BackpackingLight sponsored a father/daughter team on their PCT thru-hike in the summer of 2011. To get the full skinny on what a dynamic duo they are, read their first installment of adventure, Eleven Years Old on the PCT, then their second, We're Going to Disneyland!
We're Not in the Desert Any More
The snowy Sierra.
You may remember from our last article that we had just completed the first 700 miles of the PCT in the Mojave Desert. Everything about our experience in the Sierra Mountains was so different that you may find yourself checking our names from our last article to verify that this is the same story. The desert was such easy walking and even had ideal sunny-yet-cool weather conditions. We often found ourselves ahead of schedule and had extra time and energy each day to enjoy other forms of recreation in town or camp. You are about to hear a very kind of different tale from the mighty and wild Sierra Mountains.
I hiked the entire Sierra in 2010. Many were referring to that season as one of the highest snow years ever in the Sierra along the PCT. Everyone was telling us that no thru-hiker had ever seen more difficult trail conditions. I remember struggling through snow and high water 5 to 6 miles either side of the high passes. Once through the difficulties, I was able to enjoy the serenity these mountains offered. I had never before seen such rare and vast beauty! I was amazed by the 14,000-foot peaks, the endless alpine lakes, and the exotic trees. I told everyone later that the Sierra was the best but most difficult part of my hike. I looked forward to returning this year to share it with Sunshine. Stories of high snow were already swirling around Kick Off, and I remember telling Sunshine not to worry because I had heard it all before. I referred to it as “fear mongering.” Shortly after leaving Kennedy Meadows, we began running into snow in unbelievably low elevations. I tried referencing the previous year’s conditions so I had a comparison. When I realized that we were seeing snow 50 miles sooner and 2,000 feet in elevation lower, I knew this would not be easy. Please keep in mind as you read these accounts that Sunshine was never placed in any danger that we could not control. Nor did we take any undue risks with her safety. I have been mountaineering and long distance hiking for many years and am competent in all these skills. After hiking the Sierra last year, I knew that with some care and attention to detail, I could safely guide my daughter through. Also, even though I mention great hardship, we had a blast the entire time.
Hunkering down after a snow storm.
We had already been on the trail for six weeks and had our food consumption per day dialed in really well. We had been walking 27-plus-mile days in the desert, but knew that we couldn’t expect that here. On our first real difficult section in the snow, we planned for four days of hiking approximately 17 miles a day, then added a day of extra food. We’re good right? Nope! It took six days, and our appetites almost doubled! I knew that Sunshine was in a critical growth spurt and would not deny her calories, so I began rationing my food portions. I let her eat her fill at every meal, and I would eat whatever was left over. Other hikers saw our situation and wanted to help, but frankly, they were all experiencing the same problem. There was a ranch three miles off trail that we had sent a package to, but we had been told more recently that they weren’t open yet due to snow, so we didn’t figure them into our food planning. However, at the end of day four and watching our food quickly dwindling, it was worth the risk of adding miles for the chance of more sustenance.
The ranch was not open yet, but a few employees were there preparing the facilities for the following week. More importantly, our resupply package was there! We walked half a mile away before stopping to rip into a bag of Cheetos and devour several energy bars. We then camped two miles further down trail and ate a lavish double meal. Some how, we had sent ourselves so much food that we were able to share an extra meal with our friend Pellet, who was also running low. Once we arrived to Vermillion Valley Resort we took a well deserved day off, which consisted mostly of stuffing our bellies. Now we had a new problem which followed us all the way to Canada: over packing food! We were not going to run low again, no matter the cost in pack weight. We added a fourth meal of the day... second lunch. Despite my best efforts to keep my weight up, I lost almost 20 pounds in central California. Sunshine, however, gained 4 pounds there.
Sunset in the Sierra Mountains.
Snow and Ice
We later learned that the Sierra had 300% the snow pack of an average year. What’s this mean? Well to us it meant almost 500 miles of continuous snow. We saw very little snow-free trail in the Sierra, and what wasn’t covered in snow became a raging river from the melt. Our bodies were confused because the ambient temperatures were in the 90s, but we were in snow all day and freezing water up to my chest several times a day. It was like the top half of your body was in summer, but the lower half was in the dead of winter in Antarctica.
Example of what we saw every day.
