18.8 miles on PCT (1048.1 to 1066.9), plus 0.2 from trailhead to PCT
My generous father drives me all the way to Ebbetts Pass. When I start hiking, I will have skipped 28 miles. I don’t feel good about those missing miles, but driving back to Sonora Pass is not an option. Even if it was, I don’t think I’m brave enough to attempt that section on my own, not with my confidence so badly shaken.
I’ve decided to carry my microspikes again, just in case. After the descent to Highway 108, I don’t trust anything I’ve heard from other hikers. However, I’ve left my bear canister behind for the first time since leaving the desert, and packed my Ursack instead. I hope this was a good decision.
We reach the trailhead. After one final internal debate about which hoody to bring, I get started. Heading north from Ebbetts, I see a few large-ish snow drifts nearby, but thankfully none are on the trail. It’s too late to go home again. I’m stuck out here, at least for now, and for awhile I feel stuck. I’m just not into this. It’s windy and cold and the days are short and I no longer have any chance of completing the entire trail this year, so what’s the point of continuing? Why am I still fighting so hard for more miles?
I’m realizing a few truths about myself. I don’t want this hike to end. Paradoxically, that’s probably part of the reason I keep trying to talk myself into leaving the trail, and why I finally succeeded in doing so at Sonora Pass: if I haven’t hiked 2,650 miles, my hike isn’t over. When winter arrives, I won’t be finished. Thus, the hike won’t end. It’ll be…on hold for the winter. If I did somehow manage to complete the entire trail before winter, I’d be done. And then what? I’ve been hiking for so long now, I don’t know what I’ll do if it’s over. It can’t end. Part of me won’t let it end.
I ponder all of this and more as I walk. I enjoy the gorgeous rock formations, but not as much as I should. I’m not excited about being here. My mind is elsewhere.
After lunch I decide I need to get serious about hiking. No more puttering about. I need to do at least 15 miles today. I put on an audio book. This focuses my attention and gets me into a good pace, and very soon I’m cruising along. I pass icy streams, frozen nearly solid at 2pm. I pass out of the wonderful rock formations and into forest. I cross roads. I hear cars, an odd experience after so many quiet days in the High Sierra.
I end up doing a total of 19 miles, impressive considering I started at nearly 10am. Lately, I’ve barely been able to surpass 20 miles even with 7am starts. I feel better about being out here. I’m going to be ok.
At first I feel only relief as we drive north. I no longer have to be concerned with sub-freezing temperatures or frozen water tubes or unexpected highway closures. Then doubt creeps in. Did I make the right choice? Am I really comfortable skipping 135 miles of open, hike-able trail?
I don’t like this decision. I also don’t like the thought of hiking north from Sonora Pass – for some reason that area still has me spooked – but I already regret skipping the entire stretch from Sonora to Donner. I’m not ready to skip back up to Castle Crags. I’m not finished with the Sierra.
So…what about Ebbetts Pass to Donner? That should be a snow-free section. I can bust it out in five days, finishing before the next storm hits.
I discuss this idea with Dad and with my husband. They’re both willing to drive me to Ebbetts Pass (Highway 4) to restart my hike, even though Dad just made essentially the same long drive two days in a row to meet me at Sonora Pass. Tomorrow we’ll do it again, turning right back around and heading to Ebbetts. I’m not giving up yet.
Dad and I plan to hike to the top of the day’s climb – a distance of about three miles – to assess conditions, then camp on the descent a few miles farther. If all looks well, I’ll continue north tomorrow, and he’ll return to the trailhead.
Before we leave the hotel, I check the forecast for Sonora Pass. When it comes up on my phone, I don’t at first comprehend what I’m seeing. Today: winds 35-40 mph with gusts as high as 65. Yesterday, today’s winds were “only” forecast to reach 30 mph. This is a huge change.
We drive to Sonora Pass. From inside the car, we can see how windy it is. At the trailhead, we put on our packs and hike north. It’s cold. Wind takes the temperature even lower. I hike uphill in my usual shirt and pants, and a pair of lightweight long underwear bottoms, and my fleece hoody, and my vest. I’m still cold. The scenery is beautiful, though.
