Monday, June 28, 2010

Catasrophes and Blessings

Hi all, I'm writing today from Pooh's Corner, an awesome trail angel's house on Donner Lake outside Truckee, CA, owned by Bill Persons. The plan since leaving South Lake Tahoe a few days ago has been to stop here for the night and bounce out in the morning, making tracks for Sierra City. Unfortunately, I managed to twist my ankle fairly badly (on an innocuous stick, of all things), and had to hike 35 painful miles to get here on but a few Ibuprofen. That being said, I'm taking a zero day here today and hoping to recuperate somewhat; at the moment my ankle looks somewhat eggplant-ish. Dave is on a schedule and doesn't have the time to lounge, so he and Smiletrain headed out this morning, but the set up here is almost too sweet to pass up. The rest of the gang stayed here as well to take advantage of Bill's awesome pad. There are several boats to bring out on the lake, 3 computers to play on, a rock climbing wall in the living room, 2 powerful showers, and gallons of ice cream on hand for hideous consumption, which basically makes it hiker paradise. Hopefully we'll catch up with the others in Belden, another 150 or so miles down the road, after which Dave has to head out for a wedding in Puerto Rico for a week. Given that he is our best pathfinder and general logistics person, his absence amidst the snow will be sorely missed by the group. It will be hard leaving this place in the morning, especially considering the sorry state of my foot, but the miles won't hike themselves. I suppose that if the terrain continues to be challenging, I can take some more rest days at the next hostel a week away, but time will tell. Talk to you later.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Trail That Wasn't

Hi everyone, writing to you from South Lake Tahoe, CA at the Key's Cafe. Its been awhile since I've had the chance to update and alot has gone on since then, so I'll try to be brief. I've been hiking with the same crew for the past several weeks now to help make it through the relentless snowpack, which is a very different experience from my normal style. There is a constant need for compromise that has started to wear on everyone, and now that the snow has started to break there is some talk about splitting up. Unfortunately the group has been a necessity, as the need to break trail, navigate through trackless woods, and push on in spite of relentless fatigue requires more than the usual amount of effort.

The trail from Lone Pine has been amazing despite the difficulty. We came back over Kearsarge Pass and rejoined the trail before continued on through the High Sierra, tackling the notorious passes such as Glen, Mather, Pinchot, and Muir, each presenting a unique route-finding challenge in addition to the usual strenuous climbs. The views from the top were astounding and rewarding, each in their own memorable way, often presenting long views down sun-soaked, snow covered valleys with clouds flying overhead. The suddenness of the spectacle never ceases to surprise, as huge panoramas explode seemingly over every rise, and one never knows what to take pictures of. Eventually you give up, realizing that no photo could really capture the experience, and each "wow" moment trumps the next.

Next we headed in to Mammoth, a typical California ski town that afforded us a chance to resupply for the next leg. Unfortunately, due to our early arrival the bus service to civilization wasn't running and we had to leg it an extra 9 miles to make our way back to the trail, adding yet another small obstacle to our northward progress. The path resumed with more frozen lakes, snowfields, and forests, the elevation slowly getting lower and lower. In just a few days we reached Tuolemne Meadows and the road into Yosemite Valley, stomping grounds of John Muir and Ansel Adams. Sadly, we were weak willed and decided to hitch hike into the park instead of taking the 21 mile side trail, a route that promised even more difficult passes and snow. Never-the-less the views were astounding, with awe inspiring granite domes and thundering waterfalls that any American would recognize. The park was overwhelming in more ways than one however; the shear amount of car-driving tourists invading what, to a hiker, is holy ground was somewhat depressing, even more so given the fact that we ourselves were driven in. We did some quick resupply and booked it back to the trail, anxious to continue our trek to Canada.

