Section 07. The High Sierras from Kennedy Meadows to Vermillion Valley Resort
Section 07. Kennedy Meadows to Vermillion Valley Resort. I would have loved to stay at Kennedy Meadows longer and hang out at the easy going General Store and watch the world go by but i was also eager to start the Sierras. The Desert Section was the Hoevres d’oeuf, but the Sierras were most certainly the Main Course.
I said my goodbyes to 3 or 4 different tables of hiking chums and headed off to the trail around 1800. I had 17 days of food and had changed my backpack for these next sections to a 90 litre one. It weighed in at 55 lbs. I persuaded Tom to allow me to send a blog text update on his closely guarded and inaccessible wifi. I then made the uneventful 3 mile walk to a campground beside the Kern River. When I got there I met Josh and Gill, Birddog, Mishap and that bubble round a table. They beckoned me over. Birddogs very nice parents were visiting from San Francisco and were splashing a treat. The fillet steaks were huge but I unfortunately had to decline. It was a nice evening with bright people.
I got to my tent early and was up at 5 and away by 6. It was rumoured to be hot day ahead. The backpack was massive and I vowed to do just 12-14 miles a day initially to avoid injury. Almost at once I felt a new chapter had started. The massive pines dominated the forest and a river tumbled down washed boulders beside me. It was the Sierras at last.
I walked a good 3 miles through this magnificent landscape of large Jeffery Pines and some incense cedars. Hikerpedia caught me up and we chatted for a couple of miles to a spring. It was great to be able to ignore the PCT Water Report, a continually updated online document, which was essential for the previous sections. We now turned west and climbed up through 3 miles of fireburn which as always was sad and arduous. Hikerpedia quickly pulled away as I laboured under my pack.
I climbed to Hawaa Pass where the fireburn ceased. Down the other side was a gorgeous forest and then the most perfect meadow. It was called Beck’s Meadow. It was a few miles long and a half mile wide and surrounded by pristine pine forest. Well beyond the far end was a snow covered range of the Sierras. The flat meadow was mostly small sage bush but there were large areas of green grasses, which I think were sedge. It was almost an epiphany type moment and it filled me with euphoria that such places exist.
The path skirted round the edge of this lush green velvet plain, crossing a few springs whose clear waters flowed down to the meadow, and then climbed over a ridge with s9me very old gnarly incense cedars, whose venerable trunk were heavily twisted for additional strength, and then it dropped down to the Kern River by a footbridge. The river here was lazy and meandering as it ambled across the meadow. Large sandbanks were frequent along its sides.
There were about 20 hikers already here relaxing under trees along the banks. I knew about half. I really wanted a swim however so stripped down to my boxers and walked upstream along the soft bank for 300 yards before leaping in. It was a perfect temperature. I just spent 5 minutes drifting along the sandy riverbed until I was back.
Megaphone was just arriving and I persuaded him to try it. We drifted down again in raptures about the magnificence of it. A couple more joined us for the next drift while Megaphone used his air mattress as a raft. Soon everyone was down to their underwear either walking up the bank or drifting down the 3 foot deep 20 foot wide river. There was much laughter and happiness. We had slogged through my 700 miles of desert for this small piece of heaven.
Everyone else went on for another few miles in the early evening but I wanted to stay. The bridge was heavily used as a nesting site for swallows and there must have been 300 nests here. They were teeming across the river plucking insects from the air. I could also see a few golden trout from the bridge. In the evening some ducks emerged from the sedges along the banks. It was a pastoral sight which fully justified me being here. It was all I had hoped for when I signed up for the hike.
The swallows were up long before me swooping out of their nests and into the mist which was gently wafting up from the Kern River. I crossed the bridge as sun burst across the meadow and then sta4ted to head up Cow Creek. It was a lovely walk up through huge Jeffrey Pines, some must have been specimen examples some 40 metres high with huge boles covered in thick bark which smelt of vanilla. I walked up the tumbling creek for a good 4 miles before it opened up a bit. Each side of the creek lush vegetation was unfurling and about to erupt into tall plants as the spring here was turning into summer. One plant which caught my attention was what looked like a GIant Yellow Gentian of the European Alps from which they make Angostura Bitters.
As the valley opened up I heard the shrill cry of a Marmot. I turned to see the plump hairy sentry perched on a sunny rock. The sentry keeps an eye out for predators and alerts the rest of the colony with the shrill cry. This ones cry was quite half-hearted and they were obviously used to hikers. A bit further on I saw another marmot almost sunbathing on a rock. She saw me but did not cry out. As I watched 3 small marmot kittens, each no bigger than a chipmunk, joined her on the rock.
I climbed on across this meadow and came across a new pine I did not recognise from about 9000 feet up. It had needles in 2 bundles about and inch long and tiny cones also an inch long and the bark was relatively smooth and brown. I was sure they were Lodgepole Pines but was shocked to see them up here in this rugged environment. A little into this Lodgepole pine wood some snow patches appeared but the snow was firm and easy to walk on.
I got some wonderful views down to the meadows below. The recent thaw took a lot of the granite sand down and deposited beside the creeks far below. While further to the north more and more ranges of the Sierras appeared. They were not as snow covered as I feared and it seems Spring had arrived many weeks ago.
