Day 48: Bubbs Creek to Bullfrog Lake. Two miles.
May 22nd, 2017
A resupply day.
We woke up within a safe hike to our resupply or worst case scenario, an exit through Kearsarge Pass. That meant it was time for one thing: polishing off every crumb in our bear canisters.
Since we were meeting Melanie and Steve at Bullfrog Lake, we only had two miles to hike. After a late wakeup with plenty of coffee and pancreas-enfeebling breakfast foods, we headed steeply uphill through the trees toward Bullfrog Lake. I felt good, but my partner did not.
I had spent the entire trip trying to keep up with Amped, but now I found myself waiting for him. Every time I'd stop and wait, I'd reach the point of concern right when he'd appear from the snow-choked trees with a heavy limp, and an even heavier look in his eyes.
This wasn't good.
His foot was killing him. There wasn't much that could slow this bull down, so I knew it must've been bad. I also knew he wasn't going to accept any sympathy, so I tried not to make it too obvious I was having to wait for him. I had received a message from Melanie that her and Steve were on their way with the Hail Mary boots for Amped.
Those boots were the only way he was going to be staying on the trail with me. Amped was the only way I'd be staying on the trail until Mammoth.
"Please, please let those boots fit," I pleaded with the trail gods.
We slowly trudged up the 1,200 foot climb. The low elevation made for comfortable sleeping, but the snow hadn't frozen hard overnight, so our snowshoes were sliding around unpredictably, making each step more difficult. This was the first big stretch of snow we had been on that wasn't frozen hard. It wasn't pleasant.
Luckily, we didn't have far to go. As we walked upstream along the heavily snow-bridged outlet of Bullfrog Lake, eventually the snow took over and the creek disappeared underfoot. We walked along this snow highway for the rest of the climb, emerging at the west shore of Bullfrog Lake.
Well, I emerged at the west shore of Bullfrog Lake... I waited for a while with my pack off, sure that Amped was just needing some more time. But he never came. I was getting more and more nervous, looking back over my shoulder hoping he'd come limping through the dense trees. Finally, I picked up my pack and walked back the way I came. Almost as soon as I went back into the trees, Amped appeared.
"Are you alright?" I asked.
"Ya, foot's just hurting," came out of his mouth, but his eyes told me, "I'm not spending one more god damn minute out here."
From Amped's journal:
I just nodded and turned around, we both approached the shore of Bullfrog Lake, which was completely frozen over. We needed to get to the other shore about 150 yards away. It was either going to be more hilly hiking around the shore... or we could walk across it.
People do that with frozen lakes, right?
Amped was apprehensive, so I delicately stepped out onto the ice. It seemed to hold my weight solidly. I stood on one snowshoe and bounced up and down, still nothing. So I set off in a straight line across the lake. After things were going well for me, Amped followed carefully behind.
In no time, we found ourselves on the east shore of Bullfrog Lake where we'd agreed to meet up with Melanie and Steve. They weren't there, but I figured we might be a few minutes ahead. I stuck my bright orange snowshoes and trekking poles in the snow where they'd be able to see them and we went and set up our solar panel and wet gear on an exposed patch of rock and dirt. It was time for us to dry out and relax.
For Amped, it was time to assess the damage.
From Amped's journal:
I headed down to the shore of Bullfrog Lake with our water bottles. Water in the lake was visible through a melted hole near the shore, but the thin ice near the hole wasn't a place to venture. About four feet from the edge of the hole, I began stomping a boot-sized hole directly down into the snow and ice, eventually breaking through into the lake below.
I filled our water bottles and sat down at the shore for a minute, watching fish slowly swim around in the lake, visible through the 10 foot diameter hole in the ice, the only source of light into the entire lake. A white latex balloon sat in the water, a beautifully sad reminder of human's environmental carelessness in even this pristine environment.
We'd seen many balloons in the Sierra, typically the shiny Mylar balloons with fun things like "Happy Birthday!!" and "Thank You!!" written on them. You know how fun it is to let go of balloons and watch them float away?? Ya, me neither, but it turns out this is where they go.
So stop it.
I went back up to camp where Amped was laid out, resting and letting his feet dry in the warm sun. There was still no sign of Melanie and Steve though... By this time, it was 10 a.m. They had five miles up and over Kearsarge Pass to cover. I figured there was no way they had started later than 7 a.m., so at even a crawl of 1 mph, we figured we'd see them by noon. Both were strong hikers and climbers, but I knew they were in a new environment now, learning how to move through snow just like we had been doing for the last week.
