Fear · femalestrength · hiking

When a Long Hike Becomes an Ultra Hike: How Fear and Strength Make Friends

This past Saturday, my partner and I set out for an 18-mile (30 km) hike from the Castle Peak parking lot at Boreal (near Truckee, CA) to the Mt Lola parking area (near Sierraville). As the hike is a point-to-point, we prepped by parking a car at the finish on Friday. We set out at 7:45 a.m., looking very much forward to 6 or 7 hours of hiking and a dip in the lake just past the halfway point and another in Independence Lake after we finished.

We’d done the route once before, three years ago, and had happy memories of the effortful day. So, we had only the most rudimentary of paper maps with us. No apps or maps downloaded on our phones. After all, we weren’t novices to the trail and it wasn’t as if the mountains or lake could have changed locations. And the route was simple, follow the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to the Mt Lola junction. Take a right. Follow the only trail past White Rock Lake up and over the top of Lola, then down the other side. We’ve hiked the “other side” of Lola many times as up and down. Familiar turf.  

We found our groove quickly. My partner and I have hiked together a lot and we both enjoy a brisk pace, with a minimum of stops. We passed through familiar spots of the hike, noting with pleased surprise at how much sooner we seemed to be getting to them than we’d expected. As we passed through Paradise Valley, my partner commented that it should only be another mile or so to the Lola junction. He also said that if we got to a traveled road, then we’d gone too far. We hiked on. And on. And on. We crossed a few dirt roads, most of which were clearly logging roads (i.e. untraveled). One had a sign that said “Entering Zone X.9”. We didn’t remember the road, but dismissed it as untraveled. After all, we didn’t see any cars on it as we passed by. We climbed up and over an exposed ridge. We looked back at Mt Lola and kept hiking. We expressed doubt. My partner, who likes to quantify things, said he was 10% uneasy. I was I-don’t-know-what-percent uneasy. We rationalized. We downgraded our assumed pace. We immersed ourselves in denial.

Also, I was annoyed at myself for still not buying a full brim sun hat for hiking. We passed people wearing peaked caps and hoodies as protection against the sun (not just the sun, California Sierra Mountains sun). Every time I felt its hot glow beating against the side of my face, a surge of resentment about my inadequate sun protection coursed through me. Also, I was hiking with a camelback, which had a new 1L bladder, 500 ml less than my previous 1.5L bladder. I was mad at myself for not bringing enough water. Also, I was wearing trail runners that I’d only worn one other time and I wasn’t liking them as much as my standard faves. I had a little hot spot on one of my heels.

Finally, when it seemed incredible that the junction was still ahead of us, we asked the next person we saw. A young woman, a solo northbound PCT through-hiker we caught up to (impressive!). She had an app.

After some consultation, expanding and tweezing the map on her phone, she said, “The junction is 5 miles back.”

IMPOSSIBLE. My mind screamed. I didn’t even feel capable of talking to the young woman anymore. My partner said thank you and good bye to her with great cheer. I was fuming. Why hadn’t I brought the good map we have at home? Yes, it unfolds and is huge. But still. Why hadn’t I thought to download an app? Or even look for one? What kind of self-reliant feminist was I (especially compared to the daring, app-savvy woman we’d just met)? This, in addition to my sunhat and water self-criticism.

As we passed them, we asked two more groups of backpackers if they’d seen the Lola cut-off. No one had. Sidenote: We actually didn’t see any other day hikers. Everyone we asked had apps and assured us the junction was 4.2 miles, then 3.2 miles back. One woman even showed us a picture of the bridge 2/10ths of a mile from the turn off. We knew exactly where it was. Each time, my partner was cheery and friendly with the backpackers. And each time people said things like, “Oh that happened to us yesterday.” Or, “Think of it as more time outdoors.”

I was way too frustrated to be as friendly as I could-have-should-have been. I wanted to say things like, “I don’t f@#*&ing need more time outdoors. Don’t you dare presume to know what’s good for me. I’m not just a jock. I want to read my book, too.” And other such unhelpful thoughts. At one point I sat down on a rock and declared myself done and unable to go on and that my partner should just continue without me. My partner assured me that we would make it. I refused to be cheered. Even though another part of me knew he was right, that resilient voice was getting way outshouted by the catastrophizer. Let’s call her, Apocalyptica.

We filled up on water at a high mountain spring. My partner gave me the rest of his water, which restocked my supply. And then refilled his own from the stream. We had no tablets or filter. He reasoned that it was better if only one of us got sick from the water, if that was going to happen. Thankfully, I can report at this distance of days from our hike that he’s fine! I’m grateful for his taking the risk. And for his calm throughout.

