Opening Statement

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Friday, June 22, 2018

P18.10 Donner Pass to Sonora Pass - 140 PCT miles

After my three-day home visit, my wife Christine drove me back to Donner Pass where I got back on trail continuing southbound.  I felt like a lumbering pack mule carrying food for a 140 mile section, the longest trail section I have ever carried food for. 

Climbing out of Donner Pass the trail crosses highway 40 and an historic and defunct railroad line with the snow tunnels still intact.  Apparently the old right of way is now a hiking trail. 

About six that evening I hit a large snowfield and began to ponder possible camping spots.  Using my phone to look at a topo map I noticed a map feature blink in and out of visibility.  Playing with the map I found just the right zoom level for the Benton Ski Hut to show up.  It felt a little like penetrating into another dimension to find this elusive marking.  The ski hut was just a bit off trail, and was a perfect shelter from the rising wind, with me as the solo occupant.

The next few days the trail was mostly clear of snow, with just small snow fields on the more protected north-facing slopes.  I had to work hard carrying my heavy pack, but the beautiful mountain scenery was ample compensation. 

The second night I made it to Barker Pass, where I was again the only camper.  I was interested to hike through Desolation Wilderness the next day, where I had backpacked before, but never from this end of the park.  I wanted to get over Dick's Pass that day and had received many ominous reports of the snow that I would have have to cross to get to the pass itself.  Mentally I created a timetable for getting to the pass and just squeaked under it, crossing out of the snowfield at around 6 pm.  The trail down to Gilmore Lake was thankfully easy. 

Waking to freezing temperatures at Gilmore Lake, I stumped out of the Desolation Wilderness, reaching the Berkeley Echo Lake Camp at around noon.  Just as I arrived at the camp, hail pelted down, and I ran the last few hundred feet.  Kate and Coltrane, two family friends, are working at the camp this summer, and I had intended just a quick stop to say hello.  The hail helped me decide to stay the night, and I spent most of that afternoon next to the fire in their lodge.

After breakfast and hugs, I headed out toward Carson Pass, with Sonora Pass my further destination.  Along the way I started seeing other hikers that I had met in the desert section.  The consensus seemed to be that pushing through the Sierras so early was exhausting, wet, cold, and dangerous.  Two of my trail friends had fallen and been injured, and one had a close call on a stream crossing.  As one hiker expanded "it was type two fun, not fun at the time, but good to look back on." Even though I didn't want that particular adventure, I can understand the impulse to do something really difficult and even risky as a contrast to our ordinay life.

Although I've now hiked more than 3,000 miles on the PCT, I'm often mistaken for a weekend backpacker by other thru-hikers.  On the run up to Sonora Pass I had unsolicited advice to be careful on the snow from two hikers, and replies to my queries that had me expecting a large snowfield on the way to the pass.  In the end the snowfield covered just a 0.4 miles of trail, so it wasn't hard to get past.  There were some points in the snow where a fall would likely be fatal, so I did try my best to stay upright.

During this section I met about 100 northbound hikers who had made it through the high Sierras.  This subset of hikers was dominated by men in their 20's, with all other trail demographic groups greatly under represented.  I think this will all change back to a more balanced mix further north.

After reaching Sonora Pass, I hitched into the Kennedy Meadows Pack Station (aka Kennedy Meadows North), where I'm taking a rest day before continuing south.

To get an idea of the spectacular scenery in this section, take a look at the photo album here: Photos for Donner Pass to Sonora Pass

Sunday, June 10, 2018

P18.9 Belden to Donner Pass, 127 PCT miles

Climbing southbound out of Belden the trail transitions from a landscape where volcanic forces had the upper hand to the beginning of the Sierras with their tectonic and glacial influences.  As if to punctuate the change, I surprised black bears on both the first and second days.  One was just a bit off trail and went crashing away through the underbrush, and the second was actually standing on the trail with his back to me until he looked around and also galloped off.

The scenery was dominated by mossy forests, fast-running streams, and craggy mountains.  There were also beautiful mountain lakes, including Tamarack Lakes, where I camped one night.

This was an interesting section for meeting other hikers.  In the 127 miles of this section, after passing one other hiker on the first day, I didn't see another southbound hiker.  Many of the dozen or so northbound hikers that I met had "made it through" the Sierras.  To paraphrase their common experience:  Wet, Cold, Exhausting, and sometimes Sketchy.  Oh, and almost as an afterthought, very beautiful. Undoubtedly, fresh snow creates a magical scene.

"Sketchy" has taken over on the PCT for:  dangerous, irritatingly difficult, or unpleasant.  This nearly all-purpose term can be applied to steep snow traverses, river crossings, weather conditions, and campground bathrooms.  Unfortunately it's use is now so widespread that a "sketchy" traverse could be anything from life-threatening to simply one where extra caution makes sense.  More on the "trail of 1,000 opinions" later.

In an earlier post, I outlined three things that I like about long-distance hiking:  traversing vast landscapes; living simply; and, tolerance and acceptance.  Here are a few more:

  1. Beauty:  The photo sets give you a very small taste of the beauty that hikers are immersed in.  It's an extraordinary blessing to be soaked in the beauty of nature day after day.
  2. Community or comraderie:  Whatever term you use for it, the mutual positive regard between hikers, and between hikers and others in the wider community, is a constant source of positive feedback that all of us enjoy.  It's also fun to be a "D list" celebrity ("hey are you hiking that trail?").
  3. Relaxation:  Remember this is my list ... and I have to add the profound relaxation that follows a long day of hiking, as well as the brief relaxation of taking a break in the sun.  
  4. Weight loss:  A bit prosaic, and hard to maintain, but losing 20+ pounds feels great, even if it doesn't all stay off once back at home.
  5. Fitness:  Hiking 10+ hours a day has increased my fitness significantly, and being more fit is a great feeling.
  6. Craft:  Backpacking, like most activities, relies on a great deal of specific knowledge and judgement gained through experience.  I get pleasure out of becoming more skilled at the craft of backpacking.  

