This narrative is presented in two parts. Read part 1 here.
Among the granite and volcanic mountain ranges of the Western United States winds the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT). The PCT extends from the Mexican to Canadian borders through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. Along with the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) it is one of three long-distance hikes that make up the Triple Crown of National Scenic Trails in the US. Each year, thru-hikers attempt to complete these long-distance trails in one season, preferably in a continuous direction connecting every step between the start and finish. Finishing every step of the trail is a thru-hiker’s stated objective but is really just a means to immerse yourself in and appreciate the scale and diversity of the high-elevation landscapes found along the way.
My brother Sam and I set off from the Mexican border April 30, 2011, and it took us 132 days to walk the PCT to Canada. Not even halfway through we encountered our toughest challenge in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California and were joined by thru-hikers Picker, Slapshot, and Josh (eventually just Picker and Slapshot) who have real names but hike using trail names. Many thru-hikers in 2011 derailed their plans of a continuous one-season hike and skipped the Sierras due to unprecedented snowfall that year. This narrative recalls our experience in that section.
Our introduction to the Sierras in Part 1 included the highest elevations found on the PCT and even the lower 48 on Mt. Whitney. Navigating the snowy granite peaks and passes had a learning curve as steep as the drop from their crests. We learned the basics of snow navigation and travel as well as strategies for scaling the snow-bound passes. Toiling in the snow was not the experience we had expected or hoped for, and by the time we reached VVR, we could not wait for it to let up. The elevations did get lower north of VVR, but that resulted in more accelerated melting of the snowpack feeding the mountain creeks, and the day’s obstacles switched from 10,000-foot passes to powerful mountain streams way above the stage at which the PCT was engineered to cross them.
6/22/11 —VVR, PCT Mile 878
Shotgun blasts rouse us from our cots like a redneck revelry and remind us that this is not your typical “resort.” The VVR staff are trying to fell a large tree branch hanging above the camping and communal grounds that is out of reach from their ladders and cutters. VVR is a small camp that offers hikers and fishermen canvas tents to sleep in, with a small store and restaurant that carries basic goods. It is an important stop in the wilderness for PCT and John Muir Trail (JMT) hikers, one we weren’t even sure was available when we left our last resupply in Kennedy Meadows, since VVR was still closed at the time due to snow.
Sam and I mailed ourselves supplies about 20 days ago from the last grocery store we saw in Mojave, CA. The box was waiting for us when we arrived on the ferry the day before, and we ration the next section to Yosemite Valley (only five days), consuming our extra food immediately. The camp gives us a chance for much needed laundry, showers, gear repair, and domestic comforts — watching Inception on a small tube TV and dabbling in some Risk, in which I am victorious. As our first night drags on, we reconvene with two groups whose paths we crossed in the last section, and enjoy some cold beers by the fire.
This warm and comfortable stay is only diminished by the looming sections ahead, with a lot more snow guaranteed. Starting the previous 12-day section from Kennedy Meadows, we had enthusiastically headed into unknown territory, but now we are not so eager to voluntarily thrust ourselves back into the fray. We're slow getting out, maximizing our food intake at the restaurant prior to the ferry ride back to the trail. Not ready to hike just yet we set up camp near the PCT trailhead and spend the evening building a bonfire and stargazing on the sandy shores of Edison Lake, mentally preparing for another physical test through the snow and wild rivers of the Sierras.
6/23/11 — Edge of Edison Lake, PCT Mile 878
We set out early carrying 35 pounds on our backs — five days of food plus insurance. This is much lighter than when we started from our last resupply — 12 days of food and total pack weight over 50 pounds. Ascending Silver Pass in the afternoon, we scale it without the use of our ice axes, following old footprints around the frozen lakes near the top. Without any steep inclines adjacent to the trail’s path, the difficulty and threat of injury pales in comparison to the high passes from just a few days ago.
This section’s biggest challenge will be stream crossings. Their power varies depending on the slope, size, and depth of snowpack on the landscape draining to the crossing. Time of day is also a major factor — the morning crossings are easiest due to the slowing of the snow melt from freezing temperatures overnight. The sun beating on the snowpack all day accelerates the melt so the river depth peaks in the afternoon. The crossing’s technical difficulty is complicated further by steep snow on adjacent banks and the availability of rocks or logs to climb on to get closer to the other side. Each stream serves as a speed bump where we regroup and strategize the best method to cross.
