Kearsarge Pass and a Tale of Overcoming

Last weekend, I accomplished a great achievement and hiked to Kearsarge Pass via the Onion Valley Trailhead. This wasn’t my first time up to the pass, but it’s a big victory to me because it was my first hike above 11,000 feet in almost three years. I had hiked to this pass several times, but this was the most special for me because it was a comeback of sorts.

The group’s goal was to hike to Bullfrog Lake and back, but my goal was to just do the pass, which was quite a feat by itself. I backpacked the Rae Lakes Loop a few years ago, so I didn’t feel I was missing much of the backcountry scenery. My thing was, I didn’t want to tire myself out by having to go over Kearsarge Pass twice. Since the group went beyond the pass, I took my time on the way back and stopped at Heart Lake, then revisited Flower Lake and one of the waterfalls.

The group at the trailhead.

Wild onion.

A gorgeous waterfall just off the trail before Gilbert Lake.

Gilbert Lake.

While listening to my boots grinding rock and dirt underfoot, I couldn’t help but remember lying in that hospital bed, having been diagnosed with a DVT (deep vein thrombosis), frightened, thinking the worst and wondering if I’d ever hike again. The whole situation came out of nowhere.

Just a couple of weeks prior to my hospitalization, I was a healthy (albeit overweight) 38-year-old going about my adventures, traipsing across the Sierra, leading and inspiring others along the way. Then, I got blindsided and taken out of commission. I couldn’t even finish the last hike of the Sierra series I was leading, and that devastated me because I was really looking forward to closing out the series on a new peak that I had never reached before, Cirque Peak.

Flower Lake.

Heart Lake.

After a brief hiatus, I did start hiking again, but it wasn’t the same as before. I stayed away from high altitude hikes and did hikes that were closer to home and at a lower elevation. It took me a while to work up to doing long distance hikes again. I eventually began dabbling into the high altitude hikes, but only on occasion. The highest elevation I attained post-DVT was Mt. San Jacinto at 10,834 feet.

The final stretch to Kearsarge Pass.

Looking toward Bullfrog Lake and the Kearsarge Lakes from Kearsarge Pass.

The popular rock column at Kearsarge Pass.

A marmot taking in the scenery at Kearsarge Pass.

Looking down at Big Pothole Lake from Kearsarge Pass.

Last year, I mustered the courage to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc in Europe, which was another big milestone. That gave me the confidence I needed to start pushing again. Gradually, I’ve made my way back to high altitude hiking and I’m feeling pretty good. I’d like to climb Mt. Whitney again, although I’m not sure I have another Whitney in me. Only time, coupled with a season of training, will tell. For the time being, I’ll continue enjoying the great outdoors while reconditioning my body to do what it was made to do. In the near future, I’d like to go and hike to Cirque Peak since the DVT stopped me in 2015.

Kearsarge Pass “summit” selfie.

Sometimes, we get blindsided and are tempted to give up on ourselves. In those dark and uncertain times, we have to look back and remind ourselves of why we started our journey to begin with. It’s always harder to restart something than it is to begin in the first place. The resistance feels even greater. But we have to show that resistance that we are more determined than it is. We have to stand strong and not let fear or trepidation intimidate us. We are more than conquerors.

Hike on!

~J

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Mount Baldy and Wildlife Sighting

It was the perfect day for a Baldy hike. Not too warm or too cold, but just right. Since we got such a late start at 11am, we took the ski lift up to the Notch and hiked from there to the summit and took the lift back down. Even though this is considered the “gentler” route, it’s still pretty brutal when you’re out of shape and haven’t been hiking at altitude very much. It’s hard to admit that I’ve grown a bit lazy in terms of hiking, but I have. Part of it has to do with the DVT I had back in 2015. Some have noticed that I’ve dialed it down quite a bit since then and haven’t been going on the big adventures I used to do.

As many of my hiking friends can attest, once you stop hiking, even for a little while, your body reverts back to its pre-conditioned state. Beginning again is almost like completely starting over, which is discouraging because you put in so much work to get to where you were. Now you have to push through all the pain and resistance in your body once again to help it reacclimatize. That’s how I felt on this hike, as well as on my last two high altitude outings.

