In this latest dispatch from my SOBO Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, I traverse Yosemite National Park with my best trail mate Cheesy Puff, get vortexed at Tuolumne Meadows, join the stunning JMT sections of the High Sierra, experience the beauty of Donahue Pass, reflect over 1000 Island Lake, and start experiencing how cold it gets in the high elevations at night. Also, the hiker hunger is very real; will I have food and calories to get me through?
Day 75: Dry Creek Tent Site to Overlook Camp, 26 miles, Enter Yosemite NP
What a morning; we rise with the sun, and spend a ridiculous amount of time wrestling with our bear canisters, trying desperately to make them fit comfortably inside our backpacks. The roundness is awkward inside my pack, and rubs against my back when I walk. I shove everything I can behind the canister: my puffy, Tyvek ground sheet and tent, anything to create a buffer between my rubbed raw skin and that damn canister. I finally get it, I think, and we set off into the chilly morning.
The added weight of the canister is obvious, and I feel so heavy that the soles of my feet are burning. We walk through forest all morning, slowly climbing up towards Dorothy Lake Pass. The trees give way to giant granite boulders, basking in the warm light of the sun. On the other side of the pass, we enter Yosemite National Park.
Just below the pass, we skirt the shore of Dorothy Lake until we find a nice sandy beach in the sunshine. We have a break here, warming ourselves in the golden rays and whittling away at our food inventory. I eat a tortilla stuffed with Spam and cheese, and make a second round of cold coffee. From there, the trail is gentle and forgiving, and we walk along a serene creek and through shady pine forest. A herd of yearling deer darts across the trail in front of me, then stops to watch Cheesy Puff and I with curiosity.
For lunch, we find a flat rock slab beside the creek to lay on, and it’s radiating the day’s heat and so soothing. I toss my shoes aside and give my tired feet a good soak in the creek, and treat myself to some decadent chocolates and cheese crackers.
The trail continues through the woods and across sun-scorched meadow, and we’re rather enjoying the ease of the grade. But all good things have to come to an end apparently, and we’re suddenly climbing up a steep mountainside and scrambling over rough, rocky terrain. The trail is littered with bear poop, that’s speckled with the skins and seeds of juniper berries. We keep our wits about us as we descend, but the only wildlife we see is a very handsome stag, standing firmly on the hillside beside the trail.
We cross several dry creek beds, which were reportedly flowing in the water report on Guthooks. We had originally planned to camp along one of these, but since we have only a few sips of water between us, we move on. From the creek beds, we start to climb, and I’m extremely unhappy about this since it’s getting dark rather quickly. Finally, we cross a small, but flowing stream coming down from the mountainside, and fill up.
There’s a lovely little campsite on a an outcropping that we’re happy to occupy for the night, and we go about making camp in the dark. After dinner, I wedge my bear canister under a large rock, and cuddle down into my sleeping bag. It’s a cold night, and I can’t get warm no matter how many layers I pile onto my body.
Day 76: Overlook Camp to Rocky Pitch, 27 miles
I spent the night shivering, in and out of sleep. The cold autumn nights of the Sierra have caught me off guard, and I need to call home to have my sleeping bag liner sent immediately. The cold air takes my breath away as I break camp, and I feel chilled right down to my bones.
It’s a day of massive ups and downs, with a long, strenuous ascents only to descend immediately from the top. Whoever designed this section of trail must have been a sadist. With two hills out of the way, and getting warmed up, we stop at Smedburg Lake for an early lunch. We see lots of section hikers here, getting a late start, as well as the excitement of a SAR helicopter lowering a gurney near a peak. I free my feet from my shoes, and warm my face in the bright sunshine.
The brutal climbs continue, and I can feel the painful onset of shin splints. I’m in agony and completely exhausted, but the scenery is so undeniably gorgeous it almost makes you forget that you’re suffering. We struggle up and over Benson Pass, and follow a pristine creek on the way down. At a sandy creek ford, we manage to cross via a fallen log, and without getting wet. On the far bank, we collapse in the sand and devour some dinner. It’s been the most physically demanding day I’ve encountered yet on this thru-hike, and I am wholly ready to collapse into bed. We agreed early on in the day to push big miles so we could get to Tuolumne Meadows early the next day, but I’m regretting that decision. Cheese promises that there isn’t much climbing left until camp, but I’m feeling grumpy and weak and I just want to be finished for the day.
