Hello again. It’s been quite some time since I’ve been around here. Technology has been the last thing on my mind for the last month. But now it’s time for an update on what has been some of the most amazing, beautiful, awful, challenging, scary shit in my 40s. Oh hell, I mean my life. Let’s be honest. Perhaps early in my 20s I had a few intense experiences but for the last 300 miles on the PCT, I truly have felt like I might die more than once and have been incredibly miserable pretty regularly. I am writing this from an actual computer in a real library so I won’t have pictures on this post but I will try to put some on from my phone later on.
The Sierra Part 1 (Kennedy Meadows to Bishop): The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen
2019 has been one of the most snow filled years in the Sierra for many years. We left Kennedy Meadows on May 30th and headed in the abyss not knowing what was ahead. That’s a lie. We had an idea. “It’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see. Better than any postcard” they said. True. It sure was. It was also the beginning of the snow filled misery that became so commonplace throughout the last month. Our timing was as good as it could have been. The weather had finally cleared up and we have had sun 83.3% of the time. The guy who told me it was going to be the most beautiful thing also went in two weeks earlier than we did and wound up with frost bite because the weather was still very cold and stormy. Our first few days involved climbing up in altitude to 8 or 9000 feet and seeing intermittent snow. It was warm enough during the day for shorts but cold enough in the evening to justify carrying my bulky, heavy 0 degree sleeping bag. We crossed over rivers and creeks and continued to climb. We saw F-18s flying right over our heads, mountains and rivers. Beautiful sunsets and sunrises. We had planned to climb Mt Whitney but because of the slushy conditions we decided not to. Not everyone in our group had water proof socks so while those of us who did were just moving along, annoyed with the slipping and sliding, they were cold all the time with soaking wet feet. Not a good time. Grandma got sick so myself, Alli, and Frogger fell a day behind our family. As we approached mile 778.6 Forester Pass, the highest pass on the PCT at 13,124ft we were enveloped by snow. We slept directly on the snow at around 11,500ft and woke up at 2am to get to the pass by sunrise. We had heard it was scary and dangerous and at the time it seemed like it. Oh we had so little perspective then. It was, however, the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen and I’m so thankful we got up so early to see it. We worked our way to Kearsage pass from there and ran into a common issue- we didn’t have much food left. Those pesky bear cans can only hold so much and it’s really hard to judge how much food to bring. Additionally, walking through slush burns a lot more calories than walking just on the trails. By the time we took the turn to Keasarge pass, Frogger was out of food and the rest of us were rationing and very hungry. Then it happened. We were getting water from Bullfrog Lake and Alli found an Oreo cookie candy bar in the snow that some poor soul lost on their way out of Keasarge. It was by far the best candy bar I’ve ever eaten in my life. We climbed Keasarge the next day and came into Onion Valley/Lone Pine/Bishop without incident. We enjoyed a couple days of real life, including getting a latte (whoa getting crazy). We had a room that had a stove so we made dinner and breakfast and prepped for the next part of our journey. We truly didn’t know what in the hell we were about to get into….
The Sierra Part 2 (Bishop to Mammoth Lakes): F’d Right in the A
This section of the Sierra is known as one of the harder sections on a normal year. Seven passes and two very dangerous river crossings awaited us. In a normal snow year, everyone would likely see some snow but the burden would be all the climbing up to a pass only to go down again and do it all over. In a normal year, people can stop in a couple places to get resupplied. This year, nothing was really open so we started carrying over 10 days of food. Or what we hoped would be enough for 10 days. We had to go back over Keasarge pass, where on the way out we ran into Stefani (Josh from Warrior Expeditions), and then a long awaited reunion with our friend Poppins. We decided to stay where she was, which wasn’t as far as we had planned to go. Thus began the fiasco. We woke up later than we should have (4:30) to head towards Glen Pass. We got separated early on and Sugar Glider disappeared into the sunrise while the rest of us got reconnected. As such, we didn’t get to Glen Pass until mid morning. As with all of the passes I will talk about, Glen Pass was completely covered in snow. On a normal year, there are switch backs all the way up and back down these passes. This year whoever was the first person up the pass kicked the steps into the snow, which was almost never on trail, often along the edge of a steep, scary slope of avalanchy snow and also quite frequently straight up the mountain. Like doing a stair stepper, at 11,000ft for a mile or two. All of these conditions are bearable when the snow is hard. In the slush it’s exponentially harder and more scary. We hit Glen when the sun had been shining on it for a few hours so it was slushy. The uphill was hard but not a big deal. On the backside, however, there were footsteps along the edge of the bowl of snow. We went down them because there really wasn’t any other way down but once we got to a stopping point and looked back up, we all had our first (of many) ‘oh shit what did we just do?’ moments. The trail was on an avalanche shoot and it looked like it could slide at any moment. We had to sit on some rocks for a while to decompress from the stress but we continued on. About three miles later, we ran into one of the other Warriors, Tinman, walking back southbound. He had started a day before us and had come up on a stream that he was uncomfortable crossing alone. He had waited all night and still felt like it was too strong. He made the decision to head back and skip this part of the Sierra for his own safety. We took his recommendations into account but chose to see it for ourselves. We did not, under any circumstances, want to go back up over Glen Pass again so I began a somewhat frantic Garmin inreach conversation with my amazing brother Terry about finding bailout routes in case we couldn’t cross this stream. Let me take a moment to clarify what streams and creeks mean in a high snow year. On our maps, they are sometimes named, but often just called “seasonal stream.” A lot of the comments on these streams from 2018 are “easy rock hop” or “dry”. This year these streams and creeks are raging rivers, full of melted snow, angrily rushing to whatever the easiest downhill destination the water can flow to. The