Bent, Broken, but Whole
After you finish the first half of the Sierra Nevada you may think the worst is in the rearview mirror. The tall passes are done, and you feel nearly invincible. What you may not realize, especially during a high snow year, is that you’re still going to be in for quite a challenge.
The past eight days I hiked 190 miles, without a resupply. It was the final push to finish the section, and going into I thought I knew what to expect.
When you’re going through the first high passes of the Sierra, it’s easy to get into a routine. Wake up at 1, hike over the pass, get into a valley, and sleep. The next half breaks that rhythm.
You still wake up early, but you have no idea what the day will hold. Sometimes, you’ll climb up a 9,000-foot peak and not see any snow. Other times, you’ll hike through a valley at a lower elevation and be fighting snow for miles.
The last few days were hard. Harder than any other days of my life. Nearly all of my gear broke, but I’ve come out whole.
Mammoth Lakes to Mile 903.3
Pavlov and I spent the morning in Mammoth Lakes doing chores and anxiously figuring out how to get ten days worth of food into our packs. The two people we’d been hiking with were going snowboarding and taking a few zeroes, but we wanted to get back out there. So it’s back to the Pavlov and Squirtle show.
We didn’t get out of town until 5 in the afternoon, though. We had to run to the post office and update our respective social medias, which took more time than originally planned. But we easily got a hitch from Big Red, a guy who did the PCT in 2014. He warned us about creeks and Sonora Pass.
We only did 3.5 miles today on the Mammoth Pass side trail, just to get back on the actual PCT. We walked part of the way with two other guys also from BC (Pavlov’s homeland) and Oregon (my homeland). We plan on getting to the base of Donohue Pass tomorrow, a 23-mile day. With plans of doing 190 miles without a resupply, our packs are the heaviest they’ve ever been, so it may be a difficult day.
“Squirtle?” I hear from my next door neighbor. “Yeah?” I respond, “we hiking?” A confirmation greets my ears. Pavlov and I plan on going 23 miles over Island Pass to the base of Donohue Pass.
My mind, body, and spirit collectively sigh. The Sierra are almost over, shouldn’t I feel more excitement? Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited for the day. But underneath it all is a feeling of exhaustion.
We pack up our frozen gear and I down a muffin I got from Vons. We start hiking through the snow, and merely 15 minutes in I posthole off a log and am sent to my knees. I barely stop myself and my heavy pack from sliding down the icy slope. So it’s one of those days.
We hike down far enough to escape the snow. Birds are singing an unknown tune and the sun is starting to lighten the sky. We notice more PCT markers on the trees than usual; we must be nearing Yosemite.
We crawl across an icy log to avoid getting our legs wet at the bottom of a waterfall. We see plenty of deer down below 8,000 feet, and I thoroughly enjoy the morning walk.
After a brief lunch in a parking lot, we start climbing up to Island Pass. We think nothing of this one, as the comments on it label it as an easy one. Technically, it is.
However, with little to no bootpack to follow in the snow, and a thoroughly covered trail, the going is slow. We lose our way plenty of times as we slosh through the afternoon snow.
Eventually we reach the summit, though it feels more like the top of a hill. The 1.6 miles down to our campsite took over an hour as we tried to route find and not slip. Unfortunately, we slip a lot.
After what feels like forever we reach our planned spot. Twenty-three miles down with ten days worth of food. Not an easy accomplishment, and we both agree today was a hard one.
I wake up at 10 p.m. lying on the ground. Crap. I’ve sprung a leak. I get off the Therm-a-Rest and blow more air. An hour later I’m back on the ground. So that’s how tonight’s gonna go. Pavlov calls out and alerts me that she is also on the ground. Stupid Therm-a-Rests.
I repeat this process through the night until finally my alarm beeps at 3 a.m.. Today, we have to do Donohue Pass. I hope that it won’t be hard, but you really can’t know.
The climb up is easy, and while the climb down is a little more technical we make it to the bottom early in the morning. We see the green valley below and my heart soars. There’s so little snow down there!
We pass plenty of JMT hikers and deer as we hike through Yosemite.
At lunch we stop at some calm water and try to find the leaks in our sleeping pads. With some success we both patch two holes each. Some park rangers check our permits, and we keep hiking. The day goes quickly, and soon enough we’re in our tents, Benson Pass in our near future.
Before that, though, I sadly realize I must have missed a hole. Pavlov, as well, is once again on the ground. Our sleeping pads are still Swiss cheese.
We hike through the morning with ease. We once again check our sleeping pads and find more holes. We repair then and hope for the best.
Up over Benson we go. It’s easy going and things are looking up. We follow the boot track down as usual until we check Guthook at the bottom. We’re wildly off trail. Amazing.
We try to see where the actual trail is only to realize it’s buried under snow on the side of a sheer mountain face.
We follow the bootpack until it ends at the top of a creek outlet. We debate what to do until Cutie with a Bootie showed up, followed closely by Salad and Slacks. We decide to tackle the rock scramble down and hope it eventually meets with the trail.
