In this 255 mile section from Walker Pass to Red’s Meadow, I get waylaid by a wildfire just before I reach Kennedy Meadows, develop altitude illness near Mount Whitney, reach the highest point on the PCT and get caught in a snow storm; just everyday life on the trail!
Bob drops me back off at Walker Pass late in the morning, and it’s already ridiculously hot outside. He warns me that it’s going to get worse; over 100 degrees by noon. As I exit the car, I’m nearly knocked over by the force of heat outside. He wishes me luck, and I hesitantly start the grueling climb away from the pass and towards Kennedy Meadows.
It’s as if I’m hiking through the depths of hell. It’s sweltering hot, and the added exertion of the climb is making things unbearable. When I reach the top, I find a cluster of juniper trees and I hide beneath them. I spend a few hours there escaping the cruel sun; my skin has blistered under its intensity. I get impatient and set out again, continuing to climb into the mountains. The trail descends on switchbacks as evening closes in, and I find a small spot to pitch my tent under a pine tree. It’s cooler here, and I lay down to sleep.
In the night, a squirrel harasses my tent and keeps me up. When I get up in the morning, I’m dead tired. I pass by a side trail for a spring, with a warning sign that the water is contaminated, so I pass it up. I hike further on, dodging a rattlesnake taking refuge in the shade along the trail. I find water at a trickle coming out of the hillside, and about 500 feet off the trail.
I climb up the dusty trail and into more intense heat, passing the quarter way marker. I start to feel dizzy, and sit in a small patch of shade provided by a stringy tree. Another hiker called ‘All The Way’, a 69-year-old retired veteran and total badass passes me. I see All The Way again at the top of a ridge, where there’s plenty of shade to lounge under and a breeze making things easier. He tells me about his time in Vietnam and how he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail a couple of years prior. This guy is a legend.
All The Way keeps going, and I stay behind to savor the shade a bit more. As I’m lounging and eating some candy, I see a wisp of smoke rising off in the distance.
Suddenly, the hillside explodes into wildfire, and it’s near the trail. I wait for a while watching, and airplanes arrive dumping retardant.
The sky fills with smoke and turns red, and hot ash floats down through the air like snow.
I use my satellite phone to contact home, and I’m informed that the fire is spreading and the trail is indeed closed. Rangers are collecting hikers near the fire and taking them to safety at Kennedy Meadows. I was so close. Damn.
I encounter another hiker, Buff, on my way back down and tell him about the closure. The sky turns blacker with every minute, and we hustle down to a forested gully. More hikers are there, and we decide to make camp.
It’s a nerve-racking night, and we wake up at 3 am to hike the 25 miles back to Walker Pass.
I get back to Walker Pass in the afternoon and contact Bob, who comes to collect me.
I stay at his little motel again in Mountain Mesa, completely lost as to what to do next.
The next day, Bob offers to take me around the fire and up to Kennedy Meadows, if I pay for the gas fare. It’s a great offer, but I’m sad to be skipping the trail. I mow it over a bit and decide to go for it. The fire is still burning, and it’s uncertain when the trail is going to open again. I figured I’ve already hiked the 50 mile distance from Walker Pass to Kennedy Meadows, only I hiked 25 miles in and then out again. The drive up to Kennedy Meadows is long, via winding forest service roads. Fire trucks and vehicles full of tired fire crews zoom past us and we dodge herds of free grazing cattle. We get to the store at Kennedy Meadows by late afternoon, and I thank Bob for everything. I see more hikers that I already know; England, All The Way and Buff. They were all successful in hitching around the blaze.
I make camp behind the store, among the piles of junk and rubbish. I’m a bit disillusioned with Kennedy Meadows; my vision of a remote mountain hamlet with rustic cabins is shattered with hoarder levels of rusty cars, single wide trailers and other various trash. The portable toilets are nearly overflowing, and the one that’s in a somewhat okay condition has no lock on it.
I pick up my resupply boxes from the store, which includes a bear canister filled with food, an ice axe, microspikes and a larger 60 liter pack. I mail my 48 liter pack home, and buy a couple of beers and some overpriced junk food to get me through the evening.
As I’m eating my Dorito and summer sausage dinner, one of the cute locals wanders over to say hello and begs for a bite of my goodies.
