It took a ridiculously long time to get a ride out of town. Being a Monday morning, there was obviously not much traffic heading up to the campground, and the few cars that did go by didn’t give us a second look. After trying for nearly an hour, I called the Courthouse Motel who offer rides to the trail for fifty dollars, not ideal but I was getting desperate. We ran into another hiker we knew – Special K – and the four of us decided to split the cost and get a ride back up to the PCT.
After hiking with the same group for the last three weeks, I had decided I was going to hike alone for a while. I thought it would be fun to go through the Sierras on my own, plus I would be much more likely to finally see a bear. The great thing about the PCT is you can be as alone or as sociable as you like. Hiking with a group is fun but walking in complete isolation and feeling like you’re the only person out on the trail has given me some of my best trail experiences.
We hiked all the way back up and over Kearsarge Pass and after seven miles were back on the PCT. The others camped at Kearsarge Lakes again while I walked on and covered around five extra miles.
I was considering going over Glen Pass the same day but decided it would be easier in the morning when the snow was harder and easier to walk on, and so I camped as close as possible, intending to make an early start the next day. A chorus of bullfrogs heralded my arrival into camp and I spent a cold night cowboy camping under a tree.
The next day was Midsummer’s Day, the longest day of the year, as well as the international “Hike Naked Day.” I didn’t actually see anyone hiking naked which was sad because despite the cold, I would have been up for it. My one concern was the fact that I could clearly see myself having a mishap with my microspikes. All it takes is one little accident to turn some mountaineering equipment into a piece of bondage gear.
I started climbing Glen Pass early in the morning. The ascent was easy enough, other than a small scramble to reach the top, but there was a lot of snow on the other side. I was aiming to do two passes in one day – Glen Pass and Pinchot Pass, 17 miles ahead. In the Sierra, most hikers do one pass a day, generally in the morning to avoid hiking in slushy, melting snow. However from now on I intend to hike upwards of 20 miles a day, which is much more difficult to achieve in the High Sierra, and so I am having to push myself a lot more. If I can achieve consistent 20 mile days in this section, once I enter Northern California and onwards it shouldn’t be much of a struggle to achieve days of 30 miles and upwards.
The view from Glen Pass was fantastic – a necklace of frozen lakes stretched out below me, surrounded by mountains and forests. As I sat on Glen Pass eating my breakfast, I met my first JMT hikers heading southbound, also from England. The John Muir Trail is a 210 mile long-distance hike beginning in Yosemite Valley and ending at the summit of Mount Whitney. The majority of the trail overlaps with the PCT, but most hikers hea south rather than north, meaning PCT-ers are constantly running into JMT-ers in this section. They are always identifiable by their relative cleanliness next to the PCT hikers.
I managed my longest and fastest glissade down from the pass, and spent the rest of the morning amongst the beautiful Rae Lakes. Heading down the Woods Creek. valley, I was constantly being startled by deer darting out of sight into the bushes as I approached. I navigated some sketchy stream crossings and crossed the rickety Woods Creek bridge before heading up to my second pass of the day.
Climbing alongside the raging Woods Creek, I saw a fantastic opportunity for a natural water slide where the water was rushing down a smooth 45 degree slope. I stood there for a long time weighing up the pros and cons, and decided that the fact that I’d probably drown outweighed the fact that it would be a fun thing to do.
The going was a lot slower than anticipated, even though the snow on Pinchot was little more than a few patches here and there. I finally made it up to the summit around 7.30, just in time to watch a mesmerising sunset from 12,000 feet above sea level. This made the difficult day completely worth the effort. I sat and ate a celebratory Snickers before heading down and hiking another two miles to make up 20 and setting up camp by Lake Marjorie.
