The Math After

Seattle, WA

What I learned

I took this picture at SeaTac Airport on my way down to San Diego at the beginning of my quest. It struck me then as an image that would become compelling while hiking the deserts of Southern California. I never did view it again on trail but its implications were never far from my mind.

The facts of my hike are simple to quantify. In 45 days I walked a total of 844.2 miles and completed California Sections A-G, the first 788.5 miles or just about 30% of the Pacific Crest Trail. My estimated 1.8M steps included almost 250,000 feet of elevation gain. I shed over 22 pounds of body weight or ~12% of myself. (Good thing I stopped!) The insights gained from the experience prove more profound and, I hope, longer lasting.

The trail taught me gratitude. Stripping off the trappings of comfortable life and setting out with only what can reasonably be carried, I quickly came to appreciate what I lacked. I needed reliable connection with my love, family, and friends to keep my spirits high. I needed more clean water and more calories than I could carry. I needed a sense of meaningful forward progress each day. Deprived of such things, I became acutely aware of my need.

The trail taught me simplicity. When you reduce all your belongings to what fits in a backpack, life gets pretty simple. Everything had its place. Back left pocket- maps, front left- sunscreen and lip balm, right front- food and candy, right back- garbage, and so on. I knew everything I carried, where it was, and used everything at least once. Over the entire trip, I lost only a single tent stake. After returning home I was struck by and overwhelmed with the mountainous volume of stuff I possess. Life was much simpler with less.

The trail taught me to be conscious of privilege. This one especially I hope to keep top of mind as I move forward. The trail is just the trail and treats everyone the same. It matters not who you are, where you come from, how much you have or don’t have, what you have accomplished, you still have to climb the same hill as everyone else. When your life experience suggests it should be otherwise, trouble is not far behind. Awareness leads to insight.

The trail taught me humility and acceptance. At the end of what I thought was a particularly brutal day, invariably there would be someone there to surprise me with the seeming ease of their same accomplishment. Confronted with personal limitations, I was forced to realize and accept that there will always be someone stronger, faster, further, or more accomplished. Like life, casting the trail as a competition led to disappointment and dissatisfaction. What is, is.

All of which leads me back to that water bottle filling station at SeaTac. A basic human need is served there, the same for everyone, but in a fantastically sophisticated yet simple, and invisibly convenient way. As I continue my path in the world, I hope to see and appreciate such things with a new perspective taught by my time on the PCT. Gratitude, simplicity, consciousness, acceptance, and humility were lessons hard won but I am better for having learned them.

Please accept my blessings and boundless thanks for all your encouragement and support of my endeavor. You made all the difference.

Truly,

John

P.S. Just like most humans, I too like to be right and seek external confirmation for my decisions. I have not second guessed my conclusion to leave the trail and should I ever start leaning that direction, I will bookmark this article from the Associated Press today:

http://www.seattletimes.com/life/outdoors/wet-snowy-winter-creates-life-threatening-hazards-for-pacific-crest-trail-hikers/

 

Day 45 – All’s Well That Ends Well

Bishop, CA to Seattle, WA

After due consideration of all factors I have decided to end my pursuit of a thru hike of the PCT this year. I am disappointed that my ambition did not pan out and you may be too. I concluded that the risk to fun ratio did not make sense any more with the huge snowpack remaining and the creeks still rising. In my best estimation, continuing would have meant cooling my heels in Bishop for at least a week maybe two while the current heat wave runs its course and the runoff begins to subside.
Perhaps then I may have been able to continue within my risk tolerance but with an already late start, finishing before the snow flies again in the North Cascades would have been improbable. Personally, making more creek crossings in peak thaw exceeded my recreational threshold.
Many others have also decided to abandon the Sierras for now and have opted to skip forward and/or hike segments north to south. For myself, I wanted to walk a continuous path south to north and the idea of piecing it all together some other way does not appeal. Call me a purist but also call me now a section hiker having completed the first 800 miles or so.
I am okay with the decision and last night tried to impress upon my compatriots that discretion is the better part of valor. There were many long faces and anxious questions as people tried to decide what’s right for themselves. I imagine some dogged individuals will resume the attempt and I wish them safety and well being.
After coming to my decision the problem became how best to get home. Rental cars in Bishop were all booked two weeks out and the bus to Reno only runs once a day at 7:30am. Using some of what I’ve learned about the kindness of strangers, I made a sign and attempted to hitch a 3.5 hour ride to Reno.

