Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Mosquito Attack

I lost the trail here at Dicks Pass, but I knew it headed
down to the lake below. I just had to get down there.
July 11: Mosquitoes were becoming an increasingly annoying problem on the trail. Especially in the mornings and evenings. So I woke up this morning with buzzing in my ears, and drew myself deeper into my sleeping bag. Maybe I could wait the little buggers out.

But it didn't work. As the morning started to gain momentum and heated up, I started roasting in my bag. I heard the other hikers breaking down camp and getting ready to go, but I pulled the hood of my bag over my head to keep the mosquitoes at bay. First I started feeling a little warm. Then I started sweating. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore and threw off the sleeping bag.

I was alone. Little Engine, Plain Slice, Motor, Shroomer, Neon, and Fully Loaded had already left. I applied a liberal dose of DEET to myself, ate breakfast (quickly), packed up and started hiking. As long as I walked, the mosquitoes didn't bother me. I just needed to keep moving until they went back to sleep.

Another creek crossing without a bridge... *sigh*
The trail passed over Dicks Pass--the highest point for the day and still holding onto a significant chunk of snow causing me to lose the trail for the first time in several days. Nothing serious, though. Basically heading downward anywhere towards the large lake at the bottom would eventually get me back to the PCT.

I caught up with GQ several times throughout the day, pass him, then he'd return the favor a couple of hours later. I first met GQ back on Cinco de Mayo, then didn't see him for nearly a thousand miles until the last few days where we seemed to pass each other every few hours. He's from Scotland, and--I soon learned--his days on the trail were numbered. He decided to hike the PCT at the last minute and was only able to get a 90-day visa, so only had another two weeks or so before he'd be forced to leave the country. It seemed a little sad to me, but he was optimistic that he'd go home, do a little work, and save enough money to return and finish the trail next year. This year, however, he only planned to hike to the halfway point of the trail, Chester, another 200 miles up the trail.

My biggest surprise today was bumping into Wyoming. I'd heard rumors that she quit the trail--the snow was just too much--but I found her late in the day hiking southbound. She hadn't quit the trail at all. No, she jumped ahead to Ashland and started hiking southbound in the hopes of avoiding the worst of the Sierra snowpack. She gave me the welcome news that the snow still ahead (for me, at least) wasn't a big deal. I gave her the unwelcome news that the snow in the High Sierras was bloody awful, but perhaps much of it will have melted by the time she gets to the worst of it.

Despite her jump ahead to Ashland, Wyoming hadn't managed to avoid the snow completely. Apparently a late-season snowstorm hit the area and cool temperatures caused the snow to stick around considerably longer than normal forcing her to hike through sections that sounded as bad as the High Sierras. And, it would seem, there was an enormous amount of fallen trees blocking the trail somewhere up the trail--an infuriating section that another southbounder said he hoped we'd hit because it would be unfair for us not to have to deal with it like he did. (In reply, I wished him all the worst of the snows that the High Sierras could throw at him--it wouldn't be fair for him to escape the horrors us northbounders had to deal with.)

I passed four people today thru-hiking the trail, heading southbound after skipping up to Ashland, but Wyoming was the only one of the them I had met before. I rather enjoyed meeting the southbounders, though, since they had a lot of good advice and knowledge about what to expect up ahead on the trail. I didn't know how long it would last, but I'd take it when I could!

At one point, the trail came up onto a road, and my maps showed the trail following the dirt road for 0.4 miles before turning off again to the north, but when I reached the road, I noticed a small trail on the other side of it that looked suspiciously like a continuation of the PCT. Should I follow the road like my map suggests, or follow this trail on the other side that my maps don't show at all? Hmm....

The trail on the other side of the road curved sharply to the left, as if to follow along the length of the road, and I decided to stick to the trail, but to keep the road in sight--at least for a half-mile or so when the trail was supposed to veer off to the north again.

It was a good decision. It was the right decision. My maps were wrong. Occasionally, they had errors. Sometimes, when you reach a point on the trail and it doesn't "feel" right to follow the map, there's a good reason for it. I decided to deviate from the maps, but kept a very close eye on the terrain and my direction through it for a couple of miles to make sure this unknown trail I followed was taking me in the correct direction.

Motor, Little Engine, Plain Slice, and such. They're
actually too small in this photos for me to figure
out who's who, but I took this photo while hiking with
that group. =)
As more and more hikers discovered that there are errors on the map, the guy who publishes them--Erik the Black--is affectionately referred to as Eric the Liar. Seems a little unfair to me. I'd like to see those guys do any better, and they've still been good enough to get me over a thousand miles in many areas where I lost the trail completely. It may not be perfect, but it'll do. =)

At Barker Pass, late in the afternoon, I caught up with Little Engine, Plain Slice, Shroomer, Motor, Neon, and Fully Loaded and started hiking with them for the next hour or so. Most of them had taken the wrong turn on the road, blindly following the maps, and they had some concerns about where the road was taking them. Would it intersect with the trail further up? They naturally didn't want to backtrack of it wasn't necessary, but they also didn't want to keep going forward on the road if it was going to lead them in the completely wrong direction either. It was probably a bit longer than following the official trail, but the road did eventually intersect the trail at Barker Pass where I caught up with them. In fact, had they not taken that wrong turn, I'm not sure I would have caught up with them again.

Out of Barker Pass, the trail climbed up a ridgeline, finally coming out at a fantastic view over Lake Tahoe, and I stopped. I dropped my pack and decided to camp right there. There was no water nearby, which I hoped meant that the mosquitoes weren't as thick there. It was high up on a ridge with a pretty decent breeze, which I also hoped would discourage those blood suckers. And the view was awesome! So I set up camp, right there, along the ridge.

The others continued on, not ready to stop. Or at least not ready to stop at a location that clearly was not an official campsite. There wasn't even room for that many people there anyhow, and they all wanted to camp together, so I set up camp by myself, quite pleased with scoring what I felt might be the best campsite so far on the trail.