Approaching 1000 miles into my thru-hike, everything is suddenly starting to fall apart. Both my trouser legs have been torn by my microspikes on separate occasions, the tips of my trekking poles have snapped off, a random piece of metal fell of my stove (it still works), and my camera shutter is refusing to close. Most annoyingly however, after stupidly leaving my knife open in my pack, the squeeze bag for my Sawyer water filter has a puncture, and leaks uncontrollably when I try to filter water. I attempted to fix it with duct tape but to no avail, and it now takes about three times as long to filter a litre. Fortunately I had some chlorine tablets to hand, which meant I would have to endure the awful metallic taste until I arrived at the next resupply.
Mather Pass was next, a hard climb with another fantastic glissade down to the Palisade Lakes. I hiked nearly 4000 feet down the Golden Staircase with its endless twists and turns and into Deer Meadow where there dozens of streams to ford. With my first few stream crossings of the Sierra I would always remove my shoes and socks and then wait for my feet to dry before continuing, however I quickly gave up this habit. The crossings are so frequent that this is no longer practical, and now I just wade right through, sometimes almost up to my waist.
As I was getting ready to give up for the evening, I noticed a sticky note attached to a sign at a trail junction.
“TRAIL MAGIC: Pasta dinner at ranger station 4 miles north. Tonight 6.30/7ish.”
It was 6.20 when I saw this sign, and most people might have accepted that it was too late and they’d missed out on an opportunity for a free meal. But not me – my energy levels suddenly restored, I hiked the quickest four miles of my life. I bounded up the trail, almost at a sprint, wading straight through streams I could have easily crossed and stayed dry. If a bear had wandered into the path that evening I would have run straight past it without a second look. I made it to the ranger station at 7.23, just in time for food to be served.
Six or seven other hikers were gathered round a fire talking with Sam, the ranger, who had decided to cook a meal for a bunch of hungry hikers just because he could. As a ranger, he spends three months of the summer living out in the wilderness, a 12-mile hike from the nearest road access. He deals with things like SOS calls and ensuring hikers leave no trace and take proper precautions against bears. There is apparently a negative vibe amongst the rangers about PCT hikers and the reason he cooked this meal was to combat this by talking to us and understanding who we are and why we’re out here.
From the ranger station, I headed upwards again towards Muir Pass. Looking at the elevation profile, this pass was much less steep than the others so far and so I naively assumed it would be an easy day. I could not have been more wrong. The climb started easily enough through meadows and lakes until I reached the snow line and the ascent became more challenging.
For three miles before the summit I trudged through deep snow, the path nowhere to be seen. The trail, when visible, takes a nice gentle, winding route to the top, but I found myself bushwhacking straight up the side of the mountain, stopping every few metres to catch my breath. I forded the same icy creek four times, an obstacle that could have been avoided by crossing the creek no times.
To make matters worse, I began to get stomach pains on the way up and was terrified that I would get the runs at the worst possible time. I don’t think the hikers behind would be have been able to get over the trauma of postholing through a patch of brown snow.
Luckily by the time I reached the top I felt fine, though exhausted. When the John Muir Hut, of which I’d seen so many photos, eventually came into view I was overjoyed. This had been the most difficult yet most beautiful part of the trail so far, and I felt fantastic. I sat in the hut and ate my lunch, steeling myself for the long descent. John Muir was a Scottish-American naturalist who strived to preserve much of the American wilderness. He was also legitimately insane, doing outrageous things like climbing huge trees in the middle of a windstorm “to feel the full force of the wind as a tree would.”
Blink, another hiker I’d summited with, made a passing comment about how there was no pass to cross the next day. I corrected him and pointed out that Selden Pass was coming up, to which he replied “That’s 30 miles ahead and it’s 1pm now, you won’t make the pass tomorrow.” Challenge accepted.
The descent was a long, flat slog through another three miles of snow, becoming slushy in the heat of the afternoon. I crossed Evolution Basin, the trail winding through the shadows of Mount Huxley and Mount Darwin (I’m not sure what the evolution theme is all about).
