Just under 50 mile moderate 5 day backpack with an approximately 2 mile section of off trail travel.
Upon hearing his oath, I spun and quickly surveyed Gary to see what injury he had incurred. Asking him if he was okay, and quickly assessing him head to toe, I was instantly relieved not to see blood spurting out, or bones sticking up anywhere. Gary had slipped down a steep little section of creek bank on slick wet granite while filling his water bottles, but seemed perfectly fine. I complacently turned back to what I was doing ... I wouldn't be so complacent later.
Ever wonder if you got "way out there" and got hurt, what you would do? How resourceful would you be? How would you get out of there? Well, we got to find out one backpack trip in Aug of 2005. Off trail in the John Muir Wilderness of California, Gary tore the meniscus on the inside of his left knee. For those who have been unlucky enough to do this, it can be an excruciating and incapacitating injury.
A meniscus tear is a common knee injury. The meniscus is a rubbery, C-shaped disc that cushions your knee. Each knee has two menisci (plural of meniscus) one at the outer edge of the knee and one at the inner edge. The menisci keep your knee steady by balancing your weight across the knee. A torn meniscus can prevent your knee from working right. And a meniscus injury is definately not one you want to have happen in the backcountry of the High Sierra, miles from your car and civilization.
Most trips for us are begun on the west side of the Sierra. Not for any other reason than that the drive to a trailhead is much shorter for us since we live west of the Sierra. However, simply because we usually do start on the westside, this trip we decided to take a much longer jaunt in the car over to the eastside so that we could journey up trailheads we had never explored. After studying my maps exhaustively, I presented three potential trips to Gary to look over and decide upon. And he picked the one that was my first choice as well. We were all set. By the night before we left, maps were made on my computer with our trip highlighted in yellow. We packed all our food, repackaging everything in baggies so as to fit more supplies in less space per usual. Checklists were checked and double checked because if you suddenly remember twenty miles down the trail that you forgot something like TP or your toothbrush, there is no running over to your local 7-11. You just do without!
And, we had a dusy of a trip planned! The first day would be on trail, then the next day in the area of Big McGee Lake, we would detour around the lake and make our way up a cliff face that would potentially have a very old use trail to help us navigate...and if not, then map and compass would be our guides. Once on top of the cliff, we planned on camping for the night, then heading down into Hopkins Lake Basin...a lovely spot in the Sierra we had seen a few pics of and gazed at on the map countless times but had never been to. From Hopkins Lake Basin, we had a very high mileage trip planned that would take us on and off the John Muir Trail as we explored various basins and lakes traveling in a big giant loop North and then East back to our car. All told, our trip would be close to 100 miles. Best laid plans...
We actually were able to leave town the night before after packing. And we got as far as the middle of crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains before making a late hasty car camp. Early in the morning we had our last civilized breakfast, donned our packs in the trailhead parking lot and taking one last look in the car to make sure we left absolutely nothing in the car that had any scent to attract bears, we locked up and headed up the trail.
We shared the trailhead with a pack station called McGee Creek Pack Station, thus we followed a well made and marked trail for the first part of the morning. Many backpackers bemoan having to share the trails with horsepackers as horses turn the dirt to fine dust that coats everything as you hike, but, horse packers also spare nothing in clearing trails leaving beautifully maintained clear trails to hike on. So, we enjoyed an easily navigated trail all the way to our first lake, Steelhead lake. Here we doffed our packs and set up camp for the evening on a tiny little bluff above the lake... far enough to get us the required few hundred feet from the lakeshore...a requirement standard in most parks and national forests made in an effort to leave the fragile lakeshore ecosystem intact and enjoyable for all those who follow...and high enough off the lake to get us a bit of late afternoon sun. That first night was not the most spectacular campsite as I prefer wide open views, but, we had the place to ourselves which created quite an idyllic spot to unwind. First night camps are often not the best, as it can take a day or so to reach the true high country, but anytime out in the backcountry by yourselves is always quite special!
