PCT 6: The Big Melt

Uky and I were all that was left of our original trail family. Everyone else had dropped out due to the conditions and for the third time we prepared to re-enter the Sierras. We were tired, slowly being worn down and every day we tried to contrast the grueling nature of snow walking and living vs the positive gains, mostly in the amazing vistas we were constantly surrounded by. We were in Bishop for the second time on this trip and preparing to go into the Sierras for the third time.

After coming out of Bishop pass and with Happy Feets diagnoses of frost bite Uky and I decided to rest for two full days before going in again, this time alone. We didn’t want to delay any more since the big melt was just beginning to ramp up and the rivers in the Sierras were getting more dangerous to cross. Where once there had been snow bridges for safe crossings there were now deep rushing streams with big snowbanks. The worst of the passes were behind us but now we had to plan for the high water levels as the next major hurdle.

Returning to Bishop we were also pleasantly surprised to find that Weatherman was still at the Hostel! I hadn’t expected to see him again after he had decided to turn back from the base of Kiersarge Pass and we excitedly caught up with him. We were stoked to hear he was now planning on cycling from Bishop to Canada instead of continuing on the PCT. Jude, one of the staff members we had befriended at the Bishop hostel, was also going to join him for the first few days. Uky and I couldn’t be more excited to help out and we spent the first part of our rest day running to bike shops to try and get Jude set up with some decent bike-packing gear!

Jude and Weatherman getting ready to try bike touring! from the Bishop Hostel

The following day they departed leaving us to plan out our food for the next section. After resupplying we promised Happy Feet that we would return to Bishop for a third time to see if he would be in better shape so he could continue after letting his frost bite heal. And with that we were on the side of a hot dusty road hitching back up into the looming mountains still covered in snow.

The hike back up Bishop Pass was a hot one but didn’t feel overly difficult. We stopped just before the top because we walked passed a freshly melted area of snow that was perfect for camping. This area had been completely snow covered only four days before which showed how quickly it was beginning to melt off making us feel more anxious about how big the rivers would be.

Walking past frozen lakes on the way back up Bishop Pass
A beautiful dry patch of ground a mile from the top of Bishop Pass

Crossing Bishop pass was a quick process and once we were back on the PCT we started heading towards Muir Pass, a famously long slog in potentially post holy conditions. As we ascended Muir pass we were happy to see that the snow bridges at higher elevations were still intact and we found a beautiful camping spot at the last tree line leaving the summit of the pass for early the next morning. There were three other pct hikers camped in the same area, a man from Spain, a brother and sister from Switzerland and a man from France. We didn’t speak with them much but they would be the only other people we would see off and on for the next several days.

A dry section while ascending Muir Pass

We had only left ourselves two miles to go before we would reach the summit of Muir pass and the famous Muir shelter but it seemed to take forever. Once at the top we didn’t even open the door to take a look inside, we wanted to rush through the next 7 miles of staying above 11,000 feet so we could get back into the trees and away from what would definitely become post hole hell. The sun was already hitting evolution valley just after the shelter and we pushed hard, arriving at the timberline again just when the post holing was becoming unbearable.

Our brief look at Muir Shelter at the top of Muir pass
Racing the post holy conditions in Evolution Valley as the day warms up

After a short lunch brake we descended towards what would be our first difficult river crossing with Evolution Creek. The Valley bottom involved hours of route finding with the melted tracks we couldn’t follow and streams interspersing everything. At the river we waded across one at a time in a recommended alternate section for high water. The current was strong and cold and with stuttering steps we each made it across. We found a spot to dry ourselves out for a few minutes before continuing onward trying to push to the bottom of the next valley before sunset hoping for a dry spot to camp.

We passed the campsite of the European group we had seen the day before and finally stumbled into a perfect camp spot on dry ground. The next day we slept in knowing we had no reason to push hard since the snow would be slushy and post holy once we returned to it from the dry valley bottom.

Descending next to Evolution creek only a mile after we had just crossed it

While still in the dry section there were two miles with no water and ironically this was exactly where we had our first run in with mosquitoes. Knowing we had miles of snow walking to do, and yet we were already beginning to combat mosquitoes, I felt a bit demoralized. I was almost excited to get back onto snow just to get away from them.

The snow bridges were all melting out.

We camped just at the base of Selden pass near Heart lake with the group from Europe once more. We chatted with them for a bit and found out they were running low on food since they had underestimated how long this section would take. Uky and I pooled together our food and gifted them what we could spare, they were extremely thankful and planned on stopping in at Vermilion Valley Resort to resupply what they could before pushing on towards Mammoth.

Heading down from Selden Pass looking at more frozen lakes
My expression after summiting Selden pass to just look northwards at more and more snow.

After going up and over Selden pass we had another nasty river crossing to get over, Bear Creek. We had heard of crossing the three tributaries of the creek instead of crossing where the trail did, after the confluence of the tributaries. As a group we hunted around for hours until we found safe places to cross in knee deep water and finally a rather stable log crossing.

