We hitched back to Horseshoe Meadow from Lone Pine the same day, intending to night hike the 1.8 miles back to the PCT at Trail Pass.
Our plans were somewhat thrown aside when we met Badfish, who was car camping at Horseshoe Meadow to acclimatise to high altitude for a snow course he was taking. As soon as we got out of the car, he approached us and once he ascertained we were PCT hikers, offered us some beers. It was clear that we weren’t going anywhere any time soon.
Although not a thru-hiker, Badfish is heavily invested in the PCT culture and maintains one of the water caches in the Mojave desert. Technically a trail angel, Badfish prefers the term “trail raconteur,” and indeed he did regale us with several stories of his encounters with PCT hikers, none of which I can acceptably repeat here. However, my favourite tale involved a female thru-hiker and a remote-controlled Japanese toilet.
We convinced Badfish to hike the 1.8 miles up to Trail Pass and camp with us there, and he willingly packed up his gear and followed us.
As we began to climb steeply, Badfish fell behind and called to us that he would catch up, but after a while we realised we had hiked a lot further than 1.8 miles and must have gone wrong somewhere. It turned out we’d missed a turning and had ended up back on the PCT at Cottonwood Pass, 5 miles further along the trail than we had intended. We never saw Badfish again but hopefully he is still alive and doesn’t begrudge us for taking his beers and abandoning him. Nevertheless, despite our fallen friend we were pretty happy that we had five miles less to do tomorrow.
We cowboy camped at Cottonwood Pass then walked on a little way in the morning to have an extended breakfast at Chicken Spring Lake, the first lake of hundreds that we will be passing in the Sierras.
We hiked through sporadic patches of snow, getting higher and higher, and closer and closer to the heart of the Sierra mountain range. We stopped for lunch in an open meadow full of grazing deer.
After lunch we encountered our first big stream crossing, requiring us to take off our shoes and wade across the rapidly flowing water to reach the other side. With the snow high in the mountains melting, we can expect to encounter a lot more of this in the coming weeks.
As we climbed higher throughout the afternoon we heard a loud snoring from the bushes by the trail. We weren’t sure if it was a bear or just a sleeping hiker taking a break but we didn’t stop to find out and continued quickly on our way.
We were intending to summit Mount Whitney the following day, and as we approached the highest mountain in the contiguous United States we had fantastic views of Mount Guyot to our left and the vast peaks of the Sierra mountain range ahead of us. We were unable to identify which of the huge mountains within our field of vision was Whitney, and it turned out we would be unable to see it until we were a couple of miles from the top. We camped just off the PCT at Crabtree Meadow ready to ascend the next morning.
Not technically on the trail but a crucial part of the PCT experience, very few hikers bypass Mount Whitney. The 14,500 foot mountain is named after Josiah Whitney, who was chief of the California State Geological Survey in the 19th century. The summit is also the start of the 230-mile John Muir Trail, one of the most famous long distance footpaths in the world. We intended to slackpack to the summit, leaving our tents and all our gear behind at the campsite, save for some food and water.
The climb began fairly easily, skirting the beautiful Timberline and Guitar Lakes. The path soon became icy and it was slow going for a while, taking care not to fall flat on my face with each step.
Crossing a stream, my foot slipped on an icy rock and both my feet ended up submerged in freezing cold water. Luckily I had had the foresight to bring a spare pair of socks with me so I sat for a while by the side of the trail to dry out and change. It took a clean pair of socks as well as wearing my gloves on my feet restore some warmth back into my toes.
Once I was convinced I wasn’t about to get frostbite, I continued upwards towards the summit. The path became increasingly covered by snow and there were a few sketchy sections where I nearly lost my footing and ended up right back where I started.
Approaching the summit I ran into T-Bird, another thru-hiker I’d hiked on and off with for the first two weeks but hadn’t seen since Deep Creek Hot Springs about a month ago. It’s crazy how on the trail people you never expect to see again turn up in the strangest places.
I finally reached the summit around 11am and sat on the edge of the mountain enjoying a celebratory protein bar. When planning my PCT hike, summiting Mount Whitney was the one part of the trail I was looking forward to more than anything but else and it felt surreal to be finally here at 14,500 feet. The hundreds of photos I had seen didn’t even come close to doing the experience justice. It’s such a rush to be hiking through the Sierras and after enduring 700 miles of desert I really feel like I’ve earned it. The last few hundred miles of desert became a real test of endurance and several people ended up skipping huge sections simply because they didn’t feel like it. However if I hadn’t hiked the entirety of the trail up to now then I wouldn’t feel anything close to the sense of pride and satisfaction I do now.
