As I knew it would, everything about my journey shifted this past week. Today is Wednesday, May 25th, I am zeroing at my Mom’s house again, a pleasant repreive and respite, yet another chance to nourish my body and soul before returning to the trail. I just spent 11 days up in the Sierra, travelling from Kennedy Meadows to Onion Valley, a distance of only about 92 miles, plus detours (explanation later). Snow changes everything. So does altitude. So does dramatic topography. So does beauty.
I left Kennedy Meadows with a pack full of 9 days of food, weighing in at 52 pounds, along with fellow hiker Betty “Two Bar”, on Friday May 13th, late in the afternoon. We decided to hike in a few miles rather than take a zero in Kennedy. We were both signed up to take Ned Tibbetts Snow Advanced Course (Mountain Education) which we were to meet him the evening of the 16th at Chicken Spring Lake, which rests between Cottonwood Pass and Crabtree Meadow near Mt. Whitney. There was another hiker to join us, “Overload”, who had left a half day ahead of us, so it would be the three of us in the class for five days, Chicken Spring Lake to Onion Valley.
The summation of the course was to learn back country snow safety skills, and to get us over Forester Pass, the first of seven major passes heading North where the PCT overlaps with the John Muir Trail (JMT). Forester is also the most difficult, and the highest of all the passes, topping out at 13,200 ft. It was also completely covered in snow. I would have not attempted the Sierra’s without taking Ned’s course, and I am so glad that I did, I recommend a course like this to anyone in the backcountry in snow conditions, because there are just too many variables and elements of danger. Things can shift rapidly, and in the case of this week, they did. Things shifted in many ways.
Two Bar and I took our time hiking in the first two days, trying to eat our heaviest foods first in order to reduce our pack weight, which helped some, but we were still loaded down. By day three, we knew we had to kick it up a notch or two and get more miles under our belts. By day three we hit a decent amount of snow, and hunting for the trail slowed us down conisderably. This, and the presence of a brand new snow storm coming in at the same time, led us to wonder if we could even make it all the way to Chicken Spring Lake on the appointed evening. We were fortunate, and with the combination of pushing ourselves hard and following footprints, we made it to the Lake by the skin of our teeth on Monday evening at about 8:30pm. We had about 10 minutes to set up our tents and get out of the snow before it got really dark and really cold. We did not even meet Ned, as he was already snug in his tent up the lake shore, and we exchanged shouts of hello with him and agreed to be ready to hike the next day at 7:00am. This was the next morning at the Lake.
First thing in the morning, we were instructed by Ned to hunker down and wait for further instruction while we observed what the weather was going to do. I was somewhat releived, as the transition from hiking and camping in the dirt to the snow felt dramatic, and it helped me that I had some time to take it all in. I sat and sipped my coffee, looking at the view of the lake and the giant granite walls surrounding it on 3 sides. The elevation of Chicken Spring Lake is 11,242 ft, over 5,000 feet higher than Kennedy Meadows. Elevation changes everything. It was cold there, about 30F that morning, but I did not know then that I would be sleeping later that week in temps half of that. By 9:00am we got the go ahead from Ned that we were ok to hit the trail, so we rapidly packed up and hit the trail.
Actually, we did not hit the PCT at all, and one of the first things I learned about back country snow travel was that you do not have to be on the trail to get where you are going. With a map, compass, or a tool of technology, whatever it may be, as long as you have land marks and you know the direction you need to be headed, you are free to traverse the slopes, meadows and climb to the vistas. We later coined this concept with the term “hiker freedom”. One of my biggest anxieties going into the week, and the class, was that I was nervous about not being able to find the trail under the snow. Ned helped us alot with this, teaching us how to navigate from both a micro and macro standpoint. I can now say I feel much more confident and in fact, I love hiking over the snow, because you can walk anywhere you like. This allows you to look up and look around you much much more, because you have to be very observant of your surroundings. You have to orient yourself constantly, look for indications of the trail and of landmarks. You have to pay attention, rather than zoning out following a 12″ wide dirt path. This shifts things considerably. One of my favorite discoveries of the week was when we cut down a slope covered in snow, to bisect a section of trail that followed a drainage. We put on our foot traction and straight down the billowy tufts of compact snow we went, each carving out our own path down to a beautiful meadow below. It felt like a ride at Disneyland to me, I was like a kid again, almost hopping down the slope and able to dodge in and out of the trees on my way down. It was marvelouse and elating!
By day two, we made it to Crabtree Meadow and had our first creek crossing at Whitney Creek. We were just below snowline here and we could sit on the rocks on the shores of the creek, absorbing the sun, and enjoy the views of Mt. Whitney and Mt. Russel in the distance. It was nice to see flowers, grass and dirt again, but we knew this was not to last too long, so we enjoyed a leisurely lunch there. We ran into a couple of Brits who were planning to attempt summiting Whitney the next day. We later found out that they reached massive walls of ice and turned around, a wise choice we thought.
