Day 44: Lone Pine to Horseshoe Meadows. 13 miles.
May 18th, 2017
A road day.
After bailing out of the backcountry, Amped and I returned back home to Bishop and anxiously watched the weather. For another day after we exited, we watched black clouds choke the peaks of the High Sierra from the comfort of our trailer.
How much more snow was going to be back there? When would it be safe to cross? How much terrain will be in avalanche territory now?
We changed out gear. I swapped Mel's 20F sleeping bag that had been too small for me for my trusty Katabatic 30F quilt with a sleeping bag liner to deal with the low temps. We repacked our food to get us to Kearsarge Pass, plus an extra day in case we couldn't get over Forrester Pass, a very high and very steep pass that now had an unstable, fresh layer of snow...
Melanie was gearing up for her alpine adventure of the season: bringing us a resupply over the notoriously sloppy east side of Kearsarge Pass. Our alpine experience had always been in rock climbing, avoiding ice and snow at all cost. Melanie had started leading climbing trips into the alpine during the summer of 2016, when her and another badass female climber hiked into the Sierra backcountry outside of Big Pine, set up a base camp, and tackled both the 11-pitch route Venusian Blind and Mt. Sill (14,154 ft) back to back.
On that trip, Melanie figured out that avoiding snow travel took a lot of time and often put you on loose scree, rather than smooth, angled ice. This year, she was on a mission to figure out crampons and snow travel in the backcountry. Bringing our resupply over Kearsarge would be a perfect overnight objective for her, as well as obviously being a great help for us by minimizing our mileage off the trail.
Two days after we had exited at Lone Pine, the weather cleared. We needed to let a couple warmer days consolidate the new snow, so we planned on hiking back up Horseshoe Meadows Road on the second nice day, then continue our way north in a stretch of forecast good weather. I sent Road Dog and Vagabond Runner a text, but didn't receive a reply for a while... When the reply came, it wasn't great news.
They weren't coming.
I think we all knew that was for the best, but we had gone through some trying times as a group of four. It was going to be difficult to proceed without them. Road Dog and Vagabond Runner were going to flip further north and continue north to the Canadian border, then come back for the Sierra last. I could hear the pain in their voices that their attempt at a true northbound thru-hike was ending. I knew it had been an important goal for them, but part of being successful in the outdoors is knowing when to back down.
There were several hikers ahead in the Sierra and I was looking forward to news of them succeeding, for both their accomplishment and my peace of mind. It wasn't happening though. One hiker ahead had pushed all the way through to Kearsarge Pass weeks ago... but quit the trail the minute he exited the Sierra, physically and mentally destoryed. Another two parties had bailed out to Lone Pine as well... but then reentered the Sierra up Whitney Portal to summit Mt. Whitney, rejoining the trail at Crabtree Meadows. A worthy side trip, for sure, but they had skipped a 20 mile section of the PCT.
My stubborn objective was the PCT. Every. Damn. Step.
This meant that nobody had successfully hiked the trail between Cottonwood Pass and Kearsarge Pass recently, which I found unnerving. There would be no steps to follow. No sign of human life. We had also heard the news that a well-known Sierra mountain guide had failed twice to get up and over Forrester Pass with his group he was guiding.
The next morning, Amped and I were awake at 3 a.m., somberly assembling our packs for the next stretch. Both of us were quiet, combing through our gear in our heads, convincing ourselves that we were ready for potentially 18 days straight in the frozen backcountry. Half of our team had fallen back... mountaineering teams had failed... other hikers had gone around... were we making a smart decision pushing ahead?
Tough questions were soon replaced with bagels and coffee Melanie had whipped up for us.
The original plan had been for her to drive us back to Horseshoe Meadows Road so we could sleep along the hour drive. Both Amped and I sat in the truck with eyes open and thousand-yard-stares, analyzing our decisions over and over again.
One thing I repeated in my head over and over, "Thank God Amped is here still..."
