The Big SEKI Loop brought me back to California’s High Sierras, one of my favorite hiking destinations. Although I’ve hiked often in the Sierras, the trek turned into even more adventure than I had planned on.
Check out Part 1 if you missed my introduction to the Big SEKI Loop.
My hiking partner on the Big SEKI Loop was Crosby, whom I had met and hiked with on the JMT. We were both looking to get out on trail and decided to revisit the Sierras. We each tossed out a few ideas and just a couple days later we were off for another adventure in the Range of Light.
We arrived at Road’s End to the spend the night near the trailhead and were quickly presented with the first of many hurdles on what we incorrectly assumed would be a routine trip into the backcountry.
As is my custom, I went to set off my Spot Gen3, a personal locator beacon that has served me faithfully on six continents and in over fifty countries. To my dismay, the Spot wouldn’t power on even after I turned to my set of spare batteries.
The Spot is my most important piece of backcountry equipment so I left Crosby in camp and began the long, winding drive out of the Kings Canyon National Park to find new batteries, hoping that that would solve the problem. My desperate, three-hour search took to me to four tiny mountains towns and five different stores before I finally found the batteries that I thought I was looking for.
Instead of solving my problem, however, the new batteries merely proved that my problem was worse than I thought. The Spot was dead. New batteries or old, it refused to power on. I was immediately on the phone with Spot’s customer service line and, to their credit, a new Gen3 was on its way to me within minutes. Unfortunately, the new device would not arrive for several days so, for the first time in years, I would be Spot-less on the trail.
I drove back the way I had come and crashed into camp, hoping to squeeze in a few good hours of sleep before our early wake-up call the next morning. We had to be at the Road’s End ranger station a little before 7 so we could grab walk-up permits for our hike.
I managed to rouse myself from a solid slumber the next morning and we got our permits without any trouble. We were on our way with the sun still low in the sky and the crisp mountain air sharp in our lungs.
The first day and a half on trail were perfect. Wildflowers painted the valleys with a stunning blanket of color and we enjoyed excellent weather as we climbed first Avalanche Pass and then Elizabeth Pass before connecting with the High Sierra Trail.
Then the wheels started to come off. Crosby, an experienced hiker who had previously completed the JMT without issue, began to feel the effects of acute mountain sickness (“AMS”). The “interesting” thing about AMS is that it can strike anyone at any time, regardless of previous experiences at altitude. It was apparently Crosby’s turn.
With Crosby sapped of energy and short of breath, our pace slowed to a relative crawl. We covered far less than our planned 25-miles per day over next two days and were forced to revise our itinerary.
Instead of completing the entire 154 miles of the Loop, we would cut off the northern sections and turn back to the trailhead at Road’s End via the Woods Creek Trail. The alternate route would cut nearly 50 miles from our scheduled adventure.
The sixth day on trail dawned with Crosby having mostly recovered his usual pep. We hit the trail early and made excellent time over Glen Pass, past the Rae Lakes, and to the junction of the JMT with the Woods Creek Trail that would take us to Road’s End. By early afternoon, we had covered more than 20 miles and were still feeling fresh.
We flew down the Woods Creek Trail’s gradual descent toward the south fork of the Kings River, buoyed by the chance to stretch our legs and finally put in a full day on trail. Reaching the trailhead that night would mean a 36 -mile day and we were optimistic that we’d cover the mileage without any trouble.
We’d long since left the cool, crisp climate of the trail’s high alpine sections behind and were making our way through the stifling heat of the arid, low altitude section in the harsh rays of the late afternoon sun. When hiking in high temperatures, as we were, I typically douse myself at every water source I pass. The resulting evaporation keeps my core temperature low and helps me stay on trail longer. This cooling strategy has served me on well trails all around the world and I kept the practice as we descended toward the trail’s southward turn into Paradise Valley, about 30 miles into our day.
Just before the turn, I habitually doused myself in a snowmelt creek, soaking my hat and shirt in the icy water, and then sat to wait for Crosby in the shadow of a copse of trees. He had hiked well all day but was still a step slow, and I had out paced him more than I realized since our last break. The short rest that I had expected gradually turned into over twenty minutes in the shade.
My cooling strategy backfired as the minutes passed and, by the time Crosby arrived, I was shivering vigorously from the combination of cool shade and frigid water that soaked my clothes. Not overly concerned, I gave Crosby a few minutes to catch his breath and then we continued on.
Although I expected the shivering to abate once we hit the trail, it only grew worse as we worked our way down the trail. Suddenly, nausea and dizziness joined the decidedly unenjoyable party. My efforts to keep cool had, counterintuitively, cooled my exterior and fooled my body into thinking I was cold. The resulting shivering was now raising my already high core body temperature to potentially dangerous levels.
Before I knew what hit me, I was leveled by a solid case of heat exhaustion.
Overheating is one of the biggest causes of illness and death in the backcountry. Heat exhaustion, if unaddressed, can become heat stroke, which in turn can lead to a host of problems including brain damage and even death.
Fortunately, I was as prepared as I could be. I knew the symptoms I was experiencing and knew what steps to take in response. I also consulted my SAS Survival guide to confirm the diagnosis and the appropriate response. Hiking further was obviously out of the question and our thoughts of reaching the trail’s end that night faded further with each new spasm of shivering that wracked my body.
Crosby immediately set about pitching our text while I sat still, sipped water, nibbled on electrolyte-rich foods, and tried to gradually lower my core body temperature. My symptoms subsided as the evening wore on and the odds of serious complications decreased with them. By nightfall, I was resting peacefully well out of the figurative woods.
I slept soundly that night and awoke the next morning grateful to have come through the experience without any repercussions other than the knowledge that I knew how to handle this potentially serious situation. We stuck camp and coasted the last few miles to Road’s End, having completed another inspiring and unexpectedly challenging backcountry adventure.