Deep in the Sierra: PCT Days 51-53

Day 51.  Miles: 10.7  Total: 799.8

This morning, I sleep in a little, so the sun is already illuminating Charlotte Lake on my way back to the PCT. The water is still. The mountains are reflected on its surface in sharp detail.

Today we hike over Glen Pass. At the top, we find Pinch, along with his friends Ross and Bofa. The snowy terrain on the north-facing descent is not particularly treacherous, but I stop to put on my microspikes anyway. I mailed them all the way out here, so might as well, right?


Pinch uses his ice axe to demonstrate how to self-arrest while the others record video, pretending to panic at his “fall.” I pick my way down the trail behind them. It’s nice to have the extra traction. Eventually, the group spreads out again, but we bunch up at Rae Lakes.

These lakes are stunningly beautiful, and we spend several hours here. Today, we’re doing a “trail nearo.” Usually a nearo day coincides with entering or leaving town, but our 8-day, 7-night food carry does not fit into our bear cannisters, so we’re bear-box-hopping until we can eat down our provisions enough to store them properly overnight. Last night, we used the metal bear box near Charlotte Lake, and tonight, we plan to camp at the suspension bridge near Mile 800 and use the bearproof food storage there.


It’s a cool, windy day. We swim in the lakes, then lay out in the sun on our sleeping pads. Jackrabbit, Poseidon, and Captain Something are all quite efficient and stoic about the freezing alpine water, whereas Billie Goat and I tend to wade to our knees and then shiver and second-guess the situation for several minutes until we muster the resolve to submerge.


It feels strange and lovely to spend four hours in one place at midday on the trail. Thru-hiking can become like a job. After all, if you aren’t goal-oriented and focused on hiking on making miles at least some of the time, you won’t reach Canada before winter. It’s easy to fall into a pattern: being on trail means hiking, and rest is for town days. But on-trail rest is underrated. Not only is it far more scenic than napping in a Motel-6, it’s also cheaper. No where to spend money out here! No restaurants to tempt with fresh food, ice cream, and beer.


Around 3:30, I pack up and resume hiking. The final six miles to the suspension bridge are more challenging than I anticipated, and I don’t arrive until nearly 7 p.m. At least a dozen other hikers are already in the area. I am forced to set up in closer proximity to another tent than I would typically choose. I pitch my tent only about 20 feet away from the couple before I notice that both of them are coughing. Frequent, hacking coughs, worse than Leaky or Rookie with COVID. It’s probably just in my head, but I think I feel a tickle at the back of my throat. Before I stash my extra food in the bear box, I take some NyQuil. Even if I’m not actually getting sick, at least it will help me sleep through my neighbors’ noise. It’s probably nothing, I tell myself. It’s definitely nothing.


Day 52.  Miles: 14.0  Total: 813.8

My alarm goes off at 5:15. My first thought is absolutely not. I turn off the alarm and go back to sleep. When I am awoken again, this time by my neighbors stirring and coughing, it’s 5:45. I still feel heavy and sluggish. Probably still groggy from the NyQuil, I assume. When I poke my head from the tent, I see Billie Goat and Poseidon strapping the last of their gear to their packs.


Uh oh. I scramble to dismantle my tent. Naturally, the first morning I’m ever not ready by 6 a.m. has coincided with the first morning that all my friends are. Normally this wouldn’t matter at all– we typically all leave camp separately, only meeting up for second breakfast six or seven miles into the day– but today, we are going to reach 800 miles only a few minutes after crossing the bridge. We packed out small cans of wine to celebrate, so the others are waiting for me while I stuff my belongings into my pack.


“Sorry,” I say, when I reach where they’re standing and chatting at the bridge. “I just couldn’t wake up for some reason.”


Only one person is permitted on the suspension bridge at a time, so we take turns crossing. I feel my chest tighten when I see how much the bridge bobs and twists under Jackrabbit’s feet. I have always had a fear of heights. Once, as a kid, I made my whole family turn back on a hike on summer vacation in West Virginia because I was too afraid to cross a suspension bridge. For years, I was even nervous about climbing the ladder into the hayloft in the barn on my parents’ farm. I’ve worked hard to overcome this fear. The AT forced me to cross exposed trail and scramble up steep boulders studded with rebar. Working for REI, I’ve even guided on Angel’s Landing in Zion and crossed the suspension bridges over the Colorado in the Grand Canyon.

