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!

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