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.


  1. Interesting sojourn, enjoyed reading this.

    I'll bet those pizzas tasted good.

  2. Those pizzas went down so fast, the taste seemed to follow like the delay of a trailing wake....