In 2018 I was fortunate enough to hike the Four Passes Loop in the Snowmass Wilderness of Colorado with my dad and two brothers. Fresh off the John Muir Trail, I was ready to take on the challenges that climbing four passes presents. Assaulted by bad weather and left almost abandoned until the fateful flip of a coin determined we trudge along (you can read about it here https://emiliebikesandhikes.com/2021/01/03/four-passes-loop-2018/). I remember this hike being one of the most gorgeous trails I’ve ever been on, so when Sheena, Craig, and Jordan suggested hiking it this summer, of course I jumped on the opportunity!
Since hiking it in 2018, a lot has changed logistically to get to the trail due to the spike in popularity (thanks COVID). But I won’t bore you with the details. The most important thing is that the hike still does not require permits to hike – so the most frustrating aspect of most hikes wasn’t a factor this time around, which made my frantic 2 week preparation for the hike easy!
Having experienced a bad case of altitude sickness on the JMT, I knew I needed to acclimate in order to safely and happily climb four passes all over 12,000 feet without wanting to jump off to alleviate the headache, nausea, and weakness altitude tends to bring. I was fortunate enough to be in Colorado the same time as Aaron, who I met 2 years ago in Florida and was such a help last year during the Southern Tier in Texas. After spending some time with his mom Ronie in Loveland, we headed into the mountains to spend time with his sister and her daughters in Alma, CO. Infamous for being the highest town in the US at 10,301′, I knew there was no better place to acclimate. And imagine my delight when I realized that I rode my bike past Audrey’s house just 6 years ago (to the day!) on the transam during the 100+ mile day death march through the Rockies. Memories flooded back as I witnessed 7 different TransAmers ride past the house, either relieved from conquering Hoosier Pass or pedaling slowly up it. I experienced no altitude symptoms as I enjoyed my time in Alma. I was able to run, walk MarnDog (coolest dog West of the Mississippi), hike, play in an extremely competitive matching game tournament, explore the surrounding towns, cheer on Juniper at baseball, and just in general have a great time with everyone. Audrey, Bella, and June were absolute delights to stay with and may have planted a seed to look into that area to move sometime in the future!
Alas, the tourist fun had to come to an end and it was time to meet up with Sheena and the guys in Avon. Aaron was kind enough to take us to the trailhead bright and early Friday morning to get an early start. Envious from the beauty of just the trailhead, Aaron wished he could join us. Maybe a third trip around the loop is in my future! With Sheena fresh off a 12 hour workshift and the guys coming in late from a concert at the Red Rocks, no one was ready to take on the first day with sufficient sleep, but the mountains were calling and this was not the time to complain about being sleepy!
Day 1: 11.5 miles 3462′ elevation gain
And so we were off! With a slight drizzle we hiked 1.5 miles to Crater Lake, the official start (for us) of the loop. After a few pictures, we split up.
Not wanting to slow down the boys, Sheena and I stayed back to take our time. With the amount of people on this popular trail, finding campsites can be challenging. We told the boys to secure a site and, “we’ll get there when we get there”. With two passes to get over the first day, we didn’t want to feel rushed.
We took our minds off the initial climb up Maroon Pass by catching up (wow, there was a lot to catch up on!). As we climbed, memories from my first trek around the loop came flooding back, including memories of bad weather. Which was exactly what was rolling in. Knowing powerful afternoon storms are common in the mountains and being atop a pass is not where you want to be, I grew slightly anxious at the gathering clouds. But we hustled up Maroon Pass, avoiding any sign of danger. I am certain my mom’s prayers for us helped keep the monsoon at bay. In 2018, the weather prevented a good look out from Maroon Pass. This was not the case this time around. This hike was worth it if only to see that view. What absolute beauty! A valley full of angry boisterous clouds on one side, rolling hills of brilliant green on the other. We spend some time taking in the beauty, but it was getting late and the clouds were getting darker. After all, we had another pass to get over!
We enjoyed the descent and eventual gradual climb to Frigid Air Pass. There was beauty everywhere we looked. I remember it being stunning four years ago – but not this stunning! Wildflowers were in full bloom, accenting the vibrant green with yellows, magentas, blues, and lavenders. It was dazzling and felt like walking through a field of dreams.
Those dreams quickly turned to nightmares, however, as we approached the last half mile of the pass. With vivid memories of it’s harsh grade and unforgiving steepness, I didn’t sugar coat it for Sheena – this was going to suck. But, always one to impress with her tenacity and determination, an already exhausted Sheena (who had COVID just 2 weeks ago) rose to the occasion and conquered the pass like a seasoned pro. The last 100′ of the pass was ungodly steep. Not even the Grand Canyon has grades like that! We weren’t the only ones struggling. There was a train of about 15 people behind us slowly ascending the slope with various degrees of obvious outward pain. I was thankful for these people, as lightning and thunder were present in the distance I felt more secure with my decision to ascend the pass in inclement weather. At least I wasn’t the only idiot, ha! After getting to the summit and celebrating with pictures, it started to rain and we scurried down off the pass quickly to below treeline.
Without service, we were left to blindly find Craig and Jordan. We would yell “Craig? Jordan!?” to any pair of tents we came across. I’m sure we startled more than one unsuspecting camper retreating into their tents to shield them from the rain. After a few unsuccessful “This has gotta be them!”s, we finally found them around 7pm. They were also rightfully exhausted. So much so, in fact, that they went straight to sleep after we arrived. We scarfed down dinner and sought shelter into our tents for some much needed rest. What a long, exhausting day. But I couldn’t be more proud or feel more accomplished. We did today what took me 2 days to complete 4 years ago! Two passes done, two to go!
Day 2:8.16 miles, 2202′ elevation gain
Let me preface this with the disclaimer that my memory is extremely poor. If I don’t write it down, it will likely escape my brain. I wrote the 2018 blog post 2.5 years after the fact, based purely on memory. Then I forgot to read it before embarking on this journey. I do NOT have any memory of today’s pass being this brutal! I’ll get to that in a minute.
Today started slowly. After a long day yesterday, a long rest was necessary. I slept well enough – awoken throughout the night by gentle rain. I got out of my tent later than ever at 6:30am. The boys were experiencing altitude symptoms (which apparently they were suffering from all day yesterday as well). Fortunately, after eating and waking up, they started to feel better. We were on our way at 9:30am, a much later start than Sheena and I are used to. On our bike tours we were usually hitting the road by 7:30am! But with only one pass to conquer, 3 less miles, and my poor memory assuring Sheena today wouldn’t be tough, we weren’t concerned about the late start.
The first two miles were glorious. Mostly downhill, we stuck with the boys where in Sheena’s sleep deprived state, she told us all about the various wildflowers, including the infamous Italian Paintbrushes, or more commonly known as Indian Paintbrushes.
We all knew Trailrider Pass was going to be long and unpleasant, me especially, but apparently the trauma of the pass escaped my memory. Because this thing started aggressively and was relentless, like Frigid Air on steroids. 2.5 miles of steep climbs we took in stride. The boys went ahead as we trudged along slow and steady. Again, having the guys secure a campsite ahead of time decreased anxiety immensely about where we were staying the night. Tired from yesterday, it took a good while to get up the beast, including many mental health breaks. But together, Sheena and I did it. I tried distracting her with a brain teaser, which proved futile as she solved it in less than 2 minutes. Darn that brain of hers! As a further attempt of distraction, we calculated how much of a mechanical disadvantage Sheena is in compared to me. We calculated that my strides are a little shy of 30% longer than her’s just by the simple fact that I’m taller. Interesting, I’m sure the guy’s are at least 50% larger! No wonder they can charge ahead so quickly.
