Saturday, November 15, 2014

John Muir Part II: Sleeping With Strangers

Continued from Part I: God's Country...

I had intended to make this a 3-part series, following logically from the three stretches between resupply points, originally planned as 3 weeks. However, this one day was so memorable, that I decided it should get its own post.

Standing on top of Muir Hut following the most memorable night of my trip.

Day 7: Dusy Basin to Muir Pass

11.9 miles
Dusy Basin (10800')
Low Point: Le Conte Canyon (8750')
End/High Point: Muir Pass (11955')

I gave my guardian angel food-delivering-across-a-huge-mountain-pass-sister a big squeeze goodbye, leaving her in the questionable hands of a frazzled hippie (or more accurately leaving him in hers), and wandered back down to Le Conte Canyon wearing fresh clothes she had picked up for me and with my pack full of resupplied food, bandaids, toilet paper, and a new SD card. Partway down the trail, the cold rain started back up, although it wasn't heavy...yet. I hurried down the hill, hoping to catch the Boy Scouts before they packed up camp and left, leaving the stuff I had stashed with them unprotected against marauding hikers and marmots. I found them steps from where I had left them huddled around a fire, getting a reluctant start to their morning as the rain dripped down through the trees.

Waving goodbye to Jeannie on my way back to the trail
after her successful resupply mission.

I had a second breakfast of oatmeal from the scouts' extra food, a rare hot breakfast and a real treat. Two guys showed up from the south, the first Northbounders any of us had seen except ourselves (me and the Boy Scouts), and hungrily eyed the fire while pretending to look over a map with shivering hands until it got awkward and we called them over to warm up. A fire is a welcome thing on a wet, frozen day. After some shared oatmeal and a brief chat, they took off, and their departure reminded me that I still had over 3000' and 8 miles to go to get up Muir Pass, and then several miles more down the other side before I'd get to the next spot where I could camp. Anxious to get moving despite, or rather because of the cold and the rain (I wasn't going to get less wet standing around getting dripped on, I figured...little did I know), I packed up and told the Boy Scouts--the closest things I had to friends on that trail--that I'd save them a campsite in the Evolution Basin on the other side of the pass if they didn't catch me well before then.

The drizzle turned into a heavy rain, the wind picked up, and the day got progressively colder. Little did I know, having not had access to a phone signal or The Everpresent Internets since I started my hike 7 days earlier, a massive storm was moving across California, and rangers were closing off access trails to the JMT because of the danger of extremely cold weather, flash floods, and all manner of not-goodness. All I knew was that it was raining, and that I felt very cold.

I hiked as fast as I could to try to keep myself warm, although I never did warm up that day. I hiked for miles and miles without breaking pace or stopping to rest or pausing to have a snack because stopping meant freezing. I climbed slowly up toward the pass and the wind got stronger and the temperature continued to drop, and I shivered as I walked, I couldn't feel my face or hands, but I couldn't stop. There was no warm sheltered place, stopping meant freezing. It was cold enough, and I was wet enough, and tired enough, and my stuff was soggy enough, that I was scared that stopping could mean freezing to death.

The whole time I prayed that my sister had made it over her pass before the storm that was drenching and freezing me hit her, "Hit me with whatever you've got, weather, but give Jeannie sun!" I yelled at the Asshole Sky at one point. I found out later that she had been suffering through it too, and by the time she finally made it out to her car with the old hippie, both of them were in tears.

Rock Monster on the trail. My last chance for shelter on the hike to Muir Pass.

I knew I had to make it to the top of the pass, because that was the first place where there was shelter to be found, the famous Muir Hut. I had no idea what to expect from the Muir Hut was, but it was mentioned in my guidebook and the handful of wet, frozen hikers coming down off of the pass assured me that if I could just make it to the hut, it would be dry. But 8 miles is interminable in miserable conditions. I'd ask hikers coming down, "How much farther?" and they'd look at me with pity and reply, "Not close. Sorry." For hour after wet, windy, frozen hour. My brand-new sister-delivered poncho refused to stay on me in the wind, no matter how I tried to tie or duct tape it to myself. Protecting my backpack from the rain proved an impossible task, and I only hoped that my sleeping bag was staying dry (or rather not getting more damp) inside its garbage sack inside. At one point, the poncho blew up and tangled itself around my neck and, unable to muster the energy to curse, I started to cry angry, scared, cold, tired tears. I fought the urge to rip it off (and likely strangle myself in the process) and somehow managed to untangle myself despite my completely numb hands and shaking limbs.

And I kept walking.

Dripping trail on the way to Muir Pass

And walking.
And walking, counting my steps to distract myself from how horrible I felt.
And walking.
And walking, making bets with myself how many more steps it would be until I got to the hut. It was always more steps than I guessed.
And walking.
And walking.
Because stopping meant death, I was fairly sure.

Maybe it didn't mean death. Maybe I could have wriggled my sleeping bag and bivvy out and crawled inside before it got totally drenched. Maybe an exposed night in the freezing rain wouldn't have killed me, even if it would have been the scariest, most miserable night of my life. Maybe someone hiking down would have helped me back down the mountain to the more sheltered canyon and a campfire. Maybe.