I drop my pack and decide, "Yes! I shall camp here!"
The good news just coming, though. Given the unobstructed views of Lake Tahoe, I thought maybe my Peek device could get a cell phone signal (which it did), and I could check my e-mail (which I did). My cell phone didn't work, but I was connected to the outside world. Life was good. I posted to my Facebook account bragging about watching the sunset while camped out with a glorious view of Lake Tahoe--suckers! =)

While cooking dinner, a section hiker going southbound stopped briefly to chat with me, asking all sorts of questions about my hike and my gear. He was thinking about thru-hiking the PCT next year, and I warned him not to. It was hard. It was miserable. It's not worth it! Fortunately, I think I talked him out of it. He would, I'm sure, thank me later for my advice. ;o)

I'm just kidding about talking him out of hiking the trail next year. But I did stress the difficulty involved. It's a huge commitment, but look at my campsite! "This," I told him, waving towards Lake Tahoe, "makes it all worth it."

He continued on, then I left was to myself for the rest of the evening, free from the mosquitoes that had been plaguing me for days. Life was good....

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Part III: Northern California

Lower Echo Lake
July 10: In the morning, my mom and I said goodbye to ArtTrekker and headed off. We didn't leave town just yet--I still had some resupplying I needed to do first. The two of us stopped at Bert's Cafe for breakfast--an establishment packed with people and noisy from the clinking of plates and utensils. The service was prompt and the food was good, and we got in and out quickly. In fact, I called Amanda when I first arrived to chat one last time before I hit the trail, and the waitress took my order and returned with the food before I even had a chance to tell Amanda goodbye! Finally I told Amanda I needed to go--it was hard to eat and talk at the same time. =)

Then we headed out to Rileys where I bought lots of food to get me through the next section of trail. In the parking lot, my mom helped by opening ZipLock bags that I could pour stuff into. Most food does not come in packaging suitable to backpack with it and needs to be repacked. Cereal boxes, Hamburger Helper, and mac and cheese all comes in boxes that are much too heavy and bulky. Candy comes in packs that can't be closed again. Darned near everything gets repacked into ZipLocks: lightweight, recloseable, and generally waterproof. Exactly what I need.

Another hour later, and it was time to hit the trails. Except I wanted to make a slight detour along the way, and stopped at Taco Bell for lunch. Yes, I had eaten breakfast an hour earlier, but I didn't care. I needed to eat and get fat. Breakfast had a little time to digest, and I wanted to fill up those gaps in my stomach with more food.

The little general store at Echo Lake. (Charmin and GQ
are sitting on the small wall in front.)
And finally, I was back at Highway 50, ready to start hiking again. Mom hugged me like she thought a bear would attack me just as I turned the corner. Speaking of which, now that I was out of the High Sierras, bear canisters were no longer required, and I gave my mom the bear canister that had been weighing my pack down since Kennedy Meadows. I also gave her the ice axe--now that snow levels were going down, I didn't need it anymore either. My pack felt positively light with those five pounds out of the way.

Then I started hiking Northern California. I've been using a set of guidebooks known as the PCT Atlas, and it's divided into five sections: Southern California, Central California, Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Highway 50 marked the dividing line between Central California and Northern California, so I walked out into my third book. Central California was officially done! It tried to kill me, but it had failed.

I reached Echo Lake after a couple of miles where I found a plethora of hikers gathered in front of the little general store located there, most of whom I didn't recognize. Even the ones I did know didn't recognize me immediately since I had buzzed off my hair and beard once again.

Charmin and Hasty arrived about five minutes after I did, and Hasty returned my long-last food bag. I was glad to get that back. I missed it. I'd been using plastic shopping bags in its place, but they weren't nearly as good or convenient. When Hasty gave it to me, I held it up by one end, jiggling the bag a little.

Little Engine and Plain Slice, snaking along
the banks of Aloha Lake.
"Seems a little lighter than I remember," I joked. Of course, I didn't expect the bag to still be full of Skittles, M&Ms, and all those other snacks that were in it when I lost the bag, but it doesn't mean I can't harass him about it. =) I was still curious, though, how they found the food bag since I thought they were ahead of me when I lost the bag.

Hasty said something about reaching Evolution Creek and them deciding that they couldn't cross it safely, backtracking to cross at Evolution Meadow. I didn't ask for more details than that, so I'm still not exactly sure of the timeline (did they cross that evening, or in the morning?). Did they try crossing at Evolution Creek, or just take a look and decide to backtrack to Evolution Meadow? How did they get back to Evolution Meadow without Fidget or I seeing them? (It would have been nice if they gave us a head's up to let us know that the river was particularly dangerous to cross. I specifically remember crossing down there thinking, "If a little girl like Charmin can cross here, it can't be that bad!" I might have reconsidered had I known she backtracked to a different location.) The revolution that they actually crossed in the meadow left me with more questions than answers, but I didn't pursue any additional answers. Ultimately, it didn't really matter. (But I still think it was a glorious stupid decision of them not to take advantage of our campfire when they had the option!)

Hasty left and went into the store, and I went in a couple of minutes later to look around. I didn't plan to buy anything--I just met all of my resupply needs in South Lake Tahoe and had lunch less than an hour ago. I was still a little full! But I wanted to look around anyhow.

In the store, Hasty approached me, telling me that he'd buy some M&Ms and such to replace the ones he ate out of my food bag. I think he felt a little guilty when I mocked being upset about how "light" the bag felt.

One of the many lakes the trail passes
in the Desolation Wilderness
"Dude, I was joking!" It was a nice offer, but really, what kind of jerk would expect someone else to pay for the food they lost? I was just happy to get the food bag back, empty or not! Anyhow, I had just resupplied in South Lake Tahoe. The last thing I needed was more food to weigh down my pack.

