Day 54: South Fork of the San Joaquin River to Sallie Keyes Lakes. 12 miles.
May 28th, 2017
A dirt day.
We woke later than usual in our low-elevation camp, around 330 a.m., knowing that we'd likely be walking on a solid stretch of dirt today. We all crawled out of our tents in our individual dirt islands in the honeycombed snow and began tearing down our camps.
It had been a cold night. I'd woken several times from the low temps, forcing me out of my borderline warmth to sit up to put my fleece and down hood on in the middle of the night. Sleep had still been fitful in the few hours before my alarm.
As I stood up out of my tent, I noticed the muddy, loose dirt had turned into a solid form of what I'd last seen before crawling into my tent the previous afternoon. The ground still looked like mud, but stepping on the fragile crust shattered the frozen mud structures, sending white splinters of ice stretching out from each footstep. The only place where the mud was still unfrozen was where it was mushed into the netting on the underside of my tent.
After cramming my mud-pile into my backpack, we threw down a quick breakfast and set out into the darkness. Amped led the way and I was grateful to have his strong headlamp in front of me. I had planned on switching out the battery in my headlamp the afternoon before, but completely forgot about it until I clicked it on this morning. It did turn on... but the beam was definitely weaker than it usually was, barely able to illuminate my tent.
My eyes adjusted to the low light, but with Amped in front of us, it became obvious how drastic the difference between our headlamps had become. Our theory of staying on dry trail all morning was axed only a couple hundred yards from our camp when the trail disappeared under snow again. We slowly navigated through the rolling snow drifts in the dark, but kept making mistakes.
At one point, we found ourselves in the middle of an icy swamp, unsure whether the trail was to our left or right. Stepping between marshy, frozen islands of grass, we all managed to misstep at least once down into deep, cold pockets of brown water, putting as much water in our boots as we possibly could.
Wouldn't want to start the day off with dry feet, ya know?
The roar of a creek appeared next to the swamp. Amped began walking upstream and quickly located a log spanning the creek. The log was on the narrow side, about five feet above the water, but seemed reasonable to cross. I was about 30 yards behind Amped, attempting to hurry so I could use his headlamp beam for the crossing. I called out to him to wait for a second, but the roaring creek easily swallowed any sound that came out of my mouth. He hopped up onto the log and made his way across the early morning tightrope walk.
I followed Amped across the narrow log and quickly realized how dependent I'd become on his strong headlamp when he hopped off the end of the log, out of sight, sending my world into blackness.
My headlamp was essentially dead. This was not an ideal time to figure that out.
In the thick night, the dim light from my weakening headlamp could barely illuminate the small log I was standing on. The incredible deluge of water disappeared, only remaining in my world as a deafening rumble... a furious monster underfoot, waiting for me with murderous indifference.
"Amped!" I called out, but any sound I was able to make was once again immediately overwhelmed by the chaos of the creek.
I froze on the ice covered log, my legs wobbling as I struggled to keep the vertigo at bay. I knew the odds of going for an icy swim weren't exactly in my favor on this hike.
...was this it?
My world illuminated again as Amped appeared at the edge of the creek, shining his light back on the log for us. A wave of relief washed over me as I felt my balance return and quickly shuffled across the log, escaping the icy swim... at least for now.
Kicking myself for not remembering to tend to my headlamp, I stayed right by Amped for the rest of the morning. Luckily, our later wake-up meant that the sky started brightening earlier in our day than we'd been used to. The sky began lightening as we crossed a big, steel bridge across the raging South Fork of the San Joaquin and we started traversing the south-facing hillside where the snow disappeared.
Well, kind of.
In some parts, the trail was blasted into cliffs above the turbulent river. The after-effects of big avalanches during the winter still lingered and some sections of trail were frozen over, there were even a couple gigantic snow bridges spanning the entire San Joaquin! Some narrow sections of trail were nothing more than a steep ice slide straight down into the seething river below us. Rocks above the trail were exposed, so our forward progress slowed to a crawl as we carefully scrambled on the rocks above the ice slide, doing our best not to look down...
Finally, we settled on dry trail again and made solid headway. For eight glorious miles we strolled along muddy trail with only small patches of snow to navigate. Packs were heavy with both crampons and snowshoes on our backs, but the ease of walking on flat dirt was incredibly easy... and foreign.
We walked past the turn-off for Muir Trail Ranch, still months away from opening. This part of the John Muir Trail was normally a highway, packed with summer hikers. Walking through the peaceful, open pines, we basked in the stillness and isolation along one of the busiest trails on the planet.
