Day 41: Olancha Pass Junction to Gomez Meadow. 8 miles.
May 13th, 2017.
A rookie day.
I woke to the dim morning light illuminating the spider-webbed ice that had formed inside my tent walls. Sleep had been fitful. I was exhausted from the previous day and the general lack of sleeping, but the cold was adding another layer of difficulty. Winds had beat the tent around for a good part of the night, but had calmed at 215 a.m.
I knew that exact time because I was awake before, during, and after the wind calmed down. All I could manage while laying in my tent was documenting the weather and thinking about how I’d made a mistake taking Melanie’s smaller sleeping bag. It had a warmer rating, but wasn’t warmer for me. All night I battled to minimize cold spots from compressing the down.
This wasn’t going to work. ‘Are you going to be able to get to Kearsarge Pass in five more days without sleeping??’ I asked myself.
I started the slow process of packing everything up. I’d be warmer once I was standing outside the tent in all my layers. Miserable, I slid out of the sleeping bag and put my ice pants on, followed by my ice socks. I stopped to stretch out the bottom of my feet to keep the plantar fasciitis at bay. Just the brief pause in movement allowed my body to start shivering while I slowly counted to ten through the stretch.
I never knew how long ten seconds could be.
‘These stretches might be the only thing that’ll get you through this hike’, I reminded myself while I grimaced through the pain of stretching out the tight, tender underside of my feet.
A Jetboil full of profusely steaming coffee appeared under the flap of my tent. “Winsor! Drink up!”
This is why Miguel and I are friends.
I vowed right then my firstborn will be named Miguel. Or Coffee. Haven’t decided yet. Melanie might want to weigh in on that decision as well, I suppose.
I emerged from my tent into the freezing, serene morning. Miguel, Road Dog, and Vagabond Runner all looked a hell of a lot better than I felt. I smiled, said good morning to everyone, then shook the ice off of my tent before cramming it into my backpack with numb, red hands.
We were on the trail by 7 a.m., which felt early. I had been moving slowly, the last to get my pack on my back. We were all bundled up, cold, and wanted to get moving.
Five minutes down the trail, backpacks were down and we were all desperately shedding layers. We had hiked up into the warmth of the sun, past frozen mud puddles and gushing creeks that were lined with icicles.
Snow started to take over more and more of the trail. The terrain steepened and we started pulling out our phones to ensure we were still in the same general area of the trail. At one point, a roar could be heard underfoot through the snow… We were walking on snow bridging a rushing creek.
Flashes of breaking through and being swept under the snow into icy, wet darkness came across my mind. I scooted away from the roar. I knew the odds were slim… but, man. What a horrific way to go.
We moved into heavy snow under the trees. Snow drifts in the forest were steep and uneven, making navigation very slow and difficult. We all took off our packs.
It was crampon time.
I would like to say we all deftly strapped on our crampons like a crew of veteran mountaineers and ran across the snowfield with commanding confidence… but that would be a blatant lie.
All of our combined experience in crampons was in the ten minutes I had tried them on the week before to make sure they’d fit on my boots alright. We all sat in the snow for a half-hour, strapping and re-strapping our crampons onto our boots. I confidently told Road Dog and Vagabond Runner to put their crampons on backwards, only realizing my mistake when I saw their front points at their heels.
‘Well this could be going better’, I nervously laughed to myself.
The weather was beautiful and we all had a good time figuring out our new footwear. I pulled off my best Youtube impressions from what I’d looked at about crampon technique and did my best to share what little knowledge I had to my fellow novices.
Blind leading the blind at its finest.
We pushed along the rolling snow drifts through the trees, slowly figuring out how to make forward progress without stabbing ourselves with the sharp points all over our feet. After the third or fourth shallow self-stabbing, I began to wonder if anyone had ever been rescued due to self-inflicted crampon wounds… How about a crampon-wounded group of four?? I shot a glance at my inReach to make sure it was still working and marched on.
Crampons came on and off as the trail shifted from dry trail on exposed, south-facing hillsides, to snow in forested and/or north-facing hillsides. On snowy downhills, I started to become more and more confident in the art of boot skiing. The learning curve was far from linear though. I’d become too confident in my budding skills, then find myself on my ass screaming down the snow slope. I’d clumsily stand back up, clear the snow out of my shirt/ears/underwear etc. and trudge back uphill toward my scattered trekking poles/hat/self-esteem.
This is affectionately known as “Yard Selling”. It efficiently tempers premature high confidence.
