Day 54 – May 27, 2022
Mile 804.4 to 815.6 through Pinchot Pass
11.2 trail miles | 9.3 tracked miles | 2,082 ft elevation gain | 69.8 F / 21 °C
I woke up around 5:15 am with the intention of tackling Pinchot Pass while the snow was still firm. The temperature was extremely low; reaching freezing point.
I emerged from the comfort of my cozy quilt to the harsh impact of the biting cold. My fingers immediately turned numb, and even the simplest task of preparing breakfast required an immense amount of determination. I decided to indulge in a hot cup of coffee, but I couldn’t be bothered to place my stove outside the vestibule of my tent. I was aware that I was literally playing with fire, but my sluggish brain didn’t fully comprehend the foolishness of my actions. Within seconds, the door of my tent began to melt. Thankfully, the damage was minimal and inconsequential, but I couldn’t forgive myself for my own stupidity.
I chalked up the incident as a beginner’s mistake—backpacking has a way of always making you feel like a beginner, somehow—and found solace in the breathtaking sunrise.
The four-mile approach to Pinchot Pass and the 1,000-foot climb were uneventful and felt relatively easy. The snow didn’t start until two miles before the pass, and despite the sun already baking the snow, I didn’t experience any postholing.
The views from the pass were as rewarding and inspiring as ever.
Most of the descent was free of snow, and I didn’t need to use my ice axe. However, the effects of altitude were intense. Every step required an excessive amount of effort, and it felt as though I had burned through a week’s worth of calories just to cross one pass!
To celebrate another successful summit, I took a snack break near the frozen Lake Marjorie.
The trail then continued to descend gently through a landscape of granite slabs, wetlands, and rugged mountains. The Sierras might be challenging, but I could almost get away with not carrying any water!
The mighty South Fork Kings River marked the lowest point of today’s stretch, sitting at an elevation of 10,051 feet.
For the next four miles, the Pacific Crest Trail followed the South Fork Kings River. The official route crosses the river twice, swinging over to the west bank before rejoining the east bank. However, fording the rapid waters can be unsafe. A few years ago, a young hiker lost his life attempting the western crossing. I decided to deviate from the trail and stay on the east bank.
Leaving the trail felt somewhat unsettling, but I managed to follow a bootpath at first, and then walked along the river while obsessively checking my GPS. Although the two-mile off-trail section was demanding and involved (safer) water crossings, I didn’t have to bushwhack as much as I had anticipated.
After safely rejoining the PCT, I ran into two hikers whom I had parted ways with two days ago at the Onion Valley Trailhead (when I forgot my hiking poles in our driver’s trunk.) They shared their experience of crossing Kearsage Pass and Glen Pass back-to-back. While they made it safely, postholing had significantly impacted their pace, to the point that I caught up with them despite sticking to my one-pass-a-day approach.
As the trail veered away from the South Fork Kings River and gained elevation, the landscape became more barren and desolate, and the snow soon returned.
I eventually lost the bootpath in the snow. Even though I knew I was close to the trail, finding myself alone in this immensity without any visible footsteps was unnerving. The deafening silence was only broken by the occasional howling of the wind.
According to my map, I was near the last campsite before Mather Pass, which was evidently covered in snow. Further north, the trail quickly gained elevation toward the pass, making camping difficult or unsafe. Even though it was just 3pm, I decided to setup camp for the night.
I pitched my tent on a dry patch near a lake, in violation of National Park rules. There were no suitable alternatives short of retracing my steps and walking back a couple of miles.
Drag your mouse to explore my campsite in 3D. Click VR to switch to full screen mode.
The scenery was extraordinary, and the campsite was sublime. However, I felt utterly exhausted, and anxiety took hold of me. I was concerned about the challenging conditions awaiting me on Mather Pass. Even under optimal circumstances, Mather Pass is widely considered the most technical pass, and reports from hikers ahead were filled with doom and gloom.
Moreover, ominous clouds were moving in, and the wind was picking up. The relentless effects of altitude had taken their toll. Although today’s stretch had been rewarding, it had also been challenging, with rocks, snow, loose gravel, and multiple water crossings.
I kept hoping that someone would camp nearby, but no one turned up.
Earlier today, I had entertained fantasies of stretching my food supply, skipping Vermillion Valley Resort, and hiking all the way to Mammoth Lakes. Tonight, Mother Nature delivered a serious reality check.
I dozed off for a couple of hours. At least, I have a long night ahead to rest and recover before conquering Mather Pass. Hopefully, it will not snow overnight.