The High Sierra: Miles 785-943

The day after Forester Pass, we planned to hike over Kearsarge Pass to a road that would connect us to the town of Independence, where we were picking up our resupply box. By this point, we were nearly out of food. We had come down Forester Pass starving, with nothing to eat except quinoa, which we had for dinner that evening. We ran into Laura and Adam before camping and they generously gave us each a few spoonfuls of peanut butter. Despite the quinoa, I went to bed hungry, knowing we still had 12 miles to do the next morning before getting to town and food. Kearsarge Pass was not hard compared to the days before, but for me, it was one of the hardest climbs. I trudged up the mountain, each step a struggle, feeling weak and depleted. All I could think about was food and what I would eat at the Chevron gas station that was our destination. There is really nothing in Independence except this Chevron, and it’s amazing how much I planned and fantasized about arriving there. I have never been so excited to get to a gas station. When we finally arrived, 12 miles and a long hitch hike later, I gorged myself on pop tarts, chips, soda, and a huge sandwich.

From there, we hitched 40 miles to Bishop, a larger town up Hwy 395. We happened to catch a ride with the County Commissioner, who gave us a full history of the area and overview of the current political landscape. One of my favorite parts of this trip has been the interesting people we meet along the way, and the incredible generosity of the strangers who help us. Phil’s friend Liana lives in Bishop and generously offered her home to us, despite her not being there. It was pure bliss having a house to stay in with showers, a kitchen, and a sofa to lounge on. In Bishop, we did lots of grocery shopping and food sorting, stopped by a rodeo and watched the high school girls barrel race, saw the ridiculous new Tom Cruise movie The Edge of Tomorrow, and visited lots of cute little shops. While we were there, Phil arranged with our friends Jay and Suzie to meet at South Lake, about 60 miles north, in two days.

Between leaving Bishop Thursday morning and arriving at South Lake Saturday afternoon, we went over 5 passes (back over Kearsarge, Glen, Pinoche, Mather, and Bishop Passes), climbed over 15,000 feet, and hiked 60 miles. It was a tiring few days, but full of the most incredible scenery. On our way up Bishop Pass, we were passed by a trio of very hard core-looking hikers with hardly any gear with them, one of whom was wearing a very small raccoon outfit. After chatting with them, we learned that the one in the raccoon dress was Jenn Shelton, a well-known ultramarathoner and the crazy college runner featured in the book Born to Run. They had just done Whitney to Bishop Pass (90 miles) in two days, and Jenn was going for the John Muir Trail speed record in a few weeks, attempting to break the current record of 223 miles in 3 days, 20 hours. Needless to say, we were inspired, and decided to hike up the pass as fast as we could. Along the way, we did manage to pass the ultra trio, which made us feel good. Then again, they were just finishing up a crazily long trek and were hiking leisurely at that point. 🙂

It was so wonderful to spend time with Jay, Suzie and their dog, Bear. They had driven all the way from the Bay area to spend not even 24 hours with us, so we did our best to make the most of it. They fed us steak, trout, fruit and vegetables from their farm, soda, beer, cheese, chips, pancakes, and fresh squeezed orange juice. It was restful and idyllic, and I was extremely sad to leave this haven of comfort and friends and head back to the trail when it was time.

Over the next few days, we crossed over three more passes, made it to our next resupply at Vermillion Valley Resort, went into the town of Mammoth Lakes for a few hours, got our first taste of awful mosquitoes, and braved some truly scary river crossings. Finally, after crossing over Donohue Pass and a long, hungry (we were out of food again), 13-mile descent through the most beautiful valley I’d ever seen, we reached Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite. Desperate to get to Tuolumne by the time the restaurant closed, we charged those last miles, hiking as fast as we could and rarely stopping. I listened to 2 Pac and Sublime on my iPod, gathering energy from the music and marveling at how different my current surroundings were from what they sang about.

Everyone told me how spectacular Yosemite was, but I didn’t fully realize and appreciate it until I was there. It is full of perfect meadows, the clearest streams you’ve ever seen, and surrounded by huge, weird granite mountains. The day after arriving there, Phil insisted we finish the John Muir Trail and hike the 17 miles down to Yosemite Valley, despite this not being part of the PCT. We hiked over Cloud’s Rest, a gigantic slab of granite with views of Half Dome and the entire valley. I was blown away by the scenery. We got to Yosemite Village after dark, devoured a large pizza, and sat chatting with our friends Josh and Carla (fellow thru-hikers) until midnight.

