6-12-17 8.7 miles PCT mile 787.1
I woke up several times because of the cold and wind during the night. The first time was around 11pm. It was 17 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind, which was coming from all directions, would violently shake the tent every few minutes. After about an hour, it became calm. Then I began to hear a familiar slight tapping on the tent. It was snowing. Soon after, the wind resumed and began pushing fresh powdery snow under the rain fly and through the mesh onto ours bags and faces. I tried to sleep, hoping it would just be a mild dusting and not the start of some prolonged storm. “We should have summited with the group, yesterday” I thought, fearing that the fresh snow would cover what tracks existed and leave the snowy approach powdery and dangerous. The wind gusts continued throughout the night and into the morning. I slept very little. We had planned to get up at 430, to summit before the snow could turn slushy. But now we didn’t know what to do. Without the sun up, the temperatures were below freezing and the 40 mile per hour wind gusts were making it unfeasible to get out and pack up the tent. We waited until the sun began to rise before slowly packing up, shivering, with numb hands.
In the light of day we could see that it had snowed a few inches and the strong swirling winds were blowing the powdery snow all over the high valley. Often, little tornadoes of snow would swirl about unpredictably. We walked through the wind to the snow field the four others had climbed the night before. They had ascended to the far right of the chute that lie below the apex of the pass, making one long switchback 1000 feet up to the rocks below the chute where a small portion of exposed trail remained. As we began the switchback turn over the 40 degree slope, it was clear to me that we were well below where the snowfield would meet the trail. If we followed this course we would be directly below the crossing, on the steepest part of the slope, with no way up, stranded. I tried to communicate this to Sarah, who was several steps ahead of me but, due to a misunderstanding of what “chute” meant, she became agitated. “Don’t waste your energy arguing with me!” She yelled back. There were no tracks to follow. Perhaps the snow had obscured them. Maybe we were in the wrong place. The snow was very firm, but too firm. It was icy. My trail crampons were insufficient for the task at hand. The slope was too frozen and too steep. On the exposed ridge I could feel the spikes not getting enough purchase and it was taking all the strength I had in my legs to dig the uphill sides of my feet into the slope. My ice axe was making a small tent into the frozen snow. With each step I was slipping slightly. Below was a several hundred foot tumble, often all the way down to the bottom but sometimes directly into a shelf of rock. An empty water bottle fell out of my side pouch and I watched it tumble and bounce down the mountain, picking up speed until in was out of site. Sarah was calling me to hurry up. She could not stay on the rock ledge she had reached due to the cold and the blowing wind. As she had true mountaineering crampons and was lighter, she was not slipping as I was and was unaware that I was on the verge of sliding off the mountain. I slowly made my way to her rock ledge and wanted to sit to recover the fading strength in my thighs in order to prepare them for the one or two hundred vertical feet to the small amount of exposed trail I believed to be to the left and above us. All I could see from this vantage was rock, though. It could be just impassible rock scramble above a steep snow chute. We tried to talk calmly, briefly, about where we thought the trail was and agreed that the only way forward was to slowly climb to that bit of rock, regardless of what it was. At least once we reached there we could rest for a while as it was flatter than the shelf we were currently on, where we could not stay for long. As we pushed on and I continued to painfully grip onto the snow, I had the unsettling half panicked but resigned feeling one gets when circumstances are out of their control. There was no way back. Only forward. Would the ice axe in my uphill hand stop me before I tumbled out of control? Would it at least slow my descent? I did not know and surely had no interest in finding out. I was in a position people read about and reassure themselves that they would not find themselves in. Under outfitted, under informed. This is why it would never happen to me. He made these mistakes and that is why this happened.
Hundreds of slow, terrifying steps later I reached the rock ledge. It was a relief to have seen Sarah moving cautiously along ahead of me without issue. “Where is this trail at?” Sarah remarked as we caught our breath , our chests heaving hot steam. I looked directly behind her head and saw one of the most welcome sights of my entire life: a stack of hundreds of flat rocks stacked three feet high above the snow. It was clearly not natural. I slowly worked my way over and peered over the ledge that was up to my chest. Bare rock, and chisled steps. ” The trail is right here” I half yelled. “It’s right here…….behind your head. ” I repeated breathlessly. We climbed up the rocks and onto the first bit of bare trail we had seen in miles. Below, we could see a group of hikers walking toward the approach they were gathering to talk and waved to us. Waving back, we safely switchbacked up the remaining hundred feet on carved rock trail. One challenge remained: The chute. This is supposed to be the only scary part of Forrester Pass: fifty feet of exposed snow slope with a drop of several hundred feet below, between two section of safe rock switchbacks to the narrow notch of the highest pass on the PCT.
