Lowest to Highest Route Day 3: If Not For This

Everything is right with the world. This, of course, is not true. But staring up from my sleeping bag at a blanket of stars–of black sky smudged milky way white, flanked by friends and the gurgle of water in a nearby spring, it feels like the truest thing there ever was.

We wake at dawn. No alarms this morning–a good night’s sleep was in order after yesterday’s sufferfest. Plus, it’s cool up here at 3,000 feet and it’ll only get colder as we climb and climb and climb some more until we’re 11,000 feet above the sea. Today we are not at the mercy of the sun. For this I am grateful.

We pack up our things as the sun rises over Badwater Basin. To the west, Telescope Ridge blushes in the alpenglow. I wash down pop tarts with a liter of water, then fill all six of my bottles: the next water source, Tuber Spring, is 20 miles away. I’ve never carried so much water for so few miles, but Chance and Carrot’s horror stories of running out of water on this stretch last year have put a healthy fear in me. Plus, this climb. Something like 8,000 feet of elevation gain in eight miles. Bushwhacking, scree-scrambling, cross-country miles, at that. After yesterday, I’ll carry as much water as I can.

And then, it’s go time. The canyon continues to creep gradually upwards due west–that’s the way we’re going, right? Except, it’s not.

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” I say, tilting my head backwards to stare straight up at the canyon wall. At the way we’re going.

The girls laugh. I do, too. Because what else is there to do. So we begin to scale the steep slope–Chance at the bow, Carrot in the middle, and me, the stern. We’re chuckling and grumbling and breathing heavy, clawing at dirt and rocks and spiny shrubs. It is slow going. It is grueling. It is, in the loosest sense of the word, fun.

I crest the first ridge and find Chance and Carrot taking a break beneath the branches of a Pinyon Pine. I sit beside them and toss handfuls of cashews into my mouth, drink water, laugh about nothing with my friends. Then we shoulder our packs and keep climbing, weaving in and out of stands of trees that grow dense and verdant the higher we go.

Chance jets ahead and Carrot and I hike together for a while, sometimes talking, sometimes not. She tells stories about the CDT and I, the AT. Together we wax nostalgic about our first love, the PCT, gushing over all the good things because those are the only things there were. Because everything’s prettier in the past, don’t you think? Then it’s too steep for talking and we split apart. I follow Carrot as she crushes the climb like some feral creature, then she disappears behind a fold in the mountain and it’s time to make my own route up to Telescope Ridge.

I pull the map up on my phone (there are paper ones in my pack, too, because you should always have paper maps, boys and girls!) and access the GPS. It’s not too much further to the top, but the route cuts straight through contour lines clustered tightly together like corduroy, so I stop, shove my trekking poles into my pack. I’ll need my hands for this stuff.

It’s a slow scramble to the top. I paw the scree, hugging the slope lest I lose my balance and tumble ass over tea kettle to impending doom thousands of feet below. There’s little room for error on the angle of repose. I plod upwards and sideways, stopping a few times to pull out my phone and make sure I haven’t strayed too far off course. Above me, Telescope Ridge is a dangling carrot. The air is thin and cold up here at 10,000 feet. Breathing is a bit of a chore, but I’ll take it over the suffocating heat of the desert floor.

At last, I crest the ridge and find myself standing on actual trail. Oh, flat maintained perfection! There are still many miles to make on the Lowest to Highest Route, but staring down at the brown basin far below, cheeks pink from wind and sun, I feel giddy and triumphant. Fifty feet away, I spot Chance and Carrot’s packs laying on the side of the trail, so I take mine off, set it beside theirs, sit in the dirt to wait for them. They must have decided to climb Telescope Peak, a snow-covered summit a mile away. I’m glad they went for it instead of waiting here for me.

I sit and savor the view, the solitude, the chance to rest my bones. The girls return a few minutes later and we eat snacks, rest some more, then continue on together across the ridge. We meet some friendly day-hikers who packed too much food. Two brothers on vacation from the midwest or Florida or some other far-off place. They offer us dried apricots and Slim Jims. We gladly oblige. “Have fun!” We say. “You too!” They say and wave goodbye. We eat our snacks while everything yellow turns golden in the afternoon light. What a treat it is, we say, to walk on real trail. And this cool mountain breeze, does it get any better than this? No, we agree. It doesn’t.

Soon, the route breaks off from the trail and we head northwest towards Tuber Spring, our next water source. We traverse the shrubby hillside, then ski down steep fields of scree, knees bent in brace. The terrain flattens out and we bushwhack through dense brush, its spindly arms slicing criss-crosses up and down our calves. We reach the mouth of the canyon as the sun sinks behind the Argus Range and behind it, the eastern Sierras, Whitney. Orange oozes out across the horizon, our perfect private sunset show. We hike side-by-side while the color fades from the sky and talk about the things we might be doing right now, if not for this.

“Filling out health insurance forms online.”

“Looking at pictures on Instagram of beautiful women with perfect flowing hair and perfectly un-put-together outdoorsy outfits doing yoga on a mountaintop, and feeling like shit about myself, but still looking at more pictures, and an hour later, feeling even shittier about myself.”

“Driving through a massive parking lot, when it’s packed full of cars and people, and trying to find a parking spot.”

“Being in a city. Any city.”

“You guys,” I say. “I’m so fucking glad we’re here.”

 

 

 

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