Pushing Boundaries in the Outdoors: The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne

“It is easier to feel than to realize, or in any way explain, Yosemite grandeur. The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized, they are mostly hidden”.

-John Muir

The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne

The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne

National Parks are some of my favorite places to visit in the United States. Of course, Yosemite National Park is on the top of my list, but I cannot grapple with the crowds, traffic jams, and long lines. I avoid Yosemite Valley in the summer and instead drive up Tioga Pass to Tuolumne to experience the beauty of granite rocks, waterfalls, and lush green meadows, without hoards of crowds. I avoid summer weekends and instead get there early on weekday mornings. I also prefer going after Labor Day when the kids are back in school, and the weather is a bit cooler.

Choosing the route

Permits for backcountry Yosemite trips can be challenging to come by through the lottery process, but walk-up permits in shoulder seasons are usually always guaranteed. Luckily for me, I scored a two-night/three-day permit out of Glen Aulin for the middle of September. I was not too familiar with this area, but after a couple of days of research, I stumbled upon an area known as “The Grand Canyon of Tuolumne.” I read that it was not an easy hike, and there were two ways to conquer this trip into Pate Valley.

1) Glen Aulin to White Wolf and either hitch or take the bus back to Glen Aulin.

2) The 60-mile loop from Glen Aulin to White Wolf to Ten Lakes back to Glen Aulin.

I read that both routes were challenging, in a knee-breaking sort of way, and the elevation change was killer. Hitchhiking or taking the bus seemed like a bit more effort than I wanted to deal with, and I was itching for a knee-breaking challenge, so I decided to hike the 60-mile loop over three days.

Glen Aulin trailhead

Glen Aulin trailhead

Hiking out of Glen Aulin

Hiking out of Glen Aulin

Hiking solo

Since I had a permit for three people, I tried to recruit a couple of my friends, but since it was midweek; it seemed that this was going to be a solo trip. I LOVE solo trips! I can make my own itinerary, go as fast or as slow as I want, wake up early or sleep in late. The caveat to backpacking solo in Yosemite is I would be solo, without my dog. I take Moo pretty much everywhere with me, so leaving her behind is always something I struggle with. When I am out with my dog, I do not consider myself solo, since she is entertaining and overly adventurous and the best company on the trail.

My gameplan

My game plan was to average 20 miles and 8,000-elevation change per day. I have never hiked this mileage and elevation change over consecutive days. Sure I have done 30-mile days with a daypack, but not for multiple days in a row. I haven’t ever backpacked more than 13 miles in a day with a fully loaded pack. However, I knew I was in great shape after spending my entire summer in the outdoors, so if I was going to complete this challenge, now was the time to do it.

The importance of pushing boundaries

I am a huge advocate of pushing boundaries and stepping out of your comfort zone. If you do not test these boundaries, how will you learn your limits? How will you discover new things? How will you find out what you love? If you spend your life in a box, playing it safe and doing the same routine; not only is this mundane and boring, but you are robbing yourself of discovering a whole new world. This philosophy is not just applied to the outdoors but also can be applied to your professional and personal life.

This was going to be the most challenging trip I have ever done. To add to this challenge, I planned to climb Mt. Tyndall from Shepherd’s Pass the next day with a friend who was visiting me from Utah! I talked all of this over with a couple of friends, and they were incredibly supportive and had faith in me. I also knew there were three ways to exit the trail just in case I could not keep a steady pace or if I became injured, and of course, I was going to carry my Garmin inReach. I told my work I was going to be off the grid for a few days, emailed my emergency contacts my trip itinerary and contact numbers for Yosemite SAR, hugged my dog, and headed into Tuolumne.

Raging rivers in the canyon

Raging rivers in the canyon

Day one: permit pick-up

I arrived at the Tuolumne ranger station at 8 AM to pick up my permit. There was a line of 7 people or so waiting for walk-up permits, and thankfully, the rangers helped whoever had a reservation first. I went inside, gave them my information, and told them my plan. I arrived on September 9th and was planning to complete the loop on September 11th. I was planning to be on the trail by 8:45 AM sharp. The ranger looked at me and told me that my permit entry date was for September 11th. I WAS TWO DAYS EARLY! I apologized and told him how humiliated I felt. I have done some pretty mindless things before, but never have I showed up for a trip two days early! He knew I was hiking out that day and I had 20 miles to cover, he talked to his co-worker, and they went ahead and gave me a walk-up permit without making me wait in that line. We talked about the Leave No Trace Rules, and he not only asked me if I had a bear canister but asked me which kind. I have never been asked this before. For those who are wondering, I have the Bearikade, which is gold! I thanked him a million times, he wished me luck and gave me directions to the trailhead, and I was on my way. Although I was off to a rocky start, at least I had good karma on my side.

Glen Aulin to Pate Valley

Hiking out of Glen Aulin was breathtaking. The sky was bright blue, the air was crisp, and there were so many waterfalls raging over the granite cliff formations. I hiked mostly downhill, descending the steep granite steps into Pate Valley. I walked (I was actually jogging) past Tuolomne Falls, Glen Aulin High Camp, California Falls, Le Conte Falls and arrived at Waterwheel Falls, where I decided to take a break and eat lunch. I was making great time and averaging 3.5mph. My pack was relatively light (32 pounds, including the six pounds of camera gear). My goal for each day was to start on the trail by 8 AM and stop hiking at 6:30 PM, so I had ample time to look for a campsite, set up my tent and cook dinner before it got dark and cold.

On the way to Pate Valley…

On the way to Pate Valley…

Morning reflections

Morning reflections

The fly apocalypse

After finishing lunch, I hiked through the Grand Canyon of Tuolomne into Pate Valley. The raging Tuolumne River cut through the huge granite walls that hovered over each side of the canyon. I felt insignificant and tiny among this powerful landscape. I continued to hike up steep granite steps to gain 1,000 feet of elevation to then hike right back down 1,000 feet into another valley. What goes up must come down, and this was the story of the trip. Pate Valley is at 4,000 feet, which is a lot of elevation loss compared to 8,000 feet. The constant up and down was tough, but the swarms of flies made it an absolute death march. These flies were relentless. I couldn’t stop because they would devour me. I would look back and see a black swarm following me. Thank goodness they were not biting, but no amount of DEET or any size bug net would stop them. For the first time in months, I wanted to cry. I was constantly waving my hiking poles in my face so I could have split seconds of normalcy. To be honest, I would never hike this route again because the flies were that bad. I swallowed at least a dozen, and the anxiety it caused me was indescribable.

The only photo I took of “myself”

The only photo I took of “myself”

My goal for day one was to reach Glen Aulin, which is about 30 miles, but of course, after the huge elevation change and World War III with the flies, this was not going to happen. After I clocked 22 miles, I found a decent campsite at the end of Pate Valley and knew day two was going to be even more challenging.

Berries on the trail in Pate Valley

Berries on the trail in Pate Valley

Taking care of my body

Each night before I went to sleep, I drank 1 liter of water, soaked my feet in the river, ate a package of electrolytes, and took a full dose (800mg) of Ibuprofen. I needed my body to remain strong, as I could not afford to hike slow or lose too much mileage; if I did, I knew I wouldn’t finish the trail. Prophylactically treating myself with Ibuprofen was a game-changer. My body did not ache in the mornings, and I felt relatively good for the number of miles and elevation change I was traveling.

