Beginning Backpacking Post Breast Cancer

Backpacking Gear in the Car

When one is facing an unexpected health crisis, the mind’s descent into some worst case scenario is but a few steps. During breast cancer treatment, I envisioned a number of sobering possibilities for my future, one of which was focused on backpacking. 

To back up a bit, preparations for my last backpacking trip b4 breast cancer inspired me to write an ode to ultralight gear (Bringing Down the Weight). During the spring of 2015, I probably dropped over $1000 as I collected the sort of equipment that would allow an older woman to backpack in, well… more comfort. That summer I spent a fabulous week on the John Muir Trail backpacking with friends. It wasn’t long before I had another trip in the works, this one focused on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Unbeknown to me, however, a tumor was growing in my left breast. 

Breast cancer treatment threw my life into a tailspin. During those moments when my body felt the weakest, I wondered if I’d ever use any of that expensive gear again. This thought really got to me. It niggled at me. It made me wonder, “Why me?” “What a waste!”

Ringing the "I'm done!" bell in the radiation oncology unit at UCSD Medical.

Fortunately, most of my strength returned after I rang that final bell in the radiation oncology unit. Over time, I began working out again, hiking even. I got in a couple of car camping trips. Then last summer I committed to backpacking for the first time since treatment, a three-night trek along the Lost Coast in California. Yet when the trip fell through because we were all too busy, I actually felt relieved. I also felt guilty over not unpacking that wonderful equipment. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure where all this gear was. I hadn’t touched it in touched in four years.

Entrance to Mission Creek Preserve

Not long after I bailed on the Lost Coast trip, my friend, Pam Kersey, badgered me into taking a class she co-teaches with Robin Balch through the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park: Beginning Backpacking for Women in Mission Creek Preserve. Though I’m not really a beginner, I said yes, thinking I could have some quality time with Pam and some other interesting women. I did spend quality time with these said women, but I also discovered a few things.

First of all, enrollment in this class forced me to track down all the essentials. I found myself hauling my backpack to REI, so they could remind me how it all fit together. I fingered my Big Agnes tent, wondering if I would remember how to set it up. Did my Jetboil stove still work? Did I need a bear canister? (Bear warnings came with the informational literature supplied by the Desert Institute.) Finally, though I had my SteriPen handy, we weren’t guaranteed a water supply out there. When it came time to hit the trail, I saddled up with more than four liters of water in my backpack, pondering one final question: how would I do carrying 41 pounds?

The trip proved to be gentle in some respects. The actual backpacking portion was only an overnight, though we did camp the night before. This gave us a chance to go over our gear, try things out, and discuss what should actually go with us–what should be left behind. Once we started walking, packs and all, we had a tentative goal of covering five miles. Tentative was the word. Robin insisted from the get-go, we would do what made sense for the group. 

The day proved to be pretty warm, yet I felt capable. As I hiked, emotions spiked more than once. I wasn’t wasting my gear any longer. Maybe backpacking would become a regular activity for me. I mulled over that earlier Lost Coast possibility. “Maybe next summer.”

Scenery in the desert

Sometime later, a few people began overheating, so we decided to stop at three miles and set up camp. When our cheerful tents finally dotted the dry landscape alongside an arroyo bed – ten of them – we moved into some additional hiking sans backpack through some striking territory.

I’m proud to say I probably could have completed the original five miles with my pack. Still, I felt pretty rusty with the nitty-gritty things. For example, I had to bond with my Jetboil all over again–I’d forgotten the easiest way to light it. My expensive ultralight pillow developed a fatal leak. I worried about making some terrible error having to do with a snake or a bear. In the thick of things, it occurred to me the beginner’s label was “just right.” 

Feeling strong

That said, I was thrilled when Pam came up to me toward the end of the trip to say, “It’s great to see you looking so strong.” I forgot to mention, Pam is a former oncology nurse. She saw me through my darkest hours on my breast cancer slog, so she had a benchmark. Now I can proudly note I’m a beginning backpacker. This isn’t to say I’m not planning something that will take a few more nights, a few more miles.

 

The Feat of Protecting One’s Feet

My feet after 48 miles of hiking along the John Muir Trail

My feet after 48 miles of hiking along the John Muir Trail

The above picture displays the state of my feet one day after 48 miles of backpacking, mainly along the John Muir Trail. The blood blisters beneath my toenails are old wounds, the result of a Memorial Day weekend “shakedown” backpacking trip on Mount San Jacinto (see Shaking Down the Trail). Had I not chewed up my feet during that hike, I probably would have come out of this one with clean toes.

