Week 9 & 10: The Sierras Part 2

By on Jul 9, 2017 in All | 4 comments

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Day 56 – 59: Kearsarge Pass to Rae Lakes 

Miles 788.9 – 793

As we prepared to leave Bishop, Team SLOWBO was tweaking the roster. Jan had left to flip north hoping to avoid some of the crazy river and pass crossings. Kaiser was also leaving as he was meeting up with his previous team. However SLOWBO was gaining a new recruit. Deb is a young Australian woman that we were happy to pickup.

My only regret in Bishop was we weren’t able to stay at The Hostel California, a hip retreat beloved by hikers and climbers. The place was fully booked, but if I ever get back there I’d love to stay there.

We were leaving on a 7 day section to VVR but would carry 9 days food for contingencies. My pack weighed 59 lbs. and I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of carrying it back up Kearsarge and the other passes. We’d catch a ride from the trail angel Santa’s Helper and camp a couple miles up the trailhead. We were leaving Bishop a day earlier than planned but wanted to put ourselves in a good position to stage for Glen Pass.

The next day, we pushed back up Kearsarge but instead of camping at Bullfrog Lake as planned, the team decided we’d hit Glen the same day. I was less than thrilled with the prospect as my Achilles tendonitis was acting up causing sharp pains along my ankle. I won’t be surprised if I need surgery when I get home. Nearly every step is a struggle. I’m constantly thinking about how to step with my right foot and how to use my trekking poles to minimize the pain. Unfortunately, my injury has left me questioning my ability to hike the remaining 1,700 miles on a bad foot.

The descent from Glen

Climbing Glen wasn’t too challenging. There was a long traverse through well kicked steps above a steep runoff leading to a lake. Two sections required climbing directly up the mountain like a ladder, but again the steps were well defined. The biggest challenge for me was on the descent. The slope must have declined 45-50 degrees and was a slushy mess by the time we reached the other side. Several rock cropping were interspersed and a slip could cause serious injury. Aladdin and another hiker had self-arrest after sliding down the mountain but were able to safely stop with their whippet/axe.

We’d hike a couple more miles down to Rae Lakes where we’d camp for the night. The lakes are really cool. Two icy lakes typically separated by a thin strip of land, but were now connected as the peninsula was flooded. I awoke in the middle of the night to find my sleeping bag drenched with condensation with a frosty top layer.

For the most part, snow conditions have been great. Prior to this hike I feared postholing to my waist. Fortunately when we’re postholing, we typically only sink a few inches. Every morning we’re treated to a hard icy layer that microspikes and crampons have no problem with. Then as the first rays of sunlight hit the snow, the consistency changes almost immediately leading to minor slippage. By noon, the snow melts into a soup. I typically can’t keep my shoes dry more than the first hour of the day due to all the river crossings and saturated ground, but if I do make it to midday with dry feet, soupy snow often does the job.

Day 60 – 61: Rae Lakes to Pinchot Pass 

Miles 793 – 807.1

Woods Creek Suspension Bridge

Woods Creek Waterslide

The next day we’d stage for Pinchot Pass. The days hike would reveal two really cool features. The first, was the Woods Creek suspension bridge. The wooden bridge crosses a raging river and sways as you walk across which is only slightly unnerving. The second, is Woods Creek Waterslide, a luge like track that Woods Creek roars down. The amount of water sprayed down that channel is unbelievable. It is amazing to see in person.

One final surprise awaited us that day, a 15 ft. wide unnamed water tributary filled with rapids leading down to Woods Creek. I approached to find a chaotic scene. Dr. Pain from the SLOWBOs was escorting people across the river while a couple members of Team Trailblazers (TB) were helping people out of the water. Two more TB were standing downstream as a safety net in case anyone was washed downstream. Most people had crossed by the time I arrived, and Harvest from the TB  was standing on the opposite bank in tears. Apparently, she’d fallen in the river while crossing but had been caught by Fireball (another member of the TB).