Day two: White Wolf, death marching and bears

I awoke on day 2, quickly packed up my camp, devoured an espresso GU energy (I didn’t have the time to make coffee and didn’t want the extra weight, so I decided on espresso gels in the morning) and was on the trail by 8 AM. Within a mile, I can across a sign that read “bridge out.” I remember reading that this bridge was repaired, so I was a bit confused but was prepared for any water crossings that came my way. When I came across the bridge, there was a trail crew working on the repairs. I looked around, and thankfully the river was calm, serene even. It was about mid-thigh deep, so I knew it would be an easy crossing since it was not raging. I ventured towards the bridge and greeted the trail crew. I asked them if this was the bridge that was out. They replied, “yes, it is, but lucky for you, it is almost finished” I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I was curious. They offered to escort me across the bridge, telling me where I can and cannot step. “More good karma,” I thought to myself. I thanked the trail crew multiple times, and they wished me a great hike.

Bridge is out…

Bridge is out…

After a couple of miles, I started my climb out of Pate Valley into White Wolf. I gained 4,0000 feet in elevation over 4 miles, and the switchbacks were worse than the Mt Whitney switchbacks. They were never-ending. I was glad I camped in the valley last night because there was no way I could have made this climb on tired legs or in the dark. This never-ending death march became steeper and steeper, and I just started to laugh. I wanted a challenge, and clearly, God has a great sense of humor. At one point, I managed to roll my ankle, and I heard, “crack, crack,” however, it was minimally painful, and I was still able to hike on it. When I stumbled across views of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, I was mesmerized. It was stunning. I decided to filter water and soak my feet in a nearby stream. I made sure to soak my feet every day on this trip, even just for 10 minutes.

Hetch Hetchy reservoir

Hetch Hetchy reservoir

After about 10 miles of some of the hardest hiking I have ever done, I reached White Wolf. I considered getting off the trail at this point and hitching to my car. I knew day two was only going to be a 15-mile day if I continued, which meant I would have to do 25 miles the next day. This plan was starting to become ridiculous, but I was not yet convinced I should quit. I continued and ran into some fellow backpackers who were beginning their journey out of White Wolf. It seemed everyone was making the loop over 5-7 days or going from White Wolf to Glen Aulin in 3-5 days. I got a few strange looks when I told others my itinerary. Luckily I met one other guy on day three who had the same itinerary as me, which made me feel a little bit better.

After I completed the death march into White Wolf, I was greeted by stunning lush green meadows, cooler temps, and FLAT ground. I ran the next three miles. My goal for day two was to make it to Ten Lakes, but I had a feeling I may be cutting it too close to dark. I usually do not mind hiking in the dark, but only when I have fresh legs and a sharp mind. I don’t hike over mountain passes in the dark or climb down steep granite rock, so hiking in the dark during this trip was not on my agenda. I started to hike through a forestry area as the sun was setting behind the ridge. I changed into my puffy and pulled out my hat and gloves as the sun dropped behind the mountains. I had a gut feeling this was bear territory; it was also about 5:30 PM, dinnertime for bears. Within minutes of having these thoughts and while I was singing along to my music, a large black bear appeared on the trail about 30 yards in front of me. We both froze, and he bolted before I could even think about making noise. I was so tired to even process what was happening, and I think we both were simultaneously surprised. I stood there hoping there were no cubs around, and then I quickly continued on. I think bears and marmots are the cutest mountain creatures I have ever seen. I am not afraid of bears; however, I am always nervous I will run into a mom and her cubs, and that terrifies me.

 If only my dog will stop barking at bears during our walks through town or the Lake Basin.

 After the five-second bear encounter, I took this as my cue; I should probably start looking for a campsite. I was about one mile from Ten Lakes Pass and two miles from Ten Lakes. I couldn’t beat myself up about a 16-mile day and over 10, 000 feet in elevation change. I found a perfect campsite, and as I took off my boots, I felt the pain from my ankle. I definitely sprained it, and the compression and rigidity from my boots were minimizing the pain. One more day left!

Day three: Ten Lakes aka heaven

I awoke at 6 AM the next morning with hopes of being on the trail by 6:30 AM; however, after discovering my tent was covered in frost, and it was absolutely freezing outside, I quickly got back into my sleeping bag and waited until the sun rose. Once it was warm enough, I quickly packed up camp and headed for Ten Lakes Pass. I was tired. These miles and elevation changes were getting to me, and I knew I had a lot of ground to cover. But I also knew I was strong enough to complete this loop, and that strength is what carried me through. I arrived at Ten Lakes and could not believe how beautiful this place was. It was early enough in the morning that the lake reflections were in full force. I knew I wanted to come back and camp here. This area was one of the most beautiful areas I have ever seen in the Sierra. Unfortunately, I was on a time crunch, so I quickly climbed over the ridge and began to descend steep granite switchbacks. I climbed over so many ridges this day that it felt disorienting.

Ten Lakes was a dream…

Ten Lakes was a dream…

Can’t wait to plan a trip here…

Can’t wait to plan a trip here…

I had to remind myself of my sense of direction continually. The views of Tuolumne Peak were stunning, but I knew I had at least seven more miles to Glen Aulin and four miles from Glen Aulin to my car. It was 3 PM in the afternoon, and it was dark by 8 PM. I had five hours to hike 11 miles. Yes, this is very doable for a day hike. This is even doable on a multiday hike. With a sprained ankle, and after pushing myself to the extreme the past two days, I was a bit nervous this was going to be a challenge.

I hiked for five miles as fast as I could, and when I realized I was going to be hiking in the dark, I sat down to rearrange my pack. I knew it was going to be a full moon, so I was going to have natural light, but I also knew I was going to be extremely tired. As I was getting out my headlamp, my warm clothes, and my dinner, I noticed my car keys were missing. I frantically tore apart my entire pack while trying to come up with a plan of how I was going to get into my car without any cell service. I was a wreck. I always put my car keys at the bottom of my bear canister, but they were not there. I figured they must have fallen out at camp early that morning. The last place I looked was in my electronics dry bag, and after praying and simultaneously swearing at myself, I found my keys. I spent 30 minutes tearing apart my bag and wasted so much energy on crazy emotions. This was my final sign that I was exhausted. I am not an emotional person in the backcountry, so when my emotions do come out, it is a sign I am tired and need to stop. I told myself when I reached the end of the loop; I am going to set up camp and hike the last 4 miles to my car in the morning.

Hiking in the dark

I hiked the last couple of miles in the dark, and even with a headlamp and a full moon; it was becoming difficult to find the trail. I gave myself two more rules; if I had difficulty finding the trail and/or if I ran into switchbacks, I was going to call it and set up camp immediately. I finally completed the loop at Tuolumne Falls at 9:00 PM on day three.

I felt it was unsafe to hike the last four miles to my car because I was exhausted and delirious. I was in communication with both my dog sitter and my friend, who was coming into town from Utah, and I explained to both of them my plan. I was proud of myself for completing this 60-mile loop in 3 days but stressed that I was spending an extra night on the trail. I knew I set up my tent off the trail, but I had a hard time deciphering how far off. I also knew I was technically hiking out a day past my permit, however in the event, I did come across a ranger, I would explain to him my journey, and I was not going to compromise my safety. As I lay in my tent, all I could think about was the last four miles to my car, my sore ankle, if I had any important work emails to return, and how am I supposed to hike up Shepherds Pass in the next 36 hours. I also was simultaneously grateful I made it this far for my friends who sent me funny stories and jokes through my Garmin inReach and for Christie, who runs Sierra Dog Ventures for taking such good care of Moo. 

Too many waterfalls to count…

Too many waterfalls to count…

The final home stretch

I awoke the next morning at the crack of dawn and hiked to my car as fast as I could. I made the hour drive back to Mammoth, unpacked, showered, took Ibuprofen, soaked my ankle in Epsom Salt baths, and waited for Moo to come home. I had six hours to reset, take care of my ankle, pack my bag, and hang out with my dog before my friend arrived. We were off to backpack Tyndall the next morning!

 Throughout the entire three days, I ran into only a handful of people. I also only came across two other groups of females; the rest of the hikers were male or mixed-gender groups. The trail was not crowded, which I much appreciated.

