Trail Update Number Four (Sierra Part One)

Now we’re in it!

A few weeks ago, I began the second leg of my journey on the PCT: The Sierra. If you are reading this, you probably already have an interest in long-distance hiking and as such already understand a bit about the nature of the trail through the Sierra Nevada mountains. But in case you’re new to the hiking world and you just happened to stumble upon this blog post, or if you are one of my family and friends following along, I’ll try to briefly explain the contrast between the two sections. The first 700ish miles of the PCT are considered the “desert section.” Generally speaking, this means a relatively dry climate at a relatively low elevation (hovering around 3000 or so feet above sea level). This does not mean that it is only sand and cactus as the name “desert” implies. In fact, this is probably the most diverse section of the trail in terms of terrain having everything from the aforementioned sand and cactus to pine forests, grassy meadows, sub-alpine terrain and more. Elevation ranges from the low 2000’s to over 10,000 feet atop several different peaks. The Sierra by contrast is all mountain terrain. The trail itself rarely dips below 8000 feet (at least in this first section) and climbs to a high of 13,200, with many surrounding peaks well above 14,000 feet. Instead of patches of snow, the world is made of snow. In fact, while on trail I’ve said several times, “there is no PCT, only rocks, trees, water and snow.” So this is the setting where the story continues.

Leaving Kennedy Meadows

First let me back up a couple days. As I was approaching Kennedy Meadows, I was faced with a decision that all through hikers face at some point: stop and camp and get to town tomorrow or push a bigger day and get to town today. I opted for the latter as the call of town food is super strong as is the idea of not having to wake up to hike right away. I pushed a 26 mile day and arrived at the Kennedy Meadows General Store around 6:30pm. I knew I was in the right place when upon arrival, one of my favorite indie folk bands was playing on the outdoor patio speakers. The only downside was that I had missed the kitchen and had to eat trail food for dinner. Not a huge deal as tomorrow I could take a proper rest day and would be there when the all you can eat pancakes began to be served- worth it for a hungry hiker! I had already done my Sierra resupply (foreshadowing) and was really only stopping here to pick up a package I had sent (more foreshadowing!). My plan was to take a single zero and hike out the following day. In the meantime, my goal was to eat as much food as the hamlet of Kennedy Meadows could supply. I set up my tent behind the store in the free camping area (thank you KMGS!) and settled down for the night.

The next morning I had my first real coffee in a while, feasted on a delicious breakfast and enjoyed the company of my fellow hikers. As might be expected, most of the talk was about how to tackle the Sierra and the exceptional snowpack within. A few groups hiked out that day, with the rest planning to leave the following – same day as me. Perfect, just needed that box. When the mail delivery arrived I inquired about my box, no luck. After checking the tracking (I was unable to check previously) I found it was scheduled to be delivered the following day. Rats – tomorrow would be an unplanned nero. Not to worry, the mail usually comes by noon and I could still get some miles in and catch up to the group I was hoping to hike with who would be leaving tomorrow morning (even more foreshadowing!). In the meantime, more food!!

Is this why we hike?


So the next day came, and I packed up my kit prepared to hike out as soon as my box arrived. No worries, another all-you-can-eat breakfast! Breakfast ended and the waiting began. Then lunch came. Burger please! Then 1:00, then 2:00… Now I was starting to get nervous. My window of having enough time to hike out and catch my group (who had left that morning) was closing. They weren’t planning to go terribly far, but when traveling on foot, even a short distance is a significant amount of time. Finally my package arrived- 4:00pm. Far too late to head out as it would have meant night hiking through terrain that was significantly more difficult than what I had previously experienced. I decided to wait until the following day where I could get some good mileage in and catch up to them.

In which a would-be through hiker makes a lot of mistakes!

So now I’ll detail all the mistakes I made in this entire section. Some are just a little misguided, some are completely stupid. But like life in general, everything we do helps to shape our experience in the future. Here we go:

Mistake 1. Resupply.

