Chapter 12: PCT Week 10: “Breaking Trail”

Chapter 12: Week 10: “Breaking Trail”
Days 64-70: 5/8-5/14/22
Total Trail Miles: 38.50
Total GPS Recorded Miles: 46.47
Cumulative Trail Miles: 827.40
From: Bishop over Kearsarge Pass to Bishop


Days 64-66 // May 8-10, 2022 // Trail Miles: 0.00 / GPS Recorded Miles: 2.55 / Cumulative Trail Miles: 788.90

~Destination // 2 Zero Days in Bishop, CA~

Bishop was a sanctuary from the harsh elements of the Sierras. We knew they’d only get worse before letting up. We took two zero days in Bishop not only for our bodies, but also to rest our minds. The last few days had been truly remarkable, but also stressful. Being in the backcountry facing adverse conditions slowly drains your emotional and mental bandwidth even though you may be physically overcoming it. Sometimes you can feel the slow toll, and sometimes it hits you all at once.

When we first arrived with Deuces and Azul from over Kearsarge Pass in our black Jeep chariot, we enjoyed the Mountain Rambler Brewery, burgers, and fries. Those three things always hit right when first getting into town. Chicken wings also did the job. Basecamp had a local dole out a rude comment to her and Azul, but it wasn’t enough to cause a scene over.

We had a horrible issue with one of the hotels off the main strip falsely advertising that they had a washer/dryer for use on site, so we canceled that reservation and found another hotel on the other end of town (near a KFC and Taco Bell). Washer/dryer access was everything. We then went to some of the local gear shops to see what we could swap out. At the very least, I needed a new camp stove after boring the threading off of mine with a faulty fuel can pulled from a hiker box. It’s solid advice to always check finds in a hiker box that are “too good to be true” because there’s a reason it’s in there (not always just because it was too heavy).

One of the shops we visited was the Mammoth Gear Exchange. Each time we went there we had odd experiences with one of the male staff and were treated like a problem each time we went. It’s true, I ask a lot of questions and stare at descriptions on packaging a lot when browsing gear, but that’s what it’s there for, right? I’d advise against going there based solely on our limited experience with them, but otherwise, everything in town was close and just what we needed, including a movie theatre and bowling alley. Bishop was a golden gem plopped just outside of the Sierras, a haven.

Optimist came into town a day after us and had sustained some pretty serious injurious on his descent from Forester Pass. Having slept in, he hit the Forester descent much later in the day and sank in deeper than we had. So much so that he’d visited the ER when he arrived in town. Apparently, he’d sank down into ice and rock that had ripped him open quite badly. We helped out how we could and spent some time with him at a coffee shop, his blood-stained sweat suit and all. It was difficult to imagine that, had we waited just a few more hours to climb over Forester Pass, we could have been in the same situation.

For two days we watched movies, ate, drank beer, met with friends (Deuces, Azul, Cuppa, Dan, Optimist and others), and even managed to go on a burger date night at Schat’s Roadhouse. Schat’s had the best burgers in town, by far. It wasn’t just the physical rest we needed, but also the mental rest of placing ourselves outside of survival situations. Town dynamics can be stressful, but rarely deadly. Out in the backcountry your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is on overdrive, constantly assessing and driving you to push on or turn back based on the dangers (or lack thereof) at hand.

On the third day in Bishop, we were ready to be back on trail, so enlisted the help of the same sweet woman who’d picked us up in the black Jeep. We still had to climb up and over Kearsarge once more to hit the PCT. These were all miles that didn’t count towards our completion or actual “trail miles”.

We got a late start, after 4PM, and knew we’d only make it a few miles before the sun set. Deuces started and hiked ahead of us to scout out a campsite. 2.5 miles later, uphill, we saw him fluttering around a lake. Campsites? Yes. The sites weren’t great, but they were serviceable, and snow-free. That night broke the record for our coldest day on trail at a mere 5 degrees Fahrenheit. More than any other night, we were glad to have been carrying -40F sleeping bags. Aside from the extreme cold I experienced while making dinner, or the biting chill of Basecamp’s backside when she left the tent to pee, we were toasty.


Heading back into the John Muir Wilderness

Heading back into the John Muir Wilderness


Day 67 // May 11, 2022 // Trail Miles: 0.00 / GPS Recorded Miles: 4.90 / Cumulative Trail Miles: 788.90

~Destination // Kearsarge Pass Again~

Well, we had all the best intentions to hike up Kearsarge and over Glen Pass in the same day, but the weather had other plans. After cresting Kearsarge for a second time trying to get back to the PCT, the skies opened up. Snow. It was coming down thick. Of course, we’d seen worse snowstorms before, but we knew it would have been a risky call to climb and descend a snow-covered pass when there was no sign of the weather letting up. Visibility was limited.

Given that, after only 4.9 miles we decided to pitch the tent just off trail and wait out the snow. If it cleared, we’d pack up and start hiking again. If it didn’t clear, well, we’d just stay put. In our shelter we wrapped up in our sleeping bags, ate lunch, and kept a close eye on the snowfall.

