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July 16th, 2006
05:58 am
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Hiking the High Sierra
The High Sierra wasted very little time in convincing me that I had really left the desert behind.

I left Kennedy Meadows on Day 63 of my hike -- the morning of June 28 -- along with a short, laid-back fellow named Kuhrt (who had been kind enough to wait for me during my extra day of trying to deal with the foot swelling). At 10 AM, we were hiking through the morning heat in Kennedy Meadows' broad fields of sagebrush and other chaparral scrub, and watching a rattlesnake slither across the road in front of us. Four hours and 2,000 feet of climbing later, we were being pelted with hail in a pine forest, listening to thunderstorms roll across the western sky and halting for an early dinner rather than braving the lightning risk of the lush, grassy alpine meadows ahead of us.

Fortunately, the weather decided that it had made its point. The next week of hiking, while often cloudy, had glorious, welcoming skies.

It wasn't long before our steady ascent took us to 10,000 feet elevation. Even without the climactic change of being surrounded by water (and, later, snow), the height gain brought immediate relief from the wilting temperatures of the June heat wave that had made the tail end of my desert slog so miserable. (Every 1,000 feet of elevation translates to 3-5 degrees Fahrenheit of blessed temperature retreat. Onyx's blistering 100-in-the-shade therefore gave way to a pleasant 70-in-the-sun. And, later, atop Mount Whitney, I was climbing in insulating pants and a jacket as steady wind kept daytime temperatures in the 50-degree range.)

Just as the climate and vegetation were a radical change from the desert, so was the hiking environment. Memories of my largely solitary desert trek quickly were lost among the crowds of hikers in the southern Sierra -- both thru-hikers and weekenders. The unexpected arrival of a clump of 9 at Kennedy Meadows the day before Kuhrt and I left, as well as the clustering that occurred around Mount Whitney, put me within reach of a dozen of my fellow Mexico to Canada trekkers; the long July 4 weekend would see me passing scores of others.

My first hint of just how crazy the weekend would get was at Cottonwood Pass, about 15 trail miles south of Whitney. I had rounded the ridge to the south to begin the traverse to the pass, and was approaching it when I started hearing a distant buzzing. Quickly, the sound grew -- then, without warning, it burst into the roar of a plane's engines as a small craft whizzed through the pass' steep notch in the ridgeline, less than 30 feet off the ground and just a stone's throw from my vantage point on the trail. I fumbled for my camera, but the plane was already flying away into the distance.

When I reached the pass a minute or two later, a group of weekend hikers -- two San Diego families, complete with teenage children, and a few other adults -- was sitting there in lawn chairs that they'd hiked in on the back of their enormous packs. They had been eating snacks and waiting for the stragglers in their group to catch up when the plane buzzed directly over their heads. I sat down with them and commiserated about the flyover, and they showered me with spare snacks -- they were loaded with food, having just set out on a five-day trip to wind around to Whitney from behind rather than fight the crowds and steep ascent at Whitney Portal.

(Through mouthfuls of M&M gorp, beef jerky, and dried fruit, I relayed some of my hiking tales and listened to theirs. The group's plan was to follow the PCT north from Cottonwood Pass -- heading that evening to Chicken Springs Lake, less than a mile north, then down to Rock Creek the following day, up to Guitar Lake the next, and finally summiting Whitney on July 3 before packing out on the 4th. I, and the thru-hikers with me, would zip through their five-day trip in the rest of that afternoon and the morning of July 1, topping Whitney less than 24 hours later.)

Other hikers weren't my only new trail companions, as I found out on that first climb past 10,000 feet. A short distance off the trail, I saw what looked like some sort of oversized guinea pig sunning itself on a rock. It was so large -- about a foot long -- that at first I mistook it for a beaver. It was only later, as they became more ubiquitous (and more bold), that I realized I'd seen what would be the first of many marmots.