We sampled glissading on our butts for the first time also. Uphill trudges through the snow were slow. Downhill glissades and boot skiing went fast. We started to find our rhythm through a five mile stretch of snow, our longest so far.
Our easy goal of eight miles for the day was meant to position us as low as possible to sleep warmer before heading up into higher elevation the next day. “Warmer” meaning above 20F. I wasn’t looking forward to being forced to sleep much higher and colder over the next couple nights.
We stopped for a long lunch on some exposed rocks in the sun. We had a great conversation getting to know each other better. Road Dog and Vagabond Runner were quickly becoming a couple of my favorite people. Both are honest, positive, and genuine humans. They’re also climbers, which is a pretty immediate sign that we’d get along well. It was a warm, pleasant stop that didn’t match the harsh, icy surroundings.
After lunch, we made a couple navigational errors which resulted in losing more elevation than we wanted. I was taught a quick lesson in snow bridges when I trusted a relatively thin snow bridge in the afternoon. An even thinner snow bridge was able to hold my weight early in the freezing morning, but in the warmer afternoon I found myself suddenly falling below the surface of the snow, hitting the wet creek only a couple feet below. It wasn’t a huge fall, but my heavy pack generated a painful jarring in my knees. The shock took a minute to dissipate and I was fine, but one thing I knew: I didn’t want to break through anything bigger.
We made it to the typically-dry Gomez Meadow, which had water flowing all over the place. We found a great campsite with plenty of logs and flat spots for us to set up our tents. Miguel set out the solar panel to charge and made sure we kept the video log going:
Road Dog had suggested my trail name over a month earlier and he grilled Miguel with questions until he suggested the trail name “Amped” for Miguel. Road Dog has a knack for suggesting spot-on trail names that have several different meanings. For Miguel, “Amped” referred to his current career in power plants, his Navy time in nuclear power plant operations, his love of music, and his general outlook and attitude on the trail. All in one perfect trail name.
Dude’s got skills.
As we were recording the video, our South Korean friend, Fireball, walked past our camp! I hadn’t camped with Fireball since the first night we were on the PCT, but Fireball continued along down the trail rather than camping with us… which I thought was peculiar. He managed to tell us he still wanted to hike four more miles that day. He was solo and heading into the High Sierra alone. He barely could communicate in English and part of me wondered if he realized what he was walking into…
As I settled in for the night, I received an ominous weather report on my inReach.
A hefty 70% chance the day after tomorrow. Uh-oh. Maybe the Sierra wasn’t done dishing out the challenge in this already-extreme snow year. I mentally ran through our options if the snow hit us hard. The small Eastern Sierra town of Lone Pine was accessible, but by a sizeable detour with a massive drop in elevation. We could ride out a snow storm for a couple days IF everyone had food to do so. I knew Miguel and I had packed extra food for such an occasion, but did Road Dog and Vagabond Runner have those extra stores?
We were also heading into higher and colder elevations. Was that a good idea if a storm was coming? I knew mid-May snow storms could be full-on winter storms in the Sierra. If it snowed more than a couple inches, we’d be in avalanche territory until the new snow melted or consolidated. Were we ready for that?
My worried questions were no match for the exhaustion I was feeling after poor sleep and hard hiking for two days. I slipped into a deep sleep as the temps dropped well below freezing once again.
Total mileage along the PCT: 729
Total mileage with detours: 748
Day 42: Gomez Meadow to Diaz Creek. 13 miles.
May 14th, 2017.
A Fireball day.
‘Finally, a decent night’s sleep’, I thought to myself as I sat up in the cold morning after my alarm had woke me.
I clicked on my headlamp and illuminated the thick plumes of breath I was exhaling. Another quick worried realization that we’d be camping higher in elevation in subsequent nights with an impending snow storm flashed across my mind. Fortunately, there were more important matters to distract me: Pop-tarts and coffee.
We packed up camp and left around 630 to get onto snow before it had too much time to soften. The first couple of miles were nice and flat, bringing us to Death Canyon Creek. Normally a quick hop across, this “little” creek was overflowing its banks by a large margin and crossing was tricky.
Options were limited to a big, risky jump across or wading through a sea of icy, slippery reeds to step across to a boulder on the other shore.
I probably should’ve just jumped.
I awkwardly struggled through all of the thick, stubborn reeds while they wound through my pack and clothes, doing their best to drag me down into the rushing creek they were growing out of. What I thought would be a solid step turned out to be a mushy, weak collection of branches.
I was going to have to jump across anyways.
