If there’s one thing I’ve learned how to do in the past seven years it’s how to pack for a backpacking trip. I’m always packing that extra layer, thinking of everything, because I hate wishing I had something on the trail or forgetting something important. And yet that’s exactly what happened when I arrived at the Pole Creek trail head in Sisters, Oregon last weekend. I was all packed and ready to go, with the exception of one crucial item—boots. My boots were no where to be found. I swore I had them in my hand when I left, how could I forget something like boots? But it didn’t matter how much I swore, how much I repeated, “I put them right there!” They were not right there. They were no where. They were at home, three hours away, in our one room apartment. Luckily I had my Chacos. If I were to hike in anything else, it would be my Chacos.
The first eight miles of trail was a mix of flat and gentle ascent, consisting of soft dirt and sand. I was thankful for that. Beautiful surroundings of the North, Middle, and South Sister volcanoes. The trail came to an end at Camp Lake, where we’d spend a night. I wanted to sleep right next to the lake so we could watch the sun set and look up at the stars. Once our tent was up, we left everything but a water bottle and headed for the summit of Middle Sister.
Middle Sister is 10,056 feet high, an active volcano less traversed than its North and South sisters. The summit was two to three miles up a steep, unmarked climb. Once above tree line, we followed old foot prints, or satellite trails. We had passed a couple of people on our way up to Camp Lake, but now we were alone, standing at the base of the volcano.
The top seemed so close and yet so far. Trails had completely disappeared, leaving us with a loose strategy – to aim for the summit, the point way up there, and oh yeah, good luck. Up and to our left were fields of snow and on our right was a rocky ridge that we didn’t want to cross, so our trail was narrowed up the middle. And it was steep. I looked at my phone moments before it died; it was 2 PM, plenty of daylight left. I wished we had brought more water. We took small sips, enough to keep our mouths wet in the high dessert climate. The ground consisted of black rocks, ranging from the size of my fist to the size of my body. They weren’t smooth or nice to walk over.
Given the elevation, I had to catch my breath every few minutes. At one point I climbed on all fours, in a crippled slow motion, panting like a dog. I admit, it was a little pathetic. Finally after another half mile, I had had enough. Every step higher made me feel stupider for forgetting my boots. I kept thinking, if I saw a girl trying to climb this mountain in Chacos, without water, because she made her boyfriend carry the bottle, I’d be like, “Booo Go Home.”
I was torn between my desire to reach the top and my desire to save my feet. My feet, which had grown callouses like an ogre’s in the matter of a day. My knees down were black with soot. The straps of my Chacos pinched my red, swollen skin. I wanted to prove to myself that I was tough, but going any further could be dangerous. High winds, the summit still far away. At any moment a rock could tumble and smash my foot. Or I could twist my ankle. Or were these mere excuses not to push on? I’d hiked mountains more difficult than this one, but all those times I was wearing boots. Today I just, I don’t know, wasn’t in the mood to be a dare devil.
While debating in my head, Taylor climbed on. He was out of yelling distance when I decided to turn around and head back to camp. I had nothing to prove. I made it high enough that the view was incredible, the journey a memorable one, and I avoided further pain. The way down was easier to some degree, but incredibly annoying because all the little pebbles got stuck under my feet. I constantly had to stop, take off my shoes, and shake them out. Three steps later they’d be filled with rocks again. At one point I hiked barefoot, because screw it.
My mood restored while sitting by the crystal blue lake eating trail mix. When Taylor returned he said it was good I didn’t keep going, the summit was sort of sketchy. He showed me his boots and they were all torn up, the sole peeling and stitches loose. That made me feel better about my decision to turn around. If I had remembered my boots, I’m positive I would have made it to the top, but sometimes you have to accept the reality of your mistakes. That, and you have to take a difficult climb seriously. Middle Sister is not a climb that anyone could or should just do. Any idiot can hike to Camp Lake, but beyond that, you are on your own. It’s not tourist friendly, and maybe that’s why there is no official trail to the top.
My plan to star gaze by the lake didn’t quite work out either. Temperature dropped at sundown. After dinner (instant mash potatoes and kielbasa) we went straight into the tent and listened to the wind storm. We must have been in a tunnel, because it was crazy. The wind pushed on our tent so hard, bending the poles, crushing the nylon dome to where it was inches from our face. The sound made it impossible to fall asleep. It was so intense, I thought, how am I not flying through the air right now? It seemed impossible for the weight of my body to be stronger than the wind outside. But it was, and Taylor and I played Would You Rather until we retreated into our thoughts and eventually found our dreams. It didn’t feel like sleep, but like I was dipping between the wind storm and my dreams.