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

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