Loaded with ski gear and 10 days of food!
Matt's backpack tries to tackle him
Banner naps in the warm sunlight of mid day
SNOW! The High Sierra (Mt. Whitney region)
is just visible on the horizon
Chicken Spring Lake, our first trailside lake in almost 800 miles!
Our final campsite in beautiful alpine bowl
Our final campsite surrounded by foxtail pines
Banner naps on a warm granite boulder
Massive foxtail pine snag...my neighbor
Foxtail pine, a unique perspective
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Most Recent Update
Kennedy Meadows to South Lake
Unfortunately, I must use this update to tell the story of a great disappointment. For a number of reasons, we were not able to complete this segment, and in fact, we had to completely call off our attempt to ski the entire Sierra Nevada. Due to the pain in his knee, Matt was forced to hike out along a side trail so that he could get it looked at by a doctor. Banner and I continued ahead for a few days, with the intention of completing the segment and meeting Matt in Bishop. However, I also decided to leave this section of the trail early. I will explain why below.
Once we had finished packing at the Kennedy Meadows General Store, strapped our skis on our packs and our ski boots on our feet, we actually decided that the weight wasn't as bad as we thought it would be, even with 10 days worth of food. As we began hiking north again, our Scarpa T2's proved to be surprisingly comfortable, and we both commented that we wouldn't have wanted to wear our sneakers (which we left at Kennedy Meadows) while carrying this much weight. The risk of turning an ankle would have been to great. In fact, Matt seemed to feel that the hefty boots were providing support to his ankle (which he had repeatedly sprained in the previous few months) and that the extra support also seemed to make his knee feel less painful. Nevertheless, it was a long first day, and we finally reached our camp site on the edge of a vast complex of interconnected meadows. From this open terrain we took in our first views of the High Sierra of the Mt. Whitney region on the horizon and we longed for the snow that sparkled on these not-so-distant peaks. Temperatures dropped precipitously during this segment compared to previous segments, and so our first order of business upon reaching camp was to bundle up with all our fleece and down and pull out my sleeping bag for Banner to snuggle into while we set up our tarp. We were snowed on during the first night, just a dusting and not enough to impede our progress.
The next day we began to climb more earnestly and the weight of our packs began to wear on us. By the time we reached camp that night we had finally reached an area of snow, but it was still too patchy to ski. Fortunately, it was also cold enough that we could easily walk over the snow without postholing. Unfortunately, however, the pain in Matt's knee had begun to increase again. I could tell that Matt was extremely frutrated with this turn of events, but there was nothing I could really do to help other than provide him with ibuprofen and encourage him to ice and stretch the knee.
Early on day 3 we came to a steep slope covered with hard snow that we would need to descend. If Matt's knee had been 100%, I know that we would have been able to prance across this snow with barely a thought. However, I could tell from his stiff and halting pace that his knee was extremely painful as he needed to put his full body and pack weight on it with each step. Once we passed the snow, I stopped and suggested that although it was still early we should stop for lunch and talk about what to do. After a long discussion, we decided that Matt's knee probably wouldn't improve out here on the trail, and it might get worse. In addition, even if Matt's knee didn't get worse, it forced us to travel at a pace that was just too slow to reach our next resupply point on schedule...we would likely run out of food before reaching South Lake if we pressed on. Lastly, we would soon be entering the High Sierra, a super remote wilderness from which evacuation would be extremely difficult if Matt's knee did get worse. So, we made a decision. Matt would hike out using the Olancha Pass trail which would take him to within about 7 miles of Highway 395. We hoped that he would be able to find a ride from the trailhead to the highway and from there make his way back to his truck which he had left at Terry Thistlethwaite's home in Ridgecrest. From there, Matt would visit a doctor to have his knee examined and would meet me and Banner at the South Lake trailhead in about a week's time. Banner and I would continue with our hike alone. It was truly horrible to have to split up like this after so many weeks and months of planning and looking forward to this ski traverse, but I was hopeful that Matt would be able to rejoin us in Bishop, California.
Banner and I continued ahead for the remainder of that day and the next day, feeling somewhat lonely without Matt. This section of the trail became very challenging. First of all the trail climbs and descends several times within a short distance, with a descent of a few thousand feet followed by a climb of a few thousand feet followed by another descent, and so on. In addition, the higher sections of trail were covered with deep snow (though still too patchy to ski continuously), and it was very difficult to follow the trail. Nevertheless we made good progress and every day I prayed that I would be able to strap on my skis and leave them on! On the third day after leaving Matt, Banner and I came upon some very unique and challenging conditions. We were approaching Trail Pass and Cottonwood Pass, two routes that would provide the final opportunity to leave the trail and descend to the road in Horseshoe Meadows. Temperatures continued to be colder than I expected and there was a strong wind blowing over these passes. In this area the trail travels from east to west, and this topography combined with the weather conditions meant that the south side of the Sierra Crest was mostly clear of snow while the north side of the crest was covered with deep, rock hard snow. In the open meadows of Cottonwood Pass, this snow had been transformed into small, closely spaced, knife edged sun cups. Normally the heat of the sun would soften these sun cups shortly after sunup. However, the cold air temperature and wind prevented the snow from softening, and the sun cups stayed hard and sharp all day long! We only had to cross a few hundred yards of these sun cups, but with the violent wind it was not pleasant. After crossing this obstacle I realized that the snow had cut Banner's feet in a couple places. For the past few hundred miles, Banner's feet had held up to sand and rock and gravel, but here just a few hundred yards of freaky snow conditions had done what those hundreds of miles could not. Banner did not seem to be in pain, and we pressed on for the remainder of the day, but my positive mood began to sink as I began to worry about Banner once more.
