Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Day Six On The Pacific Crest Trail---Journey's End

DAY SIX: Thursday, August 4

This is the final installment---the last day of our backpacking trek. Today we will arrive at our end point on Donner Pass Road. While planning the trip, our daily mileage estimates were just that. We looked at topo maps, read recent reports from other hikers and hoped for the best. In actuality, each day took on a life of its own as we experienced gains or losses depending on trail conditions, unexpected detours, actual time underway with packs on, fatigue and the location of suitable stopping points. As the saying goes, all days are good but some days are better than others.

Here's what the record will show:




So, today, instead of two miles to hike out, we have about six miles remaining. Although not a lengthy hike compared to our other days, these final six miles will not be without their challenges, hints of which were noted even overnight.

Some time after midnight, a strong wind could be heard in the trees above us and the temps had dropped, to the extent we thought an unexpected Sierra storm might blow in during our last night at camp. This morning, the sky is brilliant blue at sunrise and the wind has moved on with nothing to show for all its bluster last night. But it is still cold enough (low-30s) that all of us have added layers. In fact it's the coolest morning by 15 degrees than we have experienced all week. I suppose camping right next to several tons of snow will have that effect....

Sure enough, by the time we eat breakfast, the sun has partly cleared the trees behind us and the layers start coming off as we break camp for the last time. Given the slightly longer (and now apparently warmer) hike out, we take stock of our water supplies, knowing there will likely not be any water until we meet our ride home at Donner Pass Road. As extra insurance, we melt and boil snow sufficient for breakfast, preserving our remaining water for the trail.

As we busy ourselves with camp chores, on everyone's mind this morning is the impassible snow field between us and where we will find the trail again. The overnight temps have crusted the surface of the snow. What was slushy when we arrived last night is now almost solid with no "give" underfoot. The proverbial "elephant in the room" comes to mind and this one is clearly a white elephant. Almost on cue, we all begin to verbalize our options:

1. Cross the snow field at the level of our camp. It's the shortest distance to the other side. So, conceptually, this is an early favorite. But a quick test shows there is zero footing on the snow surface. Lacking ice picks, visions of a speedy descent to the rocks below quickly make this one is a non-starter.

2. Climb up to dry surface above the snow field and go over the top. That will mean climbing back up through the trees to where we originally ran into the snow on the trail last night, then crawling across the loose rock at the base of the peak just above the snow line. Although this option would provide a dry crossing to the other side, it might also result in the second fastest trip to the bottom. Still on the list but iffy.

3. Hike down past the snow field and across to a distant steep crease leading up to the trail. We can see the path this option would take all the way to the trail. But it by far the longest and the climb back up the crease is clearly the steepest and may not be doable.

4. Climb down well below the snow field, all the way to the tree line and follow the trees to the trail. This option will also take some time but, from our vantage point, the slope up to the trail is drier (no visible snow) and, therefore, manageable.

5. Hike down just below the snow field and cross the loose rock to firmer ground, angling through trees to an open slope on the other side. As with option #4, this would put us on dry ground below the snow, although the loose rock might make for difficult going. Eventually we will be able to angle our way up to the trail although we can't see where we will start back up the other side.

All things considered, we go with the descent aspect of options 3, 4 and 5, looking for the shortest path across to an up-slope once we clear the snow line. We angle through the trees at the closest point until we reach a steep sloping exit to the trail above.

Anticipating two hours to meet the trail, we have managed to zig-zag our way up through heavy sage brush and mule ear in just under an hour. In fact, we are so proud of ourselves---both the decision process and the execution---that we stood in the middle of the trail basking in our success (i.e., no death or injury to the old man) for a good 15 minutes.

Once underway, it is a relatively flat or slightly "down" hike toward Sugar Bowl. The boys charge ahead of us, knowing that cold water, fresh fruit, hot showers and pizza are just a few hours away. However, on reaching the turn in the trail leading across a slope below the highest chair lift, we hit one last large, steep snow field planted right across the trail. Based on our recent experience, our decision is quick and unanimous to climb the steep (and I'm talking STEEP) temporary trail up to the chair lift rather than attempt a snow crossing. In fact, Matthew, Mark and Joseph had made that decision before Ike and I caught up to them.

