backpacking: a reflection

~21 miles, ~9-10,000 ft elevation, 4 days/3 nights, 33 pounds.

I went on my first backpacking trip last week. I wanted to make the time to pause, catch my breath, and reflect on everything that happened. I wanted to document this while it’s fresh and before I embark on 2 more trips this summer. These are my thoughts capturing my first trip.

I have always been into hiking, and last summer I got (really) into camping. I never thought I’d be into backpacking. I genuinely wondered how people climbed mountains, for several days, carrying EVERYTHING they’d need on their backs, in packs weighing 25-45 pounds. Welp, I finally got to see it for myself! It was… Wonderful. Amazing. Exhilarating. Exhausting. Miserable. Uncomfortable. Eye-opening. And 100% worthwhile.

My friend and I went to Mammoth, originally planning to hit Minaret Lakes. There was a dangerous river crossing, but we were able to change our permits to hit Ediza and Garnet Lakes. A theme I tried to focus on during the trip was “trust.” Trust that things always work out in our favor. Trust that I can do this. Trust that I will make it home alive, uninjured, and in one piece.

The hike into Ediza Lake was long, scenic, and gorgeous. There was still plenty of snow even though it was mid-late July. This meant we had to figure out different routes to get around the snow on the main trail. One section in particular was the most mentally and physically challenging thing I have ever done in my life. Some guys hiked ahead and thought a section of the trail was too dangerous to pass, so we decided to go up and over it on this steep ledge. Three people went ahead of me so my mind knew I would be okay, but my tiny, powerful, persistent, survivalist animal brain wondered if my life was in imminent danger. It was a slow and scary process, but with help and guidance from my friend, I made it. One of the many things I learned about backpacking: just when you think you’re warm and safe, another challenge is right around the corner. After making it through that first ordeal, there was a talus slope/scree field to scramble across before finding a place to pitch camp near the now visible alpine lake. I’d never done anything like this before, let alone with a 33 pound pack (got it down from 42 pounds, though!). I definitely felt scared, but I didn’t really have a choice: there was no turning back, and I couldn’t stop where I was; I just had to keep on going. After what felt like for-ev-er, we finally made it to the lake. I felt so relieved to have arrived, proud of myself for making it through that tough section, and in awe of the place that we’d get to call home for two nights. I learned how to eat outside, manage my bear can, go #1 and #2 out in the wilderness, and how different backpacking is from car/regular camping.

I had heard that the mosquitoes were pretty bad this year because of the very wet winter we had, but I had no clue just how bad they would be. Mosquitoes have been a problem my entire life; I always wear bug spray, but whenever I’m out with a group, I’m always the one who gets many more bites than anyone else. It was no different this trip. However, the mosquitoes at Ediza Lake were a completely different level. There were swarms of them. On the entrance hike, I saw an older lady wearing a net over her hat that covered her whole face and upper neck and I thought, “Wow, that’s brilliant, I’ve never seen that before.” A bunch of other people had them around the lake. And boy oh boy, did I wish I had one! I honestly would have paid someone $100 if they had an extra one in their pack. I got bites all over my face (never had a swollen lip or eye due to a bite before). I counted 40+ bites on my butt/hips from being exposed while going to the bathroom (I’ll spare you the photo evidence 😂). Mosquitoes followed me into my tent and had to kill 20+ of them so I could sleep in peace. As I was laying inside trying to calm myself down, I counted 50+ mosquitoes just sitting on the tent door waiting for me to come out. I think of myself as a positive person who tries to see the brighter side of things, so it was a very strange and novel sensation to feel… completely and utterly miserable, the worst I’ve felt in my entire life. And there wasn’t really anything I could do to improve the situation. Another life lesson I learned through backpacking: is this worth its weight? Tiny things add up quickly. It takes reflection, honesty, and realistic assessment to determine whether or not something is worth the beauty/utility of having it on a trek. I bought two kinds of bivies and considered bringing them on this trip, but I decided to just lug my 4 pound car camping tent with me and see whether or not I like backpacking enough before looking at a lighter/more efficient shelter. My “heavy” tent was worth every. single. ounce. I was so grateful to have a bug-free (after I killed all the intruders) and spacious tent to spend my day in and fiddle with all my gear. I was also thankful that the mesh/netting on my tent was in tact… God forbid there was a hole, those little buggers would’ve found a way in. Keep taking care of my gear, so my gear can take care of ME.

Another life lesson I learned via backpacking is innovation. “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are now” is a phrase I often tell myself in the normal world. In the back country, it is also true. I did not have a head net, and as badly as I wanted one, I just wouldn’t be able to obtain one during the trip. So I had to innovate with the material I did have. I figured out a way to tie my sun hoodie around my lower face, wear my sunglasses and baseball cap, and cinch the hood of my rain shell all in an effort to minimize my face exposure to the bugs. They still smelled my breath and swarmed around me all day long, but they weren’t able to bite me. It fogged up my shades a bit while hiking, but that was a small price to pay for the big relief of minimizing bug bites.

