Sunday, June 28, 2009

June 23rd - Day 56

"It's my birthday. This will go down as one of the more memorable ones, I am positive of that. I just read the poem Emily wrote for me - amazing. She also gave me a present - a tiny cairn made up of rocks she's been collecting, unbeknownst to me, since the desert. Every rock has a meaning. Also amazing. And she made dessert tonight! A cheesecake concoction that she bought pre-hike and had put in the VVR resupply box we picked up today. I'm actually full tonight! Ah, amazing wife I have.

So, my memorable 39th birthday. We awoke at 5, on Trail by 5:45, and high-tailed it to Mono Creek and the trail to VVR. We were early by 45 minutes but got lucky and caught a ferry (a dinghy) across Edison Lake earlier than scheduled. We arrived, after a 45-minute tour, at the resort just before 10. Breakfast! We were excited, and ordered up coffee and entrees. Our server came back 3 or 4 times though, notifying us that sorry, out of english muffins, out of cheese, no eggs other than scrambled, no pie (?!), out of pretty much everything we ordered or wanted to order. It broke Emily. We've been pushing ourselves so hard, hiking 6-9 almost everyday, and looking forward to a cooked breakfast, that she couldn't hold it in and cried.

That started the emotions for both of us, and while reading a letter from Adrienne out loud, I broke down too. We're fried. The Sierra has been very tough for us. We're making it, but we're tired, exhausted, a bit overwhelmed. It's bringing us closer though, and going through this together is bonding us even stronger. I love her so much.

Back to the day. After 3 hours of eating, drinking beer, and sorting through our resupply box, we had to get moving. The next ferry wasn't until 4:00, so we had to hike the 6-mile trail back to the PCT. We left with a bottle of wine in a nalgene, and 3 beers in my pack for my birthday. Over the next 12 miles, I drank them at breaks, listened to 2 albums on my ipod - The Beatles' White Album and Cracker's self-titled debut because of 2 songs: "Birthday" and "Happy Birthday to Me", and climbed 2,500 feet up to Silver Pass Lake, where we are camped.

We had some more hairy fords too, 2 of which were labeled in the guidebook as dangerous and potentially fatal if one should slip. Thankfully they weren't as bad as we were expecting. So, we're 24 miles from Reds Meadow, which leads us to Clare and Mammoth Lakes. We are greatly looking forward to 2-3 days of R&R. We need it."


June 22nd - Day 55

"Chris' birthday eve and we're 8.5 miles from VVR (Vermillion Valley Resort). Who would've thought we'd be in this position just a couple days ago?! We did 22.8 miles today, up and over another pass. Selden Pass was far less hairy than previous - less snow and lower elevation at only 10,900 feet. But that still didn't prevent us from losing the trail across snow patches and losing our tempers. Chris is massively uncomfortable with passes and the helpless feelings that come when you're wandering in the wilderness looking for the PCT.

My weakness and fear is of stream fording. We had a couple of those today including two formiddable crossings: Evolution Creek and Bear Creek. We crossed Evolution during the morning after a nice declining trail. It was wide but shallow - and freezing when you're wearing only Crocs! We treated ourselves to tea in the sunshine afterwards.

Fast forward to this afternoon. After a long steady climb to the pass and a rocky snowy descent, we crossed Bear Creek. It lived up to its name and Chris decided to cross in his boots, since they were soaked anyway and the current was pretty strong. After trying in one spot and nearly getting washed away, he found a shallower section, crossed to drop his pack, and then came back for me. This trip is really showing off what a kind, gentlemanly, respectful partner I have as a husband.

Anyway, we're camped along Bear Creek and it's raging as I write. Chris is doing some research and we're realizing we won't be able to laze around VVR because we have more tough stream crossings and a pass in the afternoon tomorrow. No rest for the weary - or the birthday boy. Mammoth will be some incredibly welcome zero time."


Saturday, June 27, 2009

June 21st - Day 54

"June 21st. Summer Solstice, longest day of the year! And Happy Father's Day to George P. and George B. We celebrated the solstice by hiking from sun-up to sun-down, 6:20am to 8:20pm, minus a 45-minute coffee break and an hour for lunch. Almost 23 miles, even with a 4,000 foot elevation gain, and Muir Pass with its 5 miles of snow. It was a good day.

