Rim to Rim 2019

Prep

When an outlandish idea infiltrates the thin “danger” filter of my mind, it’s hard for me to shake it and soon it consumes my every thought. I was in search of a mini vacation, as I hadn’t been in one in way too long. After a short internet search determined that most feasible hikes were inaccessible due to high snowfall that continued through June. I am cautious enough to know my limitations with regards to technical skills (of whom I have none), so imagine my disappointment when my search yielded no results. Then by some unknown power – some may call it divine intervention – the idea popped into by mind to hike the Grand Canyon, a dream of mine for some time now. Surely the Grand Canyon won’t be covered in feet of snow.

The hike I had set my eyes on is infamously known as the Rim to Rim hike. This world renowned trek starts at one end of the canyon, goes down to the bottom, crosses the river, then heads back up the other side. Depending on the route taken, it is a 21-24 mile venture recommended only for experienced hikers and it is advised to be done either in the month of May or late fall, as temperatures in the canyon can reach highs of 120 degrees F easily during the popular summer months. It is also highly recommended that hikers split up the miles over a few days to prevent hiking in the heat of the day and the sheer exhaustion that is sure to ensue after a hike of this nature. Most deaths in the park do not occur due to falls of high ledges (though Instagram worthy selfies are causing a spike in this number), but instead are due to dehydration, hyponatremia, or heat stroke from unpreparedness on the part of an overly ambitious hiker. The National Park Service has it posted in the park (see pic below) and on it’s website to NOT attempt this hike in one day. Upwards of 20 people a day are rescued within the canyon due to ignorance and lack of respect of the environment in which the canyon calls home. Going down is easy, going up is mandatory and required 2x the effort. Add in heat and sun exposure, and you have a recipe for disaster for an inexperienced human looking for a good photo-op to end up in grave danger.

Due to planning in the past a Rim to Rim hike over 4 days 3 nights, I knew that the logistics and planning the trek can be just as difficult as the hike itself – and luck is a huge player. Below the canyon rim, there are 3 campgrounds and one ranch hikers can stay in. Perfect! The only hang up is that for camping you need a permit and to stay in the ranch you need to plan a year in advance for a reservation or luck out with a last minute cancellation. Permits are assigned in a lottery based system that I have never had any luck with, as there is a high demand and low supply. There was no way I was going to score a permit last minute, so if I wanted to hike Rim to Rim it had to be in one day. A daunting task and lofty goal, but one I thought I could attain. As I said earlier, it is not advised to hike past the end of May due to rising summer temperatures. Being late May when the idea popped into my head, I missed the window of opportunity. But early June is close enough, right?!

I knew immediately I wanted to start the hike on the North Rim, as it is 1000 feet higher in elevation and 14 miles of decent. The problem is where to stay. The North Rim is not nearly as popular as its Southern brother and has a lot less amenities. There is a campground and a lodge that also fills up a year in advance. On a whim I called the lodge and asked if there were any cancellations in the first 2 weeks of June. After a short pause, the concierge affirmed that there was a room available for June 7th. I booked it immediately and just like that the plans were set in motion for me to do a Rim to Rim hike in one day on Saturday, June 8th – two weeks away.

I booked a campsite at Mather Campground on the Southern Rim (again, really lucky I snagged a spot last minute) and scheduled a shuttle from the South Rim to the North Rim, a 5.5 hour journey. The shuttle service is a godsend, as the hike is a thru hike, it would be really inconvenient to get done the hike and have to figure out a way to get to the other side of the canyon where you likely had to park. The last thing I booked was a flight. I had to pep talk myself to pull the trigger – as booking a flight would force me to commit to this ambitious trip. I was ready for the challenge apparently, because I hit “Book Flight” confidently and next thing I knew, I was getting ready to fly into Phoenix for the adventure of a lifetime.

Let the research begin! Like I said, I have poured over the details involved with planning a Rim to Rim hike before. I knew I wanted to descend via North Kaibab trail and ascend up to the South Rim via the Bright Angel Trail. The South Rim also has the South Kaibab trail. It is more spectacular and shorter than the Bright Angel Trail (7.1 miles vs 9.5 miles), however, it comes with its disadvantages. It is a much steeper and more difficult ascent and it does not have water access or any ounce of shade, not a risk I was willing to take for a shorter journey. I spent hours reading blogs by others who Rim to Rimmed in one day, watching youtube videos, and creeping on Instagram those who were doing it in current time. I read their words, jotted down tips, and compared my fitness level/experience with theirs. I was on par with all of them and with proper preparedness, I was confident that I would be able to complete this hike.

Though the forefront of my mind was confident with my abilities, the little voices in the back of my head that have power when I sleep were not convinced. I spent many sleepless nights rolling around or ripped from sleep with a rapidly beating heart worrying about everything that could go wrong. Heat stroke. Cardiac arrest. Hyponatremia. Slip and fall 1000’s of feet to my death. Broken bones. Helicopter rescue costs. All of these at the same time! I felt like I was in over my head and about to undertake an impossible task. I tried my hardest to shut these voices up right until the night of the big day.

Soon I found myself on a flight to Phoenix June 5th. From there I spent the night and morning in the gorgeous Sedona. In the morning I watched the sunrise from Airport Mesa and hiked Cathedral Rock. I only made it half way up because there was a lot of rock scrambling involved, the last thing I wanted was to snap my ankle in half. So I turned around and was on my way to the Grand Canyon.

I checked into Mather Campground, set up the old tent, and explored the South Rim. I peeked out over the vastness to the Northern Rim and felt a pit in my stomach. Only 10 miles away (as the crow flies), it looked like an eternity. Was I really about to hike from there to here!? How is that even possible!? Well, I would soon be finding out.

After a very crowded and rowdy sunet – seriously people stop blasting your EDM music on blue tooth speaker in National Parks, your holding everyone present hostage to your horrible music tastes, I had a great night at Mather Campground. The night sky I saw during a 2am bathroom visit were awe inspiring. I could see thousands of stars, including the shooting variety, and the Milky Way. But alas, the sun woke me up at 4:30am – a good indicator of when I could expect the sun to shine in the canyon the very next day! I broke camp, ate breakfast, and mosied around until the 8am shuttle to the other side. While moseying around, I ran into an older gentleman who told me he hiked across the canyon 50 years ago over a few days. I told him I was attempting the same hike in one day. Quite taken aback, he looked me up and down and said “Well I guess you look fit enough, good luck” and walked away. Well, that was reassuring.

