Day 169: I walk the contour

25.3 miles (1516.4 to 1541.7)

Wind gains strength as the night progresses. I wake, nervous, as my tent shutters and leans. I have reception here. I recheck the forecast. Ten miles per hour, says the forecast. This wind is much stronger than that. I fear that my tent won’t withstand the onslaught. 

At 2am I get up and adjust some of the stakes and tighten the guy-lines, and afterward I feel more confident in my tent’s ability to stand through the night. I’m able to sleep a little, between the strongest gusts. When my alarm sounds the tent is still shaking. 

I manage to pack up without anything blowing away. I walk for maybe a quarter mile before the wind suddenly decreases. As I walk, views of Shasta come and go. I pass little meadows where pitcher plants grow. I wind around mountain after mountain, mostly following the contour. This is the strangest section of PCT I’ve seen: mile after mile of walking along the contour, barely climbing or descending, around one mountain and onto the next. 


In late morning, I have a sudden epiphany. Since somewhere in Washington I’ve been trying to recall the name of the singer who performed on David Bowie’s song “Black Tie White Noise.” For hundreds of miles I’ve searched the archives in my brain, refusing to give in and ask Google. Suddenly, the name comes to me: Al B Sure! What a relief. Unfortunately there’s no one to celebrate with.

I eat lunch shortly before the fork to Toad Lake, but I should have walked another three minutes before stopping to eat at the fork itself. The view here is much better. Around the mountain I go, climbing mildly to 7,600 feet. On the north-facing slope I encounter snow on trail, all that remains from the recent storm. 


The trail goes over a low spot, then onto a south-facing ridge. Along the contour I walk. With so little climbing, I’m making great time. Near Parks Creek Trailhead I suddenly see day-hikers on the trail, the first people I’ve seen all day. I pass two day-hikers heading south. Not long after, I catch up to two day-hikers hiking north. There are six cars in the parking area. On a Monday afternoon. I did not expect to find so many people here. 

I speed across the paved road and onto the trail on the far side. The trail begins what may be the strangest iteration of its constant contour traverse. For miles I walk the perimeter of a canyon until I’m directly across from the place where I entered the canyon after crossing the road. Here I stop. I’ve done 25 miles today, but only 3,200 feet of climbing. 

I pitch my tent and eat dinner. A breeze picks up. I hope it stays a breeze; I can’t take another sleepless windy night. A Great Horned Owl hoots nearby as I finish night-time chores in my tent. I listen for the hoots as I slowly drift toward sleep.

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Day 168: The missing miles

17.7 miles (1498.7 to 1516.4)

Greg drives me to Castella and walks with me under the I-5 overpass, up to the place where the trail resumes. Tears fill my eyes when we hug goodbye. Then he’s gone and I’m walking again, back on the PCT to claim my missing miles, approaching mile 1500 through pink dogwood and yellow big leaf maple. The forest is dark and damp. Clouds come and go. 


I leave the wet forest and walk through live oak and Douglas fir and naked poison oak stems. In the canyon below, someone is shooting a gun. The shooting goes on intermittently for hours.

Three women on mountain bikes come down the trail toward me. Bikes aren’t allowed on the PCT, so the sight of them makes me angry, but the women are excessively courteous, each dismounting as she comes upon me. I say hello and try to smile. 

The trail is overgrown in places by dense shrubs. I hope I’m not picking up any ticks. I arrive at Gully Spring and am delighted to see pitcher plants growing in the wet areas. I fill up with water and continue on to an exposed campsite where the views are supposed to be spectacular. 

Pitcher plants at Gully Spring.
I’m not disappointed. From here I can see Shasta, Castle Crags, and Lassen.

After I eat dinner and the sun sets, a wind picks up. There’s been little to no wind all day, so I assume this is only the evening breeze that accompanies nightfall and a changing temperature. But the wind continues on, shaking my tent as I try to sleep. Seeing warmer temperatures in the forecast, including lows in the 40s, I left my warm XTherm sleeping pad behind and brought only my ZLite pad. Now I wish I had the warmer pad. I’m not very warm bundled up in my sleeping bag. Either it’s colder than 40s degrees, or my tolerance dropped significantly during my four zeroes. I’m going to have three more chilly nights before I can regain the XTherm. 

Campsite with a view.

Days 164-167: Stormy zeroes

0 miles

As forecast, a storm moves in. Rain and snow fall across northern California. I sit inside and feed my insatiable hiker hunger and wait for the storm to pass. When it does, Greg will drive me north to Castle Crags. There, I will begin the final stretch of the my thru-hike. 