Still, I pause just a quarter of the way onto this bridge. For the briefest moment, I think, I can’t do this. Then, I look at the deep water rushing below and think louder, you have to. There’s no other safe way across.


Of course, I get to the other side. I descend the wooden stairs to the trail, trying not to look as panicked as I feel. With adrenaline pumping, at least I’m finally awake. Once Captain Something is across, we continue up the trail and pull out our wine to celebrate 800 miles. My head is hurting a little, so I pour out half my can on the ground, but somehow I still end up feeling drunk. I’m not alone– we’re all feeling punch-drunk and silly. We stop again and take funny portraits of each other, tipsy on a single drink because of the altitude, with beautiful mountains in the background.


Then we begin the ascent to Pinchot pass. I am dragging. I begin to worry that this is not just residual drowsiness from the NyQuil or the effect of half a can of wine, but COVID. This is the most remote section of the PCT, and the highest in elevation. This is not where you want to get sick, especially not with breathing problems. However, my throat is fine, and I’m not coughing, just tired. Every time I look at my watch, I think it must be malfunctioning, because the mileage is ticking upward much too slowly.


Pinchot pass is not technical. I don’t need my microspikes at all. It’s not even that steep, really. Nonetheless, for me, this is the hardest pass in the Sierra. The views are phenomenal, and I distract myself by listening to Where the Crawdads Sing, since the movie is coming out soon. I hike very, very slowly, but I do not stop.


I think back to hiking 27.5 miles the day of the aqueduct. Today, just 14 miles was unequivocally more difficult. I go to bed early, hoping to feel better in the morning.


Day 53.  Miles: 21.2  Total: 835.0

I wake up feeling less groggy than yesterday. Still, we have a lot of miles planned. Mather Pass is the first time that I am truly happy to have my microspikes. Plenty of hikers are not even carrying them this year, but the extra traction is reassuring on the steep slopes. On the descent, we attempt some glissading. For the most part, it’s actually just scooting down the hill, but at one point, I get a bit of momentum. It’s fun to try, but even funnier to watch the others.

The afternoon stretches long. Usually on tough days, I listen to lots of audiobooks or podcasts, but I need to be judicious with battery usage on such a long stretch between towns.


I wrote in my Grand Canyon shakedown post about how I’ve coped with personal challenges in the past couple years by keeping my mind occupied, pretty much all the time. Silence, which I used to relish, now tends to stress me out. Overall, the PCT has been helpful in regaining my appreciation for quiet and stillness. Now, however, with my weird fatigue and my worries about having COVID out here, I wish I could take a break from my spiraling negative thoughts. The views around me are magical– these are the landscapes that inspired John Muir and countless other naturalists before and since– but I am locked in my head somewhere that the beauty and inspiration can’t reach.


By evening, I am exhausted and in a bad mood. When I find my friends cooking in camp, I mumble a greeting and stomp off to set up my tent. As always, once I’ve dropped my pack and donned my rain pants and puffy to deter the mosquitoes, I begin to feel better. I sit with the Second Breakfast Club and make myself some chili mac, which is delicious. We’re joined by Liz, a friend we made near Big Bear but haven’t seen since. She is deaf, and none of us know how to sign, so we communicate by typing on our phones and passing them around.


While we eat, three young bucks approach our camp. They have velvety antlers and tawny coats. They exhibit no fear of us at all. I know that this is a problem, that it it is due to human mismanagement of food, but in the moment, these up-close interactions with wildlife can feel like a magical aspect of national parks. I remind myself it’s unnatural, and I take extra care to store my belongings properly overnight. I once had my cork trekking poles handles chewed up by the feral ponies of Grayson Highlands, so I am glad my poles are safely hidden as the structure of my tent.

The Second Breakfast Club eats dinner while a buck grazes casually in the background

As it gets dark, I go to bed. I’m fine, I tell myself as I curl up in my sleeping bag. I can do this. I’m fine.

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