Friday, May 30, 2014

Day 51. Forester Pass

15 miles
774 to 788.4, then 1 mile up Bull Frog Trail

Woohoo I made it over Forester Pass today!!!! I can hardly believe it! Forester Pass is the highest point on the PCT and it has a reputation as being a difficult pass. 
The part I thought sounded the most scary was the "chute" which is a traverse right near the top. I'd been building this up in my mind for the past few years, and had been so nervous about it the last few days. 

Since it is a low snow year, I didn't expect much snow. But there sure was a ton of snow, I guess because it is still early in the season! It made for beautiful scenery, but also a tough and exhausting day.
The climb and switchbacks up wasn't as bad as I thought. I guess I'm getting used to the feeling of not being able to breathe. I just keep hiking.
I had been advised to cross Forester in a group, and I was really thrilled to meet up with a great group today. We struck together in a team of six- Arizona, Tent Stakes (recent college grad), Double Tap, and John and Karmin (current students at Columbia). Double Tap was more experienced and lead the way, provided encouragement, pointed out things to watch out for, kept us moving at a faster pace when we needed to, and provided a hand on a few tricky slippery parts. Thank you Double Tap for helping us all out! I was so glad that we stuck together it made it much safer and much more fun.
I'd read a lot about the importance of timing the passes just right for optimal snow conditions. We got to the pass around 10:30 which provided solid footholds on the climb. But the snow got a bit slushy on the descent and made me wish we'd started sooner. The descent was actually the hardest part. We traveled fast to try to beat the softening snow. The traverses of the snow fields were much longer on the way down and much more slippery. I used my microspikes, but no one else did, and only John carried an ice ax. The descent seemed to take forever- there were fields of snow, a few steep traverses, and them lots of places where we were trying not to posthole over melting streams beneath the snow and snow-covered rock fields. The trail was buried beneath the snow in many places, so we had to find our way.

I'm so thrilled to have the first pass under my belt. There are many more to come, and hopefully they won't be so difficult- or at least I won't be so nervous.
The Sierra continues to be beautiful, but today I was so focused on my footsteps and not slipping, that I didn't have much time to enjoy being here until I got to camp.

One thing that I do love about the Sierra is all the water. We walk on snow and pass by ice-covered lakes. Streams are everywhere so we don't have to carry much water. The downside is that my feet and shoes are constantly wet- both from fording streams and from walking on snow. Such a change from just a few days ago when water was scarce and my feet were always sandy and dry. Ah the ever-changing PCT!

Day 50. Waterfalls and alpine lakes

8 miles
766 to 774 (Tyndall Creek Ford)

Today was a short mileage day to get set up before Forester Pass tomorrow. After doing high miles and always feeling the drive to push towards Canada, I had a hard time trying to figure out what to do with the extra time.
At Wallace Creek (mile 770), Arizona saw a sign for Kern Hot Springs in 11.8 miles. Wow a hot springs! I was in a quandary about whether or not to go. I ended up hiking down the trail with Arizona for an hour before turning around. In that time, we saw the most spectacular scenery I've seen out here thus far. A gorgeous waterfall- absolutely breathtaking in a valley surrounded by mountain peaks.
 Hiking with Arizona is a blast- he jokes around a lot and we have great conversations. It feels like hanging out with an old friend, even though I've only known him a few days. 
Arizona really wanted to go all the way to the hot springs, but I was reluctant to venture so far from the PCT. For one thing, I didn't have a map. But the deciding factor was that I had in my head that I need to stay moving towards Canada. That a diversion even to something as wonderful as a hot springs wasn't part of the Plan. I realize that I seem to be getting even more goal driven and concerned about making miles. I had hoped before starting the PCT to take time for side trails- I hoped I take time to enjoy the scenery. But I got scared. In the end Arizona and I parted ways, and I headed back to the PCT. 
I ran into Robin at a stream ford. She is "thru-fishing" the PCT, and we went off-trail exploring out to an alpine lake for a few hours to look for fishing holes. We circled around the lake, trooped through bogs, and stared in awe at the gorgeous scenery. It turned out to be such a stunning day because of my forays away from the PCT.
I am camped at the ford at Tyndall Creek (10,800 feet) with a bunch of other hikers setting up before Forester. Arizona arrived at camp late in the evening and even though he didn't make it all the way to the hot springs, he had quite an adventure and saw tons more waterfalls. I'm so glad he made it here so we can climb Forester together tomorrow.