I had an exciting end to the day as I descended into Evolution Meadow. Evolution Creek was supposed to be a difficult ford, and a dangerous one in high snowmelt. About half a mile before the creek, there was a sign warning hikers of the danger and advising them to take a detour to cross at a safer point upstream.
I considered taking the detour (which would only have added about ten minutes onto my day) but then reflected that if I took the safe option I would regret missing out on some life-endangering fun and so I decided to “John Muir” it and continued heading along the PCT towards the hazardous stream crossing.
When I reached it I was slightly perturbed by how wide the crossing was – at least 15 feet across. The water was moving quickly and seemed to be fairly deep. Looking up and downstream to see if there was an easier place to cross but finding nothing, I tentatively waded into the water to test the current. Within seconds the water was up to my waist and I was being pulled along by the flow. It was a lot more powerful than it looked and I had no choice but to push on to the other side. It was tempting to hurry and get it over with as quickly as possible, but I forced myself to go slowly, using my trekking poles for support and ensuring I had three points of contact with the ground at all times. My foot slipped on a rock once and I nearly lost my balance but quickly recovered. It must have taken less than a minute to reach the other side but it felt like an hour. I sat by the side of the river, feeling the adrenaline rushing through my body, certain I had made a great decision.
Continuing to follow the trail downstream, after only a hundred metres or so, the fast-flowing creek turned into a raging waterfall, the force of which no human could possibly survive. If I had lost control in the stream crossing I would have ended up here, my already-emaciated body mangled beyond recognition. Perhaps if I’d known about the waterfall I might have considered taking the detour. Maybe.
Of all the other hikers I’ve spoken with since, only one went the same way as me, and that was only because he was Swedish and got the signs confused. The others will never know the fun they missed out on.
Selden Pass turned out to be an extremely easy climb, with only a few patches of snow. I made it to the top by 2pm the next day without much difficulty, not sure why I was doubted.
On the ascent I was met by a southbound JMT-er, with the classic hiker greeting of “Hey I just found some bear poo!” This is a pretty standard interaction on the trail.
On top of Selden Pass I met Jigsaw, another English hiker who informed me about the Brexit verdict. He’d received the intel that morning via text on his satellite phone. I had hoped it was a practical joke but after waiting three agonising days to get service, it sadly turned out to be true.
Six days after leaving Independence I took a side trail and hiked seven miles down to Vermilion Valley Resort for a resupply. Approaching the small resort, I was met by a group of trail angels, camping in their RVs by the side of the road. A shout of “Hiker! Do you want a beer?” was all it took for me to come up and join them and we sat around talking about the trail, Brexit and other important issues for about an hour.
I arrived at VVR around 11am, and planned to complete a big list of chores including buying food, doing my laundry and getting a shower. Unfortunately their generator was down so that meant the shower and laundry were out of the question and would have to wait another several days. The fact that I’d spilled salmon all down the front of my trousers the day before might make me an enticing prospect to bears for a while, but there was nothing to be done.
I bought a few days worth of food, a replacement for my punctured filter bag, and then took my free PCT hiker beer (and then several subsequent non-free beers) and hung out on the porch with some other hikers for most of the day. There was a spectacular BBQ in the evening, and although I had been planning on camping at VVR that night, I decided to hike out after dinner since I’d already racked up a rather large bill and could see things escalating rapidly. Although a really nice place and a welcome oasis of beer and food after six days on trail, VVR is extremely expensive and I didn’t want to get sucked into the vortex.
I hiked until it was too dark to see, and then I put on my headlamp and hiked some more. I set up camp in a lovely spot overlooking Lake Thomas A. Edison, inexplicably named after one of the biggest bastards in history.
I rejoined the PCT the next morning and went up and over Silver Pass. I keep seeing patches of bright red snow everywhere. At first I thought it was from a wounded animal, but it turns out it’s a type of bacteria which spreads and turns the snow this colour.
