Day 56: VVR Junction to Fish Creek. 10 miles.
May 30th, 2017
A waterfall day.
We woke up later than usual, setting out to hike towards Silver Pass at 4:15 a.m.
Hard snow was usually our priority, but this morning was different. We had a few creeks to cross, but the most looming obstacle was Silver Creek. The PCT crossed the creek in the middle of a very steep face, where much of the trail had been blasted into the steep slabs of granite. This meant the potential to even be able to move up and downstream to look for a safest crossing wouldn't be there... most likely forcing a crossing at the trail no matter what we found when we arrived.
And crossing at the trail hadn't gone very well the day before...
From our camp on the trail junction to VVR, we were only a few miles from Silver Creek, and we didn't want to arrive in the dark. So with dawn just starting to reveal the outline of the peaks above us, we navigated through the patches of snow by headlamp, arriving at our first creek crossing for the day, the North Fork of Mono Creek.
The darkness masked the roaring deluge of water, but the sound made its presence known. A huge log spanned the narrow, but forceful, creek. Branches stuck out of the log, making walking across a breeze... for two of us.
The deafening sound of the creek was unnerving for Amped and I, but for Thor, it was on a whole different level after Bear Creek. Hesitantly, Thor nervously placed one uneasy foot in front of the other, delicately tightrope walking like he was high on a wire between skyscrapers, and not on a wide, dry log. On the other side of the creek, we celebrated the first, tiny victory of the day.
Moving steeply uphill, the snow disappeared for about a mile of hiking up the trail, water running down almost every bit of it. Eventually, snow returned and we paused to put our crampons on.
A dull roar was coming from a distance, and as we drew closer and closer to the massive granite cliffs above us, the roar continued to grow. Eventually it dawned on us; we were listening to the waterfall in Silver Creek... right where we'd have to cross. A lump formed in my throat as we continued toward the crossing. I was nervous about it... but I knew however nervous I was, Thor was worse.
The second crossing of the North Fork of Mono Creek was the next obstacle of the day, but after a quick search, a massive snowbridge was found just downstream from the trail crossing. We easily strolled across the bridge, all of us laughing and joking about whether Mono Creek would rank higher in difficulty than Bear Creek... It felt good to see Thor smile, especially concerning such a sensetive subject, and I prayed these crossings would be enough of a confidence boost to help him through whatever we found at Silver Creek.
Choosing to avoid the snow, we moved out onto the exposed granite slabs. Calves burning and breathing heavily, we marched up the beautiful, clean granite, wishing there was a way to use heel-lifters on dry trail... we'd become a bit spoiled by our snowshoes.
The granite ramp delivered us straight up to the blasted-in trail... and the waterfall.
During summer months, there wasn't much of a waterfall in this area. In fact, I didn't even realize the serene water rolling over smooth stones would be capable of posing much of a risk at anytime of year. In past accounts, I'd read crossings of this tiny stream turned into a strong spray across the trail that hikers went into in full rain gear, like walking into a drive-thru car wash... only less suds. Well, depending on who had been camping upstream recently, less suds.
The accounts had talked about a simple, but blind wade into a violent spray. Not an inherently dangerous crossing, but frightening nonetheless.
Nervously approaching the angry barrage, the windy mist whipped up from the jetting water tugged at our jackets and easily dropped the temperature by 10 degrees. As we stepped closer and closer to the waterfall, entering further into the freezing mist from the turbulent spray... all of us realized we weren't going to be fortunate enough to simply walk through a quick hose-down.
We were standing on a platform of snow 12 feet above the trail, the jetting spray firing off the smooth rocks above us had carved a vertical face into what must've been an impressive snowbridge weeks before. As I walked around the edge of the platform, any hope of an easy way off the snow and down onto the trail was washed away. The only way off the platform where we could step down onto rocks... was horrific.
The one rock within a safe step-down distance from the snow platform was about four feet below the edge of the snow... and directly inline with the strongest waterfall jet cascading off the rocks. To make matters worse, that jet had eroded away the ice in its path... the water disappearing into a tight, black, hellish cave.
