Some hikes take you beyond yourself. My recent hike to Grizzly lake in the Trinity Alps has a wildness only imagined in fantasy stories. A place where the green is greener, the rocks craggier, the water purer, the trees taller and denser. A place where mankind hasn’t done its damage. Oh, it won’t be long before that happens. But it hasn’t happened yet. The access to the lake is difficult, enough to avert all but the courageous, the experienced, or the fools.
I consider myself an experienced hiker and didn’t give the rating ‘difficult’ much credence. I’ve done difficult in the high Sierras, on the Knife Edge in Washington, on Icelandic glaciers, in the high Himalayas, in Tibet, how bad could it be in my backyard, the Trinity Alps of Northern California?
It was the hottest day we had experienced yet, the start of summer, as we hiked out in 90F heat, our packs filled with water, food and comforts for 3 days. We started from the China Gulch trailhead with a 2000 foot elevation gain over 1.5 miles, a 14% incline, tough but doable if you go slow and steady and make frequent stops. Blow-down trees to climb over loosened up our muscles and got us into a “can do” mood. At the top of the ridge we could see snowy Thompson peak, backdrop for Grizzly lake, in the distance. Down we went, a 1500 foot drop over a 1 mile steep and a hard-packed granite slope with few switchbacks. The heat and exhaustion got to us and my legs started shaking uncontrollably. Time for a rest and electrolytes. That helped, so we moved on to the bottom of the slope where we started following Grizzly creek up; up and still more up, a seemingly endless 2000 ft elevation gain over 4.5 miles. Luckily we had stretches of shade and moments of putting our feet in the cold, rushing water. We arrived exhausted at Grizzly meadows at 7:00 PM, having completed a 6.5 mile hike in 7.5 hours! A hike that seemed so innocuous when first reading about it.
It takes skill to read trail descriptions, to listen to the story of other hikers who’ve gone before you, to ask the right questions and interpret what it means for you. When you are an experienced hiker you file the information; you know you’ve climbed up bigger slopes; you’ve done longer mileage in a day; you know your limits are fluid and you gloss over perceived difficulties.
This hike had all the elements of hardship mixed into one hiker stew. Heat, lots of elevation gain, slippery descending terrain, rocks. But it was only 6 miles in to base camp, one day of hard work before the actual climb to the lake would begin, which we could do without our heavy packs. That first night I stood in the meadow, looking at the imposing rock wall around me, watching the waterfall coming from Grizzly lake up above, drop 900 feet. I knew I had to do a rock scramble with a 1000 feet elevation gain over 0.75 miles on a barely visible trail if I wanted to reach the coveted pristine lake at the top and I wasn’t so sure of myself. Recent injuries made me less surefooted; I didn’t want to injure my old knees again, sprain an ankle or tear tissue, all very reasonable possibilities with one misstep, one awkward slide on the rocky slope. The summer sun set in rose colors on the snow above, hinting at the unearthly beauty that would await us tomorrow. I knew I had to try for the top.
Climbing mountains involves breaking out of your routine. Either you have to get up in the middle of the night to get high enough before the snow melts, or you have to mentally prepare for a slow ascend, counting each breath, each step as your lungs ache from lack of oxygen. This time we had all day to make the scramble up and back down; we had time, and temperature or altitude weren’t an issue. The issue would be way-finding and paying attention to each step, each handhold to make sure we wouldn’t hurt ourselves. When you have to pay attention for hours on end without being able to let your mind wander, it’s like having a loaded gun to your head, or as Castaneda would say, death sitting on your shoulder. Don’t look down at how far you can fall; don’t look up too far or you’ll lose heart as the chutes and rocks keep coming.
It takes mental discipline and stamina to keep the needed focus. You have to be present, take it one step at a time, one foot of elevation gain after another, and then you’re there! You got to the top! The world of an alpine lake hidden by white granite rocks, surrounded by snowy slopes, dotted with wildflowers growing out of cracks in the rocks while holding on to granite soil, shows its aqua colored water. Water that is funneled by snowmelt to a lip, to flow over a rock that sends the water tumbling in a powerful rush of foam and rainbows to the meadow below where you came from that morning. The bottom of the lake is visible and showing its innards. You’ve arrived in a place where the gods whisper in the few trees that cling to the rocky shore, where the short summer lives at an accelerated pace and produces dazzling blooms, ancient fungi and cones filled with seeds that carry the life of trees of next generations. Can I be still like a tree on a rocky slope and endure the seasons life bestows on me? I will take the image of that tree with me when I descend, an image that will help me deal with Covid, with anguish over racism, with the suffering that is happening in my “civilized” world.
I sit on the lake’s edge and draw the cirque, follow its contours with my pencil; outline the clusters of trees on its slopes, fed by runoff from the snow, each cluster following an indentation, a hollow in the rocky slopes, a place where soil can build up just enough to allow trees to take root. My hand feels the interaction between rocks, trees, soil and water, blessed by the sun as it rises and disappears. This world is bigger than mine, I touch the universal forces that keep the planet alive. Keep me alive. There is more to life than my daily housekeeping, my garden husbandry, my family’s love and my community problems. For three days I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and touched the heavens and universal forces. I have put myself in the hands of fate, and survived. Hiking has connected me with the core of living: acceptance of what is, attention to what shows itself, and love for the world’s immense beauty.
The scramble down requires attention and trust. The safe return to the meadow produces gratefulness and the hike back out is infused with happiness, cooler temperatures and the knowledge that each hike brings unknown experiences and renewed confidence.