Day 66 16.05.18 14.5 Miles / 23km
After a combined total of 5 nights I finally said goodbye to Scott and Kendra the husband and wife team who run Grumpy Bears. Scott gave us a lift to the trailhead at midday and we were officially back on the trail.
It felt great to be back. The terrain was flat and sandy until we started gaining elevation. The familiar pains in my feet, knees and hamstrings returned. The arches of my feet felt tight and hurt with most steps. My hamstrings were tight and fatigued pushing myself and a heavy back uphill, and the padding in the joints of my knees felt squished.
My bag was heavier than usual with eight days of food and additional snow gear like an ice axe, micro spikes and bear canister.
I soon grew tired of the heavy pack and return to trail pains, now grumpy that I didn’t start earlier to allow for extra breaks and annoyed that I’d agreed to a further campsite than originally planned. I’m also annoyed that in just two weeks it feels like I’ve lost a whole lot of tolerance and conditioning.
Kyle trying to lighten the mood playfully comes up and pokes me with his trekking pole. I growl “Kyle, you are literally poking a bear right now” but do cheer up after letting out obnoxious tired groans as I try to get the grumpy out of my system. It works really well.
We pass scenic rolling meadows which is what I assume Kennedy Meadows is named after, and eventually reach our campsite at the Kern River at 7pm. Seeing the Bridge which marked home for the night I squealed, happy to have made it and finally able to stop. I set up my tent, took an Advil, and lay there so content to not to be moving. Kyle couldn’t believe the change in my mood.
Satisfying my appetite I ate ramen and veggies and decided my tent was my favourite place in the world. With heavy eyelids I fell asleep, so content with being back on trail. Even with the soreness, the hunger, the cold chill outside, the extra effort to collect and filter water, the cooking on lightweight stoves and endless unpacking and repacking of my bag. I couldn’t be happier.
Day 67 17.05.18 15.5 Miles / 25km
It takes longer than usual packing my bag while I relearn how it all fits with a bear canister. The canister weighs a kilo empty, and then holds the weight of eight days of food. Being a heavy brick of an item it’s best packed in the middle of the bag against your back, which was prime real estate for clothes prior to this. I put my sleeping bag in first, then the bear can, then I pack all my clothes around the canister, adding my tent and stove on top. Gone are the days where I could throw everything in and be ready in 10mins.
Going to charge my phone I realise the cable is broken. That’s a huge inconvenience especially for such a long, cold and battery draining leg. Luckily most of us have iPhones so Speedy lent me his cord, but it means charging through the day while we walk instead of at night when I usually would. Beggars can’t be choosers.
After two weeks off my feet have softened and my shoes start rubbing the backs of my heels. After seeing someone cut down their shoes to fix this problem I decide to do the same. While breaking I ask Kyle for his knife and carve away until there’s no longer contact with the sensitive spots on my heels. It’s a risky move that pays off.
It was a hard climb in altitude for the morning. We gained 1000m (3280 feet) elevation over 8km (5 miles), and it took me till lunchtime to get to the top. Breathless and drained I’d have to stop every few meters to recover and repeat. By the time I’d met the others at the creek I was defeated. I told them I wasn’t up for a big day and will stop early before reaching their camp. Ray and Four Eyes was still behind us so I figured they might catch up. Gandalf and Speedy carry on and Kyle gives me a hug before he goes. I start to cry. The sting of self doubt is a painful thing. This is so challenging and we’re not even in snow yet. I’m having a hard time adjusting to altitude and worried about getting through the Sierras. It’s a hard day.
I push on and by the afternoon I start seeing messages in the sand for me. “River meet at 730.8”. Checking Guthook that’s the mile marker of Death Canyon Creek near where I said I was aiming to camp. I pass another message, this time made in sticks, “RIVER 730.8”.
Arriving at the site I pass campers who I didn’t recognise. They say “Are you River? Your friends are over there”.
I walk in the direction they point and find Kyle Gandalf and Speedy. Kyle hugs me and says “Are you feeling better? We decided to wait so you weren’t alone on a hard day”. I am speechless from the gesture, feeling so luckily to be hiking with such amazing people.
After setting up camp the boys lit a campfire for us all the cook around and spent time together. In the warmth we took time to tell stories, chill out and enjoy our time on trail. With so much comoradory we felt like a family for the night. I went to bed feeling loved, valued and supported.
Day 68 18.05.18 20 Miles / 32km
Planning a big day we get up at 6am, breaking camp and starting our hike at 7am. It’s cold, but knowing I’m climbing more hills today I commit to wearing shorts.