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One of many scary river crossings. This one actually wasn’t that bad because the water was like 1 foot deep. I fell in right after this picture was taken, and then proceeded to start crying and get mad at Phil for taking a picture of me. I think I cried every day (always for ridiculous reasons) during this week.

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Wonderful weekend with Jay, Suzie, and Bear the dog

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Our awesome YAMA tent and ULA backpacks, on our way back over Bishop Pass after spending the weekend with Jay and Suzie

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Phil and trail. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but this was in a beautiful area with granite boulders and little green grassy nooks everywhere.

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Top of Bishop Pass

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On the way back down Bishop Pass towards the PCT. The water rushes down this giant slab of granite for hundreds of feet.

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John Muir Hut, on the top of Muir Pass

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It was rocky, cold and icy coming down Muir Pass

Breakfast stop in Evolution Valley

Breakfast stop in Evolution Valley

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Vermillion Valley Resort

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Top of Clouds Rest. There's Half Dome and Yosemite Valley in the distance.

Top of Clouds Rest. There’s Half Dome and Yosemite Valley in the distance.

On top of Clouds Rest

On top of Clouds Rest

Mt. Whitney and beyond: Miles 704 to 785

After spending a full, indulgent day in Kennedy Meadows, we ventured north. The shift in the terrain was dramatic. Suddenly, there were huge mountains, things were GREEN, and there was water everywhere. We spent the entire first day doing nothing but climbing, but by the end of the day, it was like we were in a different world. We were above 10,000 feet for the first time, and could see rows upon rows of mountains stretching below us and ahead of us.

View the first night out of Kennedy Meadows. So beautiful!

View the first night out of Kennedy Meadows. So beautiful!

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We camped with an awesome group of friends that night. From left: Phil, Julia, Anne, The Animal, Kit, The Prospector, Rimshot, and Chop Chop

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Me and Phil in front of a funny tree trunk

Over the next 60ish miles, we hiked through the beginnings of the High Sierra. This section was full of ancient-looking trees, idyllic little creeks, and meadows so perfect they looked manicured. I felt sure we would see a bear, and kept looking for one… but alas, no bears. The trail got harder and more hilly during this section, and the altitude took some getting used to.

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Every so often we arrived at the top of a ridge and could see into Owens Valley, on the other side of the Sierras. Death Valley is just on the other side of those mountains below.

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Phil in Crabtree Meadows, mile 767

We arrived in Crabtree Meadows, where you can take a 17-mile side trip off the PCT to climb Mt. Whitney, late on a Saturday night after hiking about 25 miles that day. The day had been challenging, full of constant hills, and my legs were tired. We planned to climb Whitney the next day.

99% of PCT hikers climb Whitney. It’s right on the trail, our permits allow us to climb it without going through the complicated lottery process that normal day-hikers have to complete, and, at 14,505 feet, it’s a chance to climb the highest mountain in the lower United States. Deep down, though, I didn’t really want to do it. I was tired from the previous 3 days of hiking, and it was 17 EXTRA miles. Not to mention, over 4,000 vertical feet of climbing.

I was extremely grumpy as we started down the Mt. Whitney trail Sunday morning. I’ve found that, at times, hiking all day causes me to regress to a 5-year-old version of myself, and this was definitely one of those days. I was far behind Phil, annoyed at his ability to bound up the trail without ever seeming to get tired or need to stop, and many times debated throwing in the towel altogether. I could stop at a nice lake along the way, talk to the marmots, and wait for Phil to finish the climb. But, I kept on going, hiking so slowly. We started to climb endless switchbacks up the side of a mountain, surrounded by jagged granite spires. Each person who passed us coming down said how amazing it was on top, how worth the climb, how much we would love it.

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Part of the trail up to Mt. Whitney

After four hours of climbing, we finally got to the top, a wide expanse of huge granite rock slabs surrounded by snow-covered mountain peaks every direction you looked. It was truly an amazing view. We could see far north into mountain ranges we’d soon be crossing, and to the east, the desert and Owens Valley. As soon as I got to the top, the pain of the climb vanished. I was just so happy to be there, and so happy that we had done it. It was similar to the feeling you sometimes get after finishing a marathon: the hours before could have been torture, hell, full of those thoughts of “NEVER AGAIN will I do this.” As soon as you finish, though, the pain melts away, you are euphoric, your brain somehow convinces you that was the best experience ever, and the evil creature in the back, nether regions of your mind starts to plot your next opportunity for torture.

