Trail Diaries: Our Snowy Adventure

|| The True “Beginning” ||

It all started with ice cream. In the fall of 2016, a friend and I were chatting about our hiking dreams. I mentioned to him that I had hopes of hiking the PCT after college. He mentioned that I should look into the John Muir Trail, a smaller section of the PCT which was known as the “crowned jewel” of the long trek from Mexico to Canada. I was hooked. . .

Whenever I had free time, and often times when I didn’t, I researched the trail. I became obsessed with its ins and outs. I learned the permitting process, resupply points, and became familiar with all the major landmarks.

As snow began to pile up in California, my vision slowly began to change. The “trip” quickly changed to an expedition. My dad and I began training rigorously in the gym, climbing step after step on the StairMaster.

As the days whizzed by, our preparations continued. All that I could think about was the trail, which I’m sure annoyed my friends at times. After I got home from college my dad and I sat down for hours, reviewing routes, talking through resupply logistics, and analyzing bail-out scenarios. We began packaging our food for the trail, sending resupply buckets ahead to await for arrival.

My gear for the trip laid out as I double check my list.

Finally, it was showtime. . .

Off we go. . .

|| 6-17-2017: Travel Day ||

Arriving in San Francisco, we have already encountered our fair share of excitement. . . a lost phone, a shopping trip to REI, and some good food in the Ferry Building.

Our packs arrive in SF.

My nerves were running high, especially in regards to our permitting situation. Unable to get a full JMT thru-hiker permit, we had pieced together two permits for our thru-hike. At the time there was some question as to whether the rangers would issue them both at the same time. With 220 miles in front of us, we knew our nerves would be calmed by setting foot on the trail.

|| Day 1, 6-18-2017: Happy Isles → Panorama Trail Junction → Illilouette Basin ||

If I had to choose one word to describe Yosemite, it would be UNREAL. Today started early (4:15 AM wake-up), with a trip to Denny’s for our last non-backpacking meal until Mammoth Lakes. I still had nerves about the permitting process, yet a ride on the YARTS diverted my attention.

Rising 3000’ above the Yosemite Valley floor, El Capitan created a sense of awe. Never before have I seen so many rock faces tower so majestically over a valley.

Falling from high above, Yosemite Falls crashes down onto the valley floor.

The bus dropped us off at Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, only feet away from our permits. After a quick trip to the gift shop, we headed over to the Wilderness Center to finally get our permits. My nerves quieted: it was showtime.

The rangers initially gave us a look of shock. We were among the first JMTers of the year to show up, as the heavy snow conditions had chased away many. After a brief chat, they issued our permits. My excitement finally kicked in. We were off!

Our golden ticket!

After a shuttle ride over to Happy Isles Nature Center, we set foot on the trail, our home for the next three weeks. After passing over a raging Merced River we began to climb, switchback after switchback. The views of Half Dome and Nevada Falls were breathtaking.

We ate lunch at the intersection of the Mist Trail and the JMT, overlooking Nevada Falls. We then diverted off trail into Illilouette Basin to make camp, a peaceful break from the widely trafficked valley. After setting up, we ventured over to Illilouette Creek, a supposedly raging creek (according to rangers) that barely came up to our boots.

Looking towards Half Dome from Illilouette Basin, as the sun sets.

It’s off to dinner. A 5:15 AM wake-up tomorrow will get us moving towards Sunrise High Camp, after a surprise hail storm!

|| Day 2, 6-19-2017: Illilouette Basin → Panorama Trail Junction → Sunrise High Camp ||

Today began early (5:00 AM) with first light awakening our rested bodies. Breakfast, then off onto the trail at approximately 6:30 AM. It did not take us long to make up the ground we had lost the day before, reaching Nevada Falls by 7:30 AM. With its powerful roar audible from far away, Nevada Falls did not disappoint.

Until Half Dome Junction, the trail was cluttered with ambitious day hikers, their sights set on Half Dome’s pinnacle. After Half Dome Junction, however, we did not see a SINGLE PERSON. This solitude was peaceful and enjoyable, making Yosemite our kingdom.

Passing Clouds Rest Junction, we stopped for a well-deserved lunch at Merced Lake Junction. Munching on wild boar sausage and gazing up at the spectacle of Banner Peak, I was content.

The challenge of the day began once we reached 8,450’, as the trail disappeared beneath a thick layer of compacted snow. Utilizing off-trail navigation methods, we were able to steer ourselves by following the bank of Sunrise Creek.

In a word, the climb was LONG. Taking us much longer than anticipated, the climb was filled with Type 2 fun, enjoyment through struggle. Today allowed us to test our snow travel skills for the first time, and I can truly say I gained a lot of confidence in my abilities. Walking on the compacted snow was treacherous but not technically difficult, a reassuring thought.