Day 49. Whitney

Mount Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48 at 14,505 feet. There is a 8.5 mile side trail off the PCT that climbs to the summit. Many PCT hikers take an extra day to climb it while others skip it. SlowBro and MeToo decided they weren't going to climb it, but Arizona wanted to (by the way Arizona got his trail name because he just hiked the Arizona Trail- how cool is that!). I decided that since I had enough food, I would take an extra day to climb Whitney with Arizona while the others went on ahead. Hopefully I'll see the other guys down the trail it was great hiking with them.
Timberline Lake.
Many people camp at Guitar Lake before climbing Whitney, or wake up really early in the AM to get a pre-dawn start. Unfortunately, I just didn't have the energy for either of those options. Yesterday, Arizona and I didn't arrive at Crabtree Meadows until nearly 8 PM. I thought by now I'd be a super strong hiking machine, but just when I thought I was finally in thru hiker shape, the PCT throws in extra challenges like the weight of the bear canister, microspikes, and extra clothes, and elevations over 10,000 feet. Phew! I remain humbled.

Up the valley towards the switchbacks.
So, last night we camped at the junction and then set out at 6 AM to climb Whitney.

The hike up to Guitar Lake was stunning. Snowmelt mountain streams rushed down the valley.
Gorgeous lakes.  I never get tired of rocks and snow and water.
The trail then switchbacked up to the Whitney Trail Portal junction at 13,519 feet. At one point I heard rocks falling down the slope above me, and had to dart up the trail. Thankfully, we reacted in time to avoid them.

Snow fields were icy on the way up. I'd been pretty scared about them. There were good kick steps already established. I crossed the snowy traverses with my microspikes, and cheered after crossing each one. I was definitely glad I had taken a snow skills class. Those traverses are one of those things that make me feel so good to face my fears, but they sure did take it out of me.
Grateful to be following in the footsteps.
The trail got sketchy for a while after the junction. Lots of boulders and ice and sheer drop offs. The air was thin, and breathing was difficult. I noticed I quit looking around, quit enjoying being up there. I started feeling pretty uncomfortable with the level of exertion, and I was so tired of being tired. I knew I was in this beautiful place, but I couldn't appreciate it because it was taking all my energy just to keep moving slowly forward and not fall down. It was also getting late and I realized I'd been climbing for 7 hours and had only done about 7.5 miles! Even though we were less than a mile to the top, I decided to turn around. I was really surprised Arizona decided to turn around too. Even though I was disappointed, it was such a relief to start heading down. I instantly felt energized. I could see the amazing views and feel awe at the sheer peaks and other-worldly landscapes.
Approaching trail junction on the descent.
I was disappointed in myself for not making it to the top. I know I could have made it if I'd pushed myself harder. It made me so self-aware of how I worry and tend to be overly cautious. I lack self-confidence. Sometimes I wish I could change that about myself and take more risks. Other times I think I should be more accepting of my cautious nature and realize it is just part of who I am.
Many moments of self-reflection as I push myself to my limit, and a bit beyond.
But I was glad for the experience of attempting to climb Whitney. It was helpful getting practice at those elevations because I was really nervous about climbing over Forester Pass, highest point on the PCT. Knowing I could handle the traverses gave me an extra confidence boost.

