Installment No. 1 of My PCT Journey
On August 5th, seven weeks after knee surgery, I found myself at the summit of Mt. Whitney. [applause, applause!]
I found myself on that summit for several reasons: the love of hiking, excellent medical care, determination and hard work. I was absolutely determined not to allow an injury to hinder my love of hiking. When I first injured my knees, I was heartbroken at the prospect of never hiking a long trail, or even day hiking, again in my life. Luckily, I had an excellent surgeon and physical therapist, who put me in right order in no time. Two years prior, I had to exit the John Muir Trail (JMT) after 90 miles because torn cartilage in both knees left me scooting down Selden Pass on my backside. In the year leading up to the JMT, I had fallen in love with the idea of long distance hiking, but hadn’t yet done a backpacking trip longer than 3 days. Every minute of planning for that trip and every day on the trail had been a joy, and leaving the trail early was crushing. I cried like a baby at Muir Trail Ranch as I faced the decision to leave early. It seems like a small thing, but it was one of the most disappointing moments of my life.
Fast-forward to June, 2013. As I sat in the surgeon’s office, discussing the operation and recovery, I made the decision, then and there, I would hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail over the next year. In my mind at the time, the PCT was the ultimate long distance trail; and, if I strove for it, maybe even succeeded, I felt I would have truly healed: body and heart.
It makes sense that my journey should start with the tallest peak in the contiguous United States, right? I chose to start with this particular section of the PCT and Mt. Whintey because I missed out on it when I didn’t finish the JMT. Plus, it’s one of the best places to do an August hike!
I’ve decided to section hike Southern California until the end of the school year, and then begin my thru-hike next Spring. If I go northbound, I’ll begin the thru-hike at Onion Valley and finally complete the remaining miles of the JMT; if southbound, I’ll end at Onion Valley. Either way, it kinda feels like coming full circle.
The first trail steps of my PCT Journey began after a car shuttle. I left my car at Onion Valley Campground below Kearsarge Pass and was driven by my good friends, Jonathan and Brendan, to Horseshoe Meadow. We stopped in between for lunch at Lone Pine’s Mt. Whitney Restaurant. I think our server was having a bad day, but the Pasta Primavera was DELICIOUS!
As I disembarked from Horseshoe Meadow and the boys (it was adorable how much they fussed over me— thanks, guys!), my stomach was all a flutter with excitement and apprehension. What if my knees didn’t work? What if I was lonely and scared? What if I was cold, PMSy, or my homemade food sucked? OH, WELL! I was out the gate and there was no point in worrying any more. I was going to take one step at a time and one night at a time, and each of my fears would just have to wait in line like everything else!
My plan took me up Trail Pass Trail a couple miles to join the PCT near mile 745.5. If arriving at Horseshoe Meadow made me feel like a 6 year-old at Disneyland’s gates, then stepping onto the PCT felt like climbing into a car on Space Mountain!
I intended to only hike about 3 miles and find a campspot near Poison Meadow Spring. Despite really taking my time climbing up Trail Pass Trail, I still felt like I was making excellent time, especially after I had reached the PCT and the trail had leveled off. I had found my stride and it felt great! I took time to look around at the views, trees, rocks, & vegetation. I’ve always loved the drama of the rocks and trees in the Sierras. As the sun became low in the sky, I reached for my super cute, super cheap pink sunglasses only to find them missing already. I dropped my pack and scurried back along the trail at least 2/3 of a mile looking for the glasses, to no avail! Shuffling back to my dropped pack, I saw that the sun was ready to set and I still hadn’t found a place to camp. Bivy camping means pretty much anywhere could potentially be a camping spot— I could sleep directly on the trail if I had to, but it’s not the best. Nonetheless, a beautiful campsite appeared not too far up the trail.
I tossed out my sleeping pad, unrolled my Zpacks bivy sack, and changed into my pj’s. After getting every thing set-up for cooking dinner, I noticed, for the first time, how very quiet it was around me. As I had seen only a few hikers that afternoon, and they were all exiting the trail as I entered, I felt quite alone. I boiled some water and poured it into a freezer bag with dry quinoa and chicken soup. Dropping my water balloon of a dinner bag into a cozy, I crawled over the rocks to watch the sunset across the valley below.