At the top we rested for a while, taking in the views of what looked like a tiny Snowmass Lake, our destination for the night.
We were excited for the descent, unsuspecting of what was to come. Going down proved itself just as treacherous as going up. From steep rocky trail to falling victim to a snow patch to transversing loose boulders that could lead to a dramatic end, getting down Trailrider Pass was no easy task.
But we did it! Eventually we found the boys around 7pm. They got there early and secured an awesome site near the lake. It was gorgeous, but like everything else, the mosquitoes took out a lot of the enjoyment! I caught the sunset, ate dinner, and am now ready for another early night turn in.
Day 3: 9 miles, 1726′ elevation gain
Once again I woke up at the most inconvenient time to have my bladder request an emptying. Seeing it was only 2am, I couldn’t possibly hold it until my alarm went off, so out into the dark I went. Upon arriving back to my tent, I looked toward the lake. The mountains that towered over the trees were bathed in the moonlight, their granite faces illuminated in such a way that almost beckoned me to take a closer look. When mountains call, I must go. So with a light on in my tent to guide me back and armed with a headlamp, I made my way to the lake. But not without trouble. There are a dozen trails to the lake, and after taking the wrong one and ending up almost walking right into another hiker’s tent, I abandoned my mission and retreated back to my tent. But alas, stubborn old me told myself that my parents didn’t raise a quitter and I set back out to the lake. Second times the charm and I arrived unscathed to an absolute magnificent sight. The lake was still and the mountains towered above like silent stone kings. The stars were glittering above, dotting the night sky with pinpoints of light adding to the brilliance of the display. The magnitude of what I was seeing and the silence surrounding me was both calming and alarming at the same time. Terrified isn’t the right word, the closest feeling I can relate this to is seeing the total eclipse during total inclusion. Almost a primal fear filled my veins, but I couldn’t stop watching. I tried to take a few pictures, but none could possibly do this experience justice. I sat for a few minutes to soak it all in before stumbling back to my tent.
Not soon after I was awakened to get ready for the last day on the trail. Sheena and I both agreed it was a good idea to get up and out early to get over the final pass before afternoon. Considering I couldn’t trust my memory, for all we knew the last pass will be just as treacherous as the last two. We were on our way by 6:45am.
Shielded from the sun by the mountains and cooled by a freezing creek crossing, we headed up the beginning of Buckskin pass swiftly and efficiently. There are a ton of dogs on the trail, which made my heart ache almost as much as my legs. I miss Addie and wish she could be out here with us, but after the trauma of last year’s Tahoe excursion, I will never put her through that again. When I took out my backpack to pack it, she just about cowered in fear – I could see the trauma in her poor little eye! Besides, while most of the dogs out here are extremely well behaved, more than a few unleashed dogs posed a few problems and Addie would not put up with that. She’s in good hands at home with my parents.
About half way up, our progress slowed only slightly as the sun appeared and heated the mountain. Fortunately, the last half of the pass proved to be more forgiving than all of the other passes. The grade lessened and Sheena and I arrived to the top together all smiles. The views atop Buckskin were stunning, arguably the best of the hike. Sweeping landscapes of all different colors and textures were a sight for sore eyes (and feet, and legs, and backs). We rewarded our aching bunions with a long break. About half an hour later we were ready to finish the hike. We looked down from where we came from and saw Craig making his way up the pass. Those boys are fast!
The way down was quick and soon the boys caught up to us. We all agreed that Buckskin was the easiest of the passes and voted the favorite. The boys got ahead and Sheena and I took our time back to Maroon lake. On our way I ran into Doug, a fellow Widener PT grad! The look of confusion on his face when I yelled his name matched the confusion in my brain of, “I know you… but how and why are you here?!” He is working as a travel PT and lucked out with a Colorado placement. Talk about a small world!
Soon we all met back up and took the shuttle and bus into Aspen, happy to take a mode of transportation other than our feet. We congratulated ourselves with shots (Sheena had to have Jameson, of course) and burgers. We were all exhausted and ready to shower and relax.
The Four Passes Loop is a difficult trek for experienced hikers, let alone beginners. But like riding a bike across the country for the first time, Sheena took on this challenge head on and earned the trail name “Trial by Fire”. I’m hopeful this experience didn’t traumatize her from backpacking and that I now have a new trail buddy. Cause like I told her already, if you can finish this trail, you can finish any trail.
Day 6: Big Meadow Trailhead to Talamac Lake: 21.7 miles
The first day without Addie was sad and lonely to say the least. The only person i had to talk to was boring old me. Addie was at least a captive audience. But I know she’s in good hands with Joan and Greg. I got an update that she has made herself right at home (shocker) and has become great friends with the cat.
The day off yesterday was just what Addie needed. While I ran around collecting resupplies and buying a new water cartridge, Addie relaxed and rested her weary too thick legs. She has forgiven me and returned her normal snuggling ways. Which really tugged at my heartstrings. I feel immense guilt for leaving her and I’m not certain if I’m making the right decision. If I still feel this way on the trail, I’ll just bail out I n Tahoe City, only a couple of days away.
Carson City is a lot nicer and more fun than I was expecting! It has a huge deer population that have not one ounce of fear towards humans. “They’re just vermin,” Joan told me, “And you can always tell who the tourists are because they’re always taking pictures of them!” Well Addie must stick out like a sore thumb because she was paying them all the attention. And they ate it up. They were enamored by her and even followed us a little too closely for an entire block.
This morning I said a tear felt heartbreaking goodbye to Addie and took a shuttle to the trail head. Joe, the driver, was very knowledgeable of Nevada’s past history. We drove past a just put out wild fire that started last week and quickly burnt out 700 acres. The barren charcoaled vastness was alarming and jarring. Soon I was at the trail head and started hiking at 9 AM, a much later start than normal.
Because I do feel so guilty leaving Addie behind, I am going to hike as many miles as I can every day, from just after sunrise to just before sunset. I mean, what else am I going to do? After today. I originally was only going to hike 16 miles, but after getting there at 4:30 PM I thought, “what’s another 5 miles?”
The PCT joins for a portion of the TRT. I kept wondering why people were giving me weird looks when I told them I was a through hiker and I have been on the trail for five days. I totally forgot I was on the PCT. Sure, nearly 20 miles a day is pretty good, but not good enough to get to here from Mexico in five days! Ha!
With it getting late, I was ready to be done once I hit Echo Lake. I knew I was cranky when my response to a woman telling me to watch out for mosquitoes was, “you worry about yourself I’ll worry about me.” Yikes, I need a snickers. I mean, she wasn’t wrong, there are a ton of mosquitos, But I didn’t need her sage advice to realize it. I also didn’t need to get that sassy response either, looks like we both learned a lesson.
Eventually I made it into Desolation Wilderness, a part of the trail I was really looking forward to as everyone raves of its beauty. I’m really happy Addie isn’t here for it. The terrain is sharp and rocky, surely injuring her delicate little feet since she refuses to wear her booties! Now let me tell you desolation did not start off and on a good foot. Between the rocks, my tired legs, my rumbling belly, bloodthirsty swarming mosquitoes, and the sun setting right in my face, I must’ve look like I just finished 60 mimosas. I was so frustrated that I’m sure I scared any bears away with my clumsy stumbling and frustrating yells. But alas, at 7 PM, I made it to the Tamarack Lake. With just enough sunlight to eat and set up camp, I’m ready to just pass out to the humming of a million mosquitos.
