Here we go again: The latest wild journey along the PCT has Cheesy Puff and I summiting Mount Whitney, reaching the highest elevation on the trail, dealing with an unusually dry stretch where we run out of water, and descending into the desert near Kennedy Meadows. (Spoiler: I see a cactus!) With less than 1000 miles left until Mexico, the question begs, will we ever get a hang of this thru-hiking thing?
Day 85: Independence to High Camp, 13 miles
I stayed up far too late the night before, enjoying the creature comforts of our motel room and modern technology: cable TV, internet and microwaveable food. Despite my night owl habits, I wake up early and start the coffee maker, and wonder, where the hell is our laundry? I’ve been wearing my rain jacket and a towel all night. I open the front door and it’s there, sitting in a ball inside of a garbage bag on the front step. It’s still a bit damp, and the funk in our socks is still clinging on for dear life. It’s still far cleaner than it was 24 hours ago, so I’m satisfied for the most part.
I drink my mediocre cup of motel coffee, heat up a breakfast burrito, and poke around until the post office is nearly open. Cheesy Puff and I then run across the street to the gas station and buy a few things to satiate our endless hunger.
Once we grab our boxes from the post office, we scramble to get all of our things packed away, and our food shoved into our bear canisters before checkout time. It’s a bit tough going, and there’s slight panic since the housekeeper keeps wandering past and peering in through our open door, but we somehow manage. Now for the hard part: hitching back to the trailhead at the very remote Onion Valley.
The day is already excruciatingly hot by the time we set off, and leaving our blissfully air-conditioned room is more difficult than it should be. The hitch back up to the trail comes more easily than expected, though, from a kind rancher named Don who has just finished driving his cattle for the day. He saves us from baking under the sun beside the road, and drives us up the slow going mountain road without hesitation. On the way, we pick up a couple more hikers from a campground, AP (for Alpine Pat) and another hiker whose name is escaping me right now (sorry dude). Don entertains us with his cowboy and deer tracking stories on the ride back up.
The air is noticeably cooler up at the trailhead, but still warm beneath the bright sun. Cheesy Puff and I waste little time in getting back on the trail, and begin our tedious journey back over Kearsarge Pass and to the PCT. We charge up the switchbacks, putting the nine non-PCT miles behind us rather quickly. We take a slightly different route back to the main trail once we’re over Kearsarge Pass, skirting the shores of some pretty beautiful lakes. After filling up on some water at Bullfrog Lake, we take a pause to gaze off into the mountains ahead of us. I wonder which one of the saddles is Forester Pass. Can it be even seen from here?
Back on the PCT, we follow the trail down into a valley on narrow switchbacks through the forest, and nearly go tumbling down the hillside when we yield to a NPS mule train. All the rangers are packing out their supplies now from the patrol cabins. Winter is around the corner, it’s time to make haste and get out of these mountains before the first snow.
We follow Bubbs Creek for some time, slowly descending and then climbing again out of the valley and towards Forester Pass. Because of our late start leaving Independence, we decide to make camp in a small patch of trees just a few miles short of the pass. We don’t want to do it in the dark after all, since it’s a rather exciting moment along the trail.
Cheesy Pluff and I have the camp to ourselves tonight, and we sit in the last fading patch of sunlight to eat our dinners. It gets cold once the sun disappears behind the mountains, but I have my sleeping bag liner now, so I’m not too worried. I am a bit concerned, however, about bears. Last year, when I was on the JMT, I almost stayed in this very campsite. I changed my mind when a bear came strolling through camp as I was eating dinner. I had packed up and left, going a mile further on and camping with a large group of people, which doesn’t mean that the bear wouldn’t have come around that camp, but it made me feel safer camping with others.
I lay in my bag, drowsy with warmth and pure comfort, listening for bumps in the night. But there’s only silence, and I drift off.
Day 86: High Camp to Crabtree Meadow, via Forester Pass, 16 miles
We sleep in a bit as we have a somewhat shorter day: we’re only going to Crabtree Meadow, where we’ll make camp and then do our summit of Mount Whitney, without the majority of our gear, the following day. With a much shorter day than usual, we take our time on the climb up to Forester Pass.
