Williamson #49- The Long Version
So the story begins…. When you play sports you are taught to go until the buzzer or whistle. The reason for this is because you don’t know what you can accomplish in that small amount of time. I never wanted my biggest hike to be my 49th hike. How awful would I feel if I couldn’t accomplish that one and I was so close to the finish line? I would have rather it be in the early 40’s and I could have held my head high and walked away knowing I put in a good effort but there was still a lot to be done. I had a permit for June and a back up one for early September. I figured that for weather, this would be a good strategy. June approached and I threw my back out two weeks before. I was in physical therapy and almost back to normal activity, but nowhere near being able to hold this kind of backpack or the demands this hike required. September it would have to be.
I trained for this hike. Every hike I did, every strength training session I did, this hike was in the back of my mind. I toyed with the idea of hiring a guide. I was assured the hurdle this hike had, I could overcome. I had friends going, it would be good. I was at the peak of my fitness, ready to tackle this peak. I had just met up with a friend to borrow a climbing helmet. Yes, for this peak you need to protect your head. You are doing class 4 climbing, meaning arms and legs rock climbing with exposure, meaning you can fall. Also, you are in a chimney and rocks can fall down on you. A helmet can minimize the damage.
A friend, who doesn’t even live in the same state, met me to lend me her helmet. I was 2 minutes from leaving her when I got the call to check my emails. I pulled over and read that the Inyo forest was closed from the end of August until September 17th due to forest fires. Crap. The tricky part about Mount Williamson is the season is very short. It is very high in the mountains so you are lucky to get July-September as viable times to go. Luckily, we’ve had a dry year so it was predicted I might be able to pull this hike off as late as mid-October. The cancellation of my permit was a nail in my coffin. Permits are hard to come by, I still had 3 other hikes to get done on my list, my family life is crazy, you name it. My husband asked me if I was just going to accept defeat and postpone everything until next year. Does that sound like me? Just roll over and accept my fate? He’s cute.
There’s another saying in sports, “Offense wins games, defense wins championships.” I decided I needed to switch from my offense planning strategy and bring out my defense. What I knew was Williamson was off the table until September 17th. I threw all the hikes, except for the last one, into that time frame. It was no rest for the weary because it was faster than I planned on doing them.
I contacted the guide service and told them I would keep a backpack packed, give me 5 hours of notice and I’d meet them at the trailhead anytime. The guide and I didn’t have a good connection. Our schedules didn’t work well and our personalities didn’t gel. No biggie, he was very good at what he does, so I don’t have to “like” him. I’m waiting…. I’m watching the permit system open back up.
I send him my dates of preference, including summitting on my birthday, 9/25. He tells me it sounds good and we’ll act as we get closer. The planner in me doesn’t like that. I’m sure an oversight, because my mom has thrown me a birthday party for most of my life and always asked if I was available, but I got an invitation to my birthday party, on my actual birthday when I had planned to be on this mountain. Crap. I can’t be a no show and my son is supposed to bring his college roommate and I really want to meet him. I email the guide and tell him the 25th is off the table, but I’ll make anything around that work. I don’t hear from the guide for 5 days. Hmmm…. I text him just in case something is up with his email. 3 days go by, nothing. I wake up and decide I’m soloing this adventure. I hate hiking alone. I don’t think it is safe, but I need to get this done. There is the end section where you have to climb two sections of 10 foot walls. I don’t really have the upper body strength for that. If these are requiring me to do pull ups, odds of me successfully doing this are slim. I go in with the mindset of being cautious and doing this as a fact finding mission if I’m not sure I can do it.
I tell my husband of my plans and his face crumples and says, “Are you sure?” I tell him I am. I feel like I will make good decisions and try my best. I got my permit, downloaded maps, and actually watched videos of other people doing it. I have never done this. I want to be surprised. I got an email from my husband with a link to a different guide service and the text “Happy Birthday”, meaning he doesn’t want me to go alone and he is giving me his blessing and encouragement to go with a guide. I am so lucky to have this man in my life. I call the service and instead of the guide running the company, there is actually an office manager who handles the business side and lets the guides handle what they do best. This woman was phenomenal. This was Tuesday before I left and we talked about the plan, hired the guide, signed the contracts, discussed the gear, and everything within 3 hours. Every question I had was answered within 30 seconds of asking. I was feeling really good about this decision.
