PCT 17: a hike of fire and ice

After bypassing the Norse Peak fire on the shoulder of Mt Rainier, we rejoined the PCT at Government Meadow – less than 50 miles from Snoqualmie Pass and our next resupply. Little did we know that this entire section would be closed for fire only days after we hiked it. We did 30 miles our first day out, and decided that it would be our last 30 this trail. I feel that I am getting fatigued on these long days like I didn’t before. It is likely a combination of the terrain, the diminishing daylight hours, and the toll on my body from doing this day after day for nearly 5 months now. The next day was a short day – 16 miles into Snoqualmie Pass. It was a tough morning, hot even before the sun was up. We arrived by lunch and had an amazing feed at a place called Commonwealth – I had a gluten-free crispy chicken sandwich and GF beer (now how often does that happen?)! 

Feeling lethargic after lunch, we lazily did our resupply and hiked out by 2:30, reluctant to start the 3000 ft climb in the heat of the afternoon. Towards the end of the afternoon, we emerged from the forest and were rewarded with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Again, photos just don’t do it justice. We camped early by Ridge Lake and had enough sunlight left to have one of the best swims on trail. We spent a relaxed evening eating and chatting and planned a sleep-in for the next day. 

Unfortunately, when we woke we discovered the world was shrouded in smoke. The wind had changed and blown the smoke from the nearby Jolly Mountain fire and Norse Peak fire in our direction. For the next 3 days we would be in smoke. Everett and I had daily headaches and sore throats. We all felt like we had smoked several packs of cigarettes by the end of each day. The time seemed to drag on, and yet, it is all a blur looking back on that section. Though this section of trail supposedly had some amazing scenery to offer, all we could see was the trees around us, perhaps the silhouette of a mountain across the valley, and the sun – a dim orange orb hanging on a flat, grey sky. We walked in the dusky light all day and in the evening we would lie in our tents and listen to the soft pitter-patter of ash falling on our tents. It sounds grim, and at times it felt that way. It was one of the times that we really felt like we needed the encouragement and humour of our hiking buddies to pull us through.

On our final day of the section, we had an 18 mile hike into Stevens Pass and arrived early in the afternoon. We decided to head down to the small town of Skykomish to eat, wash, and resupply for our next section. With only 190 miles to go, we are on the home stretch! We have one last resupply to do in the small resort of Stehekin and then it’ll be the final run to the border in Manning Park. Now that we are close enough to make a plan, we are going to cross the border on September 15th (if all goes well) and finally be back in Canada after 5 months! For now, we are hoping for rain to clear the smoke and help stop the spread of the forest fires running rampant across the west. 

Update: we received some recent information that the Diamond Creek fire (burning in the Pasayten Wilderness in Northern Washington and into Canada east of Manning Park) has moved west and may threaten to close the PCT between Hart’s Pass and the border. So, as a group, we decided the 6 of us will get a ride up to Stehekin (skipping 100 miles of trail) and hopefully increase our chances of being able to walk across the border before it may close. Wish us luck!

Bridge of the Gods and the final state

We had a relaxing day off in Cascade Locks filled with visits from friends, beers, ice cream, and petting dogs. We woke early to cross the Columbia River into Washington as the sun crested over the mountains. Walking over the Bridge of the Gods was beautiful, and I experienced a mix of emotions: joy and gratitude to have made it to this place that I had imagined so often; sadness thinking about my relatively short time left on this trail; excitement to see what Washington had to offer. 

The Bridge of the Gods represents the low point on the trail at less than 200 ft of elevation, so we had a fairly decent climb out of there. The blackberries dotting the trail gave a welcome excuse to stop from time to time, though. We decided to get an early night and stopped after 20 miles. We ate, washed, and were in bed before 6 pm – my inner old lady was thrilled. The next day had a couple of big climbs, and I was feeling totally drained by lunch. Happily, our buddies Double D and the Kraken at lunch at Panther Creek just as we were leaving for the afternoon. We told them to catch up and headed out for the 3000 ft climb awaiting us.

Partway up the hill, I began to feel really unwell. I was starting to get belly pain and nausea. It felt similar to how I felt the year before when a Salmonella infection led to a hospital stay and the end of our trails. I spent an hour or more denying it before I told Everett. He was, of course, worried and had me take some medication we were carrying. He offered to take my pack but I stubbornly refused. We were now at the top of the hill but still had over 10 miles to the nearest road crossing, and it was only a forest service road. We made that our goal and tried to hurry down the hill before I got worse. We made it about 5 miles before the pain had me doubled over and vomiting, unable to even keep down water. Everett finally convinced me to take some of the pain medication he had from his kidney stones and I agreed to let him carry my pack. He heroically carried both our backpacks the remaining 5 miles to the road while I staggered along behind him. It was a miserable 5 miles, but we finally arrived at the road. Amazingly, some of the hikers who had passed by us (and offered help, medicine, and words of encouragement) had told a trail angel about us and he had stayed to see if we needed any help. People are amazing, aren’t they?(Even more amazing was that our friends, Tim and Sharon, were willing to drive over 3 hours to come rescue us off the trail before we knew this trail angel was there!) In no time, we were on our way to Portland where I would have a chance to rest and recover (and everett could eat doughnuts to his heart’s content).

After a day and a half off, we managed to get back to the trail near Trout Lake. It cost us about 30 miles of missed trail but it was an easier access point than where we had departed. To our surprise, we bumped into Martyn again and hiked together for a couple of miles before he pulled off to camp for the night. We managed another few miles before setting up camp. The light was eerie with the evening sun obscured by the thick smoke from nearby fires. We were barely able to see the peak of Mt Adams in spite of standing right on its shoulder. 

The night was cool and calm, and when we woke we were amazed to find that the smoke had cleared, leaving incredible views of Mt Adams, Mt St Helens and Mt Rainier as we walked. We had an incredibly pleasant day of hiking, managing over 30 miles to camp at lovely Sheep Lake that evening. We double-dinnered and were asleep in no time.

We woke early as we had planned to make the final 25 miles down to White Pass that day. We had a couple packages that needed to be picked up at the store before closing (including new shoes – yay!) and we wanted to figure out if the next fire closure was still in effect. Yes, another one. The last time we had checked, 52 miles of trail were closed around Mt Rainier due to fire and there was no proposed alternate. More on that later. 

It was foggy and cool as we set off. It was my favourite kind of day watching the mist swirl around the mountains, revealing and obscuring the views in turn. We would hike into the grey with no idea of our surroundings; then, all of the sudden, the fog would lift and reveal a spectacular steep volcanic mountain landscape. It looked so remarkably like the mountains of BC that it hurt my heart. It was absolutely stunning. We enjoyed watching the sun illuminate the mountain tops as we crested Cispus Pass and then descended back into the clouds. The next time the fog cleared, we were in a spectacular mountain valley with waterfalls and mountain goats grazing on the hillside. From there, we headed up again to get to a section of trail I have been so looking forward to: Knife’s Edge. 

Initially, it was foggy during our approach and we were unable to see where we were headed. But suddenly the clouds parted and we could see the trail winding along a ridgeline all the way into the distance. Steep drop offs on either side made for an awesome feeling of exposure and beautiful 360 views. It was truly the most wonderful place on trail so far. I’m not sure the photos even do it justice, but they’ll have to do because I have no words.

We made it down to White Pass last night and were able to get a motel room in spite of the crazy HUGE flea market on the go here this weekend (the town grows from 300 to 30,000 for this one event). The fire closure is still in effect and the highway adjacent is intermittently open. We have spent the day trying to sort out our way around the closure and we’re all getting restless. Now acclimatized to hiking 30 miles daily, it’s hard for us to slow down. How will we manage when we finally reach the border? 