Lingering a while at the top, admiring the views, we finally strike out on our last 3.5 mile downhill stretch past Mount Judah and on toward Donner Pass Road. The closer we get to the end, the rockier the trail seems to get and we encounter crowds of day hikers coming up the trail. At the bottom, Sandra and Bob Puliz have already collected Matthew, Mark and Joseph who are 20 minutes ahead of Ike and me. What a sight for sore eyes. After cleaning up, I don't think I have ever seen three family-size Roundtable Pizza's disappear so fast.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Day Five On The Pacific Crest Trail

Notes to Readers---Three things:

First, as I write these accounts of each day on the trail, it strikes me that the great advantage of specific events is they give us opportunities to focus our thoughts for a short time on some particular thing so we can record as accurately as possible what occurred. As time goes by, the recollections of the details around the edges of the experience may fuzz up a bit. If any of you have considered capturing your own life experience "on paper", as a good friend has reminded me, there is no time better than now to start.

Second, if any of you are inclined to share a comment about what you read here, feel free to leave it directly on this blog site if you wish. Realizing that may require some type of recognizable identity so "Blogger" will accept your comment, if you prefer not leaving a comment here, that's fine too. But if you already have such an identity (under Google or Yahoo or Blogger or other portal), I would enjoy reading your impressions.

Third, I've spent a fair amount of time describing the trail, including its beauty and its challenges, along with some of what our daily routine has been. But I now realize I haven't provided much detail about what we are eating along the trail or about some of the decision process we used to get beyond obstacles of one sort or another. In the last two installments, I'll try to do a better job of that at least as a point of reference for what we liked or didn't and what seemed to work or didn't for our group.

DAY FIVE: Wednesday, August 3

We are up early this morning, knowing that topping off our water will take a little longer as our access to Whiskey Creek is about 200 meters behind us and off the trail. But the day is glorious once again and we enjoy breakfast of either oatmeal reinforced with GORP (that would be me), freeze dried eggs or of some sort or oatmeal (that would be Matthew and Mark) or a wholely cooked exotic grain (prepared by Ike and Joseph).

The concept is to get down some quick and easy calories (as many as possible) and to stock our easily reachable pockets with high energy snacks to consume on the trail. Some choose power gels, others concentrated fruit bars or jerky. And of course, a cup of hot chocolate (or coffee with a hot chocolate boost in the case of Ike and myself) goes a long way to getting the day started right. And by way of a personal anecdote, Starbucks VIA instant coffee makes a good cup and is a great way to reduce pack weight. After each meal, everyone collects their trash and stores it away in our individual bear cannisters. And as room is made inside the bear cannisters, other items fill the void as a way to manage the bulk inside our packs.

After breaking camp, the boys find a nearby rock the boys to test their cell phone reception. We're in luck and Matthew updates Bob and Sandra Puliz on our anticipated arrival time at Donner tomorrow---not that we are eager for an end to our adventure, mind you. We agree to make contact with Bob and Sandra again this evening after we know how far we are by day's end and how far we will have left to hike out tomorrow. By 8:45 a.m. we are underway from CS1140 on what we know will be a hard "up" from our current elevation of 7,300 feet to over 8,500 feet (then back down to 8,300 feet at way point WACS1143) where the trail will be due east of Granite Chief Peak.

We make a pre-planned stop at what we believe is way point WACS1143 to pump water and refill all bottles and camelbacks. Instead, our stop is at WACS1142---a small error but that means we still have 1/2-mile of "up" ahead of us before we reach our first of two major crests of the day at 8,500 feet. Always in search of a silver lining, on the plus side, except for a couple short climbs, the next nearly three miles on the map and elevation charts are more or less downhill to just beyond way point 1145.

I digress. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, soon after our water stop, we are not at all surprised to see snow patches, just as we had learned from other hikers the day before. So, wouldn't you know it, because we now don't need the snow along the trail, we get it in spades!

We have now learned not to get all giddy on the trail about how well we are doing because you never know what awaits over the next hill. In fact, appearing before us as we look across Squaw Valley is what I can only describe as a vision of death at first glance---at least to someone who isn't a fan of roller coasters, jumping off ledges or slipping and sliding uncontrolably.

For some reason, others in the group see the 100-foot drop from a snow ledge, down a steep embankment to rocks and trees below as a fun diversion. I'm thinking I should have called my life insurance agent before we left....

