Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Most Dangerous River Crossings of All....

June 26: Evolution Creek is misnamed. It is not a creek. It is a raging river of death. It looks like a raging river of death. Fidget and I woke with the sun, and marched off to check out this so-called 'creek.' A sign posted near the ranger station suggested walking 25 yards upstream where the creek would only be about two feet deep, which didn't sound bad at all. Another sign at Evolution Meadow, near where we camped, said if the river was high, we could cross in the meadow itself. The water level there was high, but it was moving slow and easy to cross.

So we had options. The hand-made sign by the park service that suggested walking 25 yards upstream seemed recent and relevant, however, and we decided to go with that. When we reached the creek, we found a very wet Anne, seemingly in some distress. We didn't expect to see her at all--she had wanted to reach Muir Ranch the night before. "What happened to you?" we asked.

She said she tried to cross the night before, but failed. She couldn't do it, and finally set up camp along the shore to try again in the morning when the water level was lower. The water level, she told us, was a lot lower this morning, so she tried to cross again, and failed again. She couldn't get across. Now she was cold and soaking wet, and looking absolutely miserable.

We walked 25 yards upstream to check out where the rangers suggested that hikers cross, and the river looked fast, deep, and dangerous. Fidget and I knew Charmin and Hasty had to have passed the evening before, when the water was even higher, so it had to be crossable. Did they cross there? Charmin's a little girl. If she could cross it, surely we could. None of us imagined that her and Hasty were laying dead downriver somewhere. (Don't worry, they weren't!)

Fidget asked if I'd mind if she crossed with both of her trekking poles. "By all means," I told her. I'd just have to find a good, stout stick to help keep my balance while crossing. No big deal. That was the only indication she had any trepidation about the river crossing, though. She marched into the water while Anne and I watched from the banks to see how it went. Most of the way, the water rarely came up past Fidget's knees, and it didn't look bad at all. Near the other shore, she dipped into waist-deep water, which she was clearly struggling to find her footing, but eventually reached a log, pulled herself up, and was securely on the other side.

Fidget turned around and shouted something, but I wasn't sure if I had heard her right. I turned to Anne, "Did she just say that it was too dangerous and for us not to cross?"

"That's what I heard," Anne confirmed.

Hmm.... It didn't look that bad to me, so I decided to cross anyhow. I rooted around for a long, stout stick to take the place of my broken trekking pole and followed in Fidget's steps across the river. Like Fidget, I didn't have any trouble at all--not until I got to near the far edge where the water came up close to my waist,a and I started thinking, "Maybe this is too dangerous....?"

But it was too late, I was already committed. I made a jump, grabbed onto a log, and pulled myself up, safe and sound on the other side.

"Your turn," I shouted to Anne.

Anne shook her head. "I can't do it!" Anne wouldn't cross there, yelling across the river to me that she'd hike back to Evolution Meadow and cross at the meadow. I shouted a good luck to her, then turned around to find Fidget.

But Fidget was nowhere to be seen. I walked 25 yards back downstream to the trail, and still no Fidget. I didn't even see her pack. Was she scouting for a better place for Anne and myself to cross? That didn't make any sense, though. If I were scouting for a better place to cross, I wouldn't have been carrying my pack the whole time. I started thinking, maybe Fidget left? She ditched me!

Or maybe she was hiking upstream to Evolution Meadow, thinking that Anne and I were headed up there to cross? I didn't know. What to do? What to do? I can't imagine why Fidget would have bothered to hike up to Evolution Meadow hoping to find us crossing, so I leaned towards the theory that she just left and continued down the trail. She ditched me!

I yelled back to Anne asking if she saw Fidget on my side of the river at all, but she didn't. I yelled again, telling her if she saw Fidget, to tell her that I didn't know what happened to her so I was going to go ahead and continue down the trail. Maybe I would catch up to her there. Maybe not?

Anne left to go back up trail to Evolution Meadow to cross the river. I continued down the trail, alone. The trail followed along the river for a short ways, down a steep incline, and the relatively smooth river where I crossed became a crashing waterfall, a natural blender for anything in the water, throwing up so much water in the air, it created a multitude of rainbows.

"Holy $#!^!" I thought, looking at the crazy whitewater. Had I slipped and been taken downstream, it would have been death. I'm so glad I didn't realize how bad the water got just downstream from where we were. Actually, if I did know how crazy the water got, I probably woulddn't have risked the crossing where I did. I'd have gone upstream with Anne to Evolution Meadow.

About six miles further along the trail, I caught up with Fidget. At least now I could know with certainty where she had gone to.

"You ditched me!" I yelled to her. Not angry, but with mock hurt.

She seemed surprised to see me, and even more surprised when I told her that I crossed at the same place she did. Since she knew my trekking pole was broken, she thought the crossing there would have been too dangerous for me and assumed I'd go up to the meadow to cross along with Anne. She didn't realize that I planned to find a stout stick to help steady by balance while crossing. Basically, just a bit misunderstanding.

We stopped for lunch eventually, where I emptied my pack looking for a bag of snacks I had. It was a gray bag, and I had M&Ms and Skittles in it. Probably some granola bars as well, but it was the M&Ms and Skittles I was after, and the bag was gone. At first I thought it must have just slipped into the bottom of my pack, but it was gone. I must have left it behind on the trail somewhere where I had stopped for a lunch break.

This was a problem for me. I had enough food to get me to my next resupply point at Mammoth Lakes, but not much more than that. Losing a whole food bag--that was a problem. I'd have to inventory what food I had left, but I had to definitely be careful about how much I ate in the future and ration the food I had left. Grrr....

A group of five or six young boys passed us at lunch. We had stopped for lunch right at a sharp turn in the trail, and the trail ducked under a small pile of snow right at the turn. Fidget and I were experienced enough in the snow to recognize the turn immediately, but the group of boys passed by, going straight, and neither Fidget nor I stopped them to say, "Hey, you're going the wrong way." We just watched them pass by.

"So how long do you think it'll take them to realize they went the wrong direction?" I asked Fidget. It didn't take long before we heard cussing coming from them on the other side of the meadow. At one point, we heard one of them shout out to the others, "Stop talking and find the fucking trail, would you?!"