As we neared camp, glissading and breaking trekking poles along the way, exhaustion began to set in. Upon sight of the Sunrise High Camp outhouse, I dropped to my knees. Never before have I had such excitement about a makeshift restroom.

As I gain sight of the Sunrise High Camp outhouse I drop to my knees.

We set up camp on an elevated rock overlooking a vast snowfield, omitting the rain-fly for view of the beautiful clear sky. We satiated our ravenous hunger with delicious shepherd’s pie, along with some chocolate and tea. After our meal we ventured over to a group of buildings, only to find them buried beneath multiple feet of snow.

Yummy! Shepherd’s pie came to be our favorite trail meal, the buttery mashed potatoes briefly satiating my appetite.

|| Day 3, 6-20-2017: Sunrise High Sierra Camp → Cathedral Pass → Tuolumne Meadows → Lyell Canyon ||

Today was eventful, to say the least. Starting early at Sunrise High Camp, we crunched our way across the icy snowfields approaching Cathedral Pass. Walking along massive snow drifts, I felt more like a polar explorer than a JMT thru-hiker. The vast white expanse took my breath away, metaphorically and literally, as sloshing through miles of snow is hard work.

Crunching our way across icy morning conditions.

As soon as the sun poked its head above the horizon, the temperatures began to skyrocket. Walking on those snowfields was surprisingly sweaty.

The approach to Cathedral Pass was deceivingly long; initially we mistook Columbia Finger for Cathedral Peak. Oh, how wrong we were. Twists and turns around Echo Peak, as well as Cathedral Peak, took longer than anticipated. The large snow drifts and tree wells slowed us down even further. We managed a meager 5 miles in 6 hours!

Standing atop Cathedral Pass, with Cathedral Peak in the background.

Hoping to stop for lunch at D.A.F.F. Dome, we headed down from Cathedral Pass. The descent into Tuolumne Meadows, was no easy task, and set us off schedule for the day.

As afternoon approached, we decided to forgo our excursion to D.A.F.F. Dome, the site of my uncle’s death in 1986. In Dad’s words, “If my brother were here he would ask, ‘Why are you going to D.A.F.F. Dome?!?’” Dad raised his flask in honor of his lost brother, a toast long deserved.

Large snow drifts like these remained in the normally dry Tuolumne Meadows.

As we entered Tuolumne Meadows, the adventure was just starting. The trail was still covered with deep snow drifts, making navigation difficult. The challenge began when we found a creek we couldn’t cross with our boots on (if we wished to stay dry). On went our Crocs, and we were ready to cross. Not wishing to lug my heavy boots while crossing, I decided to throw them across, not a bad idea except for where I threw them. I lofted my first boot high into the air, only to see it bounce off a tree and get swept into the creek.

I leapt after that lost boot with vengeance; I was NOT about to let it slip my grasp. I dove into the creek and grabbed it just in time. VICTORY!, I thought mistakenly. As I left the creek, I began wondering, “Where is my OTHER boot?” When Dad said that BOTH of them had been swept up by the creek, it hit me: I was BOOTLESS! My other boot had tumbled into the creek when I ran after the first one.

A classic look. . .

After a good cry of rage, I began to think strategically again. I immediately messaged Mom that I needed her to overnight ship a new pair of boots, pants, and socks to our upcoming resupply. A text conversation ensued, with many questions asked and few answers given.

As we exited Tuolumne Meadows, we encountered our first humans since Half Dome Junction. We chatted briefly with 3 PCT thru-hikers, and talked the trail.

Behind schedule, we trekked through Lyell Canyon as the “golden hour” began to set in. A peaceful feeling came over me while walking through the canyon. I was in perfect harmony even though I knew I’ll have to trek over two mountain passes and 30 miles of snow in Crocs, crampons, and wool socks. With 3 deer sightings and trail names exchanged (Snapshot for Dad, Bullseye for me), we settled for camp 0.5 miles before our intended target.

Cruising through Lyell Canyon.

Better rest tonight, for tomorrow will certainly be an interesting day. Donohue won’t even know what hit it when the Crocs and crampons roll in!

|| Day 4, 6-21-2017: Lyell Canyon → Donohue Pass → Island Pass → Thousand Island Lakes Area ||

The show goes on! Today was filled with ups and downs, yet will be a memory to cherish.

This morning was a particularly early rise (4 AM) in preparation for Donohue Pass. Watching the sun illuminate the canyon was spectacular, a sight warranting numerous photos.

The morning sun illuminates Lyell Canyon.

As the ascent of Donohue began, I soon realized how uncomfortable Crocs and crampons are.

Fun to look at, not so much to wear.

Ascending the pass was long and treacherous. Large snowfields covering the Lyell Glacier slowed our pace significantly. On our way up to the pass we encountered multiple northbound PCT hikers who shed light on what was to come.

