Week 8: The Sierras

By on Jun 19, 2017 in All, Gear, Town Life, Trail Life | 3 comments

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Day 49 – 51: Kennedy Meadows to Lone Pine 

Miles 702 – 745.3

We left Kennedy Meadows at 6 AM and were rewarded with cooler temperatures and scenic views along the meandering South Fork Kern River as we climbed into the Sierras. I’d periodically rest with SLOWBO and a couple other teams of hikers, but by noon the goal became making it to Monache Meadow where the river widened significantly and provided large sand barges perfect for swimming and tanning.

During a mini-break I discussed some of the ridiculous claims that were popping up in PCT Facebook groups with SLOWBO. I decided I’d play into the fear mongering by starting a rumor that Mt. Whitney had erupted killing several PCT hikers. For those of you unfamiliar, Whitney is a mountain we’ll be summitting shortly but it isn’t a volcano.

Whenever a hiker passed, I’d nonchalantly ask if they’d heard about the eruption. While most hikers weren’t fooled, I was able to convince a few. A fellow SLOWBO member, Apocalypse (Apoc) enjoyed the antics but refused to allow anyone to leave without the truth fearing they may change their hiking plans. We’d enjoy a good laugh with the pranked hiker before they continued up the trail.

Floating the South Fork Kern River with Potato Volcano (Tater)

We arrived at the South Fork Kern to see the river widened, slowing the water flow and warming the water temperature. We spent hours floating down the river, covering each other with sand, and eating munchies. We even inflated our sleeping pads to maximize our floating enjoyment. I could have been happy to meander there forever.

That night I enjoyed my favorite trail meal. I don’t like to brag (much) but I think I’ve perfected mac and cheese. It starts with the choice of the right box. That cheese powder won’t cut it, I’m talking a creamy cheese sauce like Velveeta or Cracker Barrel. Add dehydrated vegetables like corn, carrots, peas, green beans, etc. Next add bacon jerky or summer sausage. Finally add 2 tbs. of olive oil and 1 tbs. of hot sauce and ooh la la.

The morning before arriving in Lone Pine, I decided to use the old volcano eruption prank on an older hiker named Keyser Söze. Unfortunately, Apoc wasn’t around because I convinced him of the tragedy and let him walk away without confessing. A few minutes later Apoc arrived as well as Team Baywatch. Gleefully admitting what I had accomplished. We had a conversation, and by the end of it they’d convinced me I shouldn’t have done it. My conscience getting the better of me, I set off running down the mountain to set things right. I caught up to him getting water at a stream and confessed. I apologized profusely and he seemed to take it well.

The final note on this section is that the mosquitos are out in force and they are fierce.

Day 52 – 53: Lone Pine to Mt. Whitney

Miles 745.3 – 766.3

Team SLOWBO at Horseshoe Meadow

SLOWBO arrived in Lone Pine and spent an evening and a morning resupplying, showering, doing laundry, and eating. The temperature was above 105 both days topping out at 111. The temperature made what would otherwise be a cool town somewhat miserable. I will say that the mountains surrounding Lone Pine are stellar and I highly recommend hiking or bouldering in the area.

One of the errands I tried to accomplish in town was to trade in my ice axe. On the recommendation of REI, I bought a 50 cm Camp Corsica. Unfortunately I’ve learned it’s several inches too short for my height and skill level. I took the axe (unused and in the original packaging) to several shops hoping I’d be able to get a credit towards a different axe. None were willing to oblige so I’ll make the best of it.

After heading back into the much cooler mountains (30 degree difference), we were treated with amazing views of rivers and mountains as we navigated through intermittent snow fields. I can’t adequately express the beauty of the Sierras. The fresh smell of pine. The gorgeous trees, rivers, and mountain are truly breathtaking.

