QUEST FOR THE MUIR TRAIL

November 07, 2008 11:00 pm
Patrick Dodgen shows his enthusiasm near a Sierra summit. Dodgen said the area was "desolate, but awesome." (Submitted Photo).
Patrick Dodgen shows his enthusiasm near a Sierra summit. Dodgen said the area was "desolate, but awesome." (Submitted Photo).

By Chad Robert Snyder

Pilot staff writer

Dreams and aspirations come in many forms and dimensions.

To some they're as simple as a locale to be visited or an event to attend. For others they tend to be decidedly more ambitious; i.e. write a book, or tackle some enormous global problem.

For longtime Brookings resident Patrick Dodgen the dream was to hike an imposing trail in the High Sierras of central California.

"People tend to set goals for themselves, and ours was the John Muir Trail, which we'd thought about for years," he said.

The "we" for Dodgen was he and longtime friend Scott Reineck. Together they have climbed and hiked some of the wildest and most remote trails in North America.

The two men met in middle school and have shared extended backpacking trips since they first ventured out together after their high school graduation.

As Dodgen said, they'd thought of the Muir trail for a long time. Eventually it became a do-or-die endeavor.

"We finally said ‘Before we turn 50 we need to hike it," Dodgen said.

So, about a year ago, the two men started planning for the expedition of a lifetime.

"I was doing some library research and the librarian noticed a had some books on the Sierras and the John Muir trails," Dodgen said. "She recommended I check out a recent Backpacker Magazine, which had a article on exactly what we were looking for."

It was an entire piece dedicated to the John Muir Trail.

"That was one of those weird moments when you know you're on the right path," Dodgen said.

The trail is often referred to as "the crown of the Pacific Crest Trail" – it's the highest section of the PCT and, as Backpacker says, it's "America's most beautiful trail." It's also an incredibly rugged and dangerous piece on backcountry.

The nature of their goal made for some intensive planning, including a permitting process that requires six month advance filing and no guarantee of receiving permission.

They were fortunate enough to gain access.

To Dodgen, there was an added element of physical preparedness. As he said, he enjoys a healthy lifestyle, but the prospect of such a rugged trail gave him something to train for.

After several months of logistical planning, collecting essential equipment and preparing their bodies for the pounding they would inevitably take, the two men set off for Red's Meadow Pack Station, 30 miles south of Yosemite, where the trail originates.

Early morning on Aug. 12 they harnessed their packs for the first time and began the journey that would take them 160 miles in eight days.

Dodgen's plan required an ambitious pace.

"We needed to average 20 miles a day if were going to make it to Mount Whitney," he said.

On top of the mileage requirement, the trail itself made the hike even more taxing.

The John Muir Trail – which travels east across Yosemite to the east side of the Sierras and then turns south toward Mount Whitney – is on, as Dodgen said, "the highest and steepest terrain in the Sierra Nevada range. We had to cross nine passes over 11,000 feet and two over 13,000."

The elevation made for not only a psychically demanding route, but also one that requires several days to "acclimate". At sea level, there's about 21 percent oxygen in the air we breathe; at 10,000 feet, it's only 14.5 percent. The human body doesn't immediately compensate for the difference.

After two days, Dodgen said they felt better and were breathing easier. It was then he began to notice more of the landscape they were traversing.

"It's very grey and desolate up there, but it's still very beautiful," he said. "You get to see some unique things; little pockets of lakes, stunted trees, marmots, deep blue skies, the stars shining at night, and the full moon rising on a meadow."

Those were the things he had come to see.

On the fourth day of the hike, while climbing another high pass, Dodgen had an experience he said he'll never forget.

"It was a moment of near euphoria," he said. "We were both tired and climbing hard. I was feeling heavy, and then something seemed to lift me up and carry me toward the pass. It was like my son was with me."

Dodgen has a 20-year-old son with Down Syndrome and a heart condition that prevents his being at high elevation. Dodgen said he thinks about his son often while hiking, and in that moment he felt as though they were together.

"To me, nature brings me closer to God and everyone," he said. "That was a moment of elation and unity."

The final day of their journey offered a unique prize – a few moments on top of the highest peak in the lower 48, the 14,496 foot tall Mount Whitney.

Both men had looked forward to the climb. When they finally summited, Dodgen and Reineck spent 30 minutes enjoying the view.

"There were a number of other people on the summit, so it is turned into a shared experience," Dodgen said. "We were very tired by then, but we had completed our goal. It was a deep satisfaction, and I think we both shared a feeling of accomplishment."

The two friends finished the trail on Aug, 20, their dream realized and minds full of memories from an unforgettable adventure.

That's not the end of the story, however. Forever the adventurer, Dodgen already has his mind on future journeys.

"I think I'll climb Mount Hood next," he said.