We arrived at the base of Horseshoe Meadows Road as the sky shifted into the dark red of early dawn. Our goal was to just finish this road walk today. All 13 miles and 6,000 ft of elevation gain. This normally wouldn't be such a nightmare, but we were loaded down with all our heavy gear and wearing snow boots, not exactly optimal for road walks.
The early morning start was good for nice cool temps to hike in, but we were mainly trying to beat any construction traffic on the road. A large sign at the base of the road said "Do Not Enter-Pedestrians", which had damn near given me a heart attack when I'd seen it a few days earlier as we exited the road, but a quick call to Inyo County cleared up that they didn't mind a couple hikers trying to get back to the PCT... although it took a few minutes for me to convince him we voluntarily wanted to go into the backcountry.
"There's snow back there, son", he informed me.
We were doing our best to not get in the way of Inyo County's construction trucks... although both Amped and I were silently holding on to the hope that one of the construction guys would have pity and give us a ride up that hellish road walk.
Apparently, giving rides to two burly, (half)bearded vagrants with ice axes wasn't going to happen.
We were passed by three different trucks. All three times, the drivers stared at us with a look of pure confusion. I'm sure they were too distracted with trying to figure out why two dumb-dumbs would be walking up that road toward the snow to even notice our outstretched thumbs.
"I hope our luck takes a positive swing here soon..." I muttered.
The miles went by slowly, but they went by. The beautiful views into Owens Valley were hidden by clouds when we had exited, so it felt like a completely different hike. I thought back to when we had hiked out on this same road. We were so excited to get out of the cold misery. So happy to escape...
So why the hell were we voluntarily heading back just days later?
'Something must be wrong with my brain.' I told myself. Although this was exactly what I was looking for in this hike. I wanted to perfect the art of smiling through suffering. Can't perfect that without some suffering, right?
The road walk went relatively quick. By 1030, we had reached the end of the asphalt at Horseshoe Meadows campground. Neither of us had ever gained 6000 feet in elevation in one stretch before and now we were back at 10,000 ft, but the sun was out strong and it was a beautiful day. Snow had started to slush in the strong sun, not conditions to go strolling into avalanche territory on Cottonwood Pass, so we set up camp right next to an open pit toilet and some bear boxes.
We broke out some salami and cheese and enjoyed the still, warm afternoon. After we had set up our tents, we sat and talked about the unknown miles ahead. Amped had his usual reassuring confidence in us, although part of me wondered if his confidence was mainly based on his trust in my experience in the backcountry, which I wasn't sure was enough to trust...
Amped summed it up best in his journal:
"The early afternoon was a blessing and a curse. It afforded us a nap, but gave us more time to think about the days to come."
We turned in for the night while the sun was still in the sky, wanting to get some good sleep while the temps were still relatively high and get up early for the easy walking on the hard snow the following morning.
Total mileage along the PCT: 750
Total mileage with detours: 800
Day 45: Horseshoe Meadows to Rock Creek. 14 miles.
May 19th, 2017
A fall day.
"It's not going to get any colder, right?" Amped asked through exhausted, red eyes.
I had just pulled my tent flap back and was putting my boots on. I was surprised to see Amped was already up and had coffee ready for both of us once again.
The night had been brutal again, we knew it was going to be the coldest forcasted night, to be followed by warmer days, but sleeping through the 10F overnight temperature was tough. My sleeping setup had improved drastically with my Katabatic quilt and the addition of the sleeping bag liner. I'd also boiled some water and poured it into my nalgene bottle to cuddle with, so I had slept well enough through the 11 hours we were in our tents. Amped, on the other hand...
Our aspirations for a super early morning were sidelined by the extremely low temps. Both of us were moving slow packing up camp, drinking coffee, and taking one last dignified dump sitting on an actual toilet seat... however stained.
We finally got on the trail, which quickly disappeared under snow. We started across Horseshoe Meadow with crampons and the sound of the steel spikes against the hard morning ice was oddly pleasing. Had I... missed it?
Nah, that's weird.