Hiking with Apoc ahead of the rest of SLOWBO, we arrived at Rock Creek. The river ranger had left a note on a trail junction sign stating the trail was impassable at the river so we should use the nearby meadow. We headed to the meadow and saw several channels of water, the widest less than 10 ft. wide. Although we could see the merged river downstream wasn’t to be taken lightly, the meadow looked harmless.

We waterproofed our gear, looked for the easiest place to cross that we could see from where we stood, and set off. The first channel was shallow and no problem, but as we approached the middle of the main channel it became clear, we had underestimated the crossing. The water was waist deep and while not raging, the current was strong enough to make Apoc take a seat. Amazingly, he was able to instantly recover and regain his footing. I later learned that the stream had swallowed my water bottle attached to my Sawyer water filter. As a result, I’ve drank live water (unfiltered) over the last week from the cleanest looking water sources I’ve found. Fingers crossed I don’t get Giardia.

Apoc and I learned valuable lessons that day regarding stream crossing preperation. 100 yds. upstream was an easy log crossing. We should have taken our time instead of rushing in. Lessons learned….hopefully.

That night we’d camp 8 miles from Mt. Whitney. The river leading from Whitney was raging and had flooded the meadow trail leading to Whitney. The only way forward was to ford a lake. The last thing I wanted was to take an icy plunge after a long hard day and right before bed. The lake had little current and was waist deep at its deepest. A fairly easy albeit cold crossing. After a 17 mile day above 11K ft. elevation we’d make camp and I’d pass out nearly immediately after dinner.

From the summit of Whitney

SLOWBO awoke to a 4 AM wake-up call and prepared for the 8 mile hike which required hiking up to 14,505 ft. It was an exciting morning. How often do you get to climb the highest mountain in the lower 48? I’m going to run out of superlatives in this post, but what else can I say other than Whitney is stunning. We Hiked along meadows, raging rivers, through miles of ice fields, traversing snowy ledges, and up high rocky paths. Every corner left us awe-inspired and wanting more, all the while gasping to catch our breath due to the high elevation.

The approach to Whitney

Dr. Pain crushing the snow fields

View from the climb to Whitney

After enjoying stellar 360 degree views, I began the 8 mile descent to camp. Two things happened on the way down. First, I ran into Keyser Söze, the hiker I’d pranked before Lone Pine. In Lone Pine, he’d asked if he could hike with SLOWBO through the difficult upcoming rivers and mountain pass to the town of Independence where he planned to meet his old hiking crew. I conferred with the team and we agreed he could hike the stretch with us. I’m really glad he joined us, he’s a good guy. We also picked up another team member Jan back at Kennedy Meadows. They were both great additions during the remainder of the section.

The second event that happened on the way down was my first experience glissading. Glissading is done by sitting on the slope of a hill and sliding down the mountain while using your axe or trekking pole to steer and slow you down. It’s a lot of fun although I had to take one of those leaps of faith the first time. It seems like everyday I’m given a new opportunity to test my boundaries and grow. Having a good team behind you really helps you step up to the challenge.

Day 54 – 55: Mt. Whitney to Forester Pass 

Miles 766.3 – 779.5

It suffices to say just about every corner revealed stunning scenery and new surprises. So to avoid rambling on, I’ll focus on three major river crossings and Forester Pass.

Wallace Creek at mile 770 was fairly minor only requiring submerging yourself in icy water up to your calves.

Wright Creek crossing

Wright Creek at mile 771 was where things started getting interesting. We hiked 0.3 miles downstream to a log crossing over a 10 ft. wide raging river. Getting on the log required stepping down from a snow shelf overhanging the river. A snow shelf or an ice bridge can be particularly dangerous at this time of year due to the warm weather and their susceptibility to collapsing.

There was an incident on this river where a hiking couple, Left and Right went upstream instead of down to find a suitable crossing location. Apparently they both ended up getting caught in the current and getting washed downstream. Thankfully they avoided major injury.

