How Things Change – Part 2

This is the second post about my Kings Canyon/Sequoia first-timer, solo backpacking trip – the original plan was here and the first post about what actually happened is here.

Day 2

Woke up from the stressful fighting with ex dream, checked on food & other things I had left near the bear canisters and everything was fine and untouched.  Thank you bears for not destroying my stuff in the night!  I stiffly went about preparing myself to try and do a second long day of backpacking – again with a heavy pack and a lot of elevation to deal with.  Today’s hike would take me over my first mountain pass (Granite Pass) and then down 5600′.  All the work I did yesterday, undone. It was depressing to think about because I worked so hard that first day to lug myself and my 11 days of food UP.

So much downhill should be easy, right? NOPE.
So much downhill should be easy, right? NOPE.

That first morning I did not enjoy the oatmeal I had brought for breakfast and I buried it after one bite.  Was able to drink miso soup and a protein powder shake to get some nutrients into my system for the first couple of hours of hiking (I usually get protein at

Once I was packed up and headed back to the main trail, it was 8am (this would be my latest start of the whole trip) and the older couple from Utah were already gone.

Only 0.8 miles to my first pass.
Only 0.8 miles to my first pass.
Approaching Granite Pass.

The main challenge with Day 2 was trying to quell my internal fears about getting further and further away from my car, from any sense of safety, and what that would mean if I was to become seriously injured. Traveling in this rocky and remote terrain, by myself, locked my brain into an intense level of survival mode, which comprised of both an overwhelming awareness of how every single step needed to be careful and solid as well as having no additional space for deeper thoughts – my brain kept looping snippets of the same song for hours each.  Where was the experience I’d imagined – the one where I was listening to Spanish podcasts and teaching myself a new language while robustly traversing meadows on packed dirt trails?  Where were the life-altering ideas that had been dormant, awaiting the opportunity to catch up with me but too suppressed by urban busyness? Not to be found on Day 2.  What I found instead (TW: suicidal ideation) is that I got really despondent and there were many times I imagined just letting myself fall over into the rushing river below – even going so far as to imagine putting rocks in my pockets – because I could only imagine how to end this, right here, right now.  I’m happy to report that for whatever amount of my brain goes to those dark places, there is fortunately some other part of me that keeps my feet going, played loops of songs, and bombarded my thinking with the mantra “Just keep swimming” from Finding Nemo so that I was able to push on.

Push on, indeed.  That second day included an incredibly dusty 5600′ descent, 6.6 miles, with no water, in hot sun, that took 4 hours to complete.  I pulled up to the first water source – a small stream – at about 6:30pm that night.  I’d passed the Utah couple on the descent and they arrived about 15-20 minutes after I did.  All of us were monosyllabic and exhausted.  I had set up camp at the first opportunity prior to the creek, they went over to the other side and found a spot, and we both hit the hay early.  For me, that was after trying to eat dinner and finding that I could chew the same bite of food for minutes and never want to swallow.  A second night of burying dinner.

Me and another woodsy loner facing off at dinner time.
Me and another woodsy loner have a staring contest.

It was starting to occur to me that maybe this trip wasn’t supposed to be about miles per day.  Maybe I was supposed to figure out how to have a good trip, a trip that would leave me wanting to do this again. I had joked with a friend back home “sometimes I do these extreme things and then I never want to do them again” – like running the half marathon, doing a triathlon, or cycling a century.  I never wanted to do any of those again after doing them once (though currently the idea of a triathlon has been circulating and I’m tempted).  She said “don’t do it then!” very concerned, I guess, that I would never want to backpack again.  In the 13.5 hours of hiking 13+ miles that day, I had started to wonder if I should consider shortening my route so that I would be able to enjoy it more.

That night I put in earplugs to sleep because I was finding that the sound of running water and random bird noises was not calming or sleep-inducing.  They helped me sleep deeper but I woke up a few times in the night, yanking them out, feeling like someone was speaking to me.  At least I didn’t dream about fighting with my ex again, or dying.

