The Sierra. Ninth Stretch: Mather Pass, South Fork of the Kings River to Middle Fork Junction.

Day 51: South Fork of the Kings River to Middle Fork Junction. 15 miles.

May 25th, 2017

A rhythm day.

At 2 a.m., my eyes shot open at the sound of my muffled alarm.

I hadn't slept super well. The paranoia of missing my alarm kept me tossing and turning. With every new sleeping position, I'd move my phone, trying to keep it somewhere warm, yet audible.

Almost immediately, I heard the sound of Amped rustling in his tent, followed by the click of his headlamp. I sat up and started packing. Neither of us had any issues with getting up this early if it meant we'd be walking back on hard snow.

Yesterday had taught us a borderline traumatic lesson: do whatever it takes to walk on hard snow. We couldn't mentally afford another day of miserable postholing. 

Luckily, it was cold. Really cold. Probably around 20F. Something strange had happened though... I wasn't uncomfortable. Every morning, the billowing steam emanating from each breath had been almost anxiety-producing at the thought of hiking through such brutal cold. Now, I found myself relieved at the sight of my own breath and the ice lining my tent.

'Thank God. The snow should be refrozen.' I thought to myself.

We took our time packing up, but after some coffee and Pop-Tarts we strapped on our snowshoes and started crunching our way uphill to Mather Pass.

Mather had a notorious reputation during the early season. A massive cornice typically formed on the ridgeline along the pass, overhanging the south side... the side we'd have to ascend. I'd read stories of hikers working their way up the steep snowfield and having large chunks of the cornice break off and roll down the pass, threatening to take out any unfortunate hikers like bowling pins.

We were getting to that damn pass before the sun softened that cornice.

We only had four miles to go and it was a straightforward, steady incline to the base of the pass. I followed behind Amped. My little Petzl E+lite ultralight headlamp was all I had with me, and although the light it produces is enough for camp chores and sitting around in a tent, it definitely was not ideal for night hiking.

Wait... was I really night-hiking in the Sierra?

Amped had a much stronger headlamp beam and we walked single file through the sparse trees.

From Amped's journal:

Moving over the snow and through the pines in the middle of the night can let your imagination open up to very dark places... You have to keep a lock on it to stay sane. It’s the only way to travel right now. Temperatures are rising and making travel more like a swim than a hike. It pays off ten-fold.

Just as we'd wanted, the snow was bullet-hard. The aggressive teeth on the underside of our snowshoes bit into the white crust under our feet, every step making a beautifully crisp *crunch*. Our rhythmic steps were the only sound in the desolate, black landscape. Overhead, billions of stars watched over us, emitting enough light to see the outline of the dramatic skyline of the Palisades ahead. 

We stopped briefly to take a couple layers off. Amped stared up at the crystal clear Milky Way sweeping across the sky, disappearing behind the jagged outline of 13,000 foot peaks around us, "This is fucking incredible....." 

I just smiled a nodded in agreement. The absurdity of hiking through the middle of the snow-bound High Sierra in the middle of the night wasn't lost on us... but the beauty before our eyes was mind-blowing, almost beyond our ability to process.

We'd talked about past accounts of people accidentally heading toward a false pass on the way to Mather. Sure enough, a pass appeared on the western skyline that looked like a clear, reasonable pass. It took several stops to convince Amped to keep heading past the false pass since Mather was almost invisible until we were directly under it.

The snow gently illuminated as the first hint of dawn stretched across the sky and we arrived at the base of Mather Pass.

A steep, clean sheet of ice stretched up from us for almost a thousand feet. The remnants of a single set of days-old footprints could be seen in the otherwise-flawless sheet. My mind couldn't help but wonder what happened to the owner of those fresh footprints we'd seen heading up the wrong saddle on Pinchot Pass, and then the footprints down near the South Fork of the Kings River yesterday... did they belong to the same person? Was that person alright? Shouldn't we have seen them by now?

Wind had picked up and temps had dropped as we'd gained elevation, so I decided to stop and put another layer on. A section of cliff line jutted out from the base of Mather. The warming of the exposed rock during the days had caused the snow to melt away from the cliff, forming a crevice between the snow and the rock only a few inches wide. I put my backpack down on the only flat spot I could find, right next to the rock. I peered down into the crevice, its depth hidden by blackness. I wondered how deep something like that could be...

Maybe this wasn't the best time to test it.

I took my fleece out of my pack, put it on, and then threw my backpack back onto my shoulder. I heard a plastic *click* and was vaguely aware of an object in my peripheral falling away from my chest. I quickly realized it was our GPS and emergency device, the inReach.

In a horrific flash, I watched the inReach hit the ice next to the rock and slide into the black of the crevice, out of sight before I could even react.

I just stood there. Numb. Staring at the crevice in the brutal cold and early morning wind.

What had I just done? Nobody knows what's happening... I won't be able to tell anyone what just happened. They'll only see my GPS tracking stop at the base of one of the most notorious passes in the Sierra.

'Holy shit, we're going to have to exit to prevent anyone from initiating a rescue...' I looked up at Amped, a dark shadow a hundred yards ahead of me, already part way into the ascent up Mather Pass. He was still, looking back at me, obviously wondering what the hold up was.

What had I just done?

I frantically dropped my pack again and ripped the headlamp off my head, aiming the weak beam down into the black crevice. My heart jumped at the glimpse of the orange plastic of the inReach, but sank almost just as fast. Luckily, the device was caught in a small restriction about four feet below the surface, but under and around the device was much wider. If I didn't tread carefully, the inReach might fall even further into the seemingly endless crevice.

I laid down on the snow and reached down into the crack as far as I could. I felt my middle finger graze cold plastic, but couldn't get my hand around any part of it.

The irony wasn't lost on me that the inReach wasn't in reach...

"Ughhh..." I vocalized my frustration as I grabbed my ice axe and started chipping away at the icy lip, slowly eroding a channel wide enough to allow me to reach further into the crevice. I looked up at the pass and could see Amped making his way back towards me.

White-hot guilt flooded my entire skull. The sun was coming. We'd woken so damn early to walk across good snow and here I was, using that time to dig down into that snow rather than make forward progress across it.

I laid back down on the snow, reaching down into the crevice, pushing my cheek into the hard ice. Carefully, I put my fingers around the ice-covered inReach and pulled it back up to the surface of the snow. On my knees with the inReach in my lap, I closed my eyes and took a second to let my anger and frustration simmer down.

Amped appeared, concern in his eyes, "What's the holdup, man?"

I watched him glance over at the obvious hole I'd dug, then to the snow-covered inReach in my hand. His eyes widened as he put the pieces together before he needed an explanation.

I stood up and quickly rigged a backup string and carabiner for the inReach. I threw my pack back on my back and we flipped up our heel-lifters, setting off up the steep snow with ice axes in our hands. In the dim morning light, I couldn't make out whether or not there was actually a cornice along the lip of the pass, but we aimed slightly left and above the pass, just in case.

One set of very faint footprints were the only sign of life ahead of us. We stepped along the footprints, but opted to stay just below the prints on the smooth ice where the snowshoes grabbed with impressive strength, like magnets on a sheet of iron.

The angle quickly pitched back to 60 degrees, just like the steep ice we'd encountered on Forester. We went back into our 20-steps-at-a-time mode, counting out loud every 20 steps, then pausing to rest, both of us slumped onto our ice axes, panting like dogs in the high elevation. Slowly we chipped away at the slope, doing our best not to look down at the endless slide under our feet.

Once again, we found ourselves in this rare, extreme exposure with a thousand feet of ice under our feet, no ropes to rely on, our only lifeline being the trust in the metal spikes along the underside of our snowshoes and on the tip of our axes.

We reached the pass without issue and looked down along the ridge. There was a cornice... but it was tiny. Technically, almost not even an actual cornice. Were those stories for real? I'd heard the same thing about Forester, but the cornice there was also insignificant...

Amped at Mather Pass.

Amped at Mather Pass.

Mather had been conquered... dare I say... easily? The whole list of "hardest passes" I had in my mind was being turned upside down. Forester and Mather were the beasts, the passes I had feared the most. But here we were, done with both... and Pinchot had been the most difficult so far. Freakin' Pinchot. We both agreed that even Glen had been tougher than the more notorious passes.

The Sierra wasn't going to allow us to know what was coming. Who knew what was on the way? Our next pass, Muir Pass, was typically an easy ascent... but I found that oddly terrifying.

The sun still hadn't made an appearance. Even with me throwing the inReach into an ice cavern (like an idiot), we'd still topped Mather Pass just before 6 a.m. and our early start was paying dividends. Aside from the unreal beauty of hiking through dawn in the snow-covered Sierra backcountry, the snow itself was in great condition. The hard freeze through the night had set the snow back into a consolidated, hard sheet. We strolled quickly down the steep backside, unafraid of our feet slipping on the incredible snow conditions underfoot. 

Heading down from Mather Pass.

Heading down from Mather Pass.

At some particularly steep sections, we'd turn to face the slope and use our snowshoes to downclimb the ice sheet. The snowshoes were incredible machines of utility, at home in these challenging conditions. In the hard snow, our footgear never once slipped even an inch, driving home that they were capable of so much more than what we were throwing at them.

June 2016 - Looking north toward Palisade Lakes.

June 2016 - Looking north toward Palisade Lakes.

May 2017 - Looking north toward Palisade Lakes.

May 2017 - Looking north toward Palisade Lakes.

We dropped down to the Palisades Lakes basin, the beautiful string of 13 and 14 thousand foot peaks stood like a sawblade against the sky. Both Upper and Lower Palisade Lakes were still heavily snowed over, their perfectly flat surfaces served as a highway and allowed us to make great time, almost three miles in an hour! That's a normal, hiking-on-dirt pace!

Palisade Lakes. Easy on the eyes, amirite?

Palisade Lakes. Easy on the eyes, amirite?

Zero footprints were in front of us now. Whoever was ahead of us hadn't been here for days and the sun had erased any evidence. A lone set of mountain lion prints wandered across Lower Palisade Lake, it was probably wondering where the hell all the food was. 

"I'm right there with ya, buddy," I muttered to the cat's tracks, hoping it found a meal before it found us...

Late spring avalanches alongside Palisade Lakes. 

Late spring avalanches alongside Palisade Lakes. 

Looking back at Palisades Lake Basin.

Looking back at Palisades Lake Basin.

Amped walking across the Palisade Lakes Highway.

Amped walking across the Palisade Lakes Highway.

Bizarre, deep cracks wound through the surface of the lakes.

Bizarre, deep cracks wound through the surface of the lakes.

We walked along the Palisade Creek drainage, eventually dropping down to the infamous Golden Staircase. Normally, this section is a series of steep switchbacks, but today the switchbacks were mostly snow. We took a break, looking out at the short pieces of uncovered switchbacks and the much longer sections of viciously steep snow. We figured switching to crampons and attempting to link dry patches of trail would be our best bet.

You ever make a shitty bet? 

Headed toward the Golden Staircase with Palisade Creek somewhere underfoot...

Headed toward the Golden Staircase with Palisade Creek somewhere underfoot...

With our crampons on, we stepped up to the first snow chute across the trail. The snow was 70 degrees, maybe even steeper. Both of us started across the chute, instantly wishing we had left our snowshoes on. We pointed our crampons downhill and carefully sidestepped, but soon we found ourselves in the center of the channel, where the angle was the steepest. 

Below us was a narrow, rock-lined ice chute. A slip would send us pinballing down the chute, likely before our axes could stop us. I nervously looked down at my feet, the crazy angle pulling my toes what looked like straight down. I started disengaging one set of crampon points and felt the other foot start to slide. Quickly, I reset all crampon points and regained my balance, instantly feeling stuck on the steep slope.

We weren't going to make it across the chute.

We were in over our heads.

In classic Amped fashion, he calmly vocalized our predicament with a concise, "Well this is fucked."

He promptly sat down and disengaged his crampon spikes, immediately initiating a slide down the narrow chute. I watched in half-worry, half-astonishment as the crazy bastard accelerated rapidly down the snow. Turning over, he dug his ice axe into the slope sending a fireworks-display of snow and ice into the air. The angle was steep enough to ignore the efforts of the ice axe to stop him, but the drag allowed for Amped to control the speed of his slide until he finally came to rest at the bottom of the chute.

June 2016 - Looking down-canyon from the Golden Staircase.

