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Donner Pass & The End, July 18

Day 77

Start – Mile 1137, 7am 

End – Donner Pass, Mile 1153, 4pm

Miles – 16

Another beautiful day on the trail.  The morning started out with a climb up from a low meadow, where I crossed the American River, but at this elevation its not much more than a small creek.

After that I entered the Granite Chief Wilderness and came up and over a ridge that took me under one of the ski lifts at Squaw Valley.  From that vantage I could see over to where the Squaw high camp is, where they have a lot of summertime activities like mountain biking.  As is typical of areas around Tahoe where day hikers are prevalent, I got to see a couple dog hikers as well, which is usually a treat.  

After passing through Squaw I made my way up another ridge past a rock formation called Tinker Knob.  Along the way the views were pretty well obscured by the smoke from the fire near Yosemite, the same situation as the day before trying to look out over the Lake.  But today the smoke was thicker and I could actually smell it.  Once I got up to the top of Tinker Knob, it was similar to the approach into Sonora in that the trail runs along a ridgeline with views in both directions.  In this case, smoky views in both directions, but it was still a nice spot to stop and have lunch and rest my feet.  

As I was starting up again I met a woman who was hiking from Tuolumne to the Oregon border, because her job affords her summers off.  She works for a non-profit that does outdoor education in Yosemite, so the park’s busy season is their slow season as they can’t get school groups up doing the summer months.  Instead, she’s out hiking about 700 miles of the PCT, which seems like a good use of her time except that she was concerns that her home in El Portal may need to be evacuated due to the fire, so she was understandably preoccupied with that, but still in good spirits considering.  

At the top of the ridge I also got my first glimpse of Donner Pass and Donner Lake.  At this point the pass was only about 3-4 miles up ahead, so I pushed through in hopes of getting there pretty early.  After one more small rise the trail drops down behind Sugar Bowl and I passed under another chair lift, this time with a man doing some maintenance on the lift right above the trail.  After a couple miles of switchbacks made up of loose rock, I emerged from the trailhead at Donner and made my way the short distance to Donner Ski Ranch to get a burger.  A few of the hikers I’ve met over the past few days were there also, and they do offer some accommodations in a bunk house if you want to stay at Donner, but I had heard about a better option up the road and set out to stay the night at the Claire Tappaan Lodge, owned by the Sierra Club.  

Claire Tappaan is the largest of the Sierra Club’s wilderness lodges, they also have four back country huts that you can use for cross country skiing or snow shoeing, but Claire Tappaan is more full service, with meals and laundry and games, and a hot tub.  The accommodations were still similar to a hostel, but the experience was far removed from my time in South Tahoe.  I shared the men’s dorm with two other guys, though it fits 10, and was able to get a shower before dinner, which is served family style in a small dining room.  Guests are encouraged to sign up for chores, so the dining room is set up by guests, and the cleanup is also done by guests.  

The day I was there the main group occupying the lodge was a Grandparent/Grandkid group of about 20 people.  So the little kids were all taking care of serving the food and putting out the dish wear, before undertaking a game of hide and seek that overtook the entire lodge.

The past week has felt great to be back on the trail, in most ways.  Unfortunately, my feet are not one of them.  Despite taking a break at Sonora to rest up for Northern California, I have found that once back on the trail my feet are immediately in pain again.  I can usually go a few hours in the morning but by mid-day my feet, legs, and increasingly hips are in misery, and hiking is a chore.  I’ve been debating for a few days how long I could give myself to see if things would improve, but they haven’t – if anything the gaps between painful feet and joints have grown smaller, and I’m struggling to get in the miles that I expected would come easier after getting through the high Sierra.  

Coming back on trail I had intended to finish out California, but its become apparent that, while I may be able to force myself to complete the additional 550 miles that would require, doing so is going to be slow, painful, and not enjoyable.  I’ve enjoyed this trip so much (despite my sore, blistered feet) that I don’t want it to become a miserable experience, and I’ve noticed that I’m staying in my tent longer in the mornings to delay having to get up and hike.  So that’s a bad sign.  

