June 14, 2017
Total daily miles: 10.5 miles
Total PCT miles: 817.2 miles
Start: mile 1213.6
End: West Branch of Beartrap Creek (mile 1224.1)
Total elevation gain/loss: 1652.9/2761.5 ft
Long post for a day that seemed to go on forever. Hopefully also a day never to be repeated.
This morning started out really well. The snow was back to the nice, crunchy morning snow that we’d come to expect in the Sierra. We seemed to be doing really well with route finding, although that was partly because the trail seemed to follow a really intuitive path along the ridge line. We even saw dirt trail for awhile, although only in patches. Our first few miles flew by (relatively, considering we were still in snow).
By about 9:30, we’d already covered over 5 miles. For us, in the snow, that’s pretty good. Especially compared to yesterday. Finding the trail was becoming so easy, I decided I’d put some audio on and give myself a little break. And then we hit solid snow. It wasn’t bad at first, but we found that we’d taken a line that put us off trail a bit. We studied the topo lines on our map and decided that since the trail was cutting along the hillside, we’d take a (hopefully) safer route and that didn’t require backtracking. Should be easy, right? Famous last words.
We hiked up near the top of the hill and then looked down at the hillside we’d need to descend to get back to the trail. It wasn’t looking so easy now. We hiked down a steep section of dirt and brush as we tried to connect back to the trail. The route wasn’t horrible, but it certainly wasn’t great.
Even after we connected back up near the trail, we were still left with huge traverses across steep slopes. The snow was soft as we descended through the traverses. At one point we could see the single line of footprints following the trail, but following them would have only meant more steep traverses. There had to be a better way. We made our way down through the snow to a rock outcropping with the hope of climbing down the rocks instead of the snow. This worked out okay, but ultimately the rocks were not secure and the dirt was soft, so it felt almost as precarious as the snow did. We were practically back at the trail (which was done switch backing) and opted to make another traverse through the snow and then follow the trail through some trees.
The problem when we got to the trees was that the snow was rock hard in the shade and the slope was too precarious. I suggested that we go back to the exposed area where we made our last traverse and make our way down the hill further that way. After turning around, but before getting to the exposed area, Michael slipped and again fell head/back first into a tree well. He hit with a bang and I rushed to safely get down to him as quickly as possible. He was shaken up. Probably the scariest part was that a tree branch had scratched his chest and he fell in a way that made it look like it could have really stabbed him. We decided to rest for lunch in the tree well and reassess our options. It had been more than two hours and we’d barely gone a mile in the snow.
Our new strategy was to head down to the creek in the exposed open area, where the traverse hadn’t been too difficult, and follow the creek until it reconnected with the trail. We hoped that the ground near the creek would be flatter and easier to navigate. After going down a few switchbacks (of our own making) on the exposed section, we decided that the ground had flattened out enough for us to enter the trees. We got excited when we hit a section of dry ground. Maybe the snow was over?! We climbed up the hill back towards the trail in the hopes that it would be better now. No such luck. As soon as we got back to the trail it hit another long traverse. And then another one.
We tried following the path left by the prior hikers across the traverses, but it was tough because they’d generally made a upward path (which is easier) on a downhill trail section. This would land us in the middle of bushes that could be difficult to climb down. In one such section, I realized that the trajectory was off and tried to make a downhill correction. Big mistake. I lost my footing when the snow gave out beneath me. I tried to self-arrest with my whippet, but the snow was too soft and I couldn’t stop. I managed to slide more or less feet first, but as soon as I hit the tree well/trail, I found myself falling to the ground and on my back. Something hit my head, but I’m not sure what since it was all a blur (my whippet?). I stood up and everything seemed fine. My second pole was still up on the snow bank, so I used my whippet to climb back up to get it. Michael was following behind me and made it a few steps past where I slipped, and then, sure enough, he came slipping down the mountain too. He was caught further up in the bushes and ended up having to let his pack fall down towards me so that he could get up. This was clearly not working.
We had dry trail for a moment before we saw that there were more traverses ahead. Long ones. This did not seem like a good idea. We studied the map and looked around us for an alternative. We could see vertical patches of dry ground and we used those to try to make our way down toward the river. The ground was mushy and there were lots of bushes, but the bushwhack seemed better than the alternative. As we neared the river, we stopped to rest and to dry out our gear from last night’s condensation. It had been almost four hours since we entered this snowy segment and we’d only gone about 1.5 miles. It was disheartening to say the least and had there been some kind of “exit” button we would have been tempted to push it. We were out here alone in conditions that did not seem conducive our directly following the trail or making half-way decent time. Would we ever catch a break?
After our gear was dry, we continued to bushwhack our way towards the trail. The creeks here largely still have snow bridges or logs to cross on, so we made our way easily along the various tributaries. Even if we’d had to do a wet crossing, the creeks are nothing compared to the High Sierra. At least we have that going for us. We finally connected back up with the trail in a segment where it was alternating between dirt and snow. It was much more manageable. We finally crossed the creek that we’d been following (West Branch of Nelson Creek) and the snow slowly started to disappear. Finally!
At around 3:30pm we passed a tent. Our first human sighting since leaving Sierra City two days ago! It was Maximus, one of the Germans that we’d met. I guess he passed us while we were off trail? Or maybe he made his own way as well and crossed the creek early? I’m not sure, but it was weird to see someone after being on our own for so long.
We opted to take advantage of the semi-clear trail and make our way a couple miles further before stopping to camp. I’m beat. I’m exhausted from a tough day in the snow and frustrated that we’re still having tough days in the snow. I’m concerned that we have yet to go 30 miles on this segment in three days and hoping that we’ll have enough food to get us to Belden. We studied the map and it looks like we should have a dry section coming up. If we can’t make up the miles during that section, we might just have to go into town early at Bucks Lake. We just need to catch a break.
On a lighter note, after we finished with our dinner this evening, Michael called out to me to get out of the tent. There was a deer nearby. The deer kept making circles around our tent site, coming a step closer on each rotation. Had it been a bear or a mountain lion I would have been convinced that an attack was imminent, but it was a deer. Apparently a very salt-deprived deer. It was waiting for us to move away from the area where we’d peed so that it could go after the salt deposits. A couple more deer showed up, but they were less forward and waited until we were safely hidden in our tent to approach. I guess we have to start being careful about leaving socks out at night — they might disappear!!
Elizabeth: large bump on my head, miscellaneous scratches and bruises from my fall.
Michael: various bruises and sore back, uncontrollable fear when crossing traverses since I now am pretty confident that I can’t self-arrest with my whippet if I fall.