6-10-17, PCT mile 770.3, 10 miles
I awoke several times during the night between strange dreams involving water. In one, Sarah and I were on some sort of cruise ship that was bizarrely partitioned in two across a river. On the bottom deck there was a large open room flooded with raging water separating one side of the boat from the other. I had spoken to the captain and had learned that they would unflood the bottom deck in an hour, allowing us to go through the open room and into the other side of the ship where a plank would allow us easy access to the other side. In another, I had accidentally fallen through the wooden floor on a boat my brother had bought and everyone in the family was upset with me. The boat was at my childhood home in the woods near Rockford Washington. In this dream version of the property there was a large waterfall near the house under which this boat was moored. I attempted to dive down into the deep pool beneath to collect the pieces of wood flooring I had dislodged, but the current of the waterfall kept pushing me back and I could not reach them. There was little surprise why I was having these dreams. We were camped next to the usually a small stream but currently a continuous class three rapid of rock creek. Between fitful sleep I would wake to the sound of the raging water,feel my heart beating strongly in my chest and breath heavily in order to get enough air. Last night we had seen the fallen tree we would have to cross and it looked problematic. The tree had broken over a boulder on the other side. It was plenty wide but it also had several broken branch ends on its surface we would have to step around. The log was five feet above a dangerous rapid. Further upstream there were two logs next to eachother across the water but the water was rushing two feet above them in the middle. What little the creek was going to drop by morning would not be enough to make them passable. There might be a spot in the meadows a mile behind us, but probably not. This log was likely our only option. I wish we could have crossed it that night and got it over with, but it was wiser to wait until morning when the flow of the creek might weaken a bit. So here we were listening to the sound of the pounding water thinking about that log all night. I have heard, and believe that worrying about a difficult task only serves to make you live through it twice. But reason is sometimes useless against anxiety. So I lay there in the cold night, living the log crossing for the first time.
In the early predawn we forced ourselves to get up in the cold and break camp. The creek may have dropped, but not noticeably. We decided I would cross first. The surface of the wood was relatively dry and the log was about 2 ft in diameter. Looking down at my slow careful footsteps I could see the water rushing beneath. Being a whitewater rafter/kayaker I know what it is like to swim such a rapid with a whitewater vest on. It is not fun. One slip and I would be in it without a vest and a large heavy pack on my back, the consequences of which would be severe. Without a backpack and without the heightened drama of the outcome of a mishap, the walk would not be that difficult, but these two added aspects made the crossing terrifying to me. First to cross and then to have to watch Sarah do the same. A quarter of the way across I encountered the first broken branch nub. It became clear I could not step over, but rather must step around. On the first attempt I felt my body begin to shift under the weight of my 35lb pack. As slowly as I could, I moved my foot back from the branch. My body began to do the absolute worst thing it could possibly do in this circumstance. For the first time since I can remember my legs began to shake in terror. I took some deep breaths and calmed myself as best I could, slowly placed my leg around the branch again then bent at the waist slightly, reached out and grabbed the next branch with my hand. Gripping that branch as tightly as I have ever held anything, I moved my back foot up and over. It caught the branch slightly but landed surely behind my leading foot. This left me bent over with a full pack and legs still tremoring slightly. I slowly pushed up with my legs to a standing position making sure to keep the weight of my backpack in the center of my body and forcing myself to breath slowly and deeply. Six slow deliberate steps later, I stepped onto the flat boulder on the other side. There was no rush of relief, knowing that Sarah was behind me. I motioned to Sarah over the roar of the rapid that I would set up saftey for her. I dropped my bag onto the ground beneath the rock then lowered myself down by my arms with one hand on the rock and the other grasping a branch nub of the portion of the tree which had broken in half over the boulder when it fell. I unclipped the caribiner holding my throw rope and walked a few steps downstream. As there was no tree to tie off to, I held the bag. I honestly don’t know how much harder dragging a person in with a throw rope is when they are not bouyed by a lifevest, but it was at least some measure of protection. I signaled to Sarah that I was ready. She began to slowly cross and stopped at the same point I had stalled. A lump grew in my throats as she remained motionless for a moment and then slowly retreated back to the shore from which she had came. I did not know for sure if she would remain on the other side of the river, look for a place, miles upstream andout of site to cross, or retry the log. Sarah gathered herself and started out over the log again. She slowly bent over around the branch as I had done and in a similar fashion moved her back leg around it. Knowing that it was more difficult for her to balance and stand under the weight of a full backpack, my face began to grow numb and a tightness grew in the pit of my stomach as she slowly stood, walked the last few steps and touched down on the rock, then sat for a few moments with a far away look in her eyes. The relief began flooding in with a chill,my cheeks regained feeling and I released my white knuckled death grip on the end of the rope. It was over. She lowered her backpack to me and sat for a little while on the rock before descending. “We are never going to do that again.” I said, both of us knowing that there was no way to know for sure that we could avoid it in the near future. There were several stream crossings between us and the nearest exit point up and over first Forrester and thenKearsarge Pass. I knew this though: I would walk for miles through the snow up and down a creek before I ever attempted such a crossing in the future.
