My pack is waaaayy too heavy!! I had every intention of trying to lose some pack weight, but somehow it seems just as heavy as when we left the Muir Trail Ranch last year. If you recall, this leg of the PCT was our longest between resupplies. We were on the trail for 16 days and carrying that much food with a bear canister is virtually impossible. We had a resupply box packed in by horses and were able to pick up supplies in the high country. I remember leaving the Ranch and feeling like a sloppy puppet about to collapse because of the increased weight on my joints. For this trip, our plan is to start in Tuolumne Meadows, wade through the mud from recent snowmelt, battle the crowds in Lyell Canyon, and find camp just before Donahue Pass (11,056 elevation). In addition, the ranger station is reporting that Donahue is still packed with snow and to expect May/June conditions in August, so we must remain flexible with our itinerary. My hope is that we make it safely over the pass and are able to “chillax” and spend a couple of “zeros” at Thousand Island Lake.
Arrival day into Mammoth Lakes surprised us because instead of admiring the beautiful views we fondly remembered last year, smoke covered every vantage point along the mountains because of the Lion Fire in the Sequoia National Forest. At that time, we were told the fire had burned approx. 13,000 acres and the fire crews were going to just let it burn-save for protecting homes. Apparently, the winds had shifted earlier that morning and brought some of the smokey remnants up north. This was not what we wanted to see because the main focus of this trip was to do night sky photography in the high country. The first thing we did was make a trip to the Ranger Station for the latest weather and trail condition info. Ranger Dan was very helpful (he had just completed hiking the pass the day before) and informed us in detail of the trail conditions, and how the fire was nowhere near where we were about to go. I guess it’s still a go then…hopefully the smoke will subside and we can get a clear shot up there. Now as you PCT- ers know, a Motel 6 is luxury for us hiker trash. We got a room and finalized packing our gear; I took a hot bath, and did a bit of scouting to figure out where and what bus we needed to catch early the next morning, to Tuolumne Meadows. The last order of business was loading up on protein and carbs, so we had a nice Mexican dinner and called it a day…excited about what adventures lie ahead!
I popped up before our 6am alarm alerted us to quit being lazy asses and get the hell out hiking. We loaded our gear, checked out of the hotel that represented the creature comforts of society, and headed to Schatz Bakery for hot coffee and huge egg croissants. The bus ride to Tuolumne is first come first serve, so we arrived at the pick-up place in plenty of time. Surprisingly, we were the only hikers there and among perhaps 8 on the entire bus. We arrived to the trail head amid total chaos. Bumper-to-bumper traffic, busloads of tourists, day hikers, groups of kids high on sucrose, and wannabe backpackers with too-heavy gear surrounded the trail head; we could not begin hiking out of there fast enough. Today was planned to be our induction-back-to-the-trail-after-months-of-no-training day. 10 miles of flat terrain through Lyell Canyon bestowed towering waterfalls, wildflowers, well fed deer, and a welcome reprise from civilization. Our steady conversations and Brad’s quick wit, the way he talks in circles but jumps back to something remarkable just when I think we both need a dose of meds, floated across the pathways and hovered around us like the eagles flying above. Just like last year, time on the PCT weaves together voices and the bodies and spirits of all those who have ventured out before us. I think it forms an important lifeline between where we have come from and where we are headed. The trail was very muddy in many areas and we had more creek crossings from the snow melt than last year. Today we hiked 10 miles with much too heavy packs full of camera gear, but our bodies felt strong. We had plenty of time to scout a great camp site near the river with peaceful solitude, and set up camp. We picked a safe and secluded spot that offered a warm stream of air, near a cool river that took us from the edge of our real lives and into the heart of the wilderness. The gentle sounds of nature and from intimate conversations became a slow rumble itself that quickly became the foundation for our trip.