And the reassuring didn’t end there! At the shuttle meeting place, I talked to a Canadian father/daughter duo who just literally came off the trail after a 4 day hike. The 8 year old girl was cheery and said the hike was easy. The dad, not so much. Once again my one day trek was met with blank stares of disbelief. Fabulous. The shuttle itself over to the North Rim was full – mainly of hikers who just finished a multiday hike. One other young female and myself were the only ones about to begin ours. For once, my single day solo hike wasn’t the craziest idea in the room! Stacy was planning on getting dropped off at the trailhead and beginning the hike down to Phantom Ranch (14 miles) that afternoon, in the heat of the day. Everyone in that shuttle looked at her like she was crazy. During their hike the bottom of the canyon reached 110 degrees and there were 15 rescues. They picked apart her gear and all but subtly told her she wasn’t prepared. Made mostly in jest (she was a good sport) they offered her tips and one guy, Thomas, even lent her his hiking poles. I was the only one who told her she was perfectly fine, in a way I was also reassuring myself. Soon we arrived and Stacy was off to what I’m sure was a great hike for her!

As I grabbed my bag I heard something metallic hit the floor. I instantly knew what it was. My rose pin that represents my Grandmother’s watchful eye from Heaven fell off my pack! I went in full panic mode – that pin has been with me for the last year and a half through all my adventures and this was the trip I needed it the most. I frantically looked all over the street holding up traffic (I didn’t care – this was bigger than their need to check into the lodge) until I found it with a sign of relief. The back fastener was missing, but I bought a cheap pair of earrings at the gift shop to replace it. All was well in the world – the pin was placed in a safer location and wasn’t going anywhere.

I checked into the lodge and signed up for the 4am shuttle with 2 other women who were rim to rimming in one day. I had originally planned on starting at 3:30am, however, the shuttles to the trailhead (3 miles away) ran on the hour starting at 3am. After some contemplation, I decided to move the departure time to 3am, mostly because I would be so worried all night I definitely wasn’t going to get any sleep! No use delaying the inevitable! I explored the North Rim a little and ran into 2 brother in laws who were also getting the 3am shuttle to the trailhead that next morning. The thing is they had just hiked from the South Rim the previous day. I couldn’t believe it. They apparently do this every year so they’re used to the suffering. They offered to let me hike with them so I don’t get lonely, but I told them I’d only slow them down. I got dinner at the lodge and soon went to bed for a restless night of sleep!

Apparently I did get some sleep, as I was jolted awake at 2:15am by my blasting alarm. I ate a few bites of a sandwich, downed some chocolate milk and electrolyte drink, and did one last pack sweep to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. Big Booty Judy is sitting this hike out, as she is too big. I got a new pack a week before the hike and he was making his big debut! Introducing Earl Grey! Hope he’s up for the task! I walked over to the lodge lobby and was greeted with a full shuttle of early rim to rim hikers, including the 2 guys I met the night before. In fact, they were the only men on that shuttle. There were 2 groups of 3 women and then me. At the trailhead I got a picture with the North Kaibab sign and was officially off at 3:09am.

The Hike

Wow. It’s dark. Even with this headlamp, I can barely see in front of me, let alone what’s over the ledge. What was that noise? Oh my god there are mountain lions around here. Am I being stalked by a mountain lion!? Well at least I’m not going to wrong way, there are Jason and what’s his face’s headlamps in front of me and those women’s behind me. Okay you got this. Legs – do your thing. I don’t want to hear one complaint from you, you hear me!? We’re going to do this and we are going to ENJOY it. Cause I can’t turn this body around, so you’re gonna suffer and you’re gonna like it.

These were the thoughts going through my head the first 2 miles of the hike. That’s how long it took me to get used to hiking in the dark and getting over the fact that I was actually in the process of achieving a goal that I had been eying up for years.  I was in descending into the Grand Canyon.  In the dark.  One misstep and BAM I’m 1500′ down off a cliff and another statistic and lesson as to not hike Rim to Rim in a day.  But, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, that did not happen.  However, there were some close calls.  I recall being sufficiently freaked out that I couldn’t see the bottom of the canyon when shining my light down there, that I hugged the inner canyon wall.  Due to rain runoff and limited ability for proper drainage on the trail, there is a bit of ditch along the inner trail, only an inch or so.  Well, looking behind me to see how far the folks behind me were, I accidentally got my right foot stuck in the ditch.  My already weak ankle rolled, causing a huge crack and causing me to fall – a bit way too close to the edge.  I scrambled up and got as close to the wall as I could.  My ankle hurt for a minute and caused me to panic for split second, but I knew I was fine.  I let my heart beat slow before starting again.  I learned my lesson on distracted hiking.

But alas, the clumsiness didn’t end there.  During one particular infamous part of the trail (infamous to me as I recognized pictures of it) under a small waterfall, I encountered some slick rock.  I was very carefully transversing the rock praying I didn’t slip when just that happened.  One foot went, then the other started sliding and I could feel myself helplessly start to slip off the ledge – which wasn’t too big of a deal, as there was a rock shelf right under the waterfall.  However, if momentum kept me propelling, surely I was a goner.  Luckily I was able to get my balance and hustled to a dry spot.  Again, time was needed to lessen my heart beat.

At this time, thankfully, the sun was making its first appearance at 4:37am and there was sufficient light for the headlamp to be turned off.  Not shortly after this did I reach Manzanita rest area, a little over 5 miles into the hike.  As I approached the rest area, Jason and What’s His Face were just leaving, impressed that I had caught up.  I spent about 3 minutes there and ate something small before departing.  There were people there camping who were just waking up.  They weren’t supposed to be camping there, as Manzanita is not a designated campground.  The people there probably sensed my irritability of them breaking the law, so I went on my way.

It was only another 1.4 miles to Cottonwood Campground.  Ideally, this would be my first overnight stay had I gotten permits.  I arrived at 5:37am when the campers there were just getting up.  I spent 10 minutes there resting my legs and mind.  I didn’t need to refill water, as it was only 60 degrees and I hadn’t drank much yet.  I put on my T-shirt and I was on my way.  7 miles down, 7 to Phantom Ranch.  9.5 to the top.  I felt great, I was ready to conquer the trail.