On the way down, I had time to stop and take a refreshing dip at a small snow melt lake. I relaxed in the sun and felt the soft grass between my toes. It was the first time I actually felt glad to to be in the Sierras, and not in a state of disorientation at the strangeness of this place. I glided down the slushy snow fields with glee. Actually enjoying the snow for the first time. Remembering to play. And remembering to listen to my body, not being so goal oriented but instead focusing on the journey and not the destination.
Drying out after a refreshing dip in the icy waters.
We got back to Crabtree Meadows by 7 pm and we are camped here again. I can't believe how tired I am!
Hanging at Crabtree Meadows.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Day 46. Second start from KM

17 miles
704 to 721.7

We escaped the vortex of Kennedy Meadows and headed back up into the Sierra. What a difference three days made. No snow on the ground (yet), and just a few drops of rain. It feels like a different trail compared to the white out conditions and energy-sapping cold and wet we had before we bailed and retreated from the storm back to Kennedy Meadows.
Packs felt heavier with the new gear. Yesterday Slim gave SlowBro, MeToo, Arizona, and I a ride into Lone Pine. I picked up a package with my gortex socks and larger size shoes to fit thicker socks, and pants. I also bought a long underwear top and bottom plus mittens at the outfitter. In town, I saw Blue Yonder who made it out at Cottonwood Pass. She said some other hikers had been stuck in the snow for two nights. Town was full of hikers that had escaped the snow. It made me feel like is made a good decision to turn around when we did.

I'm still nervous about the snow ahead but I feel better prepared. Now I have similar clothes to what I wore for my snow skills class, so hopefully I won't freeze this time. I have a baselayer top, fleece hoodie, down coat, raincoat, and hiking shirt. Plus hiking pants, rain pants, and two pair of leggings that I can layer at night, or hike in one during the day and keep the other dry for sleeping. Though the weather changed so much, I hope it's not overkill.

SlowBro, MeToo, and I stopped early because we are getting up to higher elevations so wanted to stop at this campsite. Though there are trees around, the ones up here are widely spaced giants. Not an easy hang. Took me forever to set up. Next time I might do what SlowBro did and hang from branches of the tree rather than the huge trunk.

Feeling excited about the Sierra!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Day 44. Back to Kennedy Meadows

720.5 back to 702.3

All my wet gear was frozen solid by morning. By the time I'd wrangled my feet into frozen shoes, bundled up my ice-encrusted tarp, and decided to wear my sleeping clothes while hiking, it started to snow again. We climbed into deeper and deeper snow for about half and hour. Despite the exertion, my toes slowly went numb from the cold.

I stopped to eat, hoping more calories would help, and MeToo stopped with me. Suddenly MeToo bent over, saying he felt like he might pass out. Apparently, this happens to him sometimes, and could have been related to his blood pressure medication, combined with the strain and altitude. I watched him collapse onto the ground. Yikes! I was so worried he would hit his head as he fell. He came to, but was very pale. I called out to SlowBro and Blue Yonder for help. SlowBro is a doctor and assessed MeToo. Fortunately, MeToo felt better after resting and drinking some hot water.
SlowBro and Blue Yonder care for MeToo.
We debated what to do. We were heading deeper into the Sierra, it was snowing, we were all very cold, and going to even higher altitudes with what happened to MeToo didn't seem like a good idea. We were already planning to head into town at Cottonwood Pass the next day- there was more snow up there then we'd bargained for and more was coming down. I needed to pick up my gortex socks in Lone Pine, and MeToo needed a new sleeping bag. SlowBro, MeToo and I decided to turn around and head back to Kennedy Meadows. Blue Yonder decided to hike on. It was great hiking with Blue Yonder, and I wish her safe and joyful travels and hope to see her again someday.
MeToo takes a hot drink.
 It felt weird hiking back especially when we got to lower elevation where there was no snow. When we looked up at the mountains, we could see they were covered in clouds so it looked like it snowed all day up there. On our hike out, we just had some rain.
Back to Swallow Bridge.
I think it was a good decision to bail. While I was warm during the night in my hammock, I was pretty cold while hiking. My hiking clothes are not the ones I wore in my snow skills class since I was thinking there would be warmer weather during the day here. And it felt like the right thing to do hiking back with MeToo. I was really glad for an excuse to turn back. And it made me feel better that SlowBro hiked back too-- otherwise I'd feel like I was a wimp. Especially with other hikers continuing on. I know I could have done it, but it was going to be very hard and it was no fun being that cold.
SlowBro follws MeToo back to Kennedy Meadows.
Tomorrow we are going to the outfitter and post office in Lone Pine.  Hopefully this delay will give the snow up there a chance to melt while we get better prepared.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Day 43. Snowing!