The first morning rays awoke me promptly at 6am. I stepped outside the tent, zipped up the opening to keep the flesh biting mozzies out, and let the crisp, clean, morning air touch my face, hands, and arms. Then I noticed the wind shifting off the mountains and the way the light bounced over the river but never seemed to stop, as it pushed from one landmark to another. Again I understood, sitting in this one spot, how a vision like this could make you want to alter your whole life. The countless hues of blues and greens appeared and then vanished into small shadows as if to say, “…this way, the trail is this way.” Alas, my job during our mornings is to get our coffee brewing. As I’m waiting for the fresh snow melt to boil, I’m mesmerized by the unfolding of morning in the mountains and I do not want to miss one blink of a cloud or moving shadow. My thoughts turn to our difficult climb up Donahue today, what is about to happen, and if my body will be able to handle the strain. The first thing I noticed when we were back on the trail after a hot breakfast and folding up camp was the sun’s newborn rays piercing through the hazy canyons from the Lion fire. We began our ascent while the air was still cool and the familiar struggle did not offer a welcome reprieve. We crossed several small rivers that seemed to branch out in every direction, meandering its way across the trail and back again. It wasn’t long before we spotted patches of dirty snow, most of it was off the trail and we were able to easily navigate the worn out path. About 500 feet from the top, the trail turned to snow, with dirty foot tracks to follow along with. All morning we had the mountain to ourselves, so when we saw a young man spiriting up the trail wearing TWO packs, we just had to ask. Goldpaint smiled and said “hay, it looks like your pack had a baby!” Yes, he heavily breathed, gulping as much air as he could muster. Turning around, he pointed to a slow-moving figure down below and sputtered “I promised my mom if she would climb Donahue Pass with me, I’d carry her pack!” True to his word, that’s exactly what he was doing. Dumbfounded, I remember muttering under my breath, “…oh to be young again”, and when I returned back down to the cold, damp earth, I remembered that growing up did not happen overnight and transitioning from youth to middle age was not always easy. I must graciously give myself some credit for having earned every wrinkle and aching muscle, as I bear down through the pain of the final push uphill. When we reached the summit, we fixed ourselves a big lunch and enjoyed some very friendly wildlife. Nothing beats setting foot on your own private summit and soaking in the views you’ve just earned. I was also closely watching some storm clouds moving in behind us because sitting on a granite rock at 11,000 feet we were sitting ducks if lightning should strike. The moment we felt a soft sprinkle, we quickly packed up lunch and began our descent. On the south side of Donahue, we found much more snow and massive amounts of rushing melt that had formed new ponds and rivers, so the trail virtually disappeared for the next 3 miles.
The tracks we were following veered heavily to the right and away from the trail, so we decided to make our own way down. We could see the valley down below and wanted to camp near a small, secluded pond within a clearing. As we carefully navigated the terrain, it got a little sketchy in areas because we could see and hear massive amounts of water underneath the snow. This was not a comfortable feeling as we were carrying heavy packs. Post holing is one thing, but dropping into frigid waters, being swept underneath snow pack, dropping down violent falls, and sucked under by the impact did not sound like a good time. We made it down safely because we took our time, used our mountaineering experience of reading the terrain and using a partner, took no chances, and remained calm. Just as we got to the bottom, the skies released refreshing rain on our overheated backs. By the time we found the trail again, it was completely submerged in water. In some places, it was 6 feet deep and flowing much too rapidly for a safe crossing. We backtracked about a ½ mile looking for a safe place to cross when we finally spotted an area about 3 feet deep to traverse. The water flow seemed manageable, but I decided to keep my hiking shoes on for better traction over its slippery rocks. I knew we did not have much further to walk before making camp so I figured my feet could take a short, soggy pounding without blistering. Oh again, that water was so cold! At first it felt kind of refreshing on tired joints, but about halfway in, the cold sensation turned to freezing heat. By then, we were in the deepest section of the crossing so it’s not like we can speed things up or turn back. Numbness quickly crept its way in, seemingly from the inside out, and just when we thought “this isn’t so bad”, scalding sensations on our deadened limbs, intensified with every heartbeat! Fording rivers became routine that day until at last we reached our campsite overlooking a small, secluded pond. That night, after completing all our camp chores, I lay there warm and snug in my sleeping bag, and gazed upwards. It’s so easy to be at a place of gratitude at times like this because at elevation in the High Sierras, the sky is so huge, it’s blinding, and the stars look like giant diamonds.
During our second night on the trail, the rhythmic sounds of the frogs were deafening, and coupled with the altitude, we did not sleep well (10,200). Both of us slept late because Goldpaint was up most of the night shooting, and had planned for an easy day hike to Thousand Island Lakes. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and coffee meditation by the water. There is a spectrum of light in the morning that not everyone notices. It’s a signal of the first breath of a day that pushes through the storms and ominous clouds of even the darkest sky. The light is precious because so few really get to see it like this. The morning energy was an astounding blend of reverence and calm, and I thought about how lucky I was to be there.
