Part Eight – Entering the Sierra Nevada
Welcome to the Sierra
On Friday, May 26th, our group of five (Beer Slide, Twigs, Shortcut, Buddy, and I) left Kennedy Meadows South in the morning and entered the Sierra Nevada. Ghost would walk with us for one more day before leaving us the next morning to flip up north.
Armed with my 55-pound backpack, I left the paved road that led to the General Store and rejoined the dirt path. The trail was mostly leveled for the first few miles, following alongside the South Fork Kern River, and I hiked some of it with Beer Slide before reverting back to walking alone. Knowing that this would be a rarity for the next few weeks, I tried to enjoy walking by myself one last time. After crossing the Kennedy Meadows Bridge over the river, the trail started to go uphill. There began our long ascent into the high-elevated, snow-covered, harsh-weathered, and unforgiven High Sierra. About 5,000 ft. of elevation gain in 20 miles; that was our plan for the day.
Beer Slide and Ghost were ahead of me. Shortcut, Twigs, and Buddy closed the dance a few miles behind. The landscape around the trail was slowly changing. The Joshua trees, Chaparral yuccas, cactus, and succulents from the Mojave desert gave way to forests of oaks, cottonwood, willows, and shrubs. Going uphill, every step felt heavy under the weight of 7 days’ worth of food packed into a bear canister that barely fit in my backpack. In addition to that, we also carried extra clothing for warmth, crampons, an ice axe, and a second pair of boots to kick steps into the frozen snow while climbing over passes. And that was on top of what we already had been carrying since the desert. Needless to say, gravity would not be our friend for this stretch.
The weather too, was changing. But not slowly. As I came out of the woods to a wide meadow area, dark clouds filled the sky in a matter of minutes. In the distance, mountain tops were being swallowed into a menacing mist. Luckily, the trail led me back under tree cover as I heard the first rumbling from the sky.
“Shit! Lightning!” I said as if I was talking to someone. But I was alone. A second flash of light came from a strike nearby a few minutes later, followed by its loud and crackling noise. Then, another one. Raindrops started falling from the sky, harder and harder. I put on my rain gear quickly and hiked under the cover of the trees while monitoring the sky to see what direction the clouds were going and how close I was to the lightning strikes. The scene soon became apocalyptic as what was initially a rainstorm turned into a hailstorm. “Welcome to the Sierra,” was telling the mountain to us.
Still, I felt a rush of energy flowing through me. The challenge didn’t scare me, it excited me. I hiked fast through the dripping oaks, fueled by the adrenaline. Soon, I came out of my tree cover and across a bridge. There on the other side, at the beginning of an exposed meadow, laid two tents. I recognized one of them and walked up to it:
“BEER SLIDE!” I shouted at the top of my lungs. The noise made by the hailstorm was so loud that shouting was the only way to talk to one another.
“YEEHAW?! YOU’RE HIKING IN THIS SHIT?!” he replied, in shock. I was hiking in this shit. I had no other option. Setting up the tent in a hailstorm would not only be terrible, but it would also mean guaranteed wet gear. So I hiked on, and I embraced the suck. Perhaps ten minutes after that exchange, the weather got better just as quickly as it did when it got worse. The clouds disappeared in the distance. The sun came out and shined its warm light over the valley I had just come from. There, standing and watching, I understood what Muir meant when he called the Sierra Nevada: the Range of Light.
I kept hiking on and uphill. For the last few miles, the elevation gain was high. My pace went down considerably. I was starting to gasp for air. Slowly, I made my way through creeks and fallen trees, getting closer to the campsite. But as the sun was starting to lower, I was worried to not see any of my partners catching up. I knew Beer Slide and Ghost were close behind, but I had not seen Twigs, Shortcut, and Buddy the whole day. Beer Slide and Ghost caught up soon afterward, and we hiked up through snow for the last mile. When we arrived, the campsite was buried under snow but we managed to find a small dirt patch a few hundred feet above us, with an amazing view of the valley for sunset.
We set up our tents and started cooking, but still, we had no sign of the others.
“Maybe they camped a few miles back! There was a campsite there!” suggested Ghost. But as soon as he finished his sentence, we were relieved to see them finally arrive. We started cheering and teasing them for their late arrival but quickly stopped when Buddy gave us a little heads-up by moving his hand in a way that meant: cut it out. Twigs looked exhausted. Shortcut, who was shyly smiling, seemed okay, but we knew she had had a rough time too. Buddy and Ghost went to get them water, and I boiled some for Twigs’ dinner while she finished setting up her tent. After eating our dinner in the dark, we went to bed suddenly all aware of the physical and mental intensity that awaited us for the next month. A rude awakening.
