Episode 9: Surviving the most scenic trail in America

Kearsarge Pass (mile 788) through Red’s Meadow (mile 906)

I know I said this in my last post, but this was our toughest hitch yet.  Last week, we tested ourselves against the trail to see what we could accomplish, but this week, the trail tested us.

The Sierra has been wild.  Truly, incomparably wild.  We’ve gone over two hundred miles without even seeing a road, where the only man-made structures have been ranger cabins and most of our navigation has been via our GPS.  We haven’t so much as heard a machine while hiking, and yet in the absence of electronics the forest is bursting with action.

Hiking through the Sierra in Spring is like witnessing a war between temperatures, one in which the footsoldiers are water in all its forms. Water gushes out of the rocks, breaks through old vegetation, and rushes by in the rivers we ford.  It is in constant retreat, desperate to get down the mountain and away from its source.  Water in huge snowfields is under siege as the alpine sun scoops out divets and leaves the surface pock-marked.  Water runs underneath the snow, loosening it from rock and soil; its top turns from ice to slush and the hard center slides down ravines, leaving a scar on the landscape as it pulls rocks and trees and brush into its orbit.

Water is everywhere, and although the snow still falls and thin ice still steals onto puddles, there is more water every day because the sun is winning more battles and the warmth is winning the war.

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Thunder Snow:

Our first night back on the trail, we didn’t make any new miles. We hiked back over Kearsarge Pass despite gathering storm clouds, and camped near the junction with the PCT, above 10,000 feet but still within tree line. We thought this would be a safe enough place to wait out any storm that night, but we weren’t prepared for what came.

We finished dinner and scurried into our tents for warmth; the night was freezing and it seemed like we were moving into a cloud. As we were brushing our teeth, mist rolled through our camp like an officer on patrol, checking that everyone was in their tent by curfew. A few minutes after the mist, the thunder began. At first it was a rumbling in the distance but very quickly it was right over our heads. Lightning struck directly above us over and over, with the after crack of thunder rattling our teeth each time. Rain began to fall – or we thought it was rain. Maybe hail, from the hard tapping sound of it. Suddenly, the tents started to collapse.

It was snow that was coming down, a heavy dense snow that fell inches in minutes and made our tent poles shudder. Everyone leapt into action and started bailing snow off their tents. Spoon used his flip flops to scrape away the clingy wet stuff when the lightning abated, and we spent the rest of the night pushing on our ceiling. In the distance we could hear a second rumbling, and it was this sound that made us worry.

The wet Spring snow endangered more than the structural integrity of our tent. This heavy new water, coming down fiercely from a sky that was about to turn a sunny eye on its newest creation, created a perfect environment for a different type of trail hazard.

Avalanches have a sound that is absolutely distinct from any other sound in nature, but only when they are right next to you. It’s a little bit like hearing the radio on in a parked car. When all the windows are up, the sound is muffled and you have to strain to catch a familiar tone above the bass of the song. From far away, an avalanche could be the rumbling of thunder. Close up, you can hear every note – trees snapping like twigs, the crack like pool balls as huge rocks tumble into each other, the big slide of ice sheets and the tenor of skittering debris that lastly fans out at the bottom.

The following morning, we woke up with the feeling that something was wrong. Everything was silent. It was late; we hadn’t noticed the sun come up because we were in the shade of a tree; also, our tent was covered in an inch of snow. Outside, several inches of accumulation were rapidly melting in the mid-morning sun and the grassy squares where our friends had been were vacant. Bivvy, Centerfold, and Governor had hiked ahead and let us sleep in.

The kind morning lulled us into a false calm; we dried our tent as much as we could, made coffee, said hello to Jules and Jan as they passed us heading to Glen Pass. It was too late anyway to catch the Pass when it was hard, so we figured we would have to post-hole a little and accepted our fate.

When we stopped to put on our micro-spikes for the final climb, we heard an unmistakable sound to our right. Looking over, we watched a small Avalanche break down the pass and we were still for a minute. It wasn’t the most comforting thing to see before climbing the pass.

