The Gratitude Cafe Pt 8
DAY 70 - Mammoth lakes to Cascade Valley Junction
High Sierras starts now! My stop in Mammoth had myself and my mum and dad putting our heads together to figure out what best way to do this next section. I'm solo again and the Sierras are summits, peaks and passes, day after day, ranging between 10,000 to 13,500 feet. It's cold at this elevation, so we sat down and talked gear. And LIGHTWEIGHT.
This is the hardest part. Keeping yourself warm but keeping everything ultralight. Ultralight means ultra thin! It's kind of the opposite of what you want for warmth. And of course, ultralight that actually has warmth is EXPENSIVE! It's a whole next level market of hiking.
I'm attempting to carry 10 days of food to get through this section. It's a lot of climbs and with a lot of food, it immediately becomes heavy weight! So, I went shopping.
Down booties, down pants, merino wool beanie, gloves, balaclava, I made a DIY tyvek sleeping bag bivvy to go over my sleeping bag for extra warmth etc. It was an expensive adventure, but it's the only way to do this with the weather changing so drastically.
(By drastically, I sit here at my campsite, inside my tent, typing this whilst it is snowing outside!! Yes. I'm being snowed on.)
So back to the trail I went. Pack as light as I can get it and equipped with everything I need, hopefully.
It's noticeable the difference in environment that I am entering into. The High Sierras are a huge chunk of the PCT. It's something people don't want to miss out on, but it comes with its extremes. This year, the NOBOs were snowed in/out of them. Only a small percentage got through (most with mountaineering experience) or some have flipped to now come back and finish them. It was a record level snow year, thus things turned a little crazy out here.
Now, it's my turn to enter them. The weather is fickle at this elevation. One minute it's sunshine and lollipops, next minute it's grey and thundering. It's important to follow the weather and really pay attention to the changes occurring. Of course, without permanent cell reception, following the weather is difficult. I'm grateful to be having my parents follow the High Sierra radar and give me notice of the changes.
Just like today. Look at this gorgeous sunshine upon one of the lakes I climbed by.
Within 15 minutes, I looked behind me to see grey, misty, strange looking clouds rolling in. It was like they were chasing me!
With my parents on the Garmin inreach explorer (my GPS satellite device to contact and track my thru hike), my parents messaged giving me an update of the current weather situation.
Tonights forecast: snow.
They advised me to maybe set up camp earlier than usual, so I did. I chose a lower elevation and pitched my tent as close to the ground as possible.
It was hard to believe that I was walking past these stunning water lakes whilst contemplating the possibility of snow this evening. The weather just didn't make sense. Welcome to the sierras!!
So, this section is going to take a bit of team work with my folks and I. I am eternally grateful to have my mum and dad on board. I was thinking how lucky I am to have parents who love and care for me under all circumstances.
Mum sent through a picture of a paper map the other day to show me a junction and I was stunned. My folks have highlighted and circled all sorts of things on the maps, following my every step. They track me online and make sure I am safe at camp. They are up to date on all the online information on the PCT groups and pages. I'm just overwhelmed.
And they get it. They can tell how hard it is out here! They are doing everything they can to make this easier for me. I love them both dearly and am so incredibly grateful to have them.
We aren't the most lovey dovey family, but we are truthful in what we do and say. There's no pretentious false behaviour. We never fight or have family squabbles. We just work as a team. But I need it known how much I love my parents. I'm happy to shout it from the mountains (literally!) because they deserve it. They are truly my everything and I would not be where I am today without them.
I'm still currently solo. A lot of my hiking pals have either left the trail or are skipping out the Sierras. Getting through these Sierras will be difficult, but with mum and dad by my side (well, on my gps device), I know I can do this! We can do this.
It's always been 'us' against the world. Nothing's changed.
DAY 71 - Cascade Valley Junction to Bear creek
Here's to hanging tough
I awoke today to a frozen palace. Yep. My tent was an icicle. My dream of being Elsa from Frozen was a true reality. I stepped outside my tent to a glistening campsite. Last nights snow was a light dusting; enough to make the place look pretty, but not enough to stop me from onwards hiking. I was grateful that it was just a shimmer of snow. I had a moment looking around and the place was sparkling. It really was beautiful. But cold! My new down pants, down booties, tyvec sheet DIY bivvy was a godsend last night. At -6.5C consistently each night, warmth is my priority.
The morning began with an intense uphill to Silver Pass. Silver Pass is surrounded by high elevation lakes. Because of last nights temperatures, some of the lakes had turned to ice rinks! Not that I would've tested out how solid the ice was, it may have resulted in a scene from Titanic.
Silver Pass is quite well known for having a false summit. You think you are at the top, but it keeps going! Onwards and upwards led to some snow patches.
It made me a little wary of what's to come on the next few passes. At elevations of 11,500+ feet, I'm bound to be coming across countless snow crossings. Mum sent me some yaktraks in the mail, so I have them for safety if the snow is icy and slippery! They go over top of my trail shoes and allow for extra grip teeth into the ice. When it's just snow, my shoes are fine just trucking through and kicking steps, making sure I'm gripping. Ice, on the other hand, is a whole other level.
The rest of the day was no where near as beautiful as the morning. A lot of rocks and trees, one incredibly epic climb to absolutely no view, but I loved every second of today. I went at my own pace, stopped when I needed to stop, and sang the entire day through. I was slow uphill and blazing downhill. It was a Gretel day. At the top of a climb, I opened my phone to some cell reception. I had received a message from Barry, who is about 1-1.5 days behind me! We are trying to catch up, so I camped early again to lose some miles, so he can gain some! I'm thrilled he hasn't skipped the Sierras, like a lot of people.
It really hit home with me today that this isn't easy. I know. Such an idiotic statement, but I mean this in a different way to the physical act of thru hiking.
I had received confirmation that a bunch of my original hiking buddies in Washington, decided to leave the trail. Some will complete it next year, others have had their experience and that is all. It seemed incredibly strange to be hiking the High Sierras without anyone familiar around. There is only a handful of us out here, and we are all sporadic. I am truly solo out here.
