8/27/15 – 9/3/15
Mileage driven 590
Rough Fire Makes it Rough
I started planning this hike before we got back from our last trip, six months ago. I looked at elevations from both sides, calculating would north to south be less climbing or south to north. I investigated all the transportation options so we could take one car. I made calls to rangers to get the scoop on the trails that lead off the PCT, just in case my grand idea of making it to Mammoth in 12 days didn’t work. I changed our permit four times. I planned our driving and hiking route with much care.
Each time I do this. And, each time the trail teaches, or rather re-teaches me, that all the planning in the world doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Just like life. It requires flexibility.
I was also reminded that there is always a delay to our start. The plan was to leave early Thursday morning. The only thing that gets me up early is hiking or a commitment I can’t get out of. We had a five hour drive to the Lone Pine Ranger Station to pick up our permits. And though I registered online, we needed to once again change our itinerary because we were one day early.
We ALWAYS start with some delay. This time it was a full and leaky Camelback inside an already packed backpack. A reminder that some of our gear is breaking down and needs replacement. Luckily, we had an extra Camelback. But, obviously we had to dry things and repack before we could go. It’s always something.
We made it to the ranger station an hour before they closed. Unfortunately, we got the slowest ranger there. She really did not know much about the trail. I wasn’t aware I had to register an itinerary. I had to pick random sites along the way to mark as a general idea of where we’d camp. To tell her we would stop every 12 miles or so a day, wasn’t good enough. She pulled out three maps to figure out where we were going to be camping. Apparently because we had no proof of taking map folding class 101 we were not allowed to touch or assist in folding the maps to speed things along. Finally, she found a piece of paper that had the more popular sites along the way, in order, of where to camp for the night. At the very end, she merely mentioned smoke in the hills. Some hikers were breezing through but some were getting off at Kersage Pass. Just all depended on how the wind was blowing, she said. The smoke was from the Rough Fire (only 89% contained weeks after our return, as of this writing) that was quite a few miles west. After 45-minutes with her, we headed to Horseshoe Meadows and parked our car. We managed to get in two or three miles before it got too dark as we headed toward Cottonwood Pass. We’d be hiking up the next morning as Cottonwood Pass is at 11,000 feet elevation.
The first two days of hiking were nothing but sandy paths. It always astounds me to find sand blanketing a forest. Not our favorite kind of path, but how can one complain when surrounded by redwoods? This section was beautiful and had more wildlife than we normally see. This section shares 212 miles with the JMT (John Muir Trail).
There were a lot more hikers than what we were used to seeing. The JMT is a very popular trail. Usually, we stop and talk a bit to hikers we meet. But there was just too many. I was reminded of the chit chat you started in college when meeting someone (Hello, what’s your name, what’s your major, where you from). Here it was “Hello, where did you start? Where you going?”
On the third night we camped out at Wallace Creek. It was a busy field. A group of hikers, maybe 8 or so, had their spots before we got there. They were loud. I was worried it would be like that all night but they quieted down by 9:00. That is said to be the hiker’s midnight! We could smell a little bit a smoke at night but that was all.
The next day we ran into more hikers. Now all conversations turned to the smoke. We eventually learned this was a futile conversation because everyone had different advice. It gets better going north. It gets worse. It’s all day. It’s all night. Hike early. Hike late…But still, at this point we hadn’t seen any smoke.
At Tyndall Creek we stopped for lunch and by 2:00 we were ready to move on. We hiked up a small hill and headed toward Forrester Pass, when we saw a wall of smoke. A wall so thick it covered the mountains in front of us. Not sure what to do, we went back to wait it out a bit. By dinner time, it was a no-brainer to stop for the day. I was disappointed only getting in 4.4 miles. But it just wasn’t a good idea to head into the smoke. I was getting really frustrated. There was no way we were going to make my goal of 130-150 miles.
We ran into a ranger who told us that, lately, the smoke pattern was to come in around 2:00 pm and linger till early morning. Most hikers have better luck if they start the day really early. Umm, how early?
So the next day, we were on the trail by 6:15 am. It was a clear day. The same corner we rounded yesterday showed us the beautiful mountains ahead.
The day was filled with a lot of rather lengthy conversations with hikers. This time our answer to “Where you going?” was “Saturday, we are hiking to Saturday.” Most of the conversations though still centered on the smoke.
Sure as predicted, the smoke rolled in at 2:00 pm. We didn’t have a good place to stop. The choices were to either keep hiking, or to stop and sit in the middle of this smoke. Since we were able to get out of the smoke yesterday by staying at a lower elevation, we continued on. Our goal was Middle Vidette at mile 787. We tried hiking with wet bandanas over our faces but it was just too hard to breathe that way. We arrived at Vidette in about three hours. As we got close, I found myself asking Lynn, like a little kid, “Are we there yet? How much longer?” One answer Lynn gave was , “0.3 miles, three blocks.”
