Straight Back Through The Sierra Nevada, More or Less
Words & Photos by Katelin Reeser
We stood confidently before the iconic range that lay just beyond the desert, The Sierra Nevada. Once again, we would become awe-inspired by the golden light, the plentiful water, and the soaring granite. It was our second time hiking through the Sierra. The first time, we were new to backpacking as we thru hiked along the John Muir Trail. This time we hiked 700 miles to get here.
Our journey began at the border of the US and Mexico, following blue and white emblems marking the way along the Pacific Crest Trail. Equipped with Hyperlite 2400 Southwest backpacks, Darren's black and mine white, we were confident their durability and carrying capacity would get us through arguably some of the toughest miles of the PCT.
Although many miles led up to this moment, the story begins in Ridgecrest, CA, in front of a mediocre Thai Restaurant. "Are you a thru-hiker?" an older man asks me. He's been pacing the length of the parking lot for a while. I notice him glance up at me occasionally, which makes me nervous. I assume he's waiting for his food. My fiancé, Darren, is about 30 feet away on the other side of the parking lot, talking to his friend on the phone. We've been waiting for our food for 25 minutes or more; I don't know. I've lost track of time as hiker hunger has consumed my mind. "Yeah," I respond, "Are you?". He nods and walks over. He explains he's eaten at this restaurant four or five times over the past three weeks. He says it's pretty good. He's hiking the trail with his son, and they are holed up in a cheap motel waiting for him to heal from a back injury.
My interest is immediately piqued. "A back injury? You or your son?" I ask, dumbfounded. "It's my son; he went to pick up his pack one day and, WHAM! His back goes out. So, here we are, at the cheapest motel we could find, just waiting for him to heal up so we can get back on trail." My mind is spinning from the hunger and thought that a 28-year old's back went out while his rather healthy yet greying father is standing right in front of me.
That day they had planned to head back to trail after the three-week recovery, but as the son picked up his pack to throw it in the trunk of a Trail Angel's car, his back went out again. Their trip together was over. The son would go home, and the dad would hike on alone until his son was healthy enough to hike with him.
Memories of my personal history with back issues immediately flashed through my mind. Six months before I left for the John Muir Trail, I had a chiropractic adjustment that triggered a bulged disc in my lower back. The pain was constant, mixed with numbness down my leg and pins and needles in my toes. I even had issues standing up straight. I was devastated, unsure if I could heal in time to hike the trail. I did heal, but it was a long road with which I still struggle today. I felt for the kid; I really did. But little did I know, I was in for my own bout in just over a week.
The section from Kearsarge Pass to Mammoth would require six days of food if we were going at a fast pace. We would hike nearly 130 miles, aiming for 20-25+ miles a day, climbing over multiple passes at high altitude. We packed the massive food resupplies inside our respective two-pound bear vaults, Darren's a larger 500 and mine a 450, a required piece of equipment in the Sierra. We would be much hungrier than in the desert, burning more calories with each additional foot of elevation gain, and the amount of food in our packs proved it. During the entire 2,650-mile thru hike of the PCT, our packs would never come close to being this heavy again.
Day One out of Kearsarge was as beautiful as I remembered. Alpine lakes glittered in the sun as a trail adorned with exploded rocks led us ever further upward. We landed in a bed of soft pine needles for our campsite, surrounded by friends we had met on the trail. Mosquitoes swarmed all evening and forced us into our shelters.
On the morning of Day Two, my pack felt heavier than the first. Toward the end of the day, we began stopping every hour or less. The heat was getting to us, and so was all the additional weight. Stop to rest and be swarmed by mosquitoes. Keep moving and be safe, but only until fatigue sets in again. We decided to push it a bit further past where our fellow thru hikers set up camp. We planned to make it to a familiar spot, the exact location we camped almost two years before on the John Muir Trail, just below Mather Pass.
My back started to ache, but we had great memories at this campsite, and I wanted to see if it had changed much. We arrived, set up, made dinner, and immediately passed out, lulled to sleep by the melody of the nearby babbling brook. Thru hiking has a way of wearing you out like nothing else.
It was a beautiful morning. The light was majestic as it unveiled the surrounding mountains, but it was cold. Frost decorated the top of our quilts and the walls of our shelter. We hurried ourselves to pack up and get moving before our bodies got too cold. As I stood, my body would not straighten. There was a familiar stiffness in my lower back that was both painful and concerning. I couldn't stop thinking that the weight of my pack must have compromised the alignment of my spine. How would I carry my heavy pack up and over these mountain passes if I couldn't even stand up straight?
I tried best as I could. I hoisted my pack on top of a hip-height rock, squatted with it behind me, and carefully looped my arms through the straps. "I think I can do this." Then, a little less than half a mile in with the climb directly in front of us, I began feeling pain in my lower back. The
bear vault was digging into my spine, sending a searing hot sensation through me. I wanted to scream. I had done this specific stretch of trail before; why was my body shutting down now? I whimpered and cried silently in pain as Darren hiked ahead. He noticed me lagging behind and stopped to wait for me.
I was pretty down at this point, so he offered some simple suggestions. Stop, stretch, take some ibuprofen, and utilize your trekking poles to help correct your posture. He even offered to carry some of my heavier gear. He had some good points, but I couldn't allow him to carry my things. I took a little break, applied his advice, and felt a little better. Once again, I carefully put on my pack and made my way up the trail. My back was stiff as hell, and I STILL couldn't stand up straight.
I wanted to quit, but there was nowhere to go. Theoretically, we were on a deserted island. Remote as they come, you have to hike days to get out of the Sierra, and you aren't even guaranteed a ride or cell service. This was the first time in my history of thru hiking that I wanted to quit a trail. I was afraid my back would give out, and hiking with this pain was not the joyous adventure I had in mind.
I voiced my concerns to Darren about the son in Ridgecrest whose back gave out. He had a solution. For the third time, he offered to carry my bear vault. If I were to take him up on this offer, I would feel like a failure, but I had to remind myself that my options were limited, and he wanted to help. Either we stay in this spot for half a day, possibly another night, and eat through our rations, or I could try to walk it off with less weight in my pack. Being the type that doesn't like waiting around, I graciously accepted.
We traded gear. I took his quilt, sleeping pad, and cook system. He took my bear can filled with food, and he managed to fit both cans in his pack. At a capacity of 40L, we were both impressed by how much it could carry. Comfort was not compromised in the slightest. It wouldn't close, but we didn't really need it to since rain wasn't on the radar. That day, I realized that the backpack could form to my back without the bear can, giving me some much-needed relief.
So, for the entire day, Darren carried two bear cans. Both he and his HMG pack handled the weight without concern. He was the last up the passes that day, sweating and cursing the mountains, but I knew it meant more than anything to him to keep me healthy and to keep our journey moving forward. We had a goal to make it to Canada, and this wouldn't be the thing to stop us. For me, relief came throughout the day as I tended to my back and carried a much more manageable pack weight for my size.
The next day I packed my backpack a little differently, with everything inside except the bear can. I strapped it to the top of my pack like some sort of relic on display, and it never bothered me again.