PCT Central CA Day 2: Lungbuster

Mile 951.1 to 963.85 — Today’s miles: 12.75

I sleep more than ten hours. It is a slightly restless sleep — getting used to my sleeping pad again, waking up periodically as the night gets colder to put on more layers — but it is a good and necessary sleep nonetheless. At dawn, I am reluctant to leave the coziness. My morning routine is inefficient because packing up is different with a new pack and a bearcan. But I head out of camp just before 7am, enjoying the cool morning air.

The initial uphill feels fine, and I hope sleeping near 9,000 feet helped me acclimate. As I eat breakfast I walk through a dewy meadow and watch the fog roll off of it. A slightly tougher uphill follows, through the forest as I call out to any possible bears. I pass a hiker just emerging from his hammock. Then it’s a speedy downhill to McCabe Creek, where I cross on some logs and filter cold water. That makes five miles in two hours, which feels okay. Not three minutes later another wide creek appears, and I have to ford this one. It’s past my knees near the middle, and icy cold, but I remember best practices and cross without incident.

Now it’s a reasonably graded ascent to Spiller Creek, where I rock-hop and then make myself eat a snack. Food is still very unappealing, but I don’t want to repeat yesterday’s error. The following uphill, fairly steep, sees me gasping for oxygen again, stopping every few tenths to catch my breath and deliver myself another pep talk. I just can’t get enough air, and my legs feel as if all the blood has gone out of them. It is demoralizing. Finally, at the top, I run into a southbound section hiker, Loner, who’s friendlier than his name might suggest and wearing an awesome plaid kilt. He’s finishing his last section to complete the PCT over the course of three years, and I feel inspired by this news.

Motivated anew, I make quick work of the flats and downhills, struggle through one more short uphill, and arrive at beautiful Miller Lake for a long shoes-off break and some lunch. Two southbounders pass me lying in the shade and one says brightly, “Oh HI!” as if we’re old friends, and it makes me miss Sprout and Whiz Kid something fierce. I talk with two women doing a northbound section. They started at Tuolumne two days ago, and we commiserate about the altitude. One notes that the “smog” hasn’t helped — much of today has been quite hazy, which must be from the fire south of us. Her comment makes me wonder how the air quality is contributing to my breathlessness, even though I don’t smell any smoke. I realize that I will not make it to my scheduled resupply drop on time, and painstakingly type a message to Cyn on the emergency beacon, asking her to contact the resupplier because I’ve had no cell service at all.

It is hard to leave Miller Lake, but I set off around 2:30, planning to hike another four miles or so. After a short up, there’s a long steepish downhill, and I’m able to make good time. But I can’t enjoy it too much, because on the PCT downhills are inevitably followed by uphills, so I know what’s coming soon. I cross a low creek and then see three separate deer in the forest that follows. One stands right on the trail looking at me, as I think “gosh, you look so much like my greyhound…” At a small but flowing stream, I see a nice spot for a tent and consider stopping for the night, since the trail turns uphill steeply from here on. The impossible question gnaws at me: do I sleep here and tackle the big ascent in the morning when I’m well-rested? Or push on for a bit now to make the morning easier?

It looks like I can find a spot to camp in a little less than a mile, so I push on. It is steep, and my lungs are working overtime. It takes far longer than it should to knock out this stretch, as I drag myself up big stone steps that remind me of the JMT. But I’m rewarded by another small creek and just enough space for my tent. I make myself eat a little something, dutifully take my altitude meds (at least I am not headachey or puking! Thanks, Diamox!), and filter water until the mosquitos become too aggressive. Tomorrow I have to climb Benson Pass first thing.

Fog coming off the meadow ahead of me.
Mountain meadow at daybreak.
The first PCT logo trail marker I’ve seen on this trip. I like how the trees slowly grow back over them, like, don’t forget, this place isn’t yours.
Stairstep waterfall below Spiller Creek. The trail crosses above this.
Standing on the shore of Miller Lake. You can already see the haze in the distance.
Well-worn trail leaving Miller Lake.
View at the top of a tough climb.
Message from an earlier hiker. Last year there was someone in the desert who did this with tiny rocks.

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