The first few day in between here and there were more of the same, which sounds much more mundane than I suppose it really is. When "the same" is gorgeous views of snow covered mountains and waterfalls, one can't complain too much, even though it remained challenging. There have been some tedious days and several disappointments, but recently the landscape has taken a new turn as we hit the volcanically sculpted northern Sierra. Though the peaks may be smaller, they are craggier and covered in ridges and caves, the rocks now a range of reds and yellows and very rough. Bright lichens and small flowers have started appearing, replacing the pine forests and giving the appearance of blasted desolation in areas. These places are blessedly snow-free, and we try to make the best time possible when we reach them while still enjoying the magnificent scenery. Hopefully this type of landscape will be the norm for awhile.

Despite the changing land, some things are a constant. Water has been an all pervasive element out here, in all its forms. The endless snow fields, covered in cursed sun-cups, the exhausting repetition of climbing snow drifts through the forests, and the countless creeks, streams, and meadow marshes that must be forded leave ones feet in constant wetness, and only the steam rising out of boots around a fire at night gives any respite. The snow conditions, as well as the predictable cycle of temperature, lends a rhythm to every day. Morning are typically freezing, with many days of icy boots resulting in a hurried breakfast eaten while still in a sleeping bag. We usually start hiking around 6-6:30, getting the circulation going before the sun is fully up in jackets and gloves. The snow is crusted with ice, making level ground and climbing easier, but downhills treacherous. Once the light hits the lower slopes, we shed our warmer gear and the snow loosens up, requiring more effort to make forward progress, but allowing us to boot-ski down from the hills. The conditions constantly change however, and what was soft, slippery walking one minute is icy and bumpy the next. Six foot high drifts can appear around the corner where before there was dry trail, throwing one off guard every moment and disheartening any weary thru-hiker.

The fords have been our other major concern that dictate our mileage so far. Each "creek" represents a barrier that must be surmounted; some can be crossed via fallen logs, but most have to be waded across, fighting against the current and the cold. Several have been totally uncrossable and we've had to detour far upstream, passing tributaries to find places where the flow lessens What is a creek here in CA can be a river elsewhere. Fortunately we've managed our way around every obstacle so far, though the unexpected ones are often the worst; the trek up to Dorothy Lake Pass, which I'm sure is an enjoyable 9 mile hike on easy grade beside a water source in late summer, was a hellish uphill slog over sun-cups and 6 foots drifts through trackless forests that took an entire morning. The crossing of Stubblefield Creek, which is not mentioned in any guidebook, required a delicate balancing act on a small log over a rushing torrent, and what was to be a "broad, shallow ford" turned out to be a 50 foot wide, 6 foot deep moat that totally stymied our advance. In short, we are all phenomenally tired, and our arrival in Tahoe couldn't have come at a better time. We enjoyed the snow for awhile, but we are all tired of it by now, and pray for an end to the difficulties so we can get back to our normal styles of hiking. We look forward to the day when the trail that so often has left us, buried beneath the snow, will come back to us and let us hike unhindered.

By the way, one of the other hikers has a blog with video posts as well at which is updated fairly frequently. It has a few videos of our exploits in the southern Sierra and should soon have some interesting ones of us going across the more treacherous fords. Unfortunately I'm still having trouble uploading photos from my phone, which is getting pretty full again, so hopefully I'll be able to fix that eventually. Until next time.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Hi everyone, writing to you from Lone Pine, CA, right now during yet another unscheduled stop. I've been hiking with 4 other guys for the past few days (Wanderer, Dave, Straightjacket, and Smiletrain) who left Kennedy Meadows the day before me. Normally we all prefer to hike solo, but have all ended up bunching up and moving together through the tough Sierra conditions; I was only able to catch up to them due to the fact that they were breaking trail before me. The snow has been incredibly hard work, particularly seeing as we are the first group through the mountains this year. Because of this, we have to navigate through without the aid of previous footsteps and plow through the snowpack, both of which are energy and time consuming. Someone estimated that we burned around 12,000 calories a day due to the strenuous conditions, and so here we are in town resupplying yet again and bulking up on fatty foods. A traveling trail angel named Tom is here in town putting us up with all sorts of goodies as well, just continually proving the awesome capacity for generosity that people out here can have and reinforcing the need to 'pay it forward' at some point.

