze-dried dessert
Again we woke at dawn, the dim light visible through the tent’s screened panels. The wilderness area averaged less than half an inch of rain in the month of August, so we weren’t worried about again leaving the fly off the tent.
My sleeping bag was rated to 40 below, and we referred to it as the Thermal Nuclear Blanket because it doesn’t matter the temperature outside, the person inside remained warm. The nights weren’t getting that cold, dropping to temperatures in the fifties, I think. But by the time morning came around, the Thermal Nuclear Blanket had done its work, and I was ready to get out of there. Andy stayed in his bag reading The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison while I got up and made my tea over the camp stove.
As the sun rose, the light changed on the mountains that surrounded us, and I again went to our vantage point of South Sister and Broken Top to take pictures. Our goal that day was to get to Moraine Lake at the base of South Sister. According to the map, the topography was going to be challenging.
We ate our granola and packed camp, leaving out before any of the other sites. They were still out stumbling around in long johns, trying to make coffee as we shouldered our packs and hit the trail.
After yesterday’s epic exhaustion coming into Park Meadows, we had devised a plan. At designated points along the trail, we would stop and eat, regardless of how good we felt. We had three sets of elevation to get through, two passes, and then a steep downhill. We would stop at the third bench and eat, regardless of what time it was.
“At mile 18.6 is the Green Lakes Pass, the high point of this hike at 7000′. These is some really nice alpine scenery with great views of the Sisters. Many places that you could camp, but no drinking water, and it’s pretty exposed if the weather is at all bad. There’s a shortcut from here over to Camp Lake Camp Lake [sic] to Green Lakes Pass Off Trail.”
Granola stuck to our ribs pretty well. The first rise was easy, and when Andy announced we were on the first bench, I was surprised. How could we have succeeded our first milestone so early? We trudged up our second incline, and again, when Andy announced the second bench, even he second-guessed. But we climbed. When we hit the third bench, we received an amazing view of the lakes below us. It was clear we had made our elevation, we were at the highest point of our loop: 7000 feet.
It was 9 am.
We looked at each other, trying to see if either would give permission to keep going, but no, we dropped the packs. Neither of us were hungry, but we dug out the gorp and water anyway. The moon was still setting against South Sister, so we took turns taking pictures of it and the view of Green Lakes below us.
To be honest, we kind of felt like bad-asses for getting there so quickly when we had been trying to go slow.
After the obligatory snack, we started our descent to Green Lake. We began to see more people: solitary hikers, horses, and even a few running clubs. The running club was made up of young men, all lean and nimble. I was a little jealous–I wanted my body to be that fit and light, as if our bodies were sports cars that we could trade out when the tires needed rotating.
Past the lakes, we saw even more people. The running club passed us again, and then a women’s running club came by as well. There were older couples, and more people on horseback. One person was fishing in the stream that we followed. The map showed a greater intersection of trails and closer trailheads. But still, there were so many people that it kind of blew our minds.
The great thing about long hikes is when you hit your rhythm. When your brain doesn’t register that you are even walking. It’s just doing its thing, and you are in tune with the people around you. I liked hitting our stride. So when we got to our last turn-off, where the Moraine Lake Trail joined up with the Green Lake Trail, I was almost disappointed.
This was our designated lunch spot, so even though it was early, we sat and ate more gorp. A few other trails came together at this point, and a parking lot was not far off. It felt like we were sitting in a shopping mall, not the woods. In a way, with our dirty clothes, big packs, and dusty boots, I felt really out of place. Everyone else wore slim camelbaks for water, and clean, freshly colored technical hiking shirts.
We hit the road pretty soon after. I led, and as usual, I walked us too fast. We hit some more inclines that took us by surprise. But we hustled up those, the crowds thinning out some.
Then we were at Moraine Lake, our destination. It was barely noon.
We looked over the designated campsites. Some people had pitched their tents illegally directly next to the lake, but no one seemed to care. Andy chose us a site removed from the lake with a good vantage point for the trails going in and out, as well as those setting out to go up South Sister.
We decided to wait until tomorrow to climb the volcano, as planned. It was late enough in the day that we would be in the midst of the worst of it during the hottest portion. Besides, the trail up the volcano was unprotected, so the beating sun would be our worst enemy.
