PCT 3: Desert Farewells

As we got back onto the Pacific Crest Trail from Tehachapi we all knew our next stop would be Kennedy Meadows, a “base camp” of sorts for the Sierras. Till this point the backpacking hadn’t been too difficult since we were taking our time and hoping the snows might melt off a little. But as the number of days till our arrival at Kennedy lessened and we got closer to the Sierras the weather and temperatures showed that the snow was, very stubbornly, not going anywhere. If anything, the weather was adding more snow to the Sierras.

Leaving the windmills behind after Tehachapi

Climbing up and out of Tehachapi left us one last great view of the massive windmill farm we had spent several days backpacking through, and as we looked south more Joshua trees were in our vicinity. We had several of the potentially longest water carries coming up, but we were told that there should be some reliable water caches to split up the dry sections.

The hiking was beautiful and the weather was on our side for most of it, with some threatening thunder and lightning. Town was on the hunt for some wood to whittle a spoon out of but the desert was not an ideal place to find it. We carried our water through the first cache just to be certain we had what we needed but camped directly next to the following cache.

Desert hiking between water caches

It was a particularly windy spot and I set up the tent right next to a Joshua tree for some protection. I kept telling myself to be careful and not stand up too fast into the pointy spines but of course after thirty minutes I became complacent, stopped paying attention and stood up right into one. Another hiker, Bugle, arrived and as he was setting up his tent on the other side of the same joshua tree I heard him jump to the side and start cursing, we had both thrown our heads into the same damned joshua tree.

The offensive Joshua tree
The last water Cache before Walker Pass

The next day we were hiking along a ridgeline and we got our first real view of the snowy Sierras off in the distance. A flutter in my stomach arose, and a smile crept across my face, I felt like the real adventure was about to begin. Standing with excitement we stood there with anticipation at the challenges to come but also the unknown. I had always heard of how beautiful the Sierras were but had never seen them, now I was about to walk into them during a high snow year and see a side of them few people witnessed from the PCT.

Looking north towards the Sierras

We camped at a grungy cabin and then made our way to the next major road crossing to resupply at Walker Pass. This was a place where many hikers had decided to leave to avoid the snow in the Sierras.

With the approaching snow and the stubborn conditions many people with no snow travel experience and/or desire to attempt the Sierras decided to jump off from Walker pass and jump to somewhere else on trail north of the Sierras. Most people did this at walker pass since it was much easier to hitchhike out as opposed to trying to hitch hike out of Kennedy Meadows, the next and final stop before the Sierras. We said goodbye to many different people in this area, including the Three Stooges. We were not sure if or when we would see any of these people again and our group continued onward.

Perhaps 20 hikers camped around this cabin the night we were there

From Walker pass we ran into an amazing local who gave us a ride to Ridgecrest where we gorged on a massive Mexican Buffet! He was so nice that he even offered to give us a ride back up to the trail after chauffeuring us around. We camped at a campground near the pass and left early the next day to climb up into the foothills of the Sierras.

Setting up camp during the sunset at Walker Pass

As we approached Kennedy Meadows we observed several fighter jet pilots training as they blasted over us which was quite a thrill. Eventually we saw a storm coming in and we rushed to a camping spot as the rain began to smack us. We knew that there was going to be thunder and lightning so camped in a low point.

The night was filled with intense rain and crazy flashes and booms as the sky opened up above us in the mountains and we huddled, thankful for our protected camping spot. I looked over at Happy Feet as he sat in his tent with the vestibule open and he had a big grin on his face. I asked him what he was so happy about and his response was “I feel like i’m back on the Appalachian trail, its raining, i’m next to a stream and we are in the woods.” I laughed at this, most people wouldn’t love the rain quite this much but I understood seeing as the trail so far had been so completely different from the A.T. and in this moment it must have felt like being home.

Enjoying the views through the clouds on our way towards Kennedy Meadows

As we continued on the next day we passed what was supposed to be the last Joshua trees visible from the PCT heading north. Happy Feet and I had a moment gazing upon the spiky bastards one last time and then we moved on.

A final goodbye to the last Joshua Tree visible from the PCT before the Sierras

Professor, who had been hiking with us off and on, had her father meeting up to perform trail magic on one of the dirt roads before Kennedy Meadows. We arrived at the awning he had set up to enjoy watermelon and beer just as it began to rain. We hung out with several other hikers in the area and then walked up the road to set up camp for the night.

Enjoying a little cover from the rain with Professor’s dad

The landscape changed through out the next day and we rushed up and over another high point as we rushed towards Kennedy meadows. The hills started getting massive chunks of granite poking out of the treeline and the mountains north of us became taller and taller with more snow on them. Enigma and I tried to guess the snow level by what elevation the snow was lying at but it was impossible to say if this would be consistent with the mountains farther north.

Looking north as we attempt to outrun some lightning

Kennedy meadows was a tiny place with a general store, bar and an improvised gear store run by two PCT hikers, Worldwide and Yogi. We all camped in front of their storage container store and received our crampons, ice axes and other snow gear to prepare us for the Sierras. Every four or five days their was a winter storm warning and we arrived right at the end of one cycle. We didn’t want to enter the Sierras to get hit while we were in the mountains so after some debating we decided to wait it out and enter right after the next storm cycle. This meant we had to wait in Kennedy meadows for five days.

The 700 mile marker just before getting into Kennedy Meadows

As we waited people would pop in who had bailed from the mountains and they shared dramatic stories of the horrors that they had been through. Many of these seemed a bit exaggerated but we knew that it wouldn’t be easy, and for others it made them quite nervous. Many people left from Kennedy meadows for other points on the trail leaving behind those that were the most stubborn, or had the most snow experience.

Our group was interested in pushing onward but one of our trail family members, Town, had no desire to give it a shot. He was able to get a ride with Professor and her father who were also leaving Kennedy meadows to take time off the trail before jumping back on somewhere else. We said a goodbye to Town and agreed to contact him when we were certain the snow would be letting up so he could fly back from Florida and join us again. With this in mind we knew it would be at least a month before he returned and reports from the northern end of the Sierras were very mixed as to where the snow should properly end.

With the next storm cycle passing through we heard we should expect six inches to a foot of new snow up high in the mountains and we left Kennedy Meadows the next day, excited and nervous as to what we would experience. The trail climbed up to elevations hovering around 10,000 feet with many passes at or above 12,000 feet. Kennedy meadows was just under 6,000 feet so we knew the conditions would be very different the farther in we went. The main roads were also closed to accessing the first trail town, Lone Pine so we would have to push at least 90 miles to avoid road walking on snow for 20 miles just to exit the Sierras at Independence. This meant 9 days of food to give us plenty of supplies and an extra day for attempting the 14,000 foot peak of Mt Whitney, a popular side hike to the highest point in the lower 48. With all of this in mind we prepped and waited, nervous with anticipation.

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