This article originally appeared on The Trek. You can read it here.
Getting a Hitch Back to the Trail
Leaving Lone Pine and finding a ride back to the trail proved to be more difficult than expected. We waited at the Whitney Portal Road for about 20 minutes until a woman pulled over and offered to take all of us back in her truck. Others had been waiting there 3 hours for a hitch, so we weren’t complaining about the wait at all!
All of us but one hiker were squished into the covered bed of her truck, full packs and all. There was some miscommunication somewhere along the line and she apparently thought we wanted to go to the campground just a few miles up the road. She did end up agreeing to take us to the trail, but I don’t think the hiker in the front explained the extreme elevation gain and switchbacks she would have to drive up.
Stranded on a Dead-End Road
Keep in mind, we have no idea what’s going on while in the back of her truck. Suddenly, about a quarter of the way up the access road, she stops abruptly and starts backing up her truck off to a dirt pull-off. Our driver gets out and explains that she was experiencing tunnel vision, racing heartbeat, and shaking hands. She also told us that she had an untreated brain aneurysm a few years ago, but insisted that she continue driving us up the windy road (which has no guardrails by the way). But, for the sake of her own health and our lives, we politely declined. We didn’t think the sudden elevation gain would be very good for her health and so she dropped us there and headed back down the road, although she felt really bad leaving us there.
Stranded on a dead-end mountain road on a weekday was less than ideal, but thankfully it took less than 30 minutes before a shuttle driver coming back down the road stopped for us. We ended up having to pay him $40 between all of us to get back to the trail, but the alternative was waiting for who knows how much longer.
Miles and I stopped for dinner at Chicken Spring Lake before officially entering Sequoia National Park. This is the first new national park that I’ve set foot in since our AT thru-hike in 2013 when we hiked through the Smokies, so it was an exciting moment.
The following day, we made our way towards the base of Mt. Whitney. The highest mountain in the lower 48 states isn’t actually on the Pacific Crest Trail, but it’s a must-hike since it’s less than 10 miles off the trail.
We hiked a mile off the PCT and set up camp near Whitney Creek. Several hikers were napping in the grass and soaking in the warmth of the sun. Seeing as it was early afternoon, it was obvious that they had done a sunrise hike of Whitney that morning. I pictured us napping there just 24 hours later.
I had much anxiety regarding altitude sickness since I had never hiked over 11,000 feet until very recently. Regardless of my nerves, I made myself go to bed at 5 PM since we would be waking up at 12:30 AM to begin our hike. At least we had the advantage of leaving our tent all set-up and any other unnecessary gear behind. I slept in my hiking clothes and had almost everything ready to go to make the early wake up that much easier.
Did I ever mention that I absolutely hate getting up early?
Bobbing Headlamps and Gross Carrot Cake
That 12:30 AM wake-up call was brutal even though I went to bed early. I reluctantly rolled out of my warm sleeping bag, put on a few extra clothes, and ventured out into the cold night to eat a 1 AM breakfast off Pop Tarts and a Clif bar.
Miles and I hit the trail at 1:10 AM with the moon lighting up the dark sea of sky above us. We still needed our head lamps to see the trail, but it was so beautiful to see the streams and lakes with bright reflections of moonlight upon them.
We took a quick snack break at Guitar Lake, watching the bobbing headlamps of hikers ahead of us climbing the switchbacks. It was a mysterious morning of hiking as we couldn’t really see what was around us. I couldn’t wait to see the surrounding landscape in daylight.
As we continued to Whitney, we stopped for a breather every 5 to 10 minutes on the climb up the switchbacks and made sure to take sips of water each time. We weren’t that thirsty since it was so cold outside, but we knew staying hydrated was important. Eventually, we were over 12,000 feet and neither neither of us felt any altitude sickness at all. Our breathing was certainly more labored and our legs felt heavier, but we had no other symptoms.
As we continued to ascend, the wind began to pick up. Suddenly, it was a lot colder! We put on more layers quickly and began to traverse the narrow trail that snaked up Muir Mountain. I wasn’t that hungry, but I made myself eat half a piece of carrot cake. It was disgusting and I wasn’t sure if I really wasn’t hungry or it was just a nasty store-bought cake. It’s only saving grace was that had a shit ton of calories.
Don’t Look Down
Most of the trail was free of snow, but there were some sections that still had frozen snow with well-established footprints. We came to a snowy section at one point that was quite narrow with a steep drop off. As I was hiking through this part, I paused for a moment and made the mistake of looking into the darkness below. Suddenly, I felt very disoriented. Obviously, this was a bad idea and it quickly brought my focus back to my feet and one step at a time. I made it across of course and vowed not to look down there on our way back through.
