Day 63 & 64 – Getting high on the PCT
Sunday 30 June 2019
Location: Tyndall Creek campsite (mile 775.2)
Distance travelled: 8.9 miles
After another lazy start to the morning, we said goodbye to our Marmot neighbours along with Mt Whitney and got back on the PCT proper. There was a fair bit of climbing ahead of us today but it would be good practice for Forester Pass tomorrow morning, which is the highest point on the PCT at just above 4,000m above sea level.
I managed to get down a two course breakfast today consisting of a Muesli bar and protein powder mixed with water, which was sadly my biggest breakfast since starting on the trail a few days ago. I’m finally beginning to feel a bit better and my appetite is slowly coming back, even though I’m still underdone hiking at these altitudes. Whether I’ll be able to get over Forester Pass though is anyone’s guess.
The morning climbs gave us an opportunity to take in some of the stunning snowcapped mountains behind us.
We had three creek crossings to contend with throughout the course of the day. The first, Wright Creek, was straightforward and only around knee deep. Going back to our experiences in New Zealand, we opted to leave our shoes on for the crossing while everyone else seemed to change into their camp shoes to avoid getting their hiking shoes wet.
The second creek was more challenging with the main crossing point too dangerous, so we headed down river about a quarter of a mile where we had heard there was a large log running across the creek. We arrived just as another group was crossing and took it in turns to shimmy across the log.
Before reaching the final creek crossing of the day, the track led us to a large plateau at the top of a hill. In contrast to the patchy snow we have experienced to date, this plateau was still covered in a lot of snow and the wind was absolutely freezing as a result. After about half an hour, we eventually dropped back down to a lower elevation with less snow and warmer temperatures.
Occasionally, we’d still encounter patches of snow on the trail and towards the end of the day these patches can get quite soft and fragile to walk on as they start to melt. In one spot, Leigh stepped on the front edge of the snow patch covering the trail which immediately collapsed, resulting in her falling forward onto her knees. With her momentum moving forward, her heavy backpack then pushed her forward almost in slow motion, leaving her sprawled out over the snow patch with arms and legs flailing in every direction. Fortunately, no damage was done to either hiker or photographer.
Our final creek crossing of the day required us to walk half a mile upstream to cross the 3 separate tributaries individually. We decided to climb up the adjacent hill rather than camp by the creek to reduce the amount if climbing we will need to do tomorrow morning.
Only a touch over 4 miles and 580m of elevation gain now until we reach Forester Pass. We will be up and on the trail by 4am to hike under the best conditions across the snow.
We lucked out on the camp spot tonight – snowcapped mountains in every direction! Thinking it might be a cold one…
Monday 1 July 2019
Location: Bullfrog Lake campsite (mile 788.7)
Distance travelled: 13.5 miles
We were up at 3am to get ready for our 4am start. The infamous Forester Pass with it’s epic ice shute traverse awaits. I don’t enjoy getting up this early and hiking in the dark, but the plan was to reach Forester Pass before it got too much sun and the snow starts to soften.
As we left our campsite, we walked past some SOBO cowboy campers (ie. hikers sleeping without any kind of tent or other shelter) who had successfully completed Forester Pass the evening before. They offered a few words of encouragement as we accidentally woke them up on our way past and we were on our way.
We set off into the darkness of the night, and soon we were hiking through snow fields, following our GPS for directions as the trail was hard to find. The temperature dropped immediately and seemed to get colder as we climbed to higher altitudes.
As we approached the final climb, we were greeted by another stunning sunrise, lighting up the mountains all around us and creating an amazing glow of different colors on the horizon.
I felt surprisingly good throughout the morning and any sign of my earlier altitude sickness was gone, replaced by adrenaline to get me up and over the highest point on the PCT. The alternative, turning around and backtracking for two days to get to the nearest town was not an option that I was keen on pursuing.
Once we reached the final climb, it became immediately clear that it was steep. Luckily the snow was still crunchy enough as the sun had not had enough time yet to melt the top layer, meaning that even small indentations in the snow were reliable to stand on as you made your way up the steep slope. Using our Microspikes for traction, we slowly made our way up to the halfway point, where Leigh decided to break out her ice axe to give her a bit more confidence that she wasn’t about to slide back down to the bottom of the steep slope.
After successfully getting through the snowy switchbacks, we were grateful for a snow-free path which took us all the way to the crux, the infamous snow chute.
We had watched at least a dozen other hikers already complete the traverse ahead of us, but that didn’t make it any less intimidating. Given the steepness of the shute, if you made a mistake in the crossing you’d likely end up seriously injured at best, so it demands your full attention.
Leigh went first without issue and I followed shortly behind. Given the number of hikers on the trail, there were shin deep footsteps all the way across the traverse which made it a lot easier than it otherwise would have been earlier in the season.
On reaching the top of the pass, we couldn’t believe the stunning views in both directions. Now in the full heat of the sun, we took the opportunity to layer down and prepare ourselves for the tricky snow covered descent down the other side of the pass.
It was hard to know where to look with so much beauty around us.
We had to contend with softer snow towards the end of our descent, which made for many slips and postholes (ie. when your foot sinks into the snow, sometimes up to your knee or waist) along the way.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful, walking through some greener areas, occasionally seeing signs of recent avalanche damage.
We decided to push on to get as close as possible to Glen Pass, which will be our assignment for tomorrow morning. This will be a regular theme over the next few days as we have one major pass (mostly snow covered) to climb and cross every day first thing in the morning when the snow is crunchy before getting as close as we can to the next pass by the afternoon to make our job as easy as possible for the following day.
We ended the day in an unexpected snow field, complete with temporary lake from snow melt. It was a bit of a winter wonderland and was a nice surprise.