The night spent on top of the Panamint Mountains was cold and blustery. Every time I woke up to turn over I worried I was overly paranoid about bumping into Pineapple (who was packed in right next to me, or worse, puncturing my camp mat on the plethora of spiny, jagged things centimeters away from me. But I got the rest I needed and felt fully recovered from the previous day's altitude sickness symptoms and wobbly legs from the ridiculous climb. I'm not gonna lie, the day before I was thinking of sitting at camp with my tail between my legs and letting Pineapple do the 3 mile side-trip up to Telescope peak and back by herself. Altitude sickness is a real concern, especially with me coming straight from sea level back in DC to try and summit peaks in the Sierra. One should never let pride overtake reason in situations like this, but I wanted to push myself regardless. Fortunately I woke feeling fully refreshed so I made no mention of my reservations from the day before and headed out with Pineapple. I literally ran the last 1/8 of a mile up to the summit of Telescope.
We sat on top for just a few minutes. This high up it still wasn't warm, and I had ditched my puffy and rain pants back on the ridge after only a few minutes of hiking. So we were ready to head down and get on track for the day, but first we had to sign the log book that was stowed carefully in a weather proof box. There was one entry in the book that stood out: a guy named Abram who was apparently doing the L2H forward and back. The H2L2H. Who did this guy think he was?! What a showoff. It was then that Pineapple and I decided that if we crossed paths with him, he would have to die. We simply couldn't be shown up like that.
Peak bagged, log signed, photos taken, it was time to head out. We ran back down to camp and packed quickly. There were quite a few hikers coming up from a campsite a few peaks to the north, and, realizing it was Saturday, we were keen to get off their path before more started up this way. We brushed past the early birds as quickly as possible, only pausing to exchange greetings and to let people pass. Haste was also needed to get some ground covered before the sun hit full force. It was already 9:30 and most of our day was going to be in desert at low elevation. We followed the ridgeline for about 2 miles, checking GPS frequently to find our drop off point. We knew which canyon we needed to be in, but wanted to avoid falling off a cliff or overshooting our next water source, so we followed the route as best we could. We descended as quickly as we had ascended slowly -which is to say fast-, skating down patches of shale that on the way up would have been exhausting and endlessly frustrating. The ground turned more solid as we approached the tree line. At just shy of a jog we dodged trees and bushes, zig-zagging our way across the dry hills and edging slowly south into the canyon. There was plenty of use trail to follow, the trick being to find the ones that bigger animals had used. Sure, mountain goats will leave a follow-able trail, but you'll be running into tree limbs all day.
I forgot to mention in my last post that Pineapple had bestowed upon me the trail name of Bulldozer after I plowed my way into the reeds in search of water the day before. The name was truly justified on this downhill as I smacked away dead tree limbs blocking the path and charged down the side of the mountain deterred by nothing. Finally reaching the ravine where the spring was supposed to be located, we found plenty of trees but no water. I did my thing again and climbed up the ravine through brambles and reeds until I found the water: a couple tiny pools barely deep enough to dip a cup in. Pineapple had been aware of this possible scenario and had requested that I pick up a special filter with a hose that could be dipped into water sources as shallow as an inch or so, i.e.-puddles. Lets just say we got a lot of use out of it.
After finishing up at the spring we spotted some trail along the edge of the gully and clambered up a steep embankment. We followed it for a bit, but the gully became a wash so level that you'd have thought it a road. It was smooth sailing along this for miles until we hit a series of springs further down. You might think "Spring! Free water and some shady trees to lunch under!" but in reality it's "Great. How the hell am I going to get around that thick, razor-sharp mass of reeds and bramble wedged between two steep piles of loose dirt? Oh, and the spring? It's actually a damp patch of ground that I can press my MSR filter into to sponge up some filthy tasting (but bacteria free!) water." Awesome.
So we took some dirt tasting water, doctored it with Kool-Aid and Gatorade, then scrambled across the steep piles of loose dirt until we found a nice, pretty use trail that led us a bit up the ridge. It was still plenty steep-sided, but goats had evidently been using it and we strolled along stepping over the "evidence" until the canyon spat us out onto a very old, washed out jeep road. The jeep road took us down to the mouth of the canyon and down onto the valley floor where we were greeted with a creepy hillbilly hangout: beer cans, the requisite bullet ridden antique car, and some other treasures of bygone eras, like a bed frame and a refrigerator. Shame we missed the party.
Walking on quickly from this horror-movie-scene-to-be, we came out to a road a mile or so later and decided to stop for a minute. It was nearly 6:00pm and the sun would be falling behind the Inyo range to our west soon and the temp would mellow out considerably. We had already factored in night hiking this evening, so losing the light was all part of the plan. From here on out it would be flat land, mostly along a faded jeep road across the valley floor. Too easy. We broke out snacks and hunkered down in a trench where the road had washed out and waited for the light to wane. That's when we saw her. Whitney, distinct even from 60 miles away, was standing proud of the Inyo mountains, silhouetted with the dusk light. It was energizing to say the least.
