Past the high passes in Mammoth Lakes
Note: This post was originally published in June 2014, but the original has since escaped into the ether. I’m reposting it now in its original form.
Since turning 30 on the 5th, I have hiked 119 PCT miles, over 7 mountain passes over 11,000 feet. I’ve slid down an icy glissade, post-holed though snow to my hips, rock-hopped down several thousand feet, almost run out of food, and sung 345 bottles worth of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall in a row. Fun times in the High Sierras!
I’m now in Mammoth Lakes, where Russell has joined me for the weekend while I gorge on town food and replace & repair gear.
This section knocked me on my ass, literally. It’s been out-of-this-world beautiful, which mostly made up for scaring the crap out of me, and making me consider leaving the trail. The entry back into the Sierras from Bishop was easy — a climb back up Kearsarge Pass and a birthday evening above Bullfrog Lake. The next day I tackled Glen Pass at 11,926′ with a group of three guys. The way up was not so bad, but the descent on the northern side was steep and the glissade paths were blind.
Who wants to shoot off a slope into the unknown? Definitely not me. Too bad — I did it anyway.
One of the guys had no issues with the snow, and sped on ahead down the descent. The other two stuck close, which was a comfort when I tried to butt-scoot down a vertical descent, and ended up in an uncontrolled glissade instead. This is easily winning as the scariest moment of the PCT yet. My (unshortened) trekking poles flew out of my hands, my hip belt buckle popped open, and my pack flipped over my head as I slid down towards a big rock. I yelled some choice words (okay, just “FUCK”) as I dug into the snow with my hands in a desperate attempt to brake. I avoided the rock somehow, and finally ground to a stop a dozen meters or so above one of the guys I was hiking with. My pack was on my chest, sternum strap still closed, my tent was on my legs, and my water bottles were upside-down on top of me, one open and dripping water on my arm.
The hiker below, Big Boots (huge thanks to him) climbed back up, lifted my pack off me, and checked my spine for any pain I couldn’t feel (none, phew). I could wiggle all my fingers and toes, so after a few moments to collect my thoughts, I sat up gingerly and climbed back up the slope to retrieve my trekking poles. I stiffened my fingers into little claws and used my hands to ascend and descend as slowly and carefully as I could. The rest of the climb down is a bit of a blur, but I remember taking boulders whenever I could, and trying to not think about anything but the next step.
Have I ever mentioned I’m scared of heights?
The fall traumatized me for several hours afterwards. I wanted to crawl off to a warm cozy place to nurse hot chocolate (with whiskey), and process what happened, but I couldn’t — I had to just keep going. I was embarrassed that I was careless enough to fall — though I’m not beating myself up over it, it’s clear I could have paid more attention to my footing — and I wanted to just get the hell out of there.
Unfortunately for me, though probably fortunately for Calvin’s-dad-style character building, there was no way out but forward. Forward over 4 more high passes to at least Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR — a fishing resort that provides resupply services to hikers) to the west. There are passes to the east that I could have taken to exit the Sierras early, but none of them were well travelled yet, and I’d likely have encountered treacherous snow there as well. I thought about leaving the trail at this point, and if it had been easy, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done it.
While I was falling, I remember thinking, “If I die out here, it won’t be worth it. I’m far from Russell, I’ve already hiked this, and I don’t care about doing dangerous things. This is not how I want to go.” I met another hiker who said if he died out there, welp, at least it’s somewhere beautiful that he loves. This is 100% not how I feel. It’s hard to evaluate that feeling in the light of my desire to keep hiking this hike.
My hiking partner Jordi LaForge and I had originally discussed trying for Pinchot Pass the evening of Glen, but after my fall, I was in no mood for that. I was basically uninjured, having picked up only scratches on my wrists from my hand brake attempts on the slide, a crick in the neck (that went away within 3 days), and tears in the seat of my wind pants, but my mental state was not great. We camped close to the next pass to set up for a morning ascent.
The next morning, Jordi and I took our time climbing up Pinchot Pass. We paused frequently to discuss where we thought the trail was (since it was mostly covered in snow), and I used my memory of last year’s JMT hike to steer us where I remembered the trail passed, as it doesn’t take the most intuitive route. After a reasonable feeling ascent and descent, we heard that 7 of 11 hikers who climbed Pinchot that day took the wrong pass — half to the right, half to the left. One described his mistaken route as “the sketchiest shit he’d ever done”. Only us and two others found the right trail. Eesh!
The other passes after Pinchot weren’t as scary as Glen, but they dominated my world for those 5 days. Jordi started feeling what he thought might be altitude sickness after Pinchot, so we camped early to set up for Mather the next morning, though the passes were only 10 miles apart. After getting used to hiking 25 miles a day before entering the Sierras, I didn’t enjoy having that much extra time to sit and be afraid of falling on the next pass, so tried my best to think and talk of anything but.
On Mather Pass, the two of us hooked up with an experienced hiker from Alaska, and we three took our time pathfinding down the snow and boulders into the Palisade basin. My microspikes earned their place in my pack on that descent — the snow was just hard enough for me to be able to walk right across multiple snow fields. The rest of that descent was boulder scrambling, made extra fun by the 25-30# pack on my back and the trekking poles dangling from my wrists. I’ve learned I’m far more comfortable and stable on boulders than on snow, so when there was a rock route, I took that over snow each time.
Around that point I started realizing that I was going to run out of food if I took my time through the rest of the passes. I had set an ambitious schedule, accompanying Jordi as he hiked to meet a family member who would take him to a wedding in the Real World, and our short 10-12 mile days were not fitting well into that plan. To catch up, I hiked almost 20 miles to set up for Muir Pass the next morning. To give some context, I covered that distance in two days on the JMT.
