Day 47: Tyndall Creek to Bubbs Creek. 12 miles.
May 21st, 2017
A high point.
I half-opened one of my eyes at my alarm. It was 3 a.m., dark, and way below freezing.
"Quiet, you," I mumbled to my alarm and reset it for an hour later.
Surprisingly, it wasn't much easier to get up after the next alarm... but grumpiness aside; it was time to go. The snow was hard again, the weather was still, and we were five miles from the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail, Forester Pass (13,200 ft).
But we needed to get there before the sun.
From Amped's journal:
We both shuffled around camp by headlamp as the sky gradually brightened. By the time we could walk without headlamps, we were out of camp.
We marched alongside each other in silence, taking in the incredible beauty around us, our cramponed snowshoes biting into the hard ice.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch....
Amped and I had been friends for over a decade. He'd taken me in like a brother when we had first met in the Navy. We had been best friends through so much, but this was on a whole new level. He had never doubted me when I'd asked him to be my partner through this journey. He gave me his implicit trust and asked just one simple question: "We'll be safe out there, right?"
Now here we were, tiny dots in a massive, sweeping landscape, its beauty only matched by its lifeless hostility. The truth was, I didn't know if we were safe. I felt I'd done as much as I possibly could before we left to increase the odds of our safety... but the glaring reality was that we were the only form of life across the entire landscape.
Was life supposed to be here? Were we supposed to be here?
Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch....
The featureless, smooth blanket of ice and snow made navigation a cinch. We beelined toward the pass, knocking out the 2,200 feet of elevation gain over five miles relatively easily.
We arrived at the base of the behemoth, breathing heavily in the increasing altitude.
Forester Pass. The big one.
When the snow is gone, a string of switchbacks blasted into the south side of a steep mountain makes the pass an easy hike up. Snow and ice had filled in those switchbacks though, leaving only a smooth sheet behind. The 20 degree snow slope quickly steeped to beyond 45 degrees. Looking up, we could see that once the angle reached 60 degrees 1000 feet above us, the last few big switchbacks appeared. Those would carry us to one of the most notorious obstacles on the PCT, the Forester ice chute.
First things first though.
Our nerves were on edge standing in the presence of a giant. We flipped up our heel-lifters on our snowshoes and started up the slope. A few faint tracks in the ice from hikers and skiers ahead of us made different paths up the slope. Some switchbacked back and forth, others went straight up. We chose to put our snowshoes to work and make a straight line up the face.
The huge crampon points on the base of our snowshoes dug into the ice beautifully. The heel-lifters eased the strain on our calves, but nothing was going to outsmart the low oxygen and 45 pound packs on our backs. We soon found ourselves slumped onto our ice axes, panting like dogs.
Well, sled dogs, maybe.
Amped suggested we take small bites out of this elephant. 20 steps at a time, then rest and repeat.
He ordered me off my ice axe, "Let's go."
From Amped's journal:
"The air is thin and lays waste to our lungs with every step. 20 steps at a time. We count them out and rest. 20 more. Up and up. We are on a 60 degree incline. It seems that we are on an ice cliff. Beta keeps his cool, which calms my nerves.
This is no longer a hike. It's a mountaineering expedition."
The exposure kept increasing as we gained altitude with every 20 steps. The angle continued to steepen as we placed more and more trust in the metal points on our feet.
Attached to the side of the crazy steep ice with only the metal points on our feet, I looked down at the massive slide below us. "Please hold..." I muttered to my snowshoes. I theoretically knew how to use my ice axe... but I wasn't very keen on losing any of the altitude I was fighting so hard for.
20 steps at a time, we huffed and puffed up the ice. As we neared the uncovered switchbacks, the angle of the ice was so steep I could stand perfectly vertical and reach out to touch the slope in front of me. 20 steps at a time went down to 10.
I was in pretty damn good cardio shape, but I could hear myself gasping for air like I was only in pretty damn good pie-eating shape...
Finally, we put our gloved hands on bare rock and lifted ourselves up onto a foot-wide rock ledge, the outer lining of a switchback high on the pass.
