October 15, 2018
Spiller Creek Vicinity, Elevation 9,738 ft
Last night it got pretty windy, but we were totally protected where we camped, miraculously, because had we not been, it would have been one hell of a long night. I woke often to the sound of the wind whirring high in the Whitebark Pines, and drifted in and out of dream filled sleep. By dawn, I knew we needed to get up and go, but Hurlgoat was not moving yet, and so I let that be my excuse for staying in bed a little longer. I was so toasty and wam, it was amazing, one of life’s simplest yet most wonderful pleasures, sleeping in. Alas, I poked my head out of my sleeping bag, I knew it must be “late” and when I turned over, Hurlgoat was laying there awake but also all bundled up, not moving. We kissed good morning and I looked at my watch, “oh no it’s late, it’s 6:45” I said and tucked back in, denial.
When I got up to go pee the temperature on my thermometer read 25 F. A little warmer than yesterday! Still that’s a 25 F with wind chill. See, the wind had not died down by morning and we knew we were in for possibly another cold windy day. Even with clear skies and sun, the wind was just bitter cold. We decided to get moving quickly this morning, but still made some coffee in the vestibule and ate some bars for breakfast. We were on the trail by 8:05 am, not terrible.
Our first section of the day was a long descent all the way to Virginia Creek drainage. From our campsite we had to navigate through some thick Willows and cross the stream a couple times, then we dropped a few hundred feet. I was completely bundled up with my tights on over my compression socks, plus my rain pants, my merino wool t-shirt and long sleeve shirt and my fleece sweater and my down jacket, my buff, hat and hood sinched up. The only part of my body exposed were my fingertips through my fingerless gloves, which were icy cold, and my nose.
We had a long drop down to Virginia Creek, and it was one of the most interesting descents we’ve had on this hike. We dropped into a medium dense forest that had long sweeping grasses throughout the interior. The grasses caught the morning sunlight beautifully and in places reached up to my thighs. We meandered through this grass filled forest and continued to drop down, occasionaly having to clamber over deadfall and negotiate slippery stalks of straw that lay flat on a slope, or perhaps there would be holes where water had run through at some point in time, creating a little crater in the ground, covered by the dry grasses. So you still had to keep your focus despite the seemingly easy terrain. Nonetheless, it was relatively easy, if not mellow morning walking, and for that time we were out of the wind. There was something quite meditative and serene about walking through this grassy forest.
Our next objective from the bottom elevation of 9,300 feet at Virginia Creek was to climb up to Soldier Lake at 10,300 feet. This is what we do, we climb, we descend, we cimb again. Soldier Lake is situated just before the climb up to Stanton Pass, and I would defifnitely say the long climb up to Soldier Lake can be called the approach climb to Stanton Pass.
This climb started out in the trees also, not many of our climbs have taken place in the trees, this was a little bit unique. We aimed at our next waypoint and I took the lead, steadily making my way up the hill, weaving around trees and then negotiating rocks and chunky dried sage brush and clusters of grass in the more open areas. It was easy to stay on course, mostly we just needed to go UP. It was actually quite steep, but I found myself thinking how strong we have gotten, my legs not letting me down.
This route requires quite a lot of muscle strength to make passage of the typical day pleasant and not a completely grueling amount of work. I was thinking how what we are doing would be quite difficult and energy expensive to the average hiker, or to anyone not acclimated to such terrain or altitude. We have gotten strong, haven’t we? Well, I feel like I’ve gotten stronger on this hike, in many ways. Not all of them physical. Of course my body is strong, my legs, my ankles, my calves and my core. My arms are strong too from climbing and my hands from gripping granite. I am more balanced and more sure footed, able to easily hop boulders and talus confidently.
I love all of this physical strength, but I think the most important way I have gotten stronger is mentally. This hike has absolutely required one to be mentally focused and ON for most all of the time. Not only that, but I have had to face a lot of fears. I brought these fears with me from the start, and I knew I would have to deal with them head on. (For anyone wondering about the fear I keep speaking of, it is a result of a hiking accident that happened earlier in the Summer in WA, I promise I will write about it soon, but the time has to be right to do so).
The Sierra High Route is intimidating in and of itself, and that is part of what drew me to attempt it in the first place. The fear factored in later, and I could have chosen not to take this on, but I wanted to. I wanted to face it all, so that I could heal. Nature, as I know so well by now, is the best medicine.
