PCT 20 | Last one to the top

Day 97: Smiles Not Miles

Mammoth Lakes to Palisade Creek, mile 1830

It was fucking cold, definitely below freezing at 8:30am. I could hitch back to Bishop, I thought. Instead, I put on my buff and winter mittens. There was a bit of snow and ice on the north-facing trail to Bishop Pass, which must have fallen while I was in town.

I saw half a a horseshoe lying on the trail and stepped over it, then turned around and plucked it from the dirt. I didn’t believe in lucky talismans. But I tucked it into my hip belt pocket.

The ascent wasn’t very hard at my new who-cares pace. A middle-aged man with an American flag waving on top of his backpack sat down to let me pass. “You’re doing great,” he said.

“Awww, you too,” I replied in the most condescending tone I could muster.

Imagine if I said these things to men: You’re doing great! Hey, you’ve got a pretty good pace! Wow, you’re out here by yourself?

I sat down for as long as I wanted, coughing occasionally. I still wanted to go to sleep, but all of a sudden I felt happy and serene.

I strode across the pass and the view widened like a smile.

The descent was absolutely glorious: cathedral mountains beneath a bluebird sky.

On the south-facing descent, there were frequent patches of watery mud. Some of the aspen leaves were black, as if they had frozen before the chance to turn yellow and fade slowly from the world of the living.

I rejoined the PCT. The Kings River valley was deep and narrow, and I felt a little claustrophobic in the dimming light.

I sat and took a short break in the sun before it dipped behind a mountain at 3:30pm. The daylight hours were few, but the warmth hours were even fewer.

I decided to stop before the 6-mile, 3,000-foot climb to Mather Pass. It had been a short 20-mile day, but I was exhausted. I had hiked exhausted. I had woken up exhausted and might be exhausted forever.

But a 5:30pm camp, what a luxury! What would I do with all this time? Write? Watch the sunset? Wander around and take in the trees, the water, the colors of the stone?

It was fucking cold. I set up my tent and crawled inside, then cinched my sleeping bag tight over my head.


Day 98: Double the Pass, Double the Fun

Palisade Creek to Woods Creek, mile 1853

I slept for ten hours. I had picked up a pair of earplugs in Bishop, and they worked like magic for reasons I could barely understand. I tried not to think about how the trail would have been if I knew this earlier.

There were ice crystals in my cookpot, but I was warm and toasty. I mixed hot chocolate, instant coffee, powdered milk, and 20g of protein powder in the ‘Cinnamon Toast Crunch’ flavor. My inReach said there was a chance of rain.

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I passed another middle-aged man and said good morning. “Would you like a bite of my salami?” he asked, holding up a chunk of meat.

I said no as politely as I could. I liked salami, but the offer creeped me out.

“All right, carry on.”

I carried on.

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I was regaining confidence and cheer. I climbed Mather Pass slowly and felt that it was no big deal, despite the relentless fearmongering (even Six said it was hard). The view from the other side stretched over a great flat expanse, so unlike the turbulent Rockies.

I ate lunch and then it was time for pass number two, Pinchot. I leapfrogged Junco and Sage on the way up. They were sisters I had met back in Oregon, but hadn’t seen for a while.

Pinchot Pass was a world away from Mather, which sat ten miles to the north. I could barely process the colors. Grass, lakes, rock, and sky unfolded before us in rainbow prisms. “There are definitely merpeople living in here,” Junco said.

Definitely.

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The sunlight on the water glittered like the night sky deep in the desert, where the stars were the brightest thing around.

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The salami man from the previous day joined me at the top. It turned out he was another thru-hiker. And from the way he talked, he didn’t like it very much. He was skipping Whitney and focusing on just getting the trail done.

“How do people manage to hike only one pass without doing, like, 12-mile days?” I asked.

“We do 12-mile days,” he said, kind of bitterly. And then he snapped, “Woman are so much stronger out here!”

I almost laughed and agreed, but first I asked what he meant.

“It’s a metabolic fact. You don’t lose fat and muscle mass the way we do.”

He was off on a rant, so I quickly interjected, “That’s not true. I almost got off the trail in Bishop because of how much weight I’ve lost and how weak I felt.”

“Oh.”

Most women I knew lost a lot of weight on the trail, though few had struggled as badly as I did. It was probably a myth invented by men, I mused, who were insecure about us matching or outpacing their speed. [Later, cursory research found that while cis men might lose weight faster than cis women at first, it evens out by a couple months.]

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It was a long descent and I was hungry. I wished the man would offer me salami again. I was definitely running out of food.

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It was a 24-mile day, no way around that if I wanted to sleep at the lowest elevation possible, 8,500 ft. As the light ran out, I worried that I would have to night-hike.

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But I made it to the campsite just in time. Junco and Sage were there, as well as a whole host of JMT hikers and weekend backpackers. There were even bear boxes.

I didn’t sleep much. I was nervous about my plan to do two passes tomorrow and sleep at 11,000 ft. The colder tonight got, the dumber it seemed. But I didn’t know if I could stretch my food for another day, especially if I decided to hike the side trail up Mount Whitney. Given that I had just started to feel better, it didn’t seem wise to push it. But Whitney was the highest peak in the continental United States, and who knew when I would be so close to it again? Plus, there wasn’t any reason to worry about weather right now, and I wanted to stay in this magical place as long as I possibly could. I rolled over and over on my sleeping pad. My heart, brain, and body were all at odds.


Day 99: The Wishing Lake

Woods Creek to Bubbs Creek, mile 1866

At 5:00am it hit me: why would I hike a long, stressful day with more stress waiting at the very end? I decided not to go up Forester until tomorrow. Then I turned off my alarm and fell asleep, true sleep, until 7:00am and the muted shadow-light.

After all, I was here to enjoy the Sierras, right? 13 miles today, how fun was that! It was like getting a half day at school.

There was a lingering shame at being the slow hiker. (On the CDT I didn’t hike as fast as everyone else, but back then I was thrilled and stunned to succeed at all.) It’s different with a slow group — you laugh at the fearmongering, then stop early to make campfires and play games. You say, The last one to the border wins.

Alone, you just have the middle-aged men and the knowledge that you’re behind everyone else. I missed the company of my friends, but I liked almost everything about hiking alone. It was liberating and nearly stress-free to make all my own decisions. I was a solitary little particle drifting through the universe. It felt right.

Oh boy, oh boy. Here came the lessons, rolling in. They always did while I was hiking, never elsewhere. Maybe the forgiveness to follow my own path should apply to both life and thru-hiking. Maybe I should really, truly live in the moment and value myself over other people’s expectations.

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I stopped for lunch at Upper Rae Lake and cooked ramen with butter and Parmesan cheese. Copper-colored rocks surrounded a little island in the shallows and sparkling light moved across the water. I daydreamed that the rocks were wishing pennies and the light was magic, whisking the wishes off to wherever wishes go. I thought of my friends, all of whom had passed this lake by now. What might they have wished for? What about my friends who had hiked the PCT in years past — were their wishes trapped on the lake floor, or had they come true?

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I met a few JMT hikers on the way up. The John Muir Trail is about 200 miles and intersects with the PCT almost the whole way, though it starts in Yosemite Valley and ends on Mount Whitney. Stereotypically, hikers carry large backpacks with way too much food, and number in the many thousands each year. Fortunately, they were almost gone by this point in the fall. Sometimes I feel guilty for savoring uncrowded trails, since I firmly believe that increased access to the outdoors should be celebrated. So I tell myself that it’s my responsibility to find trails that work for me.

A few JMT hikers told me that they were in awe of the PCT, that I was doing something really hard. “I’m not an intense backpacker,” said one of them.

“You must be intense if you’re doing this,” I replied.

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The journey up Glen Pass was the same expansive Sierra view, but the gully on the other side took me down a narrow vein in the rock. I tried to imagine what it had looked like in the spring for the Nobos. I liked to talk a big game about how I would have hiked through the snow-covered Sierras, and I probably would have, but goddamn if it didn’t look hard.

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At the intersection with the Kearsarge Pass trail, where most hikers left to resupply in Bishop, I found a group of four lying on the ground in a pile, giggling. They had just hiked back from Bishop with a now-empty bottle of whiskey. Like me, they were unconcerned with the weather. It was a beautiful afternoon to relax.

My short day was almost over, so I spent a few hours lying in the dirt with them before heading to camp, where we ate dinner around a fire. Mr. Peanutbutter was a Nobo who had returned to re-hike the Sierras with his Sobo friend Sprout, and he showed me before-and-after pictures of both journeys. I was right; it looked wild. And fun. He also told me how a long string of headlamps had marched through this very campsite at 4:00am like a highway in heavy traffic. I was very glad I had made the choice to go southbound.


Day 100: High Point

Bubbs Creek to Crabtree Meadows, Mount Whitney Trail

Despite the forecast, it was damn cold again in the morning. I had left my water bottles in the tent vestibule and they were frozen. So was the mud, the grass alongside the trail, and the surface of the creek where I went to collect water a mile and a half later at 10,000 feet. So, probably, was my Sawyer Squeeze. As much as I didn’t want the Sierras to end, the PCT was definitely not a four-season sport.

I scored bars, nuts, and apricots from some JMT section hikers. “I really want to climb Mount Whitney,” I told them, “but I don’t have enough food. So I thought, it never hurts to ask.”

I was feeling stronger by the day. Apricots or no, I was determined to be on top of Whitney tomorrow morning.

At 13,200 feet, Forester Pass was the highest point on the official PCT. Once again, the ascent welcomed me with a smile.

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The view from Forester was a moonscape, even more bare than usual.

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I loved the PCT.

