Helpful tips for the Lowest to Highest Route

Morning light hitting the High Sierras, as seen from the crest of the Inyo Mountains

Morning light hitting the High Sierras, as seen from the crest of the Inyo Mountains

In the first week of October, 2014, I hiked the Lowest to Highest Route with my friends Chance and Jess. Most of our info for this hike came from this source, which is a website created by Brett “Blisterfree” Tucker, the person who developed the route. This site has almost everything one needs. Recently I’ve gotten a couple of emails from hikers who are lookin to do the L2H. I remember how hard it was to find info online when I was planning for this trip, and so I’m writing this to share some helpful tips and cover some things that aren’t already covered elsewhere on the internet.

Remember- most of your basic info on this route is here.

My day-by-day journal of the hike is here.

Chance’s journal is here.

The 135 mile hike took us six days. This mileage meant that we were only about two days between each resupply, and our packs were pretty light. This was helpful for times when we had to carry lots of water weight.

Look up online trip reports. Use The Google for this. There are only a handful, but there may be new ones now and then. Reading them all will help you get a better feel for the route.

Maps. The simblissity website has a navigation pack you can buy.

I downloaded the Gaia GPS app to my phone, which cost $20, and then I downloaded the GPS track from the simblissity website to my computer. I then uploaded the track to the Gaia GPS cloud, which then synced it to the app on my phone. I then downloaded, while in the Gaia app, the maps surrounding the track so that I could use them offline. I now had, on the Gaia app, both topo maps of the area that would load without cell service and a red line going through these maps- the GPS track for the L2H. I also carried the paper maps.

Call the Furnace Creek visitor’s center the week before you go, and ask them about each of the water sources. There are only a couple of water sources on the 135 mile route, and all of them may not be running at all times. If you count on one and it’s not there, you’re kind of fucked.

The rangers at the visitor’s center will likely try and discourage you. The ranger I talked to on the phone told me over and over, when I asked for info about the water sources, that she didn’t think I should do this hike. I tried to explain to her that the three of us had a combined 5,600 miles of desert hiking experience and that we had excellent maps, but it was to no avail. I finally said “I don’t actually care if you think I should do this hike. I’m just looking for info on whether the water sources are running.” at which point she gave me the contact info for another ranger who had info on the water sources. This ranger was super friendly, and did not act as though I was insane.

walking out into the desert to die

walking out into the desert to die

The first week of October is the best time to do this hike- Death Valley has begun to cool down but there’s likely not yet snow on Mt. Whitney. The L2H has been done in spring (a good trip report is here). As far as I know, the major difference between a spring and fall hike is the snow level on Mt. Whitney. Swami & gang took the mountaineer’s route to the summit on their spring hike. You can find info on the snow level on Mt. Whitney here, and weather reports for the summit here.

Jess and Chance- morning navigation near Shorty's well

Jess and Chance- morning navigation near Shorty’s well

If you haven’t done much overland navigation, as I hadn’t before this trip, you should know that overland navigation is much slower than hiking on a trail. We averaged between one and two miles an hour for much of this hike. In order to hike 20+ mile days we consumed lots of caffeine and didn’t sleep a whole lot.

The salt flats in Badwater Basin are SHARP AS FUCK. They’re also really awkward to walk on. Take your time crossing them, and try not to trip and fall. I tripped and ended up cutting up my face, hands, and getting a pretty good puncture wound in my knee. Brutal!

ouch

ouch

After finding the spring in Hanaupah canyon, climb up the slope to your right, towards the ridge. You’re going to get up on top of that ridge and follow it to Telescope ridge. Pay attention to navigation here.

The climb out of Hanaupah canyon

The climb out of Hanaupah canyon

The climb up to Telescope ridge is really steep- 10k feet in 14 miles. It’s the third steepest climb in the US, and it was the steepest climb that any of us had ever done. Factor in lots of time for this climb. The neat thing is that as you climb you enter cool, shady pinyon forest, and leave the heat of the valley behind. It’s really pleasant up there! Once on the ridge it’s another thousand feet to the summit, which is not part of the route. Chance and I opted to collapse in the sun for a while. Jess went to the summit, and said it was pretty cool.

Chance on the climb up to Telescope Ridge

Chance on the climb up to Telescope Ridge

The springs in Tuber Canyon on the descent from Telescope Ridge are kind of tricky to find. Use your super-sleuth ninja skills, and carry extra water. One of the springs is tucked away in dense brush at the very beginning of the canyon, Another one is a few miles down the wash, next to a big cluster of trees. Check with the rangers before your hike to see if either of these is running.

Looking down from Telescope ridge

Looking down from Telescope ridge towards the valley we’ll traverse next

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Jess finds a bighorn sheep skull in Tuber Canyon

Jess finds a bighorn sheep skull in Tuber Canyon

Don’t cook to death while crossing the playa before Panamint springs, and bring plenty of water. The walking is easy in this valley but unless you’re night-hiking, be careful and take it slow. It was 110 degrees the day we crossed, and although I had a sunbrella and enough water, I ended up with a touch of heat exhaustion, which left me feeling off for a few days afterward.

crossing the playa

crossing the playa

Panamint Springs Resort would not let us send a resupply box to their store, nor would they let us leave food there to pick up on our way through. So I’ll pass on the bit of advice the local sheriff gave to us- “Just hide it in the desert.” We ended up stashing our resupply in the desert behind the resort, and when we passed through two days later our food was miraculously untouched. One could resupply in the small store, but it would not be fun. When we were there the store pretty much just carried marshmallows, spray-on sunscreen and one giant, $20 bag of tortilla chips.

The Panamint Springs Resort has a beautiful deserty campground where sites are $7 and come with free hot showers. Each site has a picnic table! And there are vacant RV sites nearby that have those wooden posts with outlets in them where one can charge one’s electronics. There are canvas wall tents with cots for rent too, where you’ll be protected from the wind. And there’s a restaurant with burgers at the resort. Glory!

Darwin Falls is cool but there’s nowhere to camp- just a small flat spot next to the water, with tourists coming and going.

Darwin Falls

Darwin Falls

One gets out of Darwin Falls by climbing straight up the cliff. No, your maps are not lying to you. This is, according to someone who knows more about these things than I do, a class four rock scramble. Give yourself lots of time, be careful, and go slow. Look for cairns and bits of bighorn sheep trail. There is a way to the top of the canyon. There are also lots of dead ends. It took us a couple of hours to traverse the half mile out of the canyon.

Rock climbing, basically.

Rock climbing, basically.

If I did the hike again, I would spend a night at China Garden Springs. I think I’d have enchanted dreams, and some sort of magical ghost would visit me. You’ll just have to believe me when I say that this place is really, really cool.

Goldfish in the spring at China Garden Springs.

Goldfish in the spring at China Garden Springs.

You’re going to want to cache water. We cached six gallons of water (for three people) at Highway 190 where it meets Saline Valley Alternate Road. This left us with a 45-mile dry stretch between our cache and Lone Pine, with about 5k feet of elevation gain, over the Inyo mountains in the heat. We each carried six liters from our cache. In the end this was not enough water for me. I ended up finding water at the ghost town of Cerro Gordo, on the crest of the Inyo mountains. This is NOT, however, a reliable water source. Most days the buildings are empty, and the day we were there the caretaker just happened to be there, giving a tour, and he shared his water with us. If I were to do the L2H again I’d leave a second water cache further up Saline Valley Road, right before it begins the climb into the Inyo mountains.

Chance just casually traversing some desert wilderness

Chance just casually traversing some desert wilderness

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Jess makes coffee for everyone at our cache. Time to night-hike!

Jess makes coffee for everyone at our cache. Time to night-hike!

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Morning amongst the Joshua trees.

Morning.

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On the crest of the Inyo mountains, grabbing the moon

On the crest of the Inyo mountains, grabbing the moon

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Chance surveys our desert kingdom.