Early into our hike we came across a raging river and were thankful it had log bridges to cross over on. As we struggled over Island Pass, we noticed very dark clouds rolling in and the trail was again, overtaken by too much snow melt that left the path buried under small ponds. In the distance, Banner was surrounded by very dark rain clouds, so we decided to “bushwack” it down to the lake and off the top of the mountain. I remember shouting through the wind to Goldpaint that we needed to think about hunkering down if the storm decided to move over us. We could hear rolling thunder at that point in the not too far distance. At that exact moment, a giant and blinding white flash surrounded us on all sides, and before Brad could shout out “WHOA!!” an earsplitting CRACK sent him ducking down as if he had been shot. My bones seemed to vibrate and my ears painfully started to ring. I yelled, “Shit, we need to hunker down RIGHT NOW!!” Quickly, with military precision, we found a protected area under some trees, and within minutes, had the tent set up and everything in it…including us. No joke, the temperature felt like it dropped 20 degrees and day immediately turned to night. The air itself seemed like a neurotic vibration that reached inside our tent, trapping us inside a violent wave that rolled on into infinity. We huddled together under our warm sleeping bags as her fury attacked us in a big circle for about 45 minutes, until she finally floated to a halt, letting nature get back on its course. Goldpaint cautiously waiting for another, final, thunderous clash on the other side of the hill just in case the storm cell changed its ugly mind and came back our direction. I slowly made my way out of our marble-sized, hail-covered refuge for a cautious look. The sounds of nature had returned, signaling the end, and a fine scent was in the air, indicating that we had survived the cosmic insanity of chance. As we slowly made our way down (there were new surges of water pouring down the mountain), we came across a group of three men with faces still white as ghosts. They said they had witnessed a lightning bolt come over Banner Peak, horizontally cross the lake, and hit close to where Goldpaint and I had just come from. With our lives still our own, we scouted for the perfect camp spot near the lake and to capture the brilliant shot Brad had pictured in his mind for over a year now. It did not take us long to set up camp, eat, and retreat back into the safe haven of our tent, as we were pounded again by another rain and hail storm. Our “easy” day had turned into quite the adventure so we called it an early night. Exhaustion set in and the soft rains of a passing storm lulled us into a deep sleep.
Each morning, waking up here at Thousand Island Lake, we felt our sleeping patterns blasted in a million directions because the light poured in from every nook and cranny of our tent at brilliant angles, distracting us from necessary sleep. We awoke to clear blue skies above us, but the moment I crawled out of the protected area of our tent, the mosquito’s swarmed over me, first hovering above my head, then slowly creeping their way over my body. Then I noticed several tufts of clouds peeking just above the top rim of each mountain peak, slowly advancing their way to us. Our window of opportunity today was going to be very small, perhaps about 30 minutes worth, and we wanted to take advantage of the warmth of the sun. We couldn’t stand the stench of our own smell, let alone each others, so we decided to bathe. We found a newly formed pond from recent storms that offered some privacy and a light breeze keeping the mozzies away from us nudies. I jumped naked into the coldest rainwater, disappearing inside the dousing of wetness that still felt as if it were ice cubes just moments before. I emerge from my bath, red, my skin raw and numb, but my senses as alive and fresh and keen as it has ever been. Nothing beats bathing in crystal clean snow melt at the top of the Sierras, and air dried by the high afternoon sun atop warm rocks. We completed our ablution just in time because storm clouds moved in and we were pounded by another rain storm. This was getting old…were we ever going to be given the chance to take some photos? As we were not used to just sitting around all day on the trail, Brad and I decided to venture out in the mist to scout out some comps down by the lake. Holy cow!! The mosquito’s were MUCH worse, so much so that I could not breathe without gulping down a few. On a scale of 1-10, I voted a big 12. Brad smartly had his head net on, so I had to go back to camp after a few short minutes. I climbed up on a rock and lit some sage. Did you know mozzies hate sage smoke? Sweet. That night, Brad was up all night vying for that lucky moment of capturing the Milky Way coming straight out of Banner Peak. He had studied all the best vantage points that offered a beautiful composition for the shot. It was more than happenstance that around midnight, he had the good fortune of the storm clouds parting in such a way, it opened the skies up to reveal the galaxy shooting out of the mountain and reflecting off the lake!
