When thinking about conquering a challenge after the fact, it is easy to belittle the challenge itself. Over a month after completing this section (hiked June 27 through July 2), I think back and remember the fun waterfall water crossings and sunrises from the tops of passes. The times where I bonked my head on a tree, fell in a river, and struggled to walk over sun cups now feel like distant, unimportant memories. In reality, these daily challenges almost broke me. These were the times that I had to convince myself of that same mantra that I used to pick up my 50 pound backpack on day 1 of the Sierra. “Yes, you are brave. You are strong. You are capable.”
I had an internal battle with myself everyday to keep going. Everyday I visualized how it would feel to make it to Sonora Pass, then Lake Tahoe, after traveling through the entire Sierra. This vision kept me going. I wrote this vision in my trail notes and read it every day until I made it to Lake Tahoe. This statement and vision kept me going until I hit the beach in Lake Tahoe (spoiler!!).
“I want to be able to say that I am Sierra strong. That I carried 50lbs on my back. That I crossed raging rivers. That I traversed steep snow and ice patches. That I hiked up steep, snow covered passes then down sketchy descents. That I started hiking a 3AM every day for a month.
Each day tested my limits mentally, physically, and emotionally. I cried. A lot. I fell in rivers. I fell and slid down snow. I was scrapped and bruised by countless tree limbs. I had blistered feet.
It was not easy out there, but I did it. I hiked through the entire PCT Sierra section in a 300% snow year.”
2 Miles: Road Walk to North Lake Trailhead and Campsite
“Honestly, the longer I’m in town, the more scared I am to go back into the Sierra.” I explained to a friend from college who previously hiked the PCT in a big snow year over Facebook messenger. “I know!” He typed back. “I took like 4 zeros after the section you just did. Lean on your tramily. Y’all got this.” He replied. I was standing in the living room at The Hostel California, charging my phone for the last few minutes before getting a hitch back to trail. I started to tear up a bit. It felt good to hear from someone who understood how I felt in that moment. I felt scared to walk out that door and back into the Sierra. The 2:15 AM alarms, the sun cups, the river crossings… Did I really want to do this all over again?
We hitched to the North Lake Campsite and Trailhead where we would hike 17 miles up and over Piute Pass the following day to reach the PCT once again.
As we ate dinner at the picnic tables, I saw Ace and Fern hiking towards us… and out of the Sierra. I got a pit in my stomach. I met Ace and Fern at the end of the Desert before heading into the Sierra. Their positive attitudes and familiar faces had been encouraging throughout the first section of the High Sierra. “We were hoping The Expedition might be down here!” They said as they walked up to us. (My trail family had unknowingly been nicknamed “The Expedition” because of our initial 14 day food carry and matching mountaineering boots.) “We’re bailing out, we’re done.” Ace said. “The river crossings are so high, and we don’t feel like the two of us alone can give it our best shot.” I could see what looked like a mix of disappointment and relief in their eyes. I had thought about that feeling of relief many times over the last few days as I considered not returning to the Sierra. “I am so proud of you guys.” I replied, before asking any more questions. “You accomplished so much – more than most people will this year in the snow – And it was freaking hard!”
As they walked out to the road, I tried to not let the wave of sadness and fear wash over me again. It was time to trust my gut and lean on my trail family. I needed a mental reset to get through this next section.
17 Miles: North lake trailhead to Piute Pass PCT Junction (Mile 857.2)
All four of us were quieter than usual as we climbed the approach to Piute Pass. The North Lake Trailhead to Piute Pass was a different section of the trail than the one we exited, 25 PCT trail miles south. Before leaving town the day before, my team debated the pros and cons of the different options for our next section. A bridge over a major river crossing was out and we had 3 options. 1) cross the broken bridge 2) take an alternate route that may be a possible way around the bridge 3) take the PCTA recommended reroute and skip 25 miles of trail, entering the PCT at Piute Pass instead of back at Bishop Pass.
My group was by no means the first to tackle this section of the Sierra, but there were still only a fraction of hikers tackling this section of trail this year. We decided quickly that crossing the broken bridge was out of the question for our group, and we hadn’t heard of any success stories taking the possible alternate route. Did we really want to be one of the first groups to prove the alternate worked?
We ultimately chose the safest “sure thing” option available, option 3. Although I was a big advocate for this option, as we approached the Piute Pass, I felt uneasy on this fresh part of trail. It seemed like we all started to get in a grove by the time we made the final approach to the pass. When I reached the top, I looked back to see a frozen rainbow, or sundog. We sat quietly at the top for a moment, taking in the view of our new trail below.
14.9 Miles: Piute Pass PCT Junction (Mile 857.2) to Camp Near Bear Creek (Mile 872)
“After you do something hard, it doesn’t mean that everything else becomes easy… you just know that you can overcome it.” Spud cautioned us to not call any of our upcoming days “easy”. And he was right. None of these days were easy, but we had overcome so much already.
Earlier that day, while crossing a log on an “easy” river crossing, I lost my balance and partially fell into the river. I was not hurt, but I was frustrated. A half hour of hiking in the snow later, I broke down. “I’m not having fun anymore” I said as I started crying. It was true, I felt like the sparkle in my eye was gone, and I just wanted to be done. We were barely back on the PCT, and I was already struggling physically, emotionally, and mentally… that scared me.
The team rallied around me. “I know we use it as a silly mantra sometimes…” Taut said. “But you came out here with very little snow and mountaineering experience, ready to work hard and learn. You are brave.”
We continued hiking until we reached the top of Selden pass for lunch. As we sat and ate, we were quickly surrounded by Marmots. We watched as they ran and played near us. At one point, two marmots were wrestling and one ran and jumped over Spud, using him as a platform to leap off of. As I laughed in disbelief, I felt a glimmer of sparkle come back. These little moments were going to be more and more important.