Our campsite that night was the first time we would camp on snow, tucked into a beautiful snow-filled bowl surrouded by ancient foxtail pines and high granite walls. When camping on snow, it is beneficial to dig a "foundation" for one's tarp. This way the lower edge of the tarp can be below the snow surface and snow can be piled along the edge to seal it. This keeps the cold air out and the warm air in. As evidence of the peculiar conditions resulting from cold and wind, I will point out that it took me nearly two hours to dig out a 9-foot by 9-foot, 6-inch deep foundation in the rock solid frozen snowpack and set up my tarp over it. I had to chop up the icy snow with my ice axe and then clear the shards away with my shovel. That's crazy! And it was exhausting! Of course, Banner just curled up on a nice warm granite boulder while I worked...the lazy little bugger ;-) After watching a gorgeous sunset, I collapsed into the tarp and started cooking dinner. My thoughts turned to the remainder of this segment, and it didn't take me too long to decide what to do.
The cuts on Banner's feet were not bad, but they were a bit of a wake up call. I was about to enter what is perhaps the most remote section of the entire PCT, and I was about to do it while it was covered with snow (much different from simply following a trail), and I was about to do it alone with my beloved Banner. In fact, the reason I was so overjoyed that my friend Matt had decided to join us for this section was that I really wanted to have another competent outdoorsman and mountaineer at my side. So, I made the decision to abort. It would just be too much of a risk to take on the challenges that lay ahead by myself, and it would be unfair of me to drag Banner in there with me. I was still hopeful that we would be able to continue our journey with Matt after meeting him in Bishop. So, because we still had a few more days, we spent a couple hanging around this beautiful campsite, exploring the area and reading the books which I had been lugging along with me since the beginning of the trail. Ironically, these days proved to be considerably warmer and calmer than before, and the snowpack frustratingly returned to its normal daily freeze-thaw cycle. Even if I had wanted to change my mind, however, we had delayed long enough at this campsite that we would never be able to complete the rest of this segment on schedule.
So, after a restful couple of days, Banner and I backtracked to Cottonwood Pass and descended to Horseshoe Meadows. I was finally able to strap on my skis for a short distance to descend the north side of Cottonwood Pass and to cross the expanse of Horseshoe Meadows. There is a gate on the Horseshoe Meadows road which is closed in winter, and I was fully expecting that we would have to spend an additional day walking the 20+ miles down this steep and winding road to the town of Lone Pine. As luck would have it, however, the gate was open and we were able to get a ride from a very kind man who was actually heading up to Horseshoe Meadows but decided that he would turn around and take us all the way back down to Lone Pine. What a tremendously generous thing to do!
Matt arrived two days later with bad news...his knee was not badly injured (no tears or sprains) but it was inflamed enough that the doctor said there was no way he would be able to ski another 250 miles with a pack. We were both deeply disappointed as you can guess. What to do now? Would I have to give up completely our goal of skiing the Sierra Nevada. In the end, I decided again not to take the risk of heading into the remote High Sierra alone with Banner. I had been planning to take a month-long break after completing the Sierra section of the trail, during which time I would return to my parents' home in Chicago to pack food for the remainder of our trip and continue working on fundraising. From there, I planned to attend graduation ceremonies at the University of Vermont in mid May before returning to the trail in June. Although it was extremely difficult for me to give up on skiing the Sierra, I realized that it would still work well to take my month-long break starting now rather than later...I would have time during that month to figure out how to adjust our itinerary. So, Matt and I drove up to my friend Becky's house in Reno where I had left my truck more than two months before. There we went our separate ways, Matt heading home to Oregon and Banner and I hitting the road for the long drive back to Chicago. Matt and I both agreed before we parted company that we now have "unfinished business" in the Sierra Nevada...we'll be back someday!
Lastly, I just wanted to express our gratitude to some folks from Inyo County Animal Resources and Education (ICARE) in Bishop, California, our second "Sponsoring Shelter" on the PCT. I had dropped of a box of food with Ted Schade, ICARE's president, on my way from Chicago to California back in March, and Matt and I were able to spend a comfortable night at the home of Mike and Lynne in Bishop before we headed north to Reno. Thanks very much for all your support, Ted, Mike and Lynne! Also, just a little plug for Mike and Lynne's business: if you're ever in Bishop, CA, check out Spellbinder Books, a great bookstore right downtown on Highway 395!