It’s hot in my van and my hives are really bad- my whole body feels like it’s burning. It’s too hot in my van? How is that possible, on this cold night in the foothills of the sierras. I’ve grown used to swinging in the wind all night, even these metal walls create too much stillness. I lay on top of the covers and itch my arms and legs, pulling off the bushwhacking scabs on my shins. Now there are little blood spots on my legs. Dang it!
I can’t get myself to feel not hot but eventually I feel both cold and hot, and around eleven I fall asleep. I wake up at three a.m., as though from an alarm. A wind is gently rocking the van. I lay in bed staring at the dark until exhaustion begins to transmute into excitement for the day, then pull the bottle of cold brew from the fridge and change into my hiking layers. Today is going to be interesting.
The last time I hiked the L2H in its entirety, in 2014, the 99 switchbacks up Tumanguya to its summit at 14,500 feet were the easiest part of the entire route. That can’t be right, I think, as I drink my coffee in the dark. I can see the headlamps of the others outside, as they stuff away their sleeping bags. There’s eleven miles of road walking between Lone Pine and Whitney Portal trailhead, but since our summit permits are for today we’re going to drive to the trailhead and then do the roadwalk tomorrow, to connect our footsteps. There’s a knock on the van door and the others are tossing their packs inside. I shiver into the driver’s seat, start the van, and crank the heater.
It’s 5:30 when we leave Whitney portal trailhead. I’m wearing every warm thing I’ve brought but then I’m pulling things off as I make my way through the dark pine forest, and then the first pink rays of dawn are hitting the jagged granite peaks above us. I feel good. I don’t just feel good- I feel great! The air up here is so goddam pure, so clear and thin, and this trail is so well built- I don’t have to think or navigate, I don’t have to step over anything, all I have to do is walk. I feel strong. I’m strong! My blood is pumping, the sweat on my back is mingling with the bitter morning cold. The leaves on the trees rustle, the granite shines bright white in the dark. I feel great!
Slow and steady up the switchbacks. I stop often to breathe. There are other hikers going up to the summit, but not that many, not as many as the other times I’ve been here. It must be the new permit system, and how much harder permits are to get now. I stop at Trail Camp to gather water. The lake is covered in ice, and I smash a hole with a rock. I sit with the others in the dirt and eat snacks, watching the sun come up. Everyone feels great. Everyone is happy.
I get a little woozy in the last few miles to the summit, start to feel the lack of sleep in my bones. I’m deliriously stoked, though, so much that I can’t stop smiling. I love being in the high sierra. So much open space, jagged granite ridges everywhere. The most incredible three-dimensional world, floating ten thousand feet above everything else. A land removed from time.
I find my friends in the stone hut on the summit of Tumanguya. They’re eating chips and shivering. It’s a perfect bluebird day but still cold on the summit- it is always cold on this summit. We eat as many snacks as we can, laughing, and then hand off our phones so a stranger can take a group picture of us.
Then I’m headed down, the endorphins fading from my system. Pilar and Plants want to take a side trip to summit Muir, one of the jagged granite teeth next to Tumanguya. I wish them luck and keep plodding, feeling roasted from the sun.
I stop again at the lake at Trail Camp and sit next to the water for a long time, watching the fat chipmunks dart around looking for crumbs. I feel a sense of completion, and relief. I only have to make it back to the van, and then a roadwalk tomorrow. I’m actually going to finish this thing.
The descent off Tumanguya feels twice as long as the climb, for some reason. I forgot about that. I’m so tired, it feels like I’m pushing through molasses. Soon the sun is setting. Another day out here, raw-dogging the entire arc of the sun. I have to shit really, really bad. I don’t want to poop in my wag bag, though. This powers me down those last maddening switchbacks when you can see the road below you, but it never seems to grow any closer.
Then I’m in the drafty pit toilet in the dark parking lot, at last. And then I’m in my van, numbly changing into sweatpants and the long down coat I keep in here for occasions like this. 22 miles done. The others appear, and Plants shows me a video of him and Pilar scrambling up some tilted flat rock to the top of Muir, with a five thousand foot drop below them. It is terrifying.
In Lone Pine we eat Chinese food in a restaurant that’s in an old carousel. I am shaking with fatigue. The food is good, though. I have a hard time afterwards, driving in the Alabama hills searching for the pullout where we parked last night. Why is the dark so… dark? Finally we park. Being in my bed feels like a hallucination. I close my eyes and the night pulls me away.
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