As we left Kennedy meadows, the morning of May 16th, the excitement was mixed with anxiety for what was to come. The last storm cycle had just finished the evening before and it left potentially a foot or two of snow, but the weather reports were so varied we couldn’t get very accurate information on how much had fallen. We also knew that no one had left the previous day during the storm so we would be at least two days behind anyone else in the Sierras. On top of this the only way for us to exit the Sierras was to make it nearly 90 miles of snow walking to Kiersarge pass since the first few roads were closed off and would involve many miles of snow hiking to get out. For the moment we had a nine day weather window and hoping that it would last seemed unlikely since storms had been coming through every five days. We had to stick together and even a twisted ankle could become life threatening if we didn’t have someone with us.
As we wound upwards leaving Kennedy Meadows behind the snow began to become more and more consistent from little patches to huge expanses. Eventually we rounded a corner and we saw it stretching on upwards and we knew that walking on solid ground was going to be a luxury. Our first camp spot was spent with our tents huddled together at the only snow free spot we could find and we settled in as the snow began to fall.
The next morning it was snowing more heavily and windy, and as the morning progressed it built up into a storm for several hours. I took the lead of our group since I had experience route finding in snowy conditions from back country skiing. The visibility was low and the trail was non existent other than seeing a gap between the occasional rocks and bushes. It took time to warm up and we had to use topo maps to route find over blank snow faces through the trees, not wanting to go to high or low and end up way off course. My GPS worked well despite numb fingers and we were able to stay near enough to the trail as we traversed around snowy faces in the wind attempting to push onward hoping for a break in the weather.
Eventually the weather improved and we had blue skies, we dropped down again and the snow even dissipated for several miles allowing us to cover more ground instead of the slow “drunk” walk pace we kept while on the snow.
After our third night the snow seemed to be there to stay for good. We awoke and immediately began hiking on the snow climbing ever higher on steep faces.
On any of these slopes if we were to slip and fall we were very likely to slide into a tree rock or even off of a cliff so we tried to be as cautious as possible but we still made mistakes. At one point several other people and I were at the head of the group so we stopped to try and enjoy the snow a bit by sledding on our foam pads which was fun until we realized it was ripping them up.
Eventually everyone else caught up and Happy feet came up from the back limping. We realized quickly that he had a close call, while traversing a slope he had slipped and hurt himself while sliding into a tree but luckily it wasn’t to severe. Since he was in the back he could have been stuck there if he wasn’t able to walk so we all agreed then and there to break into pairs and always keep an eye out for each other.
As we wound higher we enjoyed the beautiful views but were always aware of the hazards around us. Talk of how to avoid cornices and to keep an eye out for thin ice around water sources filled our heads. Eventually we began running out of daylight and we had to set up camp above 11,000 feet elevation. We couldn’t find any dry spots to set up camp and the temperature at night dropped down to 9 degrees Fahrenheit… It was a miserably cold night and it spoke of what was to come.
Our normal morning routine looked a bit like this: we would wake up with condensation frozen to the inside of our tent after huddling and attempting to stay warm all night long in all of our layers. We would sleep with our socks in our sleeping bags to try and dry them out since most of us were hiking with our running shoes and our feet were always soaked from the snow melting through our shoes. We wore water proof socks for better insulation and protection but it was a minimal improvement over normal socks, although we would find out later it was an essentially minimal improvement. Our shoes would be frozen solid in the morning and it would take sometimes fifteen minutes to get them on because of how stiff they had become. We would break camp with numb fingers, and dance about trying to stay warm before heading out for the day.
The day of our 9 degree morning we dropped down and approached what would be our first of many river crossings. The temperature outside was just below freezing and we had to carefully cross a partially frozen log. Once on the other side we did more route finding through standing water and slush trying to embrace the fact that our feet would be permanently wet even in below freezing temperatures.
The mountains around us got bigger as we approached the base of Mt Whitney. The summit of the peaks around us were completely covered in clouds and through out the day the snow began to fall again. We had set aside an extra day of food to try and summit Mt Whitney. We had planned on setting up a base camp, leaving at 2 in the morning to summit it and then to return back to camp for one more night before continuing northwards. We knew it would be an extremely difficult ascent and the snow began falling more heavily. The final two miles to the base camp were some of the coldest and worst for navigating as we kept getting stuck in tight river gullies with nowhere to go except up extremely steep snow faces. The snow and temperatures only got worse as the night came.
We awoke at 2:00 and the second we looked outside we knew it would most likely be futile to attempt summiting. There was at least three to four inches of fresh snow and it was still snowing, and the higher elevations had most likely received much more than that not to mention the high winds and terrible visibility. There was another group that had camped near us with the same plan and we could hear them talking as they left despite the weather for a summit attempt.
Since we had decided not to risk it we woke up slowly and spent time drying out our things and enjoying the extra food we had since we had planned for this extra “summit” day. at 11:00 a.m. we left our camp and just as we were crossing a stream to leave the area we spotted the other group slowly walking through the snow towards us. We called out to them to ask and see how it had gone but they just kept walking and eventually collapsed next to us. Finally they looked at us and said that they had to give up and turn back. The conditions towards the final two miles had turned into chest deep powder with zero visibility, extremely cold conditions and potential cliffs in many areas. They said their feet had gotten extremely cold and they didn’t have much of a choice but to come back down. They then stumbled back to the base camp to rest after the exhausting night.
As our group continued on we were glad we had decided to not try it especially since we had two major passes to climb up and over before we could exit the Sierras from this section. The first of which would be the highest point on the PCT, Forester pass which was just over 13,000 feet in elevation.
Slogging along in the snow we had more river crossings but luckily there were solid snow bridges we could trust as we pushed on towards the base of Forester. The mountains around us started to peak out and we could finally get the amazing view that is the Sierras covered in snow.
As our group of Enigma, Happy Feet, Weatherman, Heidi and I approached the final stream crossing before Forester we caught up with several other people from a group which we had been playing hop scotch with. We talked and all agreed we would need to work together to make it up and over Forester since the peaks around us were covered in clouds again and most definitely getting more snow. After agreeing to wake up and start hiking by 6:00 we all got to sleep excited and nervous about the coming day. We didn’t want to have to turn back and attempt to find another way out of the Sierras from this point. The weather the following day according to the forecast would quickly get worse so only had a 24 hour weather window.
We made jokes at these times to keep our spirits high as well and Enigma enjoyed grounding us by reminding us that compared to what real mountaineers do this was just mountaineering kindergarten. We all laughed at this and agreed it could always be more difficult but we were still happy with the challenges we were overcoming considering our skill level and experience.
We all got up the next morning and the sun was already peaking up over the peaks. We had a four mile approach to the head wall of Forester pass and several of the other people in our large group had already set out, namely two guys called King and Denial. As we came into the basin the scope of the mountains truly set in and the distances were skewed with so few landmarks to tell true size and space. Eventually I caught up with Denial and King who had been breaking trail the entire four miles to the base of Forester. We took a break while looking up at what we had to climb over and had one last snack. I set out ahead of them beginning to break trail knowing I had the most snow experience and wanted to get a good track set up for those behind us.
The snow in the basin had been three to four inches deep but once on the head wall it quickly increased to thigh depth in many places making it a grueling process to break trail uphill at a snails pace. For the first time in the Sierras I was using my ice axe with every step for stability but also to hack out the trail ahead. The switch backs had been dynamite blasted into the cliff face and the snow had completely covered them. At moments I would create a gap on the uphill side of the slope with my ice ax, insert my uphill leg while using my pole for stability and then use my downhill leg to kick in a step. Sometimes the entire snow face would then slide away with my downhill leg dangling over thin air and I would then have to take a step back, bring back out the ice ax and hack away again making the step deeper in.
