PCT Days 61-67: Let The Passes Begin

We took some zeros and neros in Independence and Bishop, resting after an epic past few days and figuring out gear and various other stuff.

Day 65 saw us once again headed up and over Kearsarge Pass—with far better weather this time—and back on the PCT/JMT.

This is the section that everyone’s been waiting for since Mile 1. It’s why we slog through 700 miles of desert. The High Sierra—the John Muir Trail—is called “The Crown Jewel of the PCT” for good reason. Huge, rugged passes, long green valleys, views upon views upon panoramic views.

It’s also some really tough hiking. Witness the elevation profile from Guthook’s PCT app:

Welcome to the JMT, bitch!

It’s almost a pass a day for over 150 miles. Ten-thousand foot passes, eleven-thousand foot passes, twelve-thousand foot passes. You go up, you go down, you go up again—big climbs and big descents. Forester Pass was the first (and the tallest), and it’s quickly followed by Glen. After seeing the deep trails worn into the snowfields on Forester by the dozens (hundreds?) of hikers who’d gone before us, we felt confident in sending our ice axes back home from Bishop. We weren’t going to encounter the awful, soft, postholing slog that earlier hikers had reported. But we still expected plenty of snow on the north sides of passes.

Glen Pass, 11,968 feet high, has a fairly quick approach after Kearsarge, with the last bit a steep, switchbacking climb straight up the south side to a knife’s-edge crest. It’s rocky and narrow and beautiful. At the top, we could hear frogs saying ribbet ribbet from the small lakes below.

The descent down the north side was kinda sketchy. There was a deep trough of hiker footsteps in the snowfields, like on Forester, but the slope was a lot steeper—and the consequences of slipping seemed scarier.

That’s the rhythm of passes: a long approach to a final steep ascent—the top—and then a steep descent through patches of snow back into a valley. Pinchot Pass on Day 66 was similar, as was Mather Pass on Day 67.

Pinchot, 12,104′:

Mather, 12,047′:

All of this (beautiful) up and down translates into slow progress. In the desert I was able to make pretty accurate predictions of our pace—including stops and variations in terrain, our pace was averaging out to two miles per hour over the course of the day. Hiking 20 miles in a day was totally reasonable. In the Sierra, that all goes out the window. The high elevation, 3000-foot climbs, rocky trail, stream crossings, snowfields—it all translates into a much slower pace. Eighteen miles a day was exhausting. Which was really frustrating to me: I thought I was supposed to be good at this by now!

We’ve also been stopping much more frequently now that we’re passing John Muir Trail hikers. The majority of them go north to south, so we run into a bunch and we stop to chat. Their clothes are so clean, they have big packs and big waterproof boots, and man do they smell good. They’re impressed with what we’re doing, which is a definite ego-boost, but they’re crimping my style—now I have to look in both directions for hikers and go more than ten three zero feet off the trail to pee.

Highlights included:

Our campsite on the north side of Pinchot, by Lake Marjorie:

Lush Sierra valleys and raging creeks:

Hitting Mile 800!

Sarge sunbathing at Mather Pass:

Day 65, June 11: 12.6 miles, 7.5 over Kearsarge Pass + PCT Mile 789.4 to 794.5
Day 66, June 12: 14.5 miles, Mile 794.5 to 809, Lake Marjorie
Day 67, June 13: 18.3 miles, Mile 809 to 827.3

Photos: PCT Days 58-60

PCT Day 58: Mile 760.6 to 766.3 + Mount Whitney

PCT Day 59: Mile 766.9 to 774.9, Tyndall Creek

PCT Day 60: Mile 774.9 to 788.8, Forester and Kearsarge passes

(More Day 58 & 60 photos are on Flickr)

PCT Days 59-60: Forester and Kearsarge

After our epic day up and down Mount Whitney, we put in earplugs and slept in as long as we could the next morning. We woke up on Day 59 to an almost-empty campground. Shaggy, who we’d seen the day before making an evening ascent of Whitney, had his own epic story—reaching the cloud-free summit at sunset and then heading back down as night fell only to realize that his headlamp batteries were dead and his phone and emergency beacon batteries almost dead… on a moonless night. All his gear was at Crabtree, so he had to keep going. At some point he panicked and started running down the trail in the dark (?!), only to fall and gash his knee. He screamed and was luckily close enough to Crabtree that other hikers heard him and came to his rescue. Shaggy’s been injuring himself since we first met him—a staph infection on one ankle, bashing the other ankle with a cistern cover… We convinced him to not attempt the hike over Forester Pass but instead go back south and out to civilization over a much easier pass.