Most of this trail section was uneventful.  Simply one amazing day after another.  I did have some trepidation over the Sierra City to Donner Pass section, as I knew there would be significant snow in that section.  Naturally I consulted northbound hikers that had passed through this section in the last few days.  Ask two PCT hikers a question, and you are likely to get three opinions.  Some of the feedback that I got was: 

  • quite a bit of snow, but you can make it through
  • snow for 21 miles of the trail
  • a lot of snow, but "doable" (always a very subjective and vague assessment)
  • traction devices would be helpful (this refers to using crampons or microspikes to get over a "sketchy" section)
  • I glissaded down some of the switchbacks ... not sure how you can climb up them
  • cold, wet feet for two days

The trend of these comments had me a bit concerned, but basically I was committed to hiking that section, so I didn't worry too much about it.  You can leave extra time for a difficult section, but ultimately once you decide to hike it, there isn't much point in stressing about it in advance, and you can be sure that your own description of the section will be different from most of the people that you consulted.  In the end, there were seven and one-half miles with significant snow cover, just one 0.8 mile continuous snow field, and only about 0.2 miles of direct-route climbing past switchbacks that were snow-covered.  In net:  not a big deal.

The last full day on trail I awoke to heavy winds and cold temperatures, and had a hard push to make it 22.5 miles, including getting through most of the snow section.  My reward was staying at the Peter Grubb Hut, which is a Sierra Club hut just 3.2 miles short of Donner Pass.  A group of five hikers from Reno were already at the hut when I arrived, and they had a fire going in the stove which brought the temperature up to about 50 degrees in the hut.  Caveman, an Austrian PCT hiker, arrived shortly after I did.  Following a quick dinner and chat with Caveman I called it a night and slept soundly, as usual. 

The next morning I popped out of the trail at the I-80 rest-area at Donner Pass.  My wife Christine had driven up from Richmond to pick me up and we are enjoying a chance to catch up, not having seen each other since April 1st.  I'll start back on trail in a few days.

You can see some of the amazing scenery for this section, as well as some of the snow near Donner Pass at this link:  Photos for Belden to Donner Pass

Monday, June 4, 2018

P18.8 Castella to Belden, 214 PCT miles

After reaching Kennedy Meadows, I went home for a six day break.  To get back on trail, I took a night train up to Dunsmuir, which is just a few miles from the PCT.  While waiting for the train to pull in at 5 AM, a former park ranger on the train offered me a ride to the trailhead, which saved me an early morning road walk.  There were a few other hikers on the train, but since they were in business class, they ended up walking to the trail.

The trail up from Castella rises so smoothly that another hiker described it as having been designed by railroad engineers.  I tried to get up a head of steam, but was tired, and already making slow progress when rain started falling at 11 AM.  At 13 miles in, I pitched my tent in the rain, and didn't budge until the next morning,  breaking camp as a light rain continued to fall.  So much for the desert, and welcome to Northern California!

The weather cleared up on the afternoon of the second day, and it has been pleasant since then.

Flipping to Castella put me in a much smaller group of hikers, giving me a lot more solitude.  Chatting with other hikers is enjoyable, but beauty, birdsong, and fresh air really carry the day for me.  I was thinking about why people hike the PCT, and it seems to me that there are three reasons: athletic challenge; fun adventure; and, self discovery or growth.  I'm mostly in the camp of fun adventure, but I have a dose of the others as well. 

Before starting the PCT someone who isn't a hiker commented to me that thru-hiking is more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge.  I've puzzled over that comment and realize now after talking with other hikers that have experience on both trails that the AT is not physically demanding in the same way that the PCT is.  In fact the PCT and CDT are both physically difficult for most people to complete in a season, so just finishing the trail is a meaningful athletic achievement.

In this section the trail runs through areas that have been shaped both by volcanic eruptions and plate tectonics.  The Hat Creek Rim runs almost straight for 29 waterless miles along an escarpment of volcanic rock.  I was lucky to have cool weather crossing that section.  On my second day on the rim, I was rewarded for rising early by meeting a skunk crossing the trail in front of me. 

The next day I woke in a beautiful pine forest and hiked into Lassen National Park, moving quickly to make it the 23 miles to Drakesbad Guest Ranch by 4:30 PM to pick up a resupply package.  I didn't see a single person during the hike, but did surprise a bear about three miles from the ranch.  They didn't have my package afterall, but did invite me to join their staff dinner of salmon, broccolini, and rice pilaf, finishing with strawberry shortcake, so any worries were forgotten.  I had only 19 miles to a road crossing for Chester, so I got on trail early and hiked through the park and on to the road.  Minutes later I had a ride into Chester where my package turned out to be waiting for me at the Post Office, despite being addressed to the ranch.  I enjoyed a late lunch and was hiking again by late afternoon, again getting a ride back in just minutes.

By day 10 of being back on trail I was ready for a rest day, so I've settled in on the porch at Belden.  Shorts, Crush, and Newt showed up, who I knew from the desert section, and we enjoyed a meal together, but since they are headed north I probably won't see them again for awhile.

I took pictures every day, so to get more of a day by day sense of the landscape, please see: Photos from Castella to Belden