Looking downwards I could see the other people in our groups slowly following in the track I had made and eventually I had to stop because my feet were starting to go numb submerged in snow for hours on end. As I sat their King and Denial caught up and Denial took the lead for a while which was greatly appreciated because I was so exhausted. Eventually we came to what is known as the ice chute, a gully we would have to break trail across with a steep slide zone right below us. At the top of this chute was a massive cornice built up that looked like it could go at any minute. We had gotten up early to attempt at getting up and over the top before the sun warmed up the snow and avalanches began to occur. One of the other group members, Bernard began breaking trail across this chute and on the other side were more dynamite blasted switch backs.
At the end of the last switch back the snow face became extremely steep and there was no obvious way up, loose rock scrambling in snow on the left side and a very steep face with the massive cornice on the right. Denial was in the lead again but was nervous about how to continue. I called out that I knew what to do and squeezed my way back to the front. There was a snow field directly above the end of the switch back so I decided to make a snow ladder to the top of the pass. By punching in with gloves and kicking in with my feet I was able to slowly make a ladder up to the top of the pass.
Just ten feet from the top I felt my legs beginning to cramp up since I had finished the last of my water a while ago. I nervously waited sticking out of the snow face waiting for my leg to uncramp while those below me called out asking why I had stopped. Eventually it loosened up and made my way to the true top of the pass.
From the top I was hit with both extreme elation at finishing this part but also extreme exhaustion. I slowly enjoyed the view then scrambled over to a safe vantage point where I could watch the others make it to the top.
We all sat at the top enjoying what we had done but we knew we couldn’t rest for too long. We could hear and see avalanches going off on the snow faces in the basin around us and so knew that we had to make our way down before the snow got heavier. In our exhausted state we accidentally walked right under a huge cornice but luckily no slides occurred.
As we made our way down we couldn’t find any water so with no energy left Heidi and I stopped to melt snow as everyone else carried on. We made lunch and Heidi ate a very expired packet of tuna which I had been nervous about before. After we packed back up and continued in the tracks of everyone else we enjoyed the beautiful views until Heidi suddenly turned around to me in a panic. She yelled out that she had to go to the bathroom and couldn’t wait any longer, I told her just to go for it as I turned around, the expired tuna had had its revenge.
As the day progressed Heidi was slowed down by her bought of food poisoning and when we caught up with Enigma and Weatherman it was apparent she wasn’t going to be able to continue on much further for the day. We set up camp with just the four of us and went about our camp chores before falling asleep, exhausted.
The following day Heidi was doing all right and we had another big climb to get up and over Kiersarge Pass before we could finally exit the Sierras to rest and resupply. The weather was holding and we were able to cut the hike shorter by going across a frozen lake. As we climbed up into the final basin the weather began to turn and the temperature began to drop quickly. At the top of the pass Heidi and I were waiting for Weatherman and Enigma who were still below us making their way upwards when wind and snow hit us extremely hard. As the temperature plummeted even more we knew we couldn’t stand still and wait so we immediately began descending knowing that Weatherman and Enigma at least had each other.
As we rushed down the tracks began to fill in from those ahead of us and the visibility dropped drastically. There were cliffs here and there as they popped in and out of the clouds so we knew we had to hurry down before we couldn’t see where we were going. Standing in a protected break of trees we changed into warmer clothes and then rushed onwards, me leading to try and keep up with the quickly filling in tracks and then looking back to make sure Heidi could still see me in the storm.
Finally we made it to the bottom and there were thankfully several other cars in the parking lot, we approached two back country skiers to see if they could give us a ride down and we were able to squeeze in. As we went down we shared our stories and they told us they also bailed because of how nasty the storm got. As we descended we looked back up at the mountains with the peaks completely covered in clouds and snow, hoping that Enigma and Weatherman were all right, feeling bad that we had to rush down in the way that we did to avoid getting too cold and losing our way. This first foray into the Sierras had been a very different kind of adventure compared to what the trail had provided for us so far. The storm that had hit as we were at the top of the pass didn’t let up for three days.