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The climb was pretty tough on me; after four days at lower elevation, my lungs had lost their edge and I really struggled with the area above 11,000. Spoon kept me on track and really got me up Glen. We were passed by Alex and Curious George near the top, which was fairly steep. On top, the trail followed a ridge and then plummeted down steeply through a snowy rock field. The descent was impossible without an ice axe, and required us to cut steps and kick down with our heels.

As we started down the sketchy descent – the steepest of all the passes – we saw an old friend come over the ridge. The warning mist from the night before was back, rolling over the pass so thickly that it completely obscured everything behind it. A wall of black clouds was coming towards us and in front of us, we had to navigate a slippery ice chute through sharp rocks.

We rushed down as fast as we safely could, but we were still above 11,000 feet when the first crack of thunder sounded. The sky opened up and began blasting us with hail and snow. In minutes, our packs were covered with several inches of snow and we were soaked to the bone. Lightning was all around us and the thunder was deafening. We ran, slipped, post holed up to our hips, and somehow slid down to the snowfield unharmed.

Crossing the snowfield was safer but harder without gravity to aid us, and we felt like we were swimming off the mountain through stinging water, with every form of snow and ice swirling around us. Eventually we made it below snow line and started around the alpine lakes, which I imagine are beautiful under different circumstances. We had completely lost Curious George and Alex, who had slid down like otters in front of us and now seemed to have disappeared into the wall of water. We couldn’t feel our hands or feet anymore, and we had a deep nausea in the pit of our stomaches – the first signs of mild hypothermia. If we could just get below 10,000 feet, I knew, the snow would turn to rain and we would be warmer. I looked at the map finally and realized we had two more miles through the thunder snow before we descended. And then we saw the ranger cabin.

We ran up, hoping to hide on the porch for a few minutes, and found a German already there, wrapped up in his sleeping bag and ground cloth.

“Hey, we just came to hide from the storm.” We said completely unnecessarily to him.  We talked for a few minutes before finally asking him about the second bag on the porch: “Where’s your friend?” He smiled sleepily and said “She’s inside.” We looked at him and then at the deadbolted door where we heard a small voice say “Hey…..”

Apparently the window had been left unlocked, we guessed for this exact emergency scenario. We climbed in the window along with a couple other hikers and changed into our wools in the dry safety of the cabin, where we played cribbage until the storm subsided (Thanks King’s Canyon Rangers). Spoon and I night-hiked out and finally made it down to 8500 feet, where some other hikers’ campfire greeted us. We only went 11 miles that day, but got through what we hoped would be the worst storm of the trip.

Reacclimating to the trail:

The trail greeted us pretty roughly those first few days back. After the storm had dumped a few more inches of snow on the passes, travel did not get easier. The next day we had a slow morning again because we had learned from the day before that when the sun is out, you’d better dry your gear. Fortunately, our slow morning actually reunited us with Centerfold and Bivvy. We had been worried about them (Not to mention Toe Touch ahead of us and Camel behind us) when the storm struck, but it turns out they camped early and we passed them while night-hiking. We all met up at the suspension bridge by where we camped and started towards Pinchot Pass together.

For whatever reason, Pinchot took forever. Maybe it was the long snowfield where we post-holed and slid around, or the steep headwall, or the grey clouds that lingered over our heads and set our gun-shy nerves off, but it seemed to take unusually long to get over the snow section. It seems like the snow line is lowering as we go North, which is counter-intuitive; despite the fact that we are going North, we’re climbing lower and lower passes as we go – yet the snow is increasing.

We forded maybe a dozen rivers that day, walking through in our already-soaked shoes without a second thought. There has been a lot of buzz on and around the trail about the river crossings, but personally I thought they were pretty easy. Nothing has been above the top of my thigh so far, and at 5’4″ I’m one of the shorter hikers. Some of the rivers have had stronger currents than others, but it seems like it’s cold enough still that the snow isn’t really melting as fast as other years.

After our last ford – a huge triple river ford that went about forty feet – we met up with a group of hikers at yet another campfire and we couldn’t resist the warmth it offered. We set up camp early and talked around the campfire until we felt warm inside and out. It was our second 11 mile day, which meant we would have to really increase our mileage to get to Red’s Meadow in time for our food to last.