During the first mile to Phantom Ranch, I caught sight of the 2 guys.  But not before falling again and this time drawing blood! Curse my weak ankles!  My chase instinct kicked in and soon I caught up to them.  They showed me Ribbon Falls from a distance, something I would’ve otherwise missed as it was behind us.  We couldn’t access the falls, as the bridge leading to it was taken out in the winter.  It looked pretty mangled.  With such a tight time table, Ribbon Falls wasn’t on the agenda, as it was 1 mile out of the way.

Soon we reached the notorious Box/Oven. It is called this because you are boxed in between very high canyon walls.  When the sun shines on these walls, it causes a heating effect that can reach over 120 degrees during the head of the day, hence the appropriate nickname of “the oven” It was only 6 something in the morning and the sun was far from the depths of the canyon.  Being that I was so worried about this section, I was elated that I could actually enjoy it in 70 degree temperatures.  And did I enjoy it.  I loved every second down there.  Following a stream through a slot canyon, I marveled at the canyon walls and the beauty I found.  I let the guys get ahead of me as I took pictures and the time to enjoy it.  It felt like being in Zion, only the magnitude of it being the inner depths of the Grand Canyon made it feel all the more awesome.  At this time I felt my energy level start to deplete, so I grabbed a Guu and felt instantly better! Highly recommend these things, made a major change and they actually taste good.

Making my way through the Box, I passed a few folks who were staying at Cottonwood Campground.  They jokingly called me “Trailblazer” and “Speedy”.  Soon I caught up with the guys and before we knew it, we were at Phantom Ranch! And it was only 7:47am!  I was shocked.  During the planning process I was convinced I wasn’t going to reach the ranch until 10:30am.  I overestimated how difficult the descent into the canyon was going to be.  Turns out, I’m faster than I thought.

I accidentally blew right past the general store at Phantom Ranch and decided it wasn’t worth it to go back.  So I kept trucking another 0.25 miles to Bright Angel Campground where I took an hour break and soaked my feet in the stream.  I saw the guys go past me as I was soaking and figured that would be the last I would see of them.  I was astonished that I had already hiked 14 miles and had less than 10 to go.  I was halfway done and still felt pretty good!  My hips were starting to ache a little, but I figured going uphill and using different muscle sets would change that. The temperature at the campground read 79 degrees. Knowing that it was only going to get hotter from here on out and the sun would be beating down on me the rest of the way, I put on a tank top and loaded up on sunscreen.

And so, I began my ascent at 8:47am.  Only 0.5 miles away was the might Colorado River.  I took some time to take in the magnitude of the infamous river that carved out the very canyon I was exploring and paid my respects.  I crossed the magnificent bridge and was now on the Bright Angel Trail!  The whole first section of the trail had views of the bridge and I loved it.  Except for the sand I encountered for about a mile.  I hate hiking in the sand.  But soon it came to an end.  At this point I was fully aware of the sun’s presence. It was intense, but not stiffling hot yet. 

I played leapfrog with a bunch of other hikers the entire way to Indian Garden Campground. Some of them looked like they were not enjoying themselves so much. Interestingly enough, the ones who looked the least happy were also the ones without trekking poles. I’m telling you folks – invest in a pair of these bad boys. They are life and energy savers. I made my way up another landmark – Devil’s Corkscrew. I had watched a youtube video in which the guy made it sound like this was the most HORRENDOUS part of the hike. Was it steep? Yes. Was it hot and in the sun the whole time? Also, yes. But doable? Totally. I actually loved it. I climbed it and laughed to myself about how silly I was to have dreaded facing it. 

19 miles in (officially the furthest I’ve ever hiked in one day), I reached Indian Garden Campground at 10:45am. Again, I was surprised by the time I was making. I only had 4.5 miles left, I could totally be done this hike in 12 hours. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I instantly made it my goal. Because when it comes to common sense vs. bragging rights, bragging rights always wins, right?! I felt I could do it because my legs still felt great and my mind was still very positive.

I spent an hour at the campground. I met Zach, a Colorado River rafting tour instructor who was hiking sweep for a group of 28 people who were hiking up from the river. He had the horrible job of carrying the packs of folks who were too tired to carry them themselves. Unfortunately for Zach, 3 people were really struggling so he had to manage their packs and his own. I did not envy him.

And so, I left for the final ascent at 11:45am, confident and elated. I looked back and could see the trail that leads to Plateau Point, a trail that is very prominent at the South Rim. I thought forever that this trail was Bright Angel Trail, but Zach informed me that I was wrong. Next time I’m at the Grand Canyon, I would love to head out to this point, as it is fabled to be the most beautiful vantage point of the whole park. 

After leaving Indian Gardens is when the day hikers started to become an issue. By day hikers I mean unprepared folks in flip flops and 16 oz of water trekking way too deep in the canyon without any respect for those coming up. Can you tell I’m not a huge fan? I made it the 1.5 miles up to 3 mile Rest House at 12:35pm. Oh what a glorious site that Resthouse was. I was starting to bonk again (but was revived with Guu to the rescue again!) and getting cranky with all the people polluting the trail. And the sun. The sun was hot and intense and now I was battling other people for shaded spots. 

I spent 10 minutes at 3 Mile Resthouse, downed some Pedialyte, and got rolling to 1 1/2 Rest House. Only 3 miles left! And boy was I ready for these 3 miles to be over. At one point during this ascent, I looked over at the North Rim and was overcome with emotion. Not sure if it was because I came to the realization of how far I came so easily when I thought surely I’d be dead at this point or the sheer amount of physical and mental exhaustion I was experiencing, but let me tell you, it felt cathartic. I was proud of myself. But pride is a sin so I wrapped up this special little moment and ventured on. 

At 1:35pm I reached 1 1/2 Mile Rest House. Again I took 10 minutes and pushed on for the final stretch! The sun was pretty overwhelming, but I knew I only had a little more to go. At some point along this stretch my left knee decided it had had enough and put on a bit of a show. I couldn’t put weight through it and soon was completely reliant on my trekking poles. See- life savers!! Even hobbling with my one bad knee, I was still passing day hikers, though I think it was probably because I had a bit more adrenaline in my system than they did at this point.

I came across a tunnel, which I knew marked the end of the trail. In my head I thought, “Wow, I came across this pretty quickly. Only 200m left!”. I was elated so I took a picture with it. And then puzzled. And then angry. After a good 400m, I realized that this was a false tunnel. There must be 2 on this trail.