Struggling somewhat to stabilize our footing at the top of the ledge, the group concludes that although there are several variations of how to get off this ledge, hiking down either with or without packs isn't an option. To get down the slope, basically there are two methods. To paraphrase Mr. Miaggi in Karate Kid: packs on or packs off.

Joseph Krieg is the first to test the packs-off approach. We combine two lengths of para-cord to provide enough rope to lower his pack to the bottom. Then, in a giant leap for the team, Joseph takes the slide for life, maintaining remarkable control all the way down. After unhooking his pack down below, Mark pulls the rope back up to the top to lower the next pack.

Ike Krieg goes down next, using the "packs-on" method with his hiking poles as stabilizers---a successful slide on all accounts. Ike is followed by Matthew Puliz, without pack, in a daring slide with brakes only on one side after losing a pole on the way down. Having seen three variations, I decide if I were going to die, I won't be the last one down the hill.

Lowering my pack, I prepare myself for an uncertain immediate future, although I am empowered by the visual evidence that some control is possible using boots in the somewhat slushy snow. The fact that we haven't lost anyone yet is also quite reassuring. Truthfully, I don't remember much about the trip down. But suddenly at the bottom of the hill my advance is arrested by Ike and Joseph as Matthew captures the slide on video. I haven't seen it yet. But who knows? I suppose it could go "viral" if/when it hits the web.

At last, Mark Matney opts for "packs-on" and flies down the slope in a blur until he is grabbed by Ike and Joseph with all pieces still connected.

Now with wet butts all, we congratulate ourselves on our human tobogan skills and strike out across the next snow field toward a marshy meadow below. Our earlier estimate of a short day has totally evaporated as we search for the trail which we lost in the snow at the top of the ledge. We still have long way to go before reaching way point 1152.

As an observation, there's nothing quite like a level or down pathway before one's feet to take one's mind off the details of where one is going, especially with beautiful vistas all around. Life is good and the trail seems to be acting just as the map suggests it should---or perhaps more accurately, as we want it to act. One "down" slope is as good as another and when small streams appear where you think the map says they will be, what more confirmation does one need about the rightness of the route.

Well, had we been paying closer attention to the map, we might have noticed a key Pacific Crest Trail intersection with the Granite Chief Trail at way point 1144. But, hey, we can hear a creek off to our right and it seems to be exactly where we think way point WACS1143is on the map. So, obviously, we still have a ways to go before passing way point 1144, right? Of course, we also have a little suggestive help from the trail: precisely at the actual Granite Chief Trail split, there is a large patch of snow with a trail marker right in the middle of it.

After studying the trail, the snow and the marker---noting how unfortunate it is that someone relieved the marker post of its triangular, metal PCT badge---we decide the obvious Pacific Crest Trail path before us is straight, then slightly to the right. Oh, sure, there is a scruffy looking trail off to the left, well beyond the snow patch. But the more obvious trail is in front of us. So, off we go, pleased at how well the day is going. Man, are we making good time!

The trail continues down for a while with the sounds of a stream still gurgling off to the right of the trail, further reassuring us of the rightness of our decision. Then, lo and behold, we come to the aforementioned small stream, crossing the trail ahead of us, pretty much where we think it should be. Little do we know this stream is NOT the one at WACS1143 (now behind us) but is instead one of those spontaneous snow melt trickles we have been hoping for---except later in the day.

However, ignorance is indeed bliss as our perception becomes our reality. And after breaking for a leisurely lunch and pumping water, we strike out with confidence that we will be in camp tonight even earlier than expected. Wild visions of even going farther today, thus reducing our hiking distance for tomorrow, start to pepper our conversation and play with our senses.

But, alas, the trail starts changing and the direction takes a dramatic turn to the east. What was a fairly heavy forest canopy above us quite rapidly opens to full sun. And the trail narrows amid large rocks, with heavy scrub brush almost blocking the way. Realizing something is awry, our bushwacking instinct takes over---the real trail must be directly above us. Well, after 30 minutes crawling over rocks and through sage brush, we return to our lunch stop near the stream, tired, sweating and down nearly a liter of water.

About that time, two day hikers who we had met earlier in the day (we'll call them Mary and Doug), arrive at our lunch log and see our obvious exhaustion here on the Granite Chief Trail. That's when they clarify our error and tell us where the trail split is 30 minutes behind us. By the time we regroup and pick up the PCT again, three hours have passed and it is now 3:30 p.m.

