Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chapter 5 - Push to Mount Whitney and Civilization

Bubb's Creek in the foreground;  the path up to Forester Pass in the background
Chapter 5 starts with Day 22 and a 3,000 foot climb to Forester Pass, the highest pass on the JMT by over 900 feet.  The additional elevation caused a little anxiety, but we all topped out by 11 am or so.  This pass was also different in that it is very narrow and the south ridge is very steep, even a little dizzying - here I am at the top with Mike mugging in the background:

This was the view looking South, in our direction of travel:

Those clouds would build into a pretty solid rain as we were descending.  This photo gives you a flavor of the exposed and narrow trail descending the pass:

We walked through a rain shower which paused just long enough for us to have lunch, before it started raining again.  When we arrived at our campsite, "Frog Ponds", it stopped long enough for us to get our tents up, then started again and continued for about an hour and a half while we chillaxed in our dry shelters.  After the clouds blew away, we emerged from our tents in the late afternoon and I got this shot of a flat-top mountain - something we saw very rarely in the Sierra - with Frog Pond #2 in the foreground:

One more photo from this day - this was special - even Alex said he had not seen this effect before....I had crossed the meadow beside the ponds to get a higher perspective on the mountains to the west, where the sunset was taking place.  I think we've all seen sunsets where the sinking sun illuminates the bottom of a cloud deck from below - and that's what happened that evening....the cool part was that the mountains that were silhouetted and in deep shadow were glowing with the reflection off of the clouds above:

I remember seeing a quote on a plaque in Zion National Park that went something like this:  "Who can behold these wonders and not see the hand of God?"....that captures my feelings well.

So, onward to Day 23.  This was a big day because we got our first view of Mt. Whitney about mid-morning:

Mt. Whitney, 14,508 feet - the highest peak in the "lower 48",  coming into view
 Our destination for this day was Guitar Lake, which would also serve as our base camp for our attempt on Mt. Whitney.  Guitar Lake sits at 11,500 feet, well above the tree-line and our highest camp of the trip by 700 feet or so.  We camped above the lake - if you look closely in the center-left of this photo, you can see several tents down nearer the water.  Gives perspective.

Something really remarkable happened at Guitar - one of our initial group members - Sarah from Savannah - after quitting the trip back at the Vermillion Valley Resort (stomach bug) and poking around the Bay area for a few days - joined another SYMG trip, a cross-Sierra excursion of about 10 days.  She had been told by Ian that that particular trip would probably be at Guitar Lake on the same day as we would, and so - as we sat on the rocks in the afternoon, this lady in a blue coat starts making her way up the hill toward us.  Mike says "she looks and walks like Sarah".  I say, "nah, and anyway it can't be Sarah, she's surely back in Georgia".  We continue to watch her walk up the hill.  Mike: "she's waving at us".  Me:  "that's because we're staring at her".  Well, of course eventually we all realized that it was really Sarah and I ate my words - this is Midge giving her a big hug:

We were all pretty knocked out by Sarah's reappearance and we sat around for an hour or so listening to her wild account of the previous two weeks and everything that happened after we parted ways at VVR.  It was really extraordinary.

So now onward to summit day, Day 24, which started with my watch beeping at 3:20 am....I would say it woke me up but I didn't sleep much and apparently none of us slept well.  This was my second oh-dark-hundred ascent - the first one was of Mt. Kinabalu, in the Malaysian state of Borneo back in 2002.  We hit the trail at about 4:15, very happily unencumbered by all our grear - this was a day-hike so all we needed to bring were our clothes, water, and a few energy bars.  This is my first photo of the day, taken around 4:30 am:
From left, Carlos, Ron, Mike, Midge - smiling even at 5 am :-)
 We climbed in the dark, using our headlamps to light our way, and as we switchbacked up the ridge, the first cold glow of dawn lighted up the giant wall opposite our trail:

It pains me to know how impossible it is to get perspective from these two-dimensional photographs - for example, the lakes really don't look like they are 1500 feet below where I am standing, but they were.  The trail by this time was often narrow, exposed, and accompanied by precipitous drop-offs.  Geographically, the ridge that Mt. Whitney sits atop is very near the easternmost edge of the Sierra.  The mountains fall away dramatically down to the Owens valley, in extreme eastern California and adjacent to Death Valley and the Mojave desert.  None of that topography had been visible to us for the duration of our hike, and as we neared the top of the mountain, there were a couple of "notches" in the ridge wall where sunlight was streaming through from the east - in absolutely glorious colors.  This was another in the accumulating signals that we were near the end of our journey.  Here is what it looked like:

To the right is west, to the left, east and the desert.
In the center of this photograph is Guitar Lake, 2500 feet below - you can see where it gets it's name.  This captured the first light on the high peaks towards the north and west.

 One more shot before the summit - again, looking through a notch on the ridge towards the east:

I know I can't convey the emotion that I felt as I made the final steps to the summit, but I can tell you that I was overcome thinking about how far I had come - from a very bleak cancer diagnosis, but with a narrow and dangerous path back to health - two rounds of chemo that HAD to work in order to tee up the transplant - which of course had to work - then, slowly, everything working just right and in God's timing, I am completely restored.  To be blessed with a medical and spiritual miracle is amazing and I can honestly say that I am unworthy of it, and boundlessly thankful.  I am also thankful that if God had not chosen to extend my life, He would still be MY God and I would still be His child and enjoying Him forever.