But knowing you want to do something and actually putting it into action when you have been traumatized by the very thing you love the most, are two different animals. I don’t want to be afraid of the thing I love the most, how crippling! Today, I faced the fear that was dwelling inside of me around climbing and descending Stanton Pass. After so many of the sketchy situations we have been in, and then reading about Stanton Pass last night, it sounded like this was going to be one of the most, if not the most, sketchy passes yet.
I have this little thing I do, I converse with my Spirit Guides, as I have established a good realtionship with them. When I am truly afraid and feel vulnerable, they are always there for me. Usually, I communicate better with them when I am alone, especially when in the Wilderness, and this is a big part of why I love to go solo. When I am feeling lost or need support/guidance/protection I call on them. Likewise, when I am feeling grateful, thankful, blessed and happy, I let them know how much I appreciate my life. This is my way, the wilderness is where I feel the most connected. It is my Church.
In the Hindu culture, people pray to their Gods all the time. They are constantly communicating with the beings in the other dimension, asking for safety, protection, healing and guidance. This relationsip is embedded in many cultures and many religions. Except for me, it is not a religion, there is a very clear distinction between religion and spirituality. I am very spiritual, but I am not religious. Not unless it involves being in the woods.
Several times on this journey, I have prayed very potently, to ensure safe passage of some of these passes. It’s not that I don’t have faith in myself or my partner, I have complete faith in both of us and also in us as a team. But what I have learned this Summer from first hand experience (I am again referencing the accident in WA), is that there are things that are just competely out of our control, no matter how attentive to each step we are, no matter how carefully we plan the line we are going to take, no matter the inherent danger or lack thereof of any given terrain of any given day. Today was just one of those days when I felt I needed the astute attention from the Divine, and I asked for it.
As we climbed the slabby hill up toward Soldier Lake, Hurlgoat was reminiscing about stories from the PCT last year. He mentioned the fun time he and our friends had when they reached the midway point of the trail. It’s certainly a cause for celebration when you make it to that point from either terminus. He was telling me how they played the song “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi. Great song.
Well today I felt like I was “Livin’ on a Prayer”, building my psyche up to the task of descending Stanton Pass. Roper’s book and our GPS waypoints and Double Tapp’s notes all mention EXREMELY steep descent, class 3 and class 4 (which requires ropes, which we have none) and the fact that a fall could be fatal. So, you see I am not making this up. My fear was grounded not only in my own experience, but in the advise of others who came before us.
However, like yesterday, I decided that my attitude and my own vibrational energy made a big difference and I decided I was not going to live in fear any longer than I had to. There is a difference between being fearful and being cautious. The fear did not serve me. I knew we were going to get over the pass and that we would take what came with precision and care and take it as slow as we needed to.
We reached Soldier Lake by 11:00 am as the wind created swirling and dancing patterns along with the glittering sunlight across the Sapphire surface of the water. The lake is positioned in a cirque, surrounded on one half by towering walls of spikey granite, which make up the Western ridge of Stanton Peak. We decided to have an early lunch, because we didn’t know how long it would take us to summit and descend the pass, surely it would take much longer than a couple hours, putting us in an bad position of being tired, taxed and hungry = hangry.
Don’t climb sketchy passes hangry! So, we ate, and we ate well. We ended up leaving the lake by 12:45, so we really took our time! It was worth it though because we both felt recharged and ready to take on what ever this pass threw our way.
The ascent was not difficult at all, and in fact it was quite pleasant. There were several shelves among class 2 or 3 scrambles, and it was definitely a hands on climb over the final 200 feet, but totally doable because it was on granite and the hand holds and foot holds were solid. That really helps! Once upon the top, we could see how closely situated the pass is between red Virginia Peak and gray Stanton Peak. Standing there on the knife like ridge with the wind caressing my legs and tossling my hair was dizzying yet enthralling.
We stood on top of the massive, jagged ridge, and took photos and made videos while wondering how the hell we were going to get down. I didn’t really want to face it, but I had to look. The drop off the North side was definitely intimidating and while standing there, I had this moment, like so many other moments, where you know what needs to happen, but it doesn’t seem real, like “am I really going to do this right now?” kind of real. We consulted our notes and GPS and decided to follow the suggestion of taking the left side and walk on a faint use trail for the first 50 foot drop.