The hours continued to pass and our mild concern shifted to worry. Melanie had been adamant that she wanted to conquer this alpine objective, but had we put any undue pressure on her? Was she in danger being out here? What if something had happened to her and we had no idea? What if Melanie needed help while I was just sitting there watching fish and complaining about balloons??
My internal dialogue has constantly fought this battle throughout my time being with Melanie. As a guy who loves a girl, my instinct has always been to protect her and to keep her away from danger. I mean, where else am I going to find a girl this cool who ALSO doesn't mind kissing me?? High stakes stuff here...
But that boy instinct to protect has no place with a girl like Melanie. To assume that this amazing woman couldn't keep herself safe is simply baseless. Her climbing had always been her own, and she trended toward the high-stakes world of highball bouldering. She had never needed a boy to keep her away from danger, she'd merely needed a partner to support her in her objectives, whether or not I thought they were dangerous.
The same respect and support she showed me when I said I wanted to see the early season Sierra in one of the highest snow years in history is the respect and support she should expect from me.
That doesn't erase the fact that I own a male brain, however.
Noon passed... 1 p.m. ... 2 p.m. ...
Amped and I stared up at the pass about a mile away from us. Was it time to head up there? Did we need to pack up and just get out of the backcountry? Was Kearsarge Pass... impassible?
From Amped's journal:
But the voices didn't belong to Mel and Steve. Four fellow PCT hikers hiked around the shoreline of Bullfrog Lake and came up to us. There was a German couple named Arrow and Navigator, followed by a Venezuelan, Medic, and an older American guy named Candyman. All of them were done. All tired of the snow, tired of the cold, tired of the exhaustion.
I could relate, but looking at their gear, I could immediately tell they weren't carrying gear to make this easy. The German couple had light, small UL packs. I love my ultralight setup, but I had whittled my entire setup down to the bare minimum and I was way past the comfort of an UL pack. That meant they were either sacrificing warmth or food... or both. Combined with the extra miles they were likely pushing to fit their schedule to their food supply, it was no surprise they looked destroyed. Both disappeared into their tent almost immediately.
The two other gentleman had giant packs with probably TOO much gear, and they had been keeping up with the German couple... both immediately voiced their relief that their death-march was almost finished. Nobody had snowshoes, which I'm sure had helped us immensely in the stretches of soft snow, as well as helping with our general traction and stability. Unfortunately, the general suggestion online and on the trail was to leave the snowshoes at home.
In a rare miss, the internet wasn't right this time.
We sat down with Candyman and had a great conversation about their last few days in the Sierra, but my eyes continually glanced up at the pass, hoping for a glimpse of Melanie...
From Melanie's journal:
From Amped's journal:
We spent the rest of the evening enjoying each other's company. It was so incredibly good to see Mel out there and share what I was doing with her, even if for just a night. The 120 mile stretch of snow ahead of us was unknown. I had confidence in my ability to manage risk and make good decisions... but neither of us knew for sure what the outcome of this trek would be. I don't think either of us wanted to think about it.
I set up my little Hexamid one-man tent as high as I could to fit both Mel and I in for the night. I fired up the stove and threw some boiling water into my Nalgene, then slid the bottle into a sock and threw it into the foot of Mel's sleeping bag to give her some surprise extra warmth to start the night off with. I let her slide into the tent first and get settled before I squeezed beside her. We just barely fit, but it felt so good to have her by my side for a night.
I'd always had her right next to me through our adventures. Being out in the Sierra without her wasn't easy. Amped was an incredible teammate, but it's hard to adventure without your climbing/backpacking/life/doughnut partner.
Besides, Amped could take care of his own spiders and wasn't psyched on kissing me goodnight...
From Amped's journal:
Total mileage along the PCT: 788
Total mileage with detours: 844
Day 49: Glen Pass, Bullfrog Lake to Woods Creek. 12 miles.
May 23rd, 2017
An oven day.
At 1 a.m., the coyotes sharing the basin with us lit off one of the most impressive displays of howling I had ever heard in my life.
Their shrill, piercing yips rang through the perfectly still night, echoing off the canyon walls around us. They were close to us, easily within a hundred yards. There must've been dozens of them, each taking their turn keeping all the human visitors awake.
