Stretch 11, Sierra City to Chester

The last 134 miles have been full of adventure. Maybe our exciting unplanned stay in Truckee the previous stretch left us feeling spontaneous, but we’ve definitely been floating the breeze and taking advantage of every fun detour that came our way.

It started before we even hit the trail. We were standing in front of the gas station with thumbs out, hoping to not have to walk the 1.5 miles on the road uphill to the trailhead in the afternoon heat. Only a few cars passed us by before a couple motorcyclists rode up to fuel up. We had retracted our thumbs. You wouldn’t take a motorcycle hitch, they asked. We looked at each other and shrugged. Why not? So there we were, climbing on the back of Harleys behind grizzled leather-clad bikers. I realized I had never ridden on one and it was quite a thrill! The adrenaline rush gave me a boost during the 7 mile climb that followed.

That night we camped at the first spot we found, a cluster of tent sites around the end of a dirt road. There was water nearby, the view was amazing, and we enjoyed making camp and watching a stunning sunset. Perfect spot. But that night I was having a scary dream and was awoken suddenly to the sound of a revving engine, a yell, and huge round headlights glaring in my eyes. I shrieked. It was 2:30! Someone, probably up to no good, was just turning around on their late night cruise on a middle-of-nowhere dirt road. They almost ran into our friend, False Start, who leapt behind some bushes in his sleeping bag. I think we’ll avoid roads from here on.

The next couple days were beautiful, we were on a ridge for most of it with great views of blue, sparkling lakes below, just far enough that we kept on walking instead of scrambling down. Having to pass by all this water left us itching for a good swim. So when we realized we were approaching the Feather River, said by many to be one of the best swimming spots on the trail, we–Bamm-Bamm, False Start, and I– devised something I’d always wanted to do: a trail zero, or nero. Basically a day where we walk almost no miles and relax on trail. It sounds like a simple concept but most zeros only happen in town when we also have errands to run. Anyway, we planned River Day. And it was great.

Louise here! Yeah there’s not much that I love more than creating an arbitrary holiday, like River Day, and then committing to celebrating it 100 percent. On that day we woke up late (7 or so), walked the four miles down to the river, dropped our packs and waded straight in. Morgan and False Start found our new “home” on the sandy banks about a quarter mile upstream, and there we set up camp, (at 11!). Then commenced the river laundry, crawfish hunting, rock cairn making, and floating, all. day. long. We normally walk by beautiful spots and remark about how wonderful it would be to spend a day enjoying that place if only we had the time… now since our friends are still behind us and we’d like to see them again, why not take our time?

The next day we saw a huge sign on the trail, inviting hikers to stay at a trail angel’s house nearby. So, motivated by that same River Day mentality, we took them up on the offer and ended the day midday, 13 miles in, and had an amazing time getting to know other hikers (in cotton!) and the family who took us in. One youthful Mississippian hiker, Dutch, taught us some “bruh” trail lingo, like “bangin’ out some miles” and “kick some mountains in the face!” Our new trail angel friend Nancy (what a cool woman) reminded us of past trail vocabulary like “mashing miles” and then in a stroke of genius invented “squishing miles” … Morgan, False Start, and I really took to that one. We decided that from now on we would primarily squish out miles, in honor of our new friend Nancy. 

So that day we squished 23 miles into Belden, curious about the whole “rave” situation, and arrived just in time to witness the start of a big hippy party in the weirdest town yet… we had heard that PCT hikers were allowed to be in town during the festival, but in actuality the security guards singled us all out and were quite aggressively trying to force hikers out of the town. The problem is, I’m pretty sure they can’t legally do that, especially since we have PCT permits and the trail passes right through… anyways, despite feeling quite unwelcome at points, the ecstatic ravers were very excited to talk to and meet hikers, which made it worth it to stick in town for a bit. Morgan and I both bought disguises in a vintage clothing bus and snuck back out onto the beach by the Feather River. We spent hours there, grooving to the music, swimming, and sitting on floats… definitely a singular experience. 

On top of that, we got to see White Spot and No Steps, and Radio as they passed through the town! Morgan even reunited with a trail friend from before my time, Linus, and got to catch up for a while. Big hugs were given, it was so nice to see them all again 🙂 

We headed out after the heat of the day had passed and camped a couple miles out of Belden, by Chipps Creek. It was actually good we didn’t go further because we heard from hikers who camped 6 miles away (but not near a water source), that they could still hear the pumping of the bass from the rave. Where we slept by Chipps Creek, all we could hear was the water rushing on and on, like it always does. 

