The Sierra Nevada are like nothing I’ve seen, let alone walked through. The snow appears gradually. First, there are a few white patches that you hardly notice. Then drifts appear on the eastern and southern slopes, draped over the mountainside. Presently, they sprawl and the trail disappears beneath them. Your feet may not touch the ground for a whole day of walking.
Snow is mercurial. If the temperature is cold enough overnight, it hardens and gives good traction to the crampons or microspikes that hikers use. But by mid-morning, it becomes soft and prone to swallowing your foot without warning. Postholing, as it’s called, is tiring and hikers often start well before dawn to avoid it.
This is especially true for the high passes. Forrester Pass is the highest point on the trail, reaching over 13,000 feet as it zigzags between two ridges. I joined a group of hikers to cross it. We processed out of the campsite at 3 am, headlamps bobbing in the nearly full moon and crampons crunching rhythmically. At the approach, we swapped our trekking poles for ice axes and slowly made our way up the icy switchbacks.
The scariest part of Forrester Pass is the chute. The trail crosses over a steep slope that falls away hundreds of feet to the left, ending in a boulder field. One purpose of the ice axe is to allow a self-arrest after a fall, but it is generally acknowledged that only a seasoned mountaineer could accomplish this on the chute. Unseasoned as I am, I resolved not to slip.
And I didn’t. I inched over, making sure to have three points in contact with the snow always. After what felt like an age, the rocks at the end were just ahead and I scampered a final stride to reach them.
The remainder of the group crossed safely and we sprawled on the rocks, watching the moon set in the west as the sun rose in the east.
I will never forget that morning, nor the hikers I joined – Wild Turkey, Tour Guide, 80s Rock Star, and Gypsy. Thanks to you all.
I’m sad to report that a snowdrift claimed my ZANE logo as I was sliding down itself arresting with my ice axe. Another is on the way but until then photos of my pack alone will have to suffice!
The Sierra Nevada has been spectacular all snowbound and I’m glad I had a taste of them. River crossings have been scary, however, scuttling over flimsy logs or wading sometimes chest high across swift currents. I’ve seen two hikers swept away – they escaped with hypothermia and a concussion. A ranger I spoke to was advising us to take a couple of weeks off the trail to wait out peak runoff.
Instead, I decided to skip ahead a couple of hundred miles. Here, at lower elevations, the rivers are tamer, although there’s still plenty of snow.
Flipping, or doing the trail, not in a strictly north-south or south-north route, is a common practice among hikers, especially in a high snow year. Flipping also helps minimize the impact on the trail, by moderating the number of hikers on any one section.
So I made a cardboard sign and hitchhiked north from Bishop to Truckee.
I got a ride from a Sikh who gave me meditation tips, a trucker who hit a bird while we were driving, shattering the windscreen, and a long-haired public defender who invited me to dinner at the family vacation chalet!
I’m continuing on foot to Canada and I will return at the end of the summer to hike the sections I flipped over, without their white vestments.
With the situation In Zimbabwe deteriorating further every day, Mike’s Hike to raise awareness of the difficulties of everyday Zimbabweans becomes ever more important.
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