At a lake, we stop only briefly to fill up on water and eat a quick snack, and then we keep on trucking into the night. We’re in an open meadow now, and the sun has disappeared behind the mountains and ushered in the chill of the night. We bundle up in our gloves, puffies and hats, and press on toward our predestined camp.
By the time we arrive to camp, it’s completely dark and the blackness of the forest behind us is giving me chills. The night sky is brilliant, moonless and filled with a billion sparkling stars, but the dead silence is fillling me with a certain uneasiness. The ground is nothing more than a flat slab of granite, and therefore impossible to stake out my tent. I use rocks to anchor them down as best as I can, but there’s an obvious slump in my pitch. Again, I layer up in preparation to ride out the cold night, and go to bed. I lay there for a while, perfectly still, and almost waiting for the terrifying sound of a large monstrous creature to come crashing through the woods. That sound, thankfully, never comes.
Day 77: The Ultimate Vortex, Rocky Pitch to Tuolumne Meadows, 8 miles
The cold night air has made my eyes swell to the point that I can barely open them, and they’re watering endlessly; a product of sleeping in a mummy bag with only this strip of your face exposed to the elements. And just to make things even more uncomfortable, my socks are completely frozen in their own sweat. Fantastic.
Other than those amazing revelations, the morning goes off without a hitch and we get back on trail before first light.
Never in my mind would I have thought that these next eight miles would feel like the longest mileage of my life, but I’ve been wrong many times before. It’s splendidly scenic, at least, and we hop, skip and route find our way over the enormous slabs of glacier carved granite that resembles a countertop more than a trail.
We pass the junction for the backpackers’ camp at Glen Aulin, and I lean against the sign to eat the very last of my food: a single Luna bar, a fruit leather, and a Rice Krispy Treat. How did I manage this so perfectly? Were the planets aligned?
Crossing the Tuolumne River via footbridge, we admire a train of pack mules led by a rugged looking cowboy eating sandwich, and take in the waterfalls as we climb towards the upper meadow. No time to stop, there’s a grill ahead with cheeseburgers and we’re calorie deficient. We’re also toying with the idea of a hike down into the Yosemite Valley, which would put us at over thirty miles for the day, but by the time we reach the junction for the JMT, confusion sets in and we’re hopelessly lost when we get to the highway. There’s a literal herd of tourists tramping through the meadow towards us, and we’re instantly struck with fear by the fast-moving mass.
We eventually find our way to the general store at Tuolumne Meadows, which is housed in a giant tent with the post office kiosk and a makeshift grill on the side. First thing, we order food. Our friend Plants is at the communal picnic table with Mini Wheat, Pecorino, and new to arrive on the scene, the French Canadian, Patio. We power through our grub, and collect our packages from the post office. We’ve made it just in the knick of time; Tuolumne Meadows is due to close in two days.
We get pretty distracted there, eating and laughing, and when a trail angel called Mr. Overhill plops down a rack of beer, we can’t help ourselves. Our intentions of a long mileage day quickly fade, and we find ourselves gathered around a campfire in the hiker site at the campground later that night, Plants being the only one to make it out successfully. Although I’m a little ashamed of my utter lack of self-control, I still had a fantastically enjoyable evening with my fellow thru-hikers.
Day 78: Tuolumne Meadows to 1000 Island Lake, 19 miles
I wake up to the soft snores of my camp mates, just as it’s getting light, and decide to pack up. Cheesy Puff and I then make our way back to the General Store and Grill, where the staff is blasting some strange old-school folk music in the pre-business hours. We hang around for everything to open up, doing little dances in the communal picnic area to try to stay warm on this especially frigid morning. Pecorino, Mini Wheat and Patio all arrive, too.
