Dad was nervous. My plan to hike 19 miles a day together was based on his swift progress through Southern California—but what neither of us had anticipated was how difficult the Pacific Crest Trail would become in the Sierras. He told stories of constant stream crossings, some waist deep, treacherous snow fields that cut across the trail on steep mountainsides, and, since he’d entered Yosemite, innumerable switchbacks, “paved” with infernal cobblestones. I’m not exactly sure what I expected the trail to be like, but I certainly hadn’t counted on getting wet. Now I was nervous.
We had options. If, for some reason, we were unable to maintain that pace, there were several earlier passes in the Sierras north of Yosemite where we could get picked up. However, we’d have no reliable way to communicate with the outside world besides Dad’s daily Spot locator beacons, so I left Stephanie with a list of four alternative pickup spots if our pace turned out to be less than 19 miles/day.
After a long afternoon and evening of helping Dad resupply, packing my own bag, and making sure he got a filling meal while regaling our communal tablemates with stories from the trail, we hit the sack. I did not sleep well. The next morning we had breakfast at the lodge, told another group of tablemates more stories, and then headed to the store to pick up a few remaining items, including a hat, which I forgot at home. And that was it. We drove back to the lodge to reconnect with the PCT at mile 942 where we’d picked Dad up the afternoon before. We said our goodbyes to Stephanie, and then we began—walking down the trail, together.
Considering our late start (I think we got on the trail a little after 10) and my cold start, we actually covered a respectable 15 miles on our first day out. This was a promising sign, but also distressing because it meant we were starting with a four mile deficit that we’d have to make up over the upcoming seven days. There were two very difficult stream crossings back-to-back at the end of the day. The first was thigh-deep and the second crotch-deep, and in both cases the frigid water was rushing dangerously fast, making it difficult to get a stable footing on the slippery rocks while barefoot. That was enough for one night, so we decided to camp just after the second crossing. As we were setting up, a younger PCT thru-hiker came up the trail and called out “Tartan?” He was the first of several hikers who already knew Dad (by his trail name, of course). He was dripping wet from head to toe, having slipped during one of the previous stream crossings. I was glad to only be half-wet. After a quick chat, he continued down the trail.
The next morning we were up at 5 and on the trail by 6 or a little after. The stream crossings were continuous. Sometimes we’d have to take our shoes off, sometimes not. Sometimes there’d be logs or stones to aid the crossing, sometimes not. Sometimes we’d walk up or down the bank to find a better crossing, sometimes not. We stopped for lunch at Benson Pass, at just over 10,000ft. Then we dropped down almost 2,500ft, to a nice flat section that would have been a good place to camp were it not for the thick swarms of mosquitoes. So we continued onwards, which turned out to be upwards: a relentless set of switchbacks at the very end of the day. The terrain was too steep for a tent, so we were forced to climb further. Dad always led, and I was having trouble keeping up. He pulled ahead. By the time we finally found a perch, we’d covered 17.5 miles. It felt like so much more, yet we were still a mile and a half short of our goal.
I started feeling stronger by the third day. Had no problem keeping up with Dad, partly by focusing on the cadence of my stride. After lunch the mosquitoes got so thick that we had to wear bug nets over our heads for the rest of the day. The ups and downs were more gradual, which helped us put the miles on, reaching our goal of 19 for the first time. Until that evening I was pretty certain we’d have to exit short of our 150 mile goal, but if the trail got easier as I got stronger, there was a chance that we just might make it.
Midmorning we departed Yosemite just north of Dorothy Lake. We had a nice gradual stretch of downhill miles, followed by a massive climb at the end of the day. We postponed our lunch until just before the climb to fortify ourselves. Then it was all up. But unlike Yosemite’s tight switchbacks, these were grand, gradual switchbacks that almost didn’t feel like climbing at all. Once we got above the tree line, the views out across the valley to the snow-dappled peaks beyond were tremendous. To Dad, this was le vrai PCT. We crossed a very wide snow field and then emerged at the top, around 10,500ft. In the distance we could see the trail arcing out along the side of the mountain. It looked doable, but as soon as we were over the pass we met the wind, which was constant and gale force and bone-chilling. It was a struggle to stay on the narrow trail, carved into these gravelly mountains. It was also nearing 5 o’clock and we needed to find a place to camp—except we were literally on the side of a mountain! Finally around mile 1012, we found a grove of trees (bushes, really) that seemed to provide just enough cover from the wind to allow us to set up our tents. I used everything I had to fix my tent to the ground and the trees. Incredibly, we had covered another 19 miles that day. We were still behind our pace by a few miles, but we had a growing confidence that we’d be able to complete the 150 miles—assuming we survived the night.
The cold wind was still whipping against the mountain when we woke. We packed as fast as we could and got going around 6:30. Eventually we crossed over a ridge that provided some respite from the wind, at least for a moment. But just ahead were new obstacles: frozen snow fields cutting across the trail at dangerously steep angles. A misplaced footing would be catastrophic. We crossed over another super windy ridge and saw yet more snow fields (or more accurately: snow chutes). There was one in the distance that appeared almost vertical. When we finally reached it, I could see a small gravelly landing at the bottom just before the edge of a cliff and then the abyss of the valley stretching out as far as the eye could see. Here a slip would mean almost certain death. And yet somehow I managed to put one foot in front of the other and get across. The trail finally started to let up as we got closer to Sonora Pass, our first road crossing, and the halfway point of our journey. Except that the final descent was a series of long sweeping switchbacks in the bowl of a mountain intersected by countless snow fields. It was around 11:30 when we made it to the bottom. We’d covered a mere 6 miles in 5 hours. I never felt so happy to see a road. And you can imagine our surprise when I read a flier posted to a signboard advertising the “Sonora Pass Cafe – open only 3 days a year”. What? Then handwritten at the top were the dates 6/11, 6/12, and 6/13. I had no idea what the date was. I called out to Dad and he said it was the 13th. NO WAY!!! Our mission instantly became finding this elusive cafe—which turned out to be a wonderful picnic set up by a PCT trail maintainer (and angel) known as “Owl”. He gave us cold Cokes, cookies with whipped cream, and chocolate cake. It was surreal. He’d even set up a wifi hotspot, so I was able to send Stephanie a quick email letting her know that we were going to try to make the entire 150 miles. (KQED’s California Report did a nice story about Owl and the Sonora Pass Cafe: Pacific Crest Trail Hikers Find Refuge at the Sonora Pass Cafe.) We had one last 10,000ft peak to surmount, but at least the climb was in the sun. Once we made it over the top, we got dumped out onto a pass completely covered in several feet of snow. It wasn’t so much treacherous as very slow going, and super difficult to find (and stay on) the trail. By 4 o’clock we realized we’d only covered 13 miles. This was deeply discouraging, so we decided to put the motor on and try to grind through as many miles as we could until 6pm. Of course the trail went straight up at the very end. We finally threw in the towel after logging 17.5 miles. It was 2.5 shorter than our goal, but we were exhausted, and it had been a crazy day from start to finish.
We had favorable terrain and favorable weather, so much so that I found myself zoning out for long stretches of the trail, sometimes thinking about work and what I wanted to do when I got back. We crossed Ebbet’s Pass a few miles before calling it quits at 6. We had covered a staggering 23 miles. Longer than I’ve ever walked in a single day. And my feet were feeling it. They looked unhappy. They smelled unhappy. I’d been taping up some of my toes and the pads of my feet to protect the blisters that were forming, but now the tape was causing blisters on the tops of my feet. Remarkably, we were now “only” 40 miles from our destination, with two hiking days left. I was starting to look forward to the end.
My left ankle began bothering me on and off. I felt pretty slow that morning. I think we both felt slow. But the trail wasn’t bad and we were making good time all the same, roughly 30 minute miles with breaks. Even with a sore ankle, Ebbet’s Pass to Carson Pass stands out as my favorite section, for the vistas and diversity of the trail. We had a brief moment of cellphone reception on top of a mountain, so we were able to make contact with my mom, who was visiting Yosemite Valley with Stephanie. Our goal for the day was 20 miles, but we knew that each mile we logged over 20 would be one less we’d have to eek out on the last day. We stopped after 22.5 miles, at a “campsite” that happened to be occupied by two other hikers. It made for an unusually social last night on the trail.
We had “only” 17 miles to do on the last day. If the terrain was in our favor, we’d probably reach our destination, mile 1,092, around 3 o’clock. We made it to Carson’s Pass just as the little visitor’s center there was opening. We signed in at the official PCT register and they gave us Cokes and fresh fruit. It was chilly and overcast most of the day, so we just trudged along, making pretty good time. We pulled ourselves up the last peak before Lake Tahoe, stopping at the top for a very satisfying and warming bowl of chicken soup—our only hot lunch of the trip. There were “only” three miles left, which after hiking 147, seemed so minuscule, but they were three miles straight down, and we were cooked. The trail was one giant granite step after another. Finally the terrain began to flatten out, and we could see signs of civilization peeking through the trees: roofs and powerlines and asphalt. We rounded a bend, and right there in front of us were mom and Stephanie, on the trail. We made it. I can’t believe we made it. 150 miles in 8 days. I walked from Yosemite to Lake Tahoe—a section that several of the other PCT thru-hikers we’d met said had been the hardest so far. I had completed the most physically strenuous endeavor of my life, but Dad still had a staggering 1,568 miles ahead of him.