I suppose receiving this news of my friends gave a whole new meaning to what I am actually doing. This is tough. I don't give myself enough credit for this. I gather everyone gives it a go and forget how demanding it really is. Someone actually quoted the statistics of how many people start the PCT and how many actually complete it. I cannot remember the numbers off the top of my head, but it was an astounding difference. I'll be sure to confirm that when I have cell data to check information. (From info, about 4500 attempt and roughly 500 complete it!)
I am incredibly grateful to be here on this journey and am even more proud of the fact that I haven't given up! There's a true fighter in me. There always has been. In all situations, I've fought and worked hard to be where I am. I suppose I'm just realising it's a strength of mine. I'm used to it being utilised in a negative way and I now know why people have said things in the past about me being strong and independent. Sometimes it's thrown at me in a diminishing way - as if I don't need anybody else. Like how people use it to describe single females who stand up for themselves or girls who are labelled tomboys, but you know what?! I don't care anymore. I'm hiking the PCT and am one of the few who are left. I'm a survivor out here. I set my mind to do things in life and I will get them done. How many people can actually say they are doing one thing every day that scares them? My everyday is filled with fear, but facing those fears is even harder. It takes strength. And when it's only you out here, you can't run to someone else for help. It's a scary concept. No one can hold your hand. So when someone has a dig at me about being strong and independent, they can jump, because I'd like to see them try this out!
Don't let anyone make you feel bad for being strong. We all still have a heart. Sometimes the stronger ones just don't let their guard down to everyone they know. I remember as a child, I cut my leg open on a barbed wire fence. I didn't cry. I was alone at the time in someone else's property paddock. I couldn't yell out for help. No one was around. So, I had to ride home on my bike. Blood streaming down my leg. I never shed a tear. Doesn't mean it didn't hurt, but there was no use crying. It wasn't going to get me anywhere! And I still have the scar to represent that moment. As much as I don't recommend being stabbed with barbed wire, I'm proud of it. As I hike every day, I look down and see that scar. I smile. I was a strong kid, and I still am.
It's ok to have strength and direction. Maybe the people who think it's a negative trait may be a little envious or intimidated by it? Either way, it's not worth wasting time and energy on. You are you. Keep conquering.
DAY 72 - Bear Creek to McClure meadow
DAY 72 - Bear Creek to McClure meadow
It was strange to start out later this morning. I definitely felt slack, but I also felt like I could be making the biggest mistake by waiting around for the boys to arrive from Mammoth. Without cell, I had no guaranteed way to find out if they had actually left the town yesterday and were back on trail. I also started making my breakfast and thought 'I only have enough food for 10/11 days.' This seriously made me question whether lower mileage was a smart option.
With 10 to 11 days of food, this allows me the basic minimum of 20 miles a day with a day hike to the top of Mt Whitney. If I was to stick around and not keep substantially moving, then I could risk running out of food and having to side trip to one of the towns, adding extra mileage and extra days. Extra days means more risk at weather changes. I just have to keep going and hope the boys can do big mileage to catch me.
Another climb to start the day. What a surprise. That's old news now! Just expect at least 5 climbs a day here in the Sierras. The lakes in this section are stunning. They are crystal blue and of course, alpine waters, so the water is clear as day.
Starting out around 9am was strange. My tent was frozen again, so breaking off all the flakes and icicles was a task in itself. But starting around that time meant the day warmed up a lot quicker than usual, which also meant the ice and snow on the terrain was melting a little faster.
My first summit for the day was heading toward Selden Pass.
Yep I had to laugh and take every picture I could. Ha!
The summit had an intense final section to climb. It was sharp and directly upward. I always prefer doing climbs in the morning. It allows for more energy expenditure earlier on, in order to do the more difficult tasks in the morning. However, here in the Sierras, it doesn't always work that way. You can start your day with a climb, climb through lunch and also end with a climb. It's just up and down. Up and down.
Selden Pass was beautiful. The sun was shining and at 11,000 feet, it was strangely warm. The Pass opened up to one of the lakes that you could see directly between the mountains, and a huge snow shoot was still present from the recent snow fall.
Of course I had to stage a photo shoot. Very difficult when hiking solo! Ms Selden on Selden Pass.
What goes up, must come down. So down the pass and crossing incredible lakes. A lot of the lake outlets and inlets were frozen solid. Ice rink-style. This really was a beautiful part of the PCT. I enjoyed every moment of this mornings hike. I took my time and relished in the fact that I could absorb each mountain and view. It's truly the best thing about hiking solo.
The best thing about the Sierras so far, is the fact that the trail actually takes you around the lakes. Unlike previous parts of the trail, you have to side trail in order to get to the lakes. But walking directly alongside them is refreshing and spectacular. The waters are crystal clear, as they are major water sources of the glacier alpines above.
Continuing down hill toward Muir Ranch, I didn't take the side trail to the ranch, but kept pushing forward for the day. Even though I had started at 9am, I still needed to push for at least 20 miles!
The terrain took a sudden change. Dry, yet forestry. It was really interesting to see some of the fall colours appearing. Significantly, the yellows and reds.
The final section of the day was my favourite... not. The final uphill climb to camp. I could've camped down at the bottom of the valley, but I wanted to start some of tomorrow's morning climb, as it looks a real treat!! So of course, in PCT style, rocks and more rocks. Try dodging around these tree roots and rocks, yet attempting to keep a 3-3.5 mile an hour average! Yeah. It's impossible.
I found my campsite for the night and set up tent just off the creek bed. Surrounded by the mountains of the Sierras, it was a lovely sunset to watch.
Tomorrow morning has a 16km climb uphill to start the day. DELIGHTFUL! Welcome to the High Sierras!!
DAY 73 - McClure Meadow to Glacier Creek
All I can say is WOW! Today was a never ending picture collection. I had my camera out every 30 minutes. Something new would appear, or something just as beautiful.
The gradual 16 km climb up to Muir Pass was brutal, but not until the last section. Up until that point, I was surrounded by lakes, glaciers, mountains and summits. It was breath taking.
Although this was a constant uphill climb, this section really demonstrated some of the most beautiful scenery I have truly seen on the PCT. I could see the snow peaks up ahead and knew what I was heading towards.
