Over the River and Through the Creeks
June 20, 2017
Crabtree Meadows (Base of Whitney) to Mile 778 (just before Forester Pass)
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 46
Tonight, we are camping two miles from the top of Forester Pass. It looks like a giant ice chute. Terrifying. Today we crossed three raging creeks, Wallace, Wright, and Tyndall. We met Convict, a hiker who fell in Wallace, and was pulled out by Bam Bam and Tofu. She said "just keep walking upstream and you’ll find a place to cross, just wait until you find a place where you’d take your dog across."
She did all today’s crossings alone. Incredible.
We met Convict on the far side of Wallace Creek, when we were still trying to convince Ben and Sara to try cross again. Telling them that one woman had crossed alone, fallen in and still made it, well, we thought that would help. It didn’t. Here’s what happened.
I started out an hour earlier than everyone, with four miles to go before Wallace. As it happens, everyone passed me by the third mile. There’s a mild climb, and then the trail starts heading down towards Wallace. The descent is mostly snow covered, making for very slow going. Crampons on, crampons off, trying not to fall down while navigating the drifts, checking the GPS every two minutes to make sure we’re still on trail.
Long after everyone is well ahead of me and Alex, we hear a roaring, and come to a creek. Wow! Wallace came a lot faster than expected, we must not be moving as slowly as I thought! It’s not as bad as Rock Creek but it is wild, deep, and really, really fast. We look for a better crossing, and don’t find it. The creek only gets deeper and the water thrashes and surges over debris caught in its banks. While we search, I think to myself that it’s reasonable the group didn’t wait for us to cross Wallace. We have three creeks to cross today, and have to keep moving. We head back to the place where trail crosses the creek and I suck it up and go first.
It’s my first whitewater ford. It’s only up to my knees, but when the water hits my legs my feet are numb instantly. Justin told us this would happen, so I use my poles to find rock-free spots to step. When the water hits my legs, the obstacle of my body causes it to surge to mid-thigh height. The creek is narrow, so the crossing only takes a few seconds and I’m done. Alex crosses, and that’s it. We’re across Wallace. Something is bothering me. Was that too early to cross Wallace? And, though powerful, was that creek severe enough to cause hikers to turn around? Alex checks his phone, and we haven’t crossed Wallace at all. We have crossed an unnamed creek. Insubstantial enough that it doesn't even warrant a name.
Wallace comes half a mile later, and the group is waiting at the edge. They’ve already scouted for better places to cross, packed their electronics in dry sacks, and stripped down to their skivvies to prevent warm clothes from getting wet. Justin plans for us to cross in pairs, which we’ve practiced on dry land but not yet in a creek. He reminds us that we have about 20 seconds to cross before our leg muscles start failing because of the sub-freezing water temperature.
Here's the rub: Wallace is about 30 feet across, which makes 20 seconds a snap of the fingers when you're trying to carefully choose every step, every placement of your pole. That’s also not the amount of time you have full control of and strength in your muscles. That’s the amount of time you have before your legs can’t hold you up anymore. Your muscles start to shake nearly the instant you're in the water.
Tyler and Madison start off straightaway and make it across. Sonya and a new addition to our group, Trail Name, head out second, and make it across, with Tyler waiting on the other bank, arm stretched out in case there’s any trouble. Ben and Sara are third, and as they head out into the creek I notice that they are sorely mismatched in size, and both quite skinny. No anchor weight or stable center of gravity between the two of them. Ben is at least a head taller than Sara, and they are both feather-light.
Ten feet into the crossing, in the section just above the rapids, they falter. Sara falls. Ben holds his ground for a moment, and then he’s down. Shit. Their heads are above water, but they’re in it. Not being swept, but the scene is frozen in time.
Then everything speeds up. Justin is hollering at them to stand up. Get up! Get up! Get up! By some miracle, they manage to do it. They stand up, and for a moment, it seems like it might last. Just a moment. In a flash, they’re down again. Justin plows into the creek and drags Sara back to shore, then heads back in and grabs Ben, dragging him back. To the crossing side. They are soaked to the bone, but Ben and Sara have polar opposite reactions. Sara is visibly shaken, panicked, and scared, while Ben looks as if he’s been meditating for hours. Alex and I rip our fleeces and rain pants off our packs for Ben and Sara to put on. They’re both shivering, soaking wet, and have been submerged in freezing water for a scary amount of time.
