Day 43: Diaz Creek to Lone Pine. 25 miles.
May 15th, 2017
A bailing day.
My alarm woke me up to gentle winds whipping the tent in the soft blue morning light. I sighed out loud in relief. Another brutally cold night had passed, somewhere around 15F. I had spent the night trying to avoid cold spots in my too-small sleeping bag. What a mistake. The entire night consisted of me waking up every 45 minutes to check my phone, praying the time had flown past and it was close to morning.
My prayers were thoroughly unanswered.
After the 20th time checking my phone around 4 a.m., I finally fell into a deep sleep that was promptly interrupted by my alarm at 6. After moving through my freezing morning routine of ice pants and stretching, I was happy to be out of my tent with all my layers on.
Amped was a bit more comfortable through the night. From his journal:
"In the morning when it's 12F outside the comfort of your sleeping bag, it's tough to will yourself out into the day. I do it. I hear the zippers of my fellow hikers and it wills me out. Getting an early start in this environment is important and I would later learn the extent of it."
My red fingers stung as feeling was returning to them. I broke into a Bobo's bar, which are typically pretty awesome (and kind of expensive). Mel had snuck it into my resupply as a surprise and I was psyched for an upgraded breakfast from my usual Pop-tart. But as I peeled the plastic back, all Bobo's psych vanished.
Mold. All over the bar. I broke off a piece and there was even mold through the inside of the bar. A bar still within its damn expiration date.
"That's great," I muttered, knowing I didn't have food to replace those calories, "I guess I'm not eating breakfast today."
Right when I was about to start feeling sorry for myself, Amped showed up with coffee again. This guy had his timing down. He broke off half of his waffle he was eating and handed it to me, reminding me for the 500th time why this guy is such a close friend.
I knocked the frozen mud off of my snowshoes and crampons and strapped them to my pack. Overhead, dark clouds were forming around the peaks to the north, right where we were heading. Our goal for the day was 15 miles to Rock Creek, which was potentially a difficult creek to cross. This would get us out of the high elevation for sleeping that night. We were hiking up to our highest point we'd seen on the PCT thus far, around 11,500 feet.
I knew the day was going to be hard. We were walking directly into a Sierra snow storm. Temps were low. We were heading into even higher elevations. Temps were going to get lower. If we kept moving, we'd be okay. If we didn't keep moving, we'd be in trouble.
Soon after starting, we'd be passing the Trail Pass junction, which is a common exit point to reach Horseshoe Meadows and subsequently the small eastern Sierra town of Lone Pine, CA. If we passed the Trail Pass junction, we'd follow a high ridge around Horseshoe Meadows and reach the Cottonwood Pass trail junction five miles later. Cottonwood Pass would be the final option to bail if we needed to.
Failure was not an option though. Vagabond Runner and Road Dog emerged from their tent smiling and psyched to tackle the hard day ahead. Amped had his typical no-big-deal attitude and was ready to head down the trail. I seemed to be the only one who wasn't 100% confident in how the day would end.
As soon as we set off, snow flurries began drifting from the ever-darkening sky. After traversing a relatively dry section of trail, I noted that we'd been following fresh crampon tracks in the dirt most of the morning. Soon, we came up on Fireball.
He was standing at the base of a really steep snow drift that had frozen into hard ice overnight. I saw him desperately kicking at the ice with the outside edge of his boot, trying to kick steps into solid ice.
It wasn't going well.
As we approached, I watched him kick a few times, attempt to weight his shallow foot placement, then awkwardly slide back down to where he started, his giant pack attempting to knock him off his feet. Without any progress to speak of, we caught up to him quickly. He told us he'd been hiking 15 miles every day, without compromise. Yesterday's 15 miles had forced him to camp at 10,500 ft, almost a thousand feet higher than we had!
I shook my head at the self-inflicted discomfort Fireball seemed unusually proficient at. In his heavily-broken English, he told us the night had been miserable. Despite having a huge pack filled with extremely warm gear, he said he'd woken up in the middle of the night twice to fill up his water bladder with boiling water to cuddle with in his sleeping bag.
When snow is on the ground, temps drop around seven degrees (generally) for every 1000 ft in elevation. I knew we had spent the last night in the teens, so Fireball must've been dealing with single digit sleeping temps.
After a short conversation letting him know about the essentially guaranteed storm we were walking into, we all set off ahead of Fireball. I did my best to demonstrate the little I knew about French crampon technique for Fireball, facing my toes downhill and keeping my feet flat to engage all the sharp points of my crampons in the hard snow. He watched and seemed to catch on quickly, following us up the steep slope.