stream Tinman couldn’t cross was narrow but flowing very fast and when we got there at 6pm, about waist deep. We chose to sleep right next to that stream because early morning time around 5 or 6am is when the streams are at their lowest point usually because the snow isn’t melting at night. We got up at 2 just to check to see if it was better but it was still raging. At 6, we paired up with a great guy named Pogo and a gal named SOBO and all of us crossed together in a line. It was scary, but just like Forester, we had no idea how easy that actually was. At this point we still hadn’t met up with the rest of the group so the Women of the West (Frogger, Grandma, Alli and me) kept trudging along. Because we had to sleep by that stream that night we had to cross Pinchot in the slush as well. It was not nearly as scary but it wasn’t fun. We knew where our friends were planning to sleep so we kept trudging well into the afternoon and finally we came down this awful steep hill (where I fell through a snow bridge, a story for a different day) and there they were. UV, Mango, Puns, Sugar, Pitstop and Recharge. I don’t think any of us could have been happier to see them. We camped with them and the next day arouse at the bright beautiful time of 2am to attack Mather Pass. Our third and probably the worst of the passes we were going to cross. As we approached the pass we noticed that the trail was supposed to be on the right side but no, all the footsteps were on the left. A closer look revealed why-several avalanches had already happened on the side with the trail. So we headed straight up. Part way up, this made up trail took us to a bunch of boulders and rocks that we literally had to climb up and over. That was scary enough but then after that it was another section of side of the bowl, steep drop off hell for a good 1/4 mile. Sugar post holed (when your foot falls through the snow knee deep or further) on that section and he saved his own life by digging his ice ax into the left side of the mountain. I lost my balance once and teetered to the right but thankfully recovered quickly. Our friend UV is not a fan of heights so this one was particularly hard for her. But we all got up and around and were rewarded with a rather gentle downhill on the backside. We kept trekking, knowing we had a day without a pass after that. I was having a bad day, off balance all day long, and I felt pretty awful. I must have fallen in the snow two dozen times. But we all got to camp pretty early so I was able to take a nap in the sun and recover. The next day we walked to the base of Muir Pass. At this point we were on the John Muir trail, said to be one of the most beautiful parts of the Sierra. All we saw was snow by this point. I’m sure its gorgeous but day after day of slushy snow can skew your perspective. I will say cowboy camping at 10,200ft overlooking a frozen lake with a waterfall in the distance was pretty amazing, if not a little chilly. The next day we got up early and before we knew it we were on top of Muir pass. Easy peasy. What a nice change. However that day we had our first big river crossing ahead of us. Since I wasn’t feeling well we took our time and unfortunately made our friends wait a very long time at Evolution Creek for us. We crossed with water above our chests but it was the beginning of a couple of challenging days. The next day Grandma, Frogger and I decided to get a little rest so we didn’t wake up until 5 or 6 and didn’t leave until 8. Our original planned campsite wasn’t really far away, before Selden Pass so we thought we had the time to get there and perhaps see if we wanted to keep going, so we wouldn’t keep our friends waiting the next big river, Bear Creek. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t communicate this with our friends so they thought we just wanted to do our own thing. So they kept going also and crossed Bear Creek mid afternoon that day. We got down to a stream before Bear Creek at around 5:30 and it was so high we decided to sleep next to it. At this time Pogo (he’s about 5’10”) had joined us and chose to wait with us. We got across the stream the next morning around 6 and then headed the mile or so south the Bear Creek. We were in awe of the immensity of this creek. Moving very fast and it was very deep at the trail crossing, even at 7:30am. One of the cardinal rules of river crossings is to take the time to look for the best place to cross. Lucky for us about 1/2 mile downstream, we found a log to cross on. Still scary but we don’t get caught in the raging flow of the river. Pogo helped us get across and we counted our lucky stars for not having to walk directly through that river. We had been in the water a bit and at 7:30am it’s not a beautiful, warm experience. We had to stop for an hour and take our socks off and get in our sleeping bags because we were so cold. We kept going after that. We had heard that Vermillion Valley Resort had just opened and had a few supplies but we really didn’t want to stop. However, we decided we needed to because we didn’t want to be in that same, hungry starving position we were in the last time. So we climbed down the steepest non trail garbage of a hill (falling numerous times) and lo and behold at the trail exit for VVR, there were three (civilians, non hikers, people in jeans, people we can’t really relate to) right there. They were the “ferry” drivers and they were changing the sign to tell us that they are in fact open for business. So we got on a little boat and they took us across the lake to the resort. We reconnected with our friends and worked out our communication issues and spent a lot of money getting food and eating dinner. We then headed out with out sites set on getting to Mammoth. We felt safer and had only one more pass ahead of us. We got over it and trudged through a thunder storm to camp on the other side of a river (with a bridge!!!!). We had no idea but our friends were a mere .2 miles ahead of us. The next day we walked the 6 miles to get off the trail to go to Mammoth Lakes. We had to do a 2.5 mile road walk because the road wasn’t opened but once passed the gate, we were picked up by Poppins and everything started to feel a little better. F’d right in the A is the most appropriate description for this section because every day we felt like we were putting our lives in danger and jeez we were miserable. The passes were hard but the snow was scary. The rivers were raging and intense and we never had dry feet. The beauty of the Sierra was regularly lost to the intensity of the daily journey to survive. Our lives became primal. Get from here to there without slipping and falling off the side of a pass. Eat enough food, drink enough water, try to stay warm. No time for reading a book or enjoying the scenery. We all made it and thankfully, everyone else who has gone through have also made it. I know this probably sounds exaggerated but for us this was how we felt.