Chance surveys our desert kingdom.

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The old salt tram caretaker's cabin in the Inyo Mountains

The old salt tram caretaker’s cabin in the Inyo Mountains

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Inyo Mountains, watchin yo sun set.

In yo Mountains, watchin yo sunset.

Lone Pine has a grocery store. The grocery store is small and not very well stocked. There’s a store on the first floor of the hostel that carries backpacking-specific food- tuna packets, bars, things like that. The hostel is nice. The Alabama Hills Cafe has massive portions of excellent, greasy-as-fuck hiker food. There are like seventeen gear stores in town.

Permits for Mt. Whitney can be found at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor’s Center just outside of Lone Pine. The permits are free in person, and during spring and fall it’s doubtful that you’ll have to wait for one. There’s also a cool relief map of the Sierras at this visitor’s center that every PCT hiker should see. And neat patches and bandannas!

The roadwalk out of Lone Pine up the Whitney Portal Road was really pleasant. The sun was setting in a nice way and walking on a road just felt so fast.

best roadwalk ever

best roadwalk ever

We had a bear come through our camp at the Whitney Portal campground. Make sure and put everything that smells like anything in the bear lockers.

The weather on the L2H worked out for us thusly: below 5,000 feet = warm at night, above 5,000 feet = cold at night. Be prepared for temperatures between freezing and 115 degrees.

The L2H is really special. Remember to bring a light pack and a good sense of humor, and have fun!

Jess on the climb up Mt. Whitney

Jess on the climb up Mt. Whitney

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Whitney summit! Yay!

Whitney summit! Yay!

Lowest to Highest, a Backcountry Route from Badwater to Mt. Whitney, Part Six- Triumph

Morning light hitting the High Sierras, as seen from the crest of the Inyo Mountains

Morning light on the High Sierras, as seen from the crest of the Inyo Mountains.  Lone Pine is the patch of green in the valley.

(In the first week of October, 2014, I set out to hike the Lowest to Highest Route with NotaChance and Orbit. This is the final installment of my trip report. For technical information on this route, go here.)

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Oct 7
22 miles

At six a.m. I wake after a single perfect, flawless nights’ sleep and begin to crow the lyrics to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” into the still darkness. This is our agreed-upon alarm clock- my singing voice is beyond awful, so it’s really, really funny. It’s a joke that started when I used the song to wake Jess and Lia for our four a.m. summit of Mt. Adams- another hit was me singing Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb”.

“Your version is better than Miley’s,” said Lia, who is a musician, as we struggled up the steep white snow.

“Thank you,” I said. “I know.”

Now Jess boils instant coffee for everyone in her jetboil while the sky lightens to a washed-out shade of blue-black and then empties entirely, that single, colorless moment before the liquid sun spills over the mountains. The coffee is good and I feel fucking amazing- I actually had a real full uninterrupted nights’ sleep and now the world is suffused with goodness, possibility and promise. Things are good, things will get better! Mountains! Magic! Sunrise! Can you actually even believe that there is something instead of nothing!

Directly after Burgess Well the route leaves the rutted jeep road we’ve been following since our cache and begins to cut down the mountainside, towards Long John Canyon. There’s a “faint cairn trail,” which means we’re cutting back and forth like rabbits on the gravelly slope, whooping with joy when we find a cairn.

“A cairn! A cairn! ERMAHGERD CAIRNS!”

It’s cold but the air is slowly warming and below us is the flat Owen’s Valley, with Lone Pine on the far side a cluster of little trees, and then the High Sierra rising up catching the first rays of light. The cairns are small and often toppled and I fix a few, which makes me feel good, and try and imagine who comes up here, who made this route in the first place. I picture a wizened man running his fingers over an old topographical map, driving his 4-wheeler across the valley in a cloud of dust, hiking up here to watch the sunset. Gathering the rocks from the hillside to build all these cairns.

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sass chance

 

At one point Long John canyon, the wash that we’ll follow to get out to the valley, is far below us, and the maps are telling us to simply go “down”. Now commences the sport known as “screeing”, or skiing on scree- jogging down the steep, crumbled shale that leads to the canyon. I am not brave about this sport, and I slide on my butt a lot. By and by we are deposited in the canyon at a large cottonwood tree, standing leafy and miraculous in this cathedral of dirt and rock. There is mining detritus around- rusted steel drums, wooden planks, bits of metal. The leaves on the tree rustle companionably. We walk up the canyon to the find the spring there, which may or may not be running- we’d planned on it being dry and when we find it, penned in between walls of rock, it’s just a little wet spot in a patch of moss. You could gather water here but it would take strategery, and lots of Time. Luckily we have plenty of water so we make our way out of the wash, grateful for the cool shade thrown by the high rock walls. Eventually the wash fades into the bright hot open Owen’s Valley and we join another jeep road, this one cutting straight west towards Lone Pine.

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Jess / sierras ho!

 

It’s hot, now, and nearly noon. I only have a few spoonfuls of sunflower butter left but I don’t want to eat that, so I think about the lettuce wraps at Carl’s Jr. in Lone Pine and drink my tepid water. The sky is hot, the valley is hot and open. The road is hot and it hurts my feet. My shirt is wet with sweat and chafey under my hipbelt.

In the middle of the Owen’s Valley is a miraculous oasis- a swath of muggy growth, long green grass, insects flying everywhere. Old fences tilting into the earth. The Owen’s River runs through here, flat and slow. There are signs posted everywhere- PROPERTY OF LOS ANGELES / NO TRESSPASSING / PROPERTY OF LOS ANGELES

And cellphone towers- two big ones rising up like monumental old-growth, surrounded in fencing, saying WAH WAH WAH WAH WAH into the atmosphere. Next to the river, beneath the cellphone towers, is a cluster of junky outbuildings, a sinking trailer, a bunch of horses penned up without any shade.

“Are those horses happy?” I ask Chance. I don’t know about horses.

“Nah,” she says. “They should have shade.”

The sun is so strong, it’s cooking us. Looking down at the ground is painful because the dirt is bright and it reflects the sun back up, into my face. I wonder how the horses must feel. I look up at the cellphone towers. There are children’s toys in the dirt yard in front of the trailer. We walk past the trailer, but it seems to take forever. We walk and walk and walk. I imagine the children watching us, from behind the broken blinds.

Lone Pine grows infinitesimally closer, those surreal green treetops inching towards us, and then I’m crossing the main drag, climbing over the barbed wire fence, pushing through the brush and across the sandy open desert to the back gate of LoveNote’s house, little white board fence swinging open into the dirt yard. Shower’s on and then I’m in heaven, washing the heat and sweat and weariness away. I take off my clothes and rinse them in the water, run a bar of soap over them, twist them out and watch the dark water swirl away down the drain.

Carls Jr. is crowded with teenage girls in monogrammed sweatpants- some sort of highschool sports team. They stare at me while they eat their fries, not hostile but curious. I consume two burgers in record time and refill my giant soda cup with about a gallon of powerade, step back out into the sun. My clothes are already dry from the walk from LoveNote’s house.

Chance and Jess are at the hostel, the bottom floor of which has been transformed, this year, into a gear shop, collapsed into huge overstuffed chairs watching a movie about water privatization that’s playing on the bigscreen TV. I sit down too and immediately my brain turns off. I feel sleepy and bloated with powerade. I shake the ice around in my cup. But wait, what are we doing? We’ve still got to do the roadwalk to Whitney Portal Campground today, right?

A man approaches us. He’s small, wirey, silver-haired, looks like he used to do a lot of rock climbing. His name is Mike, and he asks us where we’re headed.

“Mt. Whitney,” we say.

“You got your permits?” he asks.

“No,” I say. I’m sort of spaced out.

“Ranger station’s a couple miles outside of town,” he says. “That’s where you get your permits. Tell you what, I can drive you there.”