We were also scaling back our plans for the day: we’d originally hoped to go over Forester Pass today and thereby have a shorter hike out to Independence the next day. But after such a long day yesterday, we decided to walk nine miles to the last campsite before the approach to Forester and reevaluate there.

It’s a beautiful hike from Whitney to Forester. The trail crosses the Bighorn Plateau, a bare, golden expanse of rocky ground surrounded by craggy mountain ranges. Marmots ran from us and the sun was out and the wind carried snow from huge dark clouds all around.

We kept our eyes on the clouds to the north, and they did not look particularly friendly. The prospect of racing crappy weather and nightfall over Forester Pass wasn’t appealing, so we stopped at Tyndall Creek and had the tarp set up by 4PM—just in time for the clouds to drop a layer of light, fluffy, styrofoam-like hail. We congratulated ourselves for prudent decision-making.

And then half an hour later the sun was out in a bright blue sky. Because Sierra.

The next morning we were up at 5AM, ready to start for Forester Pass. The sky looked clear enough, so we started packing up. At 6AM, it started styrofoam-hail snowing again, and we huddled under the tarp. Dammit.

By 6:45AM the sun was out. Hooray!

Much like our last ascent of Forester, when we had to turn back because of snowfall and then thought we would die alone in a snow-covered wilderness, the snow wasn’t ultimately a problem at all. The trail was totally visible, the footing was fine, and what it actually did was cover everything in a fine dusting of beautiful.

The southern approach to Forester Pass is one of my all-time favorite hikes. It’s a gentle climb to the base of what looks like a solid wall of vertical rock. Which it kinda is—the trail up to the pass was literally blasted out of the mountain. Until you’re actually walking up it, towards the tiny notch of the pass itself, you would never believe it was possible.

(The pass is in the V just to the left of the path through the snow in the picture above and under the patch of blue in the top left of the picture below.)

Also, the sun was doing amazing things. Range of Light, indeed.

The hike up was (relatively) quick and not too sketchy, even with all the snow. We reached the highest point on the PCT, at 13,200 feet, which I think means that it’s downhill all the way to Canada. No?

And then there was more hiking—that was only the first five miles of the day. Down down down from the pass across snowfields, clambering down muddy rocks trying to re-find the trail, along switchbacks and around streams, through more snowbanks and snowmelt-stream-trail, across fragile alpine tundra when the trail disappeared (sorry, fragile alpine tundra!), and then back to increasingly soggy Sierra trail.

Our goal was to get over Kearsarge Pass and out to the town of Independence on Highway 395. Twenty-two miles over two huge passes in what turned into one deliriously long day. Clouds travelled down the valley towards us, bringing sun then hail then sunny hail then rain. We passed very clean JMT hikers wearing big waterproof hiking boots.

To get over Kearsarge we left the PCT/JMT and headed up past a beautiful series of lakes ringed by mountains and framed by clouds. It was staggeringly beautiful, even as we staggered up the trail.

Then—because apparently the weather hadn’t changed enough times yet today—the clouds settled in over the pass. We walked last mile of switchbacks, criss-crossing a steep, rocky slope, in a cold, white, windy haze. I had just recently finished listening to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on audiobook, and the climb reminded me of nothing so much as Wilbur Mercer’s perpetual trudge up his hill. All that was missing was a rock flying at my head.

When we made it to the top of Kearsarge it was 32 degrees and snowing. There was just enough phone service to call motels in Independence and find them all full but one, which we immediately booked. Five more miles straight down as evening fell… then, finally, the trailhead and a call to the motel owner for a ride to town in her tiny pickup truck. A shower and a real bed and sleep.

Day 59: 9 miles, 1 mile to PCT + PCT Miles 766.9 to 774.9, Tyndall Creek Tentsite
Day 60: 22.4 miles, PCT Mile 774.9 to 788.8 + 8.5 miles over Kearsarge Pass

PCT Day 58: The Longest Day to the Highest Mountain

Day 58 started at 4AM and 9,580 feet in elevation. Our alarm went off in the dark, and we pulled our packs together to start the six-mile hike to Crabtree Ranger Station, where we’d leave most of our gear before hiking up to the summit of Mount Whitney.

Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48 at 14,505 feet, is not actually part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Whitney is the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail (which overlaps with the PCT for most of its route), but it’s about a fifteen-mile roundtrip detour off the PCT. We’d already summited it at the end of our 2012 JMT hike, but we didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to go up again—without the hassle of permit applications and in probably the best shape of our lives.

We started hiking at 5AM. We got to Crabtree, put our food in the bear box and the rest of the gear we weren’t bringing in a dry bag hanging from a tree, and set off for Whitney at 10AM. The sky was mostly blue, and it was fun to be back on a familiar trail—the last 7.5 miles of the JMT.