I end up having a great day passing the first 10km (6 miles) quickly and breaking every 5km (3 miles) after that. This works well, I set a good pace and agree to meet Kyle at a creek for lunch. I ended up missing the site so stopped for lunch on my own, writing my name in the dirt for when he eventually passes to see that I’m ahead, not overdue and behind. A day hiker passes me and asks if I’m with Kyle. I say I am and he let’s me know that he’s napping at the water source where we’d agreed to meet. Kyle did eventually catch up and pass me on a break about 10km (6 miles) out from camp.
Despite walking towards a giant grey cloud all day, getting hit with weather still came as a surprise. With 6km (3.7 miles) to hike until camp the temperature suddenly dropped, I stopped to put on my down jacket, and after a few steps it starts to hail. Stopping again I grab my rain jacket and put it on to keep the puffy dry. It hailed hard covering the ground in a blanket of white. Parts of the trail become snowy and I continue to carefully step into the footprints of those who have post holed before me until I drop elevation enough that there’s no longer snowdrift on the trail.
As the hail turns to rain I stop to put some pants on as my poor legs were freezing in shorts. I notice the ice on the top of my bag and in the creases of my sleeping pad so decide to also put on my pack cover.
With so many stops I was delayed to camp by half an hour, making it even colder when I arrive at 7pm as the weather turned to snow.
Gandalf and Speedy were ahead, leaving Kyle a message in the sand of the mile marker they planned to sleep at. I find Kyle on the trail waiting for me, he’d set up his tent out of view so didn’t want me to miss the site. He ushered me into his tent to get changed and warm while he boiled water for us both to have dinner. I felt absolutely spoiled as we ate hot meals huddled together in our sleeping bags as it lightly snowed outside.
Day 69 19.05.18 18 Miles / 29km
After what felt like a draining night we treated ourselves to a sleep in, getting up at 7:30am. Moving slowly in the cold I wasn’t packed up until 8:30am, then looking down the trail I see Ray. He caught up at last after he’d walking for two hours that morning hoping to catch us still at camp. Four Eyes was a day behind planning to catch up while we summited Mt Whitney the following day. The gang was almost back together.
Being now two weeks behind we start meeting new people. I walk with Sherlock and Watson from the UK, and Kyle hikes with fellow Canadian Wifey, who’s attention to detail gave him his name. Ray pulls ahead trying to get to camp early so he can call it a day.
Hiking in hail again we wrap ourselves in rain gear and seek shelter in the ranger station for lunch, all meeting back up again. I keep it quick being too cold to stop, and head back out on trail. The scenery is gorgeous, looking around the trees look like a painting, and colours pop in the damp weather.
I come to a river crossing and start looking for a path to take with dry feet. Walking up and down the riverbank I’m joined by Dunks who finds some logs for us to cross over. He goes first then watches me, offering a hand on the other side. Now downstream we bushbash (bushwhack) our way up to a bridge where Dunks stops for lunch and I keep going. Ending up at a campsite I check Guthook and realise I’m off trail. I turn around, pass Dunks again sheepishly saying “the trails this way by the way”.
I climb up the trail switchbacks while it hails, unaware Homes and Watson we in hot pursuit. Eventually overcome with the feeling of being watched I turn around to find Homes directly behind me shadowing my footsteps. I scream and jump, completely deafened in the hail with my hood up. They apologise and compliment my pace. As we climb higher I stop more frequently with Watson noticing my struggles. He politely struggles with me and we walk together until a junction where they stopped to wait for others.
Dunks reappeared in time for our next river crossing, again finding a log downstream for us to cross at. For our third and final crossing Ray walks ahead and finds some rocks to hop across. Nervous I follow and am helped by Dunks and Ray as they hold out poles for me to grab as I launch myself from a rock to the riverbank. All crossings successfully done for the day. I hope this trend continues.
Finding a nice spot in the trees we set up base camp ready to summit Mount Whitney the next day. We cook dinner and quickly retreat to our tents to escape the cold and get an early night ready for our early start the next morning. Thinking ahead I shave slithers of hard set Nutella onto wraps to have lunch ready for the summit, storing it in the bear canister for the night.
Day 70 20.05.18 16 Miles / 26km
After a sleepless cold night my alarm goes off at 3:00am. Kyle sticks his head out of the tent looking for stars to indicate good weather. He announces to the camp “ohhh shiiiit we’re summiting Whitney today!” so we all get up and start moving.
