Trail Update #6: Mountains Beyond Mountains

Day 59, Mammoth Lakes, 8 AM

Hello friends and family! I can’t tell you how nice it is right now to have some cell phone service and internet and enough time to sit down and write for a bit. We’ve been way out in the wilderness for this last stretch, going over probably the toughest terrain I’ve ever hiked on and being met with some of the most amazing wild beauty for our effort. It’s hard to even believe this place is real. Anyway, it’s been a lot of time and many miles since the last update, so there’s a lot to catch you all up on!

We were in Tehachapi the last time I wrote, in the middle of the most difficult stretch of desert. The desert feels so long ago now, but I wouldn’t be doing this trip justice if I skipped it over, so I’ll start there. When we left Tehachapi it was late morning, and it was hot. We had 7 days worth of food and 4 or 5 liters of water each, making my pack probably the heaviest it’s been on this trip. We hiked up a hot exposed hill in the midday sun for the first 4 or 5 miles – a harsh welcome back to the trail after our two days off – and this only increased my already-strong desire to be done with the desert. I kept returning to the thought that this actually would be the last stretch of desert for us, a last rite for our passage into the mountains. It seemed impossible that all we had to do was walk north, and that slowly but surely the land would change beneath our feet, that in 150 miles we’d be out of the desert and in the Sierras.

Part of this stretch of trail was a 42-mile dry stretch ending at Walker Pass. We were all varying degrees of anxious about it, having already become very familiar with the tiring and dehydrating effects of the desert heat. In hopes of reducing the amount of time we’d spend in direct sunlight, we decided to night-hike the first part of it. We set out at 6 PM, and we made it 23 miles in by 4:30 AM. Walking at night was in some ways a lot more enjoyable than walking in the day – I felt a new sense of adventure and challenge hiking through the night, my body felt a lot happier in the cool night air, and it was a moonless and amazingly starry night, maybe the most beautiful night sky I’ve ever seen. It was surprisingly easy, too; once I got over my initial wave of fatigue at normal bedtime, I had no problems hiking through the night. It really did suck to go to sleep as the sun was coming up, though. We slept for two hours before being woken up by the sun, bright in our eyes and hot on our bodies. We spent that day attempting to rest in some meager shade, and hiked out again in the evening. All in all, our strategy of night hiking worked well, but I’m pretty sure I’ll never do it again on this trail. Also it ended up not mattering so much because there were a couple of full water caches. Go figure.

From Walker Pass on, things changed. The first big thing that happened there was that Duncan was peeing blood and had to go hitch into Lake Isabella to get it checked out. Duncan called Emily’s dad using Emily’s Iridium satellite phone to talk to him and get his opinion (he’s a urologist), and it sounded like it was probably a bladder or kidney stone, something that nobody would want to be stuck dealing with out on the trail. We decided as a group that it made sense for the rest of us to hike on rather than wait there, and that we could check in with each other using the Iridium later that night. It was only 50 miles to Kennedy Meadows, and with luck Duncan would be able to meet back up with us there in a few days and just miss that little stretch. So we gave Duncan a hug and saw him off – it can be a hard hitch to town from there but he luckily got one right away – then, after some lunch and shade, the four of us continued north.

The other big thing that day was a tangible shift in scenery. Out of the dry valley of Walker Pass we hiked up into some rocky, craggy mountains – not yet the Sierras, but we were so within reach of them at this point that it didn’t matter. It was a beautiful final stretch of hiking the rest of the way to Kennedy Meadows, and especially that day walking out of Walker Pass I felt beyond elated by the changing scenery. The end of the desert was palpable – a combination of fresh air, higher altitude, beautiful views, and something inside me ready for a change.

That night when we got to camp, we turned on the Iridium and texted Duncan. He told us he had Rhabdomyolysis (google it) and that he had to take 5 days off and go back in for tests, at which point he might be able to come back to the trail or might have to wait longer. He asked us to think about what we want to do hiking-wise and check in soon We knew that we’d be in Kennedy Meadows in 2 days or so and figured we’d be able to actually talk to him more in depth there, but over text on the Iridium we told him that Mathew’s parents were planning on coming out to see us at Lone Pine, the next town we planned to stop in after Kennedy Meadows, and that they could probably pick him up on their way over if he was cleared to keep hiking. There wasn’t much else we could do at this point but keep hiking and wait to talk more in Kennedy Meadows, but by the time we got there and connected to the (really crappy) internet he’d flown across the country and was in DC.

It really came as a shock to us that he had left, though now that I’ve learned more about Rhabdomyolysis I understand why he did. It sucked not having cell service through this period of time, because our communication was limited and I think it made for hurt feelings on both sides. The four of us spent a good amount of our time in Kennedy Meadows just processing it, and it was definitely something that weighed on me for a while, making the first part of the Sierras feel probably more difficult than it might have otherwise. I think we’re all in a better place about it now; the four of us have settled into a comfortable groove together on the trail, and Duncan’s moving on to looking for jobs in Oklahoma. Best of luck to you, buddy; I think your goals and ideas sound incredible and I hope you find something that fulfills you.