The Sierra Part 3: Four Days of beauty, a couple hard days and then the oh shit moment.
Back on trail after Mammoth brought us to some areas without snow!! Whoa. We camped by a river and there was no snow within a close distance. So weird. We woke up the next day and took a detour to the Devils Post Pile, a National Park that has piles of rocks in the shape of posts. It’s very strange but pretty amazing to see how these things naturally appear in the middle of the Sierra. We kept trudging and hit some snow but nothing dramatic. The next few days we made our way into Yosemite National Park and then we got to see what all the fuss is about. Beautiful scenes with rivers flowing and meadows covered in actual green grass (not snow or brown dead grass just trying to come back to life after the snow has melted). Amazing, flat, actual trail walking for a couple days restored our spirits and our desires to continue on the trail. We didn’t get off to visit the touristy part of Yosemite because the road was still closed but we did see a lot of amazingly beautiful things. That part of the park is apparently swarmed with people that time of year normally so the fact that it was a ghost town made it so much better. We began to climb again. Back to the snow and more passes. Nothing super intense and we were very excited to be done with every going above 11,000ft. We had a few large streams to cross and while they were pretty deep, nothing was intense enough to truly scare us. There was one more side hill and a scary crossing with a log (again a story for another day) but we were okay. The next day after that crossing we had the last big river to cross, one more pass and another high elevation section and were were done. But as things go, it wasn’t going to be that easy. We crossed Falls Creek at around 1pm. Waist deep but not too bad. .25 miles after that, I slipped on a rock and fell with all my weight on my knee. The pain was excruciating and I couldn’t even dream of walking anymore that day. There was a good amount of blood but the internal pain was what worried me the most. We were 30 trail miles to the exit to Bridgeport that involved on more pass and another climb above 10,000 ft. This was the beginning of a moment in my life where I learned some very valuable lessons. Namely, how to accept help from other people, and there are some incredibly amazing people on this trail and in this world. We had planned to be in town the next day so our food was dwindling and our buddy Recharge had fallen earlier so we gave him our last big bandaids. Grandma and Frogger didn’t hesitate for a second in their decision to stay with me to get me out. Even though they didn’t have much food, they knew they had to help me. The next five days involved a lot of painful slushy snow with uphill climbs and downhill descents, some on snow, some on trail. Both ladies helped me up the hills, carried extra weight from my pack and took incredible care of me. Every person who passed us on the trail also helped. They gave us food and medical supplies. They stayed with us and boosted our spirits some. We got to see some folks we hadn’t seen in a while but also met new people. Everyone was so kind and generous and some even offered to carry my pack out. I was so humbled every day by how amazing everyone was. We didn’t starve. We kept trudging through. I had used my inreach to message our friends UV, Mango and Recharge to let them know why we were taking so long but it was a quick message and I turned off my phone and garmin to preserve battery. They got very worried because they didn’t hear anything else back and decided they were coming back to help. They had already made it to Bridgeport but they didn’t want to leave us out there. Without hesitation on their part, they decided to climb back up the steep hill that descends into Sonora Pass to make sure I could get down safely. They bought us these delicious croissants from the local bakery and Recharge and Mango essentially carried me down the hill. I don’t know what I would have done without these incredible people. What’s more is that in the town of Bridgeport, people came together to help out. UV, Mango and Recharge were at the bar talking to the local post master about me and our situation and he jumped into action, called a local sponsor for Warrior Expeditions and had her open her store for them after hours so they could resupply. I am now well known in this town-I went to the post office today and the woman behind the counter knew exactly who I was. I am so humbled. My sponsor picked us up at the trail head and drove us an hour and half to get to the hospital. The staff at that hospital were incredibly kind and helpful and after an x-ray and MRI, I discovered I have a small ACL tear and a possible micro fracture on my knee cap. Not totally debilitating, I should be able to hike again but not right away. It just so happens that I have family visiting this area so my amazing cousin Debbie came all the way up to the area where the hospital is and drove us all the way back. I’m now staying with her for a few days while I’m resting and recovering. But this isn’t the end. I will be going back to the trail. I still have business with the PCT.