“Really?” I say. Jess and Chance are half asleep, so I go with Mike in his car, which is clean in that way only very, very new cars can be. The backseat is piled with gear, gear is strapped to the roof.

“I live in Toulumne half the year,” says Mike.

“Wow,” I say. I wonder how one “lives” in Toulumne, but I don’t ask. I am once again amazed and overwhelmed by the generosity of complete strangers. Why do people want to help us like this? And they’re always so nice– while I am often tired, distracted, have very little to give.

At the ranger station there’s a relief map of the region that takes up a big part of one room- It has all the mountain ranges and hot desert valleys and I stand over it, pressing the buttons to light up the little strings of lights. Pacific Crest Trail. Death Valley. Los Angeles Water District. I run my finger over the plastic mountaintops, from Badwater Basin to Telescope Peak, down to Panamint Springs and up Darwin Canyon. I look at the Sierras, Mt. Whitney, follow the PCT south to the descent off San Jacinto. I tap the scorching valley of Ziggy and the Bear. All of it, the whole earth is like this. Up and down, folds and hills and long open expanses. What does it mean? Where should I go? What should I do?

It’s after 4 p.m. when we finally leave Lone Pine to walk the eleven miles to the Whitney Portal Campground. Weather gathers over the peaks of the Sierras as we climb our way towards them on the road- the leftovers, Mike told us, of a storm off the California coast somewhere. The sun drops behind the clouds and begins to set, draping the granite spires in an ethereal pink light.

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The road climbs and climbs and soon it’s dark, and the sky clears, and the stars wheel above us. Now and then a car comes curving down the mountain and we stop, momentarily blinded, and step aside to watch it pass. I wonder how we look, walking this road in the dark with our packs on. I wish someone would stop and talk to us, ask us where we’re coming from and where we’re going. And I wish I knew the answer to that question.

We watch the moon rise above the Inyo mountains, remember standing over there at dusk the night before. We reach the hairpin where the road turns back on itself and then cuts into a fold of the mountain- you can see this hairpin turn from Lone Pine. “The biggest switchback of your life,” as Chance calls it, and soon we’re swallowed by the granite, pines crowding the road around us, the earth grown softer. All of a sudden we can smell it- the burbling water, the deep loamy soil, the clear thin air. The high Sierras! The mountains rise up on all sides, the stars are sharp and bright and it’s cold, cold, cold.

We reach Whitney Portal Campground and find it to be a dark labyrinth of interconnected campsites, winding its way through the forest and over streams, deserted. The fee for a campsite is, apparently, seventy dollars, but we are small with only our small bedrolls and we find an ambiguous corner next to some bear boxes and unroll our things there, eat a little dinner and cinch ourselves inside our bags against the cold. Before sleep Jess tells us that there will be a full lunar eclipse tonight, in the wee hours. My legs ache and I feel restless, the thin high air gives me a bit of a cough. Finally I drift off.

I wake in a start and sit up in my bag- in the flat spot next to Chance is a black shape, just blacker than the night around it, pawing at the ground.

“Hey!” I say, clapping. “Hey bear!” The bear runs off- it’s the smallest one I’ve ever seen.

“Wha?” says Chance.

“Just a lil feller of a bear,” I say. “He’s gone now.”

“My ibuprofen,” says Chance, picking the small ziploc off the ground. We’d put everything that smelled like anything in the bear boxes but apparently ibuprofen, which is candy coated, attracts them as well. “Dang bear,” says Chance. She walks the ziploc over to the bear boxes, slams it inside, and collapses back into her sleeping bag. I sit up for a while, too wired to sleep. Will the skittish little bear come back? What if the bear, like, touches my face? What if it licks my hand or claws at my backpack? How will I ever sleep after this?

I wake again, from a nightmare, and the moon is red. Blood moon, blood moon. Is this the eclipse? Is this what an eclipse is?

I wake again, startled, and look around me. The moon is gone. The night is eerily dark. I am awake because the moon is gone. I lay back down. Go to sleep, go to sleep, I think. It’s only an eclipse.

———————-

Oct 8
22 miles

Someone’s alarm goes off in the morning and I am awake again, this time in an ordered world without shadows or the strange comings and goings of mysterious beasts. I eat roast chicken and coconut macaroons for breakfast, bought from the little store in Lone Pine with its depressing, half-empty shelves. I’ve got one caffeine gel shot left and I eat half of it and pack the rest away for later. Chance and Jess are pumped, packing up their things and drinking instant coffee. 99 switchbacks to the top of Mt. Whitney, our last eleven miles. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for.

We were hoping for a crowd- it seems silly but I was looking forward to passing lots of day-hikers on the way up, feelings strong and fast amongst the multitudes. But it’s a weekday at the end of the season with the smell of snow on the air, and there’s not really anyone around. In a few days or a week this trail will be covered, buried for everyone except the mountaineers. Now we start to climb, past the quaking aspen in their flame-orange autumn colors and the jeffrey pines and leaping over the small cold streams that bound down the mountain. It is magical here, and I can’t believe that we actually walked up into this wonderland from Death Valley. I am capable of anything, I think. Many small things become one large thing. Many small things become one large thing.

I’m feeling the altitude this morning and I hang back, taking my time. I’m feeling it a lot, actually- my head is pounding and I feel weak. I don’t care, though. I’m climbing up past glittering lakes, the sun shining off the granite, the air so sparkling and pure. I stop often to drink water and eat coconut macaroons. There are a few tents at the lakes on the way up, I pass a couple of people. Mostly, though, I have the trail to myself.

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I meet up with Chance and Jess at the PCT junction and we sit against the granite, looking out at guitar lake and the peaks rising up opposite, a bit of weather rolling in on the horizon. I eat potato chips and pass around a bag of gin-gins- it’s so beautiful here it takes my breath away. Chance is feeling the altitude, too, and we climb the last mile together, stopping often and laughing and comparing everything to how it looked in spring, still crusted in ice and snow. Jess, of course, is fine, like she always is- unaffected by altitude, or climbing, or fatigue, or hunger, or thirst. Hiking with Jess is inspiring to me, and good for my morale- she makes everything seem so damn possible.

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the saccharine paradise of Muir

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Chance is tuff

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Jess just casually bein a babe

 

We reach the summit block at mid-day- it’s cold up there and clouds are really rolling in now, threatening snow. My head feels crazy from the altitude up here at 14,450 feet and I’m out of water- I want to rush down, back to the campground, get a hitch into Lone Pine and collapse at LoveNote’s house. But I’m also right now in this special high-up world and we jump around a little bit, look out at the great convoluted earth, talk to the other people on the summit. We did it, we did it, we did it! We made it to the top of Mt. Whitney!

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summit hut

“Five days nineteen hours,” I say. “What is that, like, an FKT?” It’s funny to think about claiming an FKT for something like the L2H, which is a route only a handful of people have ever done. Why not, though? We joke about messaging our friend Bobcat, asking how long it took him to do the route in spring. But they took the mountaineering route up Mt. Whitney, clawed their way to the summit block with ice axes. It’s not really the same.

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yours truly

 

I stand on the summit block and remember being here in May this year, how warm and sunny it was, all of us in our t-shirts. Eating all our snacks, famished. Laughing, feeling drunk from the altitude. Jess, Chance and I make a tiny human pyramid and a woman we just met takes our picture. The picture is silly, not like a pyramid at all- it looks as though we’re ponies and Jess is riding us.

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Well. We tried.

 

We laugh about this and then Chance and I head down- it’s just barely begun to snow. Jess hangs back, wanting a little more time on the summit. As we descend our heads grow clearer, the pounding begins to retreat. We reach a little lake and fill up our water and Jess catches us- she was jogging down the icy switchbacks, swinging around every hairpin.

“It’s really snowing up there!” she says.