18.2 miles
702.3 (Kennedy Meadows) to 720.5

Blue Yonder, Me Too, and I debated about staying another day in Kennedy Meadows due to the forecast, but this morning there were blue skies so we headed out. A few hours into the hike SlowBro caught up to us. Had some great conversations while hiking with him.
It began raining and then snowing midday. Even in my raincoat and rain pants I could not hike fast enough to stay warm. Not eating enough probably also didn't help. 
 We ran into a group of outward bound students, and their instructors offered to share their fire with us. I warmed up a little and got some calories in me and felt much better. Honestly before we stopped, I was really worried about how cold I was getting. I was considering putting on my sleeping clothes, and risking getting them wet. My hiking clothes are the ones I wore through SoCal- not warm at all. I'm so grateful for those guys for being there for us.
After crossing the Kern River and passing through the valley, the snow started letting up. Without the constant wetness, I warmed up a little. Enough to appreciate the beauty of the snow. MeToo joked that it felt like January. So Blue Yonder and I started singing Christmas songs, trying to come up with PCT-related lyrics to traditional carols.
As afternoon wore on, we climbed to where the snow was deeper. We decided not to push on to even higher elevations even though we stopped at only about 6 PM. But we are at 9000 feet! Today was tiring not because of the hiking or even carrying the extra weight of the bear canister, but from being so cold. That really takes it out of me.
Finding a campsite proved challenging for the tenters, but SlowBro and I had more options for our hammocks. I'm really glad we are all camping together. It feels much safer to be in a group in these conditions.
Honestly, I'm worried about staying warm enough out here. I don't have the winter clothes I normally hike in at these temperatures. But at least we are going to town so I can switch my gear.

I'm also wondering what I'm doing out here in this snow. Even though it is a low snow year, we are very early- the traditional day to leave Kennedy Meadows is June 15. And it's only May 21st! I thought I felt prepared by taking a snow course. I thought I felt like I could take on anything after finishing SoCal. But honestly I'm doubting myself as I lay here in my hammock thawing out my frozen toes. Hopefully, the sun will come out tomorrow and things will feel different in the morning.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Day 42. Zero in Kennedy Meadows

Kennedy Meadows is an incredible place perfect for hikers.  It's been so fun taking a zero day today. Focused first on chores.  I've done laundry, had an outdoor shower, and eaten burgers and pints of Ben & Jerry's.  Picked up my bear canister and microspikes, plus a ton of great food sent from Mom and Dad.

Living the dream... 
This is the place where hikers hang out before taking on the snow and high elevations in the Sierra.  There is much excitement because a storm is coming through, dropping more snow on Forester Pass and possible rain and snow all around.  Some of my hiking buddies headed out into it- Whitewater and Ninja Tank among others.  I'll miss hiking with those guys but I'm not going to keep trying to keep up with them.  I was so thrilled to hike with them as long as I did- really wonderful guys who watched out for me, taught me a ton, challenged me to hike further than I thought I could, and made hiking through the heat and sand a total blast.  Hopefully I will see them again somewhere up the trail.  

I'm waiting another night here and then hiking out with Blue Yonder and MeToo.  We will hike a couple days and will go out to Lone Pine- it definitely makes me feel better knowing we will be going to town so I won't be carrying as much food as the others that are heading strait through.  I hope this will be easier on my feet.

There are many hikers around.  I was especially delighted to finally meet SlowBro, a fellow hammock hanger who I've emailing. It was great talking to him in person and seeing his hammock setup, and geeking out about gear.  What a great guy!  

SlowBro shows me his hammock setup.
Susan (now called Rewind, see her blog here) who is a long time friend from Atlanta and who I started the trail with was here too.  She was waiting four days for her resupply box to arrive- I was so happy seeing her briefly before she headed back out to the trail.

So interesting how we hikers run into each other over and over again along the trail.  How we might not see one another for weeks, but then run into one another again.  So sweet to be part of this mobile community.

Anyway, internet service is expected to be sporadic in the Sierra, so don't expect regular updates for a while. I'll catch up with you all when I can.

