The PCT – The Sierra – Days 59 – 68

Day 59: 19.5 miles

The Sierra Nevada are a roughly 300 mile stretch of the PCT that runs from Kennedy Meadows to Sonora Pass. The elevation is some of the highest in the country and the alpine environment is some of the most remote. The towns are further away which makes help also harder to reach. This section is also touted as one the most beautiful and pristine tracts of trail through national forests and parks. The threat of bear activity is also higher and it is required to carry a bear cannister, a 2 pound addition on its own.

It has caused me quite some anxiety thinking about how hard this next stretch is going to be and all the things that can go wrong. I keep questioning if I am physically and mentally capable of enduring the rigors of the Sierra. Everyone has an opinion on how you should go about it and many of them of are fear mongers. On the one hand I want to be realistic but on the other I don’t want to talk myself out of doing something just because it might be too hard. Listening to others has had me flip flopping on a myriad of opinions. So I decided, I’d just have to see for myself. To go out there and do what I can. If I can’t, I’d turn around and return the way I came.

It was with all this in mind as I packed up my gear in the morning to head out into what fear mongers label “the hard crap”. I’ve never used a bear cannister and I eyed its sturdy presence with resignation. It was going to make my pack so heavy and going uphill that much more difficult. I strapped it to the top of my pack and as I was tightening the flap straps, the load lifter on my shoulder strap popped out. Great. Just great. The load lifter strap helps displace the weight of your pack off your shoulders…and it just broke…before the start of one of my heaviest carries.

Ten minutes later I’m sitting on the deck of the general store trying to sew this strap back on with dental floss. I reinforced the other one for good measure as it was looking a little suspect. With the chest strap buckle broken as well, I think it’s time for a new pack, but it’d have to wait until the next town. I got all the straps to do their job, I just hope they last.

I walked out the parking lot of the General Store and made my way a half mile back to trail. It was still a desert and flat which gave me time to adjust to the new weight of my pack. It sat heavy at my waist as I meandered through the sage and scrub oaks. The trail stopped at an official looking gate and the fanciest trail register I’ve ever seen. I wrote down my name, permit number, and the date for their records. Now its official! Starting the Sierra!

The trail immediately entered a lush pine forest with a creek burbling nearby. A fitting hello. Then is returned to desert/burned landscape that climbed up for awhile. I feel like this was the last desperate gasp of the desert to be noticed and liked. The trail climbed over a pass between two mountains and there lay out in a wide panorama the Sierra mountains. A broad valley of grass opened up the view with the granite peaks bordering the distance.

I was the only one within sight and it felt like I was all alone in the world. But not in a sad way, more an exciting exploratory way. I wandered down the slope into the valley and skirted the grassy meadow. The trail turned back up into the trees and gave me a higher view.

Eventually I made way down to the Kern River (which looked more like a creek to me, but no one asked my opinion) and sat near the bridge for lunch. A colony of swallows had set up camp under the bridge and had continous business flitting about. Their little mud nests became the scene of a war between a marauding Blue Jay and the swallows. I watched as they attacked the offending intruder and drove it off.

After lunch it was a leisurely climb up next a creek to a higher elevation campsite. I wanted to camp up higher than the creek to start becoming acclimated to the elevation. My experience on San Jacinto had given me some reservations about being up high. I set up in some very tall pines and large boulders. It was already starting to get chilly, but I was prepared. I had my heavyweight wool shirt and sleeping bag liner sent to me at Kennedy Meadows. Also on hand was my stove, so I’d have a hot meal at the end of the day. Tonight’s was Pad Thai. All in all, not a bad start to the Sierra.

Day 60 – 18.7 miles

I woke a little early to get a big climb done in the morning. The sun was just rising over a rocky horizon as I reached the higher ridgeline that looked over the valley from the other side. A mist hung low on the ground. The air was frigid and burned my lungs. The rise in elevation wasn’t too bad at this point. I could see the Kern River in the distance looking like a tiny thread, barely discernable.