The faint use trail was a combination of a little scree, a bit of talus, and loose dirt. It was steep, and there was also snow in places, but somehow it was all doable. After that first 50 foot drop, we could see that we were going to need to be using our hands, both of them, a lot. So we packed away our trekking poles. This turned out to be a huge help, and I liked the fact that I could crouch down and grab onto rocks, having three points of contact at all times. The use trail took us, as promised, to a ledge that led to a narrow and very steep chute, which we could immediately tell was the nefarious class 4 and also way above our league, both in terms of experience and in lack of proper equipment. So, we took an alternative route, which was difinitevely class 3 but was something we both could handle. It was scary tho, not gonna lie.
What ended up needing to happen, was in order to get down this particular section, which still had some snow around it, you needed to face the rock/mountain, and go down backwards, rather than facing out, like usual. At first, this seemed counter intuitive when moving downhill, but it actually turned out to be the better way to go.
I plastered my body against the vertical rocks, and found good hand and foot grips. Next, I would create enough space between my body and the rocks so that I could see where to place my next foot as I lowered my body with my pack on. It involved micro movements and a lot of deep breathing!
A few of the steps I had to take were quite long and some landed in slick snow. Hurlgoat had gone first and was very good about standing fairly close at hand, and supported me verbally through it, giving me tips on where to place my feet. My heart was racing, my hands shaking, and I had to pause several times to get my bearings, but not too long or risk a panick attack. These are the times when you feel like you could loose your cool, but honestly the thought of loosing it, is scarier than actually doing the thing, so breathing was the best option, and kept me calm.
One small movement after another, and in several methodical maneuvers, I am standing upright, on my own two feet, and I am safe. I sigh in relief, and smile at Hurlgoat as my nerves are still buzzing uncontrollably. I did it! I think almost in disbelief. The worst part is behind me now! A little later, I looked back up and thought all in all, it went really well, how about that. No helicopter rescue today.
In retrospect, I decided that facing the rock/mountain was really not a bad way to go down at all. It honestly made me feel more in control and thus safer, even though I could not see where I was going. After that 100 foot section, we started to feel more comfortable with the terrain, and it was a matter of maneuvering over talus that was steep and sometimes very loose, but never again life threatening if you fell.
It’s funny though, after that sketchy descent, the rest of the talus suddenly seemed so easy and benign by comparisson. Perhaps it was just that I’ve made it down so many talus slopes by now that this was starting to not phase me so much? Maybe my exposure therapy was working? Maybe it’s all relative. Nevertheless, I said a prayer of thanks to my Spirit Guides, because I know they were right there with us.
We still had a long way to go, and all in all, by the time we made it to solid ground it was 3:30 pm, so it took us nearly 3 hours to hike up to the pass and down to safety. Good thing we had that lunch! Now on safe, comfortable ground, we began a long descent into Spiller Creek.
Our next objective from Spiller Creek was to climb up and over Horse Creek Pass. We were within about a mile and a half of the pass as the crow flies, super close, but still there was a lot of talus and slow going grassy/rocky slopes that required your full attention. We dropped close to 2,000 feet after Stanton Pass, and now we are all the way down in the basin of Spiller drainage, well below Horse Creek Pass and about a mile distant by land. We made a call at 4:00 pm to call it a day and try to find camping down in the basin, near the water and protected somewhat by some trees. It got quite windy again.
We headed down, off the route, to the basin, and we had a hell of a time finding a campsite. You would think there would be a flat spot in a basin, but it was not so easy to find anything remotely flat or not lumpy due to all the tufts of grass. Not only that, it was windy as heck, and temperatures were rapidly dropping, with little sunlight remaining in the day. This entire afternoon we’ve been dealing with wind most of the time. Fortunately, we got very lucky and didn’t have wind on the initial descent from the pass. But now, we are definitely in its’ icy cutting path. By about 5:30 we had our tent set up among some Whitebark Pines, somewhat protected, somewhat out of the wind, but still quite drafty.
It was good to stop early because we didn’t know how long it may take us to descend over Horse Creek pass, although it does not look too bad at all on paper. We just had no information as to where we would find water and a place to camp after the pass, and didn’t want to hike as late as we did last night, almost until dark. It was a good call. We made our dinners in the tent vestibule with the fly open to vent the steam and through the opening, we watched the moon growing in the sky. The moonlight now is casting a shadow from the pine branch on my side of the tent, like a fine Japanese painting, simple and strikingly beautiful.