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.