August 3, 2017
Kearsarge. Oh, Kearsarge, you crazy, snowy kid.
JMT veteran Sherpa, back in 2016, had grimaced and laughed when I said I’d have to exit via Kearsarge to resupply. I asked him if there was another way; he cocked his head and considered, and reluctantly shook his head. I get it now, Sherpa. It’s not so much the going down as the long, long, long trip back up.
I didn’t say much in my journal back then—June, 2016. Kearsarge was, after all, not actually on the trail. And I was sad, and processing the fact that I was ending a thru-hike after only 800 miles. It was kind of a private sadness. You know how it goes: the contemplation, while other people were excited to be heading into the meat of the Sierra. I remember Mayfly from England urging me not to get off trail. I remember giving all my food to Peepers, and the sad look he gave me as I hiked down, down, down away from the community. Thru-hikers come to love one another in a very short period of time, or at least they get invested in one another’s successes and failures. Sometimes we hold each other on trail by force of will.
So there I was again, a year later. It felt like I never left. Like I’d jumped off trail for my resupply, and now I was hiking back up. Weird. Except that back then there had been spots of snow and ice even at the lower elevations when I came down, and now the trail was clear and dry and perfect—for a while, anyway. Just dirt and rock and green and lush and uphill. And warmth.
And water. And flowers.
I climbed. Kearsarge has three parts: a steep scrub part that feels almost like desert, as the elevation increases and the trail moves up from the hot flat below; a steep green and rocky part with trees and ponds; and a steep caldera of bare rock above treeline, with no green at all—just tumbled boulders at 11,000 feet. But the trail winds through all of it, that ribbon of dirt and stone.
The lower part, the scrub part, filled me with magic. I felt high just being back! Euphoria! Bliss! Endorphins! The trail twisted among banks of flowers, tufts of grass, pines. Dragonflies surfed the breeze. I heard birds, sometimes. I heard water! The creek tumbled down the mountain, fat and powerful, and I stopped to fill my bottle. I remembered that creek as being a trickle—the shape of things to come, no doubt. All the old creeks that had been trickles—fat and powerful, in this monstrous snowmelt year.
I had a bit of a headache, and breathing was hard. Really hard. I stopped a lot in the first stretch, on every good sitting rock. (The Sierra is blessed with an abundance of good sitting rocks! It’s my curse that I love them all.) A bunch of hikers passed me in both directions—JMT hikers, all of them. We chatted happily, as though we were filthy rich with time. Which, I guess, I was. Section hiking! But most of all, I’d planned a short day to acclimate a little. Just seven miles. Seven miles to the exact spot I’d left last year.
My first GPS (Guthook) check showed that I was only two miles from the trail. Two miles! And it was only eleven in the morning! Bliss! Unfortunately, I was an idiot. That two miles was actually ‘crow flies’ miles, I think, or the GPS was just getting its bearings; I climbed for miles and painful miles, and hours and hours, before I actually reached the pass.
The day warmed, but clouds started rolling in overhead—threatening, slate-bottomed clouds. This was good and bad—good, because it kept the temperature reasonable for the strenuous climb. Bad, because I was moving super slow, and I didn’t want to be on top of a treeless pass if the clouds started spewing lightning. And I wasn’t any sort of expert on August Sierra weather patterns.
I’d gotten pizza at the Independence co-op and packed it out for lunch and breakfast. I stopped in the middle section of the pass for lunch. I was dodging fat mosquitoes, but they were slow and I didn’t feel the need to put on my bug pants (bug pants!) yet. When I stood up, though, I had to laugh. Again… again… I’d sat in a glop of that pine sap that’s like tar. I forgot every PCT skill I ever learned! Dumbass! I remembered that day in the scrub desert, sitting trailside in my underwear while I scoured my shorts with hand sanitizer and hoped no other hiker showed up. When I reached into my pack pocket for my hand sanitizer this time, I realized the cap had popped and the stuff had leaked all over the inside of the pocket, coating everything in there. And what’s more, there was a hole in the pocket. My pack, I realized, was beat to shit. There were holes everywhere. I should have checked it over, but this particular pack had been a last minute decision.
I laughed again. What can you do? Back in the Appalachian Trail days, this would have seemed like a crisis. Now, it was just trail entertainment.
I cleaned up and got walking. The trail continued, more and more steeply. It finally broke out into the high rocky switchback part of the trail—which lasted interminably longer than I remembered. In fact, the whole climb felt much longer than I remembered. But I think I was remembering the NOBO hikers I passed last year, who said it seemed shorter going up than down. (Then again, they were still near the bottom.)
Two patches of snow interrupted the trail, both slippery, both a little sketchy. I watched a pair of hikers tackle the second one. One of them slipped and nearly went down, skiing sideways on her boots for six feet before her pole managed to grab the slush and stop her. Then it was my turn. My heart fluttered a little as my feet slipped and slid in the crumbling boot tracks, as I looked down at the steep slideout to my left—but it wasn’t a deadly slideout. If I fell, it would hurt, but there wasn’t a cliff, a lake, death. So it was good practice for the slippery sideways snow I had to look forward to tomorrow, on Glen Pass, where the stakes would be much higher. Literally.
There were times near the top that I was sure I couldn’t do it, that I’d have to turn around again and go back. I couldn’t breathe at all. Ten steps by force of will, stop for a breath. Ten steps, breath. Ten steps, breath. It took hours, or seemed like it. But you know what? There was a guy up there who was worse off than I was. And he made it to the top. So I kept pushing. And eventually… the pass! Kearsarge Pass! It was two in the afternoon. A dozen hikers were up there, perusing their maps—JMT hikers, polite and friendly, but less openly effusive than regular PCT thru-hikers. Smiles, but no hugs or high-fives or hiker fist-bumps. One of them kindly took a pic for me.
Then it was down, down, down! My feet were flying! My lungs got bigger with every freaking step. I grinned as I worked my poles, like a fast spider robot. Down! For me, the reward for a long ‘up’ isn’t a view—it’s the ‘down’! I could get to the top and see nothing but trees and be ecstatic because it was time to go down.
Aaaannnndddd… somehow, I overshot my intended camping spot. I blue-blazed, I think (not that there are any blazes out there), and inadvertently cut off a tenth of a mile. I thought of somebody on the AT saying “Enjoy your section hike!” when a guy left a shelter by the secondary trail, and I laughed. I was a section hiker. And besides, I’d just hiked seven bonus miles.
I was finally back on the actual PCT. Mile 789, or thereabouts.
It took two hours to organize my new little tent. It was my first one-person tent (a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 Platinum), and things didn’t fit inside precisely the way I was used to, but I got it all in there. There’d be plenty of time to streamline. I was a little nervous about thunder, but not much; my site was good. I was a little nervous about bears; I’d passed a sign a couple of miles back warning that they were active in the area, day and night.
Night fell. It took me a long time to fall asleep. Breathing was hard. Glen Pass was coming.