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

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

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