Pausing for a quick stop to take a breather before a long uphill section, I pounded my snacks for the entire day in a futile attempt to keep my hunger at bay. A lone, sleepy mosquito bumbled through the air, making no attempt to land on anyone.
"Whoa," I said out loud as the realization dawned on me, "That's the first mosquito we've seen... and we've been in the Sierra for weeks!"
Thor hadn't spent any time in the Sierra hiking, so Amped and I explained to him how horrific the mosquito hatch could be. I'd spent entire days being death-marched forward in the Sierra, fearful that stopping to setup camp would result in enough blood loss to prevent waking up the next morning.
All this snow business had some serious challenges... but also afforded some amazing pro's. A bug-free Sierra was certainly one of them.
As we began the 3,000 foot, typically-dry ascent up to Selden Pass, my mind was blown with the deluge of water running through and across the trail. In dry years there had been a *gasp* six-mile dry stretch here, the longest waterless stretch along the whole John Muir Trail.
Not this year.
After a thousand feet of elevation gain on dry(ish) trail, we hit snow again. As we sat down to get our snowshoes off our backs and on our feet, full-blown hunger caught up to me again. I could hear my stomach protesting any activity not involving pizza, so I quickly moved forward across a snowbridge covering the gushing Senger Creek, attempting to occupy my mind with movement, trying to forget the insatiable monster in my belly.
In a past year, Melanie and my parents had taken a long nap alongside the west bank of Senger Creek. I'd spent the afternoon chatting with PCT hikers, in awe of the incredible feat they were tackling. That memory seemed surreal now. Although unrecognizable, I was in that exact spot, on the PCT myself, attempting a full-on mountaineering traverse of the same trail those past PCT hikers had been able to stroll through on dry trail, making 20-30 miles per day...
I felt a twisted sense of jealousy and pride. I wasn't going to just be another PCT thru-hiker, moving through the trail in perfect conditions with a swarm of other hikers. This was exactly what I was looking for though. Traversing the snow-bound Sierra, coupled with the rest of the trail, would be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life... of course, all hinging on IF I could handle the challenge I'd handed myself.
But napping in a grassy, sunny meadow along Senger Creek sure sounded nice, also...
I led the way, winding through the trees on the way up to Sallie Keyes Lakes, where we'd stop for the night. We'd only be camping a mile from Selden Pass, which we'd theoretically cruise over the next morning on hard ice. Snow drifts appeared and disappeared. Amped and I did our best to connect snow with our trusty snowshoes on, while Thor separated from us in an attempt to link dry patches of dirt in his boots. We all stayed close enough to each other to keep an eye out if anyone got into trouble, but the softening snow was starting to give Thor problems.
The spikes on his Kathoola KTS crampons were about half the length as the snow gear Amped and I were carrying, so his feet would begin sliding earlier in the day than ours. His pace slowed as he began kicking steps into the snow, so Amped and I pumped the brakes to keep an eye on him. Before long, we broke through the thick forest along the eastern shore of one of the Sallie Keyes Lakes.
Our slower pace had allowed my hunger pangs to catch up and I fought to keep it from affecting my mood. Simple decisions were becoming difficult. Even deciding which shore of the lake to walk around was absurdly confusing.
"Thank God we're stopping soon," I muttered to myself as I followed Amped's direction on which shore he thought was a better idea.
Sallie Keyes Lakes had been the most melted-out of any lake we'd seen up until this point. It was almost strange not being able to just walk straight across the lake... you mean we actually had to stay above solid ground and walk along the shore??
'That doesn't seem fair... or maybe that's just my cheeseburger-lust talking.'
We passed a buried cabin and Amped went for a quick dip in the lake... possibly against his preferences.
Around 1030, we arrived at the far side of Sallie Keyes Lakes. There were typically warm, south-facing rock slabs on the north side of the lake, but it was still a solid sheet of deep snow with a fantastic overlook of the gorgeous lake in front of us.
We sat down to attack our bear canisters and enjoyed the perfect bluebird day, another successful stretch as we further fine-tuned our snow travel and navigation skills.
After dinner at 3 p.m., it was time to go drop my base weight... back the ol' motorhome out of the garage... negotiate the release of some hostages...
Poop. We're talking about poop here.
Our footsteps were the only ones in the area, so as I took off away from camp to find a fortress of solitude to deposit my assets, I was pleasantly surprised to find a perfect set of footprints leading away from camp! How convenient, right?