I was minorly dissuaded, as my knee was screaming in agony and I still had God knows how much longer left. But hobbled on I did and BAM I saw the real tunnel! Again I was overrun with emotion, but pushed it to the back of my mind as I always do and limped up the 200m left to the finish line. 

2:37pm. I had made it. Under 12 hours. Not accounting for break time, the actual hike itself took 8.5 hours.

This is my favorite venture to date. Mostly because I had been dreaming of accomplishing it for so long, but unable to pursue to do the powers that be and forces outside my control. I never imagined hiking it in one day, but thank God that I had a fleeting thought that maybe, just maybe, I could do it. Being in the depths of the canyon and seeing the forces that carved such a marvel was humbling. I am thankful to God for listening to my prayers, my health for the ability to do this hike, my mind for pushing my body, and my body for getting me the 24 miles across the canyon. I will be thinking fondly on this experience for my entire lifetime, and look forward to getting to explore the canyon even more in the future. After all, I left a piece of my heart out there, I have to go back to make sure it’s being treated right, right!?

Rim to River to Rim, anyone?!

Day 20: Unfinished Business

August 5th 2018: Lyell Fork – Tuolumne Meadows; 13 miles

It took me so long to write this final post because it took me this long to come to terms with what the following paragraphs are going to describe.  It should come as no surprise that I was not able to complete the trail in its entirety, as the Ferguson fire was not even close to being contained at this point.  More heartbroken I could not have been and it will take a very long time for me to accept the fact that 20 miles were left unconquered when I know full well I could have completed them.  But alas, here is it: my final day on the trail.

Last night was the first night on this entire journey where I was alone.  Granted there were nights when people weren’t nearby, but I at least knew there was someone within proximity of where I was staying.  Last night, however, I didn’t see a soul.  Which shocked me because I thought it was a pretty awesome campsite at a pretty awesome location! Right before Donahue pass going SOBO and right after the pass going NOBO.  Prime real estate! Well obviously I was wrong, or maybe the other hikers knew something I didn’t.  Because this was the worst night of the entire hike, and it wasn’t because I was alone.

Being alone didn’t bother me at all.  At this point, I think (I hope) I know what I’m doing when it comes to camp life.  I’m not worried about bears or things that go bump in the night, so I was actually looking forward to having a night completely devoid of human interaction.  But then the wind started.  And it didn’t stop.  Starting gently at 5pm, the wind soon picked up in gales and brought with it ash.  Thank God I set up my tent as soon as I got into camp, because with only 2 stakes (ultralight!) my tent surely would’ve blown away into the abyss.  To help out, I stayed in my tent to make sure with my weight and the weight of the pack, it wasn’t going to blow away.  I watched hikers come and go, wondering why they weren’t staying.  But like I said, I secretly hoped they would move on so I would have a night alone.

The wind got worse.  So much worse.  Because I was in a valley of sorts, it created a wind tunnel.  I could hear bad gusts coming up the valley 5 seconds before it would hit the tent.  Gave me plenty of time to prepare, not that any preparation would do any good!  The gusts must’ve been at least 60mph.  For the majority of the night, my tent was blown completely horizontal, right over my face.  Needless to say, I did not sleep very well.  I had visions in my head that the wind was so strong it would knock my bear canister over. Following the whatever law of whatever dynamics (physics wasn’t my strong suit), the canister would stay in motion until it met something that would stop it… and that would be a nearby stream. I was convinced that my bear can was gonna float away! Totally ridiculous. But I was in a heightened state of annoyance and sleep deprivation from the wind, so my brain wasn’t working so well. The only thing that would’ve made it worse would be rain.  Luckily the heavens didn’t open up on me, however, it did rain ash.  I wasn’t too surprised, considering how terribly smoky it was on Donahue and how low visibility was before I went in my tent.  Another nail in the coffin of my hopes of finishing the trail.

The wind didn’t die down until 6am the next morning, exactly when I wanted to wake up.  Good because I could break down camp in peace, but bad because it didn’t give me a chance to catch up on any semblance of sleep.  But knowing it was likely my last day, I didn’t need sleep.  Plus it’s all downhill to Tuolumne Meadows, so I could practically sleepwalk and be okay. And my bear canister took the wind beating well – it was still standing! The same cannot be said about my tent, however. The poles were bent from the wind. But with it already looking a bit long in the tooth, I personally think the bent poles add even more character to the old beloved Marmot tent.

Well I guess I was sleepwalking because I had a pretty bad fall down a steep decline heading down into the meadow in which I almost lost a Nalgene bottle and my pride. An older gentleman witnessed the fall and asked if I was alright.  I tried to brush it off like it was nothing, but it actually hurt quite a bit.  Nothing like a hard fall to wake you up in the morning!

As I continued the day’s hike, I took it all in.  I took more breaks and took in the views.  I also was super hungry which accounted for the majority of the breaks.  Leave it to the last day for my appetite to kick in full gear! I ate my entire day’s worth of food by 10am.  It felt so weird knowing that this was my last day on the trail.  I had a lot of teary moments, looking back on the struggles, pure joy, and breathtaking views I experienced on the trail.   I wasn’t ready for it to be over, especially cut short.  But I had no other option.

I saw a ton of people starting their SOBO journey.  With Tuolumne Meadows so close, I wasn’t surprised to run into so many fresh, bright eyed hikers who didn’t smell like weeks worth of BO.  They smiled happily and congratulated me on my journey.  I was happy for them and a little jealous that their journey was just beginning.  I ran into two older men and had a quick conversation with them before realizing one was wearing an ACA hat.  The ACA is the organization I used to ride the TransAm route and used their maps for the Pacific Coast Bike Route earlier this summer.  We talked about bike tours and how different it is from hiking.  Good to have a conversation about something other than the John Muir Trail!

When I arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows cut off trail, I ran into a ranger.  I asked him his honest opinion about Yosemite Valley opening tomorrow.  “Not a chance”, he said ,rather bluntly.  He also told me it wasn’t a smart idea to wait around optimistically to see if it’ll open in the next few days. He thought the valley would be closed for the entire season.  Though I wasn’t surprised by his response, it still killed me.  After we departed paths, I called my parents to tell them I’ll be coming home early.

