Mile 795.5 to mile 820.5
I underestimated how demoralizing it would be to go over these snowy passes alone.
I sleep until 7:30, when the sunlight touches my shelter. I must’ve been more exhausted than I thought after going over Glen pass- that’s the latest I’ve slept on the trail so far. I know I should hurry and pack up, but it feels as though my veins are full of lead. Instead I sit in my sleeping bag and eat a bunch of my food, and then feel alarmed. I probably shouldn’t eat so much of my food. This is a long section, even longer with the snow slowing us down. I look into my food bag. I hope I’ve brought enough.
It’s hard to make myself hike today. I don’t get onto the trail until 9 a.m., and morale is low. I never realised how much hiking with others keeps up my morale. Even though I’ve got to catch my friends in front of me and the trail is smooth downhill through pretty pine forest, I feel like I’m dragging myself forward. After five miles I reach the suspension bridge where everyone camped last night and there’s a note for me- they’re headed 20 miles today, over Pinchot and Mather pass, to camp four miles down the pass on the other side. So a 25 mile day for me, over two passes in the snow, if I want to catch my friends. And I didn’t start hiking until 9 a.m. But that’s doable, right?
Last year Pinchot pass kicked my ass, and there wasn’t even any snow- 4 thousand feet elevation gain in seven miles, or something like that. I wonder what it’ll be like this year, when I’m here early, with all the snow.
I don’t even want to think about it.
I don’t see another soul all day. By the time I reach the snow-filled valley beneath Pinchot pass, I feel like the most alone person on earth. I am a tiny, solitary speck in all this wilderness. The snow is soft in the afternoon sun and I posthole my way over the surface of the earth, my legs sinking into the snow, the crusty top layer scratching and cutting my calves. I’m headed in the direction of what I think is the trail, feeling more alone than I’ve felt in ages. Before me is a wall of craggy granite mountains, the pass up there somewhere. I wish my friends were here with me, another hiker, someone- what if I don’t catch anyone? The thought fills me with dread as I slosh across a frigid stream. The cold water makes my feet ache and then I’m postholing through the snow again, up to a jumble of rocks. Where is the trail? I look at guthook and see that it’s just to the right of me, under the snow. I can hear water burbling under the snow I’m walking on- a stream. I look up at the high granite pass. I’m supposed to go over that thing, and I don’t even know where the trail is? I don’t know anything about snow. I don’t know anything about climbing over mountains without a trail. This is not a skillset that I have.
I wish again that I wasn’t alone.
I have my low moment an hour later, still working my way over the rocks and snow, towards the pass. My feet ache terribly from being wet in the snow and I’m dehydrated- I’ve been out of water for a while but haven’t wanted to stop and get any. I sit on a rock, shaking from hunger and fatigue, and start to bawl. I didn’t come out here to navigate over snowy mountain passes alone, without a trail. It terrifies me. I’m not crying so much as panicking now, hyperventilating and sobbing at the same time, tears crusting up my sunglasses. Still the pass is there, still the snow is there. Still I am alone. After a while I can breathe normally and I eat something, and then I feel a little better. The shaking stops and I charge on, postholing all the way.
I reach the pass at 3:30 p.m. It’s take me 4.5 hours to go 7.5 miles. I pause for a moment at the top- my friends sat here, just three hours earlier- and then I rush down, back into the snow beast. I keep reminding myself to eat and drink. I keep checking where the trail is. I can feel the panic in me like a caged tiger, pacing at the edge of everything. But I can’t let it freeze me up.
It takes ages to navigate low enough to where the trail is actually snow free and I can actually walk on the real trail, as opposed to the snow and boulder covered surface of the earth. To celebrate I sit in a warm patch of sunlight and eat a sandwich. I packed out a pound of salami, a loaf of gluten-free bread, and a squeeze bottle of mayo from the grocery store in Bishop, and right now these things are worth their weight in gold. After eating I hike on, cruising on the snow-free trail, and after an hour I see Will, one of the dudes who leap-frogs with our group, lounging on a rock in the sun. He’s camped here tonight- he’ll go over Mather pass in the morning. It’s nearly sunset. Seeing a friend bouys my morale immensely, and I begin to psyche myself up for what I’m about to do-
hike over Mather pass in the dark.
I have no memory of Mather pass from last year so maybe, I think to myself, it won’t be that bad? The light begins to fade as I work my way across the valley that leads to the pass- the trail itself is covered in snow but I stay to the east of it, across a stream raging with snowmelt, and pick my way north on a field of muck and rock. I feel proud of myself for finding this snow-free route and as I near the looming wall of granite I psyche myself up even more. Mather pass in the dark, Mather pass in the dark! If you’re going to do something go all the way, right?
I stop at 8 p.m. to put on all my layers- tights, down jacket, hat, gloves. Postholing in running shorts is no bueno, but with my tights on it’s not as painful. The temperature plummets as the sun sinks and at first I’m shivering but then I warm up as I start to climb towards the mountain. I stop to fill my 2-liter platypus at a stream- I don’t want to have to stop and gather water after dark, and I want to make sure I have some in case I decide to dry camp on top of the pass. I have no idea what the north side of the pass will look like- I want to have the option to camp. I also stuff my hipbelt pockets with snacks.
Twenty minutes later I am at the base of the pass, where the trail makes a sharp left and curves up the mountain. I know from looking at the map that the trail becomes a set of sharp switchbacks that work their way up the vertical face of the rock, and after a few minutes on the trail I reach a wall of white, and discover that these switchbacks are entirely buried in snow. Steep, slick, frozen snow. Unbroken by any human footprint.
Earlier in the day this situation might’ve filled me with panic. But I’ve psyched myself up for this all evening, and adrenaline is coursing through my body. I scout around until I see, in the last of the light, the route that my friends must’ve taken up- a nearly vertical slope of crumbled rock and loose dirt, bypassing the snow-covered switchbacks entirely and going straight up towards the top.
Fuck yeah, I think. Fuck yeah fuck yeah.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m so pumped or because it’s almost too dark to see, but I don’t feel sketched out at all as I crawl, hand over hand, up the crumbling face of the mountain. The weight of my pack pushes me into the dirt and rock and I feel held there, safe. Now and then I can make out half a cascadia footprint and I am reminded that I’m going the right way, and that I’m not alone. Even in the frigid cold I heat up, climbing in my down jacket, and soon I can feel sweat pouring down my skin. I don’t want to stop, though. Not even for a second.
I reach the top at 9 p.m. It’s full dark now, and a sliver of moon hangs over the distant mountains. I’m way on top of everything on the granite mountaintop, and I watch as the first stars come out. I think about cowboy camping, and then I switch on my headlamp. I made it all the way to the top of this motherfucker- no way I’m going to stop now.
There is, of course, no trail going down the mountain. There are instead immense, steep snowfields, slopes of tumbled boulders, and rushing water. Normally I’d be able to look down the slope and try and guess where to go- but it’s full dark now, and I can only see what’s in front of my headlamp. I find a set of footprints, steps kicked into the snowslope headed down and I follow them, moving as quickly as I can. The snow has frozen again since the afternoon and the now it’s the perfect, sticky consistency- soft enough to not be slippery but firm enough to hold my weight. When one trail of footprints ends I look for another, and in this way I race down the snowfields towards the boulders, which I slowly pick my way over. There is loose scree, running water, more snow. I look at what’s in front of my headlamp and I work my way downward. Guthook is my eyes when I have no idea where I am. Adrenaline is still pumping through my body. My friends are so close I can almost feel them.
An hour later I leave the snow behind and begin to race on the unobstructed, if very mucky, trail. I feel myself starting to bonk so I pull snacks from my pocket, eat them quickly. To my left, cloaked in blackness, is a beautiful lake, river, something. I feel sad to be missing it, to be experiencing it only as an abyss. But hey. What can you do.
At 11 p.m. I turn a corner and my headlamp shines off the reflective parts of Guthrie’s tent. And there’s Sherpa and The Boss’ tent, right next to it. My heart soars in my chest. Twinkle is cowboy camping, and he wakes up when I drop my pack next to him.
“What?” He says. “Am I dreaming?”
“I just came over Mather pass in the dark,” I say.
“Holy shit,” says Twinkle. “How the fuck?”
The others grumble, half awake.
“You came over that pass in the dark?” Says Sherpa, Woody, someone. “How?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ll tell you in the morning.”
I’m too pumped too sleep and Iay in my sleeping bag for a long time, legs cramping, feet numb from hiking in wet snow all day, waiting to get warm. The stars are hard and bright. Twinkle moves his bedroll closer to mine and talks to me for a bit. I tell him about how scared I was going over Pinchot and Glen, how alone I was, how I cried. I mix my magnesium powder into my water, drink it, and finally my leg cramps go away. And in some late hour of the night, at last, I sleep.
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