Surviving the Sierra
Well, I entered the Sierra Nevada Mountain range and saw all of its beauty but it came at a price. Mountains always have a toll to pay. The price I had to pay was waking up between midnight and 3am, going to sleep while the sun is out, soggy shoes & socks for up to 12 hours, and traversing snow as far as the eye can see. The gain was new skills, pushing the limits of what I am comfortable with, and having a calloused mind to stay hard when what you are facing seems impossible. This was the best/worst 7 days on trail for me. I survived something more than just hiking through the mountains. Let me tell you what happened.
My Comfort Level
I chose to do the Sierra section to push my boundaries. Living in Las Vegas, I’m familiar with the only mountain that has snow, Mt. Charleston, or what us locals call it, “Big Charlie”, and it sits just under 12,000′. It is a long and grueling mountain hike right in my backyard. On the PCT Sierra section, I have no idea what I will face. I’ve never been here before besides previously summiting Mt. Whitney from Whitney Portal. While in the Sierra, I am continuously being challenged by snow, water crossings, and hiking at 10,000′ for days. I’ve never done any mountaineering, used an ice axe, or owned crampons. These were the reasons I entered the Sierra for. To experience what I am scared of. To push past my boundaries. To continue to immerse myself in this lifestyle by pushing forward to solve the problems I have never faced. This section is what could separate me from the ordinary.
The Experience I Was Looking For
After everything that happened, and now that I made it out alive, it was an experience of a lifetime. That type 2 fun, or how another hiker we met described it as that type 3 fun where you nearly die yet it is fun if you survive. Other hikers may have used their trail runners and poles to complete sections but I am not that comfortable in this foreign terrain. I used a combination of microspikes/trail crampons and with only one hiking pole because one had broke, I used my ice axe in its place. Sometimes the ice axe felt overkill and other times it gave me the boost of confidence I needed to get through some sketchy s#+! Eventually building a new mentality that would help me survive the unknown which is in front of me. It was less than 100 miles covered but moving at only 1.2 – 1.3 mph each day, it felt like a month.
Entering the Unknown
June 29th, 2023 – Thursday
Leaving Lone Pine to get back on trail wasn’t that difficult. After hanging out at the Elevation gear shop for most of the morning, I caught a hitch from a Trail Angel named, Lone Pine Kurt, who approached me and my hiking partner. He charged us a reasonable fee to get back up the mountain to Cottonwood Pass Campground. It was later in the day so our goal was to make it to Chicken Spring Lake, a 5 mile hike up to 11,000′. The first goal was to get acclimated at a higher elevation and to get used to sleeping here too. So, we set off on trail with barely any snow. The mountain range that surrounded us was covered in snow so we knew it was only a matter of time. First was a water crossing that wasn’t bad at all except for the newly fallen logs that laid across it could roll. Continuing on, we started to hit snow. Since it was later in the day, the snow was mostly slushie so no microspikes were needed. It was fun and adventurous getting on the snow while learning how to navigate a trail that was buried beneath me. Eventually we made it to the lake which was nearly frozen over. We made camp in a small section of dirt beneath some trees and fetched water. I have never been around a frozen lake so this was already the start of something new. I managed to follow snow until I was at the edge of the lake. There were small sun cups with water in the middle and layered with a piece of ice. I would use my trekking pole to break the thin ice and gather my water. First day felt unreal as the sunset while laying in my tent. Now, time to go to bed early since we will need to get used to waking up very early to take advantage of the hard snow in the morning.
Reality Starts to Set In
June 30th, 2023 – Friday
I woke up at 3am for the first time on trail. I did not get much sleep. The night sky was beautiful with the moon gone and the stars out. Getting ready was a priority to see how fast I could get out of camp. After 1.5 hours later, I was ready to go. I saw headlamps go by and decided to follow them in the general direction. Remember, at this time the entire trail is covered in snow so following boot pack or constantly looking at the FarOut app were my only options. I followed the lights through an area of snow that was filled with what are known as sun cups. This was my first real encounter with this type of snow terrain and it was my first lesson of the day. Sun cups are bowl-shaped open depressions that are normally wider than they are deep. They create a honeycomb or hexagonal pattern with sharp narrow ridges. You had to skip across the top with some of them breaking while others were very thin letting your foot slide into the center, nearly tweaking your ankle. After 30 minutes of this, the frustration was already kicking in. While navigating a hill, it looked possible to use the snow to cut off a part of the path. Well, that turned out wrong. Climbing to the top of this hill, at a very steep angle, we were met with a wall of snow about 10 feet high. Within an hour we were traversing a steep slope and found a spot to climb out. The day just started and I was already having issues with multiple factors like the snow terrain, navigating, and traversing steep hills. Next we were off and on snow traversing large fields that were relatively easy. We had to descend to our campsite so we decided to glissade down the snow and cut off some miles. Remember you purists, the trail is 99% buried under snow. We made camp around 2pm and went to sleep about 6pm to have another early start tomorrow.