Instead, we made camp, refilled our water at the lake. We laid our sleeping mats out in the sun and lounged, Andy with his Invisible Man, me with Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills, a bag of gorp and a Nalgene full of cold water between us.
When we got bored, we used the binoculars to spy on the other camps. Some people were skinny-dipping in the lake. There was a dog out there swimming. At least thirty people came and went through the area.
Wind kicked up, covering us with more dust. I wetted my hand towel and tried having a bath. The ash on my legs from the first day of hiking where I had rolled my pant legs up seemed like a permanent stain. No amount of scrubbing would take off the dirt coating my calves. I gave up, and we played cards and asked each other dumb questions about our childhoods.
We’d been together for twelve years, so we knew quite a bit about each other’s early lives. Dinner was early, and we were once again in bed before the stars came out.
Day Three Statistics
On trail: 7:50 am
Off trail: 12:30 pm
Total miles: 8 miles
2 portions Granola/powdered milk
3 cups Gorp
1 White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Clif bar (our favorite)
Mountain House Mac & Cheese freeze-dried entree (very creamy, but not that tasty. Wish we’d brought the mini Tabasco I’d bought before we left)
Mountain House Apple Crisp freeze-dried dessert (this was absolutely delicious. I highly recommend.)
Purple twists of light tinted the sky. The sun hadn’t risen yet. In the distance, there was a faint but strange, honking sound. I turned my head to see Andy’s eyes wide open. He was lying still, listening.
“Elk,” he whispered.
I strained my ears, trying to hear them. The call sounds like the vuvuzela, the South African instrument we all grew to love during the 2010 World Cup. The rest of our morning was silent, birds still quiet.
When the sky grew pink with shades of yellow, I got out of my sleeping bag. The ground was soft with black ash and my flip flops were near useless, but I slipped them on anyway. The ground outside of our tent area was rife with hoof prints. I headed to the tree where Andy hung our food and took the bags down so I could begin my morning with a cup of tea.
Andy stayed in the tent while I brewed and sipped my tea, watching the sun rise, yellow light leaking onto the charred trees of The Burn.
When Andy rose, we ate our breakfast together and took down camp. It didn’t take us nearly as long as I thought it would. My tea took twice as long. Shouldering our bags for the morning, we picked our way back down to the trail, and before long, we got to Alder Creek. We refilled our water and set out.
The Burn area, from the 2012 fire, stretched across a large swath of the Eastern loop. No camping and no campfires were allowed. It was reasonable to hike through it all in one day, and luckily, the southernmost edge of The Burn was our next planned campsite. It would be an easy 8.5 miles to this unnamed lake.
I had already managed a blister on my left heel, but I was prepared with moleskin, and doctored myself up at Alder Creek.
There weren’t very many hikers on the trail. The ground was still sandy with ash, like a dried up beach. Dust continued to cloud around our legs, up to our knees.
The terrain was fairly flat, but with nothing but charred trees to keep us company, the sun quickly felt too hot. We refilled at Soap Creek, where our trail intersected with the Camp Lake Trail at mile 11.7 (5760′). Here we encountered several other hikers, including a father with his pre-teen daughter. He was teaching her how to filter the water, which was really cool to see.
It was nice to get the packs off and stretch, have some mid-morning gorp. Things felt good. We adjusted my pack again, and it felt better this time. My shoulders were taking less of the brunt.
We continued, knowing the day would just get hotter. I rolled up my sleeves, hoping to help cool myself as we walked. There were many small streams to cross, each with logs to act as bridges. Some streams were nothing but dried beds. I just appreciated being near water after yesterday.
The map showed a slight elevation change, though our milepost said nothing. We were still in The Burn, still without shade, and we walked up switchbacks that seemed to grow ever steeper. I was panting, still thinking that it was ridiculous to be this tired already.
Andy was in front, but I couldn’t keep up with his speed. Typically it is the other way around, but not in The Burn. Neither of us do particularly well in the heat.
“I’ll need to stop soon,” I called.
I watched him nod as he trudged around a switchback corner. It’s important not to break rhythm.
“But I can wait for a flat spot,” I said.
