Day 57: Fish Creek to Mammoth. 20 miles.
May 31st, 2017
A pizza-march day.
My alarm went off at 3 a.m., as planned.
I opened a groggy eye and shut off my alarm. Rolling over and groaning as I sat up, I immediately felt like something was off.
"It's... warm," I croaked to myself.
I'd slept super well, not suprising with the higher temps overnight coupled with my thorough exhaustion. I enjoyed the comfort of rolling up camp without numb fingers and frozen boots, but I knew this morning was coming at a price...
Warm nights meant shit snow. Warm nights also usually meant bad weather was rolling in.
Sure enough, just from shuffling around camp, we could all tell the snow was going to suck. It was almost as soft as when we'd gone to bed yesterday afternoon. Strapping on my snowshoes, I looked up and noticed Amped speedwalking into the dark forest beyond camp.
"Damn, already?" I called after him.
"I know! Sorry, guys. It's all the food we've been packing in!" Amped called over his shoulder.
Thor was packed up and ready to go, but once he saw Amped trotting out for an early-morning dump, he dropped his pack and shuffled in the opposite direction.
We'd been eating a ton. Not to mean we were all full, because eating and being full were two completely separate animals these days. Figuring we were within a safe striking distance of civilization, we'd went ahead and eaten the rest of our emergency rations the night before. Essentially, that meant we'd eaten two giant dinners... which logically meant we'd be really full.
Not the case.
After dinner, I could feel a heavy mass of half-hydrated potatoes and red sauce pasta sitting inside of me... but I hadn't even been satiated. I could've eaten the same two dinners again! Logic was my only tool to reassure myself that I wasn't going to starve... Hunger was driving me crazy at all times, even after packing myself with food. I just had to reason with myself, 'Theoretically, there's no way you can starve with three pounds of calorie dense food inside of you.'
Thor had been on a mission to get through his soggy oatmeal supplies from water getting into his bear canister in Bear Creek, but you can't eat eight packets of oatmeal several times each day and not expect your digestive system to be working overtime...
And if oatmeal really is as heart-healthy as the boxes say, we need to get science and Thor together sometime soon... because that boy's chance of cardiac issues must be the lowest on the damn planet.
I had also eaten a ton the day before, but my system seemed to be the most stressed for food. I was pounding in what felt like an absurd mass of calories every day... but I was only pooping every couple days. It wasn't like I was waiting to give birth to record-shattering turds out there, either. Pretty much every poop ended with a disappointed scowl.
Once again, if I knew all that Navy and college business was going to lead to scowling at small poops in the woods... probably would've made some easier life choices along the way.
Once my teammates had offloaded their little buddies, we set off on the rolling snow. The 1000 vertical feet of switchbacks crawling out of Tully Hole was usually a dry-and-hot experience, so I prayed we'd find the trail snow-free . But as we got closer, it became clear we weren't going to be that lucky.
The entire slope had some peppered dry spots... but nothing had frozen overnight, so we fought our way up the steep slope through a garbage combination of loose snow and muddy soil. Without any hard snow or ice to bite into, our crampon points only served as resistance to the sliding snow and mud. Weak snowbridges over small, hidden streams became a constant obstacle, making for repeated postholing through the snow and into the running mud and water below, once again ensuring we'd start our day off with wet feet.
"Ughhh," Amped growled at the slurry under his feet, sliding back one foot for every two of progress he made, "Why isn't it colder??"
The same thought had been running through my mind, as well. I paused to reflect back on our coldest mornings... how miserable it had been to crawl out of our warm sleeping bags in the dark. But the severe cold rewarded us with amazing snow to hike across. This morning had certainly been nice conditions to wake up in... but damn, it wasn't worth the crap snow.
We eventually reached the high saddle above Tully Hole as the sky began to lighten. Looking up as we hiked across the wide saddle, it dawned on us that we were in for it. Gusting, multi-directional winds had picked up, stirring the thick, dark clouds above us.
"I don't think we're going to get out of being rained on today, fellas."
The early morning trudge out of Tully Hole and the impending threat of a wet hiking day was put behind us as the frozen Virginia Lake came into view... below one of the most spectacular sunrises we had seen yet.
