Part Ten – The High Sierra
The Real Fun Begins
Throughout the night, storms continued rolling over our campsite. The snow kept falling, pushing against the roof of my tent. We could hear the sound of thunderclaps in the distance. When 2:00 a.m. came, I could overhear the concerned reactions of my companions when they each took a look at the situation outside. About 2 feet of snow had fallen on the ground, and it was still falling. Repeatedly, flashes of light from lightning strikes would pierce through the darkness of the night. We chose to wait an hour before departing, but an hour later, nothing had changed. It was then decided that we would sleep in until 5 a.m. when we would have the light of day to assess the situation better. I fell back asleep with hopes and worries. Fortunately, I woke up later with no worries anymore. The sky had cleared, and it had stopped snowing. I walked around my tent, clearing the snow off its roof, and assessing the snow on the ground. Above us, clouds moved fast, some darker than others. It was time to go.
Our goal this morning was to get over Glen Pass and down as fast as possible before another potential storm fell on us. At such high altitudes, we were at the mercy of the weather. And it was unpredictable. We moved slower than we wanted to. A lot of new snow had fallen last night, and it hadn’t frozen. The ground was soft and unstable, with the constant threat of post-holing weighing in on us. The final push to climb Glen Pass was vertiginous, with unforgiving traverses across slushy snow and intermittent rock scrambling. At the top of the pass, we were welcomed by strong gusts of wind, but we had made it. 11,949 ft. Check.
Descending from the pass brought its own set of challenges too. The descent from Glen Pass was steeper than the ascent we had just come from. It was also covered entirely in a layer of fresh snow, putting extra stress on the pre-existing snowpack and therefore making the ground unstable. The new snow also erased any previous footsteps. We had to make our own path. Below us, clusters of rocks stuck out of the snow. The consequences of a fall could be severe, or worse, fatal. With all of that in mind, we made our way slowly and surely down the steep slope, cutting steps and creating a path of switchbacks down to a dry patch from where we could safely reach the end of the descent. At the bottom, I turned and looked at what we had just done. Shivers ran down my spine.
The One Where We Got Caught in a Snowstorm
On the trail, everybody carries their own set of pain, whether physical or psychological. And the trail is merciless; it has a way of digging up all your demons and past traumas when you feel at your weakest. But in those moments, you have to face them. This is how you grow and become stronger. There is no escape to it, the only one being to quit and leave the trail. But that’s not an option. Not for me at least.
Wednesday, June 7th. We hit 800 miles this morning in the dark. Beer Slide wrote the number “800” in the snow, while we were all contemplating what we had just done, and were thinking about what we had left. Afterward, we started the long ascent toward Pinchot Pass, sitting at 12,127 ft. About 3,500 ft of gain, over only 8 miles. Our goal was to camp as close as possible to the pass and get over it the following morning. At 8,550 ft, we welcomed patches of dirt trail again. This allowed us to cover some ground faster and get high in the climb in a short amount of time. We walked near Woods Creek waterslide and followed up the river for a while. The sky was getting darker as we went, and it started snowing halfway through the climb.
We stopped for a quick break under the cover of pine trees, refueling ourselves while monitoring the weather. No storm on the horizon, just snow. “Why don’t we go up the pass today?” suggested Buddy. My first reaction was “Hell no!”. I was tired, and we still had to go up another 1,500 ft, on snow. But, as I took the time to reflect and look at all the parameters, it didn’t seem like a crazy idea after all. We were making good time and had gone further than we had expected by that time of day. The weather, although not ideal, was good enough for us to keep hiking. We would just need to continue monitoring it. The more I thought about the idea, the more I got excited about it. “Let’s do it!” I said.
One behind the other, we moved away from the banks of Woods Creek and tackled the final miles of the ascent. The gain in altitude caused me to run out of breath quickly. I felt light-headed. The weather started to test us. The wind picked up dramatically, along with the snowfall getting heavier as we moved up in elevation. Small tornadoes of snow would suddenly appear and disappear all around us. The visibility became poor. We couldn’t see the pass, which was hidden behind a white wall. We kept pushing, knowing well that we couldn’t set up camp here anyway. We were above the tree line, with no cover. The only way was forward. However, in this apocalyptic environment, we were somehow having the best time of our lives. It was epic. Climbing over a pass at 12,127 ft, in a snowstorm, miles away from any help or even civilization, was a thought that tickled my adventurous spirit. In that moment, I remembered a quote from Jack Kerouac:
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
The wind started to die down. Last few steps. That was it. We made it to the top of Pinchot Pass!
It Doesn’t Mather!
The next morning, we set off to climb the last of the high passes in the Sierra: Mather Pass. Culminating at 12,093 ft, this pass was known for its technical ascent, especially in a high snow year like ours. The sun was out this morning and gifted us with a stunning spectacle of light. We made our way quickly to the bottom of Mather Pass. The ascent to the top was harder than expected and slowed us down considerably: we had to scramble through rock formations that were sticking out of the snow, leading up to a steep snow traverse before climbing over a small cornice. It took us over an hour to get to the top, with a few nerve-wracking moments. Luckily, the descent afterward was quite mellow. With Mather Pass now behind us, we were all looking forward to reaching town and getting some well-deserved rest and food.
Bishop, CA. The general mood among the hiking community seemed to have taken a U-turn after the exciting news from our last town day. Most of the groups that had entered the Sierra were either hit by storms or just simply realized the size of the challenge they had gone after. Some of them had to exit the Sierra as an emergency, their gear having gotten wet from the exposure to the snow. Most of the people we knew were going to flip up north; a decision we respected and understood, but nevertheless saddened us. This was the harsh reality of the trail. For me, flipping never crossed my mind. We had gone so far already that we were all determined to go through the whole thing. I knew I was. But nothing would have prepared me for what I was about to live during this next stretch.
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