Date: 8/24/17 | Miles Hiked: 17.3 | Passes: Silver
It’s fitting for me to come to this portion of my hike on Halloween. Why? Because it includes my scariest night on the trail.
Night 6 and the Mystery Neighbor
I woke up on night six to the sound of twigs breaking. Any feelings of grogginess were immediately trampled by my racing heart as the rustling noises continued.
Something was outside, and it was approaching my tent.
My first thought: bear. But then my tent filled with a soft light. Headlamp? The light suddenly disappeared, but the sound of movement was still dangerously close. I sat up and my senses went into overdrive.
I heard the faint swish-ting of tent poles connecting. I stopped holding my breath and collapsed back onto my sleeping pad. Oh good. It’s just another backpacker.
But my sense of relief was gone just as quickly as it came.
Another backpacker. Why was this person getting into camp so late? And why were they setting up their tent so close to mine?
I sat up again, barely breathing so I could hear more clearly. I locked my sights on the tiny pocket knife I packed and wondered what help that could possibly be in a situation like this.
I tried to think rationally. Maybe this person wasn’t as close to my tent as I thought. This wouldn’t have been the first time I thought someone was right on top of my campsite when in reality they were a good 50 yards away. But the light from the headlamp, the clear sounds of zippers and tent poles… no, this person was setting up a few feet from my tent. And the lack of even a whisper made it clear that this hiker was alone.
The backpackers on this trail are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I told myself this in an effort to slow my heart rate and fall back asleep. But my mind wandered to a podcast I once listened to. A true story about a deranged man who opened the tents of a group of campers and murdered them.
I knew I was being ridiculous. I wanted to pop my head out from my tent and say hi to ease the tension. This person could have felt just as terrified of me.
But I didn’t want to reveal myself as a solo female hiker.
In my tent, I could have been a 6 foot man who does CrossFit and carries a big knife. Keeping myself a mystery was my best defense. I wondered if my hiking poles or other gear showing outside my tent could expose who I really was. What clues did I leave that could reveal my true identity as a small, pocket-knife wielding woman?
I waited until the noises coming from my new neighbor’s tent stopped. For some reason knowing (or thinking) that they were asleep made me feel better about letting my guard down. I snuggled into my sleeping bag and closed my eyes.
Day 7: The Trail is 50% Mental
I emerged from my tent to see another tent about six feet away from mine. The mystery backpacker.
Shortly after I started my morning routine, the tent’s occupant was revealed.
It was a young Asian man; he couldn’t have been older than 25 and wasn’t much larger than me. When he saw me he began apologizing profusely, bowing his head to show remorse as he explained the situation. The sun had set and he couldn’t find a spot to set up camp (although it felt like the middle of the night when he appeared, it was only 9:00). So he reluctantly joined my campsite.
I smiled and told him not to worry about it. It wasn’t a big deal, the campsite had plenty of space for two tents. I tried to ask him about his hike, but it became clear that English wasn’t his first language. He was section hiking part of the Pacific Crest Trail, traveling southbound. He packed his things quickly and left.
The first part of my hike — up and down Silver Pass — was breathtaking. I chatted with an older couple at the top of the pass who was completing the hike for the third time. Another man was with them. It was his first — and according to him, last — time on the John Muir Trail.
The couple asked if I was hiking solo and I told them I was, confessing how emotionally difficult the trail had been. Their friend looked at me. “I could never do this by myself,” he said. The couple sympathized with me, telling me about struggles they ran into previous years.
“The trail is 50 percent mental,” they said, encouraging me to stay strong. It’s worth it in the end.
I took off my pack to grab a much needed snack and started talking with a man named Damon. His uncle introduced him to the magic of the Sierras and he was hooked on this California mountain range. We talked a little about rock climbing and he told me next year he planned to hike the High Sierra Trail, which is a much more technical thru-hike within the same mountain range.
Damon was traveling solo, but his wife was able to hike with him for few days. He told me how enjoyable that was, saying that on his own he got bored and relied on podcasts for entertainment. He was trying not to rush the hike and taking side trips along the John Muir Trail, which put his exit date about a week later than mine.
Shortly after we began talking, Kamon (Yup. Rhymes with Damon.), a hiker Damon had met on the trail a few days earlier, appeared on the summit. The two began talking and I decided to keep moving.
I was in a great mood after Silver Pass, thinking that the hardest part of my day was over. I didn’t realize what a bear Bear Ridge was going to be.
Four miles of switchbacks and 2,000 feet of elevation gain was still between me and camp.
I thought I was going to die. I’m not sure if this climb was difficult because it was unexpected, because it was the end of the day, or just because it was terrible, but I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it. I could look up beyond the switchbacks and see the top, but it never got any closer. I made a lot of primal noises on the way up, which seemed to help.
Then I ran into my Chinese neighbor from the night before. This was probably the third time we passed each other on the trail that day. He also looked like he was struggling. A lot. And this made me feel better as I once again took the lead on the trail.
Near the top I paused for a break and a man I had just passed, who looked to be in his 60s, approached me and gestured for me to reach out my hand. He held out his and placed an apple flavored Jolly Rancher in my palm. It helped on climbs, he said. I think for him it helped alleviate dry mouth, but for me the burst of flavor was the mental distraction I needed to push to the top.
When I finally made it, I ran into a group of hikers laughing and shouting. Sounds of celebration. Some were even on their cell phones. Could it really be?
“Do you get service up here?” I asked, to the excited reply of yes! I took my phone off airplane mode. Nothing. I asked who their provider was, and it was the same as mine. They said they had been getting signals all over the trail. I restarted my phone. I waited for bars. Still no service, so I sadly began my descent.
At camp a few miles down the ridge I felt ill. I wanted nothing more than to go to bed, but I knew I had to eat. I went to a nearby stream to gather water for my meal and slipped on a mossy rock, dunking myself into the icy water.
This event — as unpleasant as it was — snapped my back to life. I quickly ate and set up my tent, vowing to never hike this many miles in a day again. At least not when it included a pass and a bear of a ridge.