Just as we were getting ready for nighttime chores, we saw a familiar figure on the other bank of the river. It was Camel, who had finally caught us after his L.A. Trip! He did some huge days to catch up, and unfortunately had to continue since he was now running out of food himself. He crouched by our tent and we talked excitedly for twenty minutes about everything that’s happened. He avoided the worst of the storm by being in the valley between Forrester and Glen when it hit, so it hadn’t slowed him down terribly.

The next day, Centerfold was off extra early in an effort to catch and hike with Camel again. Bivvy left before us and Spoon and I, predictably, left late.

We didn’t want to confess to each other, but Little Spoon and I were both feeling it: the fear that we couldn’t push big miles anymore, that maybe the snow had won a victory over our spirits. Fortunately the morning was spent in a valley where soft pine needles gave our feet a vacation from rock hopping and post-holing. We made good time in the valley and climbed very gradually to Mather. By the time we were at the top snowfield, we were moving quickly with a renewed vigor for the trail. Even in the slush, we felt good again. The sun was out and we hadn’t seen a storm in two days.

The trail up Mather was the first of many that would be a ‘choose your own adventure’ pass. There were many boot tracks, and we were pretty sure we weren’t totally following the right trail, but we did find it again at the end and loop around the lake up to the top, where we climbed straight up an exhilarating headwall with an incredible view. At the top, we felt strong again and we laughed our way down the mountain, glissando get when we could. Mather Pass was exactly what we needed to feel like we could do the trail again; we were nearly running when we caught Bivvy, waiting by the Evolution ford for us to come along.

Evolution is one of the larger rivers we have to cross, and we took the high river alternate to avoid wet gear. By this point, Spoon and I had uncharacteristically dry shoes from walking through a low valley all day. Most of the trail in the valleys has been essentially a river or mud field, usually we slog through water that’s ankle deep for a good portion of it. But today, it was strangely dry and so were our shoes so we gingerly removed them and waded across Evolution in our bare feet, with Bivvy scoffing at us but supporting our impossible effort.

We made 21 miles and camped by another low river, where it proved to be much colder than expected. We woke up to frost on our bear canisters but we felt ready to face the trail again (with partially dry shoes). After all, we only had one 12,000 foot pass left and after that, how much snow could there be?

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A Winter Wonderland:

We are not imagining it. The snow line is dropping. We approached the snow field on Muir with all the foreshadowing of a classic novel. The John Muir Trail hikers (JMTers) have started passing us now since most of them hike the trail Southbound, and they are bearing bad news. The Muir pass is a 6 mile snowfield. Muir Pass is a 10 mile snowfield. Muir Pass is 14 miles of snow hell. Yetis roam the pass, wielding weapons fashioned from the bones of long-dead mountaineers. PCTers are perishing by the dozen and rising again as wight walkers whose reanimated corpses seek vengeance. Around the campfire, storytellers’ eyes widen and they whisper, ‘Muir Pass’ to the glowing embers.

For the record, it was pretty snowy. But we also survived it, tired and annoyed by snow, but still alive and well. We did 21 miles again over Muir Pass, although the snow field was about 3 miles on the South side and maybe 6 on the North. We seemed to climb forever and finally saw a castle rise out of the clouds, which was a little surreal. It was the John Muir Hut, and a really cool complement to the pass. At this point, snow line seems to be around 10,000 miles now – a reality that is frustrating, but surmountable.

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I have no recollection of that night other than to say that it was cold and we survived it; the passes have begun to blend together into one snowy memory. We got up at our usual late hour and started up Selden Pass, which we had heard was ‘the easiest pass’ and also, ‘just as hard as the other passes’. As it turns out, the pass was a piece of cake. Selden was almost not a real pass, with its gradual ascent and limited snow on the South side. It earned its name as a pass on the North, where the snow extended a couple miles down to about 9,700 feet. Still, it was our first 11,000 foot pass and the elevation didn’t take a toll on us as with the others.

