August 16, 2017 – Force of Nature

Frost on the meadow around Rock Spring Lake on Saturday morning.

This is a continuation of a post I wrote on Sunday, the day after returning from a six-day hike to the summit of Mount Whitney.  Sunday’s post was the story.  Here’s how I’m holding it all – what made it hard, what made it worth it and what I’m taking with me.  It’s longer than usual, but it seems I’ve got lots to say!  Get a cup of something and join me…

I should have guessed from the equipment list that included a warm hat, gloves and long johns that we’d experience cold, but this was August and I naively thought that these were “just in case” things.  The nights and mornings were cold.  Saturday we woke to frost on the meadow – in the summer!  Several of the nights I never got really warm.  I needed a liner for the sleeping bag – something for next time.  My hands and feet were numb in the mornings – especially those when my boots were wet from stream crossings the previous day.  Putting on cold clothes in the cold air is just… well… burr.

As always in the backcountry, we were limited on what we could pack; we had minimal clothes and no way to clean them.  No soap, no deodorant meant that by the end of the week, everything was dirty and very, very stinky.  I did rinse out a few things in the lakes and creeks, which helped, but after the second day, my cleanliness sensibilities were gone.  Though we were all in the same smelly boat, it was still uncomfortable to have hair that hadn’t been washed in a week.  I don’t think that a shower has ever felt as wonderful as it did on Saturday!  And you should have seen the color of the water in the machine when I washed all my clothes!

Our commode-away-from-home and the view when seated.

As we venture out of civilization our bodily functions become a bigger deal.  It’s hard to write about this with any delicacy, so I won’t even try.  Peeing and pooping in the wilderness is inconvenient at best!  For starters having to pee in the middle of the night meant getting out of my warm sleeping bag and tent to head out into the cold to find a place to squat (you guys have it so much easier!).  Lauren and Barb set up a pit toilet for us when we were in camp – which was dubbed the “loo with a view.”  It’s quite an experience having a morning constitutional while looking out on an alpine meadow!  But when we weren’t in camp, having to go number two meant digging a six-inch deep hole with a hiking pole behind a tree or boulder.  Up in the Whitney zone we had to use something called a WAG bag – two plastic bags that contained our solid waste to pack out and dispose of.  And we each had a companion for the week – a plastic bag in which we collected all our used toilet paper.  I was so happy to toss that thing in the trash!

Though the actual hiking was done at a very gentle pace, there was basically no down-time all week.  We woke to take care of our basic needs:  eat, make our lunch, re-fill our water containers, pack our day-packs for the day, take down our tents and then set out at anywhere from 5:00 to 8:30 am.  We arrived at the next camp between 4:30 and 7:00 in the evening to do it all in reverse.  Though I had looked forward to seeing stars at night, between being tired and escaping the mosquitos that swarmed us in two camps, I was in my sleeping bag by 8:00 every evening – when it was still dusk.  On top of this there were the little pains:  blisters (though mine weren’t too bad), stiff and sore muscles (especially by the end of the week) and I had to nurse an inflamed Achilles tendon on my left foot which I so didn’t want to prevent me from hiking.

Water, water, everywhere!

Life in the backcountry is inconvenient and uncomfortable, but it’s also stunningly beautiful!  I looked at pictures of Mount Whitney before the trip and imagined that we’d be spending a week in a landscape that looked much like the moon – all rock and snow.  But that was just part of one day.  I was bowled over by the natural beauty we were immersed in:  there was water running everywhere, streams and creeks, crashing over boulders and meandering through the meadows.  Clean, cold snowmelt – there is nothing more invigorating than getting wet with mountain water.

This flower girl loved all these flowers!

Surrounding every stream were areas of vibrant green vegetation and so many wildflowers!  In fact the wildflowers were not just where it was moist, they were everywhere:  in the more arid flats and amongst the boulders – even way upon Mount Whitney!  Rising above the green were the granite mountains of the Sierra Nevada – breathtaking scenery was all around us, every day, scenery that you just don’t get to see unless you hike deep into the wilderness.

Lauren, Jackson and Barb – our guides and packer – they made it all work – and made it fun too.

Humans are amazing – nine of us started as strangers on Monday and over the course of the week we became intimates.  My six companion hikers were all interesting, fun and courageous women.  We shared tents just large enough for two sleeping bags, we worked together to make things go well, we cared for each other, we shared moments of hilarity and struggle.  And our guides – women in their early-mid-twenties were two of the most impressive people I’ve ever met.  Their self-possession and capacity for leadership was remarkable.  We worked hard all week – and they worked harder.  They set up camp and cooked for us each night, then made a hot breakfast and packed it all up the next day.  They paced our hiking days and attended to all our needs – they held us, providing the container for our experience just masterfully.  Plus, they hiked every mile and every foot of vertical ascent that we did – without breathing hard!  I’m in much better shape than when I started, but oh, to have their level of fitness!