In the carving of the hell cave, the snow remaining above the cave was a two-foot thick, four-foot long diving board... stretching out toward that one, lone boulder... a nerve-wracking four feet below the end of the diving board.
"Oh... no," I muttered to myself, glancing over at Amped with worried eyes, "I think that's our option."
Amped's eyes widened and eyebrows furrowed into a clear "fuck that" position and shook his head, unwilling to believe that the damn diving board of doom was our only way off the platform, backtracking enough to start wandering down the granite slabs in search of something else... anything else. But the three of us knew it was futile. The steep granite cliffs and cascading water were an obvious roadblock to other options. The three of us stood on the snow platform, brainstorming all options aside from stepping off the diving board into the jet...
But... there wasn't another option, and I was going first this time.
If anything bad was going to happen, it was going happen to me. Not Amped, who I had dragged along into this unknown territory. Not Thor, who was already dealing with high-strung nerves. If it was safe, I'd find that out for the group. If it was dangerous, I'd turn the group around. I was not going to watch my buddies suffer again. If this was a poor choice, I was going to feel the consequences myself this time.
Before I could talk myself out of it, or think about the helicopter button on my inReach, I dropped my pack and took out my rain pants and jacket. The violent spray of the waterfall and whipping, multi-directional winds managed to numb my hands in the seconds while I was donning my waterproof gear. Without my pack on, I moved over to the jutting prow of snow, testing its reliability before I added my 40 pound pack to the equation... and it stayed put.
I walked back to my pack and threw it on, handed Amped my trekking poles, and carefully walked to the edge of the diving board, stomping on the snow ahead of me, prodding it with my trekking poles... seeing if the hanging snow would break, but it continued to hold strong.
Planting the handle of my ice axe deep into the diving board of snow to use as a handhold, I turned around and stepped backwards off the platform, lowering myself blindly into the inconsistent spitting jet of water, searching for the rock below with my dangling right foot.
As I continued to lower myself further and further, moving past the point of return, I prayed my foot would find the rock before the prow of snow broke off... sending me into the dark hole under the ice that had been carved by the forceful stream above.
Fighting the pushing force of the water at my back, I lowered and lowered... but my foot wasn't making contact with the rock yet! I felt panic flood my brain. I was too far over the edge to get back onto the platform, but I couldn't find the damn boulder I'd spotted from the side! Had I overestimated the distance down to the rock?!
Was I going to just have to let go? Hopefully land on the rock? What were the consequences of falling into that dark hole worn in the ice? Would I pop out the other side and tumble down the granite cliffs? Would I simply end up on the trail below? Or would I get pinned under the snow by the jet of water?... Would I drown? Or would the cold kill me first?
A terrifying flash came to the forefront of my thoughts, being helplessly pinned in the claustrophobic ice hole. The powerful, choking, freezing jet of water removing my ability to cry for help... to stay warm... to breathe...
I let out a desperate, strained, "Shit.." and Amped moved closer to me and extended one of his hands, risking the diving board being able to hold both of our weight. Using his hand and the added stability, I was able to lower a tiny bit more... and felt my boot settle on the top of the slick boulder.
Letting out a sigh of relief, I settled onto the rock with adrenaline raging through me, not even feeling the cold, intense jet hosing down my entire backside. Amped handed me down my trekking poles and I sidestepped out of the main jet of the waterfall, carefully dancing across the exposed stones protruding from the swirling whitewater running down and across the rocks.
A young, dead pine tree was overhanging the rocks above the trail. All of its branches were gone, but the long, spindly trunk stretched towards me from the other side of the falls, like it was offering a helping hand to this tired hiker.
After crawling under the pine tree, freezing, but safe, on the other side, I turned and watched Amped approach the snow diving board, outfitted in his rain gear.
From Amped's journal:
With Amped and I on the other side, it was Thor's turn.
Spitting in the face of his fears, he moved over to the planted ice axe, turned around, and with visible tremors, lowered himself off the edge.
Thor was by far the heaviest person/pack combination in our group, so Amped and I watched from the other bank, willing the jutting finger of snow to stay intact while our shaken comrade clung to the tip of it, hovering over the ice cave... the results of a slip here were unknown, and none of us wanted to figure out the consequences. Especially not Thor.
"Please stay put," I muttered to the diving board as I watched Thor stretch lower and lower off the platform.
Fortunately, heavy Thor was also the tallest of all of us, and we breathed a sigh of relief as Thor's lowest foot made contact with the slippery rock below.
Dislodging my ice axe from the snow, he began precariously balancing across the slippery stones with no trekking poles for support. He was obviously nervous and with every wobble and near-loss of his balance, Amped and I cringed and shouted encouragement, attempting to out-roar the icy waterfall jets currently power-washing our Australian friend.
With trembling hands, Thor reached out and grabbed onto the helping hand tree! With one hand tasting the sweet promise of safety, he moved quickly to get his other hand on the tree... the hand holding the ice axe... my ice axe. Attempting to both hold the axe and grip the tree, I watched as my axe fumbled through his fingers and then dropped into the seething water... disappearing over the falls.
Thor's face twisted into horror as he snapped his head up to look at me, a look of pure apology on his face.
I had just watched my very expensive, very new ice axe go for a ride down Silver Creek with more steep snow to navigate ahead of us, which I knew was a problem. But Thor didn't need anything else hanging over his head, so I simply shrugged and shouted over to him, "It's not a big deal! Keep going!"
Thor returned to the task at hand, shuffling hands across the tree, and crawling under the trunk. All three of us were now standing on the other side of the waterfall, safe, but cold. Really cold. The freezing water had drenched all of us, despite our rain gear, and the wind generated by the cascading water was working on removing as much heat from us as possible.
Above us, the steep switchbacks reaching the top of the cliffs were still deeply snowed over. Although mostly shaded, the snow was in poor shape. Amped and Thor took off up the steep snow in just their boots, too cold to stop and strap on crampons or snowshoes. I paused to force myself to throw my feet into my snowshoes, more interested in getting them off my back than anything, but even the brief time standing still was enough to start shivering and lose feeling in my hands again.
I gladly stomped after Amped and Thor, slowly working my way up the steep, soft snow. We all warmed up quickly as the conditions stayed terrible to the top, demanding we fight hard for every foot of progress. Loose, slushy snow was occasionally interrupted by hard ice, creating a stressful climb for the team. There was now only one ice axe between the three of us, Amped's, and we were way deep in ice axe territory... a fall wouldn't have been recoverable without an axe... and it was a long ways down the granite slabs into the valley below.
Without trekking poles or an axe, Thor especially couldn't afford to move recklessly. So every step, he would take his time to kick with his boots, stomp to compact the snow, weight the step delicately, then move on to the next, repeating this process for the remaining 700 vertical feet we had to navigate up the 70 degree snowfield.
With everyone's nerves on edge, we hiked up above the cliffs onto low-angle snow, and into the glorious embrace of the morning sun. We all sat in the snow, soaking in the strong sun's rays, breathing out yet another sigh of relief.
We'd made it. The last big obstacle before resupplying at Mammoth was done. Thor was still alive... among others.
Sheepishly, Thor offered an apology, "Hey mate, I'm sorry about the axe. I was just trying... to hold on to.. and..."
I held up my hand, interrupting him, "It doesn't matter, bud. Shit like this happens. In the climbing world, we're constantly dropping or losing other people's expensive gear when we're at the crags. At the end of the day, we go to the local climbing shop on what we like to call an "apology stop". Whoever fumbled the gear, re-buy's those pieces for whoever's gear was lost. Let's go on an apology stop when we get to Mammoth, eh?"
Thor just smiled and went back to digging snacks out of his bear canister.... which I had just noticed was, like, 90% oatmeal packets and... wet inside?
"What's up with your food, Thor?"
He cocked a half-smile and nervously glanced up at me and back down at his canister packed with damp oatmeal packets, "From falling in at Bear Creek. I, uh... guess bear canisters aren't waterproof. Some of my food was plastic wrapped, but my oatmeal... wasn't."
Thor looked up at me with a big smile on his sun-tanned face above the solid brick of compacted, damp paper oatmeal packets, "I've got a shit-ton of oatmeal to eat."
After a rest to dry our feet and warm up, we set off uphill towards Silver Pass, the last pass before we hit Mammoth. The snow was still in decent condition in the shaded gully following up the snowed-over Silver Creek, so we made quick work up past the treeline. The terrain opened up into the gigantic, unrelenting beauty through the snowbowl under the pass. We walked by Silver Lake, which had no sign of melting out yet, marveling at the fact that Amped and I had bathed in the lake ten months earlier.
Suncups appeared in the huge, open snowfields. What typically was an ankle-wrenching nightmare in just crampons or microspikes, was entirely negated with our snowshoes. The wide surface area on our feet spanned across multiple suncups, turning the difficult terrain into just another flat stretch of snow.
But snowshoes were a mistake, remember? Mmhm. Checkmate, internet.
Our late start meant that we wouldn't be on perfect snow, but it was firm enough to make the ascent to Silver Pass fairly easy. Opting to stay off the sidehills where there was a faint path from previous hikers, Amped and I beelined for the more direct line, staying on flat snow until the steep ramps leading directly up to the pass.
Thor was a bit behind us, dealing with the suncups with only his crampons. We flipped up our heel-lifters on our snowshoes and put them to work. Counting out 20 steps at a time, Amped and I stomped out a steep, straight line up to the pass while Thor sidehilled along the previous foot track.
Soon, we found ourselves up at the pass. There was still some terrain to navigate in front of us, but we were done with the last major obstacle between us and Mammoth... the last obstacle between us and... pizza. The vast majority of our conversations were now consumed by food. What we were going to eat when we got to town, what we'd be willing to do for a cheeseburger, and so on.
Here we were, looking at Mammoth mountain in the distance, on top of Silver Pass... turning around, it was almost surreal how much of the Sierra was behind us.
But there was also much more Sierra laid out ahead of me. Amped was leaving to go home when we arrived in Mammoth, heading back to Nevada for work. Thor had had enough of the High Sierra, especially the creek crossings. He wasn't 100% decided yet, but odds were he wouldn't be moving into the North Yosemite section, home to the most dangerous creek crossings in the early season Sierra.
Looking ahead into the endless sea of white, jagged peaks, I couldn't help but feel momentarily overwhelmed. I'd hiked so far... so much had happened to us... what else did the Sierra have in store for me in that jagged sea?
Descending from Silver Pass, we encountered some of the best glissading we'd come across in many miles. A huge, thousand-foot glissade on perfectly soft snow allowed us to put the terrain behind us quickly. The steady downhill coming off the pass was textbook plunge-stepping snow. After a rapid couple miles following the snow-filled gully, we paused for some lunch at the first section of creek appearing from under giant, broken chunks of snow, allowing some needed access to liquid water.
After digging a quick snow-chair into a bank, I sat with another ghetto fish taco. I'd been eating the same lunch for weeks... but damn if they weren't getting more and more delicious as time went on.
While I was in the process of falling in hot-and-steamy love with a salmon-filled tortilla, a message came in on my inReach from Mel. It was about our South Korean friend, Fireball! She'd seen him, along with at least a dozen others, walking north along the 395! Fireball must've exited at Kearsarge Pass and decided to roadwalk around the Sierra... which was hundreds of miles of roadwalking!
That amount of dedication to roadwalking was puzzling to me... I'd had nothing against roadwalking around closed sections of trail, like the fire closures near San Jacinto and Acton. But in those cases, roadwalking was the only way I was going to maintain my continuous footpath north. But... the Sierra wasn't closed, it was just more difficult than usual. If I ever decided to bail out of the Sierra and skip an open section, my run at a continuous thru-hike would be finished, as would my motivation to keep connecting steps north. It would be time to get in a car and drive until I found a section of trail that wasn't trying to kill me. Lord knows the silver lining of that would be no more walking along highways!
But apparently, many hikers were sprinkled along the 395, opting to walk along the highway instead of the Sierra... roadwalking instead of hitch-hiking north. I figured maybe some of them were trying to connect steps from Mexico to Canada, no matter how much was on or off the PCT... but in that case, you could just head over to the western flanks of the Sierra and hop on the I-5, right? It's pretty flat, not to mention only 1,400 miles long instead of 2,650!
Whatever it was that those hikers were trying to accomplish, I had a certain amount of respect for their dedication to see it through... because I'd rather pack snow in my underwear until I died of hypothermia before I'd roadwalk along a highway for 200 miles.
Getting back to it, we wrapped up our lunch and headed down the mountain gully towards Fish Creek. The terrain allowed us to draw a straight line across the winding, switchbacked trail on perfect snow. Before long, the steel bridge across the raging Fish Creek appeared.
Snow banks were four feet tall at the entrance to the bridge, with the middle of the long bridge completely melted out. We slowly lowered onto the alien wood and steel structure and shuffled clumsily across in our snowshoes and crampons, which felt weird. I wondered, of the hundreds of thousands of hikers that had come across this bridge, how many of them had crossed in snowshoes?
I'm guessing we were in the minority.
After a strenuous, uncomfortable mile of sidehilling with our ankles jacked over to the side, we came across a snowed over campsite right next to the crystal clear creek. We'd been hoping we'd be surprised by some dry ground to camp on in the lower elevation... but there wasn't a patch of exposed ground anywhere under the dense cover of the trees.
Over the course of the afternoon, everyone's level of exhaustion had seemed to amplify. We were close to the end. The plan was to camp near Mammoth Pass junction the next day after 13 miles, then I'd leave Thor and Amped to hike the additional 12 miles to Agnew Meadows the day after, while my teammates would head into Mammoth at Mammoth Pass.
I knew some hikers were heading into Mammoth from the first possible exit at Duck Pass, but then heading back to the trail at Agnew Meadows... skipping a 20 mile stretch of the PCT. That sounded easier... but I wasn't trying to hike most of the Sierra section, I was out here to hike the entire Sierra section.
Amped and Thor weren't continuing on with me into Yosemite, so it made sense for them to hike into Mammoth at the easiest escape, through Mammoth Pass, where they'd roadwalk seven miles out to where the road was open.
The idea was for me to avoid having to hike those seven miles back into the Sierra at Mammoth Pass when I was heading back to where I left the PCT. With most of our pack weight gone, I'd hike to Agnew Meadows with as little weight on my back as possible, then hike out the easy four mile road to Mammoth... and then ransack the town's pizza supplies. That would set me up with an easy, four-mile downhill walk back to Agnew Meadows when I returned to the backcountry.
But the Sierra had other plans in store for us. A message came into my inReach from Mel: "It looks like you guys will have weather tomorrow... be careful."
Even the thought of being snowed or rained on was incredibly demoralizing at this point. We all quietly set up our tents and spent some time washing off in the creek. It seemed like a ton of work to just put words together, so we just went through our sad bear canisters in silence, inventorying every last scrap of food... every morsel had a place, a scheduled consumption date.
Well, for Amped and I, that's how it was. Thor, on the other hand, was swimming in a sea of old, wet oatmeal... of which I would've sawed off my left leg for, at the time.
Looking back, I'm pretty glad I'd left my saw at home...
Settling in for the night, all of us were dreaming of Mammoth... dreaming of warm food, cold beer, and dry feet.
"Two more days... two more days..." I whispered to myself as I easily drifted off to sleep.