Day 41. Into Kennedy Meadows

19 miles
mile 683.4 to mile 702.2

Arriving at Kennedy Meadows today was an important milestone on my journey so far. This is the start of the Sierra and end of Southern California.  I'm so excited to have made it here.  I was nearly skipping down the trail today with joy.  Being here I truly feel like a PCT hiker.  I feel like I belong, that I've found my community, and that I'm well on my way to Canada.
Beautiful even through the burn area.
I spent a lot of the hike today thinking about these first 700 miles. SoCal was definitely my favorite section of the PCT so far, and it's bittersweet leaving it because I enjoyed it so much.   Of course it is the only section I've done, but I absolutely loved it. Which surprised me. When I was first thinking of hiking the PCT, I almost thought I wouldn't hike this section. I was scared of the heat and didn't think it would be scenic, and I didn't want to go if I couldn't bring my hammock. I found out I was wrong on all counts. These arid landscapes have an awesome beauty and were incredibly diverse. There was something new every day- the verdant springs and streams, the high mountains covered in pines, wonderful rock formations, the unrelenting sun, cold nights, fierce winds, and abundant wildflowers.

The desert was a good teacher and provided challenges that drew me to long distance hiking. I never knew what to expect so I had to learn to adapt.  It was hard, but the good kind of hard that makes you feel alive.  Hiking through SoCal provided me with a feeling of confidence and accomplishment.

My hiking mentor Stacy told me that the two main environmental challenges in SoCal would be water and blisters. This was so true!  The lack of water made me constantly think about water, plan our days around water, hope for water, sometimes feel more thirsty than I ever have before, and I ended up walking further than I thought my legs could carry me because I knew I needed to get to the next water. It really gave me a totally deep appreciation for water and what in means.
Slow trickle of water at the spring.
I also spent more time than I could have imagined caring for my feet.  Back east, I never needed to do any foot care. But out on the PCT was a completely different story because of the sand, dryness, and heat. I managed to avoid any blisters for the first 650 miles because I strictly adhered to a foot care regime (thanks Stacy for teaching this to me!). Feet need love to stay happy out here.  And you can't hike if the feet aren't happy.  At rest breaks, it was not uncommon to see hikers sitting around massaging (and talking to) our own feet. That might sound strange but it works!  Everyone seemed to have a different foot care regime but constant attention was a common element.  I rubbed my feet with moisturizer at night, and "trail toes" anti-friction cream twice a day. I took off my shoes at rest breaks every two hours. I changed my socks every day, and rinsed sand out of them whenever possible.  I learned to listen to my feet and pay attention when they complained.
Changing my socks mid-day.
Other lessons I learned out here were not really about hiking though. I think a lot about what it feels like to "live the dream." To actually be doing exactly what you've wanted to do for a long time. How incredible to be making my deepest wish a reality.  It makes me feel like I can do anything I set my mind to.   I am in a state of constant awareness about how happy I am to be doing something that I truly love.   Even when things are rough, like when I was slogging uphill carrying 7 liters of water in the hot sand, I said "I'm living the dream. This is what hiking the PCT is all about." And it's true. Those moments we are most uncomfortable are the times for growth, the times when I learn just how strong I am, when I discover how resilient I am.

One time Blue Yonder, MeToo and I were having a rough time hiking a rocky steep road late in the day. It felt miserable at first, but it was also an opportunity to turn our attitudes around. Blue Yonder started playing music and we danced up that road to "rock lobster" by the B52's. And now whenever we have a nasty rocky road walk, we dance through it and laugh at the "rock lobster roads." What a life lesson!

I've also learned how things just seem to always work out ok. Because out here they do. I am the type of person that likes to control thing and not take chances. But out here on the PCT, I learn to go with the flow and trust that I will be ok. I'm trying to remember this when my anxiety about the Sierras starts to get overwhelming. I'm scared about the snow, about being cold and crossing over the high passes. I remind myself that everything I've done has prepared me for this. That I am in the best shape now, mentally and physically. That it will be OK.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Day 39. Slushies

8.7 miles
mile 652 (Walker Pass) to mile 660.7

Took a much needed rest day in the town of Ridgecrest with Ninja Tank, Blue Yonder and Me Too. I cannot believe how much better I feel! It was an unplanned stop, but it sure worked out well. We really felt like we'd been transported to some other universe.
On a mission in Ridgecrest to get slushies.
 I had been worn out and drained from the heat and long 20+ mile water carries this past section from Tehachapi to Walker Pass. The other thing about this section was that there were no trail angels with sodas or towns with fresh food.   No taco salads, no ice cream, no root beer floats, no oranges.   It was the first time on the trail where I'd wake up in the middle of the night to a growling stomach.  Where I would frequently crave fresh food with such an intensity.