There were still rocks to climb, but it was just delightful with all that was surrounding!
Every corner I turned, another spectacle would appear. I was in awe for majority of the morning. I really lapped up every moment I could being surrounded by these mountains. At one stage, I actually stopped and just stood still. I was the only human in this area. I was a speck again. I could hear absolutely nothing. It was as if the world actually stopped for a moment. Remember how we all panicked about the Y2K bug and how the world was going to stop when the year 2000 showed up? Well, my world stopped, except without the panic and fear. It made me smile, endlessly. I could hear nothing. No breeze, no water, not even my own breath. That's how calm this moment was.
Then the climb continued... Today was warming up! I'm not complaining because the nights have been below zero degrees Celsius, consistently! I'm hoping this warmer weather may bring on a warmer night and morning! My fingers were frozen again, this morning! Even with gloves on.
This climb up to Muir Pass may have had me shouting a few obscenities. The rocks and gravel were absurd and such a waste of valuable energy. My mood suddenly changed and I was fed up with this terrain. I like to think my spirit animal is the horse. They are strong, don't trust untrustworthy individuals, really suss people out before being taken on a ride, loyal, hardworking, but yet free spirits when they are on fire. I made a passing joke back in the last section to Tripsy. Every climb we did up those rocks, there was horse manure everywhere. I literally said "see! Even the horses shit themselves going uphill!" And it is true. Every uphill climb I've come across, there is massive amounts of horse poo. They are my spirit animal!
But then I looked around. The PCT was like a problematic toddler. It was as if the PCT was smirking at me saying "but you can't hate me?!" Like butter wouldn't melt. Fine. You got me this time.
I didn't realise I would still be encountering a decent amount of snow still. So several crossings later, I was able to pick up some downhill pace to make up for my uphill meander.
I know there is an abundance of photos to follow this, but I was sort of shocked with how much snow was still around!
After running downhill to make up for lost time, the PCT opened up into meadowland again. I like walking through these areas. I feel small. I feel like a tiny human engulfed in the magnitude of cascading mountains. It's times like these when I actually feel like I'm walking from Canada to Mexico. I'm on a visible trail that is leading somewhere. It's always worth a picture.
Towards the end of the day, the terrain did nothing special. It's preparing me for tomorrow's outrageous climb to the next pass. Apparently this next climb has fear-inducing qualities, with its ledges and rock climbs. Wish me luck. I'm up early to take my time. Enjoy every moment.
DAY 74 - Glacier Creek to Woods Creek Bridge
Today, I am exhausted. Two passes climbed and a whole lot of mileage.
Pass number one was a piece of shit. I was trying to remain so positive about it, but sometimes, things are just crap. And that's all there is to it. It was a huge climb, filled with rocks and gravel. Surprisingly, everyone who does this pass, despises it!! Ha!
The first section was what I later found out to be 'the golden staircase'. It was intense. Switch back after switch back, this climb wasn't getting easier. I was taking my time to the point where I was embarrassed at my pace on my tracking device. I thought my folks may be watching and thinking 'geez, girl is having a holiday out there!' However, it was actually the complete opposite. I was on struggle street.
I noticed today that the air is getting a lot thinner at this elevation. It's drastically harder to breathe, the higher you go up. Plus, the added bear canister weight on your back, really places pressure on the rib cage. You need your bag tight in order to have weight evenly distributed across your back and shoulders; however, trying to get enough oxygen at this altitude is difficult when you feel like you are strapped in to a rocket ship and representing NASA on the PCT.
The pass was getting rockier and rockier the higher I climbed. I cursed numerous times at the PCT for thinking it was trail-worthy to walk on! Rolling ankles, knees and tripping over was a frequent trail walk. I even slipped over on ice - TWICE! The second time saw me actually fall on my right side and smashed my right hip into a rock. I was fine. I just got up and kept going.
It was atrocious. But what was even worse, the view once I reached the top!! There was not a thing to write home about. I contemplated on stopping for a break at the top of the summit. Screw that! I kept walking to a lake. This was just ugly. But hey! I conquered it. Mather pass - you rotten summit. I won't be back!
So down hill I trekked. Well, ran. My downhill is the only way to make up miles when passes like that one take away hours of your hiking day.
Going on the mileage for the day, I had to contemplate in doing two passes today. As painful as it is, I had to make it happen. I realised the other day, that when working out my days in the Sierras, I forgot to include a day summitting Mount Whitney. The highest elevation in California (and of the lower 48!) and on the PCT. And I didn't factor in extra food for that summit. So, I have to keep pushing miles to get out of the Sierras fast.
Pinchot Pass was next. I really enjoyed this summit. I was blooming with Fall colours and the terrain was much nicer (until the final 2 miles which was another rock scramble).
I could see the beautiful views every step of the way. I knew what I was walking into. Every corner I turned, another lake showed face and I literally gasped and had to take a photo. The waters were crystal blue and the sunshine was like glitter on the surface.
The higher I climbed, the more the mountains were opening up! This pass was spectacular, especially after doing Mather Pass this morning. I'm actually glad I did the two passes in the one day, because it would've been disappointing to finish the day on that first pass.
The final downhill for the day was a big one. About 7 miles of pure down. I was contemplating in camping earlier for the day, but I needed to get to lower elevation. The downhill section was in a valley and the winds were starting to amp up as the sun went down.
I crossed a suspension bridge to my campsite for the night. I'm exhausted. What a day! I have an awkward amount of miles to complete to get to the Whitney summit base, so I will divide it up over the next two days and make them less miles, so I'm not rushing. More passes to come!! Welcome to the Sierras, where "slow" doesn't exist!
DAY 75 - Woods Creek bridge to campsite 2987.04 km
I divided my mileage up over the next 2 days in order to get to the Mount Whitney summit camp in time to start the climb on Tuesday morning. That's not tomorrow, but the next day. So it was a lower mileage day, which I've been hoping for anyways! I arrived at camp around 4pm, which is completely odd, but also absolute heaven at the same time.
