Wednesday, October 22, 2014

After the PCT: Great Basin National Park in Nevada

After picking me up from the PCT at Castle Craigs in Northern California, my parents and I headed east and crossed the great expanse of Nevada.  Flat sagebrush alternating with narrow mountain ranges that extend north to south.  The land has been stretched here creating this basin and range topography.  By car, we traversed the expansive sagebrush plains and climbed mountains before descending again, then repeated the pattern.  Our journey has a rhythm that is soothing and makes traveling at these (high) speeds much more soothing.  We reached our first stop on this road trip, a national park none of us had even heard about until we started driving.  It turned out to be quite a jewel.

Great Basin National Park in Nevada rises thousands of feet above the flat sagebrush plains.  My parents and I drove to the Wheeler Peak trailhead at 9800 feet.  Wheeler Peak Scenic Driver twists and turns with switchback that reminded me of being back on the PCT.  My parents opted for the 2.7 mile Alpine Lakes Loop Trail.  I set out for the Bristlecone and Glacier Trails (4.6 miles), and did the Lake Loop on my way back.
Up to the Bristlecone Pines.
The scenery is breathtaking.  I hiked out to the end of the trail and spread out my sit pad and took off my shoes and wiggled my toes in the crisp air just like I was out on the PCT. 
Rock glacier.
The rock glacier at Great Basin occurs below the ice glacier.  Water freezes between rocks, and the mass of ice and rocks forms a rock glacier that flows downward.  I could see the ice and I marveled at the rocks and imagined the huge glaciers that must have carved out this cirque.
View down the cirque.
The Bristlecone Pines are incredible!  Bristlecone Pines are the oldest living individual organisms on earth.  The ones at Great Basin are 2-5,000 years old.  Can you imagine!  Extremely slow growing, they survive in harsh environments like high elevation mountains, exposed to snow and wind.  Being in their presence, you feel small and insignificant.  What a great feeling!
Bristlecone Pines.
Massive peaks rise above the lakes on the Alpine Lakes trail.  I started feeling the pull of the mountains.  I passed the turnoff to the climb up Wheeler Peak, the second highest peak in Nevada at 13,063 feet.  I was overcome with this desperate need to climb this mountain, to stay here and see the stars and the sunrise.  I’m not ready to leave these mountains yet.
Along the Alpine Lakes Trail.
Back at the trailhead, I met up with my parents again.  I begged them, “Can I stay here tonight and climb Wheeler Peak tomorrow morning, while you go into town?”  I was overjoyed that they agree to come pick me up the following day. 

I grabed some trail food and my hammock, and my parents left me at the trailhead while they went in search of a burger and hotel room.  I added cold water to some couscous, and hung my hammock in a grove of aspen.  It got below freezing during the night, but the stars were bright and I could see the milky way. 

I am hiking as the sun rises, back to my old, PCT rhythm.  It is jaw-droppingly spectacular when the first rays of sunlight meet the yellow leaves of the aspens. 
Starting up the Wheeler Peak Trail.
Switchbacks and 3,100 feet of elevation gain ahead.  My legs remember this routine.  The climbing makes them feel alive and full of energy. My lungs suck all the oxygen they can from the thin air.  I feel marvelous.   I love being this high up.  I get above treeline and the views radiate out all around.  Different than anything I’d seen on the PCT, though the rocks and lichen and switchbacks all make me feel at home.  I love it! 
Heading towards that highest peak.
The wind picks up, fierce and strong.  Gusts like you couldn’t imagine.  I put on more clothes.  The fleece mittens I wore through the snow in the Sierra.  I keep climbing but the wind gets stronger and stronger.  I though I was used to the wind- certainly I had enough wind on the PCT.  But this is like nothing I’ve ever felt.  I have trouble staying upright.  I am literally getting knocked off my feet.  The icy gusts penetrate right through my clothes, driving away all warmth.  Still I climb, but I can’t keep warm, and I kept getting knocked around. 
Climbing above treeline.
The trail starts getting even steeper.  I am well past the saddle.  All the way to the last, stairmaster-like push to the top.  Steep rocky steps.  I figure I am somewhere above 12,000 feet.  The wind is getting worse and I still have trouble keeping upright in the gale force winds.  My fingers and toes are going numb in the cold.  I finally get to the point where I can't feel all ten fingers and all ten toes.  That’s when I know I’m too cold and have to do something different.  That’s my limit.  It would be possible for me to reach the summit, but being alone and with the wind, I know it's not a good idea to keep going.  Especially with the numb toes which make it ever harder for me to keep my balance.  So I turn around and head back down the mountain.
Windswept and cold, but still smiling.
Back on the saddle, I ran into two other hikers, the first I'd seen.  One guy was on his way up still, but the other guy had turned around even before I had.  The wind was too much for him too.

I thought I might feel disappointed in myself for not reaching the summit.  But I wasn’t.  The summit didn’t mean anything to me.  I got to climb, to breathe mountain air.  I got to watch the sunrise and to see the incredible views.  I felt the cold of the wind whipping around me, the rocks beneath my feet.  Those are the things that are important to me.  I attempted to make it to the top, but I made a good decision to turn around.

Other people might have kept going under these circumstances, or maybe they might have not gotten as cold or been as unstable in the wind.  But I can’t compare myself to others, like I always used to do.  In the past, not summiting would have prompted me to start feeling like I am weaker or not as brave other hikers.   But I am beyond that now.  I realize this is one of the important lessons of the PCT- now I am more comfortable in the decisions I make on the trail.  I know what is important to me, and I understand that the things that I value may be different from what others are out there for and that our goals and how we derive meaning are different.  And I understand that’s OK.  I do what I think is right for me at the time.  No regrets.  It is a good lesson for life.


  1. Awesome! It takes some people a lot longer in life to learn this (ahem). Before I worked there a man died near the summit. did the right thing.

    1. I just hope all these lessons from the PCT stick with me. This off-trail pace is so much faster.

      That's crazy that someone died up there near the summit. I was surprised how accessible that trail was, since the trailhead was at a high elevation. But it was a different world up there near the top. I'm glad I turned around too.

  2. This is a great example of the journey being the reward and don't worry, the lessons of the PCT will stick with you (most of the time :^)
    Ok, so from here on out I will stop with the journey/reward stuff. I am just so excited the you really understand it. I was so much older before I figured it out, but I am much happier as a result. Take care...