Day 80: Mile 790 to Independence, 8.5 miles
September 19th: Despite sleeping above 11,000 ft, we were quite warm. We are getting better and better at selecting a good camping spot, and this one was well sheltered. We hiked down the Onion Valley Trail over Kearsarge Pass to get to the trailhead leading to Independence. The mountains around Kearsarge Pass were amazing. Knife’s edge ridges all around with lakes beneath.
Once in the parking lot, we waited and waited for anyone who looked like they were leaving. It took more than an hour before we found someone headed to their car, and I cornered them and asked for a ride. They obliged, and we sat next to their cute but afraid of car-rides dog in the back seat. As the dog drooled on my lap, panting, I also felt nauseous going down such a steep winding road. The trail head is at over 9,000 ft, and Independence is right around 4,000 ft. We got dropped off in front of the Subway Sandwiches, and immediately ordered a couple of sandwiches. We got a hotel room, showered, went to the library to write my last blog post, and got more subway sandwiches before falling asleep in a very comfortable bed.
Day 82: Mile 786 to Crabtree Ranger Station (mile 767), 19 miles
September 21st: We woke up before sunrise, as we usually do, and I saw flashes lighting up our tent. “More thunderstorms” I said to Dirt Stew. “What should we do?”. “Stay put” He replied. So we went back to sleep for half an hour, and woke up again when it was light enough out to see the sky. I poked my head out and was surprised to see blue sky. We packed up quickly and started marching our way up Forester Pass to beat any further storms. I was really happy to see we weren’t the only idiots out there trying to make it through. It was an ant’s march of John Muir Trail hikers also trying to make it over the Pass. There was a very small powdering of snow on some of the higher peaks. As we got closer, I realized it was actually small balls of hail from last night’s thunder storms. We headed up, passing several groups of hikers as we went, and as we climbed above 12,000 ft, signs of the altitude started affecting me. I was tired and lightheaded, but every time I looked back and saw very ominous dark clouds creeping over the ridge in our direction, I found it in me to push a bit more. When we got to the top I peered over the edge to the other side and was surprised to see blue skies on the other side. I felt strangely safe on top of Forester Pass, I could see for miles. There were a few others also at the top taking pictures. We snapped a few pictures, and got a nice Australian couple to take one of the two of us, and we headed down the other side.
As we took a break at lower elevation, the Australian couple caught up with us, and we hiked with them for a couple miles trading hiking stories. They had hiked the GR20 in Europe and talked about how difficult the terrain on that hike was compared to the PCT. It sounded like an interesting trail. We hiked to the Crabtree Ranger Station, and camped there, at the base of Mt Whitney. The weather for tomorrow is supposed to be good, which I am so thankful for. The one place you really don’t want to be in a thunder storm: Mt Whitney! Before we went to sleep, I studied our food situation. It looked very grim. Only 2 or 3 snacks per day and barely enough calories for breakfast, and our jar of peanut butter was almost empty. Dirt Stew was hungry and showing it. I was feeling OK, so I told him I was full and gave him the rest of my instant mashed potatoes. That barely made a dent in his hunger, and I knew we were both going to be starving in a day or two if we didn’t find more food. We discussed the situation as I shivered in my sleeping bag, and we decided we would swallow our pride and beg for food from the John Muir Trail hikers who would be finishing their hike on the top of Mt Whitney. It took me over an hour to warm up, even in my 10 degree sleeping bag. This is probably because of lack of calories. Usually I eat an extra 300-500 calories right before sleep to keep me warm at night.
Day 83: Mile 767 to Mt Whitney on to Mile 762, 21 miles
September 22nd: We woke up cold, but that was a good sign because the sky was completely clear of any clouds, a good day for climbing Mount Whitney. I was tired and very worried about the food situation. I had visions of losing energy to hike the miles necessary to get us out of the Sierras to get more food… It would be a snow-ball effect, and we would starve! There was frost everywhere, and as we climbed, the rocks above Guitar Lake were covered in ice. We were dragging our exhausted bodies up the mountain. Each step felt like it took all the energy in my body. We had barely eaten anything for breakfast. The plan was to stop at the intersection of the Whitney Portal Trail (where people hike down to civilization), and the trail up to the summit and eat a spoonful of peanut butter while waiting for JMT hikers to pass by, asking them if they had any extra food. When we finally got to the intersection we were pleasantly surprised to see a line-up of backpacks and several hikers hanging out there. We sat down and opened up our peanut butter. I asked a hiker: “Did you hike the John Muir Trail?” The hiker was a Brittish fellow named Shaun who had taken 20 or so days to hike the JMT and was about to summit and finish his hike. When I asked if he had leftover food, he produced half a jar of peanut butter, half a jar of Nutella, and a freeze dried meal. My eyes lit up. Other hikers over-heard our conversation and started digging in their packs as well. We got another freeze dried dinner, some jam in a squeeze jar, some honey, some packets of “Gu” energy gels, and some candy. I thanked them profusely and ate a “Gu” packet plus another spoonful of peanut butter. Suddenly hiking was easy again. We had the energy to make it to the top of this mountain! We passed many hikers, most of which were probably day hikers hiking in from Whitney Portal. Many looked in bad shape with the elevation paying a toll on them as they hadn’t had the many nights to acclimatize like we had. At the top there were tons of people all congratulating each other and taking pictures. I felt like a spectator at the end of a marathon. This wasn’t my victory. I certainly didn’t feel like I had conquered this mountain. As we stood there, on the tallest point in the continental United States, I felt vulnerable and exposed. There was a hut with words of warning to support my feelings. The sign read something like: “This hut will not provide shelter from lighting storms. If a thunder storm is approaching, get off the summit”.
I wandered around the hut and saw a large marmot standing on his hind legs not a foot away from a group of hikers. He was begging for food. I suddenly felt in good company. “We blend in well with the wildlife” I told Dirt Stew pointing to the marmot. We snapped a few pictures and headed down.
On the way down I did have a sense of success. We had effectively made it out of the High Sierra before the first snow, and we had gotten enough food to make it to Kennedy Meadows. We got back down to Crabtree Ranger station where we had left our tent and sleeping bags (and unfortunately also my umbrella), and packed up. My face felt hot, and I felt really dumb for forgetting my umbrella for the hike up Mt Whitney. I undoubtedly had a sunburn. As we left the intersection of the JMT and the PCT all the people disappeared and we were once again on our own.
Day 84: Mile 762 to mile 737.5, 24.5 miles
September 23rd: It was nice to be on our own again. We didn’t need to worry about being caught peeing in sight of the trail, and we didn’t have to worry about all the camping spots being taken. The terrain really changed, and we were obviously walking into the desert. To be honest, the terrain really started to change right after Forester Pass. The trail was very sandy, and it was difficult to walk at a good pace with each step sinking into the sand. We suddenly started having to worry about water sources, and so we started carrying several liters each. We ate a lot, having scored extra food yesterday. I still felt like I could eat everything in my food bag in one sitting. Dirt Stew earned his trail name again by spilling half the contents of one of the freeze dried meals in the sand. We exited Kings Canyon National Park, and as we passed several side trails, literally all the footprints in the sand disappeared except for one. “Robert’s alive!” I shouted back to Dirt Stew. His footprints were clearly visible as the last person who had been through this section. We had worried a lot about Robert. He must have been freezing cold without warm clothing and nothing but a 32 degree bag. He was also low on food when we parted ways, and I wondered if he also begged from the JMT hikers. It struck me as funny that out here in the wilderness without cell phones, Facebook, email, etc. a few footprints in the sand was a way of communication.
Day 85: Mile 737.5 to mile 711, 26.6 miles
September 24th: We woke up early at 5AM and decided we may as well get going. We were going to have to make a habit of hiking in the dark either in the morning or the evening as we are losing day light with each day that passes. The trail climbed down several thousand feet, and we saw our first cactus. Desert indeed! We were unsure of many of the water sources. One spring was piped into a trough that had a dead chipmunk floating in it. Luckily I could take water directly from the spring. The trail is dominated by wildlife tracks: bear, deer, coyote. Obviously nobody but PCT hikers and animals hike this section. There were many, many bear prints, and the ever-apparent Robert prints. We passed through huge meadows which were quite chilly in the morning. The trail here is obviously not maintained on a regular basis. Some downed trees looked like they had been there for years. My hips are sore, as they have been for many days, in fact my right hip has been bothering me most of the trail. The sand aggravates it, and the pain wakes me up at night making it hard to get a good night’s rest. My face is obviously quite sunburned from the hike up Mt Whitney. My left ear in particular is blistering quite badly.
Day 86: Mile 711 to mile 694, 17 miles
Now that we are at lower elevation, it is very warm at night. We walked 9 miles into Kennedy Meadows, and the wind really started picking up. We had a very hard time keeping our umbrellas up. When we got to Kennedy Meadows, we heard that a storm system was due to move through the area in a couple days, and this wind was probably associated with it. We took a shower in the outside shower stall, and although the water was warm, we were frigid because of the wind. We ate burgers, did laundry and unpacked our resupply box. We were excited to get new shoes.