Sam demonstrates how tricky these can be by faceplanting into the ice cold water of the day’s first, seemingly routine, crossing. Soon after we run into a thru-hiking couple who has just been turned around by a waterfall rushing across the trail after having walked almost 900 miles of desert and snowy passes on the PCT. We follow them up to the whitewater, which is tricky because the turbulent waters make it impossible to see your footing. The varying depth and cascade flowing down the rocky slope is unnerving. After we demonstrate for the couple where the shallowest steps are, they follow us across and continue their walk north.
In the afternoon we get lost, found, separated, and lost again before reaching our campsite at Purple Lake. We are fortunate to arrive first as the battle for a clear dirt spot to sleep among the snowfields grew fierce among hikers arriving from VVR. A former thru-hiker from ’77 passes through and offers trail magic, a form of paying forward all the good will extended to him on his thru-hike, by giving each of us $2 bills. He says he has never seen Purple Lake with snow on the shores. A fire made of damp wood pulled from the snow is just enough for Sam and I to boil water for our gourmet instant mashed potatoes and beef jerky, supplemented with wild Sierra onions and olive oil.
6/24/11 — Departing Purple Lake, PCT Mile 894
The following is text from Sam’s journal describing the cumbersome morning hike from Purple Lake:
Picker and I got lost going down to the first stream. There was a ton of snow on that side of the mountain and it was tough like a sheet of ice. We had to cut across the steep incline and were slipping all over. Tried to climb down some rocks and got in an even tougher spot. We had to take our packs off and throw them down.
Picker slipped earlier walking across the icy snow, slid maybe 10 feet and caught a tree. Then putting his spikes on, his pack started sliding and he did a downhill head first slide to catch it hanging by his feet. While we were on the rocks climbing down, I had just given my pack to Picker and started sliding on my ass off the rock. It was flat and pretty slippery, so grabbing with my hands and feet didn’t work, and I jumped maybe 10 feet onto some snow and landed on my feet. We took a little break after that. The morning wasn’t going well.
This had all taken up a lot of the morning, so we figured Ben and Slapshot were way ahead of us. While searching for the trail, we heard some yells up above and Ben had found the trail. Turns out, he was yelling for Slapshot because they had been lost the same way too. It was maybe 11:30 and we had done less than three miles.
The afternoon brings us to Red’s Meadow, a campground that was not yet open for the season. Seeing a deserted settlement in the middle of the wilderness is a bit eerie, but we are desperate enough to enter the unlocked general store and poach some dated sodas from the previous season. The trail leads us from Red’s Meadow to Devil’s Postpile, a stunning geological feature with tall hexagonal columns.
6/25/11 — Departing from Campsite North of Devil’s Postpile, PCT Mile 909
The iconic JMT has followed the PCT since Mt. Whitney; but for roughly 15 miles the two split, and we decide to follow the JMT, since it travels at a higher elevation along a series of alpine lakes. Immediately following the split is a stream crossing at the turbulent base of Minaret Falls, proving to be one of the scariest log crossings of the whole trail. Each hiker must navigate around spindly branches while maintaining balance at the center of a slick, quivering log and trying not to focus on the torrent below. Sam leans on his poles contemplating the best method as the rest of us struggle across and get stuck at some point. Midway through his attempt he pauses, throws his hiking poles to our side of the log, and uses the mess of branches as handholds the rest of the way.
For the remainder of the JMT section we find no tracks, trail junctions, or recent human presence but do come across our first unfrozen lake in the Sierras, Shadow Lake. A nice surprise from Mother Nature at a time when you least expect it. Creeks substitute for the snow-bound trail as means of navigation, and we follow them from lake to lake to reconnect with the PCT by the end of the day, not before a glissade fail by Sam. He can't see a large gap in the snow from the start of his slide and gets knocked end-over-end before making a full recovery:
The PCT reconvenes at Thousand Island Lake where we cross paths with an ultralight hiker named Malto (short for Maltodextrin, his favorite trail staple) who has the latest reports on upcoming river crossings. The reports aren’t good. His large scale map had each crossing marked with specific notes on how to get across each river. One had a snowbridge, another had a log bridge, and some had no instructions, just warnings. Malto had to average at least 40 miles a day for the remainder of the trail to meet his goal of a 100-day thru-hike. With that pace, he had passed many hikers and informed us that most were skipping the Sierras entirely to return later in the summer after the snow had melted, known as flip-flopping.