We reached the junction for Trail Pass and stopped for a break. Fireball cruised by us, hacking away at his 15 miles for the day. Snow flurries had been off and on, but we were still under an ominous sky. This was our first option to escape to safety, but we were all still dry, warm, and ready for more! We continued steeply uphill in our crampons and began traversing a steep hillside.
The 40 degree angle of the snow we were walking across was a nightmare on the ankles. Facing downhill and cross-stepping would take too long, but walking for miles with ankles jacked over and heavy packs was getting miserable. We followed Fireball's footsteps, the only steps on the mountain. Just as I was about to insist we take a rest to get off my ankles for a minute, I came across a big, messy slide in the snow. Fireball's crampon prints ended and a 15 foot slide downhill into a deep tree well (where the snow had melted away from the warm tree) was followed by what looked like steps kicked in with just boots leaving the end of the slide. Over the next snow berm, those boot steps led to Fireball, who was sitting on a tiny, sloped ledge in the snow.
He'd obviously taken a hard spill on the steep, icy snow. It looked like he'd broken one of his crampon straps too... In the freezing cold flurries, he had his visably wet, red hands out of his gloves, threading what looked like one of his boot's laces through the crampon eyelets.
That overwhelming feeling to pull him into our group resurfaced. We were all pretty genuinely worried about him. He was obviously out of his element, but undeniably giving everything he had. I had great respect for his drive and courage diving into the unknown, but damn... I also didn't want to hear that something bad had happened to him and I hadn't even tried to help.
We stopped and asked if he needed anything, but once again he kept the conversation short and insisted he was fine and wanted to hike alone.
'You can't help someone who doesn't want help,' I told myself, once again having mixed feelings of guilt and responsibility about the situation.
We continued ahead of Fireball through the endless ankle-jacking. The ball of my right foot was beginning to form a blister from the skin being stretched and rubbed by the harsh angle of the snow. The physical discomfort from the relentless hillside was starting to wear on everybody, but another odd problem had surfaced.
We were all thirsty. We hadn't seen water since we left camp in the morning. Well, I guess we'd seen tons and tons of water... but all in a more solid form than we'd like... and no one seemed in the mood for slushies.
It was also snowing. Not just flurries anymore. It was starting to dump. We kept marching further and further uphill. Temps continued dropping and the snow kept getting heavier. A water source we were shooting for ended up being buried in snow still. We arrived at a second water source, also buried.
Shit. Drinking water was quickly becoming a problem. We weren't going to be able to stop and melt snow without setting up some kind of shelter first. Winds had picked up, driving snow sideways and pushing snow into jackets and sleeves. Everyone was beginning to get cold, but I could see Vagabond Runner was experiencing the low temps faster than everyone else. She was so thin and tired at this point, everyone could see the cold setting in the worst with her.
Amped was leading the way and came across a snow seep, basically a small amount of water running across an exposed patch of dirt. It wasn't ideal to stop moving, but if we wanted water we had to capitalize on this opportunity. We started digging a sump for the water to collect enough to fill our water bottles. It took time for the muddy water to turn clear. Then it took time to slowly fill the water bottles from all four of our packs. Then it took time to get packs organized and back on our backs.
It took too much time.
High winds and heavy snow continued to strip the warmth away from the group. Vagabond Runner had fallen silent. She had taken breadbags out to add to her gloves as a vapor barrier, but it might've been too late for them to help. We could all see how miserable she was, but none of us could offer anything. We were all in the same place, fighting with the same awful conditions.
The only thing that could help us was to continue moving. At this point, we were pretty much all wearing every layer we had with us and it still wasn't enough to keep out the severe conditions. We were in whiteout conditions when two silhouettes appeared on the horizon, headed in the opposite direction.
'Who would be out here in these garbage conditions headed south?' I thought, perplexed.
Amped pulled a hand out of his glove and delivered an ear-piercing whistle to get the couple's attention. It worked, and we saw the two silhouettes stop, then start moving our way. As they came closer and closer, it appeared that one figure was a short, stocky woman and the other was a tall, lanky man... in shorts.
I asked out loud, "He's not wearing shorts, is he? There's no way..."
Amped replied, "I'm pretty sure it's shorts."
I doubled down, "There's no way. It has to be shorts over leggings or something."
But as his silhouette appeared, sure enough. Homeboy was standing out in the 20F blizzard in a light jacket, short shorts, and microspikes on his trail-runners.
Before I could say normal human stuff like "Hello" or "How's it going?", my brain blurted out, "Duuude... shorts?!"
He replied in a thick Swiss accent, "I no need. Legs not get cold." I had to focus to un-drop my jaw and ask where they were headed.
