Day 2.36-46: The Three Horsemen

Kennedy Meadows to Vermillion Valley Resort
Mile 702.4 – Mile 878.8

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt, or FUD as we called it in the software industry, loom large when considering any major undertaking. The marketing teams I was involved with would of course never employ such tactics to stymie a competitor but markets react predictably as do the humans that compromise them. Given free rein, these three horsemen of inaction create any number of reasons to not move forward whatever the decision.

So when I declared that I was going to again attempt this 10 day, 176 mile segment through the remote High Sierra with no resupply, my internal FUD stampeded wildly. “This is where you stopped last year. What will the weather be? How about the snowpack? Do you have everything you need? Can you really do this? Do you want to? People died here last year. What if you get hurt? No network access? …” I could continue but you get the idea. My little horsemen produced new protests constantly. When faced with challenges that threaten to daunt and overwhelm, I discovered that simply just doing the next small thing followed by the next hobbles my internal FUD.

Launching point for Southern Sierra

I had no problem spending a relaxing day in Kennedy Meadows hanging out at Grumpy Bear’s, ordering food and drink like a teenage boy (they didn’t even card me!) There were many hikers milling about catching up, telling stories, making plans, swapping FUD, but mostly just enjoying each other’s company. The hiker community ebbs and flows so interestingly and you just never know where or when you will see someone again. For example, I met NoNo sitting at the bar that day at Grumpy Bear’s and saw her next on the summit of Mt Whitney, at 5:30am no less. While I was sitting there catching up and meeting new folks, I watched the UPS guy carry in my big resupply box from my truest angels back home.
“Uh oh”, I thought, the box said it weighed 36 pounds as I casually tried to heft it over from the bartender. To be fair it was not all food that I had to carry. Along with the required bear can were my micro spikes for steep snow, mosquito net, toiletries, yummy home baked banana bread from Anne, and even sweeter notes. Even so, getting everything into my pack proved quite a challenge and resulted in an unwieldy monster I didn’t have the guts to weigh.

Glamour shot of the beast in a meadow

The only thing to do next was shoulder that beast and set off early. I told myself it would only get lighter as I ate my way through all that food. I made good progress those first two days, steadily gaining elevation, and even managing a single bar of cell service at Cottonwood Pass, the one oasis of connectivity I remembered from last year. It would also be my last for the next 8 days.

Chicken Spring Lake

Entering Kings Canyon

Just after Cottonwood Pass, the PCT enters Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park. With names like ‘The Hermit’, ‘The Citadel’, ‘Dragon Peak’, and my favorite ‘Wotan’s Throne’, the austere majesty of the High Sierra makes an indelible impression and passage through feels like a revocable privilege.

Blissful, barefoot crossing of Whitney Creek

On the third day out I made my way to Crabtree Meadows, the launching point for a side attempt to summit Mt Whitney. At 14,495 feet, Mt Whitney’s summit marks the highest point in the lower 48 states. After making camp and trying to sleep well before sundown, it was just barely the next day when I set off around 1 am. Without my food and other unneeded equipment, my pack felt nonexistent as I picked my way up the trail using my headlamp in the clear cold night. Employing more of her clout upstairs, Momma hung me an all but full moon that reflected an ethereal glow off the surrounding snowbound peaks.

Timberline Lake in moonlight

Summit plaque

Completed in 1930 and marking the southern end of the exquisite John Muir Trail (JMT), the remarkable steep trail sports breathtaking exposure that thankfully became more evident only on the way down after sunrise. I arrived at the bitterly cold and windy summit around 5:30 just as the sun was trying to break through the boiling mass of eastern clouds. After some quick photos and shared congratulations with the handful of other hikers, I wasted no time boogieing my way back down before the mountain weather gods noticed interlopers in their midst.

Top of world Momma!

Good morning Whitney

Eastern exposure

Timberline Lake in morning

It made for a very long day but once down, I packed up and set off to see if I could get in position to get over Forester Pass the next morning. Wallace, Wright, and Tyndall Creeks lay between me and that goal. Those names have haunted me since last year when the water levels running dangerously high during my visit. Crossing Wright Creek in particular took me the better part of a day, miles of hiking upstream, and some clenching moments. This year I crossed Wright dry about 50 yards upstream hopping rocks and logs. What a difference a year makes!

Snowless Bighorn Plateau
In what would become the pattern for the days ahead, I got underway at oh dark thirty to go high, get over the pass, and down the other side while the snowpack remained firm.

Forester switchbacks

Top of the PCT

Early morning success

At 13,200, Forester Pass marks the highest point on the PCT and I enjoyed having it all to myself in the dazzling early light. By the way, if you have Facebook, you can see 360 degree photos from both Whitney and Forester here. I now have about 130 video highlights that, fingers crossed, can become a PCT VR experience after I return home. Just like being there without the cold, the walking, the early wake ups,the pack weight, …

Mile 788 was notable because it was the first new mile for me after having exited over Kearsarge Pass last year at mile 787. My FUD rodeo kicked back into high gear and I found it difficult to bypass the known comforts of Bishop, CA for the uncertainty of what lay ahead. The only thing to do was the next thing and that was to get in position for Glen Pass, wake up early and start climbing though this day a surprise awaited me. In another most unlikely coincidence, at the top of Glen Pass, I hear someone call “AppleJack?” Turning, I see Tumnus née Sinatra from last year! He must be all of 20 years old now but I remember him well. He’s from Portland, likes to sing on trail, and was the photographer behind the dubiously popular ‘International Hike Naked Day’ picture last year. We had fun catching up at almost 12,000 feet.

