Almost out of the Sierra 

My tired feet made the transition from the dusty trail to the hard black pavement. 

Just before reaching the 3/4 mile road walk into Kennedy Meadows, Sprite and I celebrated the end of the longest, and arguably most grueling section by jumping into the Kern River – in over 100 degree weather – with all of our clothes on.

Kennedy Meadows is a real milestone for PCT hikers. At this point, we’ve walked 702 miles. This is also the last stop before the Sierra section.

When you walk up to the general store, all the hikers and patrons clap for you. It’s a moment that’s hard to describe, because it comes by such surprise. My eyes grew teary and my heart grew warmer. I was proud of myself, and thrilled that the Southern California desert was behind me.  

While prepping for the trail, the dumping of snow in the Sierra Nevadas this year was undoubtedly the most popular topic for trail skeptics. 

Rightfully so, the Sierra Nevadas have never received more snow than they have this year – over 200 percent more than normal.

The first sight of snow was a special moment for me. I remember vaguely seeing mountains off in the distance, thinking to myself, I’m about to climb this shit. Let’s do it. And I had the biggest smile on my face. 

Walking out of Kennedy Meadows the terrain starts to change. Mountains get taller, rivers start to appear. The love I had for this section began to blossom.

I fell in love with this section because the sights were magnificent. Unlike anything I’d ever seen. 

Yogi, a triple crown hiker and PCT guru, told me in Kennedy Meadows that the Sierra section was hikers reward for finishing the desert. 

I couldn’t agree with her more. 

I was overwhelmed by this new adventure, and enlightened by what was up ahead. 
The group I was hiking with was solid. We supported & encouraged each other. I felt safe with them and was so grateful to have met these beautiful souls. 

But just when you think you’ve got it figured out – everything can change. 

The first pass we went up was Forester Pass. It’s the highest point on the PCT, 13,200 ft. Just two days before Forester, we summited Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states – 14,500 ft. 

Forester was my first love in the Sierra. This was the first time I’d ever hiked up a pass, and the first time I’d hiked with an ice axe in hand and microspikes on my feet. Although I was terrified, I was confident. 

The group I was hiking Forester with was overwhelmingly supportive of each other. We were waiting for each other at the top, guiding those to the best foot holes and reiterating how to self-arrest in case of a misstep. 

When we got to the top, we celebrated with hugs and high fives. It was a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. But just as a first love ends, I was excited to see what else was out there. 

After Forester, we hiked Kearsage Pass, 11,700 feet, to get into Bishop, our next town stop. Kearsage was steep, and sometimes we had no idea where we were headed.

We were hiking the Pacific Crest general direction as Nirvana would say – because the trail was covered in snow. 

The trek was filled with gorgeous alpine lakes and plenty of snow. Any moments of frustration were quickly curbed by the stunning scenery. 

Once we made it into Bishop, I exited the trail for two weeks. This was planned, not sparatic. Every year I help with a journalism camp hosted at Stanford University. After the camp was over, I spent a wonderful four days with my momma in San Francisco. 

It was strange to be off trail, and overwhelming to be in a big city after such solace in the wilderness. I enjoyed every moment spent with my momma and at camp, but it was safe to say I was ready to be back on trail, but by now my trail family was far ahead. 

So, I had a decision to make. I could jump up and meet my friends, but that meant skipping a section. I could flip the trail and meet friends who skipped the Sierra all together to hike later once the snow has really melted. 

Or I could get back on where I left off, and keep my fingers crossed I’d make new friends. The only problem is, when you’re camping at over 10,000 feet on the regular, climbing passes and fording streams daily, this section shouldn’t be hiked alone, in my opinion. 

At the last second, Roadshow decided to jump back into the Sierra with me where we left off. The two of us began the trek back over Kearsage. This time, I had a 54 pound pack – far too much food than I needed, but better safe than sorry, right?

That day, we hiked Kearsage Pass and Glenn Pass. Altitude sickness hit me early on and I felt like I wasn’t in the shape I was in when I got off trail. That two weeks really took a toll. The heavy pack didn’t help. 

Roadshow and I didn’t have a similar hiking pace. He was much faster than me and I spent a lot of time solo hiking. 

The love I had for the Sierra began to dwindle as I spent time inside my own head. I became frustrated often and questioned what the hell I was even doing. Am I trying to prove something by being out here? Who am I trying to prove it to, and why? We’re the questions that ran through my mind all day. 