Because of that, I have decided that Donner Pass will be as far as I make it this trip – 1153 miles from where I started back in Campo.  I’m pretty disappointed that I didn’t at least finish the state, and know that while I can go back and finish it in sections, it won’t be quite the same as the unified, shared experience that doing the whole thing at once with a good group of friends would have been.  So I’ll be watching my old trail family as they progress up the trail and hope they all make it to Canada without me.  

For me, its back to the Bay Area and on to figure out what comes next after this great experience.  But this will be hard to top.  

(End of the Line)

Alpine Meadows, July 17

Day 76

Start – Richardson Lake, Mile 1119, 7am

End – Mile 1137, 6pm

Miles – 18

I left Richardson Lake hoping to get past a couple steep climbs and position myself to make it into Donner Ski Ranch tomorrow. I was also hoping to get some nice views of Tahoe today as those climbs bring you up along ridges that overlook the lake itself.

After the mornings hike I stopped to rest at a trail head called Barker Pass, where I met some hikers from South Korea and Taiwan. Most of them started in March so they are really taking their time, and for most it’s their first time in America. Fun way to spend it.

After that I made it to the top of the first ridge but was disappointed to see that smoke from what I’m assuming is the fire near Tahoe obscured the view. So now really great views of the lake at all today.

(The Lake is down there somewhere)

The next ridge brought me to the top of Alpine Meadows where we used to go skiing when I was a kid and I haven’t been there probably since Christmas 1997. They seem to be doing ok without my business but it was interesting to be up at the top of some of the lifts in the middle of summer. Tomorrow will bring me back to Squaw Valley when I go over Granite Chief.

After Squaw is Donner Ski Ranch where I hear they have good burgers, so hopefully I’ll make it that far tomorrow.

Dicks Pass, July 16

Day 75

Start – Lake Aloha, Mile 1099, 7am

End – Richardson Lake, Mile 1119, 6:20pm

Miles – 20

Left Aloha at 7am and hiked past a couple smaller lakes, Heather and Susie, before meeting an older guy named Paws from Cape Cod out hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail for a few weeks. (Similar to the John Muir Trail, the TRT and Pct overlap for a while, in this case about 50 miles along the southwest part of the lake).

Paws makes stickers with his name, Facebook, and YouTube channel on them so he gave me one- I’ll have to look into that when I get back.

After meeting Paws I had to go up and over Dicks pass, which gave great views all the way back to where I camped last night. At the top of Dicks Pass I ran into some hikers making snow cones with electrolyte water flavor enhancers, and they offered me one so I took a break and had a non-adult snow cone. I’ve had more snow cones this week than probably the last 20 years.

After that I was just trying to get some better miles in today. I passed a couple more small lakes and actually exited the Desolation Wilderness in the mid afternoon. Ended the day at a place called Richardson Lake, which wasn’t as impressive as Aloha but still nice. Plus it’s always good to camp near water.

Tomorrow I should end up around Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley- the trail runs right through both ski areas. Haven’t been to either in a long time- probably just as long as it’s been since my last snow cone actually.

Lake Aloha, July 15

Day 74

Start – Echo Chalet, Mile 1092, 3pm

End – Lake Aloha, Mile 1099, 6pm

Miles – 7.

Got up early and walked into Nevada to find a place to watch the World Cup Final. Ended up at a 24 hour sports bar with a surprising number of both French and Croatian fans. So the place was pretty rowdy considering that the score was pretty high for a high level match like this.

South Lake Tahoe strikes me as the Gatlinburg of the PCT.

After the game I debated taking a bus to Reno to try on shoes at REI, but decided to wait and see how my new insoles do, and if need be I can always take the train from Truckee which should only be about three days away.

The challenge then was getting back to the trail. After packing I got out of the hostel at noon, and had been told by the woman who drove me into town that I should make it back to the other side of town before trying to get a ride. So I hopped in the bus and took it all the way across town and then started calling every number on the trail angel list but none of them answered or told me they couldn’t do it.

