Traversing the Southern Sierra

I left Kennedy Meadows on June 4 and reached Red’s Meadow Resort on June 18 —my longest stretch without going into a town, and probably the longest stretch without a shower in my life.

This section of trail — the Southern Sierra — is perhaps the most awe-inspiring and beautiful slice of landscape on the entire trail. It also felt like coming home.

I’ve done most of my backpacking in the Sierra. It’s where I first learned to backpack. So everything about it just feels easier: I know where to find water and how much to carry, I know how to find campsites, and I’ve even done parts of this section before. My first alpine lake was Chicken Spring Lake. I waded into the lake and felt cleaner immediately – like I was washing away some of those hard desert miles.

There were some serious challenges in this section. Right after I left Kennedy Meadows, I came down with a stomach bug. It was gross and uncomfortable, and I spent a good deal of time worrying about what I would do if things got worse instead of better. Would I even be able to hike back out? I met another hiker in a similar situation hiking back to Kennedy Meadows, her symptoms having progressed to the point that she feared giardia and was headed to a doctor. But thankfully my symptoms resolved within a day, and I didn’t have to turn back.

I also had other hardships in this section: most of the mountain passes still had snow on the northern face, which meant slow, slippery descents. Stream crossings were icy cold, swift-moving and often knee-height. I fell about once a day, though thankfully without injuries. And I let my electronics get cold one night, meaning both my phone and external battery ran down to very low battery. Since my phone also serves as my navigation system, this was especially alarming. Did I mention I packed the wrong map for this section? Well, I did.

I also somehow miscalculated my food and ended up being short. That meant I needed to ration my food to make my meals and snacks last for an extra day. I have always been very meticulous about my backpacking food. I make my own meals and ship them ahead, count grams of protein, and calculate daily calorie needs. While lots of thru hikers are living off chips and candy bars, I actually shoot for fairly healthy (if calorically dense) food choices. So, running low on food and having to ration to stretch things out was something I hadn’t contemplated or ever faced.

And you know what? It was fine. I was anxious about it, and I got pretty hungry at times. But I found I could still hike long hours without trouble, and I wasn’t fainting or exhausted from lack of food.

In some ways, I’m really glad I was short of food. It forced me to face a challenge I wouldn’t have ever chosen, and realize that I was totally capable of dealing with it. And while I did spend an unreasonable amount of time fantasizing about burritos while hiking, I leaned a lot more about my tolerance for just rolling with whatever challenges arose.

I think that’s been a quintessential experience of the PCT: just rolling with whatever happens. Bad weather, mosquitoes, running out of food, getting sick —these things happen. I can do my best to prevent bad experiences but some of them are just inevitable. So instead I just try to roll with things as best I can, find small joys and comforts, and then trust in my own ability to deal with discomfort.

I also got to experience one of the best days on trail ever: my partner Granite hiked up to meet me with a resupply at Lake Charlotte. I hadn’t seen him in weeks, plus I was a complete mess — out of food, electronics dead, no map. I was ecstatic to see him, and we spent a whole day lazying about on the rocky bank of a gorgeous alpine lake.

Note: I’m hiking the PCT this year. Follow along on Instagram at @big_rain_little_thunder

 

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