I missed the supportive network I had before getting off trail and wondered if it would be worth it to skip a section and meet my friends. I struggled with my own independence. I wanted to be content being solo in the Sierra, but I craved the comrodery, and mostly the encouragement. 

I also didn’t feel safe hiking solo. There were several white water crossings, snow bridges to cross, not to even mention the passes. 

But just as the trail goes – you keep moving forward. 

The next day I crossed Pinchot Pass, 12,100 feet. This pass was steep, but not terrifying. I was growing more comfortable with my level of confidence in the snow, but tried not to be naive that anything could happen. 

After Pinchot, Roadshow and I hiked to the base of Mather Pass. This was the last of the most difficult passes in the Sierra section, other hikers said. 

We only had 700 feet left to climb that next morning, piece of cake, we thought. 

While I was traversing up the pass, Roadshow was at the top tackling the rock scramble. I had my ice axe in hand and my spikes on. With every step I stabbed my axe into the snow beside me. One step at a time I repeatedly said to myself. When I was about two-thirds of the way across, the next step was wider than what I was used to. I picked up my foot and tried to place it in the foot hole, but I missed. 

My body began sliding down the snow covered pass. With every inch that I slid, I was absolutly terrified.

I remember reciting in my head “you know how to do this and you need to do it right now.” (In this quote I am referring to self-arresting with my ice axe)

I turn my axe as quickly as I can and try to stab the blade into the snow, but I miss.

Still sliding down the side of the mountain, I try again, this time I turn the blade sharper and stronger. There wasn’t any time for error. 

Like a dagger, the axe stuck into the snow. There I was, about 20 feet down from the foot holes, hanging on the side of a pass. I wanted to cry and cry and cry, but I just didn’t have the time. Solution first, reaction after. 

After a few deep breaths, I dug my microspikes into the snow beneath my feet and one by one made a new footpath up the mountain. With every step I stabbed my axe into the snow and lifted my body up. 

My axe completely supported me. Once I got the hang of what I was doing, I was confident I had the tool I needed in my hand. 

When I made it safely to the rocks, I was trembling. My body was shaking and my jaw felt numb. I couldn’t process what had just happened, and I just started to cry. This experience was undoubtedly the most terrifying moments of my life, but I made it. 

I dropped my pack and took a breather. I had a tough rock scramble to go before I could reach the top, but nothing could stop me now. 

Mather Pass broke my heart, but I got over it. 

Later that day, I reconnected with a group that I had crossed paths with a couple times on trail. We camped together for the first time that night, and I was excited about becoming a party of a new trail family. 

We stayed up that night, cooking dinner and talking about the passes we just crossed. Woodchuck had her own terrifying experience on Mather, where she stepped into a void on the mountain and ended up waist deep in snow. I wasn’t there for this, but we bonded over our separate experiences.  

The next day we hiked to a lake where we would take a ferry the next day to Vermilion Valley Resort. A well earned zero day was in store. 

This group is filled with incredible people. Rooster and Woodchuck, former AT hikers going for their triple crown after their wedding in the coming year, are from New York. 

Happy baby, who I spend a lot of time hiking with, is from Chicago. 

Yaya, a nurse who lives 20 minutes from my hometown (crazy, right?), is from Colorado. 

Cosmo, is also from Colorado. 

Hash Hero, who could hike 40 miles on the daily, is from Utah. 

And Lani, a former school counselor is from Los Angeles. 

I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this new trail family. The trail truly provides.

Since Mather Pass, the passes have become a lot easier. The climb can still be brutal, but the snow has lessened tremendously. 

Mileage has picked up, and the goal of getting to Canada has never been clearer.

This section doesn’t offer as much emotional refelection as the section before, because so much of my time is spent on focusing on survival. 

Yesterday, we crossed 900 miles. N about 150 miles, we’ll be out of the Sierra section and onto Northern California. 

But I have learned, and am learning every day what I am capable of. One step at a time, I’ll keep moving forward. 

2 thoughts on “Almost out of the Sierra 

  1. Dad says:

    I know what your made of and always have ! Your made of ambition, strength, compassion,and now indurance and not to mention love your my inspiration Alex I could not be prouder love you and i appreciate your new friends

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Em says:

    I am so glad you are safe! You’re and amazing survivalist Alex. I am also so thankful for your new trail family! Hope you all are doing well out there. Thinking of you!

    Like

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