Tumnus and AppleJack reunited

Gorgeous Upper Rae Lake

Trail wisdom suggests rising early, tackling one pass per day, and stopping when postholing in soft snow becomes the only way forward. I am convinced that most anyone exposed to both experiences would quickly forgo an hour of sleep rather than endure even 15 minutes of sinking thigh deep with every step.

Woods Creek Waterslide

Pinchot Pass on day six followed the pattern without incident and given its relative proximity to the next pass, Mather, separated by *only* 10 miles, it appeared that a 2 pass day might be possible. Uh no. I have come to learn that studying maps and actually traveling the miles can contrast greatly.

Ascending Pinchot Pass

Case in point, I was game to see if Mather was doable the same day as Pinchot so I proceeded up into the Upper Basin that guards Mather’s southern approach. Below about 10,000 feet the trail was mostly bare rocks and dirt. The higher I went snowmelt did its best to obey gravity and find the path of least resistance down, that being the trail more often than not. Hiking up in such conditions becomes a tedious side to side rock hop in a futile attempt to keep feet dry. I’m not entirely sure how it happened but I think my boot slipped off a rock at the same time as my trekking pole skittered off its intended spot. The result was a hard tumble into the rocky trail creek. I wrenched my left wrist, bruised a rib, and arose with wet feet and pants. Only close to midday, soft snow ahead halted further progress in any case so I found a last patch of dirt and spent the afternoon in my tent. Conditions were prime for another FUD stampede. As I baked in my tent become reflector oven, there was at least plenty of snow to ice my swelling wrist and plenty of time to consider what to do next. Make dinner emerged as the next thing.

Approaching Mather

Melting patterns on Palisade Lake

I found Mather Pass the most challenging with its long snowbound approach and difficult route finding on the way down back to dirt. The next pass, Muir, seemed to take forever to ascend with several false summits but finally I spied the chimney of the famous Muir Hut appear over the ridge ahead. It took another 7 miles or so of snow travel to get back under 11,000 feet and blessed dry trail.

Muir Hut money shot

After Muir Pass the PCT enters Evolution Valley where resides, not surprisingly, the infamous Evolution Creek which must be crossed. In high water years slogging through an alternate high meadow makes passage possible but I decided to try the ford. Crossing solo is not ideal and that first step took some gumption but it was the next thing and so I went. Thankfully the water never rose much above my knees and soon the ~30 yard crossing lay behind me.

Sometimes blessed technology appears

One of the last challenges was the distance to the last pass, Selden. It was too far to get close after Muir so I decided one more early morning would have to suffice, hoping I’d get over before the snow softened. Walking with a headlamp in the predawn, I somehow missed a trail junction adding an extra 4 miles and killing any early advantage I’d hoped to gain. Grumpy Bear does not begin to describe my mood at that moment. Once again Momma stepped in and ensured a good overnight freeze at about 10,000 feet so I escaped over Selden and down by 11am with only a score of bad postholes.

I had not known it when I set off but day 10 was also June 1st, the opening day for ferry service to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR). The race was on to make the 4:45 departure but I missed it by about 15 minutes. No matter, I had enough food so I just camped near the dock and spent a pleasant evening knowing that I could catch the 9:45 run the next morning. I luxuriated in a leisurely morning watching early fishermen ply their trade.

Crossing Edison Lake

I will take a day off at VVR, resupply, take a much needed shower with soap and shampoo, do laundry, and plan my next leg. The trio of horsemen don’t have much to say on such days. I am satisfied.

Mission accomplished

Let the horses run as they may, I’m on to the next thing.

14 Replies to “Day 2.36-46: The Three Horsemen”

  1. Awesome! It looks like you have snow travel dialed in. Me, I’ll stick to hiking the Sierra when snow covered trail is the exception rather than the rule. Enjoy the breakfast burritos, beers, and burgers at VVR.


  2. So, John, is the most challenging part of the trail behind you? Your dear Mom certainly has been helping you… Glad you persevered — and got to Mt. Whitney’s summit! Thanks for letting us accompany you.


  3. Fantastic story John, congratulations on breaking new ground, one step at the time. Excited for you to discover what’s next. Climb on!


  4. Super glad to hear your adventures! Great story telling, gorgeous pictures. Love those triumphant grins and big arms-out-flung moments. There were plenty to outweigh the FUD, it seems. You’ve captured in words the core wisdom of stepping forward once and once again through the fear, uncertainty and doubt. So grateful the scary fall wasn’t more serious.

    There was a day when I felt especially drawn to hold you in Light and Holy protection for the hard stuff. Maybe that was the one of the passes, or the fall? If not, consider yourself prayed for in that weird way where time doesn’t matter. 🙂 You are covered in grace. Thanks for taking me along.

    Blessings for the next steps, each and every one.


  5. Truly awesome work… followed you the whole way, sans the pictures! And I have to say they surpassed my imagination in their beauty and majesty!
    Mom is truly watching out for you… you missed some tough weather by only a few days, and your summit of Whitney was legendary!
    Safe travels on the next segment! (And BTW, fix your mileage at the top of the post to truly reflect your accomplishment! Travel to mile 878!!! I have yet to read another post from that segment for 2018!


  6. Well done there AppleJack. Again, cannot tell you how envious this old hiker is of your hike this year. If you run into Sinatra again, say hi please.


  7. It’s wonderful to read about your adventures and successes amid those 3 horsemen of doubt. Yes, one step at a time I say! Thank you for writing so well that I can picture what you’re going through.


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