All in all, this trip was incredible. I pushed myself to my core, I hiked through stunning scenery in solitude, and I learned I never want to go back to Pate Valley, but I do want to go back to Ten Lakes. I am forever grateful to the kind rangers and trail crew who helped me when they did not have to. And of course, I am lucky to have people like Christie from Sierra Dog Ventures and Judy and Allie from Donna’s Dog Boarding who take the best care of Moo and also put up with my backcountry shenanigans. This trip was one for the books, and I am so glad I did it!

Trip details

  • Trail: Grand Canyon of Tuolumne: Glen Aulin to Pate Valley to White Wolf to Ten Lakes back to Glen Aulin

  • Season: Mid September

  • Mileage: 64ish miles

  • Net Elevation: 24,000 feet

  • Highest Elevation: 9,000 feet

  • Lowest Elevation: 4,000 feet

  • Dogs: no

  • Permit: yes

  • Parking: Along the dirt road at Lambert Dome parking area

  • Weather: Dry, 80’s during the day and 20s-50s at night.

    Thanks for reading,

    See you on the trails

    Xx,

    Kristen

Trip Planning, Goal Setting and Picking the Best Backcountry Partner

A recipe for happiness: Friends, alpine lakes and Moo.

A recipe for happiness: Friends, alpine lakes and Moo.

“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”
Louisa May Alcott

Exploring the Hoover Wilderness: Saddlebag Lake, Conness Lake and 20 Lakes Basin

This past summer, I have had the pleasure of spending the majority of my time in the backcountry. I spent many days exploring new trails, paddle boarding on alpine lakes, fording swift rivers, and even learning how to backcountry ski. I went on solo 60-mile backcountry excursions, bagged a couple of 14ers, hiked fun easy treks with friends and suffered through extended knee breaking day trips with my dog in tow. Over the past couple of years, I have learned to set many different objectives when I venture into the outdoors. My outdoor partners and I have essential discussions on whether we are going to bring wine or vodka and if we should also bring along blow up rafts and bikinis. We also discuss the practical stuff like weather, alpine gear, and strict turn around times due to inclement forecasts. I have come to learn that not every trip has to be an "accomplishment", in the sense of bagging a massive peak, or doing loads of miles each day. An accomplishment can mean having tons of fun, frolicking in lakes, improving my photography skills, or spending hours watching my dog run around alpine meadows.

A day without bright colors is a boring day…

A day without bright colors is a boring day…

I have also learned to choose my backcountry partners wisely. I have about ten close friends who I backcountry with on the regular and although I love each one dearly, I am very attuned to each of their limitations and preferences. Some of these friends have zero desire to hike 20 miles in a day with me, others cannot stand the snow, and a small handful will be up for any adventure I plan. I also have some friends who I will struggle to keep up with and who will challenge me to my core. Having an agenda and a goal in mind for each trip is important because it not only determines the purpose of the trip, but it determines who you will have the most fun with in the backcountry.

To solo or to not solo?

I recently completed a 60-mile loop in three days with a total of 24,000 feet in elevation change. I started from Glen Aulin and made my way to the Grand Canyon of Tuolomne via Pate Valley up to White Wolf to Ten Lakes and back to Glen Aulin. It was an absolute sufferfest, and my goal was to push myself physically and mentally so far out of my comfort zone. I wanted to test my strength, endurance, and willpower. Although I would have loved a backpacking partner, I honestly didn't have anyone on speed dial who would jump at this chance. So, therefore, some trips like these are better off as a solo adventure.

Fun is the goal of this trip

When my friend Brandi reached out to me about a backpacking trip over Labor Day, I jumped at the chance. Brandi is extremely easy going, and FUN and I like fun! She told me she did not want to do big miles or any crazy elevation gains so I decided on a stunning, moderate loop off of Tioga Road. We had a quick phone conversation to discuss goals, gear, and alcohol, and the decision was final, Saddlebag Lake and 20 Lakes Basin over three-days. Low miles, lots of swimming in lakes, minimal elevation gain, non-quota permits, and only an hour away from where I live.

  • Trip details: Saddlebag Lake, Conness Lake, and 20 Lakes Basin

  • Permit: Yes, non-quota

  • Dog-friendly: Yes, but be mindful of the paws 

  • Miles: 15

  • Highest elevation: 10,800 feet 

  • Elevation gain: 1,000 feet

  • Parking: On the side of the road

The long path to fun…

The long path to fun…

One too many tequillas

Living in Mammoth during long holiday weekends means one thing; I need to escape the crowds. Vodka, rainbow blow-up rafts, swimming in alpine lakes, playing fetch with my pup and just enjoying Mother Nature, were the only items on our agenda. We decided to go out to dinner Friday night before our Saturday morning early departure, and I may have had one too many tequilas. Yikes! I am pretty sure I had a tequila to go and took it on the trolley with me back home.

Easy to say, the next morning was brutal. I felt like death, but with Brandi's motherly help, I powered through! We had to make a couple of quick stops in town and everyone who I ran into, declared, "Kristen, you look like death!" Yes, I was hurting. Brandi drove my car to the trailhead after trying to convince me to eat some food at The Mobil Mart, but I could not even keep water down. I had an emergency bag in the car, and we may or may not have had to pull over multiple times on the 395. I was off to a rough start.

Your dog is your own responsibility

Our first day consisted of an easy 2.5-mile hike into our campsite, so I was not too concerned. I could take it slow, puke my brains out and chug along. I was armed with Pedialyte, ginger and lots of water to keep me as hydrated as possible. After all, my philosophy is "I can do ANYTHING for two miles"! Within the first half-mile, we saw a dog that was overheating and needed to be treated then carried off the trail. The owner declared that I should carry her dog back to the trailhead (we were hiking the opposite direction, I had a 45-pound pack, I had my dog to take care of, and I was actively puking). I was in no shape to carry out a 50-pound dog. The lady was annoyed when I said, "I couldn't". She had the option of pouring water on her dog, soaking a t-shirt in water and wrapping it around her dog, allowing her dog to actually drink water and the list goes on. She was persistent in having someone immediately carry her dog off the trail, and I was not going to be that person.

The first lesson of the trip: If you are bringing your dog into the backcountry, make sure you can carry him/her out on your own and also understand how to prevent and treat heat exhaustion in your pet.

Reflections from Saddlebag Lake

Reflections from Saddlebag Lake

Broken tents and tequila sickness

Since it was a holiday weekend, the trail was extremely crowded. I was nervous; some dude was going to walk by me and give me the lecture on "altitude sickness" when I had "tequila sickness." As a result, I tried to keep it together and only vomit when nobody was around. Mission accomplished! We arrived at Greenstone Lake and took our time looking for a campsite that was not on alpine meadows or within 100 feet from the lake. We came across the perfect spot and started setting up camp when Brandi noticed her tent poles were broken. I was pretty sure I was done puking for the day, but I still felt like garbage; however, I knew I had to help her. We devised a plan, spent over 30 minutes re-constructing her tent poles, and I used my duct tape from my first aid kit to hold her poles together.

#TeamworkMakestheDreamwork

The second lesson of the trip: Always carry duct tape in your first aid kit

After we set up camp, I blew up my rainbow raft, and we ran for the lake. The water was refreshing, and Moo surprisingly ran in after me (she is not a water dog). We frolicked around for a minute and spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing on a rock. We were content, and Moo was off chasing all the cute marmots, flies and lizards to her little heart’s content. 

Queen Moo, living her best life.

Queen Moo, living her best life.

