Ballard and Walker: PCT Thru-Hikers

Cult of the Sierra

June 30, 2000

Picture lush green meadows, a green only clear snowmelt can inspire. Sprinkle these meadows with buttercups, scarlet Indian paintbrushes, and blue bugles. Send a stream rushing through the meadows, snaking and pouring around and over boulders of granite twinkling with quartz crystals. Make the granite so white you might mistake it for snow. Surround the meadows and rock gardens with forests of fox tail pine and creamy-barked birch. As a backdrop, insert snowcapped peaks, kissed by bright afternoon sunshine, glowing in warm twilight, and looming ominously when shrouded in thunder clouds. Nature's cathedrals, the bare summits reach towards heaven, double-daring you to be unimpressed. And of course, don't forget the frosty alpine lakes. Rimmed with turquoise ice, clear like fine crystal, and still as mirrors.

Yes, I've been bitten by the Sierra bug. But our first day in THE mountains didn't inspire me with such awe. Let's just say we got off to a rocky start.

Rocky Start
We'd left our comfy campsite by the Kern River in Kennedy Meadows just three hours earlier, yet I was feeling tuckered. Bogged down by an ice axe, my share of nine-days-worth of food for a 171-mile trek to Vermillion Valley, and warmer bedding, my excitement for "THE" mountains was waning.

Then came that split-second of uncertainty and a lazy mistake. Innocent enough at the time, but now it's pasted in my mind's scrapbook with the caption "Ancient Indian's Revenge."

I'm always soft coming out of town and that first 7 miles with a pack reaching new weights had me irritated. So when I crested that hill, eyeing the next rocky climb straight ahead, I was surprised but apathetic when Duffy, Walkman blaring ESPN Sunday Game Day, nodded towards another trail branching to our right.

"Is that the trail?" I hollered, trying to be heard over a discussion of Tiger Woods' incredible showing at the US Open. I got a nod in response and then my long-legged hiking buddy was off, striding up a very un-PCT-like steep, boulder-strewn path. The brown and yellow sign nailed to a tree read "37E01," a coding we encounter when the PCT joins another track, but I hadn't heard anyone mention such a conjunction during all the hiker talk on the porch of the Kennedy Meadows General Store. Of course, I have a penchant for half-listening and reading the guidebook after we've completed a section of trail, so I couldn't be sure, and Duffy was already 50 yards ahead of me. So I braced myself against my trekking poles, gave my town-legs a pep talk, and started hauling.

After a hefty climb, the trail skirted our first Sierra meadow. The path through the long grass was faint considering all the thruhikers ahead of us, the barbed wire gate took some struggling to open, and the altimeter of Duffy's watch was reading a couple hundred feet higher than the elevation listed in the guide—but it had been wrong before. We trekked on, thinking of the bagels and cheese we were going to have when we hit the South Fork of the Kern River in 5 miles.

I got my groove back swishing through the meadow grasses and drifted into my hiking zone. When the walking is easy my body trucks on autopilot while my mind tries to articulate the surroundings, soaking in juxtapositions between boulders, flowers, toppled pines, and the close, deep, rich mountain sky. Soon we were descending sharply and I could almost smell the river—and lunch. We expected Fish, Aussie Crawl, Just Mike, and sundry other hiker trash to be there, but as I crashed through the thicket I found only Duffy.

He looked perplexed. "There's supposed to be a bridge here," he muttered.


"I said, there's supposed to be a bridge here. We must be too far down the river."

My heart sank and I knew immediately where we'd gone wrong.

"The sign said 'South Fork Kern River' and 'Deer Mountain' this way," he explained. I hadn't seen that sign or the PCT post lying ambiguously between 37E01 and what, as we now realized, had been the PCT. And we hadn't referred to our trusty guidebook, neatly stowed in the mesh pocket on the outside of my pack to read ". . . a T junction with Haiwee Trail 37E01, which follows an ancient Indian path east to the river and through Haiwee Pass. . . ." East, not north, towards Kansas, not Canada. Hmpf. We ate lunch in silence. Then, when it came time to refill our water bottles, we realized we had only four iodine tablets left, enough to purify 2 liters of water, and our SafeWater filters were running so slow that you could squeeze them for several minutes and only get a half-dozen drops of refreshment. We'd have to drink unfiltered water for the next 9 days and pray for mercy from the giardia gods.

