And Than I Shit Myself… Altitude Sickness Back Packing and Best Friends

      To this day I cannot eat a Cliff Bar. I blame THAT on the Sierras. Altitude sickness is no fun. Neither is explosive diarrhea 15 miles from the nearest bathroom. Oh believe me, I lived through that shit. Literally.

     It began with a backpacking trip in Southern California. Sounds simple enough. Add 6 friends. Try hiking 15 miles up hill. In one day. With a 77 pound pack strapped to your back. And a toilet seat. Yeah, we were going to need that. Oh yeah, and Randy has asthma, (Surprise!)
     Six of us good friends decided to hike in the Sierras in June of 2004. Hey lets go camping, we thought, then we decided to hike to North Palisades Glacier, the largest Glacier in Southern California, and why don’t we make it our first backpacking trip? It was going to be awesome. We were all high school friends who had grown up together in the San Bernardino Mountains. We met in a mix of choir, drama and band. Yeah, we were those kids. We were all college age at this point, all in relativity good shape and thought we could handle the hike no problem. I really had no idea what to expect going in. I had no idea we would do fifteen miles of hiking, all up hill the first day.

     We left our rural mountain community early one June morning, and headed North towards Ridgecrest. We stopped in some random sporting goods store there to pick up last minute supplies. I seem to recall Ryan purchased a water filtering system there. Yeah, up to that point we really didn’t even have that much in the way of supplies besides sleeping bags, some dried fruit, candied nuts, and a portable toilet seat; we had priority’s.  After we stocked up on more freeze dried meals, extra deet, and biodegradable soap and T.P.  we headed for the foothills of the Sierras, driving through the little mountain towns of Big Pine and Lone Pine. We took the windy road up to Sage Flats, west of Big Pine. The start of our hike was over 7,000 feet. We all live at about 6,000 feet so we figured we would be used to the altitude. We left the cars in the parking lot there, breathing in the musky sage that grew wild everywhere and packed up our supplies, ready for the hike ahead.

        As we slammed car doors and applied a solid coat of bug spray and sunscreen I enjoyed the last few moments of feeling clean and not sweaty I would have for over four days. We couldn’t bring any products with any smells into the forest. Bears could smell odors even as light as deodorant from miles away. None of us felt like tangling with a black bear. The closest thing I had to perfume or lotion was the sunscreen that was needed at this altitude. You tend to burn more at higher altitudes, even someone like me, who is tan-orixic (Not my term, I stole it from my fav author Jen Lancaster)  

     I was itching to go hiking that first day but  unprepared for the hike we were about to do.  I had no idea we would be doing 15 miles up hill the first day. The first part of the trail meandered through the pretty John Muir Wilderness along Big Pine Creek. We followed the Big Pine Creek Trail head, meandering past the cabins down below. They were available to rent as opposed to sleeping on hard ground and rocks like we would be doing for four days.  Four days from now that, would sound like heaven to our aching backs. As we continued up and over the steadily climbing trail, the flowers were in bloom everywhere in pinks, purples and yellows. They filled the forest on both sides of the  North Fork drainage of the creek to the left of the trail head. Ryan filled up our water pumpage system as we made our way farther away from the source of our water for the next few days. I think that’s when my pack started to get heavy.

Would have been a great pic if my eyes were open

filling up on fresh pumped creek water

     This was our first backpacking trip and we brought everything. Steven and Jenny even packed in an air mattress; that popped on the first night.  And then there was the famous toilet seat.  In all Steven’s pack weighed 77 pounds. My smaller pack weighed a light 50, I wasn’t carrying the tent, we left that to the boys, plus they had the propane and most of our food and cooking equipment.

Steven and Jenny at the cabin

     I’ve hiked all my life, but was nowhere near ready for this epic hike. To this day, the hardest hike I’ve ever done. I hadn’t trained at all before doing this hike either. I guess I just assumed we would do a few miles a day, meandering through the forest. Little did I know when we set foot on the John Muir Trail through the Inyo Wilderness, this trail goes nowhere but up; were climbing a mountain, bitches! 

    I think it was right after we crossed the creek that we noticed Randy was lagging far behind us. Eric, like the good sport he is, hung out with Randy. I was wondering why it was taking this normally fit guy so long, the next time the two guys caught up with us we learned why… Randy had asthma. We had all been friends since middle school, and some of us elementary school, and yet two miles into a major hike now we were learning about Randy’s Asthma. So Eric said he would do the hike slowly with Randy, and we would all meet up that evening at our base camp at First Lake.