It was getting pretty chilly at the summit so I headed into the cabin, where I joined a few other PCT hikers huddled together for warmth. The stone cabin was built in 1909 by the Smithsonian Institute as an observatory. Many hikers use it as a shelter in bad weather although in 1990 a hiker was killed when the cabin was hit by lightning.
I had heard that situated on the summit of Mount Whitney is the highest toilet in America, which is also the most expensive to maintain since it has to be emptied by helicopter. I was really excited to sit on it, imagining myself feeling like a god surveying the land below as I unleashed a fiery hell into the mountain beneath me. However I was bitterly disappointed to find no sign of any toilet anywhere on the mountain.
Later that day I spoke to Sherpa, an Irish thru-hiker who used to lead guided expeditions up Mount Whitney and knows his way around the Sierras like his own back garden. If I ever get into trouble in the mountains he’s the person I hope is around to get me out of it. He told me that there used to be a toilet up there but it burned down a couple of years ago and no one is exactly sure how it happened. It could have been caused by lightning, but Sherpa suspects it was intentionally set on fire by a ranger who was sick of the huge torrents of shit from the outhouse that would flood the mountain whenever bad weather struck.
Disappointed by my thwarted high-altitude dump, but still buzzing from my successful Whitney summit, I headed back down the mountain to our campsite. I had brought microspikes up with me but hadn’t needed them on the ascent. However I did have to put them on in order to overtake a slow-moving Chinese family by running along the snow bank above them.
I plummeted down and came to a stop with snow and ice nestled in every single crevice of my body. I hiked back along Guitar Lake, where dozens of marmots were frolicking in the sun, and arrived back at camp around mid-afternoon.
Going down was a lot faster than going up, despite the fact that the snow was beginning to melt in the midday sun and was becoming slushy and slippery. I saved some time by glissading down a large drift of snow, first putting on my rain pants to reduce the friction and allow me to slide faster.
We hiked a few more miles into the evening, as we wanted to be close enough to Forrester Pass to ascend in the morning when the snowpack would be harder and easier to walk on. Forrester Pass, at 13,180 feet is the highest point on the PCT (not counting Mount Whitney), and marks the border between the Sequoia National Park and the King’s Canyon National Park. We were unsure of the snow conditions on the pass but we’d heard it would be a tougher climb than Whitney so we were excited and ready for a challenge.
We only made four or five extra miles that evening and camped just before Wallace Creek, a fast-flowing stream which we planned to ford first thing in the morning. According to Sherpa, the creeks in this area which come from snowmelt high in the mountains can be up to a foot higher in the afternoon as the sun melts the snow, so it is best to ford them early in the morning when the snow on the peaks has frozen in the night. When you are wading up to your knees, the water you are standing in was snow not 30 minutes before so as well flowing fast enough to knock a hiker over, it is also absolutely freezing.
Prior to fording Wallace Creek, I had the bright idea of throwing my shoes and socks across to the other side so I would have both hands free to use my trekking poles for stability. This plan didn’t work out too well as one of my shoes landed in a pool of stagnant water and I had to wait by the side of the trail for it to dry out.
There were two more streams crossings to tackle that morning – Wright Creek and Tyndall Creek – I had learnt my lesson after the first disastrous attempt, and tied my shoes around my neck as I waded across.
After Tyndall Creek the long climb up to Forrester Pass began. I ascended the side of the valley, crossing sporadic patches of dirty snow and several small, trickling streams before reaching a snow-covered plateau. I had to put on my microspikes to navigate my way across the snowfield. The path was completely hidden by snow for the most part, so I headed roughly in the direction of the pass, attempting to take the most efficient route possible, occasionally following the footsteps of previous hikers.
The trail became steeper and I found myself scaling the side of the mountain, bushwhacking between invisible switchbacks, just heading on a direct course for the pass which I could see above me. The snow was beginning to melt in the midday sun and I found myself postholing for the most part – i.e. wading through snow up to my knees – but I eventually made it to the top tired and sweaty.