Backpacking is a beautiful experience, yields gorgeous photos, and grants adventurous bragging rights to anyone who attempts it. However, I think people don’t often talk about how uncomfortable and miserable it can realistically be. It isn’t a “bad” thing, it’s just part of the whole experience. In backpacking, as in life, you have to take the bad along with the good. I’ve talked about “being present” on my blog before, and backpacking definitely presented me with multiple opportunities to practice it… and I failed miserably! I thought it was too cold while I was trying to fall asleep. Or I thought it was too hot while the sun beat down on my tent during the day and I stayed inside, sheltered from the mosquitoes. I thought I was bored with nothing to do, and no friends/family to text or catch up with. Or I thought there was TOO much to do and handle before settling in for the night. I laughed with/at myself as I observed my thoughts. You’re always slightly uncomfortable in one way or another. You get to see what you’re ACTUALLY made of when you don’t have the usual creature comforts around to soothe you. You get to see how much you can endure and what you can take. I was admittedly and unashamedly on the verge of tears a few times throughout the trip. I wanted nothing more than to just be back in my warm bed in my apartment. And I was well aware of the irony that when I’m “stuck” at home, I want nothing more than to be on some adventure playing outside. Being present sure is a life-long and tricky lesson.

While I was in my mosquito misery, I was also stressed out about how we were going to hike out of Ediza Lake. I wasn’t looking forward to scrambling the boulders or doing that gnarly climb again, but I knew I had to in order to get home. Cognitively knowing something and fully accepting something are two totally different things. When the day finally came to exit our first location, we ended up finding an INFINITELY EASIER route around the river/snow. We had ourselves a frustrated/begrudging laugh and carried onward. It wasn’t until after I completed the daunting task, that I realized just HOW HEAVILY it weighed on me, I mean, I LET it weigh down on me! I felt so relieved, light, myself again after that tough stretch was done. In hindsight, it wasn’t life-threateningly dangerous and it went by much more quickly than I thought it would, but the novelty and stress of it definitely got to me. Backpacking is very much a mental game, and I’m excited to see how much more I can grow this muscle. I have a ton of room to improve.

We made our way up to Garnet Lake. There were several snow field crossings, yet another new and challenging experience for me. I didn’t realize just how important snow spikes would be and I admittedly didn’t purchase them because I didn’t think I would need them, but I am forever grateful that my friend graciously shared her pair of spikes with me. Getting to the bottom of the lake seemed so close and yet so far. Once again, I felt moments of true fear. But again, I didn’t really have a choice: I was too tired to turn around, and I couldn’t stay where I was, so I had to keep going. My mind ran through all the ways that things could go wrong and ways I could get injured. But that information isn’t really helpful or practical when you have a daunting task at hand. So I forced myself to take 3 deep breaths, then kept going. We eventually made it all the way down, and found the most beautiful campsite with a perfect view of this massive lake. Backpacking (and life) always seems to present ANOTHER challenge right around the corner, but it also always gifts us ANOTHER stunningly beautiful view right around the corner. The physical challenges I faced and am writing about here may seem like nothing to an experienced backpacker, but they were very new to me. As I keep exploring this activity, I’m excited to gain deeper confidence and much more knowledge.

I caught myself and observed, once again, that I was stressing about the hike out and the initial challenging snow fields to cross before we got back onto the main trail. It was actually much easier and shorter on the hike out than it was on the hike in. In backpacking and in life, I think there’s a big difference between being aware of/acknowledging challenges, and letting yourself sweat the small stuff. This will be an ongoing practice in applying that difference. I was surprised at how many people were out there. I don’t know why I thought it would be empty or secluded, but there were actually quite a few humans! It was comforting and refreshing to see all different walks of life. Young and solo, old and strong AF, newbies, experienced. Getting “beta” (information about a trail/hike) from other hikers and wishing each other well was so refreshing and just seemed like the normal culture out there. I wish that attitude was more prevalent in regular life, I think we’d all be happier for it.

Our trip was over before I knew it. It felt exhausting and long, surprisingly quick, and just… simply wonderful. I learned and experienced a ton, much more than I thought I would. I had a very solid fill of adventure and need a bit of time to recuperate before the next one. I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t in too much pain, but that I mostly just felt tired/fatigued. I called my parents afterwards and told them that I felt very solid and strong in my body; I thanked my mom for “cooking” me so well while she was pregnant with me, and my dad for supporting and encouraging her to eat and sleep enough. They gave me a gift that will serve me for the rest of my life, and for that, I feel very grateful. I felt grateful for my years of squatting and weight training; I’m no stranger to heavy loads, and I felt proud that I was able to handle the weight of my pack.

I learned a lot out in the back country. I did some soul searching and am re-prioritizing things now that I’m back on the grid. I hope I continue to learn and grow every time I get back out there. I had a lot of laughs and almost had a lot of tears. I’m definitely bringing a head net for every single hike from now on; in fact, I value it so much that I’m actually going to bring two with me in case one of them fails. The biggest lesson I learned? No one can live your life for you. The responsibility is fully in your own hands. Yes, your family and friends can help you with gear recommendations. Yes, your hiking partner can guide you with routes, teach you how to handle certain terrain, share their gear, and encourage you. But at the end of the day, no one is going to pick up your feet for you. No one is going to carry your pack. No one is going to move your body across the land. That is all your own honor, your own privilege. It is your gift, your life, your POWER. How do you choose to wield it?


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