The adrenaline rush gave him the push to shoot all night and into the dawn’s first light. He was also able to capture the fiery Alpenglow reflecting off the water and snow. So at 6am, I was dreaming peacefully in stage 4 sleep, warm and cozy in my 15 degree bag, when Goldpaint roused me awake. “Hurry” he says! Oh man, what’s going on? “The light is perfect right now and I want to take a picture of the two of us with Banner in the background.” Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I responded by, “really? you must be joking!” Did he know what time it was? Then I looked at his smiling face and realized he was really serious. “You’re out of your mind, you know this right?” I responded as I pulled myself out into the cold, my hair sticking up and out in all directions, eyes still puffy from being rudely awakened from my beauty sleep, and breath able to knock out a grown man from 20 yards away. Sheesh!! He had painstakingly set the camera up in the perfect spot and all I had to do was stand there and look gorgeous. Done. Coffee anyone??
Today we decided to leave Thousand Island Lake because Goldpaint got his “money shot” and hoards of hikers were swarming into the area. We enjoy our solitude in the high country and like it when the chatter in our head disappears, and all we can hear is the silence. We saw groups arriving who had their supplies packed in by a string of 7 mules…no thank you, we’re outta here! A great example of somebody who just doesn’t get it came from a short dialogue we engaged in when 4 older gentlemen stopped to chat with us while we were taking a snack break on the trail. During the conversation, we shared a little about our experiences hiking the PCT last year, when one of the men in the group asked us in a sarcastic sort of way, “do you guys ever work?” There are many poignant reasons why Goldpaint and I chose to make it possible to have this kind of amazing experience, and take 6 months out of our busy lives to leave society and become part of the wilderness. It was a world away from our loves, old dreams, and the ever-quickening pace we had fallen into following a family loss and abusive past. For example, while “living” the trail, we were able to feel the high altitude, chilled air on our faces, be close to and drink in pure glacial waters, sit at tops of the world, and let it all pass right through us as if we had become transparent. Becoming part of nature, to pause and remember who we used to be, and living in the moment was an important lesson and we want to try and do it more often. But how could he possibly understand this? We told him we choose to work to hike…We do not live to work, but labor so we can live our dreams of back country hiking. We left him shaking his head, probably muttering under his breath something about “those hippies”, and subconsciously wishing he was brave enough to do the same thing.
Downhill is good, and most of the day was just that. In the lower elevations, the wildflowers were in full bloom, and when we were about 2 miles away from the road to Mammoth Lakes, we received the most amazing panoramic views from the trail. Our last night we decided to camp very close to the path-something we rarely ever do, but this spot offered amazing views of the sunset and sunrise, which overrode our desire for privacy this eve. We were so close to the end of our trip, that all I could think about was gulping down a big cheeseburger the next day. It’s like the old adage, ’the worst day on the trail is better than the best day at work’, so I did not care where we spent our last night. We set our tent up so we could enjoy the sunset from our supine positions, as we took a leisurely rest before making dinner. All of the sudden, we spotted 3 small squirrels scampering around our camp and foraging for any small morsel they could hijack and clamber up a tree with. We witnessed a strategic alliance being schemed for when we went to sleep that night to steal our stuff. Just then, one Olympian wanna-be-chippy flew from a tree onto the top of our tent, slid down my side, bounced forward atop the open flap, landed on my bear canister, and catapulted over our kitchen area. Oh hell no chipmunks! We were going to hull every single piece of equipment into our tent so those three amigos could not rob us of our house and home during the night. HA!
The next morning, we packed up our still-intact camp and headed for the bus that took us to the Main Lodge in Mammoth. I know we must have looked like hiker-trash, because the bus that was to take us down to the Village left when we walked right up to it, waved our arms and shouted that we wanted a ride. Oh well, 30 more minutes to wait at the bus stop and get funny looks from the many tourists who wouldn’t get near us. We must have stunk…nice! From the village, we took the trolley to where my car was parked and immediately went to “Burgers”, where we each consumed a ½ pound cheeseburger, fries, and big chocolate shake. I have to say, this burger is in my top 5 of all time. It was just like last year when we went out on the trail for days and days, and looked forward to a real meal of hot, greasy, chewy, sweet, and salty goodness to satisfy our ravenous hunger every time. As we devoured what would be classified as the perfect last meal, I felt grateful and proud of how our minds and bodies did on this leg. For one thing I am certain, when I walk in the forest along paths that lead for miles into the back country and witness daily the sun disappearing over jagged mountains into tomorrow’s horizon, each remarkable story of our experiences on the PCT are about connection and transformation that always leave us wanting more.
-Marci ‘Tie Dye’ Buckner