I crested the mountain and came over to a view of Olanche Peak. The pines and cedars were varied in their kinds and my plant identifying app was no help in learning their specific species. So I started making up their names. There was Long Leaf, White Bark, Red Bark, Long Dangle, Christmas, Brownie Bark, and Fuzzy Branch. I climbed ever so slightly to a large open area with a bunch of downed trees that were perfect for sitting. As I was marveling at all the perfect sitting trees, I realized I was feeling a little loopy and possibly dizzy. I sat on one of my new friends to eat some snacks and drink water. In my enchantment I’d forgotten to keep up with the H20 and calories. It made feel a little better, and not so rapturous about tree seats.

I started climbing down through some sandy fields and boulders. The bright green trees opened up and the sky seemed bluer than usual. I thought about how water can liven up colors and make them seem more vivid as I went to the next water source. It was in the concerningly named Death Canyon. It was yellow, but tasted fine. I ate my lunch there, and since I am still very much alive I don’t think the canyon lived up to its name.

It was a long climb up through more boulders and rocky terrain. The trees offered much needed shade and I actually enjoyed the incline. I also heard a bunch of woodpeckers hard at work. It was a percussive beat to the rhythm of my breath.

At one point there was a view of Owens Valley to the east. It looked like a large scar of bleached earth. I guess that’s what happens when you cede your water rights to Los Angeles. The alkali flat is all that remains of Owens Lake.

I meandered through the cooling afternoon air to camp. It was a large pine forest with little underbrush and wide open flat spots everywhere. They could have had a festival here and I had the whole place to myself. I rehydrate some Beef Stroganoff (my fav) and got cozy in my tent.

Day 61 – 8.1 miles

I’d planned to go to Lone Pine so I could pick up a buckle for my chest strap. It meant already getting off trail, which I was kind of regretting. I was really enjoying the trail and it meant breaking up the momentum I had going. But to town I went and it was an easy 5.9 miles down to Trail Pass where I walked another 2.2 miles down to Horseshoe Meadows. I got a hitch from a nice day hiking couple and it was that easy to get to Lone Pine. I don’t think it’ll be that easy all the time. In fact I’m surprised I got a ride so quick from this remote mountain trailhead.

I got to the hotel I was staying at and found out that Bethany and Chris were in Lone Pine! We made plans to meet for breakfast in the morning. In the meantime, I showered (so lovely!), did my laundry (clean clothes!), and went to eat a large sandwich (yum!). I ended the day reading a book in a very comfortable bed.

Day 62 – 0 miles

I met up with B&C for breakfast and got updated on their travails. They are no longer sick, but Bethany is still having issues with fatigue. They going to rest some more and hopefully get back on trail later on. During breakfast I was contacted by Mick the Australian who was in town and he came over.

Not much interesting happens on zero days. Its all arranging, cleaning, and resupplying. And eating and sleeping.

Day 63 – 3.5 miles

It was hard to leave the comfy bed in the morning, but it must be done. Mick and I ate breakfast and tried to find a ride back to trail which proved difficult as usual. We found a shuttle and shared it with a random other hiker we saw on the street.

Getting back to Horseshoe Meadows I really felt the elevation change. I immediately found myself out of breath doing the smallest thing such putting on my pack. I was worried I’d lost the acclimation I’d gained the previous two days on trail. The climb back up to the actual PCT was 3 miles of 1200 feet of elevation gain.

Luckily there were a crap ton of switchbacks to make the steep climb bearable but I still felt quite dizzy and weak the higher we climbed. I made sure to keep drinking water and that helped a little. We got the top and I reveled in being able to do it with relatively fewer stops.

Back on trail it was a short walk over to Chicken Spring Lake where we’d camp. The snow fed lake was surrounded by a wall of mountains that reflected on the water. I went down to get water and immediately got attacked by gnats, so I didn’t sit by the lakes edge too long. It was nice to have a short day and take it slow.

Day 64 – 16.1 miles

I told Mick that I was going to get up early so I could get some climbing done in the cool of the morning. He is a faster walker so he tends to get up later, but I woke this morning to Mick already to go. It wasn’t cold for once and it was easy to get moving. As we climbed the first hill the sun crested the mountain and spilled over the lake below and filtered through the cedars to the valley on the west side.

We scrambled up some rocks to sandy trail that wound down the mountain on the north side. At some point we entered the Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. It was marked by a sign. There are lots of signs out here for such a wild place. No fires above 10,000 feet. No camping here. No grazing.