As I climbed to 10, 000 feet and the soil changed to granite debris I was delighted to see the Lodgepole Pines gave way to one of my favourite trees; The Foxtail Pine. This rare and elusive tree only grow in some areas of California. They have inch long needles in bundles of five and their cones are about 3 inches long. They are phenomenally hardy like their cousin the Bristlecone Pine. Foxtail Pines can be up to 3000 years old. As they age they twist so the trunk is incredibly strong. They may grow to 25 metres with a 1.5 metre diameter bole. I have been told that even when they die the skeleton trunk with stand for many decades, perhaps even 10, before it topples. Occasionally one had fallen across the path and it had to be chainsawed up. Here one cod see the rings which were so tightly packed together the6 were impossible to count. Suffice to say a few I passed predated the Roman Empire!
At the highpoint on the west side of Olancha Peak the trail reached 10,500 feet. Here through the Foxtails a view of the Sierras burst upon me. I could at last see Mt Whitney and many of the peaks I would hike past in a week. The south faces I could see where covered in snowfields but at least half of each mountain was also bare. See this I felt confident I could get through.
The descent was easy and despite the soil of granite sand and boulders there were springs and small creeks throughout the forest. These were being fed by the small snowfields which were scattered through the forest. The Foxtails gave way to the Lodgepole Pines and then at 9000 feet more and more Jeffrey Pines, Silver Firs and gnarled Incense Cedars appeared. The descent was really more of a sauter as the gradient was easy, it was not too hot and I could see I was heading down to meadows.
The meadows here were smaller but almost perfect in their serenity. The lush green grasses and sedges were soft and moist as small rivulets meandered across nourishing them. Around the periphery were small pines and then large ones beyond these. There were occasional riots of colour where flowers were erupting into blossom in what 2as now early summer. The trail occasionally crossed a meadow, like the idyllic Gomez Meadow, but most of the time if skirted round them. I saw few deer and a stag in one copse waiting for dusk so they could venture onto the meadow to feast.
Beside one meadow was a field of very small yellow and red flowers in full bloom. Their nectar was being harvested by a squadron of small bee type insects I had recently become aware off. They were smaller than bees but had a long proboscis to insert into flowers. They were remarkable in that they could hover and then revolve around on the spot, almost like a mini drone. I could now see why this feature was useful as they withdrew from one flower and then simple spun round to face another flower with no forward motion.
I reached my goal for the day which was Death Canyon Creek. There were about 15 people here who had passed the afternoon in the shade and were just preparing to go. Many were from the floating session in the River Kern yesterday. I chatted before they went and then put up my tent under the Lodgepole Pines as the mosquitoes were out. I was fed and watered and asleep before the sun went down at 2000 hrs after another wonderful day in the Sierras.
The climb up from Death Canyon Creek at Sunrise illuminated the hillside of Incense Cedars with a orange glow. Some of these trees would have been very old. As I climbed under the weight of the rucksack I came to a notch where there was a huge view down to the Mojave and Owens valley below. There was a tenuous phone signal here and about 10 people were using it.. the snow patches became more frequent as 8 climbed especially in thicker trees. By now the Lodgepoles had given way to the Foxtail Pines and it was to remain like that for the rest of the day.
A few people caught up with me as we wandered through the forests. There were some views to the meadows below and occasionally to the snowy Sierras we were entering. At last I got to Diaz Meadow and Creek where I intended to camp. However it was not as idyllic as I hoped and as I pondered moving on to the water in 5 miles thought that this would fit my plan of climbing Mt Whitney better. After a long siesta under the Lodgepoles at the edge of the meadow I wearily set off around 5. I was wary of pushing myself too much and getting an injury.
Those miles were long and it was with great relief I reached the mosquito infested campsite by Poison Spring Meadow. As I was putting up the tent under the trees in the mixed Lodgepole and Foxtail forest thunderclaps echoed across the meadow. However the rain did not arrive and I was soon tucked up.
The camp was quite high at around 11000 feet, with a lot of drifts around, but it was warm. There was not much climbing to be down to reach Cottonwood Pass. It was not really a pass but more of a notch between hills and the PCT did not go through the notch but across a meadow to the west of the notch. It was beautiful meadow with small becks running across it feeding the pastures. Marmots scurried from grassy tufts to the entrance to their burrows as i approached. The burrows must have been wet as much of the meadow was sodden with the melting of the surrounding snowfields.
A bit beyond, near the treeline of 11500 feet where the Foxtails petered out was a small lake, Chicken Spring Lake. It still was mostly covered in ice despite the warm weather. The Taylor Swiss bubble arrived as I enjoyed some shade. They were lively lads, Taylor from LA and the 4 swiss from Zurich. I had last seen them a week ago. The trail was quiet not as many people had left for Lone Pine via Horseshoe Meadow and most would probably skip the Sierras. So I was heartened to see others were game to tackling them.
After this break I had a wonderful walk in the upper trees with great views. At one stage just after entering the Sequoia National Park i rounded a corner and the whole of the Siberian Outpost Meadow lay below me. It was a mile wide and 3 long and it was perched on a shelf on the mountainside with a layer of moraine forming the outer edge of the shelf. What was most remarkable was the whole plateau was still covered in snow except where the creeks had melted it.
The trail dropped down to the north side of this plateau and followed the broad shallow ridge which seperated it from the valley where the Rock Creek was. The ridge was sublime walking among giant Foxtails and gnarled Lodgepoles with frequent glimpses of the snowy Siberian Outpost Meadow and larger mountains beyond.
I noticed that while the Foxtails generally grew straight the Lodgepoles seem to get to a certain size or age, say a couple of hundred years and then started to twist. This twist was always anticlockwise. I then noticed the roots of the Foxtails and Lodgepoles were also twisted in an anticlockwise direction. I wonder if this is common across all pines or indeed conifers.