Lots of my gear was new for this trip, and I was still getting used to it. In an attempt to lighten my base weight, I treated myself to a Zpack’s Arcblast backpack, a Zpack’s bivy sack, a Therm-a-Rest Z-lite sleeping pad, and a little Trangia alcohol stove. I was also trying out a new FlexAir Ultralight Pillow, which I had read about on Lady on a Rock’s blog. (It’s a great blog, so check it out!)
Comfort being a top priority for me in the backcountry, I was excited to find a comfortable pillow that weighs less than an ounce. The pillow gets inflated with a plastic straw, and then some ingenious folds in the material trap the air inside once the straw is removed. After having tested the pillow at home with great success, I was frustrated to no end as my head kept slowing sinking to the cold ground throughout the night. I couldn’t figure out if I had screwed up the fabric folds in the pillow or if maybe it had something to do with the elevation, but there were no pillow parties to be had that night.
The first night out in the wilderness is always the toughest, particularly when you’re alone. It had been over a year since I’d slept in the woods, and almost two years since I’d done my one and only other solo trip. The silence presses in on you, the unfamiliar feel of your sleep set-up and the climate against your face, and the inevitable boredom which your mind, just for entertainment’s sake, spins toward dark, scary thoughts. I found myself straining for the sound of cracking branches, indicating an approaching bear, lion, demented hiker, or aliens… I fancied I’d distract myself with star gazing, but my face was so cold I couldn’t be bothered to stick it out of my bag. I was beginning to feel like a failure. “How can I handle a week out here, if I can’t get past one night?!” As I couldn’t shut down my new super power of extra-dimensional senstive hearing, I dug out my Kindle and listened to Little Bee by Chris Cleave until I fell asleep.
Waking up the next morning, I felt like a new person… a new person with a dead Kindle battery. Looking around my comfortable, now very safe-looking campsite, I felt silly for being so wound-up the night before. If every night was going to be like the first, I’d have a lot of Kindle charging to do during the day! Tossing that thought aside, I packed myself up and powered through the morning toward Cottonwood Pass and Chicken Spring Lake. As charming as the softly rolling and pine tree-carpeted mountains of the southern Sierras were, I was anxious to move into higher elevations, the more dramatic mountains, and the otherworldly scencery that comes with them.
While surveying the view of Horseshoe Meadow from the top of Cottoonwood Pass, I met at least 10 hikers and a dog. Seeing so many people, I again felt silly about the previous night’s mental drama. One of the hikers I met was fun lady named Suma Fong training for a hike in Peru, and it turns out she lives not far from my neighborhood in Southern California. We exchanged info and I hope to hike with her soon!
My goal for Day 2 was to hike 12.5 miles to Rock Creek and camp there for the night. Along my way I continually leapfrogged with a family of 6 also aiming for Mt. Whitney. After passing Chicken Spring Lake, the next water source would be Rock Creek, so I carried several quarts of water for the day. For most of the day, the trail was quite warm, dry and dusty.
As the day went on, my feet started to hurt, so I thought I’d try some sandal hiking for the first time ever. It was pretty awesome, and I think I might be hooked! Your feet do get exponentially dirtier hiking in sandals, but that just gives you an excuse to soak them at the creek. Just be extra mindful as you’re placing each step because a small slip can easily lead to a bloody toe.
The afternoon turned out to be a lovely hike down into the Rock Creek area. There were more trees, grass, meadows, and little brooks feeding into the larger Rock Creek. I reached the campground in the late afternoon, and as I passed the first, totally sweet looking campsite, I spotted a Hennessy Hammock swinging in the trees. (Side note: I LOVE hammock camping and get super excited when I meet anyone on the same page.) Turns out the hammock belonged to a friendly Orange County kid named David who was hiking with his friend Danny. They were such a couple of kindred spirits, I promised to return for dinner that evening.
