July 18, 2011 § 2 Comments
Kennedy Meadows to Mammoth Lakes – 204 miles 18 days Total: 906 miles 68 days + 10 zero days
5. 30am. The alarm clock rings. As you lay there in your warm sleeping bag, contemplating your prospect for the morning: plunging knee-deep in the icy water of Rock Creek, you swear you won’t complain again about waking up to go to work. And it’s not like it’s a quick cross. The creek is wide and the current is strong so you hold onto your sister with one hand and onto your hiking pole with the other and you take it each one step at a time. By the time you get across you have no sensation left in your lower legs and for the next hour you walk making slush slush sounds and wriggling your toes to keep them warm. And you start again once you get to Crabtree, Wallace and Wright (no, not Gromit that was the toughest cross, it got our hearts racing). When you set up camp that night, the sun is already going down, you’re at 3300m, it’s gonna be a cold night so you go to bed knowing that the next morning you’ll be putting on wet socks and shoes before fording Tyndall Creek and trudging in the snow up to Forrester Pass and down the other side or, I should rather say, sliding on your butt down the other side (glissade is the technical term – thanks to Tiny Dancer and Anchor for showing us how to do it safely).
We realised too late that the 31st of June didn’t exist (!) so, short of a day, we had to choose between going to the top of Mt Whitney, the highest mountain in the US outside of Alaska at 4421m, that we had already climbed in 2003 as part of the JMT, or celebrating the 4th of July in the aptly named town of Independence. We decided to skip Mt Whitney and left the PCT over Kearsarge Pass to join in the festivities of Independence Day as true Americans – music and dancing, a parade all the hikers around joined in lured by the prospect of throwing water balloons at the crowd but got tricked as the crowd was also armed, pit barbecue, drinking, fireworks…
We went back up the mountains for more in the company of 9 other hikers we got to know as we keep running into them since the start of the trail. We caught some bad weather, dark skies, thunder and rain, heading back to the PCT over Kearsarge Pass but the next day it had cleared and we started what felt like an obstacles run. A succession of 5 passes, gradually loosing altitude but all above 3000m, and too many river crossings to keep track of. In many places the trail itself had become a stream!
We climbed the first three passes, Glen, Pinchot and Mather, in a row, one pass a day. Our daily mileage dropped down to 12 miles. Between the daily elevation gain and loss, the trail covered in snow so we had to pick our own way, which usually meant straight up and down, the snow itself that slowed down our progress, the many times we stopped to wonder at the landscape and take pictures, it took us all day to cover that distance and each night we got to camp tired and hungry.
Have you ever tried to carry enough food for 9 days of hiking, let alone try to fit that much in a bear canister? There’s no way, so we packed as much as we could but, especially as the trail was at its most demanding in this section, by the 5th day we were running low on calories, we didn’t starve but we had time to be hungry before the next meal or snack. The 5th day was an easy day before attacking Muir Pass on the 6th day. By the 7th day we were craving all sorts of food, we were tired of hiking and badly in need of a shower. The 7th day was another easy day, we made a detour to Muir Trail Ranch to check their hiker box for extra food. On the 8th day it took all our will and the little energy we had left to haul ourselves over Selden Pass. On the 9th day we rolled in Vermilion Valley Resort, slightly delirious from the lack of calories. We took a zero day there, filling up the calorie gap, before taking the ferry across Lake Edison to get back to the PCT and hike the 2 days and one pass to Mammoth Lakes.
Call us crazy, but we absolutely loved it! Every frozen toe, each posthole (that’s when the snow gives in under your weight and you sink in up to your knee – yep, I did that on Pinchot Pass, my foot got stuck and Isabelle had to come down to help me dig it out -, thigh or armpits – yep, I did that on Mather Pass, Isabelle had to come down to help me out – mmh, I see a pattern here…), every step on suncupped snowfield, every discomfort and pain was worth it. Because it was a bliss to realise we had lost track of which day of the week it was. Because of the beauty of the Sierras. The scenery is vast up there, all you can see is mountains after mountains, endless pine forests, streams joyfully gurgling down valleys, raging creeks rushing down the mountains. You can walk for miles and days without seeing a hint of human civilization. And the colours. The luscious green of the meadows, the darker shade of trees and their luminous bark, the iceberg-blue half-frozen lakes, the immaculate snow, the mineral greyness of the summits. Even the sky seems more blue up there.
