It’s almost eight in the morning by the time we finally hike out of Crabtree Meadows to head up and over Forester Pass. We had planned to break camp at sunrise, but Mt. Whitney kicked our asses the day before and the biting cold mountain air made getting out of our warm down sleeping bags a long and unpleasant affair. I know right away it’s going to be a long day when my legs feel leaden and my lungs tight on the first little climb out of camp.
“Really?” I think as I jab my trekking poles into the dirt, amazed at how arduous the task at hand already seems. We haven’t even hiked a mile. I gasp for air. Stop, lean my weight on my poles, take a deep breath. Keep walking.
Then come snowfields that seem to stretch forever. We trudge through terrain washed in white, our gaits clumsy and cumbersome. Sometimes we posthole–our legs sinking through the thick spring snow like it’s quicksand. We laugh, or shriek when we sink deep, then we pull ourselves out of the holes we make, our feet wetter and heavier with every step.
The scenery is gorgeous, though, and we stop often to fill our bottles from frigid lakes or streams bursting with clear, cold water. Dewey sings Townes Van Zandt songs and Masshole cracks jokes and we are tired but we are happy.
And then we climb. And climb. With every switchback the air grows thinner.
“You can do this,” I say to myself. “You climbed the highest damn mountain in the United States yesterday.”
But the self-talk doesn’t work. I feel like shit. My legs are wobbly, my head even more so. I keep my eyes focused in front of me, try not to look down. When I do the trail pitches, tilts on its side.
“You’ve got this Tick Tock!” Dewey yells down from the switchback above me. I keep walking. As slowly as I imagine I’ve ever walked on the trail. Or ever in my life, it seems. Place my hand against the craggy side of the cliff to steady the spin. Keep walking. Finally, I reach Dewey.
“How ya doin’, Tick Tock?” He smiles up at me. I toss my pack down on the trail and sit beside him on a rock.
“I kinda feel like I’m gonna puke. But good. Good, I guess,” I say and try to smile but it comes out looking more like a grimace and we both laugh.
“This is so fucked,” Masshole shouts to us. He is sitting on a rock at the bottom of the switchback.
I take a drink of water, eat a handful of almonds, some jelly beans. I think I am maybe ready.
“I’m gonna go behind you, okay?” Dewey says to me and I nod. Normally, I won’t start hiking if he’s behind me. He hikes fast. So fast. It makes me nervous knowing he’s on my tail. Today, right now, I let him hike behind me. Today, right now, I’m scared shitless.
And suddenly, it’s over. We’re at the top of Forester Pass. We take off our packs and sit down and start laughing.
“I want to cry,” I say.
“Do it!” Dewey says.
“I also want to puke,” I say.
“I thought you were going to back there,” he says. We laugh again. We think it’s over. It is definitely not over.