About the Author: Deborah 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.
To see more from Deb, click her name above!
It was 6:30 a.m. when I saw camp neighbor John off on his day trek up Mt. Whitney. A day later, I’d learn it took him 16 arduous hours. By 7:30 am I waved camp neighbor Jason off as he skipped Whitney and pursued the JMT. I dawdled over breakfast and even washed the top of head with warm water from my Jetboil. I dared not wash all my long hair in the cold morning that saw me bundled in my down puffy.
I stared for a moment in confusion, fumbling with my tent’s clasps before remembering how to disassemble them. It was the last thing I needed to pack up. I told myself I was tired but good enough to hike just 4.1 miles to Wallace Creek, a waypoint I’d looked so forward to since my maiden name was Wallace. Plus it was a perfect nod to my dad on the Hike for Harvey as he was from a long line of Scottish Wallaces. I could switch up my trip, slow down and camp there!
It was already 9:00 a.m. when I chose to cross Whitney Creek barefoot in the sandy space above the slippery rock steps. Where had the morning gone? After my wet boot experience from Rock Creek, it was worth the time to remove boots and socks and replace them on the other side. My brain should have remembered to put on my camp shoes for a little protection, but I went barefoot. I finally started off on my first coveted steps on the real John Muir Trail. Just 20 paces up the steep trail entrance toward Wallace Creek, I should have been bubbling with enthusiasm, but I was foggy in the mind and focused on getting my breath. And the indigestion was an ache in my chest. And the middle of my back and my hip were on fire.
That’s when my intelligence kicked in and I listened carefully to what my body, my mind, and that wise woman within was telling me. There was no denying it. I had altitude sickness. I knew full well there was only one way to cure it and that didn’t involve further ascent and trying to go over Forester Pass (elev. 13,500’) in the next 48 hours. I turned back and took the road less traveled and that has made all the difference (thanks for those powerful words, Robert Frost!). I took the 1.1-mile trail toward the Crabtree Ranger Station where I could seek advice and regroup.
This lovely creek trail was surrounded by bright green grasses and offered an easy rock crossing. I walked slowly up the incline to a rustic cabin where ranger Laura Pilewski hailed me from the deck. I felt my smile crumble as tears stung my eyes. She helped me drop my pack and her husband, ranger Rob, gave up his comfy chair to give me somewhere to relax. Laura calmly asked me what was troubling me, asked about my physical symptoms and matter-of-factly reminded me this was the wilderness and what did I want to do? I tried to pin down my disarray of thoughts and override my emotional heart as I asked her to help me formulate a bail-out plan. She also gave me quick instruction in using my Garmin paired with my smart phone to send friends and family a quick message. I’d become so foggy I couldn’t remember how to do it!
I want to give a strong nod to the expertise, kindness, and compassion of ranger Laura Pilewski. She talked me through my symptoms and confirmed it sounded like altitude sickness, nothing to fool around with. She recommended I set up camp at Upper Crabtree and rest, enjoy the beautiful area for the day and see if I felt ready to hike again the next day, reminding me that altitude sickness generally requires descending from 1,000 to 2,000’. She calmed me without condescension and helped me weigh my options so I could land on my own decision to hike smart. Ranger Rob picked up my pack and said simply, “Too heavy.” Laura got me a bag so that I could lighten my pack by leaving extra food for other hikers in the bear box. I’d made the typical novice backpacker error in overpacking my food. The weight was more than I, personally, could bear, and my appetite had been small.
The decision was made. I would be hiking out the next day. Laura offered to see me off over Guyot Pass unless an emergency came up. She even used her satellite phone to leave a message for Dee Berner at Sequoia Pack Kings to halt the delivery of my resupply bucket via pack mule. I set up a wonderful camp, hung my pack from a tree, and trundled off on the trail marked “toilet.” Ha! What fun using the open air privy with a toilet seat on top, screened from the meadow with some metal siding.
I choked down some lunch, filtered water at the creek, and gazed restlessly at the trail sign to Wallace Creek 4.3 or Mt. Whitney just 7.6 miles away. Pack-free, I crossed the creek and took a short walk up to the JMT where I visited with a southbound JMT hiker lounging in the shade. He was waiting for his hiking partner who was back down the trail doctoring blisters. They were on the verge of finishing the JMT. It made me grateful I’d come away with one minor blister and two hot spots from the day before. I’d need to tape up before the journey out and no more creek crossings in boots.
This was a day of soaking in the sunshine and the glorious vistas of meadow and looming mountains. It was a day of photos, contemplation, and reading a book from the ranger’s station. It was a day to take my boots off and soak my tootsies in the sparkling creek, the waters so clear every pebble was defined. This was a day to smile with pride at my newfound ability to be flexible, to hike smart, and fully embrace the meaning of hike your own hike. My JMT hike was going to be super modified and I was joyous rather than distressed about the change in plan!
I knew using my head and making a smart decision to change course was something my dad and mom would be prouder of than if I’d hiked over 250 miles through the wilderness. I’d never felt more confident and self-assured and, yes, proud of myself for deciding to hike out. This decision took my trip from distress to success, changing everything for the better. I couldn’t wait for the next part of the journey to begin.
Trail Tip: Listen to your body and let it guide you in smart decisions; always hike smart!