The overwhelming sound was beautifully unnerving. Storm was sleeping outside next to our bear canisters, standing guard. Huskies can sleep comfortably down to -75F (!), so we'd always tied them up outside in camp to deter critters from messing with our food. We typically had both of our huskies standing guard, but we only had Storm with us...
Melanie was awake and asked, "Storm is alright being out there, right?"
I really didn't know. If a few dozen coyotes wanted to get to our food... Storm would be in trouble. I could hear the crunching of animals moving through the crusty snow near camp. I didn't sleep well, staying alert incase Storm needed some help whoopin' some coyote ass!
Of course, that never happened. But everyone woke before the sunrise exhausted from the coyotes keeping everyone awake. We shook off the heavy, frozen dew off our tents, packed everything up, and threw our personal-record-breaking packs on our back. Holy God. Eleven days of food was going to be our biggest food carry of the trip. That allowed us a comfortable nine days to hike into Mammoth, with an extra couple days in case we needed to bail before Mammoth. This stretch of the PCT was one of the most remote parts of the trail. Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) and Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) were the typical resupply/bail points in this section, but both were closed and would remain closed for months while they waited for the snow to melt enough to open for business. A potential safe escape meant we needed a healthy margin of food. There were exit routes, but they would take days to navigate through.
We gave Melanie and Steve one last slew of thank-you's and hugs before we headed back across the frozen Bullfrog Lake toward Glen Pass, our next major objective.
We climbed steeply out of the little basin and commenced miles of side-hilling past Charlotte Lake with Charlotte Dome in the background, a popular alpine climbing objective in the High Sierra. The steep angle we were walking across coupled with our new heavy load was uncomfortable on the ankles, but my snowshoes made it as comfortable as the situation would allow.
Amped had started with snowshoes, but stopped early in the morning to switch back into crampons, saying the angle was wrenching his ankles in his snowshoes. Both of us were anxious to see how his boots were going to work out as we continued to get further and further from the safe exit out Kearsarge Pass.
Of course the first stretch out of Bullfrog Lake would be a massive sidehill... one of the least comfortable terrains to hike through.
It was only 8 a.m., but somehow the snow was already softening! One particularly bad section of snow put us into terrible post-hole terrain on insecure snow. I managed to stay on my feet with the added stability of snowshoes and quickly hiked up into the shade onto better snow, but Amped was taken down to his knees repeatedly. It took monumental effort every time he stood back up, fighting against the weight on his back... and then he'd find himself on the ground again. Finally, rather than fight against the garbage snow and the bear on his back, he proceeded to crawl his way uphill on his hands and knees to where I was.
He stood up and shook off his irritation. Neither of us said anything, but we were both wondering how the snow could be so bad already...
Amped led the way up the pass. We started spacing further apart as the angle of the snow steepened just in case either of us triggered a slide. The number of footprints from other hikers had dropped drastically. It seemed many people that had gone over Forester ahead of us had exited out of Kearsarge Pass and either hadn't come back in yet, or weren't coming back at all. The only clear track we were following was a ski track that looked maybe a day old.
Fewer tracks always make me nervous in the snow. You never want to be the first person to go test out whether or not a potential avalanche will turn into an actual avalanche. Especially when you have a bear can filled with uneaten Snickers on your back... because that would be a tragedy.
Sure enough, as Amped crossed a 30 degree slope about a hundred yards ahead of me I heard an audible cracking sound and...
Amped stopped in his tracks, staying perfectly still, waiting for the worst... but the snow stayed put. He called back to me to go to a lower, less steep angle and slowly made his way across the slope until the angle softened.
We were a bit on edge, but to be honest, we were able to calm down much faster than the previous "wumph" we'd heard near Bighorn Plateau. Maybe that was just a part of hiking back here. Just another noise to get used to...
Amped shifted back into snowshoes as the terrain steepened. After a short, steep climb, Glen Pass came into sight. The path to the pass wasn't as direct as we'd seen on Forester. There were also rocky outcroppings jutting through the thick sheet of ice covering the switchbacks up to the pass. We were facing many more decisions to find the safest route... and more pinballing consequences if one of us were to fall uncontrolled.
We studied the terrain in front of us and hashed out a plan between us. Amped led the way, following the skiers tracks in hope that any avalanches that wanted to slide would've released when that person had skied through. We reached the final, steep gully of snow and rock.
