PCT 7: Escape From the Snow

Get out of the snow! Find joy on the trail once more. That was the priority after a month of walking on snow, sleeping on snow and breaking trail through snow. Dealing with wet frozen feet all day long and forcing our way across overflowing rivers full of snow melt. This was becoming far more tedious than rewarding. It had worn us down, grinding us day by day. The conditions had forced three other people in our trail family off the PCT entirely and we were ready to do something about it.

So many others had already flipped or skipped sections of the trail to avoid these conditions and now it was our turn. We would skip 194 miles from Mammoth Pass up to South lake Tahoe and speed up our process by almost two weeks. This way we could hopefully catch a family reunion I had in just over a months time and salvage some enjoyment for ourselves as well.

We also contacted Town to see how he was doing back home in Florida and to let him know of our timeline for getting out of the snow, as we had promised. Our early predictions for how far North the snow would last were way off and we told him to try and meet up with us in Quincy, about 250 miles north of South Lake Tahoe.

After three hours of hitching with three seperate vehicles and one public transport bus we found ourselves in the home of some awesome trail angels in South Lake Tahoe. We were tired but excited to have given ourselves this jump start and we spent the evening hearing awesome stories from our hosts. Stories of the “rad snow year of 82”, intense white water rafting trips in Siberia during the Cold War era and paragliding over the Sierras while buzzing hikers at the tops of 12,000 foot passes.

The next morning we were able to get a ride up to the PCT at Echo Lake and begin once more, having transported almost 200 miles in 24 hours. We started out with trepidation wishing for a small change in the conditions but after only three miles of dry trail we were back on snow. We passed what were supposed to be beautiful scenic lakes but instead it was more frozen white expanses with sun cups the size of buckets rolling our ankles and forcing us to stare at our feet for hours on end.

What passed for beautiful scenic lakes with this much snow
More snow traversing with dry ground on occasion

We forced ourselves along, knowing that we were still 200 miles closer to the end of the snow, but we didn’t know exactly where that end would be. 100 miles ahead? 200? We just pushed onward slow and steady trying to be positive, coming up with songs to sing about how crappy the snow was and how nice it would be to have just one entire day where we woke up in a dry camp and ended up again at another dry camp.

A fun log jam to cross for Happy Feet

Our first night in this new area we were so desperate for a dry place to put up our tent that we hunted around for hours in tree wells. We finally found a big enough area with a little stream running through it and a single tree. We joked that it was our “desert island” with one water source and one tree surrounded by a sea of snow and ice.

We had an extremely steep descent on the first pass of this section. We slowly made our way down trying to use crampons for as much traction as we could get in the slushy snow. At one point I heard a yell and Uky calling out asking if Happy Feet was all right. The trees above me blocked my view but I quickly learned that Happy Feet had slid headfirst into a tree well. Uky said that even though he didn’t respond to her questions she could tell he was all right because all she heard was giggling from the darkness below.

Our perfect little dry island, equipped with water and dry ground!
Looking north from the top of Dicks Pass

We continued on cautiously and found this area was almost more maddening in some ways than the high Sierras because of the forested sloppy terrain. The trees were thick, the trail completely covered and instead of having valley bottoms and passes to use for navigation we had very little to work with, just forested hills that went on forever forcing me to stare at my GPS to make sure we weren’t getting off course.

The snowbanks were massive as well, making us climb up five foot snowbanks to climb back down over and over again, I wish we knew the elevation gain we did from just these, it must have added thousands of feet of climbing each day. I also jokingly noticed that when the trail did appear it was always covered in water and the second it went back into a snowbank it didn’t continue straight, it would immediately turn almost like it was trying to trick us.

Because of this we cut straight across most terrain where we could, with no trail to see we might as well avoid all the switchbacks and curves to the trail, when on snow they were entirely unnecessary.

Looking South at the snowy mountains
Uky crossing a stream swollen with snow melt

Towards the end of our second day in this section we began to hear the sound of a Ukulele being played somewhere in the snowy trees. Uky also had a Ukulele and we wandered along trying to figure out where it was coming from. Suddenly we spotted a man sitting and playing with relaxed concentration. We called out to say hello and then continued onward to find a dry spot to camp for the night.

A wonderfully dry spot to set up camp just a few hundred feet off trail
A routine repeated a hundred times, cooking dinner for the evening

After camping on a beautiful rocky slope of granite we continued hiking and eventually ran into the Ukulele playing man once more. He introduced himself as Bolo and he was freshly returned to t he PCT to pick up where he had left off from the previous year in 2018. We all agreed to hike onward together and we suddenly had a new member to our little trail family of now four people.

We were all struggling with the snow emotionally but we pushed on continuing to hope for a change at some point, knowing the end must be within a week at the most.

The trail was still beautiful and we were frequented more views of Lake Tahoe to the East as we worked our way up to steep ridges with big snow traverses. We also came across a solo hiker who was attempting to section hike the Tahoe Rim trail. He was a young guy from the east coast with no traction gear but he enjoyed the excitement of snow, I had lost that excitement weeks before.

