PCT 5: The Breaking of the Trail Family Fellowship

As we descended from the parking lot at Kiersarge Pass we looked back up to where we had come from. While dropping in elevation the mountains seemed to rise up higher and higher, truly letting us appreciate their size and dominance over the landscape. We called them home for the last week and a half but couldn’t be more ready for a break from freezing temperatures and wet feet. The back country skiers who gave us a ride down were heading to Lone Pine so we took a ride there despite the fact that the rest of our group (who had gotten out of the mountains hours earlier or were hours behind) were hitching to the Bishop Hostel.

When we stumbled out of the car in lone pine we were struck with how warm it was! It was only in the 60s but we were used to it not getting above 40. Immediately we began stripping off sweaty layers. When we had gotten into the car thirty minutes before we had been in a storm, now it was sunny and warm.

Lone pine, with its amazing view of the stormy mountains above us, would be our resting place for the nigh. We were too tired and not interested in hitching to Bishop with what daylight was left. The best shower ever was had and a Mexican food truck hit the spot with multiple Tacos and a burrito each, all consumed in a matter of minutes in the shadow of the dark mountains. We also chatted with other hikers swapping stories since, in our own way, everyone had faced trials and tribulations to get there.

The following day we hitched to Bishop to catch up with our trail family of Happy Feet, Enigma, Weatherman, and various other hikers from the last section. Upon arriving It was great to see everyone, but Enigma approached to let us know he had made the decision to go home to his family and call it for this PCT season. This was met with some melancholy and allot of understanding so we all went out for Mexican food again for a proper send off.

Hugging him goodbye the next morning we lost another member of our quirky desert trail family. Our time was spent resting and nervously chatting with the other hikers about how to best approach returning to the Sierras. The storm,which we had only caught the edge of, lasted for three days. No one wanted to rush back too soon allowing a day for the snow to consolidate and firm up making better hiking conditions.

Hikers kept trickling out of the Sierras with scary stories of the conditions and horrible days where they only covered three miles max. These were not weak hikers either, they were some of the strongest hikers we knew on trail. Which made it all the more anxiety inducing to hear how they had gotten their asses kicked with the storm. Several of them decided to bail, flip north like so many already had from Kennedy Meadows, or to get off the trail entirely.

It was turning out to be a crazy year for the Sierras and the month of May hadn’t allowed for any of the snow to melt off, it had actually increased in depth all through out the month with each storm and the final tally was a 200% snow base. This was 30% higher than the year of 2017, also a notoriously difficult year in the Sierras. I talked with several locals about what made this year so much worse for hikers and they said they were getting a normal amount of precipitation for May but the temperatures were staying low so instead of rain and warming temps we were getting more snow and freezing conditions.

With this in mind we decided to wait in Bishop for five days to avoid the storm and give the snow time to go through at least one or two freeze thaw cycles before we gave it a shot. No one else left the Hostel for the Sierras during this time since everyone was wanting to go back in as part of a group.

Many people had also gotten frostbite from this last section, perhaps half of the hostel had some form of damage to their feet, ranging from minor sensitivity to completely frost bitten feet with chunks of skin coming off. The common thing we noticed was those with waterproof or neoprene socks didn’t get frostbite if their shoes fit properly. Our feet had been miserably cold as well but several degrees warmer than those with no waterproof socks. Many people were nursing their injuries in the hostel and some were even forced to stay off the trail for weeks to heal.

The days were spent playing settlers of Catan and other board games available to us. We befriended one of the Bishop Hostel staff as well, Jude who I chatted about the addicting qualities of bike touring with, even though she was originally a through hiker.

Despite the injuries and days of downtime the social atmosphere was fun. On the third day a hiker we hadn’t seen for a while showed up, Bird. We had met her at Big Bear Hostel and seen repeatedly since then. Her group, who had entered the Sierras six days before ours, had been totally broken up by the conditions and were scattered on and off the trail to various places. Bird had returned to where they had left trail and was looking to join a group for the next section. We happily accepted her into ours and finished our preparations and ressuply.

When we left the hostel the entire place emptied out. There were almost 30 people camped at the parking lot for Kiersarge pass, it was a miracle everyone was able to find a hitch up. Our group of Happy Feet, Weatherman, Uky and I had prepared for six days of food to get to Bishop pass, it was a short distance but we were not sure of the weather holding after our last experience and wanted to be prepared to lay low for a whole day in case we got stormed in. Everyone else including Bird wanted to push all the way to Mammoth pass even though Vermilion Valley Resort was still closed so no resupply was possible their. Not wanting to carry that much food and wanting to play it cautiously we knew we would have to say goodbye to the many people at the Bishop pass exit.

Hiking up Kiersarge the temperatures were considerably warmer than what we had in the first section. It was still tough going but comfortable. While waiting at the top of a hill for my group Uky walked up to tell me Weatherman had decided to turn back and go back to Bishop. I was saddened and surprised that he had decided so suddenly to leave but I understood that these conditions were tough and we were all there by choice, no one was trying to prove anything to anyone. With one more of our trail family gone, we continued.