Reaching the top of Donohue Pass provided a spectacular view of Lyell Canyon. We lunched with 3 PCT hikers for an extended break at the top, and soon realized that resting at the top of a pass is a very poor idea. The heat can be stifling!

By following tracks made by previous hikers, we made our way down Donohue Pass. This late in the day the snow was very mushy, and took us a long while to trudge through.

Inching closer and closer to Island Pass, we had a tough decision to make. At this point in the day we were both tired, sore, and hungry. Slushy snow conditions were not ideal for the climb, but not ascending now would make tomorrow’s approach to Red’s Meadow MUCH more difficult. At around 5 PM we decided we would climb Island Pass.

A lightning storm hit us while we were climbing up, dropping hail as well as thunderous cracks of electricity. Climbing through the trees kept us covered, and the storm soon subsided.

Once over the pass, our energy began to plummet. With Thousand Island Lake still frozen over, we made camp atop a flattish rock. I rewarded myself with hot chocolate, well deserved after a day of mountaineering in Crocs and crampons.

|| Day 5, 6-22-2017: Island Pass / Thousand Island Lake → Agnew Meadows → Mammoth Lakes ||

Waking up under the frozen pinnacle of Banner Peak was a spectacular start. The hours spent trudging across deep frozen suncups, however, were not.

Waking up beneath Banner Peak’s frozen pinnacle.

Our start to the day was slow, to say the least. It took us an hour just to reach yesterday’s planned campsite. Thousand Island Lake appeared more like a hockey rink than a lake, its waters turned to ice.

As we moved through the day we made multiple ascents, each taking longer than the last. Up from Ruby Lake, up from Garnet Lake, up from Emerald Lake. Maneuvering this trail is more mountaineering than hiking. Kicking steps, sidestepping, and the use of an ice ax are skills I am using daily.

The frozen beauty of alpine lakes in the High Sierra.

As our day raced by, an idea manifested in my head. Could it be possible to exit for Mammoth Lakes via Agnew Meadow, along the dry PCT, rather than through snow-covered Red’s Meadow? The idea that we could make up lost time was too tempting to turn down.

The drastic changes in trail conditions from Shadow Lake to Agnew Meadow were startling. How could I be self-arresting on a steep snow bank one minute and trekking through summer heat along dry trail moments later?

Enjoying my last miles in Crocs as we hike out to Mammoth Lakes.

The hike out to Agnew Meadow was followed by a lengthy road walk up and out of the meadow. My energy and determination took a nose dive when I realized we would not make the post office before it closed at 4 PM.

I called Simone from Mammoth Taxi, who shuttled us from Minaret Vista Station into town and helped us retrieve our UPS packages safe and sound.

Zappos is a LIFE-SAVER!! New boots, pants, and socks, courtesy of Mom. Thanks Mom!!

|| Day 6, 6-23-2017: Mammoth Lakes → Mammoth Pass → Duck Pass Junction ||

It’s an odd feeling waking up in civilization when you’ve acclimated to the backcountry. The physical toll of Crocs and crampons had finally caught up with me, as my feet were both swollen and sore. Sleeping in until 645 felt like a lazy day, as we have become used to 4 AM wake-ups.

To the post office we went, claiming both our packages. We restocked our food stores and sent back what we did not need.

Christmas in June! We pick up our resupply buckets from the Mammoth Lakes Post Office.

Hiking in boots again was MARVELOUS. Simone, from Mammoth Taxi, shuttled us up to the gate before Horseshoe Lake, as we prepared to re-enter the backcountry via Mammoth Pass.

Making our way back to the trail via Mammoth Pass.

Mammoth Pass was a long slog, taking much longer than anticipated and negating any hopes of making up ground. We went bush whacking for a bit, which accounted for a good chunk of the delay. I learned that sometimes “shortcuts” aren’t so short.

As the sun began to dip below the high ridge line of the Sierra, we decided to make camp near Duck Pass Junction. We came to the realization that just being on schedule, in these conditions, is equivalent to being ahead.

Atop a rock, gazing out into the beautiful valley, Dad and I ate and chatted, enjoying some rare time not moving.

Dinner with a view. . .

|| Day 7, 6-24-2017: Duck Pass Junction → Purple Lake → Lake Virginia → before Silver Pass ||

The best way to describe the day was up-and-down, in BOTH the literal and figurative sense.

After leaving camp and reaching Duck Pass Junction, Dad realized he had left HIS Crocs back at camp. A bit upset, I hoofed it there and back in just under 30 minutes.

After that “down” we began “up,” climbing from Duck Pass Junction to Purple Lake. The ascents killed our pace. While downhills were dry, uphills were covered in snow.

Crunchy steps on our way up from Duck Pass Junction.