Fidget and I laughed. We thought it hilarious listening to them bushwack and start scrambling up a slope on the other side of the meadow. I was surprised that none of them thought to turn back, walk perhaps one minute back where were were still lounged on the trail, and figure out where they went wrong. We spent a good ten minutes listening to them trying to find the trail again.

And this wasn't even a tricky section. We're we cold-hearted, not helping when we could? Perhaps. They didn't actually stop to ask for our help either, however. And anyhow, there would be a lot more snow ahead. They really needed to learn how to route find, because it was assured that they'd lose the trail many, many more times in the future. And lose it in sections much trickier than this one. It was a good experience for them, so we thought, even if they weren't thinking that themselves. =)

The group finally did find the trail, and Fidget and I continued hiking, catching up and passing them quickly. The trail was heading towards the next 'big' pass--Seldon Pass, topping out at 10,900 feet above sea level. It was late in the afternoon and we figured that there would likely be snow and postholing involved, but at a mere 10,900 feet, we weren't too worried. "It's more than a thousand feet lower than those other passes we got through!"

Going up turned out to be relatively easy, but down the other side was problematic. We lost the trail, thoroughly and completely. "This is karma for us letting those kids get lost," Fidget told me. She even went so far as to suggest that my losing my food bag was karma for my having done something bad earlier. I couldn't imagine what I did to deserve that, however.

Miles after losing the trail, we finally picked it up again, thrilled to have finally found it after so long. Near dusk, we approached Bear Creek--the second of the two seriously dangerous river crossings we'd been hearing about for hundreds of miles.

The river looked scary dangerous. Even more so than Evolution Creek, if that can be believed. Fidget, who carried Yogi's guidebook, suggested that a safe crossing could be found upstream, so I wandered upstream for nearly a half hour looking for a safe place to cross but found nothing. Absolutely nothing. The best place we could find was perhaps a one minute walk upstream from the trail. I went downstream for a few minutes, around a bend in the river, to see if anything downstream looked promising, but I only saw the raging, churning river. It didn't look good.

A sense of dread started enveloping me. The best crossing we could find looked too dangerous to me. I didn't really want to cross there. The idea terrified me. The water looked deep and fast--a deadly combination. Fidget, once again, seemed remarkably fearless and tromped into the water bravely. She got a little ways out, then turned around and came back to shore. "That wasn't working," she told me. But she's nothing if not persistent. She went back out again, making a second attempt at the crossing while I sat and watched.

She got a good 15 feet out or so, the water coming up to her waist, and I could tell she was struggling with her footing and even just getting her trekking poles in place. Then I saw her lose her balance, twisting around, and I felt nauseated. I thought I was going to watch her die, swept away to God-knows-where. She looked up at me, and clearly saw the look of horror on my face, and somehow managed to catch her balance once again. She scrambled back toward the shore, and I felt so relieved to see her on shore and still alive. That woman has nerves of steel, though. She didn't seem at all phased at a near-death experience, or she hid it a lot better than I did.

"We're camping on this side of the river," she said authoritatively. She got no argument out of me. That seemed like a prudent thing to do. Maybe the water level would be a lot lower in the morning.

It's the last day of August, and the last day to sponsor Amanda and myself for the Washington Trail Association's Hike-a-Thon. If you haven't already, please consider sponsoring us. (Especially me!) The folks do great work helping to fix up and maintain trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail and help make thru-hikes such as mine possible. If you enjoy reading this blog, consider giving something back to the trails that make it possible. Thanks! I'll be continuing this blog so it covers through the end of my thru-hike, hopefully (if all goes well and I don't get myself killed before then!), to the Canadian border. So stay tuned. Just because the Hike-a-Thon is coming to an end doesn't mean that this blog will end....

Monday, August 30, 2010

Hike-a-Thon Update

It looks like Amanda, once again, is putting me to shame. So far, I've raised $150. Which seems nice, until you realize that Amanda has raised $800. Even my own mother has turned traitor. *shaking head*

But it's not too late! There's still another day to make the trails in Washington state a better place for hikers! =) I've already hiked more than 600 miles this month and have made it to the grand state of Washington. And the trails, so far, they need work! Some parts are overgrown. Much too much is running through clear-cuts, but I'm not sure that trail workers can fix that problem.

The trail closure around the Lemah fire damage has been opened again, so I'm happy about that. One less detour for me to worry about! (Don't worry, though. I made up for it in Oregon with an unexpected fire detour. I told the firefighters that I was an experienced hiker who's hiked through many wildfires before, but they wouldn't have any of it. *shaking head*)

But what can I do to get more pledges in my name? Do I need to send bribes? Wear a chicken suit during my hike? All ideas are welcome! =)

And thank you to those have made donations. It's all for a good cause!

Tomorrow, we'll return to our regularly scheduled blog.....

In the meantime, if you're inclined to donate towards the cause, you can do so from our WTA page. =)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Muir Pass: The postholing nightmare

June 25: During the night, a few drops of water started falling from the sky. What were these drops? Fidget assured me that it was called rain--a substance I hadn't seen or heard of since Mount Laguna. Why was it here? How long would it last? Nobody knew.

It wasn't raining hard, and it was dark, late at night, and I didn't want to set up my tarp. So instead, I pulled out my tarp and just threw it out over myself. Then I tried going back to sleep.

By morning, ugly clouds still threatened us, but no more drops had fallen. Technically, I'm not even sure it would have counted as rain in the weather books--I don't think enough drops had fallen for it to be a 'measurable' amount. It would have just been labeled as a 'trace.'

Disappointingly, the temperature when we awoke this morning were quite warm. Probably heat trapped by the clouds, but Fidget and I were a little disappointed. We wanted cold. Very cold. We wanted the snow to freeze solid and eliminate the chance of postholing. The stories we heard about Muir Pass was that the pass wasn't particularly treacherous, but that it was practically designed for miles and miles of postholing, and the warm temperatures weren't helping any.

We caught up with a group of five other hikers, and eventually eight of us started working our way over Muir Pass. This was a much larger group than I liked to hike with. Decisions about direction or route came slowly. At one point, I broke off from the larger group, somehow convincing Fidget to stick with me. Admittedly, in hindsight, I probably chose the worst of the two route options, but it got me away from the large group that unsettled me.

The clouds had one nice effect--it kept the glare from the sun down. It was easier to see, and a lot cooler without the reflected heat of the sun off the snow. It was even nippy enough that for much of the time, I wore my fleece jacket to stay warm.