As the morning slowly brightened, we glimpsed the first rays of light through openings in the trail towards Owens Valley to the east.
The final ascent didn’t take long and before we knew it, we were at the top of Mount Whitney! We were the second and third hikers to reach the summit that morning, so it felt pretty awesome to be one of just a few people standing at the highest point in the continental United States. We took the usual summit photos and then bundled up in our sleeping bags to keep warm and watch the sunrise over the valley. It was incredible to witness.
Numb Fingers and Naps
After about 45 minutes at the top our fingers were going numb and shivering took on a whole new level. Mind you, we had just about every piece of clothing on, but the windchill really brought the temperature down. I signed the logbook, my name barely legible since I was shaking so much. Then, I put on my micro-spikes and began to run down the mountain towards warmth. I moved my fingers constantly to get the blood flowing. As my fingers regained feeling, I could finally enjoy looking down from where we had come from earlier in the morning. There I could see Guitar Lake and the long line of switchbacks below. It was vastly different hiking in the daylight. We stopped for an hour in the sun overlooking the lake and reflected on our already 10+ miles of hiking. It was only 8 AM!
When we got back to camp, I was starving. I ate my lunch in the sunshine on the grass, exactly where I had imagined myself a day earlier. I was exhausted. After eating lunch, I went into the tent and took a 3.5 hour nap. Later in the afternoon, we decided to pack up our tent and head on just a few more miles down the trail. That would set us up to do Forester Pass early the next morning. I was still super tired as we set up camp just an hour later by Wallace Creek. I wondered if I would be up to the task of getting up at 3:30 AM the next morning to do Forrester.
Even though we were really tired from the Mt. Whitney climb the day before, we were able to leave Wallace Creek by 4:30 AM. We immediately had to ford the creek. Miles rock hopped across and I tried, but freaked out as I straddled two rocks as the creek raged below me. I decided to just walk right through the water at a calmer spot instead.
After about 5 miles, the on-trail snow began. We put on our microspikes just in case, but the snow was still frozen and easy to walk on. As we continued to hike up the trail, we got our first view of Forester Pass. It looked so small, yet so high. I was excited and determined and possessed not an inch of fear. When we came upon the final approach of the pass, we decided to do most of it straight up instead of taking the snowy switchbacks. That ended up being 600 feet in 0.8 miles! Our calves were burning as we ran up the steep approach, but it was actually really fun and we were laughing as we heaved for breath. This sure as hell wasn’t the Appalachian Trail!
The Final Few Steps
We ran into Mike near the top so we all got to do the last crossing over the pass together. It was almost a straight drop down, but the snow steps across the pass were hard and stable. Looking at photos, the pass looked a bit scary, but once there myself, I wasn’t afraid at all. It was a relief when all three of us made it across. We all just used our poles and microspikes and didn’t feel the need to use our ice axes on that particular morning. It was warm and sunny on top of the pass at over 13,000 feet and we were now in Kings Canyon National Park! It was super unexpected that we were able to hike to the highest point in the continental US and up to the highest point on the PCT on back-to-back days.
Sun and Snow
As we descended the pass, the snow was beginning to get slushy, but it was manageable. We stopped for lunch on a sunny rock and I took my shoes and socks off to dry them out. It was strange to be barefoot and surrounded by so much snow. There continued to be snowy patches and some postholing due to the afternoon melting, but we were off the steep sections, so it wasn’t really that bad.
The remainder of the afternoon was all downhill and just absolutely breathtaking. The flowing Bubbs Creek and the tall, snowy mountains made it a really awesome hike. We got to camp at Vidette Meadow in the early afternoon and I soaked my feet in the ice cold creek.
Bear Encounter at Camp
Not long after relaxing at the creek, I was laying in the tent looking at some of my photos and Miles was outside organizing his pack. Suddenly, I saw movement in the woods just beyond the trail nearby. It was a bear!
And it was coming directly towards our tent.
I kind of froze, and I told Miles that there was a bear coming over. Then, two hikers began to walk by on the trail. The bear saw the sudden movement and began to walk away. But, as the hikers went by us, we saw that the bear was really just hiding behind a log. It then began to come back towards our tent! We knew the proper bear protocol, but were so freaked out by it coming directly towards us (this had never happened to us before), that it took us a minute to do what needed to be done. In a loud, yet calm voice, Miles said to the bear, “Hey bear. There are people here.”
The bear got the idea and slowly walked away from us. Needless to say, for the rest of the evening and through the night, I was freaking out. I thought for sure that the bear would come back. It seemed to be a very well-established campsite and I’m sure that it was a daily stop for this bear. I’m happy to say that it did not return. Of course, all of our food and scented items were in our bear canisters far away from our tent.