The rest of our time at Kennedy Meadows after processing what happened was actually pretty nice – we spent a day and a half there, eating a lot of food and drinking a good amount of beer out on that porch with some of our trail-friends. We also had boxes shipped there with resupply food as well as warmer layers and bear canisters, so we all spent a little time reconfiguring our backpacks to accommodate the new gear.

After leaving Kennedy Meadows, we started our hike up into the mountains. It’s hard to describe what the transition felt like. On one hand, it was so beautiful, and we were all grateful for a change of scenery. On the other hand, hiking in the Sierras is a significant challenge – we go through more brutal terrain, with more ups and downs and noticeably less oxygen on each inhale. Hiking up here made me feel so much weaker and smaller, so suddenly. I also was thinking a lot about Duncan out of Kennedy Meadows, and having that weight on my mind made walking harder. All in all the beginning stretch of the Sierras between Kennedy Meadows and Mt. Whitney was undeniably beautiful, but one of the harder stretches of trail for me.

Then we climbed up Mt. Whitney. It’s only 8.5 miles to the summit on the Whitney trail from the PCT, so almost every PCT hiker takes the extra miles to do it. In my opinion you’d be a fool not to. That hike was the most beautiful and epic hike of my life so far! We actually hiked up from the PCT on the western side and then down the eastern side to get to Lone Pine for a resupply, so we got to see both approaches. Both sides of Whitney are incredibly beautiful, with jagged granite crags towering above alpine lakes, lush meadows with meandering creeks, waterfalls – I couldn’t begin to describe how amazing it all was to me. It was undoubtedly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and the view from the top made me cry. Seriously, if you ever get the chance to climb Whitney, do it!!

One thing we weren’t counting on was snow on the descent – a decent bit of it! Without snow gear we definitely had an interesting and somewhat dangerous time of making it down, but we did it, and afterwards I felt full of a special kind of satisfaction that comes with having just done something intense and adventurous. To top that day off, Mathew’s parents were waiting for us at the bottom of the trail. They flew out from Georgia to rain trail magic down on us – they put us up in a motel in Lone Pine, took us out to eat at all the best spots in town, and just generally made a merry time for us off the trail. It was lovely.

Back on the trail again after that, and from Mt. Whitney the PCT follows the John Muir Trail for 175 miles through the High Sierra, first through Sequoia and Kings Canyon and then through John Muir Wilderness. In Lone Pine we’d all picked up some micro spikes for our shoes, which are a lighter version of crampons that help give you traction walking through snow and ice. Some people carry ice axes too, but at this point the snow up here isn’t so bad and I don’t really think they’re necessary. With the spikes we’ve felt pretty good tackling the snow, which we pretty much only encounter on the high passes. And those passes… wow! It’s really nuts climbing up to 12,000 feet and having a beautiful view of snow-capped peaks, alpine lakes, and lush valleys off both sides of it. All the passes have been different, as have been the valleys we’ve walked between them. The climbs up have been varying levels of brutal (usually gaining between 2000 and 4000 feet, the last stretch of which might be snow-covered) and the descents range from gentle to sketchy. The snow makes the passes interesting. When there’s enough of it and the slope of the hill is right, you can “glissade” down part of the way – a fancy way of saying sledding on your butt. The glissade down Mather Pass was my favorite; it was unexpectedly fast and Mathew and I both caught some air off a little bump.

In lieu of more words about the High Sierra, I’m going to put in some pictures, mostly of snow and us badassedly walking through it.

Approaching Forester Pass, the highest point on the PCT at a little over 13,000 ft
Spikes for traction
Mathew getting ready to glissade
Hiking past a snow-covered lake near the top of Muir Pass
In one of the valleys of Kings Canyon
The gang making the climb up to Muir Pass
One of a million grand views of the Sierras from the trail

I’m gonna call that good for now. Next up is Yosemite, followed by Tahoe! Once I’m there I’ll have basically walked home from Mexico. I’m surely going to continue having my butt kicked by these mountains but am thrilled nonetheless to be out here and continually grateful for the love and support from all of you! Big hugs to you all!

One thought on “Trail Update #6: Mountains Beyond Mountains

  1. Luis Mena

    Emma, first of all, Tawna and I are so sorry to here about Duncan. We really know he would have continued if he was able. We are so proud of you all. Your descriptions of your journey are amazing! We are with you in spirit. Remember the trip Tawna and I were taking? Well, we did it, but there was a mishap. During one of our river crossings, Tawna fell and broke her hand. Not to worry. We continued on and she finished it. She’s such a trooper. After our trip, we went to the hospital and she needed surgery to repair it. It all went well. She’s recovering now. Please continue with your blog because we look forward to reading them. That’s it for now, please take care and be safe,

    Love you girls, your Trail Angels
    Lou & Tawna

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s