Mount Whitney is a side trail off the PCT, meaning we could leave our tents set up at base camp for when we return in the afternoon. Taking advantage of this we unpacked our bags to carry up just the bare minimum; the days food, water, warm clothes, and snow gear such a ice axes and micro spikes. Carrying such a light pack was amazing.
In the light of our head torches we put the baskets on our trekking poles to help in the snow, grab the days snacks from our bear canisters and nibble on bars for a quick meal to start the day. At 4am we left our tentsite and started our day with a river crossing. Balancing on frozen logs we each inched our way across to the trail on the other side. The ground around us glistened under a layer of frost that crunched under our feet as we climbed uphill. We hadn’t walked long before needing to stop and remove the puffy’s from under our wind jackets, burning up in our layers of thermal clothing while gaining elevation.
At first light we collected water and rock hoped across the river that feds into the frozen Guitar Lake. Kyle slips on an icy rock and lands in the shallow water, drenching his left foot and leg. Angry at himself he pushes to hike fast, needing to keep warm in the cold conditions.
We walked across snow fields and up rocky switchbacks. From the start I was struggling, with most of the group pulling ahead. Ray stayed back, patiently giving me space and time as I breathlessly made my way up the mountain. As we gained elevation the altitude hit me harder, I felt drained of energy as my muscles begged for more oxygen, and I had to keep stopping to catch my breath.
Approaching our first questionable looking snowdrift Ray gives me a quick rundown again on how to hold my ice axe and safely walk across the trail without slipping down the mountain. Focused I excute it correctly giving me confidence for the multiple other snow drifts we pass to the summit.
The higher we climbed, the more I struggled. I’d take a few steps then find myself breathless and out of energy. I’d stop to recover, then start walking and repeat. Reaching the summit junction there were a few miles left to the top. All of me wanted to stop and wait for the others to come back there, but knowing Ray wouldn’t allow it I didn’t bother even mentioning it and kept on climbing. I was overcome with emotion. I stayed quiet, struggling in my head switching between “I’m not gonna make it” to “I can’t believe I’m actually going to Summit, I’m going to make it”. Ray comments I was silent for hours, but in truth I was just trying not to cry.
Almost at the top I wait for Ray so we can summit together. I turn and hug him a big hug “Thankyou so much”. His patience and encouragement played a huge role in me reaching the summit, and I really don’t know if I’d have completed it otherwise.
Some fellow hikers cheer us in from the top and I perk up once I’d stopped for long enough to gain my breath. The summit feeling was incredible. Suffering through the climb for five hours I wondered to myself why people do this, but then it became immediately obvious once I saw the view from the top of the highest peak in the lower 48 States of America. I was surrounded by snow capped mountains, able to touch the clouds with admiration of how hard I’d just worked to get to this 4421m (14,504 feet) summit.
The climb down was significantly faster than the climb up. Flying down the mountain Ray stays with me until we pass all the dangerous snow drifts and then pushes ahead to get back to camp at his usual fast pace.
Suddenly I realise I’d been awake for 11hrs but hadn’t yet been to the bathroom as there’s no convenient place on switchbacks going up a mountain. Despite now busting I hold on for as long as I can to get out of the snow, avoiding having to pack it out. Once back on dry land I end up stopping for an emergency poop, with no time to dig a hole I do my business then need to relocate it. I’m not impressed with the situation, especially to also learn I’d gotten my period. Defeated I sit on a rock near my fresh cat hole eating a cliff bar while admiring my poop view. Another one of those “is this really my life?” moments.
Back at camp Four Eyes rolls in and we cheer finally all back together again. We eat dinner early and head to bed, exhausted after our day, saving our side trip catch ups for the trail the following day.
Day 71 21.05.18 11 Miles / 19km
After it snowed on and off through the night and morning we didn’t want to get out of our sleeping bags. We were on trail at 9am with a shorter day ahead of us, but little did we know just how hard going the day would be. Soon into the hike it starts snowing, getting heavier as we climb higher. Eventually we can’t see the trail any more and rely on the GPS on Guthook to point us in the direction to walk.
It’s cold, I wear my alpine gloves with liners and still can’t feel my thumbs. Occasionally after climbing a hill I’ll push the sleeves up on my rain jacket, but instantly they come down again when I realise the outside air temperature. I’m wearing my cap with my beanie over the top and buff covering the back of my head and chin. I’d wear it higher over my nose if my breath didn’t fog my sunglasses. While it’s not too sunny or glarey the glasses stop the snowflakes from getting in my eyes.