Although today is our first experience with feeling the need to be especially conscious as a group about our water supplies, given the availability of snow at several points along the trail this year, our practical risk is quite low. And if push comes to shove and we need water, we could always stop and melt snow. Or there is also the option of a short side trip to Mountain Meadow Lake---either is only a small inconvenience. All this means any available trickle from snow melt that crosses the trail will be gravy instead of a necessity.

Back on track, we resign ourselves to getting as far as we can get by the end of the day, knowing fatigue is already starting to set in as we have added at least three miles and three hours to an already hard day. The exhilaration of the morning slide in the snow is now just a fond memory. Now we have Anderson Peak as our next target.

The climb is long and steady for most of the 1,200 feet of elevation gain and the final 2-1/2 miles are along a ridge line approaching Anderson Peak. Along this stretch, camping spots and water sources are non-existent. We are up high where the trail traces the top of the ridge line with a clear down slope on both sides of the trail. Although we are making good progress due to very little elevation change, time is now working against us at the end of the day. As the sun dips lower in the western sky, it is fast approaching 7:30 p.m.

The wind is picking up, steady at 15 - 20 mph and temps (mostly due to wind chill) are dropping. The trail urges us on and we have now decided way point 1152 is out of the question---it would likely be at least 10:30 by the time we reach that point. So, now, a certain urgency enters the equation as we start looking for any flat spot where we can pitch our tents. We will even settle for a spot big enough to spread out our sleeping bags in a bunch. But there is nothing along the ridge.

Anderson Peak towers ahead of us, leaving us wondering yet hopeful that decent camping spots are waiting for us in the next half-hour, after we girdle the roughly 3/4-mile semi-circle around the peak---or so we thought. Then, rounding an unexpectedly sharp corner in the trail, we run dead on into a huge field of snow under which the trail disappears.

The snow field has to be at least 10 - 15 feet deep and about 100 meters across above the path of the trail. Looking down the expanse of the snow field, the slope drops steeply over 400 feet to where it thins out amid boulders and loose rock far below. There's no way we will cross this snow field---not tonight and probably not tomorrow. One slip and there would be no way to stop.

To our left and below us is a thick stand of tall trees, rocks and underbrush. In the dimming light, the steep slope is showing no signs of giving way to a stopping place. But Joseph Krieg picks his way down the slope ahead of the rest of us and finds a rocky ledge in the trees 100 feet below us. We don't take much convincing to follow him down in hopes there is enough space to camp for the night, even without tents if necessary.

In fact, there is just enough space for three tents, even if on a bit of a slant. Inside 15 minutes, packs are off, tents are up and dinner is underway. I am so tired, all I can manage to do after camp is settled is sit on the ground and breathe. Darkness has now overtaken us and this is the first night we are using our headlamps. It's been a long day---12 hours on the trail and 13.5 miles covered, albeit nearly four miles of which were off-course over some challenging terrain.

A double helping of Mountain House freeze dried beef stew is enough to take me close to comatose status---right after securing our bear cannisters away from the tents. I must admit, it's hard to imagine a bear going to the trouble of retracing our steps to our landing spot on this night. By 10:00 p.m. lights are out and we are in our tents---but not before marveling at the starry-starry night. Matthew makes one final update call to Bob and Sandra Puliz to revise the estimated miles from two to around six remaining for tomorrow's hike out to Donner. We are already wondering what the morning will bring to block our intended reconnection with the trail.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Day Four On The Pacific Crest Trail

DAY FOUR: Tuesday, August 2

With renewed energy after a relaxing end of the day in camp yesterday, we are pulling out of camp at 8:20 this morning, heading north---or so we believe.

After about 15 minutes and a half-mile into our hike (along steady uphill switch-backs, by the way), we encounter two day hikers, Larry and a friend, on the trail heading toward our departure point.

Exchanging trail news and our intended directions, it doesn't take long to realize we are going the wrong way.

Somehow, in our departure from camp, we jumped on the only clear exit from camp. In retrospect, our entry into camp the day before had followed sharp diagonals across deep snow fields had actually cut across the true trail into camp, which was lost in the snow. It is purely our good fortune to have run across those two hikers so soon after our departure.

Reversing our course, we are now back on track a half-hour later, in the direction of Twin Peaks. If our initial false pathway had been uphill, our corrected route is also uphill (how can that be?) as we zig-zag our way up, eventually hitting deep snow on north facing slopes. Thankfully, the trail flattens out after about two miles or so near the intersection with the Tahoe Rim Trail around way point 1132.

Finally, we are making good time and at 10:30 we reach Twin Peaks four miles into the day. The more or less flat section of the trail continues along a long ridge at about 8,000 feet elevation above and to the west of Lake Tahoe.

The views are spectacular (again) and we are filling our eyes (and taking lots of photos) of the vistas all around. Wild flowers are popping out everywhere along the trail.

On top of it all, cell phone reception is great when we stop for lunch near way point 1134 at around 12:15. Taking advantage of the unexpectedly clear cell service, I surprise mom and dad in Fort Walton Beach, FL with a call.

Blue skies and full sun with a steady breeze at about 10 mph (ergo no mosquitos) make this stop feel like we are on top of the world---"as good as it gets" comes to mind.

At 1:30, the lunch break is over and we are on the trail again, spirits bouyed by the energy boost and a section of trail that makes hiking feel easy. Even a heavy pack doesn't detract from the moment. Can we just call for a helicopter for a pick up? The 3-1/2 hours to way point WACS1138 pass quickly as most of the trail is flat or "down" and at 4:00 p.m. we stop to pump water sufficient to get us to our campsite at way point CS1140 (elevation 7,600 feet).

The continuing easy "down" of about 400 feet gets us to our campsite by 6:00 p.m. As it turns out, there is a fast flowing creek within about 100 meters of our camp. We hadn't counted on having water so close. That will allow us to top off tomorrow morning after breakfast before heading into a long, dry section of the trail. The only relief will be snow melt streamlets in places where they wouldn't normally be this time of the year.

In camp we make our first (and only) fire on the trail---just large enough to smoke out the mosquitos and remind us of what a campfire in the outdoors is like. Tents are up in no time and dinner is underway.

In the midst of it all, David, a British native now living in Canada, stops by for a short break---he is hiking on from whence we came and is planning on making it to WACS1138 by nightfall. So, he only stays for a few minutes for some company and trail talk. He makes particular note of our "pieces of Scout garb" and tells us he figured we were Scouts. I have the sense that his experience is seeing British Scouts in full uniform, even on the trail. So, our BSA hiking shirts and neckerchiefs are sufficient but only partial evidence of our Scout identities.

David is a lone hiker and he says he is making his way toward Kearsarge Pinnacles where he had last left the trail after a full week in deep snow several weeks ago. He is clearly feeling better about his chances now, even with the snow we describe on the trail ahead of him. That optimism is somewhat hard for us to grasp as he will be fighting the uphills in snow. But contending with snow 100 percent of the time for a week must be enough to make anything else seem tame.

Overall, today has been a very good day---challenges early, then we made good time the rest of the day, putting in 10.5 miles by day's end, the last 2.5 miles of which were down. After a filling dinner and replenished water bottles, we are down for the night by 8:30.

The MCL injury seems to be holding steady with the improvised "sock sleeve" and an ace bandage provided by Mark Matney, one of our Eagle Scouts. A couple Advil gels are my insurance for the night. Tomorrow's objective is to reach as close to way point 1152 as possible. But we already know there are two major "ups" in the way not to mention unknown snow barriers. Sleep calls....

Friday, August 12, 2011

Day Three On the Pacific Crest Trail

Note to Readers: I am remiss. If you have taken the time to drop by, thanks for your interest. And if you feel moved to follow this blog, all the better. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

As for my omission, some of you may have been wondering about the weather on our trek. The forecast just prior to our departure hinted at a chance of thunder showers off and on through most of the week. Instead, the weather has been nearly perfect---not a drop of rain (as of Day Three), which will end up holding true all the way to the end. A few clouds formed in the distance on the second afternoon but didn't produce anything where we were.

The temps all week have been in the high-70s or low 80s during the day, with virtually no clouds. A slight breeze materialized from time to time to cool us down and keep the mosquitos at bay. Overnight, the temps have been in the low 40s except for the last night when the overnight low dipped into the mid-30s. So, overall, we couldn't have asked for better weather.