It’s slow going on the way up, the air is thin and I’m taking deep, deliberate breathes to get me through. We pause on the turns of the switchbacks, and then power on. I’m light headed at the top, as is Cheese, and we take our round of victory photos and rest a bit. You can see for miles on end up here, the highest point of the PCT at 13,100 feet in elevation; jagged peaks rising from barren tundra, and Kings Canyon gouged deep into the earth behind us.
It’s nothing short of spectacular.
The way down is a casual pace; we’re enjoying ourselves and our conversations, and I’m eating fruit snacks as I hike, letting the sun warm my face and chest. There isn’t much to complain about, and I like the low-speed pace of the last couple of days; carefree, sunshine and laughs all the way.
We take a long lunch at an alpine lake, eating peanut butter wraps, chips and candy. A trail runner goes swiftly past, and I don’t envy them at all. Further on, we briefly dip down below treeline again, crossing shallow flowing creeks near well established campsites. Then we climb again, back above the forest, and across a desert-like plain where only snow and a few bristlecone pines can exist.
Crabtree Meadows is lovely; a vast, open meadow against several peaks, with trees bordering the outskirts. We make camp in the trees early in the evening, and lay in the sun for a bit to warm up before dinner. We’re the only ones around, and it’s quiet except for the sound of a squirrel gnawing on a pine cone in the tree above my tent. We retire early, before dark, with the intent on waking up very early to begin our Summit of Whitney the next day.
I’m startled awake suddenly by the sound of a voice, and then the fumbling of the lock on the bear box near our camp. It’s a man, and I can make out the light of his headlamp through my tent. I peer out through the opening of my tent, but can’t see much in the darkness. He’s talking to himself.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he’s struggling with the lock more, and then storms off. My heart is racing. He’s probably just another hiker, but there was a warning left on the bear box for thieves stealing canisters and food. I wait a bit, making sure he’s good and gone, and crawl out of my tent to go check on our food. Everything is still in place, although he’s left one of the two locks undone. I secure it, and head back to bed.
Day 87: Summit of Mount Whitney, plus 7 miles to Rock Creek Camp
My alarm jolts me awake at 3 am. It’s time to summit a mountain, the highest one in the contiguous United States at 14,496 feet: Mount Whitney. It’s go time.
I gather up a few supplies to get me through this rather ambitious day hike, mainly snacks and warm clothing. At around 4, we set off, guided by the dim lights of our headlamps and the half-moon that’s covered the forest in a lovely, soft glow.
We follow along the side of a creek for some time, winding our way up a canyon and then into the basin for Guitar Lake. The stars are out, and the moon’s reflection shimmers on the surface of the lake. The surrounding mountains are glowing like silver cathedrals in the moonlight. Whitney looms before us; we can barely make out her colossal shape against the night sky. A light comes on inside a tent as we pass, revealing itself on the shore on the lake.
The sun is starting to come up when we’re about halfway up to Trail Crest, the junction into the Whitney Portal. It’s bitter cold up here, with a fierce wind that feels like it’s driving icicles into my skin. At the junction, I stop to layer up, and we press on to get warm again.
The wind is miserably cold, and my eyes and nose are draining themselves across my face. I’m not prepared for this level of bitterness, and even with all my layers on, it’s just not cutting it. When I get to the summit, it’s even worse, and I hurry inside the stone shelter. The door has been ripped off, but how? Mangled metal hinges creak in the wind. The shelter isn’t much of one without the door, so Cheesy Puff and I curl up in the far corner. I want to implode.
There’s two more hikers there, an older German woman and her adult son. She’s jabbering on, an unfocused mind shivering against the cold, and her son is doing his best to protect her from it. I’m not sure if she’s suffering from pre-hypothermia, or if I should attempt to do anything, and her son is trying to urge her to leave so they can descend and get out of this mess. She doesn’t want to go though, and she turns to us to say that her son will make a wonderful husband and father some day. Okay, now it just got even weirder.
We snap a quick photo outside the shelter, and then take off running down the mountain. In fact, it could possibly be the fastest I’ve ever moved. Streams of hikers are coming up now, and they ask how it is at the top.
