Lessons in embracing the cold from your first week in the Sierra

Let me start by saying that I am definitely not a fan of the cold. Yes, I grew up in rural Indiana, where winter consisted of mornings helping Dad sweep the driveway and afternoons snowboarding or building snowmen. And yes, I went to college in upstate New York, where the polar vortex was an annual event and students often had to walk through multiple feet of snow to get to class. And yes again, I’m now based in Colorado, a state well known for its cod fronts and unpredictable winter activities. It’s not like I’m inexperienced with the cold or completely avoid it. But anyone who’s known me long enough knows that most of the time, unless I’m wearing a comfortable jacket or a big overcoat, I don’t do well in the cold. Well, at least not right away.

So ever since I started planning to try PCT, I’ve always looked forward to Sierras. When I entered the desert, I discovered my longing for the high mountain passes to be stronger. Especially after weeks of hiking in 90-degree temperatures, counting the steps to the next water source (usually a simple driveway, dugout, or leaky faucet), it’s no wonder PCT hikers spend so long in raging rivers, And green grass, giant lakes, and a cool breeze.

I’ll be the first to admit that my intention to jump into every body of water I could was a priority a little less than the actual hiking. I couldn’t wait to go for a morning swim and snooze with my feet in the water. And I knew it was going to be a bit cold, but hey, there was a minimal risk of snow at least later in the season, right? So it can’t be that cold.

When I got to Kennedy Meadows, I made a plan for the next seven days, particularly including camping near one of the first rivers and first alpine lakes. My family was equally interested in this plan, and after a long and hot climb out of the desert, we reached the site of the first night without a hitch. As we sat on the grass, had dinner and looked at the water, I couldn’t help but think that’s what happened—we’ll soon be doing this every day for the next few weeks.

The second day started normally. It was cool but not too cold and the mountain breeze felt very welcome and exciting! But as a raft of clouds rolled in and the wind blew, our climb over 10,000 feet soon filled with a chorus of swear words as we began adding jackets, long pants, hats, and gloves to our hiking outfits. With a quick check of the weather at the Garmin locations, it was clear that a cold front was upon us.

The next few days were, in short, a frightening slap in the face. The mountains will not show mercy to the newcomers of the desert. When we arrived at the long-awaited first alpine lake, the temperature began to rapidly drop below freezing. Trying to enjoy the moment, we sat watching the sunset over the lake while picking up our assortment of ramen and soup. And then, of course, the sun disappeared behind the horizon with a gust of cold wind. We dispersed over our own tents and sleeping bags.

This brings us to one of the coldest challenges yet: the day of the Whitney Summit. Coming out of my tent at four in the morning, the cold instantly hit every exposed piece of skin on my body. even with Gloves providing a thin layer of protection from the wind, I could feel my fingers start to freeze around my trekking poles. This was about to be miserable.

But as we were moving through the darkness and the sky became lighter, the outline of the mountain before us appeared. She paused the inner chant of cold-related curses and stared at the awaited challenge. Suddenly, the words of a dear friend pop into my head: “Mountains make us humble. We have much to learn from them.”

That’s when I realized I was fighting my battle with mountain cold the wrong way. I was letting her get in the way of enjoying myself in the moment, rather than embracing what she could teach me. I couldn’t, and couldn’t, let the cold get the best of my Sierra trip.

And with that newfound respect and self-promise of instant coffee and hot chocolate on top, I pushed the mountain. I left my fear of the cold at the base, appreciating the way my body can continue to climb and expressing gratitude each time the sun moves beyond the ridge line to shed a warm light on the path.

4.5 hours later, I stood on top, staring at the valley I had just come from and across the mountain range I was about to hike through. Sierra would have faced us with many challenges. Each one had to come face to face, and as with the cold, I needed to be willing to adapt and learn from them.

This mindset has carried me through the rest of this week, and continues to provide perspective on the toughest moments in the mountains. It’s not always easy to be humble in the face of a challenge, but doing so allows you to remain open to the many possible ways to meet it and grow from it.

And as far as the cold is concerned, I’m still not a fan, but I adapted. I added a few layers to my wardrobe and some emergency hand warmers to my bag. I confessed when a cold hit my best, and I let my friends help. I start each day with a warm cup of coffee and finish with cocoa or tea. I’ve also started pushing my comfort zone, diving in alpine lakes with my family, submerging my feet in glaciers, and even going topless on top of Forester Pass on the infamous “Hike Naked Day.”

So bring it on the Sierras. I’m ready for the next lesson.

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