I got the idea for this photo somewhere along the trail.  It is reminiscent of the poses I have seen military members assume near fallen comrades' boots and gear.  In the fight against cancer, there are literally millions of fallen comrades.  I am blessed to be able to continue the fight.

This one reminds me of many classic summit photos I have seen - shows how cold, windy, and exposed these places often are.  A "selfie".

My half-crazy buddy, Mike, scrambled out a narrow and sketchy rock wall to get to this perch, about 60 feet from the trail - he was then joined by our guide, Alex, who skipped across it like it was nothing - I stayed safely and sensibly on the trail in order to be able to take good photos.  And stay alive.

This is what Mt. Whitney did to all of us - Mike is merely exhibit A.  This is after descending to Guitar Lake - where we had to gather up our gear and hike 5 miles down the trail to our camp for the night, making it a 16 mile day with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet and loss of 4,500 feet.  Argh!

In honor of Ansel Adams, the greatest black and white landscape photographer who ever lived, I offer this last view of Mount Whitney, as we hiked away:

Well, as Alex put it, like every good book has a climax and then an ending - our trip's climax was our successful climb of Mt. Whitney, but we still had an ending to look forward to (or endure, as some saw it).  We ended Day 24 camping at Crabtree Meadows near a tumbling creek that had natural showers and pools which were great for getting scrubbed up.  Then, another 11 mile march on Day 25 to a lovely and secluded lake called Soldier Lake.  This lake had the most selective trout I have ever seen in the Sierra.  They were eating like crazy, feeds every few seconds at least - but they would not eat the flies I was throwing and I threw about 8 different kinds!  I could not "match the hatch" which appeared to be tiny gnats that were coming off the bushes and landing on the water.  Frustrating as it was, I take my hat off to these beautiful and sometimes finicky fish :-).  This is a visual taste of what Soldier Lake looked like in the late light:

For the last 2 nights, I had slept without the fly on my tent - the upper half of the inner shell is made with netting, so going without the rain fly has the effect of sleeping under the stars.  On most previous nights, there were passing clouds that could not be trusted, but these last few days and nights were mostly cloudless.  It is wonderful to awaken any time in the night and open your eyes to the glory of the night sky.  I remember one 5 minute stretch of being awake and seeing a meteor flash across my view, then two satellites cruising by and also finding the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, which was positioned overhead at that particular hour - fantastic.

Now comes Day 26 - we had another 10 or 11-mile haul to the trailhead, where we were met by a welcoming committee from SYMG - they put out a lunch spread that was sumptuous and also had a cooler full of very cold drinks for us:

The three Amigos, who hiked the entire trail, starting in Happy Isles, down in the heart of Yosemite Valley.  Enjoying a very cold and appropriate "Sierra Nevada Pale Ale".  We had a ride waiting for us which took us to a Best Western Motel in Lone Pine, CA, got cleaned up, caught a nap, called everyone, and headed out for a celebratory dinner, at which I took no pictures.  The next day (Day 27) we rode 5 hours in a bus back to Fresno and spent another night in a hotel waiting for our flight the next day.  And then, on Day 28, we flew east - back to Raleigh.

It was a joyous reunion to say the least.  Whoever said "absence makes the heart grow fonder" knew what they were talking about.  My appreciations of the wilderness, and my family bonds, my love for the little place we call home, all deepened and strengthened.  At the end of the day I will have raised over $130,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, through the generosity of well over 100 donors, for the purpose of fighting and winning the battle against blood cancers.  I am deeply grateful for all your support.  I am also grateful for all of you prayer warriors who remembered to pray for me.  I think your prayers were answered in so many ways.  Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!  Here is my parting shot, inspired by the Muir Project's trademark photo of the hiking boots lined up:

Thanks to Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides - Ian, Alex, Carlos (WE ARE IN THE MOUNTAINS!!!) - for your commitment to excellence, your love of the wilderness, and your companionship.  Thanks to Steve, Younga, Bill, Sarah, David, Russ, Karen, Dave, Ron, and Midge - you made it great.  A very special thanks to Mike for making the big commitment to do this trail with me - love ya, man!  And to Tiffany and the gang at LLS for your partnership and support.  And Jeff - we did it just like you said we would - thanks for being such a great friend throughout my illness and recovery.  

1 comment:

  1. Dan,
    Thanks for sharing your JMT experience through your blog. I finished reading all chapters and I'm touched. What a privilege to watch stunning pictures and read great stories that help me be a better person.

    There is no doubt in my mind and in my heart that the Lord picked you to inspire others. You are unique. Probably no other person has overcome such significant challenges with great mettle. I remember several months prior to the trip you were determined to do it and fortified your spirit to succeed. No easy task ahead of you: Over 200 miles, almost a month of hiking, climbing steep mountains, at thousands of feet above sea level and going through storms, winds and unexpected events. And it's awsome to learn that you were able to take the best out of each situation. I'm glad you met amazing people such as Midge and got to know your friends much better.

    Surrounded by beautiful landscapes (probably my favorites: LeConte Canyon, Bubb's Creek and the gorgeous black and white at Mount Whitney, though very difficult to stick to only one) this is a journey to remember forever and to be reminded by forever.

    I feel fortunate for getting to know your greatness and generosity because you did this for a cause.

    God bless you always

    Sincerely, Mauricio