Amped had opted to keep his trekking poles in his hands for stability, I had chosen to put my poles away and hike with my ice axe in my hands. He wasn't confident an axe would catch him before sliding into a rock outcropping. Neither was I, but a guy can hope.
We both focused on each step, attempting to shut out the exposure underneath us. As we gained elevation, the exposure increased more and more.
"Jesus, I thought Forester was the hard one..." I muttered as I glanced down the 60 degree slope to the various rocks jutting through the snow, waiting to deliver the consequences of a careless step. I shook my head and refocused on placing every step as perfectly as possible. Bits of snow and ice tumbled down the rock-lined gully from Amped above me. As he continued to the top of the ridge on snow, I opted to side step to a patch of rocks and made a diagonal approach to the pass to get out from under him.
Both of us arrived at the pass safely, but slightly surprised. "Did that feel harder than Forester to you?" Amped asked.
I shook my head in mild disbelief, "Definitely more of a mental challenge..."
Mather Pass was coming up in a couple days. I'd been told repeatedly that Forester and Mather were the two monsters in the early season Sierra. There was no mention of Glen... but that had been more scary, harder to read, and just as physically taxing as Forester... what was Mather going to be like? Were there any other passes that would surprise us?
My personal dialogue was quickly cut short by the task in front of us... getting down from Glen Pass.
I was curious what this would look like in the snow. I'd hiked up the brutal switchbacks on this steep mountainside in dry years and even then, there were large patches of snow to get through. We both stared in awe at what was in front of us.
A solid sheet of 60 degree ice over a thousand feet long stretched out below us. The thought of how much speed one could pick up during an uncontrolled slide went through my head and chills spread through my body. The snow wasn't soft enough to plunge step our way down, but it was too soft to walk down step-by-step with crampons or snowshoes without them sliding out from underneath us.
Surprisingly, a few sets of deep boot prints appeared on the slope, a record of everyone who had come through Glen Pass so far. One set was surprisingly fresh, maybe within a day ahead of us...
Expecting to just glissade down on our butts, we put our snowshoes on our backs and took our ice axes out. Amped commenced glissading, screaming down the slope. I waited a few minutes and then went after him. I quickly realized that Amped wasn't just going fast for fun... that was the only option.
From Amped's journal:
The steep angle on the firm snow led to uncontrollable glissades followed by desperate arrests. Every time I came to a stop, a feeling of relief would wash over me and I'd stay still for a minute to let my heart rate and breathing calm down from we're-gonna-die speed. I'd yank my ice axe out of the ice and commence sliding again, faster, faster, FASTER before rolling over and digging the axe into the slope again, coming up on my toes to weight the axe head as heavily as possible, sending a jet of ice and snow into the air until I'd finally come to a rest on the slope.
Halfway down, I was on the steepest section and was having a hard time stopping my glissades. I stomped a small platform in the snow and strapped my crampons on to use the front points as extra drag to help slow my momentum.
After the third or fourth long, heart-stopping glissade, I sat trying to calm my adrenaline down.
"Yup, Glen wins the 'Hardest Pass So Far' award..." I couldn't help but smile as I released the axe for the last long glissade.
Okay, maybe this was a little fun.
The angle and snow softened near the bottom of the mountainside and we stood up and plunge-stepped the rest of the way, flying down the snow in damn near a full running pace. Amped had arrived at the base way before me. We smiled and celebrated another small victory against the many obstacles we would face.
We shifted back into snowshoes and continued a string of snowshoe-skiing and glissading in the ever-softening snow. We had still been following the skier's tracks when the tracks took a hard left across a 45-degree slope. The condition of the snow was turning into soft slush and we figured it would be best to get out of wet-avalanche territory, even if the skier had gotten through alright.
As we reached the first lake in the Rae Lakes Basin, we looked ahead and noticed a good-sized avalanche scar. Then the story of the avalanche unfolded as it dawned on both of us. Our trusty skier's tracks could be seen traversing to the top of the avalanche... then leaving the bottom of the avalanche. The slide was fresh too, within 24 hours easily.
I said what was going through both of our minds, "We probably should be more careful about following other people's tracks..."
The snow on the east slopes of Rae Lakes basin was garbage, even the snow covering the lakes didn't look stable enough to walk across. We hugged the shoreline and beelined over to the west facing slopes of the canyon where the snow firmed up and we were able to make some progress.