I went back outside and tried to talk to Charmin a little, but she seemed rather aloof so I gave up after a couple of minutes. Maybe she felt awkward about how badly things turned out between us on Mount Whitney. *shrug*

I continued hiking, entering the Desolation Wilderness. I love that name--Desolation Wilderness. I've seen desolate places before, but this particular wilderness isn't one of them. Not in my book, at least. It's stunning. Beautiful trees, lakes, views--ought to be called the Spectacular Wilderness--but I loved the name of the place anyhow.

Barely past the wilderness border, a park ranger stopped me to check my permit. Woah! I was shocked! I'd hiked over a thousand miles, and nobody had ever checked my permit before! I had one so it certainly wasn't a problem. Though I did have to take the time to pull it out from my wallet, buried deep in my pack. Later in the afternoon, I'd learn that Little Engine and Plain Slice got busted for not having a permit. They had a permit, but it had gotten wet and started growing mold, so they threw it away. They got off with a warning.

Another lake--I'm not telling you the name because
at this point, I lost track of which of my pictures are
of which lake. They were so many!
Another hour later, I passed another backcountry ranger who also wanted to look at my permit. "Wow! That's the second one today!" I made a mental note: Never backpack in the Desolation Wilderness without a permit. They will catch you! When he realized that my permit had already been checked, he told me not to worry about it, but did give me a list of rules for the area.

"No campfires are permitted. At all. Camp at least 100 feet away from water sources. That's about 33 steps." That sort of stuff.

For the evening, I camped with Little Engine, Plain Slice, Shroomer, and Motor near Gilmore Lake. Neon and Fully Loaded joined us shortly after sunset. The mosquitoes were absolutely awful once the sun had set, and everyone scattered to their respective tents for protection. Except for me, without a tent. I slipped into my sleeping bag, put on a head net, gloves, and a long-sleeved shirt. Then tried to go to sleep, ignoring the buzzing around my head. I might try to get some sleep, but I knew--those mosquitoes would not rest until they found a chink in my armor.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

South Lake Tahoe

Although snow levels were going down,
I still managed to misjudge the strength
of this "snow bridge" over the
trail and broke through.
July 9: I hiked a few miles out to where the trail crosses Highway 50 that leads into South Lake Tahoe--one of the major resupply points for PCT hikers. At the road, my cell phone (finally!) worked, and I gave ArtTrekker a call. She lives in the area and offered to pick me up and give me a nice place to crash. =)

While waiting for the ride, I checked e-mail on my Peek device and watched the cars zipping by.

ArtTrekker arrived a short while later, getting out of her car with her camera flashing. She wanted a photo or two of the beard I was growing.

First thing's first--I took a shower and cleaned up. =)

Then she took me out to eat at the Meyers Downtown Cafe, ran me down to the post office to pick up a maildrop, and picked up a six-pack of Coke. ArtTrekker wanted to learn how to make a soda can stove, and I suggested a six-pack would be a good idea rather than just a couple of individual cans. Mistakes can happen!

Back at the house, I caught up with more e-mail, message boards, and mostly wasted the rest of the afternoon on the computer. Not a particularly exciting day to write about, but a nice afternoon off the trail.

The best part, however, was that later in the afternoon, my mom came by for a visit. =) I showed off the pictures to ArtTrekker and Mom of my time in the High Sierras--particularly those hike naked day photos! My mom once again whacked off my hair and facial hair. And late in the evening, ArtTrekker and I made a couple of soda can stoves.
The first marker I found showing that
I've intersected the Tahoe Rim Trail--
another trail I'd like to hike someday....

I wait for my ride on Highway 50.
Dessert at the Meyers Downtown Cafe!
Life was good....

Many thanks to ArtTrekker for hosting my mom and me! Alas, I thoughtlessly got no photos of ArtTrekker (or even my mom for that matter), so you'll have to imagine what they look like in this entry. =)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Search for the Nipple

The Nipple! Yes, it's the Nipple!
July 8: There had been a lot of discussion on the trail about a particular feature that we had been approaching: The Nipple. It's the name of a mountain the trail passes by, and everyone seemed to be obsessed with it. From a distance, we'd look at all of the various peaks and try to figure out which one was the Nipple. 

Who were these people naming mountains after nipples? Explorers, perhaps, who'd been in the woods too long? Did the same people name Wet Meadows, which I passed the day before? Were they hiking naked at the time?

So I woke up this morning, anxious to finally reach the Nipple. Would it live up to its hype?

It didn't take long before I identified one particularly prominent peak as the possible Nipple, but then the trail started veering well away from it. No, that wasn't the Nipple.... Then I spotted another one. Yes! Certainly, that must be the Nipple! And once again, the trail veered away from it. Another false alarm. You start looking around for nipples, and you start seeing them everywhere!

Some of the lumps on trees started looking like nipples. Various boulders often had a series of nipples running across them. Even roots sticking out of the trail started looking like nipples. Clearly, I've been spending way too much time out in the woods myself.
Wait a minute... that hill behind it also
looks like a nipple.... Would the real nipple
please stand up! =)

But The Nipple continued to elude me for much of the morning, until I saw it. Yes, that was definitely a nipple! More nipple-like than any of the other nipples I had spotted. But there were two of them? My topo map only showed one nipple. Which of the two was the Nipple? I guessed it was probably the slightly larger one, but I liked the idea of two nipples better. Better symmetry. Even if the two weren't entirely symmetrical. =)

I wished I had a model who could lay back, topless, and I could compose a picture of the mountain Nipple with a real nipple. Yes, I thought, that would be a wonderful photo. That certainly wasn't going to happen anytime soon, however. I wasn't even hiking with anyone, much less a woman who'd be willing to pose for such a photo. (And I could just imagine that conversation. "I don't even need your face in it. Nobody would ever have to know who's nipple it is! I just need a nipple!")