Creative no?

 

The universe soon provided in the form of Frank and Luna, a young couple from San Diego, who graciously thought to lend a hand to a scruffy stranger on the side of the road. They were headed to Reno/Tahoe for a weekend of snowboarding and other fun. Snowboarding in June is a another good indicator that plenty of snow persists. I enjoyed getting to know them both and am super thankful for be invited to join their 9+ hour road trip from San Diego to Reno. As we drove north on Highway 395, impressive amounts of water had gathered in the lowlands fed by overflowing rivers. We even passed two hikers who concluded that a 150 mile highway walk was their solution to the runoff problem. Um, no thanks.
We arrived in Reno and went to a place Frank had worked in college for some food and drink. Lest you ever doubt the power of good karma, both he and I won $250 in a span of minutes at the bar top poker machines. Woohoo!

Karma baby

It was a happy parting and I enlisted Uber once again to get to the Reno airport and figure out a flight home. I was able to finagle a two hop flight home through Portland at the last minute.
I am truly grateful for your support and am sorry that I couldn’t take you all the way to Canada. I hope you can be happy knowing that while not by the route I had imagined, I did indeed walk and have found my way home.
I’ll write again to capture for myself if no one else the things I learned from being on trail 40+ days. For now, my wish for you reading this is that you also pursue whatever calls to you from deep within and find nourishment in whatever results.
I am blessed. I am happy. I am home.

 

Day 44 – Exit Stage Right

June 21
Bullfrog Lake to Bishop, CA
Mile 788.5 + 13.5 Mile Exit Trail

Bullfrog Lake

The night at Bullfrog Lake was chilly and condensation covered all my gear by morning. The snow covered trail benefited from the cold and soon I had donned my spikes for the walk out to town.

Hiking up to Kearsarge Pass

It was not long before I encountered another group exiting the PCT over Kearsarge Pass just as I was (I’m fairly sure most all people did). I was gladdened  to see it was SilverFox, Nacho, Yeti, Flame, Chris, Sam, Neal, and Sinatra. At one point or another I had met all those folks along the way and so joined their merry band headed toward the Onion Valley Campground. That Sam’s father was meeting him there with a van for the drive to Bishop encouraged me to keep pace.

View down from Kearsarge Pass
Over the top

After clearing more snowbound forest, the trail up Kearsarge improved and offered incredible views of mountains beyond mountains. At the top of the 11,800 foot Pass we got word from a German couple that the road to Onion Valley Campground was closed due to a washout due to high runoff. If true it meant an additional 6 mile road walk beyond the trailhead. Knowing that town lay ahead, the group was not too disheartened with either eventuality.

Inviting lake

Soft snow and a bit of glissading followed as we shed altitude quickly. The trail was still buried under snow and proved treacherous through the woods. I took a bad step, post-holed, and pitched forward headfirst into a rocky area shredding my palm.
After some quick first aid, I continued down and as if it was Christmas morning, a bare dirt trail emerged from the snow. Legs swinging free, progress quickened and I passed several half frozen lakes that invited exploration as the day’s heat rose.

The natural state

June 21, Summer Solstice, also happens to be International Hike Naked Day. While I never actually hiked naked, it was good enough reason for a quick dip. Sinatra, a 21 year old from Portland who reminded me much of my son Connor, joined the core temperature dropping excursion.