We met a gaggle of JMT hikers on top who were so excited about the trail, we didn’t have the heart to tell them there was more snow ahead. We tried to temper it with, ‘well, the snow line does rise…’ We’ve been surprised at how little winter gear the JMT hikers have. Many of them don’t have microspikes or ice axes; some of them don’t even have pants. Hopefully the weather heats up like it’s supposed to and their trip over the passes is a gentle one.

Selden Pass marked our third 21 mile day, and we knew we only had one long day left over Silver Pass, a second 11,000 foot pass. By now, we thought we’d be coasting into Red’s Meadow early in the morning after a triumphant charge over Silver. Then we made some mistakes.

Lost:

We headed up Silver with the optimism of successful mountaineers, which was mistake number one. We started out late, not worried about our time that day. We were confident we could squeeze in about 24 miles even starting at 9:30, even going over snow in the Sierra.

Silver Pass was certainly steeper than Selden, but we were feeling good when we reached the top. Also, pretty cold. The clouds had appeared again and we had no sun to balance out the icy wind bearing down on us. So we hurried over the pass and down the other side, following boot tracks. Soon we found ourselves staring down an incredibly steep descent above a frozen alpine lake, realizing that the boot tracks had been wrong.

Spoon wanted to turn back and find the trail under the snow, but I was pretty sure we could handle it (mistake number 2). After a few minutes, I realized it was a lot steeper than we originally thought. One heel kick step at a time, we slowly descended. I heard a sound behind me and turned around to see the path behind me was clear. Spoon was nowhere. Five feet down the near vertical edge, his trekking pole hung on the snow, and twenty feet below that was Spoon, holding onto his ice axe that was firmly planted in the snow wall. The neon blue of the glacial water hovered about ten feet below him.

The situation was one that I’ll always look back on with fear, but in the moment we both knew we didn’t have room to think about that. Gingerly, he crept laterally across the snow while I hiked back up the trail towards his trekking pole. I couldn’t have reached it from the tiny ledge above so I cut side steps with my ice axe and worked my way over to it, creeping back with three trekking poles in one hand and an ice axe in the other. It probably looked pretty ridiculous, but I know Spoon would have done it for me. That’s what wedding vows are for, after all.

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We worked our way around the lake and only when we were on flat snow did we relax and stare back at the ridiculous slope we had come down. We knew what we had done was foolish, which perhaps made me more concerned with my GPS and the location of the actual trail. But we weren’t done making mistakes. I checked my GPS and saw that the trail was far to our right, so we started traversing over. Soon we found a boot track that led to the left and we followed it until we saw the trail. We were so excited to see actual trail peeking out from beneath the snow, we didn’t consider that it might be the wrong trail. I checked my GPS again and saw that I was .1 mile off, which didn’t make much sense to me. Presented with a real live trail, I doubted my GPS (mistake number 3) and continued to follow it. It was a half mile or so of slogging through snow before we stopped finding reliable boot tracks. When sun hits the snow fields at 10,000 feet, the ‘sun cup’ phenomenon happens, where the snow melts in a formation of big, shoe-sized cups that very closely resemble boot marks. The snow also collapses in towards small seasonal streams, creating false trails through the snow. If there was a recent storm (such as the one a few days previous) to cover old tracks, it can be nearly impossible to distinguish real tracks from false ones.

We wandered for a while before we realized we needed to rely on our GPS. I followed it to the closest trail access, far to our right – and came out on top of cliffs. A thousand miles straight down there was a rushing river, and past that was the trail. It became apparent that we weren’t going to get there this way, so we started back tracking, using the GPS. I looked at our Topo map and realized we had gone down Goodall Pass and we were separated from the PCT by a huge ridge (hence the cliffs). Two hours after we first departed the trail, we turned a corner and found the sign we had originally been too far left to see:

We were so relieved to be safely back on the trail, we didn’t care about the lost time or miles. We didn’t care that we would be at Red’s later than we thought, or that we’d be hiking into the dark that night without a break. We walked down past the massive cliffs and the many waterfalls, happy to be alive and pointed North.