July 1st, 2023 – Saturday
Another 3am wake up with barely any sleep. Throughout the night I would consistently wake up every 1-2 hours. Packed up and was out of camp at 4:45am. Today’s first challenge was a pissed off creek that looked more like a flood gate opening to release water. With 2 other hikers also looking for a path to cross, the option to wade through it together was brought up. Luckily, someone spotted a massive tree knocked over to a large rock that was about 5 feet over the water. We released our belt and chest straps, just in case we fell in, and walked across this log. It was sketchy with its unevenness and small branches sticking out making little obstacles along the way. Once crossed, there was the other piece of the tree that you had to use to climb down. When we all passed over, we all let out a huge scream signifying we won that encounter. Now, time to hike uphill 1500′ to higher elevation. Once at the top of the hill that are being used as a corridor, we decided to glissade down again. This was the highlight of hiking up to higher elevations then descending. It was like a roller coaster where we struggled to make it to the top then had all the fun sliding down knowing we would have to do this over and over again. So why not make the best of it. The goal was Crabtree Meadows to be the base of an attempt at Mt. Whitney. To get to Crabtree Meadows, we had to cross another large creek. This one was a little more calm being much wider at the point of crossing. Once across, we had to go off trail towards the ranger station and cross another smaller creek. It appeared to be fast moving water yet it wasn’t that bad. Once camp was set up, I jumped in the creek with another hiker as I screamed, “Stay Hard”, as I channeled my own inner David Goggins. Tomorrow was going to be an attempt on Mt. Whitney but with how long the hike would be on steep terrain, the general idea was to wake up at midnight to start hiking while the snow was hard. So, we went to bed at 5pm.
July 2nd, 2023 – Sunday * Mt. Whitney Attempt *
Waking up at 11:45pm was a new struggle. With every mile being exhausting due to sun cups and navigating over snow banks or fallen trees, it seems that I am not even sleeping anymore. I consistently wake up every couple of hours throughout the night. I made an iced coffee with half a pouch of hot chocolate. Lets get this f***ing day started. I was out of my tent with my slack pack for the day. This is the lightest I have ever felt my pack. The first obstacle again for the day was crossing the small creek. It wasn’t as bad as you would imagine being cold during the middle of the night but it took some time to change back into our hiking shoes from our sandals. We made our way to Mt. Whitney through snow, fallen trees, and again, those annoying sun cups. Around 2am, when I thought the snow would be hard, I postholed next to a rock, slamming my knee straight down on top of it and had several cuts. The pain was excruciating leaving me lightheaded and nauseous. I thought this could be it. The trail ending injury just happened because I was too close to a rock while the snow around it was soft. I recovered after 5 minutes and checked for mobility. It was good. So, I continued on. Eventually after 2 more hours, I was slowing down and could not press up on my left leg without pain. Maybe the adrenaline was wearing off but I had to make a choice. Continue up Mt. Whitney, traversing steep snow on exposed cliffs while doing some rock climbing up the switchbacks or go to camp, recover, and prepare for Forester Pass. I chose to return to camp and it was devastating to me. My group was going to turn around but I wanted them to continue without me which proved successful for them. I went back to camp to lick my wounds and to sulk in my tent. As I waited for my group to come back, it was the first time I asked myself, “Why am I really out here?” I shoved that s#+! back inside and did not think about it again. I falied at the Mt. Whitney attempt but that is just a small piece of the PCT. I am here for the big picture, the whole enchilada.
The Point of No Return
July 3rd, 2023 – Monday
I was up and out of camp before anyone this day. Since my leg was still in pain, I decided to leave early so I wouldn’t slow the other 2 hikers now with me. I fell back in love with the trail by just being alone for the majority of the morning. I went off trail to a small frozen pond and followed various tracks in the snow. Soon, one hiker caught up to me and was worried about the creek crossing coming up. I haven’t even considered they would be bad since there was an absurd amount of snow still everywhere even though it is July. I did my first creek crossing of the day with another hiker and it looked worse than what it actually was. So, we split up again heading towards Bighorn Plateau. I ate lunch on Bighorn Plateau with another hiker and was waiting for my main hiking partner to show up. I was happy when they showed up about an hour of waiting so we could do the rest of the creek crossings together which would prove to be the best decision yet. After arriving to the last creek of the day before we set out for Forester Pass in the morning, it was raging. Tyndall Creek looked more like a white-water rafting adventure then a crossing. The water was moving swiftly especially since it was about 4pm which is around the hottest part of the day so the snow was melting rapidly. My hiking partner and I had to lock arms and wade tbrough together. It was so strong that if we took a step together, and by lifting one of our legs at the same time, we were very unstable. It nearly knocked us over. We started to talk our way through telling each other when we were going to step and when we were braced so we could move through the water in unison. It paid off as we nearly fell but managed to keep the water at our waist line. We are both 6’2″ so the water was not only fast but getting higher as it came up to our waistline. I realized at this time, we had crossed a point of no return. The snow was melting so fast with no refreezing through the night that tomorrow it would be even more dangerous. We set up camp near the creek and made plans to wake up at midnight to make it up and over Forester Pass, the highest point of the PCT at 13,200′, while the snow conditions were in our favor.