It was only then that I realised how sunburnt I was. In the desert I had been applying sunscreen constantly as it was so hot, but in the Sierras I’ve been freezing cold most of the time and so haven’t felt the need. It turns out you can still get burnt even when it’s not hot and my entire face was on the verge of peeling off and sliding back down the mountain.
The view was fantastic and I could see an endless winter landscape for miles in either direction, no roads or buildings of any kind to spoil the view. I could just make out some other hikers beginning their ascent, looking like ants 2000 feet below me.
I stopped for an early lunch on the pass to enjoy the view before heading back down into Vidette Meadow. From the top of the pass I glissaded down about 100 feet, which probably added about ten minutes to my hike as I had to trudge uphill to rejoin the trail, but it was totally worth it.
The descent was slow. With every other step I was up to my knees in snow, and again the trail was impossible to locate in places. I spent a long time hauling myself over rocks to reach an exposed section of trail I could see in he distance. The trail wound along a knife-edge ridge, skirting frozen lakes and presenting several further opportunities for glissading.
Once below the snow line the walk became a nice, gentle descent through the beautiful meadow for several miles. I had to ford smaller streams every few minutes so to keep my momentum going I just waded right through them with my shoes and socks on, preferring to hike with wet feet than to keep stopping and starting.
The final stream crossing of the day required me to balance on a precariously placed log over the rushing water. I almost lost my footing once and nearly pooed myself. The streams are pretty shallow but the water is so fast that if you fell in, you’d be 400 feet downstream within seconds. I always unclip my backpack when fording streams so I can easily remove it if I happen to fall.
I was heading towards Kearsarge Pass, not on the trail but I was going to have to make the six mile detour over the pass down to Onion Valley trailhead in order to reach my next resupply point – Independence. I had hoped to just be in and out of Independence as quickly as possible, to buy some food and pick up my package from the post office, but as luck would have it I was on track to arrive in Independence on Saturday morning, which meant I’d have to hang around for two days waiting for the post office to open.
After climbing Whitney on Thursday, False Alarm and C-Dog had pushed on and hiked ahead to try and make it the 27 miles over both Forrester and Kearsage Pass to arrive in Independence before the post office closed at 4.30 on Friday. None of us wanted to be stuck in town for 48 hours. I’d given them my ID and if they were successful they would try to pick up my package for me. I didn’t have particularly high hopes for them reaching Independence in time, and even if they did, I wasn’t very confident that either an Asian guy or a female could pass themselves off as me.
My plan was just to hike as far as possible and arrive in Independence on Saturday morning. Having gone over Forrester Pass in the morning, I was intending to push it and also go over the slightly lower Kearsarge Pass in the late afternoon. There was no reason for me to try and do this except I really needed a poo and Kearsarge Pass was the only thing standing between me and the nice, cozy toilets at the Onion Valley campground.
I reached the junction at which I was supposed to leave the PCT and I was intercepted by two down-clad figures. It took me a while to realise it was False Alarm and C-Dog. They didn’t look like they had any packages with them. They had taken a wrong turning a few miles back and hiked in the wrong direction for almost an hour before realising their mistake. Once they realised they weren’t going to make it to town on time, they waited for me and Willem by the junction. Willem had enough food to push ahead without resupplying but the three of us hiked on a couple more miles towards Independence, giving us a short day to reach town the next morning. I never did make it to those toilets.
We hiked alongside Bullfrog Lake, all of us being eaten alive by mosquitoes, and bushwhacked slightly off trail to camp on the edge of the Kearsarge Lakes. This was my favourite campsite of the PCT so far, with a fantastic view across the water, encircled by a wall of snowy peaks all around us.
We had no rush to get into town the next morning nor any desire to leave this alpine paradise and so we woke up late and relaxed by the lake for several hours. C-Dog did some fishing and I just lay in the grass loving life.
We eventually found the motivation to get moving and climbed up and over the 11,700 foot Kearsarge Pass, and began a long, long descent towards the Onion Valley campground. I’m really not looking forward to climbing back up.
We were quickly offered a ride down to Independence, but we had trouble finding a place to stay as everywhere was full. We had to hitch a ride 40 miles to Bishop, a much larger town with better facilities. With two days to kill, we made the most of everything the town had to offer. We went to a showing of Finding Dory in which the number of smelly hikers probably outweighed the number of children. We were finally able to pick up our packages today and are now heading back to the trail.