I was absolutely entranced with Rock Creek. The creek itself was a spakling brown and the soft trees and grass surrounding gave the area a comforting ambiance. There are several campsites along the trail here and a bearbox near the creek crossing. I pulled EVERYTHING out of my pack and spread it all out as if I were in my living room at home. Making myself feel even MORE at home, I walked down the creek, stripped down past my skivvies, and took a very coooold bath.
Now that I was as clean as I could get, I boiled water to rehydrate some chicken couscous with veggies and reorganized my pack. With my couscous still cooking inside a cozy, I made my way back up the trail toward David and Danny for a bit of a dinner party. They were such fun! Danny was a vibrant soul with a neverending thirst to exchange information and stories. David was on the quiet and pensive side, but he and I definitely connected over the famous Shug’s Youtube hammock videos. (Check out one of Shug’s Whoooooo Buddy! Youtube videos here.) Since they had both just gotten back from summiting Mt. Whitney, they filled me in on all the details. Such as, get up to Guitar Lake early because all the good spots will be taken quickly! We shared some Trader Joe’s gummy penguins and other simple delights while the night darkened around us. Being the gentlemen they were, they both escorted me down the dark trail and past the other campers.
I slept in the next morning until 8am. It seemed the sun was already high in the sky… must’ve been too much partying the night before. Speaking of the night, none of the demons from the previous evening visited me again, to my delight! I think it had much to do with the fact that other campers were mere yards away and I fell asleep to the bell-like sounds of Rock Creek.
Feeling behind schedule, I threw together my gear and, after nearly tottering into Rock Creek, pushed up the switchbacks that awaited me. As I reached the top of the switchbacks, I felt strong, I felt fast, I felt like Superwoman! … and then I felt hot. I reached over my pack to pull down my Sheila hat, but I was grasping at air. For almost a minute I couldn’t really believe it wasn’t there. I kept reaching around from different directions (probably looked quite funny!), then took off the pack to check, and finally eyeballed the trail below. It was NO WHERE. I had left it back at Rock Creek, waaaaaay below the switchbacks I had just powered up. After having lost my uber cute pink sunglasses on Day 1, I wasn’t about to loose my Sheila hat, too. Down into the trail dirt went my backpack, and down to Rock Creek I charged. Huffing and puffing, not with exhaustion, but with indignation.
On the way down, I passed the family of 6 I had been leapfrogging the day before. Not a word more than “howdy-do” was exchanged, but they seemed to have an idea of the situation; and they parted like the Red Sea for me. There, hanging on a slender, very Charlie-Brown-Christmas-Tree looking sort of pine, was my hat. I snatched it up and, with a few indecent words, crossed Rock Creek for the third time. The family and I had a good laugh at my expense as I hustled back to my pack. I told them, I’d probably see them over and over at the rate I was going.
It was a lovely day for hiking and the 8 miles went by quickly. Every corner I turned, every hill I topped was exciting. I kept humming “The Bear Went Over the Mountain…” over and over. It got old, but the views didn’t!
Stepping into lower Crabtree Meadow was a magical moment for me. It had the quintessential soft grass, green trees, mountain views, and babbling brook. The magic couldn’t even be broken by a very grumpy hiker who, according to his lady companions, hadn’t eaten enough that day.
I stopped at the meadow for lunch and device charging. Next time, I need to rig up my pack so I can just charge my gear while I walk. I’m using a Suntactics solar charger and love it! It’s lightweight, right for the price, and hasn’t ever failed me.
At that point, I temporarily departed the PCT and stepped onto the JMT, the trail I was so heartbroken to leave two years prior. The JMT pretty much follows the PCT all the way from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite to Crabtree Meadow, then breaks off and finishes at the summit of Whitney.
At Rock Creek Junction, there’s a famous box full of “wag bags” which you’re required to carry above that elevation for your… um… waste. I think most people fly through the junction, pick up their bag, and head on up. Seeing as I wanted to poke around Upper Crabtree Meadow, which was just across the creek from the junction, I was lucky enough to spot a peculiar sign to find in the wilderness: “Toilet.”
