A Woman Beneath the Moon: A Solo High Sierra Loop

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By Outdoor Prolink Editorial Intern Sara Aranda. Sara likes to climb, trail run, travel and adventure. She comes from California but is making Boulder, Colorado her new home. Sara also works at Movement Climbing + Fitness in Boulder. Look for more blog posts and photos from Sara coming soon! 

August 29th, 2014, HWY 120 Eastbound, 6:30AM. My headlights lit up the trees as I drove in silence that morning. As I was approaching a turnout in the highway with the faint rise of the sun, I had to pull over. The sky was a streak of painted clouds, a washed blue just beyond the mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and as the sun crept closer to the precipice of their rugged shoulders, an orange glow began to spill across the horizon. Tenaya Lake shone almost white in the distance, drinking all the orange that fell upon its surface.

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By 7AM I was standing by my Jeep, clutching my small pack, having parked at the Sunrise High Sierra Camp trailhead. It only felt appropriate to head out to Sunrise Camp at sunrise. There was a row of cars, but I was the only one actually around that early. I pulled off my thick sweater, stood there looking at my reflection in my Jeep window, and began to realize that I was about to start a journey that I had no idea if I was even capable of completing. Over the next three days I planned to trail-run 49 miles, completing the entire High Sierra Camp Loop, which visits all 6 Camps in the High Country of Yosemite National Park: Sunrise, Merced Lake, Vogelsang, Tuolumne Meadows, Glen Aulin, and May Lake. My lowest elevation will be around 7,020 ft. with my highest being around 10,150ft. And to top it all off, I was doing it solo.

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I looked over my pack one last time, which was only a 30L REI Traverse, stuffed to the brim with hopefully everything I’d need to get by.

Gear List:

  1. Sleeping Bag: North Face Cat’s Meow, 20 degree
  2. Outerwear: Go-Lite Women’s Selkirk Ultralight 800 fill, packable down jacket
  3. Clothing: WrightSock cool-mesh (1-pair), Hand-made heavyweight wool socks (1-pair, from Chile), wool beanie (Target), Black Diamond Midweight Gloves, REI Midweight Running Tights, synthetic long-sleeve (Target), synthetic tee (Target), Brooks Running shorts
  4. Shoes: New Balance Trail Running shoes, foam pool sandals (Rite-Aid)
  5. Hydration: 3L Camelbak
  6. First aid: mole skin, antiseptic wipes, band-aids, athletic tape, hand-sanitizer, sunscreen, emergency blanket
  7. Navigation: compass, YNP High Sierra Camp Loop topographic map
  8. Toiletries: Unscented baby wipes, a small plastic bag/zip-lock (Leave no trace!), Rite-Aid collapsible travel toothbrush/paste
  9. Misc: Outdoor Recreation Group Water-Resistant Stuff Sacks, 3-pack (WalMart), Sunglasses, Petzl Spatha Multi-Purpose Knife, Olympus Stylus Tough Camera (10MP), Sea to Summit Alpha Lite Spork, iPhone, car keys, Driver’s License
  10. Headlamp (with spare batteries)

My goal was to be ultralight, and I was pretty much carrying the minimum: food, water, warm layers, sleeping bag, a few toiletries, headlamp, sandals for camp, and some first aid.

Zipping up all the pockets, I locked my Jeep and walked over to the trail. It was cold there, around 8,000 ft. I tugged at my synthetic sleeves and breathed into my gloves. With one deep breath in and one long exhale, I started off into the woods, the sun still too cold itself to offer any comfort. Almost immediately I was going up a steep incline, and suddenly I was too hot. I stopped to strip down into shorts and a short-sleeve top and slowly jogged myself into the mountains.

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By the time I made it to the actual Sunrise Camp, the sun was shining full volume over all the granite domes. The rocks and forest opened up to a grand meadow, with a small river snaking through. I ran across its openness, the trail thin and perfectly cut. In the East I could see Matthes Crest and Echo Peaks. I was led down into Echo Valley, where I traversed granite steps and slabs between trail segments. The morning was warming nicely, and the light through the trees gave off an ephemeral, fairy-tale-like ambiance, placing me into an ecstatic trance the whole way to Merced Lake.