Look at the lack of snow!
It's just as well I passed the Nipple in the morning. It gave me other things to obsess over the rest of the afternoon than looking for nipples everywhere. =)

The scenery was spectacular, even without the joy of the Nipple, and at Carson Pass I found a little information center housed in a little building. I had no idea this little bit of civilization was on the trail and was thrilled to use the payphone outside (I hadn't been able to talk to Amanda or my mom since leaving Yosemite), and the volunteers inside offered me a Coke and a banana which I gobbled down.

Carson Pass was packed with people!
Near the pass, the trail was positively packed with hikers, to the point that I started feeling annoyed by them. The parking lots at the pass seemed to be holding a hundred cars, and at least twice that number of people packed the trails. Coming down into the pass, I started discouraging them. "Go back.... while you still can! The snow can swallow a man alive!" and "I barely came out alive!" It was melodramatic, and most people laughed when I'd say things like that. I'd shake my head sadly in reply. "You laugh now. You won't be laughing later...." The trail was still thick with snow coming down into the pass, but admittedly, none of the hikers were actually going that high on the trail. They were all headed towards lower-level lakes. They'd have to deal with small patches of snow, but nothing serious.

A lot of the day hikers asked me about my hike, and it started slowing down my hike. It's fun telling the occasional day-hiker about my thru-hike, but I'd grown sick of it after the first dozen or so asked how far I was headed. Still, I tried to keep a cheerful disposition and kindly answered their questions.

Oh, great, now I have to worry about
the plague?!
It paid off when I left Carson Pass and a couple of hikers ended up giving me a brownie, Fig Newtons, and a giant bag of fresh cherries. Score! I almost felt a little guilty taking so much food from them, but they were offering it, it looked really good, and by golly, I'd enjoy it! So I took everything they offered and ate it over the next couple of days. =)

Afternoon thunderstorms struck once again--a seemingly repeating pattern I didn't much care for. It rained and even hailed a bit, but it dried out before I stopped for camp about four miles short of Echo Summit near South Lake Tahoe.

My first view of Lake Tahoe!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Another Boring Day of Hiking

The day started off beautiful!
July 7: I woke up with clear skies, but it felt dark and dreary under the trees. The thick canopy was claustrophobic. Setting up the tarp didn't help matters in that regard, but at least it did dry overnight.

I packed up camp and started off, bumping into a couple of other hikers about five minutes later. They were nearly ready to start off themselves. I didn't recognize either of them while bundled up in all their warm clothes, but when one of them spoke, I suddenly recognized her. Motor! I hadn't seen Motor since near Warner Springs over 500 miles before and thought she was a solid week or two ahead of me. She was hiking with her boyfriend now, Issac, which is the reason I caught up so unexpectedly. She took five days off the trail at Mammoth Lakes to meet up with him, then since he hadn't been hiking for the last couple of months, he wasn't doing the miles that Motor was used to doing regularly. I don't want to suggest that he slowed her down, but I think he slowed her down. =)

There's an American flag flying at the
top of this mountain. Probably an
Independence Day thing. Click on the photo
to see it enlarged.
The three of us hiked together for a little while catching up on each other's adventures, but I pushed on ahead after a few miles.

More of those menacing "afternoon thunderstorm clouds" returned later in the day, spitting a few drops of water at me but thankfully holding off on a genuine rain. Definitely lots of thunder, however, echoing through those valleys!

The biggest drag of the day were mosquitoes. They came out in force late in the afternoon, pushing me ever faster down the trail. As long as I continued walking, the mosquitoes left me alone. If I stopped for even a few seconds, they'd swarm--hundreds would attack from every direction. DEET helped, but not enough. There were just too many. So I kept hiking. I grew hungry for a snack break, but I kept hiking. And hiking fast--the faster I walked, the fewer problems that the mosquitoes posed. Snow was minimal, and I pushed 25 miles by 4:30 in the afternoon.

Motor and Issac
A few patches of snow appeared to have gotten so much rain that it washed out the footprints in them. For the first time, I often felt like I was entering virgin country, inaugurating patches of snow with fresh footprints. I considered making a few false trails to throw off other hikers--how would they ever know, and wouldn't it be fun? But it wasn't necessary, as it turns out. I took enough wrong turns by accident that I certainly didn't need to make any effort to deliberate make wrong turns.

I quit relatively early. I'd done my miles, and the skies still looked like they could rain at any time. I wanted to set up camp and escape the mosquitoes. My tarp wouldn't protect me from mosquitoes, but once I stopped hiking, I could change into my warm (and thicker!) camp clothes and slide into my sleeping bag. No mosquito has ever been able to bite me through my sleeping bag. A head net, gloves, and a thick, fleece jacket protected my upper half. I also camped at a top of a small hill, just beyond Blue Lakes Road, where I was able to catch a small gust of wind. Seemingly miraculous, the clouds started to part and the campsite was surprisingly warm, bright, and comfortable.

Those 'afternoon thunderstorms' looked
like they would be back. Oh boy!
I didn't expect anyone to find me up there--I was a little ways off the trail putting distance between myself and a small creek (another method to help reduce the mosquito problem--avoid camping near water sources), but Shades and Green Mile dropped in just before sunset. Just as the shotgun blasts started echoing through the air.

"I just love the sounds of nature," I told Shades and Green Mile as another shotgun blast through the air. In truth, the guns blasting didn't give me a warm, fuzzy feeling. Most of the evening I spent finishing up my Agatha Christie book. About murder! Death! All the while listening to gunshots. Hmm.....

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sonora Pass: The Last 10,000 Footer!

Sonora Pass goes no higher than 9624 feet,
but the PCT will soon cross over the
last 10,000-foot pass! Woo-who!
July 6: I woke up, perfectly positioned to catch the very first morning rays. I'm always pleased with myself when that works so perfectly because it sure helps get me moving in the morning when it's not so cold that I'd rather just stay in my nice, warm sleeping bag.