Today was long and I’m feeling it. My feet hurt (my aching bunions!) and my hips are sore. I’m not sure if my old body can handle this high mileage, but I’ll reassess in the morning.
Day 6: Lake Tamarack to Lake Richardson: 22.3 miles
Without having Addie in a tent with me to check on to make sure she’s warmly snuggled in her sleeping bag, I didn’t sleep the greatest despite having a very tired body. The wind kept doing weird things to my tent, making me think they were critters (God forbid a raccoon) rooting by my tent. That coupled with being really hot left me half awake half the night.
But alas, the sun rose and so did I. The mosquitoes were in full force in the morning and I couldn’t break down camp fast enough. Because they were so aggressive, I set out at 5:45 AM and couldn’t find a mosquito free place to eat breakfast until a mile in.
I passed by more lakes today, most noteworthy being Aloha lake. It was very reminiscent of 1000 Island lake on the JMT. It drew in a crowd and was swamped with tents and campers in mosquito nets. At least I wasn’t the only one being assaulted by these bloodthirsty fiends.
On my way up Dicks pass I came to the realization that I’m not enjoying myself. While my body feels fine my mind and heart just aren’t in it. Even such beautiful scenery can’t make me feel like it’s worth it to finish the trail. Sure it would be great to complete, but I actually have a lot more desire to go back home and go back to normalcy. Besides, I really miss Addie. Right after this epiphany, I ran into Blake again. He too was discouraged by the mosquitos, but he’ll be done and out of their path on Tuesday – same as me!
The rest of the day wasn’t anything special. Mainly just coming up with a plan to get out. All of this trail I’ve had exceptional service, except the day I really need it. I could do another 22 mile day and end in Tahoe City tomorrow, but I have nowhere to stay. Joan and Greg are hosting an actual cyclist and I cannot contact the warm showers host in Tahoe city. So I’ll plan on a 15 mile day tomorrow and an easy 7 mile day Tuesday into Tahoe city where I’ll pick up my resupply, head to Carson City, then head home.
This hike certainly didn’t go as planned, but I am learning a lot about failure and humility and when to throw in the towel.
Day 7: Richardson Lake to Ward Creek: 15 miles
Today started out with battling mosquitoes, again. I’m so sick and tired of them. I packed my pack as much as I could in the tent, but when a quarter sized spider joined the party, you bet I flew out of that tent and was happy to be eaten alive by mosquitoes.
The first 8 miles were nothing but mosquitoes. I couldn’t stop to rest, eat, or refill water without getting bombarded. With time, however, they magically went away and I could actually enjoy myself, well as best as I could with aching hips and throbbing feet. 44 miles in 2 days sure beat my body down!
Because it was a “short” day, I slept in (6:15am!) and took my time on the hike. I took lots of rest breaks and tried to enjoy my last full day out here.
The scenery was more or less the same with abundant wildflowers offering a dazzling display of yellows, purples, and pinks lining the trail. Apparently there was no trail maintenance during 2020 (thanks COVID!) and there are downed trees all over the trail, forcing weary hikers (such as yours truly) to get down on their hands and knees and crawl past. All with a very heavy pack. It’s amazing how a Trail 24 inches wide can have so many trees fall right on it. But honestly it’s only a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things.
I arrived at my camp around 4:15 PM and saw there was already a tent set up. I recognized it as a girl’s who I have been leapfrogging with all day. Though there was plenty of space for the two of us, I didn’t want to encroach. I dropped my pack and started walking down the trail to find another spot, if there even were any. I was just walking along, minding my own business when I turned a corner and BAM. There was a massive furry creature less than 10 feet from me right in the middle of the trail. It took a second for me to recognize it as a bear. It caught me so off guard I really didn’t know what I was looking at, but it stopped me dead in my tracks. Instinct made me want to run, but luckily logic kicked in. It was a young adult bear and I avoided making eye contact as I slowly backed away. Well, just as confused, it took him a second to recognize me as human. And let me tell you, that second of him analyzing me as threat or prey was terrifying. I could feel him size me up. Even though I was backing up I was still close enough where he could annihilate me in less than a second. But thankfully like most humans, this bear must’ve found me intimidating because he ran back into the woods at a full sprint. And I very swiftly returned to the site, whether that girl liked it or not.
Well, she liked it. I told her about the bear and she was glad to not be alone. In fact, she was a little bummed she didn’t see him herself. Be careful what you wish for. Vivian is 22 years old from the Bay area, but lives in Vancouver working in software. She has also done the JMT and will be doing the Colorado Trail right after the TRT (next week!). She has plans to hike the PCT next summer. Oh to be young!
As we were having dinner, guess who decided to join us?? THE BEAR! Vivian’s wish to see a bear was granted – on her last night on the trail nonetheless. In fact, she got to see a lot of the bear. He just kept coming closer and closer unfazed by yelling, clapping, or whistles. The only thing that got him to flinch even slightly was waving around and clashing the trekking poles together. He circled us twice and appeared to retreat into the woods from boredom. Apparently we weren’t entertaining enough to stick around, but I think our food might tempt him to come back. On edge, we finished our dinners and chitchatted a little more. Three guys coming down the trail scared us to death, thinking the bear was back. We warned them and they didn’t seem too worried by the potential of running into Mr. bear.
We put our bear canisters far away and when we came back, so did the bear, brazen little thing. I’ve never encountered such a persistent bear. Raccoon, yes. But will bears react to a smack on the nose the same way as a raccoon? Doubtful. And I didn’t want to find out. He eventually moseyed away when one of the three guys came back to tell us they were two more bears by them, only a short walk down the trail. According to one of the guys, one of the bears of was, and I quote, “the biggest F’ing bear I’ve ever seen!” Splendid. Hopefully she stays over there. I’m fine with our little guy. In fact, he’s pretty darn cute. I’m confident that though he might came back at night I think he has a healthy enough fear of us that he’ll leave us alone, at least I hope. I have little Addie to get back to, I can’t leave her an orphan!
Luckily it’s only 7 miles to Tahoe city where I’ll drop out tomorrow. So the lack of sleep I’m sure to experience won’t affect tomorrow too much. And if I wake up without food? Whatever, I can last 7 miles without eating. Good night!
Day 8: Ward Creek to Tahoe City: 7 miles
1:00am: The breaking of branches broke me out of my sleep, heart racing. Oh no. They found them. The bear canisters we so craftfully shoved into the dead, twisted branches of a fallen tree. The mangled and misshapened fortress has failed us. Maybe we’ll still have food in the morning.
1:15am: Well that was definitely the unmistakable sound of a bear canister being assaulted by a bear. At least it’s 500’ away and not over by us. Please don’t come sniffing over here!
At 6am I woke up and peeked out my tent. I was surprised I was able to sleep so soundly after waking up to all that bear noise. I saw one canister out in the open, not where we left it. I walked up to it and saw it was mine. But it was intact! Only suffered a few bite and claw marks. But where was Vivian’s? I couldn’t find it. And neither could she, even after a pretty significant search. It was nowhere to be found – probably displayed as a trophy in the bear’s den, proud of his accomplishment of fooling those silly humans.
I gave her some of my snacks and she was on her way. I followed shortly after, ready to get out of the bear’s territory. I swiftly completed the 7 miles because there was quite frankly nothing to look at. Unless you’re enamored by active logging operations, there was really nothing to pay attention to besides getting to Addie soon. After doing some errands in Tahoe City I was on my way to do just that! And when I did, I’ve never seen her so happy before. She jumped into my arms and I nearly started crying.