Views of Lake Tahoe in the East
Our group of Happy Feet, Uky, Bolo and the Tahoe Rim hiker traversing

After one massive push up a large snow face we camped at the top of a ridge line. With the sun setting to the West and Lake Tahoe to the east we settled in for the evening. Despite the stark beauty of this camp spot the wind was horrid in the middle of the night and we slept only a few hours.

Our exposed camping spot for the night
Uky, Bolo and Happy Feet enjoying the sunset

With bad sleep we were very sluggish the next day. The ridge walking continued but luckily the snow traversing slowly let up. We began hiking through large ski areas and many times found ourselves hiking under ski lifts and down ski runs.

On one of these runs we spotted a man trying to jog on the snow. After introducing ourselves he informed us that there had just been an Ultra Marathon down below, which he had attended, and he was trying to cool down a bit. We continued on after congratulating him, glad to at least not be trying to run on the snow.

We enjoyed these areas considerably, glissading downward and even going out of our way to go down some black diamond runs. This proved to be a bit more than we were interested in for steepness and hazards. After a couple black diamond runs we decided to just walk out on the easiest runs to make up for the nerve racking descents.

Descending some ski runs on the way towards Truckee

We found another fantastic camping spot that was dry and began to hope that the days we would have to camp on snow were numbered. We also began to see other PCT hikers who had been ahead of us in the Sierras and were now catching up since we had jumped past them. We were not moving particularly fast and so we started having reunions with people we never thought we would see again. We also knew that ahead of us were old trail friends heading southbound who we would eventually run into. The trail was much quieter in this area so we started looking forwards to running into people who we could socialize with.

Happy Feets “Fortress of Solitude” tent in a great dry camping spot
Enjoying the dry trail where we could.

For our next resupply we had the ski town of Truckee and the approach was perhaps 50% snow free, much better than what we had been dealing with before. In Truckee I hunted for a fanny pack in three different outdoor gear stores before I found a good one, I was converted by seeing how useful they were for other hikers. We also haunted a Starbucks for four hours leaching off of the wifi and charging all of our electronics.

Staying in a designated campground for the evening we got the idea to barbecue some hamburgers! We bought everything we needed including charcoal but the second we started cooking the burgers we realized that there was no way to flip them. Luckily a very kind couple, rv camping across from us, took pity and allowed us to borrow their spatula and even washed our dishes in their camper. They said it was amusing to watch us struggle but they knew we needed some kind of help in the end.

Leaving Truckee had its own ordeals, both good and bad.

For the good we went by the Donner Ski Ranch bar where we were able to get a free 40 oz bottle of malt liquor, each. We all sat at the bar drinking them and chatting with the other bar clientele, seasonally depressed skiers and snowboarders, wishing that it was still winter time. The conversations usually revolved around the sweet tricks they could do hucking off the local cliffs as they looked out the dark window with a wistful melancholy look in their eyes.

After this we stumbled back to our tents for the nigh,t just up the road. The following day the bad ordeal was walking through a tunnel underpass to get to the other side of a freeway. We had already walked through many streams from fresh snow melt but something about this water made it especially cold making my feet hurt in a way I hadn’t quite experienced yet on trail. This was especially painful and concerning for Happy Feet who was trying his best to keep his frost bitten feet from getting worse.

Walking through the painfully cold water

After crossing through the trail became hilly snow traverses through the woods, my least favorite type of trail. The scenery wasn’t particularly stunning and we were desperately excited to get out of the snow for good.

We started meeting more southbounders and we asked every one of them where the snow had properly begun for them and would end for us. We kept getting mixed answers and indefinite statements about how much further North the snow would last, I don’t think they realized how desperately we needed a decent marker to look forwards to or how truly sick we were of the snow. They hadn’t put themselves through the ordeal that was the Sierras so they didn’t have the same desperation to escape the snow.

Three days out of Truckee we finally ran into dry ground that appeared to last indefinitely! We were 20 miles from the next town of Sierra City and couldn’t be more overjoyed. Walking on dry rocky ground actually hurt since our feet were so used to being cold, wet and numb all day long but this was a small price to pay.

At this point we also ran into two of our friends from the desert section, Patience and Eagle! We loved chatting with them but didn’t stay for too long since we met on an exposed ridge line with lots of wind. They told us we would be mostly snow free from this point north which we couldn’t be happier to hear! They asked us how the snow was from that point South and we had to be brutally honest, there would be roughly 80% snow coverage from that point till just before Kennedy Meadows unless there was some extreme warming.

We had finally made it out of the snow, a month and a half after entering the Sierras! A month and a half of living and walking on snow. As we descended down towards Sierra City it felt like a whole new trail all over again. Rarely does one find so much joy in walking on dry ground, savoring the pain of rocks under the feet with the crunch of dirt and gravel. We had finally made it but we weren’t even halfway on the PCT yet, we had so far still to go.

A sobering sign in Sierra City, letting us know how much further there was to go

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