I hiked a couple of miles to Sonora Pass where I found a note suggesting that trail magic could be found in the parking area just ahead, compliments of The Owl. So I hoofed it up to the parking area where there was a vehicle with the trunk open and a spread of food, drinks, and newspapers on the picnic table, and an older guy crouched over a stove who introduced himself as The Owl. He seemed surprised to see me so early in the morning--it wasn't quite 7:00 yet--and apologized that the 'cafe' wasn't open yet. He hadn't even had any breakfast himself yet.

But he welcomed me into his little makeshift camp, and I ate some cookies, a banana, and a strawberry flavored drink. He offered to take any trash I carried, which I happily obliged. He also gave me a rundown of the hikers who passed through the day before so I had a better idea of who was ahead of me or might have hitched down into Bridgeport. (Sonora Pass is a common place for hikers to hitch into Bridgeport to resupply, but I intended to hike through. Bridgeport was about 30 miles off the trail and I didn't want to hitch so far off the trail.)

Nearing the top of the last 10,000-foot pass!
But I had miles to do, and after about ten minutes, continued on my way once again--this time to head up and over the last 10,000-foot pass of the entire trail. I knew it wasn't going to represent the end of the snow, but it was a major landmark. I could finally put the High Sierras behind me. All of it. Once and for all. And as the average elevation of the trail continued to get lower and lower, the snow was becoming less and less of a problem. I was anxious to get that last 10,000-foot pass behind me.

On the climb up, I caught sight of hiker ahead of me, but I couldn't quite identify who it was. I was surprised to see a hiker at all--The Owl said that I was the first to cross his path that day, and he didn't hint that there were any other hikers so close on the trail.

The climb up the pass wasn't too bad--it was a south-facing slope and held little snow. At the top of the pass, I took pictures and celebrated with a loud, "Woo-who!" Then I waved goodbye to the High Sierras, turned around, and started down the snow-covered, north-facing slope.

The trail has to be around here
I quickly lost the trail in the snow--a regular occurrence now that didn't disturb me in the least, but was still just as annoying as ever. On the downhill side of the pass, I caught up with the mysterious hiker ahead of me. I saw her just ahead of me at one point, walking along the left side of a creek at the bottom of a valley. I walked a bit further out from the creek thinking the trail was located there rather than immediately alongside the creek, then among the trees, I apparently passed the hiker without even realizing it. The snow had finally stopped covering the ground, but I had yet to locate the trail again, and given the bushwacking the hiker was giving to bushes, neither had the mysterious hiker.

But somewhere in the trees and bushes, I somehow got around the hiker and didn't realize it until I heard something very large behind me. A bear? A deer? No, just a thru-hiker, walking through another bush. =)

I'd never met this one before, and she introduced herself as Duff. We banded together in search of the trail, which we knew was somewhere on the left side of the creek. I kept pushing us further and further away from the river--our topo maps showed the trail near the creek, but a good hundred feet or more feet above it. Definitely not at the creek. So we told each other our war stories from the trail as we searched for the elusive thing that we were supposed to be hiking.

This is Duff. Hello, Duff!
It took the better part of a half hour before we finally found the trail--a remarkably long time given that the area we were hiking wasn't covered in snow so the trail was fully exposed. The land tended to push us closer and closer to the river, which naturally felt like that's where the trail should be located, but I'd point at the topo map and say, "The trail has to be out there. We've been to the river, and the trail is definitely not between us and river. It has to be out there." Probably not even very far away.

But we finally found the long-lost trail and our speed immediately increased.

Near lunchtime, I caught up with a few other hikers: Epic, Tangent, and Fully Loaded. I passed them by at a lunch break as the first sounds of thunder could be heard in the distance.

Thunderstorms worry me. There's not a lot of protection in the woods from lightning. And admittedly, I've been a bit more leery than normal over it after hearing Tradja's description of being struck by lightning. The chances of being struck by lightning are small, but I actually know someone it happened to! A small chance of being struck by lightning didn't seem good enough anymore.

There's the trail! (To be honest,
this photo was taken a couple of hours
after we had already found the trail.)
Throughout the day, the clouds got progressively worse, and now I could hear the faint but unmistakable sound of thunder in the distance. I hoped it would blow over quickly. I wanted to get over a couple of more mountain passes before the lightning arrived here, where I was hiking. So I kept going, leaving the other hikers behind, trying to outrun a lightning storm. =)

A few miles on, I was hiking along quickly when a voice called out to me. "Hey there!"

It was Magellan and his nephew, Noah. I hadn't met either of them before either--all sorts of new hikers I hadn't met before today!--and stopped for a few minutes to chat. While chatting, however, the first drops of rain started to fall. Drats. The storm had finally caught up with me.

Magellan and Noah had already set up camp for the day. It was very early by thru-hiker standards, but Magellan was only section hiking (albeit a very large section from Mexico to Sierra City), and Noah had just joined him a couple of days before. Noah couldn't do the big miles. Not yet, at least. So they had already set up camp and sought protection under their tarp when the rain started.

I hoped to ride out the storm. The forecast called for afternoon thunderstorms, but it should taper off if I wait around long enough. I pulled out my own tarp and threw it over me. Kind of like throwing a white sheet over oneself and pretending to be a ghost, except that I was a green ghost. I could wait an hour and see how the weather fared. I pulled out a book to read in the meantime--Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. The thunder continued to grow louder, and finally flashes of lightning were visible, and I cringed with every single flash and the crack of thunder. The rained turned into hail and snow flurries, and I just kept under my tarp and continued to read.

Storm clouds are blowing in!
The thunder and lightning eventually started to fade off into the distance again, but a steady drizzle continued. This was only the second time on the trail it actually rained on me. I wasn't thrilled about the rain, but it seemed almost like a pleasant phenomena. Rain? What is this strange substance? Why does it fall out of the sky?

I hoped that the rain would at least help melt the snow still on the trail. If it did that much, I'd be happy.

