There is nothing quite as unsettling as picking one’s self up from a crash only to discover that something—a joint, an appendage, a digit—‘just doesn’t feel right’. Such was the case three weeks ago when I mistakenly decided to mix a little too much speed with a little too much confidence on a very familiar, yet surprisingly soft and dusty, summer descent. The outcome was a large cloud of suspended silt, a ringing right ear full of sand and detritus, and a thumb and forefinger on my left hand that suddenly felt ‘wrong’.
A combination of ibuprofen and pride allowed me to finish my ride, but early the next morning I awoke to an incessant throbbing. A quick glance at the source of the pain revealed a forefinger and thumb that resembled bruised bratwursts, and felt as though they had been inflated to 100 PSI. As many of you active folks out there can likely relate to, the realization that you’re ‘injured’ is always a crushing reality.
After a few days of moping around, coddling my inflamed fingers in splints and tape, I had decided that enough was enough. If I couldn’t be out on my bike, at least I was going outside. So I taped my fingers, prepped my gear, packed my wife’s, my dog’s, and my own packs, and departed for three days of backpacking and fly-fishing in the Eastern Sierra backcountry.
We hit the trailhead midday Friday, and set our sights on the upper alpine lakes of the Sabrina Lakes Basin, just west of Bishop, California, and nestled high within the John Muir Wilderness. Despite all of the early season miles I had logged this year, my lungs burned as we neared 10,000 feet and my wife, Annie (an exceptionally fit distance runner) picked up the pace. Ushered on by my uncomfortably energetic pup, the two of them never so much as looked back as I stopped periodically to photograph some of the surreal vistas.
Nearly 3,000 vertical feet later, we dropped our packs and set up camp for the night. Situated near the cascading outlet of an alpine lake tinted a vibrant, glacial blue, we were treated to the sight of wild trout rising to feed on the season’s first insect hatches. We had the whole place to ourselves as we enjoyed a warm dinner under a canopy of vibrant stars.
Waking at dawn the next morning, we hit the trail and ascended past five more alpine lakes before encountering a consistently deep, rapidly thawing snowpack that eventually caused us to posthole up to our knees with each step. Our progress was slowing significantly when a man descended past us with a split board, clad head-to-toe in winter mountaineering gear, and visibly weathered by an extended stay in the elements. A brief exchange of words revealed that he had spent the last week traversing the Sierra Crest alone, summiting the icy peaks, and then descending their empty, powdery slopes with reckless abandon. His stoke level was contagiously high. Humbled by his overwhelming sense of adventure, and now doubting our own, we quietly decided it was best to turn around and head back to camp.
Once there I used my fly rod to nab a few of the anxious rainbow trout dimpling the glassy surface of the lake at a regular and consistent interval. Annie and I enjoyed yet another tranquil evening completely to ourselves, sharing fresh fish and aged whiskey beneath the stars.
In the morning, I laid a few more casts on the water and landed a couple more fish before we packed up camp and began the hike out. As we descended, Annie and I savored our last sounds, smells, and views of the Sierra Nevada high country, and spoke excitedly of how many cheeseburgers we’d eat once we found our way back down to Bishop. At the trailhead, we shed our packs and rinsed off in the cold, clear water from Bishop Creek. Feeling refreshed, tired, hungry, and above all, content, the last thing on my mind at that moment in time was my tweaked hand, or the bike that I couldn’t ride, or my bills for that matter, or that looming deadline at work… and that was exactly why I sought the mountains, to be enveloped and consumed by the present.