In the morning sun, we dried our gear which is usually a little wet from dew, and headed on up the trail again. I don't remember this piece of trail having a whole lot of uphill...but there must have been some as I remember being very grateful for a nice granite bench midmorning to drop my pack on and slowly sink down for a rest! Before long though we had reached our jumping off spot ...Big McGee Lake. We wound our way slowly around the north shore, stopping frequently to try and guess where we'd be climbing up the wall on the opposite side.
|Somewhere on the left wall, we'd be climbing over...|
|Big McGee Lake|
|A bit of old use trail on Hopkin's Pass|
|Signs of another traveler in McGee...|
One person...perhaps an early native american...or maybe an animal, explored their way up a cliff or mountain. Then another person perhaps followed that first person's occasional footprints. And eventually, there is a bit of a worn path where fragile alpine plants give up the battle, and rocks get kicked out of the way, and dirt packs down by years of being stomped on. There often is not much tell tale sign of the path except intermittent dirt patches well packed down while often there is a fairly decent albeit narrow dirt trail to show you the way. The trail we found on this day's journey was somewhere in the middle. There were obvious worn pieces of path...and then spots where we ran out of trail, like a game trail petering out, causing us to stop and scratch our heads as we looked high and low to see if we somehow wandered off the trail or if it was still up ahead and we just needed to locate it. And not being an engineered trail with long switchbacks to save your legs, this trail was steep with narrow short switchbacks necessitating we rest our burning calve and thigh muscles frequently. All the while, we both kept silent watch on a steep overhead cornice that we were just hoping upon hope would not block our path with an impassable sheer vertical block of ice right at the top!
|Hopkin's Pass Cornice, looked more passable the closer we got|
|Dee (top) and Gary (bottom) enjoying the well desrved view!|
|Dee enjoying our secret spot south of Silver Pass|
|Wasp "Paper" Nest|
Somewhere before McGee pass Gary's knee was really bothering him. We spied a lovely little peak with a flat spot on top just big enough for a groundsheet and bags, and incredible views...and a nice little stream below. After going back and forth on whether we should take advantage, we finally decided to take the rest of the day off here... one of only a handful of days we've ever taken as a layover day. We just could not march through this lovely spot enjoying it only for the few minutes it took to get from one side to the other. As it turned out, we made the best decision, for in the morning we entered the lovely, but austere and rocky McGee Pass and canyon area.
|The lovely but austere and inhospitable McGee canyon area|
It was then his eyes rolled up in his head and he left me! The parking lot was empty except for a carful of 3-4 college aged kids, but I yelled at them to come help me. By the tone in my voice, they knew to come on the run. As soon as they got there I started telling them what I needed them to do. I honestly did not know at this point if Gary was alive or not, but as terror stricken as I was, my years of telling others what to do in medical emergencies took over and I gave them exact directions. We got Gary out of the car and laying flat on the pavement. I prevented them from putting clothes or anything else under his head and explained that I worked at 911 and needed him flat with his head tilted back, and then I started checking for breathe. It was then that I saw it....a little flutter of an eyelid. At this point, I just did not care what those kids were thinking or how personal a moment this was for us when I was telling Gary to stay with me! Finally, he opened his eyes and looked at me and I knew I had him back.
I don't know who those kids were, but without their help, I don't know what would have happened as Gary was in a pretty dire straits and needed his airway opened up by tilting his head back, so I will always be grateful for their help! They waited a few minutes to make sure all was okay with us and we thanked them profusely, and they went on their way. By this time, Gary had managed to get in the passenger seat of the car and we started driving down out of the mountains. We discussed seeking immediate medical help, but Gary said he really just needed food. So we stopped at a favorite stopping place of our's, "Whoa Nellie's Deli," and had steak salads before heading on home. As it turns out, we should have seeked medical attention, for we later found that Gary had had a blood clot from his injury that had caused the later problems! When we got home, the Doctor Gary saw immediately put him on blood thinners for 3 months and diagnosed the meniscus tear. In hindsight, though we thought we were being conservative in our actions...we had risked all to complete our trip. We ended up making a 9 day trip into 5 and cut 100 miles of on and off trail travel down to 50 miles of all on trail travel. But, if we had it to do over again, we would be even more conservative and most certainly hike out the fastest route we could possibly find and abort the trip in seeking medical attention....maybe....:)
Don't let our experience in McGee scare you off...the phenomenal beauty of this area justifies visiting!