Eventually, though, I decided enough was enough. I had to continue on. I had a schedule to keep--I planned to get into South Lake Tahoe on June 9th, three days away, and I couldn't stop here for the night. I needed to get in more miles before I stopped for the day.

So I committed myself to getting wet, putting my tarp away, and set off in the sprinkling of rain. I didn't realize it at first, but the rain had actually stopped and the drops of water falling was just what was left dripping off of the trees. I didn't realize that the rain had actually stopped until I reached a small clearing in a meadow and no more water dripped on me.

The rain has mostly stopped by now, but the
trail is now wet and muddy--at least the parts
not covered in snow.
And wonderfully, the little water that did fall on me largely dried out before I reached camp. I didn't have to take off wet clothes, and I wouldn't have to put on wet clothes in the morning. My gear was dry!

I pulled off 26.4 miles, stopping to camp at the trail junction for Asa Lake. I set up my tarp, not so much worried about it raining overnight (although the forecast did call for a "slight" chance of rain), but rather because drops of water would still fall from the trees. I had to protect myself from the trees.

And anyhow, my tarp was soaking wet from when I threw it over myself earlier in the afternoon like a sheet. If I set it up, it might be dry again by morning.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Miles... Must Do Miles.....

The meadows were.... wet.
Snow free, at least! But wet....
July 5: I woke, broke camp, and started hiking, catching up with The Kern, Half-Ounce, and Neon about an hour later. I blew past them up the trail, then they returned the favor when I stopped for a snack break at Dorothy Lake. =) Dorothy Lake I wanted to linger a bit--according to the PCT Atlas, the 1000-mile mark for the PCT could be found on the shores of Dorothy lake. It was a beautiful little alpine lake, surrounded by snow and partly frozen.

The trail was bad--covered in parts with snow, and the parts that weren't covered in snow you could expect to find thick, shoe-sucking mud. I found a slightly raised area to stop and rest out of the snow and mud for a snack break, and after The Kern, Half Ounce and Neon passed by, I decided to linger a bit longer and create a 1000-mile marker. I hadn't seen any on the trail, but I wasn't completely sure one did not exist. With the trail partially covered in snow, it could have been easy to miss during one of those times I lost the trail.

Another complication was that different hikers used different maps that used slightly different mileage, and at this point, I knew the mileage could have been as much as three or four miles off from other people's sources. There could very well be a 1000-mile marker ahead but I just hadn't reached it. I didn't care, though. I used Eric the Black's PCT Atlas, and as far as I was concerned, that was the official mileage I would use. It was the only mileage I could use.

Signage could not always be relied upon,
but this sign is poking out of snow enough to be read!
So I found a bunch of small rocks in a nearby creek, piled them up on the trail, then started forming the number 1000 out of them. Four digits. It didn't fit comfortably writing the number across the trail like I had done in the past, so this time I wrote it out along the length of the trail, took a couple of photos with my feet above the number, and finally hoisted up my pack and continued hiking.

Just past Dorothy Lake, the trail climbed up to Dorothy Pass where--once again--I lost the trail in the snow. Grrr.... The snow wasn't deep enough to do any significant postholing, but it was mushy enough that it felt like walking on beach sand, insuring I'd continue to loathe the snow with every bone in my body.

Dorothy Lake
From a good vantage point, I pulled out my topo map looking around getting my bearings and checking that I was still hiking in the correct direction when I saw The Kern in the distance waving to me. He was waiting for me? I was surprised. I hadn't really 'bonded' with his group. The three of them are so close, you kind of feel like an outsider around them. They have their group dynamic going, but I wasn't a part of it. It's not that they made me feel unwelcome--just that I wasn't part of that group dynamic. So I'd pass them on the trail, and they'd pass me on the trail, but I didn't really make a point of trying to keep up with them and they didn't make a point of trying to keep up with me.

At least not until now, I thought, surprised to see The Kern waiting for me.

At long last, I've hiked one thousand miles of the PCT!
The joke was on me, however. He wasn't waiting for me--he was waiting for Half Ounce and Neon. He was hiking ahead of them and stopped for them to catch up and asked me how far back they were.

"Actually," I told him, "I thought they were ahead of me." They passed me by at Dorothy Lake and I hadn't seem them since. "But admittedly, I had lost the trail. It's possible I could have passed them and never knew it."

We chatted a bit, and he told me that he'd wait another five minutes for the other two and continue on again. I continued hiking.

I forget which lake this one is....
Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes later, I reached Harriet Lake and found Half-Ounce and Neon sitting on rocks. I waved, and they asked if I had seen The Kern. "Oh, yes. I passed him about 15 minutes ago. He's sitting on the side of the trail waiting for you two to catch up to him."

A look of horror crossed their faces. He's waiting for them? He thinks he's ahead when he's really behind? Once again, in the snows in the High Sierras, the Charmin and Hasty syndrome struck once again. Except unlike those two who were rushing as quickly as possible to catch up with each other, these three were sitting around waiting for each other.

"Don't worry, though," I told them. "He said if you two didn't show up in another five minutes, he'd start hiking again. If he kept to his word, he should only be about five minutes behind me. No need to go backtrack to get him." =)

They seemed relieved at that, and I continued hiking.

The PCT goes up the snow-covered slope on the left.
I decided to climb up the (mostly) snow-free slope
on the right.
Beyond Harriet Lake, the snow stopped and the trail dried up. It was wonderful to walk on. None of the creeks required getting our feet wet. Even the pervasive granite of the High Sierras gave way to some sort of red, volcanic rock. It was, in a word, awesome!

Later in the afternoon, the trail started climbing uphill again, and near a 10,000-foot pass, the snow returned. I hoped it was just a problem on that one particular slope. The slope was steep, and rather than follow the PCT tread into the snow, I decided to cut straight up the mountain in the loose volcanic rock. The next mile was exhausting, like climbing a sand dune, but it avoided a large section of snow.

