A Pot Smoking Orgy in the Mountains? No Way… The First Sierra Trek: Part 4

The high Sierras are chockfull of beautiful alpine lakes. Except for very dry years, water is rarely a problem. Often the opposite is true, especially when it comes to crossing creeks and rivers filled with rushing snowmelt.

The high Sierras are chockfull of beautiful alpine lakes. Except for very dry years, water is rarely a problem. Often the opposite is true, especially when it comes to crossing creeks and rivers filled with rushing snowmelt. Obviously, that wasn’t a problem here.


In my last blog about the Sierra Trek, I wrote about how we had survived the first day. Often, as I have learned from over 30 years of experience, that’s the toughest part. But on the first Sierra Trek, it was only the beginning of my problems…

A reminder, the photos I am using are from other Treks I have led over the years. I am sticking with my water theme today, given all of the water problems I had on days one and two of Sierra Trek I. 

Steve, Lisa and I set up camp on the opposite side of a small stream from our Trekkers. I am not sure why. Maybe Steve and I were subconsciously escaping from what we had created, but I suspect we just wanted a good night’s sleep. The Trekkers were noisy and the burbling brook served as nature’s sound maker.

I made my evening rounds before turning in. We had divided the Trekkers into food groups of four and I went from group to group checking for problems. Overall, people seemed in good spirits. There were a few sore ankles and knees, but blisters were the problem that elicited the most complaints. I dispensed sympathy and mole skin. I also gave everyone a preview of the next day and warned that it was going to be tough. My last words were to remind people that 9:00 PM was quiet hour. I wanted everyone fresh for the next challenge.

If there was noise, we didn’t hear it. We were zonked out from exhaustion. Early the next morning we were up in the dark, wolfing down our quick breakfast of instant oatmeal, and throwing our gear together when Charlie arrived. He looked serious.

“We have a problem Curt,” he started without preamble. God, I hate those words. My vivid imagination had a stove blowing up, or a Trekker cutting herself, or one of Steve’s migrating rattlesnakes finding a warm sleeping bag. Or maybe the IRS had arrived to grab Charlie and we were to be held as accomplices.

“What’s up?” Steve threw in, cutting short my growing list of possible disasters.

“We had a doctor from Sacramento come in and camp next to us last night,” Charlie reported. “He says he is going back to Sacramento and tell the press that the Lung Association is running a pot-smoking-orgy in the mountains.”

“Oh hell,” Steve said. I seconded his thought and added a few of my own with much more colorful words. A blown-up stove I could deal with. A cut I could bandage. A rattlesnake I could chase off and frequently have. But what do you do with a physician who has infected his butt with his head. Beg? It took absolutely zero imagination to figure out what the Trek’s future and my career with Lungland would look like one day after ‘pot-smoking-orgy’ made the headlines.

“I tried to reason with him but it was impossible,” Charlie threw in as if he were reading my mind and wanted to dash any hope I had. Just then Orvis came tramping into our camp. Uh-oh I wondered, is the other shoe about to drop? Orvis could backpack at 70 because he had never consumed alcohol or smoked in his life. He was almost as pure as his white beard that decorated his chest. I couldn’t imagine him being very tolerant of misbehavior.

“The man is lying,” Orvis said angrily and forever earned my undying love. “I was there the whole night and no such thing happened. If he goes back to Sacramento and talks to the press, I’ll go back to Sacramento and talk to the press and we’ll see who they believe!”

I wasn’t quite as sure about Trekker behavior as Orvis. It was the seventies after all and we had recruited some interesting characters. I had heard the teenagers giving each other a hard time the night before during my rounds.

“Hey Suzy, why don’t you come over here check out my sleeping bag?” But the response had been, “Why don’t you take your sleeping bag and stuff it?” I had also had a discussion with our younger kids about the Trek not being an appropriate place for tobacco. Who knows what the doctor had seen or had thought he had seen?