The people we hiked with were slightly crazy, running down snowy mountains and asking which pass to climb as they didn’t have proper maps or a GPS. I don’t know if it’s because Americans don’t have the same culture of the mountains, they’re beautiful but they can be deadly, or if it’s because they were mostly men in their twenties… But they walked faster so they made the tracks in the snow (you just had to check they went up the right pass ), they kept us warm at night… …by lighting campfires and it was entertaining to watch them jump in icy lakes, proudly comb their beard, try to hunt deer bare chested and armed with makeshift wooden spears, and draw caveman porn with charcoal!
We’ve seen lots of marmots, deers, two pikas – Wild Bill, who is known among other things for having killed and eaten a squirrel, threw a rock at one. His answer when I asked him what he was doing was: “Don’t worry, I would have eaten it.” No doubt about that, but that’s not the point! They’re in enough trouble with global warming. And Space Cowboy quite accurately described a pika as if a koala bear had raped a gerbil! – and two bears – we were trying to put some distance between one and us before setting camp when we ran into the other one!
After about 2.5 months and 900 miles the gear is showing signs of tear and wear, it seems no gear is strong enough to resist the intensive use we make of it on the PCT, but most importantly the bodies and minds are holding on fine, we’re touching wood, so onward we go! Next goal: 1000 miles.
July 15, 2011 § 1 Comment
It’s been a while, huh? We made it to Vermilion Valley Resort. The full story’s gonna have to wait till we get to a place where internet is cheaper. But for now let’s just say that the last few days have been intense, demanding and sometimes stressful, but overall the extra effort the snow required was well worth it as the Sierras under snow are a sight to behold. And we’re hiking in good company. It hasn’t been hell, it was a blast!
June 26, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Lake Isabella to Kennedy Meadows – 50 miles 4 days Total: 702 miles 50 days + 6 zero days
Kennedy Meadows. At last. Canada is too far away to keep it in your mind as a goal on a daily basis so you break down the journey into smaller, more manageable parts. You break it down into how far you’ll walk that day, into the number of miles and days till the next resupply and into the significant points: every hundred miles, a 1000 miles, the halfway point, the Oregon border, Washington… Kennedy Meadows is one of those significant points. We’ve been walking since Campo with Kennedy Meadows in our mind, it’s the furthest we could envision. We’ve been counting the miles and days to Kennedy Meadows since a couple of weeks. Because Kennedy Meadows marks the start of the Sierras, the real stuff, the mountains we discovered and loved on the John Muir Trail, the mountains that lured us back here to the PCT.
Southern California, the desert and about 700 miles of trail lie behind us. We’ve been lucky through these sections. Temperatures have been relatively cool this year (until the last couple of days at least!) so, although we still sweated profusely and spent the hottest hours of the day resting in the shade, there was no need for hiking at night. Due to a wet winter, most of the springs, creeks and streams were still running when we went through. The longest stretch without water was that first one, 32 miles, where we carried 10 liters of water. Later, we never carried so much as we realized we could do with less.
But our luck in the previous sections will play against us in the next ones. It snowed a lot this winter and spring has been cool. Big portions of the trail are still covered in snow and rivers we have to ford will be high, fast-flowing and cold from snow melt. We’ve been warned we’ll get used to have wet feet all day. Brand new challenges await us.
We’ve enjoyed it so far. We’ve seen great sceneries, been to beautiful places and had memorable moments but let’s be honest, that was enough desert. We’re not ready to hike these sections again anytime soon and we wouldn’t recommend them to someone who wants a taste of the PCT because, for having hiked parts of the JMT, we know more beautiful as yet to come…
The Sierras, here we come!
P.S. It’s not handy to brush your teeth with half a toothbrush!
P.P.S. Great job, John! We got the packages. We loved the personalized chocolate bars! Thank you!
