Of Moose and Men
One of the most common questions that I get asked by the people I meet on my hikes is the simple, yet unanswerable, “what’s it like?”. The best answer I’ve ever heard to this question was provided by my friend Peptalk in a parking lot in Maine, where they laughingly said “the highs are high but the lows are soul crushing”. Those words ring extra true as I sit here on my 6th zero in ten days.
Hiking through the snow of the High Sierra is the coolest thing I’ve ever done, and I loved every (well maybe not every) second of it. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and felt like a true adventure.
The days started with a 2:00am alarm, hitting the trail well before sunrise to take advantage of the hard packed snow brought by the nightly freeze. By 9am the snow was soft and slushy, and movement slowed dramatically. I’d switch from crampons to snowshoes and continue pushing as long as I could before the heat of the day made travel more difficult than it was worth. The hiking day ended at noon, by which time I would punch through the snow waist, or in some cases chest, deep without my snowshoes. Relaxing at camp all afternoon was a dramatic change of pace after crushing miles in the desert, but the change was a welcome one.
Looking back at the snow reports and SWE data it appears that the snow was melting 8-12 inches a day while I was on trail, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking around. For the vast majority of the time the trail was completely buried, and impossible to follow. The boot pack was a case of the blind leading the blind, and would often lead you far off trail or simply disappear into a field of sun cups.
Navigation at night became a real challenge. The tunnel of white light on white snow created by our headlamps was disorienting, especially below tree line where there were no real distinct terrain features to follow. Sunrise was a welcome change, but brought with it the knowledge that the hiking itself was about to become much more difficult as the thaw began. Still, the ability to pick our own path was an exciting change. Looking at the topography map I’d confidently ditch the trail completely in favor of what I deemed to be an easier or more scenic route. Route finding quickly became one of my favorite aspects of the snow, and added a new element and challenges to the adventure. Just out of curiosity, what’s your 100m pace count while ascending in snowshoes? I never could figure out mine.
On the afternoon of our third day out of Kennedy Meadows my hiking partner waffles started to slow down. I’m typically a faster hiker than her, but by this point I was crushing her on the climbs and it was clear something was wrong. She felt exhausted and light headed, and we decided to stop for the day at Chicken Spring Lake (pictured) to rest. The next morning was worse, and we decided to take an unplanned zero and rest by the frozen lake all day, to give her time to recover and hopefully acclimate. We began to suspect that our elevation was playing a role in how bad she felt.
The next morning we pushed out of camp early, and she quickly told me my pace was too quick for her. We slowed down dramatically and kept going. After only two miles she was completely exhausted, and near collapse. We took a break, ate an earlier breakfast than usual, and let her catch her breath. Less than a quarter mile later she was back in the same situation. It was clear we had to get off the mountain, and down to lower elevation. I took the all the heavy items out of her pack, and we began heading back in the direction we came.
She handled it like a champion. Clearly suffering hard she pushed on to our nearest bail point, where we elected to ditch the trail and plunge straight down the pass to get to lower elevation quicker. Our crampons and ice axe gave us the ability to descend at an angle so steep that would not have been possible to traverse were it not covered in snow. We hit the meadow below us in record time and pushed on towards a car camping site marked a few miles from us on our map where we hoped to find a ride to Lone Pine.
What we didn’t consider, but should have, was that the road to this campground was closed, blocked by both snow and rockslides. This added an unexpected 12 miles to our journey to town. Thankfully we quickly came across a crew attempting to clear the road who took pity on us, and drove us to the bottom of the closure where we were able to find a ride the rest of the way to town.
After a visit to the Emergency Room it was clear waffles was in no shape to head back to elevation anytime soon, and so the plan had to change. We were loving the snow and decided we would flip north to somewhere that was still snow covered, but at a lower elevation. After a series of days off in Lone Pine and then Reno we decided that place would be Truckee, which we are currently headed to on the Amtrak.
Neither of us are thrilled about the plan, but we both agree it’s our only option of continuing our hike at this point. We were absolutely loving the high snow in the Sierra, and both hoped to maintain a continuous footpath north, but sometimes things are just out of your control.
Once we hit the Canadian border we will flip back here to complete our unfinished business, by then waffles will hopefully have had time to fully recover. I personally cannot imagine a more beautiful place to finish a thru-hike than here in the Sierra, even if it means giving up on our goal of a true northbound hike.
As for the snow, I know for sure I’ll be back for more. I’m already daydreaming about a future early season hike of the High Sierra Route or John Muir Trail, and have undoubtedly caught the bug for mountaineering. It’s fun to think about my next adventure while not even halfway through my current one.
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