It's what I refer to as 'civilised camping/hiking'. The types of days I dream of. Wake up at 8am, leave camp by 9:30am, hike a little, stop by a lake, hike a little more, stop by a stream, after about 10-12 miles, find a campsite and set up, build a fire, sit around, chat. That's dream hiking!! Not thru hiking. Thru hiking is the complete opposite. Up at 4:45am, leave by 6/6:30am, hike, hike, hike, stop, nibble, hike, hike, hike, stop, nibble etc, find campspot by 6:30pm sunset, set up tent, eat, bed. Repeat. Yeah. It's a pretty life!
Today started out with... you guessed it! Uphill. An insane climb to the top of Glen Pass.
The lakes throughout this section were spectacular. I actually tried to be civilised and had my 'load off' nibble break by one of these beauties. It was gorgeous. As I was de-layering (the warm up contains many layers, that must be de-robed or die!), a gentleman walked by me. We quickly looked at each other and then both said "Gretel? Duncan?"
I had met Duncan (fellow Aussie from Adelaide who is now based in LA) on my incoming traffic to Mammoth Lakes. He was heading north bound to meet some friends. We got chatting and went on our merry way. He was a true gem and it was such a pleasure to have met him! Little did I know I would bump into him again, heading southbound! He was doing a loop back to where his car was parked. What a coincidence!
We started chatting and, this time, hiking together in the same direction. Swapping stories and quickly getting to know each other better. He's a middle aged guy who has hiked a lot! He was exiting the trail today and it was so weird to bump into each other again. We ended up hiking Glen Pass together (well within a mile of each other) which was a real "ball buster" as Duncan put it! It was an intense uphill climb, rocks galore and it was a struggle. He nicknamed me mountain goat and I will take the compliment! The way I jump up the rocks to get to the top is a little insane, but it makes up for my absolute internal struggle actually hiking uphill.
The views around were jaw dropping, but the rocks at my feet were a real pain in the ass! Each pass is made up of these rock steps. A true hinderance to hiking! They are no help at all!
Apparently these snow patches covered the entire pass a month ago. It was absurd how dangerous it all was. Ice axes were necessary and one slip ended you down the bottom on a pile of rocks. It was one of the most sketchy passes for the northbounders this year. I was glad to have had a pretty clear path. Only a little snow, but all steps were kicked in already.
I was thrilled to have ran into Duncan again. I've been having incredible wind burnt lips. I had lip balm, but I had an incident where I accidentally left my lip balm with the taxi driver in Mammoth. He was not the nicest of humans and after me ringing him starught away, he didn't bother to turn around and come back. I thought about heading back into mammoth to get some, but that would've been one really expensive lip balm! Almost $75 on a triple trip taxi! So, I cried about it but gathered I'd just deal.
WRONG! Lip balm is freaking essential out here!!! It's sooooo painful when the wind burns your lips and then the sun burns them! I tried the whole nut butter on the lips thing but that was a fail. I had nothing else that was lip worthy. I woke up this morning to bleeding, scabbed and red raw lips. So painful.
When Duncan was leaving the trail, he asked if I needed anything... YES! Lip balm!!! He kindly donated his Chapstick to me and has literally saved my ass for these next 5 days! It has been 5 days of burning lip hell. And now, I'm hoping they will heal and stop scabbing! I'm a sight for sore eyes, I tell ya! Duncan and I swapped numbers and will keep in touch. He might have a couple of contacts for some holiday work!! :)
Food for this section has been really difficult. I'm praying to the gods above, that I can make it through. I've been under-eating a lot throughout the days, which isn't ideal considering the intense energy expenditure that is required to go uphill. On days like today, where I didn't do as much mileage, I rationed a bar for tomorrow instead. I've had to ration my food to get me through 10 days! I'll eat up big when I get to Kennedy Meadows!! But it's a definite concern.
I pitched my tent at higher elevation tonight, in order to complete the last 3.5miles of this climb to Forester Pass. I'm hoping it's gentle. It won't be. But one can only hope!!
I watched the sunset from my house and had a moment for all things grateful today. Duncan, the lip balm, the weather, the water, the views, the PCT and life.
Tomorrow, I hike another 20 miles to set up camp as close as possible to the Mount Whitney summit. She's going to be a climb to 14,505 feet!! The highest peak in the lower 48 states. As painful as it is, I'll conquer it!
DAY 76 - campsite 2987.04km to Crabtree Ranger Station
Forester Pass. The big guy. The pass that made a lot of NOBOs skip the Sierras to keep moving. This is the snow shoot that freaked so many out, and understandably so. One slip, and the angle that this shoot would have sent you on, may have been life threatening. In June this year, it resembled this:
It's a huge reason why so many pulled out. It is, ideally, the highest pass and one of the first ones to cross in the High Sierras. Mount Whitney (the highest elevation) is actually a side trail option. It's not on the PCT. So, Forester wins with the 13,200 feet elevation climb. Even though my Whitney summit of 14,505 ft happens tomorrow!
The morning began with a gorgeous sunrise on the mountains surrounding my Forester Pass that I was to be climbing today.
As I started the trek up the summit, it was oddly easier than the other passes. The incline seemed kinder. More gentler. Well, for me anyways!
It was a LONG climb though. Every corner I turned I thought 'this is it. 13,200 feet!' NOPE. Another 3 miles/4.8kms to go! UPHILL. It was never ending. And every switch back I climbed, I could see snow patches and started to have a slight panic that I, too, was going to be like the NOBOs and could be put in a dangerous situation.
Luckily with all the snow crossing I have done so far, my confidence has definitely grown. Don't get me wrong, the fear factor is always at the back of my mind, but that is purely because I don't have a death wish out here. I'm also not walking on snow in my backyard... I'm 13,000 feet up and on an angle. It's a different level of fear.
Every step I took, it was a stairway to heaven. A painful process, but part of the fun is that climb. I seriously thought this next picture was the top. I had another 1.5 hrs of uphill! Ha!!!
It's snow patches like this next one that always make me stop, breathe and think. It's a great exercise as an adult. We tend to rush into so many decisions and choices. People put us on the spot or expect us to call back with an immediate response. We've become so impatient. This PCT process has taught me that there is no such thing as a deadline. Of course things like tax and exams etc, have a date and time, but people tend to cause panic on each other. Voicemails, texts, emails. We are all so contactable now, there is no reason to think before responding. We panic and think everyone needs to be called back. The world can wait. We can't stop the world from spinning, but we can stop ourselves and breathe in deep.
