Jess Mitchell is a Tahoe-based badass. She spends her free time exploring the mountains, backpacking, and challenging her comfort zone. This is her story of a solo backpacking trip fraught with adventure, fear, and lightening.
There were a few things from the story of Christopher McCandless (adapted into the book Into the Wild) that have stuck with me, but none of them wedged so firmly into my brain as one of his notes in the margin of the last book he would read. “Happiness [is] only real when shared.”
I happen to muse upon this idea somewhat regularly, rolling it around in my brain continually trying to decide if I agree. When I go backpacking alone, the question of whether or not the experience would be more enjoyable with a companion regularly appears at the front of my mind. My most recent solo adventure was no exception.
I planned to spend five days and four nights in the Eastern Sierras, starting at the Onion Valley trailhead. My journey would take me over Kearsarge Pass (11,760 feet according to the sign or 11,845 feet according to the map) in Kings Canyon National Park, along the John Muir Trail/Pacific Crest Trail, and then over Glen Pass down to Rae Lakes and Sixty Lakes Basin (as rumor has it, a beautiful area). There, I would meet a friend who was thru-hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT). I would have one night on my own.
After obtaining my overnight wilderness permit at the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop, I decided to delay my start time until the early afternoon. There were very very ominous black clouds hanging over the majestic, craggy Sierras that I would be traveling into. To kill some time, I made a stop at the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor Center in Lone Pine where I picked up a copy of Into Thin Air and read up on encountering lightning while in the backcountry (thank you to Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills).
With the skies clearing and feeling more confident about my prospects for surviving a lightning storm, I set off on my merry way to the trailhead.
The hike starts at a little over 9,000 feet and the views of your surroundings are spectacular the second you step foot outside of your car. I was pretty excited about getting to Kearsarge Pass. Mountain passes are sometimes almost as good as peaks - there is a long, steady climb and you are most likely greeted at the top by a 360 degree view of the landscape. Those views are the reward for your character-building hard work hoofing up those 1,660-or-so feet carrying a 30-pound pack on your back (welcome to the original stair-master!).
I know there must be many more spectacular views from passes throughout the Sierras, but the dramatic view from Kearsarge Pass beats quite a few I have seen (sorry Shepherd’s Pass, I’m lookin’ at you). Countless layers of jagged peaks spread out seemingly at eye level before you. A green valley with large, linked lakes at the bottom sits before you ringed to the south by the fierce-looking Kearsarge Pinnacles. The sky is blue and smeared with sporadic fluffy white clouds. To no one in particular, I exclaim out loud how amazing this view was.
I hiked down into this little valley housing Kearsarge Lakes and Bullfrog Lake with a smile on my face and a bounce in my step. Due to necessity for a water resupply, I chose the lower trail past the lakes even though it would add a little over ¼-mile to my hike that day. I decided to hike as far as I possibly could to make the hike over Glen Pass to Rae Lakes the following day a little shorter.
Once past Bullfrog Lake, I reached the JMT. At this point, I had hiked just over 7 miles with over 1,600 feet of elevation gain and then 1,200 feet of downhill. My legs were feeling the miles and the weight of my pack, but I was still determined to hike on! I headed north on the JMT and a mile or so later stopped to chat with some other hikers. It was about 6:00 in the evening and the sun only now seemed to be heading toward the horizon. I was encouraged by one of the other hikers that there would be a water source and a good camping spot “not far from here, just around the corner.”
I estimate it took me about an hour of hiking up and up and up again to reach a decent area to camp. The guy was right, there was a little water in the form of some quite small streams and a pond (puddle?). I had arrived in a small valley that sits below Glen Pass. In spite of the high elevation at around 11,600 feet, this area contains some sporadic, stunted trees, grasses, and a few flowers mixed in with lots of lichen-covered rock. I chose a durable surface (big, flat rock) instead of the soft, grassy areas to set up my tent.
I was quite proud of the spot I selected – my one-person tent seemed to stand proud and tall with nothing around it. After a delicious, warm dinner of parmesan noodles with tuna and some sugar snap peas, I cleaned up camp - stashing my bear can and a few other items were underneath a large, low rock well away from my tent. I was in my sleeping bag not much after 8:00.
My eyelids had been closed for maybe 10 minutes, pretending that sleeping alone in the wilderness doesn’t freak me out, when I heard a man talking and moving fast down the trail. I heard him say something about getting the hell off the mountain before getting struck by lightning. I opened the door to my tent to see the sky filled with billowing clouds lighting up with lightning every few seconds.
Earlier that day, I read in the mountaineering book that tent poles could serve as lightning rods (oh joy!) so I thought it could be a bad idea to stay in my tent. I knew I would have to find shelter somewhere else as I heard the rumble of thunder and drops of rain hit my tent.
I have never taken down a tent faster. The tent poles were thrown under the rock with my bear can and hiking poles. I found a large, slightly overhanging rock under which I could cuddle up with my sleeping bag and sleeping pad. I also decided the benefit of having the waterproof tent footprint and rain fly draped over me outweighed the probability that the metal grommets in these things would attract lightning.
I thought the storm would pass quickly – maybe hang around for an hour tops. This was wishful thinking. At times throughout the night, the storm seemed to be waning and I would relax and start to fall asleep only to be startled again by a giant clap of thunder minutes later. I counted the seconds between the lightning flash and the thunder to track whether the storm was moving away or closer. After hours of the rain stopping and starting and the continuous thunder and lightning, I realized that water was now collecting under the rock and spilling onto my sleeping pad!
The late hour, the tiredness, and the fear of getting hit by lightning was really starting to get to me. It seemed as though I checked the time every hour and the night slowly, slowly ticked on, never ending. Throughout the rest of the night, more and more water leaked through the back of my sleeping bag and most of my clothes were soaked. I wasn’t terribly cold (thank you down sleeping bag and wool base layer!), but I started to worry about how cold the outside temperature could get. What was the possibility I could start to get hypothermic? I started to regularly take note of how cold my toes, fingers, and core felt.
A lot of things crossed my mind beyond worrying how cold and wet my gear and I were getting. I started to wonder if I should have paid better attention to the weather forecast (the answer is yes), but maybe I was kind of glad I didn’t because maybe I would have convinced myself not to go on this trip. In spite of the crazy weather, I proved to myself that I could handle such an adverse situation on my own. I was also kind of glad to be by myself – as scary and frustrating as my situation was. Having another person there, I might have even gotten more upset – you know, worse than yelling at the sky to stop storming.
Or… maybe if there had been another person, they would have known better. We would have packed up all of our things and headed for lower, dryer, more protected ground. Or maybe we would have cuddled up together to watch the storm (not) pass by.
But I was by myself. I had to make all of the decisions. I was in a crazy ass storm. It felt safer to stay put. I imagined that if I packed up and tried to head home I might have gotten lost somehow or tripped and slid down the steep slope next to part of the trail. No, being alone, it was better to stay where I was. Around 5:00am, I had had enough of the growing stream I was laying in and packed up my sopping wet gear to hit the trail for home.
A few weeks later, I spent a weekend backpacking with some friends. And it was great to share the experiences with others – having a partner to hike to the top of a mountain with, playing yahtzee, watching the sunset while sharing a beer... But the sunset watching is no less spectacular by yourself, there is just no one to reminisce with.
I will not miss out on one of my favorite pastimes because I cannot find a hiking partner. So I go solo. Happiness is what you make of it. I try to achieve happiness in all of my endeavors, whether solo or with others.