The woman replied, telling us they were moving too slowly to make it to Kearsarge Pass, so were bailing out to Lone Pine. They both seemed well versed and comfortable in this extreme environment. The realization that such a couple were bailing caused the hair to stand up on the back of my neck as a feeling of dread settled over me.
'These two are bailing out of this... and we're not?' I thought to myself. The first feeling of doubt started creeping into my mind. 'Is continuing on a mistake? Would anyone else in our group initiate the tough conversation of a possible bail?'
I looked around. Amped seemed solid. Road Dog and Vagabond Runner were quiet, but their pure dedication was overriding their growing discomfort. I didn't have the heart to ask the question, so we continued on as the Swiss couple disappeared back into the snow storm.
We reached Cottonwood Pass in the peak of the blizzard.
This was it. We either had to turn here to safety or we had to push on into the storm.
We were sitting at 11,100 feet and still needed to climb to 11,500 feet where the storm would likely be even worse. Snow was collecting fast. Alarmingly fast.
All of us looked at each other with the same nervous eyes, but no one wanted to quit. Technically, all of us were fine. There wasn't an acute reason we needed to get out of there... so we kept walking.
A lump in my throat grew larger as we took each step further from safety. Did I need to say something? Were we being safe? Did I just need to toughen up or were we in danger?
The slog through the deepening snow was increasing in difficultly. We decided to take some partial cover in a grove of trees and shift into snowshoes to get on top of the snow. Miguel and I had more experience making the quick shift into snowshoes and were soon ready to go. But as I put my pack back on, ready to keep walking, Road Dog and Vagabond Runner seemed to be struggling to get their snowshoes strapped onto their boots. Then it dawned on me.
This was their first time putting on snowshoes.
In about the complete opposite of a comfortable learning environment, I watched with sympathy as both of them had gloves off, exhausted and desperately trying to sort out their snowshoe straps with red, numb hands. Through trembling fingers, they would adjust each strap, then realize it wasn't right, sitting back down in the snow to adjust straps again.
Amped had continued ahead, walking in circles in an attempt to stay warm while our group was standing still. From his journal:
"Road Dog and Vagabond Runner struggle to get their snowshoes on as the temperature drops and it turns into a white out. It's getting dangerous. Especially for Vagabond Runner who has zero body fat to burn. She shivers as the snow dumps four, six, eight inches..."
I was freezing. The cold was seeping into my layers of clothing and I began to shiver. 'Please let them figure this out quickly,' I prayed.
I did my best to help them figure out their new snowshoes, but I didn't have any experience with their style of binding either. After what seemed like an eternity, they had figured out the snowshoes enough to at least start moving.
So... we kept moving.
The snow continued to pile up around us. A couple inches had progressed to almost a foot. Winds were whipping. Visibility was getting lower and lower, while the hiking was growing in difficulty. We were still ten miles from losing enough elevation to sleep comfortably. A scant five miles had taken half the day already…
We met up with Amped, I could see he was cold. He asked "Everyone alright?"
Nobody answered. We all just looked at each other, unable to hide our discomfort. Everyone was wet. Everyone was freezing. Temps were continuing to drop into the low 20’s as the storm raged on. Nobody was alright.
We’d crossed the line. We were cold. Now we were too cold.
I looked down at the deepening snow around my snowshoes. Even if we made it safely to camp tonight, we'd be in avalanche territory for days. None of us had the food margin for that. My stubborn determination faltered. It was time for a conversation.
I sent out one last weather report request for our location on the inReach and forced out the most difficult words I've ever had to say out loud, "Guys, we should probably talk about bailing while we still can."
From Amped's journal:
"We have to turn back. We have to escape to safety. I know it, but Beta speaks the words."
Quickly, everyone was in agreement. Road Dog clearly laid out that if I had to bring it up, we really had nothing to discuss. We'd dragged our heavy packs all the way here weighted down with excess food we weren't going to use now. Food that we'd rationed to last, despite our hunger. We'd struggled and pushed our way through the cold... but we were in over our heads.
The inReach beeped and I checked the forecast. Snow for at least two more days with even lower temps than the last forecast. It was time to get out of there.
Everyone's spirits lifted slightly, but the raging storm around us kept us humble. We weren't done yet. From the maps, I could see we weren't far from Horseshoe Meadows Road, maybe three to four miles. We could do that.