I try to set off early the next day, but I get caught up in conversation with Buff, All The Way and a few other hikers. When I finally get going, it’s already hot again.
There is, at least, a lot of tree cover provided by some lovely pine forest
I stop for some time at a roaring, icy creek to soak my feet and make some Gatorade, and some day hikers pester me with odd questions.
The trail traverses across open fields and pine forest, steadily heading towards the mountains that are dominating the horizon.
I stop at a piped spring, emptying clear water into a cow trough. I cook dinner and free my sweaty feet from my shoes, then continue on towards the South Fork Kern River.
I reach the sandy banks of the river in the evening, and make camp along the shore. There’s a bridge there, busy with swallows dipping in and out from their nests underneath it. It’s a lovely spot, and the sound of the birds and river is soothing.
The night was chilly and I wake to my tent covered in frost from the condensation of the river. I give it a good shake and start hiking as the sun is peaking over the mountains.
The trail climbs, up through old growth forest, and I enter Gomez Meadow.
I stop for lunch at a creek, where ‘All The Way’ joins me and I let my tent dry out in the sunshine. The infamous Sierra mosquitoes I’ve been warned about start to swarm, so I leave rather quickly.
I begin a brutal climb with All The Way just in the lead, following switchbacks and gaining a few thousand feet. I pass by gigantic western juniper trees with twisted trunks and massive boulders.
When I reach the top, I’m above 10,000 feet in elevation and totally spent. I can’t catch my breath, so I decide to take it easy. Mosquitoes instantly swarm me again so I quickly make camp, and take refuge inside of my tent.
I can hear an animal in the night, stalking around my tent. I switch my headlamp on and hear it bounding away. Likely a deer, but it still keeps me from sleeping. I head down to Diaz Creek in the morning to get water. It’s a ways off trail and the creek is surrounded by hundreds of cow pies, but I need water so I filter some anyway. I’m feeling ill, with nausea and a dull headache. It’s possible that I have altitude illness, so I pop a couple of ibuprofen and keep going. I reach Chicken Spring Lake by late afternoon, where I stop to make some tea with honey. I try to eat, but my nausea won’t allow it; food tastes disgusting. There are loads of other hikers around, lounging and swimming, and I meet a woman who has been dealing with a giardia infection for the last few days.
All of a sudden, a dust devil appeared and caused a commotion. It stole a napping hiker’s foam pad out from under him and took it airborne, swirling it above the lake violently before allowing it to float down to the opposite shore. It was quite the scene, and I tried to hide my laughter from the unfortunate hiker who had to go fetch his sleep pad.
By the evening, I enter Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and meet my first JMT thru-hikers. I find a nice camping spot after a few miles into the park, and settle in.
As I’m setting up, a large hare wandered into my camp and kept me company until I went to bed.
In the morning, I feel a bit hungry and I stop after a mile or so to eat a bar and some fruit snacks. Another PCT hiker named Steve stops to chat with me, but I’m not feeling too talkative. I keep hiking, and Steve (who can’t take a hint it seems) walks closely behind, chattering away about “how epic Whitney is gonna be” and how he’s going to try and do a Facebook Live video from the top (face palm).
I come to a creek ford, and it’s running with a decent force. Steve goes first, and then offers unsolicited advice on how to ford properly. I make it clear that I know what I’m doing by actually doing it, and finally ditch him when he gets distracted taking a selfie with a wilderness ranger. I reach the side trail for Crabtree Meadow in the afternoon, and sit along the bank of a gentle creek. I try to eat some lunch, but gag as soon as the food touches my lips. I can’t eat, and my headache has returned. I feel weak and tired, and it’s clear that I won’t be making it to the summit of Mount Whitney this time around. I bail as soon as I see Steve approaching, and make my way into the woods.
I have a couple more challenging creek fords, and I see a herd of deer along the trail in the evening. I stay in a designated campsite, complete with a bear locker, and force myself to eat half of a packet of instant mashed potatoes and a hot chocolate before bed. I have a big day tomorrow, climbing Forester Pass, the highest pass on the PCT at 13,153 feet. I go to sleep early.
I have to ford the most icy creek of all time first thing in the morning. It’s so cold, my feet go from numb to feeling like they’re being stabbed by thousands of needles. The trail is under snow still, so I use my GPS to find my route, crossing over fields of sun cups.