The four miles to the pass went quickly on the hard, consolidated snow. The sun was up, but the night had been cold enough that it was going to take a while for the snow to start turning to mush. As we worked our way uphill, we took out our ice axes for the steep headwall of snow at the top of the pass.
When we had come down the pass a few days ago, the deep, soft snow was forgiving enough to move down. That snow was now a 60 degree slab of hard, consolidated snow. Essentially ice. A slip would send us screaming down to pinball in the thick treeline below. We focused on our technique, facing our front points downhill and cross-stepping our way up the steep slope, ice axes at the ready in case we needed them.
After that surprisingly tiring stretch, we were safely back at the top of Cottonwood Pass... back on the Pacific Crest Trail.
We passed by Chicken Springs Lake at 11,500 feet. The snow travel was still going well and we made good progress throughout the morning. After the outlet of the lake, our GPS confirmed that the trail walked straight into a large cornice we couldn't safely get up and over, so we started walking toward the end of the corniced ridge where there was a low spot in the wall of snow.
"Apparently we weren't the only ones rerouted here" I said as we crossed a large set of mountain lion prints in the snow, also headed for the low spot in the cornice. "I'm surprised anything is awake out here."
We continued to follow the lion prints until we reached a large cirque with a theoretical lake and streams. Not today though, just snow surrounded by cliffs. We stuck to the edge of the bowl around the buried lake below, attempting to retain our elevation to avoid having to glissade all the way down and then being forced to trudge back up the other side of the bowl to regain our lost elevation.
We hit an exposed rocky section where the sun had been hard at work uncovering a section of ledgy cliffs. Amped and I decided to escape the softening snow, take a break from our crampons, and traverse the rocks instead.
Carefully, we switched out of our gear on a sloping ledge on top of a large boulder and then started scrambling across and up the sun-baked, warm, exposed rock in just our boots. All of our snow gear on our backs was heavy, but being off snow meant we made quick work of the rocky section before reaching the opposite side of the cirque when the snow returned.
We sat for lunch and enjoyed the hostile beauty around us. The mountain lion track was the only sign of life aside from our tracks behind us. My mind wandered to Fireball... We hadn't seen any sign of him, but was the snow just hiding his tracks?
We marveled at a massive cornice of snow overhanging the top of the cirque, maybe 25 feet of overhang!
Sitting still ensured my brain went to paranoid places. 'Wouldn't want to be around when that thing comes down... wait... are we directly downhill?! Maybe it's time to wrap lunch up...'
We entered into Sequoia National Park, at least that's what our GPS indicated. The sign was underfoot somewhere deep in the snow...
We pushed through the softening afternoon snow through gentle, rolling hills. Nothing difficult aside from the navigation. Stopping to check GPS every quarter-mile became the most time-consuming and draining part of the terrain. The only landmarks around us were hidden by trees and without generally heading up or downhill, we felt permanently lost.
I had noticed Amped had gone silent, which wasn't like him. Usually he was occasionally either chatting, joking, or singing to himself. He curtly asked for a quick break. I knew something was off.
We stopped and he took his crampons off, then took off his right shoe, revealing a red and swollen big toe... it didn't look good.
"The crampons are digging into my toe, I don't think I'll be able to keep them on."
So in the middle of a 14 mile stretch of solid snow, Amped's crampons went on his back. I kept mine on and did my best to navigate a path through the snow that didn't involve too many steep parts so Amped could follow without any traction on his feet.
Unfortunately for Amped, the Sierra is basically one big "steep part"...
The angle steepened as we headed down towards Rock Creek. Miguel was doing his best to stay on his feet, but one steep slope after another were doing their best to knock him off his feet.
I watched as his leading foot slipped out from under him on one particularly steep slope. I stayed on my feet and watched helpless as Amped accelerated down the snow, firing a spray of snow and ice into the air as he tried to dig in his trekking poles and boots to stop. I heard a loud 'snap' and his snowshoes began dragging erratically behind him.
