Day 55: Bear Creek to VVR Junction. 10 miles.
May 29th, 2017
A soggy Aussie day. Part II.
Thor walked up to me from the bank of Bear Creek in obvious shock. Wearing only his soaked t-shirt in the freezing morning, he appeared disoriented, confused... yet oddly calm. Incredibly, he wasn't shivering, and with glazed-over eyes he matter-of-factly informed me, "I lost my trekking poles..."
"Jesus, dude. This is a nightmare, we need to get you warm!"
Thor blankly looked at the ground in front of him, "My clothes are wet. I'll just wait here until the sun comes. You guys just keep going."
I just stared back at him in worried silence. "Thor, that's hours from now. You've got to get warm before then. We can hike back upstream to get your blood moving and find some snowbridges. There has to be some within a couple miles."
Without any expression in his snow-burned, tan face, he sat down on the snow and only offered another matter-of-fact statement of, "My boots are wet."
I shot a glance over at the other side of the creek where I could see Amped looking worriedly back across at us. It looked like he had changed clothes, but was still bouncing up and down in an attempt to stay moving to warm up. I couldn't tell him what was going on across the sound-swallowing roar of the creek... I had no idea what to do. I looked down at our new friend, sitting on the snow, soaking wet and staring at the snow in front of him, defeated... paralyzed by shock, embarrassment, and confusion.
'I can't leave him, can I? What if he doesn't pull out of his shocked state on his own?' I thought to myself.
Looking across at Amped, I figured I'd at least try to cross and see whether the path Amped had taken was safe enough for me, and to suggest to Thor for another attempt... although this time he wouldn't have trekking poles, a major disadvantage.
Legs trembling, I hopped into the creek at the same spot that Amped had left from and waded into swirling chaos. A third of the way across the creek, I found myself perched on top of a large rock, the edge of the deep step-off into the waist-deep middle of the intense current.
Black water swirled angrily around my legs, removing every shred of warmth from my skin under my rain gear. As I stood perched in the middle of the creek, feeling in my legs almost immediately disappeared. I looked across the creek at Amped and muttered, "Dammit. This is absolutely NOT safe."
Now close enough for Amped to hear me, I shouted, "Sorry, bud! I'm not going to try it! We'll head upstream and find a different crossing!"
As I turned around and began wading back to the shore of the creek, I shook my head in frustration with myself, 'If I had just gone first, I could've called this crossing off for all of us... this is a total shit-show.'
Once again, my refusal to step up as a leader had resulted in hardship for the entire group. My streak of Sierra guilt continued as I kept analyzing our situation. How do we fix this? What's the solution? Why did I allow this to happen out here?!
Arriving back at Thor, I told him we were going to hike upstream to find another crossing. His shock seemed to be wearing off, but he was still sitting on the snow, holding one of his boots in his lap. Through now slightly trembling, blue lips, he showed me his boot, "I can't get my feet in these."
The creek water saturating the boot had frozen solid, encasing the boot in a clear layer of inflexible ice, which was flaking off the boot as he attempted to twist and flex the boot back into a malleable material, his hands bright red from the cold.
I closed my eyes in frustration and confusion, "This is a nightmare."
I went back over to my pack, bent over to untie my boots to put my socks and actual pants back on... but my boots were in the same boat as Thor's. The laces were encased in ice, in addition to the rest of the boots. I didn't have the feeling in my fingers or the core warmth to stop and figure out how to break into my shoes.
Growling in frustration, I threw my pack back on, "I guess I'm hiking in rain pants and no socks."
I told Thor we needed to find a better crossing option regardless, but without him able to put shoes on, I was the only one who could try to find that better option. His shock from falling in the creek seemed to be fading fast and he went to work changing his clothes out, taking off his wet clothes and putting his jacket on.
I stomped my blocks of ice back into my snowshoes and took off in a fury. I had at least a mile to hike and I had two freezing teammates waiting on me... The anger and frustration I felt with myself fueled my burning, numb legs to stomp out the steep uphill, almost in a running pace. I reached the snowbridged West Fork of Bear Creek quickly, out of breath, feeling slowly returning to my legs.
I easily crossed back over the West Fork the way we'd crossed earlier and walked over to the second tributary of Bear Creek. There was a steep ravine, but a gigantic snowbridge over the tributary. The third and fourth major tributaries were the same. Large snowbridges made crossing the water infuriatingly simple. With almost zero effort, I was running back downhill on the correct side of Bear Creek, embarrassed with how much of an epic we'd created out of what could've been a simple crossing.
Right there, I vowed two things:
- I would ALWAYS go first across future obstacles. Amped had made it across, but mainly because he trusted my judgement, and I was complicit in attempting to cross Bear Creek at the trail crossing.
- I would NEVER attempt a crossing without verifying that there wasn't a safer crossing upstream first.
I arrived at the far side of Bear Creek, where Amped had began to gather squaw wood to start a fire, snapping the low, dead branches off nearby trees, made easily accessible by the ten-foot snow ladder under the entire forest.
He was shivering, but in good spirits, "How's Thor? We can get a fire going so once he gets here he'll be able to warm up!"
"I think we all need to warm up, so a fire definitely needs to happen, but I'm not sure how Thor's doing..."
Looking across the creek, we could see Thor, still sitting on the snow, fiddling with a boot in his lap. Amped brought his fingers up to his cracked lips and released an ear-piercing whistle. Thor's head shot up, his body straightening as he realized I had made it to the other side of the creek somehow.
Amped and I went to work on the fire. He started assembling the wood we'd collected into a little log cabin while I dug out the Vaseline-soaked cotton balls I had in my pack. With numb fingers, I quickly pulled apart the cotton fibers of my firestarter and with a quick strike of my firesteel, the shower of sparks ignited the cotton balls and wood. Both of us huddled as close to the flames as we could, the external warmth an unbelievable alien gift in our time of need.
I've had a lot of campfires in my life... but I'd never felt what literally needing a campfire felt like.
As our shivering stopped and feeling returned to our hands and feet, I looked up, and to our surprise, Thor was standing at the bank of Bear Creek again! He had a camp shoe on one foot, holding one of his boots in his right hand...
He was also yelling something, but the small voice of the timid giant was no match for the boisterous creek between us.
"What is he doing..." Amped curiously asked under his breath, watching the Aussie make throwing arm motions and pointing to our side of the creek. Amped's eyes suddenly widened as it dawned on him, "He wants to throw his boot over here."
Still having trouble getting into his frozen boots, Thor was considering throwing his boots over so we could defrost them over the fire and then presumably throw them back... only one small issue: the 40 feet of swift water between us! One botched throw, from either side of the creek, would spell doom for Thor. If he thought losing his trekking poles was bad... imagine the loss of a boot!
Clearly, he still wasn't thinking completely straight, so we both started shaking our heads and making giant X's with our arms... anything we could to signal that he absolutely should NOT throw any boots in our direction.
We sighed in relief as he turned around and hobbled back up to his pack. We could feel his frustration from across the creek as he began violently stomping his feet down into his boots, over and over. From our warm perch on the far side of Bear Creek, we silently cheered our soggy teammate on as he continued to stomp and stomp and stomp... until suddenly, a boot was on!
He looked back at us in relieved joy, then went at the next boot. Thor, with his hammer of a leg, stomped over and over, crushing his numb foot into the unyielding rigid casing of the second boot. Within a few minutes, both boots were on and Thor had disappeared upstream. Amped and I stayed by the fire, hoping and praying that enough shock had worn off for Thor to make good decisions. There were plenty of good snowbridges up there... but there were just as many dangerous ones.
We nervously waited, building the fire for Thor to warm up and dry off with, the clamor of the creek whispering worst-case scenarios...
After a half-hour of waiting, Thor strolled up in visibly better spirits.
Our team was back together, safely on the right side of Bear Creek. All of us stood quietly in front the fire, drying clothes and contemplating this adventure we were on. This crossing had turned into an epic... but an epic that would've been completely avoided with better decisions. We'd crossed Evolution Creek just two days ago with a quick, deliberate upstream crossing, but didn't quite appreciate the potential nightmare we'd avoided in doing so.
God damn, we appreciated it now, though.