As I was descending to Rock Creek a ranger caught up. He was Mike Rodman and his patch in the Western Sierras was still covered in snow. He was visiting his fellow ranger based at Rock Creek. We had a great chat for the 3 miles and I gleaned masses from his vast knowledge of the Sierras. He left as we reached Rock Creek which I had heard roaring in the valley for a while. It was in full spate.
I noticed at the meadow it was not too deep as it was heavily braided but continued to the recognised crossing point half a mile down stream* where there was also a bear proof locker to store food in. However the creek here was a pulsating torrent and it looked impassable. Taylor and Swiss were camped on the other side and had a large fire. They shouted they had cross at the meadow.
In the morning I packed up left my trousers and socks off and tried to wade. It was just too powerful and just before i got swept off my feet retreated and returned to the meadow upstream. Here i easily waded over the 3 or 4 braids and the many sodden rivulets in the meadow. My feet were freezing before I reached dry land on the other edge of the meadow. The sun was out and already warming so I warmed up and got dressed with its help. As I did a number of deer calmly wandered on the meadow. As this place has been a National Park for so long it was almost that there intuitive DNA did not see humans as a threat anymore.
There was a long climb 0up to Guyot Creek and Pass beyond that. The mountains were getting large now and soared above the lovely forest of Foxtail pines. It was another wonderful section and I was so delighted to be in the Sierras again. There seem to be a near permanent sun blessing this wonderful range. I saw only one other hiker that day and that was Giggles who was trying to catch up with his group of Megaphone, Mr Tidy and Curry etc who were at the bottom of Forester Pass. The Sierras are sorting the Sheep from the Goats and most of the sheep headed down to Lone Pine a few days ago, many will not return.
The descent from the pass to me to Crabtree Meadow. I wanted to stay here and get up early to climb Whitney. When I arrived at the camp I was delighted to see the Kiwis Joe and Holly, English Ed and Matt, and a few more who had just returned from Whitney. They stki? had the glint of victory in their eyes. I put up my tent and prepared for an early start. Later there was a commotion in the campsite and some 20 hikers arrived. There was a lot of reunions. Deb came to my tent for a chat through the mosquito netting and camped nearby and then Top’O arrived in cavalier fashion having just walked 20 miles, but still looking dapper. Everyone was asleep by 9 with alarms set. Mine was for 2 am.
Deb got up and was away by midnight to catch the sunrise. I set off at half past two. it was difficult navigating in the dark on a myriad of flooded trails. I recognised the shore of timberline lake as I walked past but was totally disorientated when the snow started around Guitar Lake and just had to hope the footsteps i was following were going in the right direction and I saw a few headtorches ahead on this virtually moonless night.
It started to get light as I started the switchbacks up the west side. The original path builders were clever to pick areas which did not hold the snow and even in this exceptional year the path was generally clear.
By the time I reached the main ridge the sun had already cast a warm alpenglow on the many snow clad mountains just before it rose over the horizon. It was still a good hour along the main ridge to the summit and it by now the air was starting to warm, although even on the summit of Whitney it had not been below freezing for a week or so.
Deb was already there chatting with hikers who climbed up from Whitney Portal from the east. It was windstill and warm and easy to relax. Some PCT hikers had camped the night up here, but the shelter was full of snow as the door had blown away.
The first thing was the huge view, especially to the north. The massive mountain range stretched into the haze north of Whitney with a myriad of peaks, snow filled cirques and a jumble of saw toothed jagged ridges. We tried to make out Forester Pass and a few other landmarks we would pass in the next 2 weeks.
What really caught my attention was the way this massive range of jumbled peaks came of an abrupt line on the eastern flank and then plunged some 10 000 vertical feet at nearly 45 degrees straight down into the flat, arid, parched Owens Valley which was totally in the rain shadow of the magnificent Sierras.
I lazed round for a couple of hours before leaving mid morning with Deb. On the way down we passed masses of day hikers coming from the east and PCT hikers from the west. Top’O, Birddog, Harvest to name a few. The route down was surprisingly long and it took ages to reach the snowfields around Guitar Lake.
Here we were accosted by Marmots. Obviously many people camp here when the snows have gone and the resident marmots, who have just spent 7 months hibernating, have learned to extort food from campers and have lost their fear of humans.
Back at Crabtree camp there was nothing else to so except snooze under the large twisted lodgepole pine, trying to avoid the sap covered cones. Soon another group of hikers arrived, Sunshine, Alex, Isco and with the return of Top’O and Harvest there was soon 15 under the gnarled Lodgepole.
Initially the PCT hikers were a mixed group of mountaineers, ultra runners, hardy hikers, not committed hikers, walking wounded, and hangers on. However the Sierras was separating the Sheep from the Goats. This campsite was essentially full of Goats only who at the least would hike 3 hard days over Kersage Pass to resupply again. There was a feeling of comradeship in the Camp which I had not experienced before. It was almost the people at the campsite were a congregation of a church and the structure of the church were the trees and canopy of the Foxtail and Lodgepole pines we were camped amongst.Top’O, Harvest, Deb and myself decided to hike together for the next two days. It was to be a very happy bubble in the herd 20 or so hikers who left the next morning to start the challenges of the Sierras.
We set off as the sun was rising. There was another team of Baby Carrot, DG, Left and Right plus another 7 or 8 and then yet another team of Pony, Aladdin and 6 or 7 others so we would not be alone. We wandered up through Foxtails for a few miles to our first challenge, the wading of Wallace Creek. I went first, the water was freezing and flowing fast but it was only up to my thighs in the middle of the 20 foot wide torrent. I dumped my rucksack and went back to help Harvest, who did not really need the help, while Deb and Top’O managed fine. We crossed at the same time as Pony and her group.