We knew the PCT crossed the river upstream somewhere, so if we just walked the banks we'd find it, right? That worked for about 100 yards, until a riverside trail petered out. After that we were forced to scramble through thorny scrubs, crawl over wet boulders, and slosh in rocky pools.

Still optimistic and determined not to backtrack—when you're walking to Canada, forward momentum is everything—we struggled along, getting our packs caught in trees and hoping our ankles would remain untwisted. Eventually, our path along the river became impossible, impassable in fact. The only way out was up, 200 feet up (remember, backtracking was NOT an option). Looming above us was a massive pile of granite, but beyond that a treelined ridge, taunting us with its flat, dry, firm earth.

Without packs I suppose the climb would have been enough to get the adrenaline pumping, nothing more. Maybe the tomboy kid I once was would have loved the knee scrapes and tinge of danger. The woman with the 40-something pounds on her back did not.

Duffy's pack was probably pushing 55 and both were making us very clumsy as we clambered on all fours, calculating each step and grip. We hit a wall, literally, about 15 feet from the prize. A 6 foot, smooth face of rock with just the tiniest gravelly crack as a foothold. Duff took off his pack and, with one foot wedged in the loose scree one hand clinging to the ledge above, hoisted his red Mountainsmith albatross over his head and onto the shelf above. Next went my pack, then Duffy, then—with much difficulty and a few heart palpitations—me. The final few feet up brought more of the same near-death experiences, but we made it and celebrated our mountaineering skills with some untreated, whatever-infested fruit punch.

There was a faint trail on that heavenly ridge, not the PCT unfortunately, but better than nothing. It headed in the general direction of the biggest peak in the vicinity, which we assumed was Olancha Peak—one of the landmarks on our scheduled day's hike.

Stumbling Towards the PCT
Three-thirty p.m. found us thrashing through brush, losing and regaining our little trail as it rocketed directly up and down every hill in sight: no wimpy PCT switchbacks here. As the afternoon slipped away from us so did our hopes of getting back on the crest by sunset.

We gave new meaning to the term "stealth camping" as we pitched our tent on a tiny patch of soil on a hill we'd bush-whacked to climb. The sunset over snowcapped peaks was spectacular, the solitude extraordinary, and the strange throaty snarl circling our tent in the dark an appropriate end to our off-trail day. We were obviously in someone—or something—else's territory. Later, I heard a buck make an aggressive snort similar to the growl we heard on the hill that night. There are different levels of roughing it, and being lost took us up a notch.

The next morning we packed up at 6 a.m., eager to get back to a civilized trail (not an oxymoron, I assure you). At about 10 a.m., we hit pay-dirt—PCT dirt—at last! Not as close to Olancha peak as we'd aimed, with only about 12 trail miles to show for our 24 hour effort, and lots of explaining to do to Tavis, Fish, Ryan, Lora, Just Mike, Madame Butterfly, Improv, and the other hikers we caught up to again, and who inevitably exclaimed "Duffy, Angela, weren't you ahead of us?" Which calls to mind an ancient Indian saying: "Always hide your stupidity behind a heroic tale."

Needless to say, we wouldn't make it to Vermillion in nine days. Instead, we took a few detours. First, to get lost and found again. Second, 17 miles off trail to climb Mt. Whitney—all 14,491 feet of it, which makes it the highest peak in the contiguous US. Third, an 18-mile roundtrip to Independence for more fuel, food, and iodine. Extra miles and days, perhaps, but well worth it. After all, we are in THE mountains. As John Muir would say, "Whitney's da bomb" and "I love it when a plan comes together."


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