Summit success, highs and lows, fun in the snow, wet trails and spectacular scenery.
I pick up my pack and almost cry. It is at its heaviest its been so far. Federal law requires you to carry a bear canister the whole way through the Sierras. In addition, I’m carrying snow gear, and an 8 day food supply. A small child would weigh less.
So I again return to the trail, excited to finally be starting the section I’ve been most looking forward to. The Sierra Nevada Mountains. Over the next few weeks, the trail will reach a height of 4023 meters (13,200 feet) and largely remain above 3000 meters (10,000 feet) for the majority of the time. Welcome to the mountains!
The first three days are a real struggle. A few days off trail coupled with the altitude, heavy pack and some big climbs does not make for a happy hiker. I have a moment on the third day when I think to myself, am I going to be able to do this? Do I even want to, if every day is going to be such a struggle? These thoughts swirl around in my mind as I drag myself up another mountain. At some point I stop and give myself a mental slap and two options. I can hike and accept the challenges, or I can not. Of course, I choose to hike. By the end of that day, I’m feeling like my old trail self and things start to get a little easier.
I continue to hike, eat, sleep and hike. Trail life is much the same, only the hiking is a little slower, the eating more often, the breaks a little longer and the scenery more spectacular and beautiful than ever.
On days four and five, we detour from the trail to hike to the summit of Mt Whitney. At 4,421 meters (14,505 feet), it is the highest mountain in the contiguous USA. Leaving our large packs behind, we leave camp at 12:30am to hike through the night in order to make it to the summit for sunrise. The sunrise is as you would expect standing atop a mountain. In that moment watching a new day break over me, I am overcome with gratitude for that sunrise, and for all that has come before it, and for all that will come after it. After spending an hour on the summit, we start the descent back to camp in time for lunch, and a long afternoon nap!
Two days later, we cross over Forester Pass. At 4,023 meters (13,200 feet) Forester Pass is the highest point on the PCT, and the first of the major passes (those above 3655m/12,000f) that we will cross as we head North.
I awake one morning to the sight of a black bear slowly sauntering past my tent. He doesn’t much seem interested in me but it’s nice to see him, as it goes some ways to justifying why I’m carrying my large and heavy bear canister!
Each day I watch chipmunks and squirrels play, and marmots laze about soaking up the sun’s rays after a long winter. I see deer gracefully bound across the trail, and dart through the woods, moving with an ease and agility that is magic to watch.
On day eight, we hike over our first ‘exit pass’ to resupply. This means that we have to hike over a pass, not part of the trail, to get to a trailhead that we can get a hitch from, to a town to resupply. We spend only the night in town, returning to the trail the next day (back up the same mountain we came over the day before, only with full packs this time!).
Over the next five days we cross the majority of the major passes along the PCT. We go up, and down and up again. We follow the trail as it skirts large glacial lakes, so clear that we can see fish in the water from the trail, through meadows that are surrounded by snow patched mountains and along rocky outcrops.
In places the trail is like an obstacle course. The destruction from the winter’s snow and storms is incredible. Trees that seem as big and as solid as the mountains that surround them, lay broken across the trail. There is a wild rawness to the destruction that makes me feel as if I’m a witness to the aftermath of some dark act that nobody was meant to see.
There is large amounts of snow on every pass, both the ascent and descent and I am grateful that I found my snow legs in Northern California. I certainly wouldn’t like to be finding them out here. There is a good boot track in almost all the snow we cross, and I am grateful to those hikers that went before us, making it a little easier for us to find our way. I finally get to use my crampons that I’ve been dragging around which provide traction on early morning snow crossings. In some places, I even have some fun with it, ‘glissading’ down some slopes (basically sit on your bum and slide down the snow slope). However, it is slow going and incredibly tedious and it’s not long before the novelty wears off.
I can’t believe how far I’ve come from my first snow days where I was so far out of my comfort zone I practically froze at the sight of snow on the trail. Now, I (mostly!) just move across it as I would any other terrain.
Snow melt is occurring rapidly and there is water everywhere. Which is good and bad. Good as it means we never have to carry more than a litre of water. Bad because it makes for a LOT of water on the trail. Streams and creeks spill over the trail. Rivers are gushing and moving rapidly. All of these we have to cross. Some we can find our way across on logs and rocks, others we must go through. Our record is six crossings in one day.
Between the climbs, the snow and the river crossings,our daily mileage has dropped to only about 20kms (13 miles) whilst our days largely remain the same length. But it is more than worth it. The Sierras are simply spectacular. To wander amongst them in an environment so wild and raw is humbling and grounding.
Our second resupply is over a mother of a mountain and we decide to take a day off whilst in town. Climbing back up and over to the trail with a full resupply is something I’m happy to put off another day.
Incredibly, I’m heading into my last 14 days on the trail. I can’t believe how fast this journey has gone. Soon life on the trail will end, but before it does, there’s a little more adventure to be had!