Since it was getting late and I was desperate, I finally broke down and caught a Lyft at 2:30. Expensive but it worked and I got back to the Echo Chalet at 3. The walk along Echo lakes was interesting because there are a lot of rental cabins that are only accessible by boat, although I found a few that were right next to the trail and very tempting.

There is also a water taxi across Echo Lake for folks who want to explore the far side but don’t walk to hike the whole way. I made it about 7 miles to another lake, Aloha, which is nice and fairly warm and populated by a bunch of tiny islands. This is a popular overnight or day hike destination and it’s completely obvious why. Tons of camp sites right along the waters edge with great views and a lake warm enough in which to swim.

South Lake Tahoe, June 14

Day 72

Start – Showers Lake, Mile 1082, 7am

End – Echo Lake Chalet, Mile 1092, 12pm

Miles – 10

Today went about as expected. Got up and said goodbye to the family I met yesterday and then set out to make the last 10 miles to South Lake Tahoe. Fairly gentle hike without many other hikers at first.

Getting closer to Tahoe I got a lot more day hikers, some with dogs. I also got a pretty nice view of the Lake before dropping down to where highway 50 crosses the trail.

Highway 50 is probably the busiest highway that we haven’t had a way to cross avoiding traffic. Just wait for your chance and run. Culture shock came when I made it over the last ridge and dropped into a full parking lot at Echo Lake. Tahoe is always busy in the summer, but this week more so because of a big celebrity golf tournament.

Initially I called a trail angel for a ride into town, but while waiting another woman drove up and offered me a ride so I was able to cancel on the first guy which was good because Echo Lake is quite a ways from town.

My ride took me and one other hiker to the post office whew I picked up a shipment of new shoe insoles. I’m hoping these improve things for my feet until I can get new shoes. After that we took the city bus over to stateline where I had a bed booked at a hostel.

I’ve never stayed in a hostel and can’t say I’m a fan. Although I think in some of the smaller towns it might have been a different experience. For the most part people are nice, but I’m a bit old for this kind of scene.

Got my resupply done but the outfitter here didn’t have good shoes for PCT hikers. So I’m out of luck on that front for now. Spent a while waiting to do my laundry at the one communal washing machine and then headed out at 9pm to grab dinner. The city was really busy with folks in town for the golf tournament, which also means the restaurants are full and the prices are more inflated than usual.

I’ll be glad to be back on the trail with the peace and quiet of the woods. Next stop is the desolation wilderness and Lake Aloha.

July 13

Day 72

Start – Mile 1063, 6:30am

End – Showers Lake, Mile 1082, 5pm

Miles – 19

Today I felt like I got back into the PCT community. Started alone and had a beautiful hike in the morning up something called the Elephants Back near Blue Lakes. It was hot but overcast so the morning hike was much more comfortable than the day before.

Not long after I ran into two older guys, Captain and I’m forgetting the other guys name, who offered me an adult snow cone. To make an adult snow cone is pretty easy. Collect snow and form a snow ball. Then pour Fireball cinnamon whiskey over it and eat.

As we were enjoying our snow cones another hiker walked by and the Captain offered her one as well but she turned him down. Soon I finished mine and headed out and didn’t get far before I ran into a southbound hiker who gave me a bag of chips.

I had heard that the ranger station at Carson pass had drinks for hikers so my plan was to make it there for lunch around 1 pm. The hike to get there however was steep, rocky, and without cloud cover so I was sweating buckets. My new pack isn’t ventilated in the back so I now get even sweatier than before. Also the flowers are gorgeous but I’m feeling my allergies pretty strong. That’s all to say I was a sweaty, snotty mess by the time I crested the ridge and stopped down into Carson pass.

But the rumors were true. I got to the ranger station and they rolled out the red carpet. Drinks and snacks and even a box of toiletries in case you needed anything. I sat down and talked with a guy from New York for a few minutes before he headed out.

Soon after I was joined by the hiker who turned down the adult snow cone, Double Down, and later the Captain and his partner. We were all enjoying the hospitality and I was enjoying letting my feet rest when a couple hikers that I recognized from way back showed up including a guy from Israel who I met on my second day out here back in San Diego.