Over the course of the days we learned a lot about creek crossings. We had to cross at least a dozen, some easier and some harder, some smaller, some larger. This was by far the easiest, being that it was only about a foot deep and had a flat sandy bottom. Subsequent creek crossings would definitely challenge us and bring us out of our comfort zones enough to make us become wide awake! We crossed on top of logs, sometimes first thing in the morning, requiring a monumental abouppnt of focus at 6:00am to keep our balance. Others were powerful forces of water, whereby we searched up and down the creek for 30 minutes before settling on a safe place to cross. Ned taught us that where the trail crosses the creek is not always the safest or best place to cross. Wright Creek was the most challenging creek because of the energy in that flowing water was powerful. It was a more narrow and deeper creek, with lotsvof large boukders.When I crossed it, I learned very quickly to shuffle my feet on the bottom, because if you lift your feet up, off they go down stream, and there goes your balance real fast. Ned also taught us to lengthen our poles and place them out wide for better balance. I learned to cross the creeks in my underwear, so as not to get my pants wet. People who are six feet tall seem not to understand that people who are five feet tall can’t just roll up their pant legs and not get them wet. I was up to my thighs in that frigid water.
By Thursday, we had traversed many a snowy slopes, crossed many a frigid streams, we had begun each day at 6:00am, and had enjoyed some seriously stellar views, views that brought tears to my eyes.
In my opinion, there is no place more beautiful than the Sierra Nevada, and being up there in the snow, added a dimension that seems to be literally the icing on the cake. I see a whole new world in these mountains, a whole new dimension to the soul of this space, and that is one big reason why I went up there in these conditions. I have hiked the JMT twice, and I quickly fell in love. Now, starting with Crabtree Meadow, the PCT and JMT intersect and overlap for nearly 200 miles. This will be my third time hiking the JMT, but it may as well be an entirely new trail, hiking Northbound this time, and in the snow. Things were familiar, yet completely foreign too.
We made it to the base of Forester Pass by Thursday afternoon, and the winds had picked up considerably. We hiked up the long steep “ramp” from Tyndall Creek for 5 miles quite slowly because the snow was getting crusty on top and slushy below, leading to quite a lot of post holing. We crossed Bighorn Plateau, a giant space of lots of open air settled in between the high mountains on all sides, lending a feeling of being on the moon. Desolate, lacking plant life, yet such a strong pulse teeming with sounds of birds calling from afar, and water rushing in the creeks below the snowy surface. We were now above timberline, and we said goodbye to the last of the ancient foxtail pines as we climbed and climbed.
Here is a photo of our base camp at Forester, with Forester Pass up aove, Thurday night:
The evening got progressively colder, and windier. The had indeed wind shifted. I got out of my tent long enough to take some photos, and collect some water and then I had to get back inside for warmth and protection. The water I collected was from a frozen Lake where Ned had chopped a small hole in the ice, and I had to dip my water bottles into it to let them fill up. Three dunks of my water bottle and my hands were absolutely frozen, painful, and worsened by the wind. It was all I could do to get my cold wet hands back into my jacket pockets to warm up and regain circulation. This is the ice hole where we got water :
By dark, it was windy enough that I had my serious doubts about how I was going to be able to sleep at all. My tent rain fly was flapping so hard, it was like a sail on a boat out on the ocean. Fortunately, there were rocks nearby and we all collected them to help with anchoring down our tents. It was a fitful, cold, windy night. It dropped down to 19 degrees plus wind chill, and often the wind would blow so hard that it carried icicles with it, which would shower heavily on my tent, blowing in under the fly and through the mesh screen of my tent.
My sleeping bag would suddeny be covered with melted bits of ice. Somehow, I slept a bit and by 4:00am, Ned was making the rounds to each of our tents to let us know what the plan was. It was so windy that he had to stand right outside my tent to communicate with me, even though when he was talking to Two Bar, he was less than 10 feet away, I could not hear him at all. The message was to hunker down and wait for further instruction, as we waited to see what the weather was going to do. We had originally planned on summiting Forester Pass this morning, we were to start hiking at 6:00am, and clearly that was no longer the plan. We were NOT going to summit Forester, and we did not know what other options we had at this time. I went back to sleep, somehow, and fitfully tossed, turned and occasionally had to hold my tent up when it collapsed into my face by the forces of the winds. Ned estimated they were about 40mph winds. Ned’s tent actually snapped at a certsin pointvthst mirning, and the rest of us were using our bodies to hold our tents up. This made it extremely difficult to do anything at all, like get breakfadt and packnup. It was exhsusting and at a point, I just wanted to get out of there, I wanted to walk, somewhere, anywhere. By 7:00am, Ned made the rounds again, and notified us to pack up, we were getting out of there, we were going to get to Shepherd’s Pass and get off the Mountain.