So contemplating traversing this sort of snow patch just takes a moment to suss out the right and safest choice. I kind of get a kick out of it.
Forester really was a beautiful pass. It's huge and engulfs all things of extraordinary. Walking around these rock walls made me feel small again. Grounded. Also, a little like Wonder Woman. Climbing so high. Just me. No one else. It was only me through this section and I felt strong.
Reaching the top is always a moment. You look around and realise you just did that. You climbed that insane amount and you are alive. It's truly a moment when you feel like your blood is rushing for all the right reasons. And now, the downhill.
This was the side that was completely covered in snow for the northbounders. It's a rough edge, so I can see why there was a great deal of panic and patience was a virtue for a lot of them this year.
Getting down towards the bottom of the elevation profile was a slight wake up call; my official final PCT Pass complete. Of course I have Mount Whitney tomorrow, but on the actual PCT, this signified the final HIGH Sierra pass.
I felt a sense of relief, like I have completed all of these passes AND solo!
As I kept walking, I noticed a change in scenery. My High Sierras phase was coming to an end. The environment was turning plain, still uphill and downhill, and terrain altering, but things looked different. Parts of the trail were leading me nowhere in particular, which is sort of significant to this journey. Where to from here? Can only go up from here. Up where the clouds are clear. A perfect snap shot moment I found...
Today got me thinking. I've done almost 10 days of the High Sierras (the most difficult section) alone.
Alone. Alone and lonely are two different things. I have always been ok with being alone. I love being alone with my thoughts. I love people too. But alone, I've always done well. I don't strive for affection and attention from others. I remember my mum telling me a story of me when I was at kindergarten. Here I was just content with interacting with others and then being alone by myself. I never asked her if 'so-and-so' could come over and play, and I never asked the reverse. She questioned it to one of her friends, wondering if I was lonely. Her friend said something interesting at the time. It was a sheer projection of what my mum expected a little girl to do. What society had conditioned us to think. If someone doesn't speak of 'friends' they must be lonely. Did I look happy? Yes. Did I act happy? Yes. Was I ever complaining? No. Did there seem to be something problematic with me? No. So, I was content. And always will be. I like me time.
Alone and lonely. Different. So walking these Sierras hasn't been a mental challenge. I've enjoyed thinking about each obstacle as I have conquered them. I've enjoyed thinking about music and lyrics. I've enjoyed thinking about family and friends. I've enjoyed thinking about my future.
And on that thought of alone vs lonely; it's funny to come to the realisation that I've never in my life EVER felt lonely. Weird.
DAY 77 - Crabtree ranger campsite to Rock creek camp
Mount Whitney (highest peak in the lower 48 at 14,505 feet)
Now, this was sure a climb. There are two entry points. If you are coming from the PCT or JMT, you enter via the PCT/JMT trail side. If you are a day hiker or section hiker, you can start from what they call the Whitney Portal and climb up the other side. The PCT permit doesn't allow you to exit via the portal. If you come up the PCT side, you simply go back down the PCT side.
The Whitney portal side has so many day hikers. It's one of the most popular day hikes in the area.
The up. The never ending up to 14,505 feet. Part of me thought 'why are you doing this to yourself, Gretel? It's an optional side trail that is not even on the PCT!' And then I thought 'Why not?!'
On the way up, the views around me on the PCT side were gradually going from gigantic to small, the higher I climbed. The incline was painful and I've been so used to doing the climbs on my own, I didn't expect to pass JMT hikers as I climbed. But I did!
One guy said to me 'how are you going with the climb?' I simply replied 'it's killed my soul' and kept hiking. My small talk was on fire today!! Not.
(In this picture above, I started hiking this morning from beyond the green trees on the right hand side) Then I came to the junction. This is after the huge 8 miles of climb meets the portal junction where all the day hikers start to join. This climb was better for me! There were rocks, yes, but it was an easier incline gradient. I was overtaking day hikers every few minutes or so. The edges were steep and the drop off was huge.
Coming around rock ledges was fun though. I love that sort of stuff. I don't think my parents love me walking on edges, but either way, it's thrilling to me!
Now the top at 14,505 feet. I'm going to sound ridiculous, but it wasn't as spectacular as I expected. Everyone who passed me on my way up (their way down) were saying how incredible it is. In all honesty, maybe if the peak was in Washington, it would deliver extraordinary views of the landscape. But being towards Southern California, you kind of have desert on one side and rock mountains on the other. There's no breathtaking lakes like in New Zealand, or snow capped mountains like Canada. It was just rock.
So a few pics and video, and back down I went.
Don't get me wrong, it was great, but not extraordinary for that climb I just did.
On the way back down, passing lots of JMT hikers, I was running. Trying to make up for any time lost uphill. So many of them stopped and asked if I was the fast Aussie chick that people have been asking about. Hmmm fast on the downhill, right?!
Today was purely for Whitney. It was a 25.6km return hike up and back to my camp, then another 16 or more to tonight's campsite. It was actually nice to get back to the PCT. Mount Whitney signified a transition in this phase. The High Sierras are coming to an end.
Oh, and on my way back down, I passed the guy from the JMT again and he asked if I found my soul. I did. It was at the top of Mount Whitney, sitting and waiting patiently for me to arrive at the summit.
DAY 78 - Rock creek to Gomez meadow
American Idol, we are not in the Sierras anymore!
What a transition to witness. The exiting of the Sierras is such a difference to what I have been traversing through these last few days. The ground terrain has immediately changed from my trusted old favourite rocks to my next favourite ground... sand.
This is integral in pace! Today, I was planning on a 51.2km day and not realising I would now be trekking on sand for miles, was a real pace killer. I was running downhill every chance and only taking 10 minute breaks every 2 hours or so. I've also been rationing my food. I hear I am one of the only hikers recently, to get through this section of 10/11 days without stopping in a single town, or getting extra food off other hikers who don't need it.
Sometimes when I come to blog about days like today, I feel bad, because it was purely about the mileage in order to get to my next resupply in time before the general store closed. A lot of these places close early because peak hiker season is over. They tend to only cater for NOBOs and forget that there is still a lot of SOBO's out here.