From Amped's journal:
Recharged by the fire, we took a minute to gather our belongings and drown the embers, spreading the ashes to minimize the evidence of our epic morning there. We somberly set off on the trail again along exposed slabs, where dry patches started to appear as we dropped in elevation. The calm steps through rolling snow drifts and the occasional tiptoe across granite with metal points was a welcome reprieve from the stress of the morning.
The universe wasn't done with us yet, though.
The intense sun on the rock slabs was accelerating the melt while erasing snowbridge options. Stream after stream, we'd have to negotiate tricky crossings. None of them overly serious, but each was enough to remind us where we were, to remind us to stay humble. Every crossing was especially nerve-wracking for poor Thor...
After taking my snowshoes off for the tenth time to huck them across yet another gushing stream, I shifted into crampons, mainly so I had something on my feet I could cross logs with. Amped kept his snowshoes on, opting to cross some larger logs with the snowshoes on his feet! We'd certainly come a long way from where walking in a straight line without tripping over the snowshoes was difficult...
Stream after stream we slowly worked our way downstream along Bear Creek, the snow conditions going from bad to worse. Our adventure crossing the creek had swallowed precious time, allowing the snow to soften, and we were paying the price now.
Strolling right next to Bear Creek, all three of us were walking in a row close to where the high snow drifts rolled steeply down into the swift water. A loud 'CRACK' and a shift in the snow underfoot caused all of us to lift our heads just in time to watch the snow separate to our right, a crack in the snow forming between us and the stable forest snow. The ground under our feet shifted downwards, sloping even more toward the creek as the huge platform of snow we were all standing on began to sink down into the creek underneath.
The gap in the snow continued to widen as Amped quickly jumped over across the crack. I hurriedly moved to hop back over to stable snow when the crack stopped progressing, only a few inches wide.
"Jesus..." I muttered as the three of us marveled at the huge mass of snow that had detached under our feet, slumping slowly into the raging water underneath as the current steadily eroded the snow. Amped had been right next to the crack to hop back to safety, but Thor and I weren't anywhere close. If that snow shelf would've detached faster... Thor and I would've been visiting Bear Creek again.
Adrenaline pumping, we continued on our path down Bear Creek. Safe, but shaken.
Dry trail started appearing and we stopped for a quick lunch. The stress and strain of the morning hadn't done my appetite any favors. My rationed lunch disappeared before I realized it... and my emergency rations of food taunted me from my open bear canister.
I'm not one to take any shit from dehydrated potatoes, so I ate them.
I immediately regretted digging into my food that was meant for a worse-case-scenario bail out of the Sierra over long, complicated passes and untraveled terrain. I couldn't help it though. I needed food. I had an insatiable monster on my shoulder, constantly reminding me how much food I had in my bear canister. Even after eating my emergency lunch, I was still hungry, despite the objectively full belly I had.
Amped must've seen me slumped over my bear canister, mid-staring contest with my Pop-tarts. He broke a piece off of the Stinger waffle he had in his hands, handing me the rest.
After lunch, we set off after the last objective of the day: Bear Ridge. A thousand foot climb was in front of us to summit the ridge, followed by a 2,000 foot descent down to the VVR Junction.
Snow became patchy and even softer, making the climb up Bear Ridge a miserable combination of bushwacking, postholing, and creative profanity. The exhausting miles in that terrain took its toll on our group morale and energy as the day's events started catching up to us. We arrived at the massive downhill descent from Bear Ridge, ready for some nice, easy plunge-stepping down to camp for the night...
But why would it be that easy?
The snow's consistency was super hard to read. Exposed patches were deep and soft from the sun's warmth, perfect for plunging rapidly downhill. But then patches of snow that had been shaded, or were currently shaded, were bullet hard still. Snowshoes were perfect for the hard snow, but turned into damn skis on the soft stuff! Crampons had even less traction on the softening snow, but wouldn't turn into skis quite as readily... and boots worked well while kicking steps in the soft stuff, but were obviously garbage on hard snow.
