Trail Update Number Five (Sierra part Two)
So my last post ended with me basically sounding like I was going to get off the trail. Full disclosure: at that moment in the journey I had narrowed my options down to two: find a place to flip up to or buy a plane ticket home. But I was not going back into the Sierra…
I left my campsite a bit after dawn. I had only a few miles to hike before getting to Cottonwood pass which would get me to the trailhead at a road that would lead me out of the Sierra. I would go into the town of Lone Pine, get a place and make a plan. I stopped for a break around 10:00 a.m. to have a snack, melt some water and dry out my tent. I was much more relaxed this morning than the previous few days and I took my time enjoying the scenery and the beautiful day. I had just packed up and was putting on my pack when I heard, “Hi Josh!” What? A human voice? Who could have caught up to me? The answer was, no-one! As it turns out, I had caught up to them. But how? Apparently, we were camped close to each other, but I hadn’t seen them as I pitched just in time to beat the rain and they were just a bit further along. In the morning they left ahead of me but had stopped for a break just off trail to dry out their tent. It was at that time that I walked right by without seeing them! His name is Brandon. We had met at Kennedy Meadows a few days earlier and he was part of one of the groups that had hiked out ahead of me (that I was hoping to catch!) Anyway, Brandon relayed to me that most groups were getting off the trail due to some weather that was coming in. This news surprised me because there were a lot of strong hikers in front of me and I figured they would push all the way to their planned exit point at Bishop pass. In turn I said that I was planning on flipping up as I didn’t think I would be able to continue in the Sierra. At any rate, we were both headed in the same direction so we hiked out together.
We reached the trailhead/campground at about 2:00 p.m. Since it was buried under about four feet of snow rendering it no more useful than anywhere else, we decided to hike on until we decided that we had gone sufficiently far for the day. We had only gone about a half mile when we came up on two more hikers who were also exiting, taking an afternoon break. This is key because this meeting really changed how the next two weeks would unfold. Their names are Nate and Peter. I don’t recall what group they were part of but here we were, four of us together. We chatted for a bit, all of us surprised at the turn of events with people leaving the Sierra like the proverbial rats leaving a sinking ship. So Brandon and I hiked on with Nate and Peter not far behind. We followed the road for a little longer and as we dropped elevation, there began to be a few places devoid of snow. Maybe if we pushed on a bit further we could camp on dry ground! We went another half mile or so and found what we were hoping for: a large piece of smooth, level ground next to the road – with no snow. Home for the night! We decided to camp there as we knew it would still be a day for us to get to town. A short time after, Nate and Peter came along. Peter decided to join us at camp while Nate, who had just drank a cup of coffee at break, elected to keep hiking to try to get all the way to town.
The next morning we woke up, packed up as usual and prepared to hike out. But no Brandon. Peter and I were wondering what was going on when a voice came from Brandon’s tent, “Guys, I don’t think I can hike today, I can’t see!” What?! He went on to explain that he woke in the night with his eyes burning and watering and that he was unable to open them, and if he forced them open that it was excruciating. I had noticed the day before that when he approached me on the trail that he didn’t have sunglasses on. Unfortunately the prolonged exposure to the sun from above and below had caused him to go snowblind. Not good! To shorten this part of the story, let’s skip to the part where some road workers who were in the area were able to give the three of us a ride to the gate that closed the road and a trail angel was able to take us to town from there. We had planned a daylong road walk, and suddenly we were in town by 10:00 a.m.! To make it even better, Nate, who had gotten into town ahead of us had booked an air bnb for two nights. Things were falling into place! Brandon decided that he needed to rest his eyes more so he decided to get a hotel room so that he could spend the next few days literally in a dark room. By this point he was starting to regain some of his vision and wanted to keep it moving in that direction. So it was Nate, Peter, and I in the house.
That night I had a hard time sleeping. I was faced with a hard decision. Flip somewhere or get off trail. I couldn’t believe that after all of the dreaming and planning that I was actually considering leaving the PCT. I never thought that would even cross my mind, but here it was and I had to face it. Not fun. To make it worse, there was nowhere to flip to. The entire trail (save for a few small sections) from the Sierra through Oregon and most of Washington was covered in snow – and a lot of it! The record snowfall was wreaking havoc on a lot of thru-hikes and mine was no exception. What to do…? I woke that morning in a somber mood, was my hike really ending? Nate and Peter in the meantime were planning on continuing northward but needed to make a few gear changes based on the conditions they would be seeing. (Note: The weather that prompted everyone to drop down out of the mountains did in fact materialize. As we walked about town, we could see the high peaks enveloped in dark clouds and we were certainly glad to not be up there!) As chores got done, and plans made, Peter and Nate continued to ask what my plans were. Not wanting to go home and seeing the futility of flipping into the same conditions that I hoped to escape, and seeing their commitment to moving forward had me considering a third option. Change my setup, and go back into the Sierra, with a better attitude and more importantly, a team. I decided to go for it. I completely redid my nutrition plan, changed a few pieces of gear and got ready.