But I kept walking, because maybe wasn't an option. I knew that no matter how hard the wind blew or how cold I got, I'd make it to that damned hut. And after five stumbling, shivering, nonstop hours, I saw the hut. 500 steps, I told myself, you can make 500 steps. It was a lot more than 500 steps. But I made it. Staggered up to the door. Pushed my way inside.

Muir Hut: the tiny little pimple in the middle of that pass.

Inside, the round stone hut was cold, damp, and dripping. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw two guys sitting together in a corner, steam boiling off of them. The Northbounders. After first eying me like the unwanted houseguest I was, they quickly felt sorry for a fellow frozen miserable hiker and helped me out of my soaked outerwear (I was too numb and shaking too hard to even get my backpack off), helped me get my dry change of clothes and sleeping bag out of my completely saturated pack, and made me a hot mug of coffee to help warm me up. The hot coffee changed everything, and I slowly started to feel my hands again, and slowly started to calm down, and the relief of being safe and with other people had me silly with exhausted gratitude.

They had decided to stay the night and wait out the storm, as had a Southbounder who was sitting quietly in the dark corner of the hut who I hadn't noticed at first. It was illegal to camp in Muir Hut, but we decided our circumstances were exceptional enough that John Muir would forgive us. I, for one, was done for the day. Or at least done until the storm stopped for long enough to let me dry out and get to a real camp. And sun and balmy Summer-in-California temperatures did not appear to be anywhere on the grey and dripping horizon. And I was glad I'd have company in that dark, dripping, isolated, cave-like hut.

Setting up camp inside Muir Hut

Once I warmed enough to function, I set to work trying to set up a means of protecting my sleeping bag from the vigorously dripping hut interior. Water was leaking in through the roof, running in streams down the sides and dripping at every stone step, and the humidity inside from the drippiness plus four soggy humans was approximately that of a Turkish bath. Damp + down are a bad combination in the cold, and I worried about the saturation state of my sleeping bag, and worried about staying warm through the night. The hut was drier and warmer than the outside, but still neither dry nor warm.

We cursed the blocked-off fireplace, not that there was anything around to burn. We napped, me curled up inside my bivvy sack with my poncho over my face to protect at least my top half from drips. We told stories and laughed. We helped dress each other's blisters and patch each other's torn gear. We made what hot food we could and drank hot tea, hot coffee, hot water, and when a Southbounder with a platypus full of bourbon stopped through, we drank that, too. There were some impressive people who trickled through as the afternoon progressed, but only a hardy handful. It seemed most people had decided to hunker down and try to wait out the storm. The Boy Scouts never showed up. I'd never see them again (I'm sure they survived the day, probably by staying put where I had left them, but I hope they made it through eventually!).

My attempt to make a dry space inside the hut.
When I woke up from my nap, everything was soaked.

By the time darkness fell, we were a group of five. The Northbounders, brothers Mike and Ash, had managed to suspend one of their tent flies from the interior walls of the hut such that we had a sort of indoor tarp protecting us from the drips, at least at the hut's center. We all made dinner, sharing goodies around (including my large bag of organic kale which my sister had left me with; this became a running joke and to this day kale reminds my hut friends of our night together). Khai, the Southbounder, set up his tent on a bench on one end of the hut. Mike, a special forces badass visibly antsy from the delay in his hiking plans, found the hut too dank and had a good winter tent, so opted to set up outside in the rain, which had let up slightly.

The rest of us slapped our Thermarests and sleeping bags down on a tarp in the center of the hut floor underneath the drip-protecting tent fly. As the night got colder and colder, and Khai's snoring and the howling wind got louder and louder and the water dripping from the tent fly edges crept ever inward, we all scooted closer and closer together. Which meant that I quickly became sandwiched between two strange men.

The tent fly that kept us sort of dry that night.

Under any other circumstance, being trapped in a cold, dark hut in the middle of nowhere with a group of strange men would have been uncomfortable and weird to say the least. On other backpacking trips, I've gone out of my way to avoid crossing paths with strangers. But that night I was enormously glad they were there. It never occurred to me to be uncomfortable. I was glad to be the person in the middle benefiting from body heat on both sides. It's okay to spoon with strangers when it's all in the name of surviving the night. Exhausted from the day, comforted by the warm human bodies around me, oddly soothed by the arrhythmic dripping and resonant snoring, I fell into a deep and much-needed sleep.

It's kind of astounding how the boundaries between complete strangers break down in situations like that, how everyone is stripped to being part of the same human family. For the 12 hours or so we were in the hut, all any of us cared about was staying warm and surviving the night. Once we were all convinced of our own survival, our second concern became making sure all of the other humans around us stayed warm and fed and hydrated and comfortable and happy. Except the brothers, none of us had met before that day. None of us had any reason to give half a shit about anyone else in that hut. Yet without discussion, without question, we shared what we had--our food, our cookware, our medical supplies, our limited water, our shelter-making gear, etc.--and worked together to make a cold, leaking, drippy hut a somewhat pleasant home for the night. We entered the hut unwelcome strangers, and left it a close-knit family. It was a miserable day followed by one of the most lovely and memorable human experiences of my life.

Four of five of the Muir Hut Family the following morning.

Continued in Part III: The Social Animal

Like the photos? There are more in the Photo Gallery, and more will be added every day as I sift through them all...there are a lot!

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