Days 50-55: Into the belly of the beast

Day 50: Lone Pine (745 + 2 mile side hike) to a wooded campsite (755)
Day 51: 755 to Crabtree Meadows (767 + 1 mile side hike)
Day 52: Side hike of Mt Whitney (c. 16 miles total)
Day 53: 767 (+1) to the base of Forester Pass (778)
Day 54: 778 to Onion Valley Campground, and hitch to Bishop (789 + 9 mile side hike)
Day 55: Zero day in Bishop

Highlights: Achieving two huge trail milestones; constantly beautiful views; snow is fun.
Lowlights: Afternoon snow is a huge pain to walk through; Sierra logistics and challenges increase weight and reduce daily mileage.

Lone Pine to Crabtree Meadows

After a leisurely morning in Lone Pine having breakfast and packing up, we hitched a ride back up to the Horseshoe Meadows campground where we had come from the day before. A few of us got a ride with the same guy who had driven me down (he basically shuttles hikers all day), while Snazzy and Sebastian were lucky enough to get in the bed of a pickup for the ride of their lives up the world’s craziest road (in fairness, seatbelts wouldn’t save you if something went wrong there).

We hit the trail around 1pm and climbed back up to Trail Pass and continued along the PCT. Travel was decidedly slower than usual, as we were climbing above 11,000 feet for the first time, and large sections of soft snow reduced traction. We had a late lunch about five miles in, at Chicken Spring Lake, a gorgeous little alpine lake that is probably even more beautiful when the crystal clear water is visible.

We got to our campsite in some woods around 7pm, meaning we averaged about 2 miles per hour, down from 3 mph that I’d tend to target.

The next day, we only had about 12 miles to go to get to Crabtree Meadows, at the base of Mt Whitney. We were at lower elevations than the day before (mostly around 10,000 feet), so we didn’t have to contend with a whole lot of snow. We did however have our first two stream crossings, which were fortunately both spanned by fallen trees.

We arrived to Crabtree Meadows around 3pm, and spent the rest of the day getting advice on climbing Mt Whitney from hikers who had just returned, resting up for the next day’s early start, and ogling at the beautiful views.

The hills are alive!

Mt Whitney

At 14,508 feet (4,430m or something), Mt Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States. The PCT does not actually go to Mt Whitney, but it goes near enough that it’s only an 8 mile detour (each way), and I believe a majority of PCT hikers attempt to hike it. It is also the southern terminus of the John Muir Trail, a very popular two-week trail through the high Sierra (the other terminus is in Yosemite).

From the time we were in Lone Pine to when we arrived in Crabtree Meadows, we struggled to pin down the exact hiking conditions on Mt Whitney. Some people on social media had said that it was extremely sketchy, but most of these experiences were a couple of weeks old, which is a long time during snowmelt season. More concerningly, we ran into a couple on our first day out of Lone Pine who were heading back south and out of the Sierras after an extremely harrowing experience on Whitney in which their party got lost a couple nights previous, and one member slipped down an icy slope, only to be saved from probable death by crashing into a boulder. We spoke to this couple extensively to figure out where things went wrong and were confident that we could avoid the same mistake, but still, with no internet access, this was our last news, and it sat heavily with us.

Fortunately, upon arriving in Crabtree Meadows, we were greeted by several hikers we knew, who had just climbed it that day and assured us that there were only very limited sketchy sections, and that these could be mitigated, particularly by foregoing the summit sunrise so that you could see where you were going during these sections.

Armed with this new, positive information, we set off from camp around 3am. The first two miles comprised a gradual ascent as we approached the main west face of Whitney. There was quite a lot of snow in the higher portions of this section, but it was pretty flat, so not a huge challenge.

Over the next four miles, we ascended a dozen or so switchbacks up the face, as the sky gradually lit in a pre-dawn glow. Most of the trail was free of snow, but there were a handful of potentially sketchy stretches where snow covered the switchbacks and we had to hike sideways across the snowy slope. Fortunately, enough people have hiked the trail already that there were some pretty sturdy footprints, and we didn’t actually have to hike with our feet at an angle. Still, we kept our ice axes in hand for support and in the event of a slip.

Two miles from the top, our trail met the steeper and snowier trail coming from the east, near Lone Pine, and the merged trails ascended the ridge to the high point of Mt Whitney to the north. The trail from this point was relatively easy, allowing me to soak in the views illuminated by the now-risen sun (both east and west) and to begin to revel in the feeling of finally reaching a point I’d daydreamed about for years.

A short snowy ascent up the final dome of Whitney, and we were there. Obviously as the highest thing around, the views from Whitney are astounding: Countless dramatic, jagged snow-capped peaks stretch as far as the eye can see to the west and (especially) the north; to the east lies an 11,000 foot drop down to the Owens Valley, the White Mountains behind that (including White Mountain Peak, another fourteener, to the north east), and several other parallel ranges of the Basin and Range province whose names I do not know. Staring straight down off the eastern edge of the peak (much like the rest of the range, the western approach is gradual, while the eastern side is all cliffs), I could see a few frozen lakes thousands of feet below, and probably less than a mile laterally. Only to the south were the views a bit lackluster, as the elevation drops noticeably after a couple of peaks.

We stayed at the top for an hour or so, though I stayed a bit longer to take advantage of the cellular service to send some texts and make some social media posts. I would have left with my group, but I felt comfortable enough on the ascent that it didn’t seem dangerous to descend without them.

