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.