Miles and miles without snow! If you blow up image
(click on it), you can see the trail along the entire length
of this ridge.
I made it to the top of the ridge and looked ahead at miles of beautiful snow-free trail. It didn't last nearly long enough, however. After another hour or so of hiking, patches of snow started coming back. Thicker snow and longer patches with each passing mile. The trail meandered between the mountaintops, passing through "The Notch"--a rather ballsy place to route a trail if you ask me.

I wanted to stop, but I couldn't. Along these mountain ridges, there were absolutely no creeks or springs. Snow everywhere--I could melt snow for water if I had to, but that was bothersome and the exposed ridges were quite gusty at times anyhow, so I pushed on trying to get to a water source near the highway at Sonora Pass.

Near the end of the day I had to go down a steep snow chute down towards Sonora Pass. Funny to look at the snow chute from up there, I thought. It looked scary as hell. At the beginning of the High Sierras, a chute like that would have terrified me. Now, it seemed nothing more than a bit "hairy." I'll need to be careful, but nothing too bad. Mostly, I was just plain tired and wanted to stop and set up camp before dark. This side of the mountain was already in the shade and there was a good chance I might not see the sun again for the rest of the day. "Official" sunset was still nearly an hour away, but in these deep canyons, actual sunset could be a lot earlier. 

I camped near the bottom of this
snow chute. The top of this chute
(out of the photo) is steep and
After 27.6 miles--the second longest day of my journey so far, and that included battling mountains of snow to boot!--I finally set up camp within hearing distance of the highway over Sonora Pass. My feet felt surprisingly good, almost as if I'd only hiked 10 to 15 miles that day rather than close to 30. My knees were a bit sore, but not to an unusual or unexpected degree. They'd been a bit sore through the entire High Sierras with all of those steep slopes up and down.

I set up camp on a small clearing free of snow, catching about 20 minutes of sunlight before the sun disappeared behind the mountain for good. The faint sound of vehicles on the highway over Sonora Pass could still be heard, but I loved the campsite. It was protected from wind, and if my estimate was correct, it was one of the last places the evening sun would set, and one of the first places that the morning sun would strike.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ain't No River Wide Enough....

Smedberg Lake
July 4: Independence Day, but no fireworks for me. For some reason, the authorities don't want people setting of fireworks in the forest. Go figure. *shrug*

For GQ, being from Scotland, he didn't have much interest in the holiday, but he did tell us that a tourist--an American one, of course--asked him if they celebrated the Forth of July in Scotland. "Yes, we enjoy celebrating the beginning of the end of the British empire." *rolling eyes*

Anyhow, I woke up above Smedberg Lake and planned to continue my idea from the evening before to follow the outflow from Smedberg Lake down to the PCT after losing the trail so completely the evening before. Everyone else, who had not yet had the pleasure of losing the trail at this point, would try to keep following the trail. I'd be on my own for this cross-country section.

Just before leaving camp, The Kern (formerly known as Ten Spot), Half-Ounce, and Neon walked past our campsite. I waved and wished them good luck in following the trail, then I headed south on the trail back to Smedberg Lake.

The Kern, Half-Ounce, and Neon
I found the water outlet easily enough, crossed to the far side of the water, then started following it down the mountain. A hit a few minor deadends along the way, overlooking high cliffs that I didn't dare try to scale down, requiring backtracking a few minutes until I found a better route down. After an hour or so, I reached the valley bottom no worse for wear. At the bottom, I found The Kern, Half-Ounce, and Neon on the other ride of the river asking if I knew where the trail was. At this point, I wasn't actually back on the trail yet, but at least I was on the correct side of the river. They asked where I crossed, and I pointed way back up the mountain and said I had no idea where the best place to cross here was at.

They went off to look for a place to cross that wouldn't require wet feet, and I went off in search of the PCT which I found a couple of minutes later. For much of the rest of the morning and afternoon, I continued hiking with The Kern, Half-Ounce, and Neon. There was another allegedly 'dangerous' river crossing ahead, and I wanted people around for that. Better safe than sorry!

The Kern admires the views.
I'm not sure what the name of the river was--it didn't show up in my topo map, but it was at the junction with the Bear Valley Trail. It was also the last of the allegedly dangerous river crossings, and I was excited to finally get those nuisances behind me. The river turned out not to be a big deal, coming up barely past my knees. The water was swift, but manageable.

On the other side, we all took a short lunch break. I lingered a bit longer than the rest, and had fallen behind when I reached Stubblefield Canyon Creek. I stopped short of the water, thinking that the water look very deep--deeper than anything I had experienced before. It wasn't fast moving water, though--just deep. If I had to guess, I'd judge it to be a solid five feet deep. It would certainly come up at least halfway up my chest. I suppose technically, the river crossing wasn't 'dangerous' since the water was so slow, but it seemed ludicrous that my guidebook had no mention of this river crossing.

The Kern was on the other side of the river, and I shouted out to him asking how he crossed.

Half-Ounce points out where he plans to
cross the last 'dangerous' river crossing
of the trail.
"Hold your pack over your head and go!" he shouted back.

"No, seriously!" I asked again. "Where did you  cross?"

"Right here," he insisted. "I held my pack over my head and crossed!"

Fine, don't tell me. I'll find my own route across.

I followed the creek upstream where the creek split into three smaller (but faster) creeks and decided to make my crossing. Each of the streams was only about knee-deep, but the water was very swift and I clutched my trekking pole tightly as a third, steady leg. It also required a little bit of bushwacking between the individual creeks, and after about ten minutes, I finally made it to the other side.

Things are improving...
at least the snow isn't ON the trail!
Upon reaching the other side, The Kern asked me how deep the water was.

"Only about knee deep," I told him, "but you already know that!"

"No I didn't. I really did cross right where the trail intersected the river. Held my pack over my head and crossed."

Hmm.... How 'bout that. All this time, I thought he was just yanking my chain, but he really did cross there. Wow, that must have been a cold, unpleasant experience!

