Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Monster Under the Bed

June 20: Forester Pass. This was the part I feared since I took my first steps in Campo. Forester Pass is the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail, towering 13,153 feet above sea level. There's not really any way around the pass--the pass itself is the lowest gap through this particular range of mountains. That's right, we aren't actually going over the top of a mountain at this lofty height, but just passing through a low gap in the ridge. With the horror stories of the Sierra snows, this high point worried me. Could I get through? Would it be too dangerous? This was the monster hiding under my bed. It was probably nothing, but it worried me. It's worried me for months.

So far, the snows were nowhere near as bad as I had feared. Mount Whitney climbed more than a thousand feet higher than Forester Pass, but Mount Whitney was an optional side trip. If that didn't work out, I could just turn back and continue along the PCT. I had no plan B if Forester Pass stopped me. This was the only 13,000-foot pass on the PCT. If I could get through it, I thought, I can get through anything.

So I woke up this morning, a little excited, a little apprehensive, and as ready as I'd ever be. I'd be making the trek with Noga and Shani, two girls from Israel. When I heard them moving in their tent, I called out, "Boker tov!", a Hebrew good morning. I managed to do this without even looking at the notes I took the previous night about its correct pronunciation--the phrase just seemed to pop into my head without effort. The girls seemed amused at my greeting.

We lost the trail in the snow almost immediately upon starting out. The snow wasn't especially thick, but it blanketed the ground erasing almost all traces of the trail. Even the footprints of hikers before us tended to fan out, making it impossible to follow a distinct path, but it was hard to get lost. We followed the canyon ever upwards, matching up peaks and lakes with our topo maps, and as long as we stayed along the canyon bottom, we were pretty much assured of being on the right track.

Noga applied some new sunscreen to her face, a zinc compound that turned her face a stark white like the walking dead, warning Shani that the stuff was terrible and not to use it.

We finally got close enough to identify Forester Pass itself, a small gap along a ridge that looked absolutely vertical from our position. The ridge itself was almost completely clear of snow because it was too vertical to support much, but it looked seriously steep. Rock climbing kind of steep. It looked... intimidating.

We stopped near a lake to rest and eat a few snacks, and Charmin caught up with us. We had seen her hiking behind us for at least a half hour now, but she had been too far away to identify. Noga and Shani guessed it was Charmin, but I told them not likely because otherwise Hasty would have been nearby, and there was only one hiker. But they were right--it was Charmin.

As she approached us, finally close enough to identify, Shani (I think, maybe it was Noga?) whispered to me, "How do you say 'Good Morning' in Swiss-German?" I whispered back, "Gwita morka," and as Charmin approached, Shani called called out, "Gwita morka!"

Charmin smiled and said, "You have a good teacher!" Shani had nailed the pronunciation. If it was me, I would have stumbled over the phrase a couple of times before getting it right. Charmin probably thought we had rehearsed the phrase long before she came along. 

But the natural question, the one running through my head, at least, was what happened to Hasty?

Charmin explained that Hasty had gotten ahead of her but didn't realize it, so he was ahead and trying to catch up with her. So she was now trying to catch up with him. The Israeli girls and I looked at each other, not really believing that Hasty somehow passed us without us noticing, and we asked how she could be certain that Hasty was ahead. "Footprints," she explained.

She had seen his footprints in the snow, and they were fresh. So obviously, he had gotten ahead of her, but he didn't realize it and was rushing ahead trying to catch up with her.

"I don't think he's ahead of you," I told Charmin. "None of us have seen him all morning, and it seems impossible that he could have slipped past us without us knowing. We saw you coming from a half hour away!" It was a clear day. We were well above tree line. Visibility was awesome, and there was only one way into and out from Forester Pass. He may not have followed precisely in our footsteps--the trail was nowhere to be seen--but it was inconceivable that he could have actually passed us without us seeing him. Charmin had been the only other hiker we'd seen all day.

"No, he's definitely ahead," she insisted. "What are the chances of someone wearing his exact same boot? And the tracks were fresh!"

I don't know what the chances are of two people wearing the exact same boot, but I suspect it's a bit higher than three eye-witnesses who claimed that Hasty couldn't have possibly passed us. I shook my head at the whole fiasco. They were supposed to be watching each other's back, and here they've already lost each other. I'm not sure how that could have even happened in the first place the way Hasty always seemed to hover over Charmin the day before, but it happened.