The snow seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. No matter how hard we tried or how long we walked, we just couldn’t put in the miles we needed to stay on schedule. Remember, Sunshine was to start middle school in September. A 14-mile day became something to be proud of, and we often hung our heads in defeat after 10 to 12 miles. We began bringing absurd amounts of food instead of projecting progress. We didn’t set daily milage goals any more because it was too demoralizing to constantly fail. Instead, we chose to take each day one at a time and stopped hiking ridiculous hours. We pushed our goal to reach Canada to the backs of our minds and focused only on getting out of the snow and water. When we were above the tree line, we had to contend with sun cups. Sun cups are small depressions in the snow caused by uneven melting. They looked like an endless sea of footprints, but were too small for our feet to fit into, so our hips, ankles, and knees twisted and turned every which way with every exhausting step. Inside the forest, we had to climb steep irregular snow drifts up to 8 feet tall. These drifts were frozen solid, so we did a lot of slipping and sliding, expending outrageous amounts of energy. We did wear Yaktrax for traction, but will switch to MICROSpikes in the future. I believe the dependability will be worth the extra 6 ounces. The Yaktrax would slip off our shoes and break far too often.
Sunshine climbing Mather Pass.
Sunshine absolutely loved her 6-ounce carbon fiber ULA Ice Axe. I found having an ice axe blade on my trekking pole handle with the Black Diamond Whippet compensated for my clumsiness. We used these tools very often. We had both obtained Mt. Whitney climbing permits, since it was only eight miles off the PCT. However, Mt. Whitney was early in our snowy section, so Sunshine had very little self-arresting experience, and she was reluctant to trust her axe earlier that day on an icy descent. I knew she wasn’t ready for Whitney and told our small group that we wouldn’t make the climb. After realizing how much snow we had ahead of us, I wasn’t too excited to climb the tallest mountain in the Lower 48 any way.
Free Range announced at base camp that she wouldn’t be climbing the mountain either. This left only Goose from Missouri, who really wanted to do it. I knew that if I didn’t climb, Goose would miss his chance as well. I didn’t feel comfortable making that decision for him, so Free Range volunteered to watch Sunshine at camp while we climbed. It was a perfect sunny day and the mountain was still buried in snow, so we ice climbed and kicked in steps all the way to the summit. This is where No Knees was given his name the day before, after falling and sliding on his belly (and knees) several hundred feet, grinding all the skin off both knees before self-arresting.
The snow became so vast and endless that we really couldn’t enjoy the spectacular views. I remembered amazing places from the year before that I wanted to share with my daughter, only to realize five miles after passing it that I hadn’t recognized a major landmark because it was buried under snow. Navigation became so tricky that much of my view in the Sierra was that of my hand holding the GPS receiver. Many times, if I looked away for more than a few minutes we would spend great amounts of energy getting back on track (usually climbing uphill). Actually we were very blessed to have the GPS. I didn’t need one in 2010, so I didn’t bring one this time either. Beacon asked me if I wanted to borrow his extra GPS for the rest of the trip. Who brings an extra GPS on a 2,652 mile hike? Beacon, that’s who, and I sure am glad he did! Thank you, Beacon!
I carried a small length of cord to tie us together while glissading and crossing steams. After glissading together many times, Sunshine started doing it on her own. On one occasion, she slid away from me too quickly. As my 11-year-old sped away from me down the mountain, all I could do was yell “Plant your axe!” She instinctively rolled onto her belly and self-arrested like a pro. I was so proud of her. She later said that she did not hear me yelling. She really got good at glissading, and it became the highlight of each day for her.
Thanks to Thumper for the video!
On the positive side, we did cross over many streams on snow bridges instead of through the water. However, the water that we did cross was much higher and faster than usual.
We left VVR on the afternoon ferry. We planned to hike until there was one hour of daylight left, but the water crossings were becoming more frequent and tumultuous. After only four miles, we crossed a stream just below a sizable waterfall. Not only was the water past my waist, but I was getting drenched by water blowing off the falls. Like many crossings, I crossed five times in order to dump my pack, go back for Sunshine's pack, then return for her. This gave me opportunity to take different routes through the water, finding the best crossing for her. However, it also put me in freezing cold conditions for an extended amount of time.
Balls and Sunshine, stream crossings as a team.
Sunshine crossing a creek.