We wandered down to Tom’s place across the street where he let us use his wifi. We hiked out in full ninja-hiker gear with shirts around our faces in order to protect ourselves from the sun and wind, and ran into a northbound section hiker who said “you guys must be thru-hikers”. “How’d you guess?” we asked. “Well, you look like you’ve walked almost 2000 miles!” He replied. “Can I take your picture?”. “Sure!” We answered. As he left I said to Dirt Stew: “Let’s take a picture of ourselves! It’s the first time someone’s told us we look like we’re thru-hikers who’ve hiked 2000 miles!” We snapped a picture at arm’s length and looked at ourselves on the little screen. We looked a lot like we did only 100 miles in. We were covered from head to toe so as not to get sun burned.
As we hiked into the desert we saw a jackrabbit jump across the trail. We camped near one of the few water sources listed on the water report. It took us a good 20 minutes to find it based on the description, but realized that it was much easier to find for northbounders than southbounders… as usual.
Day 87: Mile 694 to mile 670.5, 23.5 miles
September 26th: We took 10 or 11 liters from Fox Spring for the 30 mile dry stretch and then found a cooler less than 5 miles later. There was no water in the cooler, all it had in it was two cans of seltzer water. Whomever left those has a strange sense of trail magic. Not that I object, but seltzer water has 0 calories, and just tastes like fancy water to me. We split one, and left the other for whomever’s behind us. For some reason I was very exhausted, and when I took a short break to sit down, I nearly fell asleep on the trail. My hips are very sore, and the weight of the extra water is not helping. Dirt Stew is carrying a lot of the extra weight, but even so I am still struggling. At some point during the day I took off my pack and realized my right hip was numb to the touch. I panicked a little, and called Dirt Stew over. He told me something similar happened to him a while back, and he thought it was because the hip belt was cutting off circulation around the hip bone. It was disconcerting to be able to pinch myself and not feel a thing. Eventually the feeling did came back. The camping options were very limited as the trail followed steep ridges for many many miles, and when we found a flat spot, we stopped early. My hips were so sore that I was happy to call it a day early.
Day 88: Mile 670.5 to Lake Isabella (mile 652)
September 27th: We hiked towards Lake Isabella where we would spend a night, and as we approached we saw the storm coming in from the north that had caused the high winds for the last couple days. We hiked fast, and managed to out-run the storm. We felt a few rain drops, but that was it. We wondered what impact the storm had on folks north of us. We got a ride into Lake Isabella and got dropped off in front of a pizza place. We each ordered a large pepperoni pizza and chowed down. Dirt Stew finished his pizza in no time and started eyeing mine. When I was ready to share, he had a couple slices from my pizza as well. There was one slice left, and we both looked at each other wondering if we could finish it. I was stuffed. The one piece would have to go in a ziplock bag. This was embarrassing. We got a hotel room and took showers and did laundry. I called my mother while laying on the bed in the hotel room, and as the sun set I felt completely exhausted. Dirt Stew was jumping up and down ready to get more food, but I told him I was still full from pizza. “Go ahead” I told him, “I’m going to take a nap”. I woke up again an hour or two later when Dirt Stew opened the hotel room door groaning. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I wish you were there to laugh at me and to tell me to stop eating.” He replied. He had eaten a large burrito, and struggled with the last bites. He had wrapped the literally last bite of burrito up and brought it home. Moments later I was back asleep.
Day 89: Lake Isabella (mile 652) to Mile 636.5, 15.5 miles
September 28th: We slept in slightly and ran some errands. We found out that the storm that we saw north of us yesterday caused snow to fall in the Sierra. We got out just in time. Apparently some folks experienced a foot of snow! We ate breakfast at the “Dam Korner Shop”, and tried to get a ride back to the trail. Lake Isabella is 30-something miles from the trail, and getting a ride back wasn’t easy. One guy offered us a ride part of the way, and we accepted it, but from there it was hard to get another ride. Finally a couple stopped and asked us where we were headed. It turns out that they only lived a block or two away, but they drove completely out of their way to give us a ride back to the trail. It was very generous of them to do that for us, and we were very grateful to make it back finally. We hiked past dark into a section that had some trees, which was nice. I was feeling pretty good coming out of town, so far my hips were not sore.