June 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Tehachapi to Lake Isabella – 94 miles 6 days Total: 652 miles 46 days + 4 zero days
In the land of cars, towns are a hiker’s nightmare. Tehachapi would have been no exception if it hadn’t been for the invaluable help of the trail angel Thomas. He drove us to the post office, the supermarket and back to the trail sparing us time, energy, frustration and a difficult hitch.
The smallest of gestures means a lot on the trail. Mike & Jeannie, fellow thru-hikers, caught up with us the other day. They were meeting someone who was bringing them water and said they would leave some for us. The next day we found the water they had left by the side of the trail, but what touched us most is that beside the bottles there was one soda can! One soda can is nothing but right then it meant the world to us. We love you, Mike & Jeannie!
The smallest of gestures means a lot on the trail and we’ve been given loads. You pay back with all the gratitude you can express, many many thank you, a contribution for the gas and you pay forward with donations so help can get to the next hiker too, but it doesn’t seem enough. Until you realise there was the sound of satisfaction from a job well done and time well spent in Terrie’s voice when she asked the hikers if they were happy with their bellies full. Thomas was happy to share his experience of former thru-hiker and tell stories; it was for him the occasion to remember and relive his PCT. Their help and generosity are priceless but it feels better to know that we’re giving back more than it seems at first glance.
We expected the Mojave to be hard. It was boring following those dirt roads and it was depressing at times to see the trail as far as the horizon and know you had to go all that way, but it was easy, a creek was running through the desert! This last section was much tougher. The landscape was still mostly arid, lots of Joshua trees. It had gotten hotter and the terrain was far from flat. Water sources were far apart and usually way off the trail so either you hiked long miles each day or you carried lots of water. Thanks to a trail angel there were two water caches that made it easier. Those bottles full of water were the most beautiful sight. This section has also been tough because we weren’t so much hiking for the pleasure of hiking but more to get somewhere. And then you can never get fast enough to the place you want to be. We wanted to be in Lake Isabella to take a much needed zero day, knowing that then there would only be 50 miles and 4 days left till Kennedy Meadows and the Sierras.
We had our worst day in this section. It was the first time I felt like throwing off my pack, sitting down and saying: “Fuck this! I’m not going any further!”. That day we took off with 3.5 liters of water each and had 14 miles to go till water. When it’s hot and climbing, 3.5 liters for 14 miles is not enough. We still had 4 miles to walk that the water we had left would have barely filled a glass and we had been thirsty a while ago already. And thirst is not a nice feeling! Four miles never felt so long and water never tasted so good.
But the trail gave us our greatest reward in that section too. Isabelle, unknown psychic of our time, said she sensed something, something told her to look up. All I know, I poor mortal, is that suddenly she swore and made a giant step aside. My first thought was of a snake but then I heard noise in the grasses above the trail, something big. A deer? We’ll see two deers later that day but no, this was different. “Bear”, Isabelle said. In my mind I was like: “Yeah, right. You’re kidding me.” until my eyes fell on, yes, a black bear. It had gotten scared and had started to run away but then had stopped and was now looking at us. It decided we weren’t a threat and went back to its bear life. We decided it wasn’t a threat and watched it for a while. During that time it was partly hidden behind dead branches but before heading deeper into the woods it stood with its front paws on the dead branches and looked at us. Picture perfect. Unfortunately for you guys that’s when the camera died on us, no more battery. But the image is engraved in our memories forever.
We also saw our first brightly coloured sunset on the trail and when we reached the top at Skinner Peak the feeling of anticipation at discovering what lied beyond was met with a rejoicing view: snow covered mountains in the distance. We’re getting closer!
We started to pick up gear for the Sierras. Bear canisters to protect our food from bears but that add an extra 1kg to our packs, microspikes and snow gaiters. Ice axes are waiting for us in Kennedy Meadows. We plan to drop our comfort level and get rid of all superfluous stuff. We’ve started to feel our knees lately and there’s no way we can cross high altitude snow covered passes with heavy backpacks. We’re looking forward to the mountains but we’re also dreading them. From accounts of hikers that have already gone through, it’s tough. To quote Isabelle: “On va en chier, mais ca va etre beau!” ["It's gonna be hell, but it's gonna be beautiful!"].