It started out early as mentioned, and it was tough to get out of bed due to a late night the night before. Within a mile after starting, we saw our first black bear of the hike. Quite exciting, but we scared him away before being able to snap a pic. He was beautiful though. Lots of deer too, during the first 3 miles down to 8,000 feet, to Middle Fork Kings River. We then made a right and headed north up Le Conte Canyon. We stopped for a coffee break, something we've enjoyed doing not while breaking down camp the last 2 days, around 8:15 on top of a gigantic rock with an amazing view of the river and a cascade.

Then it was time to get the boots moving, and climb 4,000 feet to Muir Pass, obviously named after Mr. John Muir. We didn't hit snow until just under 11,000 feet, but it was a long long long gradual climb up to 12K. It took us over 2 hours, to cover probably 2 1/2 miles. We made it though, and broke for lunch at 2:30 at the stone hut atop the Pass. There was a resident marmot inside the hut. By 3:40 we were headed west from the Pass, across a couple more miles of snow, still under blue blue skies that we had all day again. Amazing, the difference in weather since we left Whitney. We pushed on late, and found a great spot to camp, build a fire, and dry out our boots. 30 miles to VVR."


June 20th - Day 53

"Today was so long that this morning feels like yesterday, and maybe that's a good thing because the day didn't start out so well. Rain and hail overnight meant a freezing start at 5am, and a wet tent. Sometimes it's hard to remember it's June, and some of the longest days of the year.

Our first goal of the day was Pinchot Pass. It was only 3 miles from our campsite but there was snow everywhere and the trail was obscured. Chris and I wandered, following others' footprints, finding the trail, losing it. We were both on the verge of meltdown - Chris in a frustrated rage and me in disconsolate tears. But we made it and even enjoyed coffee at the Pass. Coffee is magical because coming off the ridge, we both were in better moods. Of course, the fact that the trail was easier to find also lightened our moods.

After Pinchot, we descended a bit into pine forest. There were 9 stream fords which is a chilly time-suck because I usually have to take off my boots and put on the Crocs. Most people with sneakers just plow right through - I couldn't stand the wet feet. With upbeat moods and blazing sun, we broke for a quick lunch and layed all our gear out to dry. But it was a short lunch - 1 hour - because we had another pass ahead: Mather Pass. Again we climbed into a moonscape with snow everywhere. This time though, there were almost 10 people not too far ahead of us so we could easily follow the path. That meant some switchbacks, some post-holing with ice axe in hand, and one vertical climb up a snow 'ladder'. Up and over, we slip-slided our way down, and even enjoyed some glissading on our butts.

With the long day, we trekked on through Kings Canyon on some annoyingly rocky tread. I totally face-planted and skinned my knee. Fortunately, no cuts on my forehead, just gravel. Man, with a pack on your back, you can really get some good momentum during a fall! The scenery was gorgeous and we hiked until almost dark.

Two slight regrets: 1-With such crappy tread and trail maintenance (tons of snowmelt and mud on the trail, plus fallen trees) you have to look at your feet all the time and can't enjoy the amazing sights as much as one might want to. 2-We're putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to make good time and make miles so we can meet Clare on time, and so Chris can get a beer on his birthday at VVR (Vermillion Valley Resort). Crossing our fingers that the next couple days can be speedy!"


Friday, June 26, 2009

June 19th - Day 52

"Inside our tent here at sub-11,000 feet, 2 1/2 miles from Pinchot Pass, I feel safe. However, for most of the last 2 days, I haven't. This John Muir Trail is no joke. The crazy ascents and descents, the passes, the fords. It's all very hard and scary at times. After our 3rd and last ford after Woods Creek, Emily was shaking and on the verge of tears. The fords don't scare me as much, but the snow on the passes does. We have our ice axes, and carry them properly, but still the thought of slipping is always on my mind. And then of course, post-holing is always a possibility, which I hate, and since I gouged my leg on the rock, I'm super nervous about doing it again. All in all, I just don't feel like I belong in this wilderness, that mother nature is a stronger force than I realized. I suppose my fear of death is pretty strong.

Now, in realizing that afternoons are tougher - softer snow, more snowmelt, raging rivers and creeks, more dangerous fords - we have decided to have a go at starting earlier, say hike 6 to 6 instead of 8 to 8 maybe. The alarm is set for 5am tomorrow. I should also mention that this year we've heard is tough. Although it was a dry year, the Sierra apparently received much late snow. June storms that dumped a lot of snow. And that makes for very hard hiking through here.