I gathered my wits, waterproofed my gear and began crossing when it was my turn. The current was fierce, but nothing I couldn’t handle. However, the last couple steps were tricky as the current was the strongest there and it required stepping up to a 2 ft. ledge. Unsure how to get out, Fireball coached me thru the last bit.

With everyone across safely, attention turned to Fireball who was displaying signs of hypothermia after standing in the icy water for nearly 30 minutes. Tater, who is trained as a physician’s assistant went to work on Fireball as everyone dried off and prepared to move on. However before we left, we saw Red Beard approaching the stream. He’d hiked up the river to scout for a better crossing. Finding nothing better, he made his way across the stream. Aladdin was there to help him but as he tried to pull Red Beard out of the water, Aladdin was yanked into the water. A quick panic ensued as 2 hikers were in bad positions, however they were able to recover and make it out of the water.

Both teams would camp together a few miles up the trail, well staged to climb Pinchot Pass the next day. I love the collaboration that’s then place between the two teams. We always try to help each other and we’ve become good friends.

Both teams would wake early the next morning to hike up Pinchot. The hike was easy although it required navigating miles of sun cups which slowed the pace. The ascent was fairly straight forward with minimal exposure and there were good footholds kicked up the climb.

The Trailblazers making the final approach to a Pinchot over a sun cupped field.

Day 62: Pinchot Pass to Mathers Pass 

Miles 807.1 – 816.9

The approach to Mathers Pass required dealing with the South Fork Kings River. The river is massive and crosses the PCT twice. Rather than attempting two crossings, we opted to leave the trail and bushwhack along the eastern bank for several miles thereby eliminating the risky crossings. We’d camp just below the snow line, a few miles south of Mathers Pass.

Mathers Pass is known as one of the scarier passes and after a slow crawl over miles of sun cups we saw the pass and the challenge ahead. The pass offered several options to traverse a steep snow field with intermittent rocky patches. Slipping off the trail would likely lead to smashing into the rocks or sliding into the lake below if you were unable to self-arrest.

Typically I’ll go through a check list of contingencies prior to making a risky ascent. Is there a runoff leaving room to self-arrest? How much space do I have to stop? I’ll then mentally review the steps required to self-arrest. Get my head uphill and onto my stomach. Lift my feet to avoid having my spikes dig into the snow, get my axe to the side of my head and apply pressure from my shoulder before getting to my knees and lifting my hips to create leverage. My final thought process, I continually think about as I begin to climb is to keep 3 points of contact at all times. My uphill have holds the axe as the downhill holds a trekking pole. I can move 1 leg, axe or pole at a time but I always need 3 points of contact with the slope.

The climb was scary but it wasn’t above my abilities. The only problem I had was when the rubber on one of my spikes snapped in the middle of a long traverse. At first, I thought my spike had slipped off my shoe so I decided I’d fix it before completing the section. Slowly and carefully I dropped to a knee but as I reached back to slip the spikes back on I realized the rubber had broken and the spikes on my right foot were useless. I gathered my composure, rose to my feet and cautiously made my way to the next rock cropping.

Aladdin had seen my unusual crossing and cane to see what the problem was. One off the things I love about Aladdin is that he will always go out of his way to make sure everyone’s safe even if they aren’t on our team. He assured me he was extremely confident in his abilities on the snow and insisted I take one of his spikes. I’m far less confident in my ability but after his reassurances he didn’t need them I happily accepted. The team made the ridge without further problems.

One other point of interest was that Dr. Pain decided to bypass the two paths with well kicked steps and instead opted to take a higher route with more exposure and fresh snow. I’m unsure of his rationale but he made the climb without any problems all the while kicking steps for a new path. It was a crazy approach but pretty impressive.

From the top of Mathers Pass

The view from Mathers Pass

The descent was easy enough but as the slope flattened we encountered a set of unplanned problems. To our left lay a huge partially frozen lake. To our right was a big rock wall. The path forward led through sun cupped snow but narrowed as we approached the lake. The ascent had taken longer than planned and the snow was turning soupy. The rocky ground beneath the snow made it difficult river avoid postholing. Several parts left us walking over weakened snow cornices overhanging the lake. At one point Deb potholes down to her thigh opening a hole that dropped several feet into the lake. She was able to recover but the trail was painfully slow and was scarier than climbing Mathers. The sloppy snow soaks through your shoes leading to cold feet and after a few miles we were ready for lunch.

