Here We Go!
Or, what the hell have I gotten myself into and how can I arrange for sherpas to get me up this mountain?!
Hiking to Iva Bell hot springs has been on my list for a long time.
I first heard of it back in 2009 (?) when I went on a hiking trip in the Eastern Sierras and hiked my first "14er." I had signed on to the trip to see the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest; for me hiking White Mountain was merely part of the deal. I only later heard from others that I had officially summited a California 14er. Technically, I had been higher than 14,000 feet when I was in India, but I didn't actually summit the mountain that I was on at that time. So I am not sure that counts.
Anyway! One of the women on the hiking trip, a fellow NJGGW (nice Jewish girl gone wild) had heard of several amazing hot springs dotting the area along hwy 395 and we decided to scope them out on our way back to the Bay Area. We managed to locate one of them but much to our dismay, while we were relaxing in the crude pool in the middle of the field, a random cow meandered by and started slopping up the sulphur water we were immersed in. The thrill gone at that point, we climbed out and went to grab some food. She then told me about some "secret" hot springs she had heard about that were hidden deep in the Sierras and that we should plan a hike to find them. It couldn't be a day trip, she said - you had to hike in for at least an overnight trip, as it was miles in from the trailhead. At that time I hadn't ever done any backpacking, only long day hikes, and so I tucked the idea away for some future time. I became much more immersed in climbing, and eventually she and I lost touch.
Since then, I have thought about the hot springs, and even looked them up a few times online. But I didn't have the gear, and it looked to be beyond my reach.
In the past few years, climbing has not been available to me due to physical challenges, and I have slowly started doing more hiking and backpacking instead. So with my big trip to summit Mt. Shuksan looming, and needing to do more elevation training, last week I made the leap. I had already set aside a 4 day segment of time to get in a decent trip, and when I went online to check the backcountry permits that were still available, there was ONE left for the entry point I would need to get to Iva Bell hot springs. The permit purchased meant I was committed. Now. Let me add that at this stage I was still facing some serious challenges. Obstacles started piling up. For one thing, I have been having some foot problems. On a previous training hike a couple months ago, I found myself limping for several days afterward because my right arch collapsed. (This is MY diagnosis. I didn't go see anyone, but I do have lousy arches, and the pain was in the high point of my arch). I did some kinesiotaping, which seemed to really help a lot, and started doing daily strengthening and stretching. I also borrowed a golf ball from a friend to roll out the fascia on the soles of my feet, which is excruciatingly painful and simultaneously extremely gratifying. I doubt he will want the golf ball back...
Additionally, the timing was perfectly eye-rollingly matched to my cycle. Right. Heading into the backcountry while dealing with cramps and blood sounded like a recipe for this trip not to happen. But determination, a week to spare, and a knowledge of herbs came in handy. After a day and a half of drinking some herbal concoctions, I was able to spur my body into early action. Crisis averted.
Here is the thing. The views were amazing. There were birds and lizards and butterflies everywhere I looked. I had a lovely refreshing break by one of the many rivers, the flowers were incredible, and the smells, vibrant. But it was just hard. I am not used to carrying so much weight (I don't have a scale so I don't know how much weight I was carrying, but it was plenty heavy to me), and breathing was often challenging, especially if there was any sort of incline. I couldn't stop thinking – what the hell am I doing?? Why do I do this to myself? There is some compulsion that I have to get out into the wild, even when it scares me, challenges me, angers me (the damn freakin' bugs!), and practically forces me to my knees. And then I finally make camp, eat dinner, go to sleep, and wake up the next day so incredibly grateful to see the sunrise, smell the redwoods, hear the birds, and march off again into the woods. This is how it is. For now, anyway.
So, back to the trail … I did not hike the entire way to the hot springs on Friday. I realized that it would be foolish for a couple of reasons. For one thing, around 5:30 I was completely depleted of energy. There was still about 2.5 miles left but I could barely take another step. I had just crossed the bridge at Fish Creek and there were some perfect clearings to set up camp which meant that I could set up a base camp of sorts and make the hot springs into a 5 mile r/t day hike on Saturday. It also meant that I would be that much closer to the trailhead when I did the hike out on Sunday. It was decided. I forced myself to eat (for energy, and to lighten my pack!), and was totally passed out in my tent by 7:30.
Saturday morning I was up at 6:00. After a light snack for energy, I packed my stove and food for a brunch, my camp towel, and was on the trail to the hot springs. With temperatures reaching the mid-80s, I wanted to soak in the springs in the cooler part of the day which turned out to be a perfect plan. I soaked in the hot springs in the morning, and then jumped in the cold creek in the heat of the day after hiking back to my camp.
The springs were about 2.5 miles from my camp, and conjuring up my route finding skills, I managed to find a series of three wonderful pools with a phenomenal view overlooking the valley. After my soak, I climbed a little higher and found a shady spot near another small pool and ate lunch. Nearby was a Sequoia that called out to me, and I pressed my nose against the thick, soft, fibrous bark of the sierra redwood and smelled deeply of it's essence. Am I weird? Maybe. But I stood there, face pressed against the tree, and with each breath the smell deepened and revealed itself more fully. First breath, barely a scent. Second breath, a rich earthy smell. After that, there was the smell of smoke, the story of fires that this being had survived time and again stored deep within its core. And finally, a light fragrance of wood and resin, all it's own. An offering for which I am deeply grateful.
After relaxing in the area for some time, I packed up and head back to my base camp. I was camped next to Fish Creek, and by then I was hot and my feet and muscles were screaming at me, so I found a lovely place to dip in the icy water and wash off. It had been a fantastic day.
Sunday I was up early knowing that I had to not only hike out, but do the 5+ hour drive home from Mammoth as well. I mentally had been preparing myself. After the first mile there was a series of switchbacks heading up and out of the valley that I would be facing and I wanted to get it out of the way as early in the day as possible before the heat kicked in, and before my muscles staged a complete rebellion. It turned out that the hike out was much faster and easier than the hike in had been. I presume that for one thing, I was beginning to acclimate to the elevation. Additionally, I had eaten most of my food which lightened my load considerably. I don't know that I made incredible time, but I was back in my car at 4:00.
So there it is. In all it's grime, grit and glory. In less than a month I will summit Mt. Shuksan, which will be an entirely different sort of challenge. Until then, I will continue to work out, strengthen, and likely take one more trip to the high country to hopefully help with acclimating to higher altitudes.