“Look, I have an idea,” I said to the small crowd that had gathered around our cook stove.  “I want you to go back to the camp and tell everyone to gather near the rock which is about ten yards away from the Doctor’s camp. Tell them I am going to read them the riot act and I want them to look dejected and apologetic whether they feel that way or not. It’s show time.”

My helpers dispersed to do their job and I carefully thought through what I was going to say. At the appropriate time, I marched over to the rock looking like my dog had just been killed and climbed up on the rock. It was Sunday morning and ever after my lecture was known as the ‘sermon on the mount.’ Sixty expectant but properly humble faces looked up at me. I could see that the doctor had also stopped his activities and glued his attention on what we were up to.

“Last night we made a serious mistake.” I started, making sure the doctor could hear me. “It has come to my attention that there was misbehavior in camp which may have included the use of marijuana. I want to apologize to all of you for not being in camp myself and to let you know I will be from now on. I also want you to know that such activity jeopardizes not only this Trek but the possibility of any events like it in the future. I know that you have all worked hard to be here and that you have worked hard to raise money to fight lung disease and support medical research. I want your word that no such further activities will take place on this Trek.”

Charlie, Steve and company had done their work well. “We’re sorry.” “It won’t happen again.” “You have our word on it,” and similar statements were heard from all sides with everyone looking more serious than I have seen any Trekkers look since. I then dismissed the group to break camp.

As I walked away the doctor made a beeline for me and held out his hand.

“I am Doctor so and so,” he announced. “Although things were out of control last night, it appears you have them under control now and probably won’t have any more problems. Good luck on your trip.”

I thanked him for his concern and breathed an audible sigh of relief. He wandered back to his campsite, undoubtedly pleased with his power and influence while I moved away to avoid expressing my thoughts about his ancestry. The next challenge was how we were going to get our Trekkers through the day. It promised to be a doozy— sixteen miles with very limited water. It left little time to contemplate what might have happened had the misplaced medic carried out his threat.

Continuing on with my theme of alpine Sierra lakes, trials like these that wander along the edge are a delight to hike.

Continuing on with my theme of alpine Sierra lakes, trails like these that wander along the edge are a delight to hike.

Alpine lake along the John Muir Trail.

The views aren’t bad either.

Usually, crossing outlets can provide a bit of a challenge, as Ann Nash demonstrates.

Usually, crossing outlets can provide a bit of a challenge, as Ann Nash demonstrates. We spend a lot of time on logs over water. Often it is much scarier than this! Imagine a roaring river below you.

Ann had a nice view of logs...

Ann had a nice view of water soaked tree trunks under the water.

Reflections are also common and can detract from your concentration.

Reflections are also common and can detract from your concentration.

How about rain drops falling on the water...

How about rain drops falling on the water…

Small ponds like this are always a favorite of mine. Mosquitoes can be a problem, though.

Small ponds like this are always a favorite of mine. So, I will conclude with this photo.

NEXT BLOGS: On Friday I will feature more of Burning Man’s colorful mutant vehicles. Next Monday, we will look at the actual airplane that crash landed on the Hudson River. On Wednesday, I’ll return to the Sierra Trek where we cover 16 miles without water, a person is lost, a giant rattlesnake forces me off the trail, and I face a mini-rebellion. Some fun!

It Takes a Worried Man… The First Sierra Trek: Part 3

Water became a major problem on our first two days of the Sierra Trek. It was one of the reasons I decided to hike down the Sierras instead of across them on all future treks. Today I am featuring waterfalls.

Water became a major problem on our first two days of the Sierra Trek. It was one of the reasons I decided to hike down the Sierras instead of across them on all future treks. Today I am featuring a few waterfalls you find along the range. All of these are along the Pacific Crest Trail.


When I last wrote about the first Sierra Trek, the morning of the event had arrived. I was a worried man. I found myself singing Woodie Guthrie’s fateful words as I drove up into the mountains:

“It takes a worried man to sing a worried song/I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long/I went across the river and I laid down to sleep/When I woke up, I had shackles on my feet.”