My gaze keeps turning southward, to the mountain I descended yesterday. I can see the trail, a brown line cutting through snow. I can see approximately where I accidentally got off the trail and where I made my way cross-country. The view to the south fills me with dread, even though I’ve already completed that ordeal. Still I keep looking, and still I feel a deep sense of dread.
We climb over icy trickling streams toward volcanic spires. Wind is fast, cold, and constant. I’m hungry, but there’s nowhere to get out of the wind for lunch. After a few miles, we reach the top of the climb and crest a ridge where wind blows fast enough to push me off my feet. On the far side, the trail traverses the north-facing mountainside. If any snow patches linger, we’ll find them here.
After a few undulations in the trail, we come upon a deep bend and a snowbank blocking the way. At first glance the crossing doesn’t look too scary or difficult, but I halt immediately. From here the trail will maintain roughly this elevation for another half mile or so. Then it will descend, and never rise above 10,000 feet again. Very soon, it will remain below 9,000 feet. This is likely the last snow patch to completely cover the trail. But maybe it isn’t.
I look again at the forecast. Wind will be above 20 mph all week from here to Carson Pass. The forecast worries me. Actually, the unpredictability worries me. Yesterday, Sonora Pass winds were forecast to be 30 mph. Today they’re 65. That’s a huge difference.
Suddenly, the sun vanishes behind thickening clouds. These clouds aren’t in the forecast, either. It’s starting to look like it could snow. I’m entering a stretch of trail where – if the highways over the high passes close again in another unexpected snow storm – there will be no bail-out options for the next 75 miles. That’s not so far – unless conditions are miserable.
The feeling of dread that I’ve carried all day increases. This time, it’s not just my freezing body and worried mind asking me to leave the trail. This time, my heart wants off too. Yesterday shook me so hard that I don’t want to be out here anymore. I want to be on the trail, just not here. Here fills me with fear. Maybe there’s a good reason. Maybe my unconscious senses some approaching doom. I want to go back to the car and go north and resume my hike at Castle Crags, where I skipped ahead when I got sick this summer. I want that, but I’m afraid I’ll regret leaving the trail here.
For a long time, I can’t make up my mind. Keep going, or turn back? I don’t know what to do. We stand on the side of the mountain in the freezing wind while I try to reach a decision. Right here, right now, is probably the worst I’ll face: the strongest wind, the most snow. But what if it isn’t?
For whatever reason, or reasons, I’m fearful of going forward. I will not enjoy this stretch. I will dread what I’ll find around each bend in the trail, each change in the wind. I don’t feel safe, especially going alone. I make a decision: I will abandon the Sierra and resume my hike at Castle Crags.
We turn and walk back to the car. I hope I’ve made the right choice.
Inside my tent, I smell smoke from the nearby wildfire. Wind arrives shortly after darkness falls. Occasionally my tent shudders. I tell myself not to freak out about an obstacle I haven’t even seen yet, but I can’t help it: I have sweaty palms and a racing heart and looming sense of dread. I haven’t even seen the snow yet. Calm down. Please sleep.
Finally I do. In the morning, I still smell smoke. Wind still blows cold and fast. I leave camp at 8am. Half an hour later, I come upon the snowbank.
From here, it’s difficult to assess the size, slope, and slipperiness of this obstacle. I put on my spikes. I’ll go out a little way and come back immediately if it’s too scary.
I follow a set of footprints until they’re lost as the snow turns hard and icy, which is precisely where the slope steepens. My spikes can probably handle this, but my brain can’t. I’m close to freezing up, so I manage to get myself turned around and headed back for bare rock.
I’ll tackle this as recommended by those I met yesterday: hike uphill and around. I have to detour farther uphill than I imagined. It’s steep but not difficult. I make my way carefully down the slope, around small snow patches, back down to the PCT. That’s it. I’ve done it.
Or have I? That may have been the most dangerous patch of the snow, but I soon come upon another patch that requires crossing. Then there’s a third patch, much easier than the first two, and then I climb to a pass in a notch between stony pillars.
Almost immediately, I have to descend through snow. None of this snow is as icy (or as deep) as the previous patches, but it’s steep enough to make me nervous and require my full attention – and, once more, the use of microspikes.After successfully crossing this obstacle, I climb to another ridge and begin the traverse of a south-facing slope. Great job, I tell myself. I was terrified, but I did it, and I did it safely, and now it’s over.
I photograph the strange smoky haze lying like thick striped clouds over the mountains.
I drop over onto a north-facing slope. Snow covers the trail. I didn’t expect to find snow here. None of the other hikers mentioned snow here. I put on my spikes and make my way down. In places I can see where new snow covers old. Some of this snow has been here all summer. I go through mud, then snow, then rocks, then snow. I can see the highway below. It’s still two miles away. I don’t want to be up here. There’s too much snow. Why didn’t anyone tell me how much snow is really up here? I can’t turn back now, so close to the highway. I have to keep going, even though I’m uncomfortable. I don’t want to be up here doing this.
This trail I’m following…it doesn’t look like the PCT. The path has faded to a few footprints on soft soil. I pull up Guthooks. I’m not on the trail. I’m far from the trail. With steep drops on all sides. In the midst of snowy slopes. How did I do this? What am I going to do now? I can’t go back, so I follow the faint trail forward. There’s a single set of footprints visible. They lead down a steep ravine. I can see the real trail on the mountain to the east, winding through snow. I feel sick. Get me out of here.
I’m thankful for my many seasons of cross country hiking experience as I pick my way down the steep ravine. Finally the way levels out and I walk across a grass knoll and plant my feet on the PCT.
I’m now only 0.3 miles from Highway 108. That accidental detour cut over a mile from my hike.
A horrible thought occurs to me: Dad said he might hike up the trail to meet me. What if he did, and he’s up there right now, and I just bypassed him? He’ll keep walking until he finds me. But maybe he’s waiting down at the highway. I need to find out before I panic.
I walk down to the trailhead. Dad’s car is there. He isn’t. I lose it.
Please. No. I don’t want to go back up there. How far has he gone? How far will he go before he stops and waits for me? I don’t want to go back up there.
But I have to. I have to find him. I texted him when I got through the dangerous snow patch; he knows that I’m coming to Sonora Pass rather than Leavitt Meadow. He’ll be looking for me. The relief I felt upon reaching the highway is gone. I feel a dread so deep I can’t breathe. I don’t want to go back up there.
I go. Back up to the place where I regained the trail. And onward. Until I come to a place where the whole trail, the section I bypassed, is laid out on the mountain in front of me. As loud as I can, I shout, “Dad!”
I hear, or imagine I hear, a shout in response.
“Come down!” I yell.
I may or may not hear an “Ok” come back on the breeze.
I watch the trail for any movement. There! Way up, I see a figure moving downhill. Please be him. Please be him. I wait. If it’s not him, I have to go up there to find him. Please be him.
After what feels like a long wait, the figure appears on the trail just above me. It’s him! I’m so relieved, I cry silently into my hands. I don’t know why I’m so freaked out by this stretch of trail, but I am, and it sucks. By this point in the hike, I just want to be safe.
At last Dad reaches me. We hug. I tell him of my error and show him where I came down the ravine. He tells me of snow on the trail ahead, where he waited for me for 20 minutes before turning back. He was already heading down when he heard me yell.
We walk down to the highway together. I’d planned to continue hiking north tomorrow, after showering and doing laundry in Bridgeport tonight, but the morning’s events have spooked me so much that I question whether continuing is a good idea.
Wind pours through the trees and shakes my tent all night. I get little sleep. When morning finally comes, the wind has not diminished. I hike away bundled in layers, and they’re barely enough. I’m cold. My thermometer claims 30 degrees, but windchill sends the temperature much, much lower. The trail is ice. In the meadows, where all should be mud, there is only solid ice. In places, even the stream has iced over.
I’m so cold, my chest aches. Inhaling hurts my lungs. I blow ropes of snot out of my nose. I’m miserable, except for this: I’m treading on ice rather than mud. I’m thankful for the frozen ground; come afternoon, the trail here will be deep, dense mud.
At 9:15am, I run into a SOBO. Just Jon tells me of a dangerous snow patch completely covering the trail near mile 1011, a few miles before Sonora Pass. The snow is steep and icy, and a fall would mean a long slide down. I may be ok with microspikes, he tells me, or I may be able to climb above the snow to get around it – he wishes he’d tried that.
This news nearly sends me into a panic attack on the spot, but I try to remain calm. The snow up ahead sounds similar to the snow that turned me back on the approach to Mount Whitney back in July. Will microspikes be enough? Even if they are, will my brain be able to handle creeping across steep ice above a steep drop? What am I going to do?
