June 17, 2017
Mile 743 to Mile 757 (3.5 mi before Rock Creek)
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 43
Today was an early start, we broke camp at least half an hour before everyone else. I left first, hit the brick wall of climbing uphill at elevation less than 10 minutes into the day, and Alex quickly caught up to me. Then the rest of the camp caught up to (and passed us). Alex is a much faster hiker than me, I know this, yet he is hiking behind me. After everyone else has passed. We’re not talking, but I can feel him hiking behind me. That feeling of human claustrophobia starts to creep up on me, and I become tense and irritable. I know I’m not supposed to hike alone in the Sierra, but I can’t let this tension build, because I take it out on Alex. He’s not doing anything wrong, in fact he’s offering companionship, but I am acting maliciously from lack of space, practically snarling. He is a patient, understanding partner, yet I am losing my fucking mind with every step. I decide it’s worth it to be proactive rather than let the feelings build into contempt and try to bury them. I pull over.
"Alex, (pause) can you give me some space?"
Oof. That hits hard. My body language and request would indicate there’s something seriously amiss between us. This is the first time I’ve posed this request to him or even indicated my newfound sensations of human claustrophobia.
I try to briefly explain my intentions. It’s not him, I just need space from everyone. Which is true, as much as it sounds like a classic brush-off. Hiking near other humans either pushes me to speed up or makes me hyper-aware of and frustrated with how slow I’m moving. I need to find my pace naturally, and I can’t do that when all I’m thinking about is my speed and level of fitness. It’s kind of difficult to explain this briefly, especially given the level of tension I’ve let build up inside me. Alex walks ahead, and, I think to myself, this will be a process of understanding.
The tension melts away with every step and I let myself forget that I am behind everyone, that I’m slower than everyone, that I might be making people wait. I find my pace, and though it’s slow, I’m not thinking about it. I loosen up. Look around. It’s pretty nice up here at 10,000 feet, in the heart of the great blue yonder, surrounded by sequoias and mountains and snowmelt streams trickling down slopes and a path that winds around and through all of it. Stress, relieved.
Sam (who wakes up later than and proceeds to catch up to and pass everyone) comes up behind me after I’ve had some solid alone hiking time. He’s always full of cynical laughter, my magic antidote. Soon after he catches up we find Alex sitting by the side of the trail. He’s resting by a stream, reading Walden, and gives us both a friendly greeting. The three of us chat, and I let Sam go ahead. Alex and I have a moment, and in that moment I know he understands. He tells me so, and all is well with the world. I can hike independently, and not at the expense of my partner. Onward and upward.
The views only become more spectacular as we’re swallowed by the Sierra, but sentiment here shifts as often as the directions of the trail and as soon as we hit snow, it’s a whole new ballgame. First, it’s annoying, short stretches here and there, and then it’s snow. No trail, just snow. Trail is somewhere underneath, weaving over streams and around mountains, and we soon learn first-hand why snow travel is so slow. Yes, a huge part of it is that snow is slippery and slushy, impossible to get any traction. The reason we don’t talk about is finding the trail. It would be one thing if the PCT was straight, but it changes directions on a whim. Even if you can see where it’s heading a mile off in the distance, there is no chance that you’ll take a straight shot to get there. It will go over rivers, and around ridges, and if you’re impulsive enough to try and take a ‘shortcut’, the most likely outcome is getting stuck on a cliff in a boulder field above a waterfall. So, stay on trail. Even when you can’t see trail.
Double the efforts, cut the pace in half, enjoy the suncups. What’s a suncup? Well! It’s a 1-to-2-foot-deep ‘cup’ of slippery, hard snow, and they usually come in fields, rather than solo. To walk through them is to flail legs and arms with trekking poles attached, attempting to balance and move in a specific direction. The closest I can come to explaining it is with an egg carton analogy. Imagine your foot is the size of the bottom of a cup in an egg carton, and the cups vary in depth. When you step into a cup, its edge will come to between your shins and your upper legs. Imagine the egg carton is made out of hardened, icy snow, and there is a field of the cartons spreading as far and wide as the eye can see. Now, walk across it. If you fall over, you’ll have a pack on your back and you’ll be trying to stand up with one foot each in a slick half-sphere of inconsistent depth. Also, pull out your phone to check your GPS every few minutes so you can make sure you’re ‘still on trail’.
Three hours and three miles later we made it to Chicken Spring Lake, just as the rest of our trail family was leaving. Cooked a meal, headed out up a vertical snow-covered ridge. Over a snow-covered valley, going full-bore and making outstanding progress of approximately one mile per hour (on a good hour, when we didn’t completely lose the invisible trail). At last we came over a ridge to the south side of the mountain and the trail become flat, but more importantly, visible. Hoo rah! We see Yeti’s name written in a pile of snow, and we’re on the right track, our family has been here! Ma-king pro-gress, ma-king pro-gress, ma-king pro-gress, FOR-ward pro-gress!
Sanity check. It’s late afternoon with seven miles to go before Rock Creek. If there’s no snow and no uphill, that’s three hours. Tough, but doable. If there’s snow or uphill, it’s pushing seven hours. Not doable. Either way, the chances of our trail family having waited for us on this side of the creek are dismally low—it’s been hours.
We’re walking through a gravelly meadow with scattered mounds of snow, when the trail curves and starts heading downhill. The big, four-mile downhill before Rock Creek. Here we go.
And then, just like that, I see Justin’s head pop out from behind a tree. Huh? What is he doing here? Shouldn’t he be across Rock Creek by now?
“How you guys going?”
Well, that’s a pleasantly innocuous question to ask. We’re tired, Justin. Really, really tired. But we’re also persistent. I wonder what kind of answer he’s looking for. What’s he getting at?
Turns out, most of the family stopped half a mile ahead. Everyone is shot, exhausted, and blowing through the Sierra. Nobody is having fun, hiking like this sucks. Yes, every trail-worn person who has done this before told us the Sierra would be this way. That we shouldn’t expect to make so many miles once we hit elevation and snow. It’s a hard lesson to learn after handily racking up 25-30 miles per day in the desert. Looks like we’ve learned it, though. Justin leads us to the rest spot, and there they are, relaxed and happy to see us. I am so happy to see them, so grateful I’m not alone. There are a few missing faces, though, and it digs at Alex. Sam, Colten, Flame, Yeti, Chris and Phil have pushed on, and they don’t know that the rest of the family has stopped. We’re supposed to stick together, and for all we know they are waiting at the creek for us. Waiting, waiting, waiting. It doesn’t sit well with Alex, but he knows there’s nothing to be done unless we hike down to the creek or send a message if we see another hiker pass by. So we suck it up and hope we’ll see them tomorrow.
Silver Fox wanders off on the hunt for a campsite. He has a knack for these things, and within half an hour he’s found a cliff with a view of Mt. Whitney, surrounded by sequoias, where we can watch the sunset over the snowy mountains. We have our first campfire of the Sierra, melt snow for water with our stoves, rest, and enjoy the company and the surroundings. For the first time in days, it finally feels like we’re doing the right thing.