Day 52: Middle Fork Junction to just below Helen Lake. 9 miles.
May 26th, 2017
A setup day.
At 3 a.m., Amped and I immediately sat up and began mechanically breaking down camp. It was almost weird how easy it was to wake up at such an absurd time. There was no desire to sleep further, no compromise on our mission to hike on hard snow.
Amped once again brought over a billowing cup filled with hot coffee. We took a break to enjoy some Pop-tarts with the coffee before setting off. Near the trail, we could see Thor's dark tent. Our new friend didn't seem psyched on the idea of waking early, and the lack of motion from his tent told us he wouldn't be leaving camp with us this morning.
Part of me was okay with that. After all, Thor had made it all the way here by himself. He'd most likely be fine on his own, right? But another part of me thought back to his footprints heading over the wrong pass on Pinchot... That decision had turned into a bit of an epic for him. He'd arrived at the top of a small cliff, requiring some downclimbing on exposed, icy rock with his 80 pound pack on. Nobody around to help him. Nobody to even notice if he fell...
'That's not your responsibility,' I thought to myself, looking over at his lifeless tent as I finished my breakfast.
We tiptoed past his tent and fired down the dry trail, heading uphill through Le Conte Canyon. We only made it a few hundred yards before the snow reappeared. The angle was low enough that we decided to stay in boots for the first couple miles. Navigation was difficult. We attempted to link sections of dry trail, but the huge snow drifts coupled with the darkness thwarted our efforts. We repeatedly found ourselves turned around, stopping to check our GPS to figure out where the trail was running under the snow.
Eventually, our slow pace and tiring efforts to find a low angle path through the ever-steepening snow drifts forced us to sit down and strap on our crampons. We started 10 miles from Muir Pass, too far to make it before the sun turned the snow into garbage, so our goal for the day was simple: get as far up Muir Pass as possible until the snow softens, then stop.
We walked uphill along the raging Middle Fork of the Kings River. The extreme force of the water cascading down consecutive, short waterfalls was sending a fine mist into the air, coating all plants within 50 yards of the creek in a clear sheen of ice. The deafening roar eliminated the possibility of communication, which was mildly creepy as we repeatedly crossed thin snowbridges over small creeks. In the black night, broken only by my pathetic headlamp, my mind went to dark places... what if I fell through the surface into a creek big enough to swallow me under the snow? Would I even have time to cry out? Would Amped be able to hear that cry?? I stepped up my pace, sticking directly behind him, just in case.
Of course, every snowbridge we really needed to cross held our weight easily. Out of curiosity, we'd find safe snowbridges to test out just how thin a snowbridge could be before it would collapse... In the early morning, it was impressive what would hold our weight. The snow was frozen so hard overnight, even bridges only an inch or two thick wouldn't break!
I jumped up and down on a thin bridge, unable to make it buckle, "Yet another benefit of being up this early, I guess," I said to Amped.
Le Conte Canyon is lined with huge, sheer canyon walls. There had obviously been massive avalanches through the winter, the canyon walls sloughing the historic snowfall, creating waves of devastation in the forest below. The melting snow had started to reveal the damage. Amped and I walked through fields of broken pine limbs and full-grown trees bent over like an archer's bow, the tree's branches still cemented in the consolidated snow, patiently waiting for enough melt to spring back vertical.
We came up on the junction to Bishop Pass as the sky began to lighten. We knew Bishop Pass was one of the very few bail points from the backcountry... but everything was going well, so we walked on by. Fresh ski tracks appeared at the junction and we began following them uphill. Evidence of other humans was comforting.
As we continued uphill, the very tips of the 13,000 foot peaks around us illuminated like rows of lit matches as the sun's rays struck the range. Beautiful, but one thought persisted in my mind, 'The snow starts softening now.'
We put our headlamps away, which made almost no difference for me and my pathetic beam. I thought to myself, 'I wonder if this thing is dying? Or is it really that weak compared to Amped's headlamp?'
As we strolled north along the deafening Middle Fork, something moving caught my eye up and right from where we were... It was a cat.
But not like one that chases lasers or poops in a box in your house, this was a big cat. A mountain lion.
The silhouette of the large, grey lion stood out against the white backdrop of the snow-covered mountainside behind it. The cat was slowly walking high on a ridge above us about 200 yards away. It was going in the same direction we were... it was walking what appeared to be the same speed that we were...
It's head was low, looking down toward the valley where we were. Was it... watching us?
Chills emanating from my spine crept up along my neck, making my hair stand up on the back of my neck. Amped was maybe 10 feet ahead of me, but hadn't noticed the cat. I called out to him, but the sound of my voice was immediately lost to the chaos of the creek next to us.
I kept my eyes on the mountain lion until it dropped down out of sight... into the small basin we were about to walk into.
I caught up with Amped and told him what I'd seen. I realized we theoretically weren't in any danger. After all, the odds of a mountain lion attack on the PCT is almost zero. An attack would be on the same statistical grounds as winning the lottery, only with more blood and fewer Ferrari's.
But statistics are of little comfort being isolated in such a vast wilderness, with a 200 pound cat looking down at you. Plus, there was still snow everywhere, with no signs of rabbits or squirrels yet... What did that lion have to eat?? Like, aside from Amped and I??
We trepidly kept marching forward into the basin where the mountain lion had disappeared into... we really didn't have much of a choice, I guess. With our eyes fixated on the snowbound trees to our right, we slowly continued up the canyon. In the low dawn light, branches moving against the white background played tricks on my mind, creating movement where there was none.
I went through the scenario in my head, just to scare myself a little more. If the mountain lion were to actually attack... what could I even try to do about it? I had a little three-inch knife hanging on my pocket... would I be able to put that thing in one of its eyes while it was attacking Amped (because it definitely wouldn't attack me first)? Could I stab it with a trekking pole? Karate chop to the neck?? A squirt with a spray bottle?? What else do cats hate?... Maybe I could get some tape on its paws... or distract it with a paper bag...
After repeatedly tripping over my own feet while staring to my right, paying no attention to the ground in front of me, we entered back into a dense forested section. I just shook my head and accepted the reality that if a cat wanted to stalk us, or even attack us, there's no way we'd be able to do anything about it. No different than every other part of the PCT where mountain lions exist.
As we continued up Le Conte Canyon and continued to gain elevation, the snow depth kept thickening until the Middle Fork disappeared under snow, muffling the intense roar. Shortly after a small clearing I faintly recognized as Big Pete Meadow, the angle steepened. Amped and I paused to shift into snowshoes, flipped our heel-lifters up, and moved into the flat ramp of snow covering the creek. Once again, we were blown away with the capabilities of our snowshoes and began making quick work of the elevation.
Section after section of steep snow, we'd mechanically shift into our 20-steps-at-a-time system, a well-oiled machine at this point. The sun was up, but the snow was holding firm. We continued pressing upward and upward, chipping away at the 4,000 feet of elevation gain we'd need to put behind us to reach Muir Pass.
At about 10 a.m., we started up a steep, sun-facing hillside and the first signs of the snow softening appeared. Our snowshoes started sliding, requiring a kick with each step to push the layer of slush out of the way and engage the army of metal crampon points into the firm snow beneath. Immediately, the ratio of swearwords to mother-approved words began skyrocketing.
In other words, we'd gone as far as we could on hard snow. It was time to stop for the day.
After fighting up the short, steep hill, we summited a blunt ridge... and then saw the lake below that we needed to be walking alongside. We thought we'd be smart and take a bit of a steep "shortcut", but we'd gone too far uphill.
"Hooray for bonus uphills," I said sarcastically to Amped.
"It's a good thing glissading is fun, huh?" he replied before sitting down and sliding down the slope back down to the lake.
We arrived back down to where we needed to be and looked back at our long slide mark down the hill, "Kinda looks like we slipped and fell down, doesn't it?"
Amped laughed and scribbled a quick, "We didn't eat shit" into the soft snow, just to clarify the situation to the nobody that would see it before the sun erased the message.
Just above the small lake, we spotted what looked like exposed flat rock slabs. What are the chances we'd be able to find a dry spot to camp at 11,000 feet?
Pretty damn good, I guess.
A nice, flattish slab jutted out from the snow, overlooking the lake below, a tiny rock platform in a gigantic sea of white. We threw our stuff down and called it for the day. Our mission was complete. We were within three miles of the pass, with only 1000 vertical feet left to go. That would be a piece of cake back on hard snow in the morning.