Heading back in!
Our plan was to do eight days from Lone Pine until we exited at Bishop pass which would take us into the town of Bishop. It was a reasonably long food carry, but doable as long as we could hit the miles we had planned for. Our trail angel dropped us off at the gate to the road in the late afternoon. It was a long climb so doing it without the sun directly on us made sense. The first part was a bit warm, but as soon as the peaks began casting shadows on the road, it became very pleasant and the walk was rather enjoyable in the golden light with a view of the desert floor below. We camped at the same spot that we did a few nights ago with the plan to rise early and take advantage of the firm snow. We wanted to clear Cottonwood pass before the sun made the snow too soft. This was to be our mode of operation for the rest of the section. Rise early and hike the approach to the pass while it was still dark – timing it so that we would climb the pass at first light. We would then simply try to get to within a good distance of the next pass, set up camp while it was still relatively early in the afternoon, dry our gear and prepare to do it again. Our goal each day was packs on at 3:00 a.m., which we stuck to pretty well. It was a little disappointing to hike in the dark as I know that I missed out on some scenery, but the Sierra calls the shots and if passage means walking at zero dark thirty, then that’s what you do.
I earn a trail name!
Our first major pass was Forester Pass. Forester is well known for two reasons. First, it is the highest point that the PCT reaches, topping out at 13,200 feet. Second, it strikes fear into a lot of hikers due to the ice chute that must be traversed just below the summit. It is approximately 30 feet wide and across a steep pitch of about 60 degrees with rock ledges on either side. The traverse had excellent footholds cut in with self-belay holds for an ice axe so it was fairly easy as long as you took your time and placed each step carefully. What makes it notorious is that the price for failure is quite high. If you somehow managed to lose your footing and you were unable to self arrest, things would not end well! As we approached the pass, I could see the ice chute, but couldn’t yet see the route that leads to the famous traverse. It looked fairly straightforward and I told my group (we had picked up another hiker, “Gump” at this point) that I wanted to try to climb the chute. They said ‘you don’t need to do that, the trail goes up there’, gesturing to the route. I said I knew that, but wanted to try, and if things weren’t going well, I would back down and take the normal path. So I set off. Like any climb, it starts easy but as you dig into it, you realize how big it really is. But things were going well, I felt good and the snow conditions were perfect. I continued to make progress and before long was into the chute proper, now with the rock on either side. I would climb for about 30 seconds, stop, rest, evaluate my progress, check my gear and continue. I did this several times, make sure I was on course, stay calm and smooth, ice axe feels good, balance is good, crampons are digging in nicely….crampons! So like a lot of thru-hikers, I wear trail runners. They’re lightweight, comfortable and dry easy when wet. My shoe of choice like many others are Lone Peaks. Those who use them know that they are a great shoe and check all the boxes that a hiker wants. But they are lightweight. Super lightweight. With little structure for anything besides walking (or running). In doing my periodic gear checks, I realized that my crampons were pulling off of my shoes. The shoes don’t have enough structure to support them and were literally beginning to squish out. Not good! I realized quickly that this was not sustainable and that I would need to climb down before a complete gear failure sent me sliding down. Dang! Things were going well too. I was feeling good and other than the shoe/crampon interface, things were going great. I climbed below the rocks and traversed over towards the established route, all the time taking care to avoid twisting my feet into a situation that would allow the crampons to come off entirely. Once on the trail, it was a relatively easy walk for the rest of the climb up the pass. The ice chute traverse went smoothly and I ended up hanging out on the switchbacks waiting for the rest of my hiking partners. When they finally caught up to me, they said, “That was crazy, we should call you Ice Chute!” But that’s about as much as was said regarding a trail name – until later. We summited the pass, had a snack, took the obligatory photos and enjoyed the view. For the first time on the trail, I really had a sense of where I was in the Sierra. As far as I could see in any direction, there were snow covered peaks – and they were amazing. It’s impossible to put into words what one is able to witness in the heart of the mountains And photos, while they might capture an image, do not capture the sense of scale. It is truly something that one must experience to appreciate – and yet so few do. Of the seven billion plus people on the planet, what percentage get to experience something like this? And here I am! Who am I to enjoy this sort of privilege, to experience something so magical when others can’t? I can’t help but feel humbled by the entire notion.