“Rise Free from Care before the Dawn and Seek Adventures” – Henry David Thoreau
For the following days, we woke up at 2:00 a.m. and started hiking at 3:00 a.m., in the cold and dark. We would hike while the snow was still frozen hard, which enabled us to move a little faster, and until the afternoon when the snow would get too soft and slushy. Every night was hard. The cold made me want to stay in my quilt, but I ignored that thought. If I left myself too much time to think after that alarm rang, I would never move. Self-discipline was my ally in these situations. Not motivation. As soon as the alarm rang, I would get up and pack everything in the same order every time and in such a composed and focused way that I would almost forget the cold. “This is what you wanted,” I would repeat to myself. “Nobody asked you to do this, this is for yourself only. Your chance to prove yourself to yourself.” That last thought always boosted me. Every night, as I got ready and waited for the others, I would look up and lose myself in the immensity of the dark and starry sky for a few minutes. I never got tired of that.
Tuesday, May 30th. I woke up at 1:50 a.m., ten minutes before my alarm. I grunted. It’s cold, but I know the only way to fix that is to get moving. Packed up and ready to go, we started hiking alongside the river we had just spent the night next to. Everything was pitch black besides the little beam of light that our headlamps created. We were looking for a log that would allow us to cross over that river. To us, the term “log” described a tree that had fallen over a river, therefore creating a natural bridge to cross onto the other side. After a few minutes, we finally found it: a log, sitting at around 6 ft above the raging water, wide enough only for us to stand on it, and dotted with branches coming out of the trunk making it look like an obstacle course. Our next step would be to walk on this 20-foot-long log, balanced with our 55-pound backpacks. No room for mistakes.
I walked up and down the river to see if another option was available. There wasn’t. We had to cross here or else we would have to walk in the freezing water in the dark. The current was strong and it was impossible for us to judge the depth of the water. After a few minutes of contemplating the log, Buddy finally asked:
“Okay, raise your hand. Who wants to get wet?” None of us raised our hand.
“Who wants to cross on the log?” One after the other, we raised our hand. This was one of our rules before entering the Sierra: if one person doesn’t feel comfortable about something and needs to turn back, we all turn back. I raised my hand too. But deep down, I didn’t want to. For the first time during this journey, I was truly scared. I wasn’t comfortable in the water, nor was I with heights and the fear of falling. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to be the one we had to turn back for. Plus, these moments were the ones I was looking for after all. The ones where I would need to push myself out of my comfort zone, and this was way out of my comfort zone.
Buddy went first, followed by Beer Slide, Twigs, and Shortcut. Finally, it was my turn. I advanced to the edge of the snow, and slowly put one foot on the log. Then, the other. Suddenly, everything around me vanished. The deafening roar of the torrent below me became a distant whisper. All my eyes could see was the small area of wood lit by my headlamp where I would place my foot next. As I made my first step on the log, I knew there was no coming back. I’d have to go all the way. I could feel gravity pulling me down and the cold air rising from the river stroking my face. One step at a time, I made my way through the log, carefully stepping over each branch. Finally, when I got to the last step, I knew I made it. I jumped on the other side letting out an enormous sigh of relief and with a feeling of pride. “Fuck yeah!” I shouted while putting both my arms up. I had challenged my fear, and I won.
Walking in a painting
The next day, we tried to get as close as possible to Forester Pass, our first real pass on this stretch. In the morning, we hiked uphill over big bumps of snow, as if we were walking on frozen waves in the forest. Up and down, up and down. We quickly made our way to the top and were rewarded by the sight of the Sierra waking up in the morning. Walking across a wide field of snow, I couldn’t stop looking around me. No trees. Nothing. Except for the immaculate whiteness of the snow. The beauty of the landscape, its roughness, left me speechless. There was nothing around us but pure wilderness. For the first time, I felt far away from everything I knew as “home.” I felt alone, but in a way that made me feel free.
We made it to a small forest, about 4 miles from Forester Pass. I sat with Beer Slide for lunch. In front of us, the High Sierra was putting on a show. It was sitting in a painting.
“We are pretty lucky! I said to him.
– Yeah, but we worked for it!
– That’s true. Everyone would enjoy this view, but not everyone would make the sacrifices and the hard work we did to get there. Waking up early, hiking up in the cold… that’s what makes it even better.”
After a good amount of playing and laughing, we made our way to bed around 5:00 p.m.. The next morning, we would summit Forester Pass, the highest point on the PCT. I couldn’t wait.
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