At a certain point on our way back, the resilient voice started to get some airtime. Let’s call her, I-Got-This. Apocalyptica had had her fun and was willing to let someone else take the microphone. I-Got-This reasoned that my partner and I were both strong enough. We had enough water and food and there was no still no pressure to finish. Even with 10 miles extra, we would be home well before dark. Sure, the hiking might get uncomfortable. But hey, wasn’t that what being strong was for? Plus, just think of how rock star we would feel when we finished. Soon, I-Got-This was the only voice I heard. She reminded me of the ultra-marathons I’d run. Yes, they were in 2011. Even better, I-Got-This assured me, this was a golden opportunity to renew the feeling of accomplishment I’d had when I did those runs.

When we hit the crucial bridge, we slowed way down. Our eyes combing the ground. And there it was. A weather worn grey wood sign lying on the grey dusty ground at a bend in the trail. So easy to miss. We changed its location to make sure the next hikers wouldn’t be misled. The path we wanted was nothing more than a thin filament threading through the long grass. Not many people take the cut off. We didn’t see another hiker for the next 7 miles.

What a relief! Just finding the right trail was shot of adrenaline. I-Got-This was dancing. Even Apocalyptica was grooving. She gets her thrills from the possibility of a catastrophe, not from its actual occurrence. I would have busted a move, too, but I was conserving energy. We still had 8.5 miles to go. A mile later, we found the rock we’d eaten lunch on the last time and ate lunch. Took a dip in White Rock Lake. Heavenly. Putting our shoes and socks back on after a dose of cold water was the balm we needed to recoup our spirits for the climb up Lola; an extended effort, which saves the steepest part for the top.

White Rock Lake–from the shore, halfway up Lola and the top of Lola.

Oh, wondrous summit! We lay down on a flattish rock for 10 minutes to replenish. Ate a salty chocolate granola bar. Then set out for the last 5 miles. All downhill. Every twist and turn and change of terrain comforted us with its familiarity. At the sight of our little red pickup truck at trail’s end, we yelped with relief. We. Were. Exhausted.  

The day wasn’t over. We had an hour drive to pick up our car at the starting trailhead. Then we mustered a final drop of energy for ice cream by Donner Lake: Mountain Mint Chip for me; Truckee Trails flavour for my partner (that’s a vanilla with peanut brittle and chocolate flakes). This is ice cream’s calling. To nourish body and soul.

Yes, we agreed that we felt pretty darn proud of ourselves for our 28-mile (46km) hike. And, we agreed that we would have been very happy (equally happy?) with the hike-as-planned; plus, we would have avoided a decent amount of agita.

Still, in these early days of reflecting on the hike, I’m glad for the experience. With each of these conversations between Apocalyptica and I-Got-This, IGT grows stronger and surer of herself; Apocalyptica more willing to step aside. Apocalyptica will never quiet completely. If she did, I’d miss her dramatic flourish in my life. But I sure do appreciate her growing accord with IGT. Together they prepare me for our ever-uncertain future.

9 thoughts on “When a Long Hike Becomes an Ultra Hike: How Fear and Strength Make Friends

    1. The ice cream was so good–dark chocolate flakes and super minty. Plus the sugar cone, to top it off. I was thinking of your post about “earning” treats and not thinking in those terms. I was conscious of thinking “I earned this” and then just thinking, “I earned it not in terms of calories, but in terms of needing an extra dose of joy”.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Oh, I know those feelings. Love your naming of the characters. I’ve had a few hikes go wrong. Nothing dangerous but like you out there hours more than I intended. One was with a child so I had to be the voice of We’ve Got This but inside I was also hearing Apocalyptica and her worst case scenario theorizing. We thought we had completed the hike and got to a parking lot but it was the wrong parking lot. Lots of back tracking involved. We did run out of water and once we got the car drove very quickly to the nearest convenience store and drank a lot of cold gatorade that tasted so good. After we chatted about how it was never very dangerous really but it felt like it was. Anyway, great story telling!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I only just noticed you’re local to me! 🙂 I don’t think I’ve ever had 10 miles sneak into a hike, but the fear of it is a reason I only pick 5 miles hikes to do with my 70-something mother.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Between Reno and Incline. Mom and I moved out from the east coast in 2016. She skis and does class II whitewater kayaking. Doesn’t love hiking uphill but can handle 1000’ if we go slow. We love it here.

        Liked by 1 person

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