Note: As I’ve mentioned before, the photos in this blog are from other Treks. I didn’t carry a camera on the first year. 


I met my support crew at a small restaurant just outside of Squaw Valley at 7:00 AM. Steve had recruited two friends to help out. One was Steve Locke, whose family owned large sections of Delta farm land and had a town named after them. The other was Bob with no last name, strong quiet Bob who was an excellent man to have along in an emergency, who loaned us valuable equipment such as walkie-talkies and a jeep, and who, I learned years later when he was in prison, made his living flying pot out of South America. Steve Crowle was to be my assistant leader, Steve Locke was going to drive a back-up jeep, and Bob was to be there just in case— in case of what I wasn’t sure.

We drove the last three miles into Squaw Valley to meet our fate. The Trekkers were arriving in droves and milling around like lost sheep. There was fat Charlie, skinny Orvis, beautiful Lisa, and 57 other people ready to follow us across the mountains. I felt a little like Moses must have felt in leading folks off into the wilderness, except I didn’t have his guidance system. I also wondered how Moses might have fared feeding the Israelites Ham Cheddarton instead of manna. We might have a different religion today.

Steve called the Trekkers together and I gave my first ever Trek orientation. I started by pointing out the tram. The first part of their day was to be spent saving 2000 feet and two miles of climbing. Steve had finagled free rides for all of us. This put the participants in a good mood. I then made a serious mistake. I told the Trekkers they should have an easy day.

Rule number one of Trekking is never, never, never tell people they will have an easy day backpacking. Each day is grueling and people may just survive. Period.

All too soon we were on our way, crammed like so many cattle onto the Squaw Valley trams dangling high above the ground as we bounced our way to the top. One of our Trekkers with a fear of heights had wanted to walk. She hid herself in the crowd and refused to look out, frightened that we were going to go careening down the cliffs. Her instincts were good. A few years later, the world watched as a rescue operation pulled people off of one of the very same trams as it dangled 100 feet off of the ground. We made it without any problems.

They started when we got off of the tram.

Steve’s job for the first three days was leading since we were going over the route he previewed. Mine was to be trail sweep or rear guard, as we called it. Our rules were very simple: don’t get ahead of Steve, follow the yellow ribbons left behind by the horse people, and don’t get behind Curt. We also required that Trekkers hike with at least one other person and that they let someone know if they had to leave the trail to ‘serve nature,’ as my students in Africa had called potty breaks.

I was not going to march people through the woods like an army. By allowing them to travel at their own pace, they could move at a speed their bodies and minds were comfortable with. It also allowed for something of a wilderness experience even though we were hiking with a large group. Sixty people would be spread out over 2-3 miles of trail.

Rear guard duty is always the toughest job on a Trek since it’s where the problems accumulate. That first day we made it exactly 50 yards before the first one popped up. The witch had shown up with an old boy scout pack with a rope tied on for a belt. (Remember she was the one who was going to come over in the middle of the night, bite me on the ear, and turn me into something. I think she had a sex-crazed maniac in mind.)

We were still in a transition stage where a few belt-less backpacks were wandering around in the mountains with people attached. Following the dictates of my Bible, “The Complete Walker,” by Colin Fletcher, I had insisted that all of our Trekkers have the belted kind. Not surprisingly, the witch’s ‘belt’ broke immediately. I was tempted to suggest she use her occult powers to fix it but Charlie Colin, the ex-ice hockey player, cheerfully took care of the problem. I loaned her some sun tan lotion and insisted she use it. In addition to having lily-white skin, she was wearing a tiny mini-halter, no bra, and short shorts with close to total exposure.

“But Curt,” she objected, “I want to go home with a complete tan.” Right. I told her she would be one roasted chickadee at the end of the first hour and I didn’t want to be accused of burning witches.

By the time we had taken care of her problems (or at least the ones we were qualified to take care of)— and those of several other Trekkers, Steve had covered a mile plus and was about to disappear over Emigrant Pass into the Granite Chief Wilderness. All the way up the mountainside, I could see our charges struggling with thin air, a steep trail and heavy backpacks. Some, having traveled for 10 minutes and 200 yards, were taking their first 20-minute break of the day. I resigned myself to a long, slow hike.