DAY THREE: Monday, August 1

At 8:30 a.m. we are pulling out of our camp just shy of the PCT intersection with the Genevieve Trail. The three-mile hike en route to Richardson Lake is a steady but easy "up" and then "down" as we approach the lake. Although the mosquitos are swarming while we are breaking camp, they don't seem as troublesome first thing this morning. Maybe mosquitos take a while to wake up as well. As we get into our daily hike toward Richardson Lake, the mosquitos seem to have evaporated all together.

The climb out of camp is steady but we are keeping a good pace---maybe close to 2 mph, which is good time in backpacking terms. En route, Miller Creek and North Fork present challenges as we have to cross them on logs over fast flowing water. Nothing quite like a wiggly log over a "background" of water in motion to keep you on your toes. For those of you who know me, you might attest I am not a great fan anything where my footing is not secure. These crossings are ample fun and excitement for me.

During the remaining hike to the lake, we are seeing some snow patches but nothing that is slowing us down. Along the way we are seeing the first signs of true spring in the High Sierra with wild flowers (lupens, mule ear, sheep's ear, cats paws and a host of other flowers) just starting to make their appearance. This is definitely a weird year for weather effects.

At lakeside, we pump water to top off all our bottles and camelbacks. It could be a long, dry stretch before our next water stop. While there, we take advantage of an information swap with three hikers (two men and a woman) who have just come from where we are heading. Likewise, we share our recent experience having come from Echo Lake, where they are bound. They tell us of a clear trail ahead with the heaviest snow patches mostly beyond Barker Pass. As for water on the trail, we had hoped for at least small streams forming from snow melt, which the hikers confirmed will be the case. On that basis, we now feel confident that the dry stretches will likely be short-lived.

The climb out toward Barker Pass is grueling. Several large patches of snow on the north facing slopes slow our pace dramatically. And even on the clear, south facing slopes, the uphill is a challenge. During the last mile or so before Barker Pass, wide meadows of mule ear and sheep's ear stretch on both sides of the trail. The pictures just won't do these scenes visual justice.

With excellent reception at Barker Pass, I got a call out to my wife to let her know we are pretty much on schedule and are doing well. Besides the great cell phone reception, Barker Pass has picnic tables and a vault toilet---what more could one ask for than two types of comfortable seating---and no mosquitos. All of us are enjoying the break and are gobbling down some much needed calories---I must admit, it will likely be a while after finishing this trek before I will dig into a GORP bag with the zeal I had the first day.

With such inviting accommodations as the Pass has to offer, our break is seriously eating into our remaining hiking time for the day. Time to get socks, shoes and packs back on before rigor mortis sets in. We still have about 2.5 miles to go before we sleep. So, it's time to saddle up and get to our stopping point for the night.

Almost immediately snow fields are slowing our pace and we realize those last 2.5 miles to way point WACS1129 will not be easy. Even the last few hundred meters to the campsite take us over steep, rugged terrain almost completely covered by deep snow under a dense forest canopy. Punctuating the day is one last stream crossing with dubious snow bridges separating us from our camp. By the time we land on terra ferma , it is 5:30 and we are ready to stop and recharge while there is still some daylight left.

Within minutes, our packs are off, tents are up and we are pumping water to refill our reserves before getting dinner underway. We even have enough daylight left to do some exploring around camp. Who knew we would have that much energy? Without a doubt walking uphill without a pack is way cool. From the top of the ridge above camp, the views of Lake Tahoe in the distance are spectacular.

What a great way to end the day, after 11 challenging miles. Although we are already anticipating the hard uphill climb out of camp in the morning, we are optimistic that the trail will be mostly on south facing slopes, clear of snow.

Day Two On The Pacific Crest Trail

DAY TWO: Sunday, July 31

Got up early this morning eager to hit the trail. Because we had the benefit of starting our trek from the comfort of Todd Thompson's cabin yesterday morning, this is our first full day from start to finish on the trail.
As a practical exercise, it is our first experience stepping through what we expect to be a morning routine: breakfast, tents down, all gear repacked, morning constitutional, water supplies replenished, energy supplies for the day easily accessible....

As with any first time experience, there are lots of "dos" and "re-dos". Is my pack as tight as it can be? Is my water topped off and did I distribute it evenly in my pack? Is the bear cannister positioned where it will be most comfortable on my back? Where did I put my walking stick? Sun screen and mosquito repellent on? Leave no trace.