A double marathon and the end of Oregon

After a couple of zeroes in Bend, Dad dropped us back at the trail (after the solar eclipse, of course!) past the Whitewater fire closure on Mt Jefferson. Although it was early in the evening we were keen to get our tents up and get to sleep, because we had a plan. 

A week earlier, while hiking with Double D and Kraken, we mentioned we were interested in trying to see how far we could hike in 24 hours. 50 miles might be doable, we thought. Sounds interesting, they thought. But, if we’re going as far as 50, why not a double marathon? No one said it was an objectively good idea, but we thought it was great one. We managed to drag Jukebox and Snackblock into it as well! What’s the worst that could happen, right?

Back at Olallie lake, our alarms set for midnight, we got into our and tried to sleep. Midnight came too soon (especially for those trying to sleep nearby) and we sprang into action. Headlamps on, we were ready to hike by 12:40 AM. A short walk found us back at the PCT and then we were off! We had decided to hike together during the dark hours for motivation. We rotated the leader every couple of miles so that we each had a chance to lead and breathe the air before it is filled with dust stirred up by pounding of twelve feet. By 7 am, we had managed 17 miles – so now, only a usual day of hiking left! No problem!

The next section we hiked separately, meeting up again near a road where a trail angel had a table full of trail magic spread out! A banana and a coke really hit the spot. A few miles later, we stopped at Timothy Lake for our lunch break. Water bombers cruised low overhead towards the lake every 10 minutes or so. We had managed 33 miles by 1300 and tried to cram as many calories as possible in before we set out again. Only 19 to go! We hiked together once again, switching leaders every couple miles to help track the passage of time and keep our motivation up. By the time we stopped for our dinner break it was after 7 pm. We had over 5 miles to go, and it was all uphill. We knew we’d make it at this point, but we were all starting to feel the fatigue. Luckily, food and short rest did the trick and we were off again for our final push! 

Headlamps on again, we walked out into the night. The final 15 miles of our day were uphill, but the last 5 miles were the real struggle of the day. When we were about two miles out, I was relieved to think that in about 40 minutes we’d be done walking. And then we hit the sand. Climbing the shoulder of Mount Hood, we struggled to keep our forward momentum in the soft sand. It was the final hurdle of our day, and a very unwelcome one as we passed our 21st hour of hiking. And, after what felt like an eternity, we crested a hill into a small stand of trees and realized we had made it! 52 miles! An incredibly brief silent celebration ensued and then we quickly set up our tents. As I lay in my tent, I stuffed my remaining snacks into my face and then promptly fell asleep. What a day.

We woke with the sun and nearby hikers packing up. It was after 6 am, later than we would normally sleep. But today there was no rush, because we were only a short scamper from Timberline Lodge and their famous breakfast buffet! It wasn’t long before we were stuffing ourselves with eggs and potatoes and yogurt and smoothies and waffles and all the other wonders of the buffet. It was one of the best breakfasts of the trail and an awesome way to treat ourselves after the previous day. 

Eventually we extracted ourselves from the buffet and comfy lounge chairs and hit the trail again. The hiking was beautiful, with amazing views of Mount Hood as we skirted around its west side. We took the Ramona Falls alternate as well, and took our dinner break right at the falls. We were able to hike another few miles for a total of 17 for the afternoon, but felt exhausted by it. We were asleep by 7:30, knowing we would be heading into Cascade Locks – the final town in Oregon – the next day. 

We tried to wake at 4 am, but snoozed until 5. We had packed up and were moving by 5:30. It was weirdly dark, and once we hit a break in the trees it was clear why. It was cloudy and foggy, with only a small break on the horizon to show the contrast. It was blustery and the heavy moisture in the air was visible in the watery light of our headlamps. The moisture gathered on the bushes and trees and rained down on us when we were under forest cover. As the morning grew brighter, we basked in the beauty of this perfect Pacific NW day. It was absolutely stunning. We could feel the chill of autumn in the air, and noticed some of the leaves had already begun to turn colour; it was a reminder that the longest summer of our lives was coming to a close. It is a bittersweet idea to finish this trail, and I am trying not to give it too much airtime in my thoughts just yet. I just want to enjoy every last minute of this journey.

In the afternoon, the sun broke through the clouds and we were treated to beautiful views of Mount Hood and Mount Adams. Eventually, we headed into the final descent to Cascade Locks – the lowest elevation point on the whole PCT. After 32.5 miles, we reached town. After a quick shower we were off to meet some old friends (Martyn and Simon and Ellen) at the brewery for a catch up! It was great to see them! 

Today, we took a day off to relax – probably our last zero day on this trail. We were happy to have our other friends, Tim and Sharon, come out for a visit and spent the rest of the day preparing ourselves for the rest of the trail. Tomorrow, we head across the Bridge of the Gods and into Washington. Only 500 miles stand between us and the Canadian border now!

Breaking out of California, Oregon on fire, and the RV crew

After a brief, but enjoyable, stay in Mammoth Lakes, we started our 3-bus journey back to the trail. Unfortunately, 2 buses in we discovered that we had forgotten about Everett’s broken pole tips and had to reverse the journey back to town to get it sorted. By the time we arrived in Agnew Meadows it was mid-afternoon and the prospect of a full day of hiking was fading. We arrived at Reds Meadow around supper time and were pleased to find the restaurant open! One last real meal before heading back into the hills! 

Our bellies full of burgers and milkshakes, we dragged ourselves out of the restaurant just as it started to rain. Thunder rumbled across the valley. As the sky darkened, we settled for a tent site only 4 miles away. We figured we would still be able to make the push for Silver Pass the next afternoon if we got an early start. We did get an early start and made good time in the morning. We stopped for an early lunch at Purple Lake in fair weather, but by the end of our break the sky was beginning to darken again. By the time we reached Lake Virginia, the rain had started. We donned our rain gear and hustled on down the trail. By the time we got to the top of the climb, rain had turned to hail and thunder began to crack overhead. We were soaked as we descended towards Fish Creek. The clouds obliterated our view of the mountain tops and the thunder rolled directly overhead. It was only 2 pm, but as we reached the valley floor, we decided to set up the tent and wait out the weather rather than risk a lightning storm up on the pass. We had hoped the weather would clear in a couple hours so we could still make a push for the pass, but it wasn’t to be. At 5 pm the thunder showed no signs of letting up so we settled in for the night, and for the first time in 3.5 months we cooked and ate in our tent. 

The next morning was cold and damp, and we took longer than usual to pack up and move out. Happily the weather was clear and we enjoyed a beautiful morning heading up and over Silver Pass. We spent the rest of the day positioning ourselves to get close to Selden Pass. Late in the afternoon we approached Bear Creek, which is known to be one of the more difficult river crossings on the PCT. We didn’t expect much trouble this late in the season in spite of warnings from various hikers going in the opposite direction. As we arrived at the river, we were able to move only a couple hundred feet downstream and cross on a massive downed tree. One extra mile took us up to the West Branch of Bear Creek where we camped for the night.

The next day was to be a long one as we were planning on doing Selden Pass in the morning, and then needed to get as high up the side of Muir Pass as possible. Muir, unlike many of the other passes, is long and gradual and many hikers will do a “no-pass” day in their approach to the pass. Selden was beautiful with flowers and greenery up to the top. The south side features a narrow canyon, which still clung to a few patchy snow fields. The going was easy and safe and didn’t require any of our snow gear that we were still carrying around. We began to doubt the utility of having spikes and axe for such a late season excursion in the area, but in the absence of reliable conditions reports we had felt more comfortable bringing them.