I took the lead and walked back to Cottonwood Pass. As we approached, everything disappeared into the white. Snow was dumping. Visibility was so low, all I could do was hike in my ten foot, white bubble in the general direction I needed to go. I started to lead the way down the pass. The snow steeped fast. Too fast. I stopped only a hundred yards after the pass and realized I was standing at the precipice of a huge drop. It could've been a cliff, maybe it was just a really steep hillside, I couldn't see well enough to figure it out. What I did know was that we were already on the wrong path, not five minutes into our hike out.
Frustrated, I turned around and led everyone back up the steep hillside toward the pass. Cold and exhausted, we picked another path that was also very steep, but more manageable. As we made our way across the relatively bare, steep hillside of fresh snow, I knew we were in avalanche danger... but I didn't know what other options we had. As I watched Vagabond Runner slowly make her way down, I couldn't help but wonder where Fireball was. Did he have the gear/food/knowledge to stay safe out there? Did he know safety was this close?
We all made our way down the slope, we were forced to face the slope and kick steps into the deep, soft snow with our snowshoes to safely navigate the slope, walking backwards down to safety. Once we were all back on a reasonable slope, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and started to make quick work of the remaining gentle downhill miles.
As we descended from the pass, the visibility increased and the winds calmed. Everyone was excited to get out of there. Spirits were lifted and we began to smile and joke around with each other once again.
A message came in from Melanie on my inReach that quickly dampened our enthusiasm: Horseshoe Meadows Road was closed.
We didn't have two more miles to walk, we had 15 miles to walk. 13 miles of that was on the asphalt. I put my head down on my trekking pole and groaned in exasperation, "This bullshit day just won't leave us alone!!"
I had forgotten to say out loud what I had just learned. Amped asked "Is something wrong?"
Yup. A few things.
From Amped's journal:
"Then the message comes in. The road to Horseshoe Meadows is closed. For real closed. 13 miles closed. I just laugh. Of course. This is why we get up early. We'll need every bit of daylight trying to get out of the mountains."
We let our fate sink in as we all soberly marched across the huge snowfield in Horseshoe Meadows. Eventually we reached the campground where we stopped for a late lunch during a fortunate break in the snow. If there was a silver lining here, it was that we could all finally eat as much as we wanted.
I finally stopped eating when I'd eaten two packs of Pop-Tarts, five tortillas with two tuna packets, a snickers, and half of a jar of peanut butter.
For some unknowable reason, my stomach was hurting as we started our 13 mile road walk down to Owens Valley. Amped was, well... Amped, and took off well ahead of the group. I fell behind, taking pictures and wishing I had some shred of self-control around my bear canister.
The road walk was long and harsh on the joints. I had learned the road was closed due to some rockfall. Turned out it was ONE rock... with plenty of room to drive around said rock. I began to limp on the way down the road, cursing whoever decided to keep the road closed. I grabbed a small bottle of wine out of my pack that I'd been saving for a successful summit of Forrester pass, put my trekking poles away, and took small sips as we left the snow behind.
Finally dropping below the clouds, the vast, sweeping views of Owens Valley and the town of Lone Pine below were a beautiful sight. Cell service returned and I was able to give Melanie a call, which helped distract from the sharp pain in my left foot.
The sun was setting as we all finally reached the gate where Melanie was parked, waiting for us with donuts and hot coffee.
Hot, smart, donuts, AND coffee?? How can one human contain so much awesome? Go me, ya know?
We all piled in the truck, glad to be safe. I couldn't help but feel conflicted though. Committing to that 17 mile, 7,200 foot drop to escape the backcountry meant that I was going to have to reverse that to get back to the PCT where I left off at Cottonwood Pass... My only hope was that Horseshoe Meadows Road would open in the next few days.
But I knew that was a long shot.
From Amped's journal:
"The total for the day would be 25 miles and an estimated 7500 calories. The physically hardest day of my existence, and a humbling experience. We approach and see Mel's smiling face. It reminds me of the sun on this icy day. I don't say anything but give her a big hug because we make it out alive. I feel so emotional that I have to just stay quiet during the drive to keep the tears back. Grateful for all I have in my life, this is the day everyone should experience."
We decided it was time for a burger and a beer, so we sat down at The Grill in Lone Pine and regaled Melanie with tales from our day in the storm and our first week in the Sierra. We had failed, but we were alive to tell the story, and this failure would just be part of the story, not the end.
Road Dog and Vagabond Runner looked exhausted. We all were, but I could tell they were ready for a break... possibly more than just a few days. Tomorrow would mark their first zero day in almost 500 tough miles. We agreed we'd all watch the weather and figure out a good time to head back up Horseshoe Meadows Road together, although I got the impression Road Dog and Vagabond Runner were understandably questioning their dedication to the thru-hike this year... to be fair, I was right there with them as we sat in the warm restaurant in Lone Pine.