The trail was especially tricky to follow in a couple of areas. Or at least, the route of the trail. The trail was well buried in snow, but it passed several lakes, all of which looked remarkably similar on the topo maps, so I wasn't always sure which lake we were at, which was critical information to know to know which direction to hike. But we ultimately stayed true, working our way slowly up the snow to Muir Pass.

The snow was cold enough that postholing wasn't generally a big issue, but it was an issue. Another related issue was that sometimes, a thin layer of snow would cover creeks, and if you weren't careful, you'd crash through into the creek. The creeks weren't deep enough to be deadly, but it wasn't something anyone enjoyed either, so we'd be walking along, then hear the creek below us, under the snow, and we'd try to scramble out from over it. We'd try to avoid walking in the deepest part of canyons and valleys, knowing that if there was a creek flowing, that's where it would be. The hidden dangers, lurking under the snow.... With the snow as soft as it was, it was more important to avoid walking over such creeks inadvertantly.

Finally we made it to the top of Muir Pass and took a break in the hut at the top. Technically, our guidebooks showed the elevation of Muir Pass to be 11,950 feet above sea level, but we all considered it a 12,000-foot pass. It was also the last 12,000-foot pass on the trail. The worst of the snow, we believed, was finally behind us.

The hut at the top was beautiful, and a nice respite from the snow outside, but then it was up and onward. We still had the other side of the pass to complete, and Fidget and I wanted to get as far along that as possible before postholing became a big issue. There was a blanket of snow as far as the eye could see--perfect for postholing if the snow warmed up enough. We needed to get through, as quickly as possible.

At first, the going was fast. Downhill, with slightly mushy snow, we tore down the pass. Later in the afternoon, postholing became an increasingly bigger issue, slowing us down and wearing us out. Four or five miles beyond the pass, we finally broke free of the snow. Patches of it still plagued us, but progressed improved.

We stopped to camp at Evolution Meadow, just before Evolution Creek--a river crossing that worried Fidget and I. Evolution Creek was one of two rivers that we heard would likely be the worst of the entire trail. We had been hearing about Evolution Creek for hundreds of miles. It was late in the afternoon, though, so we decided to camp on the near side of it. Maybe in the morning, the creek would be lower and safer to cross. Anyhow, it was an exhausting day as it was. We liked the idea of quitting just a little bit early. There weren't anymore 12,000-foot passes to worry about anymore!

Fidget started a fire, the first campfire I had enjoyed in eons, and it helped keep the bugs away as well. Even the bugs didn't seem especially bad--not yet, at least--but a few were out.

An hour or two later, Charmin and Hasty strolled past our campsite, and I waved and welcomed them to join us. I kind of doubted they would stay with us, but I at least wanted to put out the effort of being friendly, if for no other reason than to contrast with their "mosquitoes are bad, keep moving" kind of attitude from the evening before. I didn't want to turn into an anti-social hiker.

They stopped to talk for a few minutes, but Charmin said she wanted to cross Evolution Creek in the evening rather than first thing in the morning and they soon left down trail. I shook my head, once again feeling somewhat lucky not to be hiking with Charmin. We had a beautiful campsite, in the trees, with a warm campfire. Ahead lay a potentially dangerous creek crossing, probably safer to cross in the morning. It was about 7:00 in the evening, an excellent time to stop to camp. And Charmin made the decision to push on because she didn't want to get her feet wet in the morning? I noticed she didn't even ask Hasty if he was interested in stopping there for the night, but I don't think that really mattered. Hasty was happy to camp anywhere as long as Charmin was nearby, and probably preferred to camp with her alone anyhow. They likely wouldn't have been sharing a tent had they chosen to camp with us that night.

So I found myself thinking how fortunate I was not to be hiking with Charmin once again. I'd have been pissed if I was hiking with her and she insisted on skipping this wonderful campsite, to cross a dangerous creek at the most dangerous part of the day, all because she didn't want to get her feet wet in the morning.

A bit later in the evening, another thru-hiker, Anne, strolled by, and we tried to suck her into our camp as well. She too wanted to continue on, telling us that she might even try to reach Muir Ranch late that night where she had a maildrop waiting. That was still another eight miles ahead. It didn't seem possible she could get there before midnight, but she really wanted to at least get as close to it as she could. We wished her good luck, and she too moved on.

"You'd think a campfire would suck in thru-hikers like moths to a flame," I thought. "Do I really smell that bad?"

Finally, the fire died down and we went to sleep for the night. We were thrilled that the highest passes were now all behind us, but some potentially dangerous creek crossings still lay ahead.....

During the month of August, I'll be participating with Amanda in the Washington Trail Association's Hike-a-Thon. If you haven't already, please consider sponsoring us. (Especially me!) The folks do great work helping to fix up and maintain trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail and help make thru-hikes such as mine possible. If you enjoy reading this blog, consider giving something back to the trails that make it possible. Thanks!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Mather Pass: The scariest pass of them all

June 24: From a distance, Mather Pass looked positively easy. The snow level was high, the pass didn't look especially steep, and Fidget and I planned to go over first thing in the morning to limit postholing issues. We were optimistic that Mather Pass, just three miles away, would not be a significant challenge.

We were wrong. We woke up to frost on everything. We both had cowboy camped, so all of our gear, sleeping bags, bear canisters--all of it--was coated in a thick layer of frost. I kept my shoes from freezing by sleeping on them. Blah.

We lost the trail quickly in the snow, but we didn't need it anyhow. Mather Pass was clearly visible, so we just aimed straight for it. Progress at first was fast. The snow was frozen hard, and I wore microspikes which had a fantastic grip on the frozen snow. Absolutely nowhere did we posthole.

Now that my trekking pole was broken, I started carrying my ice axe as a trekking pole. It was a little short for that purpose, so it would swing freely most of the time and I'd use it on boulders and other rocks to steady my balance as they popped out above the snow.

And then we reached the last, steep climb to the top of the pass. It wasn't far. Probably less than a quarter mile. But it took us well over an hour to get through that section. The steep, exposed slope faced directly into the sun, and the snow--even this early in the morning--had become a mushy soup. Our traction devices were useless. And the slope was scary steep, the steepest one so far. It kind of sneaks up on you, though. It wasn't obvious at first how steep the slope was until you're already halfway up it.