The rodents are famed nighttime pests in the high Sierra. While bears are more feared (being big enough to be a potential safety threat), marmots are quite large enough to do some damage in chewing through your gear to find food, and they're a far more common sight. They live under rocks and can range far above treeline -- I saw one at Whitney's trail junction and one atop Forrester Pass, both well above 13,000 feet. It's the ones closer to campsites that cause more problems, though; a group of thru-hikers at Guitar Lake spent half an hour trying to chase one away from their dinner preparation, and merely succeeded in driving it back just out of stone-throwing range, where it sat patiently under a rock and searched for a way to sneak back in.

At least Guitar Lake was high enough to be mosquito-free.

Marmots may plague you at dinnertime, but mosquitoes simply rule in most of the high Sierra. Practically anywhere there's water, they breed. Usually, going above treeline will take you into areas where it's too cold for them to survive -- usually. But the PCT yo-yos up and down through the mountains, climbing to ridges and then descending to meadows and river crossings ... where, invariably, even in the middle of the day some opportunistic bugs will sneak up on you to steal your blood. As the sun starts to set, they swarm, and woe to the hiker without sufficient bug protection.

I've hiked in the Sierra before, so the mosquito attacks were not entirely foreign to me. (Based on my prior experience, I switched to heavier raingear and changed into it whenever it was cool enough; they can't bite through that fabric. That cuts down on the DEET you have to apply.) But it was still an adjustment. The appearance of the little vampires triggered my swat reflexes something fierce, leading to what was probably one of my worst faux pases of the trip: At one point, as evening was drawing near and the bugs were starting to get thick, I swatted a cluster of three skeeters on Kuhrt's shoulder, causing him to ask me quite annoyedly to chill out.

The bugs were actually pretty light compared to what I've been through. But they have a mental effect all out of proportion to their actual physical damage. (On the other hand, they're hardly harmless. If you make the mistake of scratching your mosquito bites, that can break the skin and lead to an annoyingly itchy scab that takes a few weeks to clear up.)

Starting the side trip
Whitney Creek flows through Crabtree Meadow in the foreground as the sharp, snowy crags of Mount Hitchcock, just south of Whitney, loom in the distance.
For all that it's easy to complain about bugs and thieving animals and crowds, though, that really isn't what a high Sierra hike is about.

The High Sierra is about the perfect stillness of pine trees and distant snow-capped peaks. It's about cold, pristine streams you can drink straight out of, dribbles of icy water trickling down your beard. It's about fields of sun-cupped snow and trails inching up steep, rocky cliffs. It's about meadows stretching out to the ridges on the horizon, their lush grasses and river sandbars resembling nothing so much as God's golf course as they wind around stubborn colonies of trees. It's about lakes reflecting the brilliance of the sky from enormous bowls that ancient glaciers carved out of thousands of feet of sheer granite. It's about beauty, breathtaking beauty, inescapable beauty -- a land where you could simply drop your camera and it would take ten shots of perfect nature panoramas as it bounced down the slope.

The defining moment was rounding the corner to Timberline Lake early in the ascent of the Mount Whitney side trip. Everything just suddenly came together at once -- snowy slopes reflected in the stillness of the waters, grassy plains around the lake's edge, the scent of pine from the stand of trees behind me, the profound silence of a mountain morning. I stopped, there in the middle of the path, taking it all in -- and I broke down into tears at the beauty of it all.

I had thought that over seven hundred and fifty miles of hiking, as well as several trips into the Sierra, would prepare me. But it was simply overwhelming.

After that, it would be tempting to say that Mount Whitney was an anticlimax. But, really, it held its own in that department.

The four-hour ascent gave me plenty of time to prepare for the view, but there really wasn't anything that could prepare me for the elation of having climbed to the trip's literal high point. All around me, the earth receded away -- there was nothing higher within view (and, indeed, nothing higher to climb without a trip at least as far as southern Mexico). Cliffs stood silent witness beneath me, looming over nearby frozen lakes and distant forests; far in the distance, the desert shimmered two miles below.

