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In 2011, one of my Lake Tahoe friends and I resupplied two of his friends who were thru-hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT). They needed one last food drop to get them through the Whitney Portal, which is the southern terminus of the JMT. Our plan was simple, but our execution of it was not.
On paper, the trip sounded fun and straightforward. We were to drive to Onion Valley Campground, spend the night, hike up and over Kearsarge Pass to Charlotte Lake the next day, camp overnight, deliver the food, and then return home in the reverse order.
I quickly realized, however, that I should’ve played a more active role in the planning phase, if only to gain a better understanding of what I was getting myself into.
“You have a permit? You moonshinin’?” said the man sitting atop the first of three pack horses. He was in his 50s and wore a pair of lace up Ropers, weathered Wranglers, and a buttoned down long-sleeved shirt patterned with stripes and faux Native American symbols. His beat up straw Stetson provided shade, but his face still glowed murder red. He squinted at me, signaling that our duel had officially commenced.
“Moonshining? What are you talking about?” I scrambled to find meaning in that word—moonshining.
“My company has exclusive rights to work these trails.”
Oh, this knucklehead thinks I’m trying to muscle in on his territory, I thought. “The food I’m packing in is for some friends hiking the John Muir Trail. There a law against helping your friends?”
The rider stared at me for a moment. Then, he muttered something under his breath and turned away. He nudged his horses into action and they left Kearsarge Pass. The pack train made their way down the decomposing granite trail, methodically negotiating the switchbacks en route to the Onion Valley Campground parking lot that lay five miles and 2,700 feet down the mountain.
I scanned the faces of the other hikers who were also sitting on top of Kearsarge Pass, resting and enjoying the views. A mix of eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, and head shakings indicated that they were just as surprised as I at the bizarre confrontation.
“What a jerk,” said a woman sitting nearby.
“Yeah, so much for peace, love, and harmony out here.” I rifled through my pack for a Snickers bar. Of course it had melted. I didn’t care. I needed that fat and sugar combo of nougat, caramel, and peanuts wrapped in chocolate to sweeten me up.
The brief, three-day excursion that my Tahoe friend, Jason, and I set out on turned into an epic saga within hours of leaving our homes at Lake Tahoe.
For one, I didn’t know that in addition to carrying out the general plan I previously outlined, we were also shuttling Jason’s friends’ truck from their hotel in Mammoth Lakes down to the Whitney Portal.
And neither of us realized that we were going to have to fork out cash in order to retrieve the vehicle from the hotel. Apparently his friends hadn’t prepaid enough money to cover all of the days the vehicle was parked on the premises. In retrospect, the conflict with the angry cowboy was simply par for the course.
Jason approached the 11,760 foot summit of Kearsarge Pass. Seeing him lightened my spirits because he was the reality-defying manifestation of the fictional movie character the Big Lebowski, AKA, The Dude. Standing around five foot ten and weighing 225 pounds, he was a near exact replication of the Dude, all the way down to the sandy-colored goatee. Jason’s tie dye t-shirt, reflecting his “takin’ ‘er easy” attitude, was soaked with sweat and covered with dust.
“You moonshinin’, dude?” I yelled to him.
He stopped and looked up at me. “Huh?”
“Nothing. I’ll tell you later. Come on up.”
In a minute Jason reached Kearsarge Pass. “Wow. Would you look at these views?”
The sawtooth ridgelines of the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains gave the savage appearance of monstrous teeth jutting out of the ground. They looked like some long forgotten beasts were attempting to chew their way free from their earthen prisons. And, based on the volume of natural debris scattered about the base of the mountains, it appeared the beasts were making progress. Although the ranges surrounding Lake Tahoe were beautiful, they looked tame compared to this part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
“So, how do you feel?” I said. “Any headaches or nausea?”
“Nope. I feel pretty damn good.”
“You know this is the point of no return, right? Once we head down to Charlotte Lake, we’re not going to be able to come back until tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll be fine, man. Going down to the valley last night did the trick.”
Jason experienced minor altitude sickness the previous night. We had arrived at the Onion Valley Campground around 7pm and quickly set up shop. Of course, we wound up with a tent site right next to the outhouse. So, between the occasional breezes carrying scents of robust mint mixed with delicate notes of feces, we devoured the sandwiches we had picked up in town. Then, after dinner, we stretched out our legs by walking around the campground.
