Monday, July 30, 2018
Due to the fires, trail closure, and smoke in southern Oregon, after finishing the Sierras, I decided to get back on trail at Crater Lake, temporarily skipping ahead of Dunsmuir, where I would have restarted to continue my 2018 hike with an unbroken foot path. Christine, my wife, volunteered to drive me up to Crater Lake; we enjoyed the drive together, and I felt some relief as well as we sped by Dunsmuir where the thermometer was pegged at 104 degrees in the early afternoon. Christine dropped me off at the campground and I stayed overnight at Mazama Village, at the base of the crater that forms Crater Lake.
Getting back on trail after a break is always an adjustment, and I was feeling a little sluggish climbing out of Mazama Village up to the rim of Crater Lake. On the way up I surprised a small bear who climbed a tree while barking at me, which woke me up a bit. By the time I got to the rim, the restaurant at the historic Crater Lake Lodge was open, complete with an espresso machine and formally-dressed wait staff. After a breakfast of Eggs Benedict (yes really), I felt fortified and launched back into my hike.
The trail along the rim of Crater Lake goes from one dramatic viewpoint to the next, giving hikers stunning views of some of the bluest water in the world. As you will see in the photos, there was a slight haze from ongoing Oregon fires, but it was still spectacular.
This section of the trail is punctuated by relatively frequent lake-side resorts, giving opportunities for resupply stops as well as an occasional cooked meal. The trail is also mostly "fast trail" through forests, trending up or down but usually not too rocky or steep. As a result, my mileage was higher than usual, averaging 25 miles per day, even with resupply stops. I visited Shelter Cove, Elk Lake, Big Lake Youth Camp, Ollalie Lake, and Timberline Lodge, which is on the shoulder of Mount Hood, rather than at a lake.
Since I skipped ahead of the fires, I also skipped ahead of the "bubble" of thru-hikers, seeing as few as one other northbound thru-hiker in a day, and never more than a handful. This made for a more-than-usually meditative hiking experience. The PCT in northern Oregon passes through some interesting mountains, especially the Obsidian and Shale limited entry areas, and the Three Sisters and Mount Hood wilderness areas, which showcase their respective mountains. At the same time, the primary view, for hour after hour of hiking, is simply forest, which looks very similar for hundreds of miles. Hiking along, there is the rapid but barely perceptible rhythm of your heartbeat, the much slower rhythm of breath, and interposed between these the rhythm of your steps. It's sometimes an experience of walking meditation, and at other times I plug in my earbuds and listen to an audiobook, podcast, or music. During this section I listened to the topical "Fire," by Sebastian Junger, and "Diamonds Are Forever" by Ian Fleming.
The biggest surprise for me in this section came in walking through forested areas that had burned just last year. A hot forest fire kills everything in it's path, with temperatures reaching at least into hundreds of degrees. After the spring melt, some scattered grass germinates, but the ground is otherwise completely barren. The forest is silent without insects, birds, deer, or even chipmunks. When you approach a small stream, you can often begin to hear the water a long way off, and the contrast of the life-giving stream and the desolate landscape has a discordant quality. The trail dust is mixed with ash, and your legs get even more black than usual as it sticks to your skin. Even the air remains tinged with the smell of smoke, which will take another season to clear completely. Hiking through miles of these fresh burns was fascinating and wonderful, although it was also enough for one season for me.
When I reached Cascade Locks, it was satisfying to me to have achieved my goal of hiking the entire PCT. Between my hike in 2017 and my hike this year, I've hiked all 2,650 miles of the trail. While I'm still continuing my hike in 2018 with the intention of thru-hiking (doing the entire trail in one season), hiking the whole trail was always my primary hiking goal, so I'm happy to have achieved that. Right now I'm taking a day off in Portland at the home of good friends here, and will get back on trail tomorrow, headed north through Washington.
Photos are at this link: Photos for Crater Lake to Cascade Locks
Saturday, July 14, 2018
After a resupply and refresh at the Mt. Williamson hotel in Independence, I climbed back over Kearsarge Pass and into the last stretch of the high sierras. In addition to the PCT mileage, this section includes an additional 24 miles of trail by the time you have hiked in from Kearsarge Pass and climbed Mt. Whitney, so it's a meaty 111 trail miles of hiking.