“Cold!” I say, without stopping. My buff is drenched in snot and my fingers are numb, there’s no time to mingle over the details of my lame summit.
After we descend a couple of thousand feet, we finally start to warm up again and shed some layers. More and more JMT hikers are making their way up toward the mountain, nearing their journey’s end, and making it impossible for me to find a private place to pee.
We get back to our campsite at Crabtree Meadow around 2pm, just enough time to squeeze in a nap and then get a few more miles in on the PCT before dark. It’s much warmer down here, so much that I just lay on top of my bag while I doze in and out of a restless sleep.
I eat a small meal, and then we pack up and leave in the early evening, intent on getting in a few more miles. It’s easy enough, trekking through forest most of the way in comfortable conditions. Dorothy catches up to us near a shallow creek ford, and we all walk on together until we reach a large campsite. Cheesy Puff and I decide to stay here for the night, and after it starts to get dark, Dorothy caves too and makes camp.
I’m completely knackered from the day’s events, and getting to sleep isn’t an issue, despite my prior nap.
Day 88: Rock Creek Camp to Death Canyon Creek, 30 miles
I woke myself up no less than four times in the night from snoring, and I’m absolutely mortified. I hope that my camp mates weren’t too disturbed by my late night nasal concerto. My draining sinuses on Mount Whitney must have clogged things up in the middle of the night. I blow my nose, and there’s blood. Not shocking, it’s been this way since Oregon. I break camp with tissues stuffed up my nostrils until the bleeding stops.
With the amount of climbing we do in the morning, it doesn’t seem to affect our stride or stamina much. Cheesy Puff and I are full of energy for the most part, and the first climb of the day, up through sparse forest and on sandy trail, goes by relatively easily. We catch up to Dorothy again, who we’ve been leapfrogging all morning, when we get to the outlet for Chicken Spring Lake. We shatter the ice layer that’s on top of the outlet, and fill up on water. Just past the lake, we go over Cottonwood Pass, but barely notice. It’s nothing like the passes we’ve been going over, and we hardly break a sweat.
It’s a bit of a rollercoaster day, dipping down and back up again over mellow grades. It’s incredibly windy too, but it’s a warm wind, blowing in from the southeast. We stop midday and sprawl across a large rock to catch the sun and eat some lunch, but it doesn’t take long for the shade of the woods to move in and we catch a chill. Back to the trail, and into the evening.
According to Guthooks, there’s supposed to be a water source a quarter of a mile off trail at a sign pointing towards a stock camp. We find the sign, ditch our packs beside the trail, and head off with our water bottles. There isn’t much of a side trail though, and when we arrive to the camp, the corral is a busted mess. Grooves in the earth, and coming downhill, suggest a flash flood had taken out the camp. There is a creek bed, but it’s bone dry. Shit. We were depending on this water, and it’s nearly ten more miles until the next source. I’m on empty, and Cheese only has half of a bottle left. We go back up to the trail and push on, up a strenuous hillside. Things have suddenly turned for the worse for us. I’m worried we won’t find water ahead, as the conditions have been extremely dry through the Sierra this year.
At the top of the climb, we split the water, and then hurry down the other side. At Death Canyon Creek, near the bottom, we find another dry creek bed. What an appropriate name it has. Cheese reads the comments on Guthooks, and says there may be a few stagnant pools up-stream, and I find a makeshift arrow made out of sticks pointing down a faint footpath. We follow it for about a half of a mile, passing a mucky bog and hoping for the best. We find a spring, with a trickle of icy water flowing out of the rocks at the base of a hill. It’s not stagnant at all, just a bit shallow and time-consuming to collect.
We decide this is the best place to make camp, and pitch our tents in a flat area of the forest. We’re protected from the wind, and it’s quite warm under the tree cover. I eat my dinner, which is mostly just handfuls of various snacks since I didn’t have water earlier in the evening to cold soak anything, and then cuddle down into my bag for the night. It’s been a long day, and never in my right mind would I have guessed that I could do a 30-miler in the Sierra.
