I woke to a line of ants crawling single file across the crispy outer shell of my bivy sack. The desert sand had found its way into all the nooks and crannies of my belongings, and my face felt chapped from the previous day’s dry incessant heat. I was sweatily stirring in my sleeping bag and the sun was just beginning to splash a warm orange light on the peaks high above.
The Eastern Sierra, often affectionately called “the East Side”, is a place of romanticized dreams and stark realities. From the vantage point of an air-condition car zooming down Highway 395 it is easy to dream of the infinite instagramable moments that one could partake amidst the high granite peaks. Once outside the relative luxury of the automobile, the mountains grow taller, the desert sand more vast, and the air thinner. Before you know it your shins are scraped and bleeding from the cacti and manzanita bushes, your hands raw from the infinite sea of vertical granite that guards the passage to the tops of this range, and your previous confidence is whisked away replaced by a healthy dose of appropriate humility. There are very few roads into the interior of the Eastern Sierra, so for those who wish to walk in high alpine meadows or stand atop a peak or two must begin in the desert floor. As you climb cactus and sage slowly fade to manzanita and pine. Eventually the conifers begin to warp and shrink until they disappear all together and you find yourself in a different sort of desert landscape dominated by giant hunks of granite, shaped by millennia of geologic upheaval and glaciation. Here, high above the dusty desert floor, the realities far outreach any dreams one’s imagination could have conjured up 7,000 feet below.
It is a magical land of hypoxic movement and seemingly untouched vastness that demands only the best out of each individual who wishes to walk in its’ midst. This is the East Side that brings me back again and again.
Photo: Erik Schulte
I had started out the day before, leaving my fully loaded bicycle leaning against an oak tree along side Tuttle Creek. As per usual, the plans I had so cleverly conjured up were quickly put through the meat grinder as my ideal eight hour day linking up mounts Langley, Muir, Whitney, and Russel turned into 9,10,12, ultimately 14 hours of movement before I was back at the bike. “Oohf, what a day.” I thought, but psyched to have put in such a huge day, I quickly heated some water, powered down two packets of GFB Breakfast Oatmeal and hopped on the bike en route to the Shepherds pass trail head. At around 11:30 pm I pealed off the dirt road, found a relatively soft and flat spot in the desert sand to crash out for the night. Upon waking I realized that I had pitched camp a little too close to an ant hill. My new neighbors wasted no time incorporating me into their daily commute, as they marched single file across me traveling to their day’s work. This was when and where I should have noticed the aching feeling in my lower back and cooled my jets for the day. Instead, I packed up my sleeping bag, ate another packet of GFB oatmeal (my main chosen food for the trip) and headed up the Shepherds Pass trail en route to Mt Williamson and Mt Tyndall. Some where along the way I stopped to relieve my self in the bushes. In doing so, I quickly noticed something was off: the stream of urine was not the usual lemonade yellow, but a gentle red, like a light summer wine. “Hmm,” I thought, “that’s probably not good.” I continued on for a bit to see if things would change, and they did…only, not for the better.
My pee doubled down on its chosen color darkening its ruby red hue. Unnerved, I stopped at the next creek, sat drinking water, and contemplated my options and what it would mean for my planned objective. I drank water until my pee slowly lost its red tint, but it was too little too late. Clouds ominously began to form overhead, and the amount of time spent recouping meant that even if the clouds didn’t unleash upon the mountain tops, I would be out much longer than I planned without enough calories.
I opted to tuck tail and trot back to my bike down at the trail head, and as I did, it began to rain. There I was, slowly plodding down the trail with no one to talk to but my thoughts on what this would mean for my trip. I had been scheming and planning for this route for months. My whole year’s training plan revolved around my success here, and now I would likely not be able to accomplish what I had set out to do: A human powered link-up of all of California’s 14,000 ft peaks. Once back at the bicycle, I washed the day’s dirt off in the creek, ate another packet of oatmeal, and headed drearily back to Independence. That night, as a summer storm raged outside the claustrophobic confines of my bivy sack, I decided that it would be best to pull the plug on the objective. The next morning I loaded my things on my bike, having no other means of getting home and started the long slow ride back to Reno.
Photo: Peter Snow
I sit here now, in the middle of winter, eating GFB PB and J oatmeal in the comfort of my house. The day’s are shorter, the East Side is blanketed in a sheet of snow, and not a day goes by that I don't think about my failed attempt. I often think of how much growth came in those day’s out on my own, on what I will do differently next time, and how I can refine and simplify my set up. I remember vividly the shear difficulty of the places and positions I had put myself in; the fear, discomfort, and fatigue. And yet, daily I find myself dreaming of future mornings waking up with sand between my teeth, and long days spent struggling under my own power amidst the silent granite giants of the Sierra.