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

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.

Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc Express (Video)

In August, my friends and I fulfilled a big dream together and hiked the world famous Tour du Mont Blanc. This trek had been on my to-do list for a while and I was scoping it out with REI Adventures when a friend suggested that I join their group. They were doing the express version of the hike in 6 days, so their trip was more budget-friendly.

REI’s trip was 13 days, so it was nearly double the price of what we paid, and that didn’t even include airfare. It’s a little bit crazy to take on this level of a hike in such a short period of time, but entirely doable. We saw a video of a couple that did it in the same amount of time, so that gave us more confidence.

The trip wasn’t without its challenges, though. However, this first day of the journey was relatively mellow and provided a good warmup for the rest of the trip. On this first day, we hiked from Les Houches, France via Col de Tricot and Le Truc into Les Contamines, France where we spent the night. It was a total of 11 miles with 4,728 ft elevation gain and 4,144 ft elevation loss.

A Tale from the TMB

The look on my face explains how I felt on much of the Tour du Mont Blanc. It’s the anguish you feel after you’ve reached the summit only to realize you’ve still got one, two, three more summits standing between you and your destination for the day. Or when you discover that the downhill section you’ve been looking forward to is much more challenging and taxing than the uphill slog. One thing is for sure, the trails in Europe are not the same as our trails here in America. Trails that I once considered insanely brutal pale in comparison to the trails in the Alps. However, at the end of the day, every painful step, every moment of agony, every tear shed was all worth it.

Maybe you find yourself in one of life’s uphill slogs and you’ve reached one of those false peaks only to be disappointed when you realize there is another, bigger peak towering between you and your goal. Stay with it. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t try to take on the mountain all at once, just one methodical step at a time. Don’t forget to admire the views along the way. They get better with each step. Before you know it, you’ll have reached your goal. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. 🙂

Hiking Through Grief

angels-landing-1September 2015 was one of the most devastating months of my life. First, I was hospitalized with a DVT in my leg, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse that month, the bottom completely fell out as the shocking news of a tragedy involving some of my most treasured hiking companions unfolded.

I was at work going about my usual daily routine when a strange email came in from one of the hiking group co-organizers asking for details of who was on a Zion trip. Apparently, a small segment of the main group got together and planned a trip to Zion National Park in Utah, a trip I wasn’t aware of, so the email took me by surprise.

Figuring something must have happened back at home, I dismissed the message and went about my day. Then, various reports started coming in regarding flash floods in Utah and at Zion National Park and it all began to make sense. I wondered if some of my friends may have been caught in some type of peril. Whatever happened, I knew they would all come out on top of it, because that’s just who they were. Because that sort of thing just didn’t happen to adventurers like them.

By the next day, I knew who was on that Zion trip. Five of them were my friends, including the main group leader. Two of them were friends I had not yet met. Later that afternoon and evening, there were reports of casualties being pulled from the flood waters at Keyhole Canyon. At that time, names had not been confirmed, but from the description of the people in the group rescuers were searching for, it was either one big coincidence that a group of the same size and description were in the same canyon at the same time, or these were really my friends being pulled out of those murky waters.

By Thursday, it was confirmed that all seven friends from the hiking group that inspired most of my hiking adventures had perished in the flash flood at Zion National Park. It was the most horrific thing I could have ever imagined. My hiking world was shaken to its core and I didn’t know how it could ever be set right again. One thing was certain: the trails would never be the same.

When you’ve shared the trails and so many of your life’s most memorable experiences with dear friends who departed from your life so suddenly and tragically, it is tough to move on. As I was in the process of overcoming a separate traumatic situation around the same time, it was a couple of months before I could hit the trails again. When I did get back on the trails, it was hard not to think about The Seven.

