I lay ensconced in the warmth of my sleeping bag, listening for the soft rustling sounds that would signal the others getting up. The night before our guide Brian had offered to show us the winter constellation, only visible early in the morning, and I had eagerly agreed. But it was cold and dark and I didn't want to leave my cocoon of down and nylon until everyone was up.
Soon I could hear stirring, stoves being lit for coffee and murmured voices of sleepy hikers in the dark. I disentangled myself from my nest and got up, then made my way over to the kitchen area to join the other early risers. Brian pointed up at the sky, "Do you see Orion's belt?" he asked. Three bright stars all in a row. "Do you see that bright star just to the left and below the belt?" Yes, there it is, "That's Sirius, the Dog Star, in Canis Major, Orion's hunting dog." As I admired the speckles of light above me I wondered how ancient civilizations created such remarkable figures out of a few little dots of light. For all the things that change in our world, the stars remain (mostly) the same. Thousands of years before me others had gazed up at the same constellations, searching for meaning and inspiration. "Where is Gemini?" I asked, excited to see the constellation that symbolized the dual nature of my astrological sign. Brian pointed, "To the left of Orion, do you see those 2 bright stars? Those are the heads of the twins."
I admired the stars, trying to absorb as much of the moment as I could, knowing how fleeting it was. The stars were already growing dim as the faint light of morning crept over the ridges around us. It was time to start making breakfast and packing up. The day ahead promised to be a challenge. We'd discussed some options the day before - we could take a longer, easier route to camp at a popular lake where we would likely encounter other hikers, or we could take a shorter but more technical and difficult route that would lead us to a possible bonus climb of Mt. Silliman and then reward us with the cold clear waters of Silliman Lake. The guides quietly went around asking each of us our preference, not wanting to pressure any individuals into choosing the harder, but more rewarding option. But it was unanimous, we'd take the more difficult route. Knowing a hard day lay ahead we packed up our gear, shouldered our packs, and hiked out of camp as the sun finally began to warm the rocks around us.
Alan pointed us in the direction we needed to go, up and over the ridge under the setting moon. There are moments at the beginning of each day where you're too cold to take off your layers but you know you'll warm up as soon as you start working hard. Your legs are tired from the days before, and you aren't sure what the new day will bring. Everything starts anew, your adventure, your eagerness, your ambition. Each day is a new story waiting to be written.
We soon found our rhythm and were making progress. We knew that once we'd made it up and over the ridge ahead of us we'd be faced with the biggest obstacle our group had yet tackled. We moved with determination, each lost in our own thoughts.
Clicking on an image below to see a larger version.
We crested the ridge line and, looking back, I could see our path from the day before, the peak I'd led the group to and the dry lake where we'd camped last night. I loved that about the Sierra landscape, that you could look forward and see where you were headed, look back and see where you'd been. It made me feel triumphant and small all at once.
We'd been standing on top of that roundish peak n the distance the day before, then traveled down the rocky slopes to camp, which lay on the other side of the tree-lined ridge we'd just crossed over in the foreground.
Now we were standing in a dip between two peaks. The path to lake Silliman took us down through a steep gully. A very steep, scary, rock laden gully. We took a short break while Alan gave us a tutorial on the best way to descend. No butt scooting, use your poles, balance your center of gravity - you'll all be fine. I didn't feel fine. I felt nervous. Descents always scare me more than ascents. And this one looked treacherous. Alan started calling out names, putting us in line to follow him down the gully. He told Rod to go in front of me, with Brian and Bill following behind. We made our way down, following each in the steps of the one before. Rod talked, and talked and talked, "Put your foot here," he'd say, or, "come this way, follow my path". I did. I listened, I followed, and soon I was less afraid. Rod's confidence and encouragement guided me along, step by wobbly step, until we were leveling out, the gully behind us.
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We continued down to a small lake, removed our packs, and took a few moments to catch our breaths. With the gully descent accomplished it was time to decide if we wanted to take a side trip to the summit of Mt. Silliman. A few chose to stay behind. I never hesitated to join the group moving upward, but soon started worrying I'd made an ambitious choice. The climb up Silliman was steep and the footing was uncertain. "How will I get down this?" I wondered. But that would have to wait; first, I had to make it to the top. I pushed my tired legs to move onward, and eventually came up over a rock onto the summit. From the 11,188' summit you could see in every direction.
We enjoyed a few triumphant moments at the top, taking photos and admiring our surroundings. Then it was time to descend back to our waiting companions.
Our fellow hikers were sitting in the shade of the tree that is perched on the rocks directly across the lake in the photo below. They are not visible because they are so small, giving you a sense of how immense the landscape is.
The descent was quicker than I anticipated, and with only one tumble I was pretty relieved to make it down in one piece. We regrouped and hoisted our packs and marched onward. We knew Silliman Lake would be our reward for the day's challenges and we were eager to reach it. Our little parade moved over the landscape, ascending then descending, until we could see the lake ahead. It was as tantalizing as I'd imagined it would be. I got to the lake, dropped my pack, tore off my shoes and socks, and found a thin rock ledge to stand on a few feet above the water line. I dove in, came up sputtering and exhilarated by the cold, and swam back to the rock. Again! I wanted to do it again! This time I recruited Alan to dive with me, and together we gracefully entered the water like two champion synchronized divers.
Clean and refreshed we all lounged on the warm rocks a while, chatting and feeling at ease. But we weren't camping at Silliman Lake, so as the afternoon shadows grew longer we regretfully tore ourselves away from the lake and back into our hiking shoes to walk to what would be our last campsite of the trip. Alan and Brian led us to a large rock ledge overlooking the descent we'd make the next day down a series of rock slabs. The evening routine ensued, sleeping spots were staked out, food and cooking items were stashed in the designated kitchen area, and small chores were completed.
After dinner Alan asked if anyone would like to do some yoga and several of us agreed, spreading out on a large rock plateau, facing towards the setting sun. As we stretched and breathed deep and moved our bodies through the poses I felt I was giving thanks to the rocks, the sun, the sky, the whole of this magical place.
The sun soon set and the stars began to fill the sky once again. The stars were starting to become like friends that I looked forward to greeting at the end of each day. We sat out on the rocks, looking at the stars, sharing stories, recounting our adventures over the last 4 days, and discussing our exit strategy for the next day. As the night grew colder people wandered off to the warmth and comfort of their sleeping bags. "I don't want to go to bed," I said to Brian, "I don't want this to end." I knew the next day we would be packing up for the last time, heading back towards our cars and our lives back home. It was hard to let this moment go, to will myself to get up from the rocks and to say goodnight to the stars and the new friends I'd grown so fond of. But I knew I could not stay in this moment forever, so I set it into my heart as a memory I knew I could pull out to admire and enjoy again and again for the rest of my life, and I went to bed.
Come back for the final day - the end to our Sierra Adventure.