June 2016 - Looking down-canyon from the Golden Staircase.

May 2017 - Looking down-canyon from the Golden Staircase.

May 2017 - Looking down-canyon from the Golden Staircase.

I just laughed, relieved he was alright, but chose to stay on my feet. Slowly, I kicked my crampons firmly into the snow and downclimbed into the chute, rather than across it. My rock climbing instincts told me to get to bare rock, so I hopped off the ice to the cliff-line and began downclimbing the rock lining the chute. The crampon points on rock scratched like nails on a chalkboard, but firmly held onto the granite ledges.

Amped strolling below the Golden Staircase. He's directly above Palisade Creek in this photo.

Amped strolling below the Golden Staircase. He's directly above Palisade Creek in this photo.

Amped was way ahead of me, but I slowly made my way down, linking and downclimbing patches of bare rock until I was on an angle mellow enough to book it towards him. We stood there safely at the bottom of the Golden Staircase, our goal for the day... and it was only 830.

*Note: This video doesn't demonstrate the right way to self-arrest. But to be fair, Amped wasn't using the ice axe in an emergency arrest, just as a tool to add some drag to check his speed while glissading on a safe slope. Check YouTube for some good self-arresting videos.*

 

"We should've been waking up this early the whole time," Amped pointed out.

I nodded in agreement, "I guess we just keep going then? The snow is still really good."

Many waterfalls cascading down the canyon walls, the water disappearing under the snow.

Many waterfalls cascading down the canyon walls, the water disappearing under the snow.

After a peanut-butter M&M-fueled break, we continued into the trees down Palisade Creek, which finally made a raging appearance from under the heavy blanket of snow. We wound our way through the rolling snow drifts along Palisade Creek for a few miles. Navigation was easy knowing we just had to stay next to the creek and continue downhill. The further we walked, the more raging Palisade Creek became. Even though we knew we didn't have to cross it... the sound alone kept the hair on the back of our necks standing tall.

Eventually, more and more exposed ground appeared, although all of it was sopping wet. We continued in our snowshoes, attempting to link snow patches as far down the canyon as possible. After walking through a grassy marsh for 100 yards, we decided that maybe snowshoes weren't the optimal choice... So we sat down and switched back to just boots.

Dry trail! I could kiss you!

Dry trail! I could kiss you!

Unfortunately, the snow had melted away just before a huge burned section with many fallen trees littering the trail, but still appeared in large drifts to obscure the trail. Snow does this wonderful thing where it melts away from buried logs, creating open voids under the surface of the snow. 

In other words, we were in posthole heaven, or as I like to call it: hell.

We plunged and struggled our way across the treefall section, doing our best to stay on top of the snow, but failing miserably. Finally, enough snow melted away for us to step on dry trail. And by "dry", I mean "I-should've-brought-a-tube-and-a-beer-because-it-was-a-damn-river".

Swimming down the trail.

Swimming down the trail.

Another form of torture had appeared. Previous long days roasting in the afternoon sun reflecting off the snow had burned my upper lip, earlobes, and the inside of my nostrils. Those burns had blistered and now had cracked, opening up a few weeping cracks that kept barely healing, then cracking back open any time I'd eat, wipe my nose, talk, breath etc.

Ya know, all those optional things.

We sat next to the raging creek for lunch. Every time I'd open my mouth to take a bite out of my delicious ghetto fish tacos, my delicately-healed lips would crack back open, making eating a tear-producing endeavor. The worst part was, I was starving. We both were. We'd packed a lot of food, knowing this was coming, but it wasn't enough. After every meal we'd stare at our bear cans, unsatisfied. We'd eat until our mouths were painfully raw, but still couldn't calm the intense hunger pangs.

Despite my irritations, we splashed our way down trail, making great time. The aftermath of winter had left many plants, trees, and shrubs littered across the trail. We did our best to pull back the bigger, easy stuff to help the hikers that would follow us.

I've definitely hiked down more obvious trails...

I've definitely hiked down more obvious trails...

At noon, we arrived at Middle Fork Trail Junction, the lowest point on the trail before we'd have to start moving uphill towards Muir Pass. We'd hiked 15 miles... and it was, dare I say... easy? We felt like we'd figured something out, like we'd found the key to unlock this journey of ours.

We'd found our rhythm.

The snow had been SO good the entire day. Sunrise in the Palisades had been incredible to witness. We hadn't been roasted by the afternoon sun. Then here we were, drying clothes and charging electronics in the strongest sun of the day. Neither of us were exhausted, neither of us were injured, and we were both in a good mood still!

It was almost a bit weird, to be honest...

Doing some sorely-needed laundry in the warm afternoon.

Doing some sorely-needed laundry in the warm afternoon.

Amped and I set up camp in a decent dry patch. We were talking and laughing with each other, enjoying our small victory for the day when we heard a strange noise approaching camp...

*Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch*

Both of us stopped talking and went silent. Were those... footsteps?? 

We hadn't seen another human in days, but from around the corner a tall hiker appeared. His impressively large pack was only rivaled by the extreme tan on his exposed arms, neck, and face. Erratic lines of peeling skin and red, cracked lips told a story of a fellow hiker being torn apart by the elements.

"Ay guys. You mind if I drop my pack 'ere for the night?" the stranger softly asked in a thick, Austrailian accent.

We were so excited to see another person out here and he instantly became part of our team before we even knew his name. As he set up his tent, we probed him with questions, trying to get to know our new best friend. He'd nervously shift his eyes and quietly answer our questions with quick, minimal responses. We quickly realized he was a pretty introverted, quiet guy.

That doesn't mean we didn't need to know important things, like when his birthday was, or how many balloons and strippers he wanted at the party.

We figured out that Thor's footprints had been the fresh prints we'd seen over the last couple days. He'd accidentally went over the wrong pass at Pinchot and then camped in the trees before Mather, where we'd passed by his tent in the night without seeing it.

He introduced himself as Mark. When I pressed him for a trail name, he sheepishly replied, "It's Thor."

Ha. Of course it was.

Apparently, our lovable new buddy was in a bar with some fellow hikers and his Australian accent was attracting the ladies left and right. Awkward Thor didn't seem like the kind of guy who's spent a lot of time in the bar scene, so the interactions between Thor and the bar flies was apparently fun for the other PCT hikers to watch, however jealous they might've been...

As Thor's best friends, Amped and I certainly wished we could've seen this in person.

Thor's bar friends started calling him Chris Hemsworth, the devilishly good-looking Australian actor who plays the lead role in the movie, Thor. They shortened the nickname to just 'Thor', and a trail name was born.

From Amped's journal:

When there is a lack of human presence, if you find another person you automatically gravitate towards them. They become part of your clan simply because they are human. This afternoon, we had another PCT hiker from Australia come into camp. We immediately welcomed him to camp and hike with us. Even though he may have been a bit socially awkward, the Aussie was accepted.

Thor asked us a chilling question, "You guys see the 'help' message Breeze etched in the dirt?"

Amped and I looked confused enough for our new friend to explain, "I don't know what happened to him, but there was a message in the dirt at Whitney Creek that said: 'Help. Hiker Breeze 1 mile' with an arrow pointed east... was just curious if you'd come across him or not."

We both just shook our heads and sat in silence for a minute. This year was a dangerous year to hike through the Sierra, no doubt. The PCT had more people attempting a thru-hike than ever before. The grim reality was that fatalities were likely... almost guaranteed. Was Breeze the first?

We had a couple small conversations, enjoying the company of another human. Our excitement of adding another member to our family was abated when we told him we were going to wake up at 3 a.m., to which Thor replied, "Uh, ya... I'm not doing that."

We kept the offer open, but both Amped and I were wondering whether we'd actually be spending much time with Thor in the future... He'd already made it this far all by himself, an incredible feat. Maybe he was better alone?

We settled into our sleeping bags with the sun still in the sky, allowing us to fall asleep in the warm afternoon temps that we knew would plummet below freezing once the sun went down.

A third tent!

A third tent!

From Amped's journal:

Most importantly, our morale is high. Today is a day you truly understand the spirit of the trail. All the aches and blisters and the growling stomach noises subside because you are nourished by some of the most beautiful places the world has to offer... Yes, today was done right.

Total mileage along the PCT: 827

Total mileage with detours: 883


In the Tenth Stretch:

"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.

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