6/26/11 — Thousand Island Lake, PCT Mile 923
The next day takes us over Island and Donohue Passes. The snow-free meadows of Yosemite glitter in the distance as we officially enter Yosemite National Park at the crest along Donohue Pass. The view of dry trail ahead fills us with hope and energy, and only two days out from commercialized Yosemite Valley we can smell the breakfast buffets waiting for us.
We enjoy some final glissading on the descent to Lyell Canyon and fill up our water with the crystal clear Sierra snowmelt. Usually we would use chlorine disinfectant or a filter to treat water in the backcountry, but since Mt. Whitney our group had not treated a single drop of water and had no need to carry any more than a half liter. Water was everywhere, too much water. It floods the trails and campsites, but it’s all clear, cold, and delicious, providing a taste of the state’s water supply before it’s carried away by aqueducts and reservoirs into the lower elevations to the cities and farmlands of California. We're right at the source, and with no pack animals in the watershed yet, and certainly none at a higher elevation than us, there is very little risk of waterborne pathogens contaminating any stream we come across. It’s a generous consolation on our marathon snow march, and especially welcome after enduring Southern California, where dry stretches of up to 30 miles exist.
Lyell Canyon takes us to Tuolumne Meadow, a picture perfect meadow which makes us excited for the scenery to come. The first of Yosemite’s famous domes pop up like mountain lookouts from the wide, flat meadow and swollen banks of the Tuolumne River. A family of deer graze across from us, while sparrows and pikas frolic like an old-time Disney cartoon. One bird even lands on Sam’s hood — it’s so perfect it seems scripted. The serenity is only obscured by Tioga Road and the first car traffic in over 200 miles, but more people has its benefits too. We find a pack of cigarettes by the roadside to enjoy while taking in the scenery.
6/27/11 — Tuolumne Meadow, PCT Mile 943
To complete the JMT we detour off the PCT 20 miles into Yosemite Valley. Vast snowfields greet us at our 4:50 a.m. start and the perfect dry trail of Lyell Canyon and Tuolumne Meadow disappears. Deep sun cups (see below) are everywhere, contributing to the extremely frustrating home stretch into the valley.
After laboring through the icy snowfields, we follow the ridgeline to hook around the granite pinnacle of Columbia Finger and lose sight of Slapshot. Perched at the end of the ridgeline, we can look back on our progress but don’t spot any moving specks that might be Slapshot. After lots of shouting and waiting, we take a break high above the airy valley. A hawk glides below us and distracts me from all the obstacles the trail seems to be throwing at us before Yosemite Valley.
Fresh JMT thru-hikers pass us coming out of the Valley, and we feel the need to report the discouraging conditions behind us; however, they describe wonderful dry trail ahead. It finally opens up along a dry, gentle ridge with granite domes peppering the valley below as lingering frustration from cumbersome snow travel start to slip away. The sheer scale of the features on display, including Half Dome looming in our sights, invigorates our group while we bask in the majesty of Yosemite’s domes which surround us. Picker counts 11 in one view.
Half Dome is probably the most famous one in Yosemite. Its signature face was formed when a glacier undercut a fully-formed dome and the granite above the glacier eventually collapsed. Half Dome is also incredibly popular and crowded, so the park instituted a permit system for access — you’re supposed to apply months in advance and the permits are mostly gone after the first day from resellers who snatch them up like Coachella tickets. Poor planning on our part, but we’re not going to let clerical logistics prevent us from taking in the view from the top of Half Dome.
It’s taken us all day to reach the base of Half Dome, and the hikers coming down report that the park rangers checking permits are gone for the day. We stash our packs and head up, climbing the flat granite slope via assist cables to get to the top. A small patch of snow at the summit melts and falls thousands of feet before turning into mist. While surveying the valley, two rock climbers literally pop up from a climber’s route up the sheer face. Sam and I go back down the cables facing forward and get stuck behind the couple who, despite being experienced, are spooked by the awkward descent. We wait them out on the single two-by-fours bolted into the granite, gripping the cables and staring down. We make it back to camp after sunset, resulting in a less-than-ideal stealth camp site near the spur trailhead.
