Day 50: Woods Creek to South Fork of the Kings River. 12 miles.
May 24th, 2017
A learning day
As we sat in the comfortable lower elevation at Woods Creek, sipping coffee by headlamp and slowly breaking down camp in the still morning, we had no idea what was coming.
There was an ungodly hard day ahead of us.
We'd woken at 3:45, plenty early to make the seven miles to Pinchot Pass, right? I walked down to the creek to fill my water bottle and again, just like at Rock Creek about a week earlier, the creek had risen overnight! The small island we had stood on to do some laundry the night before was completely submerged! Once again, the rule of thumb that people should "cross creeks in the morning when they're lower" was proven fallible.
We crossed the famous Woods Creek suspension bridge just as it was light enough to see. Yet another rumor floating around on the internet, helping convince people to skip ahead, was telling hikers that this suspension bridge was taken out by the heavy winter storms. My dry feet on the other side of Woods Creek disagreed... so I sent a message on my inReach to Melanie to let people know the bridge was still there.
Immediately after the bridge, snow patches gave way to some dry trail and the 800 mile marker! It was actually uncovered! Of course, by this point I'd technically hiked quite a bit further than 800 miles... but taking a picture with mile markers is always so satisfying! I was glad this marker was actually uncovered. How many of the next markers would be covered by snow still? Considering how many consecutive hundred-mile stretches of snow were still ahead of me was a bit overwhelming... the last 100 miles had been more of a challenge than the 700 before it!
I just put my head down, "One step at a time."
Our packs were heavy with both our snowshoes and crampons on our backs. The Woods Creek water slide was roaring to our right as we hiked up-canyon. The deafening sound of that much water moving across the granite slabs was unnerving, even though we'd already crossed it. We enjoyed the gift of almost a full mile of dry trail, only having to take time to cross a couple challenging tributaries cascading down to Woods Creek.
Soon, we were back on snow as we gained elevation. The snow was soft, not having refrozen overnight, and we slowed to a frustrating pace. We were once again stopping what seemed like every quarter-mile to switch in and out of crampons, snowshoes, and just boots, attempting to find the best gear to move forward in.
We shifted into boots for a short, mostly flat section that was shifting between snow and rocks too often to keep snowgear on our feet. I threw my monster pack back on my shoulders, took ten steps in the soft snow and my left foot stepped down... and just kept going down. I watched my foot, ankle, calf, knee, and thigh disappear as the two-ton (ish) bear on my back pile-drived me further into the snow until I came to an abrupt stop.
"Ughhh..." I sat up, shifted the pack off my head and back onto my back and looked down at my legs, one completely gone in the snow, the other sprawled out to the side.
Amped chuckled at my stunned misfortune and asked, "You alright?"
"My dick... is cold," I said, half to myself, "I literally just post-holed down... to my dick."
I knew it was funny, but I wasn't smiling yet. Amped offered me a hand to help yank me back up to the earth's surface. I brushed myself off and took a couple steps. My knee that had stayed on top of the snow had twisted a bit weird, and I could feel it...
Amped took the lead and we continued toward Pinchot Pass. We had five miles to go still and there was a major problem.
The sun was up.
The abysmal snow conditions were only getting worse and our slow pace was going to put us at the pass way too late. I was concerned, but at the same time, Pinchot Pass had always been the easiest of the Sierra passes along the John Muir Trail. How bad could it really be with some snow on it?
We steadily worked our way uphill, easy at first, but shifted to traversing intimidating side-hill slopes with the raging Woods Creek below, waiting to swallow a careless hiker. The soft snow was causing our snowshoes to slide unpredictably. Every tiny slip caused our hearts to stop for a second, making the miles traversing above Woods Creek very mentally taxing.
Eventually, we fought our way within eyesight of the pass, out of breath and exhausted.
It was already 10 a.m... we weren't even at the pass yet.
My twisted knee was bothering me and I took out my little iPod Shuffle to get some tunes to help me up the pass... but it was dead. I hadn't even used it yet, but the cold had zapped the battery already.
"Well that figures..." I bitterly muttered, "glad I'm giving this terd a ride through the Sierra."
I trudged on, falling behind Amped as the snow softened faster and faster under the intense sun.
The final climb to the pass was a nightmare. I'm not entirely sure what caused the abysmal snow conditions, but there was about two feet of soft, loose slush with a hard layer of frozen snow on top, which was maybe four inches thick, but quickly softening. Our snowshoes were distributing our weight, keeping us mostly above the surface of this sea of slush, but every few steps a snowshoe would break through the hard snow crust and posthole feet down into the slush. We'd struggle and swear to get established back onto the crust, then promptly break through the crust a few feet later, initiating more struggle and swears.