However the bigger group with Baby Carrot and DG had some excitement as Left and Right got swept downstream. Slightly battered they managed to self rescue and crossed to join the assembled mass in the meadow beyond all sprawled out on the grass enjoying the sun while a deer watched from a distance.
Shortly afterwards we got to Wrights Creek and everybody in all three groups got over safely as the freezing water swirled around our thighs. Again we all assembled on the far side to empty our boots and wring out out socks. The last Creek of the day to wade was Tyndall Creek. When we got to it it was roaring with no chance to cross. However just a mile upstream two large tributaries joined it in a flatter area. The 4 of us headed up and could see Pony, Aladdin and their team already kn the other side.
Top’O and Myself crossed but it was a bit of a struggle. I was not sure if I would have been able to help Harvest and maintain my own balance in the surging torrent of snowmelt. So she and Deb continued up the snowfield on the south side while I continued up the north side for another half mile until Tyndall Creek braided and it was easy to cross. By now my feet were freezing.
On returning to the previous crossing place, the large team of Baby Carrot, DG, Left and Right were preparing to cross. I felt some of them would be better crossing at Harvest’s point further up so crossed again to tell them. However they were adamant that they would all get over here if they worked as a team. So I re crossed Tyndall Creek for the firth time to empty my boots, wring my socks and enjoy the rest of the spectators. To their credit the big team did a great job, it was a textbook crossing with a line of people all facing up stream with linked arms and the strongest at each end and interspersed. There was a loud cheer when the group arrived safely on the north side. Everyone now relaxed in the sun.
From this crossing the teams split up. Top’O, Deb, Harvest and Myself decided to walk the remaining 4 miles to the foot of Forester Pass, where Harvest had some info on a good campsite. The other 2 groups camped much earlier. It was a long trudge through the snow up the valley beneath Diamond Mesa. The going was tough because the snow had melted into little ridges and deep dimples, which are called snow cups. It was humiliating to walk on the. As one slithered and slipped with the occasional fall.
After a couple of hours we passed the two larger lakes which were still frozen over, but could not find a camp spot..so we continued to the very base of the pass where there was a small lake beside which the map indicated a campsite. I hoped for some bare windswept gravel at the least. However i was horrified to see 8t was just a white undulating expanse of snow on which we would have to camp at about 12,000 feet. Harvest’s tent was totally unsuitable for snow so with the sun setting and cold creeping into wet boots I told her she should sleep in my tent. The 3 tents were just set up as the temperatures fell below freezing and we quickly withdrew into our sleeping bags to cook. For Harvest’s benefit I overlooked the Chickpea Curry and went for the Macaroni Cheese.
Just before sleeping I put my wet socks into a ziplock bag and then into my sleeping bag so they would not freeze for the morning. However I did not sleep well as nerves in the soles of my feet kept firing as if someone was sticking pins in my feet.
In the morning it was well below freezing and we all decided to stay in bed until the sun hit the tents around 0730. The other two groups must have started around 5 as when they passed we were still in bed contemplating putting on frozen shoes. “Are you guys having a zero day” Fireball joked.
When we did set off it was a short 300 foot climb up a 35 degree snow slope to reach the rock path which had been hacked into the mountain side in the 1930’s. Since this whole bowl faced south much of the snow had gone from the upper reaches and before we knew it we had reached Forester Pass at 13,000 feet. Naturally the views were superb. To the south were the frozen lakes below our camp spot and to the north was ridge after ridge with jagged crests, snow filled bowls, and frozen lakes with azure patches where water gathered on top of the snow covered ice. We savoured the view and got an Alaskan hiker to take a group photo.
The descent was easy but long. We followed the trail down the snow covered ridge to the NNW. Then descended east into a huge snowy bowl where the other 2 groups were. The heat was phenomenal as it was reflecting off the snow and my thirst was intense. We headed down to where a clear rivulet was gushing over rocks for lunch under the clear blue skies one takes for granted in the Sierras.
After lunch we carried on down into the trees. Initially stunted White Barked Pine and then Lodgepoles and Foxtails. The girls took every opportunity to slide down on their bums, sometimes on their Tyvek ground sheets. With my heavy leather boots I could virtually run down.
Between the treeline and Vidette Meadows there were a couple of bigger creek crossings again. There was a narrow log over the first torrent. The bigger group with Baby Carrot, Fireball, DG, Left and Right were already over and tried to coordinate us. DG was especially pumped up and excitable when we arrived, but we managed slowly and calmly. Only afterwards we learned Left had fallen off the log and a well placed Baby Carrot had managed to grab a rucksack strap as she bobbed past downstream.
The second crossing also involved a log which stopped short of the far bank and ihen involved a 6 foot leap to a overhanging snow bank where waiting hands were ready to grab you. I did not like the look of the slippery log, nor trying to set a personal best in long jump from it. Harvest was equally horrified. The athletic Deb just made the leap, while the tall Top’O managed with aplomb. Meanwhile Harvest and Myself found a nearly waist deep opportunity a little upstream.
At Vidette meadows we decided to continue for another mile to where our paths would split tomorrow. We climbed steeply to the Bullfrog Lake trailhead. However we climbed 1000 feet from the delightful lush Vidette meadow to a forest covered in snow drifts at 10,500. However we managed somehow to find a spot to cram our 4 tents in.