Granite waterfalls on the way to Conness Lake

Granite waterfalls on the way to Conness Lake

More tents than square footage

As we were cooking dinner, we noticed hoards among hoards of people setting up camp on alpine meadows. Many of the campers were also setting up their tents way too close to the lakes (like within a stone's throw away). I have never seen anything like it, in all my years of backcountry adventuring. I was downright disgusted in regards to how people were disrespecting the backcountry rules. Rangers work extremely hard to herd cats and to create a safe environment in the outdoors, and it is incredibly disheartening to see so many people have zero respect for Mother Nature. Although this area was under a "non-quota" permit; it is still required to walk into a ranger station, request a permit and listen to the lecture on the particular backcountry rules that are set in place to protect our environment. 

The third lesson of the trip: Leave No Trace regulations are in place for a reason. Please respect the rules, so these areas are around for your children and grandchildren to enjoy. 

We settled into our tents, and I started reading a new book that I could not put down. It was a new moon, so I was overly excited to photograph the night sky for my very first time. I woke up around 11 PM, and the Milky Way was shining in all her glory. I set up my tripod and camera and got to work! Astrophotography is a skill that takes practice. I spent over an hour shooting the night sky, and for my very first time, I was pretty stoked on some of my photos! By 1 AM, I was back in my tent, cuddling with my pup! 

Oh Starry Night

Oh Starry Night

Our backcountry “home”

Our backcountry “home”

Conness Lake is dreamy

We woke up nice and slow the next morning and started to plan out our day. Our original plan was to backpack to Lake Helen and set up camp; however, Brandi's tent was broken, and neither of us wanted to take on that task again during this trip. We also had an incredible, private campsite, and after seeing the hoards of people, we had a gut feeling Lake Helen was going to be packed! We decided to keep our camp and day hike to Conness Lake and around the entire 20 Lakes Basin Loop. We made the right decision. The crowds were out of control, the number of illegal campsites we saw around the lakes was disturbing, and it is always so much nicer carrying a daypack instead of our full overnight set up! 

The fourth lesson of the trip: Be flexible, plans can change, and sometimes for the better. 

Conness Lake and all her glory

Conness Lake and all her glory

We headed off to Conness Lakes for some alpine lake swimming. The two-mile trail was stunning. Moo ran and ran through alpine meadows, and we stood in awe of the granite, the waterfalls, and the views. The short climb was enough to get our blood pumping, and as we approached the second lake, we couldn't wait to go for a dip! I blew up my raft, and we immediately jumped in the turquoise lake. The frigid water took our breath away. We laughed at how ridiculous we must have looked, but we were having SO much fun. Once we could no longer feel our limbs, we jumped out, dried off in the sun and marveled at the beauty. As we were sitting in our bikinis on the granite rock, a nice gentleman offered to take our photo. He couldn't figure out how to work my camera, and the wind blew our raft away. He quickly retrieved our raft, took our pictures, complimented my sweet dog, and off he went. We need more men like him in this world; kindred souls who empower women to be themselves. 

Tent city and rock scrambles; Greenstone Lake to Lake Helen to Odelle Lake

We ate lunch and decided that we should get on with our day since we had about nine more miles to go. As we continued hiking the 20 Lakes Basin loop, we kept commenting on the number of disrespectful people pitching their tents wherever they felt like it. It was becoming a tent city!

After about five miles, we scrambled over some pretty rocky terrain on the way to Lake Helen. As we navigated our way through the boulders and rounded the corner of beautiful Lake Helen, we were grateful we did not choose to camp here, as it was overly crowded with tents, ice chests and lots of people playing music.

As you approach the backside of Lake Helen, you can continue the loop or verge left and go up Lundy Canyon. At the beginning of the summer, I hiked to Lake Helen from Lundy, and it was a type 2 suffer-fest. I do not recommend it!

Cornices are pretty but they can kill you…

Cornices are pretty but they can kill you…

Views from Greenstone Lake

Views from Greenstone Lake

The trail from Lake Helen to Odelle Lake was extremely rocky. I eventually packed Moo into my pack to protect her paws as we hiked up through the canyon to Odelle Lake. Odelle Lake was stunning, and it was void of people (my kind of lake). We continued the loop and made our way back to camp just before the sun was setting. We got cleaned up, cooked dinner, and reminisced about our day. Moo ran straight into my tent and passed out. We once again fell asleep under a sky littered with bright stars. We had a successful 10-mile day.

Lake Helen with Moo in my pack

Lake Helen with Moo in my pack

Will work for that Alpenglow

We awoke the next morning before sunrise to set up my camera, as I wanted to shoot the alpenglow. I do not function without coffee, so it took me a while to get my act together and adjust my camera settings appropriately. I had the most magical six-minute window as the sun hit Conness Peak, and I was in awe. When I was finally satisfied with my captures, I made coffee and began to pack up my camp. Moo was already off running around and guarding our campsite.

Good morning, Conness Peak

Good morning, Conness Peak

Looking for marmots

Looking for marmots

Air horns and cranky old men

We began our hike out on the opposite side of the lake from which we hiked in. As we were approaching Saddlebag Lake and as Moo was trotting along the trail, a cranky old man who had his tent set up in an alpine meadow, blew his air horn at Moo as she was approaching his camp. She barked and barked, and my friend and I both had steam coming out of our ears. She quickly ran off, not giving a care in the world about this guy. She had marmots to chase and could not be bothered by a hostile camper, but Brandi and I were both pretty bitter. That man must have felt like a fool for blowing his air horn at a 12-pound little dog, who did not even react. He could have yelled at her, asked us to leash her, and nine other possibilities before blowing his air horn. He also had his food spread out all over his campsite, inviting bears and marmots to a feast. We joked that he probably carries bear bells (the most annoying thing on the trails) and bear spray (which is illegal in this area). I was so over all the nonsense I witnessed on this trip, that I did not have the energy or the desire to approach this man about his erratic and inappropriate behavior. 

The fifth lesson of the trip: My dog has a better temperament than most people. 

Me telling Moo that she must always live her best life while she is hopelessly scanning the grass for marmots.

Me telling Moo that she must always live her best life while she is hopelessly scanning the grass for marmots.

The hike out was stunning and was much less crowded than the trek in. After 3.5 miles, we arrived at our car and headed back to Mammoth. Our hearts were full, our spirits were rejuvenated, Moo was dead tired, and once again, I was incredibly grateful for another friend who willingly puts up with my shenanigans on the trail. I am also eternally thankful for my healthy body that carried me to these beautiful places. 

Sometimes innocent and easy backcountry fun is just what we need

We accomplished our "goals" for this trip. We relaxed, had a blast, swam in lakes, and were able to enjoy each other's company while still overcoming unexpected obstacles. We did not do any big mile days, summit massive peaks, or backcountry ski a line; we just had fun.

I used to only think about the destination in terms of "I want to backpack here" or "I want to bag this peak" or "I want to do this many miles in this amount of time." When I look back on these objectives, I sort of laugh at myself. I won't lie; I still plan trips where I set goals that are out of my comfort zone. However, not every journey has to be about stroking the ego, chasing fear or gunning for adrenaline. Sometimes, we can all use a little bit of innocent backcountry fun.

 Thanks for reading!

Hope to see you on the trails,

Xx

Kristen

An Open Letter to Anyone Who Has Yet to Visit East Africa

Musings on my first 24 hours in Tanzania and why ignorance is not always bliss.

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“A hasty person misses the sweet things: Mwenye pupa hadiriki kula tamu”

- A famous Swahili proverb

  • “Why would you go to Africa?”

  • “You must be going to South Africa”.

  • “Be careful”.

  • “Watch out for Ebola”.

  • “Where is Tanzania?”

  • “Did you get the malaria vaccine?”