Jackson and beloved mule, Mutt and our mules, loaded down with our stuff.

And what made it possible was Jackson, his mare and five mules.  Other than what was in our day-packs, all our gear, food and equipment were carried from camp to camp on the backs of pack mules.  We got to eat delicious, real (not freeze-dried) food all week and had “luxuries” such as the pit toilet.  It was really humbling to watch them pass us each day, loaded down with all our stuff on the way to the next night’s camp.  “Real” backpackers carry all their stuff in big, heavy packs themselves, I told myself. But Jackson assured us that mules want to work and that these animals have a great life.  They get to be in nature, some of it completely free.  One night he let them loose to graze in the meadow near our camp.  Someone heard them wandering amongst our tents in the middle of the night!  None of us would have done the trip if we’d had to carry a heavy backpack; our mules made it do-able.  And what a precious thing it was on Saturday morning to witness Jackson nuzzling Mutt, his favorite mule.

Journeys start when we commit to them.  I’ve grown and transformed so much from this trip – starting when I signed up just after Easter.  The insights are many.

Here are some:

  • People really want to show up and support you when you step out to do something big.  Thank you to everyone in my life – friends, family, even my Kaiser doctor – who have supported and cheered me on.  Sue D, you hiked with me and lent me some of the gear I needed.  Steff, you were my “base camp” in Big Pine before and after, I can’t imagine having done this without you.  But I am especially grateful for my Joseph.  He was in my corner the whole way and he told me to think “soar” when I was going uphill.  And, Baby, soar I did.
  • Life will attempt to barge in and pull you back when you are doing something out of your norm.  It takes awareness and internal fortitude to prioritize yourself and stay on track.  Ironically, my anxiety about being prepared enough served me – it kept me pushing myself to be hiking, hiking, hiking.
  • I have the tendency to want to get through things – to just have them be over with.  Our guides kept us at a pace that was much slower than I was used to – and we took many more breaks than I would have on my own.  I so want for this to carry into my life – to pace myself and to rest often – it makes much more possible.
  • Nature is tenacious.  Seeing wildflowers growing at the base of boulders at 14,000 feet showed me that life finds its way in even the harshest environments and beauty is everywhere.  The feminine is absolutely irrepressible.
  • Though solitude has its gifts, going it alone is not my way.  CTI leadership training taught me about co-creation but I’d never before experienced it as compellingly as on this trip.  It took us all – hikers, guides, packer and mules.  We feed and feed off of each other.
  • My stamina and capacity for enduring is so far beyond what I previously knew.  Yes, I’m half rugged Croatian and half Marine Sgt. James Brown, but the experience of my resurrection on Friday showed me I’ve been underestimating myself.

When I was shopping for my gear an REI associate – a woman – told me about an initiative they have called Force of Nature that is putting women front and center in their efforts to level the playing field to support more women in having outdoor adventures – another place where men are more represented. (She suggested posting on social media with the #forceofnature tag.)  When she said this, I had tears spring to my eyes.  The thought that I would be one of these women having an outdoor adventure struck a chord in me – that I, me, Cara Brown could be a force of nature was an amazing thought.

It seems I’ve always had strong, forceful people close to me – especially my mom and my husband.  They are what people would call a force of nature, not me.  After this experience I have a different sense of myself.  It’s hard to put words to, but it feels like my cells have been re-arranged and I’m now put together differently.  Though I don’t expect to become exactly like these remarkable people in my life – who make so much happen in this world – there is no question in my mind that I am a real force of nature.  And – my sense is that we all are – we just need to find our way to access it.  Might I suggest you go on a hike?

With my gratitude –

Cara

2 comments


  • Sara

    Cara Cara, what a beautiful journey you have let us share with you. When I was in junior high. My best friend’s family took me on many hikes with them….they belonged to the Sierra Club’s 100 Peaks club. I believe I completed around 26 with them. I always wanted to hike Whitney. I named my first kitten Whitney, because she loved to climb. I never made it up there….but now I feel a little bit like I did, with you. Thanks dear friend! Congratulations, and thank you for your photos as well.

    August 16, 2017
  • Kit Loring

    I’m so impressed with your accomplishment, insight and courage! I’m glad you did it so well and enjoyed it immensely! You go girly!

    August 20, 2017

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