From a distance, we could see three hikers going over the pass already, but Fidget and I wasn't able to identify them. Another hiker, Curly, caught up with us on the pass, and the three of us went up together. Curly seemed to fly over the snow like it wasn't even there. Fidget and I moved quite a bit slower. I was the slowest of all.

The wost snow traverse of all, I used my ice axe as a third 'foot', and never had more than one foot off the ground at any given time. It was a slow, tedious, hair-raising process. I'd bury the ice axe's handle into the snow up to its hilt. I'd put a great deal of weight on the ice axe, to make sure it could actually hold my weight should I slip. Then I'd move my right foot over about six inches. Then I'd move my left foot into where my right foot had been located. Then I'd pull out the ice axe from the snow, move it over six inches, and plunge it into the snow up to the hilt again. Repeat. Over and over again, perhaps hundreds of times, for what seemed like hours.

Occasionally, I would look downhill, and my stomach would churn. It seemed to go down forever, very steep. If I slipped, I'm not sure I could arrest my fall. It was just too steep. And I kept thinking, "What the #*@$ am I doing out here? I don't need to be here. I don't have a death wish. This is stupid. Absolutely stupid. You're a dumbass, Ryan."

Fidget, a little ahead of me, cried out at one point, and I looked up thinking I'd see her falling to her death or something. She wasn't--but she did get jolted or something, and a water bottle flew out of her back and skidded down the slope, stopping to rest in a bump in the snow. Curly, just behind and below her, maneuvered to retrieve it.

After a couple of hours, we all finally made it to the top, safe and sound. The other side of Mather Pass wasn't too bad. The snow was still hard, largely shaded on the north-facing slope, and we crashed down the mountain quickly, catching up with the three hikers we had seen ahead of us. The three turned out to be the two Israeli girls (Noga and Shani), and Evan who I had last seen preparing to go up to resupply them.

We talked for awhile, shared stories of our experiences, and then Fidget and I continued on.

We stopped for lunch just before the Golden Staircase, a steep series of switchbacks dropping dramatically into the valley below. Fidget and I wanted to dry out our gear from the frost that morning, and we laid out our sleeping bags on the warm rocks. I decided to cook a dinner for lunch. Once again, we wanted to push on as close to the next pass's snow level for an early morning tromp on solid snow, and it looked quite a bit away. I was afraid we'd get into camp so late, I wouldn't want to cook dinner in the dark. Better to do it in the middle of the day while trying to dry out my sleeping bag anyhow.

Lunch over and our bags dry, we continued the hike. The trail fell dramatically, dropping quickly down the Golden Staircase that we nicknamed the Golden Waterfall because of so much water pouring down the trail. I started taking pictures of water on the trail, joking that I was going to turn it into a game of "is it a creek? or the trail?" The trick being, it's both! The snow stopped, but our feet stayed miserably wet because of all of the creeks flowing on and across the trail.

We walked fast on the snow-free trail, however, enjoying the trees and warmth. The trail followed a canyon downhill for miles before we finally started following another canyon back uphill. The mosquitoes were getting thick which helped push us on. We stopped for a few minutes at one point to rest, but had to keep going, driven off by the mosquitoes. "If it's not one problem," I told Fidget, "it's another." The trail hates us. I know it. And we're acting like lemmings.

My clothes started presenting another problem for me. I lost one of my gloves somewhere, which annoyed me to no end. At one point, when my glasses were starting to come down my nose, I pushed them back up with a finger, heard a CRACK, and one of the lenses popped out. Walking on snow in full sunlight is absolutely blinding--there's even a term for it: snow blindness. Sunglasses were one of the most important pieces of equipment a hiker needs, and mine just suffered a major injury. I taped the popped out lens in place with duct tape, but they needed to be replaced.

And then there were my pants. The first major rip happened the day before, as I was crawling across the snow, ripping a huge hole in one of the knees. Today, while going over a log, it caught on a branch and ripped an even larger hole from my ankle to knee. My pants were all but falling off of me, and at this rate, I'd soon be hiking naked whether I liked it or not.

Late in the afternoon, near sunset, we saw two tents that had been set up, but one was notably empty. I called out, asking if anyone was there, and after a short pause, a voice called out from the tent we couldn't see into saying that it was Charmin and Hasty. Ah, of course. I didn't recognize Hasty's tent--I'd never seen it set up before. Hasty shouted out something about the mosquitoes at this campsite being really bad.

Fidget and I, standing outside, were quite aware of the mosquito situation, and there were none. A couple of hours before, they were certainly really bad, but it was later and the temperature had dropped dramatically, and the mosquitoes had gone back into hibernation. The mosquitoes weren't bad at all anymore. All Hasty managed to do was fess up that Charmin had been in his tent for at least the last couple of hours.

We continued on, and I wished them to "have fun" as I left.

After getting out of hearing distance, I commented to Fidget that that was one reason I wasn't hiking with Charmin anymore. Just walking past their campsite, I felt awkward having 'caught' the two of them sharing a tent. Not to mention that they didn't seem especially welcoming.

Fidget seemed a little surprised at my observation, thinking that they didn't seem that unwelcoming. And I had told her that when Charmin and I camped together and other hikers passed by, she'd always shout out greetings and encourage them to camp with us. She didn't say a word this time, and Hasty's only comment was about how bad the mosquitoes were there. Almost as if saying, "This campsite sucks. You should just keep moving along."

"I liked the old Charmin better," I told Fidget. "This one seems too anti-social."

Maybe I was reading too much into Hasty's comment, but I was glad to leave them behind, and I was glad not to be hiking with Charmin anymore. Had I been Hasty, I would have been ticked off at that campsite selection. They camped miles away from the first real snow on the pass and would likely end up spending much of the afternoon postholing--a fate that Fidget and I hoped to avoid. Fidget and I were exhausted, but we pushed on for a better tomorrow. They quit early, when the mosquitoes were at their worst. And I half suspect they stopped there because it was pretty and in the trees. Charmin likes to camp in the trees. In any case, it seemed like a glorious bad place to have stopped to set up camp, and I was happy to be hiking with Fidget who also wanted to push closer to the snow level.

We arrived in our own camp a little after the sun had already dropped behind the mountains but before it was so dark that headlamps were necessary. Curly showed up several minutes later and joined our camp.