An hour or so later, Charlie and I crested the pass. Up ahead there may have been people having the easy day I had promised, but they certainly weren’t the 20 or so Trekkers I was now herding along the trail. I looked back at the now distant floor of Squaw Valley and sent a small thank you wafting upward that the first 2000 feet and two miles had been by tram.

I also sent up thanks for the fact that we truly did have a short day. Having cut off two miles from the beginning and hiked another, we only had four to go. Steve had carefully described our first campsite and I had reviewed my topographical map. We were going to drop down into the small valley behind Squaw Valley where the American River begins its journey to the Pacific as soggy ground, and then climb up the ridge that forms the side of Granite Chief Mountain and Needle Peak. Eventually the ridge trail crossed a small, glacier-caused hanging valley perched several hundred feet above the now creek size American River. A spring was running into the valley with ‘ample’ water for our Trekkers.

Apparently, I had used up all of my credit with thanks, though. When we arrived at the proposed campsite, there was only one Trekker present, Bob. I was about to learn what the ‘just in case’ part of his job description meant. This particular just in case was my arriving in camp and finding no one there.

“Everyone has gone on, Curt,” Bob reported. “There is no water. Steve has taken the Trekkers another two miles to Hodgkin’s Cabin.”

Ah that I would have come across a small stream. Even this would have provided enough water for our Trekkers.

Ah that I would have come across a small stream. Even this would have easily provided enough water for our Trekkers.

I am not sure this would have worked but many times I've made do with less when hiking alone.

I am not sure this would have worked but many times I’ve made do with less when hiking alone.

I wanted to whine. People had been whining at me all day. Certainly, it was my turn. The possibility of the small stream running dry must have been apparent two weeks before, I complained to myself, and wearily began rounding up my charges. They had scattered out and plopped down on the ground, like rocks.

There were two bright spots to my day. One was Charlie.  What a character and what a help; he told me his life story as we placed one foot in front of the other. Every once in a while, he would break out chanting: “cold beer, cold beer, cold beer.” It was pure fantasy but the thought kept us going.

The other was the fact that Lisa had joined us and was playing sheep dog with Charlie and me. We kept everyone moving forward with at least a semblance of humor. By this time, Charlie and I had set up a pole between us and were carrying two broken down packs in addition to our own. Somewhere along the trail I offered Lisa my hand to get over a rough spot and we had continued to hold hands. I felt guilty— a little. The rawness of Jo Ann’s confession was still burning a hole in my soul.

Eventually, we arrived at Hodgkin’s Cabin. We had survived day one. Tune in next Wednesday when I am accused of running a pot smoking orgy in the mountains— not true.

Here are a few more tantalizing waterfalls. BTW, I took most of these when I did a 360 mile backpack trip down the Sierras to celebrate my 60th birthday.

Tuolumne River Falls in Yosemite just outside of Tuolumne Meadows.

Tuolumne River Falls in Yosemite just outside of Tuolumne Meadows.

I enjoyed this cascading falls...

I enjoyed this cascading falls…

This split falls...

This split falls…

This narrow falls...

This narrow falls…

And this humdinger filled with snow melt.

And this humdinger filled with snow melt.

Friday and Saturday’s posts: I am excited. I have my ticket to Burning Man! So I spent my past week using an old, limping laptop to peruse my thousands of photos I have taken at the event since 2004, eliminate a bunch, and divide the rest up into categories. I actually got my number of pictures down to around 4,000. (grin) Don’t worry, I am not going to throw them all at you. But I will share select photos. On Friday and Saturday I will kick off my Burning Man posts with some of the wonderful— and weirdly wonderful, mutant vehicles that prowl the Playa and Black Rock City. I’ll move on from there to other categories such as sculpture, tribes, temples, the Man, etc.. This is a series you won’t want to miss!