Day 3

I never got their names, and I never saw them again after this day, but boy am I grateful for the existence of the Utah couple – practically my only points of human contact on those first 3 days.  I got up at 5:30am (which was now the norm) and was packed and boiling water for breakfast at the creek by 6.  The man came to the river to get water for his breakfast & prepare for that day’s travels so we had a chance to talk a bit more – both of us now rested, hydrated, and able to form complete sentences.  I confessed to him that I was scared, this was my first big trip, and I might have scheduled a more intensive itinerary than I could do.  He shared with me that he had done the JMT, that he hiked 500-600 miles on average per year, that he and his wife had just completed the PCT over the course of 39 years of doing segments, but how even for them yesterday had been a supremely challenging day.  This helped me immensely.  I needed to know that I wasn’t weak for finding the last two days so hard.  Our conversation turned to what their plan was – 75 miles in 7 days, turning back towards Road’s End at Woods Creek Trail.  When I suggested that I was torn between turning back or going forward he spoke of some people he ran into yesterday who did turn back and how he felt that going forward was actually the less difficult option.

More uphill, but only 2700'? Easy.
More uphill, but only 2700′? Easy.

I’d still been turning over the idea of retracing my route back to the car, it would mean another day of going up 5600′ – this time with no water – and then at least another day of going down…though I could maybe stretch it into two smaller days.   It felt so defeating to think of going backwards though.  The Utah couple’s itinerary sounded good to me and so that morning I decided that I was going to do it too, and that decision enabled me to move forward with curiousity about what lay ahead and removed my dread at the thought of having to go back.

I’m glad I kept going and got to see so much more than just Granite Pass & Simpson Meadow.

Once I got moving and changing scenery, a lot shifted.  I wrote in my journal that night “I didn’t think about suicide today” and that felt like a huge accomplishment.  On this day I passed the Utah couple on their first break in the morning and then never saw them again.  I made good time towards my next goal (I was still on track for the third day of my original itinerary and was in fact going to go further than planned).   I started to take electrolytes at each of my timer-alerted 2 hours breaks, was able to down snacks, and my body was beginning to acclimate to a full day of hiking.  I felt more energized and able to take on anything, even more elevation.  The slow-going uphill treks were just taking the time they took and I didn’t dissolve into a puddle of self-doubt anymore.  I started noticing a feeling of being grateful for how strong my heart & lungs are and that my legs and feet were doing a good job of tackling the various trail compositions.  From chunky granite rocks to stone stairs to packed dirt to gravel.  My toes were a little numb but otherwise everything was functioning pretty well and while I would have little moments of noticing new ways that injury or death could occur in this environment, nothing overtook my thinking as in the previous days.

I intersected with the John Muir Trail at around 4pm that day and I’ll admit I had a moment of fan excitement.

You have arrived at the John Muir Trail, pick a direction.
You have arrived at the John Muir Trail, pick a direction.

My other human encounter on that day was a young woman who was doing the JMT Northbound solo (for the time being).  She said she’d just finished grad school and this was her ‘treat’ to herself but she had to laugh at calling it a treat.  I was inspired to hear again that this type of experience was challenging other people, not just me, and I happily pressed on beyond my expected day’s goal (8.5 miles to the junction). Now that I was planning to do the 7 day loop, i needed to hit at least 10 miles that day, but I knew I could and it was still early.  I had started at 7am that morning and by 5:30pm I had set up camp beside the river. That night, for the first time, I enjoyed the hot dinner (beef stroganoff) and tucked myself into bed feeling excited for my first full day of hiking on the John Muir Trail.

Stay tuned for one more post that will cover the two days on the JMT and the day getting off the trails.

How Things Change – Part 1

My last post now stands as the “before” version of my overly ambitious goal and this next series of posts will give the “after” details of what I learned from attempting such an intensively long and difficult backpacking itinerary and ultimately, changing the goal.

First of all.  Let’s talk about itinerary planning.  My experiences until last week included 8 years of regular day hiking distances that ranged from 5-8 miles, and rarely had elevation gain/losses of more than 1000′ total in a trip.  I also did urban walking that might cumulatively have added up to 10 miles if I had gone for a run that day, and then one overnight backpacking trip to Sykes Hot Springs that required a 10 mile hike with moderate elevation to reach.  In planning this Big SeKi Loop itinerary, I put way too much stock in the author’s assurance that it could be done in 7-10 days – hey, I gave myself 11 days! – I thought that was all it took.  Plus, we hike at about 2 miles an hour so 15 miles in a day means an 8 hour day, right?


One of the first things I learned on Day 1 is that when I am hiking into high elevations (10500′), going uphill for hours, factoring in my heavy body plus fullest pack, I’m lucky if I’m moving at a rate of 1 mile per hour.  That makes for really long days if you’re trying to target 10 or more miles in a day and you have to stop to eat/rest/fill & treat water.

