Saturday, July 2, 2011

Adventures in the High Sierra

Alright guys, it's finally time for a full update, and this is going to be a long one. I haven't been able to get to a computer and do a full update since leaving Kennedy Meadows and a lot has happened since then. A quick overview of the last few weeks:

  • June 10- Left Kennedy Meadows with Happy Whale, Flying Fish, Miscreant, Chris, and Nicole

  • June 12- Entered Sequoia National Park, started hitting heavy snow about Trail Pass area

  • June 13- Whale and I spent almost 4 hours lost in snow on the wrong side of a ridge

  • June 15- Attempted to summit Mt Whitney and failed

  • June 16- Crossed highest point on PCT, Forester Pass (elev 13,180 feet), entered Kings Canyon National Park

  • June 17 thru 19- Resupplied and rested in Bishop, CA

  • June 22- Happy Whale fell water in during S. Fork Kings River ford

  • June 23- Crossed Mather Pass

  • June 25- Crossed John Muir Pass, entered beautiful Evolution Valley

  • June 26- Evolution Creek ford

  • June 27- Bear Creek ford, got to Vermillion Valley Resort

  • July 2- Fish Creek ford (alternate trail), got to Mammoth Lakes, CA

So after leaving Kennedy Meadows, we immediately began climbing up into the Sierras. Our packs were the heaviest they had ever been yet, due to Bear Canister, Ice Axe, and large amount of food for the long stretch. We knew it was a record snow, but we all underestimated the time it would take us to get to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR).

As we came to find out, snow travel is very slow going. When we're hiking in snow, we rely on the footprints of hikers in front of us to guide the way. Sometimes we catch glimpses of dirt trail that immediately become covered in another snow bank. Unfortunately, lost people leave footprints too, so you just kind of hope that some of those footprint belong to hikers using a GPS. For the most part when we get lost, we can recover the trail within 10-20 minutes. Spending a whole afternoon lost though, is very overwhelming and uncomfortable. It's good to know for sure that you're at least somewhere near the trail and the rest can be navigated using maps and landmarks.

When I came out for this trip, I found I knew very little about snow travel. I've skiied and snowboarded for years, but never really walked on snow. Also, this snow is very different from the snow I spend my winters in up in the northwest. The snow up here in the mountains is very wet and heavy. In the cold morning, it becomes a frozen mass that is very slick and extremely unforgiving. It's hard to walk on, especially on steep slopes and uneven terrain. By the end of the afternoon, the snow become very soft, sort of a mashed potatoes consistency. This snow is exhausting to walk in, as each step takes so much more effort as you sink in. On top of that, pockets of air form around warming rocks and trees under the snow and soft snow allows for postholing: when your foot breaks through the snow in a pocket of air. This can be quite painful and extremely frustrating for a tired hiker. We spent about two and a half weeks total, hiking about 90% of each day over snow covered trail. I'm sick of snow, seriously.

I have something to admit: I'm afraid of heights. Actually, more so afraid of falling. I don't mind heights when I feel safe, but these past few weeks have been more sketchy than safe. Mountain passes out here tend to expose you to situations where you're trekking across a very steep slope in snow, that drops down a long way. I've become very good at preventing myself from looking down the dropoffs and instead concentrating on making sure my footsteps are correctly and securely placed. We carry ice axes to use a device to plant into snow for security while moving and also to use as a self-arrest device should we start sliding down a snow covered slope. They also make a really great trowel to dig holes for taking care of business, haha. We all discussed it and concluded that Mather Pass (elev. 12,100 feet) was the scariest and most technical of all the passes. It included a trek up the side of a large snow bowl, on the opposite side from where the real PCT/JMT actually was. After some rock scrambling, it was a short trek across a near vertical snow slope, to be concluded by a climb up and over a 5 foot cornice! I guess if there is one thing that I really look forward to when we're making our way towards another high mountain pass, it's the fact that there is a whole new mountain valley on the other side. This new valley will hold all sorts of amazing new scenery and crazy challenges. Plus, the views from a mountain pass are breathtaking!

A quick word about Mt Whitney. That mountain is terrifying as hell and gives me nightmares haha. To make a long story short, Whale and I attempted an early summit to catch the sunrise up on top. After rock scrambling in between short segments of snow chute covered near vertical trail, we found ourselves just below the summit surround by jagged spires too vertical to get get around. After we climbed back down the loose shifting boulders, the sun had already risen and we went for round 2. After once again pulling ourselves up over rough boulders a couple thousand feet, I couldn't do it anymore. The height we had climbed too on the unstable rock was too much for me and fear got the best of me. I made the decision to turn back and left Whale to summit alone. That was just about the scariest situation I've been in yet and although I kick myself for not making the climb, I'm at least glad I gave it a shot. I am not a rock climber.

Water. In the desert, it was scarce. We would walk long distances on waterless stretches and have to carry enough to drink. I'd love to say that up here in the Sierras, water isn't a problem. I'd love to say that we don't worry about water. But that would be entirely false! Don't get me wrong, we have plenty of water to drink. It's everywhere. A record snow fall year, with high early summer temperatures has caused a huge surplus of water. However, large amounts of water have contributed to raging creeks and rivers. In the backcountry, there are very few bridges over these out-of-control torrents. And some of these creek and river fords have been down right terrifying! We've been crossing dozens of these a day, most just small snow runoff streams we walk carelessly through. For others, we'll team up for stability and cross in groups. When crossing the S. Fork of the King River one late afternoon, Happy Whale went down in the water. He somehow managed to throw his very wet pack back up on shore and drag himself out of the ice cold water. He did however lose one his trekking poles in the water. This was a very situation for him and a real wake up call about our crossing strategies. Meadows are flooded, rivers are overflowing, and the trail becomes a stream bed frequently. It seems like our shoes are never dry anymore, even frozen solid in the cold mornings. Nothing like having to put on one solid piece of very cold boot at 5am. Brrr...

