Our plan was to wake up at 5am to tackle Forester Pass, the first of many hair-raising passes we would encounter in the Sierra. This particular morning was extremely cold, so getting out of our tents took longer than we had anticipated the previous night. Once 6:15 rolled around, we were packed and ready to go. Right from the beginning we had to cross a leg of Tyndall Creek, but fortunately the nights freeze had slowed the river down to a more manageable pace, and we were able to cross without too much worry. Not the ideal way to start a day, with completely soaked-ice cold shoes.
Once we got moving, our feet warmed up and we were feeling pretty good again. Still five miles out from the top of Forester, we realized that we didn’t get the jump on the day that we should have. It’s so incredibly important to climb these passes before the sun gets to it, because once the sun warms up the ice these climbs can become unpredictable – any slight change in your footing can be the difference in life or death. That might seem like an over-exaggeration to some but until it’s you hiking up the face of these icy slopes you really have no clue. It’s a level of intensity I hadn’t felt, even in all my years of living in Mammoth Lakes in the High Sierra. You are out in the middle of nowhere, with no SAR (search and rescue) nearby in case you fall.
We got to the base of Forester and began our climb up. The trail is lost under many feet of snow, so the only thing to go off of is where the previous hikers decided to climb. The initial climb goes straight up, and after a few hundred-or-so feet you reach the switchbacks that takes you to the actual traverse across the Pass. The footsteps made across this section are deep, and you’d really have to not pay any attention at all to slip, but just the thought of slipping alone was enough to give you sweaty palms. If you were to slip here you would fall a few thousand feet over jagged rocks and ice. It would be a wrap on your hike, to say the least.
The gang minus me
Rooster just after he made it across
We took a short break up top to enjoy the views and to take a few pictures of our recent accomplishment, before continuing on. What goes up must come down, and this was a long descent ultimately leading us up to our second glissade of the thru-hike. What a good one this would prove to be! A couple hundred foot slide on your butt in the snow – what better way to spend a sunny Thursday afternoon as we entered into Kings Canyon National Park. We camped that night nearby Bullfrog Lake Junction at mile 788.5. We were all very excited for tomorrow we would be taking Kearsarge Pass to get off the PCT and hitch down into the town of Independence.
It felt like I had only closed my eyes for ten minutes by the time my alarm went off. I thought to myself, How could this be? My phone must be broken.. It was 12:45am and my first waking thought of the day was Nope . . no thanks, which is never a good sign for what’s to come. If not for Rooster and Lt. Dan already being up and at ’em I would have surely fallen back asleep and missed out on my chance to see a sunrise from on top of Whitney. We started the early morning off by instantly getting lost from the trail, but soon thereafter we ran into another group of hikers with the same ambition of hiking Whitney in the pitch black. Today was June 21st, the official ‘Hike Naked Day,’ and a member of this newly encountered group took that to heart and braved the conditions completely in the nude.
The trail crosses over a large field of snow nearby Guitar Lake, before going up on a seemingly endless array of switch backs. We all felt the urgency to push on and not take any breaks because we knew that if we were to miss the sunrise it would only be by a few minutes, every second was precious. We could see the glow from the sun as we neared the peak, and to our great surprise the sun was still yet to rise as we got to the summit around 5:20am. That morning the sun rose above the Earth at 5:39am, truly an image I will never forget.
We hung out on top for an hour or so, and after a few dozen pictures were snapped we signed the logbook and decided it was best that we got a move on. We ended up camping that night on a small clearing above the roaring Tyndall Creek, at one of the smaller legs of its delta just upstream. Where the trail actually crossed Tyndall would be suicide, so we decided it would be best to hike alongside the creek to hopefully find a better place to cross in the morning. The day as a whole was incredibly long, having hiked up and down Mt. Whitney followed by a not-so-easy hike arriving a few miles short of Forester Pass. I was hungry, cold, and wet but even under these conditions I fell fast asleep.
Miles 750.8 – 767.0 (+2 miles up towards Mt. Whitney)
Knowing that it was going to be a tough day, we decided to all wake up early at 5:30am in order to get a head start. Lt. Dan seemed to be in more of a rush than usual, taking off before anybody else had even gotten their packs situated. The three of us set out after him and almost immediately the trail turned to snow, nothing incredibly arduous but this would prove to be our first real test on the white slippery stuff. We finally caught back up with Lt. Dan about a mile just short of Rock Creek, and all reports had warned that this was the first tough river crossing the Sierra would offer. When we arrived to the river, at mile 760.5, we saw that where the trail crossed the river was not a good spot, that it would be incredibly dangerous to cross there . .