After he finally came to an abrupt stop in a tree well, Amped groaned and slid his pack off, inspecting the damage. Sitting in the snow, pack in his lap, he held the blown-apart remnants of what were his snowshoe straps.
"Beta, you know how the worst days produce the best days of writing?"
"Sure..." I replied.
He looked up at me with exhausted eyes, "Today's going to be a great writing day."
From Amped's journal:
"Out here, you don't have much. You carry only what you need to survive. You begin to love this stuff that takes care of you and you, in turn, want to take care of it. The broken strap elicits an irrational rage of emotion."
I felt bad for my best friend, but couldn't do much to help. That didn't matter, though. Amped didn't take long to get back on his feet, the tough son-of-a-bitch. He rigged up his pack to temporarily hold his snowshoes and we continued on across the steep slope.
Only a half-mile later, Amped fired down a 50 foot, 50 degree open patch of snow on his boots, attempting to boot-ski the entire way down. 20 feet into the slide, he went down hard once again, leaving a trail of scattered trekking poles and beenies on the slope behind him. This time, he let out an angry growl, stood back up and started trudging back uphill towards his gear.
The angle was steep enough to boot ski with my crampons on, so I slid down to where he was, the crampons offering a more stable platform.
Amped watched with a bitter look as I slid down and stayed on my feet again.
"That's really starting to piss me off," he said bluntly. I was sure it was just a joke. Or maybe it was closer to a half-joke...
I let Amped lead the way to attempt to find the best route for his crampon-less situation. We were both boot skiing and somehow remained on our feet, which boosted spirits. Soon, we walked up to Rock Creek, our first major creek crossing.
There was definitely a good amount of flow in the creek, but it seemed lower than it had been in previous days, likely from the intense cold the night before.
We approached the creek almost a mile upstream from the trail crossing and began traversing the bank, taking inventory of every possible crossing. Nothing seemed absolutely ideal, but since we were camping on the other side of the creek, neither of us wanted to wade the thigh-deep crossing at the trail right before we stopped for the night. We discussed our options and settled on the best crossing we had seen.
A thick snowbridge reached above the fastest, roaring section of the creek, connecting to a large log that spanned the rest of the creek. Amped carefully worked his way across the snow, using his trekking pole as a depth gauge. Part of the overhanging bridge crumbled into the whitewater as he prodded the lip. Once he felt secure, he carefully lowered the last couple feet onto the wet log and tight-roped his way across to the other bank.
I followed behind him, sinking my sharp crampon points into the soft wood. As we both emerged from our first big creek crossing, we both smiled for the first time in hours.
Maybe we could do this.
Our intended campsite at Rock Creek was buried, so we wandered through frozen, soft marsh until we found a nice meadow where there was dry ground, sun to charge our electronics, and a nice stream flowing right through camp. There was even a spring bubbling straight out of the ground!
I wandered back down to Rock Creek and used the absurdly cold water to ice my aching feet. The plantar fasciitis in my left foot was better in my boots, but hadn't had time to actually heal. The road walk up to Horseshoe Meadows had inflamed it and the whole day I'd been trying to ignore the tight, tingling pain in my foot.
Regardless of the pain in my foot, I sat back in the warm, late afternoon sun and enjoyed where I was. The pure solitude was incredible. The ceaseless white landscape was a monster to get through, but the rewards were immense. The otherworldly beauty was almost too much to take in with the senses.
"You don't get to experience this without earning it," I said to the crystal clear whitewater.
Once again, we settled in for an early night. Amped had quickly set up his camp and was only awake long enough to use the difficult day as fuel for great writing.
Total mileage along the PCT: 760
Total mileage with detours: 814
In the Fifth Stretch:
"All trees disappeared and we began to hike steeper and steeper uphill. Both of us were reveling in our other-worldly surroundings, in awe of where we were. But we snapped back to reality and stopped dead in our tracks when the ice underneath our feet buckled, the sound sending chills down both of our spines.
The sound was loud, but definite. The sound of the weak layer collasping. The calling card... of an avalanche."