We began to walk up an 800 ft hill. I had to stop every 40 feet or so to stop the pounding in my chest and clear my head from dizziness. The morning’s excitement had contributed to this, but mostly it was a result of the elevation. Much of the trail now is above 10,000 ft. The week of heat forced inactivity we had spent at sea level in Havasu had taken what acclimation to the thin air we had built up. As we reached the top of the ridge the snow capped mountains that surrounded us in all directions became visible. They were breathtaking. But, since the elevation was also breathtaking in a literal sense, I had none to spare at their beauty. While gorgeous, they were also an inescapable reminder of our isolation and what snowy climbs were to come.
The snow is everywhere in the Sierra. It blankets the meadows, hangs over the mountain sides in 30 to 45 degree slopes, and gathers in five to ten foot drifts in the forrests on top of the several feet that lie under them. The constant up and down of the snow drifts mean that there is never flat ground and all the downhills are slow and sometimes treacherous. In many areas there are miles of a phenomenon called sun cups covering the ground. They form in high altitudes here and are similar in appearance to egg cartons. The bumps in the cartons are about one to two feet. There is, mostly, no trail. Your mind is constantly occupied trying to keep your bearings and travel in the correct direction. There are sometimes tracks to follow but can not always be trusted and frequently disappear or diverge. It is , I would estimate, half as fast as it would be any other year in recent memory at this time. We struggle to make ten miles a day and take 12 hours to do it. There is a very real danger that would not exist in another year. It would be easier to appreciate the grandure of theses mountains if there were an actual trail. It is melting here but the amount of snow anywhere above 9,000 ft ,depending on which direction the slope is facing, makes it clear that it will be a long time before it is gone. This year was the largest recorded snowfall in the Sierra in recorded history, 200 percent of normal. The amount of moisture in the snowpack is also historic. More is melting all the time, swelling the creeks more every week. They are raging now and are more like rivers. It would not be unreasonable to assume that some of the larger crossings will become completely impassible in the near future. Ahead Oregon and Washington had very heavy winters as well and the snow line is down to 4000ft. Ski resorts across the west planto stay open until August, possibly later. Unknown to me as I hiked up the small hill, a large snow storm had dumped several feet in Mammoth, closing the roads that had just opened. I do not believe in fairness when it comes to nature. I believe the universe is fundamentally indifferent to the human condition. It is easy to feel how insignificant you are in such empty vastness. As Tyler Derden said :”You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.” The mountains do not care about your feelings. We had planned to hike 2650 miles to test our mental and physical stamina. We did not anticipate to add 400 miles of mountaineering. I will say I find it extremely unfortunate.
As we approached the junction for the optional 17 mile round trip to Mt. Whitney we decided the miles we were making in our current condition would make the side trip unfeasable with the amount of food we had. I didn’t feel bad about this as Whitney is not part of the PCT. While we trudged along I began to feel cramps in my intestines. It became clear, an hour and a half and mile later, that if I did not take immediate action today would be the day those hikers in Portland warned me about. Having little time I frantically took the hand trowel out of my pack and furiously dug a hole in the nearest patch of bare earth. We had seen no one that day so, of course, as soon as I was done, two hikers appeared out of the trees. As one approached to say hello, I told him he shouldn’t come over because I was having an “emergency”. He understood and said “No big deal. ” His trail name was Bucket and the other was Dave. Bucket was a man around my age with a full hiker beard and Dave was a retired Australian who organizes and participates in ultra marathons. We would hike with them for the rest of the day down a very steep, tree lined slope that I would not have chosen to even ski down to yet another raging crossing called Wallace Creek. We scouted up and down and found the only reasonable crossing anywhere near was where the creek crossed over what our gps app told us was the trail. It was a wide spot in the river with a waist deep current in the middle pushing into yet another rapid directly downstream. The rapid was shallow and the crossing seemed doable, yet frightening. We thought we might have seen a way to get to a island upstream that split the creek in two just before the crossing. We planned to explore upstream to find a way onto this island in order to walk down to the trail and enter the water past the main current. Again we would wait until morning for the current to ebb. Again we would spend the night listening to the roar of a creek we feared crossing.