Down we went to Purple Lake, then quickly back up to Lake Virginia. Unfortunately, the snow didn’t let up. Trudging around Lake Virginia through suncups took us quite a while. Coming out of Mammoth, we thought we could make Lake Virginia the day before. Now, a day later, we lunched near its banks.

The frozen, icy water of Lake Virginia.

Our lunch break was more like a “siesta.” We rested our feet and dried our socks, as an afternoon storm began to rear its ugly head. The storm was rolling in at the WRONG time for us, putting a wrinkle in our plans of overtaking Silver Pass in the afternoon. As we scurried down dry switchbacks to Tully Hole, we began to follow a very odd portion of the trail. For nearly a mile the trail seemed to tease along a raging creek. I had an uneasy feeling that we might have to ford this imposing creek, but the sight of a footbridge calmed my fears.

The 2000’ climb up to Silver Pass began VERY late in the day. With Mom messaging us about the alternative of Goodale Pass, we began climbing. At the time, the majority of PCT hikers had been coming up through Goodale Pass, instead of Silver Pass, primarily because of a harrowing crossing of the North Fork of the Mono River.

While long, the climb was NOT particularly difficult. Our low and slow approach seemed to leave us tired, but not winded.

As I break for a selfie, Dad ascends  Silver Pass.

The higher we climbed the more spectacular it got. The overcast storm clouds kept the snow nice and firm, making for good climbing. Coming across multiple PCT hikers the consensus was the same: Silver Pass is FINE, just look out for the creek crossing. This message was difficult to relay to Mom, who had been receiving conflicting messages from Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) staff.

A beautiful golden haze as we sit atop Silver Pass.

Nearing the top, we made a decision: Silver Pass it would be. But as we neared the top the air cooled, the storm strengthened, and our energy tanked. High up in the alpine environment, we decided to make snow camp. Snow camp was cold, so we attempted to perform all of our necessary tasks from within the comfortable environment of our sleeping bags.

A chilly night near Silver Pass.

|| Day 8, 6-25-2017: short of Silver Pass → Silver Pass → VVR → Florence Lake ||

Today began cold and windy. I awoke intermittently due to unexplained deflation of my sleeping pad, which resulted in a cold butt.

Watching the sun illuminate the high alpine environment gave me a sense of exploration and adventure. We quickly packed up camp and proceeded to make up ground left undone yesterday. For all of the warnings we’d heard about Silver Pass, it seemed like a stroll rather than a treacherous ascent.

Making our way across icy snowfields after Silver Pass.

With a deadline (9:45 AM) to catch the morning VVR ferry, we scurried across snowfields following the pass. Hoping to save time and avoid river crossings, I decided to take us off-trail on a more direct route through and down some rocks.

Down, down, down we went until we came face-to-face with the infamous North Fork of the Mono River crossing. With a waterfall crashing down on the trail and steep rapids beneath, we felt the crossing unsafe. This decision, while proper, lost us quite a bit of time, as we had to scramble down a rock face to reach a more passable spot in the meadow.

The North Fork of the Mono bears down on the trail with powerful vengeance.

When we finally hit dry trail the clock began ticking. . . FAST. As Mom called VVR to get information on the ferry’s status, we raced our way to the shores of Lake Edison. Our pace was not fast enough to compensate for our difficult creek crossing.

Well. . . that’s one way of doing it.

As we passed the Lake Edison Junction, I decided to run ahead and hold the ferry for Dad. Tired and winded, I made it in time for a ferry full of 2 PCT hikers, annoyed by the delay we were causing.

Stalling the ferry until their patience ran out, I was forced to go back, yelling “Steve!” at the top of my lungs. I eventually found him waiting a ways back, stopped because he feared the distance we had calculated to the ferry landing was wrong.

As we made our way back to the dock, I called VVR, and a staff member quickly picked up the phone.

“Another ferry is on its way,” she said. This startled me, as I was expecting a traditional, “This is Vermillion Valley Resort, my name is. . . how can we help you.”

“Oh. . . awesome,” I said.

“You are Chaneles, right?” she responded.

“Wait, how did YOU know that,” I replied.

“I’ve been talking with your mom for the past half hour. We’ll see you soon.”

Thirty minutes later the ferry showed up again, shuttling us across Lake Thomas Edison.

The VVR ferry waits for us on the shores of Lake Edison.

Entering the resort, we stepped into a unique hiker culture. With leftover food, fuel, and supplies for the taking, everything was shared, from beer to trail information to laughs. We picked up our buckets and ate with fellow hikers.

Resupplies have a weird feeling: hitting the trail again is like ripping off a band-aid. With such friendly and free spirits around it is easy to lose your sense of time.

We restock our food supplies.