So after dreaming of cold drinks in the heat and feeling near-dehydrated, we went to a convenience store for one of the most amazing beverages imaginable-- slushies!!! OMG, slushies tasted out of this world. We went back two hours later for seconds!
Me and Ninja Tank.
And I rinsed out the sand from my socks in the sink of the hotel and can not believe how happy my feet feel in cleanish socks. The rest did my feet good too- I got my first blister of the PCT on the back of my heel a few days ago. I know it's from having such a heavy pack and not resting enough, and not giving my feet enough attention. Lesson learned. I know the day of rest did my feet some good.

After filling our bellies, we got a ride from Slim back to Walker Pass in the afternoon. What a contrast to 24 hours ago. My body felt so strong, the miles zipped by. Blue Yonder, MeToo and I were laughing and joking. I could actually notice that the scenery and flowers were spectacular, rather than just staring blankly at the trail like I was doing yesterday. So glad I had a rest!
Blue Yonder on the climb out of Walker Pass.
We climbed up to the saddle of Owens Peak. These mountains are bigger and steeper than ones we'd seen the last few days, and have us very excited about entering the Sierra. It is windy, but I found a tight place far down the slope nestled in some scrub oaks. I'm feeling so happy to have had such a fun and wonderful day, and just so joyful to be out here on the PCT.  Living the dream.
A tight hang on a steep slope at the saddle of Owens Peak.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Day 37. The Heat

22 miles
mile 607.9 to 630.8

Hardest day so far.  A day of extreme temperatures.  A morning so cold that I walked the first 30 minutes in my down parka.  
In my down jacket.
Then the heat of the afternoon was unbearable.  On top of that the water carry was so long (ie the distance between water sources was so far) so I had a heavy 7 liters of water.  My pack was so heavy with the weight.  It's a catch-22 because I sweat more carting the heavy pack but I have to carry more water to stay hydrated when I sweat so much in the heat.

Joined Ninja Tank and Whitewater in the shade of a rock for a siesta.  How surreal to be watching a movie on Whitewater's iPhone as we squeezed into the vanishing shade as the day heated up.  I hadn't anticipated how much I'd drink during a hot siesta or how exhausted I'd feel just lying there baking in the heat.  Ninja put up a tarp but it was still hot under it.  But at least it was safer than being out on the exposed trail.  I was concerned about heat exhaustion and I was in survival mode.  The goal of the day was "not dying."  We joked about the goal of "no more helicopters" and then how maybe a helicopter ride down to Walker Pass might not be a bad idea.  
Me, Ninja Tank, and Whitewater in dwindling shade.
When we ran out of shade, I followed Ninja Tank down a canyon over tricky boulder scrambles to the spring.  So fun/ scary!  Then up the sandy road back to the sandy trail.  Each step felt so difficult sinking into sand.
Sinking sand.
I threw my pack down to Ninja Tank on this rock scramble.
To get to Bird Springs Pass so we'd be in position for the next big climb in the cool of morning the following day, we night hiked until 10 PM.  Beautiful sunset and full moon.  I was so grateful to be hiking with Blue Yonder and it was so very sweet that Whitewater and Ninja Tank waited for us at road crossings.  They are the BEST!!!  
I feel so lucky to be with such great people- they really make it fun (and safer).
Joshua Trees.
MeToo was waiting at the pass and had a hang spot scooped out for me- first hang on a Joshua tree.   It was tough getting to sleep because I was so wired from trying to stay up so late- I'm usually in bed by 8 and wake up at 4 or 5.  So 11 PM felt really tough.  Phew!  At least we made it!