Morgan Martinez - Seeking Redemption In The High Sierra

Hello! Who are you and where are your hiking roots?

Hi, my name is Morgan and I’m a part time hiker, backpacker, camper, and full time steward of the outdoors. I grew up on five acres of land in what used to be a small town outside of Sacramento and my first memories of the outdoors were made on this property.

I’d put on my tall rubber boots and stampede over creek bridges, roll down grassy hills until my hair stood up straight, and pick copious amounts of pomegranates and apricots from the fruit trees that lined the fences. The 13 years spent here served as a foundation of feeling connected to land, but my love for nature really took flight during an out-of-state trip in the fifth grade. 

When my parents announced they were taking us to Yellowstone National Park, I didn’t know what to expect. It seemed like a far drive from California for a vacation, but when we arrived, it wasn’t long before I understood the motive.

I realized I was merely a guest in their home, but that feeling of being insignificant made my synapses fire like I’d never felt before.

I was mesmerized not only by how large scale everything seemed to be from my tiny perspective, but also because of the way the land seemed to work in conjunction with the wildlife. One night during the trip, we drove to a remote corner of the park to witness a pack of wolves crossing the valley during a hunt.

Everything was quiet, yet entirely alive and I realize now that it was the first moment I’d ever experienced what it meant to be present in a place that was truly wild. I realized I was merely a guest in their home, but that feeling of being insignificant made my synapses fire like I’d never felt before.

I should have known that backpacking will never give you what you want, but it will give you exactly what you need.

From the bison, to the grizzlies, to the geysers, to the canyons - everything I experienced in Yellowstone opened my eyes to the grandeur of the outdoors and I learned that there was a plethora of land and creatures and experiences out there within anyone’s reach.

I’ve carried this same spirit into my adulthood and still savor those feelings of insignificance while standing at the base of those rugged High Sierra peaks I sometimes call home. This mountain range houses some of the most spectacular scenery known to humankind and is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from my front door.

I blame the proximity for the obsession, but it doesn’t take much more than a sunrise alpenglow on an east-facing granite slope to make you feel inspired. Trust me, it’s hard not to keep going back for more.

Though outdoor travel is just a side hobby, I’m fortunate enough to have a really wonderful connection between my career as an environmental scientist and my favorite outdoor playground.

Many of the alpine lakes in the High Sierra flow downstream to the west and feed into the watershed I spend my working hours, monitoring the water quality and the organisms it sustains. I’ve gained an appreciation for the work I do from spending time in the mountains and seeing where the water begins its journey has allowed me to fully understand its complex path downstream to the Pacific Ocean.

What’s your Story From The Mountain?

It was a brisk October morning in the Eastern Sierra as my partner, Mike, and I and our two dogs, Aspen and Gansett, made our way up the rocky switchbacks just before sunrise. It was a hike we’d been dying to do all year in the John Muir Wilderness within our favorite part of the Sierra, Inyo National Forest. The plan was to spend a few nights out there exploring as much as possible in the short amount of time we had.

Our packs were loaded to the brim with food and as many layers as we could fit,  but we felt prepared to take on the physical demands that this trail would require of us considering it was our ninth backpacking trip of the year. We gained elevation quickly and consistently, and after ten miles of lugging our packs around, we found the most incredible string of sparkling lakes at 12,000 feet.

There were four lakes total, all of them elegantly connected to each other and lined with massive granite peaks that completely dwarfed us. We spent a few long hours encompassed by this basin, as I rested with the two pups along the lakeside while Mike caught a number of the highly sought-after golden trout.

When the daylight started to fade, we made our way back down the pass and settled into camp near one of the lakes off the main trail. But as the night fell, so did the temperatures and we struggled to keep warm in our tent. After an hour of incessant shivering while simultaneously trying to fall asleep, we suddenly had a realization of a forgotten scheduling conflict. We needed to be back in Sacramento the next morning and had to immediately pack up camp as a result of this realization.

Mind you, the trailhead is six miles away from where we set up camp and it would be a 3,000 foot descent in complete darkness to get there - not to mention a six hour drive home. 

As we made our way down the pitch black trail, my pup Aspen yanked me forward to keep up with our group, forcing me to the ground on all fours. In any other situation, I could have easily braced myself, but the terrain was unforgiving and the rocks that covered the trail were just large enough to give you an awkward gait. It also didn’t help that my headlamp was fading quickly, making the best places to step a lot less obvious.

The biggest contributor to my clumsiness was the fact that my legs were completely shot from the 14 miles we hiked earlier, causing my feet to repeatedly misstep, my ankles to buckle, and my body to collapse. In fact, it wasn’t longer than a few minutes after standing back up from one fall that I’d find myself on the ground again.

After a solid three hour struggle, we finally made it back to our car in pretty rough shape. Exhausted, physically drained, and injured. My ankles were both so busted that it led to an abrupt end to the backpacking season and a distaste for the trails in general. 

The next spring rolled around and I started toying with the idea of attempting that trail again. I didn’t like that the previous experience made feelings of aggravation surface when I thought about hiking or backpacking - two things I  loved so much.

I knew I had unfinished business there and the only way to redeem myself was to return. So sure enough, the four of us took on the same trail a few months later in hopes of getting what we wanted out of it, which was simply a successful trip.

Over the years, one of the most important things I’ve learned from spending time outdoors has been that the land isn’t simply something to be used. It’s been here long before us and breathes more life than we’ll ever know.  

We ended up spending three days and two nights out there on this second attempt. We pushed ourselves hardest on the second day when we established what we found to be a new cross-country route that bridged the gap between a new basin we had missed out on previously and the incredible string of lakes we made it to before.

We had finally seen the morning alpenglow on the towering peaks lining that familiar basin, which was one of the most spectacular sights I’d ever seen and my biggest FOMO of the first trip.

These accomplishments would lead you to believe that this was a successful redemption, but for me it didn’t feel like redemption exactly. It just felt different. While no one busted their ankles or had to hike out in the dark guided by a failing headlamp, we did have to tackle an entirely new set of challenges we didn’t expect to face.

On the first day, I experienced heat exhaustion like never before and doubted my ability to make it to camp. On the second day, we had to traverse through a giant snowy ridge that we didn’t have proper gear for. On the third day, we awoke to two extremely tired pups whose paws were too torn up to continue hiking. And for the entire duration of the trip, we battled blood-thirsty mosquitoes that no amount of permethrin could fight off.

All it took was one ounce of a mental shift to ask myself, “but what if I could”?

Then it occured to me that I had been foolish for seeking a redemption, when each trip in the backcountry is so different than the next that you may as well compare apples to oranges. I should have known that backpacking will never give you what you want, but it will give you exactly what you need. For me, I think I needed to learn that.     

Through hiking/climbing, have you learned anything about yourself or nature you’d like to pass on to others?

Over the years, one of the most important things I’ve learned from spending time outdoors has been that the land isn’t simply something to be used. It’s been here long before us and breathes more life than we’ll ever know.

I think it’s easy for us to forget that because nature is always there for us, providing for us, teaching us, and allowing us to learn more about ourselves through the obstacles we overcome. The outdoors is a gift, a privilege if you will, and the reason why it’s so effective at being a platform for growth is because of the natural state it’s in.

If it had buildings and cars and crowds, there would be no reason for people to retreat from their city lives in the first place. The beauty, stillness, and solitude is what makes the experience worthwhile and unfortunately, we’re the only ones qualified to destroy those things.

This awareness has led to a deeper appreciation of the outdoors and a desire to practice a culture of environmental preservation and outdoor stewardship. Like everyone else, I’m constantly seeking out nature to learn and grow from the experiences I have there, so I figured the least I can do is give back to it.

For me, that means practicing Leave No Trace principles every time I step foot outside, educating others who may not be as informed about respecting the environment, and being conscious of my impact on the land to reduce my carbon footprint. I think people too often see the environment from a political perspective, when in reality, it’s the one thing connecting all of us. 

What’s your favorite item in your pack?

The one thing I’ll probably never leave behind on a backpacking trip is my Therm-a-Rest Hyperion 20F sleeping bag. I’ve been back and forth with a lot of bags over the years but can now confidently say that the perfect summer Sierra backpacking bag really does exist.

You know the saying, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”? Well, you can with this thing.

It’s mind blowing that I’m not sacrificing warmth or comfort when the weight of the bag is a mere 1 pound 3 ounces. Since upgrading to the Hyperion, I have so much more space in my pack than I know what to do with because it compresses down to the size of a Jetboil.

My advice is that, if you’re going to splurge on gear, splurge on your sleep system because a good night’s sleep is just as important, if not more, than your waking hours in the wilderness.

Do you have any advice for other hikers who are just starting out?

You don’t know what you can do until you try. In fact, I was convinced that I’d never be a backpacker before I tried it. I didn’t think I was strong enough, fit enough, or even had the capacity to survive with just a pack full of supplies on my back. And then, one day, something changed.

All it took was one ounce of a mental shift to ask myself, “but what if I could”? I began to imagine myself lugging a pack around for days in the wilderness, feeling self-sufficient and connected to my surroundings. It became something I craved and then it became something I committed to, but the day I learned that I could be a backpacker was the day I actually did it.

We’re human, and it’s easy to doubt our abilities when there’s an obstacle in front of us. Whether it’s an intimidating peak to climb, a snowy pass to ascend over, or a swift creek to cross - our default is to put a reluctant face on.

We feel uncertain about ourselves most often when we’re dealing with something we’ve never done before. However, it’s no coincidence that we feel most accomplished after trying something we’ve never done before. Just remember that uncertainty isn’t evidence of future failure.

Because you have no idea where your limits are unless you just freaking go for it.

What have been the most influential hiking books, podcasts, or people?

One of the most inspiring hiking books I’ve read is “Living Without Walls” by Julie O’Neill. It’s a memoir about the author’s struggle with fear and how she tackled that fear head on by hiking the John Muir Trail with her husband and two kids.

Another book I really loved is called “Girl in the Woods” by Aspen Matis, which is a story about a girl who decides to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail and finds her voice after suffering emotionally from a traumatizing experience in college. As a female who has a tendency to internalize fear, yet finds sanctuary on the trails, I really resonated with both of these books.

As for podcasts, I’d have to say my favorites are “She Explores” and their sister podcast “Women on the Road”. Both of these interview-style podcasts consist of stories told by women about their overcomings in the outdoors that really pull at your heartstrings. Also, I find that when I’m listening to these podcasts, my desire to go outside is so strong that I usually end an episode thinking about what wilderness permit I’m going to book next.  

As far as influential people go, I love seeing the wonderfully written captions and adorable dog photos from my good friend Noel Russell (@noel_russ). I also love hearing about all the good Nicole Brown (@im_nicolemarie) is doing for women in the outdoors through the organization she founded called Women Who Hike.

Lastly, I’ve recently been drawn to Katie Boue’s (@katieboue) page because of how much I learn about the outdoor industry, environmental legislation, and how it influences our public lands.          

Where’s your next adventure?

Our next big adventure will be a road trip from California to Colorado that will take place early this summer. My partner, Mike, did his undergrad in Boulder, CO and he always shares his stories about how he fell in love with the mountains during his years spent there.

I’m super stoked for him to show me all of his favorite places in Colorado and to make our own memories in the Southwestern states of Utah and Arizona on the way there. During the trip, we’ll be doing a combination of sight-seeing, backpacking, and hopefully glamping (if I can find some sweet Airbnb’s to book).

Experiencing a blend of environments from the saguaro cactus to the Rocky Mountains is something I’ve been craving for a while - and I think this trip will more than satisfy that craving.   

In the meantime, we’ll be doing some camping along the Pacific coast until there’s enough snowmelt in the Sierra to make for manageable hiking conditions at higher altitudes. At that point, you can find us back in our favorite national forests that line the High Sierra with our two pups.

This year we want to expand our boundaries and explore more unfamiliar trails, instead of going back to the trails we know and love. We figured it’s a good time to branch out and, who knows, we may very well find some new favorites. 

Where can others learn more about you?

You can follow along on my adventures with my partner, Mike, and our two dogs on Instagram @morgan_martinez. You can also head over to my blog Life Between Pines to read more stories about our outdoor experiences and to find information and guides for things like bringing your pups outdoors, preparing for your first backpacking trip, and the gear that makes all of our adventures possible.

Want to share your Story From The Mountain?

Hey, I'm Greg Kamradt, the founder of Terra Mano.

We interview awesome hikers/mountaineers/climbers/photographers and share the stories behind their ambition. By sharing these stories, we want to help others become inspired to reach their goals.

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