Losing Toenails in The Sierras
Words: Isaac Howe
Photos: Colin Jaskiewicz
Last month Colin and I came up with this ridiculous idea for a hike. Leaving from Horseshoe Meadows, near Lone Pine California, we decided to attempt this 70-mile 4-day backpacking trip as an overnight run/hike. Normally our trips aren’t quite like this, but this October, my wife and I are expecting our first kiddo, and I wanted some type 2 fun before she arrives.
When the days were short this past winter, I picked up trail running during the week because it was so convenient - over time I found that I also enjoyed it. Running gave me a fresh perspective on the trails behind the shop I’d been riding for the past 8 years. I decided to keep running through the summer, along with riding and racing at the track.
Colin has a fair bit more experience in trail running than I do, and when this trip idea came up, it sounded perfect to both of us. Just stupid enough that we had a good amount of doubt in being able to finish it, but also amazing enough that if we did, we’d be talking about it for years to come.
In true Orucase fashion, we had to make our packs. It made sense though, because nothing that was comfortable was big enough for an overnight, and nothing big enough was comfortable enough to wear for that long. We just married an alpine pack with a running vest.
Once the trip day finally came, we left the truck at dawn. After sleeping the night before at altitude with only an ultra-light down blanket, I was freezing and ready to get moving. As these sorts of trips often start, the first few hours were uneventful, still being somewhat attached to the connected world and not yet deep enough into the trip to be fully in the moment. However, that feeling eventually passed. One hour quickly turned to five, and the next thing I knew, we were eating lunch near a beautiful stream, watching trout swim in the pool where we’d just refilled our bottles.
Around 20 miles or so was our bailout point. This was where we’d turn around if things weren’t going well. It was the highest point on the trail, and the last spot where turning around would be the easiest way back to the truck. We still weren’t completely sure we’d make it through the whole loop without a third night, but I wasn’t more uncertain at the bailout than I had been that morning, so we decided to continue.
We started the long descent, snaking down the mountain along this tiny brook. Our pace was pretty quick, and this was the first bout of consistent running we’d had all day. We only slowed to hop over the streams feeding into the growing brook. We descended 4000ft over and ten miles to the Kern River and valley below. It was stunning.
Predictably, the day got much harder, and by the bottom, we were both pretty trashed. The rocks on the trail in the last few miles of the descent were just small enough that it was hard to walk around them, but they were big enough that if you kicked one square on it wouldn’t move. Many toenails were lost on the trail that day.
The canopy of giant sequoia we ran into was so lush and incredibly different than the alpine desert we had just left. We stopped to fill our bottles once more beside the Kern River, and while Colin was getting eaten alive by mosquitos, I was beating myself up for having not lugged my fly pole out with me in my already 14lb pack. The descent had taken longer than we’d hoped, and we were at the point where our planned 6 pm arrival at camp and subsequent hot spring soak looked less and less likely.
The trail now followed a bigger river at the bottom of the valley, the Kern River. The forest was very dense, and running was slow. By now, Colin's blisters were a serious concern, casting the same sort of doubt that probably would have prompted us to turn around ten miles prior, but we were too far now and still had 10 miles more to go before getting to camp.
The adventure had begun. This was exactly the self-inflicted misery I was hoping to find out here. That final two hours ended up taking three, and all we could do was limp into camp moments before the sunset. We barely found a flat place to set up my makeshift ultra-light tarp before the forest became pitch black. Before bed, I ate the most disgusting dehydrated pasta and had a surprisingly refreshing soak in the “sorta warm” hot spring.
The lower altitude made sleeping a lot more comfortable than the night prior, but I can’t say the same about how it felt getting going this morning. Today's course was another 10 miles downstream along the river, followed by a 20-miles climb up and out of the valley.
We started the day with a scare when we unknowingly came up close on a black bear. There has never been a clearer demonstration of why never to attempt to outrun a bear than after seeing this one run away from us. It was moving up this long steep bank, skipping over the tops of huge boulders, all while running with a speed faster than I’d ever seen a person run before. I’m glad we had this encounter early, it made us more prepared when we came upon a mother bear and her cub a few hours later. Since we’d been making ourselves more easily heard, they were at a safe distance by the time we saw them, and it was such an amazing thing to see. The baby was playfully running behind the mother as she guided them in the opposite direction we were traveling.
We knew before starting this hike that the last 20 miles would be the most difficult. The trail-up was extremely steep for the first few miles. To make matters worse, we’d heard that water was hard to come in this section. That turned out to be completely wrong, but we debated over how much water to lug up that pitch for a while, and what extra we brought was an effort wasted since there was water everywhere after the first few miles of 20%+ pitch trail.
By this point, my body is pretty hard to read. I can’t tell if I’ve eaten too much pepperoni and cheese directly from the block or not enough. Today was hotter than the first day, and we were climbing away from the dense canopy that had previously been shading the trail.
To distract ourselves, we talked about anything and everything. We must have spent a few hours strategizing about how to beat other strong local Madison teams to win the San Diego Velodrome championship this fall. The conversations were dumb and probably wouldn’t have made sense to any person in their right mind, but it was a perfect distraction that helped keep our own minds from spiraling into a dark place.
We cooked lunch on some rough thorn-riddled dirt mound. I was as comfortable laying there as I’d ever been in any bed. I could have slept there all day and night. I choked down another particularly gross meal where the sausages were crunchy, like little sausage lucky charms. It took a lot of work to eat that, I needed all the calories, but I feared what would happen if I couldn’t keep it down. Puking would have most certainly set off a chain reaction of cramps throughout my entire body. I feared that more than anything.
To my surprise, the meal made everything feel better for a while. For the first time on the trip, I felt confident we would finish on the planned schedule. We had one remaining mountain pass to climb up and over, and as the sun began to set, the day's heat was replaced with the challenges brought on by being back at altitude. Our spirits were high, but we were going really slow, and while inside the last mile, we managed to sneak in this photo in the last minutes before the sunset.
After an icy parking lot shower, we left the mountains, searching for cheeseburgers and the fastest route back home. As I drove, reflecting on what we’d just accomplished and thinking about what's next, I realized the freedom brought by having completed this. What once seemed impossible now was not, and the list of new possible adventures became infinite. This is what it is all about, and this was the adventure I was searching for.