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!