The thing that makes me feel bad is I stop to look at the photos I took and realise I didn't take much footage of the day, but there really was nothing much to see. The Southern California rock structures are coming in to play and with only 45% battery on my phone and 30% on my Garmin device, I've been saving the usage for incredible sights - today just wasn't one of them.
It was insanely apparent how much I am exiting the Sierras now, and also annoying that I'm still carrying this bear canister! The canister has been digging into my spine, shoulder blades and hips and I cannot wait to rid it from my life when stopping in Kennedy Meadows.
When walking through this section, I am thinking that maybe I'm not in bear country anymore? But the bears are migrating and who knows... still gotta play it safe. But the canister has to go!! Ha!
Towards the end of the day, I stopped and turned around. Yep. It's a definite change. So sudden and noticeable how everything around me has turned to stone and dirt. It also ensues panic in regards to water and the desert.
I arrived at camp in time for my curfew. I'm exhausted. It's not the way I like to hike. I prefer to enjoy it all, but with very little food left, the energy supplies are low and I just have to push through. It's not ideal, but mileage is mileage. I'm going to set out around 5:45am tomorrow morning to make it into Kennnedy Meadows by 3pm. I have another 43.5 km to get to the resupply location, so again, it's another mileage day. Then I can stop and smell the roses. Well, the dirt! There's no snow or blizzards to have to deal with anymore, so it's time to then chill.
DAY 79 - Gomez Meadow to Kennedy Meadows
Run, Forest, Run!
But seriously. Today was all about go. I hardly stopped again. I just kept moving to get to the next stop. Ironically, there is another fire back burning in the area and the smoke has been tearing in around 1pm each day. This morning it made for a beautiful sunrise. I started hiking in the dark, so it was awesome to see this around 7am.
Around the 8:30am mark, the smoke was filling the valley. As annoying as it is, this is the most beautiful time of the day to see it travelling through. I was in the perfect location today on the top of a ridge walking through Meadows in order to capture this.
As much as I was in a complete rush, this was actually some of my most enjoyable hiking. There was something so calming and open to be walking through open dry Meadows. It wasn't hot but the sun was shining down and warming my skin. Something felt like home in me. It felt like the end of an era. It defintely wasn't the Sierras anymore and I felt content and conquered.
It truly felt like I was walking from Canada to Mexico. I felt on a trail and doing mile after mile. I felt freedom. Just me and the wilderness.
Coming into Kennedy Meadows saw the return of my great gnat friends! They are alive and well in the warmer lower elevation. Filtering water was an epic amount of fun when 40 of them were attacking me. So, thank you again to my sea-to-summit headnet for giving me hope.
Getting into the General Store was a never ending sand path. I thought I would never get there!
Once I arrived, I was honestly a little shocked.
The place I'm currently sitting at is possibly the most important PCT location on the trail. NOBOs have to resupply here and get their bear canisters before hitting the Sierras. For us SOBO's, this signifies the end of a huge section where we send out our best canisters and resupply for this next section.
This place is a terrible hiker location. There is nothing here. I'm not one to judge small locations. I was born in one! But this is not hiker equipped. There is one store, all goods are expensive, no food (like sandwiches, burger, salad etc), no coffee, no cell service, no wifi, the payphone doesn't work, no electronic charge stations longer than store hours (they shut off the power at 4pm), they lock the outside toilets (no hiker use), no lodging, no breakfast. It's been a really disappointing way to celebrate the end of the Sierras. I'm currently camped on a dirt patch out the back of the store with no 'dinner'. I've had to buy a bunch of snacks from the store to get me through. When I've been rationing energy bars and snacks to get me here, only to arrive to nothing substantial, it's a real kick in the ass!
Anyways, it's only a stop and I'll get back on trail once I've sent stuff out and do a proper resupply in 6 days.
I'd be stupid to not admit I'm exhausted and was looking forward to having a moment of relief. But here I am. Either way, that's it for the High Sierras. What a trek! And all solo. Of all the places, I never once thought that I would be hiking the High Sierras alone. But I did. I camped alone every night and hiked every mile by myself. Conquered. Now only 702 miles/1,123.2 km to go to Mexico!
And from the Sierras...
DAY 80, 81- Kennedy Meadows to Spanish Needle Creek
So I certainly made something out of nothing. I turned my Kennedy Meadows fail into one of the greatest places I stopped at. The place may not have had what I wanted or needed, but my experience was that of one I could not have gained elsewhere.
Yesterday, I asked one of the workers from Grumpys restaurant and bar (about 3 miles away from the General Store) what times they were opening and what was the best way to get there. I happened to be alone with my stuff, quietly sorting it out off to the side, and the worker (Doug) said he would kindly come and collect me in the morning around 10:15am if I would like to head over there. Great, I thought! So I took him up on the offer.
I pondered all morning wondering what was the best idea. I had 2 boxes to ship out from the General Store, but the store wasn't officially opening until 10:30am. I would be gone with Doug. So I would've had to come back. I thought maybe Grumpys might be able to ship my stuff. When Doug arrived I quickly asked whether I could ship, he said 'oh, I'm not too sure but I can deal with it for you! We will make it work!' WHAT A CHAMP! So in the car I go with him to the bar.
We arrive. He's awesome! Great conversation and a very interesting worldly outlook on life. I quietly set my things up and away from the public area, being generous to the space required for business and guests. He said he was expecting a quiet day.
Wrong! In arrives 3 bikies, riding the California roads for a few days. Absolute legends. I sit at the bar and swap stories with Josh, Matt and Don. Married men all out for a ride together. They were so fascinated with my PCT trail, they were engulfed in all of my stories and experiences so far. We shared fries and deep fried mushrooms, over coffee and beers, whilst Doug cooked away. The place got more full with people. Phil and his two adult daughters, a group of 6 more riders, an elderly couple, Jon and Joe, locals who are regulars to the bar... and more! It was all about sharing journies with people.
And most of all, they were all gobsmacked at my trek. I forget how crazy this really is. They were all so encouraging and congratulatory. It was overwhelming how in awe these guys were. Each person was so generous with their time and the genuine human interaction was one beyond words. These people were real.
