Return to Kearsarge Pass

PCT miles 805 to 790.2 – Mile North of Sawmill Pass Trail to Kearsarge Pass – Total PCT miles 1726.6

Our last morning in the Sierras held the conflicting desires PCT thru-hikers: linger, savor, soak in all the light on the granite peaks and wander amid this realm of juniper, aspen and sagebrush for a day or life time more. Get to Kearsarge Pass so we can get to Independence so we can catch a bus to Reno, NV and drive to Ashland, OR so we can keep hiking northward once more.

Kearsarge Pass won, heavily favored this time by our need for food. Our bear canisters were nearly feather weight as we’d skipped our resupply box at Vermillion Valley Resort. A decision we’d made to reallocate a critical 7-10 hours of hiking time (equivalent to 14-20 miles) in order to make it to Kearsarge Pass and Independence on Thursday evening. Which would give us just enough time to catch the Friday 6:30 am Eastern Sierra Transit bus to Reno, NV where we’d rent a car to get to Oregon and keep on our mission to walk to Canada.

Logistics and schedules aren’t the wild and romantic details one wants to be held accountable to when hiking through the Sierra, but they influenced the decision that now pushed us on to Kearsarge Pass. We’d have barely enough calories to get there, but get there we would.

Walking before sunrise, we watched the sky change from twilight to dawn to pale morning blues. The sun painted the summits and ridges of the 12,000-foot granite peaks with gold, copper and pink hues. A morning for appreciating Muir’s Range of Light, a beautiful last morning in the Sierra. We headed down the valley of Woods Creek on granite benches with gnarled, gorgeous junipers twisting out of the rock.

Around one bend of the trail we found our friends Early Girl and Water Boy filtering water. The night before we’d wondered if we’d see them before we got out of the Sierras. Ask and you shall receive. They looked so happy to be hiking and had been having a marvelous hike since they dropped us off at Sonora Pass on August 8, eleven days ago. We wished them well on the rest of their journey and hope to see them when we all return to the land of Puget Sound.

Breakfast this morning included a crucial Theo’s chocolate bar that Sarah, Gabriel’s sister had sent in our Tuolumne Meadows resupply box. Thank you Sarah! That 320 calories was critical fuel on this day of meager rations: a half cup of dehydrated lentils and freeze dried peas, crumbs of bagel chips, freeze dried veggies and Crystal Light packets. Not much for a projected 24-mile day.

Despite the calorie deprivation, I felt fueled by the exhilaration of nearing our goal and perhaps my body’s more ample, marmot-like, natural reserves. Where as Gabriel could feel his muscles breaking down with every upward mile. It would later take him a pasta dinner, two foot-long veggies subs, a pint of ice cream, chocolate milk and several other snacks just to quiet his hunger pains. Let alone feel satisfied.

We hiked upwards to the Rae Lakes basin. Foxtail pines towered above the trail on sienna trunks, isabelline granite slabs rose above the pines and azure skies towered above the granite ridges. Once in the Rae Lakes basin, Fin Dome, the Painted Lady, Mt. Rixford and Dragon Peak towered above the lakes. We were in awe and now knew why another hiker said his experience of visiting this sacred spot was life changing. Rae Lakes basin is a life affirming spot. Gorgeous, even on an overcast day. A reminder to get out to explore and live in the natural world and leave it only to do your part to protect if for future generations.

We lingered long enough for me to take a dip in the upper most lake and then it was time for us to get over Glen Pass (11,798 feet high). Up the impressively carved switch backs, across a fun little snow patch and then we were at our last on-the-PCT Sierra pass. We savored a few precious crumbs as we paused to look south to the world we hadn’t glimpsed since June. The world of snow had melted out to reveal granite, scree, meadows and lakes it presented us with a very different trail. We dropped over the pass, eagerly passing the throngs of JMT’ers on route to Whitney. Best wishes to them, it’s a lovely mountain, but we have a little farther to go.