It didn’t let up until close to dark. By that time, the day was awash, but we’d packed out an extra day of food as an emergency ration. We couldn’t afford to sit around for another day, however. Azul had also decided to hunker down by an alpine lake just a mile or two ahead of us with two other hikers, Cucumber and Bloom. We weren’t sure what Deuces had done since he didn’t have a Garmin device for us to message him on, but we hoped he was okay. In the end, we were safe, and that was what mattered, right? Live to hike another day.


A storm blowing in at the top of Kearsarge Pass

A storm blowing in at the top of Kearsarge Pass


Day 68 // May 12, 2022 // Trail Miles: 10.90 / GPS Recorded Miles: 11.20 / Cumulative Trail Miles: 799.80

~Destination // Glen Pass~

The snow had let up, but several inches of powder blanketed the ground, just enough to cover all the boot pack. It made progress slow since we had to keep our FarOut app pulled up while trying to stay on the little red line it showed for the trail. We took the wrong path several times and finally had to put on our hiking crampons when the incline steepened. Hollowing out a small bucket to sit in and strap on our crampons, we noticed just how far off trail we were. I could barely see the red line of trail on our map from where we were. It took some backtracking and trailblazing, but 30 minutes later we were back on route and able to find the site where Azul and the others had camped. They were long since gone.

Climbing a bit further, we could see a hiker making their way up the scree and narrow path ahead. It was Azul. I could recognize her pack and the way she packed it, anywhere. It was great to see her safe! The three of us grouped together and headed towards Glen.

The south face had snow, but we could see exposed rock. A good sign. On a north-facing, snow-covered ridge, we could just make out two hikers a quarter mile ahead of us. They were walking in our direction. It was Cucumber and Bloom, the two hikers that’d camped with Azul the night before. They’d woken up early to attempt Glen, but there was no boot pack on the descent, and they only had micro spikes for traction. Given those conditions, they’d opted to turn back and wait for other hikers to tackle the pass with. We all connected, as they did an “about face” back towards Glen. On the north face, the descent, the snow was easily a foot deep. It must have fallen much thicker up on the pass than where we’d camped the day before.

The five of us attempted Glen together. I led the way since I had crampons, the largest feet, and felt confident enough to make a solid traverse down. The descent was a white sheet of snow sloped at least 45 degrees. Only a few boulders peaked above. We had to break trail.

One step up to my knees. Two. Several hundred steps. Each one took my leg up to the knee or had to be kicked out for even the slightest foothold. Several times the snow gave way underneath me and the only thing that stopped me from sliding downhill were two feet of ice axe anchored into snow and ice. It took three hours to switchback down. There were some slides headed straight down that looked as if someone had tried to glissade. Not a safe option on that grade. We hoped it hadn’t been Deuces.

When we finally made it to the bottom, my legs were shaking and my knees were sore, but we’d made it down. A huge success. The five of us posed to take a celebration photo to commemorate the moment, and our new friendship. I looked back up at the pass we’d just overcome and saw a group at the top. It looked like Airdrop and his crew.

One member of the group started across the first traverse that had taken us 30 minutes to travel. Cherub. It took him 2 minutes in shorts. The entire route down took him twenty minutes. The rest of their group followed him. It was a weird feeling knowing how long it had taken us to get down, and how they were breezing through it, but I was glad we could have helped. Someone had to do it, and plenty of others had done the same for us.

We continued on with our new crew and stopped for lunch on a sliver of land wedged between alpine lakes. It was a stunning view. The other crew hiked by us at lunch. Included in that group was Cuppa and Luke, the same guy we’d met early in SoCal who’d asked Deuces for water. All of us hiked on and off until reaching camp at a suspension bridge along a gushing river. Along the way we’d run into a group of section hikers. They’d stopped to take photos with all of us and, to my surprise, told us that we were like heroes to them. I was taken aback in the best of ways. To think that other people actually saw us and what we were doing as amazing feats or acts of heroism. It was both humbling and empowering.

Camp that evening felt like a basecamp. As luck would have it, there were bear lockers there along banks of the suspension bridge. Possibly something to have been mindful of? Fifteen or so hikers were camped there with various tent brands and styles pitched. We were all resting and preparing to hike another pass the next day. Pinchot.

Exhaustion swept over us like a calm, soothing flood that quieted the river beside us.


Basecamp pointing at the route for us to take on Glen Pass

Basecamp pointing at the route for us to take on Glen Pass


Day 69 // May 13, 2022 // Trail Miles: 11.90 / GPS Recorded Miles: 12.11 / Cumulative Trail Miles: 811.70

~Destination // Pinchot Pass~

An absolute slog-fest. The climb to the top of Pinchot from our camp was between 7 and 8 miles uphill. The incline was gradual, but the route was tedious. After waking and crossing the suspension bridge over Woods Creek, we met a few other hikers: Big Marmot, Spanx, and Tuna Juice. We hiked with them on and off.