He nodded again, and soon I was rounding the corner he had just passed. We trudged until we finally reached the top. We found a sliver of shade behind a lone charred spruce tree trunk. We dropped the packs, and I slumped into the ash. I was covered in it, so I no longer cared if I was sitting on a log or the ground. We ate lunch–our two cups of gorp. Neither of us could eat much, but we drank down another Nalgene bottle. Water’s heavy. I wasn’t sad to see it go.
The Burn started to interspersed more with healthy trees. The leafy canopy gave us shade as we walked, and everything felt so much more bearable. We crossed a few more small streams and found the sign indicating we had finished traversing The Burn.
The lake was to our left and it looked so inviting.
But the ground had firmed up, the trees were healthy, and we felt good.
The guidepost we had printed from the internet said it was only 1.5 more miles to get to Park Meadow.
Besides, if we camped at Park Meadow, we would shorten the next day, and have our vertical challenge done first thing. It was a better plan.
In our twenty-twenty hindsight, we should have taken a long break beside that lake. We should have gotten out the gorp, drank more water and kicked back.
But we didn’t. We stopped only for pictures and kept on trucking.
I said before that I’m a poor judge of distance. After what I thought was at least a mile, I kept thinking Park Meadow must be just over this ridge. We would cross a stream, and I would think, yes, this must be it!
My heel chafed under the bandaid. My shoulders ached from my pack shifting all over. Andy was looking a little worse for wear, too. I tried to stay positive: we weren’t trudging up those switchbacks, so that was something.
When we finally arrived at Park Meadow, we threw down our packs and ran to the stream. I eased off my boots and stuck my feet in the cool stream. The pain of the water on my blister burned, and the harshness of the cold vibrated up my bones. It was heaven.
I washed my face in it, and after we drank and snacked, we realized we had picked a poor campsite. We needed to move, so I slipped my aching and bloated feet back into my boots and hauled my pack back to a more removed site.
It was only 3:00 pm. We pitched camp, taking turns to stare at the mountains. There was an amazing view of South Sister, where we would hike the next day, and of Broken Top, which had stunning bands of different colored rock layered across it.
We chewed through the lunch ration of gorp, and then I took a few clothes over to the stream and washed the ash from my hiking pants and shirt with a mini bottle of Dr. Bronner’s. Andy refilled all of our water bottles.
By the time we began to fix dinner, the campsite was full. More and more hikers had shown up, a big group with a few dogs, and then some other couples. It was a nice place, easy to camp in.
That night we made BackPacker’s Pantry Chicken Vindaloo, which we both thought was spectacular. We took turns running our fingers along the inside of the bag after we ate, sucking out the last of the spices.
We’re a hiking sort, me and Andy. Every year we try to spend at least a week in some mountains, walking around. That’s what they call it in other languages: walking. It takes some of the magic out of it, I think.
Hiking is more than walking–it implies at least a small amount of challenge, an ample dose of isolation, and a great deal of scenery.
We picked The Three Sisters Wilderness area in central Oregon, west of Bend. The highlight of the area, you may have guessed, are three volcanoes called The Three Sisters. Nicknamed Faith, Charity, and Hope, these three volcanoes have been recently active.
Of course, when doing reading, one must consider the source. In geologic terms, these volcanoes have had recent eruptions, the last one being roughly 2,000 years ago. For a volcano, that’s like, yesterday.
Given our somewhat sedentary lifestyle, the heavy packs, the elevation and the heat, we planned for a six-day excursion, circling not only The Sisters, but also the Wilderness area. The loop is a seemingly popular choice, as it is fairly flat, hooks up with the Pacific Crest Trail, and has multiple access points by different trailheads scattered around it.
Our access to the loop was at the Lava Camp Lake parking lot near North Sister (Faith), where we opted to start on the East side before picking up with the Pacific Crest Trail on the West side of the volcanoes.
Well, if you’re us, and you live in a place that doesn’t sport 10,000-foot peaks, you have to fly there. We flew into PDX, rented a compact economy car that managed our two 45-pound packs pretty well, and stayed the night at a friend’s place (Thanks Eli & Arianne!). I have since read there is a shuttle from PDX to the Wilderness Area, but still, I was glad for the rental so we could explore on our own after we walked out of the woods.
