JMT Day 14: Exiting the Trail

Date: 8/31/17 | Miles Hiked: 3.5 | Passes: Kearsage

Today I had to make a difficult decision, and I hope it was the right one.

A knee problem that started as an ache on steep descents had morphed into a pain that had me practically crawling out of my tent each morning. So, after pushing through five days with a quickly deteriorating left knee, I finally called it. I was exiting the trail.

I had intentionally camped near Kearsage Pass, the last path connecting the JMT to civilization before the thru-hike’s grand finale: Mt. Whitney. I’d never had knee pain quite like this before and was worried that if it got any worse I would find myself immobile on the trail. As much as I wanted to finish the hike, I decided that leaving the trail early on foot was better than spending a small fortune to exit the wilderness via helicopter.

The morning’s chores were slow, with my non-functioning body and sense of defeat to blame. When I finally pulled on my pack and stepped onto the trail, I saw Rachel and Mike hiking toward me.

I immediately doused their excited greetings with news of my decision to exit. They said they had Ibuprofen and invited me to finish the trail with them. They were feeling achy, too. We could take it easy. But I had been grappling with my exit decision for a few days and felt I had to stick with it. So we exchanged numbers and parted ways.

Nothing about this trail is easy — even leaving it.

Getting to the top of Kearsage Pass required 3.5 miles of hiking and over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. The physical hike was fine compared to the emotional struggle I was facing.

Thirty miles. Three days. That’s all I had left. It felt like training for a marathon only to quit four miles before the finish. I was the crew of Apollo 13. I trained for the mission and made it into space only to realize I’d never step foot on the moon.

Alright, that last one was a bit dramatic, but leaving the trail early was heartbreaking. It was something that my friends and family at home didn’t fully understand right away. To me, the JMT wasn’t just a few weeks of backpacking in the mountains. It was the competitive outlet that had been missing from my life since graduating college. I set a goal. I trained to meet it. But I failed. It was incredibly disappointing and brought back feelings from other low points in my athletic career.

John Muir Trail

When I made it to the top of Kearsage I was briefly distracted by the beautiful view facing the John Muir Wilderness. I looked to the other side of the pass, toward town, and saw a thick haze from recent fires. As I listened to day hikers chat about the upcoming weekend, it hit me. This was it. My time living on the trail was over.

One man on the pass had plastic bags full of food and offered to share. Snickers, Peanut M&Ms, a slice of cheese. Like a starved animal I accepted everything he offered and thoroughly enjoyed it. I told him that I was exiting the JMT. A woman overheard my story and insisted on lending me a knee brace she had packed. Her husband fitted it to my leg and I agreed to return it at the bottom of the pass.

Then I realized people had cell service, and to my delight so did I. I called my husband and explained the situation through tears. He said if it was a tear or tendentious I wouldn’t do extra damage; it would be about pain management. I could go slow and he’d meet me on the trail when he arrived in California.

I considered the small amount of Ibuprofen I had, how hard it had been for me to decide to exit, the amount of pain I was in, and the passes I’d need to tackle (the largest mountains yet) to finish.

I hesitated, not wanting to quit having come so close. The knee brace couple was already descending the pass, heading into town. I wished badly I hadn’t accepted it as I considered hiking the opposite direction to get back onto the trail.

In the end I decided to exit the trail as planned, rest up, and return with my husband in a few days via Kearsage if I felt up to it.

The hike down was slow and I worried I had missed the couple who lent me the knee brace. Luckily they had stopped near the lake where I planned to camp for the night. I returned the brace, saying it didn’t make a difference, but they insisted I give it another try. The husband put it back on, explaining how to find the right placement. I learned he was a doctor (what are the chances?). He said it was probably a form of tendentious and that I should ice and take four Ibuprofen every 3-4 hours. That seemed excessive, but who was I to argue with a doctor?

Onion Valley, California

I set up camp, ate Ramen, took three pills and immediately felt sick. I spent the afternoon reading before making a few phone calls and eating a mix of leftover trail food for dinner.

The day was a mix of sun and rain, often at the same time. Once again, the trail felt the need to show its teeth as I admired its presence.

Looking around my campsite, I could see and hear other campers in all directions. There was no coverage to go to the bathroom. I felt like a wild animal brought back to society. Pooping in a hole, peeing anywhere and only getting water from nearby streams was no longer normal. I was a freak. Limping around camp like Frankenstein, unsure of what to do with myself or how to feel about being off the trail.

This transition back to civilized life was going to be interesting.

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