We leave our accommodations near Gilmore Lake by 9:30 as the sun is already beginning to warm the air and the mosquitos are on the hunt. We have seen almost no wildlife on the trail except a rare sighting of an occasional bird or marmot. So, how can there be so many mosquitos with so little to feed on? With the heavy and late snow falls this year and the delayed spring, the mosquitos are birthing late and are in survival mode. That might explain the constant swarms around us---even hundreds perched on our packs as we hike, waiting for an injection/extraction opportunity.

The only natural defenses seem to be a stiff breeze or the cold air surrounding us as we hike across snow. And did I mention real estate? Apparently, mosquitos didn't get the memo re: location, location, location. Based on the number of bites (I stopped counting at 200) in places where there shouldn't be bites, let's just say mosquitos are not picky eaters. Granted it is anecdotal evidence from a limited sample of one using a small spade in the forest. But I can attest to a validated research finding suggesting an untapped market niche for TP infused with "Essence of Off"!

Leaving Gilmore Lake, we hit a steady uphill with several large snow fields to cross. If the slope faces north, you can count on snow. Navigating across even narrow stretches of snow is a challenge with a pack on your back. But after losing the trail too easily east of Aloha Lake yesterday, we are tuning in much more closely to where the trail should continue on the other side of each patch of snow. Although we only lost the trail briefly on the approach to Dick's Pass (elevation 9,380 feet) this morning, it has taken us over three hours to hike up through the pass and back down to Dick's Lake (elevation 8,360 feet).

The relatively easy hike on the "down" slope leaving Dick's Pass has made the decision easy to pass Dick's Lake by, opting instead to pump water at the north end of Fontinillis Lake, about 1.5 miles further on. We are celebrating that decision on two fronts: the mosquitos have totally disappeared and Fontinillis Lake is strikingly picturesque, beautifully set amidst lots of large boulders all along the shoreline.

After replenishing our water and recharging with GORP, energy bars and gels, Middle Velma Lake is our next landmark, which we should reach by 3:15. Not needing to pump water so soon after Fontinillis Lake, we are pressing on to Fipps Creek as our next water stop (and the last water before we get to Richardson Lake).

Looking at the map, the trail ahead to all the way to Richardson Lake is looking very manageable with only a slight elevation change from 7,950 feet to 8,100 feet, then back down to 7,850 feet. How hard could that be, right? But sometimes contour lines can be deceiving. What a surprise to find a convincing "up" slope soon after leaving Middle Velma Lake---exhausting is a better word. Also we had anticipated more granite by this time based on the map indications of a "dry" trail for several miles. Instead, the forest is thick, with large trees all around us. Fortunately, the "up" leaving Middle Velma was short-lived and we are once again on an easy "down" all the way to Fipps Creek.

One thing about "downs" is there will invariably be an "up" on the other side. Sure enough, after pumping water at Fipps Creek, the climb out is tough. We stopped just long enough to toss down some quick calories and plenty of water to fuel our escape. Now the long flat stretch approaching the trail split between the PCT and the Lake Genevieve Trail feels pretty good. But our crew of five are all feeling the fatigue of the ups and down of the trail---not to mention several exciting stream crossings. It is already nearly 6:30 and hunger is nagging at us.

So, although our hoped for camping spot at Richardson Lake is only about three miles away (which translates to about 1.5 - 2.0 hours, assuming no unknown obstacles), we have decided to stop for the night, once again a bit shy of the day's objective. After a quick camp set up and dinner---I'm having a double order of lasagna, by the way---we are now in our tents at 8:30, glad to be prone and away from the mosquitos, which have been swarming around us most of the day.

We covered 12 miles today and are satisfied with our effort. But we're looking forward to making up some miles tomorrow if we can, hopefully with an earlier start and a kinder trail. Tomorrow we will be leaving Desolation Wilderness, optimistic that we won't be going from desolation to despair....

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail: Echo - Donner

This post is the start of a series of posts summarizing a recent backpacking trek along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (or PCT as it is known), which extends 2,627 miles from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. I was priviledged to share the trail with four others from Boy Scout Troop 259 in Sacramento, CA, where I am the current Scoutmaster. Others in our party included Ike Krieg (Assistant Scoutmaster), Matthew Puliz (Eagle Scout), Mark Matney (Eagle Scout) and Joseph Krieg (Star Scout).