Once the Grill opens, it’s a rush to the door, with thru-hikers and rock climbers cramming in to the small space, attempting to escape the cold of outside. Cheese and I each order the Hiker breakfast special, and a plate of pancakes to share. Outside, we find a patch of sunshine where everyone has congregated to eat. I eat about half of my plate and a few bites of the pancakes, and then I’m totally stuffed to the brim. Mini Wheat is circling, hoping to eat what we don’t, so we give him our food and a new trail name: Vulture.
Finally, we push off, heading into Lyell Canyon, where the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail become one. We meet a couple of rangers on patrol, and they stop us to check permits and have us tap on our packs to prove we have bear canisters. Through the canyon, we follow a gently rolling trail through semi forested meadow, skirting the crystal clear Lyell Fork. This goes on for several miles, then somewhat rapidly, we begin our climb towards Donahue Pass.
At another fork for the river, we stop for our lunch and admittedly, we’re exhausted from the prior night’s shenanigans. My feet are also bothering me a bit, and I strip my shoes and socks off and dip them in the cool water of the creek. The skin in between my toes in rubbed raw from sweat and dirt accumulation, and the open red areas are weeping a bit. After my rinse, I rub an alcohol wipe across it, gritting my teeth through the pain and hoping to dry it all out. I eat some peanut butter and candy to take my mind off of the trauma I’ve just endured, and then we continue climbing.
Surprisingly, my feet are doing much better after they’ve been cleaned, and I hike onwards with little difficulty, despite the drastic elevation we’re gaining towards the pass. Some JMT hikers are coming down from the pass, and complimenting my speed, which makes me feel pretty good. We filter some water at a pristine glacial fed lake, just a couple of miles short of the southern boundary for Yosemite, and meet a lovely equestrian out with her beautiful chestnut colored horse.
The trail is much more difficult to follow from here, scrambling over a not-so-clear path over a rocky saddle. I pay careful attention, looking for the steps laid that lead us across the park boundary. There’s a plaque at the top, informing visitors of their current elevation (11,066 feet) and that you are entering the Ansel Adams Wilderness. But it’s too windy for a break, and we keep going.
The descent follows a series of either dry or low flowing creeks, that at one point in the season emptied into several mucky ponds that dot the landscape. The meadows are also dry and brown, and merely a memory of the once lush wildflower filled terrain it once was. We stop at a stagnant pool to top off our water and have a snack, and I nearly choke on a dried chili pepper flake that I accidentally inhale while I’m gnawing on some jerky.
With my throat burning with my unfortunate spicy encounter, the two of us begin another climb towards the much more mellow 1000 Island Pass. At the top, Banner Peak greets us in full stunning beauty against the pastels of the evening sky. We hurry down to the trail junction where the PCT and the JMT separate again as it’s getting dark, and decide to just camp near the lake for the evening.
Near the bank of 1000 Island Lake, we pitch our tents and I eat a hearty dinner of more peanut butter and chocolates. The frogs are croaking and crickets are chirping, despite it becoming an intensely cold night already. I layer up for another icy night, and wrap myself in my fluffy sleeping bag.
Day 79: 1000 Island Lake to Deer Creek, with Resupply in Reds Meadow: 22 miles
I wake up to my alarm, as Cheesy Puff and I have decided to start early so we can get in and out of Reds Meadow in decent time. We’re trying to avoid a repeat of the vortex that sucked us in at Tuolumne Meadows, which will also help us from spending too much money at a pack station that is well-known for its ‘premium’ prices.
We pack up in the dark, shaking the layer of ice from our tents before rolling up the soggy mess and stuffing it into our packs. We briefly debate whether or not to take the JMT alternate or stick to the PCT, and ultimately go with the PCT to get us there quicker. The trail rambles down through pine and aspen forest, hugging green hillsides and then leading us across a busy parking lot at Agnew Meadows. The sun is out in full force now and warming things up drastically, and we peel all of our heavy layers off as we walk.
Everything is quiet again after we get a few miles away from the parking lot, and we have the trail to ourselves once again. At a footbridge over a river, we stop for a small bite and to rest our tired feet, and a nice fisherman makes small talk with us. From here, we begin a tedious and dusty uphill to the canyon wall above the river.
