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.


  1. Very enjoyable post, loved readinbg it. Starry nights, right?
    You are correct, keeping a journal is a good idea.

  2. Yep. Starry nights.... Thanks, Anthony. Day 5 was almost as hard to chronicle as it was to get through. Lots of memories---and great experience for next time....