The first day back on trail I hiked close enough to Forrester Pass to climb over it in the early morning the next day. At 13,200 feet, this is the highest point actually on the PCT, and I was slightly worried that it would leave me short of breath as I have not been that high for over 30 years. The trail on the north side was well switchbacked, so it wasn't a hard climb, and I got up easily. At the top, it looked like someone had come up and planted purple flowers all over, and it made me think of my younger daughter who loves to decorate for any occasion. The south side of the pass rises much more steeply, and the route is a really audacious example of extreme trail building. I read somewhere that the pass was "discovered," but I think "created" would be a much more accurate description.
After Forrester Pass the next major stop is the Crabtree Ranger Station campsite, which is the staging point for PCT hikers climbing Mt. Whitney. While Mt. Whitney is just 7.5 miles from this campsite, climbing almost 4,000 ft. to reach the top at 14,505 ft. still makes for a significant effort. The trail passes by the beautiful Guitar Lake, where JMT hikers are allowed to camp, and rises steeply through a series of switchbacks. The last 1.9 miles includes a lot of rough trail, and like the south side of Forrester Pass a lot of the trail building alternated between blasting out a path and creating a path through the air with dry masonry walls. I left my campsite at 5 AM, starting out with my headlamp, and reached the top at 9:30 AM, just in time for the threatening clouds to part a little and for sunshine to warm the summit. A forest fire was burning on the east side of the mountain, so the views were a little hazy, but it was still spectacular. At about 10:20 AM I headed down, meeting my trail friend Patrick and his brother who were just summiting as I was leaving. As I walked off the summit a gentle rain started and continued off and on until I was nearly back to the campsite. At this point the rain increased and fell steadily for several hours, so after a quick dinner under the trees I just napped in my tent, giving up on adding any trail miles that day.
The next two days I was focused on "making miles" and getting back home for a visit with my family. The first day I just hiked steadily and surprised myself by making 28 miles to a perfectly flat campsite in a sparse forest, hiking through light rain for only about an hour that day. At this point I was about 37 miles out from Kennedy Meadows, so I planned to get off trail after another day and a half of hiking. This plan altered when about 4 PM the next day the sky opened up with lightning, thunder, hail, and then heavy rain. I didn't see a lot of point in trying to make camp in that wet mess, so I just kept hiking, confident that the rain would run out as the day went on. At about 8:30 PM, with intermittent rain still falling, I got out my headlamp and hiked on until 10:00 PM, when I reached the Kennedy Meadows campground, making for a 34.8 mile day, my longest hiking day ever. I must have seemed like some kind of madman, arriving at 10 PM at night and packing up then next morning before 5 AM, but I wanted to finish the section and get home.
At 6:06 AM I stepped out onto Sherman Pass road, connecting to my hike from Campo to Kennedy Meadows, and completing the southern 1,498 miles of trail. I started a road walk toward the Grumpy Bear restaurant, where I planned to get breakfast at 8:00 AM and see if I could get a ride out to the highway at 9:00 AM. At just about 7 AM the first car approached and so I stuck out my thumb and was lucky enough to get a ride out of Kennedy Meadows with a meadow conservationist, who took me all the way to highway 395, improving on my plan by at least 2 hours. Ten minutes after getting to the highway I got a short hitch to Inyokern, planning to next hitch on to Mojave, where I could catch a bus to Bakersfield. After only 10 minutes a Jeep pulled up and I got a miracle hitch all the way to the Amtrak Station in Bakersfield, arriving at 11:10 AM, allowing me to catch the 12:00 noon train to Richmond, and arrive home just at 6:06 PM, exactly 12 hours after starting my journey home.
I'll be at home for a few days, then Christine, my wife, will drive me to Crater Lake to get back on trail. I'm getting back to the trail north of Dunsmuir because there is a big fire still going near Ashland, so the trail is closed there, and the air will be smoky. My plan is to hike north up to Manning Park, then finish the section from Dunsmuir to Crater Lake after a short home break.
The photo set for this section has more amazing mountain views, and some of the most impressive examples of trail building that I've hiked. Photos for Kearsarge Pass to Kennedy Meadows
Friday, July 6, 2018
This post necessarily covers a lot of mileage as I have not had network service through the High Sierra's. Right now I'm at the Mt. Williamson Motel in Independence, where I stopped for a resupply.