June’s snow covered forest with trail hidden under moguls compact snow and ice was gone. Replaced by trail for as far as the eye could see-and longer then our feet wanted to walk at present. Dry gravely soils with a few flowers and shrubs scattered about. So different. A shock to us even though it was what we had anticipated. Soon enough we turned off the PCT and hiked east on trail we’d walked previously on this journey.

The final switch backs to Kearsarge Pass are sweet anticipation. As I step up to the sign that notes the 11,760-foot pass, I shout, “We’ve done it! At last!” I do a happy dance. Since making the decision to flip up to Ashland and hike south back to Kearsarge Pass we’ve been fixated on this day. For eight weeks and 936.4 miles we’ve desired to connect our footsteps. Our feelings are of exhilaration and relief and our bodies are down right exhausted. Gabriel hands me a gummy bear. One that he’s been saving for me so we can have a celebratory treat on this last Sierra pass.

Sense of accomplishment aside, we are practical hikers. There’s likely to be cell service up here, since we can see Independence in the valley 7,000 feet below. We dig out these once more relevant electronic devices and get to logistics work. We book our motel room at the Courthouse Motel in Independence. And then start hiking down about 4 miles left. A few switch backs more and I reserve our seats on the bus to Reno while Gabriel schedules our rental car pick up. Phones away. Sigh of relief. Breath.  We can focus and enjoy a little of our hike down, knowing that we need to get to the Onion Valley TH sooner rather than later in hope of Yogi-ing a ride to Independence. Otherwise, we’ll still have 15 miles of road to walk before 6 am. But we’ll figure that out once we get there. No good to worry now. Time to admire our last miles in the Sierras for a good long while.

Just as we come around a bend, who should Gabriel see? Scout!!!!! Of Scout and Frodo! The PCT Trail Angels who we stayed with in San Diego and who drove us out to start this journey!!!!!  Scout and Frodo were hiking out from resupplying their son and his bride on their JMT honeymoon. They kindly offered us a ride to town, giving us a ride from our last California PCT mile. Such circles. The connected and serendipitous world of the PCT is indeed a magical place.

Gabriel and I breathed deep and enjoyed the last few miles down the trail. Enjoying the conversation with Scout and Frodo. Exchanging reports of conditions from their year to ours. Giving updates on various hikers. Favorite pieces of gear. Thru-hikers talking to thru-hikers.

Scout and Frodo dropped us off at the Courthouse Motel where another PCTer was working to help a friend for the summer. It just so happens that this hiker happened to be the first person Scout and Frodo hosted as trail angels. More connections, more circles. Such experiences as these were as equally thrilling to me as summiting Whitney or reaching Kearsarge Pass a second time. The PCT is rich beyond miles of gorgeous and stunning landscapes threaded by a trail.

After saying good bye to Scout and Frodo. It was time for us to prepare for the next leg of our journey. The Owens Valley is hot in the summertime and it was 94 degrees when they dropped us off at 6 pm. We were starting to sweat and feel the dirty smelly griminess that comes from working hard, not showering in a while and not washing clothes in over a week. Gabriel and I got to work de-griming. Layer one of dirt removed and feeling a little more human it was time to seek out dinner. A celebratory dinner at that.

Of all things, Independence, California population 669 (as of 2010) has a lovely French bistro, Still Life Cafe. We feasted on baguette, salad with chevre (tres delicious!), top-sirloin burgers avec brie et pomme frite (moi), a hearty pasta dish (Gabriel). Being in the nicest establishment since we’d started the hike, I regained some non-trail manners and managed to not scarf by whole dinner before Gabriel got back from checking our laundry (which was across the street-I-395-in the gas station’s washer). It was a delicious, savory, celebratory meal. Followed by a stop at the gas station to pick up dinner number two for Gabriel, dessert and hydrating beverages. Tomorrow we’d be up and waiting for our bus to Reno before 6:30.

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