The One About Finishing the Sierras: Hiking in a record snow year
We made it through the hardest section of the entire PCT. All the snow, the passes and the treacherous river crossings. We reached the end.
I’ve thought for a long time how to summarize the rest of our weeks spent crossing the mountain range of the Sierra Nevada. It’s impossible. You could write a book of everything that happened every day and still not manage to capture every moment.
This year was special
Unique. California had never seen a greater winter. With the highest snowpack in recorded history, we walked almost four weeks on snow. Streams that in a normal year weren’t more than a trickle were now raging rivers. Sun-cups sometimes the size of barrels and bridges destroyed by avalanches. Burnt nostrils and bleeding lips from the unforgiving sun. Waking up at 2am, shivering. Having no trail to follow and relying completely on your GPS and the occasional footprints. Wet socks and cold hands and hurting legs. Falling so many times it became part of your way of walking. Walk, fall, get back up, fall again.
Listen Next —
- Backpacker Radio #191: Hiking the PCT 2.0: High Snow Year Considerations
- Backpacker Radio #193: Hiking the PCT in a High Snow Year
- Backpacker Radio #221: Al “Lookout” Marriott on Hiking Through the Sierra in 2023
Some said we were unlucky
For timing our hike to this unusual year. But I felt the opposite. We had won the lottery without even knowing it. To have seen this place of wonder — in a way that few did, and most never will. Was the greatest gift of them all. We crossed famous national parks, mountains, and rivers where normally you would have to share the trail with hundreds of people. But we were practically alone. We hiked for days without seeing a single human being. It was just us and the animals in this wild, wild land.
But it’s easy to just remember the good things
For there was also pain. Fear. And doubt. Being so cold your body aches. Bleeding from all the cuts in your fingers and your legs. Missing home, and coffee, and a warm bed. Crying from pure exhaustion and struggling to keep up. Wanting sleep above all else but knowing you must wake up. Wondering if all this is really worth it. Just to realize every day, that it is.
READ NEXT — How to Navigate the Sierra in a High Snow Year
Because then there is a sunrise
A swim in a crystal clear lake. The first light on your face after hiking for hours in the dark. The feeling of accomplishment after conquering each pass, each mountain, each river. Showing yourself, every day, that you are capable, more than you ever thought. And even when you weren’t, arms to fall in from the people you now consider family. That you know that you would give your life to these people, and they would give theirs to you. How winter turned to spring — turned to summer in the mountains. And as the seasons changed, so did you. You became stronger, more resilient, and more sunburnt. Nothing was impossible. Because you made it this far. And now you can do everything.
Highlights from the times spent in the Sierras
28th of June. The storm
The day leaving Bishop a storm rolled in. We all managed to pitch our tents just in time for the pouring rain. In silence, all in each of our tents, we fell asleep to the sound of rain and thunder all around us. In the morning we awoke to a clear blue sky, and we never saw a storm again in the Sierras.
30th of June. Being a kid again
We came upon a steep descent late in the day that hence got the name “choose your own adventure”. It was a real obstacle course, just like many parts of the Sierras. Balancing on the fine line between danger and excitement we made our way down to the valley. Sliding on our shoes, falling into tree wells, and avoiding crashing into boulders and trunks with just a few centimeters to spare. One miscalculated slide or step and it would have ended badly but we all made it down safely. Exhausted but excited we reached camp.
I had the feeling of being a little girl again. In many ways, I think the PCT made me grow up. But it also made me find little Sara. She came out. With dirt on her face and cuts on her knees. Freer and happier than ever. The whole world was her playground.
2th of July. The lake
In time for lunch, we reached a spectacular lake. It was partially covered by ice and majestic mountains rose above it. Bear came up with the perfect idea to swim out to the ice and walk on it. A challenge. First, most of us were against it. But one after one we got in. The cold hit the body like a shock. I swam purely on a survival instinct and reached the ice having lost my sense of feeling in both my legs and my arms. No other choice than to swim all the way back.
Reaching shore I was shaking and unable to speak at first. Then the endorphins hit. It was pure bliss. We sat close together, warming each other under the sun and slowly working up the movement in our fingers. But it took a few days until the numbness in my toes disappeared completely. We joked that if the Sierras didn’t challenge us we did a pretty good job in doing so ourselves.
3th of July. Fireworks
The day before coming into the town of Mammoth, we camped on top of a hill surrounded by blowdowns. Just as night began to fall we could hear explosions. In the far distance on the other side of a mountain, we could see fireworks. A ski resort was celebrating an early 4th of July. It felt surreal. We stood in silence just watching the show that the night sky held for us until the last light faded away. It felt like they were meant just for us. And I think they also were.
4th of July. Zero day
We had timed the holiday just in time for our zero day. We hitchhiked back to the hostel in Bishop and ate food, drank beers, and went to the public pool. I put on a white dress and rode the bike into town. At night we watched The Lord of the Rings and made all the references to our own hike. The zeros spent at Hostel California were some of the best on the entire PCT.
8th of July. Paradise on earth
Coming into Yosemite National Park was like entering fairyland. I almost expected to see unicorns and fairies roaming the lands. It was such a stark contrast from the white, vast landscape we had spent so many days in. Seeing the green valley from above, standing on top of a snowy pass was spectacular. Reaching the river at the bottom of the mountain, we simply dropped our clothes and jumped in. We had the entire paradise to ourselves. Our lunch break we spent just swimming, sunbathing, and playing games. We saw hundreds of deer just in that one day and I never ever wanted to leave.
12th of July. Milestone
Reaching the 1,000-mile marker felt huge. Fundamental almost. In the morning we had woken up in a meadow covered in frost. Our tents, shoes, and backpacks — all covered in ice crystals. Some of us even had to dunk our trail runners in a stream because they were frozen solid and impossible to put on. But when we lay by the marker the sun shone upon us and we all listened to the song “500 Miles”. Feeling everything and nothing all at the same time. We had come so far. Yet we had so much left.
13th of July. We made it
Coming into Kennedy Meadows North (KMN) officially marks the end of the High Sierra. We made it through the hardest section of the entire PCT. All the snow, the passes, and the treacherous river crossings. We reached the end.
In KMN we spent our day resting at a lovely trail angel’s place next to a lake. We rode the bikes and bought ice cream in the shop, went paddle boarding and swimming in the lake, and ate delicious home-cooked dinner at the house. It was everything our bodies and minds needed after all we’d been through in the last few weeks.
19th of July. The end of the Fellowship
We eventually got hit by mosquitoes the last few days before South Lake Tahoe. It was finally full summer and everything was alive and growing around us. For different reasons, this also marked the end of The Fellowship of the Sierra. We had gone through Mordor together and our quest was fulfilled. We all craved some independence and solitude but promised to never stay longer than a day or two from each other. We shared pizza and memories on the beach, watching the sunset. It was beautiful and sad, and it felt like both the end and the beginning of something. Which it was.
I heard a quote from another hiker halfway through the Sierra. “If you want to go fast — go alone. If you want to go far – go together”. I thought about that a lot. Being a group of seven people, that we were towards the end, was a lot. Seven opinions, seven different hiking styles, and seven cat-holes. Most things felt like it took seven times longer. So were the times when I felt annoyed, slowed down, or rushed. I thought about this. And how it was all worth it in the end. How everything was seven times more beautiful. And how we came really far. Together.
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