We hit a valley that we would long remember as ‘the last place without snow’ and continued back up along many switchbacks as the sun started setting. We had a long climb and a small climb left before the downward-trending trail to Red’s Meadow, and we wanted to get the big climb out of our way today. If anything, the harrowing experience we had on Silver fortified the desire to reduce our distance to the comforts of town. Some might argue that this impatience was mistake number 4, but I would probably do it all over again. After the switchbacks and the sandy top of our climb, the terrain turned to a long snowfield again. We went down to a gorgeous frozen alpine lake and hiked around it. Then, we lost the trail again. We lost it in a way that wouldn’t allow us to use the GPS, since the lake had melted into where the trail was supposed to be, leaving us to trust the boot tracks that led around the far edge. At this point, the sun was nearly down and the snow was breathing cold air up from below us.

As the sun slipped below the edge and the near-full moon rose on our right, we hit a second wind. Sliding, falling, almost running, pausing to look at our GPS, we finished the long miles of snow field through the trees and got down to the next valley – which was mostly snow covered – by ten. We hastily camped on a patch of dirt and fell into an exhausted sleep, knowing we had made it.

In the morning, we left our frozen camp at 8:30 because we fell asleep again after packing up our gear (we were more tired than I realized). We hiked out with Canadian Jules and, on our way down, saw at least fifty fresh-faced JMTers who had just started. Today was the first day of shuttles from Red’s Meadow, so tons of people had started their hike only hours before.

One woman stopped us and asked skeptically, “So… Is there REALLY snow up there?” We stared at her for a moment, and said “well, it’s not terrible – as long as you have micro-spikes, you should be alright.” She looked at us curiously and said “I don’t have any winter gear. I’m sure we can go around it though until it melts.” We left the JMTers with our best well-wishes and they left us with a lot of reflection. If these people are going up without trail legs, without winter gear, with a boundless optimism, what do we have to complain about? We wouldn’t trade places with them, but not for their lack of gear. No matter how challenging the Sierra might be at the shoulder season, none of us would be satisfied with only 200 miles of it. We’ll keep hiking through the mosquitoes, the heat, the rain, and eventually the early snow in Washington, should it choose to greet us. The JMTers reminded us of how lucky we all are; we get to keep going.

A trip to town turned up Toe Touch, who has been heroically waiting for us for five days in Mammoth (and put up with a sixth day when we admitted we wanted a zero day). For the first time, the six of us were all in one town at once – Centerfold, Bivvy, Camel, Toe Touch, Spoon and I. We had a lot of fun reuniting in Mammoth, although there’s a bittersweet finality to it. This morning, I caught Toe Touch doing out her math – she’ll have to average 20s to make it back in time for her sister’s wedding, and I can see the writing on the wall. She’s sticking by us beyond the limits of loyalty, but she’s eventually going to have to leave and hike ahead on her own terms. For now, we’ll see how long we can keep it together.

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Fortunately, the capricious nature of alpine California always keeps us guessing. The first thing the locals asked us when we got down to Mammoth on the windy standing-room-only shuttle was, “Are you ready for the heat wave?”

I think we are.

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Sponsors of Chuckles and Little Spoon that you should check out:
Mary Jane’s Farm organic dehydrated meals https://www.maryjanesfarm.org/
Honey Stinger bars, waffles, and energy chews https://www.honeystinger.com/
Big Sur Bars  https://bigsurbar.com/
Katabatic Gear https://katabaticgear.com/
Mom’s Stuff salve https://www.momsstuffsalve.com

Little Spoon’s Instagram (Mark Santoski) https://www.instagram.com/marksantoski/
Centerfold’s Instagram (Jon Graca) https://www.instagram.com/jograca/
Toe Touch’s Instagram (Julie McCloskey) https://www.instagram.com/jtmcc272/
Toe Touch’s Blog https://seeyajules.com/

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Comments 2

  • Avatar
    George (Old Growth) Turner : Jun 21st

    I can’t imagine doing this stretch in June. Back in the 80’s I did some variation of Whitney to Red Meadows every summer in late July and still walked through snow up to my hips for miles. Great post!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Zach : Jun 21st

    This somehow gave me Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

    Reply

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