After significant deliberation, we decided to forgo Bear Creek and to skip ahead to Florence Lake. This decision would mitigate risk and save time. This early in the season, Bear Creek was a notoriously difficult crossing, taking hikers as long as 5 hours to safely navigate. At the time, the majority of PCT hikers coming through the region had been bypassing it, choosing to hike through Florence Lake instead.

|| Day 9, 6-26-2017: Florence Lake → Muir Trail Ranch → Goddard Canyon Trail Junction ||

Starting the day at Florence Lake, we soon realized how monstrously heavy 8 days of food can be! We had been spoiled by the light load between Mammoth and VVR, so this was a harsh dose of reality.

We cruised around Florence Lake until we encountered our first crossing of the day. With the creek raging, we managed to cross on a group of logs.

Morning haze rises over Florence Lake.

Again we hit a roadblock, as we approached a raging river with seemingly no bridge. A bit upstream a glimmer of hope presented itself. . . a bridge. I LOVE BRIDGES!

With extra time gained from our ride to Florence Lake, we were able to take a nice long lunch break today, resting our tired bodies in the shade of a large tree. This change of pace was a needed break from the constant hurry before.

Slowing it down for a few minutes.

After lunch we rejoined the trail and entered Kings Canyon National Park. With towering rocky peaks and raging water, the grandeur of the park thus far has been spectacular.

That way. . .

Hiking into Aspen Meadow, we came face-to-face with a young female deer. Needless to say, Dad took 1,000 photos.

Our hiccup of the day came when we went to charge the Garmin inReach and realized the external battery had already dropped to 60% capacity because of the cold, NOT a good sign. We will need to closely monitor the power until we make it to Independence.

|| Day 10, 6-27-2017: Goddard Canyon Junction → Evolution Creek → Sapphire Lake ||

Waking up felt like opening an ice box and jumping in. The temperature had plummeted overnight, and I had been dressed for the warm night before.

Getting out of bed was especially difficult. It took me one cancelled alarm and 30 extra minutes to rip off the sleepiness!

We immediately began heading straight uphill to Evolution Valley, a climb that brought back some warmth to our frozen bodies. As we climbed above Goddard Canyon, spectacular views were our reward.

Our reward for a tiring climb up to Evolution Valley.

Once above the valley, the anticipation of the infamous wade across Evolution Meadow hit us. We came upon the normal creek crossing, only to find a raging current with a ferocious waterfall beneath. Even a sign near the trail discouraged people from crossing there.

Some good advice. . .

We bush whacked our way up to Evolution Meadow. Finding a stretch of the creek that was navigable, we began stripping down to nothing but Crocs and boxers. My first step in the water was followed by a “Damn! That is cold.” Inching closer I submerged myself and began to ford. At the deepest point the water nearly reached the top of my diaphragm. The current and coldness were sufficient to make me wobble.

Reaching the other side (for the 1st time), nearly every body part was numb. After warming myself for a few minutes, I ventured back across to help Dad. Hands on each others shoulders, we forded in tandem, leaning on one another for support. After my 3rd crossing, I’d had my fill: I was ready to get warm and dry again.

We made quick pace through the dry Evolution Valley, putting in some miles while we gradually climbed up to Evolution Lake.

Snow crowned peaks loom large over McClure Meadow.

After lunch we ascended nearly 1000’ straight uphill. Reaching Evolution Lake, we met back up with an old friend: snow. We quickly reached our 2nd ford of the day, this one across the Evolution Lake outlet and not nearly as demanding as Evolution Creek.

After the ford, we began a seemingly endless march through snow fields leading to Muir Pass. With rhythmic pace, we stomped our way along tracks PCT hikers had cut through massive suncups, a deed we were very grateful for.

Marching our way towards Muir Pass.

As our “gas tanks” neared empty, we found a spot for camp with a spectacular view of Sapphire Lake. We were at ease as we drank hot chocolate and reminisced about the day.

Sunset over Sapphire Lake.

|| Day 11, 6-28-2017: Sapphire Lake → Muir Pass → Grouse Meadow ||

Waking up to the cold, high alpine environment of Sapphire Lake, we set off on crusty snow tracks, crampons strapped on. With near endless snowfields stretching for miles, Muir Pass was more like a long walk than a climb.

We reached Muir Hut around 10 AM. It was more a collection of stones than a true building, yet very interesting to see in such a remote location.

Quick pic with Muir Hut.

Descending from our high perch, we encountered large fields of downed trees that had been decimated by avalanches, a testament to the destructive power nature can have. After lunch we finally met snow-free trail again, ecstatic to be out of slow-going conditions.

Before descending, I had taken a look at the map and noticed a ranger station on our way through the LeConte Canyon. My camera dead and our power bank low, I was hopeful we could recharge our electronics there.

The thought of electricity on my mind, we reached Bishop Pass Junction, the LeConte Ranger Station nearby. With hopes high, I raced to the log cabin, banging on doors and yelling for an answer. Nothing. After waiting for nearly 30 minutes, my heart sank. To be in this amazing country without the ability to photograph was crushing.