Hiking is an inherently dangerous sport, as our late hiking leader always put in his disclaimers. Every hiker knows that and we do our best to prepare for things to not go as planned. Sometimes, things just happen, despite our most careful precision and preparation. When we go out into the nature, we seldom think about the very real possibility that we may not return home that night. The awareness is there, but it’s more of an afterthought, one of those things we’d rather not think about for fear that the very thought might draw it into reality.

angels-landing-2

angels-landing-3

We train, we research, we acquire all the right gear and sometimes our best efforts are not good enough to shield us from imminent disaster. We know all of these things the moment we go out, and yet we still hike. Knowing and understanding this about myself and my friends that lost their lives in the flood was one of the best comforts for me in dealing with the tragedy. I also found much comfort in revisiting some of the places I had previously hiked with those friends and by sticking close to my other hiking companions that share in the loss.

Seven years prior to the Zion tragedy, I experienced another gut-wrenching loss, the loss of my mother, who was my treasure. Not long after that, I moved to LA where I was introduced to hiking. The pain of losing my mom was unimaginable and I wouldn’t have wished anything like it on anyone. I didn’t realize how wounded I was until I started doing extreme hikes.

the-narrows

The tough hikes pulled more out of me than sweat. I found that with each grueling ascent, more of the tears I didn’t shed at my mother’s funeral broke free. I think about my mom often on the trails. My entire body grieved her loss to the point where I felt physical pain like muscle soreness all over for about a month after her passing. Hiking healed and carried me through that grieving process. I have had conversations with friends on the trails who shared similar stories of hiking through grief.

The grief process never ends, but you reach new stages of it as your life’s journey progresses, and you find new and innovative ways of dealing with the loss or tragedy you’ve suffered. When it’s all said and done, you begin to realize that the one(s) you’ve lost are never truly lost. They are with you always in your heart, and being on the trails helps make the crooked places in the process a lot straighter.

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

-John Muir

Hike on!

~J

Miracle on the Mountain

Mt. Baldy PlaqueI set my alarm to wake me up early because I knew it was a long drive. I also planned to stop at the nearest Starbucks to fuel up before I hit the road, so I was going to need extra time. Waking up so early to a screaming alarm on a Saturday is hard, but for Mt. Baldy, it’s always worth the sacrifice of a few winks.

The alarm went off as scheduled and after hitting the snooze button a time or two, I sat up on the bed. Instinctively, I opened Facebook to see what kind of news had occurred during my slumber and the first thing that popped up was and engagement announcement. My friend Chelsea was getting married. My heart sank and all of a sudden, I didn’t want to go to Baldy anymore. I was hurt and I was angry.

Why would such happy news cause me so much heartache? Well, I wasn’t angry at Chelsea. Deep down, I was truly happy for her and wanted the best. My anger was directed at God. It was God who offended me so unbearably and in that moment, I didn’t want to do anything. The one thing I did do was cry. Then a scene played out in my mind.

Just less than ten years before the engagement announcement, Chelsea and I had become acquainted in Oklahoma when I was a student at Oral Roberts University. While she wasn’t a student there, we met at a church some of my friends and I attended across the street from campus.

One Sunday, Chelsea and I met up at church and sat together in our usual spot. We were minus our other friends that day because they had school projects to work on. After the service, I suggested that we go up and meet the pastor since we had never met him before. As people milled about in the sanctuary, we walked down to the front where Pastor Billy Joe was talking and praying with people.

Pastor Billy Joe was just as down to earth, kind and friendly as he seemed from the pulpit. He greeted us both with a smile and got to know us. We enjoyed speaking with him. I can’t remember all the details of our conversation with him, but one thing will always be engraved in my heart and mind. As we wrapped up our visit with Pastor Billy Joe, he offered to pray for Chelsea and me.

He prayed a general prayer for our well-being and success and then his prayer took an interesting turn. He laid a hand on both of us and then prayed for each of us to be blessed with a good man who will cherish us and love us. It was interesting because neither of us mentioned anything about our love lives. That didn’t even come up at all. I thought that he must have heard specifically from God to pray that over us. I felt peace and assurance that the prayer was going to come to pass.

So when I woke up to that engagement announcement, I was overcome with many emotions. Sadness, anger, bitterness, resentment, you name it. I’m sure it all boiled down to plain jealousy. I have to be real here. I was jealous of my friend. She’s a few years younger than me. I had been praying that prayer for marriage and a family since I was a little girl. How could God give it to her and not me? We were standing side by side and had the same prayer prayed over us by the same pastor at the same time.