The wise one’s wilderness

 

Distant cascade

It turned out to be a good thing to have done because at the trailhead the road closure was confirmed by a sheriff’s note to evacuate the area. It was about 95 degrees at 10am and we now faced a circuitous road walk 6 miles further down to the valley floor. Nacho, Yeti, SilverFox and I passed the miles telling jokes and stories to alleviate some of discomfort.

Notice from the sheriff

 

No rides
See the hikers ahead?
Sorry folks

Upon arriving at the barricaded closure, my belief in Santa Claus was restored. Sam’s dad was there with a minivan but there was no way it would fit nine hikers and backpacks. Cue Santa’s Helper, the same trail angel from miles ago who had been handing out soda and treats, was there too. Magic!
The group split up and soon reconvened at a Mexican restaurant in Bishop, CA taking down enormous amounts of food and drink. Have you ever seen 5 platters of Mexican food so clean?

Clean plates

I grabbed a room, showered, and did my laundry before wandering over to the local brew pub. Many hikers had gathered to compare trail notes and gather information about the trail ahead. What emerged were scary tales of folks getting partially swept away in the rising creeks. The heat wave in Southern California (it was 105 in Bishop) is expected to continue and I can attest that there remains tons of snow left to melt up there. It left everyone mulling options few if any of which were walking the road closure back up and over Kearsarge to rejoin the PCT there. The creek crossings ahead will have lost all snow bridges and aren’t expected to crest  for at least a week or two. “What to do?” says AppleJack.

Day 43 – Up and Over

June 20
Forester Pass Approach to Bullfrog Lake
Mile 776 – Mile 788.5

“The best time to go to the High Sierra is about the end of September” -John Muir

Morning mountain glow

I was broadsided yesterday evening by a thunderstorm that I could see coming from miles away. The rain was minimal but it sure shook my tent. Unfortunately tents are less maneuverable than ships else I would have pointed mine into the wind.
With darkness falling the skies cleared and the wind abated. I set my alarm for 3:30 to ensure I could get up and over Forester on firm snow.

Approaching Forester Pass

A crescent moon and spray of bright stars greeted me as I emerged from my tent. I had the good fortune to have had time to dry my shoes and socks the day before making the morning much more bearable. After a breakfast of hot oatmeal I started my awkward stride up and across the hardened sun cups. As the sun began to light the tallest peaks, I crested a rise and gained sight of my objective.

Amazing trail construction

Forester Pass at over 13,000 feet marks the highest point in the PCT. It also must be one of the most unlikely trails ever conceived. From a distance, all that can be seen is a low notch between two tall peaks decorated with a snow chute. I walked past a large group of hikers none of whom seemed all to eager to start.

Snow chute aka the quick way down

I would much rather be ahead of a large group than behind one on such a climb. Switch backing up a steep snow slope, there was real exposure though the trail was mostly kicked in and firm. After a long traverse on snow, I suddenly found myself on rocky switch backs. There must be a harrowing tale to tell about the crew that built those but I was delighted by their work. Looking back and down I saw the group had started their way up. In my view they were hiking way too close together but maybe they’ve never heard of bowling.

Success atop Forester Pass

The last famous traverse across the snow chute was exciting to do because I had seen so many pictures and videos. Then I was up and over into the day’s sunlight. I had the place all to myself and captured the moment as best I could.

Forester Pass panorama

The real reason for such an early start was to avoid soft snow on the long descent into Kings Canyon National Park. The views were a breathtaking distraction from the long slog down, heel stepping into the softening snow. What a spectacular place!

The way down
Looking back up
Mountain’s majesty

Eventually I made it back below tree line where the trail followed the overflowing Bubb’s Creek. Knowing I did not have to cross it provided some peace of mind but I did have another grueling five miles of route finding through the snow laden forest.

Kings Canyon
Hardy blooms at 12,500 ft

To add some extra challenge, Nature had previously unleashed a couple massive avalanches that devastated several hundred yards of forest. Downed trees and loose branches mixed with snow made for more slow going.