Crowds of weekend hikers took in the view, some barely able to move in the extreme elevation, while I quite happily wandered around the peak and cooked lunch. I wouldn't have considered myself acclimated to the altitude, but the strength that my long thru-hike gave me was nothing short of amazing. On the way up the final 1000' ascent, from Trail Junction to the summit, I'd been strolling at nearly my usual mile-eating stride despite the altitude -- breezing by eight day-hikers as though they were standing still. (There was such a marked difference between the thru-hikers and the weekenders, I felt compelled to apologize every time I passed someone, telling them with a sheepish grin that I'd had two months to practice.)

The afternoon wore on, and -- with some regret -- I descended back to the PCT and headed on north. Most of the hikers who summited Whitney that day made it back no further than Crabtree Meadows, the mosquito-ridden campsite shortly before rejoining the trail; I was still on a "mountain high" and wanted to press on (and beyond the bugs) while my energy remained. Kuhrt, in particular, stayed behind -- and so, for the first time in the Sierra, I pressed on without a partner, hoping to catch up to Doug and Heidi, who he said had done the same thing I did.

I never saw them, but as luck would have it, when I stopped for the night at a low, broad saddle just before the first of the river crossings leading up to Forrester Pass, I walked off the trail and noticed a glint in my headlamp light as I was trying to set up camp. That glint turned out to be a reflection from Trippin' Ant and Ben's bear canisters ... and so, for the second time in two days, I woke them up well after dark while trying to make camp! Poor guys. This time, at least, the saddle was spacious enough that I was able to move some distance away and let them return to sleep.

They got a much earlier start than I did in the morning, and would stay ahead of me all the way to Independence. However, Green Bean and TDS caught up to me not long into the morning (although TDS was having a bad day and didn't want any company at the time), and somehow I ended up passing Doug and Heidi as they were scouting out a stream crossing, so I wasn't completely isolated. That was hard to tell, though, on my approach to Forrester Pass -- I kept looking ahead and back as I walked up the gently sloping alluvial plains to the rock wall of the pass itself, and couldn't see another soul.

On the approach to Forrester Pass, the trail -- for the first time -- kept disappearing under snow fields. (I'd hit patches of snow as far back as the San Jacintos, but it hadn't yet interfered with navigation.) I started alternating between slogging through the snow until the trail was clear again, and skirting the edge of the snow to walk cross-country among low rocks and fields mushy with snowmelt. What the map had shown as a quick, level walk up the trail to the pass turned into a navigation adventure where often the only visible signs of humanity were two sets of footsteps in the snow in front of me.

I imagine that, after 800 miles of broad, defined trail, most hikers found this a bit of an adjustment. I know I did -- but for different reasons. I kept having flashbacks to AWE.

The summer I turned 18, I took an Outward Bound course in the Sierra. We did a great deal of cross-country hiking, often hacking our way through snowy slopes. For the first time on my PCT trip, I really felt like I was back in the mountains -- back to the trip I'd taken over a decade ago; pure wilderness, without even a trail to rely on, just my map and orienteering skills (my compass was in my backpack, but it was too easy to navigate by landmarks to bother pulling it out).

It also helped my confidence that -- for virtually the entire afternoon, both up the pass and down the other side -- every time I stopped to study the path ahead and selected a route forward, I ended up seeing at least one set of fresh footprints every time I hit snow or muddy ground. Since only Trippin' Ant and Ben had gone up the pass ahead of me that day, my routefinding skills were therefore picking out the same lines as a Triple Crown hiker with over 10,000 miles under his belt.

The snow did slow down my hiking, but inevitably, the steep rock wall of Forrester Pass drew near. I hustled from the white-covered flats to the bare grey cliffs, stuck to the steep switchbacks of the trail, and in a flash had ascended a few hundred feet while covering virtually no horizontal distance.
Halfway up the rock wall
A steep trail switchbacked up to the pass (at top left). Not that it was at all easy to see from below; all I could do was follow it when clear, and try to climb up the scree to it when snowbound.
(I shot a video where I slowly pan from the horizon down 90 degrees, where a switchback of the trail directly below me is visible, and then beyond that, just the scree and snowfields at the bottom of the slope.)