My original route's elevation chart.
My original planned route’s elevation chart.

Day 0

I get to the Road’s End ranger station at around 1:30pm to pick up my permit and I answer all the ranger’s questions about bear protection (I’ve got 2 bear vaults), the colour of my tent & pack, and where I’ll be each night.  We talk about bears and he tells me a couple of interesting things:

  1. An anecdote about why grizzlies are fighter/attackers while brown bears aren’t (typically).  Grizzlies live mostly in plains & flat land areas with no trees and so can’t climb up trees to get away so they have to stand and fight where brown bears are forest bears and have lots more options so they are more likely to run away and/or hide.
  2. “Think of these bears like bigger versions of raccoons”.  To this I say “is that a good thing?  I’ve known some very badass raccoons.”  So he corrects it to “shy, country raccoons”.

I just want to mention that at no point in my itinerary sharing with this experienced ranger, was the ambitiousness of my route called into question.  So at this point, I’m still thinking that what I’m planning falls within the range of ‘normal’.

Permit in hand, I head over to Stony Creek where I have a room booked for the night and also where I’m hoping to get what is turning out to be a very late lunch.  Their kitchen is closed until 4pm and I arrive at 3:30 so lunch gets even later.  The staff are still cleaning and preparing for the next round of check ins and fortunately my room is already clean so I’m able to get in early and dump my stuff. At 4pm I go downstairs and order the meatloaf special which is the first meatloaf I’ve ever had that was jam packed with mushrooms and sliced black olives – but I’m about to eat freeze dried dinners for almost two weeks so who’s complaining?

The lodge closes down all its services at 8pm so I go upstairs for a nap and then come back down to grab a pizza and Chelada to bring up to my room for dinner. I end up dumping the Chelada down the sink immediately after the first sip and I can barely eat any of the pizza due to a combination of having a late lunch but also I’m noticing increasing nerves.  When I finally get to sleep I dream vividly that I die in a raging forest fire.

What else is there to do in a mountain lodge the night before leaving civilization?
What else is there to do in a mountain lodge the night before leaving civilization but eat pizza and read up on Lesbian Polyfidelity?

Day 1

Wake up at 5:30am realizing that I have pink eye in my right eye.  I haven’t had this since I was 11 years old but I immediately recognize the feeling of a sore, swollen eye.  Fortunately I have some apple cider vinegar with me and I wipe my eye with it, and dump out the last bit of tincture from a dropper bottle I had with me but wasn’t bringing along to fill with cider vinegar to bring on the trail.  Pink eye is not derailing this trip that has been planned for over 6 months.

I’m at the Copper Creek trailhead at 7:30am and I get all things food-like out of my car and stowed in the parking lot’s bear bins.  Then I start hiking.

See you later, Prius.
See you later, Prius.

It’s a grueling day, the few other people who started with me that morning pass by and I never see them again.  With water, I’m carrying over 50lbs on my back which makes the total weight my legs are taking up 5400′ over 300lbs.  Fortunately there are several water stops where I could soak my feet, change socks, and force myself to eat a snack.  Within a couple of hours on the trail it was clear which piece of equipment I was most grateful for bringing:  mosquito head net.  If I had had to do all that climbing while also having flies & mosquitos landing on my face and ears the whole time, I might have turned back.  The head net gave me a buffer of sanity and allowed me to stay focused on moving my feet forward.

It's ALL uphill, ALL day.
It’s ALL uphill, ALL day.

I ran into a ranger when I was bushwhacking back to the trail from a water break mid-day and as he checked my permit he warned me that the rest of that day’s hike would have very little water, and that there would be NO water during tomorrow’s 6.6 miles down to Simpson Meadow. Also he said there were going to be some pack animals brought through and to give them room.  I missed seeing them because I went back off-trail for more water but I followed pack animal droppings the rest of my time in the mountains and it was often a happy sighting as it meant I was definitely still on the right trail.

picture of mountains, trail, and lakes
There was some beauty to be seen that first day.

That first night, as I summited the 10000′ around 6:30pm at Granite Lake, I met my first people in hours – a retired couple from Utah – we had a short visit and then I pushed further to get closer to the lake for sleeping.  While the lake was supposed to be 0.4 miles off the main trail that I had just done 10.5 miles on, it didn’t appear quickly and I was so tired that I stopped at the best looking flat rock near a small river and called that home for the night.