We’d hike a couple miles after lunch before coming to an overlook into the valley below. We were pleasantly surprised to see a lush verdant green valley with no snow. After many miles of snow fields, we were ecstatic at the prospect of solid ground under our feet.

Dry land

Deb hiking over a watery trail

The descent to the valley was magical beginning with the climb down The Golden Staircase. As the final piece of the John Muir Trail, The Golden Staircase is amazing!!! It’s a series of switchbacks with cascading waterfalls with ankle deep water covering the trail. I’d been hoping to dry my feet, but splashing through the pools was so much fun I didn’t mind. The contrast between the mornings hike and that afternoon was like night and day. It’s fascinating how a few miles distance can create such a different atmosphere.

The PCT and the JMT overlap for nearly 200 miles and this was one of the most beautiful. The lush valley had seen a rough winter as avalanches downed dozens of large trees creating a parkour obstacle course to navigate. The foliage changes from lovely pine forest to aspen groves mixed with lovely ferns while the smell of wildflowers and pine permeated the air. Bottom line, the Sierras are rad!!! If you get a chance at least hike the JMT.

We’d finish the day staged for the upcoming Muir Pass. I was surprised at how many deer we’d see and how they seemed completely unafraid of people. A deer wandered into camp that night and inquisitively circled us while looking for food. Laying in my tent that evening with my rainfly off I’d see the deer moseying around just feet away. To be so close to nature is refreshing.

Day 63: Mathers Pass to Muir Pass

Miles 816.9 – 838.6

The John Muir Hut

The approach to Muir Pass was fairly trivial due to the gradual ascent and lack of exposure although there were 4 miles of snow fields to navigate. We’d reach the pass and The John Muir Hut midday. Dr. Pain had slipped on a rock cropping while filling water and cut his hand. Thankfully, Tater is a physicians assistant and was able to bandage him up. We’d decide to shorten the day and camp in the stone hut. How often do you get those opportunities? Sometimes you have to stop and smell the roses.

Day 64 – 65: Muir Pass to Selden Pass 

Miles 838.6 – 865.6

The next day began with a 6 mile hike down the mountain skirting several lakes. The snow trail ran extremely close to a lake and at one point I postholed into the icy lake up to my knees. While I received a chilly surprise, I was unhurt.

Evolution River, downstream from where we crossed

Evolution River is another large river we had to contend with but rather than attempting a potentially dangerous crossing at the trail we opted for the alternate crossing through a flooded meadow. The water was waist deep but flowing slowly and wasn’t a risk.

The next day we’d climb over Selden Pass which was also fairly trivial but provided beautiful views on both sides. The descent led to one of the most challenging rivers of the section, Bear Creek. Previously hikers were hiking 5 miles off trail to an easier crossing location. Miraculously, the day before we left for this section we learned a huge tree fell over the river creating a bridge half a mile downstream.

Bear Creek has several large tributaries flowing into it and before we could cross the main river, we’d need to cross The West Fork Bear Creek. The West Fork was 12 feet wide and waist deep with a current strong enough to create intermittent white caps. Two thin logs submerged in the middle lie side by side at the trail. Below the logs, the river descended into a stream of rapids. Rather than get wet, Aladdin decided he’d cross on the logs. Instantly upon stepping on the wet section, his foot was pulled under the log. He was able to keep his head above water but he began yelling for help stating his foot was stuck.

Apoc sprung into action pulling Aladdin from under the tree. By the time I made it there, both were away from the tree but sitting in the river. I pulled Aladdin’s pack off his back which allowed him and Apoc to stand up. It was a tense situation and took a few minutes to ensure Aladdin was alright and get things calmed down. Aladdin’s pack and gear was drenched but he was unhurt.

