Introduction to the Sierra

Location: Independence, CA

PCT Mile: 788.5

I will preface this next series of posts by saying that the perspectives I am about to share about this section do not represent an "average" thru-hiker experience. It is a historic, record-breaking snow year, and I have also entered the Sierra on the early side of the season. Like all things on this trail, this was choice. I am using this opportunity to develop my mountaineering and snow skills, and that mission carries with it increased physical and mental demands in an unforgiving, at times terrifying, and stunningly beautiful environment.

After a two-week break following he completion of the Southern California portion of the PCT, I left Kennedy Meadows on May 17th, bound for Chicken Spring Lake--the first true alpine lake on the Sierra PCT. I was headed to join three other thru-hikers for a six-day advanced snow skills course. Our mission: to acquire a grab bag of skills to ensure a safe and successful hike through the next 300 miles of Sierras wilderness during the highest snow year on record for California in the past several decades.

A frozen Chicken Spring Lake at dusk. 

A frozen Chicken Spring Lake at dusk. 

What does living in and traversing this portion of the PCT look like? We walk, sleep, eat, live on snow 24/7. Very rarely do we dip below snow-line, which brings a whole host of challenges:

  • A constant battle against high sun reflectance and albedo. Sunglasses are now a survival item, as is suncreen (the inside of your nose can and will burn).
  • Widely varied temperatures during the day and night.
  • Pitching tents differently on snow.
  • Water considerations--it is not efficient to melt snow constantly, because we are carrying a finite amount of fuel. Consequently, we need to strategically plan to camp at elevations where running water can be found or where we can punch a hole through frozen lakes. If we are working to summit a pass, we need to carry enough water to get us up past the last running water, over the pass, and down again to an elevation with liquid water.
Camping on snow in front of a frozen lake. We punched a hole in the lake with our whippets to access water, and were feeling ambitious that day, so we trampled little sidewalk paths between our tents! 

Camping on snow in front of a frozen lake. We punched a hole in the lake with our whippets to access water, and were feeling ambitious that day, so we trampled little sidewalk paths between our tents! 

What sorts of skills and tools are we using? The two crucial tools are crampons and a whippet. Crampons strap to the bottom of your boots and have metal spikes that give you traction on snow and ice. We spend entire days hiking and working in these, and they are invoke a serious change in one's gait and entire hiking style. A whippet is a hybrid hiking pole with a small ice pick on top. The ice pick is used to stop oneself (self-arrest) in the event of a fall off a snow slope. Popularized in Europe, this type of tool is being used more and more for backcountry skiing, and is quite useful for thru-hikers, as well, as it allows you to hike and balance with your pack like normal, but also has an immediate self-arrest device attached to it. It is less robust than an ice axe (the other main self-arrest device option for PCT hikers), but has a much higher chance of being ever-present, versus ice axes that often end up strapped to the back of packs instead of in their owners' hand on a steep slope.

Whippets and crampons visible during a snack break! 

Whippets and crampons visible during a snack break! 

Both of these devices require proper training and technique to truly be useful and effective. As well, there are other types of footwork (heel-plunge, side step, boot glissade) and snow travel methods (seated glissade) that require practice.

Mid-glissade action shot! 

Mid-glissade action shot! 

 Another crucial peculiarity of this environment--there is no trail! It's buried under feet of snow! As well, since many thru-hikers are skipping the Sierras because of snow and because we are on the early side to start with, there are typically little to no other bootprints to follow. This means a lot of reading and referencing topographic maps and consulting the GPS. Where the trail might normally switchback gently up or down sharp slopes, we face a steep, blank canvas of snow and trees. This is both freeing and difficult, as you must carefully navigate and plan your route based on what is physically possible given the steepness and snow conditions, while making sure you don't cliff-out or end up on the wrong side of a creek or lake.

 

What's more, since we are no longer traveling on a dirt or rock trail, we must yield to current snow conditions and micro-environments. If the snow is too soft, we posthole--sinking calf-, knee-, or even thigh-deep into the snow with each step. This is obviously an extremely inefficient way to travel--time-, energy-, and calorie-wise, and tends to end in eventual insanity. Some days and places, you might start postholing by 10 or 11 am, other times, it might not happen until after lunch. To try to counteract this daily phenomenon, we hit trail early, waking up at 3, 4, or 5 am to try to put some miles in using our crampons on crisp, crunchy, icy snow...much faster and more pleasant (once you get up and out of your sleeping bag for the day!).

 

That's the new reality for the next several hundred miles. We will be rewarded with a Sierran experience very few people ever get--not another soul around for tens of miles and a Sierra blanketed in the highest amount of snow in nearly half a century.

 

The Sierra portion of the PCT begins with a bang. "The Big 5", the 5 highest and most difficult mountain passes, follow one right after the other. We crossed the first, most notorious one, Forester Pass (13,200 ft) during the six-day snow skills course. It marks the highest point on the PCT. It is often regarded as the most difficult pass, but as we would later realize, this is an assessment made by normal-season thru-hikers...there was more in store.

Ascent up to Forester Pass

Ascent up to Forester Pass

On May 25th, I exited the PCT 84 miles north of Kennedy Meadows with three classmates turned friends and teammates. We rested in the town of Independence and caught up on news from the trail community. When we were greeted like celebrities and congratulated for making it through the section we just hiked, it became clear--we were accomplishing some serious hiking and covering some exceptional terrain. We gathered more food, studied routes, planned backup bailout routes, and prepared to go back out.

 

We could not have predicted the extended, trying adventure that was about to unfold.

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With "Strider," the AWESOME owner of the Mt. Willimson Motel and Base Camp. We were her first PCT hikers for the season!

Natalie RaiaComment