The crowds of day hikers appear again once we arrive at the trail junction for the JMT and Devils Postpile National Monument. We take the alternate route to the Postpile, happy to dodge a few tourists to see the basalt column formations. It certainly doesn’t disappoint, and I’m always happy to see interesting geology along the trail. But we don’t linger too long since we know there are burgers and milkshakes ahead at the pack station.
The side trail to Reds Meadow goes on for what seems like an eternity, and we whine relentlessly under the baking heat of the sun. By the time we reach the stables, we’re pouring sweat and have been holding our bladders for far too long. We break into a mild jog on the way in, and beeline it to the bathroom, dumping our packs in front of The Wheelhouse diner. The restaurant is quiet and cool on the inside, with a couple of tables with worn out hikers barely staying upright over their meals. The rumors regarding the pack station are true, we nearly have a heart attack over the price of our burgers and milkshakes, but we’re desperate for calories and fat, and we swallow it down hard. The general store isn’t much better either, and it’s been thoroughly picked over by crowds of hikers before us.
I buy what I can: some candy bars, a Mountain House freeze dried chicken and rice dinner, Ovaltine chocolate drink mix, a bag of chips, and tortillas. The cashier warns me against the price of the candy bars, but I insist and cringe when he tells me the total. It’s end of the season, and they’re days away from closing. The bus no longer runs down into Mammoth Lakes, and Cheesy Puff and I are trying desperately to avoid the high fees of sending resupply boxes to Vermilion Valley and Muir Trail Ranch. I add my meager groceries to my current inventory, and I am confident that I can make it to Independence with what I have.
Or so I think…
After we dry out all of our gear in the sun, and half bathe ourselves in the bathrooms, we drag ourselves back to hiking. The sun is setting behind the mountains, and we start an ascent through the woods and up switchbacks, really powering along and trying to get some distance in. At Deer Creek, there’s a large campsite with only a couple of spaces left for us to squeeze in. It’s packed with JMT hikers, not that I mind, but as we were arriving one of those hikers was going to the bathroom right next to the camp. Gross.
Cheese and I are too tired to go on, and it’s getting dark rather quickly, so we pitch our tents in the cramped area and make do. I crawl into my tent after having an evening snack, and bury myself into my bag. As I’m fading out, someone trips over one of my guylines, ripping the stake out of the ground and apologizing sheepishly. My tent is still upright, so I ignore it and drift off.
In my previous updates regarding my gear, I’ve failed to mention how many pairs of socks I’ve gone through. I’ve currently worn holes into two pairs of Darn Tough socks, and I’m on two new pairs, with a third being my sleep socks. Darn Tough has fulfilled the warranty on the two pairs that I wore holes into, and sent me a couple of vouchers to have them replaced. They have a new warranty system in effect, and are no longer replacing damaged goods with a new pair sent in the mail. Instead, they send out vouchers for $20 towards a new pair of your choice, which doesn’t fully cover the cost of the socks that I use (which are about $22 plus shipping).
I’m not really offended by this, because my socks are still getting replaced for the most part and I don’t have to worry about breaking the bank on getting several new pairs over the course of a thru-hike. I’m going to stay true to Darn Tough because they keep my feet pretty happy for the most part.
Also worth mentioning, the mesh frame bit of the ‘Arc’ on my Zpacks Arc Blast has some holes worn into it. I expected as much, and as long as it lasts me to Mexico, I’m not too bothered by it. Mesh is a fragile material, but it’s still keeping a nice airflow between my pack and my back, thus avoiding chafe.
Regarding the cold snaps that I’ve been experiencing at night, I have to say that my Therm-o-Rest sleeping bag isn’t sufficient in keeping me warm enough in these late fall temperatures in the high Sierra. I do tend to sleep cold, however, and my bag is only rated down to 20 degrees (F). I’m having a sleeping bag liner sent from home, which will increase my warmth by 15 degrees, but I won’t receive this until I get to Independence unfortunately.