Noga, Shani, and I continued on. The last great climb to Forester Pass. As the slope increased, I stopped long enough to put my microspikes on. The snow was still frozen solid early in the morning, and microspikes excelled on frozen snow. Especially when the slopes are steep and a slip or fall could lead to a long plunge.

I plowed up the slope like an ant on an anthill. It was remarkably easy, I thought. Noga and Shani were a bit slower, but they also didn't have traction devices for their feet either, so I'd find a good place to stop and wait for them to catch up. Charmin rested a bit longer after we took off, then she charged up the slope at a phenomenal pace. I'd never seen her hike so fast uphill. She passed Noga and Shani quickly, then passed me near the top of the pass as I waited for Noga and Shani.

Near the top, there's a snow chute on a near-vertical rock face. It's the one place I looked at and thought, "Oh, that could be dangerous. Really, really dangerous." I was a little worried about Charmin going over by herself, so I watched her cross the chute and scramble to the top of the pass, making sure she made it through okay.

"How's the view from the top?" I yelled up at her.

"It's AWESOME!" she replied.

"How much snow is on the other side?" I asked. We were climbing up the south-facing slope and there was a lot of snow on this side. I had fears it would be even worse on the other side--the north-facing slope.

"A lot!" she replied. Something to the effect of "as far as the eye can see." Drats.

She pointed out that she could see someone down below, on our side of the pass, hiking up to Forester Pass. "It's probably Hasty," I told her, still convinced that Hasty was behind her. "At the very least, it might be a good idea to wait long enough to identify who it is that's coming up," I suggested.

"No," she insisted, "Hasty's in front of me."

We did cause enough doubt in her head to at least leave a note for Hasty at the top of Forester Pass, but Charmin charged down the other side of the pass and out of view.

Once Noga and Shani caught up to me by the snow chute, I pulled out my ice axe and crossed myself, burying the ice axe to the hilt in the snow with each step. If I slipped, I did not want to slide down that slope. The snow was still frozen too, so the ice axe was very secure. It could easily hold my weight.

I got across in a couple of minutes. The chute wasn't very wide--just a scary, heart-thumping traverse. I used previous hikers postholes to put my feet in, so even my feet were incredibly secure. It's hard to slip out of a hole in the snow a foot deep. All-in-all, the snow chute's bark was worse than its bite. It turned out to be pretty easy.

I watched Noga and Shani cross the snow chute next, then scrambled up to the top and to the highest point on the PCT. And I saw snow. Lots and lots of demoralizing snow. A small, black dot was moving down the slope--Charmin.

When Noga reached the top and looked back, she saw the hiker below us who was approaching. "That's probably Hasty!" she said.

"Yeah, I know," I told her.

"Too bad Charmin didn't see him."

"Actually, she did. She's still not convinced that it's Hasty, though."

"She saw him, and she still left?!" Noga was incredulous. "She didn't at least wait long enough to identify the person?"

"Yep. I don't think Charmin is as good at tracking footprints as she thinks she is."

It surprised me, that Charmin wouldn't take the word of three eye-witnesses who said Hasty was behind her. It seemed like a terrible decision on her part. Not as bad as the one to spend the night at the top of Mount Whitney, but still, it seemed like Charmin was making a lot of bad decisions. At least she wasn't in imminent danger because of this one, though.

Noga, Shani, and I rested at the top for a bit, finally charging down the other side. We last saw Charmin, a dot on the horizon, about a half hour after she left the top of Forester Pass. The other dot, coming up the pass, was still unidentifiable, but we had no reason to wait.

The snow had started softening here, fully exposed to the sun, and we plowed down the snow quickly. A few hundred feet down, I took a heavy step downward, heard a snap, and a strap on my pack flew out.

"$#!^!" Having a broken pack going through the highest pass on the PCT seemed like immensely bad luck. I stopped to take a closer look at the damage.

A plastic bar holding the strap in place had broken--not the strap itself. It wasn't even a sewing problem, which heartened me a little. For those who read about my West Coast Trail adventures, I used a homemade pack in which my sewing skills failed miserably. I created another homemade pack which had been holding together very well, so when the strap snapped, I assumed there was a catastrophic sewing failure. So I was rather pleased to see that the failure was in the buckle, not my sewing. However, a sewing failure I could resew by hand. This buckle.... I couldn't fix this buckle by hand. I needed a replacement.