“Imagine if you lived in Lone Pine,” I say. “You could come up here every day. You could, like, run up Mt. Whitney, every day.”

Jess’ eyes look dreamy.

“Yeah,” she says.

The hike down seems to take forever and I think about food, about sleep, about the long journey ahead of us back to Southern Oregon. We pass a group of younger dudes from the bay area, wearing fashionable clothes and resting against a log, eating snacks.

“Are you guys headed into Lone Pine?” I say. “We’re looking for a ride from the campground. If you’ve got room.”

“Yeah,” they say. “Sure.”

“I’ll buy you Carls Jr.,” I say.

“Deal,” they say.

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L2H YAY

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Completing our journey was only possible with the support of many people. THANK YOU to everyone who picked us up on our hithchike south, to LoveNote and Burly and Huckleberry for hosting us in Lone Pine in their enchanted bungalow and ferrying us northward and then hosting us AGAIN in their dreamy cabin, and to the trail angel Badfish who met us in a Tahoe casino and literally drove us all the way back to Ashland. And thanks to all my Instagram followers for their tips and logistical help. Thanks to Brett “Blisterfree” Tucker for creating the route, and the maps, and to Charlie (wherever you are) for being, like, a cowboy (if that’s what you are) and wandering the dry mountains on your wild burro, or whatever, and checking to see if the water sources are running. And thanks to Chance and Jess, without whom I would’ve surely gone mad.

Many more photos of this journey can be found on my Instagram.

Lowest to Highest, a Backcountry Route From Badwater to Mt. Whitney, Part Five- Inyo Mountains, Hikin Yo Trails

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(In the first week of October, 2014, I set out to hike the Lowest to Highest Route with NotaChance and Orbit. This is the fifth installment of my trip report. For technical information on this route, go here.)

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Oct 6
23 miles

One day you’ll fall asleep at an indeterminate hour of the night beneath the cold stars and when you wake the sun will be coming up among the joshua trees, banishing the dark, bringing with it the heat and the boiling daytime. It will be six a.m. and, unlike the night before when you were walking with your friends along the cool road watching for UFOs and singing along to soul music piping from Chance’s phone, you will be more tired than you can ever remember being.

I sit up and drink from my dirty gatorade bottle. I am a taught wire, a humming weariness, a delay in the telephone line. My legs ache and my mouth tastes like dust. The sun is burning and Jess is pouring steaming cups of coffee. I blink- there’s sand behind my eyelids. I feel as though I’m underwater. When was the last time I felt this tired?

I’ve got 4.5 liters of water left and it’s 35 miles to Lone Pine, our next water source. 35 miles up and over the bright hot Inyo Mountains- that oughta be enough, right?

No. There is something wrong with today. My bones are liquid and my feet are bricks and the heat, the heat… We’re following a jeep road so the walking is easy enough but still, for some reason, I feel as though I’m dying. Then the climbing begins, the jeep road tilting right up the slope of the mountain, and at the same time the sun turns itself up to Ten. I’m stopping in every patch of shade, drinking too much of my water. My brain feels strange inside my skull. I tell the others to go ahead, I’ll be cruising 1mph. I wonder if this has to do with the heat exhaustion I had the other day- if I’m still recovering from that. Makes sense. The puddles of shade beneath the dusty oak trees are my friends and I sit there, watch spiders move in the dirt. There are “no trespassing” signs tacked to the trees. We’re entering old mining country. After a time I get up and resume my slow underwater trudge up the mountainside.

cabin in Cerro Gordo

cabin in Cerro Gordo

Five thousand feet later I find my friends hunkered in the shade of a pile of sandbags, outside the ghost town of Cerra Gordo. I’m irritable and I’m almost out of water. A bright white pickup is parked outside one of the ancient buildings and I drop my pack and head for it.

“But what if you get shot!” shouts Chance.

“Nah,” I say. “People are nice.”

A man appears as I approach the old hotel. He’s wearing suspenders and walking slow. He sees the dirt caked onto my shirt, the dust smeared across my face.

“You’ve got a long hike ahead of you,” he says. His look is patient and kind. I suddenly feel as though I’m in a Steinbeck novel.

The man leads me inside the hotel, which looks as though it hasn’t been touched since 1880. A little chihuahua follows the man, gives me the whale-eye, hops just out of reach when I stretch out my hand. The man tells me tales of gold, murder, and prostitutes, and then gives me three liters of water- I feel like a glutton but for some godforsaken reason I need it.

“Are there ghosts here?” I say.

“Four of ’em,” says the man.

The fact that I haven’t been shot gives Chance the courage to make her own pilgrimage to the old hotel and while she’s gone I hunker in the shade with Jess and make some cold-soaked oatmeal to celebrate my newfound water wealth. It’s beautiful up here, on the crest of the Inyo Mountains- to the west we can see the baking Owens Valley and, rising up beyond that, the High Sierras- a massive granite wall which holds, unbeknownst to most mortals, lakes that sparkle like jewels, brooks lined in bright flowers, fat marmots- the saccharine paradise of Muir.

After leaving Cerro Gordo the route follows another jeep road up, up, up along the crest of the Inyo Mountains- we’re climbing again in the heat and my weariness won’t leave me, and I overcompensate with caffeinated cliff shot blocks until I can feel my heart jumping in my chest like a rabbit. We reach another summit of sorts and sprawl, looking down at the saline valley. All of this belongs to us. Our desert kingdom!

Chance

Chance and the Saline Valley

After that the walking is gentle and Chance and I tool along in low gear, making up stories to distract us from our fatigue. We’re characters in a Steinbeck novel, headed north looking for seasonal work. One foot in front of the other. Used to be you could draw up salt from the Saline Valley with the old wooden tram, trade it for salt pork and cornmeal. Had a bunch of children, uncles, cousins- they all died. Left one daughter behind when we were traveling by wagon- she was raised up by an old desert rat, he taught her to find her way home by the way the oak leaves fell on the ground. Now I’m walking to Lone Pine to buy a bolt of calico to make her a dress for her fourteenth birthday. Chanstity (Chance) has an old friend who lives in the cabin by the abandoned salt tram. We stop in but he’s not at home- he’s out with his burros, or making a shady deal with the traveling show.

nobody home

nobody home

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"thank you for leaving artifacts"

“thank you for leaving artifacts”

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Had a father who was a mean drunk, he died. Third husband stole my shoes, haven’t seen him in months. Quiet Jessalynn has been following us for days. She never speaks, but they stay she killed a man to get her jetboil.

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The sun begins to melt like an egg yolk into the jagged peaks of the Sierras. Right behind Mt. Whitney, to be exact. This seems like a harbinger of something and we stand on the ridge, watching the light move like a shutter across the surface of the earth and then the cold comes on and we’re shivering.

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Goodnight, sun

The summit of Mt. Whitney, way over there at 14,505 feet- that’s where our journey will end. We’ve been talking about those 99 switchbacks for days, imagining how glorious it will be to pound uphill on a real actual trail. For now we put on all our layers against the sudden, brutal cold and walk another couple of miles to “Burgess Well”, a broken hole in the ground that rests on a grassy shelf just big enough for our bedrolls lined up end to end. Above us a cold draft wends its way across the hilltops and below us the icy air gathers in a meadow. Here, though, we are safe from all of it, and we eat a little dinner and watch the stars come out. This day has really been three days, has lasted far longer than any day has a right to but here we are, now, in camp at a reasonable hour, all ready for sleep and whatever tomorrow’s bright morning will bring.

Lowest to Highest, a Backcountry Route From Badwater to Mt. Whitney, Part Four- UFO

(In the first week of October, 2014, I set out to hike the Lowest to Highest Route with NotaChance and Orbit. This is the fourth installment of my trip report. For technical information on this route, go here.)