We approach our first river crossing. All three today are marked as fordes with no good places to cross with dry feet. We get lucky with the first one with low water so can rock hop most of it with only a few steps underwater. We weren’t too worried about wet shoes in a shallow step since we were already wet from the snow. While using my poles to balance I loose both the snow baskets which attach to the end to aid walking in snow. I’m bummed, but a day away from town where I can hopefully buy more.
We continue on in the heavy snow till we reach the second river. This time the boys managed to rock hop (more like leap) across with dry feet but Four Eyes and I didn’t feel so confident. We decided to forde together so sat down in the snow and took off our shoes and socks. I put on my Teva sandals which I use for camp shoes, and Ray throws his sandals across to Four Eyes to use. We put on our packs, link arms and step in the freezing rushing water. The cold is immediate but I tell myself it’s ok. Within seconds it’s unbearable and I’m breathing loud while crossing. Next it aches up my calves and goes numb, with everything below the knee now in shock. Then we scramble out the other side, I feel the need the hyperventilate and cry at the same time, though I keep it in. Immediately I feel the blood rush to my feet and they become comparatively warm. I can’t even feel the snow landing on them. I put my shoes and socks back on and marvel how much just went on in a matter of seconds. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be, I’ve already stopped feeling the pain.
Needing a break from the snowfall we decide to go half a mile off trail to find the ranger station. After walking in the rough direction for a while we eventually find it, but are disappointed to learn it’s locked and has no awning to offer shelter. Defeated the others eat bars while I’m grateful for again pre-making my Nutella wraps. We trudge back the half mile and are faced with our final river crossing…again not possible to cross without getting wet.
Kyle goes first in his shoes choosing the best path. Ray, Four Eyes and myself all take off our shoes, I put on my sandals and Ray goes barefoot to lend Four Eyes his sandals again. One by one we cross, going through the full range of hypothermic shock in seconds and quickly recovering on the other side. Kyles legs are stupidly long and the water comes much higher up our calves than it did in him.
As we trudge further through the snow end up in a totally whiteout, then it blows over and the weather fines up. The afternoon was hours of breathlessly walking through ankle deep snowfields towards the looming mountains.
Eventually the infamous Forester Pass came into view and I catch up to the others who had starting to set up camp, digging out snow trenches for their tents.
Kyle sets up the tent while I go to get water from the close by river that runs under the snow. I go to the bank and kick out the fresh snow on each side so we can reach down without sinking to scoop a pot full of fresh mountain water and pour it into our bottles.
Snug in the tent with Kyle I feel for poor Four Eyes freezing in her tent alone. I give her my spare fleece jacket and shock blanket to wrap herself in for the night. It keeps her alive, but warm would be an overstatement.
In the tent I lay down and can feel the cold of the snow below me but am overall happy with the insulation of my Thermarest Zlite. The air is cold inside the tent but considerably warmer when I sink down into my sleeping bag.
I put my wet socks in the end of my sleeping bag to dry through the night and cuddle my frozen Nutella until it softens enough to spread on wraps for the next days lunch. Kyle puts both our wet shoes in a plastic bag at the foot of his sleeping bag so they don’t freeze overnight. We lean into each other trying to share as much warmth as we can, though know we’re in for a long restless night.
Day 72 22.05.18 20 Miles / 32km
We wake up at 5am to everything in the tent frozen. Food, water, clothing and our bags – everything. A layer of frost covered our sleeping bags and the inner mesh of the tent, making it snow inside as we move around. Woken by the cold everyone else slowly stirred as well so we decided to start our day early.
Caveman arrived solo the night prior and chatting to him we learn he is from Austria and has plenty of snow and mountain experience, so decide to let him go first to then follow his tracks. We also learn it’s his birthday so I take the lead in singing happy birthday to him from our tents.
Feeling strong we climb the switchbacks to Forester Pass. Surprised it only took an hour Kyle crosses the chute cutting steps in for the rest of us as he goes. Nervously Four Eyes crosses before me and sighs in shakey relief when she makes it to the other side. I’m up, focused I punch the handle of my ice axe into the side of the mountain, slowly kicking in each step feeling my microspikes grip before taking the next step. Resisting the temptation to look down the chute I cross calmly and safely to the other side.