I'm an idiot.
Those footprints took me straight to a hunched over Thor, also trying to make a deposit in the frozen stank bank. I hadn't made eye contact with a human taking a dump since my boot camp days... can't say I missed it much.
Figuring my friendship with the introverted Aussie couldn't handle me pulling up a snow stool, throwing an arm around him, and sharing the moment, I took a sharp left and continued further from camp to leave Thor to release his Australian corn-eyed brown snake into the wild.
I could keep going. My maturity knows no bounds.
We arrived back at the campsite and laughed off the awkwardness, had a thorough conversation about the very specific kinds and quantities of food we were going to destroy in Mammoth in a few days, then retreated to our tents to prepare for our 2 a.m. start. I finally remembered to swap the batteries out of my headlamp, dreading another worst-case-scenario like earlier that day.
Selden Pass was usually trivial... but after what we'd experienced on Pinchot Pass, the other joke of a pass, I'd be lying if I said we all weren't terrified of the next "easy" pass.
As we settled into the still, cold night, we were filled with a sense of accomplishment. Everything was going so well, maybe we'd figured out how to do this?
Unknown to us as we drifted into an exhausted, deep sleep, our humility was about to be reset.
Total mileage along the PCT: 864
Total mileage with detours: 921
Day 55: Sallie Keyes Lake to Bear Creek. 5 miles.
May 29th, 2017
A soggy Aussie day. Part I.
I jolted from a deep sleep and groggily sat up, clicking my headlamp on and illuminating the inside of my frost-lined tent. My stomach growled at me as I struggled to get moving, my mind feeling cloudy. I knew I was more tired than sleep could fix... more hungry than food could fix.
I could sense I was moving slower than Amped and Thor, but I didn't realize how much slower. As I exited my tent, they were damn near putting their packs on their backs! That familiar hot guilt returned as I scrambled to hurry and pack up my belongings, but they still were done almost 15 minutes before me!
Both of my teammates shuffled around, attempting to stay warm in the 20F night, patiently waiting for the slowpoke to get his shit together.
As soon as my pack was on, we started stepping up the final uphill stretch to Selden Pass. The absolute silence was only interrupted by the rhythmic sound of our metal points sinking into the hard snow with each step. I loved this part of every morning. Brilliant stars illuminated the peaks around us, challenging our senses to grasp the full beauty of our surroundings.
Our snowshoes uncompromisingly held on to any angle we attached them to, allowing us to move quickly up Selden Pass. Without even realizing it, we soon found ourselves standing atop the pass at 10,900 feet.
"Holy God, was that it?" I asked.
"Ya man, that might've been the easiest pass so far," Amped replied.
We hadn't made it off the pass yet though...
Forty yards from top of the pass, the ground disappeared beyond what looked like the edge of a cliff. Standing at the precipice of the black void, we timidly moved forward, shining our headlamps down an 80 degree ice face in front of us, with no bottom within sight. We nervously went over our options after finding the least-steep section of the drop-off. A couple sets of almost melted-out footprints appeared as deep plunge-steps down the steep slope. That definitely wasn't an option in the bullet-hard morning snow, and It was definitely too cold to just wait around until the snow softened that much
"Our snowshoes have handled everything we've thrown at them so far, why wouldn't they work here?" Amped asked the universe, which helpfully replied only with pure silence.
In his true cowboy style, Amped turned around, flipped his heel-lifters up, and stepped backwards over the lip of the cliff. The black void under his feet was an unknown distance. Would a slip just result in an exciting, but safe, slide? Or would it be worse...
Carefully, Amped stepped down the near-vertical face, truly pushing the capabilities of his snowshoes... and just plain physics. Thor began kicking in steps, attempting to step into the melted out footprints of our departed fellow hikers.
After moving down about 15 feet, Amped called up, "There's a bottom!"
After Amped and Thor were safely down the steep slope, I turned around and down-stepped along Amped's snowshoe tracks. Despite the absurd angle, my snowshoes held fast, once again proving their worth on this expedition.
All three of us arrived safely at the base of the slope, words escaping us. We all just shook our heads and laughed before heading back into the night across the Marie Lakes Basin. That had been easily the steepest slope we'd had to navigate so far. Not Forester, not Mather, not Glen, but Selden...
Our first obstacle of the day was complete, but there was a much bigger one coming up: Bear Creek.
