Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Standing at 13,200 Feet

Here are some brief impressions of a two and a half day trek in the Eastern Sierras. Our trek was from the Onion Valley trail head at 9,200 feet, over Kearsarge Pass at 11,760 feet, past Kearsarge and Bullfrog lakes, down to Vidette Meadow (9,000 feet), and up Bubbs Creek all the way to its alpine lake sources and even further, to stand on Forester Pass. Forester Pass is knife edge ridge between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks at 13,200 feet. It's the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail. We hiked around 35 miles total distance and a few miles of vertical distance as well.


Acclimatization works! I live at sea level. I fly, usually, at 5500 feet or below unless I'm going on a long cross country. There is no reason I should be able to hike with a 20 lb pack on my back at altitudes ranging from 9,200 feet to 13,200 feet without gasping and panting for air. No reason aside from the fact that, three days before our trek, my friend, Chris, and I drove up to Mammoth Lakes and worked and played at 7,600 feet to get our bodies used to the thinner air. The night before the hike we went down to about 4,000 feet at Independence, CA to have easy access to the trail head for an early start.

Trekking Poles

Trekking poles ROCK! They help you use your arms to pull your body up steps, up inclines, across level ground when the legs are tired. They help balance when crossing streams on little stepping stones. They provide extra balance and support for tired legs and knees when climbing down steep inclines and steps. They also double as tent spikes when needed.


If you are like me and don't eat a lot when exercising, and plan to hike from dawn to dusk, pack about 1/3rd of the food you think you need. This will leave you with plenty left over when done with your trek. When you are done and have the finish of the trip made, find a new hiker on their way into the wild and offer them your extra food. Someone will take it and make your pack feel much lighter.

Sleeping At Altitude

It is cold at 10,700 feet at night. Even if the general temperature is significantly higher than it would be on a "standard day", the temp drops significantly when the sun goes down and gets even colder just as the sun peaks over the mountain tops. Bring extra wool socks. Wrap your cold feet in the "emergency blanket" you brought if you are feeling too cold. That works in a pinch. Expect strange dreams and unsettled sleep as your body keeps waking you up to complain about the oxygen you're not breathing. Don't hyperventilate, it wont' help. If possible sleep in a grove of trees or in a sheltered spot so the wind doesn't batter your tent and make you colder. If you happen to have a sunburn you can use the heat from the sunburn to warm your cold hands.

The Sound of the Wind

Gusts at night in the high sierras just sound amazing. They start off as a whisper, then a hiss getting louder, then a whoosh, then a roar and a bang as the gust passes your tent like a freight train. Suddenly the tent is flapping wildly, only to calm again to gentle twitches as you wait for the next gust of wind.

Rods and Cones

If you don't believe what your CFI taught you about rods and cones and the way the night adapted eye cannot see what its directly focused on, try following the motion of a satellite across the sky by looking directly at it at night. You can't. The only way to see that satellite is to look slightly away from it. All of the sudden it will appear. Look at it directly, it will disappear.

Standing at 13,200 feet It Isn't Easy but It's Worth It

Like anything worthwhile in life, reaching the tops of Kearsarge Pass (twice) and Forester Pass was not easy, by any stretch. However, it was totally worth doing and not miserable to do.  I highly recommend it.

What's it like to climb up Forester Pass? Go to the gym. Put on a 20 lb pack. Get on the StairMaster. Set it to random between 50% and maximum grade up and start climbing... for... three... hours. That's where the similarity stops. Here's what's different.

You can stop any time you want for a brief break. You've got your trekking poles to balance you and pull you up. The sights around you are out of this world. The air is sweet and pure and the breeze keeps your body comfortably cool while the sun is comfortably warm. There's usually a creek flowing near by, or an alpine lake sparkling in the rocks, or at the very least amazing vistas of mountains and rocks as far as the eye can see. Every time you stop you can see you've progressed significantly since your last stop. Every time you pause near a large rock you can lean on that rock to take the weight of the pack off your back. And whenever there is a particularly amazing view, you stop a bit longer to take a photo or two and that helps your legs and lungs recover enough to continue on.

After three hours you stand on the knife's edge and peek over the edge of the world. You take off your pack, sit down in the cool breeze, lean back on a comfy rock, and grab a quick lunch. You've accomplished the hard, the difficult, the unlikely and unusual ... and it feels good. Not at all unlike learning how to fly. :)

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