When they answered, I couldn’t speak a word, phrase, or even a syllable.  I was crying hysterically, coming to the realization that this was real,  I was really forced to quit the trail.  They calmed me down and I was able to explain the situation.  After a few minutes on the phone, I saw something not far away come out of the woods.  “Oh my God it’s a bear!” “WHAT?!”, I heard my mom say (her worst fear is bears) “Get out of there!”.  I was only slightly alarmed, mainly because I had a pocket full of fruit snacks.  I hung up the phone, threw Big Booty Judy on my back, and walked to the wilderness center.  Mr. Bear followed along with me, keeping a good 40 feet between me and him.  He didn’t seem too concerned with my existence, so I tried to feign the same kind of indifference.  They can smell weakness, right?  Luckily I made it safely to the office.

There I figured out with the help of my parents how to get home.  I was going to take a 4:30pm bus from Tuolumne Meadows to Lee Vining, then take a bus in the morning from Lee Vining to Reno for a flight home.  While waiting for the bus to Lee Vining, I ran into Paul and Jeff, brothers from Seattle who completed the trail a few days ago.  They waited around to see if the valley would open, but gave up after a few days.  Paul was going to Reno to fly home, however, Jeff was sticking around because his truck was parked in Yosemite Valley.  Being retired and just recently widowed, he had plenty of time to wait for the valley to open.  Both were very nice guys and I enjoyed talking with them and getting to know them.  Finally the bus arrived and off I went for the journey home.

Lee Vining is a tiny town, but was a perfect place to stop for the night.  Paul and I waited for the ESTA bus (late as usual) and we were shocked by what came to pick us up.  It was an bus full of hikers from Mammoth who had to cut their journey short.  When I say it was full, I mean it.  Getting our bags to fit was an exercise in Tetris and patience.  There were no seats left on the bus, so Paul and I were forced to sit on the floor.  On a bus full of young, able bodied men, you would think one or two would offer their seat to a woman OR an older man, but nope.  The art of chivalry and manners was lost on my generation.

Eventually we made it to the airport where I had 7 hours to my flight.  I don’t even remember what I did to pass the time, I was so bored.  When I finally could check my bag, I didn’t have full confidence the woman who tagged my bag knew what she was doing.  I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t be the last time I would see BB Judy.  My fears were justified because when I landed in Philly, Judy was no where to be seen.  Frontier’s baggage representative reassured me that she would be delivered within 24 hours.  She arrived at 1:30am missing one trekking pole.  Another reason to not fly Frontier in my opinion.

But I was home.  Not on my own terms, but here anyway.  Seeing my family and Addie was great, but would’ve been greater had I completed the trail.

I will follow up with one last final post soon reflecting on my experience.  Over a month later, I’m still digesting what I experienced and the feelings I have being home and returning to work.

Day 19: Coming to Terms

August 4th 2018; Rosalie Lake – Lyell Fork; 16.3 Miles

Last night was the first night on this entire trek that I was actually cold.  Honestly, I can’t complain, especially when I though I’d be cold every single night.  I woke up still half frozen to a beautiful sight – no smoke!  It was perfectly clear. Hope pumped through my veins warming up my body.  Hope that maybe, just maybe, the fire is on its way  to being contained and that Yosemite really will open tomorrow. Fueled by this hope that my trip may not have to be cut short, I packed everything up and set out for today’s hike.

This morning, I passed nothing but lakes.  From Shadow, to Ruby, to Garnet, to Marie, it was nothing but lake after lake that I’ll never be able to keep straight.  Garnet and Thousand Island Lake were the big ones. And they were pretty darn stunning.  In fact, Thousand Island Lake is pretty infamous along the JMT.  Originally, we were going to stay there for a half day.  I scratched that plan last night.  Good thing. Cause only 8 miles from Rosalie Lake, I got there at 10:30am.  I would’ve been quite bored.  Plus a lot of people had the same idea of staying there and it was pretty packed.  Not my kind of scene.

Onward I went to Rush Creek, where I had planned to stay.  Getting there meant going over Island Pass.  Funny thing about Island Pass is you don’t even realize you’re going up it till you’re already over it and on the downhill!  It’s barely a bump in the trail and snuck right up on me, or maybe I snuck right up on it? Either way, it was an anti-climatic pass and as such did not yield any kind of view.

I got to Rush Creek shortly after 1pm.  Still feeling pretty good, I wanted to keep going because I was aware that tomorrow would’ve been a hard and long push to Tuolumne Meadows if I didn’t keep pushing.  So with the attitude of “why put off till tomorrow that which you can do today”, I tossed Judy onto my back and we marched onto Lyell Fork.  Only 4 miles away, it looked like a perfect little spot to stop.  Only problem was it was just past Donahue Pass.  At 11K’, I knew it would be considerably more difficult than Island Pass.  But then again, just about anything is more difficult than Island Pass.I had all the time in the world to get over it, so I wasn’t worried.  After the terrifying incident crossing Silver Pass in a lightning storm, I would prefer to avoid passes in the afternoon.  You just never know when a mega monsoon might rear its ugly head! However, the skies this afternoon were clear – clear of clouds and clear of smoke! Perfect.

During the climb, I had a little blimp of cell service and told my parents that the smoke was gone! Hooray! They don’t have to worry (my mom even sent a picture of Addie in a mask, no doubt showing support).  As soon as I lost reception, the winds picked up and guess what it blew in?! Within minutes, the canyon was full of thick smoke, obscuring any view of my surroundings.  Great. I’ve been looking forward to Donahue Pass for weeks and now I won’t be able to see anything! Oh well, life’s unfair sometimes.

With the wind and smoke and tired legs, the ascend up the pass wasn’t the most fun. But it at least went quickly.  I was officially in Yosemite!!  I got a little emotional at the top.  Donahue is the last pass of the JMT going NOBO, a pass I was certain I’d never get to see when I started.

I made it down to Lyell Fork at 4pm, very weary and glad to have made it.  As I was setting up my tent, it started to rain ash.  All hope I had in the morning was quickly, well, burning up and turning to ash.  I talked with two guys who started in Tuolumne Meadows that morning who had spoken with some rangers before they left.  They said that none of the rangers were optimistic about the park opening tomorrow.  In fact, many of them said they wouldn’t be surprised if it remained closed all season.  That’s when it hit me.  I’m likely going to have to quit tomorrow.  And that is also when I accepted it. I can’t push pas this.  I have to swallow my pride and let the universe have this win. Besides, I cried enough about it in Mammoth.

