I stood in the parking lot, a pile of gear and food at my feet, thinking about the last 9 months of planning, worrying, and training. I signed up for a guided 5-day backpacking trip in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks back in January, with the intention of getting outside of my comfort zone of carrying too much gear and following well marked trails. This trip would be an opportunity to experience things I'd never tried before, and as I stood looking down at my supplies spread out over the asphalt I couldn't help but wonder, "Can I really do this?"
Alan, one of our guides, came over to go through a gear check with me. There was a lot of "No, leave that behind" and "You don't need that" commentary. I dutifully put all the things he told me to ditch back into my rental car, reminding myself "this is what I signed up for, I wanted to learn and get out of my comfort zone".
"What about my food?" I asked, holding up a bag of snacks and lunches for the 5 day trek. Someone came over with a scale and I weighed my food - 112 oz - WAY more than the 41 to 59 oz recommended by our knowledgeable leader and trip organizer, Andrew Skurka. Alan took one look at the number on the scale and turned to Bonnie, another hiker in our group who'd just recently completed a hike of the John Muir Trail, asked her to help me, and wandered off. Bonnie and I went through every Ziploc bag of nuts, dried fruit, salami, and energy bars I had. I nervously started subtracting food from the sack. Bonnie moved on to organize her own gear and I weighed my food again - still too heavy. "Jeez!" I thought, "I'm going to starve to death!" as I removed still more food from the stash. By the time I'd finished brutally dissecting my food bags, I had as much in the discard pile as I had to take with me into the mountains.
The food that survived the cut went into my bear canister, and the bear canister went into my borrowed backpack, along with my borrowed sleeping bag, borrowed tent, and borrowed sleeping pad. Part of my goal for this trip was to try out some of Andrew's demo gear, which was much lighter than all my own backpacking gear - by 7 lbs. With everything packed away and ready to hit the trail Andrew weighed my whole pack - 27lbs with 5 days worth of food! Considering I typically would go out with a 40lb bag for a 3 day trip, I was both skeptical and delighted to see how it would all work out.
After a few last minute instructions and introductions, we were off. There were 10 of us in the group, including guides Alan Dixon and Flyin' Brian Robinson. Alan publishes a website jam packed with helpful information on backpacking and patiently answered my many emailed questions leading up to the trip. "Do I really pack only 1 shirt for 5 days?" "If I have a Snickers bar with me overnight won't a bear eat me?" "How much fuel do I need to bring?" Flyin' Brian Robinson was the first person to complete the Triple Crown (the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail) in one calendar year - a feat people didn't even think was possible. With Alan at the head of our train and Brian flanking the rear, we mortal hikers were in good, experienced hands.
Almost as soon as we set out we started hiking uphill, a trend which would continue for most of the remainder of the trip. Up, Up, Up. "I want you to pay attention to the story of this hike" Alan said. "In your story, is there a bend in the trail? An intersection? Do you know where you're headed?" My story had blank pages and I had no idea where we were going. "Out of my comfort zone" was starting to be a regular feeling for me.
We stopped for a brief rest at a stream that cut through the trail. We collected some water and I moved to sit on a rock on the side of the trail. Instead of sitting on the rock, however, I found myself splayed out on the ground in the dirt. Somehow I'd missed the rock entirely. This struck me as a bad omen for the days to come, but I laughed and stated "That won't be the last time that happens!" as I saw the surprised (and somewhat worried) faces of the group.
After more elevation gain we came out on a big rock outcropping called The Watchtower. It was time for a packs-off break (my favorite kind of break) and a quick lesson in using a map and compass. I understood none of the instructions so sheepishly hung in the back of group hoping no one would notice. We meandered along a trail until we caught site of the Pear Lake Ranger Station. From there we went off trail, picking our route through rocks and trees and mountains, testing our skills (or lack thereof in my case) at route finding.
Another quick stop for water, some more uphill hiking, and soon we came out on a meadow and rock ledges that would be our home for the night. We set up a kitchen area (where we would all cook, eat, and gather) and then each wandered off to find a spot to pitch our tent or lay out a sleeping bag. I decided that for the first time I would try "cowboy camping", which is sleeping without a tent or other shelter. I found a flatish area, put down my ground cloth, my sleeping pad and sleeping bag, and that was it. Being from the East Coast and doing most of my hiking and camping where there are bugs, snakes, and other creepy crawlers in the night, I was very nervous about being "unprotected" while I slept. I repeated my mantra once again, "I'm here to try new things and get out of my comfort zone". After a group dinner of noodles and peanut sauce and a bit of socializing, I crawled into the sleeping bag, pulled it tight around me, and waited to fall asleep. With no crickets or cicadas chirping and chattering, the night was eerily quiet and still, with the exception of the occasional rustle of a fellow hiker turning over in their own bag or a snore from a neighboring sleeper. After a hard, hot day of walking uphill, I fell asleep with a view of the sky and the rising full moon above me.
I'd made it through the first day. Four more to go....
Looking clean and excited at The Watchtower on Day 1.