Small patches of sun broke through the stirring, black mass above us, igniting patches of billowing clouds into bright pinks, reds, and purples. The colors and patterns in the sky shifted quickly from one mind-blowing display to the next, challenging our capability to process such incredible beauty.
The flat surface of the frozen lake allowed us to stroll ahead with our eyes on the sky above us, not having to worry about watching where we were stepping. For the seventieth time, I wished I had a better camera with me... but also for the seventieth time, I remembered how much I enjoyed not carrying two extra pounds on my already-overweight pack.
Amped suddenly took off in a sprint across the lake. Confused, I watched as he awkwardly shuffled across the hard surface with his bouncing pack on his back. Once on the other bank, he turned around and shouted, "I just wanted to be able to say I ran across Virginia Lake."
Thor and I both just shook our heads and continued to enjoy the beautiful morning. The visual display and the shortcut across the lake had boosted morale... which was good, because our ability to maintain positive morale was about to challenged.
The brilliant colors disappeared from the sky as we departed Virginia Lake, the bright reds and purples faded to a thick, black blanket overhead. Thunder growled overhead as we headed toward Purple Lake. Now over 10,000 feet, the snow condition had improved from the colder temps overnight. We made quick work down to the lake, crossing its outlet on the little footbridge, the only sign of trail we'd seen that day.
I knew our ankles were in for a nightmare today. This section of trail between Purple Lake and Mammoth Pass was typically an easy, flat stroll across a trail dug into a fairly steep hillside. But with the trail snowed over, only the unrelenting 40 degree snow slope remained. Ten miles of it.
As we crawled out of the small Purple Lake basin, wildlife footprints appeared. We hadn't seen any signs of animals for several days, but leading to Purple Lake we passed a set of mountain lion prints, followed by small bear prints the size of my fist... which were alongside much bigger prints, the size of my head.
Making quick work of the first several miles across the sloped snow, we crossed the junction to Duck Lake, where we could see all of the fading footprints we'd been following headed out of the Sierra toward Duck Pass. This was the first exit point to head into Mammoth, but it was also the longest exit, around eight miles until hikers could reach a plowed road.
Looking at the footprints headed to the glorious pizza-and-beer-filled wonderland, I felt a surge of jealous... panic, almost. We were standing eight miles from rest. Eight miles from warmth. Eight miles from endless food. Eight miles from Melanie. We could be sitting down in a heated truck in five hours...
Were we really going to continue?
I knew the most efficient plan was to hike with my lightest possible pack to the easiest exit/entry point near Mammoth, which was in 20 miles at Agnew Meadows. Agnew Meadows was also an easy four miles of snow-free, paved road in and out of Mammoth instead of eight snowy, steep miles through Duck Pass... but my exhaustion and never-ending hunger was trying their best to throw all logic out the window.
So then... why was seemingly everyone in front of us all walking out Duck Pass? It was the first exit for anyone who was in trouble and needed to get out of the backcountry before the further Mammoth exits... but it was also definitely the least efficient choice for returning to the trail. Were all the hikers ahead bailing out of the Sierra? Or maybe they were all choosing to skip the 20 miles between Duck Pass and Agnew Meadows?
Fighting every shred of base instinct screaming at me to exit the Sierra, I turned to look ahead along the steep hillside, stepping past the junction for Duck Pass.
Like a scene from an old-school cartoon, my trail-devil popped up on my shoulder, demanding I quit my silly quest to connect steps to Canada. 'What are you doing?!' the red, pointy-horned little guy demanded, 'Almost guaranteed, if you skipped this next section, you'd be able to still tell everybody you 'hiked the Sierra' and no one would know the difference. You realize you'd get to exit right now, hike 20 miles less, and re-enter the backcountry at an easier trailhead? Don't be stupid, nobody would know!'
Looking down at my snowshoed steps, I quickly responded to my cartoonish hallucinations, "I'd know."
I took one last longing look back at the hillside heading up towards gluttony and places to sit not made of snow, then turned to face the upcoming seven miles of sidehilling before camp at the junction for Mammoth Pass where Thor and Amped would leave me in the morning.