The hardest part of this hike is always the first mile or so, and this time it seemed ten times harder. Taking the ski lift up probably didn’t do me any favors besides shortening the distance because my body didn’t have a chance to acclimate before beginning the hike at 7,800’ elevation. It’s almost like taking the tram up from Palm Springs to hike Mt. San Jacinto.

My heart started racing the minute I stepped off the ski lift, and with each step after that, so I stopped frequently to let it slow down. My pack was pretty heavy since it held three liters of water, plus an additional 20 oz bottle of Oxigen water which I received at the recent Climb for Heroes event. I also carried food. To lighten some of the load, my partner offered to take the water bottle and carry it in his pack, which helped, but I still struggled and took a break in every piece of shade I could find along the way.

After huffing and puffing uphill for a while, I finally gave in and decided to drink the Oxigen water, along with the tube of saline solution meant to go with it, and have a little snack (some almond butter.) According to the information on the bottle, this Oxigen water contains the O4 molecule rather than the O2 molecule, which means the oxygen stays in the bottle after you open it. I had never heard of that, but with my free bottles, I tested it out on two recent high altitude hikes.

On the Anderson Peak hike, I didn’t feel a difference at all. On this hike, I was able to hike a lot stronger after drinking the saline and chasing it down with the water. I don’t know if I can attribute my second wind to the Oxigen water and I’ve now used up my freebies. At $3/bottle, I don’t think it’s worth further testing when I already know Trader Joe’s Electrolyte Enhanced Water does the trick at a much cheaper cost. I just didn’t have any this time.

When I reached the saddle between Mt. Harwood and Mt. Baldy, I noticed about five bighorn sheep grazing on the western slope of Mt. Harwood. I had seen bighorn sheep near the ski hut before, but never on this side of the mountain. Of course this happened the one time I decided to leave my big camera behind and use my phone for pics. Needless to say, I was kicking myself, yet still happy to be able to see those beautiful creatures enjoying their habitat.

When we reached the summit of Baldy, we were shocked to see that, in the middle of the day, there were so few people up there. It was in stark contrast to the last time I hiked Baldy last month. Granted, that was a special event that draws in thousands of hikers annually, but on a typical day on the mountain, you can see scores of people milling about on its barren summit. A wave of people showed up about ten minutes before we left, so our timing was perfect.

After spending about an hour on the summit snacking and comparing our O2 levels with my oximeter, we descended Baldy’s rocky, scree-laden eastern slope, said our goodbyes to a lone bighorn sheep on the side of Mt. Harwood and made our way to the Devil’s Backbone Trail. I didn’t get an altitude headache this time and traipsed down the trail feeling pretty good.

Hike on!

~J

Hiking to Anderson Peak with My Tribe

Looking toward Big Bear Lake from Anderson Peak

This was my first time on the Forsee Creek trail and my first time summiting Anderson Peak (elev. 10,840ft). The trail was gorgeous with lots of wildflowers along the way, creating great photo opportunities.

Purple lupine

Indian paintbrush

Columbine

Despite all the signs of life and rebirth, there were still remnants of the shadow of death and destruction that decimated the area during the most recent fire. It was a stark reminder of the cycle of life that the forest endures.

Danielle and I started early and Richard met up with us on the trail as he started hiking a little later. Since Danielle and I got a late start, it didn’t take him long to catch up to us.

Richard catches up

We kept a slow but steady pace as the peaceful and gradual trail wound through the forest with about a 4100-foot gain from the trailhead in about 6.5 miles. We stopped at Trail Fork about 6 miles up to have a snack and reassess whether we felt like huffing it off trail for the final ascent to the peak.

We were feeling good and decided we were too close to turn around, so we went for it. And we were happy we did. The reward of achieving the summit was so worth it and the views were amazing.

Going off trail toward Anderson Peak

Our sign-ins on the summit register

Big Bear Lake to the north of Anderson Peak

Mt. San Gorgonio to the east of Anderson Peak

I love hiking with my tribe.

