Emily Pennington | 09.04.2018

My first backpacking trip was a burly 12 miler that left me gasping for air as I crested the last few boulders on the summit block of Alta Peak. I was 28, hopelessly in love, and had a gorgeous assortment of all the wrong gear. Among the sundries inside my pack were: a bohemian leather jacket, a full-sized towel, and a child’s-size sleeping bag from the sale bin at a suburban H&M. I was a mess.

Andy, my boyfriend at the time, had no idea that I had never been backpacking before, and I had no idea that he had no idea. So, when he selected a high-altitude trek up one of Sequoia National Park’s most iconic mountains, I immediately shrieked out an emphatic, “Yes,” assuming he had done his research and selected something suitable.

I donned a wobbly pack that had been left behind by Airbnb’ers at my Hollywood studio and laced up a pair of pristine, navy trail runners I had only purchased a week before with my mother, who felt the need to make fun of my every step inside the local REI. “A year ago, you wouldn’t have been caught DEAD in here,” she jeered. “Dude, I go hiking sometimes,” I snorted back.

My pack didn’t have a chest strap, so when I lifted the colossus onto my back at the trailhead, we scrambled around to find an old piece of cord to tie a bow knot across my chest, securing it in place. Andy had the incredible foresight to only bring his 30L climbing pack for the excursion, which meant I was stuck with the bear canister, food for two, all my clothes, and my sleeping bag. My pack hung heavy like a dead toddler draped across my torso. No matter, I was excited for what lay ahead.

The beginning of the trail was mellow. Manageable. We saw an adolescent black bear scurry out from behind a bush after just 3 miles of hiking, and we strolled past towering trees that rose high overhead like the impossible fingers of some underground giant. My eyes were full of the wicked glint they get when I know I’ve been gifted more than my fair share of the world’s magic.

At the junction for Alta Peak, we stopped to pump water and stared, slack-jawed, at a trail runner who was casually sprinting up the side of the 11,207-foot mountain. Fair enough. I guess some people prefer running to walking slowly uphill.

This is where things got strange.

I don’t think I knew what altitude was or where it began until about a month after this trip. Seriously. Suffice it to say that I quickly found myself insuperably out of breath, moving at a snail’s pace, and hunched over to bear the weight of my enormous pack. I had to stop every 5 to 10 minutes to ravenously gulp whole mouthfuls of air and lean conspicuously against a tree or a nearby rock. Once we got above 10,000 feet, I was a girl crumbled.

I heaved my way up the rocky steps cut into the side of Alta Peak, inching my way forward for what felt like forever until, at last, Andy and I stood at the edge of a small saddle with an enormous vista of the deeper wilderness of Sequoia National Park. I was too tired to drag myself up the final 20 feet to the summit block proper. This view was reward enough.

Probably bonking, yet definitely energized by the accomplishment, we sailed down the way we came, taking a quick left at the junction for Alta Meadow and setting up camp in a clearing that overlooked the Great Western Divide. Stomachs moaning for a proper meal, Andy and I twisted his fuel canister into the rungs of his small backpacking stove.

Click. The match didn’t light. After a sizzle of loose air and a strange sputtering noise from the fuel dispenser, we quickly realized that the stove was broken and set out on Plan B: bribe the neighboring camp with chocolates so they’ll let us use their stove.

Luckily they obliged, and soon I was scarfing down my first Mountain House meal and taking swigs of Scotch from a huge Nalgene that they had hiked in. One of the girls pulled out a ukulele, and, since campfires aren’t allowed above 9,000 feet, we nestled around a circle of headlamps giggling and belting out the choruses of familiar tunes. What impractical magic had I stumbled upon? A forest-laden Burning Man for jock hobbits? A blister-clad mountain utopia for misfits? Whatever it was, I was enamored.

Dazed from the afternoon’s exertion, I limp-shuffled back to our shared, one-person tent. As I didn’t yet own a sleeping pad, my bed quickly became me curled into a thin and too-small purple sleep sack (covered in paisley print and peace signs), face smashed against the thin nylon wall and head propped awkwardly atop the orange suede pillowball of my only warm jacket.

I don’t even know if I slept.

I tossed and turned against the comical cocoon of my circumstances, listening for insects and frogs and bears trying to steal our snacks in the night. As soon as I saw the pale, lilac fog of morning creeping over the higher peaks of the Great Divide, I shot out of the tent and pulled on all my layers to watch the sunrise. I had never considered myself a morning person, but this felt important. It felt ritualistic and timeless and necessary to honor the light being brought back, a thing so often forgotten in the concrete jungle.

After oatmeal and camp chores, Andy and I set off down the same path and back toward the car. Though my calves ached from the previous day’s summit, I felt fresh and reborn; the trail had lit a fire inside the deepest part of my being, and I had no idea how quickly it would engulf my entire identity.

It’s funny how quickly a life can change.

I was, at best, a casual hiker. I was not the prime demographic of an outdoor retailer or the picture-perfect model of a Patagonia sweatshirt. I still went to underground warehouse raves and slept past 11 most Sundays. My bruises were from drinking too much, not from mountains.

A lot of people have a rare and poetic transformation in the woods. They find god and emerge reborn. What happened to me was somewhere between a god-moment and a boot camp. I saw the light, but I couldn’t walk straight for three days. I was blistered and bruised. I was ravaged and raw. But I was hooked.


*I managed to not take a single photo the entire trip, so the images you see here are from two years later when I went back to solo backpack the same route as an homage.


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