So it was fun to see that not everyone I know is long gone. The group even mentioned a couple other people I know who are up in Tahoe now, so I may bump into them this weekend.

I ended up staying at the ranger station far longer than I intended, but the extended break was good for my feet. After that I decided to head to Showers Lake, which was another 5 and a half miles. From there it’s about 9 yo get yo Tahoe, so I should get there by mid day.

When I pulled into camp I found Double Down already set up so I set up near her on the shore of Showers Lake. The water was surprisingly warm I learned when I finally had the chance to wash my feet.

After dinner I was looking around the area and got invited to join a campfire by a couple and their young son who was on his first backpacking overnight trip. They were from Manteca and I talked to them for about an hour while they fed me cherries.

I think the dad, Steve, was happy to have someone to come join them because they had been at the campground since 2pm and their son was a little bored. So I was the evenings entertainment, which was fine with me. They were fun to talk to and most importantly they had a dog.

So all in all a pretty good day despite the constant foot pain. Tomorrow I’ll address that in town. I’m staying at a hostel for the first time in my life because a celebrity golf tournament has all the hotels raising their rates. Better be Justin Timberlake.

July 12

Day 71

Start – Mile 1047, 7am

End – Mile 1063, 6pm

Miles – 16

I got going at 7 and almost immediately found the trail magic that I was trying to get to the day before. A guy named Tom from St. Louis who did the trail last year. This year he decided to drive out to Ebbetts Pass and set up for nearly a week at the campground and make food for everyone.

I got him on his last day before being replaced by some other folks. He apologized for being low on supplies but was still able to make me a burger and a hot dog and give me some apple juice. Not a bad way to start the day. Tom is also going to hike up to South Lake Tahoe starting tomorrow so I may run into him there.

Hiking was slow today. Feet are still unhappy so that slows me down and caused me to take a lot of breaks. It was also really hot today- somewhere around 94 at the peak. I think I’ve answered the question as to why I came back out here. It’s simply for the feeling you get after hiking for hours in the heat, feet hurting, sweating buckets under a heavy pack, when you get to a creek with cool running water and you dunk your handkerchief of something in and then ring it out on your head, letting the water run down your head and the back of your neck and you do that over and over until you feel normal again. Best feeling in the world.

Got to hike over a couple volcanic ridges and look out onto Markleeville. Tiny town but from up high it looks lovely.

Camped about a mile away from a dirt road and trail head where a large group of car campers were set up playing ABBA loudly. Thought I’d be far enough away but now I’m listening to gunfire as I try to fall asleep so I guess they’re out here to blow off steam and fire large caliber weapons. I guess the ABBA dance party didn’t hold their interest.

July 10

Day 69

Start – Sonora Pass, Mile 1016, 3:15 pm

End – Mile 1025, 7pm

Miles – 9

Getting back on the trail feels weird, doesn’t feel real yet. My hair isn’t dirty enough and my clothes are too clean. Everyone can probably tell I’ve been sleeping in a bed and eating real meals.

So for now I feel like a day Hiker trying to pass. It didn’t help that I spent a week basically at sea level and then drive right back up to 10,000 feet and had to crest a small ridge as the first order of business. My lungs were out of practice with the altitude and my feet felt betrayed that I was making them do this again.

We stopped and picked up some hitchhikers on the way to the trailhead and they were hikers who had started nearly a month after I did. So I’m with the back of the pack as I expected. There will be fewer folks to meet along the way at this point.

The views along Sonora continue to be lovely as the landscape changes from the high Sierra to lower, more gently rolling terrain. I wanted to get about ten miles in so that I can then get to Tahoe in about three full days. That part worked out as I made the campground I had in mind by 7.

Met a couple other folks including a father/son pair who are going South from Echo Lake to Tuolumne and a woman named Token heading North. So I’m not completely at the back, which was reassuring. We spent about an hour sitting around a campfire ring (no campfire) sharing experiences and anything we’ve heard about the trail ahead. That helped make it all feel normal again.