We headed out early the next morning, driving towards Bend, because no amount of Googling was bringing up the Lava Camp Lake Campground area.
After reaching Bend (too far), the trusty navigator (that’s me), dug out the waterproof map and old-school navigated us through the town of Sisters and into our designated campground, at Lava Camp Lake, off of State Route 242. The drive into the campground from the town of Sisters is pretty: there is a flat stretch with an alder forest in oranges and yellows before the road begins to climb McKenzie Pass (a nationally designated scenic byway) and as we got closer to Lava Camp Lake, we began to see the fields of lava formations that gave the campground its name.
The parking lot was packed, but after we found a place to wedge our compact car, we filled out the overnight permit paperwork, noting where we would be camping each night. Those decisions had been made from studying both our National Geographic waterproof map and a milepost guide we found on the internet. Spoiler Alert: Only once did we stay the night where we predicted.
Given our travel time, we didn’t start our first steps until 1 pm, which was a little late, but we didn’t plan to hike very far that first day. In fact, we planned only four miles, to a little lake we had read about on the Oregon Hiker’s guidepost.
“Somewhere around mile 4.1 (5400′) is an unmarked trail to Yapoah Lake, which is about 0.3 miles away. Camping next to the lake.”
Before we start the hike, let me say something first about elevation. We live at sea level, elevation effectively 0. Most people who live near a coast live at sea level because, hey, the land has to start somewhere. The Lava Camp Lake Trailhead is at 5300 feet of elevation. So for us, that’s an effective 5300′ elevation change.
According to altitude.org, altitude sickness can occur with as little as 2500′ change. Some individuals get affected, others don’t. The mild symptoms feel like a hangover: fatigue, headache, nausea.
Guess who got affected, and guess who didn’t.
After just over two miles in, we gained about 700 more feet. It wasn’t much, but it was enough that I had to put down my pack. There was a family behind us, a mom, a dad, a dog, and two boys whose constant bickering had put me on edge. Also note another aspect of severe altitude sickness: sudden anger.
I dreaded letting them pass us. I put an Emergen-C packet in my water bottle and sucked it down. The air was so dry–which I had been anticipating, but the area was in a heat advisory as well. I was getting my tell-tale signs of over-exertion: my vision spiraled in, my ears plugged, my heart pounded. I walked in slow and small circles, afraid that if I stopped moving I would fall over.
After spending summers in Savannah, heat was nothing new. Dry heat felt like a luxury because your sweat could evaporate off, cooling the body. I thought maybe I was just dehydrated. We picked at our gorp (trail mix), me favoring the banana chips, Andy favoring the pineapple chunks.
I saw the family break through the trees behind us, ascending up our hill. Turning back towards Andy, I announced that I was fine, shoving my water bottle back into my bag. I was using my father-in-law’s old pack, while Andy was using one he’d had ordered custom years ago. The pouches on the back of his were easier to access, so he used that as the excuse to start taking food from me. Food’s heavy. Each day was in its own zip-lock gallon bag, and each day weighed four pounds.
We shouldered our packs, and the family with the bickering boys took the turn-off to North Matthieu lake instead. I sighed. I didn’t understand why I was so tired. I’d never thought I would have this poor of a showing during a hike.
Andy pressed on in the lead, and at mile 2.9, we stayed left, onto the Scott Trail, #4068. Theoretically, according to our guidepost, we had roughly one mile until an unmarked trail. There was zero cell service available, so GPS guidance was out. Despite years of running, I’m terrible at judging distances. Andy, however has an uncanny ability to measure these sorts of things. At home, I’ll even make him guess how many steps we’ve taken. He’s within about fifty steps every time.
We dropped down from our day’s elevation on mild switchbacks. This seemed like where this unmarked trail ought to be. Both of us had our eyes peeled, but there was nothing that resembled a trail. The trees were thin and sparse, but at least we weren’t in direct sun. I just wanted to be at camp. My head is pounding, but at least my vision had stabilized, and I no longer feared passing out.