Once at the base of the climb, I look up and see more hikers cutting straight up through the snow. I follow suit, making use of my microspikes. About halfway up, I reach a switchback section of trail, free of snow. I take a quick break, trying to catch my breath.
I make my up to The Chute, an avalanche area with some steps cut into it to make a narrow pathway. It’s only a couple hundred feet to the other side and safety, but there’s no room for error here; a misstep could lead to a serious, life threatening fall. I grab my ice axe and make my way across, gingerly taking steps. Once on the other side, I breathe a sigh of relief and watch as another hiker does the same.
I climb up to Forester Pass, and I feel fantastic! I’m overcome with emotion and happiness, and so proud of myself for coming this far. I take a moment to gaze out over the beautiful mountains and into Kings Canyon, and I hold back tears.
The sun has warmed the snow on the way down from the pass, and I’m trudging through a slushy mess. I glissade a few times when I have the opportunity, which is such an amazing thrill! I descend for several miles, and actually make really good progress.
By early evening, I’ve reached the side trail to take me over Kearsarge Pass and into the town of Independence. I contemplate pushing it, and then ultimately decide to go for it, knowing that there is a campground on the other side of the pass in the Onion Valley.
I pass the gorgeous Bullfrog lake and head up Kearsarge Pass, which I climb surprisingly with ease. It’s chilly at the top, but the views are stunning. Down on the other side, it’s even colder, and patches of snow cover the trail. I’m starting to tire now, but some fellow thru-hikers encourage me as they head back up the pass. “There’s toilets down there,” she says, “and they’re clean, with toilet paper!”
I reach the Onion Valley after dark, and a Dutch thru-hiker called Mp3 says I can camp with him. He has a nice campfire going, and as I sit making dinner with him, two more hikers join us. I’m feeling good, although I still can’t eat. I offer up my freshly made mashed spuds to the guys, and they fight over who gets them. I head to bed.
In the morning, I get a ride from the Onion Valley down into Independence. Once I’m in town, I hit up the hostel at the Courthouse Motel. They don’t have any bunks available, but they offer me a discount on a motel room. I take it, ditch my gear and head across the street to the Subway sandwich shop. I devour a chicken and cheese sub, overflowing with deliciously crisp veggies. I order another sandwich to go, fill up a bucket of sugary soda and buy a few beers from the attached gas station store. Back in my room, I have a hot soak in the tub and a cold beer that makes everything better. The next day, I’m a little disappointed to see that a pretty serious storm has rolled in. The sky is black, and you can’t see a single mountain in the distance. I pay for another night, and get my resupply in order. I don’t need much, as I haven’t eaten much since Kennedy Meadows, but I struggle to find what I need in the tiny town. I buy some bread, cheese and some Tang drink powder, and call it good. The storm lingers into the next day, but it seems less intimidating. I decide to get back on the trail, and try to hitch back up the remote road to the Onion Valley. I wait for quite some time, until an Australian woman in a camper van picks me up. She’s a former thru-hiker, out doing trail magic.
I get up and over Kearsarge Pass with ease, but as I’m approaching Glen Pass, a notoriously difficult pass, a snow storm hits. I hide out for a bit in the trees with some more hikers, but as soon as it clears, I’m off again.
And this is where I make a great mistake: As I approach the top of Glen Pass, it becomes clear that the storm isn’t done yet.
At the knife’s edge at the top of the pass, it’s completely socked in. I can’t make out any route on the other side, but still make my way down. It’s incredibly steep, and I’m regretting my decision. Suddenly, I lose my footing and I’m forced to use my ice axe to self arrest. After I come to a stop, I gingerly make my to an exposed switchback.
I’m scared and crying, and filled with self-doubt. It was a terrifying experience, and I want to run away from this trail for good. I sit for a bit, and the clouds clear up some. I can see the valley ahead, and the lake I want to camp at. I regain my composure, and head towards the lake.
There’s quite a few hikers at the lake when I’m setting up camp, but it’s too cold to be socializing. I eat some bread and cheese for dinner, and get cozy inside of my tent.
In the morning I have another frigid creek ford first thing, and this one is up to my chest. It’s enough to wake me up properly.
I begin a long day of steady climbing, crossing a suspension bridge midday and then up and over Pinchot Pass in the afternoon. The going was soggy again, and I postholed often in the mushy snow.