So it looks like I’ll be ending 20 miles shy of Happy Isles.  But, I already hiked these miles with my family a few years ago, so technically I will have hiked the whole JMT, just not in one shot.

I’m exhausted.  The wind is still kicking around and being annoying.  I have a feeling it’s going to be another cold night.  But it’s the last one so big whoop.  At this point, I can handle it.

Day 18: Take It Easy

August 3rd 2018: Mammoth > Rosalie Lake; 9 miles

I woke up to the sound of my alarm, ready and excited to get back on the trail.  Though I was glad to have a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in, the Hostel was loud and I missed the quiet comfort of my tent. In fact, I got better sleep in my tent than I did in the hostel!  I went downstairs to grab a quick breakfast and promptly left after getting into a slight altercation with a man who thought he was more entitled to my phone charger than I was.  After dropping out of the JMT due to smoke, he found himself low on battery charge and ordered me to let him use my cord because he forgot his.  I had overheard him telling another hiker how much of a big shot he is in DC, so I told him he could find a cord at the Rite Aid down the street… surely he could afford one there.  I grabbed Big Booty Judy and soon we found ourselves on the shuttle back to Red’s Resort.

On the bus I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only crazy person going NOBO directly int o the line of fire.  There were plenty of folks doing the same thing!  We got dropped off at 8:30am and I hiked with a group of guts from SoCal who were section hiking.  We passed by the famed Devil’s Postpile.  Not entirely sure what to expect, I was left minorly disappointed by the monument.  Really interesting looking, however, it was such a small geological feature that has accrued so much notoriety on the trail I was expecting a little more.  I stayed with the group until the JMT junction and we played leapfrog for the rest of the day.

Where I am camping tonight has been an issue of internal debate for the last couple of days.  Originally, I was supposed to stay at Rosalie Lake.  But that’s only 9 miles from Red’s Resort, and I wanted to go a little further to make it to Tuolumne by Sunday.  The problem with going further is there is no reliable water. Jen Warned me of that and gave the recommendation of staying at Rosalie Lake.  When I asked the guys their opinion, they agreed.  They told me to just take it easy, what’s the rush? I wasn’t sold until I actually got to the lake.  It’s beautiful, possibly my favorite late yet! I fell in love immediately and knew I had to stay here for the night.  I found the most perfect camping spot and an even better writing rock! The only problem is that it’s pretty windy and smoke is starting to settle right in the lake.

Speaking of smoke, all day it was a very ominous presence, causing an eerie feeling amongst the dead trees I’m still hiking through.  However, it hasn’t really bothered me or affected my breathing.  Someone at Red’s gave me an N95 mask, however, I haven’t had to use it yet.  And not that I’m really planning on using it – it makes breathing harder, especially when hiking uphill.

I was really tired today, (maybe it was all the blues at Bluesapalooza last night) so I wasn’t really bummed about calling it quits at 12:30pm today.  I had the whole afternoon to myself, save for a when the guys came over to inspect my campsite after seeing how much better mine was than theirs.  We had a nice conversation about their experiences in the Sierras.  I even taught them the thunder position, something they may find useful considering how many thunderstorms there have been out here.  They had never heard of it before and poked fun at me for even knowing what it was.  All in good fun.

Being in such an inspirational place has put me at peace, something I was definitely in need of after being in Mammoth.  I love it out here and am so sad to think that a week from now it’ll all be over.  I know once I get home I’ll be daydreaming about it out here, wishing I was back in it, despite all the adversity and hardship I have experienced.

The peace and quiet has been interrupted by a group of boys daring each other to jump in the frigid lake.  The air being filled with their screeches allows for some entertainment.  What’s not so entertaining is them urging each other to “just pee – you pee in the ocean, what’s the difference?”.  No – please don’t.  I’m pumping water from there later tonight.

With the smoke, the sun looks beyond spooky.  It look downright post-apocalyptic! After 5 pm it turns bright pink and you can look right at it.  The closest phenomenon I can compare it to is the solar eclipse.  It evokes the same kind of almost primal doomsday feeling.  I’ll be glad when I won’t have to deal with smoke anymore, I can definitely say that.

Day 16 & 17: And on the 17th Day, Emilie Said, “Let There Be Rest”

August 1st & 2nd 2018: Deer Creek > Red’s Meadow Resort; 5.5 miles > Mammoth

My poor weary body can rejoice! I’m writing this on a comfy chair in a hostel with a full belly of REAL food.  I haven’t had a 45 pound pack strapped to my back for over 24 hours and my legs feel fantastic! Although smoky and hot, this rest day in Mammoth was just what I needed.  However, I am getting a little itchy to get back on the trail tomorrow… it feels like cheating being off of it!

Yesterday I got to Red’s Resort right in time for breakfast.  The 5.5 miles there were easy, however, they were filled with devastation.  I walked through a forest of dead trees, likely dead for a while.  I’m unsure how they got that way (Edit: Lightning sparked fire in 2008), but there was an odd beauty to the destruction. As I descended into the resort, I saw the smoke that I had been warned about.  It made for hazy views into the meadow.  People coming up from the meadow were wearing N95 masks and complaining about how thick the smoke was down at the bottom and warned me to get out as soon as possible.  When I told them I was headed into Mammoth, they said that it wasn’t much better there.  Great!  Eventually I made it to Red’s (such a beautiful sight to see the sign!) and had a delicious – albeit pricey – breakfast.  Worth every cent.  Afterwards I picked up the resupply bucket and rooted through it to see what goodies I wanted to take along.  I gave most of it back because I still had too much food leftover from the MTR resupply and Marybeth had her resupply in the bucket as well.

I stuck around at Red’s for a while, talking with other hikers and just killing time since I didn’t have a plan for when I got into Mammoth.  Eventually I caught the shuttle into town and I checked into the Moderne Hostel.  I went around town to get supplies for a much needed shower.  Mammoth is not very pedestrian friendly.  Walking anywhere is putting your life on the line.  Luckily, however, the town offers free trolleys to you take to and from various points of interest.  Just simply hop on board and go to your destination worry free! I took the most amazing shower and for the first time in over 2 weeks I felt clean!  Plus now I won’t terrify Boy Scouts hiking the trail with my hairy legs – pretty sure I gave a few of them a decent fright as they passed by open mouth shocked by my legs – ha! I met the woman staying in the same room as me. Jen from Monterey (we bonded over their impressive farmer’s market) was hiking the JMT SOBO, but bailed out at Mammoth due to severe knee pain that started after coming down from Donahue Pass.  She was going to spend a few days here to see if it felt better, but after not being able to put any weight through it, she made the tough decision to drop out.  She was awesome to talk with and is a super friendly and sincere person.  Living in CA so close to the trail, she is planning on coming back out next year to attempt it with her 16 year old son.