I thought about the biblical scripture I had always heard about God not being a respecter of persons; what He does for one person, He is obligated to do for another. Those words were shattered in my heart because I had clung to them for so long and now felt betrayed by those very words. Maybe I didn’t get it right or something. It was obvious to me that something was way off and it left me feeling beside myself.

As I sat on the bed that morning, I felt this deep inner nudge to get up and get moving. I knew God wanted me to move forward with my plans to climb Mt. Baldy that day and that’s why I no longer wanted to get up. I didn’t want to do anything God wanted of me that day. I just wanted to stay home and sulk about the great and holy injustice I was experiencing.

My bed was a great comforter and I just wanted to sink deeper into it’s loving embrace. I felt the nudge again, this time stronger than before. The more I felt it, the more I resisted. Whenever I get into a struggle like that with God, He always wins, so needless to say, I ended up going to Baldy that day. There are times when God wants me to hike and there are times He wants me to do something else, or just stay home and be still. I was supposed to hike that day.

SONY DSC

Before I knew it, I was on the Ski Hut Trail, boots grinding gravel, with a serious grudge. I wasn’t there because it pleased God. I was there because I was angry. I had purposed in my heart to not smile or greet anyone on the trail. I didn’t even make eye contact with anyone, a departure from my usual good trail cheer. I just wanted to hike and be left alone. At times, I found myself fighting back the sting of tears. It was fairly warm and I was sweating with exertion, so I felt it blended in and no one would notice.

No one did. For the first two miles, I hiked with my head down looking at the dirt and avoiding eye contact with everyone I passed. Some may have said “Hi”, but if they did, I didn’t notice. I looked up only occasionally to see how close I was getting to Baldy Bowl. On one of those occasions, I saw a familiar face coming toward me. It was a friend from one of my hiking circles, someone I admire and have great respect for. I felt busted. There was no way I could get past him without exchanging pleasantries, no matter how painful.

Baldy Bowl

At our intersection on the trail, he came toward me with a big smile, arms wide open for an embrace. He told me I looked like I could use a hug. I couldn’t help but smile and allow myself to be swept into the embrace. We talked for a bit and then he mentioned that a group of consisting of him and some other friends were getting together that evening for a Dodgers game and he extended an invitation for me to join them.

I said I wasn’t sure if I’d be off the mountain in time to go home, get cleaned up and get to the game on time. He said for me to send him a message when I was finished hiking and let him know if I could make it. Then we parted ways. He had already been up to the top of Baldy and was on his way down as I was on my way up.

I didn’t really think I would make it off the mountain in time and I didn’t try to. The last thing I wanted to be that day was social. I continued climbing and when I reached the summit for the umpteenth time, I began to feel a release. I hung out on the summit for a bit and had a snack, then descended the very scenic Devil’s Backbone Trail. About halfway across the Devil’s Backbone, I stopped to hug a tree. Yes, I hug trees. Don’t judge me.

Approaching the Devil's Backbone Trail

As I wrapped my arms around the tree and let my head rest gently against its maple-scented bark, the rain of saltwater came and there was no stopping it this time. I didn’t want to stop it. I just let the tears flow for as long as they needed to until there were no tears left. After I had that cry, I finished the hike and realized I had just enough time to go home, shower and make it to the game, although I would be a few minutes or so late.

My friend held a ticket for me and I went to enjoy the game. The Dodgers won! But not only that, I also came out victorious. I realized that had I stayed home that day, I would have allowed negative feelings to fester inside me and they would have eventually destroyed me. Maybe not completely, but bit by bit anger, bitterness and resentment would have chipped away at my joy, my character, my hope.

Nothing has changed for me, at least externally. I’m still on this journey, still questioning things, still wondering if I’ve gotten it all wrong, still wondering if something is ghastly wrong with me. My friend Chelsea is now expecting her first child with her amazing husband and I am thrilled for her. I don’t have all the answers to my heart’s deepest questions or the remedy for its deepest of wounds. Yet I will still trust hope in the One who met me on the mountain that day and comforted me in my time of sorrow.

Hike on!

~J