But once again, the Sierra wasn't going to accept our silly hiker plans.
The dark, rumbling clouds above us began to sink into the canyon we were walking along, enshrouding the peaks around us as the grey ceiling above lowered further and further. The clouds had held back all morning, but to add salt to the wound, rain drops began to fall with Duck Pass still visible behind us.
"Faaantastic," I muttered sarcastically.
Thor and Amped actually had the option of hiking out at Duck Pass. After all, I was the only one in the group concerned with exiting to Mammoth efficiently, because I was the only one coming back into the mountains after a few zero's. But these two were teammates to the bitter end, both stoically turning their backs to Duck Pass in solidarity with their stubborn, hangry buddy, even as raindrops began to fall.
Cliffs protruded from the hillside coming up from the outlet of Duck Lake. Consulting our GPS, we realized we were below the trail by several hundred yards and set off uphill to get on top of the cliffs. The south-facing rocks had obviously absorbed a ton of heat on clear days, so the snow was melted away from the cliffs by several feet in most places. This became an issue as we needed to get from the snow, up onto the rocks to reach the trail... but the gap between the two was going to be a challenge to get across.
Amped led the way up to the cliffs, where at one point, it seemed there was still a spot where snow extended over the gap and was still bridging over to the rocks. By this point, we all knew to be weary of snow next to rocks... It was usually soft and had the potential for big voids under the surface of the snow.
Unfortunately, by this point we were also too exhausted and pizza-deprived to think straight.
Amped stepped out onto the snowbridge with one of his huge snowshoes, which seemed solid... until he went to move the other foot, shifting most of his weight onto the snowbridge and suddenly, Amped's right leg, snowshoe and all, vanished under the snow. His body came to a jarring halt only once his groin made contact with the snowbridge, his right snowshoe dangling in the void below.
Thor and I stayed back and watched as Amped attempted to push himself up with his left hand, which also postholed into the decaying snowbridge! Time slowed to a crawl as we watched the entire snowbridge begin to shift and collapse with our comrade entagled in the snow. In desperation to get onto solid ground, Amped bunched up his left leg, reaching out to a patch of bare rock to his left, then kicked all 230 pounds of him as hard as he could towards the rock platform to his right.
Clinging to the rock slabs he had been trying to reach in the first place, half in and half out of the snow, his momentum came to a rest. Carefully, he crawled his way off the crumbled snowbridge. Looking down under the snow, he looked back at us, "Jesus! There's like 12 feet of air under the snow there!"
Thor and I headed back the way we came to find a safer path to the top of the cliffs. We'd all heard rumors about room-sized voids under the snow... but that was the first time we'd actually seen one... and I knew they'd only become more prevalent as the days became warmer and the snow kept melting.
We got back to our ankle-wrenching trudge across the sloped snow as rain continued to fall. The hard snow began softening as it became saturated with rain, turning our walking surface into loose garbage on an already-exhausting slope, rapidly draining our morale. Our pace slowed to a sub-one-mile-per-hour crawl as we carefully kicked our metal points into the slush, one miserable foot at a time, futilely attempting to sink them deep enough to resist sliding down the steep, endless slope to our left.
The grey ceiling above us continued to lower until we were also enshrouded in the storm. Temps dropped into the 30's... and kept lowering as the rain picked up. All of us were fully sheathed in rain gear, staring at the slush in front of us, marching in a silent line.
Even while moving, it was hard to stay warm. Water slowly seeped into our clothes, working to remove any shred of heat we were able to produce. I'd been in these conditions before, and I knew we had a very real threat in the miles ahead: freezing rain.
Freezing rain is rain at or near 32F, and is one of the worst weapons mother nature yields against humans in the outdoors. A little colder, and the rain turns to snow, which rolls right off jackets. A little warmer, and it's easy enough to just stay wet and warm while you keep moving. But freezing rain... is a monster.
Amped and I had been chased out of the Sierra on a training hike in February by freezing rain. While we continued to hike, we had been able to stay warm enough... but even just pausing to remove/add layers or God forbid, eat a snack, the evaporative cooling from our body's moisture or the cold rain water on our skin had removed our body heat dangerously fast. We had been forced to turn around and death-march back out to a road where Melanie could get to us. Both of us had been numb in almost every extremity, the thought of even trying to set up camp had seemed impossible.