The descent was obviously similar to the ascent, but with better lighting. Near the bottom of the switchbacks, there was a long snowy chute that flattened out at the bottom of the face. I saw a couple hikers ahead of me glissade (i.e. butt-sled) down it, which had already occurred to me as a great idea but that I didn’t want to do alone. I hustled down to the top of the chute and shouted at them to wait for me. I also shouted for any tips, and one of them simply replied “SEND IT!” That seemed like pretty sensible advice, so I sat down, point my feet down hill, held my ice axe just in case, and let it roll. I was on the edge of control most of the time, but managed to just hold it together to the bottom of the stretch. It was super exhilarating, but I should have tucked everything in, as my shirt filled with snow and I kind of scraped up my legs, back, and hands.

Below this point was probably the only low point of the day: as the large amounts of snow in the flats melted in the sun, it became very difficult to travel. With every step, my feet would slide in an unpredictable direction into a foot-deep sun cup in the snow, and sometimes my leg would punch straight through the snow (“postholing”). Additionally, the slushy consistency meant my feet were quickly wet.

On the other hand, it was warm enough that I could safely skinny-dip into this snowbound lake. Unfortunately I was alone, so sadly no pictures of my naked, refreshed bod. The rest of the group turned up shortly after, and I pressured Jordan to get in (little pressure required).

After trudging through the remaining slush, we made it back to camp around 2pm and lazed around for the rest of the day.

Up and over Forester Pass

The next day, we headed for the base of Forester Pass. Even though we only had like 12 miles to go, we got a fairly early start (maybe 7?) so that we could cross some rivers when they were a little lower and hopefully walk on some firmer snow if it presented itself. In a low snow year, we probably would have pushed over Forester Pass in a single day, but afternoon snow is terrible to walk in, and a lot less safe if it’s on a slope.

We had three river crossings that morning which required concentration: Wallace Creek was a simple knee-deep ford; Wright Creek had a slippery log, so we put on our spikes for traction; and Tyndall Creek we forded in pairs. All were pretty doable and didn’t seem excessively dangerous.

In the afternoon, we ascended out of Tyndall Creek gradually up to the base of Forester Pass, up a gigantic gentle snow field. The rest of my group trudged through slow afternoon snow, but I spotted a route connecting a bunch of rocky rises to the left, so managed to avoid too much snow.

Ultimately we camped in one such dry rise probably 800 meters from the foot of the pass, a perfect staging point for getting up and over the next day, and maybe the coolest spot I’ve camped at thus far, surrounded on three sides by seemingly impenetrable rock faces at 12,400 feet above sea level.

A

t 13,200 feet, Forester Pass is the highest point on the trail (Whitney is not on the trail), and is named for the forest service workers who scouted the route in 1929, one of whom was killed in a rock fall in the process. It separates the Kern River drainage, which flows south to Bakersfield, from the Kings River drainage, which flows west to Fresno, and also forms part of the boundary between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Looking at it from a distance, it defies imagination that someone could look at this huge rock face and identify the tiny notch at the top as being a viable pass, but they did and I am grateful.

We were up before dawn the next morning and hiking by 5:20 up towards the notch, only about one mile away by dry trail. The lower half ascended a sloping snowfield, shallow enough at first to walk straight up, then requiring switchbacks. Then after a few dry switchbacks, we reached the “chute”, a 10 meter traverse of a steep snowy patch just below the top. Falling here would be no fun, but the footprints were clear and the snow solid, so it never felt very dangerous.

We made it up and over the top by about 6:15 am, and hung out there for half an hour or so celebrating reaching the high point of the trail with a few other hikers.

The descent was long and snowy, but a lot of fun heading down towards the trees. I got a pretty good glissade in, which is always satisfying. Soon we crossed Bubbs Creek via log, and headed down its canyon to around 9,000 feet. Much like “pass” is kind of an understatement for Forester Pass, “creek” is rather an understatement for Bubbs Creek: this thing is a river of rage. Fortunately, the trail crosses it above where the flow becomes absurd.

Kearsarge Pass and Bishop

Around midday, we made it to the bottom, where the trail begins to ascend towards Glen Pass, another challenge not far north from Forester Pass. However, almost all hikers, ourselves included, get off the via a side trail over Kearsarge Pass, along the Sierra crest, for resupply down in the Owens Valley, or else the food carry is untenable given the slower hiking conditions this year.

The hike up to the pass was pretty gradual – it only reaches 11,700 feet, which felt like child’s play considering we were at 13,200 earlier that day.

The descent to the campground and road down the escarpment was long and snowy. It would have been very enjoyable were it not for the knowledge that we’d have to come back up it two days later loaded with food. Aside from lots of glissading, the highlight of the descent was a series of four lakes, each one almost directly below the one before and noticeably less snow bound. We were in a hurry to get to the road so I didn’t stop at any of them, but I love me some lakes and these were some lakes.

We got down to the parking lot and managed to find a ride from a trail angel down the rest of the way into the valley, and 40 miles north to Bishop, where we would spend the next day and a half.

Bishop is a charming, walkable small town sandwiched between the Sierra and the White Mountains. It has a similar vibe to Lone Pine, but feels about 3x bigger, and isn’t blessed to be right at the foot of Mt Whitney. On the plus side, it feels like a real town that doesn’t revolve around hikers or other outdoor tourists (Lone Pine very much catered to the Whitney crowd, which was nice, but made it difficult to view it as a standalone town).

On the first night we went bowling, then spent the next day wandering around, going food shopping, visiting the brewery, and going to the Paiute Palace casino just out of town. I lost a bit of money, but Jordan walked away with $800 having only placed $20 at the beginning of the night, so I think he owes everyone a new pair of shoes or something.

I’m currently about to pack up my stuff in our hotel room and head back up over Kearsarge Pass. The next week or so will continue to be challenging in terms of passes and river crossings, but I’m confident from the last few days that we’ll be just fine.

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