This trip, though it didn’t go as planned, was a true learning experience for me. I think this chapter of my life may be coming to an end and this summer might be my last hurrah. While I have thoroughly enjoyed taking advantage of my youth by doing many long adventures, I think I’m ready to settle down and live a more normal life with more relaxing vacations. And I think Addie might be in agreement.
Fresh off the John Muir Trail, I had a choice to make. Either go back to work or join my dad and brothers on a backpacking trip in Colorado. Was it even really a choice? I still had my trail legs and didn’t even have to unpack Big Booty Judy. Besides adopting Addie, this was the easiest decision of my life. I purchased a flight and soon found myself in Denver heading over to Estes Park to start the acclimation process.
My dad took it upon himself to fully research The Four Passes Loop. For the first time in a long time I didn’t have to worry about logistics, camping spots, or mileage. I put my full faith in my dad’s apt ability to make sure everything is planned down to the very minute. And considering he’s the one who taught me everything I know, I trusted him implicitly! And it felt pretty great to just go along for the ride (or really the hike) without all the headaches that responsibility brings with it.
The Four Passes Loop is one of the most sought after loop trails in the United States. a 27 mile loop trail near Aspen CO, the trail takes a hiker over (you guessed it…) four passes around the Maroon Bells. Because I did zero planning or research, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. However, I wasn’t really too worried since I figured if I could handle the JMT, a 4 day low mileage hike should be a walk in the park. I didn’t look at a map or elevation profile. Looking back at it, maybe I should have. But it was also thrilling going in totally unaware of what challenges I might encounter.
The first day in Colorado we all hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park to acclimate. Even though I had just previously spent 3 weeks at altitude, I was worried that being home at sea level for 2 weeks knocked out that advantage. Having suffered so much from altitude sickness the first few days of the JMT, I wanted to avoid nonstop vomiting and praying for a less painful death at all costs. I was more than happy to spend some time at altitude taking in the scenery of RMNP. The first day we hiked out of Bear Lake Trailhead and headed up to Emerald Lake, an easy first day trek of just 4.1 miles.
The next day we upped the ante and tackled the Sky Pond trail, an 8.5 mile climb that was a lot more technical than I had anticipated. We had to climb up a 30′ water fall full of other eager hikers. The weather wasn’t exactly our friend once we reached the highest spot, with cold gusty winds that threatened to soak us with rain, but it was beautiful. And being close to 11k’, we all did very well and felt confident that we were ready to set out for the Four Passes Loop.
Realizing that the weather in CO can turn cold pretty quickly and all of us packed shorts, we stopped at REI to grab pants. I also remembered last minute that my air mattress failed the last few nights of the JMT. Not wanting to spend 3 restless nights being jabbed by rocks and sticks, I quickly picked up an ultralight mattress. I was slowly but surely on my way to becoming an ultralight hiker – ha!
And so it was time! Because it is such a popular spot and is threatened to be loved to death, the rangers have rightly attempted to control visitors by shutting down parking lots between 8am and 5pm. If you arrive between those times you’ll be turned away and forced to take an expensive shuttle into the park. We just made it and luckily for us we found a great parking spot in the overnight lot! We filled out permits (who knows how long a non-lottery permit system will last) and we set out, just as clouds were rolling in.
We spent some time at Crater Lake taking in the views, getting to see why it’s one of the most photographed places in Colorado. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the beauty. There were loads of day trip tourists, one of whom scored a scolding from my dad for flying a drone.
We pressed on as the clouds rolled in and the temperatures dropped. Soon it was quite cold and the wind was really picking up. I was worried that if it poured we’d all get hypothermia and die. Yes it was August, but once temperatures hit 60, if you don’t get dry and into a warm spot, you’re vulnerable to succumb to the effects of hypothermia. While a farfetched scenario, considering we all had pretty decent sleeping bags, I was still fearful. Or at least really unwilling to be uncomfortable for a night. I pushed that thought into the back of my mind and pressed on.
Along the way we met John and his dog, Sadie. Being a dog friendly trail, I was sad Addie had to sit this one out but I was happy to see another four legged creature loving life. We talked to John briefly and then proceeded to find a camp for the night a few miles down the trail. After much debate, we settled on a spot right when it started to rain. John caught up with us and set his tent in the same spot as ours. We set up our tents quickly and sought shelter. Soon the rain eased and we ate a quick dinner and got to know John better before it started right back up. The rain didn’t stop the whole night and we were stuck in our tents until the morning, something the JMT trained me well for.
The morning didn’t show much promise. The higher elevations was covered in snow and the rain didn’t stop down where we were. We were all cold and wet, miserably eating our breakfast trying our best to dodge raindrops. The first words of doubt started to bubble up in conversation. John and Sadie decided that the weather was not in their favor and the poor forecast forced their hand at heading back. They said they’ll try to attempt it in a few days in clearer weather, but going counter-clockwise. If they succeeded in waiting out the weather, we would likely see them again towards the end of our journey.
We packed up our wet tents and slogged forward. The rain did ease, but being cold and wet I was still worried about hypothermia. We soon spread apart, with Tom and Chris taking the lead and me sticking with dad. I could tell he had doubts about the safety of marching forward, as did I. My damp hands were already white and wrinkled and my toes were losing sensation (not super uncommon for me). The boys stopped and we caught up. Dad verbalized his concerns and we all held court, weighing the pros/cons of continuing the journey. Arguably the smartest of the Keane siblings, Tom whipped out his phone and opened a coin flip app. Brilliant. We decided our fate would be in the hands of Tom, literally, as we let the coin dictate our future. Lo and behold, the coin flip gods determined we were to continue on! Without debate, we did just that.
We had two passes to traverse this day, West Maroon Pass and Frigid Air Pass. With the surrounding mountains shrouded in clouds and fog encroaching in on us, I felt as if I was on a mission to cast the One Ring to Rule us all into the fiery depths of Mordor in attempt to save the world from falling into darkness. I enjoyed it and was happy with the decision of placing our future on the fickle whims of a coin.
West Maroon Pass was relatively easy, it’s approach reminded me a lot of the southern face of Pinchot Pass on the JMT. I got up it relatively easily and waited for everyone else to join, getting pretty cold and miserable in the process. Again, the weather did not give way for too much of a view, so we caught our breath and marched for Frigid Air Pass, only a few short miles away. We descended from West Maroon Pass and walked through a lush green valley.
We stopped at the lowest part of the valley for lunch/snacks. Completely oblivious and not dong my usual pat down to assure myself that I have all my things, we set forth. 10 minutes later we heard people yelling towards us. Being so far away, I could only make out the word “phone!”. I did the pat down I should have done half a mile back and realized my phone was amiss! In a panic, I dropped my pack and instinctively ran towards the group, running as though I was attempting to beat my best 800m time. All my photos from the JMT were on that phone that I had yet to upload. If I lost that phone, gone were those memories and I would have been totally devastated. That phone was like the holy grail to me. I realized how truly lucky I was that these folks found my dear device and thanked them immensely. We saw so few people on the trail that it was as close to a miracle as anything else that they came across my phone.
Thinking Frigid Air Pass was going to be a piece of cake, I soon ate that cake when we came to the last 100m of the pass. It was straight up. And on loose, wet dirt it was like hiking 45 degrees up sand. At points using my hands, I distracted myself with thoughts of “why would they name a pass out here after a refrigerator??” I didn’t even think maybe it was because the air is actually literally frigid. That thought and other creative names I would’ve came up with to name this beastly pass fueled me up, along with Chris laughing at how ghastly and ridiculous the climb was. We all rejoiced at the top of the pass, thinking surely this is likely to be the steepest and most difficult of the passes. Famous last words.
