Going to the mountains is going home – John Muir

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.

§ 2 Responses to Going to the mountains is going home – John Muir

  • Marc RR says:

    Impressive! And I who always put back to later doing the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne… and then I got old. Ach so.
    Bon courage, and get in touch when you’re back amoung humankind.

    • There’s no old when it comes to hiking. People in their 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s are hiking the PCT. I’ll come by say hello when I’m back in Switzerland beginning of November.

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