The outhouse was located at the end of the meadow on a raised platform and had just two walls. As you sat there, you looked straight out onto the meadow. It truly felt like a throne, and I had to laugh as I sat there.
All the way up to Guitar Lake, the trail follows Whitney Creek, which was just beautiful. Every time I happened upon a little beach or conventiently placed sitting rock next to the creek, I wanted to stop and absorb it all. I was careful not to dilly dally too much, as I remembered David and Danny’s advice about getting up to Guitar Lake early for a good campspot. And an excellent campspot I did find!
There must’ve been at least 30 campers at Guitar Lake that evening; and, yes, all the good spots were taken quickly! I had fun stacking rocks around my little home for the night. I knew there probably wouldn’t be any wind, but the inner Lincoln Log-lovin’ child in me couldn’t resist. Dinner that evening was ramen with chicken and veggies with a fabulous lakeside seat.
I chatted with a trio of Brits next door who were all very interesting and fun. One of them was a music critic from London, one of them had two knee replacements, and one of them helped me rig up my trekking pole to hold the bivy cord away from my face.
I expected it to be a cold night because we were at an elevation of 11,552 feet. Turns out the rocks gave off a fair amount of warmth and cold air likes to sink to the bottom of valleys. It was quite chilly at 4:00 in the morning when I woke up. I peeked out of my nest and saw a train of twinkling lights making its way up the side of Mt. Whitney. Turns out many hikers had started hiking at 2 a.m. to catch the sunrise at the summit. I thought how noble and awesome they all were, and then snuggled deeper into my bag. An hour later I was up and packing. I set off for the climb in the dark with the trail to myself. The Brits were up, too, but took their time making tea.
As I reached the tarns just above Guitar Lake I was already feeling winded and my pack felt heavy. Further up, an older gentleman caught me by surprise when he called from off the trail, “Last water source!” That got us talking and, since I was going to be coming back down the same way, he convinced me to leave all my gear right there on the side of the trail. At first I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. What if someone stole something? What would I do without a sleeping bag or my stove? Upon further consideration, I came to the conclusion no one in their right mind would want to carry any more gear either up Whitney or down it, so my gear was sure to be safe! Learning to trust other hikers was a new lesson for me that day.
I felt kinda naked with only my lunch, water bottles, and camera/phone in my big backpack, but I also felt lighter! My new friend, Kellen, and I hiked all the way to the summit together. We had some good chats along the way about life back home (he’s an attorney from New Mexico, who does Shakespearean acting on the side) and pointing out cool views to each other.
The switchbacks were really not so bad going up, plus the views were a great distraction from any physical discomfort. I do wonder, though, if there is possibly a rockier place in the universe that Mt. Whitney.
Halfway up the switchbacks, we came to a well known bivy campsite. It gave me the shivers just looking at the sheer drop off one side of the site. I knew that if I ever camped there, I’d be the goose who got up in the night for a pee and tumbled off the side!
Passing Whitney Portal Trail Crest, it was just another 1.9 miles to the summit. The next portion of the trail was even rockier than the switchbacks, and scrambling over rocks with verticle drops to one side gave me a sense of mountaineering, rather than hiking.
There were many moments of lightheadedness as I adjusted to the altitude, but I felt good nonetheless. Kellen and I reached the top just before the Brits and shortly after the sunrise crowd had left. We’d also beaten the crowd coming up from Whitney Portal, so we pretty much had the summit to ourselves. I sat there and ate my hummus and crackers, taking pictures, and counted how many weeks it’d been since my knee surgery. I didn’t cry for joy or anything, but I did feel really good about myself. I tried calling my parents, but didn’t get any reception. One of the Brits did, though. It was surreal listening to him talk to Delta about changing his return flight to the UK.
Just as the Whitney Portal hiker pack started to trickle in, Kellen and I moved on out. He moved much faster than me down the mountain because my knees, which felt so great going up, were hurting on the way down- and what a long way down it was! I stopped at Guitar lake to eat lunch and soak my knees in the freezing cold water. In order to get my knees in the water, I had to actually SIT in the water. It was icy cold and I sat there for as long as I could stand it. As soon as a breeze kicked in, my whole body began shaking like my old Mazda on it’s last legs; I was outta there. Looking back, I think maybe I should’ve made a cup of hot tea to sip while soaking.
