May 28 -- Truckee, CA
Andy here. It's been about three weeks since I have even seen a
computer and I figured I would jump on this opportunity to catch up on how
the trip has been going. The last two weeks have been amazing -- though
tiresome -- and I think the High Sierra section in particular deserves a
first-hand report. I have tried to keep this entry as brief and tight as
possible while also wanting to do justice to these 400 miles.
High Sierra: Kennedy Meadows to Tuolumne Meadows
It occurred to me a few times before this section, though never so clearly
as in this section, that I am on "a trip of a lifetime" that itself consists
of many "mini trips of a lifetime," with the Bill Williams River and the
Joshua Tree National Park stretches probably being the two most notable
others so far. Time will tell, but I think other sections of the Great
Western Loop will struggle to beat out this most recent "mini trip" for
In this section the Pacific Crest Trail travels through the High Sierra,
regarded by many as the most spectacular backcountry area in the Lower 48
due to its towering 14,000-foot peaks, abundant alpine lakes and meadows,
glaciated granite canyons, and snowmelt-filled creeks. This is some
beautiful country! And at 240 road-less miles, this is also the longest
uninterrupted thread of wilderness among the nation's long-distance trails,
thanks to a near-seamless corridor of national parks (Sequoia & Kings
Canyon, Yosemite, and Devils Postpile National Monument) and wilderness
areas (Southern Sierra, John Muir, and Ansel Adams).
In an average year, heading into the High Sierra in mid-May would inevitably
result in massive difficulties, like following the 100% snow-covered trail,
fording the bridge-less raging creeks, and reaching the high and steep
snowbound passes. I was fortunate in that this winter was exceptionally dry
-- about half the average precipitation -- which made the challenge slightly
less challenging, though certainly still a heck of one. (If it had been a
normal year, I just would have had to deal with it.)
The PCT, which shares the same trail corridor as the John Muir Trail for
much of this stretch, is a "pass and valley" trail -- it climbs up a valley
to a pass (basically, a low point on a ridge or crest line), descends down a
valley to a major ford, and then back up the next valley to the next pass.
The passes (8 total, if I recall correctly) range in elevation from 10,900
feet to 13,200 feet; the valley bottoms are between 7,800 feet and 9,000
feet -- cumulatively amounting to a little bit of climbing. On the
approaches, the snow usually became patchy starting at 9,000 feet and by
9,750 it was solid; descending the north-facing slopes the snow would begin
to break up around 9,000 and usually be snow-free by 8,000 feet. In
essence, every pass was surrounded by 5 to 10 miles of snow.
Snow is not necessarily a problem -- sometimes, like in the morning after
cold nighttime temperatures have made the surface rock-hard, walking on snow
can be easier than walking on a trail; but other times, like in the
afternoon after the sun has softened the surface, the snow can cause
nightmare-ish conditions in which every step is greeted with "post holing"
1-3 feet down through the snow. Both of these conditions happened everyday,
making it critical that I utilize the morning hours as best as I could and
that I prep myself mentally for afternoon slog sessions. It's no
coincidence that the two most Wahoo!-inspiring moments were while standing
atop passes (Pinchot and Muir) at 7AM, while the two most difficult times
were while post-holing up and down two other passes (Mather and Donahue) in
Even in a light year, the conditions found in late-May are still too much
for most folks, so I essentially had the High Sierra to myself for a week.
I went 5.5 days and 200 miles without seeing another human being, and at
least one-half of the passes and at least one-third of the trail miles
showed no signs of human use (e.g. tread marks or ski tracks). In the most
populated state in the country, in its most heavily used backcountry area
and on one of its most heavily used trails, this is an exceptional
experience. Perhaps equally amazing to some is that upon returning to
civilization I discovered that there was really not an email, text message,
or news headline that could not have waited a few more days for me to see.
Tuolumne Meadows to Truckee
North of Tuolumne, the trail never regains the high elevations found further
south -- in fact, after Bond Pass in Desolation Wilderness the trail never
again climbs above 9,000 feet. Nowadays, more often the trail meanders
among massive firs (mostly red, white, and silver), lodgepole pines, and
Western junipers, the latter two of which can often be found living tortured
existences on wind-blasted slopes near treeline.
For the first 1.5 days of this section, the trail showcased the iconic
granite domes and slabs of Yosemite National Park. Then, about 10 miles
south of Sonora Pass/Hwy 108, the geology beings to change radically: the
remnants of ancient lava flows begin to fight for dominance with the giant
pluton that extends almost from the Mexican border; sometimes the same
ridgeline will feature both granite- and lava-based slopes. These basaltic
slopes are more prone to erosion, resulting in smoother mountainsides and
less robust vegetation (e.g. some slopes are so loose that sagebrush can
barely take root).
Snow continues to hinder my progress, perhaps even more than in the High
Sierra. The snowline has dipped as low as 7,000 feet, with snow essentially
assured in shaded areas, on north-facing slopes, and in gullies/ravines.
The inconsistent snow distribution is extremely tiresome -- I am endlessly
climbing up onto and then sliding off of snow patches, kicking steps into
steeply angled snowfields across gullies, and trying to navigate through
feature-less forests after losing the trail and being unable to find any
"clues" (e.g. an obvious trail corridor, cut blow downs, notched trees,
signs, etc.). And while I am no longer post-holing, "sun cups" (as deep as
18") now test my balance and core strength. Because the PCT was not
designed for winter/spring use, the actual trail is often not the safest,
easiest, or fastest route, so some days I bet that at least one-third of my
travel has been off-trail -- that's 12 miles in a 36-mile day! I have come
to see the trail more as a "means" of travel -- it's just one way to get
there -- and the destination points have taken on far more importance. This
has not been a section for cruise control or auto-pilot; I have needed to be
fully engaged in where I am and where I am going.
The last two weeks have undoubtedly worn on me, both physically and
mentally, and recently I have found myself frequently dragging -- my legs
lack the spunk and my mind lacks the edge that they normally have.
Thankfully, I have been given a nice boost by visits from friends and
family. Last Monday my friend Amy drove from near Modesto to join me for a
6-mile segment along the Tuolumne River and a night at Glen Aulin Camp --
the first time anyone had hiked or camped with me since I started 7 weeks
ago. Then, on Saturday I was joined by Truckee resident Scott Williamson,
famous for his PCT Yo-Yo achievements, for the 60-mile stretch from Echo
Lake to Donner Pass. Just before reaching Highway 40 Scott and I were
greeted by another stud hiker and Truckee local, Justin Lichter (who last
November finished a 10,000-mile hike), as well as my older sister, Kerri,
and brother-in-law, Ryan, who drove out from Palo Alto. It has been great
to see them all -- their timing was excellent -- and I have greatly
appreciated what they brought me, definitely all the food (enchiladas,
carrot cake, chocolate chip cookies and brownies, a
made-to-my-specifications Chipotle burrito, organic fruits and vegetables,
and more!) but, more than that, their company.
By the end of this week I will pull into Old Station, CA, at the southern
edge of the Cascades. More from there...