Sure, we could've kept struggling our way up the pass in the afternoon sun, having to kick every single miserable step into the slush. I know we were capable of death-marching uphill, barely able to make 1 mph. We absolutely could've slipped and slid around on steep snow while we sweated our asses off as the intense sun roasted every single shred of exposed skin. We were definitely capable of getting up and over Muir Pass today.
We could also have a testicle-flicking competition with each other.
No thanks. To all of it.
We stepped out of our snowshoes and retired them for the afternoon. Amped went to town erecting his rain fly as a sun shelter, using rocks and our trekking poles to hold the fabric taut overhead. I gathered some snow and threw it into a gallon ziplock bag, then set it on the warm rock to start melting water for us.
Lying back in our bright green shelter, overlooking the frozen lake and buried trail below us, we kicked our boots off and began drying everything out in the intense noon sun. We set out Amped's solar panel and rapidly recharged all of our electronics. Smiling and joking about the absurdly amazing situation we were in, it was clear we'd figured something out. Our efforts to wake early and walk on hard snow was resulting in a huge boost to our morale. Now, here we were, using the most direct and powerful sun of the day to our advantage, rather than using it to formulate new swearwords and further bake our already-crisped nostrils and lips.
Yup. We'd figured something out.
Speaking of crisped, swearing PCT hikers, we saw movement on the far side of the lake. It was Thor! He saw our tent and beelined towards us. Without saying anything, he dropped his pack and joined us. He'd been fighting the slush for a couple miles at that point and was over it.
From Amped's journal:
We all sat under the shade of our makeshift shelter, straddling our bear canisters, taking inventory and praying we'd find some piece of food we'd overpacked. A lone marmot wandered around our rock slab, carrying grass around with a purpose. Seeing the grass in the critter's mouth almost seemed bizarre in that environment. Where was that little guy finding grass??
Three backcountry skiers also appeared from where we'd come from. Seeing other humans was comforting, but they disappeared over a nearby high ridge and were soon gone, returning the landscape to the still, lifeless white we'd all become accustomed to.
Because the rock slab was too small for all of us to pitch our tents on, we decided we'd just cowboy camp for the night. After all, at 11,000 feet in May, we definitely had zero bugs to deal with. Why wouldn't we just cowboy camp?
We all set up our sleeping bags for the night, lined up on our dry island in the sea of snow. We slid into our sleeping bags in the warm afternoon and settled in, ready to wake up at 2 a.m. to ensure good snow conditions up and over Muir Pass. I was excited, this would be the first time on the trail that I'd slept under the stars!
Consequently, this would be the last time on the trail that I'd sleep under the stars.
Total mileage along the PCT: 836
Total mileage with detours: 892
Day 53: Muir Pass. Just below Helen Lake to South Fork of the San Joaquin River. 16 miles.
May 27th, 2017
A hangry day.
Praying for time to show me mercy and hurry the hell up, I laid huddled in my sleeping bag, shivering, staring at my phone.
1:58...1:59... 2 a.m.
My alarm went off, but it wasn't needed. Immediately, Amped and Thor stood up.
'Ugh, finally,' I said, my frozen partners grunting in agreement.
We'd gone to bed around 5 p.m. in the still afternoon and all of us immediately slipped into a wonderful sleep in the warm afternoon sun.
Unfortunately, that wouldn't last long.
As the sun ducked, a steady breeze picked up. At first, it wasn't a big deal. We all just put on our beanies and wrapped up in our sleeping bags a little tighter. But that breeze grew into a solid wind as the temperature continued to drop into the 30's... then further into the 20's.
Without any shelter from our tents, the wind crept through our sleeping bags and layers, stripping away our precious warmth. No matter how we attempted to block the wind with our ground sheets or packs, it was simply too much.
We'd made another mistake. It would be great if we could cut that out...
So after a sleepless, excruciatingly long night, we were all relieved to be standing up with all our layers on, knowing we'd soon be moving, soon be warm. Nobody even bothered making breakfast or coffee. We were all on the same page, without even speaking the words. In less than 20 minutes after my alarm, we were hiking toward Muir Pass, three points of light moving across the star-lit Sierra.