Earlier that day, I had thought I’d hike further down and camp at Wallace Creek, but my knees were saying “No, too much down hill!” I decided I’d aim for Upper Crabtree Meadow instead. It’d be nice to check out my friend, the outhouse, again, anyhow!
Upper Crabtree was overrun with a charming group of 12 year old Boy Scouts from Orange County and their dads. They were super friendly, and I couldn’t help but gawk at the amount of Mountainhouse and Backpacker’s Pantry meals they’d brought, not to mention the size of their stove. With all the gentlemen around, I had to be especially discreet about sponge bathing up the creek and changing into my pjs behind bushes. Kellen camped nearby and, with all the people that night, there was definitely a festive feeling in the air.
It appeared to be true: the cold air definitely seemed to settle in the lower elevations because it was cold that night! I was up at 6 a.m. and sneaked out of camp before anyone else was awake. I wasn’t really sure where I might camp that evening, but my original goal had been Tyndall Creek below Forester Pass. I decided I’d just take it easy and see how my knees felt when I got there.
Two miles down the trail that morning, I stoped to change out of my pj’s and eat breakfast. As I dug through my pack, I had the feeling something was missing. Hat? Check. Spot GPS? Check. Bivy?Check. Kindle? … iPod? … solar charger? … Having taken out my electronics bag that morning to pack up my bear canister, I had left the bag on top of the bearbox. Again went the backpack into the dirt, and again began the huffing and puffing of indignation, only this time, it was surlier. A mile into my electronics bag recovery mission, I passed Kellen on his way up the trail. He offered to wait for me and I told him not to bother, that I’d catch-up. And catch-up I did! It was amazing how fast I could move without a backpack. With a quick “Good Morning!” to the Scouts, I scooped up my bag and dashed back to my waiting pack. Kellen must’ve been taking his sweet time because he was only a bit further up the trail after I grabbed my pack (now with all gear accounted for).
Wallace and Wright Creeks were the next crossings and both were lovely spots. Part of me regretted not being able to camp at Wallace Creek because it was so pretty. As I hiked along, I suddenly found myself in the middle of what looked very much like the surface of Mars. Turns out it was Bighorn Plateau and I had completely forgotten it was coming up! It’s striking and austere beauty took away my breath, and I repeatedly stopped to gaze around. My photos can do it no justice because the camera just couldn’t capture the sense of immense space and of earth meeting sky.
Kellen moved on ahead and I was left to my own devices on the trail. Coming upon Tyndall Creek, I seriously considered staying there for the night because it was so nice, but it was only 2:00 and my legs were feeling good. As I had chosen to wear sandals this day, my feet were also feeling great. The sun was warm, the grass was soft- I could’ve just napped! Kellen had mentioned that there really wasn’t a place to camp between Tyndall and the other side of Forester Pass. At 13,180 feet, Forester is the highest pass on the PCT. I did some math and figured out that if I chose to do Forester Pass that afternoon, I’d get home a day early, and that settled it!
The trail leading up to Forester Pass is a long, slow climb. It’s hard to believe you’re at such a high elevation because the ascent is so gradual. The only thing that gave me any indication of the altitude was my breathing. The afternoon trickled on and I felt like I wasn’t making much progress at all. The pass still appeared to loom far ahead. Everytime I stopped for a break, I checked the map again. Even though Kellen had said there were no campsites between Tyndall and the other side of Forester, the map showed a small site right at the base of the pass’s switchbacks. I decided that if I couldn’t make it over Forester, I’d camp there for the night. That backup plan looked less and less like a backup and more like a reality as dark clouds pooled in the sky and I still felt so far from the pass.