Amped had jumped across at the other crossing and came over to where he saw me starting to struggle. He stood ready on the other bank to help. I hopped across the last gap to the other shore, but the foot I had pushed from collapsed and I was heading for an early morning dunk in the creek.
But my trajectory into the creek changed to my surprise as Amped dug into his farm boy strength, grabbed the haul loop on my pack, and easily pulled me over to the other side of the creek like I was a damn baby sheep.
But to be clear, I am NOT a damn baby sheep. I’m a 170 pound guy with a 40 pound pack on.
On the other side of the creek, we came across Fireball again. He apparently hadn’t actually planned on hiking four more miles the night before… We were starting to get the hint that he just wasn’t wanting camp or hike with us. I could sympathize with him though. I’m sure translating conversations was exhausting during or after a huge day of hiking. If I was hiking alone in South Korea, I probably would want some solitude as well to just focus on the hike itself.
I was worried about the guy though. On a long uphill, we were leapfrogging with Fireball. We’d pass him and a bit later, he’d pass us. On one encounter, he stopped to talk with us. I wasn’t fully convinced he knew what he was walking into and asked him where he was resupplying in the Sierra. In very broken English, he managed to get out three rather alarming letters: “M… T…. R”.
MTR, or Muir Trail Ranch, is a popular resupply in the middle of the High Sierra portion…. typically. But this was early season in an extremely high snow year. Muir Trail Ranch was closed. WAY closed. Mid-Sierra resupplies wouldn’t be open for business for months. Arriving there hungry and expecting a resupply could be potentially disastrous.
A large number of hikers were relying solely on phone apps like Guthook or Hikerbot to navigate. The problem with those apps is that they won’t help you once you need to improvise to get to safety. You’d be still days away from being able to exit the Sierra IF you knew which direction to hike, but with so much snow and no phone app to guide you… It would be a roll of the dice.
I did my best pointing at his Guthook app and desperately trying to get the point across that his resupply would NOT be there, but that he needed to exit at Kearsarge Pass to get to the town of Independence for a resupply. He smiled a lot and nodded… but when he walked away, I wasn’t assured he understood what I was telling him.
As he continued uphill, I felt mildly responsibe to make sure he stayed safe… but also had the realization that I couldn’t reasonably achieve that goal unless I followed him the entire way, dragging him in the direction I knew he needed to go. Obviously not an option if he wouldn’t even camp with us.
It was a cold morning. We could feel the winds escorting in the storm. It took over a mile walking uphill after Death Canyon Creek until we felt the need to remove puffy jackets, beanies, and gloves. Around 10,700 feet, we stopped for lunch at our new highest elevation on the PCT.
We were in the middle of a large section of snow, so I decided to throw on some footwear I was much more experienced with: alpine-style snowshoes. Snowshoe trips into the Sierra through the previous winter were how I trained for snow travel on the PCT. The beautiful sound of the aggressively cramponed snowshoes biting into the hard ice and snow with every step was more familiar than the light crunch of crampons. It felt good. I was back in my comfort zone.
I managed to hike just around the corner where I was treated to more dirt trail, a stop to take my snowshoes back off, and sweeping views of Owen’s Valley, where I consider home. I was less than a hundred miles from where I could reasonably claim I’d hiked home from Mexico! It was surreal that I was looking down into the same valley where Bishop is located, and I’d freaking walked here…
Snow gear was hard to figure out the rest of the day. Every damn time we’d get sick of sliding around on snow, crampons would go on only to find dirt around the next corner, prompting frequent swears. Our mileage was difficult to come by, but we were motivated to keep pushing to get to a low point, Diaz Creek, for a relatively comfortable place to sleep.
Fireball was ahead of us and we had been following his steps, but at one point I saw his steps take a left turn downhill, which I knew wasn’t where the trail headed. I broke off from Fireball’s path and continued following a level path around the mountainside. Once again, I felt a twinge of responsibility. Should I have gone looking for him? What if he gets lost?
“That’s not your problem. He came out here alone. Leave him alone”, I lectured myself under my breath.
Shortly after, Amped stepped onto an unassuming patch of snow and I watched as the ground underneath him collapsed. He landed in the small stream under the snow, the snow level up to his mid-thigh. His heavy pack produced an uncomfortable jarring to the body, but he was fine. Snow bridges were rapidly escalating in my mind as the most dangerous obstacles we were facing. Hidden, variable depths, and a really easy way to sprain or break an ankle while we were days away from an exit.
