Day 46: Rock Creek to Tyndall Creek. 15 miles.
May 20th, 2017
A WUMPH day.
Looking out from my tent in the crisp morning, there was no sign of Amped stirring.
“Good,” I told myself, “poor bastard needs some good sleep after yesterday.”
The night had been below freezing, but probably still 10F to 15F warmer than the previous night. I had slept well and it looked like Amped had also slept well. This was good news, but I knew the next night might not be as… *ahem*… “warm” at the higher elevation and that would be the night before summiting Forester Pass, the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail at 13,200 feet.
Once I started moving, I heard Amped jolt out of his deep sleep and we had camp packed up minutes later. The morning cold had choked the flow from the bubbling spring, leaving just a frozen puddle behind.
Before my entry into the Sierra, everything I’d read told me that creeks would be lower in the morning, so out of curiousity I glanced down at Rock Creek to see just how easy a morning wade would’ve been…
…But the creek was higher.
The snow lip above the creek had been about a foot above the water last night while I was icing my feet. This morning, despite the much colder overnight temps, the creek’s water level was 3-4 inches from touching the snow lip.
“Well that flies in the face of conventional wisdom,” I told Amped. “We probably shouldn’t rely on that rule-of-thumb for the rest of our crossings.”
We set off through a short section of bizarre frozen marsh. One second, we’d be strolling across what looked like solid grass, then a boot would break through the “grass” into deep, brown water. I had started to keep track of how quickly my feet went from dry to soaking wet each day.
Today, I made it an impressive 30 steps.
The ascent out of Rock Creek was south facing, so we were gifted with dry switchbacks until the saddle where the terrain flattened back out. Our water source for the morning was still frozen. There seemed to be a running theme here…
We worked out a more efficient, cooperative navigation method. It worked very well and we flew through a tough section of dense trees. We came up on a steep uphill we had to climb to reach a small pass. Amped hadn’t had the chance to use his heel-lift bars on his snowshoes, so I told him it would be a good time to test them out.
The heel-lift bars essentially stop your heels from coming down as far when stepping up a steep slope, avoiding the intense calf burn and swearwords usually associated with snowshoeing on steep terrain. In under 10 minutes, we had put down 600 vertical feet and reached the pass with ease.
Amped was sold.
We flew down the hard ice on the north side of the pass, crossing through a gorgeous white meadow. Dirt returned briefly, so we put our snowshoes away, just in time for the snow to immediately come back.
Our stubbornness kept us moving over the hard snow without anything on our feet, but the angle wasn’t steep enough to be dangerous.
That doesn’t mean either of us stayed on our feet the whole time.
We came up to Crabtree Meadows and Whitney Creek, typically a creek crossing that requires some care. After a long, fun glissade down to the creek to pack our underwear with ice for the day, we decided to head upstream into the meadow where it looked like there might be snowbridges still intact for a dry-feet crossing.
Expecting a guaranteed wade, we never actually went to look at the trail crossing, but later we would learn that on the opposite bank of Whitney Creek, a message was etched in the exposed dirt. It read: “Help. Hiker Breeze 1 mile.” with an arrow pointed east.
We wouldn’t become aware of this ominous message, or the associated outcome, for almost a week…
Following another set of mountain lion prints a half-mile upstream of the trail crossing, we crossed the first solid snowbridge we came across, then crossed a smaller tributary on a wet log, once again using our crampons to sink into the soft wood.
We headed uphill towards the trail junction with the John Muir Trail, which Amped had hiked the previous year and I’d hiked several times in sections. I was hoping for a picture with the trail sign, but like most signs along this stretch, it was still buried.
We were officially on familiar ground… kind of. Footprints from the hiking groups ahead meeting back up with the PCT reappeared occasionally, where the sun hadn’t erased them.
The next creek, Wallace Creek, had a nasty reputation in the early season. We decided to cleverly aim to hit Wallace Creek far upstream, hoping to find snowbridges and avoid a tricky crossing. Our topo maps made the terrain seem mellow, but soon we were climbing steeply up and dropping sharply down short, dramatic ridgelines.
We were getting closer to the creek, where I assured myself the terrain would calm down.
On top of the last ridge before the creek, sweeping views of the creek bed opened up… we were WAY above the creek still. Even worse, from our vantage point of the creek, there were no snow bridges for us to cross. I wandered to the edge of the ridge… and then stared down the face of the cliff I was standing on top of.
We had just put a lot of effort into stranding ourselves on top of a steep ridge.
Traversing the ridge, we eventually found the end of the cliff, but the angle of the snow was still around 70 degrees and about a hundred feet high.
Our snowshoes were great for steep terrain, but 70 degrees was about the limit. We put up our heel-lifters, turned to face the slope, and began carefully downclimbing.
Taking out my ice axe crossed my mind, but there were so many trees along the slope, a fall would likely result in a collision before an axe could stop you. So we kept our trekking poles in our hands for stability. The only acceptable outcome was not falling. We both knew it.
Our morning had been going pretty well and we’d been smiling and joking, but we both went silent as we carefully navigated the steep hillside, all too aware of our exposure.
Eventually, the angle softened and we breathed a collective sigh of relief to be down in the creek bed. We strolled up to Wallace Creek and what I’d seen from high on the ridge was confirmed: no snowbridges over the rushing creek.
“We might be getting our feet wet,” I said to Amped, both of us knowing damn well this creek would be much higher than just our feet.
Amped grimaced, “That sounds miserable. Let’s head to the trail crossing and see if there’s any logs or downstream snowbridges.”
We followed the creek, hopeful that around every bend, there would be some good news to avoid an ice water testicle bath.
Nobody wants to see a grown man cry.
We eventually arrived at the stream crossing with zero good news. I started removing my snowshoes, getting ready for our first ice water wade. Amped was not going to give up that easy.
“I’m going to head downstream a bit, just to make sure,” he told me.
I shrugged and continued to prepare for a crossing at the trail. Checking downstream couldn’t hurt, but I knew the further downstream you went, the more tributaries and snowmelt had fed the creek, making it larger, making it less likely snowbridges would still be around.
Two minutes later though, Amped appeared on the opposite bank! I was already kicking steps down the snowy riverbank, ready to get my feet wet… well, more wet.
He yelled over to me, “It’s sketchy as shit, but I think we can use it!”
‘Sketchy’ might’ve not summed it up quite well enough.
A decaying, dirty snowbridge across a restriction in the creek looked like it was seconds from collapsing into the whitewater beneath it. It was ‘U’ shaped, the pit of the ‘U’ maybe only a foot deep. Water splashing up from the creek had encased the entrance and exit of the creek in thick, clear icicles.
From Amped’s journal:
“The purple mountains tasseled with white glitter are the most real image I have ever seen in my life. Under the jagged edges of these kings thrusting sharply toward the sky, we come across a particularly proud river. Up and down its shores, it made itself present everywhere. Then we find it. A battered and beaten snow bridge holding on for dear life. Its top is dirty and its underside is ridden with icicles.
And it’s thin. Scary thin. It’s not much longer for this world.
We bet it’ll hold out for one more set of outsiders… we hope.
Beta and I get to digging footholds into the bank. With the help of our ice axes the work progresses quickly. Slowly I cross the river raging below. The ice bridge strains under my weight… I make it.
I get to work digging a foothold on the far bank while Beta gathers the gear. We both take our positions and begin to hand gear over the river. The snowshoes first, then the trekking poles. We throw whatever we can, but then the real challenge: the packs.
Beta gets into position with my pack in his hand and reaches with all his might toward me. I do the same. Reaching, further and further. The snow bridge moans in complaint. Got it!
One pack down, the other to follow. We both dig in. Reaching and stretching as long as our limbs will allow. Got it!!
Beta jumps the distance with ease. A small success on a single day…
How many, I wonder, will the kings let us get away with?”
On the opposite bank, we stopped for lunch under clear blue skies and a powerful sun. Both of us were silent, once again. Thankful for how our scenario played out, but considering what less fortunate scenarios would look like…
We were mentally and physically taxed for the day already, but we kept pushing to get closer to Forester Pass. Our plan was to wake up at 3 a.m. to be climbing the steepest part of the pass while the snow was still hard, so camping early today meant an even earlier start in the morning.
Another notorious creek was coming up: Wright Creek. Not looking forward to another crossing, we both cringed as we neared the creek…. or at least where the creek usually was. We descended into a shallow depression, then climbed up the other side. I checked my GPS.
“I think that was it…”
Amped replied, “I hope the rest are that easy.”
We hiked into the vast expanse of Big Horn Plateau. This was a largely treeless area, so the sweeping hills of ice were incredibly beautiful under the deep blue sky.
All trees disappeared and we began to hike steeper and steeper uphill. Both of us were reveling in our other-worldly surroundings, in awe of where we were. But we snapped back to reality and stopped dead in our tracks when the ice underneath our feet buckled, the sound sending chills down both of our spines.
The sound was loud and definite. The sound of the weak layer collapsing. The calling card… of an avalanche.
We both felt the ice settle under our feet at the same time, even though we were 20 feet apart. We held perfectly still, scared to move, listening for more. The absolute silence in the blank landscape was deafening.
I quickly took inventory of our surroundings. No trees. Melting snow in the afternoon sun. Sloped hillside…. We were definitely in potential avalanche territory. The angle of the snow was our only savior, lower than the angle where avalanches usually follow a ‘wumph’.
That didn’t mean we felt safe, though.
Miguel carefully traversed sideways toward a small patch of trees and a lower angle of the hillside. I stayed still until he was safe, then I followed in his tracks.
Once we felt like we were in safer territory, we took out our maps and studied the topo. We set off on a less-linear route, but on snow angles that were less likely to be a slide threat. The rest of the day, we stayed further apart from each other in case one of us was caught in an avalanche, there would be the other person to help.
We were in the middle of a sea of temperamental beauty. Forester Pass appeared in the distance, a massive stretch of ice between us. Our focus was strained to the max as we spent the day in a constant state of anxiety. We had almost a mile of unavoidable 35 degree snow heading toward Tyndall Creek, perfect avalanche territory.
After what seemed like an eternity, we dropped down into the trees above Tyndall Creek. Knowing the trees would serve as an anchor to prevent any slides meant we could breathe a sign of relief, but we reached our camp for the night completely exhausted.
We had expected to find another challenging creek to cross, but Tyndall Creek was still 90% snowbridges! But strangely again, thirst was becoming a problem. The few patches of creek that were actually visible were guarded by vertical walls of snow.
Amped and I rigged one of my Smartwater bottles on a string to lower down to the raging creek, get sucked under the snowbridge we were standing on, and let the bottle flip and twitch, fishing for the insanely cold water. By the time we’d fished enough water out of the creek to kick our thirst back down and cook some food, neither of us had a shred of feeling left in our hands.
I’m like 90% sure liquid water can be colder than 32F…..
We settled in for the night high above the buried bear boxes in the campsites beneath us, encased in the snow. For the first time in the Sierra, we were forced to camp on snow. At 11,000 feet, we weren’t going to have much of a choice.
I set my alarm for 3 a.m. to ensure we’d get to the base of Forester with hard ice for our snowshoes to attach to. Thoroughly exhausted, I fell asleep before I even had time to think about the day’s events.
Total mileage along the PCT: 775
Total mileage with detours: 830