The First Real Test

July 27, 2012

Today we embarked on my first backpacking trip in more than 30 years. After day hiking regularly in the surrounding mountains - my husband insisted I ratchet the training up a level and add weight to the backpack, hike into the wilderness and practice sleeping on the ground. (Yikes!) It really did make me ask the question again, "What was I thinking when I signed up for this?"

We headed up to the Sierras - about a six hour drive from where we live in Orange County. Climbing up state road 168 we made it to the mountain community of Shaver Lake. Driving out Dinky Creek Road about 10 miles we came to a turn off that had a small sign that indicated "Dinky Lakes Wilderness Trail Head - 12 miles.” We bounced along the half dirt half disintegrating asphalt road through the forest for about half hour before coming to a clearing where some other cars were parked. This would be our starting point. We strapped on our backpacks, locked the SUV and headed out the trail. It immediately took us down to a gently flowing creek we had to cross before heading up again. The elevation gain was slight but steady. The ground varied from plain dirt to loose rock especially as we climbed higher. Finally we reached a level area that wound through the trees and was quite beautiful with soaring rock walls to one side. The sky was a clear and vivid blue and the temperature in the mid 70’s, making the day for a hike quite ideal.

I was so unused to carrying a fully loaded backpack that I felt quite unbalanced. At one point- when we were crossing a creek on wet stones… I nearly lost my balance. But the vision of ending up like the beetle stranded on his back with his skinny legs flailing in the air and unable to right himself – pressed me to get a grip on myself and focus on remaining upright!

After a few hours of hiking through both meadow and uphill

Mystery Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California

scrambling between large rocks, we made it up to Mystery Lake, after an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet. It was a breathtaking sight when we stepped out of the wood and first saw the alpine lake bathed in a late afternoon sun. And we quickly found a perfect camping spot with massive slabs of granite all around. Someone who had come before us had done a great job of arranging stones to make a perfect place for a campfire and we felt no need to re-invent the wheel. The temperature was dropping and the air already had a chill in it. But I was determined to get a little fishing in as a reward for the work of carrying that backpack!

Rainbow Trout caught in Mystery Lake

I love stream fishing – lake fishing not so much- but decided to see if I could find a trout or two that might be interested in a nice fat worm. Though my husband was confident his artificial lures would do the job – I insisted on carrying live worms in my pack – and as it turned out – that was the ticket! I happily caught a few rainbow trout before the sunlight slipped away.

That night it got cold – much colder than I expected. I had a brand new zero degree sleeping bag which I had never used. My husband had ordered it for me in anticipation of Kilimanjaro. What I was not prepared for was how horrible I would feel in a “mummy” bag. I had never slept in one before. I could not move – I felt like I was being tied up – it made me want to run screaming out of the tent! This was not a good start!

I unzipped the bag – and found myself shivering down to my bones – I zipped it back up and felt like I was suffocating – I went back and forth all night between those two unbearable conditions – and was never able to fall asleep even for a few minutes. By 6am I was BEYOND miserable. The thought that I would never make it on Mt Kilimanjaro had tried to torment me all night long. If it wasn’t for the fact that we had two other people hiking with us – I would have told my husband I was DONE and packed it up and left and surrendered the Kilimanjaro dream completely. Sleep deprivation definitely affects your thinking.

Once again my husband’s coffee came to the rescue. Despite being exhausted from no sleep – I couldn’t rest with sunlight streaming into the tent and finally resigned myself to getting up to face the day. Dave’s coffee helped a lot and we had a simple breakfast in front of the campfire. More hiking was on the agenda – which only made me groan at the thought of it! But all I could think of was Kilimanjaro – and the need to get up everyday to hike for hours up hill into colder and colder environs. This was small potatoes in comparison to that undertaking and I knew needed to just push through – sleep or no sleep!

The plan was to hike up to a place called Swede Lake. According to the map – it wasn’t all that far – but steep ascents awaited us all. We took a certain direction climbing steeply over large rocks only to find ourselves at an impassable location that as the bird flies would have gotten us there – but without wings we were forced to turn back and climb down and find a new path around.

One mountain guide book describes hiking from Mystery Lake to Swede Lake this way: “A gradual ascent leads into a full–scale assault of the hillside. The trail climbs steeply, slicing up a tree–sprinkled slope in a score of switchbacks. Arrive at Swede Lake, gasping. What a lovely spot to catch your breath!” All true as we found out by experience!

Swede Lake - in the Dinky Lakes Wilderness Area of California

It was a beautiful place to have lunch and to try some more fishing. Once again my worms won the fishing contest – with triple the number of fish caught by my worms than the artificial lure-loyal hiking club members! Somehow I felt God was trying to encourage me in the midst of feeling not fully convinced of this whole backpacking endeavor.

After another cold night (but this time with some measure of sleep accomplished) – I woke up feeling like I might be able to survive Kilimanjaro after all. Amazing what sleep will do for your attitude!

Over all, I will say that this initial backpacking trip was an essential test which I almost failed! But by the grace of God – I am up for another one – this one colder than the last for sure since it will be October rather than July. Bring it on – I have got to keep pushing toward Kilimanjaro! It is for the kids!