Day 163: Closing the gap

15.8 miles (1137.6 to 1153.4)

I climb out of Granite Chief Wilderness and pass under a Squaw Valley ski lift. Down, then up, then down again, and up once more toward Tinker Knob. At the top of the ridge I encounter a strong, cold wind, so fast and cold I stop to put on a warmer layer. Then onward along one of my favorite sections of trail. In the far distance, the pointed bulk of the Sierra Buttes rises. I’ve come a long way, all the way back to my home ground. 

Castle Peak and Sierra Buttes on the horizon.

I’ve been here twice before but never in so strong a wind. Snow patches linger on the steep north-facing slope below the trail. I’ve never seen snow here, either. I multitask: enjoying the view while trying not to slip on the pebble-covered trail. 

Headwaters of the American River.

I walk all the way to Sugar Bowl. Now, only two and a half downhill miles remain before Donner Summit, and all kinds of emotions are stirring in my chest. If not for my bout of illness over the summer, I would be staring at the end of my PCT hike. Instead, I still have nearly two hundred miles to complete. I’m both glad and disappointed that I’m not finished yet. 

I cross the highway and stand at the place where I restarted my hike after skipping north from Mount Whitney, way back in July. A lifetime ago. I made it back. There were many moments when I didn’t think I would. When Dad and I drove south on Highway 395 toward Whitney Portal, and saw the snow on the mountains, I didn’t think I’d even get started. I thought my hike was over then. But except for 28 pesky miles, I made it through. Only the section from Castle Crags to Seiad Valley remains. (Seiad Valley to Ashland is still closed.)

I sit and wait for my parents to arrive. I’ll take a few zeroes to wait out the incoming storm, then I’ll set out to do as many miles as my body – and the weather – allows before my leave of absence from work runs out. 

Day 162: Granite Chief Wilderness

23.3 miles (1114.3 to 1137.6)

I fall asleep with my sleeping bag unzipped and wake in the morning without having zipped it. The forecasters were correct: the weather has finally warmed out of the 20s – or else I’ve acclimated to such frigid temperatures. No, my thermometer confirms my initial assumption; temperatures were in the high 30s last night. 

A hideous bank of dark smoke lies over the mountains to the north and the west, so dense and dark that it looks like a second mountain range rising over the first. The view disappears as I descend to Richardson Lake.

From the lake, I hike toward Barker Pass. The hike is both more and less boring than I remembered. At Barker Pass, I don’t stop to enjoy the picnic tables, as Greg and I usually do when we hike this section. Instead I keep moving and come upon three day hikers, the first people I’ve seen in 24 hours. I talk with them for a few minutes about my trip, then continue on.

At the top of the climb I get an unobstructed view of Lake Tahoe. An inversion layer over the lake creates a strange sight, difficult to capture with a photograph. The lake looks like a floating lake, ready to overflow. 

Inversion over Lake Tahoe.

I descend, then climb again and enter Granite Chief Wilderness. I skirt the ridge, then begin a wide-open ridge walk with outstanding views of the wilderness. I love this stretch of trail. I cross a few places where the trail washed out this winter. I pass Alpine Meadows ski area. I have reception, so I talk with family and arrange my pick-up tomorrow at Donner Summit. 

At last the long views end and I switchback down through hemlock and red fir to Five Lakes Creek. I load up with water and walk another two miles to a beautiful campsite where Greg and I stayed on our first hike from Echo to Donner. I pitch my tent, eat dinner, then begin my nightly rituals.

Fall colors near Five Lakes Creek.
My campsite is noisy. Something skitters by my tent, something small, probably a rodent. Sticks break. Fir needles fall onto my tent and slide off. Things move in the dark. I haven’t had a noisy campsite since Washington State. With so many distractions, I hope I’m able to sleep tonight. 

Day 161: Desolation Wilderness

24.8 miles (1089.5 to 1114.3)

My water tube freezes as I walk. I’m getting tired of this. I pass a junction with the historic Pony Express trail, then cross Highway 50, and soon find myself at the South Fork American River. The stream is wider, deeper, and much faster than I remember it – but then, I was last here in a drought year. There’s a log across the river, but the log is wet and icy and I’d be an idiot to attempt walking across, even with trekking poles for support. I scoot across precariously on my butt and manage to swing my feet to the far bank without falling in.

