Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Kennedy Meadows to Independence

Greetings from the Sierra Nevada!

Another epic week has unfolded, and all I can say is WOW! I'm typing from a computer in the library in Bishop, a fantastic small town in the Owens Valley with the mighty Sierra to the west, and the foreboding peaks of the White Mountains to the east. It feels like a hundred degrees here in the valley, but it's a much needed resupply and rest for us weary and somewhat shell shocked hikers. Indie, Answer Man, Scorpion and I are sharing a hotel room in Bishop after an all out gorge fest last night. We met Scorpion yesterday, she was trying to hitch into Lone Pine for resupply but was unsuccessful, so she joined us on the bus from Independence to Bishop. Answer Man just had a minor toe surgery today, to get an ingrown toe nail removed that's been bothering him for a couple of weeks now.

As I mentioned earlier, we have entered the Sierra Nevada. The land with the brightest sunshine, the bluest skies, the clearest water, the happiest wildflowers, the whitest snow, the most sparkling rock, the greenest trees, and the cleanest air in my opinion. Yes, I am very biased in this case, and I'm not sure I ever want to leave this area.

Answer Man, Indie and I left Kennedy Meadows not before we had a celebratory beer with Hiker X who wanted to wait until Kennedy Meadows to drink his first alcoholic beverage of the trip. After leaving with full packs bustling with a fresh resupply, bear canister, and ice axe, we entered the land of the giants. Our first giant of the week was Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48. As it turned out, our summit date was July 4th, a fantastic way to celebrate our independence. The evening before our summit date, we crossed paths with a couple of hikers named Flashback and Hummingbird. They were averaging about 30 miles a day, hiking in the ultra light style. Hummingbird often runs the trail, and she doesn't use a stove. Her pack can be picked up with one finger. Flashback is a recent college graduate from San Diego. Anyhow, we ended up camping with them the night before, and agreed to wake up at 2:30 am to begin our ascent from Crabtree Meadows. Of course, Indie, Answer Man, and I were not able to wake up on time and ended up hitting the trail around 3:30am behind Hummingbird and Flashback. A bit dazed and confused, the trail crossed three streams which we had to ford in the cold, early, dark hours of the morning. If that didn't wake us up, the snow fields we crossed while switch backing up Whitney sure did, the first time we deployed our ice axes. By mountaineering standards, these fields were probably a piece of cake, but for us unseasoned backpackers, it was enough to get the adrenaline running, at least for me anyway. All in all, it took us about eight hours to reach the summit of Whitney, and we were rewarded with an amazing view of the snowy Sierra peaks that surrounded us, and the hot and dry desert floor of the Owens Valley, White Mountains and Death Valley to the east. A fantastic way to spend the 4th.

The next day, we had an encounter with the much dreaded Forester Pass, the highest point on the official PCT at 13,200 feet. The night before our planned ascent of Forester, we met a Ukrainian section hiker named Vic, who had just attempted to climb the pass.

"It's the first time I've ever turned around on a hike because I was scared," Vic said.
"There was snow everywhere, and I didn't want to risk my life," he continued.

Indie looked traumatized at this point, sitting with his headlamp on in the dark staring blankly at the ground. None of us said much the rest of the night, wondering what the next day would bring.

The first half of the day was great, as the trail meandered through an open valley with amazing views of surrounding peaks with water flowing everywhere. We had hoped to hit the pass early in the morning to avoid the soft melting snow but that was not the case. A couple of miles from the bottom of the mountain, we started hiking through snow fields. More of an inconvenience than anything, we walked through the snow closer to the base of the mountain. As we reached about a half mile from the mountain, the terrain was completely covered in snow, however we could see the pass and some of the switchbacks on the side of the mountain. We basically made our own trail, sometimes following previous footsteps, aiming for the easiest access point to begin our ascent. By the time we reached the base of the mountain, it was already 3:30pm. Looking up at the pass, it was truly terrifying. The wall of mountain seemed to go straight up, the first half covered in snow, and one smaller patch of snow glued near the highest and steepest part of the mountain. From below, we could see the trail went right across this snowfield and to slip probably meant a sure death. (I am not exaggerating!) While we stood in terrified awe, we watched as one hiker was coming down from above. At one point, this hiker seemed to get stuck in one of the snowfields, and we weren't sure if we were about to watch him fall. Thankfully, he carefully maneuvered his way down the snowfield and safely to the bottom of the mountain. As he got closer, we discovered it was our old friend Jackalope, who we hadn't seen in weeks.

"It wasn't too bad," Jacalope said.
"Just be careful because it's getting late in the day and the snow is getting soft and melting," he said.

As we were talking to Jackalope, two more thru hikers reached us, Grinder and Fozzy. Grinder is a Marine, and Fozzy a soccer fanatic from England. Our ascent party now reached 5.

Determined to continue our thru hike, the five of us began climbing the mountain. The trail was snow covered, so we basically started straight up the mountain with our hiking poles and ice axes. It wasn't too bad in the snow but Fozzy, Indie and I left one of the snow fields for some nearby rocks. This turned out to be a mistake in my opinion, because the rocks were extremely unstable. I was afraid I was going to cause a rock slide onto Indie below, because every step I took seemed to loosen both small and large rocks alike. Grinder and Answer Man stuck to the snow and climbed to the halfway point in probably about 30 minutes. When all of us reunited on the dry trail about halfway up, we took some congratulatory photos, although it wasn't time to celebrate yet. After switch backing the rest of the way up, we approached the "snow field of death" around 13,000 feet. I was definitely scared. Grinder volunteered to go first. He marched across the snowfield in typical Marine fashion, not flinching a moment. Next, Indie successfully made it across. At this point, I was holding Indie and Fozzy's cameras. Answer Man hiked across, stopping in the middle of the snowfield to pose for a picture. Next, Fozzy traversed the pitch without incident. I noticed my hands were shaking a bit as I was taking Fozzy's picture. Finally, it was my turn. I don't remember much, just sticking the ice axe into the snow to my right, my hiking pole to the left, carefully watching each step, and refusing to look down. After about a minute I was across. We made it!

The hike to the summit was quick and snow-free and we had unbelievable views to our north and south. Snow was still everywhere. By the time we finished posing for pictures it was 5:00pm and some storm clouds were brewing.

"We've got to get off this mountain," Grinder said.

And that we did. The next two hours of hiking down the north face of Forester Pass were completely snow covered but thankfully a lot less steep. After an exhausting day, we reached a camping spot around 8:30pm. We felt tired but extremely accomplished. I couldn't help but wonder how hiker's made it through three weeks ago.

Tomorrow or Friday, Indie, Answer Man and I will take a bus back to Independence and back up the Kearsage Pass trail to meet the PCT. It's probably going to be another intense week, but it's good to know one of the more difficult sections is finished. Next resupply will be in the town of Mammoth. Until then, thanks for reading and talk to you all soon...



  1. Interesting you reached Independence just about on the 4th of July! Wish I could hike through a snow field right now. We've had 100+ weather the last three days. Baltimore even recorded the second highest temp in its history two days ago at 105. I'll take the snow, but skip the sheer drops.

    I dropped your clean disks in the mail on Tuesday, so hopefully you get them.

  2. Great write-up. Thanks for the updates!

  3. Holy moly, what an adventure! I can't wait to see the pics from this section of the trek. Keep having fun out there!