For the final scramble we use our ice axes as picks to climb up, spotted by Ray from the bottom and Kyle helping us up at the top. Finally, we made it over the Forester Pass, the highest point on the trail, and the most dangerous pass. Ecstatic we cheered and hugged and celebrated at the top. We posed for photos and revelled in the blue skies and freezing temperatures.
Climbing back down I keep my ice axe in hand in case, and enjoy the easy descent through soft snow. As the day warmed the snow turned to slush and I started postholing often. Frustrated I fell behind the group, growling every time I sunk to my knee, having to step out with a full pack on my back.
Down in the tree line again the snow lessened and puddles were regular. Giving into my already wet shoes I walked straight through small snowmelt streams, and across ankle deep river crossings in my shoes.
Gandalf picked up on my mood, noting my struggles to keep up as we again climbed in elevation for our second pass of the day, Kearsage Pass to exit the trail and get into town. Frequently stopping I grumpily climb as I run on empty while it snows on me. Stressed about the next pass in the weather we reach the top for me to realise it was a mere stroll across and Forester has set an exceptionally hard expectation that I probably won’t have to deal with again.
Getting town fever I fly down the switchbacks with Gandalf, covering a rocky snowy 5km in an hour. Right on dark we arrive at the Onion Valley campground, disappointed to find no one around to get a hitch into town. Frustrated I set up my tent in the rain, eating the last of my chocolate and lollies to drown my lack of town food sorrows.
Day 73 23.05.18 Zero
Waking up in a wet tent I lay everything in the sun to dry while I pack my bag. Four Eyes gets a head start on the 20km (12 mile) walk down the road to the highway while I move slowly with Gandalf who’s tired after getting little sleep.
By 8am we start walking down the road, trying to hitch from the only two cars that passed. A lady named Lynn pulled over with two spots, happy to give us a lift to the highway, also mentioning she’ll come back for Four Eyes once she’s dropped us off. At the Highway I soon get my second hitch from a gentleman with only one seat, and listened to stories of him hiding after being drafted for war in the 60’s.
Grateful to arrive back in Bishop hostel I meet up with Kyle and Ray and hear horror stories from hikers who started the next leg but exited after crawling over snow to avoid sinking to their waist.
My confidence on trail took a real hit in this last leg. Thankfully I summited Whitney, and made it over Forester Pass, but I wonder if I’d have been able to without my team around me. In such extreme cold and storms I felt like I hiked in survival mode, repeating mantras to just keep walking, and barley doing more than required to eat sleep and walk. There were highlights, and good times too, but for the most part I experienced the challenge I was after and I don’t know how willing I am to push that hard for the next 10day leg. It turns out I’m not alone. Talking with Dunks, Homes, Sherlock, Four Eyes, Gandalf and a handful of others we decide to flip ahead 700miles and hike South bound back to let the snow conditions settle. Altitude is challenging enough for me, I don’t need to be post holing as well. It’s hard to tell how exactly conditions will be ahead, but even snow at low altitude will be better than what’s immediately ahead. In the few weeks it will take to hike back the storms will hopefully have passed.
Day 74 24.05.18
We take the day to firm up our plans, get some rest and run errands. I finally got to ride a bike to the grocery store, and it felt great to get somewhere at faster than a walking pace.
Taking advantage of gear stores I replace my Teva sandals for a lighter pair called Zeros, with Four Eyes buying my old ones off me. I also swap my hike pants for tights and replace my Injini liner socks.
By flipping ahead I won’t be needing my bear canister or ice axe so pack away a lot of my snow gear ready to be shipped ahead to Kennedy North when it’s required again. I’m excited to be hiking with a lighter pack for a while to get back some speed and confidence.
Sadly, Kyle and Ray aren’t flipping with me. Ray has no time limits so will wait another week or so off trail for the storms to settle and pick back up when it clears. Kyle has ordered snow shoes and will be carrying onto the next leg with Wifey. Being a strong hiker he hasn’t struggled as much as I did, so is entirely capable of carrying on.
It’s really sad to be leaving these guys behind, hiking together from day one we’ve formed a really special bond. We have become a strong trail family, with Kyle and I essentially dating and Ray being a best friend and rock during tough times.
It’s scary leaving my safety blankets but I really believe we’ll be crossing paths as I head South towards them. I’m glad I’ve still got Four Eyes and that I’ve been with a team that built me up so I can head out there knowing what I’m capable of.
It’s also really nice to be going ahead with new people I’ve gotten to know throughout this last leg, all of which have shown so much kindness and patience and friendship while we battled the snow and altitude together. Amazing new friendships are coming.