Mick and I ate lunch under a shady pine near a clear-as-glass brook. A continual line of hikers passed us by. I think the hiker bubble has caught up to me. Either I’m that slow or they’re all fired up to get through the Sierra. After I took a nap, it was time to go up. And up. And up.

For some reason, even though it wasn’t all hard terrain I was having great difficulty moving. I figure it’s the elevation? But also I thought after 700 miles in the desert I’d have acquired some amount of stamina. It feels like the first day.

The trail skirted Mt. Guyot which loomed over the little valley I was traversing. It looked even more intimidating with a crown of dark clouds. I didn’t like that. Weather in the Sierra is a volatile and capricious thing. I made like a sloth up another hill and down the next into an open green valley framed by more mountains and a creek running through the middle. This was the turn off to Crabtree Meadows, where we’d be setting up base camp to climb Mt Whitney.

Once at the meadows it was a little village of hikers and tents spread about the forest. It would seem this is a hip-hop-happening place to stay. Most people camp here and wake up early to summit for sunrise (like leave at midnight). I didn’t care for that idea because I knew it’d be unbearably cold above 14000 feet before the sun rose. But I also didn’t want to do the climb in direct sun. So the plan is to leave at 0400.

Day 65 – 16.2 miles

Mt Whitney isn’t on the PCT. It’s a 8 mile side trip, 16 round-trip of non-trail miles. It is usually hiked though because Mt Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous US. So it’s kind of a big deal. I’m no peak bagger, but I figure this is probably my only chance to hike something so epic. You can leave most of your stuff in your tent at Crabtree Meadows to make the climb up easier.

I was able to get walking by 0430 and the moon was still hanging over the eastern mountains. Mick was following behind and we made our way forward by the light of our headlamps. The trails goes by some lovely lakes and with the sun rising made for a dramatic start to the day. The line of the sun rising on the western mountains started to get lower and lower.

We finally made it the start of the wall of climbing. By this point I was already worn out and I told Mick who is way faster to go ahead of me. The never ending switchbacks were steep. Every five feet I had to stop and catch my breath. My pace slowed to a crawl.

All the people who had gone up for the sunrise were starting to come down. Apparently my face was saying something because everyone kept asking me if I was okay and did I need help? At first I was bewildered. I was slow and out of breath but didn’t feel like I was in danger. After all the condescending concern though, I got weepy which only made my breathing worse. So I decided to get mad instead and hate hiked for a long while. People stopped asking after my condition.

The view all the way up was an increasingly distant valley of lakes glittering in the sun. I got to a level where the whole mountain range opened up in all directions and they sky was clear enough to see for miles. I got to the junction where the trail actually starts up Whitney. It was the longest 1.9 miles ever. Now added to the difficulty was rock scrambling and sheer drop offs very close to loose scree. It took another hour and half to muck through all that.

I finally reached the top around 1100 and honestly, was too wrecked to fully appreciate the accomplishment and view for awhile. I got my pictures taken and then sat down to rest and eat. It finally hit me that I was the highest (heh) I’d ever been on my own power. The dome of the sky looked even more curved with 360 views. At that elevation there wasn’t much noise other than humans and a low hum. My breathing slowed and I began to feel a deep calm. I sat there a long while just enjoying the view blue glow over the horizon of mountains.

What goes up must come down though. Mick and I started to the walk aback down around 1300 and it was definitely quicker than going up. It was kind of boring though. I was able to amuse myself by playing the Spot-the-Fighter-Jet game. Ever since the end of the desert I’d been hearing these jets fly over but never able to actually see them. It became a personal challenge to find them in the sky. Up until today my record was two. I don’t know if it was the elevation or Whitney is on some special flight route, but I was able to spot ten (10!) fighter jets! A special record.

Once we got back down the valley it was a more pleasant walk. The lakes were more inviting in the daylight. As we rounded a corner about to cross a stream, I saw two fat marmots digging in the dirt and promptly freaked out. I’d been wanted to see a marmot. They let me get really close to take a picture and seemed to care little that I was even there.

The rest of the walk was a breeze and I got the see what I missed in the early morning darkness. We made it back to camp to find even more tents popped up around the meadow. I ate a quick dinner and laid out in exhaustion.