I trudged over a barren alpine plateau, and then entered dense forest. The trail had one more challenge to throw me before the day was done, however: a difficult ford across the Kings River. The water was powerful, and I went across very carefully. Once on the other side, I was soaked from the hips down and cold. I made camp and managed to start a decent campfire, despite most of the kindling that I had gathered being damp.
I was greeted in the morning by passing thru-hikers Hollywood, Butterfly, and his teenage daughter, Tammy. I caught up to them again on the ascent up to Mathers Pass, which was a difficult one to say the least. It was steep, with loose snow on top of loose scree. Near the top, I found myself scrambling up on my hands and knees, trying to grab at stable ground.
The trail meandered down into a valley, flanking the mirror-like Lower Palisade Lake. After the lake, I descended into La Conte Canyon, cut out by the lake outlet and emptying into a rushing creek below.
At the bottom, I entered a burn area teaming with new wildflowers and aspen saplings.
I meander through the canyon and had another few miles of climbing until I reached my camp at Pete Meadow. Once I got there, a few deer wandered through. They were quickly scared off by a rambunctious crew of boy scouts, who were going to share the camp with me.
I got decent enough sleep considering the rambunctious mob of boys I camped with and was up and gone before them in the morning. Today I was climbing up and over Muir Pass, which sits at a dizzying 11,955 feet.
The five miles up were strenuous, mostly due to my inability to catch my breath at that elevation. I was traversing snow fields, that got steeper with every footstep. I reached the top and had a bite to eat at the Muir Hut, and ran into my Dutch friend again, Mp3.
The trail down from the pass was long and tedious, and almost completely covered in snow.
I started another dramatic descent into a deep river canyon, and then came to the flooded out Evolution Meadows.
I was forced to take an alternate route, fording a wide, but gentle creek, and then a muddy trail through buggy forest. I had a few more difficult creek fords before the evening, clambering over logs and through deep snow melt. I did a long day, over 25 miles in all and made camp next to the raging south fork of the San Joacquin River.
In the morning, I started an ascent towards yet another mountain pass. I take a break just before reaching Selden Pass on the shores of a peaceful lake. It’s filled with golden trout and so still and quiet.
Selden Pass is an easy go in comparison to the ones I’ve already been over.
I see Mp3 again on the other side, and we ford the formidable Bear Creek together. I go on solo from there, meandering through breezy aspen forest until I reach a campsite just before Vermilion Valley Resort. Mp3 and two others, Ninja Mike and Bombadil, make camp with me. We sit around a campfire a bit, and I’m able to eat a packet of ramen in addition to my bread and cheese.
I take off before the others in the morning, skipping Vermilion Valley in favor of possibly reaching Red’s Meadow a day early. I’m ready for a break from the trail, and another hot bath. I have to ford two raging creeks first thing, and I’m cold and tired. I start my climb up Silver Pass, which has the most snow out of all of them so far.
It proves to be tricky, and on the way down from the high point, I have to follow narrow steps cut into the side of a snow-covered mountain. I get to the lake at the bottom and immediately lose the trail. I rely heavily on my GPS to find my way, and pick the trail back up again near a lake outlet.
I encounter more snow further up the trail after Tully Hole, and it’s quite slow going. I have to cross the outlet for Virginia Lake with my pack over my head and in my underwear because I can’t stand the thought of wearing wet, cold clothes when I hike. It’s straight snow melt, and I’m frozen and cranky when I get to the other side.
I’m drained from everything, and so grumpy I want to cry. It’s also getting late, and there’s nowhere to make camp. After dark I do another arduous climb, then actuall manage to find a good place to camp for the night. There’s several tents around, so I quietly set up and crawl into my bag. As I’m closing up my vestibule, the light from my headlamp catches a pair of glowing eyes just in the distance, looking my way. I fall asleep anyway.
I’m up early, and its a bitter cold morning. I arrive at Red’s meadow around 8 and kill time waiting for the bus over a stack of pancakes in the cafe. I catch the bus into Mammoth Lakes, and head over the Motel 6 and grab a room. It’s overpriced and they don’t offer a hiker discount, in fact, no one there even knows what the PCT is.
I take care of my resupply and pick up a few luxury things at the Rite Aid, including lavender epsom salts and a beer to drink while I soak. I have a pizza and salad delivered to my room, and get to relaxing like a boss.