There was also a potentially dangerous situation with a hiker we’ll call Hiker X. Hiker X has been a problem for the SLOWBOs for some time. For whatever reason he’s decided to latch onto our team and intentionally set his schedule so he’ll be with us when we’re attempting difficult and dangerous aspects of the trail. It would be one thing if his personality quirks were the only thing that made him a bad fit for our team. However, in my opinion he’s dangerous. He makes bad decisions that put himself and others around him at serious risk.

Case in point, at Wright Creek everyone was warned to give space to the hiker in front of them to avoid collapsing the ice shelf. Despite this, he walked to the edge of the shelf as the person in front of him was preparing to drop. This was one of many examples where he’s been a danger to himself and others.

I will say one of the things I’m most proud of is how all of the teams band together to make sure everyone crosses safely. Whether it’s indicating where good stream crossings are or physically assisting other people regardless of whether they’re grouped together, we understand the risks and we know we can’t do this alone. A special shout out to Aladdin from the SLOWBOs who continues to put himself in danger to ensure every hiker makes it safely. He has a heart of gold and has inspired me to help others when I can.

Tyndal Creek 1 mile below our crossing

The final crossing was at Tyndal Creek. I have no idea why this is called a creek. The river was 20 ft. wide providing class III – class IV rapids. Three smaller streams join at a confluence at the mouth of Tyndal Creek. Initially our team plan was to hike a mile or so off trail so we could cross each of the smaller streams individually.

Unfortunately, as we approached the confluence we saw a dozen hikers had made it across just below the confluence. It became fairly chaotic and without talking it out as a team, a decision was made to cross the river in pairs of 3. I let our team know I didn’t think this was a good place to cross but the confusion of the situation left my words unheard. My apprehension came from my experience at Rock Creek, knowing our smallest member, Tater who is probably 5’6″, could have trouble. I approached the stream and was instantly told I’d be the 3rd of the first group. I accepted and safely made a somewhat difficult crossing without problems.

I walked up to the other hikers dropped my pack and returned to the river with my trekking poles to see what I could do to help. SLOWBO had formed 3 groups for the crossing. However as the second group started crossing, Hiker X decided to jump onto the train. Almost immediately it was clear he was in trouble. Another SLOWBO member, Dr. Pain who is our biggest and strongest member, had been slated to go in the third group to help Tater. Once Dr. Pain saw Hiker X was in trouble, he made the instantaneous decision to jump into the river to keep Hiker X from getting washed downstream. He successfully helped Hiker X, but it left Tater without her anchor. This led to another dangerous situation and without thinking Aladdin moved into position behind her to catch her if needed. Simultaneously, I moved in front of her to break the strong current. It took all of my strength to dig my toes into the creek bed while leaning into the current to avoid being swept into those crossing less than a foot away from me. We were successfully able to get our team across. Aladdin again stepped up to the challenge by helping every member of team Trailblazer across.

On lookers watching the last group crossing. Notice Aladdin standing in the stream ready to assist. Downstream spotters await in case there’s trouble.

The eye of the storm

One of the things I appreciate about the SLOWBOs is that after our adrenaline had subsided and we’d briefly celebrated the days victories, we had a meeting and agreed mistakes were made. To prevent future problems, we need to come together as a team and make a plan of action that everyone feels comfortable with. This may require choosing an alternative crossing even if other groups felt comfortable there. Finally, we had to talk to Hiker X to prevent him from putting us at future risk.

Again I was proud of the cooperation of all of the teams. Once across, members from different teams aligned on the far river banks to act as spotters in case someone fell.

I heard Left fell in the river again later that day before being pulled to safety by Right. I don’t know either hiker but it was a rough day for her and I can’t imagine what’s going through her head. Glad to hear she escaped serious injury. Scary days…

Day 55 – 56: Forester Pass to Kearsarge Pass 

Miles 779.5 – 788.9

Sunrise on the Forester approach

I woke at 3:30 AM to prepare for the Forester Pass ascent. It was a surprisingly warm morning. Hiking through sun cupped snow fields makes hiking earlier in the day optimal (to avoid postholing) and we wanted to climb the ice sheet ahead of us early to prevent the mountain from melting into a slushy slip and slide. Despite plenty of time to sleep, it was a fairly restless night due to the anxiety of the upcoming day.