As we descended to Diaz Creek, the afternoon felt warmer and the snow started to soften. Crampons weren’t biting as the snow turned to slush and we were all making exhaustively slow progress. Typically, Vagabond Runner would hike behind us, but I noticed her falling behind a bit more than usual. After one particularly long break to make sure she caught up and was feeling alright, she let us know she was crashing really hard.
My thoughts raced immediately through a bunch of questions. ‘Crashing? Did she have food? Maybe she didn’t want to dig food out of her pack? … These guys have enough food, right??’
Vagabond seemed in high spirits though and reassured us she’d be fine. I think we were all excited to get to camp to finish the day’s hiking, but she might’ve been the most excited…
We left the trail on a short side trail to get to a campsite we all prayed was dry, and it was! There was even an exposed fire ring to have a campfire that night, which Road Dog quickly got going. Weirdly, the campsite had an old trail rake leaning against a tree. While I was still trying to figure out why a rake was all the way out there, Amped was excitedly grooming his tent spot.
You can take the boy out of the farm…
Around the campfire, Vagabond Runner and Road Dog both admitted they had both been hungry throughout the day. When I asked what they were eating, they told us they had their meals covered, but their snacks for the day consisted of only one small bar! I’d been overly hungry on the trail more than once, so hearing they were hiking hungry worried me. We still had several very hard days ahead of us until they’d have the chance to bolster their food supply.
Their meager food supplies weren’t for lack of planning. After all, they had packed food this way for over 700 miles in Southern California! In their mind, they had their food planning nailed.
We weren’t in Southern California anymore though.
When I had first come across Road Dog and Vagabond Runner in Kennedy Meadows, I had noted it weird that they didn’t seem to think their packs were more than just a little bit heavier. Now sitting in camp, I realized their whole food stores to share between them were two small BV-450 bear canisters and one bag of food. Just for myself, I had one large BV-500 bear canister AND a large bag of food.
Sleeping and hiking in below freezing temps takes more energy. When every step you take slides a little, that takes more energy. Our packs were much heavier. The terrain was much more extreme. The uphills were steeper. Navigating through rolling snow drifts was a lesson in patience and endurance. We were burning thousands and thousands of calories throughout the day. Some estimates say that for the average person, 15 miles in those conditions requires 8,000-10,000 calories!!
Vagabond Runner and Road Dog had packed like they had in Southern California: light and fast. Unfortunately, they were only putting 2,000 to 3,000 calories back into their body. Amped and I weren’t hitting 10,000 calories, but we had planned 3,500 to 4,000 each day. Not enough, but that’s about the limit of a person’s ability to consume when all you have is dehydrated fruit, Ramen, and nuts to choose from…
Always psyched and optimistic though, Road Dog was sure they’d be able to stretch their food until they got their resupply at Kearsarge Pass. I didn’t doubt they’d be able to survive and smile through their discomfort, but I also didn’t want to see them suffering! My concerns stayed on my mind, but once again, they were on their own journey. I couldn’t expect to keep everyone 100% happy, warm, and fed. We all planned out our own Sierra gear. We all had to live with our planning, good or bad.
As darkness was setting in, Fireball walked past our camp! I was glad to see him alive and heading in the general right direction… But he was off trail again. He offered a quick wave, but ignored our calls for him to come camp with us. Avoiding eye contact, he scurried past us, moving further away from the actual trail.
Clouds were gathering overhead. I sat in the vestibule of my tent and sent out another inReach request for a weather forecast in our area. The forecast came back quickly.
It wasn’t good news.
There was a 90% chance of freezing rain and snow the next day. 70% chance of snow for the two days after that. Highs were in the mid-30’s and lows were in the low 20’s.
“God dammit”, I muttered. I felt an epic coming. Our ability to suffer with a smile was about to be tested.
Movement several hundred yards away, across Diaz Creek, caught my eye. It was Fireball slowly bushwhacking through heavy, dead brush in the low dusk light.
I just sighed and rolled my eyes. “At least he’s moving back toward the trail.”
Total mileage along the PCT: 742
Total mileage with detours: 761
In the Third Section:
“The snow continued to pile up around us. A couple inches had progressed to almost a foot. Winds were whipping near the pass. Visibility was getting lower and lower, while the hiking was growing in difficulty. We were still ten miles from losing enough elevation to sleep comfortably. A scant five miles had taken half the day already…
Everyone was wet. Temps were continuing to drop into the 20’s as the storm raged on.
We’d crossed the line. We were cold. Now we were too cold.”
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