Finally, we dropped our packs again. I high-graded banana chips out of the bags of gorp while Andy searched off-trail for the mystical Yapoah Lake trail. By the time he returned, I have found a fallen log to stretch out on. I unsnapped most of my shirt, letting the breeze dry my sweat (what a place!), and letting my arms fall on either side of the log helps relax my shoulders.
He hadn’t found the trail, so he pulled out the map to study the topography. I sat up, trying to be helpful, so I continued to contribute by eating all of the remaining banana chips.
Pressing on seemed like the only option, so we shouldered the bags, hoping that the unmarked trail remained ahead of us.
We hit mile 4.7, which was the junction of the Green Lake Trail #4070. My feet hurt. My shoulders ached. The pack wasn’t built for me, it was a hand-me-down from my father-in-law, with his name and address blazoned across it in several places. We adjusted the sizing again and again during the day, but it didn’t seem to help. It just wouldn’t sit on the crests of my hips no matter how I shifted the weight, so I had to keep carrying my diminishing 45 pounds on my shoulders. But we couldn’t set camp until we found water, so we pressed on.
“At mile 6.8 (5600′) is Alder Creek. This is a good spot to camp and get drinking water. This is the only drinking water between South Matthieu Lake and the Camp Lake Trail. In September the creek may dry up, but there’s still probably water flowing underground-go along the streambed and find a pool, maybe enlarge it a bit and then let the silt settle. Or maybe you’re better off going to the Camp Creek Trail stream for better drinking water.”
This was farther than we wanted to go, but we knew we needed water for dinner that night and breakfast in the morning. I typically walked five miles every day at home, so I had thought 6.8 miles should be no big deal. Except now I’m wearing 45 pounds. The trail grew ashier. The dirt became looser and more volcanic. Clouds of dust swirled with every step. I was glad I had brought my inhaler.
Suddenly, the sparse alder trees seem to darken. Gone were the leaves and many of the trunks are charred. There was a sign nailed to one of these charred trees, indicating “The Burn.”
There was no camping in The Burn. No fires in The Burn. It was a restricted area that stretched for many miles which one may hike through, leaving as little trace as possible. The area needed rehab from a fire that raged in 2012. Alder Creek is inside The Burn, but we had no idea how far.
There was no way we could hike all the way through the Burn that evening. Our hand was forced: we camped outside The Burn. Andy took a hard right at the sign, up an embankment, and sure enough, we ran into a flattened area with a few campsites. We dropped our packs. I was So. Happy.
Andy disemboweled his stuff to get to his hiking fanny pack. I know it sounds silly, but this thing is like a fanny pack on steroids. He put the three one-liter sized Nalgene bottles in there, along with the water filter and headed out to find Alder Creek. Meanwhile, I made camp. I pitched the tent and laid out our sleeping mats and bags inside of it.
The tent was a borrowed one, and felt larger than my first apartment. I sang to myself as I unpacked the camp stove and retrieved our freezer bag sized food ration for Day One. We hadn’t eaten all of our gorp or the Clif bars we’d brought for the day, but we still had dinner and dessert ahead of us. I read the directions on the back of the freeze-dried entree. We’d chosen Beef Chili Mac for that evening, mostly because the three campers pictured on the front of it looked to be having a preternaturally good time. Drugs must be involved.
Andy returned sooner than I anticipated, in a better mood than when he’d left. All three bottles were brimming with fresh water from Alder Creek, which turned out to be less than a half a mile away.
I wrote in my journal that night: “Finally, something went smoothly.”
Given my profession, I had lugged my heavy journal with me, forcing me to write every night. Something as heavy as that damn book had to be justified.
“I am writing while Andy is cooking,” I wrote. “Not unlike home, really. Just much, much quieter.”
We decided then to make a habit of writing down our stats every night as a way to gauge our progress, what worked and what didn’t, check in with ourselves using concrete data. You can probably guess it was Andy’s idea.
We were in our tent long before sun-down, taking down the tent fly so we could see the stars when they arrived. We each read our books and before long, I was out. I never even made it twilight.
Day One Statistics:
On Trail Time: 1 pm
Off Trail Time: 5 pm
Total Miles: 6.5 miles.
2 cups gorp
Freeze-dried Beef Chili Mac entree from Mountain House