Pacific Crest Trail Update: The Majesty and Indifference of the Southern Sierra (a.k.a. The Gorgeous Sierra Doesn’t Give a Shit About You)
A few days out of Kennedy Meadows we got word that one of our enthusiastic, experienced, and committed fellow PCT hikers was considering quitting the trail in the Southern Sierra.
We ran into another young, strong, female hiker just out of Vermillion Valley Resort. She had been putting in some big miles in the Sierra while keeping up with a couple of other hiker friends. But now she was feeling a bit physically and mentally broken and was exiting the trail to go home for up to a week to recoup and lick her wounds.
My strong, persistent hiking partner slipped and fell hard on one of the thousands of small granite boulders we had to climb up and over in the Sierra. After continuing on in excruciating pain for another half day, she got evacuated via helicopter from Virginia Lake with a fracture in one of her pelvic bones.
I have been hiking in the Sierra for the majority of my life and have done all or pieces of the John Muir Trail / PCT section more times than I can remember. I know the trail is technical, extremely challenging, and gut-wrenchingly stunning, and that it never lets anybody off the hook. And as I sit now just past Tuolumne Meadows, feeling empty, stiff, and sore—just a couple weeks shy of my 60th birthday—I am reminded yet again that as beautiful as she is, the Southern Sierra can break you. So I feel grateful that she let me pass, one more time, mostly intact. I submit to thanking you, Sierra, you indefatigable beast of a trail.
Why is the Sierra so tough, you ask? Before getting to Kennedy Meadows, we hiked a giant amount of elevation gain and loss in the desert for over 700 miles. We supposedly have our trails legs under us. We are stronger and savvier at withstanding the day-to-day rigors of being on the trail. How much worse can it get?
In short, the Southern Sierra offers; altitude, including daily extremes in elevation gains and losses, snow and ice, exposure, predominantly rocky technical trail, extreme temperature fluctuations, emergence of incessant mosquitoes, multitudes of river crossings, and substantially increased effort output per mile of trail than what we have done prior.
All in as indifferent, picturesque, and majestic a natural setting as one would find anywhere on the planet. Her challenging terrain and beauty will take your breath away, literally and figuratively, on an hour-by-hour basis.
Each day we are in her womb we will climb one or two passes—from 7000-8000 feet up to 11,000-13,000 feet over rock, snow, ice, and water—only to then descend the same amount over the same terrain, while working to keep the rubber side down. The next day we will do it again. And the next day, again. For up to four weeks.
The Southern Sierra is remote so getting food resupplies are time-consuming and require extra miles off trail. Sometimes climbing out over an extra-credit mountain or pass to acquire. The upside of exiting to resupply is that one gets to go into town for town food and a bed. The downside is that this is a time and energy suck.
Food access points are infrequent so our packs are heavier, with not only more food, but the required bear canister to contain the food while we sleep. More weight equals more stress on the legs and feet over all that elevation gain and loss and rocky terrain.
We had our resupplies shipped or brought in to us on the trail. Which meant more efficient time on trail, but fewer rest days. With this strategy, we went 14 days before our first recovery day. Ouch.
Pacific Crest Trail hikers feed off of the energy from other hikers. In the desert, this energy is ever-present. In the Sierra, the trail tribe splinters due to challenging terrain and various diverse resupply strategies. We also have no internet access with which to contact others. This leaves one hiking for hours or even a day before seeing another PCT hiker on trail. We are left to our own thoughts and means to self-motivate to propel ourselves onward. Or not. The Sierra section is as severe a test as one might experience on the entire PCT. If this section meddles with our belief in our ability to make it through, it can also question our ability to complete the rest of the trail.
In some ways, this section can define our experience thus far. It will for certain show us parts of ourselves we like and other parts we dislike. But regardless of the ebb and flow of our self-efficacy, we must walk forward loving her for the test and memories she gave us while planning ahead to many more days on trail.
Southern Sierra, though you are indifferent to my well-being, I will likely return for more of your amazingness at a later date. But for now, you just severely pissed my aging body off, so, I’m moving on!
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Thanks for your lovely writing and mature perspective. I’m 58 and plan to hike the PCT for my 60th birthday. I have only hiked about 100 miles of the Sierra and they are etched into mind as you suggest.
What great insights and feelings!!!
Looking for an update. Enjoying reading about your trek and hope you are doing well and are safe and healthy.