Sandy provides an update on our PCT progress. (Due to poor Internet connectivity, apologies for the delay in getting this post published.)
The past segment of the PCT from Tehachapi, CA has had a little of everything: heat, scarce water, fire worries, treacherous trail, snow, and finally, torrential rivers and streams. It also marked the end of our desert hiking and the beginning of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Leaving Tehachapi with a full pack, we encountered steep climbs and warm temperatures. We had been fortunate during our time in the desert and had not experienced hot days. But this was to change. It was the first week of June, and in addition to a fire in the vicinity that we needed to track, we now had to monitor our water intake as there were long stretches between reliable water sources. Several springs that had water earlier in the year were now dry.
The longest stretch without water was 42 miles. This meant that we needed to hike the distance over two days as we couldn’t carry enough water to sustain us past that period of time. Even so, we had to ration our water to ensure we didn’t run out while hiking in 80 to 90 degree temperatures, Thankfully there were a couple of water caches that helped, but it was still a tough section, with two days of 20+ miles to cover – the most we had hiked so far.
After reaching Walker Pass, between Lake Isabella and Ridgecrest, we began hiking in the foothills of the Sierras. The landscape around us was still desert but we could begin to see snow capped mountains in the distance. We traversed a series of hills, climbing up and over them to find another set before us. Close to mile 690 that changed as we hiked over the top of a hill and viewed meadows, pine trees, and the south fork of the Kern River below us. It was a dramatic and welcome transformation from the desert to the mountains.
That night we camped next to the Kern River and couldn’t resist going for a swim. After the scarcity of water we had experienced, it was wonderful to have it all around us.
At mile 702 is a major milestone on the PCT. Kennedy Meadows is considered the symbolic entry point into the Sierras and the general store is a major resupply station. Many hikers socialize around the store. Loud applause rang out to any PCT’ers approaching from the trail as a congratulations for getting this far.
Hikers typically receive their mountain gear here, and our resupply box included bear canisters for storing our food, micro spikes for walking on the snow, and attachments to our walking sticks to keep them from sinking in slushy snow (post holing). Because we would no longer need to carry up to seven liters of water each, our packs were actually not as heavy as when we were hiking in some of the desert segments. Darren also took the opportunity to buy some eggs and bacon at the store and cook it on our Jetboil stove. It was tasty!
We left Kennedy Meadows, beginning our climb toward the high Sierras. We scheduled our miles to climb high and camp low to help us adjust to the altitude. For example, one day our hiking took us to 10,500 feet and we slept at 8,900 feet that night. The next day we climbed to over 11,000 feet and slept at 9,600 feet and so on. Our objective was to be ready to climb the series of 11 mountain passes ranging from 10,000 to 13,000 feet. As we hiked closer to the first pass, we walked through a series of stunning meadows.
After climbing over Cottonwood Pass (11,140 feet), we entered Sequoia National Park, the first of seven parks that the PCT passes through. That night we camped at Rock Creek, watching deer grazing in a meadow and crossing a stream as we ate dinner at dusk.
The highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail is also one of the most challenging passes to climb. Forrester Pass is at 13,120 feet in elevation and the trail cuts across a snow chute with thousands of feet in drop-off right before the climbing over a saddle. We camped at 10,900 feet and started our ascent at about 6:30 am to time our hike so that we would not be walking in slushy snow and risk post holing. There were some snow drifts on the mountain, making it difficult to stay on the trail, and necessitating some scrambling straight up at times. The snow chute was terrifying for me, with my fear of heights. The only way I could cross it was to follow right behind Darren and step in his footprints, not looking down.
We entered Kings Canyon National Park as we began the climb down Forrester Pass. There was quite a bit of snow on the descent, so it was slow-going for us. But having the micro spikes made walking through the snow much easier there and at Glen Pass. Other hikers who didn’t have them were more likely to fall.
We left the trail to resupply and for a rest day in the small town of Independence. When we rejoined the PCT, hiking back on the same 7.5 mile trail we had exited on, we were shocked at how much snow had melted in two days. There was a record-breaking heat wave taking place in the Southwestern US and the Sierras were not exempt. While having less snow to contend with was welcome, the accelerated melt caused a more serious problem: it made the already early season stream crossings much more dangerous. Over the next day and a half, we encountered more and more challenging crossings, sometimes having to walk on logs or knee-high through rushing currents.
At mile 802, on the way up to Pinchot Pass, we came to a crossing that took my breath away. It consisted of a waterfall with a narrow crossing point under it. Below the crossing was a 50-foot drop-off into a larger river below. The current was raging and you could not see the bottom of the water. As I watched a couple of people struggling through the crossing from the other side, it was clear that the water was at least thigh-high. One slip would most certainly send you over the 50-foot edge.
Darren and I discussed our options. We knew that there were other notorious crossings ahead, and even if we made it through this one, how would those be with the increased water levels? It was then that we reluctantly decided to turn back. We had promised our family that we would not take any unnecessary risks and we did not feel comfortable continuing.
Back at mile 800 was an intersection with a trail that ended in Kings Canyon National Park, and we began a 15-mile walk to that trailhead, ending mid-morning the next day. We had no idea how we would get a ride out of Kings Canyon but we knew that the trailhead was a popular place, so we hoped for a miracle. And we found a true angel to help us. We were at the trailhead parking lot for no more than 15 minutes before a gentleman approached us and asked if we were waiting for a ride. It turned out he was the pastor of a church in Fresno and he had come back to retrieve his car that he had left while on a few days’ hike north of us. He gladly drove us to Fresno (100 miles), repeatedly refusing our offers to pay for his gas. What a miracle when we needed it!
In Fresno we reviewed our options. Even though we had left the trail, we wanted to continue hiking to Canada. After looking at the weather, snow levels, and logistics, we decided to skip 290 trail miles forward to South Lake Tahoe, bypassing the rest of the high Sierra passes and snow melt. Our hope is that we can make good time toward Canada and then “flip” back to complete the section we missed at a later date, either later this year or at another time.
By a combination of train and buses, it was an easy six-hour trip between Fresno and South Lake Tahoe. Now, preparing for our reentry, we are looking forward to getting back on the trail at mile 1090 and experiencing the PCT again.