  • “ Come back in one piece”

These are some of the questions and comments directed at me as I recently prepared for my temporary move to my favorite country in the world, Tanzania. In 2006, I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country and I eagerly returned in 2008 (for the long-haul). Leaving Tanzania in the beginning of 2009 was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I love the people, the smells, the rains, falling asleep to the loud chirping sounds of bugs and animals at night, the simplicity, the hardships, the beauty and the generosity of this fine culture. Sure, Tanzania has it’s own set of problems, but let’s be honest the United States is in shambles. People in the U.S. are angry, bitter, competitive, and can no longer consume iceberg lettuce. For the past few months I was so busy wrapping up things in the States that I did not let any of these comments or questions about my journey to East Africa bother me. I get it; a white girl departing to Tanzania for her third time is not normal (to many Americans), especially when our fine President declares this part of the world a “shithole country”. But after my plane touched down at Kilimanjaro airport and I planted my feet on African soil, the first thing that hit me was the smell…the smell of dampness in the air, the sweet memories of people I adore, trees, and burning trash (which is apparently illegal now); a smell that only Africa has and to me in that moment, I was SO happy to be back. I took a long inhale, savored the smell and thought to myself, “I am finally here and I wish others knew the truth about this part of the world”. While standing on the tarmac with my carry-on bags and passport in hand, I reflected on all the comments and questions and I became upset. Upset because these questions and remarks were stated in way that made Tanzania look dangerous and dirty. Of course, many of these comments and questions came from dear friends and family members who in no way had any ill or malicious intent but for some reason, I was and still am deeply bothered by these words. Instead of taking a defensive stance against these questions or correcting these false statements, I want to share snapshot moments of my first 24 hours upon arriving in Tanzania.

Maasai warriors: “Being a warrior is exciting and fun, it has many privileges but also many duties. Many of us look at those times as the best in our lives- though by no means the easiest. To become warriors we have to demonstrate our bravery: we have to undergo circumcision in front of the whole community, without flinching or squinting our eyes or giving any other sign that we are experiencing pain. After all, if we cannot stand bravely that bearable pain, how can we persuade the elders that we will risk our lives to protect our livestock and our community?”

Maasai warriors: “Being a warrior is exciting and fun, it has many privileges but also many duties. Many of us look at those times as the best in our lives- though by no means the easiest. To become warriors we have to demonstrate our bravery: we have to undergo circumcision in front of the whole community, without flinching or squinting our eyes or giving any other sign that we are experiencing pain. After all, if we cannot stand bravely that bearable pain, how can we persuade the elders that we will risk our lives to protect our livestock and our community?”

The awkward name card

 Upon arrival at the airport, my good friend Erick (who was supposed to meet me at the airport) informed me he was on a business trip to Dar es Salaam but has arranged his good friend Raymond to collect me at the airport. I trust Erick with pretty much every fiber in my body and thought it was very kind to arrange my airport pickup, when in reality I could have easily taken a taxi to my house. After I collected my 80 pounds of luggage, dragged one of my 50 pound broken suitcases off the conveyer belt and did a quick currency exchange; I walked outside holding my breath to a sea of taxi drivers and random people holding name signs in hopes of quickly finding a sign with “Kristen Fuller” written on it. I did not have my glasses on, so there I am walking up (in way too close of proximity) to random strangers just so I could read the names on their sign (this is always such an awkward experience for me and I dread it upon every international arrival). Within minutes I found my name and I quickly introduced myself to Raymond and within seconds I recognized him. I met him a few times on my past visit to Tanzania and we picked up our conversation where we left off 10 years ago. In the car we called Erick on speakerphone and we all laughed because lo and behold, we were all old friends.  Raymond told me that he drove to the house where I was staying earlier during the day to make sure he knew where to go and that he was tracking my plane throughout the day in case there were any delays (my parents won’t even drive me to the airport, let alone check my flight status). My heart silently exploded and then I realized, “Ahh yes, THIS IS Tanzania”. He offered to take me into town the next day in case I needed anything and told me to contact him with any questions. I am pretty savvy with the public transport in Arusha (old school VW minibuses called dala dalas that cost equivalent to 25 cents per ride) and planned on spending my first day re-acclimating to my old stomping grounds. My plan was to take a dala dala into town, go to the central market to buy food, purchase malaria prophylaxis pills (there is NO malaria vaccine) and take in all the sights and sounds.

A necessary drink before a 19 hour flight with a 90 minute layover sprint!

A necessary drink before a 19 hour flight with a 90 minute layover sprint!

Kitchens are where friendships form

 I awoke the next morning at 5am to the sound of a very confused rooster, checked my work email and realized work was piling up faster than I can say, “mambo”. I wandered downstairs to the kitchen to make myself 12 cups of coffee (jet lag is real) so I can tackle my work and catch a bus into town. Within minutes I was in full conversation with a sweet Tanzanian girl in the kitchen talking about all the words I do and do not (mostly do not) know in Swahili. She instantly reminded me of my Tanzanian dada (sister), Jackie (who I insanely adore and who just got married). An hour quickly passed, I was on my 5th cup of coffee and we both realized we never even introduced ourselves. She told me her name is Monica, she is in her early 20’s and bless her heart, she thought I was 26. She made me breakfast after a long confusing conversation of whether I should pay for meals or make my own food (I decided on both but we will see how that goes). She asked me about all the Tanzanian foods I do like and the very few Tanzanian foods I won’t eat and before I knew it, I had spent half of my morning standing over an entire pot of coffee and chatting with Monica while sending messages to my Tanzanian family informing them that I am back in town…a morning that will never be forgotten because within those few hours, standing in an African kitchen, a new friendship was formed. Within minutes, my entire African family, (Jackie, her younger brother Joshua, Mama and Baba) were all texting via WhatsApp arranging plans for me to visit (I now have full-fledged Christmas plans and standing dinner plans any night of the week).

Long story short, I didn’t leave the house until nightfall. I sat upstairs working away on my computer while listening to the rain. I made plans to go on safari to Terengeru National Park the following day (Thanksgiving) with Raymond, as he is a safari driver (I made sure we can purchase beer before entering the National Park) and around 6pm in the evening I ventured out for a walk (I needed water and beer).

Tanzanian breakfast of champions! Eggs, cassava, a bread I cannot pronounce in Swahili and COFFEE all made with love!

Tanzanian breakfast of champions! Eggs, cassava, a bread I cannot pronounce in Swahili and COFFEE all made with love!

“I will bring back your bottle, kesho”

I found two shops within minutes of walking on the road (yes, I walked alone at night in a very safe city). Side note: the shops in Africa are amazing, they are basically tiny little buildings where you can buy anything from cooking oil, toilet paper, beer, water, pasta, a plethora of meats in a freezer box, matches and literally any random thing you can think of. If you can’t find what you are looking for at one shop, do not worry (hakuna matata), because there are 10 other shops within the next two blocks. I purchased two large bottles of water at the first shop with my broken Swahili (there is Typhoid in the tap water so I either boil my water or buy bottled water) and asked for a cold beer (bia baridi) at the next shop. The shop owners will hound you for a bottle deposit unless you swear to them you will bring the empty bottle back. I told the guy I will bring back the empty bottle tomorrow (kesho) and he asked me what time. I couldn’t help but laugh because I know how serious these guys are about their glass bottles. I told him he could collect a deposit from me if he wished but I am staying just a block down and will most likely be his favorite customer within a week. He was hesitant, pulled out two small cold beers and reminded me “kesho”.  I ended up returning the empty bottles back later that night and he then knew I meant business (and yes, he is now my go-to beer guy).

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Setting the facts straight

Within 24 hours of landing in East Africa, I met five people (this post is becoming too long to introduce you to the other 2 people) who showed me kindness and generosity because it is in their blood. These may be pointless encounters or simple conversations to many, but to me, these encounters are proof of the kindness that represents Tanzania. So before you wonder about safety, racism, crime, diseases, or anything else that is heavily portrayed by the media in these “shithole countries”, listen to the stories and experiences from people who have set foot within these countries, who have formed relationships with the people or better yet travel to some of these places yourself because I promise you one thing, your life will be changed forever. I am not “brave”, nor am I here to “help” people, but I am simply an individual who was stuck in an American box for 19 years of her life and consciously decided to spend everyday possible forming memories and relationships with people (and animals) around the world.

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Happy hiking and hope to see you on the trails upon my arrival in 2019

Xx

Kristen

Social Media and the Outdoors: The Third World War

Dear Girls Across the Globe,
Let's stop body-shaming each other with hurtful comments about how another girl looks or doesn't look. We are all beautiful in our own unique way; so let's speak about each other with the dignity that we would want others to have when they speak about us.
” 
― Miya Yamanouchi, Embrace Your Sexual Self: A Practical Guide for Women

Trying to get that perfect shot for the ‘gram =) But more importantly, I finally bought a real CAMERA. The Sony alpha 6000 is my new child. I cannot wait to share some of the photos I have taken with this camera! I plan on using this as my everyday camera in Africa and hoping to take some stellar safari shots.

Trying to get that perfect shot for the ‘gram =) But more importantly, I finally bought a real CAMERA. The Sony alpha 6000 is my new child. I cannot wait to share some of the photos I have taken with this camera! I plan on using this as my everyday camera in Africa and hoping to take some stellar safari shots.

Most of us can probably agree that social media is CRAZY. Filters, poses, rose colored glasses, the perfect outfits, hair and makeup just to post that perfect photo on the ‘gram and potentially risk falling off a cliff (too soon?) is a just a bit over the edge (no pun intended). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good photo, a funny caption and an inspiring story and I have met some great people through social media but the amount of back and forth on whether or not social media is good for the outdoors seems to be a hot debate (just Googling “social media and the outdoors” brings up a plethora of well-written blogs and articles by some very well known magazines and outdoor authors). I have seen people get in fights on social media over this topic (keyboard warriors who fight behind screens) and I have read a lot of great and not so great articles on this topic and yes overcrowded trails do lead to destruction but I truly believe there is an underlying issue here that goes beyond the outdoors.

 One camp argues that social media is ruining the outdoors by overcrowding the trails, creating more human impact on Mother Nature, and advertising all the earth’s “secret spots” to the general public, thanks to geotagging (just the debate over geotagging makes my head spin). They also argue that SAR missions have drastically increased in the recent years due to social media (I believe there are many more factors involved other than social media).  The opposing camp argues that social media is a great way to bring the outdoor community together and there is a lot more encouragement to get outside (especially for the younger generations). Also, most people did not grow up hiking and camping so they use social media as a way to gain education and insight on how to prepare for the outdoors (guilty as charged, if you are reading this blog).

 This one is for the mean girls

I personally have witnessed a surge in crowds in the outdoors, especially in National Parks over the years and yes, I believe outdoor adventuring has become a marketing fad but I also believe in the healing power of Mother Nature and if more people are experiencing serenity in the outdoors instead of the hustle and bustle in urban everyday life, isn’t that a good thing? Are people getting outdoors to enjoy the healing power of nature or are people getting outside just for the ‘gram? To be honest, I really don’t care because there are much bigger issues at hand.

Social media has a disturbing impact on everyday life and it is affecting female self-esteem in a negative manner.

I still wonder to myself, “does the general public understand that social media accounts are curated profiles?” THIS IS NOT REAL LIFE PEOPLE!

Haha told you these photos are curated!

Haha told you these photos are curated!

And reviewed and edited…

And reviewed and edited…

I have had many girlfriends tell me they have become depressed by looking at social media accounts because they feel as though their lives are not worthy, they are not good enough, not pretty enough, not adventurous enough and they are missing out on all the fun. I know people who are so obsessed with Instagram to the point they only hike with people who have a certain number of followers (umm exclusive much?) Instagram is no longer “instant” posts but curated photos that could be days, months and years old that people are most likely posting while lying in bed at home. Let’s not forget the hair, makeup and fake poses that are often depicted on top of Half Dome. I was in Yosemite last summer camping with a group of gals who would take an hour to get ready because they had to put on fake eye lashes so they could look good in photos they were posting on social media (I ended up spending most of the weekend by myself because I do not want to be around anyone who wears fake eyelashes in the outdoors).

What happened to real women in the outdoors getting dirty on the trails, climbing rocks and not giving a damn if their hair is messy and they have sweat stains under their arms? As women, shouldn’t we be bonding on the trails, posing for silly photos, sharing stories and drinking wine? Or are we seriously getting into nature to just have a library of beautiful photos on Instagram so we can judge each other and compare our lives to a complete stranger?

I truly believe instead of debating whether social media is ruining the outdoors, we need to focus on what social media is doing to women and our society. We are tearing each other down, fat shaming girls we don’t even know, comparing ourselves to women who spent an hour putting on fake eyelashes and attacking each other for taking topless photos (do not even get me started on what I see in the mental health and eating disorder world of social media).

 Let’s get real on social, shall we?

Let’s talk about our mishaps in the outdoors, our embarrassing moments, why we have found healing in nature and let’s educate the general public (in a positive manner) why we choose to get outside.

No matter what you see on social media, remember you are beautiful, stop comparing yourself to another individual’s highlight reel, post that photo of you with boob sweat on the summit, and please do not allow other people to tear you down.

Real life versus Instagram. I carry sheet masks with me when I camp, backpack and travel and I may or may not wear them in my tent, at camp or in the car.

Real life versus Instagram. I carry sheet masks with me when I camp, backpack and travel and I may or may not wear them in my tent, at camp or in the car.

A super dirty, sweaty and happy selfie…

A super dirty, sweaty and happy selfie…

Ehh… I am mildly obsessed with Smokey the Bear and I may have already been a bottle of Champagne in deep. Are my eyes open?

Ehh… I am mildly obsessed with Smokey the Bear and I may have already been a bottle of Champagne in deep. Are my eyes open?

 **For those of you wondering (and maybe even judging), YES I am on social media. I love using social media to connect with friends and family members and I find it incredibly useful for travel information, photography tips and it is a great way to stay in contact with people who I meet on the trails.  I also use social media as an avenue to share this blog as well as my Psychology Today Blog. Writing has been one of my passions since I was in grade school and I have learned to use my electronic pen and paper to share my thoughts, experiences, mistakes and lessons with others in hopes they can gain knowledge, self-esteem and maybe have a laugh or two. Do I deal with trolls and crazy people on social media? Yep, every damn day!**

Thanks for reading and see you on the trails,

Xx

Kristen

Trail Talk: Life Lessons and Hiking Bloopers From the John Muir Trail

Because nobody is #sweatydirtyhappy all the time

“Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet”.

-Roger Miller

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People are fascinating! I use the term, “fascinating” in the most colorful way possible because humans are the only living species on this earth that can make you laugh, cry, scream and feel as though your life maybe ending all within one short backpacking trip in the wilderness. Nature is by far, the least of any hiker’s concerns. I have learned over the years through some hilarious and challenging hiker bloopers that we must be extremely cautious of our fellow nature human travelers because nobody is #sweatydirty happy all the time and REI sadly does not sell Cranky People Spray.

But seriously, I have hiked and backpacked with some pretty nutty people so I have gotten pretty good at taking punches in the outdoors. I had a guy I was backpacking with race to try to catch up with me on the trail even though I was behind him the entire hike ( he didn’t realize he was in front of me until I found him waiting at the trailhead), I had a gal scream at me in the middle of our campsite after hours of meeting her because she felt like she was the fifth wheel in our group (this was the very first time ever we all actually met each other), and I recently had a camp neighbor scream at me and call me “trash” for stepping too close to her cabin while I was searching for a cell signal so I could send a work email.

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Some trail names should always be left unsaid

I knew we were in for a treat when I had to unexpectantly jam pack five people, five 65-liter backpacks and my dog into my Honda Accord for a six-hour drive up to the Eastern Sierras (our carpooling plans got a little jumbled last minute so we had to play Tetris with our bodies and gear). We were off on another adventure to backpack 26 miles on the John Muir Trail over 3 days and within an hour into the drive I knew we were in for a “treat”.

One of the gals in a sheer panic (after jokingly stating that two of my friends in the backseat, who are moms to a gaggle of kids, were child abusers because they were on a trip without their kiddos) exclaimed that she forgot her headlamp and her solar lantern. Easy fix: just buy another headlamp when we get into Mammoth and forget about the lantern (an unnecessary backpacking item).  As soon as we arrived (after another grueling five hours in the car) to my favorite mountain town, we picked up our wilderness permit from the visitor center and grabbed food and beer from Mammoth Mountain Brewing Company. At lunch, the topic of trail names came up. A trail name is a nickname that is given to you on the trail usually by someone who has hiked with you before. One of my friends in Colorado gave me the trail name, Trail Goddess and with a mischievous grin on her face, “Ms. I forgot my headlamp” quickly exclaimed that her trail name was Problem Child. 

Something always happens to me on the trail or I am always forgetting my gear,” she stated.

During our 6-hour car ride, she was constantly telling us how experienced she was as a backpacker, but I have learned over the years that backpacking is like scuba diving…you never really know someone’s experience level until you actually see them in action.

 The words “You are so SCREWED, Kristen” kept circling around in my mind.

I made a mental note to myself that I would just need more vodka for this special trip and I could handle anything for four days…its four days, what could go wrong?

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That one time when my car alarm was actually helpful

We made our way to our campsite (after stopping by an outdoor gear store so Problem Child could purchase her headlamp) since we decided to spend a night tent camping in Mammoth so we could get an early start on the trail in the morning. Upon arriving to our gorgeous campsite and meeting up with two other friends who were adventuring with us, we all quickly learned that Problem Child was overly terrified of bears, did not know how to set up any of her gear, and didn’t bother reading any of the detailed pre-trip emails I sent out. I quickly opened another beer and said a few positive mantras to myself because I knew I was in for a challenging adventure. We helped her set up her tent and spent at least 45 minutes going through all of her gear and teaching her about “bear safety” in the outdoors. After a couple of hours of explaining that scented lotions and baby wipes are in fact, “scented”, and needed to be kept in her bear canister, it was clear our group needed a break and I needed another beer. Most of the gals went to find the bathroom and the camp store and a couple of us stayed behind to watch a California black bear meander into the forest only a few feet from our campsite.

“At least all this scented vs. non-scented talk was not a waste of time”, I jokingly said to my friend standing next to me as I watched my 14-pound dog bark excessively at this bear.

Problem Child missed the bear sighting because she was in her tent and somehow didn’t hear the loud commotion of people screaming (people go NUTS over bears and it’s quite entertaining to witness). When she finally appeared from her tent and heard about the bear sighting she freaked out, said some overly ridiculous comments about bear spray and bear bells and stated that she better not see a bear on the trail (of course I was quietly hoping we would run into lots of bears).

You know a bear is looking for food in the campground when you wake up in the middle of the night to loud banging noises. That same night, I awoke to our camp neighbors banging tin plates and cups together to scare away the bear from their campsite at 2AM and all I could think of was,

“I hope Mr. Bear leaves soon so I can get out and go pee”

After 10 minutes of impatiently holding my bladder, my car alarm was set off and of course my keys were locked in the bear box. I looked outside of my tent and all I could say was

“Holy Fu$K, there is a bear on my car”.

His front paws were on my driver’s window and he was peering into my car looking for food. Problem Child started yelling loudly from her tent and I told her to be quiet since she had nothing to worry about since the bear was clearly looking for food IN MY CAR. I thanked the car alarm gods for quickly scaring the bear off my car after a 90 second ETERNITY.

I was on my feet, tearing my car apart at the crack of dawn the next morning to discover that chocolate candies and lots of food wrappers were left inside Problem Child’s backpack in the trunk of my car. Bear safety lesson #1 was clearly a fail.

Now I am that neurotic person who makes you search your backpack in front of me if you are storing your gear in my car in bear territory.

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Raise your hand if you peed today

We arrived at the trailhead and after ensuring my car was 100% bear proof, we gathered our packs and started off on our adventure; two nights, three days and 26-ish miles in the some of the most beautiful backcountry in the United States. We we were so excited to be section-hiking the John Muir Trail! We were planning to camp at Ediza Lake on night one in the backcountry and to camp at Thousand Island Lake on night two but when we were only two miles from our night one camping destination and we found out (thanks to a very nice hiking fellow we came across on the trail) that there was no bridge to cross over to get to Ediza Lake. The bridge to Ediza Lake was out which put a huge wrench in our plans. The water was swift and high, we had a very difficult scramble in front of us and I was already dragged through so much drama that I knew making a dangerous attempt to either boulder over rocks or cross fast moving deep water was not going to happen. I already had a backup plan but I stayed quiet and listened to my friends talk about options as I apologized to my pup, Moo, for an unexpectedly long (and very hot) hiking day. My friends asked for my opinion of what we should do and I quickly stated we should definitely hike to Garnett Lake where we will camp for the night. Ediza Lake was completely out of the question!

“Yes, it is going to make for a longer day, yes it is super hot right now and yes we have to cross another 10,000 foot ridge but not everyone in our group is prepared to scramble over rocks or wade through swift moving water with 40-pound packs and I do not feel comfortable putting Moo through that”, was my game plan and explanation and everyone agreed (we really did not have another option).

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We had six more miles in the very exposed heat to go so everyone filtered more water, put on their big girl pants and made their way to Garnett Lake. Problem Child was extremely irritated about our game plan but we were shit out of options and we were all in the same boat so I tried to explain we have to just roll with the punches because backpacking trips never go as planned. I decided to hike with Problem Child because it was clear she was irritated and it didn’t seem she was doing well. We were about 45 minutes behind the rest of the group, keeping a very slow 0.8 mile per hour pace and within one mile of starting out toward Garnett Lake; she exclaimed,

“ I think I am out of water”

 Now how can that even be possible? We all each filtered 3-4 liters of water when we decided to head towards Garnet Lake because we knew there would be no more water crossings for another six miles. I was very confused and beginning to get very annoyed. I literally asked if everyone had at least 3 liters of water for this next leg of our hike before we made our way to Garnett Lake.

“What? When was the last time you filtered water?” was all I could ask her.

“At lunch”, she replied.

I was repeating about every swear word in the English dictionary in my head because lunch was approximately 6 miles back, 3.5 hours ago. She never filtered water before taking off for Garnet Lake. She just sat back and watched everyone.

We had 6 miles to go and 3.5 liters of water between the three of us including my dog. I knew I could spare at least a liter for Problem Child but I wanted her to understand the importance of hydration on the trail. I was officially pissed. She complained, moaned, bitched and groaned for another two miles and finally exclaimed,

“This is the worst trip ever, and I hate this”.

I kept asking her if she was feeling okay and she adamantly stated that she felt fine and she had already drank plenty of water for the day. She said she knew she was hydrated because she was “sweating a lot”. We started going back and forth about this, I told her she was dehydrated and she was adamant she was not. We were going in circles and I knew if I tried to explain the physiological process of sweating aka perspiration, it was going to go in one ear and out the other.

I started asking her more specific questions about her fluid intake and output for the day. I didn’t care that she was having a horrible time or that she hated me because I was too concerned that she was now putting herself and our group at risk. I quickly rushed into my doctor mode, calculated her fluid ins and outs and decided this girl is getting evacuated off the trail as soon as we catch up to our group. 

 I was about to give her a liter of my water when we came across a stream.

“Halleluiah”, I thought to myself.

 We walked PAST the stream and I almost lost my mind.

“This chick is not going to filter water. She is just going to keep on walking in her damn dehydrated state”, I thought to myself.

I asked her if she was going to filter any of this water and it dawned on her that she probably should. As I was getting eaten alive by mosquitoes waiting for her to filter water, she loudly demanded that I help her because she could not manage her water filter on her own. I held her Smart water bottle and the clean end of the filter as she pumped water through her MSR filtration system. After we were finished pumping water and 38 mosquito bites later, I told myself she would of course thank me when we got to camp for helping her filter water and making sure she was safe on the trail (she did not have a map or a navigation device). Let’s just say that was wishful thinking.

Four miles to go at a 0.8 mile per hour pace in 90-degree temperatures up a 10,000-foot ridge behind a woman who literally hates my guts and is a dangerous hiker… “It’s a beautiful day to be alive”.

“Who has cell phone service right now”?!

That was all I could muster out of my mouth when we finally reached the top of that 10,000-foot ridge and I saw all my friends waiting. Each one of my friends looked at me without saying a word. They knew I had steam coming out of my ears and I had to take quite a few deep exhales to prevent myself from crying out of frustration. Two gals had cell phone service and I quickly asked them to call the two mule companies we saw at the trailhead to get Problem Child off this trail. That quickly opened up a tall can of worms but I was 100% done hiking with her.

“Raise your hand if you have peed on the trail today” I asked our entire group, as if I was a third grade teacher.

Everyone raised their hand and began saying how many times they peed on the trail over our 9-hour hiking day, except for Problem Child. I knew she didn’t pee all day and I wanted the group to clearly understand the situation we were in. We were a group of seven women backpacking together in the wild and we all needed to understand what was unfolding in front of us. I then explained to Problem Child that I was extremely concerned for her hydration status and also very concerned about the decisions she was making on the trail and if she came into my ER I would stick a needle in her arm and give her a 1 liter bag of normal saline. Right then and there, the rest of the group understood the gravity of the situation. Every gal in the group searched for a way to safely get Problem Child off the trail but the quickest way was to finish our loop through Thousand Island Lakes, and this was only day one. We had two more days to go.

I was done sweeping for the day and I needed a beer. I picked up my pace and hiked next to one of my girlfriends while another gal stayed behind Problem Child to make sure she didn’t jump off a cliff or do something else completely off the wall. We all came to the beginning of Garnett Lake and quickly chatted about filtering water. We all asked how much water Problem Child had left and her response was “I don’t know” and she kept walking. One of the gals told her to stop and check because we were at a water crossing. I guess my trail hydration lesson didn’t sink in. Throughout the next two days we made Problem Child take out her bladder from her backpack at every water crossing and visually show us how much water she had left.

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Does anyone have an extra spoon?

Problem child continued to ruffle everyone’s feathers when we got to camp and for the duration of our trip. She refused to keep her scented items in her bear canister at night, she still could not figure out how to set up her tent and she slept with her bear canister next to her tent (after watching every single one of us find places to store our bear canisters away from our campsite). The next morning she realized she was out of camp stove fuel and convinced someone in our group to boil her water for every single meal from here on out. She continued to complain about the tremendous chore of filtering water and although I kept my distance, every single gal in our group would tell me some ridiculousness Problem Child was getting into. I started to respond, “I don’t care anymore”.

Day two was glorious because I refused to hike next to Problem Child, I met my trail Jesus, a very kind thru-hiker from Eastern Tennessee, (I should write a blog post entitled “Trail Magic” about this amazing man) and our group spent most of the day swimming in crystal clear water and basking in the sun at Thousand Island Lake. As we were getting ready to cook our food before sunset on night two, Problem Child asked the group if any of us had an extra spoon. She forgot her headlamp, did not bring enough camp stove fuel and forgot her spoon. We all blurted out in unison,

“No!”

We were all officially done with her nonsense.

 Of course I asked myself, “How is this girl eating her food without a utensil? “

I quickly thought to myself “she could use her bathroom shovel if she really wanted to”.  

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Always bring an extra pair of pants

The morning of day three, Problem Child could not figure out how to get all of her gear in her pack, I managed to completely break a BearVault bear canister that I borrowed from a friend and we were hiking out of camp before sunrise in order to make it home at a decent hour (I hate tearing down my tent in the dark). My friend helped Problem Child pack her backpack and within a few hours we were safe and sound back at my car. Problem Child was staying in Mammoth to visit friends so I dropped her off at the Starbucks, wished her good riddance and the rest of us drove to Bishop (much more comfortably in my car compared to the drive up) to grab lunch. Of course, we just could not stop talking about the sheer ridiculousness we endured on the trail. It was straight out of a movie! After finishing lunch, I checked my phone and noticed I had about a dozen text messages from Problem Child regarding her iPad that she left in my car. She insisted on bringing her iPad on the trip (even though there was no service) because she couldn’t live without it. I explained that I am not responsible if something happens to this iPad and if I were she, I would leave it at home. I knew her iPad was not in my car but I needed witnesses in case she tried to report me for theft. All four of us tore apart my car, looking for this iPad and I texted her back explaining that it was nowhere to be found, told her to use the app “find my Ipad” and wished her good luck, once again. She insisted that I must have taken her iPad when I rummaged through her backpack after the bear set off my car alarm and at that point I gave my cell phone to my friend sitting in my passenger seat and asked her to handle the rest of this texting conversation because I was done.  We were all dumbfounded once again and shaking our heads in disbelief but I knew I had witnesses and these gals would back me up in case Problem Child took this any further.

“Kristen, did you know that she tore her pants on the first day getting out of the car at the trailhead”

 I just about swerved my car into oncoming traffic because I could not control my laughter.

 “She did what?”, I exclaimed

“Yes, when she was stepping out of your car at the trailhead on the first day, she split the back of her pants right down the middle and did not bring an extra pair of clothes so every time she bent down I got to see her rear end. She had to backpack in split pants for three days”

“Well karma is a bitch, isn’t it?!”

 Problem Child found her iPad a few days later; it was in her backpack after all. No apologies or words of gratitude were ever expressed.

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Take home lessons

  • Always bring an extra set of clothes

  • Write a packing list and follow it, then double and triple checked that you brought everything

  • Don’t brag about your trail experience

  • When everyone in the group is filtering water, taking a bathroom break, eating a snack or setting up camp; you should be doing that too

  • When someone sends out a pre-trip detailed email, read it.

  • Learn the name of the trail you are hiking on and the campsites you are staying at before you set foot on the trail.

  • If you have never used your gear before, set it up at home and watch a You Tube video if you need help.

  • If you don’t enjoy backpacking, that’s okay, don’t partake.

  • Don’t throw your food waste in the bushes.

  • California black bears want to eat your food; they have no desire to eat you.

  • If you did forget something, make a mistake, or have a question; use your manners and be nice about it.

  • You are responsible for your own safety on the trail, no matter what.

  • Always bring more alcohol than you think you actually need.

This was definitely a memorable and beautiful trip however this was by far the most challenging backpacking trip I have ever endured. I arrived at my mom’s house to pick up by grumpy Shitzu (my saint of a mom watches my older dog when I travel) and I shared every detail with her over a couple of bottles of wine. I was sun burned to a crisped and had over 200 mosquito bites on me, but my mom and I still laughed so hard that we cried. This trip has officially gone down in history and it is just too good not to write about (in stride of course).

Thanks for reading and see you on the trails,

Xx

Kristen