Sometimes life throws you a bone. I caught it. About a mile down trail from the ranger station we met the ranger, whose name was also Sam. After asking the unusual question of,  “Can I charge my camera with your power?” he said sure. I began following him back to the ranger station while Dad waited for me to return.

Around halfway back to the ranger station, Sam (not me) offered to plug in the devices so I could go make camp, and return in an hour or two when they were charged.

I shoveled down my dinner, preoccupied with the miracle that had just occurred. I couldn’t wait to pick up my fully-charged camera and begin documenting the marvelous scenery again.

I raced back to the ranger station to retrieve my rejuvenated devices. When I arrived, Sam was rocking on the porch. Checking the status of my camera, I was appalled to find that it had not charged at all! What had gone wrong? Tinkering around for a minute or two, I noticed I had put the battery in the camera incorrectly. Oops.

I plugged it back in and waited outside while it charged. After a billion mosquito bites, it was ready to go, and I left the station, happy.

|| Day 12, 6-29-2017: Grouse Meadow → Golden Staircase → <Mather Pass ||

We woke later than normal today (5AM), planning short-mileage on the approach to Mather Pass. Dry trail ahead of us, we cruised through our morning miles, reaching the steep ascent of the Golden Staircase earlier than expected.

Cruising along dry trail up to the Golden Staircase.

With countless switchbacks, the Golden Staircase is a test of a southbound (SoBo) JMTer’s physical and mental fitness. Watching northbound (NoBo) PCTers zip down the slopes, we trudged slowly uphill.

Switchbacks up the Golden Staircase.

Reaching the top by 12:45, we took an extended lunch break in the refuge of some shade. Little did we know that a family of marmots would pose for us while we ate!

Hey there!

After lunch we thought our approach to Mather Pass would be quick. Oh, how wrong we were! Trudging through fields of deep, slushy suncups was exhausting and treacherous.

Making our way around the Palisade Lakes.

With the pass in sight and our energy stores dwindling, we saw a possible campsite. I ventured over to take a look, and was ecstatic to find the rock a suitable spot.

|| Day 13, 6-30-2017: <Mather Pass → Mather Pass → Lake Marjorie ||

Today we rose before sunrise to take advantage of the icy crust. Even though we camped less than ¾ of a mile from the top of Mather Pass, it took us 1.5 hours to climb its steep slopes.

Now above 12,000’, we had an incredible view of the Upper Basin. We stopped briefly on top as NoBo PCT hikers made their way up, and prepared for our steep descent.

We break on top of Mather Pass, as NoBo PCT hikers make their way up.

Mather Pass’s southern face slopes steeply down towards a lake. Rocks and other debris make it an imposing challenge. I made my way down swiftly and carefully, but my Dad was nervous, taking cautious steps to avoid hazard.

When we reached the Upper Basin, tracks disappeared, as hikers were taking a variety of routes to cross the treacherous South Fork of the Kings River. As the river started to grow in ferocity, we chose to stay above its banks to avoid a difficult crossing. As usual, this off-trail travel was both time and energy intensive.

Just after noon, we were able to cross the South Fork and stopped for lunch soon after.

The afternoon was an entirely different experience. Our lunch break brought on a strange bout of dizziness for my Dad. This, coupled with rapid ascent and slushy snow, slowed us significantly.

As we passed Lake Marjorie our energy ran out, so we decided to make camp. Atop a rock and overlooking frozen lakes, we dried our socks and rested.

After a long day I enjoy some down time near Lake Marjorie.

|| Day 14, 7-1-2017: Lake Marjorie → Pinchot Pass → Rae Lakes ||

We began early as usual, traveling across crusty snow to the top of Pinchot Pass. The pass was very simple, with a few sections of ascent mixed with rock scramble.

Dad makes his way down Pinchot Pass.

We were cruising on well-tracked terrain until, to our dismay, the tracks stopped abruptly. We proceeded to stumble our way across suncups, kicking and screaming as we lost our balance.

Joy returned when we found snow-free trail ahead, right around Sawmill Pass Junction. We were glad, as we had a big mileage day planned which would have been impossible without the ease of dry trail.

The day turned difficult as we approached White Fork, a notoriously challenging ford this early in the season. With no good alternatives up or downstream, hikers are forced to cross at the trail crossing, which is a raging collection of swift water.

I initially dipped my feet in the water to test the strength of the current and was unpleasantly surprised to find the pull stronger than anticipated.

Up to my knees, the current, for the 8 or so paces of the crossing, was manageable. I realized I would have to go back across to assist Dad.

Going back across without my pack was more challenging; halfway through my 2nd ford one of my Crocs slipped off. As it floated out of my reach, I found it funny that I had lost one boot and now one Croc. Fitting, I thought.

