Thursday, June 16. Glen Pass. Mile 791.1, Elevation 11,947 ft.
The second major mountain pass of the Sierra Nevada Range on the Pacific Crest Trail, Glen Pass isn’t the hardest pass, but it is far from easy. Heading north, however, a spectacular landscape of lakes awaits you. The pass was named in 1905 for Glen H. Crow, a Forest Service Ranger.
We reached the base of Glen Pass in the early evening after tackling Kearsarge Pass out of Bishop, but with only five miles to the top, we didn’t think it would take long. We thought wrong. Five miles of steep, steep trail to the top–trail that left me literally gasping for air. Plant trekking poles, pull myself up another step. Step on snow, feel it give way underneath. Reach the top, overlook the crown of craggy mountaintops around us, the golden sunset coating their tips, howl at the top of our lungs, start the steep and technical descent down, scrambling along jagged rock and slick snow.
Leaving the pass behind, the trail turned to a living stream, water flowing, soaking shoes. It was 10 p.m. by the time we found a suitable place to camp. Cold, dark, tired. We nestled the tent between two lakes in a basin called the 60 Lake Basin. Now, Forester Pass and Glen Pass behind us. Two down.
Friday, June 17. Pinchot Pass. Mile 807.1, Elevation 12,106 ft.
The third major pass in the Sierra Nevada Range, Pinchot Pass is no less scenic than the previous two. The final climb to the pass is less steep than some of the others, but its higher elevation makes the ascent just as rewarding. Pinchot Pass is named after Gifford Pinchot, appointed by Theodore Roosevelt as the first director of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. He later became a two-term governor of Pennsylvania.
We left our campsite early and made it a mile and a half before succumbing to a sunny rock on the edge of a lake with an impressive mountaintop reflecting in it. We made a hot cup of coffee and laughed on the lake’s edge, listening to music and snacking on PopTarts.
We are following the John Muir Trail now, as it took us across a long wooden suspension bridge and along a creek aggressive enough to cut a deep channel into its stone bed. We hit the 800-mile mark. We had lunch 4.5 miles below Pinchot Pass and I wandered up the mountainside to, ya kow…poop… when I saw a bear only a few dozen feet from me. She looked at me, big and brown and curious. She scooted her massive butt behind some trees and watched me. I spoke loudly to her, told her I saw her there, and turned around the way I came–kicking myself for not having my phone on me.
I talked about her all lunch and then took a little nap wherein she wandered into my dreams. Before we got back on the trail, I went up the mountainside again because, ya know, I still had to go. I figured she’d be gone, but she wasn’t. She was laying down in the sun beside a rock. She lifted her head and looked at me. I asked her if she’d be offended if I did my business. She didn’t say anything, so I dug my cat hole and kept an eye on her.
“Don’t get all agro once I have my pants around my ankles, alright?” She didn’t. She was pleasant company. I left her be.
We climbed Pinchot Pass. It was cold, windy. We got to the top. We howled.
Saturday, June 18. Mather Pass. Mile 816.9, Elevation 12,093 ft.
While not the tallest pass on the Sierra section of the PCT, Mather Pass often ranks as one of the most fear-inducing due to the steep headwall that the trail climbs on the south side of the pass. Use caution when climbing, but remember to take a look around. Mather Pass is named for Stephen Mather, a retired industrialist millionaire who was appointed as first director of the National Park Service in 1917.
The trail to Mather was sprinkled with creek crossings that had us stopping constantly, taking off our shoes, slipping into flip flops and taking careful steps through swift currents in water so cold, my feet hurt. We saw a rainbow in the clear blue sky. We traipsed across miles of snow fields, following narrow footsteps of those before us. We reached the base of Mather at 4 p.m. and worked our way sideways along the steep, snowy mountainside. I kicked in each step three times, concentrating on nothing else. Slipping was not an option.
We reached the top of the pass at 4:30 p.m., and howled. We glissaded down the steep slopes and Storytime lost his Nalgene. We trotted down what the ranger called the “Golden Staircase.” It may have been the most beautiful part of the trail yet. Waterfalls tipped into a deep lake perched in the mountains. Beyond it, more craggy peaks loomed in the background. Switchback after switchback dropped us to the forested valley floor, where Storytime made a fire and I made a dinner out of dehydrated yellow curry.
Sunday, June 19. Muir Pass. Mile 838.6, Elevation 11,969 ft.
Muir pass is a long and gradual ascent to almost 12,000 feet, and is often cited as one of the most difficult passes on the PCT due to the miles of snow fields you must cross in either direction to reach the summit. The John Muir Shelter marks the top of the pass. The John Muir Shelter atop Muir Pass was erected in 1931 by the Sierra Club and the U.S. Forest Service in honor of John Muir. It can be an emergency shelter for hikers.
Father’s Day. We texted our dads via my GPS with 15.5 miles of uphill ahead of us. Sometimes the trail was gradual. Sometimes the switchbacks burned deep into my thighs and lungs. In the early afternoon, I took off my clothes and plunged into an ice-cold stream just to feel invigorated. In the late afternoon, the snow fields began.