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None of us really sleeps, although it’s not for lack of trying. It’s just so enchanting here, lying on my foam pad in the cool dappled shade of this black cottonwood tree, this single solitary tree in the wide, sun-baked, rubbly, desert. What miracle, this tree! The tree whispers of ghosts, describes dramas with its branches. Speaks of unrequited love, despair, other stories. The shade works its way slowly across the dirt and I can hear the gentle clatter of the cottonwood leaves. The bright-orange goldfish follow Chance around the perimeter of the spring-fed pond, hoping to get fed. She squats, fills her bottles, and then gives them some pretzels. I close my eyes, time passes, and when I open them Chance is smoking a cigarette.

“What time is it?” I say.

Jess is packing up her bag.

“Four-thirty,” says Chance.

“Shit!” I say.

Beyond the shade of the cottonwood tree the hot sun still pulses in the empty sky but for a while we’re working our way up a wash that’s shaded on both sides by walls of rock, and it’s cool and dim. The walking is easy and then we’re climbing cross-country up gentle Darwin Flats, the ground pocked with tarantula holes, the sun lengthening behind us turning the Panamints pink and orange.

so furry!

so furry!

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Chance on Darwin Flats

The land is open and unobstructed, the going is straightforward. The sun sinks and then flames behind the joshua trees before going out entirely, leaving only the moon.

Jess

Jess

The moon is all we need to make our way, though, across this wide landscape, and in the distance we can see the thin line of the highway, the lights of passing cars. Highway 190- that’s where our water cache is. The stars wink on above the black crest of the Inyo Mountains and I check my GPS, choose a starlit peak, and aim for it. Around me somewhere in the desert are Jess and Chance, sometimes swallowed by the darkness, sometimes not. Occasionally I’ll stop and stand, wait to see the pale light of someone’s desert shirt in the moonlight.

We reach the highway at 7 p.m. and just beyond it is our cache, still intact, six gallons of water hidden with dirty scraps of cloth and hunks of rock. The highway is black and lonely, the desert vast, the stars warm and bright above us.

Cache

Cache

We sit in the dirt and Jess boils water for instant coffee. The next 45 miles to Lone Pine, which includes a long climb up and over the Inyo mountains in the heat, has no water. How much water should we carry out of our cache? We don’t know.

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Jess makes coffee

In the end we all take around 6 liters and set out at 8 p.m. across the desert on a dirt road, the milky way diffuse above us. The road is flat and easy and we walk quickly, even though our packs are heavy with all the water. We can walk side by side, here, and we do, talking and falling silent, fiddling and doing this or that. Chance blasts music on her phone and I make shadow puppets in the moonlight, which makes Jess laugh. I should be tired after the last few nights of short sleep but I don’t feel weary yet. I’m still riding the endorphins, the adrenaline, whatever that thing is that adventure gives you that makes you feel alive, as though your regular ordinary world has been replaced by one in which anything can happen.

It’s just after midnight when we see it- two parallel white lights, like wingtips of a plane, slowly rising up the western horizon. We stop and stare. There is no sound.

“Those aren’t stars,” I say.

“No,” says Jess.

The lights move farther up the dark sky and then they slowly fade away.

“Holy fuck,” says Chance.

“UFO!” I say. I whirl around, but the road behind us is empty. The desert is suffused with an eerie stillness. I think of a radio show I once listened to about UFO’s- they found dead cows in the desert, their mouths cut out with lasers.

We are all very creeped out now. We walk on down the pale dirt road, past the sentinels of Joshua trees. We’re weary, and we try and decide what to do- do we walk until dawn, or for another few hours? I think I can go until dawn but at the same time something inside of me is unspooling, some tightly wound excited thing- coming open like a bunch of ribbon. I’m ready to lay inert in the sand, under the spinning stars. In the end we walk for another hour and then at one a.m. spread our bedrolls on the ground, collapse into them without dinner. I drink some water. My mouth tastes acidic, like night-time coffee. The ground is flat and hard and my spine opens into it. The alarm is set for 6 a.m.

Sleep.

Lowest to Highest, a Backcountry Route From Badwater to Mt. Whitney, Part Three- Heat Exhaustion and Magical Desert Goldfish

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(In the first week of October, 2014, I set out to hike the Lowest to Highest Route with NotaChance and Orbit. This is the third installment of my trip report. For technical information on this route, go here.)

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Oct 4
20 miles

Since we got to our camp at the magical tree-spring late and had a short nights’ sleep the night before, we all decide to “sleep in” but really, we hardly sleep at all- it’s hot and none of us can quite get comfortable and there are mosquitoes bumping up against our faces and limbs, which we’ve flung out of our sleeping bags in an attempt to stay cool. Also, the animals? I can’t stop thinking of the animals that might want to come and get a drink. I drift in and out until after it’s light and when I wake up, Chance is nowhere to be found. Chance wins the award for fastest packer-upper- I remember one morning this year on the PCT I heard her wake at 5 a.m. and when I looked up again from my sleeping bag at 5:14, she was gone.

I’m rolling up my neo-air when I hear her shout-

“I found more water!”

Jess and I follow her voice and find her in a tangle of green brush, off to the left a little further down the wash- the water appears here, as well, and here it’s clearer and less sulphury, and some enterprising soul has stuck stones around the perimeter of the puddle to keep the muck out and make the water easier to gather. We all squat, filling our bottles in the trickle, and drink as much as we can. I already had horrible diarrhea this morning, presumably from the hotspring water I drank before bed, combined with dehydration. It’s twenty miles to our next water source, at Panamint Springs Resort. We’ll be crossing a hot, flat valley in full sun. How much water do I bring? I decide on four liters. Is this enough? Do I need more? I don’t know. Jess finds the sun-bleached skull of a bighorn sheep next to the spring, and holds it up like a mask. Chance says there was an actual living bighorn sheep on the ridge, before we showed up. There are also, apparently, wild burrows. We see their poop everywhere, like horse poop only different. Lots, and lots, and lots of wild burrows. But where?

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The wash is a sort of canyon and it’s shady for a while and then the sun gets higher and the wash opens up into wide, flat gravel and it’s hot, hot, hot. Below us we can see the valley that we’ll cross, pale and bleary in the baking morning. The wash becomes an old rutted jeep road, and we shout with joy and relief- so flat and easy to navigate! We didn’t start hiking until 8 a.m., but maybe we’ll still make good time today. We pass an old mine, rusted bedsprings scattered about, a decomposing impala. We reach the flat, dusty valley and begin to cut north across it, towards some low mountains in the distance. The temperature rises considerably, and when we reach the deserted road that leads east towards a campground we take a break in the lee of it, crouching in the few inches of shade there, and eat our food and drink water. The sun is a bright strong animal, pure in that special desert way, an undiluted 100 proof ultraviolet wonderlight that will vaporize every living thing. This, this is the sun they warned us about at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. I am wilting, sweating from every pore but after fifteen minutes we rise, and continue on our way, north along another rutted jeep track. The earth spreads itself out flat and warm and we expand to fill it until Jess and Chance are small figures in the distance and we are each of us alone in this heat, with ourselves, and our hopes and dreams and fears. I check my phone and discover that I have 4G in this shimmering-hot nowhere place and so I leave my body and hang out, instead, with Taylor Swift and Gossip. The sun swings in the sky and the heat radiates up from the ground and I begin to feel just a little sick. Brain too warm, tripping a little in the loose dirt. Just twenty miles today, just twenty miles… just got to make it to Panamint Springs Resort. I sit on the ground with my golite umbrella over my head and rifle through my food bag. I don’t really have any food left.

“You ok?” says Chance.

“I got too hot,” I say. I’m slurring my words. Chance gives me a couple of bars, and I eat them. I drink my water but it tastes bad. When did I last pee? I don’t know.

