Elizabeth and I camped in Giant Sequoia National Monument’s Big Meadows campground on Friday night, sleeping tentless at 7,600 feet as the temperature dropped to 30 degrees. We’d signed up for an 18-mile backpack in the Jennie Lakes Wilderness with a group from the Sierra Club, hiking 12 miles to Jennie Lake on Saturday and 6 miles out on Sunday. This would Elizabeth’s first backpacking trip, and I wanted to make sure she liked it so that we could do more of them in the future.
The group started hiking at 7:30 on Saturday morning through a mix of forests and glades. It was still bracingly cold under the shade of the red firs and lodgepole pines, but had gotten pleasantly warm in the sun.
The hikers at the head of our group kept a quick pace, but Elizabeth started falling behind. The truth was, she’d had the stomach flu all week and had decided, only hours before we left on Friday, that she was well enough to give the trip a try. But as we climbed uphill, she could only laboriously put one foot in front of the other, and it was clear that she wasn’t well enough for the full loop.
By the time the group reached the junction toward Weaver Lake, Elizabeth and I had decided to skip the first part of the loop and to just hike the remaining 4 miles to Jennie Lake and wait for everyone else at camp. Two other hikers, Chuck and Jill, happened to do the same thing, and they made good company as we hiked to the lake together.
We hiked slowly, which left me plenty of time to stop and look at the trailside plants. The forest on the way to the lake was a mix of old-growth red fir and western white pine with an understory of dead branches and dark brown-gray dust. The only other life was a few pinedrops.
But along a seep I saw an impressive display of wildflowers that included yellow sneezeweed and arrowleaf groundsel, white ranger’s buttons and yarrow, lavender wandering daisy, and crimson columbine. Thimbleberry, wax currant, and corn lily were conspicuous from their big leaves, but were not flowering.
With a slow pace and plenty of breaks, we stretched the 6-mile hike to Jennie Lake into 5 hours. But even this exhausted Elizabeth, and she was quite happy when we found a good campsite and put down our packs.
The lake was shaped like a big kidney bean, deep blue with bright white granite cliffs on one side and dark forests of immense red fir and western white pine on the other. We had been warm while hiking, but as we sat in the shade, a breeze off the lake cooled us off enough that we put on our jackets. We set up the tent, went inside, and napped.
After I woke up, I walked around the lake to look for the other group members, but they weren’t there yet. I started getting bored. As I sat next to the tent looking at the granite peak above the lake, Elizabeth noticed the look in my eyes and asked what I was up to. I admitted that I was getting restless and trying to think of ways to get to the top of the peak. I asked her if she wanted to come, but she said she was too tired and that I was on my own.
A few hours later, after the rest of our group had arrived at camp, Chuck and Jill asked if Elizabeth and I wanted to explore the trails around the lake. Elizabeth was feeling better by now, so we both decided to go.
Serendipitously, we walked east toward the saddle I’d suspected would make a good approach for the peak across the lake (the unnamed Peak 9,612 feet, as I would later find out). From the saddle, the four of us followed an elevated rocky rib with good views of the lake to our right. Partway up, I decided the peak was well within reach and Elizabeth and I made steady progress toward it. Meanwhile, Chuck and Jill were content with the views they’d gotten and turned back for camp.
Near the summit were large talus blocks separated by thickets of chinquapin. We stayed above the shrubbery with some boulder-hopping and had a fun time getting to the summit. The view was tremendous. We could see all of Jennie Lake, including our campsite and a few people from our group. On the horizon was the Silliman Crest and, farther away, the peaks of the Great Western Divide. We even saw a pair of mountain quail on the cliffs below the summit, unconcerned with their exposed location.
Elizabeth and I went down the way we’d come up and got back to camp at 5 o’clock, just in time for the group happy hour. We all chatted while stuffing ourselves with carrots, celery, hummus, cheese, crackers, and olives.
Elizabeth left in the middle of happy hour, saying that she wasn’t feeling well and that she wanted to lie down in the tent. A minute later, I saw her squatting and digging a cathole behind some rocks some 20 yards away from the group. Yes, I thought, there are lots of campers around the lake and privacy is scarce, but that spot is just way too exposed; I’d tease her about it later. For now I just continued enjoying the company and the fresh food as we built a campfire and darkness fell over the lake.
When I went back to the tent after happy hour, I found Elizabeth lying down, looking sick. I was shocked when she told me that the real reason she’d dug a cathole was that her stomach bug wasn’t gone after all and she’d thrown up all the food she’d eaten during the day.
She was in no shape for dinner, so she stayed in the tent to rest. I went back and ate my own dinner with the group by the campfire, then brought her some of it so she’d have something warm in her stomach before going to sleep.
It was a long night. Elizabeth was tired and hungry, but afraid she’d throw up anything she tried to eat. She felt sick and was alternately too hot and too cold. She couldn’t sleep. We didn’t know if she’d be better or worse by morning and we both worried seriously about her ability to hike. I felt particularly guilty for encouraging her to come and then encouraging her up the peak. So much for a great first-time backpacking experience.
But the night’s worries faded when the sun rose. Elizabeth ate a packet of oatmeal and a few saltines while I lightened her load by packing as much of our gear into my pack as I could.
We left a little after 8 this morning. To get back to the trailhead we had to go over Poop Out Pass, which lay several hundred feet higher than the lake. Elizabeth and I made very slow progress toward the pass and, when we finally reached the top, thought its name apt. We took a long break there, relieved that the hardest part of the day was over. The rest of the hike was downhill and we made it down without any problems, getting back to the trailhead at 12:30. My only worry afterward was, would Elizabeth ever want to go backpacking again?