Since we had spent way too many hours driving from Tahoe, around Mammoth Lakes, and shuttling his friends’ vehicle down to the Whitney Portal, I was ready for bed as soon as the sun set. We returned to our camp site and I crawled into my sleeping bag.
No more than 10 minutes passed when I heard Jason walking outside the tent and talking on his mobile phone. “Yeah, some nausea … and this headache … it won’t go away,” he said. “Uh huh. Yep, I tried that. You think? Ok, ok. Thanks. Bye.”
Zzzzzpp. Jason threw open the door to our tent and poked his head inside. “Hey, man.”
I rolled over to face him. “Dude, what’s going on? You ok?”
“I think I got altitude sickness.”
“What?” It took a moment for me to comprehend his statement. “But we live at 6,300 feet. We’re only, like, three thousand feet higher up here.”
“I know, I know. This has only happened to me once before. On Shasta a few years back.”
“Well, what do you wanna do? I mean, the only safe option is to drop in elevation.”
“You think we should do that?”
I got the impression he already knew the answer to that question but wanted me to reach the same conclusion on my own so it would seem like it had been my idea all along. I was tired and pissed, but I appreciated the potential severity of the situation. Ultimately, the only surefire remedy for the symptoms of altitude sickness is to go down to a lower elevation. And, altitude sickness doesn’t care where you come from or how athletic and fit or hydrated you are. When it strikes, it’s miserable. When left untreated, it can be lethal.
In the darkness, we disassembled the tent, tossed our gear in the car, and drove down to a point just outside of Independence, the nearest town. We parked in a small dirt pullout and called it a day, hoping that by morning Jason’s symptoms would pass so that we could continue our mission to deliver the food.
Back at Kearsarge Pass, Jason dropped his pack and took a seat next to me. He drank some water, then shoveled a handful of trail mix into his mouth. “This is something, don’t you think?” He sliced up an apple and passed me a wedge.
“Definitely. It’s incredible.” I chewed the apple and was grateful for the way it cleaned off the dust that had crusted onto my teeth.
After snapping some photos of each other standing next to the Kearsarge Pass sign, we hiked down the trail in the direction of Charlotte Lake. At the base of Kearsarge Pass, on its west face, we met a girl who was hiking the JMT.
“How’s your trip been going?” said Jason.
“It’s been great, but I ran out of food yesterday. I don’t know if my friend, who’s supposed to resupply me, is on his way or not.”
Jason and I looked at each other, puzzled. “You ran out of food?” I said.
“Yeah, it’s no big deal. I’ll just hike into town. But I was supposed to meet the guy down here. I don’t know what he’s wearing, but he’s about six feet tall and has brown curly hair. Anyone up there look like that?”
“Uh. Not really. There was a big group of Asian people and a baby boomer couple at the summit when we left.”
“Oh. I really don’t want to hike Kearsarge if I don’t have to, and then do it again tomorrow.”
“I don’t blame you. Here, take this.” I handed her two Clif bars and Jason gave her some trail mix.
We offered her more food, but she refused. “If he doesn’t show up, I’m going to have to hike out for a full resupply anyway.”
We parted ways and continued in the direction of Charlotte Lake.
The cloud cover that had been threatening rain all afternoon evaporated under the heat of the sun’s rays. Bullfrog Lake, below us in the valley, lit up. The lake looked like the sagittal cut of a crystal cluster. The waves kicked up by the wind sparkled, and the edge of the lake was ringed with shades of green and turquoise, much like the colors of unrefined float copper.
After a few more miles of hiking, we made it to the intersection of the trail to Charlotte Lake and the JMT.
“Glad we’ll be dropping this food,” I said.
“Yeah, and we’ll lose some more weight once we eat dinner. Tomorrow’s hike out should be easy,” said Jason.
I chuckled. “Yeah.”
We erected our tent once we arrived at Charlotte Lake, then went for a swim. I filtered water for both of us and Jason prepared dinner. We feasted on pasta smothered in marinara sauce and topped with huge chunks of smoked salmon. For dessert we drank tea and ate a package of Oreos. Needless to say, we were sated.
In spite of the big dinner, I didn’t have much gas left in the tank. So, after cleaning up and brushing my teeth, I settled into my sleeping bag. I intended to jot down some notes in my journal, but couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to write more than a sentence at a time. Jason seemed just as tired, so we turned off our headlamps and called it a day.
