Believe the Hype!
In the Sierra, I began to realize how grueling the desert had been. The desperate need to get to town for a frenetic day of chores, the morning dread as the sun rose above the mountains and shade would be a memory until evening. The constant calculation of mileage and time, logic problems that seemed like life or death: If I leave now then I could get to camp before dark but I need more water but if I leave in an hour I’ll have to night-hike but it’ll be dark and I won’t need so much water…
If the desert was a mad scramble then this leaned towards a true immersion in nature. The Sierra has dirt, water, shade, break spots, the gift of time. Birds of all kinds yap and yeep and squeak. A blue-tailed small one (note to self: learn something – literally anything – about local flora and fauna before setting out on next long hike), chunky red-breasted robins. What I realized at the end of the first week in the Sierra was that the hype was real. It’s awe-inspiring, majestic, humbling. It is, as they say, the crown jewel of the PCT.
A Startling Truth
Before getting to these epic views and much-anticipated water sources, though, you have to, like, get to them. In my mind, after Kennedy Meadows was The Sierra! Towering mountains with snow fields and granite, water flowing everywhere, green green green! Geographically and ecologically, though, I guess that wouldn’t make sense? Like, that it was desert desert desert, the Kennedy Meadows General Store, and then BAM! Alpine lakes and views for days. What would make sense – and this is what actually happens over a 40-mile period – would be a slow and gradual transition, a long ascent from the low desert to some of the highest mountains in the country. What this meant in less poetic terms, though, was that the godforsaken desert continued. Perhaps it was for this reason that my first week in the Sierra was less a glorious hike than a string of unrelated idiocies.
Idiocy #1: Loose
I left KMS at 10:30 am, thinking I didn’t need to worry about the heat of the day. It was fucking hot right out the gate, which I was used to. I had a week’s worth of food in the bear canister, which I was not used to. I’d carried pounds of water in the desert, sure, but they would decrease throughout the day, meaning that even if you had five liters/ 11.5 pounds of water at 10 am, most of that weight would be gone in the latter part of the day, meaning the evening miles could get done quickly. Food weight, unfortunately, doesn’t dwindle as quickly.
Back in Acton, I’d switched out my 60-liter pack for my 40-liter one. The smaller pack had been fine in the desert, when it was never at capacity. When I was packing for the first Sierra stretch, KMS to Kearsarge Pass, plus an extra day for the 15 miles out and back up Whitney, I realized that some 2019 UL modification madness had left me in a bind. The Y-strap on top was nowhere near long enough to secure the canister on top. I tried putting it inside the pack but it cut into my spine and made walking painful. I’d found a substitute rubber strap at the outfitter, which had worked in the parking lot for three minutes of testing; on the actual trail, though, it was proving useless.
Every step I took jostled the canister and alrered-to-be-frameless-stupid-hiker (!) pack, causing the unwieldy object to slide off onto the trail. The terrain was flat but exposed: I was dripping sweat from heat and anxiety every time the BV500 dislodged, wondering what would happen in the upcoming mountains. I envisioned the blue cylinder bouncing down a mountain. It was not a good vision.
After the fifth dislodging and second set of tears, I found a sliver of shade and dumped everything out. I put the canister in the pack, crammed some of my gear around it, shoved everything else into the torn mesh pockets, and hiked on. It was horrible, but I figured a bruised back would be better than losing my food on Forester Pass.
Idiocy #2: Low
The day continued to be awful. There was a large burn scar and resulting lack of shade as I climbed and climbed and climbed. There were no geysers or waterfalls or even little streams; the water situation hadn’t gotten markedly better. The Loose Alliance of Similarly Paced Hikers had decided to hike together and I was miles behind. My 34-mile sprint into Kennedy Meadows felt like a hallucination as I crawled into the high teens while the sun sank lower.
Idiocy #3: Lost
On the second day of the section, I woke up feeling good! I hiked six miles at a brisk pace. Confidence! Yay! In doing so I worked up a sweat. Endorphins! Joy! I strapped my life-affirming, absolute favorite App Gear Co hoodie to the top of my pack using the fakakta rubber strap. Predictably, it fell off somewhere on the trail. At this point of my hike, I’d left multiple traces on trail – a Kula cloth, two knives, a SmartWater bottle – none of which I’d gone back for. This, though, was not an item I was willing to sacrifice.my six speedy miles of progress vanished as I hiked back like a madwoman, asking everyone I passed if they’d seen a maroon hoodie. No one had. I hiked a mile, a mile and a half, two damn miles. Nothing. I couldn’t remember where I’d taken a break. All the logs looked the same. I was getting desperate. Finally, a couple approached. Before I said anything, they handed me the hoodie. Actual trail magic! I don’t need a Coke or a hot dog; just give me actual kindness and unexpected events. I was so so grateful and proceeded to hike with them for the next couple of miles, reminding them every few feet that I was so so grateful. I think they were happy when I sped up.