We snapped some photos and headed our way down to our second night’s camp. As we set up near a gorgeous waterfall, the sun made its first appearance of the trip and we were all elated! Finally, there was hope for a gorgeous bright second half of the trip. Everyone was very thankful for the coin’s wise and fruitful decision.
We woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the third pass of the hike, Trail Rider Pass. Being at the lowest point of the two passes, we knew we were in for a climb. Being that I did zero research on this hike, I had no idea what that climb entailed. It entailed about 2000′ of elevation gain over roughly 2 miles. Pretty happy I had no idea I was about to conquer one of the more difficult passes I had ever come across.
We climbed. And climbed. And climbed. It was gorgeous scenery that we got to take in with plenty of breaks to catch our breath. We even got to see a small plane fly right by us! Reassuring in so much as if we all perish on this pass, at least there was a chance our bodies would be retrieved.
But the steepness gave way to a gentler grade to the top and we all basked in the glory of conquering yet another pass. Only one left to go! The view from the top was again stunning with breathtaking views of Snowmass Lake, which just so happened to be right where we were headed as we descended the pass.
We camped just past Snowmass Lake, avoiding the crowds the huge body of water draws. Our site was higher than the trail and we had a birds eye view of it. Chris spotted John and Sadie hiking, but they just exchanged hellos and John was on his way. I was happy they made it back on the trail, though maybe they would’ve been wise to have flipped a coin.
The next day was our last day! Just one last pass to conquer – Buckskin Pass. A little traumatized from Rider Pass, we all were hesitant to get too excited for today’s challenge. But it ended up being one of the more fun passes I’ve encountered! It was a gentle grade (comparatively) and the view was stunning.
We all made it to the top early and had enough time for Tom, Chris, and me to make it to the top of Buckskin Mountain, a pretty steep climb. But relieved of our packs, we made it relatively quickly. We met a friendly couple up there and snapped some pictures, a great future Christmas present for mom and dad.
We joined back up with dad and enjoyed the views of Pyramid Peak and Maroon Peak as we started back down for our final miles of the trail. But not before the plane from yesterday flew back right above us!
We ended the trail where we started and looked back with a sense of accomplishment. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the challenges we would find on the trail, mostly being the temperamental weather. But we persisted and onward we marched!
We ended the trip with a bike ride up and down Glenwood Canyon. Afterwards we shared dinner with our cousin Julie and her boyfriend Adam in Denver.
Overall it was a wonderful trip. Being only 27 miles, I definitely want to return someday soon, either to run it in one day or bring Addie on the adventure of a lifetime. But alas, after the Pacific Coast Highway bike ride, Mt. Washington, the JMT, and the Four Passes Loop, my 2018 summer of non stop adventure had finally come to an end, and I was due to go back to work the following week.
The Pacific Northwest is one of my favorite scenic spots in the United States. With hidden picturesque waterfalls around every corner, green moss hanging from trees who were just saplings during the American Revolutionary War, and rivers dusted with grey gloomy fog, the PNW is the setting of fairytales and holds a very special (and magical) spot in my heart. Coming off of the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim hike, I was looking for a loop hike I could do in less than a week. When I stumbled across the Three Sisters Loop in Sisters, OR, I knew I found the one. In 2016, during my cross country bike ride, we rode through Sisters on our way over McKenzie Pass on the second to last day of the ride. Being the last pass on a 2.5 month journey, this little town made an impression. I was happy to go back and explore the Three Sisters. Plus, though this loop does require a wilderness permit to hike, you can fill one out at the trailhead. There is no limit to the number of walk-up permits so there is no silly lottery system. However, starting next year they are beginning a lottery system, so the timing was pretty darn perfect!
The Three Sisters Loop is a 50 mile trail that loops around – you guessed it – the Three Sisters. Set in the cascade mountain range, the trail takes you around the North, South, and Middle Sisters – three volcanoes of various levels of (in)activity that make up the notorious Three Sisters. Known for a very limited window of opportunity to hike due to early and late snowfall, I knew that hiking this trail in the beginning of August would be perfect.
When doing my research for this trip, I scoured the internet for trail descriptions and maps, mainly so I knew how to break down the 50 mile loop trail. I found a few great blog sites authored by folks who had hiked it, but couldn’t find much information on campsites along the trail. Being so, I winged it. All I knew was I definitely wanted to stay at Camp Lake, a 10 mile addition that takes you to a lake right at the base of Middle Sister. I also saw (last minute) that you can actually hike up South Sister. Why wouldn’t I opt to hike an additional 10 miles up an active VOLCANO!? It was a done deal. I was prepared to hike 70 miles over the course of 5.5 days. Relatively easy hike.
After gathering gear and buying a lifesaving map off Amazon, I was on my way! I flew into Portland and stayed 2 nights at a hostel there. I explored the Columbia River Gorge and revisited my beloved Multnomah Falls – true magic that not even Disney could replicate. The next morning I woke up super early partly because I had a 3 hour drive to the trailhead to start this solo journey, and the majority being that my body was still on east coast time, so I couldn’t sleep in even if I wanted to.
At 10:30am I arrived at the Pole Creek Trailhead, one of the many trailheads you can use to access the Three Sisters Loop. It was a rough ride to the parking lot on an unpaved road full of crazy kamikaze chipmunks who took pleasure in watching unsuspecting motorists swerve out of the way to avoid running them over. The parking lot was full – except for one spot that I very quickly grabbed. It was pretty darn hot out and the lack of shade definitely exacerbated that. In 2017 there was a devastating fire that wiped out the majority of the forest in this section. Without trees, the whole area is pretty exposed without respite from the sun. So I lathered up plenty of sunscreen, gathered my stuff, and filled out my permit. at 11:19am I set out for the loop, ample time to make it the 7 miles to Camp Lake.
The beginning of the trail was 1.7 miles of uphill to the official loop. Once on the loop, it’s practically impossible to get lost. With the Sisters as landmarks, if you just keep them to your right (I was going clockwise), you are going in the right direction! After 1 mile on the official loop trail, I took a right and started my journey to my first “excursion” to Camp Lake. Having the time and hearing amazing things about this little lake, I didn’t mind taking the side trip. Although, the 5 miles to the lake were unpleasant and I couldn’t wait to get them over with. They were uphill and just not my cup of tea. But I did meet a very friendly ranger who was checking permits. We talked briefly about our time in the Sierras/JMT (he took kids there for summer camps) and talked about weather – in which he said I should expect thunder storms this evening. Oh my old nemesis – we meet again.
When I stared out, there was barely a cloud in the sky. The few that were there were convening over South Sister. They were cute little fluffy buggers, innocent looking enough. However, this wasn’t my first rodeo and I could hear them talking in my head. “Hey! Did you hear Emilie is on the trail?! Let’s get everyone together and put on a show for her this afternoon!”. Having experienced horrible storms on all of my backpacking trips (it monsooned 17 of the 20 days on the JMT), I knew that even the smallest most innocent clouds can turn the nastiest. And I was right. The party was meeting right above South Sister and they were not happy. I picked up the pace hoping to get to camp before the storms unleashed their power.