Gasping for air in the high elevation, we stood perched on our tiny ledge, a thousand feet of near-vertical ice underneath us. Carefully, we shifted out of our trusty snowshoes and into crampons, maintaining our balance to ensure we wouldn't be taking any rides back down the steep ice we had just fought so hard to ascend.
"I'm bleeding," Amped said with shock in his voice.
He pulled back the leg of his pants to reveal blood smeared all over his calf. "I accidentally hit the tip of my axe against my leg on the way up. It didn't really hurt, but the hole is a half-inch deep! These bastards are sharp!"
Never one to make excuses, Amped rolled his pant leg down, cinched down his crampon straps and threw his pack back on.
All the footprints before us had converged and a line of footprints wound their way up the final switchbacks to the ice chute. We carefully stepped from footprint to footprint, using our ice axes for stability on the uphill side, the aggressive points on our crampons anchoring our feet securely in the depressions.
On typical years, a well-known Sierra guide typically comes through Forester with a group and cuts a path across the 60 degree Forester ice chute to ensure safe passage for hikers behind them. That guide and his groups had been forced to bail on the first two expeditions of the year, so they hadn't been to Forester yet. There was about a third of the chute with a nice path cut into it, while the other two-thirds were more footprints and ice depressions to navigate across.
There's much fear and apprehension about the Forester ice chute and its potential 1,200 foot slide on normal years, but in reality, it felt like just another 60 feet of steep ice.
Amped and I easily made our way across the chute and then up the short, final section to the pass itself. Just before the top, a short headwall from a decayed cornice was the final obstacle. We planted our ice axes and hoisted ourselves up on top of the cornice, arriving on top of the world.
Forester Pass. 13,200 feet. The highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail, on May 21st of the highest snow year in recent history. This is what I was out here for.
Nobody around for miles and miles, we stared in awe of our position. Snowy, jagged peaks stretched in all directions. All low points between peaks were solid white, all lakes in the desolate landscape still buried by 20 feet of snow. The morning was perfectly clear and we spent some time at the pass with our packs off, trying to convince our brains that what was in front of us was real.
Looking north, a problem dawned on me: we should've been up earlier.
The 40 degree hillside traverse leaving the pass had been in the intense sun for a couple hours now. A fresh layer of snow still clung to the mountain and there wasn't a tree in sight. In short: this was avalanche territory.
Deep plunge steps from groups before us traversed the hillside. One of the cardinal sins in avalanche terrain is being the first one to cross a potentially unstable slope. While it was good for us that people ahead had strolled across such a dangerous slope... and lived..., I shook my head at the likely unwitting danger they'd been in. Their deep steps made it obvious they'd crossed during the afternoon melt, the riskiest time to cross such a slope.
As we crossed carefully on the melting (but still firm) snow, the reality of the PCT in 2017 began to set in: people were going to get hurt this year. I'd felt unprepared to go into the Sierra after years in the backcountry and doing as much homework as I could before leaving Kennedy Meadows. Following the deep steps across the steep snow, it was clear that not everyone had done the same.
Hell, it was likely people would head into the snow without any preparation. Some people I'd met on the PCT had never even backpacked before. Others were dead-set on heading into the Sierra, but opted to skip the relatively tiny patches of snow on Fuller Ridge and Baden Powell, because they didn't want to hike through snow...
How many of the hikers coming into the Sierra knew anything about avalanche safety? How many knew how to safely navigate and cross raging creeks? How many were relying solely on electronics for navigation? How many could contact help if a worst-case scenario happened? How many were relying on someone else to get them through this environment?
All of these unanswerable questions swirled in my head as we moved across the mountainside, separated by a good margin, just in case.
My inReach rang and I paused to look at the message, it was Vagabond Runner! She had seen Fireball standing on top of Forester in a post online! He was alive!! This also meant he had cell service, so the advice I had given him about heading into Independence, CA for a resupply had gotten across through the gigantic language barrier between us.
That tough bastard had weathered the snow storm for two days, then continued through a string of avalanche zones with fresh snow everywhere. Thank God he was okay, but luck was definitely on his side. I wondered how many more Fireballs would enter the Sierra without being quite as lucky?...
We moved onto lower angle snow, walking along a huge ridge with big views on all sides. Suddenly we found ourselves staring down a 70 degree slope that went for 150 feet before the angle softened.