The next day we hiked 27 miles (my biggest day yet, it felt good!), ran into some really great trail magic about 10 or so miles from the official PCT halfway marker, and camped alongside new hiking friends, Munchies, Diaper Boy, Pre-K, Dutch, and False Start who were all excited to celebrate their halfway points the next morning. It’s not my halfway point (I have calculated that I’ve walked 775 pct miles so far), nor Morgan’s (she’s at 1144), but it was really cool to see it and celebrate this accomplishment with them. 

And now here we are in Chester, land of Kopper Kettle Cafe and the Antlers Motel, resting, doing laundry, catching up with friends, blogging ;), and hoping that soon we’ll see Sunbeam, Frosty, and Atlas again too. (PS, a few hours after writing this we heard that Atlas arrived in Chester! And that Sunbeam and Frosty passed us on the trail… so I guess now weee’ve got some catching up to do!)

Stretch 10, Echo Lake to Sierra City

After seven days of enjoying our family and sitting on a couch for long stretches, it was time to get back on the trail, which continues out of the South Lake Tahoe Area at Echo Lake, around mile 1092. Echo Lake is beautiful, the shores dotted with really cool rustic cabins only accessible by trail or boat. We learned that these cabins are mostly owned by the Forest Service, with long term leases to families. And Louise has a friend whose family has a cabin.

So we were incredibly fortunate to say goodbye to our family and spend a night on Echo Lake, and the PCT, hanging out with Louise’s friend Henry, his brother Zach, and their friend Mads. This was super cool. Every PCT hiker walks by those cabins and I bet very very few have gotten to hang out in one.

Late last Sunday morning, after hanging with Henry and fam , eating a leisurely breakfast, reading a magazine aloud, and playing with their dog that didn’t like us, we quit dragging our feet and got back on the trail. We were apprehensive about what all this rest would have done to our trail legs, whether we were still capable of walking 8 to 10 hrs a day and making decent mileage.

Our worries were not completely unfounded. Getting our walking groove back happened slowly, not helped by the fact that the trail past Echo Lake was still far from snow-free. But we were easy on ourselves, setting lower-mileage goals at first. This was great for our legs and because this stretch of trail was beautiful!

Right off the bat we went through Desolation wilderness, some of which was still really frozen over but some of which made me think, maybe the high Sierras would have been this pleasant if they weren’t covered in snow… I couldn’t resist hopping in a lake we passed the first afternoon and feeling unrestrained by the necessary order of conquering terrain in the high Sierras, we decided to camp on top of a pass, because we could. This was a great notion, and I’m still not sure I wouldn’t do it again, but it turned out to be a very poor camping spot. We found a spot to sleep that was slightly sheltered from wind, but the noise kept us up nearly all night.

We experienced our share of good camp sites though. The day after we camped on the pass we aimed to do 17 miles. Shortly before we hit our mark we came across a cooler with ‘PCT HIKERS’ written on it. Trail magic! Inside were the last few of a couple six packs of beer- but not just beer, nice beer. We grabbed a couple and were inspired to make a campfire a few miles later when we stopped for the night. So we enjoyed snow-chilled craft beers by the fire on a chilly night. Thank you Tahoe-area trail angel!

The next couple days we experienced some of the prettiest trail yet. There were two five mile stretches on top of a ridge, paralleling Lake Tahoe and covered with wildflowers, gorgeous views on both sides. The third night we were hiking later to position ourselves well to get into Truckee midday the next day. We passed a marked campsite after 17 miles and were continuing to one 3 miles later when we came across a perfect spot, overlooking a large valley to the west, dusted in evening sunlight. Maybe one of our favorite spots yet.

The next day, the fourth day, we went into Truckee with the main purpose of buying a knee brace. We weren’t originally planning on stopping there at all. The town and its people made such an impresssion, though, that we decided to stay the night. Starting with Mike and Melissa, who gave us a ride from the trail, we experienced such kindness. Bonnie and Joe, who we met in the produce section of Safeway, gave us a ride to the hostel and invited us to hang out with them at an outdoor concert. Here they brought a cool muscle shocking wireless device to help my knees. We had a great time with them. And Joe gave us a ride back to the trailhead. Truckee was a great stop.

The next couple days were scenic like the rest but all that stands out in my mind was one day of snow and lots and lots of muck. I had grown accustomed to the snow but vast ankle-deep mud was new and I did not like.

But Sierra City is lovely, a tiny mountain town nestled in a narrow valley where hikers hang out at the general store and camp behind the Methodist church, likely doubling the number of people in the Main Street area. We have enjoyed a milkshake and sandwich, free cold showers in the public restroom, and cookie bars sent from Mom, and will soon head back to the trail.

Limited photos because of wifi difficulties

Stretch 9, Kearsarge Pass to Mammoth Pass

To describe this section well, I’ll have to start before we left. In the last post, I didn’t talk about the hysteria over re-entering the mountains that had beset all the hikers in Bishop and the whole online hiking community. I didn’t want to trouble you all. Well, there was a bit of a hysteria.

Hiking out of Kearsarge Pass after the first high Sierras stretch I was feeling wearied and a little apprehensive about more weeks of snow travel, but I had no thoughts of skipping ahead. The first inkling of all the hubbub came from a group of hikers headed back in where we were headed out. They had been hiking with different groups during the last stretch. But when each of their groups dissolved, they had spent 4 days in Bishop finding new people to hike with. 80% of people are not continuing, they said. Hmmm.

At the hostel, I could kinda see what they meant. 80% was maybe an exaggeration, but it still seemed like at least half of the already fewer than normal hikers were making plans to skip to other points on the trail. Then, the heat wave happened. This caused staggeringly high temps in the valley, where we were, but more consequentially, unprecedented amounts of snow melt in the mountains. People were saying that creeks were becoming uncrossable- the rangers were telling hikers not to enter the mountains. And, the roads to the heads of the trails that could take us back to the PCT were flooding and eroding and closed to cars. Hiker conversations about going back into the mountains were not just about whether to go or not- they were about how.

Our second night there, we made a feast and for the first time, discussed our plan. We decided we would go back in, knowing that if conditions were as bad as people were saying, we could always turn around. The challenge was getting to the trail. Normally, there was a trail angel who would give rides to the trailhead from the hostel, a 1.5 hour drive. Now, he wasn’t even giving rides to the road to the trailhead because he thought trail conditions were unsafe. So we spent a day hitchhiking from Bishop to Independence, waiting outside the Chevron in Independence for a ride to the start of the road closure, and then walking 7 miles up the closed road to the trailhead. All day got us to the start of a trail still 8 miles (including a pass) from the PCT. This was a bummer of a day. Especially in the heatwave and especially resupplying, when my pack was probably 25 lbs heavier than it had been at the end of the last stretch. Ugh.

We arrived in the dark, maybe around 10. We camped in the gravel parking lot and planned to get going the next morning at 6. Not ideal because we had Kearsarge Pass to do in 5 miles and Glenn Pass maybe 5 miles after that, but we also needed sleep. That next day was brutal. There’s a reason they say to do passes in the early morning. I was finding any amount of hiking hard with the heaviness of my pack, but uphill in slushy snow was very very not fun.

We did take a nice long lunch break, where we all enjoyed a refreshing dip in the mostly iced-over Bullfrog Lake, and would have been over Glenn pass in the afternoon except we started to hear thunder on our way up. No lightning storm ever happened but we waited it out anyway–its dangerous to be on a pass in a lightning storm. So it was late and the sun had already set over the ridge when we did the icy, waist-high crossing of a lake outlet on the other side of Glenn Pass. The land was almost entirely covered in snow, but we found an uneven slab of rock to camp on, setting up the tent, peeling off wet clothes, gathering water from the frozen lake, making dinner, and going to bed as quickly as possible to get some rest for an early start the next day.

That day we had a few creek crossings early on. The first, another lake outlet, someone had reported was waist-deep days ago. We arrived to see someone crossing and it reached their chest. Thankfully, a friend of ours was coming back from scouting and had found a snow bridge 100 yards downstream. Phew. The next crossing, Baxter Creek, was one that people were saying was impossible and unsafe. There were a couple groups looking around when we arrived, all of us about 17 hikers. At one point the creek broke into a few different branches and here hikers spread out, looking for a crossing point. After 15 minutes, a few people had found a large log and threw it over the most dangerous branch of the creek. It was now very doable! A couple hikers stood at strategic points and helped everyone cross. All of us sat on the other side in our groups, snacking and drying for 20 minutes or so. I had the very corny feeling that with our teamwork we could conquer all the crossings.

That afternoon, we encountered another creek, not even mentioned in the water report, that was dangerously fast. It was not safe to cross where the trail hit it. Downstream, it fed an even larger river, and upstream was steep and rocky on both sides. We spent some time trying to put logs over it, but it was too big. Thankfully, Radio came back from scouting and there was a snow bridge three quarters of a mile upstream, with a 700 ft climb and some bushwhacking. Very much not what I wanted to do, but it got us across.

After that, we walked a couple miles and stopped for a very late lunch. I was exhausted, but we had only done 9 PCT miles. I lobbied to camp there, even though we were still 5 miles from Pinchot Pass. We did stay, and I enjoyed a very-much-needed rest.

Most crossings happened like the ones that day–rarely did we ever cross where the trail hit the water. We either found a snow bridge or a fallen log or just walked as many as 3 miles upstream to a place where the terrain flattened out and the current was not too strong and the water not too deep.

After that, the days blur together, a hazy string of passes and river crossings with snow trudging in between. We did Pinchot Pass the next day, then Mather the next, then Muir and Selden, with water crossings peppered in. There were a few forks of the Kings river and Evolution Meadow and the infamous Bear Creek and Mono Creek and many unnamed ones as well. There were a few stretches of trail below 9500 ft where we actually saw trail, maybe 25 miles in total. Those were very nice miles, though they were covered with downed trees and often underwater.

After 8 days we went slightly off-trail to do a small resupply at the tiny store of Vermillion Valley Resort. We spent most of the 9th day here, hiking only a handful of miles in the evening. Finally, on the 11th day, we made it to Mammoth, having accomplished only 115 PCT miles (but oh so many bonus miles).

We arrived in Mammoth the same day that our (real) family was arriving in Reno to vacation in South Lake Tahoe. If there had not been so much snow, we might have been able to be in South Lake Tahoe via the trail by this time, but we are about 190 miles behind and had them pick us up in Mammoth. We are now enjoying a week of family vacation with plans to get back on the trail here, at Echo Lake. I feel its a bit of a shame to skip the last high Sierras stretch after we’ve already done some of the hardest parts, but we want to have the time with family, and we don’t want to go back in the mountains at Mammoth Pass without our group, as there are still some dangerous water crossings in that stretch. If the weather is not too bad in October I will come back to do it this year.

All in all, I am really glad we did that last stretch and am very relieved to have it behind us. In one sense, it is not as bad as some of the hype makes it sound. With the proper gear and knowledge, I never felt unsafe on a pass. And since we reached the worst water crossing in the morning and spent time finding the best spot to cross, I always felt comfortable with the crossings. Its just very tedious and exhausting. Day after day of trudging, climbing, and sliding in the snow; all-day wet feet, in and out of puddles and streams; and worst of all, the lack of control over how we traveled, the need to be walking every day at 5 to do the pass or major stream crossing early and hike quickly while the snow is not yet slush and the creeks are not yet raging to get to a good place to camp to do the next day’s pass or major stream crossing at 5 and hike fast, while… And on it went, exhausting day after exhausting day–yet everyday ground had to be traveled. Because our food would only take us to the next resupply if we kept moving.

So yeah. Re-reading that I realize it came off a bit negative. Which is appropriate because I was feeling kinda negative for a lot of this stretch, but I do want to stress that I also feel incredibly fortunate to have been in the Sierras under those conditions and spent the time that I did with our trail family. It was a really unique experience that I know I will likely remember more positively than how I actually experienced it.

Louise here! I think it is fair to say that this last stretch tested us the most both physically and emotionally, and though some points really left me feeling quite done, I would totally do it all over again. I count myself lucky to have been in the High Sierras with this particular group of people, facing pass after snowy pass and becoming all the more close for it.

So I’ll give some updates on the state of the trail family, because since the last stretch we lost one member, Moonwalker, and gained three more, Shakedown, White Spot, and Monk.