So, to recap the day, we began at 8, reached Glen Pass by 10:30, and started the descent shortly thereafter with Good Spot and Wonka, a thru-hiking couple we met this morning. Once we got down and out of the snow, it was smooth sailing down to 8,500 feet at Woods Creek. We passed numerous lakes, known as Rae Lakes, and broke for lunch next to Dollar Lake. We did have a hairy ford though, after lunch, where we had to don the Crocs. The mosquitoes here were relentless too, so as we were putting our boots back on, we killed dozens that were landing on our legs, eager for our blood. A lot of hikers were out today, being Friday I suppose, which made it not so lonely-feeling. Yes the Sierra is beautiful, but it makes me a bit homesick. Great weather today though, so that was good. 15.0 miles hiked today."


Thursday, June 25, 2009

June 18th - Day 51

"Today was a rollercoaster of emotions. First thing off the bat, surprise and elation at actual sunshine! Chris woke my sleepy butt up at 7:30am - late for the trail - and we decided to let our neighbors head out first so they could break trail on Forester Pass. It was a long steady climb up into a basin with three walls of mountains all around us. Turns out, the Sierra are actually gorgeous when not choked with cloud cover! I also heard coyotes yip at each other, a magical sound. Anyway, we traipsed over snow fields following tracks of previous hikers towards one of these mountain walls. The switchbacks could barely be discerned amid all the snow. Slowly, steadily, with ice axes in hand, we climbed the highest point on the PCT - 13,200 feet. A real high in all senses of the word.

Then the descent began with more snow, following tracks and slip-sliding our way along a ridge. The sound of rock and snow slides were a little disconcerting and we were eager to get out of the snow. But it was endless and a frustrating slog. As the day warmed, we started post-holing up to our knees and thighs. Chris post-holed onto a rock and gouged his shin. He left sprinkles of blood for any hikers behind us. The stark and formidable mountains, the snow that just wouldn't let up or allow for an easy descent, and the constant threat of bad weather made Chris very uneasy. He said he had a real awakening to his mortality, feeling so vulnerable to the elements in a place where humans weren't meant to go.

But we did go! We made it to a sunny spot for lunch under some trees with some other hikers. I bandaged Chris' leg and we wrung out our socks that were thoroughly soaked from being knee-deep in sloppy snow. This was around 3pm and we'd only done 7 or 8 miles for the day - an indicator of how difficult the pass had been. But after lunch, we dipped into some of the most beautiful forest I've seen. Pine trees with grassy, flat spots amid scattered gray boulders, a roaring river on one side and towering granite walls all around. The sunlight finally showcased the craggy, snow-covered mountains in a way that I'd pictured the Sierra to be. We're camped on a sandy flat about two miles from Glen Pass. Only 16 miles for the day which means we have our work cut out for us to meet Clare on time. Fortunately, we have daylight on our side."


Mt. Whitney to Mammoth Lakes

I know the suspense has been killing you. Did we summit Mt. Whitney? Well, we got in our sleeping bags after agreeing that we'd only make the attempt if it was crystal clear the next morning. I didn't have high hopes, but sure enough, when popping our heads out from under the rainfly at 5am, there it was in all its glory, calling us to its peak. We packed up in a hurry, and began the ascent. Over 3 hours later, we had a tough decision to make. We were at 13,750 feet, and about a mile from the peak, but the trail had become tough, and even a bit dangerous since we were making the morning's first tracks in the fresh snow that had fallen. We decided to turn around, and vowed to come back another day.

Back down at Trail Crest, Sean & Carla went east to their car at the Whitney Portal while Em & I went west to make our way back to the PCT after bidding our goodbyes. It was a bit emotional for us, since heading back to Boston sounded pretty good after spending a month and a half in the woods. But hiking is what we do now, so west we went, back to Guitar Lake to retrieve our food (in bear canisters), then past the Crabtree Ranger Station, and finally to the PCT by early afternoon.

