Another year, another continent—or so it feels halfway through 2019. A few months ago, after much last-minute paperwork wrangling—and frankly a miracle, I acquired a visa to move across the Atlantic again. This time not touching down on the volcano-lined runway of Managua but the brine-bordered pavement of San Francisco. A short drive with my wife, Allie, across the ten lanes of the Bay Bridge, and I was in my new home: Oakland, California.
Hopefully this explains and excuses my hiatus from social media, blogging etc. Needless to say, I am now back with a vengeance, so prepare to consume the vast backlog of content I have accrued over the past six months! To delve into all the emotions, logistics and stories surrounding the move would certainly be overkill for one post, so I’ll start with the most recent tale—a short but testing walk amongst the highest mountains of the continental United States.
One of the many joys of marriage is that your family immediately expands. As such I found myself offered a place on a week-long backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada. “Can’t be too bad,” I thought, “I’ve got plenty of walking experience.” Well, it turns out sauntering along the Cornish coastal path isn’t quite the same as hiking up “fourteeners” in California.
The first night was undoubtedly the worst. Within 24 hours, I had flown, driven and walked from sea level (or just below, if you include the drive through Death Valley) up to 3,568m (11,760ft) at Kearsarge Pass—our gateway to the last 50 miles of the John Muir Trail. I didn’t realize at the time that this was not only the fastest elevation gain I had ever experienced, but the highest point ever reached in my life. Blasting so high so quickly was, in hindsight, a bad idea. Forcing myself to cook, eat and pitch my borrowed bivy bag, I knew things were not quite right. I consistently had to return to my pack from our makeshift kitchen, having forgotten essential items: stove, food and water. All required extra trips, adding to my frustration and deteriorating mood. Taking photos was certainly out of the question. After just managing to finish my dinner, I rolled into my sleeping bag where a fitful night of bad dreams and heavy condensation afforded me little sleep. Luckily, the group I was with had a head start on acclimatizing, so I was in safe company, but I certainly learned a valuable lesson about altitude.
By the morning, my body had realized that something had to change if I were to survive the next four days above 3000m. My headache had subsided and my ability to ascertain what equipment was required for cooking had improved. So began some of the most enjoyable walking I have experienced. The steep and icy granite towers of the high Sierra Nevada loomed above as we trudged through the valleys and over the passes. Hundreds of peaks casting their shadows late into the mornings and early through the evenings served to remind us of our ultimate goal. At 4421m (14,505ft), Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the U.S. outside of Alaska, and we were to summit it on our third day.
To get there, the trail crossed through much varied terrain. Snow-covered mountain passes, mosquito ridden wetlands and high alpine meadows. The night before our summit bid (slightly dramatic terminology considering the wide, easily graded path leading to the top), we camped above the tree line at Guitar Lake. Our highest night coincided with the new moon to provide a show of staggeringly bright stars. With screens replaced by sky, wheels by feet and concrete by canvas, the daily anxieties of city life easily gave way to feelings of peace and purpose.
The purpose, of course, was photography. Compared to the first day, achieving the summit of Whitney felt physically easy. Perhaps it was the lighter pack, the acclimatization or the Swedish Fish sweets I had saved for the occasion. Whatever the reason, the lower physical exertion I felt towards the end allowed me to focus more on making images and less on staying alive. Thus, you may notice a lack of images covering the first few days. In any case, I hope this set of photographs fills in the gaps in my story and even inspires dreams of your own backpacking adventures. The fresh—if thin—air certainly left me craving more granite mountains and less glass towers.
Many thanks to my new family for this opportunity. I hope to do it again sometime.
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