I was lucky. The shakedown trip is meant to help backpackers assess difficulties that might emerge during longer treks. On the last day of that Mount San Jacinto adventure, my new boots tripped me up when I attempted to head down the trail with a full backpack on (they’d been fine on a long downhill stretch sans backpack). My toes became so badly bruised I could barely walk. I actually had to remove my boots, tape 5 toes, and walk out in softer shoes. It still hurt like hell. Even more disturbing, I had less than 6 weeks to correct the problem.

I couldn’t attempt to try a new pair for 2 weeks, as it took that long for my toes to heal. I decided the best thing to do would be to look for boots in the same make and model that had worked for me in Yosemite back in 2010, when I hiked the High Sierra Camp Loop, staying in their renowned canvas tents along the way. I was happy to discover REI still sold them (and I was very happy with their generous exchange policy).

Even so, I was nervous I was going to bomb out on a trip I’d been preparing for since late January (see Bringing Down the Weight). I was also concerned about my cranky back. I found myself sharing these fears with my rolfer—as he was working over this said back. He suggested I hike Cowles Mountain twice a week with a full pack on in an attempt to prepare. He thought this would give my body a chance to adapt before I got started.

At 1594 feet, Cowles Mountain is the highest point in San Diego. The hike to the top and back runs roughly 4.2 miles. I hit this Cowles trailhead fully equipped with backpack and brand new boots exactly 3 weeks after I experienced the seriously bruised toes. It wasn’t a breeze, but I could complete the hike with no new injuries to my feet. I began to relax as I continued with these training hikes, along with some workouts in the gym. Then I was sidelined once again by a calf muscle that seized up as I was running on a treadmill, leaving me hobbling. This occurred exactly 2 weeks before my backpacking group was scheduled to arrive at our trailhead, Glacier Point.

My calf was not better the next day. I ended up abandoning the rest of my workouts, and guiltily spent a lot of extra time in the bathtub. Not cool during a period of level 2 drought restrictions. I also hauled out my yoga mat and started getting more serious about my stretching.

The following week I was scheduled to take a poetry workshop at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Tassajara offers natural hot springs in Japanese style baths. I was hoping to get a lot of soaking time in. But at this point, I was becoming anxious about my declining fitness level. And as I left for the workshop on the 4th of July, my calf was still complaining.

The baths at Tassajara ultimately brought relief to the calf in question. Though I didn’t have my backpack with me, I decided to hike around the Tassajara grounds every day, in an attempt to stay in shape. Upon return, I completed one last training hike in the Laguna Mountains, walking some 10 miles. Glacier Point (day 1) was 5 days away.

I can’t believe my feet are fine. I did not get one blister or bruise during the entire week in Yosemite. This is not to say I didn’t experience any problems. On day 2, we ended up camping in a burn area, one that was still sooty.

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On day 3, it rained at the Sunrise High Sierra Camp, where we set up our tents in the backpacker’s campground. A blessing: a few of us were able to talk the cook in the slightly more posh canvas tent camp into selling us leftover turkey dinners. To die for! On day 4, it began to rain once more.

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I also sliced one finger as I was attempting to open my resupply box with a Multitool. On day 5, I began the ascent to Donohue Pass in a full out thunderstorm. The last mile leading to first bridge (the first place backpackers are allowed to camp after leaving Tuolumne Meadows) is very steep, and hikers face many granite stairs. As I climbed listening to the thunder and feeling the rain, I felt like I was hanging by a thread outside a castle wall in a veritable tempest. Thrilling! Of course, our group arrived at first bridge (9600 feet) to face damp ground and rain that was not dispersing. After we set up our tents, we hunkered down in our sleeping bags. It poured for hours.

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The next morning (day 6), I took stock of my situation. My original plan was to leave the group (I needed to keep my trek beneath 10,000 feet, because I’ve experienced scary altitude sickness when I’ve attempted to go higher) and head back down Lyell Canyon until I reached the Evelyn Lake Junction. From there, I was going to spend one last night by the lake, before taking the Rafferty Creek Trail to Tuolumne Meadows where my car was parked. While I’d managed to stay dry throughout the storms we experienced, I decided another night – alone this time – in more rain at an elevation of 10,334 would not be a good idea.

Instead, I shortened my trip by one night and hiked some 10 miles back down the John Muir Trail to Tuolumne Meadows. Needless to say, it rained and hailed most of the way. As I walked, I truly felt for my fellow hikers, who were in process making their way over Donohue Pass at 11,056 feet. They did arrive safely in Red’s Meadow on day 8.

I will refrain from going on an on, thereby skipping most of the good stuff. Here’s a hint though: I’ve already begun cleaning up my gear for the next trip. I’ve been invited to backpack in the Grand Canyon, and I am also eyeing the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area.

