So it happened. I finally was able to enter the Sierra, after spending way too much time and money on gear in Kennedy Meadows. You know you stayed in a place too long when the people from the town start joking that you will be the 201 resident of it. Spending six days in one spot when all you wanna do is hike, is just really annoying
I was happy to spent time with all the hikers I know, but I was even happier to leave.
My first week in the Sierra was by far the most adventurous one up to this point. We, meaning Justin and me, quickly got to altitudes above 10000 feet and I had to carry 9 days worth of food. We were planning on hiking 7 days and carrying 2 days worth of emergency food. So my pack was as heavy as it has never been before and I had to adapt to the fact that I will have less Oxygen to consume. So this lead to a pretty tiring combination in the first couple of days.
The first day we actually didn’t hit snow yet. From the second day on we were hiking in snow all day long. So in the morning snow is pretty much ice, than it turns into slush once the sun hits it. I don’t know which condition I prefer. Hiking on ice with my crampons actually feels really good, but I can tell out of experience that falling on your face with a heavy backpack hurts less in slush. Hiking in slush in general is more exhausting though. So as you can tell I spent quite some time slipping, sliding and falling on every type of snow existing. By the third day I kinda got used to it and could control myself better.
The third day when I thought things were going to work out really well, was also the first day we had to camp on snow. The other nights we were lucky enough to find spots underneath trees without snow. The thing about camping on snow is, that it actually isn’t that bad. But I never took the time to fix my airmatress properly, so it keeps deflating at night. And that’s where camping on snow turns into a problems, cause laying on snow without insulation can turn pretty darn cold and wet, since the snow tents to melt. Putting on frozen shoes the next morning just adds a little more fun to it. But the best part was actually my attempt of removing my tent stakes from the ground. Well they were frozen solid into the ice, so I had to dig them out of the snow for about half an hour. So I had learned a lot about camping on snow that night and I was sure I would rather avoid it, if possible.
Well needless to say it’s not possible in one of the highest snow years…
But I got used to frozen boots, frozen tents, frozen water bottles and digging out stakes of the ice as my early morning activity.
Apart from the fact that I had to get used to being in snow all day long and learning how to walk on it rather than to slide over it, it was actually an amazing experience. The views were insanely gorgeous and we didn’t see anybody for seven days. I loved it!
Well I loved it until day five, we were making good mileage for snow conditions and we were about to pass over Forester Pass at 13200 feet, this is the highest point of the PCT. The pass is in the mountain range that is pictured above. So we set up camp in a snow free spot at 12500 feet. I was so happy. I got to sleep on snow free ground the night before I would hike to the highest point of the PCT. Well the only reason this spot was snow free was because it was so freaking windy. But that wasn’t even the problem. We were aware of the fact that on day number five out for us, the weather forecast showed about 6 inches of snow. But so far the forecast was always off and the weather was much better than expected. We decided it would be the same for that night. Well I have never been so wrong in my life. Once I had my tent set up. It started snowing. And it didn’t stop for 16 hours and it wasnt just snowing, it stormed, and the sky was bright all night because of constant thunder and lightening. The wind got so bad that snow actually somehow ended up inside my tent. And we are not talking about a little bit of snow. This was not the Sierra experience I signed up for, especially not at 12500 feet. It was a nightmare. I was cold, everything I owned was wet and 6 inches had turned into 2 feet of fresh snow.
It was freezing and my conditions were getting close to a hypothermic state. Forester Pass was at this point impossible to pass. Fresh snow on ice on a steep slope would make for the worst conditions. The storm didn’t seem to calm down. I was feeling horrible. That’s when we decided to backtrack. We had to get to a lower elevation, we had to get out of the storm. Justin’s tent did much better than mine, but it’s still also not a mountaineering tent. So neither of us had slept that night. And backtracking already feels horrible, but backtracking in the conditions we were facing was my worst nightmare. I don’t know much about all of this mountaineering stuff and I learn as I go… We couldn’t just go back the same way we came up, because of the avalanche risk. I wouldn’t be able to tell when we would hit those conditions, but apparently some of the snow cracking sounds indicate it could happen. So I realized I was totally depended on Justin and his skills, that feeling sucked. And I also realized that I was finding myself in a situation that could actually could really be dangerous. I was cold, I was caught in a storm, my face hurt, I couldn’t feel half of my body anymore and all I could do is to tell myself to keep calm and that it will be over soon. And keeping calm is probably the key in a situation like that. Cause there was really nothing I could do other than to continue walking. After 4 hours we were out of the worst and we found a spot that actually had some sun. The good stuff about all the gear is, it’s made to dry easily. So after an hour everything was dry. I set up shelter and passed out for 14 hours. I didn’t wake up once. So in the end it was just a storm that hit us in the worst possible position. But nothing too bad, at that point it did feel pretty horrible though.
The next day the weather was all great again so we hiked back up to the pass. We weren’t willing to give up yet and once the snow settled for a day, maybe we were lucky and conditions would be good enough to pass. We both started to run low on food and we needed to ration it, but it worked. Now it was day seven out in the Sierra and nature once again had proven how powerful it is. While hiking up towards the pass again we spotted fresh footprints and we knew we were about to see other hikers. And I have never been so happy to see other hikers. It was a group of five hikers I earlier met in Kennedy Meadows. They even knew of two more hikers coming up to the pass the same day. All of them talked about the storm and how bad it was.
So that night we were nine hikers camping in the spot of my worst night on the PCT. And we were all ready to climb the pass the next day. One of the hikers actually had taken mountaineering courses and offered to give me a lesson on how to properly use my ice axe. Which was actually really helpful and fun. The next morning our alarms went off at 4.30 am. Because of the fresh snow it was crucial for us to hit it as early as possible. So we had to break trail. We didn’t have footprints to follow and we had to kick our own steps. Using crampons and ice axes. So this is were my PCT hiking experience turned into a real mountaineering experience. It took all nine of us 3 hours to get to the top of the pass and we all were so incredibly happy once we made it. It was actually a really fun experience and there was no storm in sight, just sun and a cloud free sky.
We continued to hike together for the next day and headed into town together, before we would set off for the next stretch in the Sierra. The last day out there we actually heard two avalanches break loose and one of the hikers even saw one.
So just to get some things straight. During a normal snow year, hikers don’t see snow where we currently are. Furthermore I am an early starter, which means I started hiking in March, whereas the big crowd starts hiking in April and May. In a year like this the recommended time to hit the Sierra is Mid July. Before that the Sierra requires mountaineering skills, the right gear and the proper mindset. This is also the reason why there is barely anyone out here. Me and Justin signed the register for the Sierra as thru hiker number 30 and 31. Most hikers skip the Sierra and come back at a later time of the year. As mentioned in other blogs I make sure to always be surrounded by people that know what there doing and yes I am definitely pushing my limits, but I am not doing something insanely stupid or dangerous. It was bad luck to get caught in a storm, but even that was to be expected and we were mentally prepared for it, which doesn’t turn it into a nicer experience if you actually have to face it. So yes, I could have definitely just skipped the Sierra because of the conditions. But this is the experience I came out here for. I couldn’t control the snow fall for the year I decided to hike and I personally made the decision that I still want the full thru-hiking experience. And as you can see in the pictures it is worth every second of it.