Since then, we have had amazing weather (blue skies, a few puffy clouds, sunshine, scenery to die for) but a tough time. The Trail through the Sierra is no joke. Miles of snow on the passes, dozens and dozens of fords, and insane ascents and descents. I can honestly say it's the hardest hiking I've ever done. I don't think I can do it justice by writing a few paragraphs, so I've decided to transcribe some of our journal entries from this past week. Hope you enjoy it.


PS Yes I changed my trail name from Sundog to Sunfish. Back in 2003 I was a SunDOG. Now, in 2009, not so much. SunFISH fits me better now. My job as a marine biologist. My ocean sunfish tattoo on my leg. I'm more a fish than a dog.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tehachapi to Mt. Whitney

As I write this blog entry, hail is pelting our REI Quarter Dome Tent as we are camped on the side of Mt. Whitney. Hopefully, the weather will improve by tomorrow morning so we can hike to the summit with our friends from Boston, Sean and Carla. Mt. Whitney, while not on the PCT, is a worthwhile detour because it's the highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,491 feet. But I'm getting ahead of myself !

Tehachapi marks the start of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We've been hearing about the breathtaking vistas and rushing mountain streams for about 558 miles. However, these rugged mountains scenes were still a long way off. We left this train-crazy town 2 weeks ago under purple-gray skies. The rain almost made us spend another night in the hotel, but we persevered and were rewarded with clearer skies by evening after only 5 miles.

With 7 days of food, our packs were heavy but we're definitely getting our "trail legs" and were able to hike 20 - 25 miles each day subsequently. Some of the highlights - or low lights - along the 145 miles between Tehachapi Pass and Kennedy Meadows include:

  • The tormented skies coming out of Tehachapi made for some spectacular vistas over the desert. The contrast between the rain clouds and white wind turbines was very dramatic.

  • Hiking through another dry section with Joshua trees we saw lots of evidence of off road vehicles. One night while camped in a stand of these spiky trees, a truck rolled up after dark. We were nervous that the locals might harass the hippy hikers after one guy said, "Look, there's a tent!" But they left us alone...phew!

  • Chris forgot a pair of socks and liners drying in a tree one night. We didn't notice until we did laundry at Kennedy Meadows.

  • With food stores running low, we had amazing good fortune to get some hand outs from some high school group. One of the counselors asked us if we needed food -yes, always! -and proceeded to give us a bag of sliced salami and another of cheese. Delish!

  • Hiking into Kennedy Meadows was quite surreal. This "town" is the unofficial gateway to the High Sierra 703 miles into the PCT. We were excited for a couple of days off and the arrival of our dear friends from home, Sean and Carla.

Kennedy Meadows is indeed a unique place. The hub of this community is the general store that had been picked over by hikers already. We picked up our bear canisters and resupply box with our ice axes and food (after a slight scare, the box arrived the afternoon we hiked in). Beers and hamburgers on the porch, cards with our friends, Neil and Andrew, a bizarre breakfast at a local restaurant where it took 3 hours to get a plate of French Toast, and camping in an old amphitheater that played movies on Saturday night.

Sean and Carla arrived after a marathon travel day and we dragged them to a so-so restaurant 1 hour away. Chris and I were excited about town food. We borrowed their rental car and went to Ridgecrest to hit up an outfitter's because our water filter was failing - no luck. The store was vacant. To make matters worse, Chris got pulled over, but he got off. We salvaged the trip by a successful run to the Post Office and a yummy diner breakfast.

Back on the trail, this time with Sean and Carla, we are definitely getting into some serious mountains. Sean and Carla are amazing with their ability to hit the ground running despite the elevation - over 11,000 feet at some points - and rough terrain reminiscent of New England. We all covered 67 miles in 5 days under gray skies and some of the coldest temperatures we've seen so far. Some mornings there was frost on our gear!

Now we find ourselves above the tree line amid clouds at 11,600 feet waiting to see what happens with the weather. Chris and I have decided that if the mountains are still socked in with clouds in the morning, we'll forgo the summit. That means we'll have say good-bye to our friends who are heading back to Jamaica Plain. We have much to look forward to: birthdays, anniversaries, visits with Clare in Mammoth, CA and hopefully, better weather. But we both still want to climb. We are definitely at the mercy of Mother Nature, and isn't that all part of this crazy adventure?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Greetings from Kennedy Meadows!