. . so we decided to walk a bit upstream and see if it mellowed out anywhere. After only a quarter-mile up we found where the river had a delta, and we crossed the couple of smaller streams that fed back into the one down below. Once we made it to the other side and bushwhacked back down to the PCT, we thought it would be a good point to break and eat lunch as well as dry our shoes before getting back at it.
Five miles after the crossing we came up to our first glissade of the Sierra. For those of you who don’t know what a glissade is, it’s when you slide down on the snow on your feet or on your butt as a mode of getting down. It’s good fun, but the first time you do it you aren’t sure of really how fast you might get going so typically one will err to the side of caution and go way slower than what is required to have a good time. This is exactly what I did, and after I made a vow that I would never let another glissade go by again without going for it fully and embracing the numb-butt. Immediately after this glissade we came up to another river crossing at Whitney Creek, a slow-moving but very deep section of river where we had to cross. The water came up to my chin at one point and trust me when I say that it wasn’t warm! Once we all got across we kept moving to heat back up, and just a short distance ahead was the junction for Mt. Whitney. This was a side trail, a trail that we would take all the way up in the morning to summit Mt. Whitney.
Trail that led up to the junction
We set up camp two miles north from that junction, and six miles below the top of Whitney. Towards the end of the day Rooster, Lt. Dan, and myself decided that it would be really cool if we attempted to do a sunrise summit of Mt. Whitney. We had heard of others attempting – some completing so we figured why not us . . and set the alarms on our phones for 12:30am! Painfully early, but we knew that if we got to the top before the sun rose above the horizon to the east it would all be worth it. Pistons decided the night before that he wouldn’t be coming with and that he was going to take the morning to rest up before heading to Forester Pass.
Lt. Dan got a head start on the day, heading out maybe fifteen minutes before Rooster and myself, Pistons being shortly behind us. We didn’t realize that just seven tenths of a mile after where we had camped last night was a far greater spot with better views, oh well. At mile 736.4 we refilled our water supply for the day at a stream by an abandoned corral, a buggy little spot with very poor water flow.
At mile 745.3 you reach a crossroads in the trail, this was a point at which you could get off trail and have access to get down to the town of Lone Pine. Leaving Kennedy Meadows we planned for ten or so days worth of food, to get all the way from KM to Kearsarge Pass in order to get to the town of Bishop, so we kept on moving onward. We eventually stopped at Poison Meadow Spring for more water and a short pre-lunch break and it was there that I found a bunch of “Sierra Onions,” a tall leafy plant that doesn’t look like any onions you probably have ever seen, but having lived in Mammoth Lakes for seven years in my younger twenties I was well aware of their existence. I chopped a few of these bulb-less onions up, and I believe it was Rooster that was bold enough to give it a taste. We would be eating many more of these in the coming months.
Meadow before Chicken Spring Lake
One last push up to the lake
Later in the day we stopped to eat right smack dab on the trail at a small stream crossing with an amazing view of Mt. Whitney. This was our first sight of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, such a crazy feeling knowing that we would be on the summit of this giant peak in just a few short days. The rest of the day was extremely enjoyable, crossing through another gorgeous meadow ultimately stopping at Chicken Spring Lake – mile 750.8. The lake sits at an elevation of 11,220 ft, and although there may have been signs saying “No Campfires above 10,000 ft,” we may or may not have still had one. One might argue that we are all going to hiker hell.
Chicken Spring Lake
We waited for this cloud to rain heavily but it never did
Excuse me sir, can I see your campfire permit?
It was at this spot that Lt. Dan and I had realized we were running low on food, and that we still had three full days before getting off at Kearsarge Pass. It’s never fun when the supply starts to run low . .
Last night we slept right alongside another group of hikers, and when we woke up they were all still sound asleep in their tents. So we packed up as quietly as possible and got a move on immediately starting out on a 1,700-ft ascent. After the climb we dropped back down and a few miles later we walked into the most beautiful scene on the trail thus far, Gomez Meadow.
You pass through on a small, wooden bridge that cuts over the grassy meadow. Even in this extremely wet year we couldn’t find a good source for water, so we hung out for maybe ten minutes and continued on. Too bad, because I wouldn’t have minded staying there all day. Just a mile up trail was our next source for water, at Death Canyon Creek-mile 730.0. This was a very good spot for relaxing and we all decided to take our lunch here. I eventually found a perfect little section of stream to sit in and bathe, so I did just that . . and if anyone was drinking downstream from where I was sitting I do apologize for the odd tasting water you most definitely consumed on that day.