It was a symbolic tight camp spot which reflected our lovely group. Top’O was now becoming my most regular and favoured chums on the hike so far and we liked each others company. Deb was intelligent, witty and very easy to get on with and Harvest was simply the most upbeat person on the hike and always turned every situation into a positive one. They would hike east tomorrow over the Kersage Pass to Bishop where they would hopefully resupply, while I would continue to haul my massive rucksack south through the rest of the Sierras over another 5 passes. I would be sad to see them go.
We parted early in the morning after the tents were down. There was a slight frost on the ground and the snow patches were crunchy as I made my way through the remnant snow drifts and diminishing pine trees as I headed north above the still ice covered Charlotte Lake. It was crystal clear as usual and the sun was sparkling off the snow.
I gently climbed across snowfields between the jaws of a valley until I entered a cirque with a couple of lakes. There was some surface water on top of the ice covered lakes which made them turquoise. The heat was starting to build and I could feel the sun reflecting off the snow into my face burning it.
As ai climbed higher into the cirque the pass appeared. There were already tracks to it and they seemed straightforward with a single steeper section towards the top. As I neared it I put my crampons on and got my ice axe out but they were barely necessary as it was easy to kick steps in the softening snow. The view down into the cirque was very wintery and completely at odds with the fierce sun and heat.
At the top the view down was dominated by the traverse I had t9 make before descending. It was not too steep or exposed but I was glad I had an ice axe. Beyond that snowy expanse I had to cross far down in the valley were the Rae Lakes, famous for their beauty but now covered in ice, snow and avalanche debris.
I carefully traversed across the quarter mile slope the top of a stoney ridge where the path zig-zagged up and took my crampons off. Then descended the path and large soft snowfields which still buried it. Before long I was into smaller trees which I had not seen before, named white barked pines, a shrubby 5 needle pine. Then I reached the place to cross the outlet of the upper Rae Lake. A winter avalanche had removed any log bridge meaning I had to wade it. As I assessed the deep but easy wade I noticed many trout at the outlet, hungry now the first of the ice was melting. I stripped off and put my boots back on and the strode into the water. It was 4 foot deep and 50 foot wide and crystal clear. However it was cold with chunks of ice floating by.
The forgiving nature of the Sierras however meant the sun was powerful so when i reached the other side I laid on warm rocks and it was not long before I was dry and warm again. There were another two miles of difficult snow to walk on through shrubby pine woods to Arrowhead Lake. The snow was difficult because it was so furrowed and snowcupped into small deep depressions. It is something I rarely come across i other areas of the world but in the Sierras it is rife and the norm. It must be something to do with the intensity of prolonged sunlight.
At Arrowhead Lake outlet the crossing was more challenging. I crossed downstream a bit where two submerged logs reduced the depth to 3 foot. However the current was strong. Had I lost my footing I would have just got swept into a large pool where I could have swum further. As I readied my rucksack a marmot watched all from a rock nearby.
This time I crossed President Putin style in boots, green trousers and bare topped. I kept my feet braced on the logs as I leaned upstream and 30 foot later I was safely on the other side. The marmot was still watching. I climbed a rock outcrop, stripped off, wrung my clothes out and sunbathed for a good half hour. I had really enjoyed my day so far. The pass and 2 river crossings had excited me and I felt at last I was in my element. I also loved the fact I was on my own.
Suddenly there were voices. I put on my pants and stood up. 5 people were on the rock and snow on the other side. They shouted questions and I returned answers and the marmot reappeared. They were 5 strong men and crossing should be easy. The first crossed easily and came up to join me. I had heard of him. He was a Polish Canadian called So Crépe, and a middleweight boxer. The other crossed quickly and they continued north leaving me.
I dressed and continued north. After a good hour I caught up with So Crépe and his team at Baxter Creek. It was a steep creek tumbling through willows which it had overwhelmed. I went first with murky waters swirling mid thigh and made it without much to spare. So Crépe came next and at the crux got into a spar with a thrashing willow thicket which put him in the water. Luckily he held onto the willows and regained his feet and someone his phone survived in his shirt pocket. They camped soon after while I carried on down the trail for another hour towards Woods Creek. I had heard this bridge might have been damaged and if so it would have been a major problem.
The bridge however was not.only untarnished but a beautiful construction with oiled cedar supports over which suspension wires were drapped. The walkway hanging from the suspension wires was also made of cedar planks. The bridge was essential as woods creek was raging and would have certainly swept a horse away and possibly an elephant. I camped just before the creek amongst large pines and huge red firs. Despite being 200 metres from the torrent I could hear large boulders getting swept down in the current.
As I was packing up the next morning 4 hikers appeared. One was Tofu who I knew from before. Tough as beautiful she was a strong hiker. i had not met the other 3, two were very close high school chums, Vice and Boas, and also Trail Name.
We walked together for a few miles with two memorable creek crossings of tributaries into the pulsating Woods Creek. Then they stopped to eat and I carried on to a sunny spot to dry out boots and socks. My leather boot system was not working and my boots were simply not draining the water as they should.
Soon the the hikers appeared, but it was not Tofu and crew but others of which I recognised a few but knew none until Neil, the wry Aussie with a glint in his eye and a leg pulling grin. I had not seen him for a few weeks. We chatted and caught up with his group. Tofu was travelling with them also.
This group of about 12 were the nicest group I had come across yet. Witty, competent and helpful I was to call them the Cream of America group. I was to hike with them for the next 3 days and they were a bunch of fun.