Every night I am constantly blown away by how amazing it is to be able to spend each night with these fantastic views. I try to camp by a lake where possible, as they always make for the best backdrops to a night’s sleep. This night I set up camp overlooking Purple Lake, with a panorama that looked almost like a fake movie set. I kept expecting a bunch of Mexicans to jump out from behind a 2D cutout of a mountain yelling “Cut!”
I hiked eleven miles in the morning down to Reds Meadow – a snall resort with not much more than a small store and a cafe. A lot of hikers get off trail here to resupply in Mammoth, but I had enough food and didn’t really want to get off trail and so I just hung around Reds Meadow with some other hikers for most of the afternoon.
After several hours of loitering, I decided to hike out a few miles that evening. There was a campground eight miles ahead that I was aiming for. I left Reds Meadow around 6.45, taking a slight detour to see the Devil’s Postpile – a series of polygonal basaltic columns created by lava almost a million years ago.
A relaxing afternoon turned into a terrifying evening as I had my first real brush with dangerous wildlife. A couple of miles before the campground it became too dark to see and so I put on my headtorch for the final stretch. Hiking through Agnews Meadow I saw something shining out of the corner of my eye and looked around, seeing what at first I thought were the headlamps of a couple of hikers camped in the meadow. I quickly realised what I was seeing was a pair of eyes, reflecting the light from my headtorch, and surrounding them, the unmistakeable outline of a huge cat. And not the good kind of cat; the kind that would rip your face off if you tried to pet it.
I knew then that I was being watched by a mountain lion, not twenty feet away from me. I tried to remember what course of action to take in this situation but my mind went blank. I continued hiking, putting the lion behind me but careful not to walk too fast and invoke a predatory response to attack. Eventually, after a couple of stream crossings and switchbacks I was convinced that the lion wasn’t following me and I set up my tent for the night. I think that will be my last night hike for a while.
Two more passes to cross the next day – Island and Donahue. I walked around Thousand Island lake, on which I only counted about twenty islands so felt pretty ripped off, and started ascending. Island Pass – which sounded to me like a Mario Kart level – was more of a high plateau than a pass, and I spent a long time wondering which of the distant snowy passes in my field of vision I was heading to before realising I was already on top of the pass and heading back down.
I had been planning on camping just the other side of Donahue Pass that night and making the final twelve miles downhill to Tuolumne Meadows the next morning. However it was 2.30 when I made it up the fairly easy climb to my second pass of the day and a thunderstorm was closing in, huge black clouds getting closer and closer, and so I decided to just go for it and get it all done today.
There was a lot more snow on the other side of the pass and I soon lost the trail, requiring some bouldering to get back on track. Rain started to fall, and I saw several hikers give up and pitch their tents for shelter, but I kept going, determined to make it into town.
The final twelve miles were a long hike down Lyell Canyon, an area notorious for bear activity, yet I didn’t see a single one. But with my mountain lion encounter the night before, that might have been too much excitement for me to handle.
After a couple of miles, the steep descent was over and the trail was almost perfectly flat along the valley floor for ten miles. This made for easy walking, but it was the most monotonous section of the trail so far, with not much in the way of views. At one point I estimated I had about three miles left to go but when I checked the maps it turned out to be seven.
I finally made it into Tuolumne Meadows around 8pm, having hiked a 28 mile day – my record so far. I was tired, hungry and hadn’t showered for nine days. Unfortunately, the backpackers campground was half a mile away, the restaurant and store were closed, and there were no showers to be found anywhere – looks like it’ll have to wait another week.
Lying in the heart of Yosemite National Park, Tuolumne Meadows is full of both hikers and climbers and there were several of each group crowded around outside the store, drinking. I hung out there for a bit before heading back to the campground, making some food and setting up my tent in the dark.
My next stop is Echo Lake, just over a week ahead, so my pack is far too heavy again but I’m really excited to hike through Yosemite and if I’m ever going to finally see a bear it will be here.