Day 56: One day, two passes

June 15
Mileage 20
Mile 789 to mile 808 (plus 1 mile on the Kearsarge trail)

My sleeping bag is wet when I wake, and the condensation on the outside has frozen into a hard crust of ice. It’s late for a hiker morning but the sun still hasn’t made its way over the passes and we sit, our wet sleeping bags wrapped around us, and wait for those magic yellow rays. At last they arrive and we rise stiffly and stuff everything away, dip our gatorade bottles into the lake to fill them. It’s so good to be back on the trail!

In a mile we meet the PCT and resume our journey north. The PCT and the John Muir Trail, right now, are one, and we pass lots of JMT-ers headed south.

“Have you seen a group of people?” I ask the JMT-ers, who are young, fresh faced, and carry massive packs. “A woman with long brown hair? A dude with a guitar?”

“Yes,” they say. “You just missed them. Twenty minutes ago, a mile ago.”

We begin to climb a pass. It’s not a crazy tall pass and it’s morning, so I feel good. I fall to the back of the group and when I reach the top there they all are, lounging around. Track Meat, Grumpy, Instigate, NoDay, MeHap, Veggie, Spark. We sit on the pass for a while and eat snacks, looking out at the view. There’s another pass after this one- we’ll descend all the way to eight thousand feet and then climb, over seven miles, back to twelve thousand feet. Pinchot pass. I cannot really conceptualize this, being new to the sierras and all. But I feel great.

A few miles later there are a string of lakes. The lakes are like little turquoise mirrors that sparkle in the lush green valley. We stop for lunch on a huge, sun-warmed rock next to one of the lakes. Instigate, true to her name, jumps into the lake and paddles around, gasping. But she cannot persuade anyone else to do the same. There are more lakes, we say. We’ll swim for real in a few miles.

After the lake I fall behind the others and walk through the fragrant pines and bright green meadows by myself, feeling kind of tired. My alititude sickness has kicked in and even though I’m descending, I feel like I’m on a bit of a tilt-a-whirl. Then I see the others clumped in a patch of sun next to a noisy stream, swatting mosquitoes. We’ve missed our swimming opportunities, somehow, and now there is only climbing, for the rest of the day. My feet are wet from stream crossings (which are not at all dangerous this year), and everyone seems sort of grumpy. I eat some trailmix in the roar next to the stream. I cannot hear what anyone is saying.

We begin to climb and soon we have left the forest behind, the lush green meadows, the sun-warmed rocks. Soon I am at the back of the group, dragging myself up the trail towards the rocky crags in front of me. I feel dizzy, nauseous, weary, as though I’m about to puke- the whole thing. I can barely lift my legs, one after the other down the trail, and I know I have several thousand more feet to go. And it’s already evening.
 
So this is what I’m in for, I think, in the Sierras. This is what it’s going to be like. Me at the back, feeling like I’m gonna puke, dragging myself up the trail. I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep up with the others who are all, it seems, faster than me. I have to keep up with them, I think, as I drag myself along the trail. This thought makes me feel sort of panicky.

The sun is sinking behind the rocky crags and I can feel the others getting farther and farther away. I’m shivering, even though I’m climbing. I put on my down jacket. Is it really that cold? Why can’t I keep myself warm?

Stop hiking, says a little voice inside me. Stop hiking and camp on this side of the pass.

But I can’t, I think. I don’t want to camp in the dark by myself. I have to meet up with the others. They could be over the pass and another few miles by now!

Stop hiking, says that little part of me. Stop hiking stop hiking stop hiking.

Then I see Instigate, sitting on a rock in a field of boulders. The light around her is grey. The sun is setting over the peaks.

“Oh my god,” I say. “I’m so glad you’re back here too.”

We set out together towards the pass, lifting our leaden legs, gasping for air. We are both weary, exhausted, depleted- for reasons we both can and cannot explain. In the normal world, if you’re tired, you can just exercise less, or not at all. I won’t go for a run today, you can say. I won’t ride my bike very far. But not on the PCT. On the PCT you have to hike. And in the sierras, you have to HIKE.

I leave the trail for a while, via my brain. I think about my dogs. I have this thing I do, while I hike- I construct elaborate fantasies of situations that would make me happy and I play them over and over in my head, changing little details every time. In this one it’s the end of September, a week before my birthday, and I am in Portland. I go to Seamus’ house and all my friends are there. There’s a huge spread of pot roast, kale salad, and other non-trail foods that I can no longer fathom. My dogs are there too, and I sit on the floor and let them jump all over me. Potato is squeaking like a rubber toy, and Kinnikinnick is licking my face with her stinky tongue. In this part of the fantasy I always start to cry.

We reach Pinchot pass a little after eight. The moon is out, and the last of the light is fading from the sky. It’s freezing up there, and we hurry down the rocky trail on the other side. Before us are a series of bare hills and down beyond that, a couple of lakes. Where have our friends gone? To the cold lakes? To the lush forests at lower elevations? We cup our hands over our mouths and make strange noises as we descend, echoing them off the rocky crags. We hear nothing in return, and soon it is completely dark. Then I see a little flicker of something- a headlamp in the fold of a little hill, down below the trail! We cup our hands over our mouths and make strange noises again.

“Ay ay ay!” Comes the response.

We find NoDay, Track Meat, MeHap, Egg and Ole on a little shelf below the trail, their groundsheets spread out on the rocky ground, their alcohol stoves flickering in the dark. Nearby a little stream burbles from the edge of a snowfield. It’s cold, and we can all see our breath. I set up my shelter. My sleeping bag is still wet almost all the way through from the condensation the night before, and I am preparing for Maximum Insulation. In my shelter I spread out my sleeping pads, and then climb into my bag with my long underwear, my down jacket, my warm hat, and my rain jacket on. I pull the two hoods over my hat and cinch them tight. I snap the special snap at the top of the quilt that goes around the back of my neck, the one I just discovered that makes the bag extra warm. I lay down, peering out of the mesh of my tent. The landscape is dark except for the light of the moon reflecting off the rocky peaks, and the milky way is unbelievably bright. I am exhausted but I am so happy to have found my friends and I am, incredibly, warm.

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Instigate, Spark, Grumpy on the first pass

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Look I'm even in this one!

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Instigate

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Yours truly

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Some of these boards were rotten

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Magic

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Instigate, climbing Pinchot pass

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Dusk at the top of Pinchot pass

5 thoughts on “Day 56: One day, two passes

  1. Carrot – your journey is just great to follow – I am enjoying all your posts (following them from a chilly, damp, midge-ridden West coast of Scotland ) and would love to see the PCT for myself one day! It sounds really tough – think you are amazing :)

  2. Good for you, Carrot!! What a journey! Sure hope your altitude sickness lessens soon. And I hope you were able to stay warm in your wet bed last night. You bring back my JMT days so vividly from 2 years ago.

  3. That’s some tough country, Carrot, gorgeous but hard to climb. At least you’ve been blessed so far with good weather at those high elevations. I recall many summer snow storms on the JMT that caught us unaware. Happy trails–happy, safe and sunny trails to you!

  4. Carrot, thank you for sharing your PCT experience with us! My son is behind you on the trail. His name is Surplus. When I read your posts, I can visualize what he will encounter. I feel like I’m with you on the hike, and it’s quite an adventure with you and all of your friends. Love the photos. You’re an amazing writer. Keep it up!

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