But then our mornings of frenzied energy bend into afternoons of withering heat. And calling the JMT dusty is like calling K2 breezy. As early as our second afternoon, inhaling swirls of chalky earth, I turn to Stumbles and say, "I hope this isn’t starting to feel like a death march."
He pauses too long, then deadpans, "It has some aspects of that."
Every day, too, our feet ache a little more. Our blisters start to pulsate. On our fourth afternoon, we stop beside the South Fork San Joaquin River and peel off our shoes and socks for a therapeutic soak. I half expect our dirt-blackened, overheated soles to boil the water, cartoon-like. Instead, I get an elated jolt of frigid energy–it’s never felt so damn good not to feel my feet. But then, reality: We commence The Ritual of the Tape, strategically covering hot spots. Todd and Mark tape over wounds that look like small stratovolcanoes. Heather’s feet look the worst: She’s wrapping all 10 toes.
By that evening, Stumbles and I are climbing the switchbacks along Evolution Creek’s fantastically endless succession of roaring waterfalls, which almost make me forget that my legs feel like wood. The sound drowns out my creeping doubt; the water, tumbling downhill, somehow keeps tugging me up. The indifferent wilderness has seen countless struggles here, but it buoys me anyway. The scenery is morphine, and I’m a lab chimp constantly pushing the button for another dose. Then Stumbles looks at me with sunken eyes. "I’m pasted," he confesses. We wait an hour for Heather and Todd to catch up; when they do, at dusk, it’s clear that Heather’s struggling. Still, she insists we hike until 9 p.m., because we’ve fallen behind schedule.
So we limp–and Stumbles weaves–in the dark up to a smooth granite slab near Evolution Lake. We lay our bags out under a sky machine-gunned with stars. Utterly prone, our legs and feet resting, the world instantly becomes a better place, the many miles a deluded memory. Comforted by the almost-silence of a wilderness night, we cling to the loitering hope that we still might pull this off.
At some point, The Thing That We Want To Do morphs into This Thing That We Have To Do. It may have happened way back on that second afternoon, when Stumbles and I deliberated the precise meaning of "death march." Maybe it happened this morning, our fifth, when things nearly unraveled: Our mystical sunrise hike past Evolution, Sapphire, and Wanda Lakes turned into an endorphin-charged rush up and over 12,000-foot Muir Pass ("Big rebound for me!" cried Stumbles), but then it devolved into a pathetic two-hour power nap beside a creek in LeConte Canyon. (We were waiting for terminally blistered Heather, who dropped hours and miles behind after we left camp at first light.) Maybe it’s when we finally bid farewell to her–after she limps up to us, promptly announces she’s done, and decides to hobble out a side trail. Then again, it might just be because we’ve blitzed 135 miles in four and a half days, and we like resting in the LeConte shade, but resting costs us precious time. And we have to move. And moving is starting to suck. The prospect of another 86 miles in a little over two days seems, to say the least, daunting.