My birthday party was on Saturday night. I stayed for 2 hours and had my backpack packed and waiting in the truck. I hopped in at 7:30pm for my adventure. I always tell my kids to drive at full capacity. This also means not tired. I started yawning just past midnight. I pulled over on the side of the road and meant to sleep for 20 minutes. Blissfully unaware it turned into 40 minutes. I should have set a timer because sometimes getting too much sleep can make you groggy and not be helpful, but I seemed okay. The drive was uneventful. The dirt road was more pot-holey than advertised in Peakbagger reports, so high clearance is good, but I never turned the 4×4 on. I’m glad the guide service told me to go all the way to the top parking lot, because I ended up at the lower one at first and knew there had to be another one. I found it. There were 4 other vehicles in the parking lot. It was 2am, so I very stealthily got ready for bed and then laughed when I realized no one was physically there. They must have been on the trail already. It was my first night in the 4 Runner. I slept really well. This is bear country so it has been really hard for me to not have hand sanitizer, chapstick, air freshener, or anything that smells in the truck. I dropped my bear box outside and called it a night.
I woke up the next morning and started preparing for my long adventure. For food, I packed only foods I know I would eat. If I can’t eat sour dough and Nutella, send in the rescue helicopter because things have gone sideways. I looked like an REI store had thrown up in and on my backpack. Just like in triathlon racing, I don’t like to do anything new, BUT I had items our cat destroyed, I broke my hiking poles, I wore out my hiking shoes, and I bought another insulated mattress pad at the direction of the guide service. All new and untested. This should be fun.
The guide shows up and is super friendly. Kind of like a mixed version of my husband and my son. Young, but has some wisdom about him. His name is Dakota. We were like old friends and just chit-chatted the day away. Normally, when a guide leads this hike, they do it in 4 days but bag Williamson and Tyndall. I just want Williamson and could care less about Tyndall. That’s for another day. My agenda was:
Day 1. Hike trailhead to Anvil campground- 4 miles
Day 2. Hike Anvil Campground to Shepherd Pass-7 miles
Day 3. Summit and return to Shepherd Pass-8 miles
Day 4. Shepherd Pass back to Trailhead-11 miles
The challenge with Mount Williamson is it is a delicate beast. You start at 2,000 feet of elevation at the bottom and it can be 90 degrees. You climb to 14,373 feet and it can be snowing. You have to be able to handle the elevation changes, plus having clothes for every season on your back. I researched the weather and it was supposed to be 17 degrees at Shepherd’s Pass. Brrrr. This hike is approximately 30 miles total, so this hike is not to be underestimated.
Mount Williamson is part of what I call the “3 bears”. These peaks are in California, close together, and are called 14’ers, meaning over 14,000 feet and pretty prestigious for that reason. Mount Williamson is “Papa” bear. While it is not the tallest, the distance is the longest, the difficulty level is higher, and the elevation change is the highest. Mount Whitney is one of the most well known peaks in California and is “Mama” bear. Multiple days to summit and was no joke. Mount Langley was “Baby” bear and I loved it. The most gentle of the 14er’s.
Day 1 we were strong and the trail felt like any other John Muir Trail section. Today the air quality was terrible. Smoke could be seen and smelled. We were going to have to adapt to elevation changes while breathing in smoke filled air. We went from 2,000 feet to camp at 10,000 feet. That’s a huge gain for the day. I’ve been drinking Gatorade along with water for most hikes. I figured I better find a dehydrated version of it, because I couldn’t carry 4 bottles of it and store it in my bear box. I bought electrolyte/hydration tabs like Nuun and Fizz. Fizz, if you recall, saved my butt on Duckwater. I ran out of spunk and put a sample I had in my water. What is interesting is I bought the same Fizz tablets, along with other flavors of other brands and didn’t like the Fizz as much. Nuun strawberry lemonade was my jam. Another interesting fact is those tabs create serious pressure in the water bottles at elevation. I opened my water bottle in my mouth and it shot into my mouth like a missle. I choked for a while because it went down the wrong pipe… And I mean violently went down the wrong pipe. I will never make that mistake again. We actually hiked the first day’s miles in 6 hours so we ended up being in camp by 2:00pm. My research showed Anvil was at mile 4, but it was actually 8 miles in. I was really strategic and rested from the time we got in until dinner. I made dinner and basically rested until bedtime. I read a book on my phone, did a lot of thinking, and just closed my eyes but didn’t sleep. I was playing the long game. Save my energy, adapt to the elevation, this is a marathon, not a sprint. I slept pretty well. Given we were at 10,000 feet, the temperatures were in the 40’s. I didn’t need to cover my face to sleep comfortably. I still tossed and turned, but it was minimal. I took Tylenol PM to help stack the odds in my favor.