We passed under the beautiful Fin Dome, another great alpine climbing objective. As we headed down towards Arrowhead Lake, we were flying along in our trusty snowshoes. I hopped down one steep slope and leaned back in my snowshoes to disengage the aggressive bottom points to initiate a snowshoe-ski. I lost my balance as one of my points caught in the harder-than-expected snow an I went down. Hard.
I let out a loud "UNHH" as I hit the hard snow and heard a loud snap. I felt the strap around my waist loosen and I sat up and looked down at the remnants of my blown-apart waist strap.
"This isn't good," I told myself.
Amped had heard me go down and came back over a small rise in the snow. I stood up and looked up at him with concern in my eyes, "My waist strap is gone."
We both had fresh, 50 pound resupplies on our back. My entire pack weight was now hanging off of my shoulders. It was uncomfortable just standing there. How the hell was I going to get over a half-dozen more passes and hike over a hundred miles like this??
I cursed myself instantly for my carelessness. Why was I moving so fast? That wasn't necessary. I could've taken 10 more seconds to get down that hill and still had a waist strap to help support all that Snickers weight. "I'm an idiot."
Miguel was silent for a second before he asked the important question, "Is it time to turn around?"
"What?! No way, dude. Screw that," I snapped back immediately, but I knew he was just speaking rationally. I couldn't carry 50 pounds all that distance on my shoulders.
"Some little things can turn into big things... is this one of those?"
I knew he was right, but there was no way I was just rolling over, "Let's just get down to Arrowhead Lake and let me sit there with a sewing kit and I'll see what I can do."
He trusted me to make the call to go a little further and we found a nice spot along a creek out of the sun to rest. I broke the jagged plastic remnants off of my waist strap and proceeded to cut and sew the nylon strap leftovers directly to the hip belt. It wouldn't adjust anymore... but something would be better than nothing.
Pushing the small needle through the heavy-duty backpack materials was hard work. I didn't have a thimble to avoid stabbing myself, so I used an old trick I used in the desert with my fragile pants: swearing loudly.
When I was done, the needle had some new bends, but the strap was sewn back onto the pack with as many passes with the thread as I could before losing too much blood. Hopefully it could withstand more bad falls... because there was no way I'd be able to avoid all of them. Amped had filtered water for me and done as much to help as he could. I felt bad as he sat there, watching me sew as the sun continued to work on the snow, guaranteeing both of us a nightmarish afternoon.
And nightmarish, it was.
With my fancy new hipbelt in place, we set off across the slush towards Wood's Creek suspension bridge. I'll start by making one thing clear: The sun is an asshole.
From Amped's journal:
The firm morning snow had been turned into deep, deep slush. All footprints from previous hikers had been melted away. We were walking through a white oven. Heat emanated from all angles, roasting us evenly on all sides. The irony of trudging through two-foot deep slush and sweating uncontrollably wasn't lost on us. Miguel and I took turns leading the way, as the follower was able to step in the footprints of the leader to relieve some of the strain.
We were going to go almost 20 days without showering since we hadn't gone into Independence or Bishop... the last thing either of us needed was a sweat waterfall cascading down our backs into our underwear.
We finally hit some trees and began a difficult section of navigation through the melting snow. Ground began to appear as we dropped below 9,000 feet in elevation, but all of it was running with water. Bits and pieces of trail emerged! None of it usable, but I think both of us were relieved to see a sign of the PCT. Eventually, we couldn't connect pieces of snow together and stopped to take off our snowshoes right as the campground at Woods Creek appeared.
The creek was swollen, but the campground was relatively dry! There was even bear boxes! We each set up our tent in the early afternoon and breathed a sigh of relief.
"That was a damn hard day, man," Amped looked at me with a slight smile, "But God damn... what a bad ass day."
I whole-heartedly agreed. We were making progress, making miles, overcoming obstacles... all in the middle of an isolated wonderland we had all to ourselves.
Sure parts of the day had been scary, hard, and uncomfortable, but this was so much more that just walking. We were interacting with our environment in such a real and visceral way. We were sunburned in weird places like our earlobes, upper lip, nostrils and the front of our neck... but the rewards were insane. We were experiencing visual, imperceptible beauty in a most extreme way. It was almost beyond the capability of the human sensory experience.
We settled in for the night and set an alarm with the intention of starting to hike as soon as it was light enough to see without a headlamp. That would probably be early enough.
It super was not...