About the AuthorDeborah Peel is a writer, blogger, marketer, mother, lover of big trees and isolated mountain tops. Her passion is writing to build a better world and sharing her backpacking and hiking adventures, one step at a time.

At first light, I gingerly lifted my head from the blow-up pillow stacked on my empty backpack. I was testing for the night’s nasty, debilitating headache and found a mere remnant lingering. Whew! It must have been a caffeine headache! 

This was the big day, the one I’d been planning and preparing for all year, the day I would start hiking the Cottonwood Pass Trail to connect with the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail. According to my trail plan, it was going to take me two days to cover this 20-mile section. I got dressed and immediately packed my gear, carefully shoving the Western Mountaineering Terralite mummy bag deep into the bottom of my backpack with the flattened pillow and deflated Thermarest. I still didn’t get a comfortable night’s rest on that papery blow-up pad; sure it would get better in the days to come. I emerged into the rays of sunshine coming over the mountains and the promise of another hot day.

The Jetboil went into action and I used that hot water to wash up a tiny bit and make a cup of coffee and some oatmeal with peanut butter granola. I purposely didn’t have a watch and didn’t know what time it was, but the sun told me it was time to head out. I visited with my camp neighbor John, a first timer on the JMT. We were equally concerned about pack weight and encouraged each other, hoping to meet again as both of our plans had us camping that night at Soldier Lake.

By 7:45 a.m., the tent was down and attached to the only space left – the bottom of my backpack. I buckled into my now 31-pound purple Osprey, took my happy start-of-the-trail photo and slogged through the thick sand leading to Cottonwood Pass. Sand hiking was new to me and it made for slow going. I found myself fighting indigestion from the night before and breakfast had been a chore to swallow. I was looking forward to that clearing up as I’d never suffered from indigestion. It had to be the backpacking food.

Slowly and steadily I lumbered up Cottonwood Pass, relying on my trusty Leki trekking poles to balance while going up rock step after rock step and gaining a steady 1,260’ ascent in 3.5 miles. About halfway through, I was taking a break at the crook of every switchback, my breathing labored. Other hikers were coming down at a trot and I was full of envy. A horse and mule pack train passed me on the way up, their smiling riders full of energy and lacking sweat. I envied them. I envied the mules. Eventually, I took the pack off, sat on a rock in the shade and drank water and tried to eat a snack. It wasn’t going down very well. I practiced some deep breathing, but it wasn’t going down very well either.

I had the good fortune of meeting Bob, Chuck and Cyril from Southern California as we all slowly arrived and celebrated at the top of Cottonwood Pass (elev. 11,180’). What a view! I could look back to where I had started at Horseshoe Meadow and felt such accomplishment! I turned to the other side and saw nothing but mountains cascading into mountains.

At mile 4.5, I met up with my trio of trail buddies again and joined them for lunch and filtered water at Chicken Spring Lake. Bob was showing off his new bivy that he was going to lay in to watch his beloved Milky Way in the clear night sky. It was a pretty cool rig. They encouraged me to take it slow and camp near them for the night. We were taking different trips and they weren’t continuing to the JMT. Knowing it was good, thoughtful advice, I considered it but decided to stick to my ambitious plan and make more miles for the day. If I changed it up, I might not make Mt. Whitney or my upcoming food resupply. Bob walked me out to the PCT and waved me off as I started climbing again. I’d already shattered the screen of my new GoPro and learned to never leave it attach to my pack strap when I lowered the pack onto the ground, or, in this case, a big, unforgiving rock. The tiny camera now lived inside my hip belt pocket.

It was even hotter at 2 p.m. and I stopped to zip my pants off into shorts. A smiling young woman blew down the trail and I asked her assistance in stuffing the pant legs into my pack and advice on upcoming water sources. She quickly consulted the Guthook app on her phone (I had the app, why didn’t I use it?) and confirmed no water unless I stuck to my plan and went over 1.1-mile Siberian Pass. That junction was 4.4 miles away. I didn’t think I could make it. I thanked her and asked for her name. It was Oreo, a PCT thru-hiker I’d seen on YouTube videos! She was excited to be in her last two days of completing the entire 2,600+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. With a wave, she went bounding down the rock trail and I continued pushing upward. 

Trail Tip: Don’t leave an unprotected camera attached to your pack when you take it off!