I previously mentioned that I had already done my resupply in preparation for the Sierra. So this was going to be a very long food carry- twelve-plus days (two and a half to get to KM from Walker Pass and ten to get from KM to Bishop Pass- my first planned exit point for resupply). I needed a lot of calorie dense food that didn’t take a lot of space as it all needed to fit into my bear canister. My idea was to have a protein shake each morning with some green powder for extra nutrition and a little instant coffee for some zip. Not a culinary treat, but so far not too bad. I brought along a bag of pepperonis for some protein fat and salt. Not a bad treat. Then tortillas. Then peanut butter. Then a single snickers for each day. That’s. It. That was my nutrition strategy for 10 days of hiking through arguably the hardest terrain I would encounter on the entire trail. To be fair, I knew that this was meant to be strictly calories for burning, but I had no idea the negative effects that would come about; namely, the lack of energy due to few carbs. Looking back, it’s completely laughable, but at the time it made sense…

Mistake 2: Departure.

So I said that my box arrived too late to hike out and that I would just get a good start the following day. Read that again: The. Following. Day. Who did I think I was that I could double the mileage of another group and just catch up to them? This would mean hiking a 30-mile day in the Sierra at a pace of 4 to 6 miles per hour. What was I thinking?! Even if the math checked out, the physical ability to make it happen is basically impossible. To top it off, did I leave at first light to maximize hiking time? Remember that all-you-can-eat breakfast? Of course I stayed! 29 pancakes plus extras in three days. The only happy part of the story! So after stuffing myself with pancakes for the third day in a row, I hiked out a bit before 10 a.m. and headed into the Sierra.

Here we go!

The first four miles were simply an extension of the desert. In fact, you could say most of the day was as such. But I was gaining elevation, the snow capped peaks were close and I was starting to encounter some small patches of snow on the trail. By late afternoon, the change in the terrain was readily apparent. I began my first significant climb up Cow Creek Canyon, faced several crossings of the eponymously named creek, and began to see some real snow. And there was no-one in sight.

Mistake 3: Bushwhacking.

The feature of the Sierra that most worries me are the creek crossings. I can handle snow (I’ve done plenty of winter hiking and camping), I love mountains and the climbing that goes with hiking in them, but the water crossings freak me out. Rivers move and change, sometimes by the minute. They are unpredictable and the amount of power that fast moving water has can be frightening. After crossing Cow Creek twice in a very short span, and looking at the number of times that I would need to cross in the coming few miles. I noticed that the trail would basically make a U-turn up ahead. I rationalized that rather than continue to cross the creek over and over, that I could cut across (the snow, up the embankment) and meet the trail without any more water crossing (that day). So up I went. Picking my way through the mix of snow, rock, trees and Manzanita bushes up the steep hill. About halfway up, I learned the hard way that the snow close to the rocks is less firm than when further away. I post-holed to my thigh and my knee hit the rock. Hard. Stupid. Now I’ve got a gash in my knee, I’m not on the trail, it’s getting late and nobody knows where the %#%# I am! Fortunately, it wasn’t too bad and I could continue to hike without having to triage it and the blood would only run a bit into my calf sleeves. I pressed on and finally got back to the trail at the top of the climb, exactly at a camp site, that just happened to be snow free. A win for the day! I hadn’t caught my group (duh!) but I felt satisfied with my day’s progress. I enjoyed a beautiful sunset and cowboy camped, ready to wake up early to press on.