You are the sovereign of all you survey when you sit on this throne.

Day 66 – 8ish miles

Got to sleep in this morning because the plan was to have a short day in preparation for Forester Pass. I woke up feeling hung over: headache, nausea, and very sore. I couldn’t lay there all morning though and once I got moving I felt better.

The trail was mild and varied. Beautiful views of austere mountains to the west through grass meadows and forested yet sandy valleys to the east. Camp was a rocky area next to a creek that drained from a lake. I decided to cowboy camp in order to get going earlier in the morning.

Day 67- 22 miles

My plan to cowboy camp backfired as I didn’t want to leave my sleeping quilt due to the cold. I got going by 0450 though. Mick said he was going to leave later. After crossing a freezing creek I walked into a wide open valley with the sun rising behind the eastern mountain range. There were some clouds so it made the colors bright and gorgeous. I kept stopping to take pictures which slowed me down a little.

I climbed up through a exposed and rocky hillside to the beginning of the climb. Wind and clouds were blowing in at a rapid pace. It started spitting rain and and as I kept walking it turned into flurries.

The reason you want to do a mountain pass in the Sierra so early in the morning is because of the snow melting and becoming slushy and unstable. Adding this weather to the fact that I was climbing the highest point on the PCT gave me some reservations. Forester pass sits at 13120 ft and it was socked in by clouds. No one else seemed concerned about this. But also where else was I going to go? I kept going and the wind and snow seemed to lessen as I approached the wall of switchbacks up to the pass.

I started up slowly, once again stopping every 5 feet. The sheer cliff of the trail and wild weather kept me thinking why the hell am I doing this again? But I made it to the top and the weather calmed on the north side. Congrats and pictures were had and then it was the beginning of the descent.

The entire north side of the mountain was still very much covered in snow. Because it was still early it was also crunchy and easier to navigate. I put on my microspikes and began the slow and careful process of measuring every step.

At one point there was an opportunity to glissade down a ways. A few people had already gone creating a chute. I secured my stuff in my pack and placed my trekking poles to the side to use as steering of sorts. It was fast, scary, and uncontrollable. Half way down was a rock that wasn’t visible from above. The chute also got a little pinball-esque right before it and I lost my poles from all the jerking around. Somehow I flipped on my left side and slid over the rock coming to a stop. I didn’t feel immediately hurt, just thrilled by the ride. I recovered my poles, but decided perhaps glissading wasn’t for me when my left hip started to ache.

The rest of the descent was a careful foot placement and occasional post hole, and I made down to the valley without incident. It was still windy and spitting rain which worried me a bit. I started walking in Kings Canyon proper and the walls loomed menacingly above. I’m sure the weather was influencing my views.

There is a group I’ve been bouncing around for awhile now and they mentioned trying to get Bishop earlier than planned and it sounded good to me. I’d been going slow in the hopes to avoid Memorial day crowds, but the intense weather changed my mind, so I hitched my wagon to their train and decided to do the Kearsarge pass trail out to town. It meant more climbing late in the day, but this pass was completely snow free.

The climb started and my left chest (lung or rib?) started to ache pretty badly. It slowed me down further. I think I might have bruised something in that glissade. There was nothing to do for it though, but keep walking.

More beautiful views, more lakes, more glorious trail. But I was hurting and beginning to get gripey. The wind on Kearsarge pass was somehow even more blasting and colder, so I started shuffle jogging down. It was not pleasant.

I followed the group down to the campground and found a spot to hide away in. I laid down, took some ibuprofen, and fell right asleep. I was wrecked.

Day 68 – 0 miles

I woke feeling like hammered poop. My entire left side felt like it took a couple of rounds with a baseball bat. I managed to get moving though and joined Moonpie, Kat, and Genna in finding a ride to Bishop.

We got to town and I tagged along as the awkward plus one. They’re letting me stay with them in an airbnb. Due to the holiday and the Mule Days Festival in Bishop it’s really hard to find accommodations.

I’m hoping this bruising pain will get better soon. Also I’m dealing with shipping issues with a new pack. My old one is falling apart at the seams, literally. I might be here awhile.

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