As the angle steepened, the single line of footprints from the few hikers ahead of us split, one set headed to the right toward what I knew was Pinchot Pass. The other, fresher set headed left to a false pass. Amped stopped and looked back at me and I directed him to stay right, confused at why someone had chosen the left route... maybe it was easier over there? Backcountry skier finding a nice line to ski? Or maybe they'd gotten themselves in trouble...
Amped stayed in his snowshoes, attempting to kick steps into the crust/slush mixture and stand on top. I stopped and put my crampons on, hoping I'd be able to step into and stand in the days-old footprints heading toward the pass without the snow collapsing. Both of us were about to learn a lesson the hard way.
You don't hike when it's light out, you hike when the snow is hard.
Thank God we'd waited until it was light out. We could definitely, clearly see the shit-show we'd waded into...
To be clear, that was an advanced form of super-sarcasm invented by myself on the side of Pinchot Pass. We messed up. We messed up big time.
I proceeded to attempt to step into the old footprints in the snow, praying for some consolidated snow to weight, but the prints proved to be just as fragile as the rest of the snow. With every step, I crashed through the delicate shell of surface ice and sunk deeper and deeper into the slush underneath. I was halfway up the pass, soaking wet, sweating my ass off, and buried up to my chest in slush.
I looked up at Amped above me as he was postholing several feet deep in snowshoes. In freakin' snowshoes!!
I stopped, breathing maniacally, looking down at my buried torso and just hung my arms at my side limply, defeated.
"...Why... am I out here?"
I watched Amped continue to struggle from my slush-pit of defeat before I finally did the only thing I could... kept going. We inched our way diagonally up the nightmarish conditions, one labored step at a time. I remained waist-deep in the slush, high-stepping with every step, vainly trying to establish my weight above the snow, back on top of the sea of slush. The conditions wouldn't allow it, though.
After essentially stomping a tunnel through the fragile crust and deep slush for hundreds of yards, I crested the top of Pinchot Pass and threw my ice axe across the snow, plopping down next to Amped and just stared out into the terrain we'd just traversed.
Exhausted. Frustrated. Furious. Relieved. Terrified.
Amped and I sat together, eating lunch, watching a lone marmot meander through the snowy rock outcroppings. We had hiked seven miles in five hours... our slowest pace so far. Silently, we were both struggling. Both wondering if we could do this...
From Amped's journal:
After we'd both calmed down, caught our breath, and subdued our fierce hunger, we were both in agreement with one thing: hiking in these conditions would NOT happen twice.
The solution seemed ridiculous, but Amped vocalized what we both knew was necessary, "We're waking up at 2 a.m. tomorrow for Mather Pass."
I had no plans to night hike in the Sierra, but I didn't say a word, silently agreeing. Anything to hike back on hard snow.
We set off down the north side of the pass on slightly harder snow, but the upper crust still wasn't frozen hard enough to make our lives easier. Step after step we'd break through the upper shell and sink into the slush, fighting our way down the pass towards the South Fork of the Kings River. Every step reinforcing our resolution to wake up as absurdly early as necessary.
Our legs were exhausted as we moved downhill. I was repeatedly tripping over my feet and kept going down in the soft snow. In a particularly bad fall, Amped was strolling along and tripped over his own snowshoe. With tangled legs, he fell downhill, lancing the soft snow with his arms and impacting face first, his legs scorpioning above his head as his pack shoved his undoubtedly-frowning face deeper into the slush.
We were deep in Type 2 fun, staring down the barrel of Type 3.
Once we reached the South Fork of the Kings River (a sizable challenge to cross even in low snow years), I was relieved to find a gigantic, solid snow bridge spanning the raging creek. We paused to rest before working our way carefully down to the river to refill our water. We also noticed a single track of footprints that was fresh... really fresh...
We both were thoroughly done with the day, but Mather Pass was about four miles away still and we didn't want to underestimate the snow conditions again. Maybe Pinchot Pass was doable in the horrific snow, but getting to Mather late could be a dangerous error.
With our last shred of motivation and strength, Amped and I packed up from our resting spot and pathetically trudged a whopping 0.8 miles before we dropped our packs in a random clearing in the woods and called it for the day.
My psych was gone. I had never once thought about quitting the whole trail, but... I was now.
I felt ashamed of my own thoughts. My inner dialogue was infuriated the whole way down from Pinchot that I continued to place one foot in front of the other. My stubborn, goal-driven subconscious was on another page though. I continued to hike forward, despite all active, conscious thought in my brain.
I sent Melanie a message on the inReach telling her about our horrific day and mentioning my wavering commitment to this lofty goal of ours.
Melanie wrote back:
That's what I had wrote in a blog post back in March, before I had even started the trail... It's hard to argue with someone so damn smart and handsome (however stinky).
From Amped's journal: