I haven’t yet shared with you all that happened in the desert, and here I am, in the snowy part of the Sierras already. Time is going by so fast. I will catch you up on all that’s happened earlier another time. Right now, I have to share with you what’s happened most recently.
I had been burning up in the desert for about 700 miles, and then, suddenly, as I approached Kennedy Meadows, I saw the snowy peaks of the Sierras forming before me. My hiking partner squealed with delight and I stood there, breathless and in awe. I was so excited for the snow. I was so looking forward to being cold. I was tired of sweating buckets in my tent as I waited out the hottest part of the day and tried to create my own shade by throwing nearly everything I owned over my tent. I was getting sick of constant dehydration, cracked lips, and a throat so dry that it hurt to swallow. I was hurting from having to carry 4 liters of water in my already too-heavy pack. Looking at the white-tipped mountains towering ahead of me, I knew my current problems would dissolve. But I hadn’t really considered the list of new issues that would arise.
I spent most of my first week’s nights in the Sierras shivering in my tent, not sleeping. I would curl up into the fetal position, close up the hole through which my head should stick out from, and breathe hot air into my sleeping bag. Soon, I’d be warm, but just as soon, I’d run out of oxygen and need to peek out to breathe…and I’d instantly be cold again. This was a never-ending cycle. I tried sharing my tent, and when I woke up with my teeth chattering, I’d maneuver my mummified self closer to the person next to me, who was also mummified in his or her own bag, and attempt to absorb some of their warmth, but it didn’t transfer through our bags. I even tried to sleep in one tent with two other people, right between them, and still slept maybe only a fragmented hour or two. I didn’t know what to do and how much longer I could tolerate this. I began to dearly miss the desert.
My sleeping bag was rated 15 degree limit, 27 comfort, and I had a silk liner, an insulated sleep mat, a z-rest, and nearly all of my clothes on me, including my fuzzy sweater and puffy jacket. I wore socks, a hat, a hood over it, my buff around my neck, and gloves. I ate a warm meal and drank hot tea before sleeping. I sometimes even skipped the meal, and tried to set up my tent very quickly (without even staking it down) and climb into bed while my body was still warm post hiking. Nothing helped.
Eventually, the cold and sleep deprivation began to take its toll on me. Little things began to irk me. My hiking partner was somewhere behind me, I thought, and I sat beside a water source for hours thinking I’d see her eventually. She never came, and I continued on without her. The next day, I was told she was actually ahead of me, and I did an extremely difficult 22-mile day of mostly uphill trying to catch her. The day after, I found out she’d gotten off the trail in Lone Pine, a detour I chose not to make, which we both agreed on skipping, as we had enough food to hike to Independence (as that is where our resupply packages awaited us). I was tired of the food I had, though, and it was just barely enough as it was. At the end of the day, after dinner, I wished I could eat another dinner, but I had to save it for tomorrow and ignore my body’s desire for more. My pack’s lack of a proper frame made carrying a bear can very uncomfortable as well, and after 30 minutes of hiking, my shoulder blades began to burn with a tortuous, searing pain, but I had about 11 and a half more hours to go. I wasn’t enjoying myself as much as I hoped I would. I was tired, cold, in pain, hungry, alone, and pretty frustrated. And that was before I got to the snow.
The next three days had more challenges in store. First, there were the constant river crossings. These rivers were swollen and rushing due to the snow run-off, and melting snow is still very, very cold. My bare feet went numb every time I stepped into the water and my shocked body would take a moment to adjust before I could attempt to maneuver my way through as quickly as possible. Then there were the muddy puddles in the trail that were usually unavoidable. I eventually learned to keep my sandals on (instead of take my shoes off, unstrap my sandals from my pack, put my sandals on, straps my shoes onto my back, cross the water, sit down, take my sandals off, unstrap my shoes, put them on my feet, strap my sandals back onto my backpack, etc.) and walk right through rivers and puddles alike. After 6 miles of this, my sandals (which I have hiked in before but only with socks) began to rub on my bare feet so much that I had to sit down and inspect the source of pain. I realized that they had cut into my feet and taken out small chunks of skin, the gashes instantly filling with dirt and sand. My shoes went back on my feet, and the process of putting my sandals on and off continued.
The day after, I had three more river crossings and many slushy, muddy sections of the trail to cross. But after several hours of this, came the biggest challenge. I had to cross Forester Pass, the highest point on the PCT (at 13,153ft), and I was not prepared at all. As I had never hiked in the snow before, I wanted to cross this section with an ice axe and crampons, but they hadn’t arrived to Kennedy Meadows in time, and instead, I had to have them shipped ahead to Independence (which came after Forester Pass). I had also planned to hike it with my hiking partner, so that I’d feel safer in case anything happened, but she was nowhere in sight, and at this point, rumored to be off the trail completely.
I began climbing Forester in the afternoon, alone, unequipped, and unsure of myself. All I knew is that I needed to be able to climb the steep, icy mountain and get to the other side, which had a campground where I could lay down and attempt to get some sleep. When visible, I followed the footprints I saw in the white expanse before me. I used my flimsy $20 hiking poles to stabilize myself when I was on ice (by stabbing the points into the snow and moving forward bit by bit, slowly). I sometimes crawled on all fours to prevent myself from slipping. I fell into slushy post-holes and got my leg wet up to the thigh and had to try to pull myself out without allowing the other leg to fall in as well. I tried not to slide backwards as I climbed upwards. I didn’t realize how much more difficult it would the other way around.
When I got up and over Forester, I now had to try to prevent myself from sliding forward. My heavy pack and the un-cramponed soles of my shoes kept trying to propel me forward, and the deep trenches in which I walked were too high up on both sides to allow me to use my hiking poles, and as I said earlier, I had no ice axe. I eventually learned to dig my thumbs into the snowy walls around me and move my feet forward inch by inch.
What didn’t help is that, by now, it was nighttime. It was light outside when I began to hike through the pass, and the sun had begun to set before I was at the top. By the time I got over Forester and had to hike down (there were no campgrounds anywhere on this steep trail except for several miles down once you’ve cross the pass), it was nearly pitch black around me. I used the moon to guide me, and attempted to glissade when it was safe so that I could get to the bottom of the mountain faster (glissading is “the act of descending a steep snow-covered slope via a controlled slide on one’s feet or buttocks,” according to Wikipedia).
I was nearly at the bottom of the pass when the footprints I’d been following began to disappear. There were rocks that were not covered in snow, and rocks do not allow the soles of shoes to leave behind their indentations. I had to take out my headlamp and scan my surroundings, slowly, trying not to leave behind too many of my own footprints so that I wouldn’t confuse them for someone else’s. Often times, a straight path through the snowy white would disappear amidst 100 feet of black rock, and after 30 minutes of searching, I’d find the prints as they veered off way off the course, almost at a right-degree angle. I’d spent enough time being lost that, although I hadn’t seen anyone all day, another hiker who was far behind me, had now caught up with me during the last mile. He was lost too, and his GPS app wasn’t working on his phone. I only managed to find the trail because of the app, and he thanked me profusely and said he wouldn’t be able to find his way down without my help.
At the end of the day, I stumbled to a campground, pitched my tent without staking it down (it was flapping all night and would’ve flown away if it wasn’t for my body weight holding it down to the ground), and allowed my tiredness and feelings of physical defeat to press me into the cold ground, in a crumpled, snow-covered pile of hurting limbs and aching shoulder-blades.
This was my most challenging day thus far on the trail. I didn’t realize that the day after would prove to be even more challenging.