Day 89: Death Canyon Creek to Kennedy Meadows, 30 miles
We had made the decision the previous evening that we would push hard to get to Kennedy Meadows by today, doing another thirty mile day. We don’t hold out much hope of getting there before they close up for the night, but we’re excited to be there nonetheless. We woke up to our alarms on this morning, pack things up in the dark, and fill up on water at our little spring before heading out.
I eat breakfast on the go, squeezing an applesauce pouch into my mouth and shoving down a couple of nut bars. As we lose elevation, it becomes noticeably warmer. We leave the forest, passing through a meadow where we catch views of the sun-scorched prairie below. There’s cattle here, grazing in open range. We’re entering high desert now, and we’re somewhere hiking in between the Sierra and the Southern California Desert.
At the bottom, we traverse across dry grassland, where I suddenly become aware that rattlesnakes could be present at all times now, and retreat to the shade under the bridge across the South Fork Kern River. A group of men are in the campsite above us, butchering a deer over a tarp. We eat our lunches anyway, and I finish up nearly all of my food inventory in this one sitting. After lunch, we encounter several more hunters, on the lookout for deer. I’m not too put off by this, but the distant gunshots are somewhat unnerving.
My feet are swollen and ache terribly, both pains brought on by the drastic increase in heat and the amount of mileage we’ve been covering over the last couple of days. At another bridge over a creek, I plunge my feet into the cool water and wash away all the sweat and dirt that I’ve been accruing since leaving Independence. I’m sweating buckets now, so I make the very last of my Gatorade to get me through. Back on trail, we jump in and out of Spruce forest, and when I see my first cactus, a prickly pear, I confirm to my inner self that we are officially in the desert now.
It’s evening when we pass through the campground at Kennedy Meadows, trying our best to hurry to the General Store in time before it closes. At 5:00, we’re two and half miles away, and I throw in the proverbial towel. There’s no way to get there in time, and I feel emotionally defeated. Once we get to the paved road, we relax a bit, taking our time to get to the store. Yet, when we catch sight of the store, we notice something else that takes us by surprise: a neon ‘open’ sign, and it’s still on! Cheese grabs my arm in excitement and squeezes, and I yelp a bit. We break into a jog to get there and throw our packs down on the porch; there are hikers already there that we know: AP, Dorothy, and The Kid, who we met way back in Washington, and a new face: Zappy.
The owner is so nice, bringing out my package I had sent and offering to fire up the grill for us.
“I know you southbounders are still out there, trickling in, so we tend to stay open later for you.” she says. I can’t express enough to her how happy and relieved I am, but I think the look on my face says it all.
She cooks us each an enormous burger, and I buy a couple of beers to celebrate. All the guys poke fun at us, thinking we won’t be able to consume our meal, but we show them up like I know we will.
When we’re thoroughly stuffed, and our hands are greasy with burger juices, we go pitch our tents near the outdoor theater. A storm is brewing overhead, and I want to get things set up before it starts to rain. I drink my second beer from inside my tent, watching through my open vestibule as a cat stalks in the night. I can only make out its glowing eyee in the dark, illuminated by the red light setting on my headlamp. I go to sleep a very happy camper, a freeing feeling on my mind and body. I’ve come a long way, only 700 miles to go.
I added a sleeping bag liner to my gear inventory in Independence, which I had mailed from home in my resupply box. The nights in the high Sierra were freezing, and it was sometimes hard to sleep. I was thankful to have it at the end of the Sierra stretch, although I wonder if I’ll need it in the Southern California desert. If not, I’ll simply send it home again.
The bear can is gone now, sent packing from Kennedy Meadows. Good riddance to that. I hated every moment of that thing, but I think that’s due in large part to my pack. My Zpacks Arc Blast doesn’t efficiently carry the bear canister, and it was a daily struggle to fit it inside comfortably. Having said this, I still wouldn’t change my ultralight pack out for something bigger, like an Opsrey. It’s an incovenience for a few hundred miles, but it’s just something that everyone has to deal with when thru-hiking the PCT.
It’s worth noting that Cheesy Puff had the same struggles with fitting it inside of her ULA pack, and hers was ten liters bigger than mine.