It was cold, buggy, and I wasn’t able to eat much dinner.  I’d lost my appetite in the afternoon, hadn’t eaten my planned lunch, could barely get anything down without a lot of water to wash it in, and I ended up burying about half of my chili mac and getting into bed by 7:30pm.  Then I lay around, unable to fall asleep because I was panicking about everything from the fact that not all my stuff was in bear canisters (couldn’t get my toiletries in there on Day 1),  how sore and tired I was, and how the heck was I going to push further into the wilderness in this kind of terrain?  I was beginning to doubt that I could do 11 days of this.  All this anxiety led to a fitful first night and when I did manage to get to sleep I spent the night dreaming about fighting with my ex.

In the next post I get up and keep hiking on Day 2 and share how I ended up adjusting my itinerary which contributed to how the whole experience started to improve.

Taking a Long Walk

I’m about to do something a ton of things I’ve never done before.  The major features:

  • I’ll be hiking 15+ miles a day
  • For 11 days
  • In the mountains (elevation 7000′ to 13000′)
  • By myself

The idea for this trip started when I read (and then watched the movie adaptation) of Into the Wild in 2007 and was further compounded by a slideshow in Yosemite I attended in 2010 where a guy who had done the John Muir Trail twice shared his experiences and tips. I loved the pictures of stunning meadows & mountain passes and was captivated by his claims that once you hit day 4 or 5 your body acclimates to just hiking all day, every day. I wanted to know what that felt like.  It sounded exactly like the kind of transformative experience that a person who tends to want to do things only when they’re extreme would be into. Spoiler alert: I am exactly that kind of person. From that moment on, I was eagerly talking up the idea of hiking the JMT someday.

Things have been tremendously challenging for me over the last year.  I’ve been struggling through an embattled divorce process and back in the winter when there was no end in sight, I decided I wasn’t going to let the stress and uncertainty of divorcing ruin my summer. I began to plan a big adventure to do alone.  It felt like the right thing to do, to renew my confidence in my ability to accomplish big things. Let’s be clear, getting a divorce is also a “big thing” of a different kind.  My entry into the JMT permit lottery was unsuccessful and while apparently it’s possible to get walk-up permits I’m not the kind of person (yet?) who can plan a 21 day trip that hangs on whether I can score a permit the day of on a very popular route.  A little searching, however, turned up this a very interesting alternative: Big SeKi Loop

At 156 miles, it’s still a challenge and it covers 53 (and according to the authors, the most beautiful) miles of the JMT.  I was drawn to it immediately because it’s a loop which minimizes risk of needing to schedule car swaps or transit to be able to get home when I’m done. The length makes the trip take just under two weeks instead of almost a month and that lets me take time off work with less stress about being gone for too long.  Someday I hope to do some thru-hiking (AT or PCT) but BSL is a solid warm up for a newbie trying to do long distance hiking without a “quit your job” level of commitment.

Once I decided to do Big SeKi I started researching light & ultralight backpacking strategies.  This route doesn’t lend itself to re-supply so I’d have to figure out how to carry 11 days of food – 10 of which have to be in a bear-proof container and that meant everything else would have to be REALLY light.  I read a ton of sites about lightening loads, planning meals, and what to bring – these are the ones I got the most useful information out of:

I also had a coworker’s husband’s spreadsheet from his JMT trip (he was a really good planner!) and learned from him about LighterPack which is a site that does the math on your pack weight (and makes for a great packing list) with support for categories like consumables and stuff you’re wearing instead of packing. Using this tool, I’m able to see that my base weight is only 25lbs when distinguished from my food/clothes I’ll be wearing.

When it came to backpacking gear, there was a lot I didn’t have.  I only just bought my first car camping tent this year. My prior backpacking experience had been just a couple of 2/3 day excursions with my ex and almost all the gear we used was hers.  I had a backpack and a sleeping bag so big items I had to make decisions on right away were:

  • Backpacking tent
  • Cooking system
  • Water purification
  • Bear canister

It was exciting to start building up my backpacking gear.  I tested things out with other pieces of equipment I already had on a few car camping trips in the spring/early summer and I’ve spent the last several months tweaking the gear I needed based on what worked & what was too heavy or not ideal for my expected environments.  In this process I made several significant changes:

  • Lighter weight sleeping pad – I ended up going with the insulated Nemo Vector  (has a foot pump built in) after the Nemo Tensor I bought started leaking after only two short weekend trips.  To make up for the weight difference, I went down to a regular size on the Vector where I’d had the long size of the Tensor (which was indulgent)
  • Thanks to a very experienced friend’s recommendation, I purchased a way better, bigger, and lighter backpack – my old North Face one was 65 liters and almost 5 lbs.  I got this ULA 75 liter instead that only weight 3lbs.  I love how this bag is designed and just took it out on a trip to Desolation Wilderness last weekend for a trial run.  It’s all one compartment inside but has hipbelt pockets, side pockets, front mesh,  and an internal hydration bladder bag that help keep things organized and easy to access at all times
  • After a trip last Thanksgiving with my 30 degree down sleeping bag where I ended up freezing, I was advised to upgrade to a 10 degree bag which will better suit sleeping in the mountains at 10,000′.  I’ve done a few trips now with the 10 degree bag and it’s perfect.

In the month leading up to departure I was mostly focused on food planning.  My initial approach was to try and aim for as many calories per ounce as I could in each item of food but I struggled to get 3000 calories each day to weigh less than 2 pounds.  My first pass on food looked like it would be impossible to carry.  Not only that but it become obvious pretty quickly that I was going to have to bring 2 bear canisters on the trip if all my food was going to be protectable (and meet park regulations).  My experienced friend thinks this is funny and I can’t find much information on the web about other people doing it but by the numbers I’m still happy with my final pack weight and I’m using two 3 lb Bear Vault 500 canisters with a little room to spare in one of them for my toiletries.  Also, as the one can empties out, I can fill it with other things so that my pack can get more compact.

Last weekend’s trip made me realize I was putting too much oatmeal in my breakfasts (1 cup) so last night I spent a few hours finalizing my food packing with a new approach:  what actually looked like enough food?

Photo of packaged food laid out for a backpacking trip meal
Breakfast, 4 snacks, Lunch, Dinner, tea & vitamins

Once I removed about 1/4 of the oatmeal, and pared down the snacks, each day’s meal fell between 1.7-1.9 pounds per day.  This shaved over 10 lbs off my initial food packages. It  meant I was able to get 5.5 days food into one canister and the remaining 4.5 days (my first day’s food will never need to be in a canister) into the other.

Having my food packing working was a really exciting milestone in my trip preparation but this next part sealed the deal on increasing my excitement for the trip: My pack fits two bear canisters while still being able to close!  I was expecting to have to strap one canister to the outside of the pack and am so grateful that won’t be necessary.

2 Bear canisters fit!!
2 Bear canisters fit!!

Here’s a photo of everything I’m stuffing in there – and here’s the weight breakdown:

Everything that's coming along

Weight breakdown

One last item I had to consider for this trip was whether or not to use a personal locator beacon.  It definitely didn’t make sense to buy one (yet) since they run $150+, and that’s without data plans, but since I work in a pretty gadget-loving environment I sent out a message to our social email list in the hopes someone might have one I could borrow.  This worked recently when I got to borrow a GoPro to take underwater videos in Belize, and it worked again last week when a co-worker volunteered to loan me his DeLorme inReach.  The two main locators are the SPOT and the DeLorme.  The former requires a $150/year subscription while the latter let me reactivate it for only $14.95 a month.  As long as I remember to cancel the subscription when I get home, I’ll have the peace of mind for a very low cost.  I hope my mother appreciates that I’m carrying an extra 6.9 ounces just for her 🙂

As of right now my bag is packed, my food fits and feels like enough, and the things I have left to do before I drive away on Sunday are:

  • make a pot cozy  since I’m doing all my breakfast & dinners in freezer bags it will be good to have a place to keep food warm while it’s cooking
  • organize my iPhone podcasts & kindle downloads (I’ve already deleted every single non-essential-to-this-trip app from the phone to maximize photo/video space)
  • prepare my dog’s going away bag
  • print out an itinerary to leave in my car

I’ll take notes and pictures while I’m away and report back on how the trip goes – hope this info helps someone else take on the challenge of solo backpacking. I’ve added some John Muir essays to my Kindle to really get in the spirit of things while I’m up there.  It occurred to me the other day that I was approaching this trip like I do most time off: planning out every minute of how I was going to enjoy the time.  Instead of trying to force myself to a rigid schedule or expected accomplishments, though, this time I’m going to push myself to just look at each day as its own time and see what happens.