This story, the second in a series, starts on day two of our John Muir Trail (JMT) hike of 2018. It’s an explicit narrative of what happens when you fall ill on the trail. Be forewarned that this tale is not for the meek or reserved, it’s a story of suffering on an absurd scale that now can be looked back upon in laughter.
After the day of ‘The Deluge on the Mount’, my husband and I awoke in the morning on the John Muir Trail to wet sleeping bags, because it was ‘raining’ inside the tent. We waited for the sun to come up which, in our location, took a couple of hours. We laid our gear out to dry, using any available branch and rock, decorating the landscape with a colorful array of strewn out hiking particulars. All this drying stuff out resulted in a late start, we didn’t leave camp until 10:35 am. This would become a recurring theme with us on this leg of the trail, but at this point, we looked at it as an annoying and delaying inconvenience. We were only on our second day of hiking, and already we were going to be behind schedule. This is what you need to expect when you’re out on the trail, things happen, ‘expect the unexpected’ as they say.
The Ascent up to Glen Pass
We made our way northbound over to Glen Pass, which is the point where we tucked our tails between our legs and turned around in 2017 due to a ridiculous amount of snow. Everything looked completely different with no snow, and although the trek was by no means easy, it was doable with much less effort than we had to expend last time. Last year’s traverse across snow-covered terrain allowed us to bypass the trail altogether and take a ‘shortcut’; however, this time around, the trek seemed much longer than we had remembered. We trudged step-by-step up the side of one of the more difficult passes on the trail, inching our way up to the summit of the pass. Little by little, we progressed until eventually, we had officially gone farther on the JMT than we’ve ever done before. We gloated in light of our small accomplishment, and before we knew it, we were at the top of the pass.
“Moments of sunshine pushed through the overcast sky, throwing dancing rays across the landscape in a kaleidoscope of dark and light.”
At the summit—a narrow ridge that had a few of us, hikers, all lined in a row—we gladly dropped the loads off our backs and sat staring out over the terrain that had once defeated us. We reveled in the glory of our new beginning and watched as the skies again became cluttered with clouds. Moments of sunshine pushed through the overcast sky, throwing dancing rays across the landscape in a kaleidoscope of dark and light. A lake, a remnant of the melted winter snow, slept serene and still at the bottom of what looked like a crater with jagged, towering peaks surrounding it. I remember it as blue as an aquamarine gemstone last year, with the reflecting light off the snow driving deep down into the waters, but this year it was more somber, almost as if it was sad that the snow was gone. As we sat munching on our snacks, I spied a little mouse trying to be sneaky and steal into my pack. I threw a quick glance over and almost as if he knew what I was implying, he scurried off to someone else’s backpack. Crafty little buggers these rodents of the Sierra, but hey, they’re just trying to make a living, right?
The Descent from Glen Pass
After sufficient rest, and again in fear of an impending storm, we started making our way down into the undiscovered country—the north side of Glen Pass. As we moved on down the meandering stone littered slope, we remarked about how we definitely made the right choice not continuing over Glen Pass the previous year because although the south side was ‘nasty’ (Glen is one of the 4 nasty passes), this side would have been just awful to traverse with snow. There were so many switchbacks, and the edges off to the sides were staggeringly steep. When we reached the bottom and looked up the massive crag from below, we couldn’t even tell where the trail was, and the mountain looked almost vertical. The descent was nothing but talus and rocks that took their toll on my feet, it was tortuously rough. However, I preferred going down on the north side rather than the other face where we came up. As I was climbing up, I thought “thank goodness we don’t have to go down this side.”
We were smart this time and put our rain gear on ahead of time, putting our pack covers on before even ascending Glen Pass, then while atop the pass, the clouds looked threatening, so we donned our raincoats. Of course, it didn’t start raining until long after, because after all, we actually did prepare, but it did eventually start raining later on. I’m just glad we made it over the pass before any rain fell as the south side could have gotten very slippery with all the small rubble that were scattered across the path, and north side could have been precarious at best.
I had terrible heartburn all day—actually I had it through the previous night—and it prevented me from sleeping much. However, today while I was fully upright, it was relentless. As I descended down Glen Pass, I would repeatedly burp, practically throwing up inside my mouth. The burning went all the way up from my stomach, into my esophagus, and then into my throat. It was quite painful and required me to stop a couple of times for a few minutes. This had happened last year too, as well as back in 2015 when I was in the Sierra Nevada. It always seems that the first few days at high altitude and with the high level of exertion, I would develop gastrointestinal issues. This time, however, I had said to myself, “I’m taking a Zantac tonight to see if I can sleep.”
Not too far from the base of the mountain, we saw a young couple heading in the opposite direction, it was around 3:30 pm and they were a fair distance from the last camping areas to the north and were also a long distance from the top of the pass to the south. I asked if they were heading up the pass and they said yes! I would assume that once it started raining, the rain would have been falling throughout the entire area, which means those two were in for a real treat. Heading up and over Glen in the rain? No thank you! Not only would it be slippery going up switchbacks made of evil ankle-grinding stones, but you have a fair chance of being struck by lightning.
The fates smiled upon us and held off on releasing their fury groundward; we had reached relatively level walking surfaces before it had started raining. We marched on, through the steady precipitation, me adjusting my hat every few annoying minutes so that I could see what lay ahead. I don’t remember it being unusually cold, not like the day before, but we were wet, which meant we were chilled.