Soon it was time to think about dinner. Someone who I had met on the TransAm suggested I go to Liberty Grill. It was right down the street and is owned by a Philly guy.  After looking them up online, I saw they had burgers and was immediately sold.  Though not entirely hungry, I still ordered and ate everything.  It was all gone quicker than I’d like to admit.  The poor people at the bar had to witness the pure savageness of me devouring that food. When I got the bill, I came to learn that Danny offered to pay for my meal! Thanks Danny!!

With an uncomfortably full belly, I went back to the hostel and immediately went to bed to sleep off the food coma.  At exactly 4am, I woke up and immediately regretted scarfing down all that fried greasy food.  I had a bad case of bubbly guts and practically fell off the top bunk in a rush to get to the bathroom.  Pretty sure I gave Jen quite a fright in my frantic rush.  I should’ve known this was going to happen – after 2 weeks of such bland foods, assaulting my stomach with a burger and fries was not a great idea.  But it tasted so good!!

In the morning I went to a coffee shop to try and figure out a game plan for getting to Yosemite amidst all these fires.  Mammoth is extremely smoky. In fact, I woke up to the smell of smoke this morning.  I know that a bunch of JMTers are either cutting their hike short or cancelling it altogether because of reports of smoke.  I began to question whether my bullheaded decision to try to push to Happy Isles was smart, or (more importantly) safe. Ultimately I came up with the conclusion that if the smoke gets too much to handle, I’ll just turn back and come home from Mammoth.

So the plan: get to Tuolumne Meadows by Sunday, when Yosemite is rumored to reopen.  If it opens, great! I’ll finish the hike in 2 days. If it doesn’t, I can camp out there for a few days till it does.  If I run out of time, I’ll find a way back into a town where I can catch public transportation to a major airport and fly home.  I is unclear whether or not YARTs is operational right now due to the fires.  If it is then it’s an easy ride into Mammoth. If it’s not, then I’ll just have to stick out my thumb and catch a ride into town with some generous stranger.

The prospect of potentially having to end this experience early is heartbreaking to me.  Even though it’s only 2 days worth of hiking, I wanted to finish more than anything in the world.  After having such a tough first week and not being sure if I would even make it past that, I would feel incomplete having to quit early when I know physically and mentally I am capable.  But with such a devastating fire rolling through such a beautiful place, it is completely selfish of me to think this way.  I hope the fire is contained soon, not only for my and other hiker’s benefits, but for the preservation of Yosemite and the safety of the firefighters working so hard to contain it.

With all my maps laid out on the table in the coffee shop and my dirty smelly ratty cloths,  I guess I gave off the hiker vibe.  A guy, Josh, recognized me as a JMT hiker immediately and struck up a conversation.  Being a photographer and having lived in Mammoth for some time now, he is very familiar with the Sierras and the JMT in particular. Seeing I was alone and likely bored, he invited me to Bluesapalooza with him and his friends, a yearly blues festival held right down the street from my hostel that apparently is the event of the year.  How lucky I was to stumble into town the exact weekend it’s being held! Having nothing better to do, I figured why not indulge in a little bit of Mammoth culture.

I’m so jealous of people who live in California.  All of Josh’s friends were talking about all the trails they have done and how easy it is for them to get a walk up permit for whenever they want to go camping out in the backcountry.  Not fair! It took me weeks of planning and stressing to get my permits! Oh well. Such is life.

After only being able to tolerate the Blues festival for an hour, I left to get some sleep.  I talked with Sheena on the phone and practically cried about how much I wish she was here with me for this hike! Oh well, next time!

Being back in civilization has made me want to get back on the trail ASAP.  It is such a weird feeling being in a town when you know you have unfinished business out in the wilderness to attend to.  I don’t like the feeling so I’m ready to hop on the first bus outta Mammoth tomorrow and get back to Red’s so I can (hopefully) finish this hike!

Day 15: A Woman on a Mission

July 31, 2018; Silver Pass – Deer Creek: 15 Miles

I woke up this morning a little groggy.  It took me a while to fall asleep, but once I found the sweet relief of sleep, it was hard to shake it off.  I did get up once during the night to a rustling next to my tent.  My body decided that right then was the perfect time to relieve myself.  With a swift shake of the tent to scare off whatever was creeping around (I always think it’s a bear). I saw a beautiful night sky free from the dark clouds that held it captive just a few hours before.  The moon was shining brightly behind a thin veil of misty clouds.  Though eerie outside the comfort and safety of my tent, I found immense beauty despite being so vulnerable and alone.

Although my alarm went off at 5:30am, my body did not.  It was a record slow camp break down for me.  By body is beyond tired, so I gave it a break and let it take its time this morning. Besides, I have a super easy day today… or so I thought (dun dun dun!) No matter what, however,  I was going to make it to that campsite and that one spot that potentially has service.  I think a big reason why I’ve been sleeping so poorly is because I’ve been so worried about loved ones at home.  After no contact in over 2 weeks, the mind goes wild with horrible scenarios in which everyone in your family died in a fiery car crash. Or maybe the entire East coast was wiped out by a nuclear bomb.  Or maybe Addie ate another baseball and this time wasn’t so lucky.  How would I know out here in the wilderness if any of these possibilities actually happened!? So I made it my mission to find this elusive service spot and today was the day this mission was to be completed.  I just had to get my achy 28 year old body to get on board – no easy task.

But I forced it to, as I have been this entire journey.  For the sake of Addie and my mental well being, I had to make it.  The morning started with a beautiful downhill view of the mountains, bathing in the amber glow of the early morning sun.  With a little added haze of the smoke, it looked like a painting.  But soon that downhill turned into a harrowing uphill, complete with switchback after switchback in the sun.  I have grown to absolutely detest switchbacks.  They are long and neverending.  Seeing the top the whole way up is mental torture.  Finally I was at the top and only had a short hike to Virginia Lake.  Yesterday, I toyed around with the idea of going further to stop at Virginia Lake because everyone told me how gorgeous it was.  But after talking with Jeb at Silver Pass and he told me it was a 1500′ climb (now the switchbacks make sense) I decided nope – I put my body through enough.  Plus the lightning storm solidified my decision.