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We awoke the next morning tired and stiff, but we had another adventure awaiting us – Forester Pass! At 13,200 feet, this pass is the highest point on the PCT and also marks the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park. To me, the climb didn’t feel nearly as hard as Mt. Whitney had, but I talked to others who said the opposite. At the top, we got an amazing view into Kings Canyon and the most dramatic, jagged peaks I had ever seen. The descent was one of the most beautiful parts of the PCT so far.

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Beginning of the climb up Forester Pass, surrounded by granite rock and little snow-melt creeks

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This was one of the coolest trails I have ever hiked. You can kind of see the switchbacks cut into the rock in the picture.

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There was some snow on the way down, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been a few weeks earlier. Many hikers that passed through before us had to glissade down this side and then post-hole in the snow for hours.

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Phil on the way down. The trail often looked like it just dropped off over the edge of a cliff.

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We camped here that night, another amazingly beautiful camping spot and day.

 

 

 

 

Tehachapi to Kennedy Meadows: Miles 558 to 704

Hi everyone! I am so, so behind on this blog – my apologies!! The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of nonstop hiking, long days, and not much cell phone or internet access. It’s been harder than I expected to post consistently, and I feel bad that it’s been so long! Phil and I are currently off the trail for 5 days so I could go to my grandparents’ memorial service in Montana (a planned trip), and I’m going to try to get as caught up as possible while I’m here. We just passed the halfway point on the PCT – mile 1330! For now, here is the next section of our adventure, miles 558 to 704: 

The 150 miles between Tehachapi and Kennedy Meadows were a mix of desert, forest, mountains, and long stretches without water. It seemed the terrain often couldn’t decide if it was still desert or ready to start being forest. We would go through beautiful oak forests and meadows one day, and the next enter the most arid, sandy desert stretch, surrounded by Joshua Trees. We got used to carrying enough water for a 20-mile stretch, and when we did have water, it often came from a rusty pipe in the middle of nowhere, a mile off the trail, with an algae-covered cow trough beneath it. We were still often surrounded by wind farms, and always had a view of the desert to the east below us. It was amazing to watch the transformation from desert to forest, each day becoming a bit greener.

Walker Pass, at mile 652, was a campground where the trail met Highway 178, and I was excited to get there because we crossed a road (thus increasing our chances of happening upon trail magic, like a cooler full of soda) and because it marked the “end” of the desert (though others say the end is in Kennedy Meadows). After a long descent, we got there around 9 am, and I spotted a blue tent near the parking lot. Not wanting to get my hopes up, I decided it was nothing. But as we got closer, we could make out a sign that said “HIKERS WANTED,” and as we approached, the group under the blue tent started clapping, first slowly, then gaining speed and enthusiasm. It took me a second to realize they were clapping for us! A little boy ran out and handed each of us a soda and a plastic necklace, and then Yogi, the author of the most popular PCT guidebook (kind of a trail celebrity) came out and greeted us. She handed each of us a plate of pancakes, and another when we finished the first plate. It was the most wonderful, unexpected surprise.

After what turned into a 5 hour break at Walker Pass, we left to ascend the ridge waiting for us. This was a beautiful stretch, with rows of mountains to the left and the desert far below us to the right. It felt like we really were leaving the desert behind and ascending into the mountains.

2 long days later, we arrived at mile 704 in Kennedy Meadows, the true beginning of the Sierra. We had caught up with our friends Adam and Laura the night before, and hiked into KM together the following morning. Kennedy Meadows is a tiny community nestled in an expansive green meadow with the Sierras just beyond. Its main focus is the general store, which also has a delicious grill. Just like at Walker Pass, we were greeted by a crowd of hikers on the deck outside, and they clapped for each hiker as they approached. After 6 long, hot 25-mile days and the promise of this store and all of its treasures in the back of my mind the whole time, getting there was pure bliss. I finally had my beloved Dr. Pepper (this has become one of my trail cravings), we had burgers from the grill, we got our resupply box, and we caught up with many friends who had been ahead of us. Next up: the Sierra and Mt. Whitney!

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Pancakes and soda at Walker Pass

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Beautiful evening north of Walker Pass

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Phil is looking more and more homeless everyday

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Around mile 665 – 1/4 of the way there!

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In front of the Kennedy Meadows general store

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Kennedy Meadows general store!! Such a happy sight after hard days of hiking.

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The night after we got to KM we stayed at a campground 2 miles north with Laura, Adam, Laura’s dad, and some other friends. Laura’s dad had brought quite a carload of treats, and made us gourmet cocktails.

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The trail just as you leave KM. You can see the beginning of the Sierras ahead!