Crossing for the 3rd time, I faced a mixture of challenges. With only one Croc, the bottom of the creek was more challenging to traverse, but this time I would have the help of Dad to lean on, which I needed for a step or two.

As we descended to Woods Creek, we approached a suspension bridge. The bridge swaying under my weight, I couldn’t help but be excited.

Woods Creek suspension bridge.

Lunch today was so relaxing and made getting back onto the trail feel like ripping off a Band-Aid. Our “siesta” came at the lowest elevation point for the day (8,550′), which left the climb up to Rae Lakes (10,500’) for the afternoon.

We slowly climbed until we hit our next roadblock: Baxter Creek. We went into fording mode: off went the boots, on went the single Croc. A longer crossing than White Fork, Baxter was tricky in certain spots. I went back across to help Dad again, and this time he admittedly needed it. I was ecstatic when he rewarded me with some of his leftover snacks!

We continued to climb, hitting patchy snow as we traversed Dollar Lake. The fording continued. We had to work around Arrowhead Lake to the inlet, as the normal crossing at the outlet was extremely deep.

We make our way across a patch of snow near Dollar Lake.

After 13 miles and our third ford of the day, we were running near empty, but we weren’t close to being done. Exhaustion shifting his mood, Dad began to give me dirty looks as we slogged around Rae Lakes.

Rae Lakes were stunning, with Fin Dome towering above. As we hugged the shoreline, we prepared for our 4th and final ford of the day, across the Sixty Lakes Outlet.

The icy beauty of Rae Lakes.

Not wanting to ford in the morning chill, we were forced to ford the Sixty Lakes Outlet in our exhausted state. Comparable to the wade across Evolution Meadow, my feet and balls went numb halfway through my first ford. Again I went back across the chilly water to shuttle Dad’s pack across. I required a few moments to rewarm myself between crossings, but made it safe and sound.

Brrrr. . .

Chilled from the arctic water, hot chocolate never tasted so good.

|| Day 15, 7-2-2017: Rae Lakes → Glen Pass → Kearsarge Pass → Mt. Williamson Motel ||

We hit the trail as soon as first light illuminated the way up Glen Pass. A long ascent, it was my favorite, an interesting mix of all the passes thus far.

A mix of snow travel and rock scramble, Glen Pass was my favorite.

Descending Glen Pass required careful precision and slowed our pace, yet we cruised down to Kearsarge Pass Junction along snow-free trail.

Glen Pass had sucked the energy out of us. Our climb up to Kearsarge Pass was slow, even though there were patches of dry trail. As we lunched on top, the view was stunning. To the east we could see Independence, to the west Bullfrog Lake.

Touching the top of Kearsarge Pass.

Lunch was brief, as we couldn’t wait to shower and taste real food again. The climb down the pass seemed endless, but coming down from Big Pothole Lake to Heart Lake I finally got an opportunity to glissade.

After what felt an eternity, we were walking up to Strider’s black Toyota 4Runner, with her dog Indy coming to greet us. Chris Chater, a.k.a. “Strider”, is the owner of the Mt. Williamson Motel and Base Camp in Independence, CA. Her hospitality made us feel welcome, and she proclaimed us “her heroes,” since we were the first SoBo JMTers she had seen.

Independence lay well below the high alpine environment we were used to. The high desert and 100+ degree heat dried our boots quickly.

We exit the John Muir Wilderness on our way down to Independence.

The Mt. Williamson Motel is as welcoming as it is charming. We peeled off our dirty clothes and washed ourselves, but no matter how extensively we rinsed, the stink still trailed us.

Strider was extremely generous and lent us her car to drive down to Lone Pine for some food, as the culinary options in Independence are limited to burgers, a taco truck, and a mini-mart.

By car it only took us 15 minutes to get to where we would be hiking out in 5 days. We met Brandi and Dreo, friends of mine from Georgia Tech, at the Lone Pine Smokehouse. As we shoveled meat into our mouths, we shared info with them, as they would be hitting the trail NoBo the next morning.

|| Day 16, 7-3-2017: Mt. Williamson Motel → Kearsarge Pass → Vidette Meadow ||

Waking after a hard night’s sleep,  I couldn’t quite tell if I felt refreshed or more tired. As we sat down for breakfast I was handed a meager portion of bacon and eggs. Funny I thought, I will need about 4 more of those. And 4 more I got, and I shoveled them down into a bottomless pit. Hiker hunger had definitely set in!

At 8 AM, Strider drove us back to Onion Valley, leaving us with 5 miles and 3000’ vertical feet to climb back up to Kearsarge Pass. After feeling the luxury of comfort, however briefly, this climb would be brutal.

Photo with Strider before we head back in.