Had a really great time at VVR. We've had absolutely amazing weather these last few weeks, nothing but blue skies and warm temps during the day. The day we got to VVR, a storm moved in a dumped rain/snow on the surrounding area. This worked out great, as we just waited out the storm for a day and a half at the resort and chilled with many other hikers. Vermillion Valley Resort sits at the end of Lake Thomas A. Edison, basically out in the middle of nowhere. It was so much fun to hang with other hikers, eating good food, resting, and sharing crazy "I almost died" stories. Some of the other hikers we chilled with were Thumper and Stumbling Goat, Rhino, Eggman, Pellet, Mij, Freerange and Beav. I made the mistake of leaving food in my tent while staying here and caught a chipmunk that had chewed through the bug net of my tent and gotten into to some of my supplies. I used to think chipmunks were cute, now I would use some choice words to describe them.

In addition to an ice axe, we also carry bear canisters (BearVault). These are required for backcountry travelers in the national parks. They're basically a large plastic container with a locking lid, that holds about 5 days worth of food. We like to bitch and moan about carrying them due to the fact that we're all ounce counters and they weigh 2lbs 9oz. Really though, they definitely provide piece-of-mind that you won't lose your food to a bear. We haven't had any bear problems yet though, haven't even seen a bear. I figure I should be entitled to at least one bear sighting while I have to a carry a canister. We've spent the last few weeks mostly staying above 10,000 feet and still way above snow line, but we're just now finally starting to drop back down into non-snow covered valleys where the bears will be out. Also now that we're lower, the mosquitoes are starting to show up. They're only going to get worse too as we head north and I don't look forward to the mental insanity while I cloud myself in DEET. I do look forward to confidently following many miles of visible dirt trail, knowing that I am in fact on track.

I've spent the majority of my time in the high Sierras hiking with an awesome guy named Happy Whale, from Arcata CA. We've also spent a lot of time hiking with a couple from Big Bear CA, Nicole and Chris. Other peeps Whale and I have hiked with on occasion in the Sierras include Flying Fish, Miscreant, Wired, Blister, Top Shelf, SpeedBump, Mad Hatter, Liz, Meow Meow, Funnion, SkinnyD, Pine, PoohBear, Whiz, Buttercup, and WetSmoke.

This is my first time ever spending time in the Sierra Nevadas of Calfornia. Wow! These are mountains. Enormous, rugged, beautiful mountains. I'm not great with words and don't really know where to begin to describe them. You've got to just click the "pictures" tab at the top of my page and see them for yourselves. It's great when you can basically just hold up your camera anywhere and take a great picture. So Beautiful! Right now Whale, Nicole and Chris, and I are staying in Mammoth Lakes, CA. Happy Whale's mom was nice enough to drive up from Tehachapi, get us a place to stay, feed us, and just generally take care of us like moms do best. Thank you so much Mamma Happy Whale! This is a really cool little ski town and there are still people shredding on the mountain before it closes tomorrow. I hate them all. Super jealous they get to ride...

Thanks for following guys. Check out those new pics and let me know if you got any questions


  1. Hey I know what your going through been there my self and your right its NOT fun and down right fustrating! going through so much snow it gets very old and sapps you of all your energy, trust me it will get better, just hang in there I want more than anything for you to complete this journey and I'll be right here posting comments until the day you hit the Canadien border,and yes I'll check out your pictures. HyltonHiker

  2. Cody,
    You are a friendly dear of an essence!! I am exceptionally delighted to get to know you, Nicole and Chris. I particularly enjoy your sense of humor. My nerves are at gentle calm and with sweet peace being able to spend this time with my son HappyWhale. I am thoroughly enjoying my time with all of you!! Even though, I do have to call it a night earlier than you all.
    ~ Mamma HappyWhale

  3. Cody,
    It was very interesting reading about the daily challenges of your journey. Unbelievably beautiful pictures. What spectacular scenery!!! I can only imagine that the scenery makes the trials and tribulations worthwhile!
    It sounds like you are with a great group of people. Hopefully you guys will be able to stay together for awhile, although I know that's not always possible on the trail.
    It was good to be able to talk to you over the weekend. I hope the water levels drop soon and you are able to get out of the stinking snow!
    To Mamma HappyWhale; Thank-you so much for what you did for these young trail warriors over the weekend! Hopefully we will get the chance to meet HappyWhale, and the others, and to feed and shelter them when they make it to Washington! I know Cody really appreciated your kindness.


  4. HeadBanger, once again I have enjoyed reading your posts about this journey you're on. I am headed to the PCT next season so your entries are giving me a taste of what to expect...this is valuable considering I am basically clueless at this point. Keep doing what you do!! :o) Hike Strong and Have Fun!

    Taking it all in, Stride (GAME'08)

  5. Wow Cody! What a freaking trip! So glad to hear you're doing well and safe, Pete and I were getting a bit worried that we hadn't heard from you. You're an inspiration and although I don't think I'd ever want to do this myself, something similar might be in order. Keep on keeping on dude! Know that we're thinking about you!