Yesterday we pushed it 21 miles to the road, breaking our record again. It’s amazing how the prospect of a shower and proper bed can make you do wonders! But it would have been for nothing if not for Joe who gave us a ride to Lake Isabella. Thanks Joe!
June 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
Agua Dulce to Tehachapi – 104 miles 7 days Total: 558 miles 40 days + 4 zero days
In Agua Dulce we stayed at a trail angels house. Every year from April to June the Saufley’s welcome the hundreds of northbound hikers that go through. In their backyard they have set up tents and cots for hikers to sleep as well as a trailer with a kitchen, living room and bathroom. Resupply packages pile up in the garage beside two computers and an information booth where you can pick up a printed water report (the water report tells us which water sources on the trail are dry and which ones are still running so we can plan how much water to carry and not die of thirst). And your laundry is even done for you! No wonder it’s called Hiker Heaven.
We took a zero day there and were planning to leave the next day early afternoon. We tried hard to leave, I promised, and we have witnesses. The packs were ready, a couple more minutes and we would have been gone. But we got a call from John, our mailman, who was planning to drive from LA to visit us with his 3-months old baby girl Julia. That was the perfect excuse to take an extra zero day so we stayed one more day!
Twenty-four miles further we got lured into the Anderson’s vortex. Like the Saufley’s, the Anderson’s welcome hikers into their home, Casa de Luna. This is the hippie, party place on the trail (but when we stayed there, people were recovering from two nights of partying so the place was disappointingly quiet ). A path behind the house leads through the woods where you can set up your tent. Terrie cooks Taco Salad every evening and Joe makes pancakes for breakfast.
Hiker Heaven and Casa de Luna couldn’t be more different; each place has its own feel, but both Donna and Terrie welcome you with a hug, making you feel like a long lost family member whom they’ve been waiting to find its way back home. It takes lots of courage to wash dirty, smelly hiker clothes and it requires loads of energy to cook dinner for up to 40 hungry hikers on some evenings. And think of the ressources: space, water, electricity, washing powder, toilet paper, food, gas… it takes to sleep, clean, feed and give rides to about 400 hikers every year. And they don’t expect anything in return! The dedication of these people to the trail and all that they do for us hikers is truly amazing.
But such places are also dangerous. It’s tempting to stay. It’s hard to leave and it’s even harder to be back on the trail. Especially that by now we’re fed up by Southern California and its arid landscapes, we yearn for the mountains. That’s our motivation. “Let’s cross this damn desert and get to the mountains!”
So we went through the desert. It’s a shame Moses wasn’t here to lead us (a hiker whose trailname is Moses was one or two days behind us) but at least it didn’t take us 40 years. Only two days. We followed the LA acqueduct for a while then walked straight through the Mojave before climbing out of the desert into the Tehachapi hills. We beat our record on this last stretch, we hiked 20 miles in a day once.
I’m proud of Isabelle, she’s made huge progress regarding snakes. Now, when we stop for a break near a log with a hole from which a tail snake is hanging, she doesn’t freak out and run, she merely says: “Hum, maybe we shouldn’t stop here…” and she even agreed to stay there for our snack break once I had identified it as a Gopher snake and checked there was no rattle on the tail (Gopher snakes are non venomous and keep rattlesnakes away). We weren’t the only ones in for a snack… Soon whiskers and grey fur appeared out of the hole; a mouse making a run for its life. Its friend or babies (?) weren’t as lucky as the snake moved deeper into the hole while out of another hole it pushed some part of its body, along the length of which we could clearly make out a small bump…
We have never felt so European. We miss a lot of allusions and cultural references other hikers make (most PCT hikers are American). A whole part of America doesn’t get exported and even the things you’ve heard about or seen in movies seem unreal and alien. Isabelle is developping a dislike for the US that comes out particularly strong when we head into town to resupply. True, in the land of cars, towns are a hiker’s nightmare. City centers don’t exist, post office, motel, restaurant and supermarket are spread out over miles.
It seems we are becoming famous on the trail. People we’ve never met know of the Swisters. What are the people saying about us???
