PCT Central CA Day 3: Humbled

Mile 963.85 to 973.42 — Today’s miles: 9.57

I sleep quite well by the creek, and in the morning open my eyes to see a deer arriving for a morning drink. Magical. I get four giant mosquito bites in the time it takes to roll up my tent, and decide to postpone toothbrushing until I reach a less buggy spot.

Without ceremony, I am thrust right back into the climb to Benson Pass, and though I’m glad yesterday’s self got some of the climb done for the me of this morning, I don’t feel any better able to get oxygen. For my lungs, it feels like a really hard Crossfit workout, but for two hours instead of fifteen minutes. I stop frequently, bent over my trekking poles, trying to regulate my breathing so I can go another few tenths. Halfway up, I’m no longer able to pep talk myself and put on a Dear Sugars podcast. It helps distract from the terrible sound of my gasping, but I still have to sit on a few boulders and get myself together along the way. Maybe the haziness is having a greater effect on my breathing than I thought…

At the top, at last, I find shade and lean against a big rock, eating a few bites of things that seem palatable (food is still very unappealing), drinking electrolytes, and looking at the map for the rest of my day. Two northbounders and two southbounders arrive almost at the same time — the NOBOs with relative ease, the SOBOs huffing and puffing like me. I brush my teeth and start the long downhill.

At a creek with lots of shade and big flat slabs of stone, I stop to filter water and find the NOBOs, a couple named Firefeet (!) and Steve (no trail name yet). Firefeet is thru-hiking, and Steve’s done all of the Sierra with her so far, so they’re in peak hiking shape by now. We have a nice chat, and I feel happy to share my trail name and to give fist-bumps (hygenic version of a handshake on trail). Funny how such small things can create a sense of belonging. We meet up again at the stunning Smedberg Lake and share a lunch spot. Another thru-hiker named Bee’s Knees joins us, too. I try to decide what I can eat, and eventually pour freeze-dried spaghetti and meat sauce in my plastic jar, add water, and set it in the sun to “cook.” Remarkably, it tastes okay and I’m a little sad when it’s gone. It’s so peaceful here: the cool breeze, the lake water lapping gently against the shore, the mountains all around us. I never want to leave this place.

But a hike must be hiked. There’s a short up (across swaths of granite, and the route-finding distracts me from my breathlessness), a short down, a longer up that hurts, and then a very long steep down in the baking sun, with lots of huge rocks and tree roots to navigate. By the time I reach Piute Creek at the bottom, I’m exhausted. I had planned another medium climb to finish the day, but it feels impossible. I despair for a bit. I haven’t been able to make the miles I’d planned, and feel frustrated that the altitude and air quality are affecting my breathing (and appetite?) so much. I was doing 15’s in the desert right from the start, but out here I’m killing myself to do 10 mile days. I begin to think about earlier exit points. Just entertaining the thought is incredibly disappointing. I feel quite low, and can’t seem to talk myself out of it, which is very unusual for me. I use the emergency beacon to send a brief message to Cyn about my struggles, and she replies with a helpful pep talk, reminding me to HYOH (hike your own hike).

At the creek, my three lunchmates understand the breathing problems immediately. Firefeet and Steve agree with my tentative statement that I should camp early today. Bee’s Knees tells me about the many days of altitude sickness and then breathlessness that she and several other thrus got smacked with as they entered the Sierra section. I’m grateful to her for this camaraderie. After they all head out for the next uphill, I sit by the creek and try to reset my brain. If I have to leave before completing my planned mileage, then I do. But I still get to be here, in this incredible place, with its sweeping landscapes and tiny animal dramas and quiet solitude. All of that — the crux of what I love about hiking — can be experienced just as well on ten miles a day as on twenty.

I “wash” my hair by scrubbing it with a wet bandana, wipe my face, and dunk my hat in the cold water. There is a likely spot to camp a mile up, so I resolve to go as slow as needed and cut a little bit off tomorrow’s first climb. It takes me a long time, but I get there. The air has gotten extremely hazy as the day’s gone on, and the mountains look like they’re in an old faded photograph. I can hear rushing water from my campsite, which still feels like a luxury after the desert last year. I’m snug in my quilt by 6pm, ready to rest my body and my brain, hoping my emotions reset themselves overnight and wondering what tomorrow might bring.

In the midst of that long morning climb, I crossed a creek and enjoyed this brief stretch of flat against the most perfect landscape.
Looking north at the top of Benson Pass.
View from my lunch spot at Smedberg Lake. Three cheers for toe socks.
Hazy mountains on my last uphill of the day.
A pretty incredible place to sleep.

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