Sunshine wore her water resistant BackpackingLight Cocoon Hoody, which amazingly kept her upper body dry and warm. I didn’t wear a coat at all and soon found myself shivering uncontrollably. I tried raising my body core temperature by continuing to hike, but 20 minutes later I realized that it was actually dropping quickly, and I was losing function in my arms and legs. We agreed that the best thing to do now was to set up camp and get into my sleeping bag and dry clothes. This warmed me up quickly, and we all rested easy that night. It rained the next night, which then turned to snow by morning. Wired was with us, and we decided to hunker down in our tents for 24 hours to let the storm pass. Sunshine and Wired had a great time playing cards while I slept most of the day away.
Wired and Sunshine playing cards during a storm
Arriving at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park marked a huge milestone. We were done with the highest and most difficult passes. We were starting to see some breaks in the snow, which created a new problem: higher and faster water. Two hikers had drowned in one of the upcoming creeks, and two highly respected and experienced thru-hikers turned back on another, deeming it impassable just days before our arrival. We called my beautiful and wonderful wife, Teresa, from our town stop before Tuolumne, asking her to meet us for an extended break. We took four days off, hoping the waters would crest and even recede. I suggested to Sunshine that we should drive 200 miles north and walk south back to where we left off, giving the water two more weeks to go down. She wouldn’t hear of it. She indefatigably said, “I’m not flip-flopping, Dad!”
Teresa and Annika came to visit us at Tuolomne Meadows.
The whole family relaxing together at Yosemite Falls on the 4th of July.
We had a great time seeing the sights as a family in Yosemite. Spending time with her mother and sister was just what Sunshine needed. It also gave us time to put together a great team of hikers to ensure each others' safety through the toughest section yet. Wired, the voice of reason. Bottle Rocket, the ER nurse. Thumper, the mountaineer. Snow Blind, the motor to keep us moving. Little Jimmy, the Eagle Scout. Sunshine, the reason to be cautious. Me, the navigator.
We took our time, choosing the best routes. We seemed to always take many extended breaks getting lost in deep conversation. Everyone had a great sense of humor and morale was high. We all got along well and had a great time in camp each night before crashing into the deepest sleep of our lives. It turns out that most of the “death defying” crossings weren’t all that bad. We did do some swimming, but even that became fun in a positive group setting. We knew we were all doing something amazing and were proud of our decision to continue. On many occasions, we would have to strip the wet clothes off, down to our skivvies, and sun ourselves on hot granite boulders for up to an hour after particularly difficult high river crossings just to regain strength and warmth.
Thanks to Thumper for the video!
Considering the potential, we actually had very few brushes with injury. The most common owie was scraping our knees, knuckles, and elbows on the hard crusty snow. I scraped up my shins pretty good once crossing a rocky stream. I also had a cut on my leg that got pretty infected from the dirt and grime of northern California. I had to lance, clean, and treat it twice a day.
Sunshine contracted a strange and painful rash on her feet. She had just switched to wool socks, so we thought she might be allergic. We bought new synthetic socks on our next stop, but the rash came back. We then deducted that she must be allergic to the factory detergent since we didn’t pre-wash the socks before wearing them for the first time. We washed the socks at the next town and the problem was finally solved.
Sunshine's mysterious foot rash.
I noticed early on that when she fell or scraped herself up, nothing fixed it faster than a watermelon Starburst. She would go from crying to smiling and giggling before the one piece of candy was gone. One day while glaciating standing up, she took a bad tumble twisting her leg and then landing on a rock with her knee. It looked bad, she was crying and writhing about in pain. Noah rushed over to help, but didn’t know where to start. I worked my way up the steep hill saying that I had her medication. Noah looked at me curiously as I handed her a Starburst. The first piece calmed her down, but she still had tears in her eyes. I gave her a second one, and she began to smile. After finishing the candy, she stood up, brushed herself off and resumed walking like nothing ever happened. We later referred to more serious injuries as “two Starburst injuries.”
Better Days Ahead
Once we reached Lake Tahoe, we knew that the end of our snow was in sight. We still had 100 miles of snow, but it was becoming less frequent and easier walking. Most importantly, we were able to bump up our milage to 20-mile days there. This called for a celebration... hiker trash style! You have no idea how it thrills the heart of a mother to hear her 11-year-old daughter exclaim over the phone, “Guess what Mom? We’re doing a Reno run tomorrow!” We rented a car (Snow Blind almost got kicked out of the rental company for looking homeless), piled in as many smelly hikers as we could and headed for the closest casino. We gorged ourselves at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Seriously, just because you can eat everything there doesn’t mean you should. Sunshine and I played video games in the arcade while the others tried their hand at poker. Snow Blind got kicked out of there too because he was under age, but I still think it had to do with looking homeless. The next day we all went to the Olive Garden (they didn’t seem to mind the homeless look there) and REI.
