By Lynn Moffett
Our family backpacked the High Sierras for 10 years, usually with church or family groups. Early on, we learned to drink lots of water on the four-hour drive from Los Angeles to Bishop. High-altitude sickness often came to those who forgot this tiny piece of wisdom. The symptoms were a blinding headache and spewing your guts repeatedly.
A rarity, this trip consisted of only the family: my husband, Dick, and I, our three kids, and two dogs. The black Lab, Kelly, a mama many times over, herded the kids. The red setter, Ben, who came to us as an answer to my prayer, considered himself the great explorer. He fathered some of Kelly’s litters resulting in Gordon setters. Our Lab was sharp. Ben, on the other hand, was dumber than a doorknob. Be careful what you pray for.
I was a bit leery due to the fact we waited until September for this outing. One can never trust the weather in the Sierras, especially after the end of August. However, so soon after Labor Day, what could go wrong?
Dick took great care with his planning for our trip. We left the trailhead under bright blue skies, not a cloud to be seen. The forecast assured us we would be fine.
The trail took us from 9,000 feet to around 11,500 feet, where the trees begin to thin and give way to tundra. As the one in the lead, I was the first to notice our path growing harder to make out. Already concerned with the time of year, this added to my sense of foreboding.
“We have a problem,” I called back to my hubby who was the caboose to our line of hikers. “This trail is growing harder and harder to follow.”
“Don’t worry, it’ll only last a short way.”
Kelly stayed busy with her assigned task. Ben disappeared often. When we grew concerned, we called him and he’d lope back, tail wagging and tongue lolling.
The trail vanished completely in the late afternoon. “Uh, do you have any ideas as to which way we should go?”
“Do your best, the trail marker should show up soon.”
Why in heaven’s name I decided to follow Ben I can’t explain to this day. But he led us to a meadow large enough for us to pitch our tent, though that is not an accurate description of our accommodations. To save money, Dick built our shelter out of an orange and white striped parachute garnered from an army surplus store. He welded a metal circle for the top of the tall center post made of aluminum pipe. So, we called the tent our teepee. The thing easily housed 12 to 14 people comfortably.
We pitched the teepee, built a fire ring and gathered wood. We cooked supper, sang songs and idled around until the rain started — a gentle rain, at first. We gathered everything up in a hurry and took refuge inside.
By this time, the rain lost its gentleness. The parachute didn’t leak as long as you didn’t touch the silky material. Of course, our youngest did, so we enjoyed moving sleeping bags from one area to another.
Next, we discovered our teepee sat across a rivulet that cut it in half.
Fortunately, the water started flowing at the same time the kids started complaining of headaches and spilling their stomachs into — you guessed — the rivulet. So, we slept the night without having to move the teepee or suffer the smell of sickness.
By morning, we agreed to pack up our gear and head down the mountain for the truck. From there, we would venture forth to our favorite après-camp recreation spot with great showers and huge pools.
We found the trail right outside the meadow and made the trip down without losing Ben, piled into our camper and the blizzard started.
In unison, we shot up thanks to our Creator that we made it through the night and back to the truck before worse trouble broke loose.
The Rockies are different from the Sierras in many ways, but let me urge backpackers on the 14’ers to pay attention and be prepared for anything.