On the long roadwalk back to the trailhead, Moonwalker expressed to Morgan and I that she didn’t feel right about going back on the trail in the High Sierras. Because of the ice axe, crampons, and bear can filled with 10 or so days of food, her pack equalled half of her weight (50 lbs), and she made the point that anywhere else on the trail she wouldn’t have such an crazy weight on her back, let alone on one of the longest and most dangerous stretches thus far. Furthermore, she was worried that the fears she had about water crossings and passes would outweigh all the positive aspects of being out on the trail. (We all started the PCT to challenge ourselves for sure, but at what point do you give yourself a break and say it’s just too much?) It made a lot of sense, but it was hard to hear because I had also been feeling doubts about returning, and seeing her make that difficult decision made me feel even more conflicted. As Moonwalker was telling the whole group of her decision later that night, I was surprised at the group’s response. Atlas and Radio both said that they think deciding to skip was the harder thing to do, and that it shows how strong she is. It is HARD to acknowledge your limits, and make the decision that what’s best for you may not be the same as what everyone else is doing. I really admire her for figuring it out. After lots of hugs and tears shed, we said goodbye, and there was no doubt in my mind that she was making the right decision. It just made starting back on the trail a lot harder, missing my pal.

Shakedown joined us in Bishop when his group decided to split up, and we were very lucky to have him this last stretch. A geoscience human from San Francisco, Shakedown added some very go-with-the-flow vibes which I very much appreciated. On top of that, Shakedown provided us with entertainment by giving constant constructive criticism to Atlas about how he could lighten his pack. See, a “shakedown” is a trail term for getting rid of any unnecessary weight. And Atlas is basically the opposite of that. Atlas takes pride in being more on the ultra-heavy side of things… he brought 44 tortillas on an 8 day stretch, so you can imagine what Shakedown said about that! Anyways, Shakedown is a great navigator, a connoisseur of strange youtube videos (Apple-pen, anyone?), and king of throwbacks (our last night on the trail, he pulled out a “One Hit Wonders of the 1990s” playlist that got us singing angstily and reminiscing about the past).

White Spot is another German friend! He has a hiking partner–a friend from the AT, No Steps– but No Steps fell behind, got injured, and got off trail, leaving White Spot to cross rivers and passes alone… which isn’t really smart in the Sierras. So he joined us pretty early on, and we were glad to have him along. One night Morgan and I were discussing what everyone’s roles would be if we were actually a family, and it was decided that White Spot would be the cool uncle. It helped that I had a dream one night that White Spot was teaching me how to fish. Classic uncle thing to do, right? There was a twist though…We were spear-fishing with hiking poles! White Spot is known best for his high-pitched “Yippees!” and “Woohoohoos!” while glissading down snowy slopes, and for his love of his wife and little baby daughter, whose 2nd birthday he must be back in Germany for in the middle of September.

Last but not least, Monk came to us in the middle of the stretch with a Amish-made wooden staff, vibrams, and a kilt. He is a veteran of the AT, a huge Ohio St. football fan (and thus an outspoken nemesis of Clemson, our family’s college team), and an avid reader of the fantasy fiction genre. The night before Muir Pass, we called Monk over to our damp, deer-poop-filled campground, and invited him to a tea party with the group. It turns out Monk has a corncob pipe too, and Julian shared some of his vanilla tobacco, as we sat warming ourselves by a fire. It felt natural to welcome him into the group, and we didn’t think much about it. A few days into our time altogether, Monk thanked us all, saying that his first few days of the stretch were really negative, and that joining our group had helped him turn things around. So, Monk is a really thoughtful, cool guy and I am really glad that he stayed at our poopy campsite that one night.

Before taking a week of the trail, Morgan and I had to say goodbye to our trail friends, and so to mark the occasion we planned a movie night in our hotel room in Mammoth Lakes. To fully emulate a children’s birthday party, we got movie popcorn, twix, watermelon sour patch candy, reese’s pieces, cookie dough, and soda and laid it all out on the hotel bar. After spending a while flipping through the channels trying to find a movie, The Fugitive (with Harrison Ford) came on and we were glued to the TV until long after hiker midnight (9 pm). I will include some pictures of this so you can get an idea… I think this will be one of my favorite memories of us all together.

Since then (last Saturday) we have been enjoying the slow pace, great views, and outdoor attractions of South Lake Tahoe. Along with a lot of good food, a Harry Potter movie marathon, and general good times with the fam. When we get back on the trail at Echo Lake all of our friends will be a few days behind. Though it feels weird that we skipped a section, I am glad for it because it means we got to spend a whole week with our family, and we can look forward to seeing all our friends  once more as they catch up to us in the coming weeks.