Part of me is still wondering what the hell I’m doing back out here, but I don’t think I was ready to be done living in this alternative reality where people are friendly and most of my interactions are positive.

With rumors of trail magic up ahead I’m going to try to push thing tomorrow to see if my feet really remember how to do this.

Updated Gear Post

This time off the trail has allowed me to do an overhaul on my gear.  Back on April 17th I posted a full accounting of everything I was bringing, which was accurate for how I started out in Campo a few days later.  One right of passage that everyone goes through is the realization that you’re carrying too much gear, or the wrong gear.  Either way your bag is too heavy and you have things that you don’t need or should replace.  

I have actually been paring down as I go, but I haven’t done a complete overhaul until now.  My first paring was in Julian when I decided that my ursack bear proof food storage bag was unnecessary and cumbersome, and so I dumped it along with a few small items into the hiker box (there is a free box for hikers located in every trail town – you can offload items you don’t want or need, or grab something useful the you see unaccounted for).  

I was pretty stubborn though and hung on to plenty for far too long.  Eventually when i met up with Sunny and Little Bites in Tehachapi, Little Bites made me go through my pack and was ruthless in deciding what I needed and didn’t need before the added challenge of the Sierra, but she was right, most it I didn’t need so I shipped a lot of things home, or dumped them in town before leaving.  

That got my pack weight down to probably just under 20 pounds.  Earlier in the trip I had weighed it and it was around 25 not including water and food, which means that when it was all loaded up I was probably carrying around 35 pounds or more, which is a lot.  Ultra lightweight hikers easily have base weights of around 12 pounds or less.  So I wasn’t doing myself any favors.  

The biggest issue with my pack was the weight of the pack itself.  I started with an older Gregory pack that I knew was heavier than newer packs but it didn’t seem worth the money to replace it.  Over time I removed the top pocket (called the brain) to reduce the weight but couldn’t do much else.  The pack also didn’t fit correctly, mainly because I lost so much length around my waist that the hip belt ended up being too large.  The last issue with my pack was that the zipper on the main pocket started to fail as I entered the Sierra.  I was still able to get it to close, but it was a struggle and was getting worse over time. 

So I figured that if I was going to head back to the trail, I needed to finally get a new pack.  I decided on a ULA Circuit, which is probably the most popular pack on the trail, but not the lightest, though it is more than 2 pounds lighter than my current pack.  

I’ve also lost a bunch of other small items (everything comes in its own carrying case, don’t need those), and even pared down my first aid kit (don’t need 100 bandaids of multiple sizes).  One thing I’m really happy with is that I have never liked my cooking pot set up, as instead of a lid it came with a  small frying pan that fits on top like a lid, but I’ve never used it as a frying pan except for once, and it doesn’t allow you to drain the pot effectively.  But I found a company that makes replacement lids for the pots that the company that I bought mine from make, which is brilliant, so I ordered that and swapped out the frying pan for a lid, which is lighter and takes up less space.  After everything is done, here’s my new gear inventory: 

Compared to the photo from April 17th, which looked like this:

Items I’ve dropped:
Umbrella (didn’t work effectively as a sunshade as the wind always turned it inside out). 
Pump sack – brought it to save my lungs blowing up my sleeping pad overnight.  
Pack cover – new pack is basically a large dry bag, don’t need a cover. 
Kindle – don’t ever really have time to read. 
Camera tripod – replaced this with a small adapter that makes my trekking poles a selfie stick. 
Sawyer Squeeze accessories – my water filter came with a bunch of accessories, I dumped them all and just use a Platypus bag as a dirty water bag.  Could probably use that and just attach the Sawyer directly to my drinking bottles but I get annoyed drinking through it.  
Water Bladder – I’m adding it back after losing it for the Sierra when water was so plentiful that I didn’t need to carry that much.  But this time I’m bringing a 2 liter bladder rather than a 3 liter one like I carried in SoCal.  
All manner of individual storage bags.  They are all thin and light but added together are a bunch of unnecessary weight. 
Personal comfort items – I’ve dropped a lot of little things like allergy medication, sun screen (I cover all my skin from head to toe while hiking), ear plugs, emergency matches, etc.  Some of these would be nice to have, but I didn’t ever use them so they are not making the cut.  
Maps – Initially I was carrying print outs of the trail sections which were incredibly heavy and I never looked at them.  Plenty of people swear by paper maps, but the GPS apps on your phone are really good now.  Perhaps had it been a heavier snow year in the Sierra I would have regretted that decision, but I made it through without any need of paper maps, so I’m happy to not have that weight.  