Bear Creek was typically a knee-deep and wide creek to cross. Even in low snow years, it had the potential to sweep hikers off their feet. We arrived at the West Fork of Bear Creek, which was just snow, no sign of an actual creek. I knew there was a fool-proof way to get on the far side of Bear Creek without crossing at the trail crossing. It involved simply not crossing the West Fork, but instead walking along it and hopping across all the tributaries of Bear Creek before they all converged.
But up until this point, every major creek was still snowbridged, why would Bear Creek be different?
In a moment of ignorant complacency, I led the way across the West Fork and began the steep descent toward the trail crossing. We stopped along the way and decided we'd head straight to the creek a ways upstream from the trail crossing, so we could cross at the first stable snowbridge we'd come across.
Ya know, because there would be SO many options to choose from...
At dawn, we arrived at a steep embankment on the side of Bear Creek and spotted what looked like a snowbridged section of the creek just around a bend below us. The angle of the slope along the creek rivaled what we'd downclimbed earlier that morning... what was with today? We needed to climb down to reach the potential snowbridge, which I was confident our snowshoes could descend, but I was worried about Thor. The thinly-snowbridged West Fork was raging below us... a fall could potentially deposit a hiker directly into the whitewater.
"You think you can make it down this with your crampons?" I asked the towering Australian.
"Ya," he quietly answered with nervous eyes.
Amped shrugged and turned around, flipped up his heel-lifters, and stepped backwards off the edge of the slope. I followed, turning around and downstepping the crazy steep slope several yards above Amped. We aggressively planted each snowshoe, inserting as many metal points into the hard snow as deeply as we could. I'd become comfortable with the capabilities of the snowshoes on lower angles, but on steeper angles, I continued to push their limits and they continued to shine.
Without the same traction, Thor started down the slope toward a boulder that was partially melted out of the snow, figuring he could pause on the dry rock to rest before heading down the rest of the slope. With his toes facing downhill, his ankles were torqued uncomfortably downward from the extreme angle. One step at a time, the lumbering Aussie forced as much of his crampon points into the snow as he possibly could.
... but it wasn't enough.
Focusing on my own feet and carefully downstepping, I heard a slip follow by a panicked noise from Thor. I looked up, my eyes widening in shock as I watched Thor's right foot slide out from under him. He hit the snow sideways and began rolling down the slope... rapidly accelerating toward the creek below.
Amped and I froze and watched helplessly as our new friend rag-dolled down the snow, end over end. Thor did his best to insert his Whippet into the snow, but his 80-pound pack was calling the shots, throwing him around, preventing him from being able to self-arrest.
Thor collided with the stone he had been descending towards, but his momentum kept him rolling across the flat top of the boulder... and off the 10-foot drop on the other side.
As with many pieces of rock in the Sierra, the warm afternoons had melted the snow and ice away from the sides of the boulder, forming a dramatic knife's edge of ice on the downhill side of the rock.
In a flash of brilliant luck and pain, 170 pound Thor with his 80 pound pack spun over and landed, crotch first, directly on the knife's edge. The poor bastard finally came to a rest straddling the spine of ice and both Amped and I let out a sigh of relief. The battered Aussie let out a heavy groan and sat up, adjusting his position to remove the 250 pounds of pressure off his testicles.
Amped grimaced in just watching Thor recover, "Dude... are you alright?"
Thor stayed quiet, only looking halfway back at his teammates to give us a weak nod, then returned back to coping with the shock and pain. Amped and I didn't really know if he was actually okay or really hurt, so we all just sat in silence until Thor stood back up and started carefully down the rest of the slope.
We all convened at the base and although in some pain, Thor assured us in his quiet Australian accent that he was miraculously fine. The timid giant was obviously embarrassed and uncomfortable being the focus of our attention, so we made our way across the first snowbridge over the West Fork and walked over to the potential snowbridge over Bear Creek we'd seen from above...
"Ohhh... fuck," Amped was ahead and announced the bad news, "It's not a bridge."
What we'd seen from above had the illusion of being a snowbridge, but it wasn't connected in the middle. We couldn't see any other options from the ravine we were inside and even worse: we had to go back the way we came.
We did our best to apologize to Thor for risking his life to reach a damn dead-end, but he wouldn't have it.
"I'm good, guys," he assured us, "Let's just get back after it."
The tough bastard led the way back up the slope, which went much better than going down had went...
