PCT Central CA Day 7: The Ridge and the Road

Mile 1003.9 to 1016.9 — Today’s miles: 13

My watch alarm is set to beep at 4am, 4:30am, and 5am, settings from the desert last year that have mostly functioned as a snooze button this year. But today I pay more attention to them, because I want to get a good chunk of the day done before the heat hits. I’m determined, but still reluctant to begin my morning routine: doing so means I will soon be on my way to Sonora Pass. With the sternest of self-talk, I manage to eat half of an oat bar and then am hiking out just after 6am.

My GPS is not functioning this morning, which is cruel. Not because I’m worried I’ll get lost but because I won’t know exactly how much climbing I have left. I hike uphill through the forest and wonder which of the small streams I’m crossing might be the particular water source I’m seeking. It’s a ten-mile dry stretch up and over the pass, apparently, so I need to stock up at the last source on this side. But is this it? Is this? I stop and filter at a stream with a good flow, pretty sure it’s not the last but too cautious to chance it. Pack heavy with water, I hike on and soon find a little cluster of folks camped at a much larger creek. Oh well, carried that water weight here for nothing. A half mile later, there’s one more flowing stream. Argh.

But after that it’s dry and hot, and the trail takes a steep incline through dusty forest and then open meadows. It’s not even 8am and already hazy — the smoke has been showing up earlier each day. I finish a long steady uphill and as the terrain briefly levels out I see a large grey bunny having breakfast. I sit in a tiny patch of shade nearby and am able to eat some spoonfuls of potato chips and m&ms. Two folks who must be thru-hikers pass by me here, one at a time, and when I start again I can see them ahead on the long exposed switchbacks.

For one of the only times on this trip so far, I feel like a real long-distance hiker again. Falling into a steady pace, I just grind away at the switchbacks without having to think much about it at all. The wind is constant and cooling, my breath settles into a comfortable pattern, and…I am just hiking along a mountainside. It feels so physically familiar that I am startled when I consciously recognize it halfway up. Welcome back, trail legs. Gosh I missed you.

I take a couple of sit-down breaks, but they don’t have the sense of exhausted defeat that I’ve experienced so frequently on this trip. I just keep walking along and then, oh, there’s the sign marking Sonora Pass. I’m up top. I did it.

The wind is stronger up here, and I keep moving another half mile, climbing up off the trail to a lookout point where I message Cyn on the emergency beacon: “I’m atop Sonora Pass! I’m gonna make it!!!” The air is thickly hazy all around in the middle- and far-distance, even here at 11,000 feet elevation. I wonder what this view must be like without all the smoke. It’s not quite 10am, and I consult my maps and elevation profile. (The GPS starts working again here, briefly, and I wonder if its absence actually helped me mentally on the ascent.) About seven more miles to the road. I could be in town tonight if I can do those miles. I’m going to try.

But Sonora Pass isn’t like the passes further south in the Sierra. You get up there and then its a few more miles of uphill and flattish along the top before you start the real descent. So it’s not as speedy as I want it to be. But here I am treated to one of my very favorite activities in all the world: ridgewalking in the wind. The trail laid out like a rollercoaster track along the ridge, alpine lakes set into the landscape below me, the wind billowing my shirt out and whistling over my ears, and I can look across the tops of the mountains and see it all. There is almost nothing that makes me feel so vibrantly alive.

I soak up this feeling until the trail takes me up over a little crest and spits me out onto thick piles of talus that shift as I walk. Clink, clink, clink under my feet. It’s hot on this side, and the wind’s disappeared. I stop between a few sparse clumps of trees and rest in a patch of shade, pulling out the single Snickers bar I packed. I can only eat half of it. So, morning trail legs notwithstanding, my body is still definitely not right.

Back at the hiking, I drag myself along now. It’s all deep gravel with occasional talus underfoot, the trail winding just along the edge of the mountain so there’s absolutely no place to sit. No plant life of any kind, no shade. The sun bakes everything indiscriminately. I talk out loud to myself: just go to that next curve, just get to that rock. Maybe over that little crest there will be something else, just get there and see. And then suddenly there is something else, and it is a very large, very steep slick snowfield covering the trail. Huh.