Day 2 We were supposed to go to Shepherd’s Pass which is 11 miles in. We were already at mile 8, so just 3 more miles. Dakota suggested passing Shepherd’s Pass and camping at a campground closer to the peak. The benefits were less distance to travel to the peak the next day and Shepherd’s Pass is on a ridge so if we camp lower it is better protection from wind. He laughed when I told him that was a “game day decision” because I wanted to see the terrain and elevation I was agreeing to take my 42 pound backpack on for another mile. The terrain ended up being cross country conditions and fun boulder hopping. It wasn’t an issue to go the extra mile to the campground inside the “Williamson Bowl.” The bummer was we had to climb down for 600 feet, at the end, to get to the campsite. Going down wasn’t bad, but we knew we’d have to climb out of that. Fine, another problem for another day. We got in at noon. Dakota was impressed that I can be lazy ALL day. We got in at noon and I stayed in my tent until dinner, ate dinner, and returned. Again, I knew the name of this game was to get used to the altitude, so I was letting my body slowly adapt. We had climbed from 10,000 feet to 12,000 feet. From the beginning I was consulting my Gaia maps in addition to Dakota doing it. At this point, he had gained my trust and I wasn’t even wasting my phone batteries anymore. I could clearly see our mountain peak and for the most part, I could see the path. Dakota actually teaches route finding classes. It was under control. This night was as cold as a witch’s titty. I only say that because my kids hate that term. It was below freezing and felt like it. I had everything on and was comfortable when I was still but when I turned something invariably got cold. I hate having anything on my face when I sleep so it wakes me up if something is on my face or if my face gets too cold. To make matters more fun my air mattress started losing air. I would blow air back into it and it would be sagging in the morning. At least it was insulated so I was protected from the cold ground. It was a rough night. Dakota and I laughed and commiserated the next morning, because he experienced the same thing. The best advice I had gotten for this peak was to bring those hand warmers that go into your gloves. An acquaintance brought those on another backpack trip and put them between two layers of socks. They burned her feet. Apparently, my being cold won out against my fear of them burning my feet, because I popped those suckers in my gloves and my socks. Best invention ever. Those hand warmer people can keep doing God’s work.
Day 3, summit day. Not going to lie, this mountain is intimidating. One hiker I greatly admire, and honestly is a much better hiker than I am, failed to capture this peak his first time. His second time he really struggled, but made it through. He hiked it in 12 hours on summit day. I can usually add 2 hours to his time. 14 hours means I’m doing this in the dark at the end. The guide suggested, because the night time temperatures were so frigid to push onto the campground right before Anvil or Anvil itself. He smiled and said, “I know it’s a game day decision, but just wanted to put it out there.” Absolutely a brilliant decision if I’m not ragged and half dead. Up until this point I was hydrating and fueling perfectly. That cold night hit and I just didn’t want to get out of bed that morning and face that brutal cold. I was going to get up at 5:30am, eat breakfast and pack for the day. We were going to head out at first light, which was 6:30am. At 5:30am I just couldn’t do it. I started bargaining with myself. Instead of eating, I’ll eat a Clif bar while we are walking. I’ll hold my pee until we’ve walked a little bit and go when the sun is up…. Luckily, I had packed my day pack the night before. Those of you not familiar, a day pack is just a smaller backpack so you can go climb something with minimal weight. We left most of our gear, tents, etc at the bottom and carried 5 pounds in a day pack to the peak. Again, this is bear country so there was no food in my pack, but in the bear box 50 feet from me. I left the tent at 6:27am with a full bladder, an empty belly, loaded my food for the day and off we went. I tried to play catchup as we went but my stomach was being a little finicky.
From our tents we had 2 miles to the summit. The first mile was ridiculously easy. Just up and down these little embankments. Then we spotted this “black staining” that is everyone’s sign of where to turn. Honestly, I thought the staining was a horizontal mark at the base of the mountain. It was actually vertical and just on this one chute. Oh, that’s easy. We hike up to that. My guide says, “It’s helmet and harness time!” We gear up and wind through the switchbacks. This part wasn’t particularly hard, just long and slow. My guide prefers loose dirt and I prefer bigger chunkier rocks, so we were both making each other nervous. He got me to use just one pole for this terrain. I’m generally a two poler, but to be able to hold onto the boulders with one hand and navigate the loose dirt with the pole was much better. He kind of became my trail husband. My real life husband can just look at me and tell if I am going to give him my backpack so I can negotiate something. My trail husband was able to just look at me and see if he needed to hold my pole for me as I navigated something. We stopped every hour on the hour for a rest break. It was our chance to rest, eat, and drink. When time constraints are on my mind I tend to take shorter breaks. I think Dakota was worried about that, because he doesn’t know the endurance I have. We got up to the “chimney.” I looked straight up. Holy s&^$! Dakota gets his rope out and attaches it to my harness. He climbs up and tells me the best way to negotiate it. He tells me I’m harnessed in so if I fall the rope will catch me. I did the first arm and foot holes. Okay, this isn’t bad. I get to the middle where my legs are extended and I need to pull myself up with my arms. Crap. This is my kryptonite. I literally jump and pull myself through. I would not have attempted that without the rope there. Going up wasn’t bad. We get to the top and I remember someone’s report saying it is 10 minutes from the chute to the top. Liar. You get to the top and you still have these chunky boulders to climb. I don’t know how far it was, maybe ¼ of a mile? It felt like an eternity, but we did it!