We approached our first intimidating river crossing that afternoon after the decent from the pass. Bear Creek was high and fast moving so we planned to navigate off trail to cross two of its tributaries instead. Taut lead the group by following contour lines to a flat spot in the first Bear Creek tributary, where he guessed the river would be wider and easier to ford. When we got to the river, I saw a large waterfall then a shallow, wide, slow moving part of the river. It was perfect, and we all crossed easily. 1 of 2, check! We crossed the second tributary in a similar way. When we got to the official PCT that crossed the main branch of Bear Creek, it looked like it would have been potentially too dangerous to cross. River crossing were going to teach me patience, and I was thankful for the extra effort we took to cross up stream.
13.5 Miles: Camp Near the Bear Creek (Mile 872.1) to Island Campsite Below Silver Pass (Mile 885.6)
I woke up intimidated by the idea of another day. It stormed all night and I knew we were in for a day full of flooded trail and high river crossings. With only one more high Sierra pass left, I was SO CLOSE to making it through some of the hardest parts of the Sierra. I tried to let this excitement dictate my attitude and allow me to ignore my exhaustion of snow travel (which worked for at least part of the day…).
As we got closer and closer to Silver Creek, we were surrounded by roaring river tributaries. We stopped to discuss our options to cross Silver Creek safely. The PCT crossed Silver Creek at the bottom of a potentially very strong waterfall. We needed to decide whether to approach this water crossing or take a reroute by rock scrambling up the side of the mountain. Despite the daunting sound of the rushing water, we decided to approach the river crossing and backtrack if it appeared uncrossable. When we got to the waterfall, I smiled when I saw two hikers giving us a thumbs up from the other side. It felt energizing to be so close to such powerful water.
We celebrated our successful morning and river crossing with…. A slushy approach to Silver Pass. I couldn’t imagine completing the pass this same afternoon, and we decided that finding a camp spot below the final ascent would be the best idea. When I saw Spud B-line for a dirt island among the snow, I knew we were zeroing in on camp for the night. As I approached the cartoonish looking island among the snow, I thought about how the beautiful and novel camp islands would be something that I would truly miss about the snowy Sierra.
11.7 Miles: Island Campsite Below Silver Pass (Mile 885.6) to campsite on grass with a view (Mile 897.3)
To celebrate our last pass of the high Sierra, we planned a sunrise summit (which meant sleeping in since we were so close to the pass!). As I hiked up Silver Pass, I tried to take in every moment. The glow of the headlamps lined up approaching the pass. The moment just before you can see the mountains on the other side. The alpine glow. These are all moments that made the High Sierra magical to me.
We took in the views from the top with a cup of hot coffee before starting the rest of our day. Our late morning was rewarded with a HOT the rest of the day. The cons of hot days in the snow – slushy snow, intense sun reflecting off the white snow. The pros of hot days in the snow – lots of cold snow to throw down your shirt to cool you off! The heat wave in California had begun, and frankly, it was time to get the heck out of the High Sierra.
The rest of the day was filled with little obstacles, not enough to be dangerous, but enough to be frustrating and tiring. We went down a steep, snowy decent. We carefully crossed on a (mostly) frozen lake. We navigated up and over snow mounds and tree wells on what should have been “flat trail”. When we got to a campground with a view, we took advantage and stopped for the day. “Today was sneakily exhausting…” I thought to myself. It was crazy to not know if our next mile would take 25 minutes or 1 hour. They key was staying flexible and adapting based on the trail conditions.
18.8 Miles: campsite on grass with a view (Mile 897.3) to Agnew Meadows (Mile 916.1)
I packed up my tent in the glow of an almost full moon. I felt more energized today. We hiked up trail on some patchy snow, and any piece of dry trail felt like a gift of mental and physical energy. When we reached the 900 mile marker, I saw the rock formation in the glow of my headlamp and smiled. Unlike the “800” sign that we etched into the snow, the 900 mile marker was sitting waiting for us, and it was snow free.
After a few miles of snow travel, I turned a corner to see a sweeping valley below with no snow. I continued hiking down trying to not jinx anything by thinking, “Could it really be a snow free rest of the day??” As I continued down trail, I took in the view of the snowy mountains on the horizon as my pace quickened with the dirt below my feet.
We enjoyed a 70ish% snow free afternoon, the dirt trail just made me crave more dirt trail. When we got to Agnew Meadows, our exit point, I sat down feeling a huge weight off my shoulders and ate an extra dinner as a snack before crashing for the rest of the afternoon. The PCT high Sierra… check!
4 Mile Road Walk: Agnew Meadows (Mile 916.1) to Mammoth Ski Resort
We hiked out of the Agnew Meadows Trailhead on a closed road to eventually arrive at Mammoth Ski Resort. We immediately were surrounded by skiers and snowboarders. Who would have thought that in July, hikers would be the ones getting weird looks instead of people dressed for snow sports!
We sat in the ski resort cafeteria and enjoyed over priced pastries and coffee. We were taking a bus back to Bishop to make our resupply logistics easier and and avoid a hectic Fourth of July weekend in Mammoth. By the time we got to the correct bus stop, we had missed our bus by 5 minutes. As we walked to the road to try our luck at hitching to Bishop, I shunned my tastey cinnamon roll and hot chocolate (truly no regrets though).
After 4 hours of attempted hitching and 3 piece meal rides, we arrived back at The Hostel California in Bishop. It felt like weird to be back in the same town and hostel that we had been in after our first Sierra stretch. I felt more confident and stronger since I was here last. I felt a little less scared. The Sierra had tested my every limit over the last 20 days, and maybe, just maybe, I was starting to rebuild stronger.