Mile 774.1-788.5 (14.4 +7.8)
Barking Spider here again. I’m taking over the blog this week.
The hype that surrounds the Sierra Nevadas for PCT hikers is epic. “There’s snow. You won’t be able to walk through it. You should probably skip it and come back in July. You’ll need crampons and micro spikes and snow shoes and an ice axe and winter hiking training.” This fear tornado addled my brain and made me question myself.
Before starting the PCT, we had talked to people who actually hiked through the Sierra Nevadas in 2011 after one of the biggest snow years in history. Based on their experiences, we got snow baskets for wet or new snow, micro spikes for traction on icy snow, and an ice axe for dangerous and hard to maneuver snow slopes. The only factor that we didn’t account for was the cold.
It’s late May, but in the Sierra it feels like winter. We have enough gear to be comfortable while we are hiking but our sleep systems consistently fall short of keeping us warm at night. We’re surviving and getting some sleep, but it’s been unpleasant. We need another layer to stay warm at night and that was my motivation for escaping the Sierra after four cold, rough nights.
Today we aimed to hike to the road to get to town. That’s not as easy in the Sierra as it would be on other parts of the trail. Here, we had a 13,000 foot pass to cross followed by 7 miles on the PCT to get to a 7 mile side trail that took us over another 11,700 foot pass and down to a parking lot where maybe we could get a ride to town.
It started smoothly. Awake at 5:45 and hiking by 6:05. Bang! Up and gone.
First thing in the day we had four miles of uphill through brutally exposed snow fields. A big, dark cloud hid the sun and the wind pummeled us as we headed north. I took a hard spill on some ice and Homestretch had us put our micro spikes on. We got to the base of Forester Pass and had 1 mile and 1,000 feet elevation gain along switchbacks to get up and over. Tucked up against the mountain, we were protected from the wind. I was actually having a lot of fun. The last 100 feet over the pass had to be cut into the snow by a ranger because the trail ran into a near vertical sheet of snow. It was impressive.
That was literally and figuratively the high point of the day. Going down the other side we entered a beautiful, long canyon. The trail was hidden under old snow pack and we had to navigate using other hikers’ footsteps. Hiking around an invisible trail is very engaging and rewarding but it can be dreadfully slow and frustrating at times.
Things got more difficult when I t started snowing at 10:30 and didn’t stop for another seven hours. At first it was fine. Enchanting, even. Then the snow filled hikers’ tracks and made it much harder to find our way. Progress came slowly and stressfully.
We had another doozy of a climb to get to Kearsarge Pass and down to the road to Independence. The trail was covered in inches of fresh snow and extremely difficult to follow. We pulled the smart phone out five times in ten minutes to consult the gps and the cold killed the phone. I was very desperate to get to town at this point, as our clothes were getting soaked through and there was not a naked spot of land to pitch a tent. The thought of shivering through the night motivated me to keep going.
I was ready to plow forward in a general direction without the GPS and risk getting lost. Homestretch, being my better half, said we need to plug the phone into the external battery and keep it in our jacket for warmth so we could check our location periodically. Getting lost is the last thing we wanted.
The road connects Onion Valley trailhead with the town of Independence, thousands of feet below. When we finally got to the trailhead, no cars were headed down the road to town. All the day hikers had long gone home. Fortunately, between our two phones we had one bar of service, which was enough to get us a phone number to a motel that would pick us up and take us to town. The escape was a success.