Day 68 Mammoth Lakes, CA Mile 906
Distracted from the bacon and eggs on my plate, I gaze up at the snowy mountains above town. Down here, it’s almost hard to believe I’ve spent the last two weeks trucking through that terrain; climbing, glissading, fording, living it up, and getting beat back down. Word on the trail is that once you do the Sierra, the rest just isn’t the same. And while I know there are still 1700 miles of wonders to behold, the talk is partially true: it will be hard to match the epic proportions of the high Sierra.
Since leaving Kennedy Meadows, I’ve passed dozens of frozen lakes, crossed countless streams both trickling and raging, summited the highest peak in the lower 48, traversed and climbed over 8 mountain passes, and slogged through miles upon miles of snow. The passes roll off the tongue far easier than how my legs climbed them: Forester, Kearsarge, Glen, Pinchot, Mather, Muir, Selden, and Silver. In the last post I predicted the going would be epic; now I can say definitively that it has been. The high Sierra is some of the most spectacular mountain scenery I have ever had the chance to pass through. Its peaks rival anything in the Rockies, its wildness matches any of the Southern Alps, and its grandeur compares to the mighty Himalaya. Each of those ranges has its own magic, their hidden character. But in walking each step of 200 miles of the Sierra crest, and in the middle of a gigantic snow season, I feel I’ve gotten closer to these mountains than any other.
This section of the PCT is truly unlike anything that comes before. Water concerns go from filling your bottle to getting your feet wet to not getting washed away. The pace goes from 20 plus miles a day to being thankful you made it 12. Instead of your maps being stashed deep in your pack, they are constantly in and out of your pocket; take a wrong turn and you could lose hours. Two moments in the first few days out of Kennedy Meadows made me realize the desert was gone, and the mountains had arrived. The first was climbing out of a burned out valley as the trail opened up to Monache Meadows, the largest in the southern Sierra. Pine trees hemmed in this enormous swath of lush green grass, and towering in the distance was snow-capped Mt. Langley, the most southern 14er. The air just smelled fresh, and that peak made me giddy. It wasn’t but a day or two later we first hit snow, starting in small patches reminiscent of early on the trail, and then suddenly everywhere like the rumors that preceded us. Finishing a 20 mile day slogging through this first taste of snow, I was beat. People had been talking of fishing or taking a dip, but even if I had the energy those opportunities weren’t available, nor would they be for many miles. The lake was completely frozen, any icy reminder of the wilderness ahead. We were in the Sierra for real.
Instead of deciding to arbitrarily hike 22 miles, each day had focus, a purpose oriented about the terrain ahead. This pass, that river crossing. Time it right for hard snow, yet not too icy. Scout up and down stream for the best crossing, or time it for the morning when it’s lowest. Drink from side streams and you don’t have to treat your water, but make sure your food is in the bear canister lest something eats it and it’s 4 days to town. With all the different concerns and calculations, it’s almost hard to believe you’re on the same trail. Like driving I-80 through Iowa and then being on the same road in Utah. The change in geography boggles your mind.
Since most of the photos here are snowbound, I’ll close with one story about streams. I know of many hikers who decided to flip around the Sierra, and while most of them cite snow as the main concern, the danger of the passes in my opinion pales in comparison to the creek crossings. Much of June was unusually cool in the Sierra, delaying snow melt and keeping rivers lower. But once the temperature started rising all that frozen water was liquid and gravity bound in a big way. The creeks and rivers are now running way above normal, making certain crossings much more than a blue line on the map. Bear Creek after Selden Pass was one such creek that had been getting some trail hype. We’d heard it would be significant, but in the day prior met a number of southbounder JMTers who said they’d had little trouble. Hotrod and I reached the creek at about 7pm, which is obviously less than ideal given snow has been melting all day and swelling every tributary in sight. In hindsight we should have just camped and waited til morning, but it didn’t look too bad and a group of weekenders had just shown up on the other side, so we thought we’d show them how a real thru-hiker fords a river. We were slightly downstream of the actual trail crossing, a spot we’d been told was better. The creek didn’t look much past knee-deep, but it was wide and swift. I would characterize it as very light rapids, as there was minimal whitewater but nothing really rolling and no drop offs downstream. Hotrod ventured across first, and seemed to struggle towards the end. He was really fighting the current, bracing against his trekking poles. When he finally made it, I sighed with relief, except that now it was my turn and I’m definitely lighter than he is. With the weekenders watching, I started out. Knee deep, not too much trouble. Halfway, the current picked up and the water crept up. I started moving slower and upon taking a step to my left the water seemed to jump nearly waist deep. I stepped back. I can’t stand there, I’m thinking, that is just too strong. I try to move upstream to get around this deep spot, but now I realize I can’t make any forward progress; this river is just way too strong. My feet digging in, my body braced against my poles, I feel stuck, I can’t move in any direction. I try taking another step, but this time nearly lose my balance. My shirt gets soaked and I lean violently on my poles to stay upright; they vibrate under the force of the water and trying to move them is like pulling a sword from stone. The water is frigid cold, and I can feel my strength sapping. Like when you hang from a pull up bar and gravity slowly wears you down. It’s easy at first, but insidiously you lose strength, weakening until you realize you don’t have much left. Whether it’s the pull up bar or the river, this thing is going to break you. I can’t remember exactly what happened next, but I was no longer standing still; I was getting washed downstream. Out of my peripheral vision I could see Hotrod venturing back out, but the current was too strong. The weekenders were running down the bank, fanning out with their trekking poles in hand. Comforting to know there’s help, but not a good sign of the spot you’re in. As I lurched backwards and tried to keep my head up, strangely I wasn’t panicked or scared. A sort of tunnel vision took over as the river pushed me backwards. Get to the bank. Nothing else really mattered at that point. I didn’t feel my knee and shin bruising on the rocks, didn’t care about my pack getting wet, didn’t mind losing ground so long as I made it to the bank. As I reached the edge, a hand grabbed my pack and pulled me through the bushes. Shivering and soaking wet I stood up, and I had made it. This was easily the wildest and craziest the Sierra got for me, and it was enough. I’d reached my limit, and don’t want to find it again. While I was cold and wet, my gear stayed dry, and what could have been a horrible night ended just fine with a fire, warm clothes, and good food. Thanks to Hotrod for risking his skin coming back for me, and to Ben, Bo, Andrew and friends for helping a stranger in need. Needless to say, they didn’t cross Bear Creek that night.