Day 48 – May 21, 2022
Mile 774.7 to 788.9 (Kearsage Pass junction) through Forester Pass + Kearsage Pass Trail (Bishop, CA)
14.2 trail miles | 19.3 tracked miles | 4,072 ft elevation gain | 82.4 F / 28 °C
As I drifted off to sleep yesterday night, a hint of anxiety lingered in my mind. What would my experience be like ascending Forester Pass, the highest point of the Pacific Crest Trail? And more importantly, how would I fare descending the potentially treacherous northern side, still blanketed in snow?
Today turned out to be a stellar day full of highlights—possibly my best day on the trail—not only because of the breathtaking scenery, but also due to my own physical and mental performance.
I woke up early to tackle Forester pass while the snow was still firm and easy to navigate. (As temperatures rise throughout the day, the snow becomes softer, adding challenges and risk.) Getting out of my sleeping bag before 5:30am demanded willpower. I exceptionally treated myself to hot coffee in anticipation of the challenges ahead.
I hiked the easy five-mile approach to the Forester Pass with determination and excitement, crossing an expansive, barren, and still largely frozen alpine plateau. Although there were several streams along the way, they were inaccessible due to the snow. Fortunately, the cool weather meant I didn’t need much water.
The snow was patchy, and the trail remained mostly clear, allowing me to maintain a steady pace.
The imposing presence Forester Pass loomed ahead.
The final ascent to the pass was steep, intense, yet extremely rewarding. I’ve always noticed that I typically fare better on steep slopes than on long uphill slogs. While steep climbs are challenging, they’re mentally thrilling. I enjoy looking back and getting a vivid, immediate, and tangible sense of progress and achievement.
I could feel the effects of the altitude, which made every step a laborious effort despite my relatively light pack with only two days’ worth of food remaining. Altitude aside, the conditions were excellent, and the strong winds that previous hikers had encountered had subsided overnight.
Standing at an elevation of 13,200 feet, Forester Pass is the apex of the PCT and the highest pass in the Sierra Nevada range, although there are peaks towering above 14,000 feet.
Forester Pass marks the boundary between Sequoia National Park to the south and Kings Canyon National Park to the north.
After reaching the pass, I took a moment to catch my breath and savor the view, then I gathered my snow gear, put on my spikes, and secured loose items on my pack. I immediately felt confident. There was less snow than I had anticipated, and it appeared to be firm. Besides, there were plenty of footsteps to follow and I wasn’t alone.
The descent turned out to be comfortable and straightforward. I found myself in a winter wonderland, surrounded by frozen lakes, rugged peaks, and granite slabs. I proceeded cautiously and used the snow travel techniques I had practiced back home, but quickly gained confidence.
I felt comfortable and steady enough to remove my spikes at the bottom of the hill and proceed with just snow baskets on my poles. The snow held firm, and I didn’t posthole.
Before long, the snow began to recede, giving way to a wet and muddy trail. It reminded me of hiking during shoulder season at home in the Washington state!
A few miles later, I spotted my group having lunch by a river and joined them. We had separated at Mount Whitney without establishing a meeting point for the evening.
It occurred to me that it was only noon, and that I could possibly make into Bishop, CA in the evening, a whole ahead of schedule, should the stars align.
The idea was ambitious, but enticing. Getting into town involved hiking another 10+ miles on the PCT, then taking the Kearsage Pass trail through Kearsage Pass down to the Onion Valley trailhead. From there, I would need to hitchhike 53 miles to Bishop, CA.
Despite the unknowns, I decided to give it a shot. If necessary, I could always camp somewhere overnight. The rest of the group wanted to relax and camp nearby, so I took off on my own, fueled by the hope of a hot shower and a hearty meal.
I walked mostly downhill for two hours, then the fun started. Through the Sierra Nevada, PCT follows the John Muir Trail, which is widely considered as one of the most challenging trails in the US. The climbs on this section are much steeper than those I was used to in the desert. Yet, I was motivated, and I always enjoy a good challenge. As I ascended to the Kearsage Pass Trail junction, I passed a large group slower hikers, and overheard one of them wondering if there was a race going on. It felt oddly satisfying.
At the junction, I veered off the PCT and turned right towards civilization. It was still early, and the success of my mission hinged on the conditions at Kearsarge Pass.
I crossed a couple thru-hikers who were returning from town. They shared that the pass was virtually free of snow (and naturally grumbled about the weight of their packs after resupplying.) This fortunate turn of events meant that I should reach the trailhead by 6 pm at the latest, which would give me enough time to find day hikers heading back home.
The trail over Kearsage Pass and down to the Onion Valley trailhead is an easy but long and winding slog: 3 miles up, then 5 down. The views were breathtaking, and I felt somewhat guilty for rushing through such magnificent scenery.
The last few miles were a form of mild torture, with endless switchbacks, a tantalizing glimpse of the parking lot, and intermittent cell phone signal which was just strong enough to remind me that I was getting closer to civilization, yet weak enough to be usable. Normally, I keep my phone in airplane mode, but I wanted to see if, by any chance, a local hotel might offer a pickup at the trailhead. I quickly gave up and kept walking.
I get a real kick out of these spontaneous adventures, which deviate significantly from the carefully curated path of my everyday life.
I arrived at the Onion Valley trailhead and parking lot around 4:45pm, ahead of my self-imposed schedule. By a stroke of luck, I immediately found a hitch down to Independence, CA, courtesy of a professional British rock climber and his wife who were exploring the area on a three-week road trip. The 13-mile road Independence was vertiginous and extremely scenic.
The desolate town of Independence, CA (a census-designated place, population 593) is home to a gas station, a motel, and a monumental County courthouse.
I hung out by the gas station and stuck my thumb out in the hope of finding a ride for the remaining 41 miles of the journey. While waiting, I spotted another hiker who was also headed to Bishop. We struck up a conversation, and a friendly lady parked nearby, taking a break on her way to Bishop, overheard us and kindly offered us a ride. She was planning to climb Mount Whitney and explore the area, so we shared a few tips with her.
As soon as the cell phone signal got stronger, I booked a hotel for the night. One hour later, we arrived in the quaint and friendly town of Bishop, CA. My gambled had paid off. It felt surreal to think that the PCT was now over 60 miles away, including the 7.5 mile trek over the Kearsage Pass Trail.
I indulged in a bath, promptly took care of laundry, then was able to connect with Michael, who had arrived in Bishop yesterday. The group is now split up three ways, with Michael a day ahead of me, and Joe & co a day behind.
We went out to dinner at the local brewery with a few other hikers. I was starving and had been fantasizing about food all day. I had a burger, an entire pizza, a salad, fries, and topped it all off with dessert. It was excessive, and I felt ill on the way back to my hotel.
Next on the agenda: a couple zeros in Bishop!