The route to Lone Pine was a circuitous one, involving a 9 mile detour over Kearsarge Pass and down to a lightly used trailhead parking lot where, in an incredible coincidence, a couple with a van just happened to be leaving and gave us a ride to the town of Independence. We were very worried about not having a ride down from the mountains, so the we were incredibly lucky in that regard, and I fully expect karma to catch up and kick my butt eventually. Unfortunately there isn't much in Independence, except a historically preserved Japanese internment camp in the middle of the desert. Given that none of us were in the mood for a depressing, if educational, side-trip, we hitched here to Lone Pine for some real resupply. In one of those hilarious coincidences, Smiletrain and I got a ride mere moments after Dave left to try his luck elsewhere.

For all the trouble and leg-ache, the views have been absolutely stunning. Even the drive down to town was beautiful, involving an equilibrium shattering descent from the icy heights down to the sweltering desert plain. The mountains are covered in pristine snow, and the only tracks around are those of bears, mule deer and marmots. There are gigantic canyons cut by half frozen rivers, and when the light hits the walls in the morning or afternoon, they seem to glow. The contrast between the distant, sun-soaked mountains and those still in shade is stunning, and seeing the cloud shadows racing across the huge distances is awesome. Its easy to see how John Muir and Ansel Adams could be so inspired by this landscape, though hard to see how they got out here; its difficult enough with our modern gear and prepackaged food. Only our continual luck with the weather, which has been consistently gorgeous and calm, has allowed us to continue apace. The first sight of a lake, iced over in glacial blues and aquamarines makes it all worthwhile though, as does the occasional glimpse of some wildlife picking its way up the precarious slopes or foraging in the rocks.

While it hasn't even been 100 miles since my last post, we have already passed several milestones in this section. We completed the arduous ascent of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the 48 contiguous states at over 14000 feet, a 17 mile side trip that involved a lung-busting 3000 foot elevation gain up a rock scramble. The summit was crowded with a dozen or so day hikers who made the climb from the easily accessible eastern side, and, hilariously, the 'shelter' on top was completely filled with a solid block of snow from floor to ceiling. The next day we crossed over Forester Pass, the highest point actually on the PCT, and entered Kings Canyon Park, with views down to the sinuous Bubbs Creek and the occasional rock slide cracking off the craggy walls in the distance. We've already forded several rivers, running high and swift from snow-melt, though the worst are yet to come apparently; wading across a stream in your boots, then heading straight into the snow has, surprisingly, not been as bad as it sounds...yet. We've traversed blinding snowfields (and all have cracked lips and screaming suntans to prove it), and have all had a foot or two 'vacuumed' in wet afternoon snow. This frustrating phenomenon occurs when you step on an air pocket created by a hidden boulder, causing the snow to collapse and pack around your ankle into a vice-like brick of ice that no amount of pulling can break; only by digging out you whole leg can one escape it. Its obvious that one person cannot make it through all these hardships alone, and so we travel together like ducks in a row, pulling each other along.

The satisfaction of knowing we are the first to attempt the Sierras while so many thru hikers are skipping around is an incentive to struggle though all this. Not many people get to see the mountains like this, and so while it certainly is a challenge, it is also very rewarding. Knowing that everyone behind us will be following our tracks, second guessing our route-finding abilities, and laughing at our obvious missteps gives some sense of accomplishment. Its an eerily ephemeral way to leave your mark on such a mammoth landscape; our footsteps will last for but a few day, quietly melting in the sun and being trampled by the following crowd. Though the tracks may be tiny, they will be visible for miles across the snowfields, and will give comfort and peace of mind to those behind, letting them know that at least someone else is crazy enough to be out there, and that for better or worse they went that-a-way.