Continuing further downstream, I knew our odds of finding a snowbridge were lowering as more and more tributaries added water to the raging creek. We passed a single, thin log spanning a whitewater section of Bear Creek, 12 feet above the surface of the torrent. Amped glanced back at me, giving me a 'maybe' look.
We continued down the creek and I began to get more and more nervous. We reached the trail crossing as the sky was lightening enough to see how intense the rolling, black water would be to cross. It appeared... possible. But only just so.
"Let's drop our packs and keep looking," I suggested, not willing to accept that we'd be wading through the waist-deep ice water at 6 a.m.
We continued downstream, weighing our options, even sampling some small snow-bridged spots, but nothing was safe or simple enough, especially not at 25F this early in the morning. Some spots would be risky jumps across raging water, or full-body dunks in deep, slow-moving sections. We couldn't exactly afford to just hop in and swim across without a way to get warm on the other side.
Arriving back at the trail crossing, I looked over the hostile mass of water between us and the other shore. We had no idea what the actual depth was, but the current looked... doable. Lost in my thoughts, I was torn between just going for a wet crossing or demanding we all walk back uphill to cross back over the West Fork and attempt to find snowbridges upstream, which was a steep mile backtracking through tough terrain...
An Aussie accent snapped me out of my dilemma, "I'll go first."
Amped and I raised an eyebrow, but we didn't know Thor super well... maybe he'd done a lot of creek crossings in Australia? Maybe he wanted to help the group with something he was confident in?
Thor began taking off his boots, preparing to wade across... so that settled it. We were going to wade across Bear Creek.
Suspiciously quickly, Thor had his pack on and was heading toward the edge of the black water. He was wearing his camp shoes, his boots perched high on his pack. Otherwise, it appeared he was still wearing most of his normal layers still... In a hurried frenzy, Amped and I stripped down in the below-freezing morning and changed into rain gear and threw our bare feet back into our boots. Our clothes and electronics went into dry bags to allow us to theoreticaly recover from potentially being swept away...
As I finished assembling dry bags, I looked up and saw Thor step knee-deep into the freezing creek a bit downstream from the typical crossing, the rapid current rolling water up his leg and wetting his waist.
'What is he doing stepping in there?' I wondered to myself, quickly dismissing the thought, 'Maybe he found something I didn't see.'
Amped stepped into the creek at the typical crossing and made quick work until the middle of the creek where he paused, probing the questionable depth of the center of the black creek with his trekking pole. It was deep... waist-deep, at least.
I turned around and cinched down my pack, my fingers quivering from a combination of the cold and adrenaline from the looming crossing. I threw my pack on, extended my trekking poles, and looked up at my two teammates in Bear Creek. Amped had stepped down into the deepest part of the creek, struggling against the strong current, swift ice water rolling up to his chest. Something was wrong though... Amped was already past Thor.
Thor had paused about a third of the way across, waist-deep and frozen in his tracks. At this point, he'd been in the intensely cold water for a couple minutes... an eternity for a warm body trying to keep feeling in its extremities. He appeared to be staggering, visibly nervous and tremoring violently. Amped noticed Thor struggling, pausing in the middle of the creek, yelling over the roar of the creek in an attempt to guide Thor upstream to the typical crossing where the water was less deep.
An ominous thought drifted into the forefront of my mind, 'This isn't going to end well.'
Sure enough, I watched in horrified shock for the second time that day as Thor wobbled, slipped... and went into the black, rolling mass of water.
"NOOOOOO!!!" Amped yelled in dismay, "SWIM THOR, SWIM!!"
Amped's shock distracted him from his own crossing, causing him to also wobble, coming dangerously close to falling in himself. I watched, stunned, as Amped faced back upstream and released a bone-chilling growl, generated from pure terror. As Thor continued to roll downstream, tossed and turned into the relatively shallow depth by the intense current, Amped went into fight-or-flight mode and bulled his way further, and deeper, into Bear Creek.
From Amped's journal:
In a flash, Amped was standing on the other side of Bear Creek, having successfully crossed the monstrous, icy deluge, and Thor was standing in the shallow edge of the same side of the creek he'd left from, nothing in his hands. The creek had stripped him of his trekking poles, which included his self-arrest device, his Whippet.
Both were soaking wet, looking towards me in shock. None of us were close enough to hear each other speak, but we all realized we were in trouble. It was 6:30 a.m. The sun's warmth was still hours away. It was in the 20's, and two of the three of us were soaking wet, standing on opposite banks of a dangerous obstacle.
This wasn't good.