The toughest day

PCT miles 771.4 to 785.5 – Just south of Wright Creek to about a mile north of Center Basin Creek– Total PCT miles 785.5

Today has been one of our hardest days in the mountains. Ever. Mentally, physically grueling. Today has also given us some of the most amazing views and appreciation for being alive.

Our plan had been to get going before 6:30 am and cover the 8.5 miles to the top of Forester Pass by 11:00 am. Traveling over the snow covered ground early when it was still firm would allow for efficient movement. Eight and a half miles in 4 .5 hours didn’t sound too ambitious. We knew there would be snow and route finding to contend with, but we are comfortable in snow. What we didn’t expect was Wright Creek.

This morning we got on the trail as planned and within a few minutes were stopped in our tracks. Before us was Wright Creek, roaring across the trail, 15-feet wide. A cairn on the other side suggesting this is the spot to cross. It did not look pleasant, but we didn’t want to waste time looking for a better spot to cross if this was the place. Had we looked more carefully at our maps we might have seen that Wright Creek drains a huge snow filled basin with many lakes. Meaning a lot of water was being funneled across the trail in this very spot. It might have motivated us to seek out a better alternative. But hindsight is 20:20.

Gabriel crossed first, using one of my poles. He made it across but didn’t look too happy about the crossing.  My turn to step into the water. Icy cold and moving quick even on the side, faster than I’d anticipated, with more force. Making small sideways steps I inched myself a third of the way across the creek. With the force of the water it was hard to lift my foot and get good purchase. I couldn’t see what I was stepping onto, so I was essentially walking blind trying to feel my way to stable footing. I felt the same sensation I can feel when climbing (on top rope-I take less risk on lead) when uncertain of my ability to make a move. Knowing that I am at my limits and I am likely to fall. Only here in Wright Creek I wasn’t on belay. Down stream of me was churning water, third class at best, fourth class in places.

With my next step I slipped on a rock and went down to my knees pushed back into the creek. I couldn’t lift myself up and struggled to move as the icy cold rushing water forced passed me. I looked at Gabriel, terrified. He came quickly to my rescue and provided the stabilizing force to help me stand up and get out. He dropped the pole he’d carried in the process. Somehow I had enough sense to grab for the pole as we pushed out of the creek.

On the bank we were both in a state of shock. I was soaked up to my chest. We quickly fumbled with our clothes trying to pull off the wet stuff and put on new dry layers. We walked a little ways to a rock with a small patch of sun where I assessed the damage. Bloody knees and hands. But nothing serious, just painful. Neither one of us wanted to think how our Wright Creek crossing could have gone worse.

Cold and needing to move, we hiked on following the tracks of those who’d hiked before us.  They led us into the Bighorn Plateau a gorgeous snow-covered flat with high snowy Sierra peaks in all directions: Tyndall, Versteeg, Bernard. One of the most striking mountain views I’ve ever seen. And yet our path wasn’t matching up with the trail. Tracks were harder to follow as the snow was sun cupped and still frozen. It would take us another hour and half to get back on route.

Once back on the snow covered trail we didn’t have it much easier. Going up and down over snow berms, we steadily made it to Tyndall Creek. Another creek to cross, though not as menacing looking as Wright it was still a creek to contend with. Gabriel and I were both psychologically shaken up about Wright and that would make every stream crossing today a test of strength, skill and nerves.

Across Tyndall Creek we kept going north as the Great Divide and Forester Pass came into view. It was now early afternoon and the snow that would have held our weight a few hours ago was warm and mushy. We’d posthole for the majority of our steps. Sometimes up to our ankles, sometimes to our thighs, sometimes to our waists. We focused on getting from one rocky out crop to the next. Pecking away across the snowy basin for the next few hours. It is frustrating and exhausting to slog in this fashion, especially when you know better (snow conditions are one of several reasons for alpine starts).

Being in the mid-day sun on the second day of summer, the snow underfoot was gleaming white. The albedo was high. We were hot. I was envious of Gabriel’s sun umbrella. Though it wouldn’t have helped me with the most sunburned part of my body: my gums. Amid our wallowing and post-holing we did come across one interesting surprise. Black bear tracks crossed the basin.

Gabriel was diligently making steps as we headed up the last “pitch” of snow to gain a melted out switch back. As we looked down we could see two figures moving quickly over the snow we’d just slogged through. They greatly benefited from our suffering. And while we tried not to hold a grudge (they didn’t really deserve it), at that moment we couldn’t help but be annoyed. Pooh Bear and Cherry Picker caught up to us as Gabriel made the last steps to the trail.

Forester Pass is know for snow finger that has steep runout, but the consolation of our how getting there late in the afternoon was that the snow was soft enough to hold our footsteps. We gave Pooh Bear a few tips on how to use his ice ax (gulp).  And the four of us took turns crossing the snow slope. We were on top of Forester Pass  by 4:30.

The highest point on the PCT at 13,180 feet, it did not disappoint us. The views were spectacular at this pass in the Kings Kern Divide. To the south we looked back at the headwaters of the Kern River watershed. To the north we were entering the headwaters of the Kings River. Ahead were snowy valleys and the jagged ridges of Circle Peak and the Kearsarge Pinnacles. We were in awe.

Down we went with fun glissades, across the headwaters of Bubbs Creek and into the forested realm toward Vidette Meadows. We hoped to find a bare spot to pitch our tents and camp for the night. So much had happened on this day that it was hard for Gabriel and I to believe that we’d started out the morning at Wright Creek.

Physically and mentally exhausted from the creek and our slog, we slowed down while Cherry Picker and Pooh Bear kept going. Maybe we’d camp with them or maybe we’d just find our own dry spot. They were determined to get to a bear box to store excess food, while we needn’t worry about that problem. For one, we had our fantastic bear canisters. Secondly, our canisters were nearly out of food. We’d always had too much food in our packs and we’d underestimated how much we’d need for this leg of the Sierras. The next day I’d coast out on jelly beans and almonds.

We pitched our tent on duff atop of granite, an effort to minimize our impact to this oft visited stretch of the Sierras. While we love many of the features of our Lunar Duo, this night we were annoyed that it is not a free standing tent. We found rocks and got out cording to make loops and weights to stake the tent out properly. It took more than a half hour. Of course, the toughest day on the trail would also entail the most challenging tent set up.