First, no words of mine could possibly convey the jaw dropping beauty of these mountains. Neither can I fully convey the effort of hiking over so many high passes, which is the price of admission to this astonishing "range of light." In the photo album there are hundreds of photos to give you a bare idea of the landscapes.
Coming out of the Kennedy Meadows Pack Station I faced Sonora Pass South side with some trepidation. Other hikers had advised that it was dangerous, with many steep, slippery, and exposed snow sections. As if to add emphasis to this warning, one of the hikers coming off the pass told me that it "wasn't that bad," but couldn't hide the blood dripping off his arm where he had ripped a ten inch scrap of skin off in a fall on the pass. Luckily I was carrying heavy trail spikes; these strap on and add about a dozen half-inch steel spikes to each boot that bite into hard snow and ice. Although the pass was slow and sometime nerve wracking, it went fine.
That was the last "bad" snow that I had to face. The trail from that point to Tuolumne Meadows alternated from easy forest and meadow trails to extremely steep trails with many loose rocks, which I have nicknamed "ankle breakers." These steep trails are very slow for me, as I have to "baby" my knees, but I kept up my mileage, partly out of pride, and also because I was only carrying enough food to stay on schedule.
When I reached Tuolumne Meadows, the Post Office was closed, so I stayed over in the Backpackers Camp and enjoyed a hot breakfast before getting my resupply in the morning. When I got back on trail, I had a minor revelation that the John Muir Trail, which the PCT overlays through this section, is one of the best built and maintained trails anywhere. While the elevations and climbs present challenges, the trail itself is easy to hike.
Until reaching Kearsarge Pass, every day has had a similar pattern: climb up and over a ridge or pass, then down into a valley, then up the other side. Most days involved 20+ miles and 3,500+ ft. of climbing. Physically, this was some of the hardest hiking that I have done. At the same time, the scenery was amazing and it was worth every panting breath.
Along the way I detoured through the Devil's Postpile National Monument; grabbed breakfast at Red's Meadow, and just missed getting to meet a PCTA trail crew there. I took the ferry into the Vermillion Valley Resort and got my resupply bucket there, as well as three excellent meals.
In this section I met again quite a few people that I had hiked with previously, including Giggles, Kay, Out-of-the-Blue, Farmer, Anthony and Adrian, Four Eyes, River, and Patrick, who I started the trail with. It's remarkable how small the trail can feel at times
Now that I have hiked South past the entire "bubble" of Northbound hikers, I've completed my taxonomy of hikers with respect to the Sierras in 2018:
Mountaineers - the super early into the Sierras who went through while everything was still frozen. Another hiker called them the PTSD group, since they all seemed to be in a mild daze. These were almost all men in their 20's.
Gnarliest - the next group in who went when the conditions were still dangerous. Out of five people that I knew personally in this group, two had significant injuries, and one was almost swept away in a river crossing. The other two just said that it was cold, exhausting, and slow. Another hiker called it "type two fun," and clarified that it was fun to look back on, but not to go through.
Big Bubble - most hikers went through when conditions were safe and just called the snow "annoying."
Late Speedsters - hikers who started late, but who are hiking 25 to 30 miles every day. These hikers fly down the trail with seeming ease. Yep, I'm jealous.
Math Challenged - hikers who think they are thru-hiking, but who haven't worked out that they can't possibly finish the trail at their current pace. I usually encourage this group to be happy with whatever they complete.
Rong Way - people who have flipped one or more times, usually to avoid hiking in snow, but also for an inexhaustible list of personal reasons. I'm in this group, and flipped up to Dunsmuir and started South to minimize the risk to my fragile knees.
July 4th fell during this section, and I felt a strong sense of gratitude hiking the trail that day. First I'm grateful to live in a country with such beautiful mountains; second, I'm grateful for all the effort to create the parks and the trails that make the mountains accessible; and equally I'm grateful to my wife and children for being so supportive of my hike. I tried to express this gratitude in a video, once on Mather Pass, and then again two hours later at a lower elevation. Maybe some day I can find a more poetic voice.
This photo set includes a lot of panorama shots and a few videos, mostly of waterfalls. Even though I can't respond to your comments while I'm hiking, I enjoy reading your reactions. Photos from Sonora Pass to Kearsarge Pass