As I was rushing, I heard a loud BOOM that stopped me dead in my tracks. All simultaneous thoughts, I began to worry about thunder, gun shots, or a car door slamming. Being that none of these were viable causes for the loud and sudden noise, I looked around and right in front of me was a huge rock slide coming down from Middle Sister. Not my first rock slide (I witnessed one climbing Mt Whitney) I watched in awe. It is the most jarring sound and the cloud of dust that followed was huge. I may have been the only person who witnessed that powerful moment.
After what felt like eternity, I finally made it to Camp Lake! I quickly found a campsite (not hard to do, there was only one other group there) and right as I finished setting up camp, the thunder rolled in. I saw 2 guys sprinting down Middle Sister in sheer panic and I soon sought shelter in my tent. I quickly wished I bought a new tent because the old Marmot ain’t what she used to be. But I had to deal with what I had. At first I didn’t think anything of this storm. Sure I was pretty exposed at 7,000′ in a crappy little tent, but like I said, this wasn’t my first rodeo. The rain was pouring down in sheets and the lightning turned pretty violent. Then the rain did too, aggressively so. I looked out and saw it wasn’t rain at all, but pea sized hail. If they got any bigger, I knew it would shred the tent. So I just buckled down and prayed that didn’t happen.
Eventually everything slowed down to the point where I was relaxed enough to take a nap. During the storm the temperature dropped at least 20 degrees. But when I woke up the sun was shining and it was starting to heat up again to the point where my tent felt more like a sauna. I took advantage of the pleasant weather change and took a walk around the lake. It was simply beautiful. During the trek, I stumbled upon a pretty awesome snow tunnel carved by a crystal clear stream. The sun soon was taken up by more clouds and I went back to my site to cook dinner before another storm rolled through, much less aggressive than its predecessor.
At 12am I woke up and took a peek out of my tent. What I saw took my breath away. I have seen some beautiful night skies in my day, but I have never seen such a marvelous display. The milkyway was brilliant and dazzling, like a knife carving through the dark night sky. I could see it with such clarity that it was as if I could reach up and take a bite. Making the side trip to Camp Lake was worth it, if just to witness that night sky.
In the morning I broke down camp quickly and set out for the trail at 7am totally not at all thrilled with the prospect of having to backtrack almost 5 miles to the trail junction. But it was at least a down hill 5 miles so I packed up camp, strapped on Big Booty Judy and away I went, totally zoned out. After 2 hours I finally reached the split and set out for Green Lakes – my prospective home for the night. Being only 9 miles away, I knew I’d get there before 2pm leaving a whole afternoon to just sit around. Not one to overly enjoy free time, I toyed around with the idea of going an extra 5 miles to Moraine Lake, which would make it a pretty hefty day. My original plan was to stop at Green Lakes tonight then get up SUPER early tomorrow to drop my gear at Moraine Lake so I could summit South Sister. Going the extra distance to Moraine would logistically make sense, but I was going to play it by ear and listen to what my body told me.
The trail to Green Lakes had its ups and downs – literally. But let me tell you, it was pretty. What wasn’t so pretty was the attitudes of the limited amount of passerbyers I ran into. Most were not very friendly, barely getting out of your way on the trail and not even acknowledging your hello. However, the ones that were friendly donning smiles all asked about last night’s thunderstorms. We all shared the same terrifying experiences.
The trail opened up into a meadow with a full view of all three Sisters and Broken Top. It was stunning. I made it to the very aptly named Green Lake (I’ve never seen a more radiant emerald green in my life) at 1:15pm – as did the clouds. I decided then that I would go the extra 5 miles to Moraine Lake. I was worried that if I delayed getting there until the morning, all the sites would be taken and there wouldn’t be a place for me to drop my pack before the ascent up South Sister. With my mind made up and the clouds rolling in, I figured I’d better set out quickly to beat any potential storm.
The 5 miles to Moraine Lake were mentally exhausting, but came with reward. It led me through lava fields and streams that were truly gorgeous. Finally I made it to the lake at 3:32pm. With thunder booming in the distance and physical exhaustion setting in after 18 miles of hiking, I found a great spot to set up camp and lay down. I was almost immediately rewarded for my decision to go the extra distance because within 2 hours all the spots were taken by other eager hikers.
I spent some time down at the Lake’s shore. Moraine certainly isn’t as scenic as Camp Lake – especially with 3 grown men bathing in it – but at least it’s only 0.3 miles away from the South Sister cutoff trail. I spoke briefly to the three bathing men who had just completed summitting South Sister. They admitted it was tough, but totally doable. It took them 4 hours to get to the top because of the massive elevation gain. The pit in my stomach grew only slightly. But I effectively squashed its growth. Surely if these guys could do it, I can too!
After going to bed early, I woke up early to get moving by 6:24am. With an elevation gain of 4,000′ (Moraine Lake sits at 6.3K’ where as the summit of South Sister sits pretty at 10.3K’) over 3.5 miles, I knew my body was in for a rude awakening. I don’t think I’ve ever gained that much elevation in such a short distance before (event the Grand Canyon was more forgiving) but I was ready for the challenge.
I set out at a leisurely pace, allowing my legs to enjoy what was surely to be the only relatively flat part of the trail. Then did things change – quickly. The gentle grade yielded to a steep slope with pretty efficient elevation gain. Soon Moraine Lake was looking smaller and smaller and the summit was inching closer and closer to my grasp. In fact, 2 hours in, I swore I was about to reach the top! Not too shabby! I was pretty impressed with myself when I asked a couple coming down (they spent the night at the top) if it indeed was the summit. They laughed. Nope, it was a false summit hiding the true summit. I still had a ways to go. My legs were starting to protest after the initial climb. But their protests fell on deaf ears cause I was making my way to the top, with OR without them.
The ascent up South Sister was insane. Being an active volcano, the whole way to the top was cinders, pumice and lava rock, all of which are very unstable and loose. It’s very similar to hiking on sand – one foot forward, 6 inches back. Thank God I had enough sense to bring my trekking poles. A couple I ascended with (Paige and Ken from Lexington KY) did not have poles and I felt so bad for them. But hey, they were doing it – and I heard not one complaint from either of them.
The trail follows a razorback ridge with Lewis Glacier to the east. The glacier named for the second half of that famous expedition – Clark Glacier – is to the West. I didn’t know it at the time but I was between the arguable founders of the West! While taking some time inspecting the glacier, appreciating its immense and powerful presence, I noticed that it was carved with crevasses. Even with my limited understanding of glaciers I knew that crevasses are often times hidden and extremely unstable. One is liable to fall in and never come out – the cause of much of my hiking anxieties. Just as I was having this thought, I heard Paige and Ken as well as another couple we were keeping pace with gasp and say, “Oh my God! There are people crossing it!” I looked over and sure enough, there were 2 people who looked surprisingly like ants crossing over the glacier, heading straight to the deepest crevice. My stomach dropped. They were dangerously close, like 5 feet away. It made me sick. I was sure I was about to witness the traumatic death of two strangers. The other couple (Christina and Marcus from San Jose CA) took pictures every minute of the thrill seekers, tracking their progress across the glacier so when they eventually do fall in, there is a record of where/when for search and rescue. After about 10 minutes, the daring duo SOMEHOW made it across the frozen tundra and were making their way to the top on the same trail as us. We knew we’d run into them at the top.
After a tremendous climb, we made it to the ice field that was covering the opening of the dormant volcano. The worst of the climb was over! Only 0.5 miles to the true summit with an elevation gain of 100′. I was elated. The whole rest of the hike I talked with Christina and Marcus. What an interesting couple. They have hiked 1000s of miles all throughout the country in all kinds of weather conditions. They had stories where they thought they might never make it out alive as well as stories of pure elation enjoying scenery, adventure, and good company. I could’ve talked to them for hours.