6/28/11 — Spur Trail to Half Dome, PCT Mile 943 (24 miles off the PCT along the JMT)
It’s a little known fact that many tourists don’t know proper wilderness etiquette, and the increased amount of toilet paper on the trail was always a sign we were in a National Park. Typically people will use the open wilderness quite liberally and within immediate trotting distance of the trail, when in fact you should dig a hole and bury your work far off trail to eliminate the evidence. The trail offers us plenty of opportunity to hone our skills.
Aside from the tourists, Yosemite is spectacular, and the last six of miles of the JMT traverse huge sugar pines and cedars and stunning waterfalls at full flow. We hike through a champagne shower from the misty falls to celebrate completion of the John Muir Trail. In 19 days, we completed the JMT plus the 60 miles from Kennedy Meadows, a total of 283 miles, with only one stop to resupply at VVR.
Yosemite Valley brings drastic changes — some welcome, others frustrating. We get to spend the first hours of our day at the breakfast buffet and have on-demand cold beer and ice cream. But the big shock is we cannot get directions to the backpacker’s campground, a realization that maybe this Valley is no longer for the minimalist nature-lover. After receiving several conflicting, crude, hand-drawn maps from staff, we wait until dark and stealthily spend the first night at a car campground. After nearly a thousand miles of navigating trailless, snow-covered wilderness without a GPS, we cannot find the tent site in Yosemite Valley.
During the days off, we take the opportunity to experience our first Giant Sequoias in Mariposa Grove, a 34-mile hitchhike from the valley. With 500 trees over 400 years old, the historic Mariposa Grove houses the Giant Sequoia, a natural behemoth that the four of us had never seen before since they typically occupy elevations lower than those of the PCT. Hitchhiking is required at most PCT trail stops to reach the nearest town for resupply, and typically is not too bad. If you're in the small mountain towns near the PCT, the best hope is that a local will recognize the skinny, stinky, scraggly figure as a thru-hiker who needs to pick up his food box, not someone who will beg for food. In Yosemite, we find that most tourists are completely unaware of the PCT at all and its friendly hitchhiking culture. Despite heavy car traffic, the hitch is the longest we had waited all trail, and we end up breaking it into two sections. The first hitch drops us only halfway to the grove at Inspiration Point with an amazing roadside view up Yosemite Valley.
It's amazing, until we realize many tourists were first photographing the strange bearded men holding a sharpie-scribbled cardboard sign reading “town” on one side and “mariposa grove” on the other.
The second leg of our hitch is from the once-a-day 3:30 p.m. park shuttle we had hoped to beat to the grove of giants. We flag it down, and sitting in the bus is a solemn Liam, a hiker with whom we had hiked through Mojave and seen along the JMT stretch. He's heading home after hearing reports of the dangerous river crossings ahead. We’re surprised, but he’s not alone. Another member of his party is roadwalking the next section, leaving four of their group remaining to attempt the PCT route. Later that night, we stumble into camp next to Anders and Asger, a Danish Duo whom with we had hiked multiple times since Mexico, and find they too are skipping the next section. A number of other hikers have also had enough and will flip-flop ahead to lower elevations and revisit the section later in the season.
We’re too stubborn to consider skipping anything. Our take on dangerous crossings is: “Might as well go take a look!” While purchasing rope to help with crossings at the Yosemite store, an employee warns Slapshot that we shouldn’t attempt any crossings above our knees. We would not have made it far from Kennedy Meadows if we followed that rule.
It’s finally time to get back to the trail. It's tough knowing this will be our final morning at the breakfast buffet. We swipe a bunch of pastries to-go, and, after further delay from making last-minute phone calls and post office visits, set up at the same unfruitful hitchhiking spot from the day before.