Initially I was slower than them as we left the roar of Woods Creek behind and meandered into the sun cupped snowfields leading up to Pinchot Pass. As usual it was desperately hot across the snowfields. The Cream of America liked to have good breaks and at one of them I overtook them and continued up to the easy Pinchot Pass, arriving at the top as they appeared over the previous ridge.
The descent was quick down across dimpled snowfields past lake Marjorie and a few other small lakes where White Barked Pines poked through the snow. Occasionally a shrub would suddenly spring up as the record winter’s snow finally released it grip on a branch as it melted in the afternoon sun.
There was an easy creek over the outlet of Marjorie Lake, where I fould a solid snow bridge still intact. Then followed a sustained and difficult descent down through steep lodgepole woods. Nearly the entire descent was covered with thick snow drifts decked in a carpet of pine needles. It was hopeless trying to follow the path so I made a beeline for the bottom where there was a campsite. Luckily my heavy leather boots could smash a hell placement in the steep snow and I descended quickly. Trail shoes would have been very slippery here.
I reached the campsite to find So Crépe and his group there already camped. They had scouted the river cross ahead over the South Fork Kings River and found a place 200 yards downstream. I did not l8ke the look of it at all. By the time I put my tent up and cooked the Cream of America had arrived. I did not join them as my feet were freezing and just warming up in my sleeping bag.
I looked at the map that evening and it seemed obvious we did not have to cross the river the next morning. We could just bushwhack up the east side for three miles until the whole river petered out in a mass of tributaries probably all covered in snowfields. I mentioned this to Neal the next morning and he said he had similar thoughts and put it to the group. Not long after the idea of crossing the South Fork of the Kings River was all but abandoned and we were threading our way up hard crunchy snowfields on the east side with the rising sun sparkling on the frost.
We made our way up to the Upper Basin which as suspected was completely covered in snow with vicious sun cups.We stumbled. slipped, slithered and occasionally fell, as we carefully picked our way across 2 miles of this humiliating terrain to the foot of Mather Pass.
Mather Pass was the steepest yet. We surveyed the route and climbed up to an outcrop to start a traverse. When I reached the outcrop everyone was a bit nervous. Colten had already begun the traverse over a steeper section and the others did not like the look of the 300 metre incline, the worst section of which was hidden from view.
Most others had little or no steep snow experience so I volunteered to try a different route. After a short distance I could see the slope and realised Colten had taken the best route. I returned and explained this to apprehensive faces and then followed Colten’s footprints. After 5 minutes I reached his stance on the other side and we continued up to the top of the pass. As we reached it a spread out line of the other 10 started to gingerly follow our footprints.
I had never noticed Colten before in this group. He was quiet spoken and modest. However I was now glaringly obvious he was the leader of the group and all the others respected him. He was a Canyoneering guide in Zion National Park. Over the next days I saw him carefully consider everyones wishes and even if it meant sacrificing something be wanted to do for the benefit of others in the group. He was the type of man a parent would be delighted with if their daughter brought him home.
Soon everyone had reached the Pass and there was relief and joy. We all gathered on the rock slabs nearby to enjoy the sun and snack. The snacks were opulent, oreo biscuits dipped in Nutella, chocolate bar with peanut butter spooned onto them. Others just ate spoonfuls of chocolate spread straight from the jar. A PCT hiker could use 7000-8000 calories a day.
I left first as I needed water and headed to the north side to the Pallisade Lakes. Half way down, among the first of the shrub pines I fould a small stream and shade from the furnace of the snowfield for my more spartan lunch. The others arrived after while and we then continued to the lakes whose east sides were covered in large slabs of bare rock. We basked in the sun here until Colten announced he lost his phone in the snow, but probably knew where. Such was the luck of this fortuitous day that he returned half an hour later with his phone.
Again as the slowest I left first to head down the valley. After a mile I got to the edge of a lip where there valley plunged down to forested meadows far below. It was a breathtaking view and I stood transfixed for a good minute marvelling at it while a cool wind refreshed me. The valley floor below was a strip of meadows and forests. From these the mountainsides rose up on each side and at the far end to high peaks whose glistening snowfields sparkled in the sun. It was as if this ring of lofty jagged peaks guarded this secret promised land. I think everybody was greatly moved by the view.
To get to the meadows below I followed a series of switchbacks and snowfields of avalanche debris down to the first of the Lodgepole pines where the valley floor flattened out. The meadows were hidden in glades in the forest and in nearly everyone deer grazed of the lush spring grass. Shooting Star flowers were beginning to blossom at the edge of the bubbling brooks.
After a few meadows we reached one, Deer Meadow, where there was a great campsite for all beside the main river. We all pitched our tents and gathered round a fire area with a quadrangle of log benches round it. The post mortem of the day just dwelled on how it had been one of the best mountain days anyone of us had experienced.
I was tired the next morning. I left Kennedy Meadows with 17 days of food. Each of these days was just 3000 calories and I was using 6000-8000 per day. The weight was falling off me and I no longer had a verandah on my toolshed, but this morning I felt I hit a brick wall. I walked with Madison and Jackpot, the sweetest couple on the PCT, while the rest of Cream of America forged ahead. We went the rest of the beautiful Palisade Creek valley with it’s lodgepole pine forest and frequent windfall trees to the confluence with Middle Fork Kings River. Here in the fertile soil and sheltered valley were some truly enormous Jeffrey Pines, prize specimens really.