For lack of a better plan, I keep walking north through the frigid wind. The wind blows fast enough to cover Dorothy Lake with white caps. North-facing slopes behind the lake are snow covered. The sight only adds to the terror growing in my mind. So much snow. What am I going to do?
Ahead, I see two SOBOs. Good! I ask them about snow near Sonora Pass. Woody and Shell tell me about the same ice sheet. They say it was hard and slick even in early afternoon, but was easy to walk around by going uphill – as Just Jon suggested. They don’t have spikes, but someone in front of them did and he went right over the snow. They say I’ll be fine. It was easy to get around the snow, they say. Easy. Ok, please be right.
The trail takes me from slabs of rocks into hemlock-lodgepole forest. I pass mile 1,000, which feels like a milestone even though I’ve already hiked well over 2,000 miles of the PCT.
Occasionally, I pass a fork in the trail. I send Dad a satellite text asking if I can follow one of these trails out of here if necessary. He says yes! The trail along Walker River leads to Leavitt Meadow, an easy walk of 11 miles. This, then, is my backup plan: if the snow ahead is too dangerous, I will retreat to the Walker River trail, and Dad will meet me at Leavitt Meadow rather than Sonora Pass. I have just enough food to accomplish this. I’m going to be ok.
I begin the final climb of the day, which will take me to nearly 11,000 feet. The trail is surrounded by north-facing slopes covered in snow. I try not to feel frightened. I can turn around if I’m uncomfortable. I’m going to be ok.
I walk up long switchbacks to a saddle where I see a plume of gray smoke rising from a distant canyon. I keep climbing. The trail clings to the side of the mountain. In places, I have to keep my eyes on the ground directly in front of me; the drop is steep enough to make me dizzy.
Spider webs drift through the air in abundance. I’ve noticed them before, but now they seem to take up every inch of sky. Maybe it’s just the lighting. It’s cool, though. Spiders on the move.
I come to the final campsite listed in the apps. I’m six miles from Highway 108, and approximately one mile from the dangerous snow patch. If there were any other campsites listed, I would press on to get over that snow today. But if I keep going now and can’t find somewhere to camp – likely, given the extremely steep terrain – I’ll have to walk for at least an hour and a half in the dark to reach Sonora Pass. That sounds too dangerous to attempt. So I pitch my tent at 10,500 feet, where it will be insanely cold tonight.
I tell myself there’s no need to panic. In the morning, if I’m not comfortable, I can turn back. That’s what backup plans are for.
My first task on this difficult day is to climb 1,600 feet to Seavey Pass. Actually, no. Turns out my first task is to get across Piute Creek. I accomplish this in three acts. Act one: on two small logs, one foot on each log. Act two: across a soft, rotting log. Act three: across a massive log jam, scooting along on my butt for the final ten feet or so. Safely across the stream’s three branches, I mount the climb to Seavey Pass.
The climb isn’t as horrible as it could be. It’s steep, for sure, but mostly it’s normal steep. I get myself up in good time and start down the back side, a long, rambling descent (and occasional ascent) to the crossing of Kerrick Creek. For a short distance, I descend on icy trail. This stretch was extremely hazardous earlier this year, or so I heard from hikers who survived. A hiker died crossing this creek in July. I think of this as I walk toward the crossing.
Movement catches my eye. A coyote runs away from me, stops, looks back, looks at something near the trail, takes a few steps back, then moves away again. There must be a fresh kill or other item of interest very near the trail. I pass quickly so the coyote can return to whatever it left here.
I cross the creek on boulders. Now I face an 800-foot climb over 1.2 miles (which sounds easy enough), followed by a wickedly steep descent to something called Stubblefield Canyon. On the climb, I walk under golden aspen. On the descent, I walk by crimson ash. Autumn is in full bloom.
The creek in Stubblefield Canyon requires another creative log crossing to avoid wet feet. I manage to pull it off. I’m finally getting good at this.
Immediately, there’s another steep climb of 1,200 feet, followed (of course) by another steep descent. This descent is a two-parter, however, broken in the middle by a flat-ish stretch just long enough to allow my ankles to stiffen up before descending steeply once more. I’m sick of this. The trail’s insane slope makes my feet and ankles ache.