I left camp at 6:15 am the next morning to summit the last pass before my possible escape at VVR. I wasn’t wanting to leave the trail anymore at that point, but I was excited to get past the hurdle of Muir Pass. I’d been hearing from southbound JMT hikers (we trade snow reports as we pass) that Muir had snow before and after, so made sure I’d be able to finish my ascent by 10 am. The climb up went quite well. I followed others’ footsteps, and watched hikers ascend the trail, managing to make it to the top of the right pass by 9:30 am. Again, word is some hikers went over the wrong one.
At one point I passed a large pile of bear scat in a little pit, right smack in the middle of a snow field. Why there, bear?
After a brief sojourn at the top of the pass, enjoying the company of other hikers, I started climbing down at 10 am. Crucially, I thought I was early enough not to posthole, and did not put on my wind pants. Big mistake. HUGE.
The snow was just soft enough to not bear my weight, and yet hard enough to shred my skin. For 2 hours. I had postholed on previous passes; Jordi & I even made a game out of it on the approach to Pinchot (whoever postholes more gets to pick a small food treat from each others’ supplies), which we tied. On Mather I had postholed to my hip on both legs, and had no purchase under my feet to climb out. I had to lift my body out of the hole with my arms and trekking poles — thank you triceps. Good to know you can perform under pressure.
These prior experiences had nothing on Muir. For 2 hours, every step I took had to potential to break through 1-3 feet of snow. Not all of them broke through, but many many did. I eventually just took to the streams and walked in those as much as I could. LNT be damned, I didn’t want to break a leg by postholing into a boulder well.
To add insult to injury, I had to walk 23 miles that day to make it to the next resupply point in time. Managing to do this by late dusk felt good, and did some good to restore my morale. The next morning my lower legs were a touch swollen, and looked like a rasp had gone to town on them. Several spots randomly leaked blood. Yay for careless shorts wearing. Never again.
The post-holing abrasions on the front of my shins, six days later.
The following day I hiked up and over Selden Pass, which was blissfully snow-free — only a few 20 ft patches, for which I donned pants anyway. That evening I hiked down the 4.6 mile Bear Ridge switchbacks, singing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall to mark the passage of time. I had gotten to 55 on the 4th round when I thought the switchbacks were over, only to have them start up again 5 minutes later. Blast! Foiled. And sore-throated from all the singing.
A thunderstorm gathered southeast of my path during the afternoon, and caught up with me while I descended the switchbacks to Edison Lake, where I could catch a ferry in the morning to VVR and MORE FOOD. I was rationing my food by that time, eating when my stomach was rumbling rather than at my usual 2 hour intervals. I wasn’t weak or tired, but did feel a bit food-panicky. The storm brought light sprinkles and occasional flashes of lightning, and that clean smell of freshly-rained-upon forest. I remember thinking at one point, that the two thousand foot descent in the rain was nicer than the best day in the desert. At least I know what I like, eh?
I pushed on ’til the ferry junction, 24.5 miles past where I started by Piute Creek in the morning, and made camp on deep duff in a grove of Jeffrey pines.
The next morning, I walked the mile across the lake bed to the ferry landing, and caught the first boat to VVR, where I proceeded to spend the next 24 hours eating. I’m not kidding — I fit 4 meals into my short stay. I also did laundry, showered, and caught up with some friends.
Russell had mailed me a box at VVR, and I carried all 3 days of it for the 1.5 day walk to Mammoth. I’d had AT&T cell reception on this one west-facing rock around mile 872 on the trail, and had contacted him to see if he wanted to come to Mammoth. He said yes, so I planned to get to Red’s Meadow, a mountain resort and pack station just 0.3 miles off-trail by the Devil’s Postpile, by Friday afternoon to meet him.
Now I’m back in civilization, resting in a lovely little inn in Mammoth Lakes with my sweetie, starting to feel refreshed. Almost feeling ready to return to the trail.
This section shook me up for sure. I knew there was a possibility of late-spring snow, but I didn’t do much to plan for it. I was glad I’d upgraded to a 10° sleeping bag (LOVE my Western Mountaineering Versalite bag) and long-sleeve jacket, and that I had a tent. The inner zipper on the tent stopped working between Selden and Silver Passes, so I didn’t have much bug protection for the last few days of my hike, but I was able to get it repaired here in town. There are a few more passes for me to climb (Island, Donahue, some north of Tuolumne whose names I don’t know), but all are below 12k’, and I feel mostly in the clear now. I’m glad I wasn’t able to exit the trail when I wanted to.
There were wonderful parts of this section as well. I watched a juvenile bald eagle soaring over the Sallie Keyes lakes, and saw two pikas running up and down the talus fields south of Helen Lake. Marmots were behind every rock, squabbling on boulders and trotting down the trail like they own it (maybe they do). The mosquitos only started to be bad the last few days. The columbine, lupine, arnica, and shooting stars are in full bloom. I’ve met some wonderful people over the last week of hiking, and was gifted a tiny plastic lion for companionship.
I have made an effort to take in the beauty and push it over the top of the fear. Sometimes I even succeed.
The PCT may be kicking my ass these days, but I still want to get to Canada, so onward I go.
After a few more meals, Russell will take me back to the trail, and I’ll make a push towards Tuolumne, and further north. I hope to be near South Lake Tahoe the next time you hear from me. Thanks again for all the birthday wishes and comments — they keep me going out here!
Hugs and happy trails,
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