Avalanche aftermath
Feeder creek crossing

At last I reached the trail junction for Bullfrog Lake that leads off the PCT and crosses over Kearsarge Pass to access the towns of the Eastern Sierra. There was no way I could make another 100 miles given the pace of progress and food supply. I came to find out that my resupply destination, a place called Vermillion Valley Resort was still closed and inaccessible as of June 7.

Snow sleeping platy

Finding a snow free spot to camp at Bullfrog Lake was the last challenge of a tough day. I would say I perched rather than pitched my tent on a mostly flat boulder overlooking the still frozen lake. I think maybe that John Muir knew of what he wrote.

Bubbs Creek drainage

 

Day 42 – All Wright

June 19
Wright Creek to Forester Pass Approach
Mile 771 – Mile 776

Daybreak at Wright Creek Basin

Camping above 10,000 feet when overnight temperatures don’t drop below freezing made for a pleasant night but didn’t help stem the flow of Wright Creek. I set off into the unknown upstream hoping for some change and began to wonder if I’d find any. It was tough walking through a severely sun cupped meadow carved in half by the serpentine Wright Creek.

Wright Creek

I spotted an area where shore was visible on my side and the current looked manageable. I stripped to my skivvies and put my shoes back on for the attempt. About midway, with water approaching my waist, I reached my limit and retreated. I got all of the unpleasant freeze of 7am dip and none of the gratification. I sat facing the rising sun for some time massaging life back into my toes.

Snow bridge looked bigger in real life
Looking back looks better

I resumed my search upstream fairly convinced I would have to walk a long way when in all unlikelihood a snow bridge appeared. It wouldn’t be passable for much longer but I deemed it safe enough and just like that, I was across. The unsavory prospect of having to backtrack disappeared in an instant.

Snow traveler

Of course by now I was miles off trail and had to lay in an overland course that would bring me back to the PCT. More kicking steps through sun cupped snow until near Bighorn Plateau I glimpsed a hiker ahead in the distance. This good news was twofold because I had found the trail and could walk in someone else’s steps for awhile.

Mountain panorama

When I arrived at Tyndall Creek four other hikers were already there contemplating another difficult crossing. We swapped stories of Wallace and Wright Creek and discovered we had opposite experiences. They had camped before crossing Wallace because they couldn’t find a way but at Wright, they found a partial log crossing downstream. Go figure.

Distant mountains

After hiking upstream at Tyndall, the thigh deep ford proved to be the easiest of the three. Once across, I hiked up to the top of a rocky ridge and pitched my tent on some of the last available dirt.

Forester approach camp

Surrounded on all sides by snow capped peaks, my campsite was magnificent and only 3 miles to the top of Forester Pass. I will wake up at oh-dark-thirty tomorrow and take advantage of hardened snow just like climbing Mt Rainer.

Day 41 – Jockeying For Position

June 18
Guyot Creek to Wright Creek
Mile 761.7 – Mile 771.7

Beautiful meadow

My ambition today of having a short day to get set up for Forester Pass proved wildly optimistic. The first part of the day up from Guyot Creek was steep but the trail was clear. After gaining the ridge however I found myself one again on a forested, north facing slope full of snow. Definitely a 1mph zone and with the steep slope I donned my micro-spikes for needed traction. Those worked well to keep my footing as I picked my way slowly down to the trail junction for Crabtree Meadow and Mt Whitney.

Walking in sun cupped snow, not fun

 

I spy a whistle pig aka marmot

Given how long those first 5 miles took, I did not rethink my decision to skip Whitney. The immediate challenge was another log crossing of Whitney Creek that was both higher and wider than the previous day. I’m not sure which is better but I made it across without incident.

Looking back on descent to Whitney Creek

 

Approaching Whitney Creek

Passing a second trail junction for Mt Whitney put me on the John Muir Trail (JMT) that shares space with the PCT for the next 175 miles or so. With the trail buried under many feet of snow, there was more route finding and an even steeper descent to Wallace Creek. I played my last card and pulled out my whippet, a self-arrest trekking pole. It’s a pole made for back country skiing with a powder basket on the bottom and ice axe head on top. It came in handy.