Unfortunately, my blissful night of sleep was cut short—10 minutes after I closed my eyes to be exact. Within minutes of declaring lights out, Jason began to thrash about in his sleeping bag.
“Dude, you all right?” I said.
“I don’t know, man. I’m cramping up.”
“My legs just won’t stop twitching. You think that’s a symptom of altitude sickness?”
O boy, here we go again, I thought. “You have a headache?”
“No. Just the legs. And, I’m really hot. Like I got a fever.”
“But no headaches?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure muscle cramps are a normal result of what we just did. I mean, we hiked nine miles and endured eight hours’ worth of exposure, at altitude no less. How much water did you drink today? Before getting into camp.”
“I don’t know. Like a quart. Maybe a quart and a half.”
“One quart? What, are you a camel?”
“You think I should’ve had more?”
“Dude, you’re a big ass guy. You probably sweat just thinking about hiking. How much food did you have today?”
“Just that trail mix and a bar on top of Kearsarge.”
I had assumed that Jason was a seasoned backpacker but, then again, today’s climb combined with the additional weight we carried for his friends did make for an ass-kicker of a day. “Okay, here’s the deal. Your body is probably exhausted from hiking all day and you just flooded it with thousands of calories and lots of water. It’s probably just responding to the dynamic shift in your metabolism. Maybe go outside and do some squats or pushups. Or, walk around to loosen up your legs.”
“You don’t think we should go and talk to the Ranger? Just in case it’s related to altitude sickness.”
To my surprise, there was, in fact, a Ranger station at Charlotte Lake. “What is it, like, 10 o’clock? You really want to go and talk to him?”
“Yeah. I just want to make sure this isn’t serious. Ya know, for peace of mind.”
“Alright. I doubt it’s anything more than just exhaustion, though.” I rolled over and pulled my sleeping bag over me.
“You mind going with? It would probably be safer. It’s pitch black out there.”
I sighed. “Alright. Let’s go.”
We got dressed and grabbed our head lamps. The cabin was relatively close, maybe a quarter mile away, but we walked cautiously since it was so dark. When we arrived, Jason knocked on the door. The place looked vacant and there wasn’t a response for about a minute.
“You think he’s out on patrol?” asked Jason.
“I don’t know. It seems kinda late.”
Jason knocked again.
“Yeah, hold on,” said a man from inside the cabin. We could hear him lumber across the wooden floor. He unlatched the door and opened it. “Is everything alright?”
Jason did most of the talking, describing to the Ranger what he had told me. And, the Ranger basically explained to Jason what I had told him. After some idle chit chat, the Ranger made it clear he was going back to bed. We expressed our gratitude for his service and headed back to our campsite.
“Thanks, man. I appreciate you coming with me,” said Jason.
“No problem, dude. Let’s just get back to the tent. I need to sleep.”
The night passed without incident, but by morning my anxiety level was spiking again. Jason, laying in his sleeping bag next to me, was fidgeting.
“Dude, you’re freaking me out. What’s going on?”
“Yeah, I don’t know. It feels like my gall stones are acting up.”
I looked at him and saw that he was palpating the right side of his abdomen. “Your what?”
“I have gall stones, but they haven’t been a problem for a long time. I got kind of a shooting pain thing going on right now.”
“Dude, your insides aren’t going to burst are they? ‘Cause we have to hike out today and there’s no way I can carry you.”
“I’ll be fine. I have some medicine that I can take.”
“You carry around medicine for your gall stones?”
“It’s a homeopathic remedy. It’s not specifically for them, but it should help.”
“Do what you have to do and let’s get out of here.”
With the speed and efficiency of an elite military unit, the two of us broke down camp, secured the food drop for his friends, and got back on the trail.
We arrived at the car at a decent hour without suffering anymore emergencies or conflicts along the way. Although, on the drive home we did have to abruptly stop so I could deal with an acute case of the runs. Alas, the trip wouldn’t have been complete without at least one last mishap before returning home.
In spite of everything, we accomplished our mission which enabled his friends to successfully complete their thru-hike of the John Muir Trail a few days later. And I was reminded on this trip just how exciting elevation, exposure, and exhaustion can be.
Disclaimer: At no point during the execution of this plan or writing of this story were any White Russians (or any other beverages for the matter) spilled or otherwise harmed.