The trail traversed underneath the pass itself -- where at least one set of footprints climbed a head-spinningly steep snow cliff for the last 30 feet; I declined the shortcut and stuck to the solid rock path winding its way up -- and, just like that, I was on top of the world again.

Forrester Pass, at 13,180 feet, lies on the boundary between Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. It is a tiny little notch in a steep ridge separating two glacial bowls, and commands tremendous views of both. While rock rises above it to the east and west, it is the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail, and there's a little sign at the pass commemorating that fact.

I stayed atop the pass just long enough for Heidi and Doug to catch up with me (at which point I learned how I'd hiked by them earlier), which mostly meant that there was someone to watch when I hiked out onto the snow slope beyond the pass, silly grin on my face, and hurtled myself several hundred feet downhill.

Glissading is one of the big rewards for reaching the high Sierra in snow season. Thru-hikers tend to walk up the sun-baked south slopes of passes and down the sun-sheltered, snow-covered north slopes, which simply means that most of the snow is going to be conveniently located in areas where your goal is to get downhill. Glissading is simply a fancy word for a controlled slide -- usually, on your butt (in my case, with a fancy seat made from a plastic backcountry snow shovel), with ice axe in hand in case your speed gets a little too extreme or a rock suddenly appears in your path.

It can be a little dangerous if you build up a good head of steam. But on this particular run, that wasn't an issue; the late afternoon temperatures had softened the snow into mush, so the hill itself kept regulating my speed. Eventually, I stood up, brushed the snow from my pants, and realized with some disappointment that the rest of the slope down to the iced-over lake was too steep for sliding. I ended up climbing back up about 50 feet to rejoin Doug and Heidi as they followed the buried trail out to the end of the laketop ridge.

There was about another hour of route-finding after that as we gradually descended and the trail finally emerged from its snow cover. After that, it was smooth sailing. Until shortly before sunset, when I shouldered my pack after a brief rest break only to hear an unfortunately familiar dull snap.

"Oh, no," I groaned to Doug and Heidi as I quickly checked the frame. "Not again." But sure enough ... right there in the lower right tube, a nice clean break that took out the internal tension cord. At least this bizarre replay of my earlier pack misfortune wasn't quite so mystifying -- it had given way right at the end of the 2" internal reinforcement tube, a natural stress point. On the other hand, it had only taken 250 miles to fail this time ... and it had gone out when my pack was nearly as empty as it was going to get, as opposed to being weighted down by a full load of food and water.

I put my previous frame-repair experience to good use, jerry-rigging the tent-stake splint and taking up the tension cord's load with several loops of the line I used for tarp setup. Doug lent a hand, coming up with some ingenious MacGuyver improvements, including wedging a duct-tape-wrapped pen in the broken tube to help splint it from inside. Between the two of us, I managed to construct a fix that would carry me about 15 miles onward to civilization.

Doug and Heidi took off again as I was finishing the cord loops, and I didn't manage to find out where they set up camp -- but I did pull in to Vidette Meadows along with Green Bean, TDS and Mountain Tripper. I was really in need of some company at that point -- the day before the pack break had been a long (if generally pleasant) one, so I was already pretty exhausted by the time of the incident, and it just sent my morale plummeting through the floor.

TDS apologized to me for his earlier snarking (which I completely sympathized with -- I'd had some really bad days of my own out on the trail), and the four of us sat down together for a much-needed final-night-before-resupply dinner. I cooked up some teriyaki chicken ramen for myself and threw in a packet of actual chicken. It was unexpectedly tasty, although probably not quite up to the standard that TDS was setting with his freeze-dried curry meal.

After eating, I asked for a few moments of Green Bean and TDS' time -- for a talk that would ultimately end up taking nearly an hour. I knew that getting my pack frame replaced would be a pain in the butt, and any way I handled it I wouldn't be ready to pull back out of Independence by the time all the other hikers had moved on; I also figured I didn't want to solo the Sierra with four big passes and all of the nasty river crossings left to do. (At least, not while the snowmelt was still swelling all of the waterways.) But I had some reservations about picking up my hike and heading further up the trail -- and I had even more reservations about quitting entirely.