As treks along the PCT go, our six-day trek was relatively short by comparison, covering only about 66 miles. Many others have hiked far longer stretches, including the full length either on one trip or in pieces. But I would have to say, the 66 miles we covered were plenty challenging enough to create memories that we will no doubt be talking about for a long time---including how much we might have left behind to lighten our packs.

Before striking out on the trail on July 30, we overnighted at the Thompson cabin near Echo Lake, about 1.3 miles from the trailhead at the Echo Lake spillway. We were grateful for the hospitality---a huge loft with plenty of flat space to bunk our group on July 29.

That layover night was money in the bank on two accounts. First, we had a chance encounter with three "through trekkers" who had left Mexico two months before and were on their way to Canada. Their packs looked like not much more than day packs compared to our over 50-pound packs. Second, the layover allowed us to acclimate to the elevation at around 7,500 feet before kicking it up a few notches on the trail.

Hereafter, the action will be in the present tense.

Tonight (July 29), we are eating our sack dinners as our last meal before embarking tomorrow. Having a little time on our hands, we are also jettisoning some non-essentials from our packs to get our pack weight down---probably not nearly enough but it's a start: Camp shoes, gone. Fleece sleeping bag liner, gone. Three small fuel cannisters, gone. 50 feet of climbing rope, gone. Long Johns, gone. I'm feeling better (and lighter) already.

DAY ONE: Saturday, July 30

The first day our destination is Dick's Lake, nearly 15 miles away. Under normal trail conditions, that distance would be very doable. And based on our start at the Echo Lake PCT trailhead at 7:30 this morning, we like our chances. An earlier start would have given us a little more breathing room. But estimating a steady yet comfortable speed of 1.5+ miles per hour, how can we not make Dick's Lake by sundown? Little do we know what lies ahead.

After some moderate "ups" and "downs" along the trail, we left Lower Echo Lake and Upper Echo Lake behind us. The trail is good and we are eager for a memorable trekking experience. Soon after passing Lake Tamarack, we are seeing the first traces of snow along the trail. By Aloha Lake, the traces are becoming more frequent and more expansive. To boost our water supply for the remaining long miles today we decide to pump water at Aloha Lake. The rest stop with packs off is welcome as we snack on GORP, jerky and energy bars.

Leaving Aloha Lake (elevation 8,120 feet), we have now officially hit our first major patch of snow not just along the trail but on the trail. In fact, we have lost the trail with no idea where we will pick it up. It has now taken us nearly an hour of wandering before we reconnect with the trail around 3:00 p.m. between Aloha Lake and Heather Lake. The snow fields and patches are deep but the surface is slushy, generally allowing good foot placement for traction. But on one patch, I have managed to lose my footing and twist my lower right leg at the knee on the way down.

Not sure what the injury is but the knee is very sloppy laterally and painful to the touch. Fortunately, up/down and forward movements of leg and foot are fine. So, we continue toward Susie Lake, enjoying a comfortable "down". Yet we know what's coming---a steep ascent beyond Susie Lake toward Dick's Pass (elevation 9,380 feet). The knee will need some doctoring before we strike out on the long uphill tomorrow.

The "up" after Susie Lake was gruelling but is just a taste of the elevation gain approaching Dick's Pass. Every pound of pack weight is now feeling twice as heavy as when we started. Given the lateness of the hour (now 6:00 p.m.) and the elevation gain immediately in front of us, our decision is clear: Dick's Pass will have to wait until tomorrow. We are just yards from an ample water supply in a fast flowing (and noisy) stream near Gilmore Lake. And apart from the swarms of mosquitos, stopping for the night short of our planned destination is looking like a really good idea.

A dinner of freeze dried Spaghetti and Meat Sauce ("cooked" with two cups of boiling water in 8 - 9 minutes), plus a hot chocolate chaser took less than 15 minutes to prepare and dispatch. It's now 8:30 and all are in our tents looking for sleep before sundown. As for the right knee, practicing some Wilderness First Aid creativity, I have cut the toe out of a spare sock and am using the resulting sleeve" to support the knee. That plus a couple Advil and I am good for the night. Today we have covered about 12.3 miles plus an additional 0.8 miles of snow-forced detours. Tomorrow the ascent to Dick's Pass awaits.