Week 9: More snow and adventure (Mile 942)
This post comes from Merced, CA which happens to be a few hours drive from the PCT. (More on that in the next post)
Upon arriving in Independence, CA I had already hiked over Forester Pass the highest point on the PCT, so in my mind the hard work was behind me. I decided to send home my crampons after not needing them on Forester and planned for a 6 day trek to get from Independence to Mammoth Lakes at mile 907. Unknown to me at the time was that the concerning part of the upcoming passes was not their elevation but the steepness of the trail on either side of the pass and the amount of sun exposure that the pass receives. I quickly found this out firsthand.
On my first day out of town the real fun began. Once over Kearsarge Pass and back on the PCT the trail climbed to Glen Pass. The ascent up to the pass was quite scenic passing a alpine lake and little snow. Unfortunately this all changed once I reached the pass. The north side of mountain had heavy snow on it’s entire face with no safe way to decend. This is one of those moments when my light weight pack mentality was not the best idea. The crampons set home? The ice axe or 2nd trekking pole I didn’t want to carry? Yep could have certainly used any of those! Here are a few pictures of the north side of Glen Pass and the descent.
About half way through the descent the winds got so strong that I had to brace myself on the snow leaning against the mountain as the gusts hit me. Combining this with having to focus on every step downward made for a nerve racking descent.
Once back to dry land I continued on to the valley floor near 8000 feet. I setup camp as the sun set and could feel a chill settling in on the valley. Shortly after I was in my tent with all my cold weather clothes on ready for a frigid night. The next morning my tent was caked in frost and the interior was damp from condensation. My socks and shoes which didn’t dry from the day before were frozen stiff as well. It was a difficult morning to leave my sleeping bag.
Due to my rather difficult schedule that I had planned I had to get an early start as I was hoping to cross two more passes that day. Within a quarter mile of leaving camp I was again dealing with raging creek crossings. This time though, due to the cold temps the rocks near either side of the creeks had a layer of ice covering them, making the crossing that much more fun. Within seconds of becoming exposed to the water my feet would go numb and I did all I could to avoid falling in and becoming seriously cold.
After crossing a couple of creeks the search was on to get to the sun. Thankfully being at such high elevation the sun warms you up rather fast. I stripped off my soaked socks and shoes, dried off and went back to sandals. My trail sandals worked better in the sierras than shoes as they allowed my feet to dry faster and they got suprising well grip while crossing streams. The only time I went with shoes was in the heavy slushy snow as I couldn’t move at all in snow with sandals and the chill from the snow would become too much.
The day worked out as planned as I had made it over Pinchot and Mather Pass and down to the next chilly valley. For the next few days a similar routine played out; wake up cold to a wet tent, get moving to avoid hyperthermia, climb over a pass or two and descend to the next valley while taking in the amazing scenery. One moment stands out that really put my high sierra experience in perspective. I had just crossed a pass and took a break near an alpine lake. I ended up sitting there for an hour soaking the experience in, sure I was hungry, exhausted and cold but the scenery was incredible. I hadn’t see a road, car or building in days and the silence was stunning. Within a few minutes of resting a few marmots appeared and starting playing in the snow. It was one of those mental pictures that I’ll never forget. My physical ailments all seemed to go away as I soaked in my surroundings.
At the end of this section of trail I decided to rest up in Mammoth Lakes, CA a local ski resort town. The talk amongst the other hikers and I was of the passes. which was the worse and how the trail looked to the north. As it turned out one of the most nerve racking pass crossings that I did could have been avoided if I had stayed on the trail. When climbing up to Silver Pass the PCT was obscured in snow so I continued north following the path of footprints from prior hikers. Once the route across the north face of silver pass came into view I was at a loss for words. The trail left by a few hikers went directly across a very steep face at nearly 60 degrees. Below the trail were boulders and trees and if you happened to slide by those, an alpine lake that was slightly frozen over.
While I was in shock as to what I would have to cross I didn’t think to look at the PCT map on my phone to see if this was the only route down. In fact I caught up to a hiker from Israel at the descent and watched him self arrrest with his ice axe all the way down the face. After watching him get through the descent I eased out with my trail running shoes and one trekking pole. The snow was hard as it was still early in the morning. Hard snow prevented my feet from getting soaked but made it nearly impossible to cut steps of my own as I descended. I was stuck following the tracks of hikers with more snow gear, so I had to improvise. I used my right hand as a trekking pole wedging it into the snow after each step while keeping my one trekking pole lodged in the snow below me. Within a few minutes my hand was starting to lose feeling but I was making progress. I broke the decent up into 3 steep sections, taking a break when I came to a rock or tree and could relax for a few seconds. Somehow I eventually made it back to level ground and said a few “thank you’s” for not having slid into the frigid lake.