June 6, 2011 § 2 Comments
Wrightwood to Agua Dulce – 85 miles 6 days Total: 454 miles 33 days + 2 zero days
Back on the PCT we followed the trail climbing along the side of Mt Baden-Powell, named after the founder of the Boy Scout movement. We hiked a few miles on the highway as a detour is in place to protect the habitat of the endangered yellow-legged frog. On the 1st of June, one month on the trail, we passed the 400th mile. To get to the other side of Freeway 14 we walked along a drainage tunnel that runs under the highway, the heavy traffic above oblivious to the two hikers underneath. And right before Agua Dulce we temporarily lost the trail among some weird rocks that are part of the same rock formation than rocks we went by near Cajon Pass, a 100 miles back! Over million of years they got separated by movements along the San Andreas Fault (the PCT went right over the fault near Cajon Pass).
I have officially been christened on the PCT. It took time but I’ve earned my trailname. Call me Hazard. I am mostly a danger to myself – the number of times I tripped and ended up head first on the ground, that I slipped and wet my feet or scratched my chin at river crossings – but as Isabelle can attest, it’s safer for other hikers to maintain some distance. I don’t warn when I push branches that are gonna come flying back, I throw snakes, I forget I’m twice as wide with my pack on… but the summum was when I unintentionally (it’s always unintentional!) tripped her with my hiking poles! She snapped and that was it, I got my trailname.
We hung around the same bunch of hikers for a couple of days, it’s been fun. Word has gotten around that our packs are heavy. The bag where we keep the sweet stuff for snacks and dessert, that weighs a ton and we’re affectionately calling “The Goodies Bag”, has gained a fame of its own. Our comfort level seems slightly higher than other hikers so yes, our packs are a bit heavier but it works for us, we’ve gotten that far, we’ve proven ourselves. And anyway as the saying goes on the trail: “Hike your own hike”, do whatever works for you, everybody its strategy to make it. However, Isabelle is getting me quite worried as she now scans every item in our pack thinking of ways to make it lighter (she cut the toothbrush and went as far as suggesting we get rid of the cardboard inside the toilet paper!).
Even now you ask yourself “Why am I doing this?”. It’s not so much anymore because you hurt and you wonder why you chose to suffer, it’s more because you want to understand what’s driving you. The answers hold together now and THE reason has added strength to them but something is still missing. This whole thing is so crazy that there must be something big to explain the madness. I don’t think any of us thru-hikers has a clear answer.
We’re not the only ones to wonder. People we meet ask that question. You meet two types of people. The first ones, the ones that have heard about the PCT, are cool. They are genuinely interested in what you’re doing, they sometimes express the desire to do the same and wish you good luck. The second ones, the ones that don’t know about the PCT, make us uncomfortable. The first question they ask is usually: “Where are you hiking from?”. That’s when you get that uneasy feeling, almost dread, because “From the border with Mexico” is becoming a long way away and you know you’re gonna get that look of disbelief, of is-she-pulling-my-leg and of serious concern for your mental health. And just wait you tell them you’re hiking to Canada! And then comes the question: “Why are you doing this?” and you hate yourself for being embarassed because you don’t have a good answer to give. Partly because you don’t have one but mostly because it’s too complex to explain in 5 minutes to a stranger on the side of a road. So you shrug, which comes down to the same as the best answer we’ve heard from a thru-hiker so far: “Why not?”. But next time I might just answer with another question because as Isabelle observed it’s like asking them: “Why do you go to work every day?”.
I doubt we’ll have a better answer in 5 months. But it doesn’t matter. Because after a while you don’t care so much for an answer, you don’t need one anymore. You hike because there’s nothing else you feel like doing right now. And maybe that’s the answer. As simple as that, no need for something big. And as Isabelle reminded me of Rainer Maria Rilke’s words: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.”
So let’s live the question!
June 5, 2011 § Leave a Comment
As usual when we leave the trail to resupply in town, we hitched to get into Wrightwood. We weren’t expecting this time to be any different but it turned out pretty special.
The first two cars that drove by stopped to pick us up. Five guys from Israel spending the week-end mountain biking in Wrightwood. They drove us into town and invited us for dinner. Their hospitality was amazing. The food was awesome, the conversation was great, we had a fantastic evening. The PCT became a human experience as well.
We’ve said it already but we’ll say it again as it’s never said enough: Thank you so much, guys!