I’d reached the river before the others and had scouted a possible location for a water location upstream. After preparing my gear I decided I’d test the location. The crossing started well but as I reached the deepest section, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. The water was over my waist and although the current was slowest here, the water was deep enough to make the crossing a struggle. I took a deep breath and moved forward hoping the water wouldn’t get deeper. A couple steps later the water depth began decreasing. I was safely across. It took some time, but we got the team across without further incident.

We still had to cross the main channel of Bear Creek. We set off downstream to find the log location. After some exploration, we found the downed tree was located on an island. We’d have to cross a knee high stream, but nothing we hadn’t handled previously. The crossing started well, but midway across Aladdin stumbled and fell. Thankfully Apoc was next to him and after a brief struggle Apoc pulled him to his feet. As Aladdin reached the shore, he threw his further drenched pack releasing a tirade of expletives. He’d been rattled and was out of sort. It was disconcerting that this had happened to Aladdin. He’d always been so confident and able. He’d helped dozens of people across streams. If it could happen to him, it could happen to any of us.

It took some time for the team to refocus. We were on an island and still had a log crossing across the most dangerous section of the river. Lying across the river was a gigantic tree with large branches that could be used for balance. However the tree didn’t span the entire river. Instead, a smaller tree without branches connected to the larger tree.

Log crossings have always made me nervous, and the rapids below the trees didn’t ease my worries. Dr. Pain crossed the tree scouting without his pack. Apoc would take his pack across next dropping it on the other side. He’d return and stand at the end of the first tree to give assistance. Dr. Pain took an even riskier position standing in the water near the beginning of the first tree. Even where he stood, rapids swirled. If he lost his balance and was carried a couple feet downstream, he could easily be swept away in the current. When it was my turn to cross, I was extremely thankful for Dr. Pain and Apoc’s assistance.

When everyone crossed we decided to make our way down trail for a few more miles making the next days hike to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) easier. By the time we reached camp, we were all exhausted. It had been a long day and a stressful afternoon.

Day 66 – 67: Selden Pass to VVR

Miles 865.6 – 878.7

VVR ferry full of hungry hikers

We’d arrive at a ferry the next morning that would carry us to VVR where we’d resupply. VVR is a resort in the middle of nowhere. As a result, everything is expensive but they offered the essentials needed. The staff is amazing!!! I’d broken a trekking pole on the hike in and one of the employees, Paint, gave me one of his old poles to get me into Mammoth. I bought him a few beers to say thanks which led to me spending the night drinking whiskey with the locals. They know how to drink and have a good time. Solid people. It was a pleasure to meet Lester and Roy as well. Thank you all.
I was able to find phone service about a mile down the road at the pack station. I called Black Diamond about my trekking poles and Khatoola about my microspikes and both companies were easy to work with for warranties. Black Diamond would mail me replacements and Khatoola said I could buy new spikes in Mammoth and return the broken ones.

We’d head out the next day crossing the final big river, Mono Creek. Thankfully there were big logs that made the crossing easy. There was also a cool section where you walked under a waterfall through knee deep water that led to another waterfall. The walkway was only a few feet wide but despite the large amount of water flowing down on us, it felt relatively safe.

The final hurdle of the section was hiking over Silver Pass. This was another mild pass and the descent offered some long step glissades which were a lot of fun. We’d hike to Mammoth Pass and hitch or catch a shuttle into the city of Mammoth.



  1. Claire Kennedy

    July 11, 2017

    Post a Reply

    Hi David! Good to see you’re still on trail! Thank you so much for sharing; I am learning a lot for future reference. Your experiences with postholing and sun cups and raging rivers and broken equipment have me thinking I need to watch for a low snow year to do the High Sierras section; I don’t think I could do what you’re doing. Sounds like you have a good team, though. I’m sorry to hear your Achilles is giving you so much trouble, like you don’t already have enough challenge to contend with. Continue to be safe and make sound choices. I look forward to reading more ……

  2. Rebecca

    August 23, 2017

    Post a Reply

    David – You’re accomplishing something amazing for a very noble cause. Keep fighting. Keep writing.

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