I wasn't looking forward to reliving that day. I'm sure Amped felt the same.
As we continued toward Mammoth Pass, following a set of deer prints that incredibly seemed to be walking almost dead-on along the PCT... on top of ten feet of snow, I noticed my Marmot Precip jacket was... wetting out. I could swear water was getting through the jacket, but I brushed the thought off as paranoia. It was a rain jacket, right? Rain can't get through a jacket specifically designed to keep rain on the outside of said jacket, right??
In my tiny bubble, staring at my snowshoed steps through the black, peripheral outline of my rain jacket's hood, I had nothing else to think about... aside from food. I was starving. There was trail mix in my waist belt pocket... but I didn't dare stop to pull it out for fear of cooling off too much. This wasn't a training hike. We were still at least 12 exhausting, death-marchy hours from help, not a place to freeze out any limbs.
But my stomach protested every step. My mind wouldn't stop, relentlessly commanding me to stop and eat... but my base instinct to stay warm kept my feet moving, one in front of the other, mile after torturously slow mile.
I daydreamed about the food I would conquer in Mammoth in exquisite detail. I could almost taste the warm, savory juices of my future bacon avocado cheeseburger... the crisp, slightly charred pizza crust under stringy, melted cheese, pepperoni, and mushrooms...
My mouth watered and my stomach growled as I tormented myself, but I couldn't help it. The idea that tomorrow we'd be driving, not even walking, through an endless supply of warm, delicious food in civilization was impossible to ignore. Besides, there was nothing else better suited to distract me from the heavy treading, slushy snow, and the rain that was somehow working its way inside of my mother f^%&$*& jacket... slowly leeching my body heat away in the lowering temps.
We crossed the 900 mile marker, rather we walked above the buried marker, which I figured would be a good spot to stop, maybe build a little marker to celebrate 200 miles in the snow, maybe have some lunch... but none of us were going to stop. All of us wanted a rest to enjoy our lunch, to take a break from the awful snow conditions and relax, but we all knew that stopping would allow the near-freezing temps to saturate our wet clothes. The heat we were producing from moving... was the only thing keeping us safe.
The ankle-torturing sidehilling finally stopped as we wound our way through thick forests and snowed-over creeks. Bear prints began criss-crossing our path, over and over again. Mammoth has always been a hot spot for bears, so I wasn't super surprised to see prints as we neared Mammoth Pass. From the look of the prints sprawling through the pines, both Mama and baby bears were awake, which meant it was time to be more careful with our food. Oddly, today was the first sign of bears I'd seen on the trail... which was a difficult thing to pull off after 200 miles in the Sierra.
We arrived at the junction for Mammoth Pass, our campsite for the night. Rain continued to come down and the temps had settled in the low 30's.
"It doesn't look like we're going to be fortunate enough to get snowed on," I said to my drained team, "It looks like it'll be cold rain, at least until we get camp set up."
No one replied.
In auto-pilot, we found the biggest tree in the area to shelter the three of us... but it wasn't quite enough. Less rain was coming through the tree's branches, but the drops that were collecting on the pine needles were much bigger, falling down onto the sad pile of hikers below.
Dropping our packs in the slush, I felt drenched inside of my suspicious rain jacket. Unzipping the jacket momentarily to look.... yep. Drenched.
"Well, this isn't great," I said, staring at my soaking wet thermal while I felt the warmth being rapidly stripped from my body.
We hadn't been moving fast enough to be sweating that hard. My jacket had failed. Even after renewing the waterproofing on the jacket before Kennedy Meadows. Although I had read over and over again that the super-light DWR jackets aren't fully waterproof, I hadn't seen it for myself... but I was learning it right now... the hard way.
Not knowing what else to do, I put my wet layers back on and bundled myself up the best I could. My stomach overruling my shivering, I pulled out my bear canister along with Thor and Amped.