Day 90: Mile 636.5 to Mile 609, 27.5 miles
September 29th: We walked through large sections without trees. This really looks and feels like the desert. With no shade, we took almost no breaks until we found a Joshua tree that provided just enough shade for us to squeeze under.
We came across two water caches in this section, and were overjoyed to find sierra mist was left there too. We split one so as to leave more for folks behind us. The citrusy carbonated caloric beverage was very refreshing.
Unfortunately my hip pain came back with a vengeance to really put a damper on my mood. Hiking in pain is difficult, and taking ibuprofen every few hours doesn’t feel right either. We were warned in town that hunting season just started, and as we climbed up into a forested area towards the end of the day, we bumped into a hunter who had fallen asleep while sitting on the trail waiting for deer to show up. We kept alert for hunters as we hiked through the forested area, talking and singing loudly. We came up with a song to sing during hunting season:
Doe a deer is NOT over here
Ray, the name of a PERSON
Me, a name PEOPLE call themselves
Fa(r), how long your gun can shoot!
So, don’t shoot me in the head…
La, I’m singing this to YOU! Ti (tea), a drink I’ll make for you
if you don’t shoot at me now, now now now…
Day 91: Mile 609 to mile 580, 29 miles
September 30th: We got up and packed up. I went to go dig a cat hole and got scared half to death by a deer, and then instantly got scared again that hunters were nearby. We were near a dirt road, and hunters were driving past in their off-road vehicles. We kept vigalant. We decided to trade hip belts on our backpacks because Dirt Stew was very uncomfortable with his, and mine had more cushioning. This worked for most of the day, but the belts were not really designed for the opposite packs based on where the velcro was, so we had to switch back again in the evening. We walked through a burn area, which contained our first sighting of poodle dog bush, a poisonous plant that can cause similar skin rashes to poison oak. We also saw our first horny toad, a funny creature who is actually not a toad at all, but rather a type of lizard.
We also started walking through a very expansive wind farm with wind turbines as far as the eye could see.
The trail is used most by cows, it seems, and they not only rip up the trail, they also completely destroy water sources by crapping right in them. We were happy that one of the springs had a fence around the source where we could take water that had not been contaminated by cows. All in all this section is certainly not the most beautiful one, but it is a unique experience. It is one of those sections you would never hike through unless you are trying to get from point A to point B. We camped very close to the wind farm, and struggled to sleep.
Day 92: Mile 580 to Tehachapi (Mile 566.5), 13.5 miles
We slept extremely poorly. Huge gusts of wind were causing our tent to flap about loudly, waking us up every few minutes. It didn’t help that I couldn’t get comfortable due to my achy hips. At about 1AM Dirt Stew asked if we shouldn’t just get up and hike, but the thought of being groggy and hiking in the dark didn’t appeal to me at all. The wind farms were certainly well located; we were not. At some point in the early hours of the morning, the wind died down slightly and we got a few hours of precious sleep. We overslept our alarm, but didn’t mind too much as we needed to sleep. We packed up and started walking towards town. The wind persisted throughout the day. We saw our first road-runner, which looks surprisingly like the cartoon character. It moves in quite an unusual way by half running, half flying. We descended several thousand feet to route 58. The trail follows route 58 for a mile or so, which I believe is probably the most ugly mile of the PCT. The highway is on one side, barbed wire fence on either side of the trail, nothing but desert for miles, and wind farms in the distance. Being next to the highway meant we were in trash-land where people throw stuff out of their cars with no regard for where it winds up. The trail spits you out at an overpass where we realized hitchhiking would be impossible. Luckily there was a sign suggesting we call a bus to stop at the overpass we were on, and we did just that. We sat there huddled under the shade of our umbrellas, the only shade for miles, while the wind gusted creating dust and trash clouds. Disgusting. Occasionally a large truck pulled out, pushing more dust in our direction. We waited an hour or so for the bus, and dreamed about the food we would eat in town.
The bus drove us into town and dropped us off in front of Burger King. We gobbled town several burgers at Burger King (something I never thought would be so appealing), and checked into a hotel. From here we are going to take several days off in order to go to Don and Jenny’s wedding. We’re so excited to see our friends again and celebrate with them before heading back to the trail to finish our hike. I’m also excited to have a few rest days to hopefully help my injured hips recover. We went to Kmart for some snack food, and I bought some nail polish to try to make my hands and feet look presentable for the wedding. We’ll let you know in a few days how a couple of hikers have enjoyed a wedding!