I woke at 4 a.m. so that I could be hiking by first light. Today was the day that I would bang out some miles and catch up to my people. I downed my protein shake, packed up my kit and headed out. I was definitely in the mountains now! The highest peaks were still a little ways away but I was no longer walking on dirt. The ground was completely covered in snow and lots of it! This meant that travel would be more difficult as would navigation as there was no trail tread to follow. Never fear, I could follow the footprints of the people ahead of me- kinda. See, even though there is a lot of snow, it’s springtime in California and that means that it’s hot and that means the snow is melting and that means that footprints that are only a day old disappear really quickly. I was disheartened when I realized this, though there were still plenty of times where I could follow tracks, just not consistently. I found myself stopping rather often to check my phone app to reference where I was in relation to the trail in order to stay on track. At one point, I realized that the trail would skirt around the side of a mountain and then cross over a valley. Checking my map, I realized that the same valley was just a handful of meters away and that I could go significantly faster if I were to move off trail and walk on the flat terrain instead of through the uneven snow pack in the trees. I employed my “secret weapon”, implemented my plan and began cruising. Sure enough, in no time I had rejoined the trail and had covered some significant ground. Sweet! I stopped for a quick break to dry out my gear, top off my water and have a tortilla with peanut butter. Everything was going to plan. As the day went on, I continued using the same approach. Read the terrain, check the map and try to make up some miles. Ah but remember the creeks? I needed to avoid them. So when the trail went right around the side of a meadow with a creek crossing I went left. Around the whole meadow. Imagine you are on a track at your local high school. You are in the hundred-meter dash. However when the gun goes off, you run the opposite direction around the track to the finish line. Sure you get there, but you probably didn’t do it in record time. In fact, if you were combining times from multiple events, even if your first event was a record, the wasted time from the second would negate any gains you made. That’s me. To top it off, I still had to cross a couple creeks! Wasted time and effort. Lesson learned- don’t try to game the system and stay on trail!

What makes more sense? Long way or short way?

Mistake 4: Gear

So now it’s time to talk about the box, more specifically, what was in it that was worth waiting for. There will always be some debate on this one and I have decided where I land on the issue. Snowshoes. The short version is that when they’re good, they’re really good. However, like any tool, they serve a purpose in a specific situation (remember the open valley I was able to cruise through? Stuff like that.). However, on the PCT, there is a lot of traversing along the sides of steep slopes, not a strong suit of snowshoes. There is also a lot of climbing steep drifts which is fine, but the descent of these drifts turns the shoes into uncontrollable skis which had me crash landing several times. Not ideal when some of the terrain is less than forgiving for any mistakes.

Any one of the things listed above can be dealt with by itself. But all of these factors, combined with the physical effort needed to move forward, combined with the difficulty in navigation, combined with the stress of being in an area alone that I really shouldn’t have been… I was starting to unravel. At one point in the afternoon, I noticed the skies were getting cloudy and the wind was picking up. I was nowhere near a good area to camp and had to push on. I got to an overlook that was spectacular, but instead of being excited, I just wanted to get out of there and find my people. Just then thunder began to roll – unbelievable. The day that started so well was turning into a nightmare! I continued to push on hoping to get to level ground and set up camp before the storm came. Fortunately, I only had about a mile to go and I was able to get set up just as the rain/snow/sleet mix began. By this point I had pretty much decided that I needed to get out of the mountains and rethink things. Then I calculated my mileage for the day: 15.6 miles. I had worked incredibly hard for 12 hours and that’s as far as I had gotten? I knew there was no way to catch up to anyone ahead of me, I was absolutely exhausted and I was not enjoying myself. I made the decision to exit at Cottonwood Pass the following day. I would get myself to the town of Lone Pine and then decide whether I would flip to a different part of the trail or buy a plane ticket home – the only two options I could think of at the time. I slept surprisingly well that night knowing that soon I wouldn’t have to worry about the stress of the past few days. The group(s) ahead would press on without me, my plan would be different, I just didn’t yet know what it was. The Sierra would have to wait for another day and another time. I gave it everything I had and had come up short. A failure? Perhaps, but I think anyone who gives an honest effort, whether mistake-ridden or not, deserves credit for trying. The Sierra is a beautiful, magical place. But she is as equally cruel as she is beautiful. A mistake, no matter how well-intentioned, is not tolerated and the consequences can be disastrous. For myself, I think my decision to pull out before anything serious happened was the right one.

See you down the trail.

It was rarely this easy!

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Comments 1

  • val vitols : Jun 10th

    where are you now?


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