But she was a few days off yet. For tonight we only had to worry about 12 miles, the few separating us from Panamint Springs RV Resort, a backwater little gas stop/restaurant/hotel/RV park at the foot of the mountains. We had cheeseburgers on the mind, and were hoping to get there before closing time, even if that meant logging 31 miles for the day. As soon as the sun was gone we were on our feet and crushing the miles. On flat land we could easily do 3.5 miles/hour, and we hit that stride easily. An hour later it was time for headlamps, and Pineapple had the added bonus of glow bracelets to liven up our night hiking. It can get pretty dull when all you can see is 10 square feet of dimly illuminated desert floor. Dropping our packs, we got out our headlamps and rigged up some bracelets and necklaces and were ready to roll. I was picking up my pack when I heard a man's voice greeting me. I yelled out "JESUS CHRIST!!," to which the figure replied, "No, it's just me, Abram."
And that's how we met THE Abram of H2L2H fame. Once I reswallowed my heart and figured out it wasn't some deranged desert dwelling serial killer I greeted him back more cordially. We started walking again and invited Abram to join us. We walked and chatted for a few miles, getting a little back story on this mad man doubling our crazy hike. He has apparently been traveling for years now, including 3+ years in a canoe. This summer he had spent 4 months wandering the High Sierra, yo-yo-ing the John Muir Trail (420 miles) AND the High Sierra Trail (185 miles) and just dipping off to explore other little nooks and crannies of the Sierra. Basically making my little 140 mile jaunt look pithy by comparison. But he turned out to be very humble and one of the nicest people you could imagine. Killing him would have been really tough after getting to know him, so I scrapped the notion and just resolved to pick a more bad-ass, more grueling hike next time. And do it twice.
Abram had a water cache along a paved road straight west of the road we were traveling on, but our road was leading more or less straight to the RV park. So when his turnoff came we bid him a goodnight and suggested we grab breakfast in the morning if he was at the restaurant at the same time. A few miles later we stepped onto a spot we had seen on the map but were confused about. There had been this large tan swath covering much of the valley floor that we had caught briefly when on top of Telescope and had been curious about when looking at the maps. It turned out to be another playa, but this one much more similar to the ones you see in movies. The ground was very smooth but segmented into various shapes as all the moisture got sucked out of the earth and the ground puckered. Then, a mile or so later it changed again, resembling a less dramatic version of the ground of Badwater Basin, minus the salt crystals. The edges of the shapes cupped up and the surface took on a more brittle texture like that of a thick layer of paint peeling crossed with egg shells. Other than pausing from time to time to play with the changing textures under foot, we crunched along for another couple of miles.
For a while now we had seen the light of the RV park across the valley, shining like that star on Christmas, but attracting a much different crowd (less "Here's some frankincense and myrrh." more "Gimme some f#@$ing cheeseburgers.") Checking our position on the maps, however was disheartening. Despite being 3 miles away when we hit the playa a while back, we still seemed to be 2 1/2 miles away. Both of us were starting to flag and my mood was slipping into whiny/hangry territory. My appetite was still nil and I had eaten relatively little over the last 3 days. I reluctantly choked down a ProBar and trudged along, dragging my feet. At some point we'd entered a sandy spit littered with scrub and were winding around it, trying to stay on target for the light at the end of the valley. My mood worsened.
At approximately 11:15 the light went out, and along with it my will to walk. Either Pineapple sensed this, or she was on the same page. She brought up the concept of not walking all the way to Panamint Springs, and instead camping there on the flats and hitting the RV park in the morning. With a feeling of utter despair and frustration I agreed. For the second time in two days I had been defeated by the trail. Drained. This had never happened to me on the PCT, so my pride was damaged yet again. I kept ignoring the fact that Pineapple had told me backcountry hiking was different. Plan for 15-20 mile days she said. Did I listen? Of course not. So hitting 29 miles for the day didn't make me feel accomplished, I instead chose to be mopey about coming in 2 miles shy of target. Irritable and pouting I unrolled my camp set up a few feet from Pineapple. We were positioned next to a small bank of sand that we were hoping would block some of the wind that had been at our backs all evening, but was now blowing sand in our faces. She made me a bet about who would fall asleep fastest to which I indifferently grumbled something in response. I have no idea who won. But I do know I woke numerous times with sand blowing up my nose and I was doing everything I could to stay calm and stifle my annoyance.
But I'm not one to dwell on things. The sun rose a few hours later and it was a new day. And then I found out that breakfast at Panamint Springs was all-you-can-eat. Things were looking up.