The temperature was wonderful. The smoke was clear. The views were amazing. We took a few pictures and celebrated the moment, but I wanted to get back down that rope area and down the entire chute back to easy hiking. That’s when I’d relax and take a real break. We get back to the rock climb area and Dakota gets out all these climbing gadgets for his harness. How adorable. He had asked me about my climbing experience and I told him I’m pretty familiar with rappelling. He attached me to his rope, told me to walk over the ledge and assume the L rappelling position. “Pardon me?” He explained I had options, but the safest way down for me was to rappel down the rock face for the first shelf and downclimb the second one. I’m pretty thankful at this point Dakota had never done Williamson, because if he’d have told me this was the plan I would have been dreading this moment for days. I had absolute faith in him. I could tell this wasn’t his first rodeo, but I’m just not a rope girl. I could tell he was in his element. He even teaches rope climbing and rappelling courses. It was easier to rappel through the first section. It was very hard to see the handholds and footholds from the top down, so the downclimb section was very clumsy and I used the rope for a lot of support. It was ugly, but it got done.
We pushed back down the chute. It was a non-issue. Dakota worried about two exposed face areas and my comfort level with them. I easily navigated them. We came up to our camping area and Dakota wanted to know the game day play. I told him we push to the next campsite. I didn’t want another cold night. While we were expecting our day to be 14 hours, we did it in 8 hours, so we had plenty of daylight. We gave ourselves an hour to eat lunch, pack up and be on the trail again. Remember that 600 feet I said would suck going back up? Well, it did, but we took it one step at a time. I knew once that was over it was downhill for the rest of the day and there is some power in that. About a mile from camp I hit a physical wall. I felt my body dragging. I’ve had this feeling before, so I know exactly what it was, lack of protein. My day has been filled with carbohydrates/sugars. I skipped breakfast which I had primarily protein planned. My body was telling me it needed something substantial and not to be thrown more sugars. We stopped for a break. I didn’t label things as much as I normally do. I had just packed everything, everything looks very different, right? I pulled out my protein powder and went to make myself a protein shake. I taste it and “That’s not protein.” I’m an idiot. That was Skratch an electrolyte/hydration blend. It helped, but it was a bandaid to hold me over until I could eat dinner.
We decided to stay in the camp area about a mile from Anvil. There were beautiful trees with shades of fall color. It was perfect. I was tired, but not spent. We arrived as the sun was going down. I don’t think the gravity of my accomplishment had hit me yet. My air mattress needed to be reinflated every 3 hours. I slept horribly again. I’ve decided sleep is for losers. I thought about all the gear I could get to make this type of hike more enjoyable, then I stopped myself and said, “Why don’t you just stop doing things that require sleeping on the ground when it is below freezing?” I have no problem laughing at myself.
We got up on Wednesday morning and broke down camp by 8:30am. We knew today we could be lazy. I just needed to get home by 10 or 11pm. We headed out at 8:30am for 9 miles. We stopped multiple times to just look back and take in our accomplishment. We had just been on top of that mountain. I felt like it was such an accomplishment and I had so much pride in myself for doingt. We had some climbing to do in the middle, but we were at the parking lot by 1:00pm. We decided to have lunch together. He lives in Bishop. He was telling me about this amazing BBQ place named Copper Top BBQ in Lone Pine. Anyone who knows me, BBQ is kind of my middle name… As we got closer and he got signal he let me know they weren’t open. He said I’d mentioned burgers in one form or another for the last 3 days, so he could take me to a burger place. He took me to a little hole in the wall called, “Burger Barn.” The burger was good, but the chocolate shake was divine. As we parted ways, I kind of had a ping of sadness because our time was over. Dakota made the trip what it was. We were a great team and I’ll always look back and think of this time in my life fondly. I was even more grateful for him when he airdropped some photos and videos. I had no idea he was filming me, so they are unfiltered and my genuine reaction to this hike. The sweetest one is at the top of Williamson where I throw my arms in the arm to celebrate the moment.
The 50th hike is Mount Wilson in Red Rock. This is my husband’s favorite mountain so he can’t wait to show me it. I’m excited to have that last check mark on my list.