Back to the alternative route… it turns out that the PCT doesn’t actually go down this steep portion of Silver Pass as there were two distinct passes in this area. Instead of descending as I was used to after crossing a pass the trail climbed to a ridge and took a gentle decent across the snow to the lake edge. From this point on I was diligent in scouting the safest route available and stopped following the trail through the snow field, as there was usually a safer rock scramble that was more to my liking.
The initial look at Silver Pass
Looking back at the route from the lake, there is a hiker about half way down the pass in the picture.
After these exhausting experiences and hearing reports of worse snow conditions north of Mammoth Lakes, I decided to only plan out the next 40 miles which would bring me to Yosemite National Park, mile 942. After exploring Yosemite I would analyze how I feel and proceed north if it felt right.
One of the reasons I decided to hike the PCT was to climb Half Dome in Yosemite. Half Dome is a steep “dome” shape of granite that magnificently stands over Yosemite Valley. To reach the summit you either have to have some serious rock climbing skills or be lucky enough to get a permit to climb Half Dome via the cables route. From May to September each year the park installs steel cables that run up the steep ascent of Half Dome. The cables are about 4 feet apart and every ten or so feet in length are supported by steel pipes that are set into the granite face. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) prior to World War 2 constructed the cables route and every year since people have been able to ascend to half dome’s summit and enjoy the scenic views of Yosemite valley below.
When I arrived at Yosemite my first concern was getting a permit for Half Dome. I had been denied via the internet lottery a few years prior so I knew this would be challenging. Luckily the park allocates a few permits per day for those backpacking in the park, with the only catch being that at 11am each day the permits are released and it you’re too late or last in line you’re out of luck.
After speaking with a ranger the day prior, I found out that I had to camp 4 miles away from the permit station per park regulations and that the earlier I got in line for a permit the better. At 5 am the next morning I starting walking 4 miles south back to the permit station arriving by 7 and was slightly upset to see 20 people already in line. Make that 20 people who had drove to Yosemite to get a permit… My hopes of getting a permit were extremely low but since I really had no commitments I planned to keep coming back day after day until I finally got my permit. Fortunately, around 9 that same morning the ranger came around and said that they had a few openings for today that people had not picked up. I explained my situation and potential plan and minutes later had my Half Dome permit! I was ecstatic, the only catch being I had to hike 35 miles to get there but that was really not a concern as I had finally got my permit.
The next afternoon I was able to climb up Half Dome and enjoy a truly amazing day in Yosemite Valley. For those planning a PCT thru hike or a trip to Yosemite make sure a hike up Half Dome is on your itinerary. That is if you don’t have a fear of heights.
I have never experienced anything quite like the climb up half dome. The cables portion which runs for about 400 feet allows you to climb up a slick granite face at about 45 degrees. According to the NPS website the route is relatively safe and only a few people have died on the climb. During my climb, since it was early afternoon the cables were packed with people both going up and down. The tricky part was moving up or down while making room for those going the opposite way. There were also people moving very slowly struggling with the elevation and fear of falling. Shortly after I started on the cables I heard someone above yell “Heads Up” as a full nalgene bottle had slipped out of someone’s pack and was flying down the face of Half Dome. Luckily no one got hit by the bottle as it skirted the other climbers and soared onward to the valley, thousands of feet below.
Once at the summit I took a few pictures but started to focus on the decent. I knew going down would be more difficult and I wanted to get it over with. Back on the cables I was happy to see less people coming up and was able to dictate my rate of decent. My approach was to lean forward with a strong grip on the cables and take short choppy steps between 10 foot sections where a 2 X 4 was laid to provide extra traction. Within 30 minutes I was happy to be back on level ground and stopped to photograph Half Dome.
Looking up at the start of the cable portion.
From the summit, looking down at Yosemite Valley. El Capitan is in the far center of the picture.
Back on flat ground looking at the cables section.
These pictures really don’t do it justice. Yosemite National Park is one of the most awe inspiring area’s I’ve ever been to. John Muir, who at times was inclined to hyperbole when he wrote about the Sierra’s, was right on in his description of Yosemite Valley. In his book My First Summer In the Sierra, Muir writes in describing Yosemite; “Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty”.
It’s unfortunate that the valley is inundated with cars and bear feeding tourists but with a short hike you can easily escape to dramatic views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and El Capitan.
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