Another few hours pass idling with our thumbs out before a white minivan with hand-painted flowers, suns, and inspirational phrases on it stops for us. The driver says she is in the Valley doing a “live art project" and doesn’t mind detouring 40 miles to drop us of at Tuolumne Meadows — on the way she can get a view of Cloud’s Rest, which sits high above the Valley and is considered the best view of all Yosemite’s notable features. On her map I can see she’s circled Cloud’s Rest in gold and written “Love” over it. Her art project is a way for her to strengthen her connection and dedication to God after enduring several personal tragedies. We’re grateful for her kindness for squishing us into her van to climb several thousand feet from the Valley up into snow. The four of us with our packs add about 1,000 pounds to her van as it chugs up the two-lane mountain road.
Arriving back at Tuolumne Meadows and the PCT, we cannot resist camping in this peaceful place with no more tourists to spoil the wildlife. We count 13 deer drinking from Soda Springs next to where we sleep and witness a buck ford the Tuolumne River. Looking back in my journals, we had seemingly plausible ambitions to hike 75 miles in four days to reach the fishing and hunting town of Bridgeport, CA for their 4th of July celebrations.
7/1/11 — Departing Tuolumne Meadow, PCT Mile 943
The scenic hike out of Tuolumne crosses beautiful water falls and Glen Aulin, a High Sierra Camp which had not yet opened for the season. Again we sense that it would be only thru-hikers on the trail for the upcoming section. Either we are lucky, stupid, or both.
We soon find ourselves surrounded by dense forest and the trail buried in snow. In open snowfields the different physical features on the horizon can be referenced with the elevation info on our topographic map, but under tree cover everything looks alike in all directions. By the time you pop out to a vantage point to visually fix your position, you're nowhere near where you need to be. After weeks in these conditions, we've learned to trust deer. Their tracks lead us along the trail in a much more efficient path, and they never run off sudden cliffs, far better than the usual ambling with map and compass in hand. We would also boot ski down the slopes to make up time if we had a rough idea of the direction of trail. We’ve developed good balance at this point, and, compared to glissading, this technique requires slightly more skill but the payoff was worth it.
The first infamous crossing in the section is Return Creek, an appropriate name since this is the ford that turned some thru-hikers around and made them skip ahead to the next town. Standing at a change in direction of the trail, we can tell from our map we have roughly a mile before the PCT intersects the creek, which we see through the trees below us. In order to increase our chances of finding log bridges or other natural assistance to get across, we decide to hike off trail straight down to the creek, which we'll follow up the valley to where it intersects the PCT. Sure enough, there is a dam of logs about as big around as a car that allows us to cross without getting our feet wet.
The wide and slow Matterhorn Canyon follows, with a warning from hikers in Yosemite Valley but no suggestions for a way across. At what looks to be a calm but deep portion, we try the conventional method of crossing with a group, locking arms to increase our stability, and then proceed slowly through the waist-high flow. Slapshot momentarily loses his balance, and the guidebook and mapset strapped to his pack fall into the river and are immediately swept away. We try again further downstream where the main creek splits into three smaller channels and manage to get across by tackling each one individually. The drama is our last for the day as we immediately set up camp on the other side of Matterhorn Canyon and start a fire to warm our soaked bodies and lift our spirits.
7/2/11 — Departing Matterhorn Canyon, PCT Mile 965
The following is text from Sam’s journal:
Today was a tough day. It stands out among the others as one of the most difficult. We've done some tough shit too. The trail was just so rugged the whole time. The ups and downs weren't what slowed us. There was a ton of trees down and snow covering the trail, so we spent a good deal bushwhacking and rock scrambling. There were two passes as well, so we did get a lot of climbing, but they weren't tricky, no ice axe.
We had Benson pass early and almost immediately on the climb up Wilson creek we lost the trail in icy snow. We had rocks and trees to navigate going up among all the snow. At the top there was a big flat dry spot though, and we dried out all stuff in the beaming sun. We cowboyed last night and everything got damp. The way down was following some creeks poking out of snow to Smedberg Lake (snow covered) and ultimately down to Benson Lake. The trail down crossed a rushing creek several times and we stayed on one side. This resulted in much more bushwhacking, especially where the snow had melted. There were bushes and rocks, and rocks covered with bushes everywhere. There were some faint paths through the bushes every once in a while I assumed were from deer.
Once we reached the bottom we had several crossings of Puite Creek (7612’ [feet of elevation]). There was a lot of water, deep and wide, through the forest. Logs piled up in some areas, but you couldn’t always use those because a lot of the logs would just be floating and then sink under your weight. It was a big area and the flow split a lot. We just took it piece by piece with log crossings until eventually we were over.
We had another nice long lunch on the other side before the climb up to Seamey Pass (9,120’). We had exposed trail for maybe a mile going up. There was a crazy random crossing at one point. It was mostly shallow enough to cross, but raging. Seavey Pass got snowy early though and required careful navigating of the gaps and ridges. Of course, with all the snow, we missed a couple of turns, but overall it wasn’t tricky. Then we hiked down into Kerrick Canyon and Rancheria Creek, all still snow covered. The trail followed the canyon for a while and was some of our toughest yet. There was no relief from the snow and every section of trail had a steep snowy fall down to the raging “creek.”
The first bit we hit was the steepest we had to walk across, and we should’ve had our ice axes out. It’s really tough to walk across snow perpendicular to the slope of the incline. The first part was really steep, and it was only about a 20’ fall into the creek. That was exhausting, and as far as we could see down canyon for the first half mile-mile or so, the steep snow traverse was all we could see. We took a break, and everyone was stressed and beat. It had been a long day to that point, and the last thing we needed or expected was a snowy canyon walk with high slide-into-raging-canyon creek factor. The next couple of miles were just as tough, but the canyon allowed us to back off the creek a little bit. Much less stressful. Most of the footholds you have are just wide enough for your foot, sometimes less. You end up following the steps made by the person ahead of you and hope the same ledge of snow holds up for you like it did for them.
We knew there was a crossing of this creek coming up and we were looking for log bridges the whole way down. It was so powerful though, and I was doubting anything could stay lying across it. We made it all the way down to where the PCT crosses without seeing a good spot.
Very late in the day at this point, the snow thins and we encounter Sniper, Wiz, Fly By, and Wrangler, the hikers from Liam’s group who decided not to skip this section. They had been camped there since 2:00 p.m. scanning up and down the banks for a viable log or open shallow area, which lowers our hopes for finding a successful ford.
Rancheria Creek sits roughly halfway through the section and is the last major crossing, so this is the moment to turn back and head for Yosemite. Our food supplies are only enough for the five days we planned, and we’re off that pace by a day already. We opt to wait until morning to decide our next move. The river level is lower in the morning on account of the snowmelt which builds throughout the day as the sun beats harder and then slows overnight as the temperatures drop again. Sniper & Co. show us a log which is fully submerged that they had been eyeing all afternoon.
7/3/11 — Rancheria Creek in Kerrick Canyon, PCT Mile 981
We awake early and rush down to the log, to find it about one-quarter of the way submerged, but still spanning a raging Rancheria Creek. We work with the other group to toss large logs upstream in hopes of damming the flow, which only makes us tired and more frustrated. Sam then drops his pack and cautiously crawls across the log on all fours, using the technique he discovered on a log below Minaret Falls, while carrying the rope we picked up in Yosemite Valley. We all nervously watch from the bank. He makes it and rigs up a line overhead to stabilize our balance.
One by one, we make it across, greeted with high fives and hugs on the other bank. This is the defining moment of the trip; all eight of us had risked danger to make it here, to this very river bank, which is very important for those with a purist’s mentality who seek to connect every step between Mexico and Canada. 2011 is a divisive year in terms of defining the word “thru-hike” and the various paths that lead to completing the trek. Thru-hikers have to clarify to each other, especially in 2011, as an “every-stepper,” “flip-flopper,” or “skipper” depending on the path chosen, and sometimes with a bit of condescension in the answer. “True to the thru” is the purist’s mantra, and we're proud to have maintained this status by reaching the other side of Rancheria Creek.
More wide crossings and swollen rivers frustrate us the rest of the day. One in particular, Falls Creek, we follow upstream for four miles looking to cross before finally camping on a bare rock popping up out of the snow, much like a night before Mather Pass farther south in the Sierras where we stopped short on a rock amongst snow to attempt the pass in the morning. Both are kind of shitty spots to be in — on an exposed rock, surrounded by snow, just hoping the crossing tomorrow will be merciful. This section continues to be very difficult and today we had come to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t be making it to Bridgeport for the 4th of July. I’m disappointed but more surprised at how badly this section is kicking our ass.
7/4/11 — Camped Along Falls Creek, PCT Mile 993
Picker and I try fording Falls Creek the next morning at Grace Meadow, a wide meandering section. We are the guinea pigs of the group and make it about 20 feet across in waist high water with no issues, but suddenly the riverbed starts to drop out from under us before the far bank. We lunge from the last good footing and fully submerge. A few seconds of shock set in before I grab the far bank and heave myself over.
We immediately strip to dry off; meanwhile Sam and Slapshot learn from our mistake and cross not 20 yards farther upstream with no issues whatsoever — only a waist-deep ford. Getting wet or losing an hour just to find a way through is now part of the daily operation.
Our Fourth of July ends ten miles short of Sonora Pass and the long road into town. We are camped below an icy exposed pass, and Sam and I scout a steep snow-free shortcut to the top where we hope to see more dry trail along the high ridges tomorrow. At this point we anticipate every turn surprising and slowing us. This section between Tuolumne Meadows and Sonora Pass is not talked about much in discussion of PCT highlights and memorable sections, overshadowed by more famous peaks and rivers which you find on postcards and desktop backgrounds. For us, a group of four who have hiked collectively thousands of miles including 1,000 on the PCT to this point, it is the signature memory we return to when people ask, “Would you do it again?” Part of the hiking experience is running into unforeseen obstacles, overcoming them, and feeling accomplished. To attempt this section again under the same conditions, knowing what we do now, would push the limits of that experience and my desire for self-inflicted pain.
7/5/11 — Camped past Kennedy Canyon, PCT Mile 1008
With a renewed sense of drive after conquering Kerrick Canyon and the many other streams that turned others around, we push on to finish the section at Sonora Pass with depleted food bags and stamina to match. The final test willl be finding a hitch 32 miles into Bridgeport, CA to reach the post office and grocery store. Many travelers heading to town pass by, offering a few oranges and well wishes as we try to plead and convince them we are nice friendly hikers who could really use a shower and a burger. Sniper’s group from Kerrick Canyon shows up and gets a ride into town using the effective method of putting the female member (also known as “hitch bait” — not our term) out first, then ambushing the driver with the rest of the group once someone stops for her. We catch a ride after four long hours and head to Bridgeport with, hopefully, the most dangerous part of the PCT behind us.
The trail isn’t even halfway through after Sonora Pass; we still have over 1,600 miles to go to reach the Canadian border. We still get lost daily and even get separated from Slapshot for a few days before the next town, but the hiking gradually gets easier with snow covering closer to half the tail rather than almost all of it. After Lake Tahoe, the trail really opens up, and we hike stress free at a more consistent pace. We wake every morning with the comfort of dirt trail ahead rather than ominous swollen rivers and icy passes to navigate, knowing that we can control our own finish. Sonora Pass, at PCT mile 1,018, was our 67th day from Mexico, reached at an average of 15.2 miles per day. Sam and I would finish exactly 67 days later at the Canadian border, PCT mile 2,650, and average 24.6 miles per day for the latter half.
The Sierras in 2011 challenged our will to complete a PCT thru-hike. Many times I wondered if picking 2011 was a mistake, or if we had waited two weeks, flip-flopped, or skipped these snowy sections all together how the PCT experience would have been. All I do know is how I felt after hiking through the toughest challenge of my life. I felt invincible, like I could take on anything. I truly believe that nothing else will come close to testing my limits, and, having reached that point, I can carry that drive forward into all aspects of my life. While we straddled the line between preparedness and stubbornness, I cannot attribute my success to either factor but do know that it was taking the first steps into the snow that got me there.
- Bear Canister: Mandated by the National Park Service, bear-resistant portable containers are designed for backpackers to store food securely. They are a large and cumbersome item to fit into your pack.
- Blaze: A marker, normally spray painted on a tree or rock, that dictates a trail’s path. The Appalachian Trail has white blazes every 20-30 yards; however they are almost non-existent on most stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail.
- Boot Ski: Technique for descending snowy slopes, similar to glissading, except you stand and maintain balance on your feet rather than sitting down.
