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!


Jen said...

Beautiful scenery.....

veganf said...

So desolate and majestic! Can't wait to hear about the creek crossing...

Greg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg said...

Your ongoing interaction with Charmin is a blog unto itself.