This doesn’t mean that it’s all rainbows and sunshine! I experienced a pretty low low after a few more days of big efforts in the snow. It was the morning that we were to cross over Pinchot Pass. I was tired, cold, and I really didn’t feel like hiking at that moment. To top it off, we had gotten to camp later the previous day so my socks and shoes didn’t have time to dry. I just wasn’t feeling it. But here we were, somewhere on the trail, with no way out but to keep moving forward. At one point my partners asked me a question and I had a hard time responding. At that moment, I just wanted to be done. Peter was concerned and asked if I was ok. Nate, the only experienced thru-hiker in our group having done the AT a few years prior, understood what was going on and simply said, “He’ll be fine.” And he was right. I just needed a bit of time to blow off some steam and by the time we got to the top of the pass the low of the morning was forgotten and I again found myself basking in the amazing scenery of the Sierra.
Our final day on trail before reaching the town of Bishop had us exiting at Bishop Pass. We woke at our usual time and hiked out, all of us excited about sleeping somewhere warm and eating town food! But the Sierra wasn’t going to let us out easily. If following the Bishop pass trail, it should be a series of switchbacks up over the pass next to a creek called Dusy Branch. There were just a couple problems: 1. There were no switchbacks as the trail was still buried. No problem, we’ve dealt with that the entire passage so far. 2. The creek. Like so many this year, just about everything that is flowing becomes a raging torrent. Seeing the water flow and not knowing exactly where it was in relation to the trail (some of the creek covered with snow) had us opt for a bushwhack up the side of the slope. 3. We. Were. Tired. The past seven days had taken their toll on us physically. We were beat down and ready for a break. All of these factors combined made for some slow going. Normally we would be up and over a pass by 10 o’clock at the absolute latest – including a snack break. But on this day we didn’t even get to the top of the pass until almost noon. We were running on fumes and were just trying to hang on. Fortunately at this point the terrain was easy and we were able to enjoy our walk to the South Lake trailhead. It was a gorgeous area and I once again felt privileged just to be there. We reached the trailhead sometime in the mid afternoon. We had made it. Our push through the first part of the Sierra was complete, all we had to do was get to town. Fortunately, a group of backcountry skiers was exiting at the same time that we were. They surprised to see us as at this point, very few people had hiked through the mountains. They asked us if we needed a ride to town which we happily accepted after post-adventure beers of course! Before driving us to our hostel, they made a pit stop at a local brew pub so we could have a meal. We had a great time talking with them about all things adventure like skiing, hiking, mountain biking and the like. They were super fun to hang out with. After checking in to our hostel – The Hostel California (if you’re ever in Bishop, check them out. Super hiker friendly!) – we ran into some more of our friends from the trail. It was fun catching up with people we hadn’t seen in a while. There were several groups all gathered and after some time it came out that I was the one who attempted to climb the ice chute on Forester Pass. One of the groups at that time had been ahead of us and was at the top of the pass while I was climbing. They said “That was you? Your trail name should be Chute!” And there it was. Two separate groups of people came up with the same name for the same reason, so I guess my trail name is “Chute”. After hanging out for a while, we decided to head across the street to a Mexican restaurant. We enjoyed our second meal in a short period of time and toasted our successful completion of our first section of the Sierra.
The next few days were spent relaxing, eating, getting chores done and of course planning for the next stint in the Sierra. During that time, I had a chance to reflect a bit, not only on what I had done but also on what was to come.
◦ Climbing. I love it! I felt super comfortable on the steep terrain and ended up leading our group through anything that required any sort of “technical moves” as they wanted to see how it needed to be done. (Please note: I am NOT claiming to be an expert mountaineer! I have sooooo much to learn in that area…)
◦ Rivers. Scare the $**# out of me! This will come in to play later on.
◦ Being part of a team in a tough environment is essential. Each of us had our strengths and we were able to use them in a way that allowed us to travel with minimal stress.
◦ I’m a stronger hiker than I thought. Many times I found myself pushing ahead. Kinda proud of that.
◦ I’m impulsive. Sometimes I tend to go without completely thinking.
◦ Navigation is not my strong suit. I do ok, but I definitely have room for improvement!
◦ I hate wet shoes and socks in the morning!! Hate. Them.
◦ The Sierra is incredibly harsh! Every move needs to be taken seriously or things can go south quickly!
◦ The Sierra is an amazing place! I can’t believe that I had the privilege to be there!
Overall, I had a great time in the first full section of the Sierra. But it was also super hard. When it came time to hike out, the time spent in Bishop didn’t feel like enough. But the trail was calling and we needed to go. See you down the trail.
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