The summit offered gorgeous sweeping landscape views of North Sister and the surrounding mountains. However, after only half an hour at the top, I started to feel sick. Like violently vomit sick. I knew this feeling all too well. At 10K’ I knew I was getting altitude sickness and needed to get down ASAP. I told Christina and Marcus, and they started the descent with me, along with Paige and Ken. While we were descending, we were in the midst of 1000s of tortoise shell butterflies making their annual migration. I felt lucky that I happened to schedule this hike during the migration unknowingly, for it was such a magical moment.
During the descent, I got to know both couples better. Paige and Ken are planning on retiring in Bend, OR in just a few short years to spend their golden years skiing and hiking. During the conversation, we were passed by a young man who looked familiar. Paige instantly recognized him as one of the two daredevil glacier crossers. She questioned him about his death defying trek. Dressed in baggy basketball shorts, sneakers, and equipped with a draw string bag, he was totally clueless the danger he put himself in. He admitted this was only his 3rd hike – ever. He only started hiking last week. And the other person he crossed with? They had just met that day. Beginners luck I guess.
Soon all the couples and I parted ways at Moraine Lake. They had another 2 miles to get to Devil’s Lake, where they started. I got back to camp at 2pm completely wiped. I thought about going 5 miles to Rock Mesa Creek, but just the thought put my legs and feet into full panic mode. This time I listened. I decided to give my body a rest and enjoy the afternoon. I filled my water, went for a dip, and just relaxed, reflecting on the almost perfect day I had climbing South Sister.
*Prior to this very sentence, I gathered all this information from my trail journal, detailing every boring detail of the day. Now that I’m writing this 17 months after the journey with a lot of life changes, the trail journal is stuffed in the deepest darkest corner of my storage unit. Retrieving it requires a level of finesse and patience that I lack at this moment, so the rest of this excerpt will rely solely on my memory – admittedly my worst attribute. But because waiting to write this blog till forever has been weighing heavily on my soul (and needing to check it off for future entries this spring), I will trust in my memory and make any edits when the little red diary resurfaces.*
After a storm free night, I broke down camp and set out for another day on the trail. My expected overnight stop was only 9 miles away at Reese Lake. Thinking I would get there early, I looked into pushing a little further. I was going to make that decision once I reached Reese Lake.
My morning was quiet and I didn’t see many other hikers along the way. After a few miles, I turned onto the PCT where I figured was a perfect spot for a short rest. At the junction, as I was grabbing some snacks, a hiker joined me. While I forget his name a year and a half later, I will never forget this particular man. In his 60s, he was an accomplished orthopedic surgeon who did not seem overly impressed that I was a physical therapist, all but telling me he thought rehab post surgery was pointless. He was section hiking the PCT and he was on day 2 of a 5 day jaunt. At the time, though a little rough around the edges, I enjoyed his company. We set out together and hiked a few miles before I rethought my first impressions. The conversations that ensued left me feeling a little uncomfortable (not in a creepy way) with undertones that were not exactly politically correct. After he lit his 6th cigarette on the trail, I decided I needed some solitude and told him I was going to pick up the pace in an effort to ensure a camp spot at Reese Lake and I bolted, unsure but hopeful this would be my last encounter with him.
I reached Reese Lake right around noon, entirely too early to stop. The lake was full of happy hikers reveling in the cool water on such a hot day. With much of the trail exposed, I could see where the water was tempting for a hot and sweaty hiker. But terrified of the far-fetched possibility of obtaining a brain eating amoeba, I never indulge in an alpine lake dips. I sat far from the trail with the lake still in view in an effort to avoid being spotted by Richard (I know for a fact, that’s not his name, but let’s just call him that for now until I find my journal). I ate my lunch in peace, entertained by the swimmers and the occasional dog.
As I was relaxing, I looked at the map and tried to come up with a plan for the afternoon. The next few miles of the trail looked pretty bare in the way of campsites. Obsidian Limited Entry Area was 5 miles away and though would make a great spot to stop overnight, it’s illegal to do so without a specific permit. And I was plum out of specific permits. Only a mile long stretch, Obsidian was detailed as an oasis full of ferns, life, and waterfalls. I figured that outside of it’s borders there should be camp sites. Based solely on a guess, I packed up and set out for 5 miles to the southern border of OLEA.
The hike there was gorgeous, with purple wildflowers showing the way and grand views of The Husband with barely a hiker in sight, I was in basking in solitude bliss. It was a flat stretch and I was able to cover ground pretty quickly. I found myself at the edge of OLEA around 3pm. Still earlier than I wanted, I found a perfect camp spot and dropped my pack. Before setting up camp, I took a short snooze in the shade. I explored the area around camp and found the perfect site for a tent. The tent was pitched and dinner was eaten and I took in a beautiful sunset all to myself. I was so enamored by it I didn’t even think to photograph it.
After the sunset in the purple dusk, I saw Richard pass by. Not wanting to disturb my peaceful spot, I ducked low in my tent, fairly certain that he did not see me. In this moment, I wondered “am I the unfriendly hiker I was so annoyed with just 2 days ago?”. But this thought was fleeting as I told myself no, Richard was just difficult to tolerate for long stretches.
I had a disturbing night sleep that night and was happy to get moving in the morning. Though a perfect spot to stay for the night, I had an uneasy feeling about that campsite. Right before strapping on Big Booty Judy, I figured I should empty the old tank. I went over to a tree I used just the day before and right before I was to release my bladder, I noticed a black book. Where did that come from!? I picked it up and flipped through it, trying to find any information with regard to its owner. As someone who journals all my adventures, I would be heartbroken if I lost mine. I would hope that if someone picked it up, they would try their best to return it to me. However, besides some deeply disturbing doodles, there was no information as to who this journal belonged to. Despite this, I strapped it to my pack and decided I would look more thoroughly later, determined to return it to its owner.
I entered OLEA and what I read about it was true. It was stunning. I walked down to the waterfall, where I ran into Richard again. We talked briefly. He camped just right past where I was. He saw he saw my tent, but wasn’t sure if it was me. I told him I must’ve been asleep already. A little white lie never hurt anyone.
We trekked together on and off that day. Despite being in his 60s and a chainsmoker, Richard was in pretty good shape and could keep up with me the majority of the time, with the exception of steep inclines. We stuck together through the Sister Springs. It reminded me so much of the JMT it filled me with nostalgic yearning to go back to the Sierras.
When we reached the lava section, Richard slowed considerably. I went ahead and fell completely in love with the landscape this section offered. It was like walking into an evil castle, with pumice spires and dragon fire ravaged decay. I hiked through those two miles with a smile on my face. Though gorgeous, this section was relatively steep. The switchbacks up Sawyer Bar were intense and hot, but worth every drop of sweat for that view of clouds bathing in the valley. At the top, I waited for Richard, cheering him on as he slowly ascended to the top. He was very proud of himself, and I was proud of him too. Knowing that he was pretty tired, I figured this would probably be the last time I’d see him. I told him I was planning on having lunch at South Matthieu Lake, where I’d be turning off the PCT and onto Scott Pass Trail. He’d be continuing on the PCT. We agreed we’d meet at South Matthieu Lake for a final farewell. With him still catching his breath, I continued on to make my way over Opie Dilldock Pass.
Compared to other passes I’ve trekked, Opie Dilldock Pass was a piece of cake. It offered fantastic views of Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood. I took in the view for a few minutes before starting back up to South Matthieu Lake.