It’s a beautiful hike, transitioning from grassy, sometimes marshy forest to bare, craggy mountainsides. We saw approximately 8,000 marmots—grazing at Crabtree Meadow, running from us on the trail, and stalking hikers at Guitar Lake. We also saw our first pika (my favorite mountain critter and possibly also my spirit animal) and an impossibly tiny, dark-furred chipmunk.

Guitar Lake is about four miles from the summit and is where we camped before going to the top on our 2012 hike. By the time we got there, there were clouds massing over the mountain and along the neighboring ridges. Shit. The last thing you want when hiking to the top of a mountain, much less the highest one around, is to see dark clouds at the summit—rain, hail, snow, and lightning are all dangers.

At this point, headed up the ten long switchbacks that climb to the junction with the summit trail, we’re racing the clouds. Are they getting worse? Is that actually rain up there? I haven’t heard any thunder, have you? Turning back has to be an option if the weather starts to look too dangerous, but after coming this far, neither of us wants to give up now. We reach the final 1.9 miles to the top at around 1PM. What had been a steep, rocky trail now becomes a steep, narrow, snow-covered trail cut into sheer cliffs. Great. Hour nine of hiking. Let’s do this thing.

This last stretch of trail to the top is intense. It was intense in August with no snow—following the narrow path, scrambling over rocks—but now in June with snow still on the mountain it demands complete focus. We get out our ice axes and clutch them in one hand. There’s a path worn into the snow that covers the trail—sometimes a trough, sometimes individual footsteps. Most of the people we pass (who are all coming down from the summit, by the way—no one else seems to be going up this late, like we are) have micro-spikes or crampons on their shoes. Those would be nice to have about now—extra confidence on the slick footing.

The trail slowly winds its way along the craggy mountainside, and soon we can see to the summit—and to where a cloud sits on top of it. Super. We’ll get up there and not be able to see anything. Sigh.

But we keep going because that’s what we do. The final approach goes up the sloped, entirely unremarkable backside of the mountain. Whitney doesn’t have a pointy, “mountain” shape from this angle—just a gentle curve. The last few hundred feet of the trail goes across snow and through scattered rocks. Snow is starting to fall. And then we can see the shelter at the summit! Aaaaand that’s about it. Clouds block the (spectacular) views to the north and south and east.

Three PM, 14,505 feet. We take some pictures and sign the register (a tiny lined notebook rather than the full printed register—we’re so early in the season that the real one isn’t out yet) as it starts to snow harder. There are a few other people at the top—some dudes hot-boxing the shelter and one or two solo guys who came up about the same time as us. It’s definitely snowing harder. We’re up there for about fifteen minutes before we turn and start the trip back down.

This is when force of will has to take over. We’re going immediately back down the trail that we just worked so hard to climb up. The same snow-covered ledges with the same drop-offs, the same rocks to climb over, the same focus required. It’s exhausting, but there’s at least a happy sense of accomplishment—we made it to the top, even if we had to then turn around and go right back down.

We’re hiking out of the weather that’s been hanging out over the summit—there’s snow off to one side, and we get some flakes in the face, blown in sideways, but the trail is mostly clear.

When we get further down and look back, the damn sky looks perfectly clear. It’s all about the random luck of timing, up here. We wonder if hiker Shaggy, who was headed up to the top at 5PM as we were coming down, is getting spectacular views.

stupid blue sky

The walk back to Crabtree Meadows becomes one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done. I’m exhausted, yes; my feet hurt, yes; but it’s the out-and-back—going down the same trail we came up just hours ago, all while not making any forward progress on the PCT—that just kills. It’s getting dark, and the miles are unending. I want so badly to just sit down in the middle of the trail and scream. To lie down and go to sleep right where I am. Stupid mountains, stupid snow, stupid feet, stupid trail.

But we keep walking. Because that’s what we do. We make it back to Crabtree, 10,741′ elevation, at 8PM—fifteen hours after our hiking day started—and rush to set up camp as quickly and quietly as possible. The woods that were empty that morning are now filled with tents filled with hikers who are already asleep.

There’s a vague, happy sense of accomplishment… but mostly just exhaustion.

Day 58: 21.8 miles. PCT Mile 760.6 to 766.3 + 1.1 miles to Crabtree Ranger Station camping + 15 JMT miles to Mount Whitney and back

5AM: 9,580′
3PM: 14,505′
8PM: 10,741′

Photos: PCT Days 55-57

PCT Day 55: Mile 704.8 to 722.4

PCT Days 56-57: Mile 722.4 to 760.6, Rock Creek Camp

(All photos are also on Flickr)