Saturday, October 14, 2023

PCT Part 4: Mt Shasta to Kennedy Meadows

For ten years, the Pacific Crest Trail seemed to be a sort Zeno's Paradox. It was something to look at from afar, or to tease on my blog, or to approach asymptotically. Actually hiking it seemed always slightly beyond the horizon. Apparently though, change is not an illusion, because I've completed the Pacific Crest Trail. Enough philosophical rumination though; let's get into the guts of the thing.

Merely Treading Water

On any long hike, there's a period of.. I dunno, let's call it malaise. Such was my experience through much of north-central California. It wasn't one thing in particular, but rather a confluence of factors. For starters, I walked through hundreds of miles of burn area. The entire PCT through Lassen National Park was a smoking crater of charcoal and despair. I hitchhiked into Quincy with a formerly-retired gentleman who'd lost everything - all his earthly possessions - in 2021's disastrous Dixie Fire. He's now back to work at a local campground, trying to make ends meet. I suspect his heartbreaking story will repeat itself more and more as the West gets warmer and drier.

After the burn areas came the rain. A couple weeks earlier, I had jettisoned my tent and rain gear in favor of my lighter poncho-tarp. This decision was based on research into seasonal climate averages, and was in fact a sound decision. Unfortunately, the weather around the end of August was unseasonably cold and wet. A hypothermia-inducing three day rainstorm took its toll on my morale. I picked up a shoddy polka-dotted umbrella for eight dollars at a Dollar General, which gave me an additional layer of protection from the deluge. Still, there are few things in the world more viscerally unpleasant than walking through 38-degree rain - fingers numb blocks of concrete - for hours on end. 

After the rain came the postal misadventures. I bought a bunch of food in Chester, CA and mailed it ahead to the thinly-stocked town of Sierra City. Imagine my surprise, then, when the box showed up not at the Sierra City post office, but at my return-address in Michigan! I ended up cobbling a meager and pricey resupply in Sierra City, consisting mostly of peanut butter and potato chips. 

After the postal misadventures came the Toe Thing. My left big toe started complaining. This isn't unusual on a thru-hike; generally there's at least one painful/annoying/freaky thing happening with my feet at any given time. Turns out the Lord doesn't warranty us for 15,000+ miles of backcountry hiking! Usually I just power through, and it goes away on its own after a couple days/weeks. But this Toe Thing just kept getting worse, despite diligent daily applications of Neosporin and chutzpah. Finally, I caved and visited a clinic in the Lake Tahoe area, where I was diagnosed with an infected, ingrown toenail. A photo appears below.

Nah, just kidding. 

Anyhoo, the doctor sliced and diced my toenail, and told me to stay off it for a week while things healed up. Ha! Fat chance. But I did phone my good pal Blue Moon, who lives in Reno. He graciously accommodated my stinky self at his house for four days. It wasn't a full week, but I was getting antsy. I also swapped out my fast-and-light Northern California gear for more burly cold-weather gear as I prepared to enter the final stage of my journey, the Sierra Nevada.

Refreshed after after my time off, but still missing my mojo, I headed south from Tahoe toward my next stop at Sonora Pass.

A Turning Point

A few weeks earlier, I'd chatted with my older sister on the phone. Off-hand, I mentioned how much I was missing certain tastes of home - chief among them, steaks from the world's foremost grillmaster, my brother-in-law Josh.

Remember that Sierra City box that ended up in the wrong state? Well, I asked my family to forward it to me at Sonora Pass instead. And when it showed up, it contained not just my usual Teddy Grahams, crushed Doritos, and Peanut M&Ms, but a gallon Zip-lok full of Josh's grilled steaks. The admittedly risky food-storage practices amused and/or horrified all the hikers around me at the time (bets were placed on the odds of me puking my brains out), but I can testify that nothing in the world has ever tasted better than room-temperature meat out of a plastic bag. And I didn't puke my brains out, so that's a plus.

It's funny how something as simple as a steak can completely change the course of an entire month. Coming into Sonora Pass, something seemed... off. The hike over the last couple weeks had proven itself to be a slog. But by time I left Sonora Pass, the script had flipped completely. A taste of home and a little dose of family had re-energized me for the final stretch. 