Having only hiked 7 miles to the lake, I didn’t feel super tired. But it was only 11am so I figured with only another 5 miles to my camp, I took some time to just relax waiting for Richard. It was at this point that I remembered I still had the mysterious journal from the morning. I took it out and started to read it. What I found within its pages was deeply disturbing and I had no clue how on earth this journal ended on the PCT in Central Oregon. The only entry that even alluded to the PCT was a day hike in the Sierras, hundreds of miles away. The other entries spoke only of a European backpacking trip, substance abuse, and internal struggle. The author clearly had a lot of demons, but the author was never identified. I couldn’t even tell if the author was male or female, let alone any kind of information to return the journal to them. After noticing a chill in the air, I took note of the time. It was 1pm. I couldn’t believe it! I was so engrossed in the journal I lost all concept of time. The chill was to the bone. I checked the temperature. It dropped 20 degrees since I took rest. The sky looked the ever familiar gray I have grown accustomed to and the clouds consumed the sun. I grabbed my jacket and looked at the journal. It emitted such a horrifyingly negative energy that I didn’t want to carry it anymore. So I made the decision to leave it. The 7 miles it hitchhiked on my pack was enough. I looked around for Richard, but there was no sign of him. With an impending storm and having already spent 2 hours waiting for him, I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to go. Indifferent towards not saying a final farewell to the man who I didn’t altogether enjoy hiking with, I said good riddance to the journal and headed out.
Sure enough, thunder boomed in the distance and I was sprinkled with a light cold rain. I made it to the camp early, once again. Only 5 miles to the Pole Creek Trail Head and the end of my trip, I considered pushing it. But considering I wouldn’t make it into Bend until late and I didn’t know where I would stay, I decided to make camp and enjoy my last night out in the wilderness. I wasn’t all that thrilled with my camp spot – not because it wasn’t great, cause it was. It was right next to the flowing Alder Creek and pretty secluded. I just had an eerie feeling about it. That night I tossed and turned, with images of the journal floating through my mind. I’m glad I got rid of it. I’m convinced it was evil and I didn’t want it anywhere near my tent.
I got up early that morning and got out of Dodge. The 5 miles in the wildfire stricken forest went by quickly and I soon found myself at the parking lot, the end of another journey.
While I enjoy any adventure I go on, this one was different. Devoid of too many other hikers, I was alone for a good portion of it, not something that usually bothers me. But this time it did. Looking back on it, I should’ve planned to hike longer mileage days so I didn’t have so much free time. I could’ve easily hiked this trail in 4 days as opposed to the 6 I took. The terrain was not difficult and aside from the voluntary South Sister venture, the elevation change was manageable.
Soon I was on my way to Bend, where I explored, got souvenirs, and had a wonderful dinner. At dinner I met Alex and his friend. We spoke of the adventures they went on together and of the Three Sisters Loop I had just finished. We agreed to hike Mt. Bachelor the next day before I had to head to the airport. However, that night I opted out after doing some research. The road to the trail head required a 4×4 and I did not want to risk damaging the rental car. So I thanked Alex for the invitation via text, but declined the offer. I was saddened that I had to refuse, as the pictures he showed me were awe inspiring.
This trip confirmed my love for the PNW, offering different landscapes that I fell in love with. My night at Camp Lake and the hike up and down South Sister was so incredibly memorable, it was worth every step just for those two experiences.
In addition to my other two mantras: everything is temporary and suck it up buttercup, I added two more to my repertoire. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be and anything worth doing in life doesn’t come easy. So basically, I was giving myself conflicting motivation. If you don’t make it, eh it wasn’t meant to be. But you better try your darn hardest cause it’s not supposed to be easy!! So did we make it?! Well hold your horses and let me tell you! We all agreed to wake up early and start the journey at 4:30am. There was a prediction of bad weather from the ranger who checked our permits at Crabtree Meadows and we wanted to make sure we weren’t caught up top in the midst of a storm. Of course, when I woke up this morning and checked my watch, I was horrified to see that my alarm didn’t go off and it was 4:12am! I don’t think I have ever jumped into action so quickly from a dead sleep. I got dressed and had breakfast and fashioned my tent so should a storm happen, my stuff didn’t get wet when my tent surely would flood. Ready just in time, we set out to meet Whitney. Being so early, the sun was far from rising. We had to use headlamps to guide ourselves through the dark for the first hour, which flew by. Soon we made it to the infamous Guitar Lake. I’ll give ya one guess as to why it’s named that. A lot of people just finishing their SOBO trip camp here for a shorter hike up Whitney and a more convenient exit point out of Whitney Portal. The lake was stunning and we got to see the sunrise over the background mountains – bathing them in a pink glow. Stunning. After Guitar Lake, we hit some pretty major switchbacks to the Whitney Trail Junction. I knew that if I made it up the roughly 1.5K’ climb, I would make it to Whitney! With my mantras on repeat and taking it slow and steady, I found myself feeling great! The only time I had any doubt was when a rock slide occurred on the mountain directly in front of us. It was an identical mountain to the one we were climbing. What if that happened to us?! But we were safe from that natural disaster, at least. As Guitar Lake got smaller and smaller, I realized that I had made it to the junction! I couldn’t believe I made it before I knew it. At the junction, a lot of people who are entering or exiting through Whitney Portal tend to leave their packs so they don’t have to lug them up to the summit. Opportunistic marmots have learned this and savagely tear through packs to get to food. The fat little things have no fear of humans or other vicious marmots. In fact, one of the SOBO hikers just finishing up said he heard a story where a hiker saw two marmots fighting over food. One of them tore out the other’s throat and started going cannibalistic on his fellow species. Rather graphic, I know, I found this story hard to believe. Likely just a hiker wives tale. From the junction, it was “only” 1.9 miles to the summit with a 1K’ elevation gain. Those last miles weren’t easy, but wow were they special. They were breathtaking. But as I learned, with beauty comes danger. There were plenty of sheer drop offs with boulder scrambling to boot. With one misstep you could land thousands of feet down. So I treaded carefully. I was becoming progressively short of breath, but was motivated by people passing me telling me, “you’re almost there!” Soon I rounded a corner and I could see it – the famed shelter at the top of Mt. Whitney!! I felt elated. The only the separating me from the summit was about 500′ of walking. Though it took a lot of effort, I did it. I got to the summit. And then the tears started flowing. I became emotional because I didn’t think I would ever make it. Had you asked me just 48 hours ago if I would be able to, I’d laugh and say heck no in between vomits. The girls were waiting for me at the top. I made a few tear filled calls (not sad tears – exhausted, joyfilled I MADE IT tears) and snapped a few pictures. Due to impending clouds, we didn’t stay up top long. But I did get to soak in a little of the beauty of being literally on top of the world, with Mt. Whitney being the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. We flew down the mountain (downhill is so much more forgiving) and considered jumping into Guitar Lake. But again, approaching clouds of doom stopped that idea. Unfortunately, in our haste coming down from the mountain, Sam hurt her knee. I’m gonna try to use my career to see if I can help at all. Fingers crossed it helps! We got back into camp at 1:30pm. We joked that all our food in our canisters are going to be gone, stolen by the folks from yesterday. But all was intact. We were beat. Again, rain and thunder threatened with little precipitation. The ranger told us that for the next 48 hours we are in monsoon conditions. Great! We’re planning an early bedtime again. I know I’ll sleep well, I accomplished that which I didn’t think possible. I have someone upstairs looking out for me for sure.