An easy log crossing on the last tributary of Bear Creek

We made our way over to view the normal crossing from the other side and seeing its strong, wide flow we were happy to have gone the extra miles to make it safe for ourselves.

The rest of the day was more snow walking mixed with melted out areas filled with little stream crossings but pleasent enough. We climbed up and over a high point and then began descending towards the VVR cut off point planning on hiking a few miles past that before setting up camp. This descent turned out to be one of the sketchiest sections of trail yet, worse even than the passes we had already gone over. The tracks we were following disappeared on a slope that got steeper and steeper. We tried to carefully descend through the trees with the slope becoming worse than anything we had gone up or down yet. There was a cascading stream near us and this was where we would slide if we slipped and fell. We finally got down below the snow line with no mishap but it had taken us several more hours than we had expected.

A very standard section of melted out trail. We walked through these conditions dozens of times a day.

At the bottom there was a raging stream that was more than chest deep with no safe place to cross. We grabbed some small logs and created a kind of bridge across the stream, eventually getting to the other side exhausted and ready to set up camp. There was another great dry area to set up and we spent another evening chatting with our fellow hikers before falling asleep.

Leaving camp we began climbing towards Silver Pass and immediately had several nasty river crossings. I forced my way across the first one nearly being pushed over by the force of the water. I nervously called over to Uky to find a different way since I wasn’t certain she would be able to make it with the strong current. Just downstream was the perfect log for crossing, and as I stood shivering and wet I promised myself to always scout out better in the future instead of just going for it.

There were many switchbacks on the way up with several other nasty river crossings, one in particular which was on a blown out face with a waterfall above us and one just below us.

We began running into a very large group of people who had just flooded out of VVR that morning. They all told stories of how the resort had run out of food and was overwhelmed by the number of hikers who had poured into it on opening day, only two days prior. Just about every hiker we talked to had run out of food and we quickly noticed this was the most common mistake hikers were making in this section, wholly underestimating the amount of time it would take to get through.

We continued on and were soon alone again coming down from Silver pass. we crossed a massive river at the bottom with a bridge across it and pushed onward looking for a dry place to set up camp, we struggled to find flat ground in the tight valley bottom so decided to push back up continuing along the trail. Thankfully this section, all be it steep with a big climb, was mostly melted out. This one section being dry was so nice that we began to realize the tole the snow was having on us. We were becoming miserable every second we were struggling through it.

A slow approach to the top of Silver Pass
We were thankful to have a bridge for this crossing

At the top of this climb we were back on snow but at least it was flat. As Uky and I set up camp I noticed we had company, more mosquitoes. I was so mad, we were above 10,000 feet with snow in every direction for as far as the eye could see but mosquitoes had been blown up from the marshy valley bottom miles away. As we combated them while making dinner I began to reach a breaking point with what we were doing and why.

Climbing up the dry switchbacks after Silver Pass

The following day was nothing but miles of snow traversing through slushy post holy snow. There were no real views, and the constant slipping and sliding was incessant all the way to the end of the day. It was maddening.

Once we arrived near the Mammoth pass cut off we hiked around trying to find a dry place to set up camp. The snow depth here seemed to be greater than what we had seen so far and any hope of finding more dry sections as the days went by were quickly dashed. After over an hour of walking around we finally found a semi flat area of dry ground so we quickly ate dinner and passed out.

Walking over bishop pass was extremely easy compared to the other passes and we quickly found ourselves surrounded by drivers and cyclists on dry pavement. We took a quick look around Mammoth and then hitched to Bishop so we could fulfill our promise to Happy Feet and see how he was doing.

We felt emotionally beat up, we were so completely sick of the snow. The further north we were going the worse the snow travel was with bigger rivers to boot. On top of this the majestic views we got from the first major passes were slowly dissipating and although we knew there were more beautiful vistas to go, we both just wanted to be done with the snow.

Once in Bishop for the third time we met up with Happy Feet, who was ecstatic to see us. He immediately said “Get me out of here” as we settled in to rest. Other people in the Hostel joked that he was now “Guy on Couch” since he had spent so many days in a row resting on a particular couch in the Garage while letting his frost bitten feet heal.

After much discussion Happy Feet, Uky and I decided that we needed to mix things up. We were becoming miserable on the snow. Technically Happy Feet was not even supposed to return to walking on snow due to the frostbite damage on his feet and we were now more than two weeks behind schedule. At this point most other people in the Hostel were skipping or flip flopping as well since the post hole conditions were at their worst and the big melt was in full swing, making the rivers as dangerous as they were ever going to be. Looking ahead the Yosemite section had the most dangerous rivers to cross and I knew we just weren’t in an emotionally good place to throw ourselves back into the mess of the big melt.

After looking at various options we decided to jump ahead to stay on schedule, but didn’t want to skip too much. The best compromise was jumping to South Lake Tahoe and skip the worst of the rivers to make up the roughly two weeks of hiking, getting Uky and I back on schedule. Relieved that we had made this decision we all began preparing for a three hour hitch and a whole new section of trail.

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