I tied the strap in a knot around the buckle to hold it in place--at least until I could get into a town to replace it--and continued down the slope.

Near the bottom of that first big slope down Forester Pass, Hasty caught up with us. The dot behind us was, indeed, Hasty, as we had suspected. "You have quite a task of catching up to Charmin," I told him. "She's hauling ass trying to catch up to you!" Then, almost as an afterthought, I added, "We tried to convince her that you hadn't passed us, but she didn't believe it."

Hasty, true to his name, moved on quickly, trying to catch up with Charmin. I wondered how long it would take for him to catch her. Eventually he would, but he might have to hike all day to do it. Eventually, Charmin would realize that he couldn't possibly be ahead of her anymore. At least Hasty could be certain that Charmin was indeed ahead of us. If he had his doubts, we certainly removed them.

A little further down the pass, we reached a small cliff. I wanted to go around the right side because it looked easier and less steep, but our maps showed the trail veering off to the right and Noga and Shani wanted to stick as close to the trail as possible, even if we couldn't actually see it. "How about we go our own ways, and I'll meet you at the bottom?" I suggested. Why not?

I lost sight of the two girls almost immediately, but figured I'd pick them up at the bottom of the cliffs. It took longer to get down than I thought, and I wondered if they had beat me down or not, but I still didn't see them anywhere. I went a little further down the canyon, hoping to pick up the actual trail and would wait for them there. The canyon was so wide, it would be easy to pass someone without knowing it. The rocks, trees, and bumps in the terrain could hide a lot out here, so it seemed like a better idea to find the trail and wait on it.

Except I couldn't find the trail. I waded deeper down the canyon, scouting for the trail through the increasingly large patches of dry ground, but the trail was elusive. I couldn't find it. I walked for nearly an hour, unsure where the two Israeli girls were, not sure if they were ahead of me or behind me. "The Charmin and Hasty syndrome," I thought, snickering. I shouted out occasionally, but never heard a response.

After over an hour, I finally found the trail. It took me by surprise, in fact. I crossed a creek, whining to myself about having to get my feet wet--again--and found myself standing directly on the trail when I reached the other side. "Sweet!"

I followed the trail a short ways, looking for a good place to stop and wait for the girls. At this point, I started feeling more and more confident that I was ahead of them. They didn't hike especially fast, and I had scrambled down the pass pretty quickly. Even if they beat me down the initial cliff where we separated, I suspected I hiked down the rest of the pass quicker. I knew they intended to get down near the creek and follow it down along the right side until the trail appeared, so I followed the trail down until it hit the creek at a campsite.

"There's noway they can pass where I'm not and me not see them," I thought. At this point, the snow was largely just patches, and I felt safe enough to travel on my own again. But I didn't want to ditch the two girls completely, if for no other reason than I didn't want them to worry about what happened to me. Did I get lost or break my leg out in snow somewhere, needing help? At the very least, I wanted to let them know I got down okay and to not call out the marines.

I waited for a little over an hour, but the girls never arrived. I didn't want to wait much longer--I still hoped to hike out over Kearsarge pass that afternoon and get into Independence to resupply, which was still a long way off. Finally, I wrote a note to the two girls and left it on the trail for them to find, letting them know I made it down okay and thanking them for their company.

Then I pushed on.

The rest of the PCT that day was relatively quick and easy. Near the turnoff for Kearsarge Pass, I passed a group of hikers going northbound. One of them asked I had any sunscreen I could provide--he had forgotten it and was getting scorched in the snow. Since I was hiking out, I gave him the bottle I had, which thrilled him to no end. He couldn't believe his luck. "Is there anything you need?" he asked me.

"No, not really. I'm already going into town to resupply," I told him. Then I remembered my broken strap buckle. "You don't happen to have an extra one of these things?" I asked, pointing to the broken buckle. I didn't really expect anyone to carry extra buckles, but I figured it didn't hurt to ask either.

"As a matter of fact...." the guy looked through his pack and found a buckle, but it was a little too small. Nice try, though. His friend said he might have one, though, and ruffled through is pack, and found one! I was shocked. I hadn't even gotten off the tail yet, and I already found a replacement buckle! I thanked them over and over again, then continued over Kearsarge Pass.

