Monday, July 16, 2012

11,300 Feet - The High Point of My Year

Bear spray. River crossings. Snow fields. These are nifty terms that I had no context for until three days ago when I hiked Table Mountain in Grand Teton National Park.

In order to prepare myself for this hike, I did the following: set my treadmill on an incline and walked until I didn't feel like it anymore; Googled "hiking tips" to see if there was any new wisdom on hiking downhill, at which I suck; diligently avoided looking at too many internet sites pertaining to the actual hike for fear that I would discover it might be impossible for me.

And so, on the morning of July 12, 2012, my last day of being 41 - I got up really, really early and packed my peanut butter and jam sandwich into my borrowed Camelbak. We left Rexburg, Idaho for the trailhead in Wyoming about an hour away. There were six of us women riding in a minivan toward the sunrise and chatting casually about many things completely unrelated to bear spray, flares, whistles, toilet paper-in-a-baggie, and other elements of emergency preparedness which were included in our backpacks.

Just before we met up with the seventh woman in our party, it was established that I was the oldest in the group, and also the only hiker coming from a low elevation. Henderson is 1,330 feet above sea level. All my fellow hikers are from Rexburg, situated at a handy 4,865 feet. I tried not to let this discourage me, and, in fact, it didn't. I wasn't discouraged until three minutes into the hike when I had to start panting. Read this little tidbit about the beginning of "The Face" trail we ascended to Table Rock: "Rather than gain elevation gradually, it leads straight up the hillside with hardly a switchback to moderate the ascent. It gains 2,100 feet within a mile of leaving the parking lot. In addition, much of the trail is covered with loose rock and "ball bearing" gravel (gravel round enough to roll underfoot when stepped on). In fact, just as The Face trail leaves the parking area, a prominently placed sign warns 'Trail Not Maintained, Very Steep, Not Recommended.'"

Our plan was to hike up The Face, and down a separate trail called Huckleberry. It was a 12-mile round trip hike with an overall elevation gain of 4,100 feet -- topping out at 11,300 feet.

Here I am with my sister-in-law, Rachel - who I love and admire and was happy to be standing next to near an aspen grove probably at that first mile mark. So far, so good.
I really love aspens. And I love saying "aspen grove." Even more, I love that I passed by hundreds of them during the course of this hike.
Much of the rest of my uphill journey was marked by my heavy breathing. It is fortunate that one of our group was pregnant, about to begin her second trimester, so I could tell myself that everyone kept stopping to let her catch her breath. This is, in truth, hilariously not the case since Annalise, "pregnant girl," was nearly always in the lead and probably could have shaved two hours off her ascent time if I wasn't tagging along. Since I'm naming and nicknaming one of Rachel's friends, perhaps further introduction would be fun.
Left to right: Rachel, mother of three, wife to an adventure guide employed by the same University where my brother works. I sat by her at the top of Table Mountain while we ate lunch and she described for me the routes she's taken to climb the Grand Teton TWICE. Annalise, mother of three boys and currently pregnant with her fourth child. Her husband is a farmer in Idaho. She is an energetic, fun, leader personality with seemingly no fears. Lindsey, mother of six - her husband has a degree in "Turf," and she has a degree in Forestry. My sister-in-law says that if she was stranded on a desert island and could only bring one thing, she'd bring Lindsey. I loved that she could name all the flowers and trees along the trail, and I have no doubt that if we had encountered a bear, she would have known what to do - perhaps not even having to resort to the spray. Fourth from left is Debbie, mom of five boys. Her husband allegedly told her she "hadn't trained enough" for this hike and that makes me want to snort Gatorade out my nose. This girl was a speed demon, hiking athlete (though purportedly new to the sport), and probably would have helped Lindsey fight the bear. Rachel, far right, is mom of four and the woman who married my brother fifteen years ago on the date of our hike. Well, if I was the one stranded on an island, I'd bring her. Not only do I believe she is resourceful, but her calmness and perspective keeps me "level" and she sort of diffuses my drama. This came in handy on the hike when I fell into a snow bank, clutching at the frozen stuff while fearing slipping down the steep slope, and she coolly stated, "Hey, Teri, that snow must feel good in this heat." Not pictured is Stacy, who I would have loved to spend another day or two with. She was often close by and we had a chance to get to know each other when I had enough breath to talk. She has four kids, boy-girl-girl-boy, just like me, plus a ready smile and a kick-butt casualness that kept me motivated more than once.

To read plenty about the technicalities of this hike, here are some fun sites: Trail Mutt; Yellowstone Park; and a blog we found written by another hiker mom.

On the eve of my birthday, I couldn't have picked a better way to celebrate than hiking in the mountains surrounded by flowers, trees, and the sound of birds chirping. It really was poetic. In fact, in addition to spending some of my hiking time (I had 11 hours!) praying for my husband and children, I also brought to mind some Robert Frost poetry. It was marvelous. Also, I had a hard time believing it wasn't all a dream. How crazy to be hiking so far from my usual setting - in July! - and come across snow! We even hiked through it a couple times. Here you can see our first close-up sighting of it as well as our first tiny stream crossing.
If you follow any of the links I recommended above, you'd see that this hike is "not recommended for beginners." By the time we traversed a million meadows, many uphill climbs, trillions of rocks, including a loooooong pile of scree - I was exhausted. During the last mile, I forced down a peanut butter Power Bar that Stacy offered and I would compare this leg of the hike to transition in labor. I wanted to quit but couldn't - I was driven on by the need to finish. Making it to the top of Table Mountain was the equivalent of holding the baby in my hands. I have to admit that my steps were VERY slow and I felt miserable a few times. It is entirely possible that I got Rachel to take this photo of me just so I could stop. But we were getting really close here!
A view of the goal:

If you say, "That looks like a breeze!" I will kill you. This picture doesn't do justice to it's difficulty. In fact, as I look at this, I think it appears that you could walk right up whistling a tune and picking at your fingernails. To lend some perspective, we probably had a good mile to go at this point and there is scrambling involved to reach the summit. Peeking out on the left side is none other than The Grand Teton - all 13,770 feet of it.

We reached the top just five hours after our start. My feet were cramping and I felt the elation I've only felt two other times: upon successful completion of four natural childbirth and three half-marathons. Some shots from the top:
It was mightily incredible. We sat up there for an hour and ate our lunch and shooed away a rock chuck. I wanted to relish the scenery for as long as possible, but I also wanted to quell the anxiety that crept into my chest and gut by beginning the downhill that I feared. Here is what I was facing:
That was taken from the top and the trail is visible zig-zagging away toward a fork we would eventually take to descend the Huckleberry trail. Thank God. I think the loose rock and constant slope of The Face would have torn apart my nerves and my knees on the return. Huckleberry held more lovely views, numerous river crossings, four over logs, one with shoes off, pants rolled up, and icy water cooling our toes. Huckleberry was two additional miles compared to The Face - and though it was downhill, it took us the same five hours we'd spent going up.
I had many philosophical, analytical moments, most of which I'm sparing you. I spent a lot of time considering why I'm so fearful. Why did it seem as if those other girls pranced down the hill like sure-footed mountain goats, while I tiptoed with caution? I was afraid to disturb the mountain lest it hurl me off its side and into the valley below. Kevin says I just need more experience. I'm all for it. And like I told Rachel as we strolled a path through Indian Paintbrush, Bluebells, Columbine, Monkshood, Huckleberry, and Stinging Nettle - after this hike, nothing is going to seem very difficult for a long, long time.

Post a Comment