After eating snacks for dinner, I put on my headlamp and started sewing the holes in my pants together. It was too dark by now to do it without the use of a headlamp, and I spent a good hour or so trying to sew up my pants as best I could under the circumstances. I couldn't even really see how good of a job I was doing in the dark.

Upon finishing, I told Fidget, "We'll see how my Frankenstein pants look in the morning." I imagined it would look like pieces of several pants, sewn together, with large, obvious stitches holding the pieces together. I wouldn't know until morning when I tried on the pants in the morning light, however.

Then, in the morning, Muir Pass--and the last of the 12,000-foot passes. The High Sierras had thrown their worst at us, but we were still getting through.....

During the month of August, I'll be participating with Amanda in the Washington Trail Association's Hike-a-Thon. If you haven't already, please consider sponsoring us. (Especially me!) The folks do great work helping to fix up and maintain trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail and help make thru-hikes such as mine possible. If you enjoy reading this blog, consider giving something back to the trails that make it possible. Thanks!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pinchot Pass: It can bring a grown man to his knees....

June 23: I ate Lucky Charms for breakfast, and Shang-hi harassed me about that. "Yeah, the options in Independence were severely limited," I told him. I had to admit, though, it did taste good. =) I had doubts it would fill me up, though.

Hurricane and Shang-hi woke early and left camp before me. As I was finishing up and about ready to leave, two young girls walked past camp. They reminded me vaguely of the two girls I saw walking up Kearsarge Pass when I was hiking down naked, but that couldn't possibly be right. That was two days ago. It seemed impossible that I caught up to them so quickly.

"So who are you?" I asked.

And indeed, it was Fidget and Anne, the first two people who had caught me hiking naked. It seemed clear that they didn't recognize me with my clothes on, and I nervously introduced myself again. "I'm Green Tortuga."

Anne exclaimed, "Oh! We saw your wee-wee!"

Wee-wee? Really? That's not a word that inspires confidence.

I learned that Anne was just visiting Fidget for a short section of the trail, and that they decided to take a zero day directly on the trail which is how I was able to catch up to them so quickly out of town. We talked about Hike Naked Day, and Fidget and Anne said that they really wanted to try it as well, and after meeting me, they spent all day talking each other out of it. Fidget called my naked hiking "honorable"--admittedly not the first word that comes to mind when I see a naked hiker, but I wasn't going to complain. Yes, what I did was honorable!

I pulled ahead of the two girls, eventually catching up to Shang-hi and Hurricane a few miles before Pinchot Pass, a 12,150-foot pass. It was a pass I had heard nothing about, which made me optimistic that it wouldn't be much of a problem. Even my topo maps suggested it would be relatively easy, slowly climbing in altitude without any steep cliffs to slide down.

But I was wrong. We were all wrong. It was the worst pass to date. It wasn't a dangerous pass--the trail didn't go along the steep, scary-looking slopes. The problem with this pass was postholing. The snow was thick and soft, and with each step, I'd sink in up to my waist and have to dig myself out. Each exhausting step increased my frustration. I wanted to yell. I wanted to cry. I fell to my knees and started crawling at one point. The increased surface area of my body while crawling helped reduce the postholing problems (the keyword being reduced the problems--not eliminate them).

I tried to follow the official PCT trail to the top of Pinchot Pass while Hurricane and Shang-hi veered off and went up the right side of the valley where they felt the snow wasn't as deep. They were probably right in hindsight, but the official PCT looked like it might hit a lot of the rocky outcrops on the left side of the valley so I stuck with that.

But the postholing was a nightmare, literally bringing me to my knees. For about ten minutes, I crawled across the snow, repeating to myself, "Please don't break through... please don't break through the snow....." over and over again. Sometimes one of my hands did break through, and my face would crash into the snow, my hands and arms buried in snow. I'm not proud to admit it, but I did a lot of cussing.

At one snow-free rock outcropping I reached, I finally stood up and saw the trail. I could actually see the trail, after losing it over an hour before, and I shouted down to Shangi-hi and Hurricane, "I found the trail!" The two were small specks at the bottom of the valley, and I heard them call back, but I couldn't make out their words. Then I heard another voice--a girl's voice--also call out from the bottom.

There was a third hiker down there, but I couldn't identify who it was. The only two girls I knew about on the trail was Fidget and Anne, but they were ahead of me, and there was only one girl below. I wondered who it was, and shouted out, "Who is that?" But I couldn't hear an answer.

I postholed again, using my trekking pole to help push myself out, when SNAP! My trekking pole broke in two. I cursed it and proceeded to dig myself out with the half pole now in my hands.

Near the top of the pass, I finally connected with Shangi-hi and Hurricane again, and the mysterious girl who followed their route was Fidget. I'm not sure how I got ahead of Fidget, and I didn't know what happened to Anne. Shangi-hi said it looked like I had a lot of trouble with postholing on my route, which I confirmed, and told about my having to crawl across the snow at one point.

"Yeah! I saw that!" He wasn't sure if I had just postholed and was trying to dig myself out or if I was actually crawling across the snow.

"Oh, I was crawling. Definitely crawling."

To Fidget, I asked, "What happened to Anne?"

After climbing over Glen Pass, Anne decided that this trail was too scary, too intense, and too insane to continue. She quit. Probably thinking something like, "You thru-hikers are f#*@ing INSANE!" I didn't realize that there was even an option to quit somewhere along this part of the trail, but I guess there was. So Fidget was now hiking alone, or at least following us up Pinchot Pass.

From the top of the pass, Fidget and I hiked on together. While I did want a hiking partner over these high passes, I kind of didn't want to hike with Hurricane. Not that I didn't like Hurricane, but from past experience over Fuller Ridge, I knew he got lost often and easily, and he was also having knee troubles, and Shang-hi had told me that Hurricane was saying he wasn't sure if he would even be able to finish the trail. I didn't want to attach my ship to a guy who might leave the trail at any time and who would be next to worthless trying to navigate.

So I attached my ship to Fidget. It wasn't really a formal agreement or anything, but rather the two of us just took off from the top of Pinchot Pass at around the same time, and both of us continued to posthole for miles more on the other side of the pass slowing us down to similar paces. We'd call out to each other anytime either of us spotted the trail peeking out from the snow.

The trail passed by Marjorie Lake, so naturally I took lots of photos of Marjorie's Lake. =)

Progress through the snow continued to be slow and exhausting. Eventually, we passed a park ranger--the second one I'd seen in as many days--who encouraged us that the snow would start going away after another mile or two. He also pointed out Mather Pass, the next 12,000+ foot pass that we would have to cross the next day. The actual pass we typically don't see until the very last minute due to the bends and curves of the canyons, but Mather Pass was visible from a long way off. And it didn't look too bad at all. The ranger said the snow level looked like it only covered the top 1000 feet of the pass, and that it was a lot easier than the pass we just crossed over. This lifted our spirits immensely!

We eventually got out of the bulk of the snow. The snow never really left completely--patches of it still lingered on the trail--but the postholing finally came to an end and more of the trail was exposed than covered and we went down the mountain.

We crossed a couple of knee-deep, fast-moving streams, and Fidget offered me one of her trekking poles to help me keep my balance while crossing, which was very helpful.

Then we reached the South Fork of the Kings River--a raging wall of water. Crossing it looked positively suicidal. It was the first of the truly scary river crossings. The ranger had said there was a river crossing ahead, but that it could be crossed on a log upstream from the trail. We didn't fully appreciate the danger this river crossing involved when he mentioned it, however. We hadn't seen anything like this on the trail before.

We hiked upstream, looking for the log that could get us across safely. We finally found it, but the river had risen so high, it was now streaming over the log. And even then, the log only crossed the second half of the river. It was sketchy, no matter how we looked at it. Fidget seemed fearless, though, and all but jumped into the water to get across while I was still 'waterproofing' my gear.

Knowing that there was a very good chance my gear would get wet, I put my camera in a Ziplock bag, inside a second waterproof bag, deep in my pack. I protected my maps, wallet, and electronic devices similarly. Fidget had nearly made it to the other side before I was even ready to start the crossing.

I stepped tentatively into the water--ice cold water, freshly melted snow--and the water became waist deep within seconds. A log in water, just out of reach, tantalized me, and I tried to reach for it. I reached, I grabbed, and the small log shifted, throwing me off balance. I was about to be swept away. I was sure I was a split second from being swept away, but somehow I grabbed onto the root of a nearby tree and steadied myself, pulling myself out of the water and standing on dry ground in the middle of the river, heart thumping so loudly it drowned out the sound of the rushing water.

I looked up at Fidget, watching me from the far side of the river, and gave her a thumbs up. I was okay. For now, at least. There was still the other half of the river to contend with. She urged me to cross on the submerged log. I worried about crossing on a submerged log. It was wet, with fast moving water flowing over it, and I worried my feet would slip if I tried to cross on it. But Fidget crossed okay, and she shouted to me that it wasn't as bad as it looked, so I went for it--another hair-raising, adrenaline-packed crossing.

I crossed successfully, however, and felt like throwing up upon reaching the other side. A river crossing like that will sap any energy left in a guy, let me tell you.

We continued hiking, and I told her, "The trail is bad and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in!"

She thought a moment, and asked, "Is that from The Cremation of Sam McGee?"

Well, yes, it was. I was impressed that she could pick out such an obscure line from a poem that most people aren't familiar with. Seems that her dad used to read her that poem all the time as a child, though, and she still recognized it.

Fidget and I continued hiking, pushing as close to the snow level as possible. After the postholing misery of today, we both wanted to get up and over Mather Pass as early in the morning as possible when the snow was still frozen and postholing not likely. So we were both incredibly exhausted, but we pushed on a few more miles, getting as close to Mather Pass as possible.

We finally set up camp, on dry ground, surrounded by snow. Fidget commented that I have an usual way of carrying a trekking pole, describing it was "Willie-Wonka-ish." I hadn't ever considered how I held a trekking pole before, but I instantly knew what she meant. I'd hold it with an 'overhand' grip, let it swing freely, and it's not the kind of grip I've ever seen other hikers use. They hold trekking poles in the 'standard' mode, gripping the handles as they were designed to be gripped.

Setting up camp, she also commented that she considered this part a 'feminine' activity. Part of the 'nesting' syndrome. Making a home, even if it was only to be used for a single night. I always visualized it as a manly activity, taming the wilderness. Survival. Tough as nails.

In camp, I always changed into dry camp clothes, and I joked that I guess it didn't matter if I changed clothes in front of Fidget since she'd already seen me naked before. Save me the effort of having to find some place to be modest in my changing, at least, which is kind of a hassle anyhow. There weren't a lot of trees in the area where we camped.

I recited the Robert Service poems for Fidget, then we went to sleep and let our bodies heal from their ordeal. And prepare for the next 12,000+ foot pass we'd be hitting the next morning.....

During the month of August, I'll be participating with Amanda in the Washington Trail Association's Hike-a-Thon. If you haven't already, please consider sponsoring us. (Especially me!) The folks do great work helping to fix up and maintain trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail and help make thru-hikes such as mine possible. If you enjoy reading this blog, consider giving something back to the trails that make it possible. Thanks!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Lemmings! We're Lemmings!

June 22: I'd been hearing rumors about hiker injuries and mishaps along the trail, and it's sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. Now that I was in town and reading hiker blogs, I was starting to get more details about some of these events. For instance, Half Ounce was rescued by helicopter after suffering from high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) after climbing Mount Whitney. Another member of Team Zero, Ten Spot, then lost his pack while crossing the Tyndall river, finding himself in the Sierra wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back. (That's the river I crossed without my pants on.) Other hiker I heard had chipped a tooth goofing around in the hot springs hundreds of miles back on the trail. Then there's the story Charmin told of another thru-hiker being bitten by a rattlesnake. Other hikers had just plain thrown in the towel and quit.

And I started thinking, "We're all lemmings." There we are, following this trail mindless of where it takes us. That's our job. It leads us into all sorts of hardships, and the trail is taking us out one at a time. Despite all these stories of other hiker injuries,  however, we carry on. Like the mindless lemming. In my younger years, I used to enjoy playing Lemmings, the video game. In my head, I imagined an endless line of thru-hikers, and clicking around trying to save as many of them as I could from walking into disaster.

We're all lemmings, in the grand game called Thru-Hiking the PCT.

I was pondering these thoughts as I walked into the dinning room at the hotel for breakfast. It was a bed and breakfast, and I had already used the bed. Now it was time to get the breakfast. I started some bread in the toaster and ordered waffles, scrambled eggs, and bacon.

The one other couple in the hotel walked in as I was waiting, and they started asking me about my hike. The couple was older, from Atascadero, just a few miles from my home town of San Luis Obispo. We ate breakfast together, and after asking about my stove, I went to my room and retrieved it to show them. They asked how I was going to get to the trailhead, and I said I'd try to hitch a ride. "Unless you want to drive me up there?" I asked, hopeful.

The woman said sure, seemed even a little excited at the prospect, but her husband clearly didn't like the idea. It was out of their way, and they didn't have room to take a passenger. I refrained from suggesting that one of them could stay at the hotel while the other dropped me off. After all, if they did drive me up to the trailhead, they'd have to come back down anyhow. No reason that both of them had to drive up, and clearly their vehicle had room for at least one passenger.

Mostly, I think the husband just didn't want to be bothered driving out of his way, which I could understand, but he stuck with the "there's no room to take another passenger" excuse. Oh, well. I didn't really expect to yogi a ride to the trailhead, but it didn't hurt to try!

I walked to Subway and bought a sandwich for the trail, and on the way back I bumped into Peanut Eater. He hiked the trail the previous year and was now spending a couple of weeks camped at the trailhead for Kearsarge Pass shuttling hikers all over the place. He was at the post office when he spotted me, and I asked about a ride to the trailhead. He had to drive down to Lone Pine to drop off some hikers, but that he was going to stop at the Courthouse Motel to pick up Trouble, Dude, Granite, and Tarrapin at 11:00, and that he'd pick me up there and then as well. Excellent!

But I decided to try hitching to the trailhead in the meantime. I was ready to go, and didn't really feel like waiting around for an hour for a ride. I walked out to the road to the trailhead and spent a half hour trying to hitch. During that time, only two cars passed by, and neither of them picked me up. Given the severe lack of traffic, I finally gave up and walked to the Courthouse Motel to wait.

Peanut Eater arrived and we all piled into the vehicle, finally arriving at the trailhead at 12:15. It was much later than I had wanted to arrive, but at least I was finally back in action. The other hikers hung around Peanut Eater's campsite, but I wanted to get a move on and left the behind.

The nine mile hike back to the PCT over Kearsarge Pass was largely uneventful. I caught up to a park ranger--the first I had seen on the trail--who didn't even ask to see my permit or bear canister. I was a little disappointed not to get 'carded.' I hadn't been carded on the trail yet, and I still wouldn't.

Since I had hiked out two days before, a considerable amount of snow had clearly melted. This was the first time I had to backtrack on trail I had already hiked before, and there were two places that I clearly remembered snow being a significant factor in a route I chose, and in both places, the snow had already melted. There was still a lot of snow on the ground, but I was impressed with how much had melted away in less then 48 hours.

I ate half my Subway sandwich sitting at the top of Kearsarge Pass, admiring an amazing view, and the other half at the trail junction upon reaching the PCT. I passed a family from Florida who were out backpacking for a week, and they seemed a little disoriented at all the snow and high altitudes. No kidding!

I lost the trail shortly after getting back on the PCT in the snow, and lost it for several miles. The trail might be lost, but I wasn't, and used my maps and compass to navigate over Glen Pass--a 12,000 foot pass. I was confident at first--I already passed the 13,000-foot Forester Pass without too much trouble! But I took one look at Glen Pass and quaked in my shoes. The pass looked impossibly steep, covered with a slick layer of snow, that--if one were to slip and slide down--would end with my body falling into a partially frozen alpine lake. I suddenly found myself wishing I had a hiking partner. Or at least wasn't out here completely alone.

I approached the pass, prepared to turn back if I felt it got too hairy. The snow was slushy which helped calm my fears. Slushy snow gave my shoes a lot more grip and the confidence that I could arrest a slide pretty easily. The pass looked scary, but as with Forester Pass, it's bark was worse than its bite.

Going down the other side went quickly. The day was getting late, and now I was rushing ahead to find a good place to camp. By Arrowhead lake, I saw a couple of tents set up, and I called out asking who was out there. It had the feeling of thru-hikers, and I was right. It was Shang-hi and Hurricane. I didn't recognize the name Shang-hi, but I did know the hiker. I always called him Yellow Pants for the blinding yellow shorts he usually wore, but he didn't have a trail name at the time I met him. I guess he finally got himself a proper trail name. Hurricane I was also familiar with, though I  hadn't seen him since the Andersons.

I set up camp near them and called it a day.

During the month of August, I'll be participating with Amanda in the Washington Trail Association's Hike-a-Thon. If you haven't already, please consider sponsoring us. (Especially me!) The folks do great work helping to fix up and maintain trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail and help make thru-hikes such as mine possible. If you enjoy reading this blog, consider giving something back to the trails that make it possible. Thanks!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Holy Naked Hiking Tortugas!

June 21: The first day of summer was bright and sunny, as well it should be. I also had a decision to make: the solstice walk. The first day of summer is often known as Hike Naked Day among hikers, and for over a year, I've been thinking about trying it myself.

Most of us get into our set, established ways. It's comfortable, though often times, kind of boring as well. Sometimes, when I start feeling trapped in a gutter, I want to do something out of my comfort zone. Something a little bit scary, but not necessarily dangerous. And over a year ago, I started thinking about hiking naked for Hike Naked Day. Somewhere remote, well off the beaten path, where I may very well not see any other hikers all day long.

This day, I found myself camped near Kearsarge Pass. I had seen a few people camped on the other side of it, but it seemed doubtful that there would be a lot of folks camped so near the tailhead. It was early in the morning. And a weekday, which would likely limit the number of day hikers in the area. I estimated that I was about an hour's walk from the trailhead. It was a little close to the trailhead--who knows how many day hikers used it--but it was early in the morning on a weekday in the middle of nowhere. How many people could there possibly be? It seemed entirely possible I could hike all the way to the trailhead not seeing anybody at all, I thought.

Yes, I would hike naked. I think. I waited for the sun to rise--it was a bit cold out, and a little warmth in the air would be nice for hiking naked. I ate breakfast like normal, then started packing up my pack. At the end, I took off all my clothes, slipped on socks and shoes (I did need to hike, after all), put on sunglasses and my hat (still need sun protection for the eyes!), and slipped on my pack. The pack bulged a little larger than normal since I stuffed it with the hiking clothes I usually was wearing. The downside of hiking naked was that one's pack is heavier with the unused clothing. But I was naked, and I was ready to hike!

I normally wear a waist pack, and wondered if I should do so for Hike Naked Day or not. It's convenient, being able to grab my maps, sunscreen, camera, or snacks without taking off my pack. It would partially hide certain important parts of my anatomy, but it almost seems like I was trying to hide myself. It's more a matter of comfort, though, not hiding, and finally decided to wear it as normal. It didn't fully cover me anyhow.

I need pictures, though. Nobody was around to take photos for me--thank god--so I set up my camera on a rock, set the self-timer, and rushed over to get in the picture. I sat down on a rock, crossing my legs, hoping to get a picture with all the pertinent stuff covered to make it safe for posting publicly and online. =) I took several photos, hoping at least one of them would be usable.

I chose not to apply sunscreen. It was still early in the morning and the trail was largely shaded, and I'd only be out for an hour before I hit the trailhead. Not long enough to worry about burning any sensitive parts.

Photo session over, I started hiking. Naked. I had been hiking for about five minutes, watching my feet closely as I hiked over rocks and snow, making sure not to slip or trip, when I heard a woman's voice ahead of me shout, "Hike Naked Day! Woo-who!" I hadn't seen the person, and the exclamation startled me. At least whoever it was seemed to take my being naked okay. At the same time, I looked up to see who it was that caught me hiking naked. It was two girls, neither of whom I recognized, which I considered a good thing.

As I passed the first one, I stopped long enough to ask what her name was. I wanted to make sure I had the name to accurate report my naked hiking experience in my blog, and I figured I should at least learn who the first person to catch me was. She introduced herself as Fidget, and her friend as Anne. I was a little too shy to stay and talk long. I just wanted an accurate record of who caught me hiking naked. (She later posted her account of our first meeting on her blog, if you're interested in reading her point of view.)

About ten minutes later, I passed another hiker--Mr. Mountain Goat--and I recognized him the moment I saw him. I last saw him near Warner Springs and had been reading his hiking blog whenever I got a chance. So when I saw him hiking up the trail, I exclaimed, "Mr. Mountain Goat!"

He looked up at me, "Err, have we met?"

"It's me! Green Tortuga!" I said cheerfully.

"Hey, Tortuga. You look.... different.....?"

"Yeah, I'm naked! Happy Hike Naked Day!"

We chatted for a few minutes. He seemed to have trouble looking me in the eye, his eyes shifting around for somewhere safe to land while talking. Finally, we shook hands and continued on our separate ways. (To read Mr. Mountain Goat's version of our meeting, read the Glenn Pass section of his blog entry. We were on Kearsarge Pass, but he lumped his second hike over Kearsarge Pass with Glenn Pass.)

I passed several other hikers on my way down--nine in total, though only Fidget and Mr. Mountain Goat were thru-hikers. Anne was out for a section hike with her friend, Fidget. The other six were day hikers. One older man with a large dog worried me a bit. "Please, don't stick the dog on me. Please...."

But they all seemed too surprised at my nakedness than anything else. They seemed largely speechless, and I tore past them before they regained the ability to speak. I also passed nearby a camp with half a dozen or so folks by a lake. Their camp was slightly off trail, for which I was thankful, and I tore past quickly hoping I'd get through before any of them even noticed me. If any of them did notice them, they didn't call out or draw my attention.

I could see the trailhead from the distance, and about five minutes before I figured I'd reached it, I stopped to put my clothes back on. I needed to hitch a ride into Independence, and I figured my chances were better if I wasn't naked. Anyhow, it was Hike Naked Day. Not Hitchhike Naked Day. I had nothing more to prove. =)

At the trailhead, I bumped into Tom and Evan. I first met them at a restaurant in Idyllwild, and I saw Evan a second time doing trail work just before the trail crossed Interstate 10. I asked Evan if he was doing trail work out here too, which seemed to confuse him. Turns out, he's actually a thru-hiker, and had stopped for a couple of weeks to do trail work when I met him in Idyllwild. Tom gave me an orange and an offered a ride down into Independence which I happily accepted. I didn't even have to stick out my thumb, and I already got a ride!

Evan was packing his pack with a boatload of food to feed an army. Well, maybe not an army, but at least enough for three people. He was planning to hike up to the PCT to meet the two Israeli girls and resupply them, saving them the effort of hiking over Kearsarge Pass and going into town. Lucky girls! Tom and Evan weren't entirely sure if they were still on schedule or not, though, so I told them where I last saw them the day before and that they had planned to camp exactly on schedule near Bullfrog Lake. They seemed please to get solid information about the girls whereabouts. Or at least confirmation that the girls were where they were expected to be.

Evan headed off up Kearsarge Pass, and Tom drove me into Independence. I checked into the Winnedumah Hotel, a nice bed and breakfast. It cost a little more than I wanted to pay, but they had a computer available for use which sold me. And since I was the only thru-hiker who checked in, I had the computer all to myself the whole afternoon. Got a lot of work done on Atlas Quest during that time. =)

Independence is a tiny little town with one main street, two gas stations, and a Subway restaurant. There wasn't much in town to do, but I was perfectly happy using the computer most of the day. Resupplying was a little tougher. I went to both the Chevron and Shell station convenience stores, picking up about a week's worth of supplies from their meager selections. I was pretty happy with most of my food, except cereal of which neither had anything I particularly wanted. I ultimately settled for a box of Lucky Charms and another box of Fruit Loops, but I wasn't happy about them.

As dusk rolled around, mean-looking clouds filled the sky. It didn't rain, not that I saw, at least, but I wondered about how the other hikers were fairing in the mountains. I found myself thankful that I was safely tucked under a roof.

COME ON! If I can hike naked, certainly you can throw a few bucks towards the Hike-a-Thon! =) 

During the month of August, I'll be participating with Amanda in the Washington Trail Association's Hike-a-Thon. If you haven't already, please consider sponsoring us. (Especially me!) The folks do great work helping to fix up and maintain trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail and help make thru-hikes such as mine possible. If you enjoy reading this blog, consider giving something back to the trails that make it possible. Thanks!