I climb a little, listening to what sounds like several coyotes yipping nearby, then descend to Echo Lake. The store and the water taxi and the garbage cans are closed for the season, but thankfully the restrooms remain open. After visiting one, I begin the walk around the lake and soon pass day hikers coming in the opposite direction –  odd, considering the early hour. On the far side of the lake, I pass group after group of backpackers hiking out, also odd; unless they camped very close to Echo Lake, they must have started hiking very early this morning, and it’s hard to imagine anyone but a crazy thru-hiker getting an early start in a morning cold enough to freeze water bottles. 

At Lake Aloha.

I arrive at Lake Aloha. I see more people here than I’ve ever seen here before, which is a lot, considering my previous trips  have been on Labor Day weekend. I pass weekenders coming from both directions. I pass mile 1100. I walk around Heather Lake and stop for lunch at Susie Lake’s outlet. 

Susie Lake

Next I tackle the climb to Dicks Pass. To the south, a helicopter flies in and circles. I hope no one is lost or hurt. I reach the false summit and peer over the edge at Dicks Lake. A smokey view greets me. Ugh. So far I’ve been lucky: with so many fires burning nearby, I’ve only seen tall smoke plumes, but haven’t had my lungs or my views greatly disturbed. No longer. 

The view from the pass is hazy. I’m glad I already have pictures. On the descent, I’m relieved to find no snow across the trail. There’s plenty of snow on the north-facing slopes behind Dicks Lake, much more than I’ve ever seen here, but thankfully the way is clear. 

Smokey view of Dicks Lake.
By the time I reach Fontanillis Lake, I’m starting to feel sick from breathing so much smoke. I gather water at the lake’s outlet and keep going. In this deep canyon, the sun has nearly set. As I near Velma Lakes, the landscape widens and the sun seems to rise. More than an hour of sunshine remains. I’m making excellent time, surpassing my own expectations.  

I end the day with a short climb, chasing the sunset up a west-facing slope. A few long rays touch my face before the sun sinks away for the night. I’m looking for a campsite with a view, one I’ve seen before and have marked in my mind as an excellent place to camp. But as usual this campsite farther away than I remembered, and by now the sun has set, so I really just want to pitch my tent and eat dinner before dark. I find a flat spot off the trail in as warm a location as I’m likely to find out here: under three trees on a rocky slope. I take off my backpack and settle in for the night. 

Day 160: Carson Pass

22.6 miles (1066.9 to 1089.5)

Once again, my platypus water tube freezes while I hike. I’m so cold, I begin to consider getting off the trail at Echo Summit (Highway 50). After all, I’ve hiked the Echo to Donner section twice before. If it’s going to take more than one year for me to complete the entire trail anyway, why not count the miles I’ve already completed? I can reach Echo Summit tonight, Greg can pick me up, and I can be warm. But I already know that I’ll regret skipping those miles. As soon as I leave the trail, I’ll start scheming to get back on.

I cross a dirt road, and almost immediately after I see a pickup driving slowly along the road. It’s unnerving seeing cars while I hike, especially after not seeing them in the High Sierra and in Washington. A little later, I see a Jeep traveling even more slowly along the road, like the driver is scanning for something to shoot from the window. I don’t like this.

Soon the trail peels away from the road. I can see still the road off to the right, but at least there’s some space between us. I hear a loud explosion that my brain interprets as a massive rock slide before I realize it was a gunshot echoing like crazy against the rock walls of this canyon. There’s a second shot, then nothing. I walk for awhile before I hear more shots. I long to be away from roads.

I climb toward the slopes of a mountain called Elephant’s Back. There’s a false summit, followed by more climbing. There’s a patch of snow across the trail. My mind wants to panic at the sight of snow, but the crossing isn’t bad at all. I don’t need spikes or poles. At last I reach the top of the climb and begin the descent toward Carson Pass and Highway 88, which Dad and I drove through only yesterday on our way to Ebbetts.

Snow on the slope of Elephant’s Back.

Suddenly I’m passing a stream of people hiking uphill on the trail. I consult the map. Everyone must be going to Winnemucca Lake. The stream of traffic continues until I reach the trailhead. The parking lot is stuffed. I’m surprised so many people are out hiking at high elevation (>8,000 feet) on a cold day in October.

I cross the highway and continue on. At the top of a mild climb I get my first glimpse of Lake Tahoe. I descend a bit and join the Tahoe Rim Trail. I pass day hikers, lots of them, though as not as many as on the other side of the highway.

First glimpse of Lake Tahoe.

The trail does lots of ups and downs through forest and meadow. My goal is to camp just south of Highway 50. Shortly before 6pm, I arrive at my intended campsite. The temperature has already fallen, though today it never really rose. According to the forecast, tomorrow should be 10 degrees warmer. I hope this comes true. Being cold is exhausting.