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!


Laughing Orca Ranch said...
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Chrispy said...

Getting a little tired of reading hypercritical comments to your posts, but wanted you to know that I'm loving every one of them, many years after the fact. You're an inspiration and I appreciate the way your writing makes the whole trek seem realistic and attainable for a wannabe backpacker like me who has only done day hikes to date.