The descent was quick and we soon found ourselves in the Evolution Valley. Evolution Creek is another one of the rivers that can be risky to cross when high. Earlier in the season, many hikers crossed this river at the slower flowing meadow a couple miles upstream from the summer trail crossing due to high water. Many of the JMT (John Muir Trail) hikers we encountered were still following this practice. However, when we arrived at the creek, we were pleased to find a lovely knee-deep blackwater crossing. We crossed easily under the skeptical eye of several JMT hikers who decided not to follow us. We made our way up the basin and after a steep climb, arrived at the beautiful Evolution Lakes. We camped in our favourite spot on the entire trail so far, exhausted after hiking over 24 miles. I woke in the middle of the night to a landscape bathed in moonlight and the twinkle of the Milky Way.

In an early start the next morning, we powered up the 6 miles to the top of Muir Pass. We were pleased to find very little snow, a stark contrast to the reports we had been getting. We must stop listening to people, I thought. We spent a short time at the top, admiring Muir Hut and refueling. Our descent from the pass had the most snow we had seen (and would see) since our return to the Sierra – a patchy, well-tracked 2 miles of soft snow. What a difference from June. It was a long, slow descent from the pass and I was getting discouraged. We had been hoping to do another big day to make the following day easier, but I crashed after around 20 miles. We set up camp early in the trees near Palisade Creek. I was disappointed that I had been unable to rally and push forward another few miles. It meant an even bigger day the following day, which was already going to be a challenging one where we would tackle two passes: Mather and Pinchot.

We woke early the following morning and ascended a section known as “the Golden Staircase” as our warm-up. It is a steep and impressively engineered bit of trail that switchbacks up a seemingly impossible granite wall. As we ascended we watched the sun kiss the tips of the mountains behind us as the full moon slowly descended to the horizon. When we arrived at Palisade Lakes, many hikers were just starting to break camp as we passed by. The climb up Mather was steep and rocky with several lingering icy patches. We actually used our microspikes for the first and only time in this section. We crested the pass into the sunlight and started down the other side. We wandered in the high alpine of Kings Canyon National Park, giddy and energized by the most incredible alpine scenery we had seen. The photos simply can’t do it justice!

After a leisurely lunch by the Kings River, we began our climb up Pinchot Pass. It ended up being our favourite pass of the whole trail for its incredible views. We had the top to ourselves as most hikers avoid passes late in the day. We lingered on the pass, feeling on top of the world. As the afternoon shadows grew long, we reluctantly began our descent to the bottom of the canyon at Woods Creek. We were tired when we arrived, but happy to have enjoyed such a beautiful day in the mountains.

The following day would be our last in the Sierra and California. We got up early and were out of camp by 5:30 AM for another 2-pass day over Glen Pass and then Kearsarge. We had climbed Kearsarge in early June when we had exited the Sierra, and we were excited to see how it looked after two months of thaw. It was a long 3000+ ft climb up to the top of Glen Pass, but we hoped to make good time. On our way up, we bumped into some old friends -Kate and Andrew – who we had hiked with between Etna and Ashland. Since we were headed in opposite directions, we sat down beside the trail to have a catch up! One of our favourite parts of going Sobo for a time has been crossing paths with the various people we have met along the way. 

We pressed on and soon we were on the steep switchbacks/rock scramble up the north side of Glen. Everett was on a mission, setting an aggressive pace that left me gasping for breath and hangry by the time we reached the final stretch. Soon we crested the razor sharp ridge and were on our way down the other side, though. It was a short jaunt from there up to the top of Kearsarge where we stood slack-jawed at the sight on the East side of the pass. In contrast to June when the snow extended entirely from the top down to Onion Valley at 9000 ft, it was now completely dry. It was an incredible sight to see. We made quick work of the descent and were able to catch a ride to Independence with a couple of day hikers. From there it was a bus ride to Bishop to the promise of a shower, bed, and a meet-up with my dad who had driven down from Vancouver to meet up with us! Traveling with Dad in his RV made the normally tedious and inconvenient business of flipping back to Ashland a vacation within a vacation. We BBQ’d on the shore of Lake Tahoe, napped, listened to country radio, and watched the world speed by.

We were back in Oregon before we knew it, and happily got to meet up with some old friends (Dan/Lisa from Edmonton and Marc/Hélène from Germany/Belgium) there! Unfortunately, in the time that it took for us to finish the Sierra, several fires had started in Oregon causing multiple closures of the PCT around Crater Lake and the Jefferson Wilderness. We agreed to stick together as a group for a time and Dad offered to help us navigate some of the fire closures, which was a HUGE help!
The next few days were just a bundle of fun. We would hike 25 to 30+ miles each day and meet my dad at a road crossing for dinner, beers and camping together. It was fantastic! When we reached the first closure (from the Blanket Creek fire), we took a side trail down to a road crossing to meet up with Dad and detour around the fire. Although the PCT around Crater Lake remained closed, we were lucky that the West Rim Trail had re-opened allowing us to walk alongside this spectacular lake for a few miles. Crater Lake was the part of Oregon I had most been looking forward to and I was not disappointed! Dad met is again on the rim for beers with a view before taking us on a field trip to Umpqua hot springs for a little relaxation. 

That night we camped with Dad at Diamond Lake for what was to be our last night together before he headed back to Canada. We ate, we drank, we enjoyed a relaxing evening by the lake; and, in the morning Dad dropped us off at the trail for our final goodbye. We were all sad to see him go!

That day was a “shorter” 24 mile day so that we could camp near a spring. It was also our anniversary, marking 5 years of married life and 4 months of trail life. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend it enjoying the forests and volcanic peaks of Oregon. After an awesome sleep, we set out the next day to get as close to Shelter Cove (our next resupply) as possible. We took a lunch break near Summit Lake. We ended up spending 2.5 hours there, swimming, eating, petting dogs, and enjoying the warm sun. It was one of the most relaxing breaks on trail. We finally pulled ourselves away and still managed to total around 33 miles for the day. It put us within 3 miles of Shelter Cove and we were there by 7 am just as the restaurant opened! As we enjoyed our breakfast, I checked my email and saw one for my dad. The subject line read: “At Shelter Cove” so I assumed he had checked it out on the drive home. When I opened the email body, however, it said, “Staying an extra few days, in 9A behind the store.” Turns out Dad had noticed all the evolving fire closures and decided to stay to help us navigate them! How lucky are we?

Speaking of the fire closures, since we had left dad last time, two of the existing fires had spread causing further trail closures. The fire in the Sisters Wilderness had spread such that the alternate route was now also closed. The Jefferson fire continued to rage on and there was still no safe walking alternate available. So, with that being the case and Dad being here to shuttle us, we decided to head out to Bend for a day or two and then get back on trail where the closure ends. The sad (but unavoidable) reality is that we are missing over 100 miles of Oregon with all of the fire closures. We know things like this happen every year, but it’s still disappointing. We are looking forward to our next section though, and are REALLY excited to get to our third and final state, Washington! In the meantime, we are enjoying our time in Bend! 

Snow cones, kidney stones, and our return to the Sierra

We woke up early to make the final 11 miles to Donner Pass, looking forward to our visit with trail angel, Kitty. All was well as we passed the I-80 rest stop. We ditched our garbage so we wouldn’t be unloading it at Kitty’s cabin, had a snack, and pressed on for the final 4 mile stretch to the pass. About halfway in, I was about 30 ft ahead of Everett when he called out to me. He was doubled over in pain, limping towards me clutching his belly. Pale and sweaty, he lay on the side of the trail writhing in pain and (unsuccessfully) fending off my clinical assessment. Not tachycardic, good. Not peritonitic, good. Most likely kidney stones, I thought, but needs a proper assessment. I suppressed my distress at watching Everett suffer and put on my best stern doctor voice: “Get up!” I said. “Why are you doing this to me?” Everett responded. “We have to get to the road so you can get to the hospital,” I explained. I tried to get Everett to leave his pack and I would come back for it, but he wouldn’t. He reluctantly took the ibuprofen and ondansetron I forced on him, shouldered his pack and marched the two remaining miles to the road. Amazingly, Kitty was waiting there for us and volunteered to take us down to Truckee for Everett to get some medical attention. His symptoms waxed and waned through the day and he was indeed diagnosed with a 5.6 mm kidney stone (that had luckily passed into the bladder) and some resultant hydronephrosis. The doctor didn’t know quite how to counsel us regarding our return to the wilderness but felt that all the symptoms should resolve within 24 hours or so. Heading back to the cabin in Soda Springs, Everett got tucked into bed and I was lucky to spend a lovely afternoon and evening chatting and eating with Kitty and her doggie, Donner. 