A few pictures…

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Panorama Trail

Panorama Trail

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Rain in Lyell Canyon

Rain in Lyell Canyon

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Shaking Down the Trail

Granite Gully campsite rests 9800 feet above—and theoretically two hours away from—the beaches of Southern California. While this space has been labeled by modern humans as part of the Little Round Valley Campground – existing in the larger Mount San Jacinto State Park – it is a realm that has seen little change, even as it has towered before the birth of Los Angeles and the millions of people who have settled there. No doubt it will placidly exist in the face of the millions yet to come. Snow falls and melts. The cones of hefty lodgepole pines blanket the ground in places. Granite slabs and boulders abound.

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There is no road for motoring to the campground, though you can take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to a station at 8516 feet and then hike 6.5 miles from there. Little Round Valley has been set up for backpackers. My friend, Jodi Reed, and I thought it would be a great place to head during our shakedown backpack trip in preparation for a longer one on the John Muir Trail. Jodi has assembled some ten or so people for this JMT trek. At least six plan to attempt the entire trail, while others expect to hike shorter legs.

I’m in the less ambitious group. The length of the John Muir Trail actually went on my bucket list after I backpacked a stretch of it at the age of 11. Yet I have – most sadly – been forced to face my personal elevation limitations. On more than one occasion, I’ve experienced scary and debilitating attitude sickness above 10,000 feet—I’ve chosen to live life below that line. So I’ve selected a route I can do with the group, before doubling back to Tuolumne Meadows. With that decision in place, I embarked on this two-night trip to discover any other limitations I might encounter—and to test my gear.

My second fear – setting altitude sickness aside – centered on how I would do in a newer pair of boots. They had served me pretty well on a few long day hikes; yet I had not tested them on trails with significant elevation gain, nor had I hiked in them wearing a backpack. I was less worried about my pack weight, as I’d recently purchased lighter gear. That said, pack weight can certainly “go up” with the level of rigor. I was also somewhat worried about using my new gear successfully, particularly the SteriPEN. I’d never attempted to purify water before. One last point: Jodi and I were both concerned about the weather forecast. While it looked like we’d avoid precipitation, the nighttime lows were expected to hover around 32 degrees.

We got a late start on our first day, not reaching the Deer Springs trailhead – near Idyllwild – until 4:30 pm. Our first night was slated for Strawberry Junction Campground, some 4.3 miles away (elevation 8040). I’d hiked this stretch of the trail before (sans backpack), so I didn’t bother to ponder the 2420 elevation gain ahead of time. That knowledge might have knocked me off my block before I assembled my gear.

The hike proved to be eerie, as the mountain was enshrouded in low clouds. We passed blooming Manzanita, Indian paintbrush, and lupine. I’d packed wanting to simulate the heaviest weight I might carry on the John Muir Trail, so I threw in my bear canister (bears are not a threat in this park) and started with a full gallon of water. The backpack was manageable, though it became tougher to deal with as we closed in on Strawberry Junction, which did not have an easily accessible water source. I was happy to have the gallon. We even ended up sharing water with two nearby campers.

As we scurried to set up camp, the sunlight was diminishing fast. Jodi and I headed to our tents as soon as we finished eating our respective freeze-dried meals, which we were testing for the JMT trip (I’ll keep Mountain House lasagna on my packing list). I lay in my sleeping bag (rated 30 degrees and up) dressed in fleece leggings, a wool long underwear top, and socks. It wasn’t long before I knew I would not sleep unless I added more layers. I ended up donning three pairs of socks, my hiking pants over my leggings, two long underwear tops, a hoodie, and a down jacket (with a hood). This finally did the trick. I slept well enough to face day two.

Over breakfast, we talked each other out of bailing. Then we broke camp, and began the 3.8 mile hike to Little Round Valley. The weather was ideal for our pursuit. I felt cheerful—we had a lot more time to reach the next destination, though the trek was only slightly less challenging than day one. During the last hour, we stopped at a rushing stream, and I finally got to try out my SteriPEN, which uses UV light to purify water. I’m glad Jodi was there. I couldn’t completely remember how to use it, and I was in no mood to rifle through my pack for the instructions. Needless to say, this handy tool has become my preferred water purification method for the JMT trip.

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The rest of the day was relaxing, once we organized everything. For the record, neither of us felt inspired to climb another thousand feet to reach the summit. We rested and then tested out more backpacking grub. Jodi contributed a delicious cheesecake sold by Packit Gourmet. High marks, there. We retired to our tents before the sun went down. We knew how to bundle up this time.

I’d like to say, “All’s well that ends well.” I’d like to report on how the hike out was a breeze. Yet my biggest problem surfaced on the way down. It wasn’t the double distance that bothered me—8 miles. I felt relatively hardy as we began our descent (and very glad the altitude had not done me in). It wasn’t the pack weight, either. It was the boots. They’d felt good on day one, pretty good on day two, and excruciating on day three. The downhill slope and my pack contributed to unwanted friction on the tops of my toes. I was forced to remove my boots, tape five toes individually, and put on my camp shoes, which are a bit like slippers (though the soles aren’t bad). I’d actually bought them with the idea I could hike in them in a pinch.