With all our layers on, we quickly warmed up and began to enjoy our surreal surroundings again. We walked along the shoreline of Helen Lake before heading into the last big uphill. Thor didn't have alpine snowshoes, so his capabilities on steep snow weren't quite the same as ours. I did my best to find the lowest angle routes through the steep, rolling snowdrifts, hoping to not accidentally get Thor in any iffy situations.
The final steep headwall before the pass was steep enough to introduce Thor to our 20-steps-at-a-time game. We'd barely met Thor, but the brotherhood between the three us grew rapidly. Every 20 steps, we'd pause to gasp for oxygen and offer encouragement to each other. Before we knew it, our headlamps illuminated a stone building in the middle of the desolate wilderness, the iconic Muir Hut.
Six foot walls of snow surrounded the hut, evidence of the stone being warmed by the sun every day, the absorbed heat receding the snow from the structure. We did our best to take pictures of the famous hut in the black night and quickly headed down the other side of the pass. I knew there was a huge lake near the north side of the pass, Wanda Lake, so we potentially had a few long stretches of flat walking across frozen lakes ahead of us. I began heading straight down the moderate slope, figuring we'd walk down to the frozen lake and head straight across it.
But after walking almost a mile, theoretically I knew we should've already arrived at the lake... but we were still standing on angled snow, without any sign of flat terrain ahead. Did I get us lost somehow?
Checking the GPS, I shook my head in disbelief. I looked up at Amped and Thor, "We're standing in the middle of the lake right now."
The absurd volume of snow that had fallen in the Wanda Lake basin had almost completely masked the shoreline of the lake. Instead, giant ramps of snow converging into a 'V' on top of the lake from either side of the basin made Wanda Lake look like a creek, rather than a large lake. I couldn't help but wonder what kind of depth the snow had to be to mask an entire lake... 50 feet? 70? 100??
With our minds blown, we continued down the ramp until the basin opened up enough for us to finally step onto the flat snow on top of the frozen lake and we used the flat terrain to make some solid headway. The low, blue light of dawn flooded the basin we were crunching our way through and we stopped to take some pictures, attempting to capture the unimaginable beauty unfolding in front of our eyes.
"You don't get to see this unless you put in the work," Amped muttered into the staggering landscape.
On the hard snow, we quickly moved into Evolution Basin, past Sapphire Lake, which was also completely masked by the heavy winter snowfall. At this point, our water we'd melted in ziplock bags the day before was running out, so we took the opportunity to grab some water from a short, exposed section of Evolution Creek that was filled with huge, broken, slanted chunks of ice. The icebergs planted in the middle of the creek looked like a scene from the Arctic. The edge of the creek was guarded by a vertical wall several feet tall. Thor led the way, hopping from iceberg to iceberg until we could easily reach down into the slow flowing, extremely cold creek.
I pulled up my water bottle from the creek and proceeded to hop back across the small islands of ice. After I threw my pack back on my back, I reached down for my water bottle and opened it for a drink... but it was almost completely frozen solid. That same water that had been running liquid two minutes prior was now a hard slug of ice in my water bottle!
I just shook my head in disbelief, "I guess I need to drink right out of the creek this early..."
Evolution Lake had always been one of my favorite places in the Sierra. This would be my third time walking through this beautiful basin, but instead of green meadows and turquoise lakes surrounded by majestic mountain peaks, we were met with a landscape that was just as beautiful, but 1000% different. We strolled across the snowed over lake, attempting to take in the stunning scenery.
We stopped to take pictures over and over, but we all knew those pictures wouldn't do it justice. It was almost sad knowing that we would only be able to experience this landscape in person, right then. Whatever memories we left with were the only souvenirs we'd leave with. Pictures would remind us of those memories, but would be far from able to put us back in this astonishing landscape.
Moving at over three miles per hour on the flat snow, we quickly made it to the outlet of Evolution Lake and dropped down the steep hillside toward the first of two looming river crossings: Evolution Creek.
Evolution Creek was typically crossed one of two ways:
- The meadow crossing, which usually involved a waist deep, slow wade across a 40 foot wide section of creek. It was likely to be deeper in these conditions, probably chest deep.
- The downstream narrow crossing, which was usually a fairly deep and fast wade, even in low snow years. This was almost out of the question, as I knew waterfalls started cascading a very short distance after the wade. Being swept into the creek would likely be fatal.
So basically, our options were an early morning testicle/nipple ice bath... or death.