Happily, the next day Everett felt way better and was able to join in on the fun. We went out on the lakes and tried out stand-up paddle-boarding for the first time, went for a swim in the warmest water and ate delicious home-cooked food. Kitty’s company and hospitality made this my favorite zero day of the entire trail (in spite of the circumstances that prompted it).

The next day, after another huge breakfast feed, Kitty took us back to Donner Pass to resume our hike. We were sad to leave Soda Springs after such a lovely visit at the cabin there, but the trail was calling. Kitty and Donner saw us off at the trailhead before we started the climb. The air was thick with smoke from the distant Detwiler fire, partially obscuring the stunning views and making me feel a bit queasy. We therefore called it a day fairly early, and camped in a beautiful spot on the Squaw Valley ski hill. From there we enjoyed the most gorgeous sunrise over Lake Tahoe the following morning. We packed up early and scrambled up the lingering steep patches of snow under the ski lift and into the ridge. The rest of our day was filled with wildflowers, sunshine and ridgewalks. We were really feeling the trail again!

The section from Donner Pass to Echo Lake was our last section of Northern California before our return to the Sierra, and it was one of our favourites of the entire trail! The fire smoke cleared as the wind changed and we enjoyed warm, sunny days of hiking and cool mountain nights. The scenery was also incredible with grassy ridges, Rocky Mountains, and full wildflower blooms. Though we had been warned about snow in this section, there were only occasional patches, which we used for making backcountry snowcones (I.e. a snowball to eat). In no time, we were in beautiful Desolation Wilderness with one snowy pass between us and our next resupply in South Lake Tahoe. We made it to the top of Dicks Pass and enjoyed the beautiful views from the top. However, almost immediately on the other side of the pass we began encountering throngs of day- and weekend-hikers in addition to the ongoing stream of late-season northbound PCTers. While we love seeing people enjoying the great outdoors, it is definitely a form of culture shock to see people with beach towels and tiny dogs in a place that you spent 3 days walking towards. We tucked into a small protected campsite on the edge of Lake Aloha. We swam and basked in the evening sun on the warm granite enjoying our last night out in Desolation.

The next morning, we set out early and were down to South Lake Tahoe before noon. Luckily, it wasn’t a weekend and we were able to find a reasonably priced motel. We ended up spending an unanticipated day off in STL due to lightning warnings in the area that had closed down the chairlifts and gondolas around the lake, but it gave us an opportunity to eat more pizza so it all worked out!

We set out from Echo Summit again, excited to be headed back into the Sierra. We had a big climb from Echo Summit, but a tough day paid off with a beautiful lake to camp at 21 miles in. The next couple days we pushed ourselves hard, trying to make at least 20 miles daily in spite of the increasing elevation and difficulty of terrain. We certainly felt it, and were exhausted by the end of each day but felt it was important to push it given our timeline and wanting to finish the trail before October. We enjoyed the section nonetheless, especially the solitude of walking a section that seemed to be less travelled than Desolation Wilderness or the upcoming section that merges with the John Muir Trail.

The exception was our final day going down to Sonora Pass. We had a short but steep section of snow that was still icy in the early morning, and a couple of slips shook my confidence. Additionally, some northbound hikers told us the story how one woman in their group took a harrowing fall on the other side of Sonora Pass the day before. Feeling tired and low, we decided to take a nero and head to the town of Bridgeport for a quick breather. Although the town itself was way out of the way, and didn’t have much to offer aside from a coffee shop with excellent fresh fruit smoothies, but a short hiatus from the trail (and much needed pep talk from my mama) was all that was needed. 

The next day, we were back at the pass and managed the ascent in about an hour by avoiding the “true” trail route (which involved an extended steep snow traverse around a bowl) and instead opting for a straight up approach. With only a couple tense moments on the way up, we felt exhilarated and energized when we reached the top. From there, the trail wound around through the stark alpine environment before descending back to the forest. We were truly back in the Sierra now! In spite of the late start and big climb, we still managed 17 miles for the day before setting up camp. Although we camped near a beautiful eddy in the creek, swarms of mosquitoes prevented a swim and drove us into our tent early. 

The next day was a big day, because we were expecting to encounter Wide Creek and Kerrick Canyon – two spots that had been described by northbound hikers as being particularly treacherous. The morning took us around Dorothy Lakes and through a long stretch of meadow/marsh that brought the worst mosquitoes I have ever seen. Not deterred by deet, sun, wind or me running down the trail waving my arms crazily, these mosquitoes swarmed around us mercilessly. I had happily donned my head net before the onslaught but Everett was not so lucky. Donning his during the swarm captured several inside his net. Happily, we were soon clear of the marsh and back to usual levels of mosquito harassment.

After 13 miles we arrived at Wide Creek and were pleased to see nothing more than a thigh deep docile wade in front of us. We set up for a relaxing lunch break on the other side, enjoying a swim, swing in the hammock, and the opportunity to dry out our socks and shoes. The rest was good before a grueling afternoon of climbing up and then descending into canyons. The last descent of the day took us down into Kerrick Canyon and across the creek on an easy log crossing. We were happy to find it completely snow-free as well. Being in the Sierra now has really been a completely different experience from what it could have been had we continued through in June!

The next day took us up out of Kerrick Canyon and over two smaller passes, Seevey and Benson. Just before the final ascent to Benson pass, we saw two familiar hikers approaching: Mandy and Mamie! Probably the most badass hikers we know this year, they had done the Sierra section from Bishop going northbound. Most impressively, they had done the 115ish miles from Onion Valley to Reds Meadow in 5 days by doing back-to-back double pass days. Very impressive! We had a nice (but too short) visit with them, and they advised us where the least-buggy place to camp would be. We took them up on their advice and camped down in Matterhorn canyon, a beautiful grassy valley flanked by granite hills on either side. We enjoyed a leisurely evening watching deer graze and eating Milk Duds.

The next day, we had a little extra motivation because it was only 20 miles to Tuolumne Meadows, which meant a store with real food! After some initial morning climbing, it was all downhill and we arrived by 3 pm. We gorged ourselves on ice cream and chips and dip and sausages and hung out with some fellow hiker trash before retiring to the campground. The following day was going to be a big one as well with our first pass over 11,000 ft since we did Forester and Kearsarge in June. The day started out easy with a 7 mile meander along the Tuolumne River before the switchbacks began. The climb was intense but exhilarating and with only one small patch of snow to cross, we were at the top in no time. From there we had a lovely descent into a beautiful valley carpeted with green grass dotted with tiny pink flowers. 

We crested Island Pass mid-afternoon, just as we heard the first distant rolls of thunder. We hustled over the high point under stormy skies and were soon treated to incredible views of Thousand Island Lake. Although it was early and we could’ve managed another 4 or 5 miles, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to camp by this spectacular lake. It was lucky too, because we got to camp next to and spend the evening chatting with a lady named Claire who was out on a solo section hike. Turns out she is a badass whitewater-paddling, ex-ranger/firefighter rural OB/GYN. There is honestly nothing this woman cannot do and it was our very great privilege to meet her. The people we have been lucky enough to meet on this trail have really made the experience for us. Our hike has been so enriched by meeting wonderful individuals, like Kitty and Claire, and we only hope we are able to have a similarly positive impact on them. 

Now, sitting in a cafe in Mammoth Lakes, we have done our resupply and are looking forward to the final stretch of the Sierra (and California!) ahead of us! We expect to be through Kearsarge Pass on the 10th or 11th (conditions pending) and are looking forward to being met by my dad at the Onion Valley trailhead for the road trip back to Oregon! 

SoBo life and random acts of kindness

After a couple of days off in Ashland we made the flip back to Chester, driving a distance that had taken us 3 weeks to hike in about 6 hours. Arriving at the trail around 10 pm, we hastily set up camp in the dark. The next morning we set out southbound along the PCT. It was strange and disorienting to travel south after traveling north for over 1000 miles. 8 miles in, we arrived at the official halfway marker of the PCT. It was anticlimactic as we still had around 150 miles to go before we had actually completed half of the trail. We moved on quickly as we hoped to reach Belden in 1.5 days time. The section was hot, dusty, and no match for the scenery of the Marble Mountains and Trinity Alps we had just left. Additionally, Everett had gotten a new pair of shoes (same type and size, though) that absolutely destroyed his feet. By the time we descended into Belden the next day, one of his heels was completely raw. In low spirits, we crossed over the bridge to cheers from the partygoers in the river below. (For those of you unfamiliar with Belden, it is home to about 7 year-round residents, but host to parties and festivals essentially every weekend of the summer.) Cold drinks, ice cream, and a swim in the Feather River improved our mood moderately, but we were both nervous about how Everett’s blisters would evolve the next day.

The next day we faced a steep uphill climb to get back to the crest. We struggled to treat the now-exposed ulcer on Everett’s heel with every trick we knew. Finally, a combination of moleskin, polysporin and duct tape allowed him to get through a 19 mile day to Bucks Lake Road. Our hiking buddy, Red (Martyn), had left us a note saying he would be waiting at the national forest campground about a mile down the road. Interestingly, for those fans of Wild out there, it was the campground that Cheryl Strayed was evicted from during her hike in 1998. 

On our walk towards the campground, a beautiful couple (Jon and Kitty) and their dog (Donner) stopped to give us a ride to the campground. They were excited to hear that we were southbounding as they have a place near Donner Pass and offered to trail angel for us when we passed through! As if that wasn’t enough of a treat, when we arrived at the campground a PCTA trail crew offered us cold drinks and had already paid for our tent site. They also went out of their way to drive us a couple miles down the road to a restaurant near Bucks Lake so we could enjoy burgers and beer! The generosity and kindness of people has been overwhelming!

After a short day and a restful evening, we had hoped that Everett’s foot would have healed enough to be able to continue. But, it was not to be as a deeper blister had formed under the ulcer on his heel. We decided to head down to the town of Quincy to take some time to heal and replenish our first aid kit. Unfortunately, that meant parting with our hiking partners, Red and Chewie, who we had been hiking with for over 1000 miles and 400 miles, respectively. It was hard to watch them hike away, but it would’ve been utterly unfair to ask them to stay with us, not knowing how long we would need to rest. 

We ended up spending 3 days off in Quincy, and while we enjoyed the rest and relaxation in that beautiful town, we were glad to get back to the trail. As we headed back towards the Sierra, two amazing things began to happen: the scenery became increasingly spectacular and we started seeing friends who we hadn’t seen in weeks or months as we crossed paths! The beauty (and the difficulty) of hiking in the opposite direction of the herd is that you see way more people than you otherwise would! This allowed us to chat with trail friends we may never have seen again had we been headed in the same direction. At the same time, our progress slowed significantly as we spent more and more time catching up with people and less time hiking. 

A couple days out of Sierra City, we also met the first fellow SoBos we have seen since our flip back to Chester. We had a couple fun days hiking and camping alongside Spider Mama, Tetris, Hitch and Unicorn through the Sierra Buttes and into Sierra City. The night before heading into town, we came across an amazing trail angel, Old School, who had hiked the trail in 2016. She was set up on the trail with her VW van (which we have since dubbed the White Whale) with amazing trail magic, including fresh fruit, chips and salsa, and chocolate pudding! I never knew I was missing chocolate pudding, but it was heaven! We spent the night there hanging out with several other hikers and having a generally wonderful time before heading out early the next morning to get into Sierra City for breakfast. We were happy to do the 10 mile descent before the heat of the day as it was mostly exposed. We celebrated our arrival in town at the Red Moose Cafe with double breakfast. They may have had the best veggie scramble and hashbrowns on the entire trail!

We spent the heat of the day hanging out in the shade in town before setting out late in the afternoon. We planned to camp about 5 miles out of town so we could do the main part of the climb early the next morning. As we arrived at our intended campsite, we saw some of our friends who we had lost touch with after we initially flipped back in June! We had an awesome time catching up with them that night before going our separate ways again the next morning. We set off again into the mountains looking forward to a couple days of hiking before we would reach Donner Pass.

A new state and the colour orange

(Edit: I realized long after creating the title of this blog post that it could be the title for an editorial on current American politics. Well, sorry to disappoint… it’s just my mundane musings on walking from one place to another.)

After a wonderful stay in Etna (involving home cooked meals, top-notch thrift stores, and incredibly friendly locals) we headed back to the trail. We cruised through an easy, snow-free 14 miles that afternoon to set up camp near a snow-melt creek. We slept well having no idea what was in store for us the next day.

We had high hopes of achieving at least 20 miles the following day, in spite of two tricky snow sections that we expected to encounter. The first, involved a mile long ascent and traverse across a snow bowl. Although not particularly technical, it was likely to be time-consuming. One of the southbound hikers we met suggested taking  an alternate route around the back side of the hill along the Kettle Creek trail. It looked dry enough initially that we went for it, failing to appreciate that it actually crossed a steep north face of the mountain. When we arrived at this slope, we had already spent close to an hour on the detour and were reluctant to go back the way we came. Luckily, we had hung on to our traction devices and ice axes since the Sierra. We geared up and Everett led the way cutting steps across the perilously steep hill. With every step, fragments of ice skittered down the slope, reminding us where a fall would take us. My brain fought with itself: “We shouldn’t be here!” “Quiet, please, I’m focusing.” “I don’t want to do this, though!” “I said, QUIET!” Probably thanks to going through this process with difficult situations at work, I was able to quiet the reluctant part of my brain and set myself to focusing on the task at hand. We were all relieved and quite exhausted by the time we reached the dry trail again. We were well into our day at this point and had covered less than 5 miles. 

Although the next few miles were dry, we had only covered 10 miles by the time we stopped for lunch. We knew we had another 2 mile stretch of snow in the afternoon, and visions of a normal-mileage day were fading fast. The afternoon section was, if anything, more tiring than the first. A steep traverse led into the trees and required navigating up and down large mounds from tree well to tree well. Finally, having made very little progress following the PCT route, Everett led us down below the snow line where we were able to cut across the valley and up the other side to the trail. Having accomplished less than 1 mile/hour in this section and with evening approaching, we called it an early day at Kelsey Creek with less than 16 miles travelled. It was a bit demoralizing to spend 12 hours hiking a distance that we could normally crack off before noon on dry trail. However, we knew we could make up the miles the next day on the long descent to Seiad Valley.

The next morning we enjoyed a beautiful ridgewalk for the first 6 or 7 miles, getting our final views of the Marble Mountains before dropping down towards the valley. The initial descent was also quite pleasant and we were making great time, doing between 3 and 3.5 miles/hour. After about 12 miles though, the trail became hopelessly overgrown and there were plenty of blow downs to navigate around. It slowed us down and I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated as I tripped and stumbled down the hill. After 3 miles of this, we stopped for a super early lunch to see if hunger was playing a role in my failure to cope with the trail conditions. Bingo. I had been hangry. 

A new person after eating my fill of tuna tortillas, we set off again. We were able to pick up the pace again, in spite of the trail conditions (and the addition of poison oak to the mix). The trail spat us out at the bottom of the valley at the Griper Creek campground. It was after 1 PM and hot. It was now time for a 7 mile road walk into Seiad Valley. Pounding the pavement in body-temperature air for 7 miles has not been one of my favorite experiences on trail so far, but we made it. We rolled into Seiad Valley around 3:30 PM after a 27 mile day. We treated ourselves to cold drinks, showers, hot dogs and ice cream for our efforts. Having the afternoon to hang out in Seiad was great! We met a couple from Pittsburgh and discovered that they are ER physicians! The conversation that ensued must’ve been insufferable for our fellow hikers, but it was incredible and cathartic to talk medicine again. We were also surprised and pleased to see Bangarang (one of the guys we hiked with in the Sierra) roll into camp that evening as well! He was planning to hike with Toodles from Seiad through to the Northern Terminus. 

The next morning after eating our fill at the Seiad Cafe, we started the 5500 ft climb back out of the valley. It was hot and we were grateful for the breeze! When we camped for the night, we ate dinner with Bangarang and Toodles and watched as the evening glow illuminated the ever-present Mt. Shasta. The next day would take us through the final sections of snow before Ashland and across the Oregon border! The SoBos we met were incredibly helpful in describing the sketchy sections and the alternate routes they took. As a result, our day was largely uneventful and we were able to enjoy the warm weather and beautiful scenery. We decided to camp at a place called Sheep Camp Springs that evening, and when we arrived we were treated to the most pleasant surprise. A couple of Oregon section hikers had just started their hike and were ready to set up camp there with their most lovely, snuggly, orange dog! Delilah Q Pumpkin is her name and it was love at first sight! There is just a void in my heart that only puppy love can fill! We enjoyed a social evening full of food, trail stories, and laughter as several other hikers joined our camp, and again watched the glowing sunset against the backdrop of Mt Shasta.

Waking at sunrise, we headed out with our sights set on Callahan’s Lodge – a resort near Mt Ashland that provides camping and bottomless spaghetti and pancakes for hikers! I was feeling incredibly drained (and grumpy) through the day and was sincerely looking forward to a couple days off to eat real food and rest my tired body. On the final descent with less than a couple of miles to go, Everett stopped suddenly his face blanched and panicked. My wallet is gone, he said. We tried to stay calm as we mentally retraced our steps. But there are many steps in 60 miles and neither of us could recall with absolute certainty when we had last seen it. We hiked down to the junction to Callahan’s where Martyn was waiting for us. We tore apart Everett’s pack searching for the wallet to no avail. At that point, we were faced with two options. The first, was to retrace our steps back to Seiad Valley looking for it. The trouble is that bad trail conditions from snow had made us take several detours and alternates that would likely be difficult to replicate. The second option, was to continue to Callahan’s, post on the PCT Facebook group and hope that some other hiker would find it and contact us. A long shot, to be sure, but much preferred to hiking back through the 60 miles we had just completed. So, we headed on to Callahan’s in a somewhat somber procession. 

The showers, free beer and bottomless spaghetti went a little ways to improving our mood. We felt encumbered by the idea of needing to find a way to get new credit cards, a new passport and new drivers license for Everett. In the morning, we were both able to get the assurance that VISA would be sending us new credit cards within 1-2 days. Though that helped, we still had the issue of sorting out Everett’s passport. After a breakfast of all-you-can-eat pancakes (and my first gluten-free pancakes on the trail!) we were waiting for a ride into Ashland when Everett got a call. A hiker had found Everett’s little orange wallet! And, this hiker was staying in Ashland! What are the chances? The best part was that when we met up with the hikers who found the wallet, they were people we knew and had hiked around for miles through the desert! However, none of them had recognized Everett in his passport or drivers license due to the lack of beard and general criminal appearance in those photos. We bought them a pitcher in thanks and spent some time catching up with them. It’s always nice to see familiar faces on the PCT! 

The rest of our time in Ashland has been rather uneventful and relaxing. We are now preparing to head back down to Chester and hike southbound from there through the rest of Northern California and the Sierra. We are looking forward to putting California behind us for good (even though it has been beautiful) and getting back to Oregon and Washington. But, most of all, we are looking forward to continuing this amazing journey together!

Wandering to our heart’s content 

Reluctantly leaving the Burney Mountain Guest Ranch late in the afternoon, we set an easy goal of reaching the Burney Falls State Park for the night. We arrived as the day began to cool (from high 30s!) and headed straight for their general store for soft serve ice cream. After setting up our tents, we headed towards the showers; even though it had only been a matter of hours since our last shower, we needed it after hiking in that heat. We began our walk towards the shower block (from the furthest reaches of the campground to where they banish all the smelly hikers) passing by dozens of weekenders with their RVs and jet skis and barbecues. We are doing this all wrong, we thought as the smell of burgers wafted our way. But then, as if she had read my mind, a lady called out to us: “Are you guys hungry hikers?” Well, if that’s not the way to kidnap a long-distance hiker than I don’t know what is. We nodded and headed over eagerly to where this amazing family offered us their camp chairs, wine, pulled pork, corn, and watermelon. It was heaven! We spent the next couple hours chatting and enjoying their company and hospitality. It was some of the most beautiful trail magic yet. 

We did eventually get our showers and a great night sleep before heading out again the next morning. The next couple of days gave us ample shade in the dense forests and sweeping views Mount Shasta. While the heat was extreme, the hiking was quite pleasant with minimal snow and other disruption. On our final day of that section, we meandered down to the Sacramento River and took a glorious dip in the cool waters before being picked up by one of the other hiker’s parents! They greeted us with chips and guacamole and fruit and beer and gluten-free brownies! It was such a treat! We then headed for the town of Mount Shasta to rest and resupply.

After learning that conditions were (mostly) favorable for the next 100 miles, we set out the following day into the Castle Crags Wilderness. The days that followed were some of my most treasured days on the PCT and outdoors in general. We climbed high into the mountains again and enjoyed spectacular views of Castle Crags and Mount Shasta. The weather was warm but seemed manageable, and we weren’t due to hit snow until our third day out! Things were going well, in spite of warnings from several day-hikers that we would never make it through due to snow.  We quickly gave up trying to explain how we’d prepared for it and brought the appropriate gear. Our credentials were never sufficient, it would be IMPOSSIBLE. Eventually we would give up trying to explain, wish them a good day and hike on under their judgemental gaze. The exact opposite experience was true when we would encounter a southbound thru-hiker. There would be a short exchange about the tricky sections up ahead and the (sometimes creative) solution they had employed to tackle it. The implication was anything was possible with the right approach. 

We set our camp early that afternoon after only 20 miles because a tricky section of snow was to begin only a mile or two down the trail. We took a refreshing swim in Porcupine Lake and had a relaxing evening before the black flies drove us into our tents for an early night. The next day saw us up to the snow field and into a long traversing descent of the north side of a bowl. The snow was perfect for kicking steps at that hour of the morning and we made quick work of it. 25 miles passed quickly before we set up camp in the woods on the edge of a meadow. We fell asleep to the sound of deer grazing with the midsummer evening sun still streaming through our open tent doors.

The next day we had thunderstorms in the forecast as well as an area of snow to tackle. We had the most beautiful views of the Trinity Alps as we hurried to cover as many miles as we could under the gathering thunderclouds. The day was mercifully cooler but humid. We were pleased to find that the snow we had been warned about had largely melted during the previous few days and the going was easy. In the afternoon, we had a long ridgewalk before dropping down into a river valley and had intended to climb the far side before camping for the night. However, as we neared the river we began to hear the low rumble of thunder in the distance and the sky began to darken. We made the decision to cut our day short by a couple of miles and camp low in the valley rather than exposing ourselves to the storm up on the ridge. Although many people think that bears and mountain lions and axe-murderers are cause for concern in the backcountry, the most real threat to safety is probably lightning, especially if you are caught on high, exposed ground. Luckily, we only caught the edge of the storm, unlike some of our hiker friends who were a bit further north and had to protect themselves from quarter-size pellets of hail.

The next day we decided to push through the final 20 miles to get into Etna a day earlier than planned. We passed through an area called the Russian Wilderness, which had some of the most incredible granite cliffs we have seen yet. We successfully circumnavigated the first near-vertical snowfield we came to by following the rocky ridge line. We were rewarded with spectacular views and a lot of time and anxiety spared. However, we missed the alternate for the final snowfield at the end of the day resulting in an hour-long half-mile traverse of steep snowbanks through the trees on the north side of Etna Summit. We were exhilarated (and relieved) when we reached the top and found the final 3 miles a dry, easy trail down to the road. 

It was after 6 pm when we arrived in Etna, but the evening was warm and we were lucky enough to meet up with some friends we had met on the first day of the trail but hadn’t seen much since! We have now spent over 70 days on the trail, and can’t believe how quickly time has passed. We have become accustomed to the gentle rhythm of this nomadic existence: wake, pack, walk, unpack, sleep, repeat. Although the routine is the same, every day is different, and we feel so lucky to be on this journey together. We have less than 100 miles left in Northern California now before we hit the Oregon border. Once we reach there, we will likely flip back to finish the 500 miles of central California that we flipped past a couple of weeks ago. Oregon is still quite snowbound, but thawing quickly, so plans may change. But one thing is for sure, the next time you hear from us, we’ll be in a new state for the first time in over 2 months!

The flip to NorCal

After some deliberation in Bishop, four of us (Martyn, Ellen, Everett, and I) decided to flip up to Chester. There were few conditions reports for NorCal but the section from Chester to Burney seemed to be one of the flattest and lowest elevation sections (read: minimal snow and run-off woes). We had heard that Lassen National Park would likely hold its snow late into the season, but that was only a short stretch of trail. So, we boarded a bus to Reno and then an Uber to Chester (to cut off about 5 hours of travel time) on Monday. The next morning, we were back on trail, just a few short miles north of the official halfway marker. It felt weird to be in NorCal this early in the season, but we were immediately content with our decision as we cruised through pine forests and crossed placid streams. We were also grateful for the solitude. After the crowds in SoCal, it was a change to barely see another soul on trail. The conditions this year have certainly spread out the herd.

We enjoyed a peaceful day of hiking on soft pine needle trails. We took a short detour to see Terminal Geyser, a steam vent along a stream just inside Lassen National Park. From there it was a short walk to the Warner Valley Campground. Although we would normally prefer a backcountry site, Lassen National Park now requires the use of a bear-proof food container when camping in the backcountry. Unwilling to carry them for one night of camping meant we were limited to camping at a site with bear bins. The need for safe food storage became apparent while we ate dinner that night and watched a beautiful, healthy blonde bear trundle by the campsite, not even a couple hundred feet from us. He paid us no mind and did not exhibit any dangerous behaviors, but it highlighted the need to protect these wonderful animals from human food and habituation. 

The next day took us up a brief hill and then down into a steep valley. Although not entirely unexpected, we were dismayed to find the trail completely obscured by snow. Even in the exposed patches, the trail was nearly unrecognizable due to damage from the harsh winter and spring run-off. The next 5 hours saw us painstakingly navigating through the sloppy snow and mud, crossing numerous rivers and seasonal streams, and skirting around flooded meadows. When we finally breaked for lunch near lower twin lake we were exhausted and dejected when we realized we had only made 7 miles in 5 hours. While this would have been reasonable time in the Sierra last week, the pressure was on to make at least another 9 miles to get out of the park (due to the bear can restrictions). Happily, within half a mile from our lunch spot, the snow vanished completely. We easily made 12 miles on dry trail to camp down near our target of Hat Creek. This put us in easy distance of JJ’s cafe in Old Station for breakfast! Hashbrowns!!

The next morning we enjoyed a leisurely 8 miles to JJ’s Cafe where I gulled a chorizo scramble, hashbrowns, sausage, numerous cups of coffee and a strawberry milkshake. I also got to snuggle a golden retriever, so it really was my day. After a few hours, we headed on to check out the Subway Cave, a long lava tube just off the PCT. The rest of the afternoon was spent working our way up to and then along the Hat Creek Rim. A notoriously hot and dry section of the trail, we felt lucky to be doing this section earlier in the season where the temperatures topped out just around 30 degrees Celsius. We had spectacular views of snow-capped Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta and the valley below. We camped near the turn off to lost creek and scrambled down the steep canyon trail to drink from and bathe in it’s cool waters. 

The next morning I woke at first light and we got to experience a spectacular sunrise over the mountains as we hiked out. With a heat wave in the forecast we were keen to get as many miles as possible early in the day. The morning took us through the remainder of the hat creek rim and down to the valley floor. We spent an hour at lunch sprawled in the shade of an oak eating and resting sore feet. Walking over the sharp, loose volcanic rocks had taken it’s toll on my body and my mood. I was beginning to wonder if I was even capable of walking a mile without tripping and swearing a blue streak. To make matters more difficult, the afternoon was hot and the most humid we have experienced on trail so far. Sticky, salty, harrassed by gnats and mosquitoes, and forced to navigate through groves of poison oak, I was beginning to second guess our reasoning for doing this hike at all. We could be in Hawaii, or Portugal, or floating down the Goose River. We could be on the porch of Bill and Holly’s cabin, or on the couch with our dog! What is wrong with us (rhetorical question, please don’t open that can of worms, mom)?

Riding that low, we hobbled into the Burney Mountain Guest Ranch and were saved. I almost cried over the delicious homemade orange sherbet we were given on arrival. What must’ve been the best shower ever came next, along with laundry and a home cooked meal. It has been a little slice of heaven! 

From here the plan is to take a short day to Burney Falls today before heading towards Mount Shasta next week! Wish us luck (and coping skills) as we hike through this heat wave!

Mountain routes, ice chutes, and the start of the big thaw

Which way to the snow?

It was with great excitement and some trepidation that we set out from Kennedy Meadows towards the Sierra Nevada. This year with a record snowfall required some extra preparation and planning compared to previous sections and previous years on the trail. Our packs were loaded down with our new equipment (microspikes, ice axe, snowshoes, GPS, paper maps, warmer clothes, and bear-proof canisters for our food) that would help us navigate the conditions in the mountains. We anticipated it would be at least two days before we hit snow, so it strange to set off into the Southern California summer heat with no snow in sight carrying all this gear (Canadians, eh?). 

Bridge over the Kern River
We hiked along the banks of a fork of the Kern river for a while; it was swollen beyond it’s normal boundaries and moving swiftly. It was an early indication that the snowpack was starting to melt. By that evening we had climbed up into a grassy meadow and we were treated to views of huge snowy peaks on the horizon. The next day we walked through meadows and then further up into the mountains. It wasn’t until we reached about 10,000 ft of elevation that we began seeing snow. Over 10,500 ft the trail was reliably lost and we had to rely on GPS and map navigation to follow the route. 

That night we camped by a beautiful creek and were treated to swarms of mosquitoes. One of the Europeans in our group was astonished by the sheer number of insects that descended on us as we tried to set up our tents. Of course, it was nothing like Goose Bay in June, but they were quite irritating. Luckily two things happened then: Everett generously shared around the bug spray (as he was the only one who thought to bring it!) and we sacrificed Martyn to the critters after discovering they had a preference for cranky Brits. Poor Martyn’s back and arms were a state! After this, we were free to enjoy our evening, which included a refreshingly cool wash in the creek!

Walking on sun cups
Overlooking Owens Valley

The next day was to be our last day that was spent primarily on dry ground. After that most of our days would be on ice and snow and in the water. Indeed, we saw very little of the trail after the trail junctions that led down to Horseshoe Meadows. We enjoyed it while it lasted and camped in a beautiful (mosquito-free) area near Dutch Meadow Spring. Day 4 out of Kennedy Meadows took us past Cottonwood Pass (the last major bail-out route before hitting heavy snow and higher passes), where I oddly had cell service and was able to call my mom from the wilderness! We had a lovely break there before pushing on. We spent most of the morning walking over consolidated snow with our microspikes on. By the afternoon though, the snow had started to soften and it because difficult to make good time. Between navigation and the difficult conditions, our progress slowed to less than 1 mile/hour. It was after 5 pm when we finally made it down the hill towards Rock Creek. We were absolutely exhausted from the 17 mile day, but we had to get across the river before making camp. Not traditionally a difficult crossing, compared to some of the other creeks further down the trail, we were somewhat dismayed to find a swift, whitewater torrent in our way at the end of a tiring day. 

​Luckily, Everett located a log crossing upriver from where the trail would normally cross the river. He and another member of our group shuttled all of the backpacks across the log to allow us to cross with more ease. Even so it was an intimidating experience. After everyone made it safely across I dissolved into tears of relief and fatigue. Luckily, we were able to set up camp less than 10 minutes later. Some food and rest go a long way after days like that. However, it was that river crossing – though uneventful – that planted a seed of doubt in my mind about the feasibility of completing the second leg of the High Sierra at this point in the season.

The next morning was an early one. We were hiking by 5 in an attempt to make the most of the early morning conditions. We had a steep ascent and then a beautiful traverse across a high snow-covered meadow before being led down to Whitney Creek. The creek was definitely fordable at the meadow, but we opted for a somewhat challenging log crossing just downstream. We basked in the natural beauty of the valley before heading on. A few more miles brought us to Wright Creek, which we decided to cross before breaking for lunch. Unfortunately, no dry crossing options were available so we forded the river in pairs for added safety and stability. Even at the shallowest spot we could find the water was well above my knees and flowing quickly. It was clear that even this relatively benign-appearing creek would not have been safe for many in our group to cross alone. 

Afternoon snowshoe across Bighorn Plateau

We spent an hour or so drying out and stuffing our faces before pressing on. The afternoon brought us across a snow-covered plateau and to yet another water crossing, Wallace Creek. By far the most challenging of the day, Wallace was snow-covered on both sides with the water undermining the banks. No safe snow-bridges remained and the river was a torrent at the trail crossing. We ventured upstream for a while before finding an adequate crossing location. Again, we crossed in pairs but this time with some of the bigger guys in our group shuttling packs across as well. It was a cold and exhausting battle to get across that river. We rung out our socks and shoes on the far bank before donning our snowshoes to help us gain traction in the afternoon slush. We trudged uphill until we reached the snow-covered Bighorn Plateau. Ringed with jagged snow-covered peaks, it was absolutely spectacular. Those of us with snowshoes led the way across the plateau and down towards Tyndall Creek (the final crossing before Forester Pass).

Camp at Tyndall Creek
Tyndall creek ice bridge
Even though we were at 11000 ft, we were able to find some dry ground to pitch our tents. We prepared for a cold night and dawn start in order to get to the top of Forester Pass before the sun turns the hard-packed snow into mashed potatoes. We were treated to a beautiful sunrise, frozen shoes, and perfect snow conditions as we set out. We veered away from the summer trail, keeping a high line along the right side of Tyndall Creek. We were hoping for a snowbridge to take us across somewhere upstream. If that failed, we would continue upstream until the river split into tributaries and be forced to cross each one individually. Luckily, a beautiful thick snowbridge was still intact and we were able to cruise right across the river without dipping a toe into the icy water! It was a great start to the day.

Checking out the ice chute at Forester Pass

From there we continued our gradual ascent up the snowfield towards the rock wall of Forester Pass. As we neared the rock wall, we prepared to ascend the lower half of it in snow. In a normal snow year, switchbacks in the rock would be visible all the way down, but this is no normal year.  We could only see the final switchback that led up to the chute and the rest would be up a 40 degree snow slope. Luckily, since we hit it early in the morning, it was still frozen solid and it was easy climbing in our microspikes. 

Climbing up to the switchbacks on Forester

Once we reached the rocks it was a quick scramble up to the switchback that would take us across to the ice chute. Crossing this chute has been something I have looked forward to for 2 years now. It is the final challenge before reaching the highest point on the PCT. There was a clear path across the chute where previous hikers had gone. I followed Everett closely to the middle of the chute. “Don’t look down, don’t look down,” I thought to myself. But then I thought, no! Look down! You’re here, in the middle of an ice chute on Forester Pass in a record snow year! So I stopped and looked down. I whooped and giggled with exhilaration before continuing the final steps across the chute. From there it was an easy walk up the switchbacks to the top of the pass. It was a view to remember. 

Crossing the chute

Top of Forester Pass!

The trip down was much longer and more exhausting as the snow because soft and slippery. A combination of steep traverses and glissades had me worn out mentally and physically. It was late when we arrived at camp after a mere 14 miles took us over 12 hours to complete. We treated ourselves to double dinner and a campfire to try to dry our shoes. I fell asleep to the sound of Bubbs Creek until my alarm woke me again at 3:45 am. 

Descending North side of Forester
Some bare trail on the Forester descent

Our final day of this section involved a couple miles on the PCT and 7 off-trail miles to go up and over Kearsarge Pass. We set off in the dark again. We noticed, uncomfortably, that even at 6 am at 10,000 ft, the snow wasn’t firm like it had been the previous day. This means that it was no longer freezing overnight at this altitude. Nonetheless, we had a fairly uneventful climb up Kearsarge Pass. We reached the top around 8:30 and were wowed by the views all the way down to Owens Valley. The snow was already soft on the east side of the Pass, but the track was well-worn making for a relatively speedy descent. We arrived at the bottom exhausted, sunburnt, starving, and happy. A short ride took us from the trailhead down to a town called Independence on the valley floor. From there we took a bus to a larger town called Bishop to plan our next steps.

Our time in the Sierra so far had been one of the most exhausting, exhilarating, scary, beautiful, and perfect experiences of our trip. However, we recognized pretty early on that our timing wasn’t right to continue through the Sierra as planned. The combination of a huge snow pack and cool temperatures early in the season means that the thaw had been delayed. With warm temperatures now in the forecast, though, the melt was about to begin. Given that the river crossings had already been right on the edge of my abilities pre-thaw, it seemed unwise to test them out as the thaw progresses. It is hard to make the decision to change plans, to admit to yourself that something is beyond your control and capabilities, to compromise. But, going back into the Sierra at this point was not worth the price of admission when it could cost us our lives. So, ultimately, the decision was easy. Plan B is an alternative type of hike called a flip flop. Rather than hiking in a straight line from border to border, we will skip a section of trail and head north to Chester in Northern California. We will continue hiking north until the conditions in the Sierra become safer again and then we will return to fill in the gap. We don’t have a lot of info on the sections ahead, and we expect to encounter some snow, but fewer dangerous water crossings. The adventure continues!