We later found out that this same bear visited some hikers just down the trail from us, stalked another hiker up some switchbacks, and hissed at yet another hiker all in a few-hours! Hands-down, this was our scariest moment on trail yet.
Mike and Daniel
Thankfully, our night camping at Vidette Meadow was incident-free and the bear did not return. We were going into Bishop that morning, which meant hiking 9 miles off-trail to Onion Valley trailhead. The hike up to Kearsarge Pass was anything but enjoyable. The climb seemed to never end. I think this was a mixture of the anticipation of getting into town and the fatigue in our legs from the hike over Forester.
We passed dozens of day hikers on our way down as it was a Sunday and saw this as a good sign of getting a ride down from the dead end road. We could see the parking lot below us from the trail and spotted an SUV surrounded by several thru-hikers. Trail magic?! Our intuition was correct and a thru-hiker taking time off-trail offered us cold drinks and donuts! She already had a full load of hikers to take to town, but a super nice guy, Mike offered to give us a ride. He often gives rides to hikers and makes Onion Valley a part of his post-church routine.
As we drove down the winding switchbacks, Mike showed us a photo of a spot on-trail just before Tehachapi. Trail angel, Daniel, maintains a water cache and hangout spot on the trail. We let Mike know that Daniel had actually given us a ride into Tehachapi a couple weeks ago. Come to find out, Mike and Daniel are brothers! Mike shared stories of him and his family taking their summer vacations up to Onion Valley, driving their VW bus up the winding road and camping in the beautiful valley.
Mike kindly dropped us in Independence, and immediately was able to take some hikers back to the trail. He gave us a tip of hitching in the shade by the courthouse. We thanked him for his ride and hitch advice and made our way across 395.
Police Car Hitch
After about 5 minutes, a highway patrol officer was driving in our direction. Hitchhiking is legal in California, but I didn’t even offer putting out my thumb since I figured the officer had much more important things to do. To our surprise however, he pulled over and offered to take us all the way to Bishop! He did tell us that if he got a call, he would have to drop us on the side of the road, but we accepted anyways.
We squeezed our packs in the back, Miles took the backseat, and I hopped in the front. This was our first ride in a police vehicle and what I hope is our last! The officer was very nice and gave us some tips on local hot springs. Thankfully, he did not get a call on the drive to Bishop and was able to drop us off right at the hostel!
We decided not to zero in Bishop since we had just taken a day off in Lone Pine, so that meant we had a lot to do in 24 hours. We did our laundry, hit up Mountain Rambler Brewery, and then went to the afternoon showing of Solo at the Bishop Twin Theatre. Miles and I are big Star Wars fans, so we were excited to be in a town with a movie theater.
Besides sleeping, this was the first time in almost two months that I did NOT think about hiking. Even on zero days I feel like we can’t truly relax. When we’re not hiking, we are thinking about hiking or planning our next section. But you know, Han Solo is pretty distracting…
I ate so much Mexican food for lunch that I couldn’t even mange to eat dinner. I settled for the frozen yogurt shop down the street and then commenced to pass out cold once my head hit the pillow.
Appalachian Trail Magic meets Pacific Crest Trail
The next morning, we picked up an amazing box of trail magic at the post office from Beth and Bernie. We met this awesome couple five years ago at Newfound Gap in the Smokies on the Appalachian Trail. Every year, they provide the best trail magic as hikers descend from Clingman’s Dome. When we came into the gap, we had had a terrible and icy descent from Clingman’s. Beth and Bernie turned our day right around.
Beth waved us down and immediately began making sandwiches for us. They even gave us a ride to down in Gatlinburg and then a ride back to the trail. Anyways, you get the point how generous and kind they are. Five years later, here they are still the kindest people ever. They sent a box of food, first aid items, and toiletries to Bishop for us! It was immensely helpful since we had to pack a week’s worth of food to get to Mammoth. Thank you again, Beth and Bernie!
On to Mammoth
To supplement our wonderful trail magic, we rode the hostel bikes to Von’s for a quick resupply trip. As we left the hostel with our full and heavy packs, I wished we could have stayed in Bishop longer. It was a really great trail town!
We managed to get a ride back to the trail from Steve, a retired nurse. Once back to the parking lot, we were so not looking forward to the long uphill back to Kearsarge Pass. We had 7 days of food plus our microspikes and ice axes. I can only hope that this was the heaviest our packs will ever be.
And finally, we were back on the trail for our longest continuous stretch yet – 7 days to Mammoth.
No roads, no cell service, and no Star Wars.