The Sierra Immersion Project

I'd saved the best for last. One key benefit of a flip-flop itinerary was finishing the Triple Crown with the crown jewel of the PCT - the Sierra Nevada.

From the moment we set foot on trail, PCT southbounders race winter. I started my southbound leg on July 7, and had less than three months to hike nearly 2,000 miles. Once October rolls around, the probability of a season-ending snowstorm in the Sierra increases dramatically. I resolved to get through the Sierra by the end of September.

My Sierra strategy, therefore, was based on three key considerations:

  1. The inexorable march of the seasons. Winter was already on its way.
  2. Logistical concerns. Most key resupply points in the Sierra had already shut down for the season.
  3. Aesthetic preferences. I wanted the culmination of my PCT and Triple Crown experience to be a true wilderness immersion.

In the final 320 miles of my PCT journey, I crossed only one road (in Yosemite National Park), and the final 240 miles were entirely roadless - a contiguous bloc of designated Wilderness almost unrivaled in the lower 48. Although the Sierra is at best Wilderness Lite (I saw multiple groups of people every day because it's California), the unspoiled terrain brought back fond memories of some of my other favorite wild places - the Greater Yellowstone, central Idaho, the Escalante, etc. 

In this spirit of wilderness immersion, I opted to do a pair of long food carries - 6 and 8 days respectively - and resupplied by boat ferry at an isolated, off-grid lake resort in the mountains. As much as I enjoy plentiful town food and broadband, dipping back into the city wasn't how I wanted to finish my Triple Crown. Normally the length of those food carries wouldn't be notable, but I had to cram all my food into a bear canister, which is required equipment in the Sierra. I ended up packing and repacking that bear can endlessly, trying to be as efficient as possible with the space. Finally, I ended up doing CPR on my food, smashing everything to smithereens in order to wedge a few more Kit-Kat bars in the top. Altogether, the full bear can weighed at least 20 pounds. To make matters worse, the bear can didn't really fit comfortably inside my pack without awkwardly pressing on my spine, so I had to strap it to the top of my pack. I spent the next several days teetering with that inverted pendulum knocking me off-balance with irritating regularity. 

Coming Full-circle

In the core of the high Sierra, thru-hikers have eight major passes to climb, ranging from 11,000-13,000 feet in elevation. These passes are by far the most physically difficult feature on the PCT - especially with all that food weight on my back. But it was hard to complain too bitterly; this was the Platonic ideal of high country, with gorgeous blue lakes, granite walls, and even a few lingering wildflowers that hadn't gotten the autumn memo yet. During my week crossing these passes, I saw not a single cloud. Brilliant blue skies reigned. Although it was chilly (I wore everything I owned for about eighteen hours per day), the weather held up perfectly. 

Atop the last pass (Forester Pass, the PCT's highest point), I heard a rumor of an approaching snowstorm. A backcountry ranger corroborated the forecast a couple hours later, and it became clear that my extra day of food was going to be used for weather delays, rather than a side trip to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48. On two consecutive days, I stopped early in order to camp as low as possible (just under 10,000 feet). At that elevation, about four inches of snow fell, though storm intensity certainly increased exponentially with elevation. 

Truth be told, I rather enjoyed the snow. It was a perfect bookend to my AT hike ten years ago, where I dealt with seemingly-continuous snow and cold for the first month of the trail. A decade of experience hence, the weather gave me a chance to reflect on my growth as an outdoorsman and, more importantly, the faithfulness of God through the years.

I didn't set out to become a Triple Crowner. It just sort of happened. I wish I could say that finishing the PCT at a nondescript road crossing in the sagebrush near Kennedy Meadows was some sort of ecstatic epiphany, but that wouldn't be entirely accurate. In fact, the most remarkable aspect of my PCT finish was the sunshine. I've finished every other thru-hike (even the desert trails) in something between a mist and a deluge. The PCT was warm, sunny, and gave me a chance to savor the journey, if only for a moment.

We'll leave it here for now. I'll probably do a follow-up post about the PCT as a whole and the Triple Crown; I've got a few themes to weave together still. In the meantime, enjoy the lovely Sierra landscape.