- Chaparral: A shrubland or heathland plant community found primarily in California.
- Contour: A line (as on a map) connecting the points on a land surface that have the same elevation.
- Cowboy Camp: Term used to describe sleeping without a tent, under the stars. If weather allows, this makes for a quick and easy pitch and take down, and is ideal for stargazing.
- Flip-Flop: Skipping a portion of the trail and returning later in the season, often in the opposite direction due to travel logistics.
- Ford: To cross a body of water.
- Giardia: a waterborne infection and can be caused by parasites found in backcountry streams and lakes, as well as in municipal water supplies, swimming pools, whirlpool spas, and wells. Giardia infection is marked by abdominal cramps, bloating, nausea, and diarrhea.
- Glissade: Sliding down a snowy slope, usually much faster than hiking down, and done sitting down.
- Ice Axe: A light axe used by mountaineers for cutting footholds in snow or ice to provide an anchor point, or to control a slide on snow; it has a spiked tip and a head consisting of a pick and an adze.
- Microspikes: A lightweight crampon used by backpackers to traverse snow. The rubber jacket stretches over your boot while metal spikes dig into the snow to gain traction.
- Packages, or Mail Drops: Hikers strategically mail ahead supplies to remote outposts along the trail, such as Kennedy Meadows, which offer few or expensive grocery options. Another technique is a “Bounce Box,” which contains repair kits and supplies packed into one box that can be mailed ahead multiple times to the next town.
- Pass: Located on a saddle between two peaks, the pass is a route through a mountain range or over a ridge. If following the lowest possible route, a pass is locally the highest point on that route.
- Posthole: Inadvertently breaching through the surface of the snow, with your leg resembling a fence post stuck in a posthole.
- Purist: A thru-hiker with strict rules about the route, direction, and timing required to define a long-distance hike as a “thru-hike.” More common on the Appalachian Trail, where route-finding is not as difficult and alternate routes are not as necessary.
- Rim-Rocked: A rock climber’s term used to describe the point of no return, where a climber cannot move back in the direction they came from.
- Self-Arrest: Ice axe technique used to rescue yourself in the event of a fall.
- Sun-Cup: A patterned, pockmarked formation in the surface of snowpack which develops in the spring when pockets of water form on the surface of the snow, heat up, and melt the snow underneath faster than the surrounding snow. The small and uneven pockets are notoriously difficult to walk on.
- Snow Blindness (Photokeratitis): The usually temporary dimming of the sight caused by the glare of reflected sunlight on snow.
- Stealth Camp: Camping off-trail in an uncommon area, either to avoid people and bears or out of necessity due to no available designated campsites.
- Thru-Hike: Hiking the entire length of a trail, specifically one of the "Triple Crown" National Scenic Trails. Traditionally a contiguous hike from one end of the trail to the other.
- Topographic Map: Large-scale map containing elevation information in the form of contour lines, as well as both natural and manmade features essential to route-finding and planning a hike such as roads, trails, towns, and rivers.
- Trail Magic: Random good fortune on the trail, typically from a non-thru-hiker providing food, shelter, or a ride unexpectedly.
- Trail Name: A trail name often derives from a unique characteristic or funny event associated with the hiker. A trail name is said to "stick" if the hiker accepts the trail name and other hikers begin to know him by that name. The tradition of using trail names started on the Appalachian Trail, and has spread to the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails.
- Tree Well: Areas around trees that have melted from the radiant heat of the sun on tree trunks.
- Triple Crowner: Someone who has thru-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail.
- Ultralight: Minimalist backpacking that uses specialized gear to reduce the weight of the pack. Generally, ultralight backpacking gear without food weighs under 12 pounds.
//Ben Ward thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011 with his brother Sam, and the Appalachian Trail in 2012. He resides in Washington, D.C. but is currently working on a construction project in Montreal, Quebec.
//Sam Ward has hiked over 5,000 miles along the Appalachian Trail (2008), Pacific Crest Trail (2011), and many more as a weekend warrior. He works as an Environmental Engineer and currently lives in Los Angeles.
Special thanks to Jeremy Wilson (Picker) for the use of his many pictures. Many thanks to Slapshot, Picker, and Josh for the memories which built this narrative.