I pulled ahead of the three, and late in the day reached another surprisingly deep river that also failed to make it into my guidebook. This river crossing would be the most difficult of the day--about waist deep and with a strong current. Not a fast current, but uncomfortably swift given the depth. I struggled across, reaching the other side, then started looking for a place to camp.

I set up camp near the Tilden Lake Trail junction, next to a raging river. The Kern, Half Ounce, and Neon caught up with me a half hour later, but decided to go a bit further up the trail, not wanting to camp next to the noisy river that they compared to the sound of a jet engine. They told me that Neon had lost a trekking pole in that last river crossing. "Better than losing your whole pack, eh, Mr. Kern?" =)

It seemed surprising to me that someone could lose their trekking pole at a river crossing. I hold mine very solidly while crossing, with both hands, and realized that was the problem. Neon carried two trekking poles. She had one in each hand--she wouldn't have had such a solid grip on them as I did having two hands on my one trekking pole. But still, the river was bad enough to cause her to lose a trekking pole.

The 'official' dangerous water crossings were behind us, but it seemed that we still faced 'unofficial' ones ahead. Those that would strike without warning. I couldn't wait to get out of these mountains. They were taking their tolls.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Benson Pass: They Just Keep on Coming....

An old PCT marker has the tree growing around it.
July 3: I caught up with Fidget, Green Mile, and Red Head who camped at the Virginia Canyon Trail turnoff and the "dangerous" water crossing listed in our guidebooks, which thrilled me since it meant I didn't have to take the dangerous river crossing by myself after all. I fully expected to have to deal with it on my own.

I waited around nearly an hour for Green Mile and Red Head to get their stuff together. Fidget seemed ready to go but was also held back waiting for the other two to get ready. The stream itself didn't look too bad from our side, but we suspected that it was just a smaller branch of a much larger stream we couldn't see well in the next channel of water. The first was only knee deep and no trouble at all, and when we stood on the banks of the second branch, we were surprised to also see that it appeared no worse than knee deep. This "dangerous" steam crossing turned out to be a bust. As far as dangers go, I wouldn't have even included it in my top ten, and I was a little disappointed that I even waited for Green Mile and Red Head to get ready. I'd have been fine doing this crossing on my own.

The rest of the day, I mostly hiked alone, occasionally passing Fidget, Green Mile, and Red Head--or being passed by them. I passed a weekend hiker near a stream as he was taking off his shoes. I made a comment about trying to keep his feet dry (or at least his shoes), shaking my head and telling him it was a waste of time. He complained that when he got home that he was going to replace his shoes with ones that were actually waterproof.

"There is no such thing," I told him. And I meant it. Even if a shoe could completely keep out the water, then it meant that the sweat from one's feet would never evaporate either. No matter what, your feet are still going to get wet. "Just go with it. You'll still be miserable, but you'll travel faster." =)

Then I stepped directly into the creek and never looked back. If nothing else, at least I can be an example.

My daring and "dangerous" stream crossing....
We crossed over another 10,000-ft pass--Benson Pass, perhaps the easiest pass of all. It didn't even have much snow except for the last half mile before the top. At the pass, I stopped and read my magazines for an hour or so to kill time. After the horrible mosquitoes of the night before, I decided to camp above 9,000 feet hoping it would still be too cold and exposed for them to cause me trouble. If I didn't slow down, I'd end the day camped much too low.

A little more snow covered the other side of Benson Pass, wound past Smedberg Lake--very scenic and almost tempted me to find a place to camp right there--but I decided to push on a little bit further. And half a mile later, I lost the trail completely near the turnoff for the Rodgers Lake Trail.

I like the masonry in the trail here.
It was frustrating. I clearly had the trail in my sights until it went under a patch of snow perhaps 30 feet long, then it completely disappeared on me. Footprints led down, and I followed those a short ways, but it led to dead ends, fallen trees, and the footprints mysteriously disappeared into nowhere. I circled around the patch of snow, knowing that the trail had to leave it from some direction. Much of the other side of the snow was solid rock, so I figured the trail must be there. On solid slabs of granite, the trail doesn't really stand out unless it's lined with small rocks or other identifying features. Maybe the smaller rocks weren't there anymore?

I searched for the trail for over an hour, growing increasingly frustrated. Occasionally I would find a cairn, thrilled to have found a sign of the trail, and when I got up to it, discovered absolutely no trace of a trail nearby. Why the heck do people create cairns where the trail doesn't even go? Argh! Then I'd backtrack and try again.

Heading up Benson Pass.
I could kind of guess where the trail should go, but it looked steep and more than a little dangerous, and with sunset approaching, I needed to make some decisions. I pulled out my maps and studied the terrain and the path of the trail. I saw an outflow of water from Smedberg Lake would eventually cross the trail near the bottom of the canyon I looked down. If I followed that outflow, it would definitely get me to the trail. The outflow cascaded down the other side of the canyon from where I was at, but it looked a bit less steep and treacherous than the side I (and the trail) was on. I didn't care anymore, though. No, I was going to hike back up to Smedberg Lake, follow the outflow of water downhill until it crossed the trail.

It was much too late in the afternoon to do this before dark, however, so I decided to hike back up to Smedberg Lake and find a place to camp. I didn't want to try route-finding in the dark. Near the ridge above Smedberg Lake, I bumped into GQ, Not-a-Change, Croatia, and another hiker whose name I now forget, and set up camp with them. I told them of my problems and my plans for the next morning, but they still planned to charge ahead following the official PCT as best they could. Which didn't really surprise me--I would have done the same thing.

Smedberg Lake
The trail is down there... somewhere....
Not-a-Chance and Croatia built a campfire, and we told stories for much of the evening before I finally heade off to sleep. I'd find the trail again tomorrow even if it killed me, but at least four other hikers would now know where to look for my body off of the PCT. =)