Sunshine and Butterfly on a trail ride at Drakesbad.
Yea! We made to the California/Oregon border!
As we entered northern California, the trail became more clear, and we picked up our pace and milage. Soon, we were in this wonderful pocket of Trail Angels every few days. Mike let eight of us stay at his place (with a hot tub) for the weekend while he was away climbing in Yosemite. It was great seeing the new, thinner, and rejuvenated Bill at Pooh’s Corner. Bill and Margaret of The Red Moose Inn at Sierra City are so generous to the hikers. During hiking season, they close their business to everyone but hikers and then only charge for the cost of food. Sunshine had a great time playing with the kids at Honker Pass. We loved getting to know Piper’s Mom and Lowell in Chester. I can never say enough wonderful things about Ed and Billie at Drakesbad Ranch in Lassen National Park. Not only do they provide hikers with free showers and use of their hot spring pool, but they only charge hikers half price at their five-star restaurant. Ed also made arrangements for Sunshine and her sister to take an afternoon trail ride on horse back. They absolutely loved it. We later stayed the night with Joanne by Mt. Shasta for a badly needed break.
The mosquitoes really came out after we got out of the snow.
Once the trail was completely clear, there was no stopping us. Teresa and Annika drove down and began meeting us at jeep roads when they could, supporting us so we only had to carry food (such as glorious hoagie sandwiches and homemade cookies from Grandma Schuck) and water for the day. We quickly resumed high 20s and low 30-mile days. We regained our strength and vigor with the help of “home” cooked meals and family support many nights. We reached the PCT mid point by day 90. This seemed momentous and ominous at the same time. It took us 90 days to hike half way to Canada, but we only had 60 days left to finish. Could we do it? I guess you’ll have to read my final article next month about Oregon and Washington.
Balls and Sunshine at the PCT midpoint.
Yea! Real trail at last!
Thank you for following along on my journal and especially for your words of kindness and moral support. This really helped us continue on and was an invaluable source of our success.
The Sierra in Sunshine’s Words
In the Sierra, there seemed to be endless amounts of snow. I’m not saying it was boring. It was a lot of fun. It was basically a HUGE roller coaster. I love my ice axe. It is now my trophy. It is super light, cool looking; and ONLY MINE. Who doesn't want that? We climbed the tallest point on the PCT, Forester Pass (13,200 ft), in the last hour of daylight. Because it was almost dark when we summited, we cowboy camped on the top of the pass. Every star in the sky was out. There were a ton more than you would see in the city. You could count them starting now and you wouldn't be alive by the time they were all counted. The sky was basically one huge star. People usually ask if it was cold, and I tell them I don’t know, I was in my warm sleeping bag. We never got to swim because the lakes were iced over, but it was 90 degrees out. It was confusing.
Sunshine arriving at Forester Pass just before dark. Cowboy camping at the highest point of the PCT.
At Kennedy Meadows, we stayed in a trailer. At VVR we had a tab, so I asked Dad if I could get things for myself. I enjoyed having a lot of root beer. We hiked with Wired for a long time, but I wish it was longer. She is nice and pretty. Dad and I both enjoy her company. The good thing is she lives close to us so we can hike together during the year. Unlike some people, her and I have the same pace. Some people did not want to hike with us because they thought I would hike too slowly, but we ended up passing them later.
Mom visited us a couple times in the Sierra, for several days. Coming out of Tuolumne Meadows, we were hiking with Thumper, Snow Blind, Wired, Bottle Rocket, and Little Jimmy. We did many stream crossings with them. It was a great group. There was only one problem: our breaks got longer than we wanted because we all started talking instead of walking. We once crossed a knee deep stream and got to the other side and just stood there talking for 20 minutes without realizing we had stopped. Wired was the only one who noticed it. She just laughed and said we were funny and suggested we start walking to get to camp early. She was also the one getting everyone going in the mornings.
Sunshine doing homework in the tent.
Snow Blind had a jar of Skippy peanut butter in his outside pack pocket. On a stream crossing he (Skippy) fell out and floated downstream as we all yelled “Skippy! Skippy!” Snow Blind and I made a memorial to Skippy at camp that night. The rest of the week we talked about him as it he were a close friend. We would say “This is for Skippy,” or “Skippy would have wanted it that way.”
The Sierra was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but it feels awesome to have accomplished it on such a hard year.