Snow bound descent

I also executed my first full post-hole on the way down as the snow became softer in the sun. My whole right leg disappeared and I was forced to dig out. My shoe remained buried deep until I was able to excavate it. It was easy to see how serious injury could occur and the lesson about giving exposed rocks or trees a wide berth was quickly learned.

More mountain beauty

Upon reaching Wallace Creek I was met with a torrent of snow melt, the creek braiding its irrepressible way through any low ground it could find. I walked up and down stream trying to find a workable ford. I was close to calling it a day when I found a place I was willing to try. Did I mention this water had recently been snow? Other than frozen toes, my successful ford was just deep enough to remind me that it’s Father’s Day. Happy Father’s Day Pops!

Log over Whitney Creek

After Wallace Creek I began to wonder what I would find further ahead. There were two more major crossings before the best staging spot for Forester Pass. Tyndall Creek was described as ‘sometimes difficult’ but first up was Wright Creek. The rising roar as I approached did not bode well. Wright Creek was raging and most of the shore on my side was overhanging snow. From the trail notes, earlier hikers were able to cross on snow bridges but those are now gone. What remained was an impassable torrent.

Sun cupped meadow

I hiked a mile or so upstream to see if there was any better opportunity but alas not. Everything I saw was at least chest deep and flowing fast. There’s a chance it will be better in the morning but we’ll see. I pitched camp atop a rocky hill overlooking the creek. Tomorrow I will continue upstream in hopes of finding a safe crossing. I have plenty of food, am not in any danger, and plan to keep it that way.

 

Day 40 – Not As Far, Still Good

June 17
Trail Pass to Guyot Creek
Mile 745.3 – Mile 761.7

Up to Cottonwood Pass

Contrary to what I told you yesterday about camping high, I set out this morning to climb up Cottonwood Pass. I started at 10,500 and the pass is only another 600 feet or so higher. Unfortunately those 600 feet were on a north facing slope that still held a good amount of snow.

Snow capped peak

Trying to follow the trail through a snow laden forest proved challenging and I had to search for the trail often. The net result was slow, hard won progress through those sections I dubbed 1 mph zones.

Shady nook

The snow was consolidated and firm to walk on though exposed areas were sun cupped. I had to don my mountain shades to protect my eyes from the glare but did not need my spikes.
I was able to get signal at Cottonwood Pass making me happy and I sat in a cool little cave while I connected with the outside world.

Chicken Spring Lake

Navigating up and out of the pass proved the most difficult route finding of the day as the trail skirted a snow and rock covered bowl at the bottom of which was the half thawed Chicken Spring Lake. It was a frustrating scramble over snow and rocks to find my way out.

Panorama above Cottonwood Pass

 

Entering Sequoia National Park

Slow and steady until I officially entered Sequoia National Park. The panorama was spectacular with green meadows low leading to darker forested hills and capped by grey granite splendor as far as the eye could see.

Rock Creek

Today also marked the first significant creek crossing sans bridge. Rock Creek was flowing at high volume and the roar could be heard miles before. Fortunately a log had fallen just upstream and provided a precarious passage over the swift current. I watched several hikers who apparently did not like the looks of the log, ford the waist deep creek. The other side was boggy meadow so unfortunately after the log I still got my feet wet. Next time I’ll remember to take my socks and insoles out so they don’t get wet unnecessarily. Live and learn.

Sierra view

 

Snow bound trail

It was a long day of hard hiking most of it above 11,000 feet. I know I can’t expect to get the same mileage that I’ve come to expect but part of me tries anyway. I am not in good position to do the Mt Whitney side trip so will leave it for another time and spend tomorrow getting positioned to go over 13,153 ft Forester Pass on Monday.