The route now turned north for the long climb up to Muir Pass, which we intended to do tomorrow. It was a long slow struggle for me to keep up with even the slowest of the Cream. We passed beautiful small lakes and meadows like Grouse Meadow, Little Pete’s meadow and then Big Pete’s Meadow where we stopped for lunch. As I had already eaten up all my allocated lunch in a gluttonous frenzy earlier I decided after a short stop to carry on to the campsite at La Conte a few miles ahead. It was a steep climb across avalanche debris to the small lake which looked idyllic on the map.
However the campsite was at 10,500 feet which was just above the snowline. There were a few soggy campsites on the banks of the creek as it flowed through the snow covered meadow and there were a few sites on a knoll poking out of the snow. Neal the Aussie and Myself opted for the fringe between creek and snow while the others mostly cowboy camped on the know. My tent had a splendid view looking straight up the creek. Luckily the river did not rise at all other Neal and Myself would have had to move in the dark.
We rose early keen to get up to and over Muir Pass before the snow got slushy and difficult to walk on. Tofu, Vice and Boas set the pace and stormed off across the firm frozen snow, first trough the forest and then up the treeless valley around Helen Lake.
En route we passed a group coming towards us. I quizzed them about the trail ahead especially the Evolution Creek and Bear Creek crossings which had become notorious. They said both were easy and nothing to worry about, much as I suspected. It seemed peak melt had passed.
Indeed I missed out on the town of Lone Pine and Later Bishop where most hikers who will still hiking were bottlenecking, especially Bishop. Everyone told me there was a atmosphere of fear there with hikers worried about snowy passes and creek crossings. Many hikers planned to skip the Sierras and were trying to convince others to justify their own decision. It seemed hikers were leaving tbe trail in droves driven by each other whipping up a frenzy of fear. Most were flipping up to Oregon to do easy sections in the hope they would come back to more gentle Sierras in the Autumn. The truth was the Sierras were already calming down are were in their prime.
I spent much of the final 2 miles hiking across the snowfield up to the pass chatting with Nacho. One of the wittiest of the Cream of America group with a gentle yet poignant humour. As we approached the summit we reached the octagonal stone built John Muir Hut. It had a stone roof similar to a beehive shelter of Christian ascetics on the Atlantic seaboard or an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture, with ever decreasing rings as the roof rose. Nacho went in first and got a huge cheer a d a snowball with a candle embedded in it. Unknown to me it was his 26th birthday.
After a good hour of banter in the Hut where we all sat in a stone bench round the inner perimeter we set off down the Evolution Basin to Evolution Lake. It was all on badly sun-cupped snow and was intensely hot. The group set fast pace and i soon lagged behind. I decided I would only go as far as Evolution meadow and the creek crossing that day and let the rest go on. As we reached the end of Evolution Lake there was a wide outflow to cross but it was only thigh deep. After the outflow the river plunged down a huge 800 foot rock slab in a huge fan of water to Evolution Valley below. This like Palisade Valley yesterday was a spot of fabled beauty with a sting a meadows along the fertile valley floor. I caught up with the others as they lunched before the zigzag path.
Once down in the valley we passed meadow after meadow as we headed west. I walked with Jackpot and Madison. He was a biologist and knew much about this ecosystem. All the time Evolution Creek was to our south and it was looking like large river swollen with meltwater and spilling onto all the meadows turning them into lakes. We had to cross it had become a notorious crossing this year with tales of people swimming icy waters.
When we reached the crossing point we were all excited. However it was something of an anticlimax. The green hued river meandered across Evolution meadow in slow lazy bends spilling only shin height height onto the adjacent pasture. We walked across this and then plunged just navel deep into the crystal clear lazy current which was perhaps only 40 foot wide. It was not freezing but invigorating. Everybody crossed easily and then remarked how pleasant it was as the sun warmed us again.
Just below the meadow there was a nice campsite. Here Neal and Colten stopped and waited for me as they knew I was camping here. We had a heartfelt farewell and a group photo before they left me to continue another 4 miles. I explained to them I felt like a diesel tractor trying to keep up with high octane sports cars. They were a tremendous group and I was sad to see them go but was sure I would meet them again. In the quiet after they went I put up my tent.
I got up later than usual at 7 repaired a few things and then set off down the swollen which drained the Evolution watershed. It was roaring down rapids and cascades as it hurtled in a violence of foaming whitewater and rainbows towards a lower valley where it would slow down and morph into the South Fork of the San Joachim River. The were deer in all the grassy meadows on the way down while in the woods chipmunks scurried from log to tree looking for cones.
One the trail reached the bottom it changed character. It crossed to the north side over an essential steel footbridge and then clung to the side of a deep rock canyon with the scarse tree growing out of crevices or where some gravelly soil gathered. It continued like this for a few inhospitable miles until it reached the Piute Creek, an torrent equal to the San Joachim, which it would imminently join. Luckily there was a steel bridge here also as it was a huge torrent. I stopped here for a snack and more importantly a drink.
I was just about to pack up when Wilder and Crimson came stomping over the bridge. I had not seem them for about 10 days. With them was Dennis, the only other person I knew who walked from Kennedy Meadows to Vermillion Valley Resort in one go. We had a good chat but they were lunching another 2 miles down the canyon at the Muir Trail Ranch Trailhead. I said I would meet them there later.
I really enjoyed the walk down to this trailhead. The rock canyon was replaced with a wider valley floor which supported a rich soil. Out of this grew magnificent Jeffrey Pines. The path wove through these like an avenue in parkland. Their large cones littered the forest floor and path.