I couldn't figure out which was scarier.
So, as we moved down into Lower Evolution Basin, we immediately beelined for the creek as far upstream as we could, about four miles upstream of the meadow crossing of Evolution Creek. We arrived at the creek at a slow-moving meadow and began walking alongside the north side of the creek, looking for any signs of an easier crossing, praying we'd come across a snowbridge.
Sure enough, it only took about a half-mile before we stumbled across a restriction in the creek with a beautiful, thick snowbridge spanning the torrent of water. All fifteen of us (I'm including testicles and nip's here) emitted a collective sigh of relief. After watching what had happened to my water bottle that morning, I certainly wasn't psyched to go for a swim.
With our first notorious crossing behind us, we kept moving alongside the south side of Evolution Creek. The scariest part of the day had been negotiated, so the subdued monster rose to the surface: hunger.
At this point in the trek, my body had been consuming every shred of calorie it had available. Every time I ate, I would be immediately starving again. It had been taking a huge mental effort to put the lid on my bear canister, despite having easily over a thousand calories in each meal. We hadn't eaten breakfast because of the miserable night. The brutal cold had removed every human desire aside from warmth.
Now that we were warm and on the correct side of Evolution Creek, my hunger surfaced. Big time.
As soon as the thought, 'You haven't eaten anything yet,' crossed my mind, my hands began to tremble and I had to almost immediately drop my pack to dig my breakfast out of my bear canister. I figured the impressive nutrition of a couple Pop-tart's would do the trick, but after inhaling over 800 calories of pastry I was starving.
We stopped for a morning poop once the sun had peaked into the canyon, which I used to pull out the half-pound bag of peanut butter M&M's, dried fruit, and nuts I had allotted for the day's snack. I inhaled the entire snack and took off into the woods to deposit my load, feeling guilty that Amped and Thor were patiently waiting for me. Both of them seemed fine, while I felt like a hungry maniac. What was wrong with me?
Something else was worrying me also. This was the first poop in three days, which maybe wouldn't be very alarming in my day to day life, but I'd been eating 3-4 thousand calories every day, a massive amount of dried food... where the hell was all of it going? I stood up and looked disapprovingly down at the minuscule butt-nugget I'd dropped.
"There's no way that's all of it..." I whispered to my poopette in the middle of the woods.
'Hm. Never whispered to a poop before. This kinda feels like a low point.' I thought to myself.
We continued along Evolution Creek, making much slower progress through the rolling snow drifts in the trees. I pushed to keep up our pace, struggling to ignore the growling demon inside of me, demanding I stop and eat. Not ten minutes after I'd finished my snack for the day, my hands starting shaking again as my blood sugar tanked.
Suddenly, a thought crept through the thick cloud of hunger in my addled brain: 'Your gloves.'
I stopped dead in my tracks and felt my face flush with embarrassment, I called up to Amped and Thor ahead of me, "Guys! I forgot my damn gloves at the last stop."
We had made it more than a half-mile along the creek in difficult terrain, I dropped my pack and started heading back uphill to where we'd come from, cursing my lapse in attention to detail. Forgetting something in this environment wasn't acceptable. We were fighting for every inch of progress. Adding an additional mile to the day was a sizable error, especially when I barely had the food to fuel the day's mileage.
I hurried as fast as I could back to my gloves and then back to my patiently waiting teammates, but it still took almost a half-hour, forcing Amped and Thor to stand still for too long in the cold morning. I could tell they were ready to start moving when I got back. That familiar feeling of hot guilt in the back of my skull returned.
At this point, my hunger had flared up to an intensity I didn't really understand. I had eaten all of my food I'd rationed for myself until lunch... but we weren't planning on stopping for lunch until we'd reached our destination, which was still seven miles away. I really needed to eat again, but was torn between eating ahead into my food supply and stopping our progress again so I could eat yet another time. Too embarrassed to ask to stop for a fourth damn time, I continued on, doing everything I could to ignore myself.
Three miles later, we arrived at the meadow crossing for Evolution Creek and thanked our lucky stars we had already crossed the creek. Steep snow guarded both banks at the crossing and the water was moving faster and deeper than I'd seen in the summer... No thanks.
I put my pack down in the sunny clearing, feeling defeated by the relentless hunger inside of me and asked, "You mind if we stop for lunch?"