I have two dialogues running simultaneously in my mind. The first is listening to Justin curse the stupid idea of crossing this creek, that we should’ve never tried to in the first place. The second is the alternative if I don’t cross, and that’s going back over the Whitney Portal. No. Fucking. Way. I turn to Alex and say, evenly and quietly,
And I do. Alone. And so fucking determined to get across this creek I feel like a machine. I step. Move my pole. Move my other foot. One foot. One pole. Other foot. Other pole. I'm walking through liquid ice. My legs wobble under the pressure of the surging water and the depths of cold that fill my muscles, but I keep moving. Completely focused. There is nothing on this planet right now between me and the creek. Focus. Every muscle in my body is rigid. Time is frozen. And then, there’s Tyler on the other bank, reaching his hand out to me. I blow right past him to finish the crossing, and run to the fire that Sonya and Madison started. Every part of me that touched the water is completely numb. Alex left the opposite bank the moment I'm across the creek, so he makes it ashore soon after me. We’re warming up by the fire, half of our warm clothes on the other bank with Ben and Sara, and I realize we still have to get them across.
Justin is acting as the spokesperson for the far bank and tells us he’s going to build a fire for them to warm up and then see if they want to cross. We wait, warming up, and Convict joins us by the fire. She is a friend of Daniel Winsor, the hiker who has kept such good track of creek crossings this year. She tells us how she fell in, got pulled out and still decided to move forward. That bolsters our confidence. We wait for Justin to give us the signal to talk. Soon, he is standing at the bank waiting for communication, and what feels like a series of negotiations begin.
They are not going to cross. They have decided to go out over Whitney Portal. Immediately, everyone on our side of the creek starts running through every possibility for convincing them to cross. The strongest among us could cross again and carry their packs. We could make a human chain across the creek to get them across safely. Convict crossed alone, they can do this. And so on.
It’s fruitless, and after about an hour of negotiations, we know we have to move on. With every minute that passes, Wallace Creek is rising, visibly. If we’re going to make it across the rest of the creeks before they are too swollen, we have to go. Food is short for everyone, and we have a group consensus to move on. Justin uses a dry sack with a rock in it and a rope to send Alex and my clothes across the creek. We put out the fire and head out.
The second crossing is Wright Creek, and by the time Alex and I arrive, the group has already spoken with a couple that tried to cross yesterday. The girl fell in and was swept downstream. Her partner had been running along the bank but the current was so fast that she was getting swept faster than he could run. She somehow managed to pull herself out, but was pretty banged up, so they were resting. The guy told us that about a mile upstream the creek braided at a meadow, and we were off to see the wizard. With six of us, we crossed in pairs. Tyler and Madison first. Sonya and Trail Name second. They were swept off their feet, but were close enough to the far bank that Tyler and Madison were able to pull them out. We expected that to happen to us too, and were able to plan for it. The current got faster and deeper right before the opposite bank, but with the others’ help, we were able to climb out.
Elated at having crossed two of the three, we plowed on. Tyndall required a two-mile snowfield hike upstream, but we found a safe spot to cross, and that was it. We climbed out of the snow to a clear spot below the treeline, changed in to dry socks, had a snack, and saw humans! Bam Bam and Tofu! The feeling of accomplishment was strong, and as we sat, Convict ambled up the trail. Convict! She had crossed all three creeks alone, and there was a pang of knowing that Ben, Sara, and Justin would have been able to make it this far.
The best surprise of the day came after we made camp. Far above the treeline, in sight of the famous Forester Pass ice chute, we sat around making dinner and counting the few calories we had to sustain us until Bishop. Everyone was running low, and then Convict, as if a gift from the universe, asked if anyone wanted food. She had taken four weeks off and lost her hiker hunger, plus was dealing with altitude nausea, and had no appetite for her food. Politeness made each person hesitant, but after enough coaxing, we were devouring cookies, chips, gummies, tortillas, and anything she offered up. We were fed, her pack was lightened. The major creeks were crossed, food was no longer a concern, and we could all rest easy knowing we were only 18 miles and one mountain pass outside of Bishop.