"Is this safe to glissade dow...?" before I could finish, Amped was already on his ass, holding his trekking poles at the base, careening down the soft snow.
I waited until I knew he was still alive and slid down behind him, making quick work of what typically is a meaty set of switchbacks. Not soon after, we were back on our butts in another, seemingly endless, glissade. Almost 300 yards later, we stood up and did romantic stuff like dig the ice out of our underwear and inspect each others asses for torn pants. We laughed like a couple three-year-olds after sliding down the biggest slide in a playground.
A long, easy downhill took us back into the trees. We made slow progress through the rolling snow drifts along Bubbs Creek once the creek appeared from under the massive drifts of snow in the canyon.
In devastated clearings, the aftermath of large avalanches through the winter had thrown trees of all sizes around like matchsticks. I stopped to appreciate that we had snow to walk over a lot of the debris. This would be a nightmare of obstacles to hike through once the snow melted and laid the mess of fallen trees across the trail.
After an uneventful stretch through the trees, Amped spotted a small clearing... and a bear box! One of the large campgrounds along Bubbs Creek was underfoot and had begun to melt out. We decided to call it for the day.
At first, the sight of actual ground was exciting. Maybe we'd be able to sleep off the snow tonight?? But the ground was sopping wet mud from the snow around it, so we pitched our tents on the snow surrounding the clearing. We gathered some wood by snapping the low, dead branches off the trees around us and started a fire to dry our wet boots and socks.
A light rain started up, but not enough to hamper our spirits from the epic day behind us. We both knew we had done something incredible together, that we'd remember this day until our deathbeds. This would be the story we'd tell our grandchildren over and over again, ad nauseum. Those lucky, theoretical, future kids.
Not everything was going well though. Amped had been hurting the entire day. His boots weren't working out. The combo of his boots with crampons was intensely painful on his right big toe. The boots weren't keeping water back either, so the days of hurting, wet, frozen feet were starting to take a toll on his psyche.
Both of us sitting around the campfire, he said something that ran chills down my spine; "I don't think I'll be able to keep going like this..."
I didn't say anything immediately, but the thought of doing the rest of the Sierra alone was terrifying. I tried to come to terms with what might happen over the next weeks, but being alone through the many upcoming passes and river crossings was a line that I wasn't ready to cross. I'd promised Melanie I would make good decisions out here to mitigate my risk and it was clear in my head that going forward alone would be a poor decision.
I sent Melanie a message on my inReach, letting her know that Amped might be done at Kearsarge Pass. But without a second thought, Melanie sent back, "What shoe size is he? I can pack a new pair of boots to you tomorrow with the resupplies. It's kind of a Hail Mary move and might not work, but it's better than nothing."
I just shook my head and read the text to Amped, both of us blown away by her hardcore attitude, ambition, and selflessness. Melanie, along with our good friend Steve, was already volunteering to carry twenty-four days of food, pancakes, bacon, and other supplies up and over Kearsarge Pass to resupply us. Not to mention all the gear required to overnight in the snow.
Now, we were adding a pair of boots to that list?? That was another four pounds to add to already massive packs.
Neither of us were comfortable asking for Mel and Steve to burden themselves any further, but at that point, the boots might've been the only way we'd be able to keep going together. We discussed exiting out to Onion Valley, resting a few more days and heading to the gear shop in Bishop, but time was short for Amped. He only had so many days off before he needed to be out of the mountains and back home in Las Vegas for work. This angel resupply was supposed to save us enough time to get to Mammoth.
Exiting the Sierra meant I'd be returning alone, or not returning at all.
We sent our concerns to Mel, but she immediately sent back; "It's just another thing to bring, not a big deal. Heavy is heavy!" I probably knew better than to try to put limits on what she was capable of handling. It's always been impossible to kill that girl's psych. She brushed off the challenge, excited to see us and be a part of our journey.
I offered for her to leave behind the special food behind to save some weight, but she insisted she'd be feeding us food with actual nutrition. Um, pretty sure there's plenty of nutrients in Cherry Pop-tarts. I mean... it's cherries...
We went to sleep early, both of us praying Amped's foot would start feeling better, or the boots Mel and Steve were bringing would fit Amped well, by some miracle, without ever trying them on.