Idiocy #4: Lame
I (and many other people) ran out of water multiple times during the first couple days because there is not actually water water everywhere in the adios-desert transition section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Idiocy #5 (The Worst of the Idiocies): Life Threat, Kind Of?
The third day out, we planned to get to Chicken Spring Lake – the first official alpine lake! – early so we could actually chill for the first time on trail. It was June 22, officially summer! What could be better than a low mileage day and some lakeside leisure?
If I’ve learned anything on this trail it’s that the only thing the desert prepares you for is the desert. Sure, some things can be challenging: You’re hiking in heat, strategically planning breaks, looking for rattlesnakes, hugging the inside of the trail on eroded sheer drops. But you also get used to lazy ascents, towns on towns, daily sunrises and sunsets, near-perfect weather. You send your down jacket ahead, you cowboy camp when you’re too tired to hike anymore, by the end you feel invincible.
In the Sierra, though, there are conditions. The morning greeted us with a light drizzle. I was thrilled! I hadn’t seen rain in nearly two months! I smiled at the sprinkles, didn’t bother putting my rain jacket on, and hiked out.
As we ascended, the rain intensified. Wow! Actual weather! Crisis and I donned our impermeables, and engaged in the age-old practice of talking about the weather. Rain? Who knew? As hardy East Coasters with plenty of rain experience, neither of us were worried. It was relatively warm, we could keep hiking through it, whatever.
At a certain point, though, despite hiking and hiking, we felt ourselves getting cold. I looked around and realized we were surrounded by something you don’t want to see on the second day of summer: Snow.
At first, it was hilarious. Truly! There is photographic evidence of laughter and amusement. As we hiked on, and got more and more soaked, it became less funny and more concerning. We arrived at the junction to Chicken Spring Lake for our now-it’s-summer lakeside fun time in the early afternoon, shivering and slightly concerned. The snow was falling harder, the trail was blanketed, Crisis’s Garmin forecast was still claiming it was 56°F with a 20% chance of rain until 15:00. We decided to hunker down, warm up, eat snacks, dry out, and see if the weather improved.
The hours we spent in damp sleeping bags, willing ourselves to dry, dreading the moment we’d have to hike out, were horrible. I alternated between dozing, eating, and staring at Far Out, like that’d change anything. We agreed to abandon the planned ascent of Whitney. We did food inventories. We looked at the app some more, pretended to feel fine because there wasn’t really a choice.
In retrospect, we weren’t in danger, just discomfort. We’d put the shelter up quickly, we had the gear, calories, and confidence to continue. We also had the comfort of knowing we could escape if we felt we needed to. Indeed, as soon as the snow stopped and we forged on, we passed a group of ultralight bros in shorts and desert hoodies who were yelling about whiteout conditions as though we hadn’t been in the same storm. They’d turned tail and were racing south to Cottonwood Pass, the bailout point with access to Lone Pine. We later learned that a lot of people, the ones whose down jackets and pants were in Priority Mail boxes at Kennedy Meadows waiting to be shipped back to childhood homes, had fled to town.
This is not to say they should have stayed on trail – indeed, going to town and safety was the right thing to do – but some ultralight packing, particularly when executed by people with less experience, seems…dangerous? Though who am I to talk? I was out there with an old-ass Hyperlite I’ve torn to shreds, a Frogg Toggs jacket that’s been through its share of storms – though it outperformed Crisis’s Gore-Tex by miles, just saying – and, to accommodate the fucking bear canister, a Walmart dry sack of clothes strapped onto my stomach via my hip belt, not unlike the fake pregnancy belly they make you wear in Home Ec to scare you celibate. (I did have pants, though, hence my superiority complex.) On the PCT, we pack for perfect weather, no wiggle room for error; we’re generally fine. I’d argue this is the cause of the bizarre bravado so prevalent on this trail: We’re rarely tested on this trail. It’s easy to “bust out thirties” in prime weather conditions and smooth sweeping trails.
But part of the excitement of doing a hike with fewer things is finding your edge and going slightly past it and finding if you’re okay or not. Is this what ultimately translates into post-trail life? Will I find myself back in New York, on the precipice of a life-altering decision, drawing upon this very experience to dredge up the reserves of will and tenacity that kept me from having a nervous breakdown in a minor snow event? Time shall tell.
The Hike Continues
We warmed up enough to get feeling in our fingers and start hiking again. The trail was snow-covered and enchanted and empty. Clouds swarmed and we braced ourselves for more weather but then they drifted away, leaving a clear blue sky and ample sun. I saw a coyote on a hillside, walking through the snow, silent. I felt lucky.
We arrived at the Rock Creek tent site, which was packed with hikers who had zeroed. The lower elevation meant they’d gotten rain instead of snow, but it had been torrential and cold, a universally bad day. According to the ranger, the storm wasn’t forecasted. See? We tried to plan ahead and prepare! Commiserating with everyone was a mood-lifter, though fun conversations, and gloves, did little for my frigid fingers.
