I’ve been a lifelong wanderer—metaphorically and literally. Searching the forgotten corners, always looking for those unseen, unrecognized treasures. That’s where all the best things in my life have come from. Our High Sierra Crossing backpacking trip was an astonishingly rough one. I did something so typically Hall. I wandered off on my own. These images are from my crew who made their way through the backcountry without me while I spent a few days both soul searching and looking for my way back.
Day Two on a week-long trip. Our group was up in the western high Sierra, sandwiched between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. We were using this old forgotten canyon, Big Arroyo, as a shortcut. My stubbornness got the best of me—I was sure I knew a better way. I’m so grateful to our group, and one fella in particular, for sticking with our original plan. Tobias saw right through me and stayed the course, ensuring our group enjoyed the rest of the trip and returned safely as planned.
So, on I went. Determined and on my own. This is a particularly difficult and technical canyon. I realized they must’ve turned around, but I kept going. I crossed the gushing river the first time. It was so cold and swift, I felt a little scared. By the time I got to the third forced crossing, I was genuinely afraid. It just seemed like too much to retreat at that point.
Then I did something very un-Hall. I fell—hard. I fell from a steep embankment, 10 or 15 feet, into the water below. I put my foot on a cruddy rock and twisted my ankle, launching me into the water. My overloaded backpack crushed in on me as I hit the shallow rock and I broke the fall with my chest. Man, that was scary.
The fall knocked the wind out of me. The cold water shocked my system. As I rushed up to the surface to get air, I witnessed half my gear floating easily over the nearby falls. My camera, nearly all my food, my battery chargers. Tossed over the edge like twigs. I just let it all go; there was no point in risking my life to save it.
At this point, I was quite shaken up. I’ve never turned my ankle in my life, and dealing with that pain was something new and awful for me. My adrenaline started crashing and I was totally exhausted from wrestling the canyon all day. I lugged what was left of my gear up onto the flat rock adjacent to the creek. My sleeping bag had miraculously survived the fall and within minutes of setting up impromptu camp, I was out.
I woke up in the middle of the night and felt the lonely dark night of the soul descending. I had never felt so vulnerable. I understood how easy it would be to die. Without proper respect and preparedness, any of us could die out here. It’s just so sadly simple. Nothing shakes you to life like close calls.
As I came out of that big black nothingness, I thought about the cozy, safe warmth of my seaside cabin. I thought about my family, my kid, my friends, my lover, how they’d all be worried for me. It reminded me of the determination I feel when I’m lonely. Determination to put everything else aside and focus on what needed to be done.
As the sun rose, I used my new strength to pack up my stuff and start the long hike out of that canyon. Every step was a new level of agony. With tears in my eyes, step by step, I did it. Lonely determination. By mid-afternoon, I was back in those same sweet-smelling Jeffrey Pine flats that I’d been in the day before with the Juniper Ridge folks.
I set up camp on those flats, slept a wonderfully deep sleep, and woke up feeling revitalized and ready to roll. The air smelled magic—that high elevation Yarrow and Sagebrush adding a wild spiciness to the sweet piney notes in the Jeffrey’s. The lightness in my feet was returning. The sense of safety. The air smelled so good.
On the third day, my sprained ankle and I cleared the last 12 miles (3,000 ft. up and down). I got to the bottom and some hikers mentioned “they’re looking for you” as they passed me. Just then, a helicopter popped out of nowhere. I gave them a thumbs up and they flew on, satisfied I was safe. When I returned to civilization, strangers would come up to me in bars and tell me how glad they were for my safe return. I was mortified, and thought of the those who’ve been in my boots without GPS, helicopters or lonely determination.
Being on my own those few days lit an incredible spark in me. I saw myself so clearly. I was two months shy of 50, and at my half-century mark I had to admit, I was happy with the man I’d grown into. I felt so proud, and just wanted to get back to the life I was living, surrounded by the people and safe, familiar places I love.