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Granite slides gave way to the Merced River, and the lake itself was probably the largest lake I had ever seen. I wandered off trail towards a tree by the waters edge, where I removed my shoes and waded in to my knees. I stood there, already covered in sweat and dirt. I strode back to my pack by the lone tree and wrote a poem for a project I was participating in, where I was to write a poem a day during the month of August.

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After about half an hour, I gathered myself and my things. The wind shook all the trees and I ran on. That day I ended up making just under 20 miles, where I timed myself at six hours of actual time spent moving, averaging 3.3mph. Not bad, I thought. It was well into the afternoon by then, and I was somewhere between Merced Lake and the Vogelsang High Sierra Camp, near the turnoff for Bernice Lake. I had actually passed quite a few day-hikers on the trail, and they all stared at me as I jogged by. I crossed a stream, and glanced to my left, unintentionally catching glimpse of a man down by the water who was completely naked. He was bathing and I immediately tore my glance away, unsure if he noticed me or not. I strode past without looking back and hiked up a small hill. I hadn’t spoken to anyone all day, and I was afraid to camp near anyone actually, let alone a naked man. I didn’t want anyone to see where I was settling in for the night, so I walked through the trees until I felt I was far enough away from the stream crossing. One of the greatest things about backpacking is that you essentially go house shopping every night. I laid out my ground-cloth (aka my emergency blanket) and unpacked my sleeping bag. It was only a 20 degree bag, but I figured the blanket beneath me would sizzle me up nicely.

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I walked down a steep hillside to get to some water, ate mainly summer sausage and crackers, and crawled into my bag just before the sun fell away behind the walls around me. This was the first time in my life where I was sleeping completely alone in the middle of the woods. I was denying any fear the entire day, but now I was there, confronting it. I had hung my food bag in a tree, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the potential for being woken up by some creature. Black bears are manageable, but mountain lions, on the other hand, are cats I have nightmares about. I took out a pen and piece of paper and started to write in order to calm my nerves:

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“Night is coming and I am alone. River scuttles and birds, just the wind comes by. Reminds me how I am just a human, so small against the mountains, the sky, the slow clouds. You are far away; though I think of you because you once made me feel safe. Tonight I face my own fears – they’ll be laid out with the stars. I only hope I am tired enough to just sleep through the night. But what is there to fear? Uncertainty? The darkness? All of it? That I am here without you? Well I should actually be proud. Proud that I came, of my own volition, and am willing to face myself.”

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The next day I woke up completely energized. I packed up quickly, ate and tried to warm up my legs with dynamic stretching techniques before I jogged on. My goal was Glen Aulin, 16.9 miles away. I clocked my time spent moving at 4.5 hours, averaging 3.8 mph. I had plenty of daylight left, so I laid out by the seeming oasis of Glen Aulin. A waterfall pooled before it drug itself away as a river. There were benches by the pool, and people read or fished. I wanted solitude again when it was time to strike up camp. I hiked back up the hill I had come down, and climbed on top of one of the small rock features. I couldn’t have asked for a better view of sunset, with Mt. Conness glowing pink off in the distance.

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On the final day, I only had 11.4 miles left. I averaged 4.1 mph, as the trail was mostly flat. There was one mountain to climb and traverse before landing in the May Lake High Sierra Camp, but after that, it was strictly downhill. I had made it back to my car well before the afternoon, the sun bright and hot already. The trailhead parking lot was busy with people now. It was not only a Sunday, but also Labor Day Weekend. The drive back home into Yosemite Valley was long, but I felt a sense of euphoria for accomplishing such a journey for myself.

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During my three day journey, I learned a lot about myself, but I think the most important thing was that it was okay to depend on just me. Solitude shouldn’t be a scary thing. And as a woman, I think solitude in the wilderness is absolutely paramount. It was a much-needed revelation, to see myself outside of all attachments, outside familiarity, outside the world even. It was just me and the moon when I fell asleep, and I can’t describe it as anything but pura vida (pure life).

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