I can’t be a dizzy blond any longer. I haven’t been blond since I was a child. I had silky blond hair until I was about seven and then it slowly turned to what’s called dishwater blond. I was a brunette by high school and have been one ever since. I am sure the next phase of my life will be changing from brunette to silver or gray, but for today I am a dizzy brunette.
I found out how dizzy on July 4th weekend.
As many of you know, I have been hiking for only two years, and for six months I have been training for my first hike in the Sierra Mountains of Northern California. My experienced hiker friend, Brian, encouraged me to start easy and he chose the Donner Peak/Mt. Judah hike near Truckee, California. This is a five and a half mile hike with a 1200-foot elevation gain from 7,000 to 8,243 feet, which includes the two peaks, Donner Peak and Mt. Judah.
The area is rich with history: The Donner Party’s ill-fated attempt to cross the pass with wagon trains in the winter of 1846-1847; the first transcontinental railroad that came through the area and connected our nation by railroad for the first time in 1865-1868; and the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway connecting our nation for car travel in 1913, to name a few.
On July 4, 2013 I looked up at the steep granite mountain of Donner Peak, remembering the mountains here still rule. They looked like giants among the clouds. While the Donner Pass has a gruesome history of winter, death, and cannibalism for the early California settlers, this was a hot summer day. There was still snow on Mt. Judah. This was a Donner Party of two.
At 7 am the trail head on the Pacific Coast Trail started out almost tropical-looking: green and floral. Within forty feet it turned into a bare rock path. I walked on sharp uneven rocks on winding switchbacks with sharp drop-offs close to the edge of a mountain overlooking Donner Lake. I am not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of falling, and had to be very careful. After a mile or so of these rocks, the path twisted from the east side of the mountain to the west side overlooking Lake Mary. We walked through pine groves replete with colorful wild flowers on both sides of the path. As the trail turned back to the west, we stopped for a few minutes at a Donner Lake overlook. The summit was still above us, like sheer rock straight up from where we stood. I almost wanted to back out. I had never hiked at this altitude and couldn’t believe my body would actually lift me that high.
There was a small path leading to the Donner Peak, and then ONLY GRANITE! BARE ROCK! I braced my body and swore I would make it, though I was beginning to feel a little light-headed. “One step at a time,” I told myself (however, each step was at a 45-degree angle).
As I stepped up on the first high rock, my body swayed; I felt dizzy. Was it the altitude? Was it dehydration? Was it lack of conditioning? I was not energetic, only focused. With one determined step at a time, I made it to the summit and then felt such euphoria! I’d made it! The breathtaking view of Donner Lake and surrounding area energized me. But we weren’t finished. We had to climb another 400 feet up to Mt. Judah. This part of the hike is up steep alpine switchbacks edged by more pine trees and vibrant wildflowers. It was hard for me, but the path was not dangerous. I was tired and I was slow. I was beginning to wonder why I was even doing this. Eventually I made it all the way to the 8,246-foot summit and this time I was not dizzy. I was ebullient, and felt such a sense of accomplishment! I knew there would be no more “up” on this hike.
The Mt. Judah summit treated us to a 360-grand degree view of the northern Sierra peaks stretching out in virtually every direction. Notable landmarks clearly visible from the summit include nearby Mt. Lincoln, Anderson Peak, and Crows Nest along the prominent ridge to the west, and north across Interstate 80 to Castle Peak. We stayed on the summit for nearly 45 minutes taking pictures, refreshing ourselves with light snacks, and visiting with other hikers and listening to their stories.
The trip down the west side of the mountain was steep, but once again filled with tall pine trees, floral paths and views of Lake Mary and Lake Van Norden. By the time we returned to the trail head, the temperature was getting close to 90 degrees; we’d been on the trail for almost six hours!
It was the perfect “first hike” in the Sierras for me. It would be a moderate to easy hike for many hikers, but this dizzy brunette wants to go back to hike farther, to see more and to challenge myself a bit more. I guess that’s the answer to “why I do it”: the challenge.
Photos of the hike (you can click on any of them for a larger view):