I reach Wilma Lake. From here, the slope should be more reasonable. I hope so, because I’m exhausted. I drag myself around the lake to another stream crossing. This one is too wide for boulder hopping. I almost take off my shoes before I notice a precarious-looking assemblage of logs just downstream. Hmm. Can I do it? I can, and I do. One hundred percent success rate for crossing with dry feet today.
I can see why mosquitoes are so tremendous here in early summer. There’s water everywhere, even this late in the year. I walk through damp lodgepole stands, damp rocky areas, over little streams. I hope the campsite I’m aiming for will be dry. The odds don’t look favorable, so I’m surprised when I come upon the little site. No dead trees overhead, that’s good, but it’s only a dozen feet or so from Falls Creek. Half of the tentsite shows signs of frost heave. This will be a cold place to spend the night. But I take it, because in this landscape I’ll probably not find anything better, at least not soon.
After I set up my tent, a wind begins to blow. As I eat dinner, the wind grows in strength. Greg sends me a text via satellite with a slightly ominous forecast. Falling temperatures. High winds. Chance of snow on the way. By now the wind has grown fierce. I take shelter in my tent and listen to the wind shake my tent and the surrounding trees. I don’t like this. This isn’t even a storm. It’s just wind. I definitely do not want to be caught out here in a storm. Last time there was a small chance of snow, Highway 108 closed. This is not the time of year to take chances. Dad is meeting me at Sonora Pass the day after tomorrow with a resupply box. I may bail. I could skip to Echo Summit and hike 60 miles from there to Donner. I know that stretch, I’ve hiked it twice already. A little snow won’t close Donner Pass. I won’t be stranded.
I need not decide right now, though this wind makes me want to be somewhere else, somewhere safe and warm. Hiking season is coming to end. How many more days can I squeeze out before winter hits?
I have a short walk to a stream, then a steep climb to Miller Lake. The trail is ridiculously steep, even on switchbacks, like it was designed for deer, not human beings.
Today I pass the halfway point through my skipped Sierra section. In early July, I skipped 387 miles from Mount Whitney to Donner Summit. After two weeks in the Sierra, I’m only halfway through those miles. Now that I’m out of the highest elevations, the miles should come faster.
Or maybe not. For the second time today I climb steeply, this time to Benson Pass. This is followed by a steep, difficult descent. There are stretches where the trail isn’t a trail at all, only a faint, sometimes invisible path through – or over – slabs of rock. Not far from Smedberg Lake, I lose the trail for a moment, only noticing my error when I see two section-hiking southbounders off to my right. I correct my course and find my way down to the lake.
The trail here feels haphazardly designed, as if by someone with a thick trail-building manual but little hiking experience – or someone who disliked hikers and wanted them to suffer greatly. The path doesn’t make sense. It’s unnecessarily vague, or unnecessarily steep or rocky. It cuts down, then steeply up, when it could have kept to the contour. I go through a switchback that heads downhill, then turns and heads back up – essentially returning to the place I just came from. Signs at forks make no mention of the PCT, telling only of various locations along the trail with which the sign makers obviously assumed all hikers would be familiar. Occasionally there are old PCT markers, each nearly swallowed by a tree. For those markers I give thanks.
Now the trail does its most infuriating maneuver in over 2,100 miles: it drops straight down on precarious, rocky tread. Did I make a wrong turn back there? Is this really the PCT? Guthook says yes. Guthook also says I’m descending at the astounding, but completely believable, rate of 837 feet per mile, for a whole mile – the highest figure I’ve seen during my hike.
There’s no excuse for this. Through the high passes to the south, the trail was tough but always reasonable, even in extremely steep and rocky terrain. Those trail builders knew what they were doing. I’m so angry with whoever designed this stretch of trail that I can’t even enjoy the scenery. How can I? To prevent a nasty fall, all of my attention is stuck on this farce of a trail and the heinous footing on which I must tread.
I’d hoped to come at least 20 miles today, but as I pick my way down the mountain it becomes obvious that unless I want to hike until after dark and endure several more hours of this, I’m going to fall short. When I find a nice flat spot just above Benson Lake, I settle in for the night. Tomorrow’s trail can’t be any worse than what I experienced today, can it?