My shoe keeps feeling loose on the way down, and eventually I realize the lace is broken. Awesome. The scramble is not ideal, but eventually we intersect the trail.
When we get to camp it looks like rain. We quickly set up our tents, and in process the tent pole snaps. I laugh, because it’s the only thing I can do. All my gear is broken.
I fix it with duct tape (kinda) and crawl in. I eat soup in my tent, and hope the bears stay far away. Finally, my sleeping pad feels like it will hold for the night.
We climb Seavey Pass at the break of dawn. As usual the sun is rising as we summit the 9,500-foot pass. Like the last few, we don’t really realize when we’ve gone over the top, but we are blessed with a wonderful moonlit view of a lake near the top.
The climb down is simple, the snow not yet slushy in the forested area. Until, that is, we get to the river at the bottom.
The trail meanders with the water, on the south side of some tall ridge. That means, to our displeasure, there is snow on the whole bank. It’s steep, and the track looks well made but sketchy. With a sigh we start the walk.
It’s not bad, but the consequences of slipping are a dunk in a frozen river at best. We hike on, rock scrambling and trail blazing as best we can. I’m terrified of falling, but after an hour it’s over. We reach a new valley and are safe.
We do two more 500-foot climbs, and in between a river crossing. People who had gone through a week ago said it was chest deep, but the water barely came to our waists. Thank God.
After the two climbs, we begin the ascent to Dorothy Lake Pass. We had initially hoped that the slow ascent would be easy, but the snow-covered ground destroys us. We wanted to go at least 26 miles, but it’s looking impossible as the time nears 7.
Pavlov is in full on fire mode, but I’m dying on the inside. I know I can’t make it over the pass at this point. When I tell her this, we both agree we should find a spot to camp. Eventually, one mile from the top, we find flat, dry ground and pass out.
I can’t get up. Everything hurts. My bones are marinated in exhaustion and my muscles are drenched in fatigue. My knee throbs and I’m trying to convince myself to make my coffee. I shuffle in my quilt until finally I make the plunge.
It’s dark so I use my headlamp to light my work. I put the water from my Smartwater bottle on the stove and light it with my mini Bic lighter.
I gather my items in my tent. Phone goes in fanny pack. Extra clothes go in the ziplock. Finally the water is hot enough and I pour in the instant coffee. I sip this and warm my hands in the chilly air.
When it’s gone I deflate my mattress, stuff my quilt in my backpack, and tear down my tent from the inside. It’s not as hard as you’d think.
Then I get snacks for the day from my bear can, and shove everything else carefully into my pack, so it carries well.
The final step is putting my frozen shoes on. It’s a process, as the broken shoe is hard to tie. I slip on the Microspikes for the icy hiking, strap on my heavy pack, and we’re hiking before 4.
An average morning in the Sierra. Exhausting when done almost every day for two weeks. We camped at the base of Dorothy Lake Pass, the second-to-last pass we have to do. The climb is easy, and I guide us through the dark with my headlamp on bright. As usual the trail is buried under feet of snow.
The top is unremarkable, but the sunset in the distance is beautiful. With only one wrong turn on the way down, we quickly descend to snowless scenery.
At the bottom, we don’t hesitate. For the first time in a few days we have flat, exposed trail. Pavlov and I fly through the forest, going over three miles per hour. My pack feels light on my back and knee stops hurting.
Eventually we start climbing to the top of the ridge before Sonora Pass, a popular resupply point we are skipping. We have to get above 10,000 feet, the last time we do this (at least for a while).
It’s not long before we hit snow and our pace slows. I see two hikers up on a steep snowbank above us, and with a sinking feeling I realize we will have to do that too. Crap.
When we get to the last campsite before the final snowy walk, I have a small breakdown. Too many days living outside my comfort zone has worn down my resolve. I can’t do this.
Pavlov asks me if I think I can do it. I want to wait till morning when it’s icy, but I know it’s possible now. Knowing this section will be over sooner if we do the climb, I shake off the past two weeks and say yes.
I go half the pace of my hiking partner. Step, step, pole, pole. Slowly I make my way along the steep slope, stomach growling from the fact that I haven’t eaten in over five hours.
When I make my way to the end, I have a small celebration. While if I had slipped on the snow, it would have been a mostly safe slide to the bottom, I really didn’t want to risk a broken bone on the way down.
The next few miles we hike up and down this ridge, staying at over 10,000 feet. Sometimes on steep snow, usually on loose rock.
We reach our first possible campsite on this ridge at about noon, and after getting food in our systems and some snow for water, we decide to make the possibly dicey climb down to Sonora Pass.
It’s a beautiful walk to the end, and we see the road through the pass with about three miles to go. We make our own trail through the snow down, controlled sliding and glissading when we can. The possibly dicey way down was nothing of the sort.
When we reach the road, we briefly contemplate going into town to get pizza. This passes quickly, with a desire to save money and to make South Lake Tahoe that much better.