Shuffling through the unappealing, heavily rationed contents of my bear canister with numb fingers, even the effort to open my last salmon packet seemed unbearable. Soaked to the bone, thoroughly cold, and sitting in the saturated slush that used to be snow, we all remained silent, staring at the last pathetic bits of food we had in our bear canisters.
Amped broke the silence, "You really want to continue on from here?"
I could see in both of their eyes that they were done. Over the cold and snow. Ready to go home.
I replied, "I absolutely don't want to continue... but if I don't get to Agnew Meadows, and we instead exit right now through Mammoth Pass, I'm going to have to come back in from Mammoth Pass. That's an extra three miles of snow travel going both in and out, not to mention the extra day of food I'd have to carry to make it from Mammoth Pass to Agnew Meadows on my first day back on trail... It's not a good idea for me to exit with you guys... right?"
Rain continued to fall above our half-assed shelter as the three of us discussed our options from behind the constant drips running off the brims of our hoods. Mammoth was still a disappointing seven slushy miles away, with everyone already exhausted from the relentless sidehilling all day.
Everything was wet. Everyone was cold. Setting up camp would be a monumental task through our numb fingers and low morale.
The temperature continued to drop, continuing to shift the rain storm into a freezing rain storm... and driving the point home: we weren't camping here tonight.
It was time for a classic death march... to pizza.
"Fuck it. Let's get out of here," I said to my battered team.
Morale instantly skyrocketed. If we were leaving tonight, that meant we could eat the rest of our food rationed for dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow!
Amped kicked on the Jetboil, slinging cup after cup of boiling water for all three of us. In our dismal, soggy snow pit in the middle of the woods, we feasted on our bear cans, finally releasing our willpower and eating every last calorie we had to consume. We socked away all the coffee, soup, and of course, oatmeal, that we had into our bellies, then threw our packs back on and headed away from the PCT, bee-lining for Mammoth Pass.
From Amped's journal:
Before we'd made it more than a half-mile, Thor pulled over and quickly dropped his pack, "I gotta stop guys," he urgently stated, digging the trowel from his backpack for the second time that day and shuffling quickly into the woods, calling back over his shoulder, "It's all the damn oats!"
Amped and I just laughed, enjoying the day again, knowing that no matter how cold we were, how drenched we got... that we were going to be face-to-face with a pizza today.
All hopped up on pepperoni anticipation, we quickly contoured around hillsides heading up to the small pass. Bright blue cross-country ski markers guided us through the forest, a welcome break from navigating with our GPS. Soon, we'd topped Mammoth Pass and began heading downhill toward Mammoth Lakes Basin, an extremely popular and busy cluster of lakes... typically.
After we strolled past McCloud Lake, a steep downhill section led us to Horseshoe Lake. The usually-teeming lake and parking lot were deserted and still under six feet of snow! The pit toilets were completely snowed in, to the point where stepping off of the snow and onto the roof was still possible! And it was almost June!
Cell signal returned, so I got ahold of Melanie to let her know we'd be in earlier than we'd expected. We walked along the snowed over road, enjoying ski markers, traffic signs, tourist marquees, and other signs of civilization.
Cutting through the snowy forest, we slid down into a small group of cabins. Loud, heavy-metal music emanated from one cabin with a cooler filled with beer sitting on the porch... The sound, the sighting of beer... all of it felt so alien, so exciting.
We all proudly walked three-wide across the road as it transitioned from snow to asphalt. We'd done it. The High Sierra were done... And hell, Thor was still alive! We had morbidly joked that we wouldn't be able to look back and laugh at all the horrific Thor moments if the guy wasn't alive when we got to Mammoth. But here we were, walking next to our very-alive, oatmeal-packed Aussie teammate.
It was time for some beer, stories, and laughs.
After a quick stop next to a cabin to remove our snow traction for the last time as a team, a couple bundled up in the chilly, grey afternoon noticed the plethora of metal points protruding from the outside of our ragged, wet packs and offered a friendly, "Hey guys, enjoy your hike?"
Involuntarily, all three of us laughed out loud.
'God dammit...' I thought, 'What's the answer to that question?... Did we enjoy our hike? The highs were so high... but the lows were just as low.'
With a half-smile, I simply replied, "It was great, thank you."