We struggled with every choice of footgear we'd made. Every choice seemed wrong since the depth of the soft snow was beyond the depth of the points on our snowshoes and crampons, and Thor's Kathoola crampon points were even shorter than ours... So without trekking poles to help, I grimaced, watching as he slipped and slid his way down the ever-steepening snow on Bear Ridge.
The angle continued to steepen, inconsistent snow laid over what was typically dry switchbacks. Time after time, we'd build our confidence plunge-stepping rapidly down the hill, then suddenly hit a hard patch of snow. Our metal points on our traction gear would catch and throw off our balance, invariably leading to hitting the ground hard and self-arresting with the handles of our trekking poles.
We all took our turns watching our feet skid out from under us, involuntarily sliding down Bear Ridge. At times, tenuously tiptoeing across the hillside to avoid the steepest sections.
'How could moving downhill be so exhausting?' I thought to myself. I knew we were paying the price for the time consumed by our fumbled crossing of Bear Creek, once again kicking myself for not just crossing snowbridges upstream of the West Fork right away.
The trail gods weren't done picking on Thor. We were all split up, individually finding our way through the forest, searching for the safest path with the traction gear we each had. I heard a slide, followed by a loud "Fuu... UGH!!" to my right.
"Thor?" I called out... no reply.
"Thor, buddy... are you okay?" I asked once again, holding as still as I could, praying for a reply... Still nothing.
I made my way over to where I'd heard the sound. I found Thor in a tree well at the end of a long slide mark, sitting up, holding his left shoulder. He pathetically glanced up at me with a thoroughly exhausted look in his red eyes.
"My shoulder dislocated... I put it back in though," he quietly stated in his thick accent, "My, uh.... ass hurts."
I laughed at first... until I scanned up the hill and noticed Thor's slide mark was about 20 feet long until a two-foot, sharp, wooden spear was jutting up out of the snow. The slide mark had disappeared after the spear for several feet... where Thor had slid up and over the groin-destroyer and launched further down the hill, eventually coming to rest in the tree well.
My smiling face immediately dropped into wide-eyed concern, "Holy shit, Thor!... Is your dick still there?!"
A smile briefly appeared on Thor's blank, defeated face. I put my pack down and took out my ice axe, handing it to Thor, "Here, dude. Take this, I've been managing alright with just my trekking poles. Plus, I'm not sure how much more of a beating you can take today... we've gotta make sure you make it to Mammoth so we can laugh about this eventually."
Thor gratefully took my axe and stood up, thanking me and groaning with full-body pain as he shouldered his monster pack again. It was obvious that Thor wasn't comfortable with how much attention had been focused on the timid Aussie all day, so I set off to catch up to Amped and let him know what was going on, but moving slow enough to keep an eye on our battered friend.
As the snowpack began to melt out as we lost more and more elevation, we were excited to see dry patches... at first. But the snow had been covering huge thickets of hearty reeds with water flowing through the stubborn branches, so we moved off of snow and into an icy marsh. We struggled through a series of postholing and bushwacking, holding back stiff reeds for each other and testing the water capacity of our boots as we took turns plunging down between the reeds into the marsh below.
It was slow progress, but still progress. We found a stretch of what looked like solid snow to "easily" move a couple hundred yards further down the ridge, but it turned out to be a thin shell with a huge mass of shallow water flowing underneath. Amped figured this out for the team when he was in front, leading the way and the thin snow shell underfoot gave way.
Suddenly, the lower half of Amped was underground and he let out a loud "OOMPH," his stomach colliding with the rim of the hole he'd created in the snow shell, the weight of his heavy backpack making sure it hurt.
For once, Thor was watching the pain happen alongside me as we stood frozen in our tracks, waiting to see if Amped was alright. With an angry growl, the burly Mexican pushed himself back onto his feet, removing the snow lip from his abdomen and said, "I think my diaphragm might be bruised..."
Carefully, he stepped back out of the hole he'd fallen through and navigated off of the snow, back onto the horrific marsh we were trying to avoid. Thankfully, we soon stumbled upon dry trail cutting through the marsh.
Sweet, sweet dry trail.
Pine needles, cones, and branches littered the path, melted out from the intense winter storms, but it still was a trail we just had to follow, no snow gear required. In all honesty, the first 700 miles had began to wear on me mentally. Not out of physical difficulty, but from brutal monotony. Wake up, pack up, follow an easy trail, set up camp and repeat ad nauseam.
