The alarm on my phone goes off at 5 a.m. and wakes me into a world that is suspiciously like yesterday. Dark. Dry. Moony. I slept maybe five hours? Well. I select Eye of the Tiger in my music and turn the volume up all the way. The others laugh themselves awake. We need to start hiking at this terrible hour because it’s going to take us an insane amount of time to get to the top of this climb. We knocked out one thousand feet of climbing last night. Just nine thousand more to go today! I mix protein powder with water in the screw top container that still tastes like yesterday’s beans. I’m determined to be a good sport about these early wakeups for as long as I can. Coffee will help. I shake a packet of starbucks via into my smartwater bottle and swish it around. It tastes terrible. But it works.
The moon is setting behind telescope ridge as we work our way up Hanapauh canyon on a jeep road. The road is distinct at first, then less so, then there is only wash and picking one’s way through piles of rock, stretches of sand, brush.
The sun rises over the salt flats which are below us already, somehow. There’s a very nice new sign that warns us that the water in Hanapauh spring is poisoned from “illegal activity,” the pesticide runoff from a supposed marijuana grow somewhere up in this drainage. We talk about this as we walk. Why the hell would someone grow weed in such a remote place? It’d be really hard to reach their crops in order to tend them, and they’d have to bring all their supplies in on foot. The profit margins would be terribly thin. Literally anywhere else would be an easier place to grow weed. And also, if the park knows about this grow, why don’t they do something about it? If they can make this fancy ass sign and pound it into the ground, why can’t they stop the weed grow? Not that I care about people growing weed. It’s just… weird. Something doesn’t add up. We decide that the warning is a conspiracy theory. That the grow isn’t real. That there’s a hermit living in an old mine shaft in this canyon, and he doesn’t want any pesky meddlin kids here. The sign is to trick us, to keep us away.
We hear the happy burbling waters of Hanapauh spring and then we see them, bursting from the earth into a tangle of bushes and reeds. The water is clear and cold, and it runs along a bed of clean gravel. Bright yellow flowers hang over it. We crouch in the shade and shove chips into our mouths. I’m soaked in sweat and the cortisol of the morning is wearing off. I’m tired. Just eight thousand feet of climbing left until we reach the top of the ridge. Fuck!
There’s a steep slope in front of us, pebbled with scree and loose rock. Our next challenge is to climb this, to a high ridge that we’ll follow west, to another slope that will take us to the top. This first slope is, in a word, brutal. Partly because of how steep it is, and partly because we’re carrying eight liters of water each. The slope is comically hard to climb. I am panting, stopping every few feet to rest. Picking my way around obstacles. Pausing to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Do you ever exercise until you are exhausted, sit down in the fragrant pinyon duff knowing that you cannot possibly go on, and then stand up with great effort, swaying under the weight of your pack, and continue climbing? Today I do this about eleven times. The hours turn liquid and slip by. Time is marked in snack breaks, shaky breaths, the twinges in my knees, tablets of nuun dropped into my water bottle and the increasing tension in my Achilles tendons, which feel as though they’re going to snap like old rubber bands. The steady intake of clif shot bloks, my system coursing with caffeine. I cannot possibly go on. But I do. We all do.
The air grows thinner and now we’re more out of breath. Seven thousand feet. Eight thousand feet. Nine thousand feet. The world is bright and then we’re in the shade of the pinyon forest, the air is warm then cool. The sun is at our backs, then directly above us, then shining into my left eye, then at our fronts. Step. Step. Step. Pause.
The last two thousand feet of climbing happens in a single mile. This is just as fucked up as it sounds. The scree is too steep. The brush is too steep. We fall back a half step with each step that we take. We push our way through ceanothus, and it tears at our skin with its long thorns. I have been beyond exhausted for hours. I have been exhausted since the day I was born. I want to cry in frustration. Life is suffering. I go on.
When I reach the top I feel nothing, just a shaking, empty fatigue. Nine thousand feet of climbing today in ten miles, and for what. There’s a biting cold wind and the sun is setting. We have to get off this ridge and as far down the other side as we can before dark. These last five miles of climbing took us eight hours to complete. I’ve had to shit for hours. Fuck.
I decide not to take a shit. There’s no time. We’ve got two miles of walking on this ridge on actual trail! Before we peel off and bomb down the scree on the other side. The sun is slipping away! I pull on all my layers, feeling the sharp pains of the thorns embedded in my fingers, the burn of the hotspots on the pads of my feet. It’s so cold and I can’t get warm. I’m empty inside. Positively empty.
I’ve never tried to not shit for this long when I’ve actually really had to go. I start to feel nauseous, and then like I’m going to throw up. Fuck it. I leave the trail and jog across an open meadow to a clump of pines. I scratch a hole into the soft earth.
I feel like a new person after shitting. And to my surprise, I haven’t fallen behind- because Pilar had to stop to shit too, and Laurie needed to eat, and Plants had reception and needed to check his voicemail! We all have needs. Needs are a thing that can be ignored for a little while, but not forever. Long distance hiking is nothing if not the persistent prodding of this truth.
The descent off Telescope ridge into Tuber canyon is just as annoying as I remember- so steep your feet jam into the front of your shoes, hard on the knees, loose enough that you can’t go fast. We’re weaving around brush, trees, rocks, wending our way down. All that elevation gain just to lose it again. The sun is gone and it’s the black night that comes before moonrise but we all have headlamps and as we descend the air warms- that’s our consolation prize. I feel relief that we’re headed back into the warm. I don’t have many layers for this stretch to Panamint springs, I would’ve been cold if we’d had to camp on Telescope ridge. It would’ve been miserable. But now the warm is back, not the scary heat of Death Valley at its hottest but the gentle warmth that holds us. What a joy it is to wander along the surface of the earth.
We can see nothing now but what’s just in front of our headlamps. A single tree, a stretch of loose dirt. The earth is steeply tilted down. Things have always been this way. Where is the bottom of this descent? It seems as though we’ll never find it. Morale is bottoming out. Laurie’s knees hurt, and Plants keeps falling on his ass.
“That’s why my name is Plants,” he says. “Not because I’m vegan.”
At last the slope ends in a narrow drainage full of chunkrocks. Hello Tuber my old friend. I know the drainage will open up into a wide gravel wash, and it does. We walk silently, plodding over the rocks. How far can we get tonight, before we keel over from fatigue? Our next water source is somewhere down this canyon, approximately in the vicinity of the “spring” marked on the USGS background maps in the Gaia app. Not the first “spring”, east of where the route meets the canyon. Not the last “spring”, before the canyon ends- that one we’ll hike above, on burro trails. The second spring. The one in the middle. That is where the water is. At least, we were eventually able to find a very small pool of water there the last two times I hiked this stretch. After a great deal of looking.
Unlike the last two times I hiked this stretch, when I was thirsty as heck by the time I reached Tuber canyon, we don’t have to make it to the water tonight. This year I’m hiking later in the month, and it’s cooler, and as a result we didn’t drink all our eight liters. We have extra, enough to dry camp. And so at ten p.m. we find a soft sandy bench above the wash and fumble open our bedrolls. I swallow my repulsive bean sludge and some ibuprofen, and someone sets a 5:30 alarm. There’s a cold wind, but deep in my quilt it’s warm. Today it took us 16 hours to hike 15 miles. My legs twitch. I sleep.
Readers! I’m offering a four-week course on how to hike the PCT! It starts Jan 4, 2020, and it’s going to be GREAT. Space is limited. Click here for more details, and to reserve your spot!