Kennedy Meadows is a definite milestone, as it marks the end of southern California and the beginning of the High Sierra. The next 400 miles of the PCT will take us through some of the most remote and beautiful wilderness in the country. We will walk through 3 National Parks (Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite), and summit via the John Muir Trail the highest mountain in the contiguous United States: Mount Whitney.

Making it the 703 miles to Kennedy Meadows also means we've walked over 25% of the Trail! And that we have less than 2000 miles to go, which, depending on how you look at it, is either a milestone or daunting. Maybe both.

We arrived here with zero ailments, which we are extremely happy about, and have been in great spirits except for a few blue days. Although we're living the dream out here, we can't help but miss our friends and families, and the city summertime.

We're taking a few rest days here, and await the arrival of our Boston friends Sean & Carla, who are hiking with us from here to Mount Whitney. We can't wait.

We'll be northbound again Friday afternoon or Saturday morning.


PS A blog post for the miles between Tehachapi and Kennedy Meadows will be coming soon.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Agua Dulce to Tehachapi

Tehachapi, CA. 558 miles north of the border by Trail, more than 20% of our entire trek. Our pace has quickened, and 20+ mile days are the norm now, so we're feeling pretty good. We left Agua Dulce (Spanish for Sweetwater) last Thursday the 28th, and walked the 104 miles between there and here in less than 5 days. Since our next section will be our longest so far, at 144 miles from Tehachapi to Kennedy Meadows (we're going to skip Onyx), we decided a hotel room here was in order. Eating, drinking, resting, swimming, soaking, and TV watching has made up our day today, and we've enjoyed every minute of it.

This last section was different than all the others. Originally, the PCT was supposed to follow a mountain-crest route around the Mojave Desert. However, the Forest Service was not able to obtain the land due to some stubborn ranch owners. Therefore, rather than the trail connecting the southern California PCT with its Sierran continuation known as the Tehachapi Mtns, we were forced to follow a hot waterless stretch across the Antelope Valley, the western arm of the immense Mojave Desert, along dirt roads and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which was constructed in 1913. Pre 9/11, this aqueduct proved useful as a water source, but no longer, apparently to prevent terrorists from poisoning LA's water.

Leaving Agua Dulce and the Saufley's backyard paradise on Thursday (28th) was hard, but the Trail was calling us. We elected to not partake in the case race (drinking 24 beers during the next 24 miles) and proceeded north after lunch with full packs. We put in a half day and camped on a grassy ridge that night. The following day, we made it almost 15 miles before lunch as we pushed on due to dark grey skies and an approaching ranger station. When we arrived at the road, we were greeted by Terry Anderson, of Casa de Luna fame, and caught a ride down along with Joey and Creamsicle down to her house. We wanted to make more miles that evening, so we only stopped for an hour to talk with other hikers (20+ probably), sign our names on the 2009 hiker sign, and down a couple chili & cheese dogs. The next day brought a lot of vertical miles, as well as our first encounter with a "guzzler". It was a sloped concrete patio with a reservoir on the down end to collect rainwater, poured right there in the middle of the woods. Pretty cool. Later that day, we had our first rain! Of course, it only lasted for 10 minutes, and it was only a drizzle, but it was enough to send us into a frenzy, making sure all of our gear was waterproofed (in dry bags, ziplocs, or garbage bags). Beetle got to don her Red Sox poncho for the first time. Sunday was our biggest mileage day yet on the trail, at 25.5 miles. As I wrote above, we had to cross the Mojave. Like a large number of thru-hikers, we rested up at Hikertown (a house/yard where the owner lets hikers stay for free, complete with an outdoor shower, shade trees, campers, running water, and refrigerators) after an 11-mile morning, and left a few hours before dusk to try and get in and out of the desert during the cooler hours. We couldn't quite make the 27 miles we had planned, but only fell short by 2 miles, and camped just after 11pm. Since we were parallelling the aqueduct on flat dirt roads, and I didn't need to use my trekking poles, I took advantage and had a few beers along the way. Em thinks I'm crazy. The next morning we entered the Tehachapi Mtns and climbed back up to 6,000 feet, and spent most of Monday crossing numerous dirtbike tracks that have scarred and destroyed a lot of the land. It's quite sad. We camped at an awesome flat sandy spot that reminded me of Frisco campground in the Outer Banks, which I love. An easy 9 miles this morning to the road, and here we are, at our 7th resupply stop.

Life and the Trail are great!