Kearsarge Pass is an 11,700-foot monster pass, not even on the PCT. The trailhead was nine miles away from the PCT, over a major, snow-covered pass. It wasn't a dangerous pass, or scary in any way, but annoying since it was nine arduous miles--one way!--to get to the trailhead, then another long hitchhike to get into Independence. As far as places to resupply go, this place was incredibly out of the way.

So why use it? Because there just aren't many places to resupply in the High Sierras. I could have carried 10 or more days of food to get to a resupply point closer to the trail, but that much food is a lot of weight to carry around. I probably would have done it, but Charmin had selected less food and a resupply in Independence, so I spent much of this section of hike grumbling that I'm still being affected by Charmin's decisions even though we aren't hiking together anymore. I just didn't have enough food to push on to the next possible resupply point. I needed to stop here, whether I liked it or not.

After passing over Kearsarge Pass, I started racing the sun. I'd hiked over 20 miles that day, over two major snow-covered passes, and it was getting late. I lost the trail in the snow again, and fumbled around bushwacking trying to find it again, slowing me down further. Finally, I decided to set up camp. I might have been able to make it down to the trailhead before sunset, but it was iffy, and I figured my chances of getting a ride into town that late slim to none. Best to camp here, where it was comfortable, and I still had plenty of daylight to cook and relax for a bit. Go into town tomorrow.

Long after sunset, when the stars were out, I saw of a flash of red light. I looked up from my sleeping bag, and saw the silhouette of a hiker wearing a red headlamp. "Hey there," I shouted. "You lost?"

A couple of more hikers came up behind him. "No, just doing a little night hiking." Then they quizzed me about the amount of snow on Kearsarge Pass. I provided what information I could, and they continued on. I don't know who they were or why they were hiking so late at night, but I wished them the best of luck, then rolled over and went back to sleep.

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!


Goofy girl said...

Night ryan. I hope the girls are okay. I wonder about Charmin and Hasty if they had camped together she should have known that he hadn't left without her... what is up with that?


Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Well that's a little disturbing. Those girls were kind enough to allow you to tag along with them so you would feel safe, then you left them and went your own way, essentially failing to watch their backs, the same thing you claimed Charmin did to you.

I hope your decision didn't put those nice girls in harm's way, especially if spent the rest of the day worrying you were lost or hurt and trying to find you.

If anything, this should have taught you that it really is easy to lose your partner on the trail, like Hasty and Charmin seemed to have done.

But I suspect there is more to that story. Did Charmin ever tell you that she wanted Hasty to be her trail partner?
Could something have happened that caused her not to trust Hasty? Perhaps she was purposefully trying to create distance between them?

I'm also surprised you would blame Charmin for your decision not to stock up on enough food for your hike through the Sierras, and instead to make a detour to Independence.
You've been thru-hiking long enough to know what you need and I'm sure you've done your thorough research of the PCT to plan where your restocking points would be.

I'm surprised that one person had the ability to make you change your well-thought out original plans without any questioning, concern and consideration on your part. Sounds like you are just as much to blame for that decision in the end.

With that said, I am very impressed with the terrain you were hiking on. The photos are absolutely incredible!

If you can hike these mountains, you can hike the Continental Divide Trail and really should consider it. It's the King of all North American Trans-Continental Trails in North America.

Definitely a coveted feather to place in your hat.

Hike On!
~Twinville Trekkers

Ryan said...

The dynamics between each of my hiking partners is different. Charmin agreed to watch my back, and I felt betrayed when she ditched me. We were partners, I trusted her, and she ditched me.

The two Israeli girls and I were never hiking partners per se--I felt more like a guest in their camp, and they certainly didn't need me as much as I needed them. They still had each other. I had no one. And anyhow, their invite was only for getting over Forester Pass. We never agreed to stick together after that.

Fidget and I just kind of fell into hiking together--not officially partners, but since we we both found ourselves hiking alone, we both felt more comfortable having each other around.

Different people, different circumstances, and different dynamics.

I think you give me too much credit for planning ahead, though. I rarely looked beyond the next resupply point. When I left Kennedy Meadows hiking with Charmin, we were partners, so I let her pick the resupply point. Didn't make much sense for me to carry 10 days worth of food if she only was carrying 7. It might not have been my first choice for a resupply point, but it was a compromise I was willing to make to have a hiking partner through the High Sierras. *shrug* In hindsight, I would have made some decisions differently, but wouldn't we all? =)

-- Ryan