We push out another mile from the pass and set up camp. We eat and chat and enjoy the amazing view from our spot, and hit the hay before 8. We hear we’re past the worst of the Sierra now, but I’ll be the judge of that.
Today marks two months on trail. Does it feel like it? Yes and no. The first day out from the border feels both like yesterday and a lifetime ago. Even Kennedy Meadows feels far away.
Today started as most days do out here. We hiked up a snowy mountain in the morning, watched a beautiful sunrise, and then climbed back down.
Then we hiked through a ridiculous amount of snow through forest. Tragically, even though we probably are through the worst of it, there’s still going to be snow.
So the hiking was slow, and at one point I accidentally glissaded (slid down a hill) and bent my new trekking pole in the process. Add it to the list of broken gear.
It was a long day, and my ankles and legs are exhausted. But I’m writing this from the comfort of my tent, only 2.5 days till I’m in the hotel my wonderful mother booked for us!
Eyes reflect the light from our headlamps back at us. They’re too far apart to be a deer or raccoon, and we we think the worst. We talk a little louder but otherwise keep hiking.
This has happened a few times on our early-morning stints. The one this morning wasn’t any different, but it got to me a little more than usual. I’m ready to be out of this section.
I meditate as we do the morning’s climb. I feel raw from the past few days, and I open wounds I didn’t know were there. I cry as I hike. Tears of thankfulness and forgiveness, for the beauty of the Sierra and the harsh conditions I’ve had to overcome. It’s the first time I’ve cried on trail.
When we reach the top I’ve worked through the emotions that had overcome me. It’s a beautiful sunrise on the valley below, and I know it’s going to be a good day.
Pavlov and I hike with Conundrum and Caveman for most of the day. It’s fun having new conversation, and makes for a quicker day.
At about 7, we near a road and I hear a voice in the distance. I don’t get my hopes up, but when I see a tablecloth and pop-up by the side of the road I know it can only be one thing. Trail magic.
It’s been over 300 miles since this sort of thing has happened, and about 170 since I’ve had any sort of real meal. I devour the eggs and chili gifted to us by this kind angel. The hot, fresh coffee soothes my soul, and all is well.
The four of us stay here for an hour, chatting with Chipmunk (the trail angel). This is his ninth year, and he has it down to an art. His wife’s brownies are to die for, and I don’t think I’ll ever leave.
Eventually, though, we bid him and other new hikers farewell and head back to the snowy trail. There is more exposed trail as we hike, and the miles go faster than they have in a while.
We are blessed with views for most of the day, and though there are some precarious rock scrambles the day is mostly uneventful. We hike the 25 miles we had planned for the day at about 6:30, and the four of us eat dinner and tell stories well past our usual bed time.
We wake an hour later than usual. Things are good this morning. Tonight, we’ll be in town, feasting on town food. I don’t know where we’ll sleep, but I hope that everything will work out.
We start the day with a climb and a descent. We chat, but I can tell I’m not in a talking mood. I’m tired this morning, and though I’m excited about town food the last week has been hard.
We still have on more pass to do before we can call ourselves home free. It shouldn’t be hard, but you never can tell with these things. We head up the pass, through the snow of course.
When I get to the point where I can see the top, I also see where the trail is going to take us. It’s a steep snowbank, but it’s nothing I haven’t done before. I sigh and put on my Microspikes.
I’m re-energized at the top, and the descent goes quickly. We’re greeted with trail magic at Carson Pass, and gladly accept the sodas and snacks. We have our picture taken, and keep hiking.
We cross the highway, and in all honesty this was scarier than most of the creek crossings. We narrowly avoid cars, and enjoy a relatively snow-free section of trail. I’m told this should continue for a while, but I don’t keep my hope up. You never can trust anyone out here.
The final push to our exit point is a hard one. It’s snowy, steep, and the group of four of us are being swarmed by mosquitoes. The final descent to the highway is sketchy, so we go off trail to avoid the worst. Eventually we hit snow-free trail, and the final two miles go by quickly.
We get a quick hitch into town, gorge ourselves on the Chinese buffet, and sleep in trail angel Doug’s back yard. We have two full zeroes, a holiday, and a warm bed starting tomorrow.
Sirens, honking, yelling. It’s too much for our fragile psyches. It’s been over a week since I’ve seen this many people, and it’s the Fourth of July parade in South Lake Tahoe.
We do our best to fight the crowds on our way to our hotel. All I want is to lie down on a bed. Eventually, we make it. After checking in, I feel the incredibly soft and wonderful bed. I grab a shower, and we head out to do our chores.
In short, we do our resupply, grab new socks, and I gather supplies to fix my broken gear. I relax a lot and a group of us hikers go out for pizza. We watch fireworks on the walk back, and sleep for almost ten hours.
Today we mostly just sat around and ate, and shipped our ice axes and bear cans home. I hit the trail again tomorrow, rejoined with Sherrif Woody. We plan to push to Sierra City. Some day we will be free or snow!
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