*****Due to the Valley Fire, all trails in the San Gorgonio Wilderness are closed until further notice. Thankfully, my friends and I got to do this beautiful hike before fire ravaged the area once again, continuing the cycle of death, destruction and rebirth.

What’s in a Name?

In this video, I share my personal story and unveil a new name with a new logo. Please forgive the technical glitch on the title slide in the beginning. I was just made aware of that when this finished uploading to YouTube. Also, there is a bit of wind noise coming through the microphone. I was testing out a new Rode mic for the first time and will probably return it for a better one. Take a look at what’s on the horizon for this series.

A Baldy Bust and a Few Blessings

On Friday, I hiked Mt. Baldy with a few of my co-workers who had been wanting to climb that mountain for a while. I was super excited to join them as I had hiked Baldy something like 40 times and was very accustomed to the terrain. I consider it my favorite mountain in Southern California. Sharing the experience with my co-workers and celebrating with those who would reach the summit for the first time would have been a real treat and I was looking forward to it.

The morning started out early. We hit the trail around 7am and the first half-mile was fairly easy and we were able to hike as a group. When the trail got steep, I fell behind as I was really beginning to feel the altitude. I hadn’t climbed Baldy since May and hadn’t spent much time at altitude at all this year, so my body wasn’t as acclimated as it once was and I had to shake off that rustiness. I also had to push through some things that weighed heavily on my heart and mind.

The bigger issue was the altitude. Although I was quite a ways behind the group, I was making good time toward the ski hut, the halfway point to the summit. As I huffed it up the steep, rocky trail, I heard someone come up behind me. When I pulled off to the side to let him pass, he said my name as he greeted me, and I realized it was my friend Patrick who I know from a mountaineering group. He gave me a hug and told me that some of our other friends were right behind him. They were going to hike up to the summit and descend the same way. I greeted them and let them pass and noticed that they weren’t hiking much faster than me. However, I knew they would summit and be on their way down before I reached the top.

Patrick at the creek near the ski hut.

When I reached the ski hut and met up with my group, I didn’t want to stop, but they were just relaxing and enjoying the surroundings. I wanted so badly to be fully present with them, but knew that the toughest parts of the hike were just ahead, so I was anxious to get going. I didn’t want to admit that I was experiencing the onset of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) for fear that they would worry, so I told them that if they reached the summit and saw that I wasn’t there after a while not to wait for me because I would probably descend with my friends who had passed me earlier.

I took off and headed up Baldy Bowl through the pine trees. Before long, the group caught up to me. I had gotten a pretty big jump on them, so I was kind of surprised that they caught up so quickly. As I neared the top of the ridge, I could feel my lungs and legs beginning to struggle and weaken, but I was determined, so I pushed myself. I figured I’d take a good rest at the top of the ridge and from there, it was another steep climb to the summit, but I knew I could do it as I had done so many times before.

Steep ascent.

When I reached the top of the ridge, I got hit pretty hard. I had felt the effects of altitude sickness before, but the symptoms were usually mild and came in the form of a headache, which I was usually able to ease with ibuprofen. But this time, it wasn’t a headache. I felt lightheaded and my pulse wouldn’t slow down, even after resting a few minutes. These were classic symptoms of AMS. I tried my best to smile through it while conversing with the group so that they wouldn’t suspect anything. I had already let them know that I might be turning back before reaching the summit, so at least I was in the clear.

The group continued up the mountain and I stayed behind and pulled out my oxymeter to check my O2 levels. I was unable to get a reading because my fingertips were cold, so I had a snack and then tried to continue the uphill slog at a slower pace. Then the ringing in my ears started. I decided to sit down on a rock for a few minutes and try to check my O2 levels again. This time I got a reading and it was normal, but my pulse wasn’t slowing down. I was probably at an elevation of 8700 feet at this point. Though I really wanted to continue, I felt that if I did try to push through, I would have hurt myself and had a miserable experience. So I gathered my pack and began the steep trek downhill.

The Devil’s Backbone Trail.

When I reached the ski hut, Patrick was there sitting on a bench. I asked how he managed to make it back there without me seeing him and he said he descended via another route that led him straight there. It was a steep scree-laden route that a lot of hardcore mountaineers take and not something I would ever do since I’m afraid of heights and of falling.