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An hour later we’re crossing a broad “playa” made of featureless white sand and I start to panic a little bit. I feel sick, and my breathing is getting funny. I discovered my “heat edge” this year on the PCT, walking from the Saufley’s to the Anderson’s- it was 105 degrees that day. I made it the 24 miles, but had it been one degree hotter I would’ve had to curl up in the shade and wait like a little animal for it to cool down. Today feels hotter than that day- my brain is all sorts of slurry and my limbs are made of warm, heavy sand. My tongue is a big dead thing in my mouth. I can’t imagine using it to speak. Heat exhaustion, heat exhaustion, coming to get me. I fantasize about putting my head under the bathroom tap at Panamint Springs Resort. Head under the tap, head under the tap. I play it over and over and over. I move my legs over the flat, featureless landscape but the distant mountains grow no closer. I swallow more of my warm, muckish water. At last we leave the playa behind and cross an expanse littered with lava rocks of various sizes. It isn’t particularly difficult to work my way around these rocks, but right now it feels like a monumental challenge.

“I think I have heat exhaustion,” I say to Jess, right before we reach the highway. The highway is 1-90, part of the Badwater Ultramarathon race route. We’ll walk along it about a quarter of a mile to the resort. We’ve heard that during the marathon the runners “stay on the white line”, in order to keep their shoes from melting to the asphalt. We happily walk on the white line, pretending we’re in the race. I imagine a support van keeping pace beside me, dousing me in buckets of gatorade. Panamint Springs Resort shimmers in the distance, inching closer. Head under tap, head under tap, I think.

I am a beat-down, overexposed, sleep-deprived, sweat-fried creature and I drag myself up the wooden steps of the resort, collapsed sunbrella clutched in my hand, my needs radiating out from me in great waves. It’s 4:30 p.m. Norwegian motorcyclists crowd the deck, fashionably sun-kissed and clutching cold beers, laughing as though there is a great quantity of everything, enough for everyone, as if there always will be. A man heads me off as I reach the large double doors of the restaurant.

“Are you looking for the campground?” he says. I imagine I smell like a pair of dirty socks that has been buried in a damp locker for a hundred years.

“No,” I say. “I don’t know. I just got here.”

“The campground registration is at the store,” he says, pointing back into the desert.

“Ok,” I say. Fuck you, I think. Don’t you stand in the way of my desires. They are larger than you, and they will crush you. I summon great courage and push my way through the doors and into the restaurant. The woman behind the bar stares at me.

“Where. Is. Your. Restroom.” I say.

The bathroom is a crowded little closet around the side of the building and once inside I slide the janky brass latch and take off all of my clothes. I turn the tap on in the dirty sink and stick my head under it, feel the cool water like liquid gold on my neck and scalp and then I splash water on my face again, and again, and again. I fill up a bottle with water and drink the entire thing. I rinse out my shirt and my shorts and put them back on, wet, after carefully tending to the very brutal butt chafe that magically appeared in the last half mile of my hike. I wash my hands with actual soap. I brush my teeth. I stare at myself in the mirror, put my hat back on, and emerge an entirely rejuvenated person.

I find Chance in the restaurant, chatting with the locals.

“About how many people do this hike?” she asks.

“None,” they say, although they remember our friends, Bobcat, Swami and Dirtmonger, who came through in the spring.

“How hot is it in that valley right now?” I ask.

“110 degrees,” says the waitress.

We get a little table in the back corner of the restaurant where we won’t offend anyone and order one of everything on the menu. It’s eighty degrees inside but now that I’m not hot I’m suddenly very, very cold. I put on my down jacket and try not to chatter my teeth. I can’t seem to get warm. I’m happy, though, and that’s all that matters. I drink an orange gatorade and eat a burger with fries, part of a bowl of chili and a salad. I feel euphoric now, that post-bikram-yoga feeling. What is that? Is there some sort of connection between heat exhaustion and euphoria? Jess and Chance were pretty hot today, but not like me. So I’m the weakest link, when it comes to heat.

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nice words on the wall at Panamint Springs Resort

The campground, a breezy chunk of desert across from the restaurant, is only $7 and has picnic tables and free showers. We get a site next to a couple on a motorcycle vacation and yardsale our stuff across the table. Chance finds our food cache, miraculously unharmed, in the bushes behind the store, and to celebrate I eat a bunch of gluten-free pretzels. Time slows to molasses as all the blood in our bodies flows to our feet, and knees, and calves, where desperate repairs are being done. I eat some more gluten-free pretzels. We formulate a plan to avoid heat-death tomorrow by camping here tonight, hanging around until late morning, hiking a handful of miles to a spring, napping there, and then night-hiking into the wee hours, to make a 27 mile day. The sun goes down and the moon comes up and I spread my bedroll in the sand and collapse onto it. Woo woo woo, goes the wind.

I wake to see Chance struggling with her tent. The wind has increased to great gusts, scattering objects into the desert. A row of white canvas wall tents stand empty at the edge of the campground and I unzip the front of one of them and find cots inside. The three of us take refuge there, figuring the tents aren’t likely to be rented out at this late hour, and so we’ll likely be safe until morning. Still, I can’t really sleep and I toss and turn, listening to the wind. The moon is bright, like a lamp. What is this place? What is sleep? What is anything?

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Oct 5
27 miles

The couple on motorcycle vacation are Wendy and Peter and in an act of incredible generosity they take us out for breakfast at the restaurant in the morning. I eat sausage, eggs, bacon, and four bowls of fruit loops in protein-powder milk. I want to be social but the temperamental wifi at the resort is suddenly working, now, in this early hour before the Norwegian motorcyclists are awake, and I feel a great and pressing need to upload hiking photos to instagram. Jess is shy and so this leaves Chance to chatter at our hosts, which she does with characteristic randomness and aplomb. This dichotomy between the way Chance talks (belligerently) and the way that she writes (eloquently) is one of the most charming things about her. Watching Chance talk to strangers is like watching a traffic accident and great art, simultaneously. Sometimes I like to pretend she’s Hunter S. Thompson on acid.

There isn’t enough food to get me the two-and-a-half days to Lone Pine in our food cache so I go into the little store and poke around. I eat an icecream sandwich while I shop. The shelves are mostly empty but I find a handful of rice krispie treats and some packets of low-grade trail mix. There is powerade on fountain and I gleefully fill a massive styrofoam cup with sweet cold blue liquid. A huge bag of tortilla chips sits alone on a shelf.

“That’s eleven dollars,” says the woman behind the counter. I put down the chips.

“Does anyone ever buy it?” I say.

“No,” she says.

“So it’s just for display then? Like, a prop?”

“Yes.”

I contemplate a sack of marshmallows but then decide against it and pay the thirty dollars, or whatever it is, that I owe. Back at the campground Jess and Chance are taking second showers and I do as well, poking at the hole in my knee. The hole is doing a good job at not becoming infected, considering. I squirt some more hand sanitizer in there. I am going to have the best scar.

We hike out at 10:30 a.m.- it’s only a handful of miles to Darwin Falls, our first water source, but I’m armed with three liters against the heat. I just want to know that I have it, you know? A dirt road through the hot bright desert takes us to a trailhead and a mucky trail leads us into a tall, narrowing canyon, at the apex of which is a cool, aquamarine waterfall. Jess and Chance jump in the water but I just rinse my shirt, afraid for my knee-wound.

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There’s a small flat place to rest and we spread our bedrolls there to nap but just as we’re drifting off some German tourists appear. Our gear and shoes and crumpled food wrappers are spread everywhere and we sit up awkwardly, look at the tourists, and wipe the dust from our faces. In three miles is China Garden Spring, the last water source before our cache.

“Let’s go there and nap before night-hiking,” says Chance. “Maybe there won’t be people?”

We pack our things, stand in the narrow canyon, and look at our maps. It appears that our route goes directly up.