Luckily for us, the rain stopped right when we had to put up our tent, but as soon as we were almost finished, it started raining again. And boy, did it come down hard! We took shelter in our little traveling abode and remarked about how we had found an awesome campsite, somewhere amongst the Rae Lakes, with an idyllic view of the lakes and mountains. It was too bad that it was raining, but I was sure that we would awake to a glorious sight the next morning!
We made our dinner, gourmet meals of rehydrated food contained in Ziplock Freezer Bags, culinary masterpieces that chef Gordon Ramsay would be envious of…not really. I don’t recall what Joe ate that night, he was supposed to be eating Chicken Breast and Mashed Potatoes according to our predetermined food schedule—at some point, we both deviated from the plan. I do remember explicitly what I ate; the dinner of choice this night would be Wild Quinoa Pilaf with Hemp Crispies, a gluten-free vegan recipe. I was so excited to be eating this exotic concoction although the smell of it was peculiarly odd, I suppose it was all of the spices—including turmeric, paprika, and garlic. I ate it heartily and felt healthier and rejuvenated for doing so. I then had creme brûlée for dessert, it was divine! (WARNING: This is the part where it gets graphic, so if you’re squeamish or don’t like hearing bathroom talk, don’t read on.)
The Sickness Ensues
However, after dinner, I felt like I had to go to the bathroom, which was unusually strange because I’m pretty regular and while on the trail only go in the morning after breakfast. I’m like clockwork, putting even the best and most reliable train schedule to shame. I do suffer from some strange intestinal dysfunction that sometimes creates an insufferable urge to use the bathroom immediately, meaning I have to use sphincter muscles that rival any Kegel exercise to contain any unsightly or olfactory disturbance. I’m sure that I have some form of IBD but have never been officially diagnosed nor do I wish to see a doctor regarding sudden urges to poop. I don’t mind writing about it but seeing and explaining it to a doctor face to face, that’s something I do not wish to endure [make sarcastic smiley face here].
“At some point throughout the chaos, I marveled at the glorious sunset casting shadows and beaming light onto the Painted Lady (a mountain) in the distance and was thankful that the growing darkness of night provided cover for my shameful charade.”
Anyway, I digress…Luckily, the rain had stopped, and skies had cleared when I began to dig my cat hole far away from camp as established in Leave No Trace Guidelines, but in my crisis-driven haste, it was not deep enough—it was shy of my usual 6+ inches deep. And what started out as an odd-timed movement did indeed become a crisis. I finished, covered the inadequately dug hole and proceeded to make sure I was clean. (Note that I am a bidet user, so have no fear of unsightly toilet paper rising to the occasion.) I didn’t even finish cleaning off when I realized that I now had viscous crap just seeping out of my butt. My fingers now had excrement on them, and I shrieked in horror. I needed help and fast! I screamed for aid and Joe came to the rescue with additional water for my bidet. I stripped down to my bare-naked pasty ass, and I tried to clean myself again when my posterior orifice just opened up like a faucet. Luckily, I had removed all clothing off from the waist down. I squatted immediately as there was nothing else that I could do but just let the raging torrent out onto the large rock in which I was now perched upon. Joe brought more water again, and I proceeded to clean up for the second time. As soon as I was done, I stood up and felt the compulsion to go again! I repeated the process of going and cleaning for a second time, and I guess my bum decided it wanted to go for round three. All I could picture was my little ferrets, when they would throw up, they would scurry to a location and unload before scurrying to another spot and repeating over and over. I was behaving like them, I had moved from one spot to another, and once Joe had cleaned up one, I had made another toxic waste area that needed to be cleaned up. Fortunately, we were close enough to a water source otherwise I don’t know what we would have done (the water source was a sufficient distance away, so no, I didn’t contaminate it). Obviously, there was something very wrong with me; if these events didn’t signal some sort of illness, the stench sure did. To me, the only thing I could equate the smell to was burning rubber.
At some point throughout the chaos, I marveled at the glorious sunset casting shadows and beaming light onto the Painted Lady (a mountain) in the distance and was thankful that the growing darkness of night provided cover for my shameful charade. For the remainder of the night, I tried not to cough, sneeze, and God forbid pass gas out of fear of performing an encore.
After being mostly naked for I don’t even know how long—I’m estimating at least an hour—I was frozen. I was still damp from the rain that fell earlier on top of not having any clothes on. My butt cheeks and legs felt like ice packs, I felt stiff like a cadaver, and when it came time to go to bed, I could not warm up even in my 10-degree sleeping bag. We unzipped both sleeping bags, and Joe tried to warm me up with his body heat by bravely sharing his sleeping bag and using his bag liner. I was pretty much hypothermic because it took a good long while to warm up, but I eventually was able to and did go to sleep.
I still have no idea what made me sick. I wasn’t feeling well all that day, I had that terrible heartburn that gnawed at my insides. I had eaten a bison bar during the day (which I’ve had before), took my Zantac before eating dinner, ate a new dehydrated meal that I never had before, and then enjoyed my creme brûlée for dessert (which I also have had before). The explosive sickness could have been any one of those things, but I’ll tell you one thing…I never ate the ‘Wild Quinoa Pilaf with Hemp Crispies’ again for the rest of the trip.
Read the entire series:
The JMT 2018 – The Series – An Unexpected Adventure
Note: I diligently practice Leave No Trace principles by burying poo in a hole AT LEAST 6 inches deep and AT LEAST 200 feet (80 steps) away from campsites, trails, and water. In this particular instance, we took considerable measures to ensure that we washed away all of the offending matter, using our 13-liter dry bags and multiple trips to the water source.
For more information regarding PCT/JMT specific LNT principles, visit https://www.pcta.org/discover-the-trail/backcountry-basics/leave-no-trace/.