The two of them provided some much-needed perspective. TDS, as it turns out, had hiked the Appalachian Trail the previous year -- but had gotten to within a stone's throw of the end, and had been forced to end his hike by flood conditions in Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness. He never "officially" completed his thru-hike, but had done as much as weather had permitted him to. These things can happen, and sometimes the best you can do is your best.

They also impressed on me that, ultimately, the definition of a thru-hike is simply walking the entire trail. Most people try to tackle it as a straight line -- but that's an artificial constraint, not some legitimacy requirement. Which reminded me that I had seen many journal entries back in the Kennedy Meadows trail register from 2005 hikers who had walked to KM from the southern border, headed to Canada, and walked the rest of it southbound, tackling the Sierra last. (2005 was a very heavy snow year, and many people considered the Sierra impassable during the usual thru-hiking season.) If they didn't feel they had to do it at a single pass, why was I sticking to the idea?

This idea having penetrated my head, I still wasn't sure where to go next -- but one thing became clear. As long as I had some choices ahead of me, the easiest way to resolve the backpack issue would be to head home until I could get my equipment woes settled. This also provided the bonus that I would be able to spend some time with my wife. It did mean missing out on a big thru-hiker gathering in Independence on July 4 ... but, well, that's the price you pay.

From there, the Independence Day surprise plan fell together with surprising speed. Once I hiked out to civilization the next morning, I called roaminrob, and the rest is, as they say, history. I bid a regretful farewell to the thru-hikers who had been my companions for the last week, signed the trail register at the post office, and caught a bus out of town. Since then, Independence has been (both in the literal and metaphorical sense) in my rear-view mirror, but the trail's really starting to call to me again, and within a few days I should be walking again.

Of course, exactly where to hike (once the Donner Pass to Sierra City leg with kadyg is done, anyway) is still kind of an open question. Which is where my next post comes in.

* * *

As an addendum, I've uploaded two new photo galleries with images and further trail details from this section. Go check out Mount Whitney for my July 1 side trip, and Miles 767-790 for the trip over Forrester Pass and beyond. There's also a new film in the Movies gallery, although I make no promises about its effects on your sanity. ;-)

Current Location: Grass Valley, Calif.
Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: "3 a.m.," Matchbox 20
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(3 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:July 16th, 2006 02:34 pm (UTC)
I have been doing a lot of thinking on finding a new home for myself by next spring/early summer... you pics make me want to find a good home in the Sierras where I can make a living but also hike to such beautiful places.

I love reading your adventures.
[User Picture]
Date:July 16th, 2006 09:09 pm (UTC)
Be forewarned that the high Sierra is wholly, completely, unambiguously wild. It's nearly 200 miles of solid national park. Which is awesome -- don't get me wrong -- but it does mean that if you want to live within hiking distance of, say, Mount Whitney, your only housing option is to live down in a place like Independence, Lone Pine, or Bishop. These little outposts of civilization along I-395 are terribly hot (they are, after all, down in the desert) and have a rather struggling economy.

Further up north -- beyond Yosemite -- your chances increase a great deal, but the mountains also recede. By the time you get to the Interstate 80 area, the Sierra has the Lake Tahoe basin (pretty and thriving but extremely pricey), Truckee (right on I-80, survives by being the town in between a million tourists and their Tahoe/Reno/Sierra destinations), and ... a bunch of towns that are basically blips on the map not terribly suitable for anyone still supporting themselves with a job. You're also back down to 7,000-9,000 foot elevation, even along the crest, and you get dense forests and big barren ridges of volcanic rock rather than the spectacular jagged, glaciated peaks above alpine valleys that make the high Sierra so breathtaking.

... But don't take my word for any of this. Go visit the area sometime! If you fall in love with it, I imagine you can find a way to make it happen.
Date:July 17th, 2006 12:45 am (UTC)
OMG, your pictures are gorgeous!! I hope you are going to put together a book, pictures and text. It will then become required reading for coming generations of PCT hikers...
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