Overnight the temperature had dipped below freezing. This would have been fine were it not for a succession of creek/stream crossings that cut straight through the trail. A few were navigable with well-placed footing and a few lucky rock hops, but most were not. Many of the rocks peaking above the water level were splashed repeatedly with water that froze over it, creating a thin, glass-like surface that would have sent us straight into the water if we’d attempted to step on them. The only ‘easy’ way across, was through. Some left their shoes on while we took them off and put on our Crocs to cross.

By mile 4, my energy was wholly depleted. The snow, cold, heavy packs, and sheer level of mental exhaustion were taking their toll on me. Basecamp led just like she always did, but she had to continually stop or slow down so I could catch up. I continued to shovel protein bars in my face, but the resulting burst of energy would only last 30 minutes at best.

When we hit snowline, the landscape was white as far as the eye could see. All of it was slushy. We’d step off and half our footing would give way into the snow. It was a seemingly never-ending slog-fest, and I was over it. Basecamp had to keep urging me on and feeding me candy for momentum. Airdrop, Boomerang, Azul, Cuppa, Magnet, Cherub, and Crush where there as well. We were all impeded by the same snow, but for some reason it felt like a personal battle to me.

The top of Pinchot was a reward. While the entire descent was a massive sheet of white, it was at least downhill. We found ourselves a small notch in the pass and sat in it like a reclining chair to enjoy our lunch with an expansive vista in front of us. It was what my mind and body needed in that moment.

On the way down we hiked with Cuppa and Azul to a site 4.5 miles away by the Kings River. Washed-out trail and forked water crossings disrupted the flow of hiking, but with the added company, we found humor in how ridiculous it all was- the flooded trail, the slushy snow, how deep we continued to sink into it, how early we had to wake up each day to hike, and simply where we were. At camp, the four of us sat in a dinner circle and ate combinations of ramen and dehydrated potatoes, while Cuppa prepared artisan ravioli and pasta sauce. There are some things a hiker refuses to go without. For Cuppa, his stomach demanded only the finest cuisine, even if it added several extra pounds to his pack.


Me, climbing Pinchot, over it

Me, climbing Pinchot, over it


Day 70 // May 14, 2022 // Trail Miles: 15.70 / GPS Recorded Miles: 15.71 / Cumulative Trail Miles: 827.40

~Destination // Mather Pass~

Mather is known for being one of, if not the most difficult pass on the PCT. The reason is the grade. Forester was steep, but the switchbacks eased the blow. With snow on it, we couldn’t exactly see the trail on Mather, only the boot pack.

We’d started out in the dark with Azul and hiked by Airdrop’s group that morning camped just a mile or two from the pass. Cuppa caught up with and joined us after he’d slept in, but I couldn’t image he slept much longer after we’d left since I yelled into his tent for a wake-up alarm per his request.

From across a frozen expanse, we could see Mather that morning. A narrow path in a darker shade of blue switch-backed a few times and made a 45-degree B-line to the top. The sun peaked in the middle of a saddle and illuminated a trillion tiny ice crystals like mirrors. It was an azure meadow lit ablaze by the sun.

The route up Mather required an ice axe. If we’d slipped, the fall wouldn’t have been fatal, but it would have sent us hundreds of feet back down, and it wasn’t something we wanted to climb twice in the same day. There were also hikers below us, and a fall could have sent one of us tumbling into our companions. The sun was already glaring on the ascnet when we were halfway up, apparent when the consolidated pack started to give way under our feet. I felt for anyone climbing it later in the day. They’d punch straight through.

When we all reached the top, there was a small celebration as fist bumps and shouts of “nice job” circled the group. Basecamp, Azul, Cuppa, Airdrop, Magnet, Tuna Juice, Spanx, Big Marmot, Cherub, Boomerang, and I were all there, looking at what we’d traversed and climbed. I was proud of us and could tell Basecamp was too. The climb up hadn’t been as difficult as we’d thought it would be, but it was still rewarding to have it behind us.

The descent, however, looked rough. It was just as steep as the climb had been and facing north in the shadow of the sun. It was iced over and sharp. In a single-file line, the lot of us headed down with spikes on, careful with each step lest we go sliding down on jagged ice that would have scraped through clothing. It took around 45 minutes to descend into a flat valley where Airdrop’s group discussed who’d push further to Mammoth vs. who would take the Bishop Pass exit back to Bishop. Basecamp and I were going over Bishop, but it sounded like most everyone else was pushing on.

During the day, we all separated, but ended up finding Cuppa at a campsite a mile before the Bishop Pass/PCT split. There was a sign for the John Muir Trail with his face carved in it just by the camp entrance. It seemed like the others had kept hiking further towards Muir Pass. The perfect river outlined the site and would have been a perfect spot for fishing. We had the place to ourselves tucked in a small canopy of pines. A family of deer crunched through the forest on dead leaves and twigs making their way to water. It wouldn’t be the last time we saw him, but it was the last night we’d spend with Cuppa on the PCT.


Our morning approach to Mather Pass

Our morning approach to Mather Pass

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