I see no footprints. But I definitely passed some weekenders who’d come from this direction. Where did they cross this? I sit on the talus piles next to the snow to think. When I finally stand up again, I spy a faint trail leading down to a lower point on the snow, and a track of footprints across to the other side. Relieved, I slowly follow others’ steps in the slushy snow, and am soon on dry trail again. I meet a dayhiker who chats with me at length about the smoke (worse and worse every day) and encourages me to go into Bridgeport, not Walker, when I get to the road. She cheers me on by telling me that once I get past that saddle over there, it’s all downhill. (This was not exactly true, but I forgive her, she was super nice.)

So, up and over the saddle I go. I pass a long orange plastic pipe that’s been put in to channel snowmelt and so operates as a water source up here, at least while the snow’s still around. At the top I chat with another section hiker who’s changing his route because of the smoke. Then down for a while, and then, sadly, more up. I’m really suffering now. Weak, hot, exhausted. I see a hiker behind me and try to trick my tired body by making it a race — keep going, don’t let that guy catch you! I beat him there by a few yards, and am spent. But still I fall in behind him on the downhill, and we chat for a while, which is a nice distraction. Adam (no trail name yet after 1000+ miles!) is thru-hiking — started in late May and so walked through some brutal 100+ degree days in the desert. He’s an amiable guy, but when we turn uphill yet again, I am instantly out of breath and wave him on so I can take a boulder-sitting break. I’m crashing. But gotta get to the road.

I finish the up and begin the long descent. I can see the highway far below. My legs and my brain are on autopilot now, step after step; I am the very picture of “running on fumes.” I meet Adam along the way, chatting with some weekenders, and the two of us tromp down the mountain together some more. There is one last short uphill just before the end and I am too weak to power through it. He goes on while I bend at the waist and try to gather enough breath and energy to finish this last tenth or two. And then, finally, I emerge at the road. I’m too exhausted to fully feel the relief that I know I should feel.

It takes me a while to find a good/safe hitching location, because the road is very curvy without much shoulder. For more than half an hour, cars pass me up. During this time I try to make myself increasingly presentable: wipe my face, change my brimmed cap for a beanie, swap my filthy hiking shirt for my cleanish wind shirt. I am too weak and faint to stand here, and between cars I kneel down until I hear the next one coming around the turn. At about the 40min mark, I finally get a ride. It’s a long 23 miles to town, but then I am checking in to a hotel room, taking a shower (the ancient pipes move from freezing to scalding of their own accord, but I am clean), and walking immediately across the street to the general store. Outside, the smoke and haze hit me hard — have I actually been hiking in this? I order a deli sandwich and buy apple juice and two giant bags of potato chips. There are two people ahead of me in line and I can barely hold it together, wondering how many more minutes I can actually stand up without some calories in my body. It is agony.

Back in my room, the whole world narrows to that deli sandwich. I consume the first half ravenously, with shaking hands, and then have to lie flat on my back for an hour, talking to Cyn on the phone while my stomach acclimates. We talk most of the evening, while I eat off and on. Later, I can’t sleep, and lie awake trying to figure out what to do next. I have been on the verge of tears since the moment I walked into this hotel room, and now feel as if all the emotions I couldn’t let myself engage these last several days on trail — because I had to focus all of my energy on keeping it together during the single most physically and mentally demanding thing I have ever, ever done — are now zinging around my brain and body, free to be felt at last. I’m too wiped out to process them, so they just bounce around relentlessly. I toss and turn and fret, eventually getting up at 12:30am to eat more potato chips, and then an hour later finally crashing into sleep. I made it.

Pre-dawn campsite. Let’s do this.
8am haze as I begin the climb through a long meadow.
Switchbacks ahead, following that thru-hiker in the distance.
At a turn, looking at what I’ve completed and what’s still to come.
Sign marking the top of Sonora Pass. So much haze.
Smokey views from the lookout point.
Ridgewalking = life.
Looking back on the snowfield. Sorry there is no way to give a sense of scale here. The real trail goes above this track of footprints. You can still see a little slide down, hopefully from intentional glissading back when this was deeper snow, and not from someone slipping!
Near the road. I was deliriously exhausted when I took this.

2 thoughts on “PCT Central CA Day 7: The Ridge and the Road

  1. Well done! Enjoying reading about your hike. Thanks for writing 🙂 Hope you manage to get your eating sorted out so you can carry on. Take care!

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  2. I have the exact same reaction to altitude — my appetite utterly deserts me at first, and simply trying to eat anything makes me gag. This has gone on for as long as a week. So far, a stint stuffing myself at lower elevations has been enough to set me right — I hope your experience is similar.

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