At the the trailhead I joined the lads for a second break. They were heading over Selden Pass today and there was no way I could match their pace. After lunch I let them go as I slowly started the long ascent. I intended to camp at The Sallie Keyes Lakes, which I remember from the John Muir Trail walk I did 12 years ago as an especially idyllic place.
I felt lethargic on the climb but now realized i had 2 days of food to spare, so raided tomorrow’s snacks and almost immediately felt empowered. I stormed up the path climbing well above the valley to get great views both up to the Evolution area and down to Muir Trail Ranch and the Lake Florence area on the edge of this Sierra wilderness. The trees on the way up changed the whole time and from Jeffrey Pines to very gnarled, twisted incense cedars to finally forests of ubiquitous Lodgepole pines which seemed to adapt to a variety of climates. There were frequent groves of Aspens also their leaves now fully developed and fluttering in the slightest breeze.
I passed one Aspen and heard a great deal 9f chirping. Obviously a birds nest. On inspection I find a hole just 6 foot above the ground. It was a woodpecker’s nest with 3 or 4 chicks inside. As I approached it the chirping became a frenzy as each chick was hoping for a morsel. However then soon realized i was not a parent and no morsel was coming and they became very silent, even when I peered in.
At one large Jeffrey Pine I heard a booming sound. Wilder had already explained it was a type of grouse who could expand its jowls and emit this sound as a mating call. I had only beard it a few times but could never see the bird in the tangled foliage. Coincidentally I saw a female grouse just 10 minutes later. She had a few fist sized chicks who could just fly. The mother feigned injury along the trail to distract me from her vulnerable chicks while they fluttered off and hid
I crossed Senger Creek and a flooded meadow on logs avoiding getting my feet wet and then arrived at the outlet to Sallie Keyes Lakes, which I also managed to cross on logs and stones. There was a great campsite just north of the outlet. Unfortunately the lake was largely still frozen over so I could not spot the flamboyant Golden Trout which i remembered from my last visit. I put up my tent and fell asleep listening to the chorus of bullfrogs croaking in the flooded meadow.
Looking at the map I realized I could get to Vermillion Valley Resort in a day if I left early. It was not far up the scattered snowfields to Selden Pass. This pass was not in the same league as the other 5 It had been over in the last 10 days and the shrub pines continued all the way to the top and down the other side to Marie Lake. There were some snowfields on the north side with frozen snowcups but it was nothing like the other passes and I was soon in tall Lodgepoles again.
I my eye caught a movement. It was a hiker called Matt who usually walked with the Kiwis Joe and Holly. He was powerful 6 foot 4 inch man with thunder thighs and a huge stride and seemed relieved to be stepping out on his own now. He tempered his speed to chat to me for an hour so we could cross Bear Creek together. Bear Creek was rumoured to be impassable 2 weeks ago and it previously inspired fear, but we had been told it was passable now if one went upstream just half a mile and crossed all three forks individually.
When we got to it we found we could cross at will wherever we wanted. We headed downstream 200 metres from the official summer crossing and found a braided river with the main channel bridged by a newly fallen huge lodgepole. We easily crossed the 2 smaller braided channels and then crossed on the downstream side of the fallen lodgepole while holding onto its still green branches. It was barely thigh deep and very easy. We warmed up on rocks on the east side and then Matt headed off to Mammoth to spend 4th July on skis.
I continued down Bear Creek, crossing a few challenging tributaries, like Hilgard Creek, for a few miles. The walk was lovely and Bear Creek quickly matured into a big river with all these tributaries, carving a roaring white foaming path through the extensive forest. The path then climbed gently up to Bear Ridge where there was a junction; straight on to continue on the PCT down to Mono Creek and the ferry to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) or west down the crest of Bear Ridge for 7 miles to VVR. I was to take the latter.
It was a quick 7 miles as I crashed down through the woods. The lodgepoles were large and congested but as I descended I noticed a Red Pine or two. Soon the Red Firs dominated towering above and stealing most of the light from the lodgepoles. Some of these Red Firs must have been over 200 foot with a 8 foot diameter bole. They were gigantic trees. However were they had fallen and blocked the track they were cut and it was easy to count the rings. These were fast growing trees of softer wood, perhaps only reaching 300 years before succumbing to lightning, wind or heavy snowfall. Beetles and woodpeckers could easily thrive on them unlike the rock hard Foxtails of 10 days ago.
I wanted to stop and admire them but the mosquitoes were intense and ferocious. They forced me to rush down the ridge and.to the dam of Lake Edison. I ignored the Road Closed sign and crossed the half mile dam and then walked a further m8le along the dirt road to VVR. I got there at 7 and most of the 20 hikers there were sitting round an outside fire. I got a cheer a d clap from them as I wearily roll in. I knew most of them. They had all just hiked through the High Sierras also and knew what it meant. We were the survivors of the Thru Hikers, at least 75% of the original starters had either quit or flipped up to Oregon.
It had taken me 15 days to do the last 200 miles but they were the best of the PCT by far. I had loved the challenges they had presented, which were not as bad as I originally feared, and I loved the comradeship of those dedicated hikers who chose to hike through them, especially the Cream of America group.
VVR was a friendly small resort. It had large tents already erected on wooden platforms. All were taken, but there was one which was a “hiker hostel” with 7 beds in it. Only one was taken, coincidentally by Ranger, the Alaskan who took the photo of us at Forester Pass 10 days ago. Most hikers left the next morning to go to Mammoth Lakes 2 days away to celebrate 4th July but I wanted to stay here and relax at this easy going rustic resort, catch up on digital duties and let my body recover before the next 7-8 day leg to Sonora Pass.