The smoke came in thick that night. We were near the junction of Cedar Grove Trail, which was closed because of the fire that was now directly west of us. Kersage Pass turn off was in two miles. At this point, we still were not getting the seriousness of the fire just west of us. After all, we just met plenty of south bounders who hiked right through the smoke. It was only Tuesday, day five of our hike, so we decided to go on and discuss later about maybe getting off at the next trail we knew of, Bishop Pass, 40 miles north.
I was approaching a switchback corner. I could see a hiker, an older guy, coming up. Etiquette says you step aside for the uphill hikers. Using it as a good excuse to rest, I stepped aside early. Then I waited and waited. Turns out, he too decided to use it as an excuse to rest and stepped aside. Since there was a big tree between us, we couldn’t see each other. When we figured out why neither of us was going, we laughed together. I felt like the Chip and Dale cartoon chipmunks “No, no, no, after you.” “No, no, no, I insist, after you.” He commented he has a lot of experience hiking but was really struggling this time. I had noticed a lot of older hikers, including us were too. Lynn had a headache all day and was feeling winded.
We made it to Rae Lakes for lunch. An older man came upon the us and asked, if we weren’t taking the spot for the night, if he could he just rest there and take the site. Sure! We had chit chat while we ate. He, too, was talking about how much more he was struggling. I suggested it was because we were all getting old. Ironically, the meat of the conversation happened with him as we planned to leave. His name was Bruce. He is an Internist in Redding, CA. His mom died of breast cancer. We all agreed you needed to live life now because who knows what will come. We also asked him to recommend our son for a job if anyone needed a graphic designer in Redding.
Again the smoke rolled in around 2:00 pm. We continued to hike for a couple more hours and settled in at Woods Creek, where the suspension bridge is.
Wednesday morning, HOLY SMOKES! We got an early start, but the smoke either got up before us or never went to bed the night before. It clung to us all day. Lynn had a headache still. I felt nausea all day. Yes, I am a nurse but I didn’t connect the nausea to the smoke until after I was home and thinking clearer. We had to get off this mountain. I didn’t want to think about the future damage this smoke could do to us. The day before, we met up with another ranger who thought Bishop Pass was the next best exit. We cringed though, when we realized that it was two days of hiking through this smoke yet.
But, then we met an angel! His name is Elliot and works for the Park Service to save the yellow legged Sierra frogs. Fascinating story ( http://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/nature/frog.htm). He planned to have lunch at the top of Pinchot Pass and invited us to join him. He of course was much younger and faster than we were. Lynn even said, “I’m sure you’ll be long gone before we get there.” But, we were surprised to find him still at the top when we finally made it. He had taken a long break.
He told us that he, too, was getting more exhausted and suffering from the smoke. He felt it was affecting all hikers in one way or another. This made me feel better. I was getting really disappointed in myself for not handling this hike better.
He also told us about Taboose Pass near a junction at the Bench Lake station area. It’s an exit route he normally takes. He suggested we go to the station and ask the ranger, the only one around with a satellite phone, to call for a ride at the bottom of the pass at the trailhead. It’s a ten mile drive from the trailhead to town on a rutted, washed-out road. The hike from the PCT to Taboose Pass is only three miles. The hike down is 11 miles. This sounded like a great plan. We were going to get off tomorrow, Thursday, after only six days of hiking.
We camped out at the junction. We could not, for the life of us, find the station to ask for the phone. We called it an early night. Ironically, we could hear people talking. But we thought it must be the trees or water or something. I mean, no one was around us right?
The next morning, we were up and out early. The sky was clear, but that did not change our minds about getting off. It was a gentle three miles to the top of Taboose Pass. We rested at the top for breakfast. We were getting ready to leave and who comes up behind us but Elliot and two of his co-workers, Emma and Rosa, twin sisters. Apparently, the station was within just yards of us. If we had continued north about 30 feet we would have found it. Rosa said she would offer us a ride but she only has a 3-seater truck. But maybe we could fit in the back. We acknowledged that they would be much faster than us, we didn’t want to hold them up and they were on the clock after all. We all agreed we would see how it rolls.
The climb down was brutal. Just as many rocks as Glen Pass but much steeper. We felt like a horse on its way home. We just wanted to run.
At the bottom there were only three trucks and only one guy, sitting on the side of the lot. Lynn said, he may not know it, but “this cat” is going to give us a ride. Turned out it was a shirtless Elliot! He was waiting there for us while the twins drove down the road to get cell service to clock out. They had just finished not too long ago. They decided to wait for us. We could not believe our luck and their thoughtfulness. They gave us a ride to Independence. From there we called a private cab which got us to our car at Horseshoe Meadows.
It took two days to get all that smoke off. The news the next day said Kings Canyon closed all the campgrounds because of the smoke. If only we had that crystal ball, we could have done a different hike. But then, where’s the fun in knowing with a crystal ball, right?
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