“I think we, ah, climb up this rock?” I say. There isn’t any trail but way above us we can see a single cairn. Rock climbing scares me, and I don’t know how to do it. I try and be brave as the three of us pick our way up the steep red rock, shouting to each other when we find a way through, discovering handholds and footholds and here and there a cairn, or a bit of an animal trail. And then another sheer wall with no way out, and one of us is staring up saying I don’t think this is a good idea, and another one looks for handholds, and we help each other up and there, like a miracle, is another cairn.

Me and Jess. Photo by Chance.

Me and Jess. Photo by Chance.

“This is, like, class four rock scrambling,” says Chance, at one point. We hear voices, and look down at the shelf below us. There are climbers there. The climbers are wearing helmets and carrying ropes. We keep picking our way up the rock. I am too scared to take any pictures. We take turns being fearless and holding up morale and finally we’ve crept our way to the top of the canyon, past another, secret waterfall and onto an animal trail above a stream choked with brush.

secret waterfall

secret waterfall

It’s a bighorn sheep trail- the invisible bighorn sheep that to go everywhere we want to go. It’s taken us 1.5 hours to go .3 miles.

Another third of a mile of easy walking over some hot bright hills and then a big swaying tree, a rivulet of mucky water and, miraculously, a deep clear pool, in which swims a number of large goldfish.

how goldfish?

how goldfish?

“How did these goldfish get here?” I say. In the shade of the big tree (what kind of tree? I don’t know.) is a slab of broken concrete- the remnants of a cabin? Nearby is another crumbling structure. Someone’s tagged it with China Garden Spring in big letters.

yours truly

yours truly

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Jess

Who lived here? Where did they go? The whole place feels abandoned and sort of enchanted, like no-one ever comes here. Around us the desert rolls away into folds of hills and dried-up washes but for now we spread our bedrolls in the shade of the tree and lay down in the impossible peace, the air rattling in the leaves and the great open quiet of the desert saying rest, rest, rest.

Tonight we night-hike.

Lowest to Highest, a Backcountry Route from Badwater to Mt. Whitney, Part Two- Mystical Water Fortresses and an Unbound Freedom I Didn’t Know Existed

Sunset on the salt flats

Sunset on the salt flats

(In the first week of October, 2014, I set out to hike the Lowest to Highest Route with NotaChance and Orbit. This is the second installment of my trip report. For technical information on this route, go here.)

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October 2
6 miles

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” I’m down on my hands and knees on the salt flats, blood running everywhere. I try to push myself up but it’s hard- the salt is really sharp, and my hands are bleeding. My face is cut up too, and my knee. “Fuck!” I say again. I’m crying. We’ve been walking for about three miles, in the dark, without headlamps- the moon is big and bright like a streetlamp so we haven’t needed them- everything is illuminated. When I imagined this trip, I always imagined that this first six miles, walking on the salt flats, would be the easy part. I imagined the salt flats as a smooth, sandy place where we’d plod along in a general sort of direction. I figured we’d make great time. But it turns out that the salty mud, just like everything here, is shaped by the flash floods that periodically move through, and the stuff dries in all sorts of crazy, fantastical ways- big geometrical chunks, sticking up like water-swollen puzzle pieces, thin tinkling crusts through which one post-holes with a sound like shattering glass, and pointy, irregular lumps that glitter in the moonlight and, it turns out, are really, really sharp. The going has been slower than I’d imagined and then, like a fool, I tripped and fell on my face.

Jess and Chance appear (we’d been walking spread out across the salt flat, lost in our own thoughts, following the tinkling sounds of each others’ progress) and Chance pulls the foam pad out of my backpack so that I have something to sit on. I wipe at my face- I fell pretty hard on my face but my nose is not, as I thought it might be, broken, and most of the stuff on my face is dirt, not blood. Jess shines a light on my knee, and there’s the source of most of the blood- there seems to be a hole punched there, in the soft part just below the kneecap, into what I can only describe as “bacon fat”. There’s a small, yellow piece hanging loose, and as I stare at it the blood slows to a trickle. There isn’t any pain- my face and torn-up hands are what hurt the worst. Must not be very many nerve endings there- a sort of natural knee pad. That’s cool. I poor some water on the hole to wash out the grit.

“That wound is badass,” says Jess. This cheers me up. Chance tells me about the time she rode an office chair down a really steep hill to impress someone, and the wounds she sustained from that.

“Do you think it needs stitches?” I say.

“Nah,” says Chance. I wonder what I should do. We’re only three miles in, and the hole in my knee is pretty deep. Of course none of us carry first-aid kits. If I limped back to the boardwalk right now, leaving Jess and Chance to do the hike without me, no-one would fault me. It would make perfect sense- I had to get stitches! Life is full of these moments, I think. These perfect little opportunities to quit. Sometimes quitting is the most reasonable thing. And yet, if I’ve learned anything, it’s to see these moments as red flags. These moments, more than anything, are the moments when you’ve got to keep going.

I fish out some hand sanitizer and squirt it into the wound. It doesn’t even burn.

“Seems fine,” I say.

We make it to the jeep road on the other side of the salt flats at 10 p.m., and poke around for a place to camp. We’re exhausted but we’re wired too, high on the uncertainty of this adventure, the feeling that anything can happen. We unfurl our bedrolls beneath the moon and I rinse out the hole in my knee again, pour some more hand sanitizer in there. I’ve got a clean bandanna and I tie it over my knee. That oughta do ‘er. Who needs first aid kits when you have hand sanitizer and a clean bandanna?

It’s warm, too warm for my sleeping bag, and there are these little gnats everywhere, swarming my face, crawling in my nose like they want to eat the moisture there. The moon is practically pulsating in the sky, suspended above the salt flats, casting everything in shadow. Our alarm is set for 5 a.m.- we want to get in as much hiking as we can before the heat hits. Tomorrow we climb up towards Telescope Peak, an ascent of ten thousand feet in fourteen miles. It’s the fourth steepest climb in the U.S. And there isn’t any trail. We’ll also locate our first desert water source.

I know I should be asleep, but I feel so awake. My whole body is humming with energy. What’s going to happen, and what will it even be like?

Life is really, really good.

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October 3
23 miles

Jess hands around her jetboil of hot water and there’s a little instant coffee for everyone- I pull the blood-crusted hanky off my knee, fold it carefully for re-use and then we’re up, working our way towards Hanaupah canyon as the horizon transitions to orange, aquamarine, and then the sun shoots crystal magic light-rays over the crest of the mountains, illuminating the whole clear pure universe.

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Jess/Maps/Sunrise/Chance

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Failed morning group selfie w/Jess' eye and Chance's hat

Failed morning group selfie w/Jess’ eye and Chance’s hat

Hanaupah spring is a miracle- one moment the world is a conflagration of salt and rocks and dust and light and then there’s the sound of running water, real bubbling water, and tall straight green water plants and a spring, flowing just casually, and just as casually going underground not soon after. I cup the water and pour it over my head, soak my shirt in it. We can see that the source is further up the canyon- there’s a whole swatch of green there, in the shaded crooks and gulleys, verdant and impossible. Also a little cave in the face of the hill- where a miner once lived? We sit in a hunk of shade next to a big rock and laugh, and eat food, and consume more caffeine. Caffeine. We are going to need lots of caffeine on this trip.

