I Hiked Alone In The Sierra Nevada For 14 Days To Prove Myself To Myself

A photo I took on day 10 of my solo backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada. (Emily Guerin/LAist)

One year ago, just after sunrise, I walked away from my car and began hiking into the Sierra Nevada.

Alone. For 14 days.

I had everything I would need to survive. Tent. Sleeping bag. Stove. A Kindle loaded with novels. Snickers bars. A plastic canister to protect my Snickers bars from bears. My phone, pre-loaded with guided meditations, and a satellite communication device.


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Ask me why I did it, and I'll tell you it's because I like backpacking.

Ask me again, and I'll say I wanted a challenge.

Ask me a third time, and I'll tell you the truth: I was there because I was leaving my husband, and I needed to prove to myself that I could do something hard on my own.

THE SPLINTER

I had gotten the idea four years earlier, when a woman I knew professionally quit her job and hiked the Colorado Trail, a 500-mile footpath that winds through the Rockies.

It stuck in my brain like a splinter.

Then the film Wild came out, based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir of grieving and transformation along the Pacific Crest Trail. Suddenly, it seemed to me, lots of women were exorcising their demons by hiking for weeks alone through the wilderness.

Then it was May 2017. I told my husband that I wanted to get separated. For the first time in my life, I was living alone.

Maybe I needed something to occupy my brain as I sat on the couch at night. Maybe I suddenly felt free to do something I'd been thinking about for years. I'm not sure. But after a few months, I started feeling the splinter again.

I started researching places to hike and settled on the Sierra High Route.

It's a "route," which means most of the time there is no trail to follow. You're scrambling up and down boulders and snowfields, following a set of way-points on a map. Occasionally you might see footprints in the dirt, or a small cairn that a previous traveler has built to point the way, but otherwise, you're on your own.

Going this route, so to speak, is much more difficult than following a trail, and I wouldn't recommend it unless you already have significant backpacking, scrambling and route-finding experience. I did, and I liked the idea of going off-trail, alone.

It felt like a more extreme version of what I'd already been doing since my husband moved out: having sole responsibility for my survival and emotional well-being. It also felt like a test: if I could hike for 14 days, alone, in some of the most remote parts of the Sierra Nevada, I could do anything.

"YOU'RE NOT GOING ALONE, ARE YOU?"

Practically speaking, being a woman alone in the wilderness is not much different than being a man alone. Either way, there's no one to help you if you injure yourself. But being a woman probably made me less likely to get hurt, because, in my experience, men simply do riskier things. Men, for example, are nine times more likely to get bitten by a snake than women.

But emotionally speaking, being a woman alone in the wilderness is harder in one way: people worry more about you.

"You're not going alone, are you?"

"Are you bringing a gun?"

"Won't you be scared?"

I told my parents I'd text them every night from my satellite device, and we made a plan: if they didn't hear from me in two days, they'd call the Inyo County Sheriff.

I drove up to Lone Pine, and on the morning of August 19, I put on my backpack and began to walk.

ON-TRAIL

Although most of the Sierra High Route was off-trail, the portion I chose began with two days on the John Muir Trail, a popular north-south path in the Sierra Nevada between Mt. Whitney and Yosemite National Park.

More than 3,500 people hike the JMT every year, and I saw dozens of hikers every day.

I unconsciously started keeping track of how many women I saw. Most of them were in groups, or hiking with men. I saw very few alone. I would guess that men out-numbered women 4:1.

On the trail, I walked on a smooth, graded path that switchbacked up and down steep sections, making even the highest mountain passes easy.

OFF-TRAIL

But when the Sierra High Route took me off-trail, I hauled myself up ledges. I picked my way down steep ravines, trying not to dislodge rocks. I scrambled through endless fields of boulders, known as talus, sliding on my butt so much the buttons on my back pockets ripped off.

Also, I rarely saw anyone — men or women. Which meant that I did the sketchiest parts of my hike alone.

It was stressful navigating that solo. There was no one to consult about the best way to go. If I went the wrong way, there was no one else to blame — or help me get out of it.

One night, I had a panic attack. It had been a particularly grueling afternoon — I was traversing the side of a steep valley, trying to stay between 10,700 and 11,000 feet to avoid cliffs above and below me — and I was camped alone at a remote alpine lake.

I really wanted someone to talk to, and no one was around.

I got into the tent well before dusk, opened my meditation app, and listened to the SOS meditation I'd downloaded for times like these.

"Look around," the calming British voice said. "Are you really in danger?"

I took a deep breath. And another. I reminded myself what I'd told other people before I left: being alone didn't make me more likely to get hurt, it just worsened the consequences if I did.

I guess it made me feel better, because I fell asleep.

But the next day, after yet another talus field, the anxiety came back.

I pulled out my phone and recorded a video.

Why am I doing this off-trail stuff if I'm just really anxious a lot of the time? Like, I definitely enjoyed myself more when I was on the JMT and I could run into people and we could talk about the hike and what we were seeing.

Am I just trying to do something hard for the sake of doing something hard? Like, prove it to myself or something? Why do I always try to do hard things? Like why can't I just be ok with things being easy?

I wiped my eyes and looked around. I felt so cripped by anxiety I was unable to appreciate how beautiful it was. I decided then that I was done with the sketchy descents and the loose rocks and the interminable talus fields. I was going to enjoy myself, hiking on trail.

So the next day, I consulted my map, and made my way back from the high country down to the John Muir Trail.

TRAIL MAGIC

Hikers have a term for what happened next: trail magic. It's when the trail provides exactly what you need at exactly the moment you need it most. That afternoon, I was sitting on a log eating almonds when a group of four older men hiked up. At first, I did the thing I usually do when a group of men approach me: I ignored them.

But then we began to talk about whether to camp there or continue on, and I softened. They didn't seem sketchy at all. Also, I was pretty lonely, which I think the guy I was talking to must have sensed, because he asked if I wanted to camp with them.

I sheepishly said yes, and followed them down to a flat spot near a creek. They caught trout and grilled them over a fire. I shared chocolate with them, and cocoa. We talked until after dark. It was the only time I was out of my tent at night, and I finally got to see the stars.

A few days later, I ended my hike by walking into the campground at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite.

I felt a lot of conflicting emotions: proud, but also embarrassed that I'd bailed on my off-trail plans. Relieved to be done, but also sad that the hike was over. Tired, but already thinking of all the other places I'd like to go.

By the time you read this, I'll be out backpacking again in the Sierra Nevada. This time, I have nothing to prove. And I'm going with a friend.

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