We followed others’ tracks carefully, occasionally plummeting through the snow. Each passing mile was hard-earned. It felt like it took an hour just to gain half a mile of progress. We crossed a snow bridge over an iced-over lake and my foot post-holed into the freezing cold water beneath. We climbed nearly vertical to the top of the pass, the sun setting on us. It was dark orange and pink and yellow and blue and spectacular. We reached it around 7 p.m. and let out a tired little howl.
The inside of the Muir Shelter was warm and dank, with a musty aroma that settled on my lungs like gravity. We didn’t plan to stay. We ate a few granola bars and set out into the snow fields again, but after 10 steps of post-holing through the snow, I turned around. We slept in the shelter with four other hikers–a chorus of snores and farts throughout the night. We set out 12 hours later, happy to have frozen snow that held our weight for the miles of snowfields ahead.
Monday, June 20. A day without a pass.
A day of reprieve. Most of the miles were downhill, and dropped us under 8,000 feet. It’s warm down there. We crossed Evolution Creek, one of the most serious river crossings on the PCT. It wasn’t particularly swift, but it was wide and it was deep, and I had to hold my backpack over my head as I crossed.
We stopped at a delightful campsite along the rushing creek, made a fire and relaxed for most of the evening.
Tuesday, June 21. Selden Pass. Mile 865.6, Elevation 10,913 ft.
The first of the major PCT passes below 11,000 feet in elevation, Selden Pass is not significantly easier or less snowy than the higher passes, so don’t let the numbers fool you. As with previous passes, the views from Selden are glorious. The pass is named for Selden Stuart Hooper, a topographer with the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1890s.
Marking the first day of summer and the summer solstice, thru-hikers know June 21 as Hike Naked Day, so hike naked we did. I was a bit shy at first, keeping on my pink Icebreaker panties and creating some makeshift pasties out of duct tape for my nipples. By the afternoon, I switched over to a bandanna draped over my hip belt.
I giggled as I walked behind Storytime and watched his bare butt under his backpack. I got embarrassed and loud when we passed other hikers (none of whom were thru-hikers, all of whom were clothed). I apologetically told them the day was Hike Naked Day. Some laughed it off, others passed us quickly. The last couple we passed that day gave us dirty looks and clearly did not appreciate the summer solstice as we did.
We hit the top of Selden Pass by noon and howled at the top, naked. We pulled a 26-mile day to make it to Lake Edison, where a ferry would pick us up the next morning and take us to Vermillion Valley Ranch for our resupply packages.
Wednesday, June 22. Another day without a pass.
Indeed, the ferry came to the beach a little after 9 a.m., but it wasn’t quite what one pictures when one imagines a ferry. Try instead a little metal fishing boat with an outboard motor and space for six hikers. More than 10 of us waited on the beach.
The ride across the lake took 25 minutes, but it sure as hell beat walking. VVR offered an extensive breakfast menu (hashbrowns, bacon and eggs, or biscuits and gravy). We drank coffee and beer and each ordered two rounds of breakfast platters.
The plan was to take the next ferry out and get back on trail, except that the ferry ran out of gas. We waited around and had lunch as we discussed our options (either wait and hope someone from Fresno shows up with more gas, or walk 6.5 miles back to the trail). The lunch menu was equally ample: cheeseburger with fries, or fish and chips. Only one catch: they were also waiting for potatoes, so don’t count on the fries and chips.
We spent the afternoon swapping stories with other hikers. Storytime said these are the experiences we’ll remember. As luck would have it, gasoline showed up around 3 p.m. and we took our ferry back to the trail.
Our evening hike took us across some serious creek crossings. Snowmelt gushed violently through the banks and down the mountainsides. We had to cross together to break the current. We passed under a waterfall as beautiful as it was bone-chillingly cold.
We pushed uphill and it suddenly became too much for me. I let out a sob and told Storytime I was stupid to think I could do this, that I could walk from Mexico to Canada. It’s so, so hard. He pulled me back together and we pressed on, but only for another few miles before we called it an early day and he made a fire to warm me. We stopped two miles short of the top of Silver Pass.
Thursday, June 23. Silver Pass.Mile 884.9, Elevation 10,779 ft.
Another high point on the trail through the Sierra Nevada Range, Silver Pass sits high above several alpine lakes and makes for a beautiful view. There is something of a false summit to this pass, so once you get to the obvious top of the pass, you still have to climb some more.
We howled at the top of Silver Pass by 8:30 in the morning, then we glissaded down, knowing we only had 24 miles left to Red’s Meadow, which would be our exit point to Mammoth Lakes–our first town in a week.
We climbed steep grades, pounded our feet hard against the trail and bounced past the 900-mile mark. We rolled into Red’s Meadow around 6:30 p.m., jumped a bus to Mammoth, paid a stupid amount of money for a room at the Best Western and treated ourselves to a steak dinner. Seven passes in eight days.We earned it.
There are more passes to come. From what I’ve read, this was only the training leg for what’s ahead. 900 miles down. Many more to go.