After resting we do as Charlie said and begin the long slog up towards the ridge. It’s slow going, just like everything we’ve done so far. All my hiking experience is on the PCT and I’m learning that, compared to this, the PCT is like running a marathon with aid stations- the path is gently graded and generally free of obstacles, and resupply points are a reasonable distance apart. All you have to do, then, on the PCT, is concentrate on walking as fast as you can. Hiking cross-country is a whole different animal- the ground is uneven, and there are almost always things in the way. And while I can space out on the PCT, hiking without a trail keeps my brain almost constantly engaged- I’m thinking about where I am in reference to the landscape around me, what the landscape is about to do and how, exactly, I am going to get to where I need to go. And there’s the thought that goes into my footwork- stepping up and around and over and veering here and there and looking for faint animal trails and pausing and recalculating and backtracking a few steps and looking to see where Chance and Jess are, and if they’ve found a better route, and wondering if the slope is gradual enough or if it’s about to get too steep and I’m going to have to climb hand over hand and maybe I should go over there, to that other slope, maybe that would be the more efficient way? It feels like I’m doing a crossword puzzle while I hike and I love it- it’s a sort of intimacy with the landscape that I’ve never experienced before. Badwater Basin, Hanaupah Canyon, Telescope Ridge- these places are being burned into my memory, I’m feeling them meter by meter with my hands, their topography is being lovingly cataloged by some part of my brain that I’ve never even USED before. I’m an animal, I’m a deer, I’m a free wild creature, and I’m just casually moving over the land!

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Jess and Chance on the climb out of Hanaupah Canyon

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Breaktime on the climb

The climb is straight up, and it is STEEP. Endorphins are dumping into my body at an unprecedented rate and the air is cooling as we gain elevation, soon we’re in shady pinyon forest and I feel happier than I have in weeks, mashing uphill at one mile an hour, my achilles tendons so tight they feel like they might snap. Go legs, go! This is what I live for! Long steep climbs, I never thought I would learn to love them. When I first started hiking I dreaded the climbs. But the endorphins of steep climbs are a thing without parallel, and that feeling you get upon reaching the top is a feeling, I am learning, to build one’s entire life around.

Chance, almost to the top. Way below you can see the salt flats where we started.

Chance, almost to the top. Way below you can see the salt flats where we started.

The three of us reach Telescope Ridge at 3 p.m.- the last seven miles of the climb take us five hours. Chance and I are completely busted and we curl up in the sun with our hats over our faces and feign sleep. Jess elects to climb another thousand feet up a side trail to the peak. Jess is one hell of a brilliant hiker- she has a natural talent that’s almost eerie and we joke that it’s just a matter of time before she “goes to the races” and starts her life as a champion ultrarunner. Chance and I will pace her, we say, and help her train, and afterward she’ll use the prize money to take us all to Nepal.

From one side of the ridge we can see Hanaupah Canyon, and the salt flats, and the place where the road is, where we started. On the other side of the ridge we can see where the folds of the mountains peter out into another great, flat, baking valley- that’s what we’ll cross next. I eat some pretzels and sunflower butter, a couple of bars. I’m almost out of water- our next source is at the bottom of this mountain, in Tuber Canyon. Our destination for the night.

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On Telescope Ridge

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Looking back towards Telescope Peak

Looking back towards Telescope Peak

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We cross that next

We cross that next

Jess returns (“I’m the first person to sign the summit register since March,” she says) and we make our way across the ridge on two miles of good trail- the only trail we’ll see until the 99 switchbacks up Mt. Whitney on our last day. This actual trail is easy, too easy, and it’s not for us- the trail continues on along the ridge but we leave it to descend overland down a soft, rocky slope towards the valley below, picking our way as quickly as we can the sun sinking in the bright open sky. Then it’s dim pinyon forest, trying to find the right way to go, cutting back and forth among the trees and bushy desert plants, our legs scratched up, just knowing we’ve got to head down, down to Tuber canyon, and water.

Goodnight, sun

Goodnight, sun

It’s dark by the time we reach the canyon, a narrow wash choked with trees and brush. The air is chilled here and there are crickets- you can almost smell the water nearby. I feel certain, though, that we’ve passed the spring- that it’s up the canyon a little ways and that we’ve got to bushwhack backwards a bit to find it. We’ve got a PCT hiker’s aversion to backtracking- on the PCT it is almost always more efficient to go forward as quickly as possible than to backtrack to the watersource, campsite, or whatever it is that you missed. We stand there for a bit, debating- we know that there are several potential springs in Tuber Canyon and we know that Charlie said that at least one of them was running. The one we missed had water, but we don’t want to backtrack. If we keep moving forward, will we find another? We’re thirsty and tired, having blown our entire loads on the climb up Telescope Peak. But we just do not. Want. To backtrack. So here are the possibilities of the known universe-

-There is another spring.
-There isn’t another spring and we hike until two a.m., at which point we reach a road that we can walk another couple of miles to a campground that will have water.
-There isn’t another spring and we hike all night to Panamint Springs Resort, reaching it around dawn.

The first option seems highly unlikely and so we set off, with stupid enthusiasm, into what may turn out to be a very miserable night. I’m thirsty, but not TOO thirsty- this is not my first time at the dehydration rodeo, and I feel that I could comfortably hike until the wee hours without becoming sick. We’re so tired, though, and the wash, although it’s sandy and has opened up a bit, is full of rocks and boulders and it’s slow going in the dark. The three of us stop talking and just sort of hike, scouting around now and then in spots where we think the other potential springs might be. There’s nothing, though, just a whole lot of nothing. It doesn’t seem as though there’s a single drop of water in this whole eerily beautiful, godforsaken place- just the moon, and the rocks, and the slopes of the ridges rising up, and over there a huge clump of big, lush trees-

Trees! The ground around the trees is smooth, trampled dirt, like in a yard where a dog is kept. There are bones and poop everywhere, flat places in the grass. And then Chance is shouting

“Water! I found water!”

And we come running to find a rectangular, shallow depression beneath the low tangled limbs of the trees, dug out by enterprising creatures, and yellow, clear-ish water pooled there. There are things floating in the puddle, muck on the bottom, but we don’t care. We’re elated. Water! We found fucking water! A spring! The place where every creature this side of Telescope Ridge comes to drink!

I fill up my bottle carefully to minimize floaties, and treat it with my steripen (twice). Jess and Chance don’t treat the water at all. I take a long drink and discover that the water tastes absolutely horrible- it’s sulfuric and warm, sort of salty. Hotspring. It’s like I’m drinking a hotspring. I almost can’t stomach it, but I make myself drink a half liter. I remind myself of how thirsty I am.

A moment later we realize that we can hear running water inside the trees, the source of the spring, but there’s absolutely no way to get to it. The limbs of the trees are like an iron prison- and we’re not the first creature that’s tried to reach the water. This desert is crazy! These trees are nuts! Who are they, to keep the spring for themselves like this? We comfort ourselves with more sulfur-water from the puddle and then bed down in front of the mystical, mysterious, water-bearing tree-fortress, in the trampled dirt where every other creature for a hundred miles comes to sleep, and drink, and fight, and fuck. I can almost feel them watching us, from the ridges above- the wild burrows, the bighorn sheep, the mountain lions. Thirsty, en route to their daily drink, and then- fuck! What are those? Humans? What are they doing here and how long until they perish and we can pick their bones clean?

We sit in our sleeping bags, eating what we can of our dinners. We hiked until 9 p.m. today, traversing a humble 23 miles. But they’re most gratifying 23 miles I’ve ever hiked, and slowly I can feel my old attitude about hiking sloughing away, something new growing in its place. This sense of accomplishment, this intimacy with the land, this camaraderie with Chance and Jess, my real human friends in this great empty desert wilderness. I don’t know what I’m doing right now, exactly, but it’s very, very different than what I did on the PCT. This isn’t a “trail”- it’s just an idea that someone made up. A concept. Who’s to say that I can’t come up with my own ideas? Who’s to say that I can’t find some maps someplace, call up the ranger station, link together the existing water sources? What is this great, wild, busted open world? What is even out there?

A single fat mosquito appears just before I drift off to sleep, and bumps against my face. Then another. Of course there are mosquitoes, in the one place where there’s water. Of course. I unstuff my shelter and pull the mesh over my face, but I can still hear them, like tiny, single engine planes. And it’s warm- strangely warm. It’s supposed to be cool in the desert at night. I’m no expert of desert climates, but I did notice a trend during my two rounds on the PCT- a warm desert night usually comes before a heatwave.