The common lore of the PCT states that hikers get to Kennedy Meadows, open their packages containing bear canisters, ice axes, crampons, warm clothing, and seven to twelve days worth of food. Then they wait, and wait, and wait until the time is right. It sounded common for some people to stay there for a week, waiting for the snow to melt to reasonable levels. I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting around for any more than one day, and neither could most of the people I hiked in with. I left after two nights with a pack weighed down by the kind of weight I hadn’t carried in years. Just from the new gear I had gained five pounds to my base weight, but then I was also carrying eight days worth of food– so far I had only gone four or five days between resupplies.
I left Kennedy Meadows with seven other hikers. We quickly split up into two groups of four, but stayed very close to each other throughout the next two hundred miles, one group opting for early morning departures from camp each day, the other sleeping in a few hours later. By midday on our second day we had already run into the high-elevation snowfields that we’d heard so much about. We post-holed, we lost trails, we spent entire days without seeing more than a few yards of trail tread, but we managed to navigate the Sierras pretty well. With three different sets of maps for the area and at least four people at any given time to figure out where the trail should go, we were able to make a pretty good route often enough to get where we wanted to go every day.
It seems like such a cliché for everyone to say they enjoy the Sierras the most out of the entire Pacific Crest Trail, but I have to agree with that sentiment. The scenery was beyond breathtaking, with giant valleys leading up to higher elevations and views of jagged peaks stretching off to eternity. In the lowest areas I would follow raging creeks and look up at the towering mountains above, wishing I could just sit down and stay for months in any one spot. After so long in a desert, the lush surroundings in the high mountains were like manna from heaven, even though we had to wade through knee-deep streams five or six times a day. Best of all, with no road crossings for two hundred miles and almost no hikers other than through-hikers, it was as wild as wilderness could possibly be. We were in a hikers’ paradise.
There were drawbacks, of course. One morning, while crossing a particularly raging stream, one of my companions was whisked away by the current, only managing to save himself by grabbing a clump of nearby bushes. His GPS and one of his poles didn’t survive the dunking. Later that day we post-holed through five miles of rotten snow, making barely more than one mile per hour, up to Forester Pass, then waded through ever softer snow for seven more miles, combining one of my shortest mileage days on the trail with one of my longest duration hiking days. Rarely have I ever been so exhausted.
After a few days off in Bishop, where I ate more than I had ever thought possible, I was back to the PCT with another heavy load of food. Temperatures had dropped slightly, so my wish for more trail and less snowfield on the next stretch of trail was in vain. I quickly learned to appreciate the cold, though. Despite waking up to frozen socks and sneakers on several mornings (things never fully dried out with all the stream crossings and snowmelt), the snow was easier to walk on during the day. Whereas on hotter days I might start post-holing as early as 8 AM, there were some days without a single patch of rotten snow. My small group moved steadily along at a pace of one pass per day, each pass revealing another giant and beautiful valley ahead.
Things began to wear on me after Muir Pass, the last point above 12,000 feet. I knew in my mind that the next few passes, though much lower in elevation, would not be significantly less snowy, but I harbored a small amount of hope anyway. When the next pass turned out to be just as difficult as, if not more than, Muir Pass, my fatigue started to grow exponentially. The scenery and the company were just as wonderful throughout the last few days, but walking over snow burned more energy than any other kind of hiking. My eight-day supply of food with which I’d left Bishop was dwindling quickly on only our fourth day out, and it seemed my friends and I were losing the trail more often and more severely as we continued along. Add to that a few close calls in river crossings and a few banged up knees and ankles, and we were all looking a little ragged. Luckily, we were one day ahead of our intended schedule, having crossed two passes on our first day, although one, Kearsarge, wasn’t technically counted as forward progress.
The night before I got to Red’s Meadow and the town of Mammoth Lakes, I stopped for a quick snack near the end of a long day, letting the rest of my group continue ahead. I thought I’d catch up with them in a few minutes, but soon I found myself wandering through the woods and snow, having lost the trail entirely along with their footprints. I spent over half an hour wandering in a small area looking for the next bit of trail, growing ever closer to panic. Finally I found a single footprint that I recognized, and charged away in its direction, soon finding more like it. I found my friends just before their campsite only a quarter of a mile ahead and learned that they too had been lost for a little while. I was so happy to see them after those thirty minutes of near-panic that I could almost have cried for joy. The quiet evening at camp told me everyone was as exhausted as I was.
In the morning, we all got lost again, taking almost twice as long to get to our day’s destination as we had planned. But because that destination was town, we immediately forgot our fear once we saw restaurants and motels. As with my last town stop, I ate a disturbing amount in Mammoth Lakes. All that was left of my eight-day food ration when I got into town were two tortillas and a single handful of trail mix, though I’d only been out five and a half days.
Two more days off in Mammoth for rest and recovery turned out to not be enough. Part of the problem was that I had to catch a flight back east for a friend’s wedding, but I could have continued on to Tuolumne Meadows before the flight date. Thinking ahead to all the snow I’d just gone through, and the two terrifying times I’d been lost, my heart sank. I just couldn’t do it. So after two hundred miles together my group fractured. Some of the group continued on right away, some waited a few days, and I took two weeks off, finally returning to the trail after the Fourth of July.
When I returned, the difference was shocking. Rather than miles of snow and deserted trails, I now walked on bone-dry dirt, along with dozens of backpackers and horse riders each day. The last few passes had so little snow by comparison to the earlier parts of the trail that I never lost the trail for more than a few minutes at a time. I was relieved to have such an easy trail since the group that I had hiked with for so long was now far ahead of me.