My taping job and the new shoes did ease the pain, but not completely. I began steeling myself for the remaining 4+ miles. I was pretty sure I could make it, but I figured we were facing a long afternoon.

Then Jodi – who was supposed to be waiting at the next water source – returned to inform me we had taken a wrong turn. I was about to ask how many more miles when she went on to say we could continue down this trail – the Marion Mountain Trail – for another 30 or 40 minutes and we would reach a parking lot where a lovely young couple was waiting to drive us to our car. For me, this was a moment of pure delight.

To make a long story short, Jodi and I and the lovely young couple shoved our four backpacks, along with our bodies, into a ride only Batman could love. It was a squeeze, but we made it back to the car in time for a nice lunch in Idyllwild.

Final analysis: I figure if I can work out my footwear in time for the JMT trip, I’m good to go.

Bringing Down the Weight

I’m not much of a shopper. I don’t bother to buy any new clothes until I look in the closet and find myself hating everything hanging there. At this point, I generally go out and pick up a bundle in one fell swoop. I don’t buy any more until that same feeling rises up again.

Camping gear is different matter. I first fell in love with it when I was a child. In those days, my brother and I used to eye each other’s things, and if one of us became jealous of something the other one owned, swiping it wasn’t out of the question. Cherished items regularly moved back and forth between our respective bedrooms. I guess you could call this a de facto form of “sharing.”

One year, my brother received a children’s book about camping. Each compelling piece of equipment was cheerfully illustrated and identified. I would read through this book feeling upset that it had been given to him. I felt the same way about his Big Jim Camper, complete with accessories: a sleeping bag, pots and pans, camp chairs, a camp table, fire pit and grill, a lantern (check it out on eBay).

I present this backstory, because this year I have joined the ultralight cult. At the age of 53, I have decided to become serious about backpacking—something I planned to do in my twenties, but never quite managed to pull off. I am hoping I will remain strong enough to enjoy regular outings on some of the remarkable trails around here, not to mention places yonder. After surveying the equipment I already had—the backpack I was given at the age of eleven and a sleeping bag that is much too heavy—I started reading up on the ultralight phenomenon in order to figure out just what to collect for this pursuit.

Ultralight has become the buzzword for the lightest backpacking gear on earth. Manufacturers continue to work out ways to make sleeping bags, backpacks, cookware, clothing, sleeping pads, and more as light as possible. Thus the lightest gear is the newest gear. It is also the most expensive gear. It is easy to get sucked into this idea that “I could just buy a particular item, my full backpack would end up being even lighter.”

If I do manage to take some significant pounds off my pack, perhaps I’ll be able to trek into my eighties. Indeed, I’m now aspiring to locate a set of equipment that will outlast these AARP years. Yet I’m not reaching for the lightest option in every case. Sometimes it becomes a choice between weight and design.

For example, I now own a zipper-less sleeping bag, complete with a comforter feature that allows the sleeper to feel like she is resting in a genuine bed instead a mummy bag. This Backcountry Bed, sold by Sierra Designs, weighs in at 3 pounds, 1 ounce. If I’d gone with a ZPack quilt, I could have gotten my bag down to 14 ounces. You see how one could become obsessive about this stuff.

Then there’s the SteriPEN—for purifying water. While it’s not the lightest system, it might be the most convenient. Dip the lighted pen into a liter of contaminated water for less than a minute, and voila… Your water is ready to drink. The outdoor enthusiast choosing this option then faces a choice between the model on its way out (the one requiring 4 double A batteries) and the SteriPEN Ultra, which is better on the environment as it is rechargeable. A note of caution: those going with the Ultra would be wise to also purchase the lightest solar recharger on the market.

In any event, every time I order an item, such as an ultralight tent or a light sleeping bag or a Jetboil cooking system, I feel the pleasure response cranking up to high. There’s at least one term for this psychological state. The Urban Dictionary defines it as purchase pleasure – “the unexplained feeling of bliss, joy and satisfaction one gets following a purchase.” They go on to note: “It can last anything from a few hours to a few weeks depending on the size, worth or usefulness of the item acquired.”

I do wonder if, ten years from now, the latest gear will be so much lighter, so much more ingeniously designed, I will want to start this process all over again. For now, I am looking forward to trying this stuff out on my next trip.

Update: I somehow missed the SteriPEN Mini Water Purifier that weighs in at 2.3 ounces and takes 2 CR 123 disposable lithium batteries.