I really thought that was the last of it with regards to climbing.  Today was supposed to be easy!  I took a nice rest at Virginia Lake and headed for another uphill battle up to Purple Lake.  It was up and down all day.  Although tough and unexpected, today was one of my favorite days view wise.  The lakes were beautiful.  And after the lakes came views of mountains. Gorgeous vista views along a crest for 5 miles.  It took my mind off the constant up and down.

But as you can tell by the pictures, those mountains did not look happy. No, they were blanketed in storm clouds, complete with rain and thunder. However , the rain was light (only but a drizzle) and the lightning was a minor threat being miles away.

Soon I approached the zone that was promised to have service.  I turned my phone off airplane mode and kept walking.  And walking.  Just when I gave up all hope on getting service, I heard the familiar ding of my phone! I reached the sacred zone, and it had perfect service.  My mission was successful.  I immediately called my parents and all is well! Addie is happy and healthy as is everyone else.  So I should (hopefully) sleep well tonight.

After such great news, I happily hiked to the campsite.  The happiness ended when I was promptly kicked out by a rude man.  I was (and still am) annoyed by it.  In fact, he’s wearing a mosquito net and there are literally no mosquitoes out tonight, which I’m thrilled about.  Because the campground is full, two young guys from the Bay area allowed me to share their campsite.

Earlier today while getting water at Duck Creek, I ran into two brothers hiking from Bishop to Mammoth.  They’re staying in the same campground and I got talking with Chris. He’s really nice and has a 12 year old daughter interested in backpacking. Great! Start them young!!

Tomorrow is a short jaunt to Red’s Resort.  I’ll probably get breakfast there and head into Mammoth.  Not sure where I’m staying yet, but I’m definitely looking forward to a shower and bed and real food!!

Day 14: Silver – Definitely Not Gold

July 30th 2018; Bear Ridge Junction – Somewhere Past Silver Pass: 14.6 miles

Oh what a day. I feel like I can start any of these entries with this phrase, but today was truly some sort of day.  I didn’t sleep well last night. With every noise pulling me out of whatever minimal state of unconsciousness I found myself in, I was jolted away with a fight or flight response.  Normally I’m fine sleeping in my tent, but last night was not one of those nights.  When I finally did doze off, my alarm went off at 4:45am – just in time for an early morning hike to VVR.  however, at the same time,  I saw that Marybeth had texted me on the Garmin.  She’s fine (hallelujah!) but won’t be meeting me at VVR.  I went back to sleep, content on skipping the holy grail of stops.  I wanted to get to Mammoth ASAP and a frivolous stop for a milkshake and a free beer didn’t exactly fit my plans.

The 5.5 miles to the VVR junction was all downhill. Aggressively so.  3 miles of it was rocky switchbacks.  I nearly fell 1/2 a dozen times getting down it.  If I was having that hard of a time going down, imagine the poor folks forced to go up it.  I passed nearly 20 of them, each one looking more miserable than the last.  I even waited for a mule train to pass.  I can’t believe these huge animals can navigate such narrow paths.  But thank God they do.

I had plenty of time to catch the ferry, however, like I said earlier, my drive to get to Mammoth by Wednesday fueled my drive to continue moving on.  That mean a 7 mile 3K’ climb over Silver Pass. Making sure Addie is okay was worth the torture I knew would ensue with this decision.

My whole body was sore and tired from overdoing it yesterday. I attacked this pass with a whole lot less tenacity than I did Selden Pass. I hated nearly every second of it.  I found excuses to stop every half an hour (well is refilling water really an excuse? It was hot I was drinking a ton of water!), making the climb take even longer.  I take back what I said yesterday about northern passes being gentle and gradual.  Leading up to Silver Pass was steep, ungodly so.  I suffered today, my friends.  But like all the other passes, the suffering eventually came to an end and I made it atop.  At 2pm, much later than I would’ve liked.  Although it wasn’t my favorite pass to get atop, it did yield one of my favorite views, even with the hazy smoke! At the top, I met Jeb, a fellow NOBO hiker who hiked the trail SOBO in 2016.  His pace is much faster than mine, so this is likely the only time I’ll run into him. He left and not soon after, so did I.  The rumbling of thunder was heard in the distance and soon rain fell from the sky. Being fully exposed on a pass, I knew I had to get down. Quickly.

I scurried down from the pass as quickly as my tired weary legs would allow.  I still had 2.8 miles to my camping spot and most of those miles were exposed. Not where I wanted to be when suddenly right in front of my face lightning danced across the sky.  With no option for shelter and honestly quite terrified, I went back to my grade school days and recited the rosary while practically running down the trail.  The lightning was nonstop and I couldn’t tell which thunder belonged to which lightning. Didn’t matter, all I knew was the lightning was way too close for comfort. It was just one constant symphony of thunder and I wasn’t too big a fan of the performance. In an otherwise completely safe situation, would’ve been beautiful, but unfortunately, that was not the situation I found myself in.  Soon my mad scramble down the mountain led to sporadic bunches of trees.  I went from tree to tree until I was safely below the treeline, where I soon found my home for the night. And a perfect home it is! Tucked under some big trees, I was able to set up my tent and stay dry! The storm lasted for about another hour before giving up.  And now the sun is shining, of course!

One this I’ve noticed since starting the solo journey is that people going the opposite direction are way more prone to starting a conversation in passing.  Not that it bothers me, it gives me a rest and distraction.  Plus most of the people are super nice and give me information about what’s happening up North with regards to the fires.

I’m only 20 miles away from Red’s Meadow Resort.  I’m planning on getting there tomorrow.  Just kidding! It’s a relatively easy 15 miles to a nice looking campground tomorrow – and rumor is there’s a spot a mile before this campground that has Verizon service.  I can call and make contact with family and friends!! Plus that makes Wednesday’s journey to Red’s Meadow a pretty easy 5 miles. Perfect!  Today was one of my toughest mental days.  With a fatigued body and brain, I’m pretty susceptible to my mind going negative.  I had a few tearful moments feeling sorry for myself, but got my act together pretty quickly.  No tears allowed on the trail!