Kennedy Meadows marks the start of the Sierras and is a huge achievement for PCT hikers. We have survived the first 700 miles through the Desert Section and feel like our training wheels have been removed. The accomplishment is a mutual feeling among hikers, which is why there is an applause as folks stroll into the general store from the trail. Along with reaching a long anticipated benchmark, hikers are excited to enjoy some hot food, cold drinks, and a change in scenery...the Sierras!
The first day leaving from Kennedy Meadows; a welcoming change to the scenery and plenty of water!
So, the Snow?!
Yeah, how about that snow? We've had quite a winter and even some late snow storms through the spring forcing many hikers to flip to other sections of the PCT and wait to return until the snow melts. We've heard stories about deep snow and dangerous situations and wonder if our micro-spikes and ice axes are really enough for the task. It is a concern and certainly something to be prepared for; on the other hand, I think people are dramatic and like to post pictures of the worst conditions they can find to validate their journey as intense...maybe that's harsh and really it is an intense situation and by the time we reach the same areas, the conditions have improved. But I'll stand by what I said because more often than not, the information I receive is often misinformation inflated for dramatic purposes. It's hard to know on what information to rely and you could end up with the burden of an oxygen tank to summit Mt. Whitney because folks were afraid of thin air (not a good example, but you get what I mean). Plain and simple, we just prepare the best we can and get off the mountain if conditions are worse than we are prepared for.
Early in the Sierras before Mt. Whitney, we were introduced to some beautiful streams.
So how is the snow? I would say snow conditions are perfect. I have arrived at the Sierras late enough for ideal conditions on the passes, yet there is still plenty of snow to make everything look absolutely amazing. Really, at this point, the snow isn't the concern, it is the river crossings that swell and flow at a considerable rate. I will say that my feet have been wet every minute of the day until I go to bed. It's not ideal, but we just deal with it and carry on. On a side note, I've been saying "we" because I joined a team for the Sierras...an awesome group of people to carry each other through all obstacles encountered through the Sierras.
Around every corner is an epic view. We trip and stumble much more in the Sierras...by now you'd think we could walk and enjoy the views at the same time.
Mt. Whitney and the Crew
Early in the Sierra Section at mile 766 is Mt. Whitney. The thing to do is wake up at 12:00 am and hike to the top for the sunrise, so long as you don't get lost in the dark. That is precisely what we did...and someone had the wise forethought to recommend leaving our bags below, but bring our sleeping bags and of course coffee fixings! We managed to navigate our way up in the dark; and I must say that a team was a huge advantage in re-locating the trail after snow patches and selecting the safe alternatives among slopes. Upon reaching the top, we were just blown away by how far we could see and how that view was dominated by snowy mountain peaks. After several pictures, epic pees off the side of the mountain, and a quick update on Instagram (yeah, there was reception up there), we all huddled together in our sleeping bags and had hot coffee with second breakfast.
I wish photos did justice to how amazing the views were, but there is so much detail not captured by cameras nor do photos convey the experience of being there. Sometimes, my favorite things are the little details of snow and ice forming in different shapes or the crumbs and dirt stuck on the beak of a roaming bird taking advantage of crumbles from smashed hiker food. I'm sure if I had a nice camera, perhaps those details could be shared, but if I did have that camera, I know it would be destroyed by now. I'm sure you can see a little bit of what I'm describing in the pictures below. Also, the crew and I were simply happy and having such a great time; Mt. Whitney really is an amazing place to be.
Yeah, it was a good time.
Catching a great sunrise near the top.
Such a stoked crew and the best coffee break I've ever had.
Euphoria set in from reaching the top and all smiles as we made our way back down.
In the past 10 years, I've made a few small backpacking trips into the Sierras and just loved every minute of those trips. I also learned about the Rae Lakes area and made several attempts to hike the loop, but opportunities just kept slipping away. Completely by coincidence, and against many odds, I ended up at Rae Lakes for my birthday...absolutely in the top 3 birthdays of my life. Who knew turning 31 would be such a rewarding year! The team understood my dream of Rae Lakes and were very kind to hang out while I fished the lakes, had some whiskey, and smoked a cigar of the brand grandpa used to have. I'm sure it was a very hard thing for them to wait by the beautiful lakes...
With much appreciation on my end, the crew gave me a card, some chocolate, and whiskey (we had a surplus, so we saved it for reaching summits). I really had it all with the amazing lakes, great company, and the freshest fish one could eat. Before we carried on, I realized I had lost a trekking pole somewhere along the past mile or so (probably because I was running towards the lake in excitement). As I took a lovely run, I ran into an old buddy from before the Sierras. Chalice is his name; I was so pleased to see him for my birthday. The night ended by a beautiful meadow and stream with a group fire.
South Rae Lake
Further Up the Trail
The technical approach for most of the Sierras is to camp below a pass and summit in the morning while the snow is firm. Typically, we were able to camp within four miles of a pass, which is usually covered in snow and encrusted with sun-cups (watch the ankles!). We often woke up around 4:00 am and start hiking in the dark to take advantage of snow conditions before the ice becomes slushy. We camped at the Bighorn Plateau (11,400') the evening of the earthquake, which we heard but did not feel. That next morning was probably the coldest of mornings during the PCT so far; my tent, bear can, and shoes were frozen solid while my socks were wet. Having to cross a stream after putting on frozen shoes and before the sun crested can be pretty demoralizing, but also somewhat exhilarating if you shift your attitude. I guess I was the more fortunate member of the group since I have long legs; going thigh deep is much more manageable than waist deep.
Upon reaching a pass summit, we usually have a hot coffee and a little celebration. Unfortunately, I wasn't with the team for a few of the passes, but I've never had a better time on a pass than when I was with them. After descending the north side of passes, we drop back into valleys that are beautifully forested...it is also where mosquitoes thrive. I've always considered mosquitoes the spawn of Satan, but I've learned to accept the misery they bring for the trade-off of spectacular views.
I have plenty of other things to write about, but will stop this blog here and keep it as a brief summation of recent days. I'm currently in Mammoth Lakes enjoying the town and resupplying. Note that my SPOT device malfunctioned the day before arriving in Mammoth Lakes; the map will not be updated until I receive a new device. Enjoy and I will follow up with some additional blogs!
The crew at Kearsarge Pass
The crew being awesome!
After Forester Pass
Cowboy Camping at Chicken Spring Lake
Another epic view and happy moment
The fishing has been phenomenal!
Setting up camp at the Bighorn Plateau