                The trail climbed steadily uphill after we crossed the North drainage bridge, the icy waters crashing over the white rocks below us. That water tasted fantastic! But we had to ration it out in our plastic bottles; the next creek crossing wouldn’t be until sometime in the afternoon. About five miles into the steady up hill hike I was struggling big time. I had started out at the front of the pack, but I was lagging behind now. My 50 pound pack felt like it weighed 100 pounds. Each step uphill was harder and harder. When Ryan offered to carry my pack on his front, I gladly let him. I felt like such a wuss handing it over, but I had no idea what to expect in this hike and had packed way to heavy: Throwing useless necessities like a hair brush, cosmetics, heavy snacks,  reading material and way to many articles of clothing in my bag. Never again would I ever pack for a trip in such a useless manner. Once I handed over my pack to Ryan I felt like I had just woken up. Steven told me, that even before I handed off my pack to Ryan he was really proud of how Jenny and I were handling the hike. After I handed my pack off to Ryan I was able to hike much faster than everyone else, of course, and found myself leading the pack.

                The trail that leads up to North Palisades Glacier winds past seven numbered lakes, some of them are off the path and you have to wander around side trails to find them. There are a couple other little lakes around in the series also, like Black Lake. We would be camping near one of the summits at the first lake in the series, First Lake. We took a break about half way up to enjoy some snacks, mixed nuts and dried pineapple at a little ranger’s cabin. The creek wandered past it, and we took the chance to fill up our bottles, wondering how far below us Randy and Eric were. We could see the snow shining on the Glacier in the distance.  Horses, riders and pack mules wandered by us, and we were way jealous of the people who were not carrying air mattresses, toilet seats, and tons of supplies on their backs, because the pack animals were doing it for them. 
                Early in the afternoon we finally reached First Lake. Man, were we thrilled! I cannot believe we completed that hike, to this day, it amazes me. It’s one of the most incredible things I have ever done in my life.  The water glinting off the surface of the lake was the most amazing turquoise blue, we checked out the area, and realized there was no one else camping anywhere near us. Ryan is kind of a loud guy and this worked out great for us. He does not have an inside voice. As we set up camp we realized the mosquitoes were horrible. The cheap Deet I had purchased at Wal-Mart did nothing for me. It was something like 20 % Deet. Luckily, Steven had purchased one that was like 90 % Deet, and that worked much better. He was really nice about sharing with everyone. Poor Steven, the guy loves to camp, but is allergic to every single bug. He spent the trip swallowing handfuls of Benadryl. We were all covered in mosquito bites in a matter of minutes. They swarmed us as we set up our tents. Um, maybe that’s why no one else chose to camp by the pretty lake?
                Eric and Randy finally made their way into camp by the evening, and we all enjoyed a dinner of freeze dried camp food. Yum? We spent the evening playing cards in the largest tent, and complaining about who had the worst gas from the camp food. I win! I went to bed an hour before Ryan, and when he climbed into our tent, he literally screamed
                “How have you not asphyxiated yourself!” It’s the worst thing I have ever smelled!”
     I still think one night in a tent with me, after camp food, was the determining factor when Ryan came out of the closet years later.
                Luckily for both of us, we survived the night. The next morning we crawled out of the tent, basted on more Deet and sunscreen, and made a breakfast of instant coffee and freeze dried camp eggs. Okay, I actually really like the freeze dried camp eggs. They remind me of tofu, and I just think they taste great! It was a magical moment, sipping my coffee with my best friends, overlooking this silent, still lake, slapping mosquitoes off each other’s faces.  We were all so sore from the past days hike. Sleeping on the hard ground at night we felt like all skin and bones, like we had each lost a few pounds after the hard uphill hike. It was really uncomfortable, as the rocks dug into our backs. I think Steven and Jenny felt the worst, sleeping on their now deflated air mattress.
On our first full day in the John Muir Wilderness, Ryan, Steven and Jenny and I decided to do a short day hike, and check out the other numbered lakes in the system.  I think Randy and his asthma were over hiking at this point; Eric and Randy decided to stay at our camp all day. The four of us started up the trail in thew mountain sunshine, sprinting past lakes two and three, probably my favorites of the lakes. The water was so beautiful, aqua greenish blue. We moved so much faster without the weight of those 50 to 75 pound packs on our shoulders! We spent the day hiking through the forest and the night playing cards and farting.