Confused by our delight at the question, he asked, "Where'd you guys start your hike?"
He probably was expecting us to reply with a starting location somewhere nearby, so his eyes widened in disbelief when Amped pointed back into the jagged, white backcountry and replied, "Kennedy Meadows, about 200 miles that way."
"That's incredible!! Congratulations!" he exclaimed, immediately shaking all three of our hands, then handing his phone to his girlfriend, demanding he get a picture with us.
We all smiled and enjoyed our minute of celebrity status. Even if it was just with one tourist in Mammoth, we were a pretty big deal now... Hopefully we'd be able to fight through the paparazzi enough to reach Melanie.
Bewilderingly, Mel was the only member of the paparazzi who showed up. Outside the locked gate leading up to Mammoth Lakes Basin, our big, silver truck came into view in the plowed-out parking lot . With a big, beautiful smile, our trail angel appeared from the driver's side of the truck. An equally big (but debatably as beautiful) smile grew across my face. We'd never talked about it, but it wasn't guaranteed I'd see that beautiful smile again... and as long as I live, I'll never forget it.
Armed with donuts and hot chocolate for the three of us, Mel rushed us into the warm truck, "So... how're you guys feeling??"
With three giant, dumb smiles on our faces, we sat silently... not really sure where to even start.
"Well..." I started slowly, "Thor's still alive..."
We all laughed and opened up an onslaught of stories, telling Mel all the details of our trip. None of it had felt outside of our control while we were out there, but now it seemed absurd as we brought the scenes of the endless snow and raging creeks back to life.
At Zpizza in Mammoth, one of our favorite pizza joints in the area, we arrived ready to consume every calorie in the establishment. Amped ordered two pitchers of beer and two gigantic, extra-large pizzas, piled with savory meats and crisp, real vegetables.
Once it came to our table, all conversation halted as the three of us went to work, easily clearing the two pizzas and pitchers, merely satisfied, not even full.
Not wanting to get in the way, Mel ordered a separate, small pizza.
We ate that too. Well... the part she let us eat.
Pippen, A past thru-hiker I had met once before at the hostel in Bishop, walked into the pizza joint, immediately recognizing fellow hikers, "Holy shit, did you guys just come out of the Sierra??"
The three members of Team-Keep-Thor-Alive proudly nodded.
Pippen bought us all a beer and congratulated us, hanging out to ask us some questions about what we'd experienced in a very different snow year than what he had hiked several years before.
With full bellies for the first time in a couple weeks, we sat silently in the truck as we drove toward where Mel had parked the trailer near Crowley Lake, our usual home for the summers. Somberly reflecting on our journey, each of us would catch each other's eyes and smile with pride and relief.
From Amped's journal:
Back at the campsite, I sat by myself on the concrete picnic table, staring into the mountains above camp.
Amped and Thor were done with the Sierra. Amped would be home within a couple days, headed back to work. Thor (for some reason) was done with the swollen creeks, which the next section in Yosemite was notorious for, so he was skipping ahead past the crossings. And at that moment... I was jealous.
I wanted it to be over. I was exhausted... drained... sore... I was done, too!
'No,' I corrected my own thoughts, 'You're not done until you're standing in Canada.'
While I was jealous of the easier days ahead for Thor and Amped, I was also fired up. We'd learned so much out there. I was so much more comfortable on the snow than I had been a couple weeks ago. Part of me was ready for the next challenge. Ready to pit myself against the notorious rivers in Tuolumne.
Although I was losing my teammates, I wouldn't be alone. Steve, who had helped resupplied us at Kearsarge Pass, was joining me for the next stretch. He didn't have any snow experience outside of what he'd learned during the resupply, but was a very experienced rock climber with a level head and a positive attitude.
I'd had a big smile on my face since we'd stepped onto asphalt earlier that day, but that smile had disappeared in sober thought. The majestic peaks stood like a fortress in front of me in the dusk light. The unfeeling, granitic giants loomed high above our camp. It felt almost more intimidating being outside of the range than it had felt hiking through it...
I posed a question to the Sierra gods, perched thousands of feet above me, looking down on the puny human from their granite fortresses, "How much more are you going to let me get away with?"