Step-by-step, we made our way back up the pass in just over 4 hours. Again we lunched on top, chatting with PCT hikers.

The rest of the day was manageable and filled with descent. We were glad when we could see good stretches of snow-free trail down to Vidette Meadow, as well as further ahead. . . we hope!

On to Forester Pass we go. . .

|| Day 17, 7-4-2017: Vidette Meadow → Forester Pass → <Tyndall Creek ||

The day began with a climb which lasted for much of the day. While we had initially planned to cover 6 miles and camp before Forester Pass, the dry trail allowed us to get ahead of schedule.

The climb to 13,200’ was long, hard, and taxing on both our bodies and our minds, as we had camped the night before at around 9,500′. Around 11,000’ we hit snow again, which persisted until the top of the pass. After already eating all my snacks for the day, my blood sugar began to tank. As we passed a lake at 12,250’, we decided to call it lunchtime. I could immediately feel my body relax as food hit my bloodstream.

Our first sight of Forester Pass!

The air became thinner and thinner as we climbed. Instead of bounding up the mountain, I was forced to stop for breaths every 10-15 steps.

Reaching the top of the pass was liberating. Not only did we enter a new national park, but I had a feeling of accomplishment in making it this far.

As we descended, we entered an entirely new landscape: open, tree-less, and snow-free!

Our July 4 camp. Happy Independence Day!

|| Day 18, 7-5-2017: <Tyndall Creek → Crabtree Ranger Station ||

Today we took a relaxed approach. Waking up at 5 AM felt like sleeping in for us, as every other morning had been a 4 AM wake-up. We were slow out of camp, but we didn’t care. We only had 10 miles to cover and they were snow-free, a joy to hear.

Cruising through Sequoia National Park was different from anything we had experienced so far, wide-open and expansive .

Wide-open country, like the Bighorn Plateau, was incredible after Forester Pass.

Crossing the Bighorn Plateau, we got our first clear view of trail’s end: Mt. Whitney. It was odd finally seeing the ghost of a peak we had been chasing for 200 miles!

While the trail was snow-free, that DIDN’T mean it was dry. Our first creek crossing of the day came with Tyndall, followed by Wright, and finally by Wallace.

We met up with Brandi and Dreo at Crabtree Ranger Station, and made camp just below by Whitney Creek. We shared trail knowledge briefly, but were interrupted by a mixture of hunger and hail falling from a thunderous storm. Hopefully the weather lightens as we approach the end tomorrow!

|| Day 19, 7-6-2017: Crabtree Meadow → Whitney Summit ||

We weathered the storm, through hail and rain, to awake after nearly 12 hours of sleep which STILL did not feel like enough. After a picture with Brandi and Dreo, we parted ways with our NoBO friends, heading towards our final milestone: 14,508’ Mt. Whitney.

Go Jackets! Brandi, Dreo, and I pose with the GT flag.

We slowly climbed to Timberline Lake, then Guitar Lake, not wanting our final miles to fly by.

Timberline Lake

Once we reached Guitar Lake, I realized the need to utilize my WAG-Bag, so now I can say that I have carried my own shit for at least a day.

Once past Guitar Lake, switchbacks begin and don’t end until the Mt. Whitney trail junction at around 13,400’. As the air became thinner, our feet moved slower.

We had hoped to lunch on Whitney’s summit, but at 12 PM with a ravenous appetite, we decided to make a pit stop to level our blood sugar. While we ate, Dad recounted some thoughts about his late brother, Allan, and we marveled at how close to trail’s end we were.

It’s soooo close. . .

As we set off on our final 1.9 mile stretch, we feared a storm was brewing, so we prepared to weather it (turns out it was smoke from a large fire nearby). As we got closer and closer to the summit, the feeling of the end set in. Seeing the “ghost” we have been chasing for 220 miles was refreshing and rewarding.

Looking towards Whitney’s summit.

As we set foot atop the continental United States’ highest point, I let out a yell of joy. WE MADE IT!! Through all the doubt, fear, snow, water, and pain, we did it. What an incredible adventure it has been! John Muir’s footsteps are truly remarkable.

Victory!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. julie mason says:

    Thanks really enjoyed reading this, we usually do a 60 mile section each year, too much water this year we will start again next year.

    Like

  2. Matt Swider says:

    Wow, surprised there are not more comments here after the exposure you received on Skurka’s website. Anyway, thanks for the great documentation of your trip. I have only skimmed this a bit, looking forward to reading it in detail in the next few days. I am hitting the trail in a bit less than one month, hoping much of the snow and water you endured is gone by then, as well as most of the mosquitos. Cheers to you for completing this dream trip in less than perfect conditions.

    Matt

    Like

  3. Rich says:

    Hi Sam
    Enjoyed reading your adventure,apiece of time captured with your father you will never forget.
    Rich(United Kingdom)

    Like

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