The Sierra had certainly mixed up the monotony of the hike... but damn if I hadn't gained a renewed appreciation for the bits of trail we were able to follow out there.
The final obstacle of the day came in the form of a small stream, savagely overflowing its banks with brown, muddy water. The stream was only eight feet wide, but the current was crazy fast, the opaque water masking the actual depth. Amped moved a bit downstream to some small, floating logs and almost immediately lost his balance, plunging into the waist-deep, but narrow, stream.
He was able to remain on his feet, but grumbled as he waded to the other bank, soaked from the waist down less than a mile from camp. Knowing that we'd be starting a fire to dry Amped off in camp, but mostly just tired of the endless attempt to keep my feet dry, I walked straight into the stream at the trail crossing, turning to face the current and easily side-stepped across.
I was surprised how deep the little stream was as I immediately plunged down to my waist, the current rolling the brown water almost up to my chest. A brief thought of, "Uh oh... not sure I'll be able to stay standing..." flashed in my mind just before I stepped up onto a hidden rock in the stream, removing most of the stream's push.
As I stepped out of the angry little stream, I turned around and saw a frozen Thor, staring at the stream with exhausted eyes. He hadn't moved since we reached the stream. He had also just watched Amped fall in and me cross the deep channel... after being swept away in Bear Creek earlier that day.
It dawned on me that today would change the rest of our trek for Thor. He was visibly nervous to tackle even this small crossing. He also didn't have trekking poles anymore, which was a big problem for crossing creeks confidently... and safely. Clearly, he wasn't very excited to get across this little stream... and there was still a major crossing in front of us at Silver Creek.
Even worse... it was tomorrow.
Not exactly a lot of time for someone to recover from a traumatic event.
Amped and I began shouting encouragement and help over to our frozen teammate. Unwilling to get into the water, Thor chose a small-diameter log that was spanning the stream just up from the trail. Amped threw his trekking poles over to Thor for him to use on the crossing. With nervous, darting eyes and trembling legs, Thor carefully placed one vibrating foot in front of the other.
A fall into the stream wouldn't have been a big deal, aside from some wet clothes and a hit to the ego, but Thor looked like he was standing on the precipice of death as he shook his way towards us. We felt bad watching a towering man look so terrified, but kept shouting encouragement at the bank of the stream. Amped reached out from the shore and offered Thor a hand to pull him to safety once he could reach.
On the other side, Thor was visibly stressed to his core, but was smiling and nervously laughing in half-terror, half-relief. We set off, happy that the crossing hadn't been worse for Thor... but a pit sat in my stomach, a dread of the many crossings we still had to navigate, big and small.
We crossed the raging Mono Creek on a huge steel bridge, arriving at our camp for the night... which was the only ground in the vicinity covered by snow still. At the trail junction that hikers typically used to resupply at Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR), there was still snow everywhere... except for on the trail itself.
We all looked at each other and shrugged, "There's no one out here... the trail should be good enough for the night."
We hadn't seen another person in several days, so it was a safe bet we wouldn't be inconveniencing any hikers. VVR was still closed and wouldn't open for another few weeks, their latest opening date in decades. So on one of the busiest trail junctions in the entire Sierra, we set our three tents up in a row along the flattest stretch of trail we could find.
After over 12 hours of brutal hiking, mishaps, and lessons learned, we relaxed by the fire, drying clothes and going over the insane day we had just gone through. The memory of this day would be burned in our minds for the rest of our lives. Although bruised and beaten (some more than others), all of us were relieved we were all sitting there alive.
But Silver Creek was tomorrow...
Silver Creek. The waterfall crossing. Apparently the gentle water rolling over smooth rocks in the summer turned into a powerful jet in high snow years. There would be nowhere to hike up or downstream. Hikers were forced to step blindly into the drenching chaos and wade across at the trail... and Thor was terrified of water right now.
I did my best to shut my brain down as we relaxed and laughed off the stressful events of the day.
One day at a time... one day at a time.
From Amped's journal: