Internalizing That Making it to the Summit is Optional

Looking toward San Bernardino Peak on the way to Limber Pine Bench

Had I stayed the night at Limber Pine Bench or got more water at nearby Limber Pine Springs, I might have made it to the summit of Mt. San Gorgonio.  Instead, I headed up to Trail Fork Springs planning to camp and replenish my water supply there.  Unfortunately, I never found the campground or the water I was told would be there.  I know the campground is there, water is probably still flowing from the spring, and I’m sure I got real close to it.  I just couldn’t find it.  As a result, dealing with becoming extremely low on water, my resulting dehydration, and accepting I wouldn’t make it to the summit became what I focused on for the remainder of my backpacking trip.

My decision to go to Trail Fork Springs didn’t appear at all risky when I made it.  I called the Mill Creek Ranger Station a few days prior to find out where to find water between Angelus Oaks and Mt. San Gorgonio and asked about which campgrounds had nice views.  Trail Fork Springs or High Meadow Springs (another four miles up the mountain) were the recommended places to camp.  Since I got a late start, I had already ruled out High Meadow Springs.  The only reason to consider Limber Pine bench was because I was also slowed a little by a light afternoon rain along the way.  However, the rain had stopped by the time I reached Limber Pine Bench and it was still before 5pm.  I could easily make it to Trail Fork Springs by 7:30 or 8:00.  Since I wanted to arrive closer to 7:30 and have more sunlight to set up camp and because I had plenty of water to make it there; I decided not to invest the time to replenish my water supply at Limber Pine Springs which I passed a little further up the trail.

Clear Skies and plenty of light on the way to East San Bernardino Peak

All appeared to be going well.  The trail and views were great and I was making good time.  At junctions in the trail, clearly marked signs indicated the way to Trail Fork Springs.  So, I was feeling great about my decision to hike a little longer to make the next day’s journey shorter.  Then I came upon a junction and the sign indicated one way to Jackstraw Springs and the other way to Dollar Lake Saddle.  It made me a little uneasy that all of a sudden there was no mention of Trail Fork Springs.  I pulled out my Harrison Map and saw that the camp should be on the way down to Jackstraw Springs.  Along the way down the trail I passed what I thought could be the beginning of Forsee Creek.  There was more green vegetation and the soil was moist, but there wasn’t any flowing water.  I continued down the trail expecting it to meet the creek again or to cross the spring hopefully close to Trail Fork Springs Camp.  After hiking at least a mile, I knew I had gone too far.  The distance listed on my permit from Trail Fork Springs to Anderson Flat (above the junction heading toward Dollar Lake Saddle) was only 0.8 miles.

Enjoying last sunlight before heading into the darkness to try and find Trail Fork Springs

Realizing I’d gone too far, I watched the last couple minutes of the sunset while contemplating my situation.  It was time to accept a few things.  The day’s hiking was going to continue into the night under the light from my headlamp.  So, I might as well enjoy the last moments of a sunset before embarking on a journey into the darkness.  Water was now an issue as I hadn’t yet found Trail Fork Springs and couldn’t be confident that I would.  I had a liter plus whatever was left in my bladder which I now needed to conserve.  I would need to set up my tarp for the first time in the dark.

It didn’t make sense to continue down the trail because I didn’t know for sure that there was water at Jackstraw Springs and that direction was only taking me away from where I expected to be going the next day.  Besides, I wasn’t exactly full of confidence that I would find that camp either.  At that point I was also still holding onto some hope that I would find Trail Fork Springs on my way back up the trail.  Perhaps I should have gone up at the junction instead of down.  Before setting out however, I needed a plan B if I couldn’t find the camp.  In that scenario I decided I would continue up the trail at the junction (hoping Trail Fork Springs was really up instead of down) and continue to Anderson Flat if necessary at most two miles away from where I was.  I never found any sign of Trail Fork Springs.  Worst, after heading up from the junction, I reached to next junction in the trail where Anderson Flat was supposed to be and didn’t see it.  In John McEnroe fashion, I yelled out “you can’t be serious.”  I was physically tired, mentally drained, frustrated, hungry, and thirsty.  I decided to find a flat spot near the trail and camp the night.

As I was setting up my tarp, I realized dinner was out of the question.  I couldn’t spare eight ounces of water to rehydrate my food.  So, I had a bar and a little more water to wash it down.  Tired as I was I didn’t sleep well.  I considered my options over and over again for hours.  Other than Trail Fork Springs, the closest water sources are High Meadow Springs four miles up the mountain or Limber Pine Springs about four and a half miles back down the mountain.  I quickly ruled out Trail Fork Springs as I’d already missed it twice and if the moist area was the spring, it had dried up since the last report.  This was my last training exercise for my Mt. Whitney trip beginning on Monday and I really wanted to summit Mt. San Gorgonio.  However, after much consideration and accepting that I wasn’t going to make it to the summit on this trip, I ruled out High Meadow Springs.  Considering that I’d missed two campgrounds and a water source already; attempting to continue up the mountain to a camp ground I’d never been where I didn’t know the location of the water source just seamed reckless.  If I didn’t find water there, I had no plan B.  The next water would at best be another two miles down in another direction away from Mt. San Gorgonio.  I’d most likely need to press my SOS button on my spot connect device and wait to be rescued.  So, I settled on hiking down to Limber Pine Springs whose water I crossed on my way up.  I would at least be heading toward help if things got that bad.

Tired but restlessly anxious, I knew I needed rest to hike another four miles and had no desire to hike in the darkness.  Normally, I drink about a liter of water through the night and I was already down to about 750 ml when I went to sleep.  I decided that as soon as I noticed enough natural light to see my way, I would get going.  Waking up a few times throughout the night, I thought about the terrain I would be walking down.  Except for about three quarters of a mile of trail that was more direct than going toward Trail Fork Springs, I had travelled the rest of the trail the day before.  This allowed me to plan out my water breaks.  Paying attention to my night time sips of water, I managed to drink only 250 ml before morning.  I was down to half a liter, but I felt I could make it to water.  I packed everything up, took a few pictures, and sent out a message from my spot connect device to let people know who were tracking me on the internet that I’d changed plans and was heading home early.  Sitting on a fallen tree, I looked up and noticed a sign on a tree that my tarp had been set up below the night before.  The sign read “Anderson Flat” with an arrow pointing in the direction I camped.  There was no delineated path leading further from where I was.  So, it’s possible I actually found and camped at Anderson Flat after all.  That realization made me think that it was now more possible that the moist soil I saw the day before was a newly dried up Trail Fork Springs.

In the morning light, I realized that I might have camped at Anderson Flat after all (note the sign on the tree–subtle especially at night).

Down to only 500 ml of water, I knew I needed to manage my level of exertion and maintain a comfortable pace because I would need to hike close to three hours to make it four and a half miles down to Lumber Pine Springs.  Fortunately, the trail is beautiful; the cool morning air was clear, views out were magnificent, and the soft morning light gently illuminated my path through the trees.  Allowing myself to take photos and engage in the distractingly beautiful natural surroundings I was hiking through helped me stay calm, go at a reasonable pace, and not fixate on my thirst.

My last view of Mt. San Gorgonio as I was accepting that I’d need to summit it another day.

I drank my last drop of water from a spot with a view of Limber Pine Bench which appeared to be within twenty minutes of my location.  Almost immediately though, I was again thirsty and it was getting hot.  I felt I was heading toward some kind of limit.  At the same time, I was the most confident I’d been since I went to bed the night before that I’d make it to the springs.  Interestingly, about ten minutes from Limber Pine Springs I passed a group of hikers.  We talked briefly about where they were going and of my water situation.  I would have accepted water if offered but didn’t feel the need to ask.  At that point I knew I could hike another ten minutes and was sure if I was in distress they would have helped me.  As one of the reasons to hike down instead of up, their presence put an exclamation point on the rightness of my decision to head down the mountain.  I felt good about how I handled cutting my losses, accepting my mistakes, and altering my plans.  Meeting them was the last mental boost I needed to make it down to the springs.

Limber Pine Springs

At the springs I took my time and drank close to a liter of water.  I then replenished my bladder and my Nalgene bottle so that I’d have four liters to make it down the last six miles to my car—which I drank most of.  Along the way down I reflected upon my experience and how I felt about not making it to the summit.  Although initially very disappointing, it was probably the best final training experience I could have had before setting out to climb Mt. Whitney.  Realizing that really helped me make it down the last couple miles.  The last year and eight months of training has me easily physically and mentally ready to make the climb over a three day period.  Not completing a climb and internalizing Ed Viesturs words “getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory,” was a more important experience that rounded out my training.  In a few hours I leave for Mt. Whitney for four days.  The trip will be a celebration of losing a lot of weight getting myself in shape to make it.  While I want to summit badly, I now know I have it in me to turn back if I need to.

14 thoughts on “Internalizing That Making it to the Summit is Optional

  1. Thanks for your post, Kyle.
    I have dealt with not summiting twice recently. Trying to reach Iron Mountain (with a late start) I realized that if i were to summit, I would not make it back to the improved portion of the trail before dark. My companion, however, chose to summit anyway and we ended spending the night on the mountain when the unimproved trail back began to look unfamiliar. Most recently, I arrived at Trail Crest on the Mt. Whitney trail (13,600 ft) fairly altitude-sickened and weakened. I realized that I had already accomplished 90% of my goals: I had conditioned my body (after a March 15, 2011 hip replacement) to the point that I had the strength and endurance to accomplish challenging, all day hikes with prodigious altitude gain (80%) and I had reached the promontory where I could view the wilderness on both the east and west sides of the Sierra Nevads (10%). Gaining the bragging rights for placing my foot on the summit (10%) would also have been nice, but was worth neither the additional pain nor the chance that I would not make it down off the mountain before my one-day hiking permit expired.
    I’m satisfied with my hike, although I might put in for a 2-day permit next year to tackle Mt. Whitney in a more liesurely fashion.
    Again, thanks for your transparency,
    Rolin

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    • Rolin, thanks for your comments. The way the system works, it’s multi-day or day hike. It turns out the multi-day permit is for 13 days regardless of what you apply for. We took two days and the experience was fantastic and we didn’t suffer any altitude sickness. If I were to do it again from the Portal, I might camp the first night at Lone Pine Lake (not in the Whitney Zone) instead of the Portal Campground.

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  2. It really is hard to turn back when your initial goal isn’t reached. I’ve had to make that decision many times with Karl backing me up when I need it. Sometimes we need to just try another time. Glad you made it through that ordeal and it was fun to read about it. I agree, a good lesson to learn before embarking on your Whitney trip. I think it will help keep you humble to the mountain’s challenges, and keep you safer. Have a great time!!!

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  3. Great trip report, I’ve always found that not summiting is harder than summiting… just a different kind of hard.
    Have a great time at Mt. Whitney, be safe! My husband and I just finished our last major training hike this weekend and will be headed there in 2 weeks as well.

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    • I had an amazing trip to Mt. Whitney, thanks! From what I’ve read of you’re training, it looks like you guys are good to go. Enjoy your trip and I look forward to reading about it when you get back.

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  4. You are a wise man, and thanks for sharing the quote, “getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory.” Good luck on Whitney and stay safe. Can’t wait to read about it!

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  5. By the way, I can’t wait to see the pictures and hear about your successful journey to My. Whitney, however that success it defined.

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  6. What an adventure of the mind and body. Excellent lesson! I’m so glad you went with your ultimate plan of action. Great story. Happy you made it back before you turned into human jerky.

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    • It turned out to be great training for Mt. Whitney. I had to alter plan there too. And hiking in the dark was a good prelude to our decision to begin our summit in the dark at 3:30am.

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