Everyone I passed on the trail was heading down for the day. Reaching the last tarns before the switchbacks, I found the little bivy site. It looked cold and exposed, and with the threat of rain on my tarpless shelter set-up, I wasn’t feeling good about it. I looked up at the switchbacks, towering straight above like a skyscraper. There, halfway up, was a little red T-shirt I recognized. I yelled up to Kellen and asked if he thought I should stay put or heave on over. He said to go for it and he’d wait for me on the other side.
Swallowing a fruit leather and my fear of being struck by lightening, upward I charged. I was so determined to get over the pass before rain or thunder that I didn’t stop to take any pictures. Looking down was practically out of the question. It was a sheer drop to a very nasty end if I fell, and it made me dizzy peering over the side. The closer I got to the pass, the darker the clouds became. I kept wondering if my hair would get staticy and be shortly follow by Zeus aiming at me from above! As if the clouds knew I was nervous and wanted to see me get even jumpier, little snowflakes began to fall gently all around me.
Since, the weather had been predicted to be rain free, I hadn’t bothered to bring any waterproof gear. It seemed that if I wasn’t going to be electrocuted, I was still going to be chilled in my wet clothes and sleeping bag. I hustled over the pass to catch up with Kellen and could hardly believe the beauty of the valley on the other side. It looked like a prehistoric secret valley straight out of The Land Before Time. Again, it seemed as if the clouds were having a good go at me for their own entertainment because just as I reached Kellen, they began to break up. The snowflakes were still falling, but things were looking up for the evening!
I tailed after Kellen far enough down the valley to reach a collection of incredible campsites among some trees. Each site seemed to be cut into the hillside like Mesa Verde, and the beginnings of Bubbs Creek wrapped around them all.
An older couple were camped just above the site I picked. Hearing my plan of camping below the Forester switchbacks, the wife exclaimed it was good that I hadn’t. She said it was called Forester Base Camp and that she’d stayed there once only to find herself sinking into the damp earth all night long. I’m so glad I didn’t choose to bivy camp there! I felt VERY safe and cozy with the site I had for the night. I cooked up another qunioa and chicken soup and Kellen shared some of his leftover Mountain House Beef Chilli Mac. Checking the map, I couldn’t believe I’d actually put in 20 miles that day, especially with just my sandals. Without the electronics recovery mission, it would’ve only been 16 miles. Even though those 4 miles were done without a pack, I took pride in knowing it was the farthest I’d ever walked in a single day in my life. I fell asleep delighted at the thought of putting in more 20-miler days on the PCT and dreamed of having a burger in Lone Pine the following afternoon.
It was another cold night and I hiked the next morning amazed at all the frost around me. For most of the morning, the trail followed Bubbs Creek down into Evolution Valley. Bubbs must’ve been some guy to get such a beautiful, prominent creek named after him!
After a few miles of hiking together, Kellen needed to turn off onto a different trail. We said our goodbyes and congratulated each other on our Whitney summit. It was great having someone else for those moments of success and fear. And it’s those moments, which I know there will be more of, that make me hope to meet many more people like him on my PCT journey.
My own turn off from the PCT came up soon after Kellen departed. My exit trail would take me 7.1 miles over Kearsarge Pass and down into Onion Valley, where my car awaited me. They were surely some of the prettiest 7 miles I’d done on this trip. Or maybe they were just like all the other pretty spots I’d walked through, but these were extra special being, as they were, the final miles of the trip. The climb was difficult, but the lakes I passed were stunningly clear. I was tempted to relax for the afternoon by a couple of them, but the call of a Lone Pine burger was too strong! I made a mental note to come back to Bullfrog and Kearsarge Lakes for a little camping, exploring, and maybe fishing someday.
The long steep climb over Kearsarge was nothing compared to going down the other side. This trip taught me my knees would carry me uphill as far as I wanted, but downhill needed to be approached with TLC. I was really aching as I neared Onion Valley. Just as I was about to exit the trail, I saw a young hiker wearing a T-shirt from a school I where teach, and I stopped him to see if he’d been a student there. Indeed he had been! It was incredible to chat with him about mutual acquintances there at the end of Kearsarge Pass! It’s amazing to me how we can step out of our comfortable civilized bubbles, and still find people to connect with.