And Doug. I have no words. Eternally grateful to have met someone so kind and giving. I felt an internal sadness to have left there, after spending hours there. I thought to myself, I will never see Doug again, but I hope he truly realised how much he affected my time here. This moment. The PCT just keeps delivering. Kennedy Meadows was a real kick in the butt yesterday. But when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade and drink it with incredible people. I was genuinely touched by all the humans I met at Grumpys. I'm thrilled I made my way there.
So, back on trail! Another milestone reminder... 700 miles to go - or 1120km!
There's a distinct transition in nature now. There's shrubs, dirt and sand. I'm on my way to the Mojave desert. Southern California.
The mornings are crisp and cold, but the days are hot and dry. I'm actually entering a dangerously dry area with decent and long water planning. It's taking up most of my dinner time trying to figure out the next days water carry.
The mountains are becoming evidently more gentle and less aggressive in comparison to the High Sierras. There's something calming about this area though. It's so refreshing to walk in the morning. It becomes less enjoyable after midday, as the sun is at its warmest and it's got that beaming light effect. It's tiresome. Like the Australian sun, it's lovely, but small doses! Unfortunately with hiking, dosage doesn't matter. You have 12 hours to get amongst that golden sunshine and you better love it!! Ha
After a couple of decent climbs today, the world opened up to desert Southern California style. It was so different to anything I have seen so far on the PCT. It was such a drastic change. The colours. The landscape. The terrain. It was all so different. There's seriously something new everyday on the PCT.
The afternoon was a long hike to camp. Figuring out water sources and making sure I didn't miss them! Oh and GNATS! Gnats, gnats, gnats. All day. They are alive and well! They don't bite. They just float around your face. For hours. They land in your eyes, nose and mouth. Someone told me it had something to do with CO2 (carbon dioxide) in our breathing. I need to research this. They are severely annoying and I have no idea how anyone could hike without a headnet. Sea to summit head net, you are my saviour yet again!
DAY 82, 83, 84, 85 - Spanish needle creek to McIvers Spring to Kelso Road to Golden Oaks Spring to Tehachapi
I haven't blogged these last few days. It's been an interesting time here on the PCT. It's been physically challenging as always, but moreso mentally.
It's a strange thing to be coming up against, especially after the High Sierras. I didn't expect the section AFTER the Sierras to be one of my most challenging.
It will be hard for people to understand, seeing the pictures, which make it all so beautiful and picturesque. But gorgeous open sunny skies for 12 hours can be difficult. The heat starts to tire you so much faster. However, there's always a shady tree somewhere that you just have to take a moment at. That has mentally been a little harder when trying to aim for greater mileage.
Aside from feeling like I'm looking upon the townships in Erin Brocovich, the landscape itself is a beautiful sight. It's everything I imagined desert California to look like and more. The mountains go on forever and the shapes they create are much smoother and gentler compared to other sections I've hiked.
The trail, however, is a lot more exposed, as you can tell from the pictures. And what's even been worse throughout this section... sand. Miles and miles of sand. What's more painful than uphill? Uphill on sand. Again, it's been another mileage killer. Walking on sand slows down the pace, and also gives the legs an extra workout - neither of the two things I need!
However, silver linings, California certainly gives wonderful sunsets to end the days. I've had some much warmer nights compared to what I've been dealing with recently, and it's been a pleasure in that aspect.
I stepped outside my tent last night around 9pm and turned off my headlight. Just me and a blanket of stars. I looked up and breathed in the night air. The world was silent. The air was balmy. The universe was still. The stars were twinkling in the distance. I had a moment for how much we underestimate that powerful blanket above us at night. We hide away from the dark. It scares us because we think we cannot see the world around us. But if you stop, breathe, open your eyes, the world adjusts and the stars and the moon light up what's around you. It's not as scary as you think.
I urge you to try and do it more often than not. At night, before bed, walk outside (whether it be your backyard, balcony, RV or boat) and stand still. Look up and breathe in. It's only the night sky allowing the sun to rest and rejuvenate. Just like you. Like us. We are the sun. Darkness is not a scary element of the world. It's always put in the negative box. Love vs hate. Light vs dark. Sometimes we need the dark to calm the light. That sky above; she is magic. Pure magic. And in the middle of nowhere, away from the big city lights and traffic, it can transport you to a place of peace.
Now, I know from these pictures you must be thinking, what is she on about? This section... It's gorgeous!
Now for the fun.
GNATS. Gnats. And more gnats. You have NO IDEA!! They are insane. They are absolute nightmares and terrorise your soul to the point of insanity. Now, I have a headnet, but you must understand, walking with 50 of them stuck to the face of your headnet and another 200 circling your arms and head for 12 hours, is nerve twitching! Then when you stop, they go for your legs! It's torture! I'm throughly impressed that I only yelled at them twice, not making an ounce of difference, just making me feel a little better about life. I could describe gnats in a way that is something akin to THE MOST ANNOYING FRIEND/PERSON in your life, multiply them by 50, stand them in a circle around you and have them ask their stupid questions over and over and over. "Do you want to go for coffee? Do you want to go to the movies? Do you want to hang out? Do you know what the time is? Do you know what you want for dinner? Do you think this looks good on me? Do you like my hair?" GO AWAY!!! Understand though, your annoying friend will NEVER come close to 'gnat annoying' so think yourself lucky you only have to deal with that one annoying person. It has truly tested my patience and anger. There has definitely been a lot more anger this section.
The next thing that has made this section so incredibly difficult, has to be the water situation. This section is apparently the most remote on the PCT and lacks water sources. Most have dried up and you are expected to water carry long distances (40 miles/64kms). There is little to no access points to the PCT around this section, with no trailheads for people to go day hiking. So, it is a blessing that a few trail angels have not forgot about us SOBOs still completing the trail and have incredibly stocked up the water caches at a couple of the trail signs. These are such an important part of this section. There's a water report that each hiker tries to update as we go, to allow other hikers to know what water sources they are lacking. It's made for difficult planning in regards to camping and actually WALKING. Carrying extra litres of water is killing my body. The packweight has become increasingly heavy again. I've dropped a few kilos of body weight too, so the pack has been digging into my hip bones, collarbones and back pelvic bones. I carried roughly 5 extra litres the other night to camp, to carry over to the next day, as the next water source wasn't for 16 miles/25kms.
But the landscape has been spectacular. It's so different from everything I have trekked so far.
After another day of insane gnats, I had to plan the next water day. It had to be a 32 mile/51.2km day from one water source to the next water camp. Plus, I need a break. I haven't stopped in almost 16 days and I need a rest. My body is exhausted and I'm fatigued. So, the pushing higher miles, as painful as it is, I just want to rest and get to a town.
So an earlier rise to get things moving. Now, this I liked!!
California in the morning. What a treat. The world was still. It was by far my favourite part of this section. The stillness. The beauty. The calm. Not a sound or soul. Just me and the morning sky. Oh, and no gnats.
Until 7.30am. Then the gnats started. THE WORST THEY HAVE BEEN! Swarming non stop. So here I am getting attacked by gnats, carrying tonnes of water, in the blazing sun, tired and fed up. Yep. I'm sounding a real treat right now! But also, I am the ONLY one out here. There is a group of SOBOs a day ahead (about 10 of them) and a group about 5 days behind! And here I am. I haven't seen a soul or spoken to a human in days. Also, no one 'day hikes' this section because it's that awful! You wouldn't do it to yourself. So no tourists are out here for a visit. I've been so incredibly alone out here. Me and the gnats. And my music.
Around 4pm, suddenly, the gnats started to ease up. It began to get a tad windier than previous sections. I looked to my left as the horizon opened up, and there they were. My stunning wind turbines. I immediately thought of my best friend, Anna, and our road trips, hiking expeditions and our mutual love for the wind turbine. I knew that I was walking into this area of wind farms soon, but didn't expect it to be until south of Tehachapi.
Suddenly, the day eased up. I only had another 2-3 hours of hiking (which feels like a lifetime at 4pm) and there was a breeze. The breeze seemed to deter the gnats. Walking beside these amazing machines, gave me hope. It sounds ridiculous, but they did. A huge weight lifted from my shoulders and I felt like a bird.
The final part of the day felt attainable. I no longer felt insane or being driven made. As I set up tent, next to a algae filled trough, I sighed exhausted relief and just sat there. I certainly felt elated to be 5 hours hiking away from my next town, Tehachapi. (For those 'Wild' movie fans, this is the town where she started her hike and headed northbound.)
The area where I camped was high in wind sounds, and every now and then, my tent would feel like it was about to blow away. I had read somewhere also, that the trough was regularly visited by cows in the area, who could disturb my camp. This got me thinking.
TENTS. They really aren't the safest choice of housing. Yet I've felt so safe all trek. Think about it. In the story of the 3 little pigs, I'm the dumbass pig who builds his house of straw! The big bad wolf can rip my cubin fibre tarp apart, and eat me. The winds will seriously blow my house away. But why is it that the minute I'm inside a tent, there's a sense of safety? Because let's be honest, I've been sleeping on the ground in a house that wraps into a bag for 80 something days. That's not a sturdy mortgage or property investment.
But it's the concept of 4 walls. It's such a mental game. We feel safe undercover and not seeing what's around us, to the point where we calm ourselves to be able to rest. However, there's truly nothing stopping the wild animals, elements and humans from attacking us in a tent. Let's be honest. But it had only crossed my mind for the first time laying there, thinking about some pissed off cows being all "hey, you are near my trough! I will knock your house down and stomp on your face" or something similar.
Don't worry. I made it through the night without being flattened by cows. My final 5 hours of this section started with a morning red sky. Yes, there's that sailors warning saying, but going on the EPIC amount of water I was NOT surrounded by, I was not in any worry of being washed away at sea!
The sky was filled with haze today. Again, a nice visit from the gnats for a few hours and then they eased up when I hit the Tehachapi wind farms again.
I crossed paths with my first person on trail in about 7 days!! A hunter, holding a loaded rifle (always a freaky situation to be a part of, but they generally just want the deer, right?!). We spoke a couple of sentences and he went on his merry way, only for me to hear random gun shots an hour later in the distance. It's always a little spine chilling.
As I was hiking in to highway 58 towards Tehachapi, I turned my phone cell reception on and notifications started to buzz. An email from mum with information and instructions on what she had organised for me.
I read the email. Then smiled. The information I was already pretty much aware of, but I stopped and had a moment.
I realised there and then where I get my 'enabling' from. It's her. My heart sank. This quality, I have put into a negative box in regards to "Gretel". I have labeled it as a problem trait. It's not a problem at all. I laughed to myself thinking there is nothing wrong with this aspect of me. Stop running away from it. My mum has spent her whole life enabling and helping everyone she is surrounded by. She would always go out of her way, financially also, in order to help others. She's a wealth of information and loves to spend her life learning more and more every hour of the day. In the aspect of self education, my mum would happily learn probably 20 new things every day. She informs herself of everything and anything; whether it is related to her or not.
But I thought about this 'enabling'. Helping others and sharing information with other people is not a hindrance. It's not a problem at all. It shows that people like her and I are passionate and caring. We like to make sure people know what they are in for or that they are filled with as much information as possible to make their experiences more at ease. It's not an issue and I started to think to myself 'hey! This is something you should be proud of!' It represents the mum in me and a trait I have obviously picked up over the years, subconsciously. I hope I can pass it on to my daughter in years to come, and let her know it's not something to try and erase from yourself. I thank you, mum, for always taking the time (even when you haven't slept for days due to time zone differences) and effort to offer us kids the wealth of knowledge you have acquired and continue to invest in. I will wear this 'enabling' badge proudly and know when it is appreciated and when it's not. I love you.
And guess what, I made it to Tehachapi!! That section of dry hell is over and I'm onto the big section of desert. I'm waiting in Tehachapi for Maple and Barry (Charlemagne) to catch up. We are bringing this hike full circle and finishing these last 500 something miles together! So a big resupply and a few deserved zeros. After 20 days solo, it will be nice to see these awesome humans again. Fingers crossed I find them!!