Forester Pass – 13,200′
July 4th, 2023 – Tuesday
Today was it. Time to solve the problem most people are scared of, going over Forester Pass as the highest point in the PCT. Starting around 1am with a full moon was amazing. The glow of the moon was reflective off the snow. The hike up to Forester Approach was brutal. Sun cups littered the ground with the entire trail buried under snow. Navigating was more like, lets head in that general direction to that dirt patch and we will take another look at the map. So we did just that. Hopping from dry patch to dry patch while suffering through sun cups inbetween. I started to call them sun a$$holes since it was the most difficult, slow, and frustrating terrain to hike on. We could see a few headlamps in the distance from the only other group of hikers out here we encountered. Eventually we made it to Forester Approach which showed the pass. A narrow chute that lies between two mountains. It was taunting me. Challenging me to pay the toll it requires. A steep uphill climb on sheer snow with no trail in sight. This was going to be something new I’ve never done before but this was my only option. With my food cache dwindling, I had no choice but to grit my teeth and move up the mountain. Climbing up with an ice axe and microspikes went from being sketchy to comfortable. Each step we navigated the terrain, picking dry rocks to climb over, and finding the best route to the dry switchbacks near the top. When we arrived at the switchbacks, there was a sigh of relief only to be met by the ice chute. A 30 yard traverse dead center of a chute at 13,000′. As I approached it, I could see the boot pack was well carved out and traversing it was easier than anticipated. It was done. I stood on top of the highest point of the PCT and screamed my heart out. On top of that, it was the 4th of July. No amount of fireworks or backyard bbq parties could ever replace this feeling. I felt free inside. Now, the descent is always more treacherous and with the sun already attacking the north side, we descended in what I call “mashed potatoes” snow. The kind that just mushes around under you but can slide on it. We got to a 200′ descent and decided to glissade down about 100′ of it. This is where my ice axe caught something in the snow, flew out of my hand, and slammed into the back of my head. At least it wasn’t the sharp end. I laughed it off knowing I just avoided a major incident. The descent took the rest of the day until we found a campsite on dry ground next to water. Today was a day I will always remember. I won this day and we made the pass to exit the Sierra section. We were in the clear, or so I thought.
July 5th, 2023 – Wednesday
Another night waking up at 2am to make it out of the Sierra. Our blue blaze exit was Kearsarge Pass. At over 11,000′, this pass was thought to be easy but we were so wrong. Everyday it felt like the mountains would not let up being so damn hard. There was one seasonal stream crossing we had to do at just 0.1 miles from camp that turned out to be 7, with one raging. Everyday we had to cross water so our feet were constantly wet. Today was no exception but instead of it being limited to creeks, most of the trail was flooded. Hiking through snow with wet socks & boots was super fun in my most sarcastic voice. Not to mention just to get to the blue blaze, which means an alternate trail listed on the FarOut app, it would be an uphill climb of 1500′ then taking Bullfrog Lake trail over Kearsarge Pass at just under 8 miles. Our last day was not going to be any easier and the mountains were letting us know. We passed the pristine waters of Bullfrog Lake and steadily climbed up, navigating the buried trail that would show its dirt self every once in a while like a trail marker. The last major obstacle was one last snow traverse to the dry switchbacks that was managed fairly easily. Then, I was standing on top of Kearsarge Pass, our way out. The descent was again in mashed potatoes. A long snow traverse lead you down to some dirt but why would it get any easier. There were 200′ switchbacks buried under snow and rock so we had to use a mixture of glissading and rock scrambling down. Soon, we saw dayhikers. They smelled so good and were so clean. One weekend hiker offered us a ride into town and we took it. When we arrived at the trailhead, I received some trail magic which was a handful of pot. Yes, I was almost out anyways. Soon, we packed into the car of the hiker and rode into Independence where we each devoured a large port of subs sandwich with ease. It was finally over. Or so I thought. After being in the mountains for 7 days, and not using my phone for much besides taking notes and navigating, I left it on the bus bench charging. I told the bus driver and he let me out at Big Pine which I immediately got a hitch from a woman who was snowboarding in Mammoth. What luck. I made it back to Independence to find my phone sitting on the bench still charging. Stuck my thumb out again and another car camper picked us up and took us to Bishop where my hiking partner and I rented a hotel room and looked back at what we had just went through.
Never Will I Ever
After resting in town and looking back at what I just went through, I cannot say I will never do something like this again. After all the fear mongering that took place, I am very proud of myself for entering the Sierra section and seeing it for myself. I did not know at the time that it would be a one way ticket but it was worth it for the experience. I had envisioned an unsolvable problem until I arrived at it then it seemed solvable. Not to say it wasn’t hard because this has by far been the hardest days on trail but nothing was impossible. Now, time to let the snow melt and the creeks flow so I can return at a later date to finish this section. Never will I ever let someone else’s opinion of what is possible dictate my own actions. As a Las Vegas local and native to the desert, I f***ing survived this section of the Sierra Nevada and I am proud of it.
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