Patrick was waiting for the other guys, James, Jeff and Shin. I sat with him and had another snack, but I could still feel the effects of AMS and wondered if I should just begin the descent on my own. The best thing to do when you’re hit with AMS is to descend immediately. Since we were still at high altitude (the ski hut is at 8200 ft), I knew the symptoms were going to linger until I got lower.

It wasn’t long before the guys joined us and we began our trek down the rugged trail. On the way down, we met up with some other friends, Hikin Jim and his sweet daughter Joycie, who were on their way up to the ski hut. It was great to see them as I hadn’t seen Jim since 2014 when I did the Rae Lakes Loop backpacking trip. I hadn’t seen Joycie since she was 2 and she’s now 8.

With Jim, Shin and Joycie. Photo credit: James Ledbetter

So this trip didn’t end up a total bust. There were blessings along the journey and I embraced those special moments. I normally don’t do two big hikes back to back, but the next day, I hiked to Strawberry Peak with a big hiking group. I had done Strawberry Peak several times before and knew it was a challenging hike, but since it was at a lower elevation, I wanted to give it a try to redeem myself from the day before.

Strawberry Peak.

It’s always disappointing when you have to turn back from summiting a peak, even though you know it could be detrimental to your survival if you continue. But we have to be wise and set pride aside to do what’s good for us, regardless. I walked away from that Baldy hike filled with disappointment, but there were angels along the way who showed me love in the midst of that and made me smile and laugh again.

Instead of staying home on Saturday, I decided to get up and give it another go. It wasn’t Baldy, but another very challenging hike that involved a bit of rock scrambling. During that second outing, I found that I have become a much stronger hiker, and even though I took many pictures along the way, I wasn’t the last one of the group as usual. It was a fairly large group and I was able to stay in the middle section of the group. I even passed a few people along the way. One of the highlights of that trip was getting to catch up with my friend Jane who I hadn’t seen in a while. Normally, I’m not even able to hold a conversation on the trail, so this was pretty big for me.

Jane in love with the outdoors.

 

When I signed the summit register on Strawberry Peak, I wrote the words, “Never give up! Conquer your peak!” I wrote it so that those who came behind me and examined that register would be encouraged in whatever they might be going through. I went from disappointed to inspired in just 24 hours. I decided not to quit on myself, even though my ego was pretty bruised after I couldn’t climb Baldy the day before. But the story wasn’t over.

My summit register entry.

Sometimes things don’t work out or go the way we expect them to and we’re tempted to lie down and quit, giving in to the pain of discouragement. It’s okay to feel that pain and take some time to shake it off. Do whatever is needed in that moment, but don’t stay there. Get up, lace up those boots and get to walking. There is always a peak to conquer and in conquering that peak, you will find that you are truly conquering yourself.

Hike on!
~J

OptOutside Hike: Skeleton Canyon

The day after Thanksgiving, my friends and I drove out to Mecca Hills, CA to participate in REI’s OptOutside campaign. Since it was such a far drive, we decided to make a weekend out of it. Our first hike of the weekend was suggested by my dear friend Ava and took us through the narrow walls of Skeleton Canyon. We didn’t find any skeletons out there, but had a spook of a time!

Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc Express – Day 2 (Video)

On this leg of the hike, we trekked from Les Contamines up the Chemin Roman and through the Contamines Montjoie Nature Reserve to the Col du Bonhomme. At an elevation of 7,641 ft, it’s still not the highest point on this route. However, the steep, rugged climb provided us with sweeping vistas of high peaks and beautiful landscapes.

After reaching the Col du Bonhomme, we were only about halfway done with the hike. Since our destination for the day was the Refuge des Mottets, we had to traverse across more rough and rocky ground to reach the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. After that, it was on to the highest point on the Tour du Mont Blanc, the Col des Fours at an elevation of 8,750 ft.

Instead of this being an 11-mile hike as we had anticipated, the route ended up being more like 15-20 miles. I almost gave up completing the tour after this, but some encouragement from my friends helped me to keep going.