As I hiked the many switchbacks up Forester, nearly 4,000 ft of gain in eight miles, I felt ecstatic. I thanked the iron supplements, the earplugs, the protein powder, but mostly myself, for not giving up. I loved all of it: the deep purple light in Northern California, the only cool air of the day at 5:00am, the scorching heat of Oregon that made you live the volcanoes, the trees, the unhappy families at the lake resorts, the two-minute showers, the hard dirt that felt like the softest mattress, the cloud inversions that made islands of glaciated peaks, the surprise sunshine, the ferns and old growth…

(Almost all of it. I still did not love the the mice.)

It took me one hundred days to say it, but I loved the PCT. It had taken rock bottom. It had taken almost walking away.

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South of Forester, I could feel the desert beginning. The alpine tundra was suddenly dry, peppered with tufts of grass and sand-colored rocks instead of gray.

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tundra

For the record: I met a very nice middle-aged man on the way down.

I met back up with the group at Crabtree Meadows, the only sanctioned campsite before Whitney. They weren’t summiting at sunrise, as was popular among PCT hikers. Mr. Peanutbutter said it had been miserable in the snow. They had carried quilts but were forced to sprint back and forth for warmth. “I wouldn’t do it again,” he said.

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Alpenglow on Mount Whitney as seen from Crabtree Meadows.

I stashed my food in my bear can, but left my clean pot in the vestibule of my tent. As I was drifting off, I heard a soft clank. The mice were back.


Day 101: Highest Point

Crabtree Meadows to camp, mile 1896

I wasn’t going to do it, I decided. A sunrise ascent of Whitney could indeed be miserable, especially on no sleep. What if I got hypothermia and no one was around to help? Then my alarm went off at 2:30am and I sat bolt upright. Time to move!

I left my tent and wore all my layers, shaking slightly as I packed my sleeping bag and all my food. I threw in my stove in case I needed a hot water bottle. But as always, the clothing was quickly discarded before any of it could be contaminated by sweat.

How had I forgotten the stars? I saw Orion and remembered when Slippy asked about it way back at Olallie Lake in Oregon, as we stayed up late doing long-exposure light painting on the dock. It’s more of a fall and winter constellation, I said.

My new rechargeable headlamp died a short way into the hike. As far as I could tell, it only held a charge for a few hours. Thankfully, I had anticipated this and brought my battery pack. I plugged the headlamp in and held it in my hand while I hiked.

One shooting star, then two. Magic! Suddenly I felt like I was back in Colorado, doing the thing I love the most: climbing high peaks. Hiking as fast as I can in the dark, both for warmth and to beat the monsoons, and creeping past rocks and trees that I won’t see until I came back down. Focusing on a singular goal. Wondering if I was strong and brave enough. Knowing the view from the top would be worth it.

I saw another headlamp below me on the switchbacks. At least, I wanted it to be a headlamp. Mountain lions’ eyes didn’t flash like that, right?

There was another party near the top, who had come up the more traditional path from Whitney Portal on the other side of the range. They let me pass as the first light illuminated the surrounding silhouettes.

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As the light seeped in and the towering columns of rock appeared, I rushed, scrambling across exposed ledges at a… let’s say, daring speed. I couldn’t stop myself. I hadn’t felt this kind of adrenaline in a long time.

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The winds on the ascent had barely been noticeable, but at the summit I was slammed with bone-shaking gusts that cut through my layers like knives. The orange ball of the sun was just cresting the horizon and I scurried back and forth for warmth, which was not as miserable as Mr. Peanutbutter said.

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There was a stone hut for emergencies, but I huddled inside with the other three people on the mountain. One was Sam, a flip-flopper I met in Washington, and the other two had just finished the JMT and spent the night in this hut. (I would later learn that Slippy and Oily Boy did the same thing.) I’d do anything for love, I sang in my head, but I won’t do that.

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On the way down, the trail was packed with people. Some of them hiked in jeans and sneakers, carrying suspiciously little. Others were JMT hikers with backpacks that easily weighed 60 pounds. I don’t think I could do that if I wanted to.

One woman stopped and asked how far it was to the top, then told me she was experiencing all the symptoms of altitude sickness: dizziness, headache, nausea. “Let’s keep going and see if it goes away,” said her male companion.

“It’s not going to go away unless you go down,” I said uneasily.

They went up.

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I arrived back at the campground at 11:00am to an unscathed tent. I rapidly took it down so I could use my groundsheet as a picnic blanket, like nature intended. I ate a small hot lunch and then lay down, head on my backpack and feet propped up on my bear can. It was all downhill from here.

Except that as I continued south, I faced a 1,500 ft descent and then climbed 1,500 ft back up again. Are you serious? I gazed across the valley at Mt. Whitney. It looked so far away.

By the time I reached my intended camp at Rock Creek, I was so exhausted that I fell in during the simple crossing. So I laughed and kept hiking with the hope that my feet would dry.

I camped at 11,000 ft. It was a large flat pine grove, not what I expected.

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For the first time since Washington, I lay down and closed my eyes before it was dark. Perversely, it was a warm night.


Up next: What awaits in the desert?! Night-hiking, that’s for sure…