Climbing: PCT Days 41-46 – The Trek

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Day 41. Miles: 13.2 Total: 702.2

I’m always up early, especially in the city in the mornings. It’s a mostly downhill drive to Kennedy Meadows. Kennedy Meadows, the end of the desert, the gateway to the Sierra… it hardly feels real.

I’ve been hiking for half an hour when I hear quick footsteps behind me. It’s Tesla and Vulture literally sprinting. I dodge them and ask if they’re being followed, but they just laugh and joke that they’ll run all the way to town. Moments later, Jackrabbit appears.

“I’m trying to hike four miles an hour,” he hastily explains. “Tesla and Vulture have never been passed, and when they realized I was about to pass them, they started running.”

I was already proud of myself to have run three miles an hour, so I just shake my head as all three are soon out of sight.

The Second Breakfast Club gathers at the 700 mile marker for photos, and we’re still hiking together as we hit the road. The desert is over.

It’s a short walk to the Kennedy Meadows General Store, where the walkers, already assembled, applaud our arrival. I knew about the tradition but it still feels surprising and delightful.

After we have lunch we take a shuttle to Grumpy Bear’s for our Zero. For dinner we eat overpriced pizza and beer, play Jenga with Wildcard, Leaky and Vulture. After dinner we go back to the campsite and it’s the first time I’ve used my headlamp since the aquaduct. It’s June now. The days are long and I’ve never been less nocturnal.

Day 42. Miles: 0 Total: 702.2

Today we hear rumors about norovirus in this bubble and we take extra care to wash our hands. I’m suspicious of any grumbles and growls coming out of my stomach after devouring a huge plate of pancakes, but I feel fine. In hindsight, we’ll find that norovirus wasn’t the disease we had to worry about.

Day 43. Miles: 20.0 Total: 722.2

I was expecting the Sierra to start gradually, but suddenly here we are. It’s a gentle climb all morning and steep in the evening. The mountains are high and rugged, the forest is pine instead of Joshua trees.

We camp as cowboys and we know we may not last much longer. The mosquitoes of the Sierra are notorious, but at least here they aren’t that bad. Joining us are Red Panda and Feathers. Red panda’s knee hurts so I’m passing on the knee brace I’ve had since Wrightwood gave it to me when Jackrabbit gave it to me. My knees have been fine lately. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that my luck will hold as the mountains get steeper.

Day 44. Miles: 21.7 Total: 743.9

The wildlife is different too. I’ve seen dozens of chipmunks and today I see a woodpecker. No groundhogs yet, but JMT graduate Billie Goat assures us they’re coming.

After an easy descent in the morning, we resume the ascent. We’re up now. I still feel good, maybe just a little more tired from the climb than in the low desert. Of course, my bear canister and 7-day food haul make my backpack heavy too.

Day 45. Miles: 22.4 Total: 766.3

Chicken Spring Lake is the first alpine lake on the PCT. We get there for second breakfast, strip naked and wade in, screaming and yelling. I do it before I can question it too much and it’s as much fun and liberating as it is humbling. The water is, predictably, cold. Still, I feel good as soon as I’m dressed again.

The afternoon is tough. I feel a little guilty—I was the one who convinced the others that we should reach Whitney in three days instead of four—but we make the Crabtree cutoff in time to climb Whitney for sunrise. We are exhausted and the climb is already scary.

Then our plans get even more complicated when a woman at the crossing suffers from symptoms of altitude sickness. Captain Something (Becky now has a trace name) switches to doctor mode and examines the woman. There is no immediate danger, but she asks us to find her friends and alert the ranger. Captain searches Crabtree for the other hikers while I drop my backpack and jog to the ranger station. The building is still boarded up and there’s no ranger on duty. When I find Captain again, we decide to hike to the other campgrounds towards Guitar Lake to check there. We return to Crabtree unsuccessfully. We’ve now hiked over a mile more, and Captain Something decides to return to the turnoff to camp with the woman. It’s already 7pm and we agree not to get up at 2am for a sunrise peak. We’ll meet at 5 a.m. instead.

Day 46. Miles: 0 (PCT) /15 (Whitney)

My alarm goes off at 4:30 am and I quickly pack up. I only need food and some clothes, so I stow the rest of my gear in Captain Something’s tent (after all, the sick woman’s friends found them, so Captain came back last night and finally went to bed well after sunset). Rookie is with us – he felt the altitude and his asthma is kicking in too, so he wasn’t ready for the 2am start either. Jackrabbit, Billie Goat and Poseidon are already somewhere on the mountain.

The first few miles to Guitar Lake are easy. Then the switchbacks begin. This is the highest peak I have climbed since Toubkal in Morocco in 2017. Like then, my body seems to be handling it just fine. The extra effort is offset by the lack of a heavy backpack, so I feel pretty normal. Rookie struggles and eventually decides to turn back. It’s surprisingly sad to leave him behind, but we’re thinking of the thru-hiker who died from HAPE just two weeks ago and agree he’s making a wise decision.

Captain and I climb the mountain, and soon we see familiar faces on their way down. Tesla, Jackrabbit, Billie Goat, Poseidon and Feathers are bundled up in all their clothes after freezing on the summit during sunrise. They seem completely exhausted, but they are smiling. “Have fun,” they say. “It’s incredible up there.”

As we traverse the ridge and past craggy turrets, we find Leaky explaining that she had a lead and Wild Card is somewhere behind, aiming to catch her at the top.

It is mid-morning when we reach the summit. I’m sure the sunrise was beautiful but this feels like the perfect moment to be here. It’s remarkably still – only the slightest breeze moves the thin, sun-warmed air. Vulture is here, along with another walker we met at Grumpy’s named Pinch. Leaky is coming soon, and then Wild Card. You know Pinch from Te Araroa.

I was expecting cold and wind, but it’s so magical and so cozy up here that we linger for two hours before reluctantly heading down the mountain. The descent is long but uneventful. Captain Something and I talk about jobs and burnout and how roots don’t grow in one place. We briefly consider swimming in Guitar Lake, but continue to drive past it without stopping.

We tried very hard to get to Whitney today but have planned a shorter mileage for the remaining days to Bishop. When we reach Crabtree and the others have agreed to stay a second night rather than return to the PCT, I feel a surge of relief. We spend a relaxing afternoon at the campsite recovering from four tiring days in a row. Zero at Grumpy’s already feels like the distant past. I’m looking forward to slower days as we head deeper into the famous Sierra.

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