Starting out, under cloudy skies and a light drizzle, the trail out of Sheep Camp quickly moved from thick forest to sparser alpine terrain. Despite the fog obstructing some of the views, we were constantly in awe of the towering mountain walls and rock-strewn valley. We carefully picked our way across stream crossings, hopping from rock to rock to avoid getting our boots and socks wet.
We reached the scales, where Gold Rush stampeders weighed their gear before heading over the pass, quicker than I had expected. Artifacts lay strewn about where people had given up their quest and abandoned their goods on the side of the trail. Having started the day a bit nervous, it gave me a surge of confidence knowing I had gotten through one of the tougher sections of the trail with no major problems. Maybe this day wouldn’t be as hard as I thought it would be.
As we ascended, the fog got thicker and the rain heavier. By the time we made it to the Golden Stairs it was downright miserable. A cold wind was driving rain and sleet at our backs, making everything slick.
This was it. The infamous Golden Stairs I had read so much about while prepping for this trip. The section of trail where you gain around 275m/900ft over 1.5 km by scrambling over boulders at a 45-degree incline.
But nothing I read could have prepared me for this.
Looking up the Golden Stairs, the reality of it doesn’t come through in photos.
As the incline got steeper, we were forced to stow our hiking poles and use all fours to make our way up and around the boulders. Orange poles placed by NPS rangers marked the path but it was so foggy you could hardly make out where the next pole was. Between the rain and gripping the wet rocks, my thin gloves were soaked instantly. Making a fist sent cascades of cold water pouring out.
At first, things were going ok. I took my time finding the right spots to place my hands and feet and it was actually kind of a relief to have some of the pack weight off my shoulders as I leaned forward and climbed.
And then, the panic set in.
I always like to say that I don’t have a fear of heights, I have a fear of falling. I’m fine with being up high, as long as I’m securely inside a building or have my feet planted firmly on the ground. For me, the problems start when falling to my death becomes a real possibility. Why I was blessed with this particular fear and a love of alpine hiking I’ll never know. But I certainly learned the extent of my phobia that day on the trail.
It all started when I got into a spot and couldn’t figure out where to go next. Forward wasn’t an option and turning around to see the steepness of the slope instantly brought up an urge to sit down and cry. Loose and slippery rocks made me question every single footstep and shifting my weight with a 40-lb pack on my back made falling to my death seem all too possible. Full-blown panic attacks, complete with hyperventilating, happened at least three times. While part of me wanted to quit, I knew I had to keep going. We were already part way up and there was absolutely no way in hell that I was going to try and head back down that outrageous incline.
It was the weirdest feeling. Like I had duelling multiple personalities. The panic-stricken half of me, which was outwardly visible in the sobbing and paralysis, was being fueled by pure, irrational fear. At the same time, my rational mind knew that I was perfectly capable of doing this. It was the part of me that would make myself stop, focus on my breathing, find the next orange marker, plan my route, and do it. This, along with Mark’s patience and encouragement, is the only thing that got me up the mountain.
When I’d get stuck somewhere Mark would tell me where to put my hand or foot and coach me through it. I’d scream at him about how I couldn’t reach that far or how the rocks were too slippery. He’d stand there and listen to me, letting me have my moment. Then I’d place my hand or foot, usually exactly where he told me to, make my move and then carry on. He probably could have done the Golden Stairs in half the time without me, but he stayed calm and supportive through the whole thing. I don’t know if I could have done it without him.
Mark rests for a moment at the summit, taking in the “view.”
I don’t think there is even a word for the emotion I felt when we got to the summit. It was some kind of adrenaline-fueled surge of pride, relief, excitement, and exhaustion. I was wet and cold and there was no view to speak of. Just fog and rain and sleet. We made our way to the warm up shelter where there were candles, thermoses of hot water, and three other hikers taking a break.
We were absolutely soaked. Despite our rain gear every layer of clothing was wet. We tried to wring out and dry what we could while we had a bite to eat and drank hot chocolate in the shelter. We didn’t want to stay long. We knew we still had miles to put in.
Ready to head back out, I put my still-wet clothes on and stepped outside the warmth of the shelter. Instantly, my entire body started shaking uncontrollably. For the first time in my life, hypothermia became a tangible threat. We just focused on moving, if for no other reason than to keep our bodies warm.
The rest of the day is a blur of fog, wind, rain, rocks, snow, and boulders. There were times I was glad for the fog obscuring the view as it made it hard to see just how steep some of the sections were. My nerves had had enough for one day. We gave up on trying to rock-hop across streams and just trudged through the water instead. It didn’t matter, our socks and boots were soaked anyway.
At times, the fog would lift, sometimes literally for seconds, providing spectacular views. I was quick enough with my camera only a couple of times, usually the fog had rolled back in before I could get it out of my pocket and snap a photo.
While unpleasant, the stormy weather provided its own unique feeling. Like the entire world extended no further than a ten-foot radius from where we stood at any particular moment. If you’ve ever wanted to feel totally alone, this is the way to do it.
As the day wore on, I lost all motivation. It took everything I had in me just to put one foot in front of the other and follow Mark as we continued on, wondering if we’d ever reach our destination. 11 hours in, I was about to enter tantrum-mode and throw a fit (which usually only occurs in cases of extreme exhaustion or slight hunger), when we heard voices through the fog.
Finally! We had made it to Happy Camp!
It was anything but happy.
The wind howled through the exposed campsite, while the rain continued to fall. We were getting cold fast and wanted nothing more than to eat and go to bed.
As we were setting up, we realised our rain covers had been no match for the weather that day. Besides a few articles of clothing and the food, which were packed in dry bags, all of our gear ranged from damp to soaked. But there wasn’t much we could do about it and we just hoped we could stay warm enough through the night.
I had NOT expected it to take us 11 hours.
No matter how many times I read websites and blogs suggesting to allow up to 12 hours for the section from Sheep Camp to Happy Camp, I always thought to myself: pfft, there’s no way it’ll take that long. That’s barely 1km/hr!
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I think I’m some sort of super-hiker, capable of scaling mountains effortlessly. I’m fully aware of the fact that I’m only mild-to-moderately fit, not exactly a natural-born athlete, and accustomed to life in the flattest part of the flattest province.
This is considered a hill where I come from
But I had done endless research on what it was really like to hike that section and came back with conflicting reports. For some, it was “the hardest thing they had ever done,” for others, it was “not that bad.”
And that’s the thing about hiking, it’s subjective. Depending on the experience, fitness level, and whatever particular mental and physical hang-ups a hiker carries with them, one person’s walk in the park can be another person’s ultimate challenge.
I had been expecting to be somewhere in the middle. Now? I’m firmly in the hardest-thing-I’ve-ever-done camp.
Day 3 Trail Stats:
Date: August 11, 2016
Trail Section: Sheep Camp to Happy Camp
Total Distance: 12.1 km/7.5 miles
Total Time: 11 hrs; 7:30 am to 6:30 pm
Read about Day 4 here.