Earlier, while we were survivaling, we’d nixxed the idea of summiting Whitney. Surely it would be impossible after a snowstorm? Like everyone else who’d been at Kennedy Meadows earlier that week, I’d received my microspikes and promptly sent them back home. Reports of snow-free passes abounded; knowledgeable KMS gear purveyors assured us microspikes were so last month. (Spoiler alert: There was not one section of the Sierra where I needed spikes, thankfully). We didn’t have enough food, we were drained, we just needed to get through the section in one piece.
Surrounded by people, though, Whitney seemed more attainable. When would we ever be in this hiking shape again? And this lung shape? Group think! FOMO! What to do?
Let’s Get to the Good Part
The following day we neroed into Crabtree Meadows. The ranger said Whitney had gotten snow but that it should be fine the following day; the same applied to Forester and Kearsarge Passes, which we’d hit in a couple of days. We had a lovely night at the campground, chatting with other hikers and welcoming back the intrepid souls who’d summited Whitney that day. There was snow, but nothing unmanageable, and the forecast looked good. So off we’d go.
The following 48 hours consisted of Mount Whitney, Forester Pass, and Kearsarge Pass, which I’ll go out on a limb and say are some of the most glorious places in the entire universe. Green, blue, granite, sparkling lakes, fir trees for miles, the trail unraveling ahead.
What a range of emotions and thoughts! The joy of the beauty of the sunrise over Guitar Lake, the fear of the effects of unknown altitudes on my body, the disappointment when I got near the top of Whitney and it wasn’t a scramble but a stroll, the rage when we got cell service at the highest point in the continental US and found out Roe v. Wade had been reversed. Was I hiding in the woods as the world burned down? Long-distance hiking is certainly selfish but the hope is that turning inward and accomplishing something challenging will then give us the drive and inspiration to enact positive change in the world – but atop Whitney it seemed hopeless. The frustration over the fact that pontification wasn’t possible because we had to hike back down, plus nine more miles, plus two passes the following day, because food doesn’t regenerate.
We crashed for a couple of hours at Crabtree Meadows before hiking out into a drizzle that quickly became a hailstorm. Weather, again?! By the time we set up camp there was a sliver of sun and the night was dry, though very cold.
We had six miles to Forester with a clear blue sky and no wind; we got there quickly. Another climb, another set of worries about the effects of altitude and how my body would react. We went slow, particularly after 11,500 feet, crawling up the many switchbacks on the snow-free trail. The view atop Forester was unbelievable, though not any more so than that on Whitney, or Kearsarge, or any of the passes we’d encounter in the next section. We descended the pass in a state of awe, stopping every five minutes to take pictures and utter eloquent statements like, “get the fuck outta here!” Explosive beauty begets explosive poetry.
The hike up over Kearsarge was the worst. I was starving, hot, my legs and lungs were shot, and I was worrying about the hitch from Onion Valley to Lone Pine. A thunderstorm was rolling in and I knew I had to rush but I couldn’t move any faster. At a certain point, what can you do? I resigned myself to living 0.9 miles from the top of the pass, to lightning and thunder, to whatever would happen.
Somehow, using the last microdroplets of energy and willpower, we got up over the second pass of the day and down to the trailhead. I performed the pathetic hiker routine for a father/son duo and got us a hitch to Independence; we then paid an off-duty Valero employee to drive us into Lone Pine, finally.
Lone Pine: The Best Place On Earth
Fabulous motel, lovely people, dope Chinese food, a saloon with swinging doors. Amazing! We won’t discuss the anomaly that was the pizza because WTF. Is every town in California in a competition for Worst Pizza Ever? I’m not even comparing it to NY Pizza at this point; now I’m just comparing it to Food That Is Edible. Crazy stuff.
Can We Capitalism Our Way Out of Danger?
In light of our cold-weather episode, my hiking comrade and I did what all patriotic Americans do when confronted with a problem: We went shopping. I bought ill-fitting base layers at the fishing store, a too-tight flammable shirt and a pair of men’s fleece long underwear (because women don’t wear pants?) with the penis hole that would end up letting huge drafts of air in, thus negating the purpose of the pants. I also bought hiking pants because shorts seemed ill-advised. They were $70, which is more than my cheap ass has paid for all my pants combined, but the guy at the outfitter said they were an ethical women-owned company out of Oregon with a lifetime warranty and there’s nothing white people love more than feigning ethical consumption under capitalism! He said he’d had a pair for two years and they were in perfect condition.
The next day, back on trail, I postholed going down Glen Pass, twisted in a weird way, and slid onto a rock, ripping the ass open. Guess I’ll be calling on that lifetime warranty, ladies! Misery loves company, so I’m pleased to report that Crisis got a warmer hat and pricey rain pants; for the record, I’m writing this on September 2nd and he has yet to wear them in rain, though they’ve proven excellent for laundry days.