Four and one half miles later, after a small weather system came through and rained down on us, we made it to a spot on the trail that overlooks the entire Owens Valley to the east. My entire life I had always loved the Owens Valley, driving through it what seemed like a million times to get up to Mammoth Lakes. This time was different though, I was on top of the mountains that I had always peered up to while driving HWY 395. It was a special moment for me, a romantic flash of time that I am not soon to forget.
Leaving Death Canyon Creek
Small system started raining
Climbing up to Ownes Valley Lookout
One final note for the day, Kelsey aka Diggs decided that it was best for her to go on by herself from this point forward for whatever reasons she had. We had no choice but to respect her decision. This would be the last time any of us saw her for the remainder of the trail. The group that would be moving on from here was myself, Dan Herr aka Lt. Dan, Kellan Cardio aka Rooster, and Mark Ryan aka Pistons.
After seeing the sign reading “South Sierra Wilderness,” we all became extremely giddy knowing that we were about to get in some seriously beautiful areas. You follow Crag Creek for a few miles followed by a climb just to the west of Deer Mountain at mile 712.3 and once you get to the top of this particular climb you walk into the very first meadow of the Sierra.
PCT- into Beck Meadow
At mile 716.5 you reach Kern River/Monache Meadow where the trail crosses over on a wooden bridge. When we arrived we saw some good friends, the SloBo’s and a few others! They were all in the river swimming and using their inflatable sleeping pad’s as rafts to float down the river, I couldn’t pass up a great time like this so I quickly busted out my pad and started walking up river. The water was cold but so worth it, I think I floated down the same two hundred yard stretch about five times.
Sierra Selfie – still not ok
Kern River/Monache Meadow
Up close and personal Kern
That night we made it to mile 719.2, at Cow Creek & Tentsite. This evening would be our first taste of what the mosquitos could be like in the Sierra, we knew now that these skeeters were complete savages and would stop at nothing to get under our skin . .
Anthony woke me up early in the morning to say one last goodbye. The time had come for him to catch a hitch into Lone Pine, from there he would take a bus into Los Angeles. This early departure shook the group up quite a bit, his laid back attitude and intelligence would be missed. On top of Anthony’s exit from the PCT our other good friend Splinter decided to call it quits as well. Being from Nebraska she would have quite the journey to get home, not really having any plans on how she was going to manage that. Her reasons for getting off the trail were less mental, mainly that she was running low on money and she had two bum knees. Our trail family was shrinking, but we did gain one member that had finally caught back up, Diggs.
Every now and then an unplanned low mileage day occurs, for an array of unforseen reasons. Today was one of those days, where everything seemed to take longer. The temperature was also well in the 90’s, not ideal hiking weather by any means. We finally set off to hike at around 6:30pm for only 2.4 miles to Kennedy Meadows Camp, a nice campground with established fire pits and picnic tables. We weren’t alone at this site, it was Friday and the campground was filled up with weekend warriors all out having a good time.
Waking up well past what I had been used to was a treat, even if my head was throbbing a bit and my body was desperately needing water. Today was a planned zero day, a day to refuel and re-energize and what better place than the general store at Kennedy Meadows. After an hour we hopped into the back of a truck and took the short ride down the street to the Grumpy Bear Retreat, a restaurant that is known for their pancake challenge (Not the real pancake challenge that takes place is Seiad Valley, CA). I’ve never been a huge fan of pancakes personally, I think they’re great for no more than five bites . . so needless to say I did not partake in this challenge.
After breakfast we walked across the street to Triple Crown Outfitters, a brand new shop that is in a crucial point on the trail. It’s owner is Jackie McDonnel aka Yogi, a thru-hiking beast and co-author of everyone’s PCT Bible “Yogi’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook.” Although Yogi wasn’t there, her partner “Worldwide” Matt Signore was and he was extremely knowledgeable and friendly. Definitely a must see place when you are in KM.
There was one downside to being in Kennedy Meadows in mid-June of 2017, the fear mongering. More than half of all hikers this year would not be entering into the Sierra, opting to “flip-up” to Northern California or even Oregon, hike north to the Canadian border and then come back to where they had originally flipped to and hike south to back to Kennedy Meadows to complete their “thru-hike”. This is all fine and dandy if that is what you choose to do but it was shocking how a lot of these people would try to scare others into adopting the same game plan. To me there was never a choice of flipping or skipping, I was a northbound hiker and my plan was to do just that. I had to bite my tongue on multiple occasions there in KM and walk away from certain people. It was sad to see so many people applying their fears to others, but luckily my group never succumbed to these fear-hucksters. We were going straight through, and that was exciting.
For the rest of the day we basically just got our gear fine-tuned and ready to go for a departure into the Sierra for the following day. After our chores were done we had a few more beers, played a couple of games of chess, and ended the night with an amusing bonfire.