Leaving the snow free ground behind again as we climb back up Kiersarge Pass

After climbing over Kiersarge we hiked to the base of Glen Pass where a large group of people were talking and getting ready to go up. It was already 3:00 in the afternoon and with the warmer weather avalanches were increasing drastically. Rumblings were heard through out the valleys and one needed only to look up and see slides on the slopes in the area. My group decided to set up camp and tackle the pass first thing in the morning when the snow was solid. Bird was also hammock camping and it looked like it would be the last decent spot for her to set up.

Approaching the base of Glen pass as a storm rolls in from the West
Our camp at the base of Glen Pass

As we set up camp the other group started climbing. We saw small avalanches occur on the other faces in the basin and a thunder storm even rolled in rumbling through the air adding to the stress of watching the line of people winding their way ever higher.

That night we got to bed early and began hiking by 4:30 in the morning, when the snow was completely solid. It was a steep hike but it felt like walking up stairs with the frozen snow and avalanche danger at zero.

An early morning start on Glen Pass with Bird, Uky and Happy Feet
The route was relatively steep but the steps were frozen solid
It warms up fast once the sun hits us, nearly at the top of Glen Pass

Once we topped out Bird enjoyed glissading down and as we looked up we could see where an avalanche had already slid, started from just below the trail. Nervously, we looked around the base of the slide from a distance, half wondering if we would see a backpack sticking out. It looked to have been started by a hiker sliding off the trail.

Heading down from the pass we arrived at what was supposed to be beautiful lakes, but instead it was just white snowy expanses. After crossing some small streams we cut across one lake to save time.

Uky suddenly started having stomach problems and rushed off into the trees repeatedly to dig cat holes. This was concerning and we began to wonder if something else was getting to her instead of just the food poisoning she had experienced coming down from Forester pass.

Crossing a stream after descending from Glen pass

This greatly slowed her down while she looked miserable with very low energy. Her stomach didn’t seem to be digesting anything well but we hopped by taking it slower and with lots of rests she may start to feel better. Happy feet also hurt his leg in the snow with some kind of hyper extension.

Crossing a frozen lake after Glen Pass

Eventually our gimpy group made it to a lovely section of dry ground at the bottom of the valley where we caught up with the other group. Many of them had decided to rest early before attempting the next pass of Pinchot. Our group continued another mile and camped next to a beautiful waterfall.

The roaring sound of the water proved to be detrimental hearing our alarms and were woken by Bird and several hikers from the other group as they passed us in the dark.

The climb towards Pinchot had several spooky sections with steep icy snow zones and a raging river below. Happy feet was really hurting and beginning to complain about his feet as well. Uky was tired from her upset stomach so we called it short and camped at a copse of trees right at the base of Pinchot as the other group got to the other side.

Slowly ascending towards Pinchot Pass

Climbing pinchot was not an overtly difficult task since we camped so close to the top and once more the snow was well set. We knew that we had Mather pass within ten miles of Pinchot so we decided to just set up camp early once more to go for Mather early the next morning.

Happy Feet at his least favorite time of day, Early in the morning
Early morning on Pinchot Pass, looking down on the basin we spent the night in

We descended Pinchot rapidly, racing the sun and trying to get into the trees before the massive snow faces began to warm up and the hellish post holing would begin. At a river crossing we arrived at the remains of a camp from our counterpart group where we ran into another hiker, Graceland.

Rushing down from Pinchot to try and avoid the heavy post holly snow

He was an extremly nice guy and hiking solo through this section. He was a veteran through hiker and celebrating his 25th anniversary of doing the PCT by hiking it again! Graceland had promised his wife to do the passes with other people for the sake of safety and we happily invited him to set up camp with us.

We arrived 2 miles before the base of the Mather Pass head wall by 11:00 am and set up camp with the rest of the day to kill. It was one of the most surreal days on trail yet, resting on the only bit of rock not covered in snow near our camp spot. We sat chatting about life, the trail and learning allot about Graceland and his previous through hikes.

All day long we would hear rumbling every thirty minutes or so with the advent of another avalanche in the basin surrounding us. At the end of the day every major slope of the basin had some kind of an avalanche scarring their snowy faces, the big melt for the season was just beginning and the temperatures were consistently staying above freezing through out the day.

The following morning we got hiking by 4:15 am. In the dark I left the tent and after taking only three steps I double post holed up to my armpits… We had camped on a hill but there were many trees just under the surface making post holing far to easy. With this miserable start we approached Mather Pass.

Near the head wall we noticed another hiker we had met several times in the desert, Ninja. He was wandering around at the base trying to decide the best route up and we agreed that heading up the west face was the best option, especially since that was where the other group had set tracks the previous day.