The approach was fairly easy although picking a path over the wavy snowfield slowed our normal pace. As we approached the climb, I could see we’d be climbing hundreds of feet up a steep ice sheet. I had microspikes but I started second guessing my choice not to take crampons and my or take a longer axe. The ascent began easy enough but as each step increased the pitch, nerves set in. I was using my trekking poles instead of my axe and one misstep would lead to a nasty slide. When the slope became too steep, I left the safety of  the pre-stepped path and began zig zagging a new path upward. I was feeling extreme anxiety knowing the risk of each step.

The only thing that gets me through these times is the desire to keep my trek alive. How much do I want it?  What am I willing to risk? It was difficult and scary but I made it to the safety of a high rocky patch leading to a dirt trail. The last obstacle was to traverse a snow chute with a steep slope leading down to a sharp rocky patch. This last challenge was fairly mundane as deep steps had been kicked into the path.

Forester Pass

I summitted and the relief was refreshing. I’d done it. I’d climbed a sheet of ice leading to a snowy escape. A fear I’d caved to while training had been conquered. The fear will still be there on the next pass, but I’ll be armed with the knowledge that I’ve done it once and I can do it again.

We hiked another 7 miles through slushy snow. I’m starting to become accustomed to having constantly cold wet feet. In fact, my feet are usually soaked within an hour of starting my day. It’s a small price to pay for living a life I love.

On our final day before hitting the town of Bishop, we’d be required to climb over Kearsarge Pass. For me, the pass was purely physical without significant risk of falling and the day was fairly easy for me. However, Jan took a nasty fall sliding 50 ft. and was stopped when his knee banged into the rocks below. He’s going to take some time off trail to heal before skipping the rest of the Sierras.

There was one last river challenge which required jumping from a log over a 5 ft. raging stream that would typically be so small it was unnamed. Once again we had to come to the rescue of Hiker X to prevent him from getting swept into a monster river below. Risking our lives for him is getting old, but I’m not sure what we can do. If we don’t help him and he died we’d feel responsible. I respect that he’s made it this far, but enough is enough.

We’d hike down to Onion Valley Campground and get a fairly easy hitch into the town of Independence and another hitch to Bishop where a beautiful zero day awaited.

My 2 month anniversary passed a couple days ago and it’s crazy to think back about how far I’ve come and how far I have to go. I pinch myself everyday when I think that this is my life. I’m not going to work tomorrow. I’ll be hiking. Live your dreams, follow your passions.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned I’ll be without service for possibly a few weeks. I’m going into as extremely remote area. The next section will be the most difficult with at least 1 major river crossing or pass to climb everyday. I’ll communicate that I’m safe as soon as possible.

3 Comments

  1. Mich

    June 27, 2017

    Post a Reply

    Wow… wow wow… be safe you guys .. amazing adventure… it keeps me going David… I love reading your posts.. scarey.. keeping me on the edge of my bus seat…hehee..
    the world is an amazing super special place.. super honored to share your adventures.. you r one very brave man.. our bodies can survive so much …it’s what keeps us going… keeping a clear head.. and good heart… we follow you through.. the mountains.. waters and land..💟💟💟 happy safe travels from london…
    Keep us posted… be safe on your next steps…

  2. Rita

    July 4, 2017

    Post a Reply

    You all are having an amazing journey. Barb B was telling me about it. Such an inspiration. Makes me want to get off my behind. Cheers!

  3. David & Julie

    July 8, 2017

    Post a Reply

    What a gifted writer you are David. We can almost see and feel the adventure you are participating in with your descriptions. High fives to your courage and tenacity in the adventure of a life time. Safe journey to you and ours thoughts and prayers go with you. Your friends Julie & David

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