Bring a saw—Hiking in the backcountry is daunting this year

"If you never want to go hiking with me again, I completely understand."

Those words fell on the ears of my best friends as we struggled to cross a mile and a half of downed trees in the valley behind Mammoth Pass last weekend.

I had the brilliant idea of hiking for my birthday since … well … since I wanted to.

My best friends from Down South joined me to celebrate. Neither one has ever been overnight backpacking before so it was a treat to introduce them to beautiful Mother Nature in the Eastern Sierra.

Our destination: Deer Creek.

“It’s an easy hike, guys! It’s around seven miles with only about 1,100 feet of elevation gain and loss. It’s no big deal!” I said to them. They believed me.

I was well aware of the downed trees in the backcountry from the Nov. 30 windstorm. I attended the meetings and heard about how horrible the mess was. 

I asked my boyfriend if he thought the downed trees would be a problem on our trip. He didn’t worry about it, so neither did I.

We set off early Saturday morning out of Horseshoe Lake toward Mammoth Pass. We hiked happily for about an hour and then it hit us.

Carnage. Pure carnage.

When Forest Service officials said thousands and thousands of trees fell during that freak windstorm, I tried picturing an image, did so, and shrugged it off.

“Can’t be that bad,” I thought.

It’s 10 times worse than what any Forest Service official tried to convey. It’s a diabolical mess out there. 

At first it was one down tree here … another fallen victim to the windstorm over there. A fallen tree occasionally dissected the trail and we simply walked around it.

The further we hiked, the worse it got. We reached a point where beautiful Mother Nature played an epic game of dominos. Except with trees. 

One tree fell, took another one out with it, which took another one out, and so on.

Trees lay on top of one another—as if they were playing a game of Twister, and we were the losers.

Every direction I turned my head (in hopes of a way through) was met with more downed trees. 

There was no light at the end of this tunnel. 

Our hike turned into wilderness parkour, without the running and back flips since we had backpacks on.

It was dangerous. Panic struck internally. Neither of my besties wore sturdy hiking shoes. I feared one of them spraining or breaking an ankle. Not good.

We tried skirting the chaos by hugging the mountainside. It didn’t really matter. We jumped over trees, climbed up others in order to swing over the one it fell on top of, and crawled under others. Branches and trunks scratched at our shins and hands. Blood flowed down our legs from light puncture wounds. Sweat dripped from our foreheads (and into my eye—awesome) and sap and dirt found itself in places I still have a hard time explaining.

In some spots, our feet didn’t touch the earth. We walked on a thick layer of pine cones, pine needles, branches, and bark. I kept thinking I would fall through a hidden hole and die. 

Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, I experienced an ocular migraine (it only lasted for 15 minutes, thank goodness).

What a disaster. Even if Forest Service employees and volunteers clear the trails, an immense amount of fuel will remain on the ground covering thousands of acres. If a fire were to start in the backcountry, we are seriously doomed.

I kept apologizing to my friends.

“This is not a typical hike in Mammoth!” I said. “Please don’t hate overnight backpacking!”

On the way home, it took us an extra two hours to penetrate the devastation and find the trail again. When we finally reached the car, one of my friends turned to me and said, “Easy hike, huh Aleks?”

They dubbed the trip, “Aleks’ Mammoth backpacking trip from hell.”

My advice to anyone heading out to hike the backcountry this summer: bring a saw. It was our savior.

At least it was a birthday to remember.