Approaching Mather Pass
Looking down from the base of Matther Pass at our group of Graceland, Bird, Uky and Happy Feet

It was grueling going with lots of scrambling over rocky slopes interspersed with following the frozen steps. We quickly noticed the severity of the avalanches from the previous day since the steps were washed out in massive swathes from slides that had occurred in just the last 24 hours. With the quickly warming climate all of the major snow faces were experiencing large spring condition slides making it a pain in the ass to hack out steps across frozen faces in packed avalanche snow. I was leading this ascent so I had allot of time to attack the snow trying to make steps over the icy chunks with my trusty ice axe,Lenny Kravaxe.

Looking up at Mather Pass and beginning to notice the slide zones ahead where the steps were washed out
The face gets steeper
A section with lots of rocky traverses mixed with steep snowy slopes
More rock traversing and scrambling with heavy packs. Avalanche slide zones were obvious below us

On one of the rocky traverses Ninja had a panicked moment. He suddenly didn’t want to be on the slope anymore and quickly over climbed to get into the lead so he could get to top of the pass as soon as possible. We continued onward in our line with a big drop off below and quickly caught back up with Ninja as he was trying to hack his way through an avalanche zone.

Ninja breaking trail over an avalanche slide zone
The rest of the group almost to the top of Mather Pass with our winding route visible in the background

Eventually we all arrived at the top of what is considered to be the technically most difficult pass in a high snow year on the PCT. Our celebration was short and after a quick goodbye to Graceland he sped off at his normal fast pace.

As the day progressed the exertion of getting over the pass started catching up with us and Uky was still struggling with her stomach problems. We napped at lunch and the snow got heavier and more post holy as the day progressed. Once at the bottom of the valley the path finding got difficult with logs to climb over, a million snow berms to hop and melt streams everywhere the snow was not.

Looking down the canyon in the direction we were hiking after Mather Pass
Bird hiking down from Mather in heavy snow
Nap time for lunch

At one point Happy Feet even took a nap on the trail and we had to wake him to continue onward. We finally set up camp a few miles from the cut off point for Bishop Pass so Uky, Happy Feet and I could exit to resupply. We knew it would be our last evening with Bird so we made big dinners and offered to carry her trash out for her while giving her an extra fuel canister to make sure she made it to Mammoth Pass.

Early the next morning we left camp before Bird got up, since we had to get over Bishop pass and wanted to beat the sun and heavy snow it created. The valley was beautiful to look at from the side trail.

Looking at the peaks around us as we climbed off the PCT towards Bishop Pass

We ended up scrambling over a large rocky slope to avoid a dangerous river crossing and eventually we found a few tracks from some other people to follow upwards.

At one point on the rocks I stumbled across a bear cannister! It appeared to be extremely sun bleached and had most likely been there for many months. Ninja caught up with us at this point and curiosity got the better of him, so he opened up the bear can. The most deathly smell filled the whole area. Happy Feet and Ninja gagged from the smell while Uky called up to us asking what the smell was. We quickly put the lid back on and had to leave it behind since it was a completely full bear can and we were too exhausted to consider carrying it.

Happy Feet and Ninja reacting to the stinkiest bear canister on the planet

The steps we were following were not ideal in their route finding to whoever had set them and eventually I found some deer tracks higher on the slope to follow. They proved to be far better tracks and led us the rest of the way to the top as another weather cycle began to work its way into the basin.

Following deer tracks up Bishop pass since they were better set than the human tracks
Getting near the top of Bishop Pass as dark clouds gather

On the descent I kept bonking and had to stop and take a break every mile. I was struggling to find the energy to continue slogging through the deep heavy wet snow. Even going downhill felt like a chore.

As we were descending Uky called out and pointed behind us. We could see a group of split boarders touring up a large peak above the pass and we distracted ourselves from the grueling miles by occasionally looking up to see their progress. Eventually they began bombing down the peak in our direction. It looked like they were having a ton of fun and they eventually caught up to us. We Said hello as they passed us by. Once they passed us we decided to try and hurry down to get a ride since we weren’t sure how many other people would be at the parking lot.

We rushed down as fast as we could and I ski glissaded down as much as possible depending on my skiing experience to not eat it too hard. When we finally got arrived at the parking lot we briefly chatted with the skiers and snowboarders and they agreed to give us a ride down.

We sat on the asphalt in the parking lot, glad to not be on cold snowy ground, as one of the skiers was kind enough to offer us some fruit for our efforts. They were stunned to hear we had boot packed the whole way from Kennedy meadows. They asked why would we choose to do that and I couldn’t give them a very straight answer with out a pained look in my eyes, wishing I had my back country skis now more than ever.

Once they dropped us off in Bishop Happy Feet went to get his feet checked out at the local clinic, he had frostbite. This explained all the pain he was feeling and after talking with the doctor he was told to not go back onto the snow for a long time to allow his feet to heal.

This news was the last thing Happy Feet wanted to hear and in that moment our trail family of originally 6 people was down to just 2. Uky and I hadn’t hiked solo together since mile 20. As we settled back into the Hostel, exhausted, we looked up at the mountains once more trying to be positive about going back in alone.

3 thoughts on “PCT 5: The Breaking of the Trail Family Fellowship

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