The footsteps across the breach were three inches deep and the footing was sure. Sarah slowly crossed first without issue, until the last footprint. Some time since the footsteps had been made, a rock had become exposed at the very end, requiring hikers to step up about a foot above it before reaching safety. At the last step she braced slightly against her ice axe and slowly pulled herself up and was shortly on the rock trail on the other side. I crossed after her, making sure not to look down, using the same technique at the last portion. When I reached dry trail, a cheer went up from 1200 feet below. Sarah whooped in reply. We had made it. After a few dry rocky steps, we were at the apex of the Pass.
At 13500 ft, the white hills and towering mountains we had travelled through were visible to the south and ahead to the north more of the same, but jagged and more snow covered and more beautiful. It was 360 degrees of high wintery peaks. Knowing the danger was over, I wanted to take a lot of pictures of the view we had risked out health to obtain. Sarah, cold and wanting to get to lower elevation, had little patience for this, and walked ahead down the other side. After a mile, I saw that Sarah was stopped near a rock ledge.
As I approached, I could see that she was talking to Creamer, who was standing by his tent. Afghan, I reasoned, must have been inside. This was odd. By 10am they should have been packed up and gone three miles. Creamer said that he and Afghan had began to run out of daylight after climbing the pass. They could no longer make out footprints on the snow and could see the approaching storm in the fading light. They found what solid ground they could and made camp only to find, in the early morning, that there was slow seeping water directly above. When they awoke at sunrise, there was an inch and a half of water in the bottom of their tent. The clothes they were wearing, the clothes in their sack, their sleeping bag, everything was soaked. The water outside the tent had frozen and the rainfly and stakes were under an inch of ice. Creamer had said he could not feel his hands or feet. His hands were “blocks”, he had no use of his fingers and was getting hypothermia, as was Afghan. Afghan had used her SPOT, a gps beacon emergency device, to send a distress signal for a helicopter. Either due to their unfamiliarity with the device, the cloud cover or the storm, or the wind in the valley being prohibitive to air travel, no help came. (We would learn later the distress signal had been sent, her mother had been called to accept the $25,000 charge and the rescue team had begun to prepare for deployment when Afghan, seeing us after starting to finally warm a bit, had turned the device off thus cancelling the SOS) They did not know if we would successfully attempt the summit after the storm, and assumed they were alone and could die if they did not get warm and dry. We gave them our sleep clothes, gloves, hats and extra outerwear. Then we chiseled out their tent, put all their things in the sun to dry, and waited for them to warm enough to continue on with us. After it was clear they were no longer in danger, we joked that they were bringing the waterbed back. Creamer had climbed many higher passes, he said, but never one as difficult as Forrester in the current conditions. “I can’t believe they allow it.” He remarked “In Sweden they would just close the pass, but not in America!”
While we waited, the group who had cheered our ascent and another group behind them arrived. In these groups were a few familiar faces. Two young women with a friendly blue heeler with whom I had gotten a ride to the trail from Tehachipi, and group of young men we ran across near Wrightwood. I asked one of the men how Forrester Pass was for him. He paused a bit and then said “emotional”. I agree.
We hiked along with the young couple most of day to make sure they would be alright. Later, we caught up with both Dave and Bucket. I had assumed we had made a mistake staying below the pass, as we got snowed on and had to cross where fresh snow had obliterated any tracks. As it turned out, everyone in our little spontaneous group had taken a beating in one way or the other.
When we saw Dave, he had bloody scabs and dark swollen bruises above and below the left lens of his sunglasses. Even with his shades on, you could tell that he had a significant black eye. His dark stocking cap was soaked through with blood. While beginning the ascent yesterday, a strong gust of wind had blown him off balance and he hit his head on exposed rock. He had also been forced by the weather to camp in a less than ideal location and had also gotten wet, though not nearly as badly as our other hiking mates.
Toward evening, we found a large snowy meadow, with some exposed tree covered ground, in which to camp. A significant number of the group that had summited Forrester behind us was setting up there. Bucket was camping with them. He was out of food and still a long day away from resupply in Bishop. Having overestimated the miles he could make, he was left with one ramen packet. We gave him enough food for one more day. Bucket had the best night of all of us, likely due to his superior speed. He made it back down to the treeline with protection from the prevailing wind and had made a small fire about a mile down from Creamer and Afghan. He had waited by the fire for the others to arrive, but no one came. Bucket was relieved to find that we were all, more or less, okay.
That evening, Sarah, Bucket and I, visited by the fire, briefly, with the large group camped nearby. They were typical of the young, carefree people who largely remain in the Sierra. They seem to revel more in the comradery of thruhiking and, wanting the trail to be a lifechanging or life affirming experience were, together, finding that in their shared experiences. They had varying degrees of understanding of the risks of such travel and possessed that admirabley fucked up risk/reward equation that exists in youthful brains. I was shocked to see that two of the girls only shelter was a tarp. They told us they had spent a few nights sharing tents with the others and assured us they were picking up a more suitable shelter after Kearsarge Pass.
We went to sleep soon after. Tomorrow would be a challenging 9mile hike up and over Kearsarge Pass then down to the mountain town of Bishop.