On day three Ryan being the friendly guy he was some how made friends with some hikers who were heading towards North Palisades Glacier. Ryan and I were the only ones who wanted to try and summit the glacier, everyone else was way too sore from the past days hikes. I had just arisen from our increasingly smelly tent,  and was sipping my coffee when Ryan ran up to me and shouted (He is Ryan, ya know)
“Grab your day pack! These guys are going  to summit the glacier and were going with them!” I had just climbed out of “bed”, and was nowhere near ready to hike, but I hurriedly sprayed some Deet on, (You’ll notice nearly every picture from this trip I have a bottle of deet in my hand) grabbed a Cliff Bar and scrambled up the trail behind my best friend. After about two miles of hiking uphill, I was not feeling good. I knew something was really wrong when I kept chewing and chewing that Cliff Bar and I couldn’t swallow a bite. It was a weird feeling. Then, I started to get dizzy and my stomach started to cramp up. Altitude sickness is a bitch. Living at 6,000 feet I didn’t think it would affect me, but the early morning start to our hike really threw me off. And we were well over 10,000 feet at this stage in our hike. I leaned against a boulder, and told Ryan

“You have to go on without me, I feel like death” Then, I hid behind a big boulder and took care of some paper work. And that was the way I managed to crawl back to our base camp, stopping every fifteen minutes with horrible butt soup. Thank god I had extra tp in my pack. I did manage to make it back to camp okay, and I was actually feeling better by the time I got back. I felt so good actually that by the time Ryan returned to camp after summiting the Glacier, I felt good enough to go on a short day hike with him.
Well, it should have been short, but the lakes were not signed properly and we got rather lost between lakes five and six, and where the hell is lake seven?

The hike started out okay; Ryan and I wandered on by lakes four and five. They were gorgeous of course. We named lake five Mosquito Lake, WORST MOSQUITO’S EVER!  At some point the trail completely disappeared and we found ourselves scrambling up hillsides, pulling ourselves up tree roots and making our own trail. Suddenly we had no clue where the f’ing trail went and there were no other hikers around. It was starting to get overcast when we FINALLY found lake six. Near Black Lake  we could hear thunder rumbling in the distance and we realized we had better make our way back to camp before the rain started in. We filled up our water bottles and ran back over the trail (We found it finally!)  Towards our base camp.

                When we reached camp Eric and Randy were trying to fish. We hadn’t brought any poles with us, to much to carry. Of everything we brought the one thing we didn’t bring was fishing supplies! I don’t remember now what we used as hooks, but we managed to catch a few lake trout as the first raindrops started. Randy caught five and Steven caught one anyways.  We decided to hike our way around first lake, and we made our way through the thick brush, Steven cutting a trail with his machete.  We scrambled up hillsides and over a makeshift bridge. This was one of the prettiest areas of our hike. Plus this was where Randy really started to catch some fish! He caught 4 little trout on this side of the lake! I guess after fishing the boys were kind of bored and thought hey lets jump in a freezing cold glacier fed lake!


      We had brought a portable shower with us on the hike. It’s pretty much a trash bag you fill with water, leave it in the sun all day, then spray yourself down with it, but only Jenny ended up using it. As we made our way around first lake the boys found the perfect place to jump in and decided to jump into the freezing snow runoff. I can still remember the way they screamed like girls when they hit the icy water. I didn’t jump in; I’m comfortable with my man smell.

There were not any fires allowed in this area of the forest, but we were so tired of camp food and dying to eat the tiny little trout we had caught, so we decided to hike up to a little nearby meadow and make a small fire to grill the trout. We also grilled up some summer sausage Eric had. That hot meat tasted so amazing after a few days of freeze dried dinners.   We were afraid a ranger would see our small campfire and come yell at us, so we quickly put the fire out when we were done cooking. We took this one picture right after our delicious dinner, we had been bickering a bit over the past few days but as soon as we enjoyed some real food, well we were just so happy! The best thing about this little clearing? No mosquito’s! It was a miracle!
In the morning we loaded up the tents (Onto our backs) and started the (Much faster) hike down the mountain and out of the forest. We were incredibly smelly, covered in mosquito bites and some of us quite hairy (Yes I mean me) we had a portable port a potty strapped to our backs, and a deflated air mattress but happiness in our hearts. Then the butt soup set in. Yep, I crapped my pants somewhere in the middle of the high desert, 30 miles from any bathroom. Ryan wasn’t to upset as he had other problems. The day before while he had been summiting the glacier he hadn’t been wearing sunglasses and his eye balls were burned. He cried un controllable all the way home. He couldn’t stop; it was hilarious! That’s when I shit myself. I blame Ryan, for making me laugh. I felt better by the time we returned to our mountain home; the first thing we did was go to the coffee shop in town and get patty melts. Real food at last!



    Holy cow. The stupid things we do sometimes, but the amazing adventure and story afterwards! I’ve done a few hikes having packed what I didn’t need and without what I did need and learned from it. Great story!

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