Not sure what my pack weighs now, but its a lot less than when I started.  Plus with the hip belt fitting properly it will be easier on my back regardless of whether I dropped weight or not.  

I’m still not happy with my choice of sleeping bag, but I made it through the sierra with it and its not going to be as cold from here on out so I’ll live with it.  

What Compels Me To Go?

July 9th – Oakland, CA

Its been nearly two weeks since I got off trail at Sonora Pass, and honestly at the time I had intended that to be as far as I would go on the trail.  After sitting in the desert heat down in San Bernardino sometime in early May and questioning why on Earth I was out on this desolate trail at all in the first place, I decided that to make it worthwhile I would go to the 1000 mile mark, which would enable me to traverse high Sierra and feel that I hadn’t just gone camping in the desert for a few weeks.  

So that had been my plan but now I’m sitting here in Oakland getting ready to head back out tomorrow and continue on this journey a while longer; which is strange because I have indoor plumbing, comforts of home, a variety of entertainments, and the companionship of loved ones all making compelling arguments against continuing, but still I’m going to give it a bit more.  

There a couple reasons for that.  First I feel like I had just started to get competent on the trail.  I wasn’t making as many bone-headed mistakes every day (though I was still kicking a lot of rocks).  I had made it to the 1000 mark in better shape than plenty of others, and was actually feeling better than I had in a long time at that point (the constant pain in my legs and feet notwithstanding).  And the hike on the last day across the ridge to Sonora Pass was one of the most beautiful and most exhilarating of the trip so far.  I was actually passed by a couple on the top of that ridge and the guy said to me with palpable enthusiasm “can you believe we get to do this for free?” (discounting all the gear and supply costs, I suppose.)  In that moment I was taken with the same enthusiasm for the adventure of it all, but I knew that in a couple hours I was going to be done with mine, while everyone else would keep heading north up to Tahoe and beyond. 

So even though I had been preparing myself for a month to get off trail at that point, as soon as I did it didn’t feel right, and I felt that I had more left in the tank.  Since then I’ve watched the Instagram feed of some of my trail family, and have seen some of the shared experiences that they’ve had since I left, and I do feel like I’m missing out.  So even though I’m so far behind them at this point that I’m sure I’ll never see any of them on the trail again, I do feel compelled to push on and get some more out of this undertaking while I still have the opportunity to do it – before I get another job, or feel the pressure of my savings diminishing, or just getting so far away from it that its hard to start back up, or the weather turns and its not possible to.  

This is probably the one time I’ll take this much time to just do something frivolous like this, so I’m going to draw it out a bit more.  That’s not an easy decision to make – I do feel the pressure to get back to normal life, and I know I’m leaving someone behind again who relies on me and that’s not easy.  So my internal compromise at this point is that I’ll set out to finish California, another 700 or so miles that I should be able to finish in about a month.  At that point I would have walked the entire length of the state from Mexico to the Oregon border, following the contours of the major mountain ranges.  

I think I’ll be satisfied with that.  And hopefully my feet won’t be angry with me too much in the process.  I do feel just about as nervous as I did before heading to San Diego, like I might have forgotten how to actually do this in the 11 days that I’ve been away from the trail.  And of course everyone I know and have been sharing this with are now long gone so I’ll have to find new companions for this next part of the journey.  Hopefully they’ll be as fun as the last folks I met.

Oh my sweet disposition,
May you one day carry me home.