Amped seemed mildly puzzled, "Nah, man. Let's get to camp. It's only like four more miles. We should keep going while the snow is still hard."
I was way passed hungry. My stomach protested angrily at the thought of putting off food... but I knew Amped was right. I couldn't be the reason we lost the good snow we'd woken up so early for, and I knew they weren't going to leave me behind. I already felt guilty for stopping so many times.
I threw my pack back on, a wave of frustration and anger washing over me. Why the fuck was I so hungry? Why was I the only one feeling like this? What was going on with me??
I took off in front of Amped and Thor, pissed and ready to be done for the day. If four miles stood between me and food, those four miles were going to put behind me as fast as possible. Using the adrenaline from my irrational anger, I marched ahead at a feverish pace, making big strides and running the downhill slopes in my snowshoes.
I could sense my teammates drifting further behind me. I knew I should've slowed down to keep us together, but I was blinded by my hunger. I knew if I wasn't focusing on moving, I'd be overtaken by my will to stop and eat my entire bear canister.
I rapidly moved through the tough terrain with a laser focus on reaching camp. Soon, snow starting thinning on the steep, exposed, south-facing hillside dropping down to the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. I impatiently crawled down steep rock slabs between snow patches, the metal points on the bottom of my snowshoes gripping impressively, but screeching like nails on a chalkboard. Eventually the snow stopped, giving way to loose, black shale and the trail.
I snapped out of my hungry rage and realized I was alone, instantly feeling like a shitty teammate. Amped and Thor weren't far behind though, both appearing before I was able to remove my snowshoes and strap them to my pack. Both seemed flustered, probably wondering why the hell I was moving so fast. I probably should've explained myself, but I felt like a weakling. I couldn't understand why they were eating as much as I was, but didn't feel the same.
"I snapped my damn trekking pole back there trying to keep up with your speedy ass. I ate shit super hard." Amped held up one of his trekking poles, the handle cleanly snapped in the middle of the foam grip, hanging limply to the side.
More hot guilt encased my skull. Amped wasn't the type to blame others for his problems, but I knew I was partly responsible for that broken trekking pole. Whether I liked it or not, I was leading this group. This was my backyard. This was my adventure that I'd convinced Amped to join me for.
In this backcountry, I couldn't afford to let my emotions or feelings get in the way of keeping us safe. In other words, I needed to figure out how to control my hanger. (For those unfamiliar, hanger = hungry + anger.)
I vowed to myself to figure this out and be a better leader than I'd been up to this point. I could figure this out. I could ration my food better. I could be better.
We set off on dry trail for the last mile. I forced myself to move slow enough to keep everyone within sight of each other. My stomach growled and cramped in protest of every step down the steep, shale switchbacks, but I was determined to be a better friend and teammate.
Without two sturdy trekking poles, Amped slipped on a wet ramp of shale, going down hard on the rocks. Growling in anger, he fought his heavy pack to get back on his feet. Two switchbacks later, he was back on the ground again. All of us were steadily getting further and further from a good mood.
Finally, we reached the canyon floor and our target for the night: the first bridge across the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. It was only 11 a.m. and we'd successfully hiked 16 miles on hard snow, our longest day since bailing out of the snowstorm to Lone Pine. I threw my pack on the dirt and immediately put together two ghetto fish tacos.
I've never tasted anything so amazing.
The life surged back into all of us as we sat next to the raging river, eating lunch and resting our exhausted legs. Those 16 miles felt like 30 on dry trail. Although tired, we had all been surprised how easily the day had gone. Muir Pass was definitely the easiest pass we'd summited so far. The early morning summits had been going super well. It seemed Thor was sold. We weren't two parters with Thor somewhere nearby anymore, we were a team of three.
The snow blanket on the canyon floor was honeycombed with dry patches of dirt, surrounded by snow. Each of us chose a dry patch to establish our camp. The intense sun started melting the snow surrounding the pits, so we spent the afternoon digging small trenches to divert the snowmelt away from the dry dirt under our tents.
We were going to sleep on dry dirt, dammit.
Long conversations about food we were going to eat when we got to Mammoth broke up afternoon naps. It felt good watching the snow turn to slushy garbage while we already had our miles behind us.
From Amped's journal: