Kennedy Meadows is a small mountain town with a population of about 200 people, though year-round population drops down into the twenties range. But Kennedy Meadows is a very big milestone for PCT hikers as it signifies the end of the desert section and the beginning of the Sierras for Northbound hikers. In normal snow years, hikers will typically enter the Sierras in June when the snow has melted significantly. Or they can pass through the weather window in late April when they’re isn’t new snow accumulating, but the temperatures are still cold enough that the snow is easy to walk on. Some hikers hit that small weather window this year before storms hit. The rest of us who started in mid-March to early-April arrived at Kennedy Meadows during the time that the snow freezes at night, but begins to melt during the midday, forcing hikers to wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning to hike a short distance up and over a pass before the midday sun begins to melt the snow and the hikers start to punch through the snow. One version of this is called postholing, where each step you take punches through the top crust of snow, down past your knee, maybe even all the way up to your crotch. This makes for very long, slow, snow travel. The ideal snow travel is to simply walk on top of the snow. Of course, the weather is difficult to predict. Snow pack changes year-to-year, month-to-month, day-to-day, hour-to-hour.
On Saturday, we had drove up to Kennedy Meadows to pick up a couple of packages that had arrived already. We met up with some friends from the beginning of trail, while the friends we were just previously hiking with still hadn’t arrived yet since we popped off trail early. Some of our friends had already entered the Sierras a few weeks earlier, during that peak window, allowing for relatively easy weather to cross through the Sierras, whereas our friends who had just entered or were just about to enter were faced with an impending multi-day snow storm. This would not only make it difficult to see around you, but the fresh snow can cover any sign of a footpath previously left by other hikers, leaving one to rely on navigating by GPS. All in all, not something Steve & I felt like battling.
Each hiker has their own expectations of the trail, each hiker has their own experiences and skills they bring to trail, so it’s up to each hiker to listen to, or ignore, the most current weather reports and snow conditions, and make the decision on if they want to enter the mountains.
We chatted with friends on Saturday over lunch and informed some of our plans to drive north and that we have room if anyone else wanted to use that option. We had one friend who was considering the skip ahead option and said she’d let us know before Monday. When we returned on Monday to pick up our new packages, as well as packages for another hiker who had bounced forward, our friend had decided to hike on from Kennedy Meadows. But another hiker was in need of a ride to Truckee, where he could catch the Amtrak back home to Seattle. No other hikers had chosen to flip North at this time, so Steve, Sayter, and I hopped in the car and headed north along the route known as the Hot Springs Highway. Unfortunately, our time schedule didn’t allow for any hot springs exploration, but it did put the idea in my head for a future road trip.
We investigated options of places to stay once we arrived to Truckee, but our midnight arrival time wasn’t boding well for us, so we took the opportunity to divert over the stateline to Reno for the night. We landed ourselves in a casino room at the extremely affordable price of $40, but all the cleanliness & comfort of a $130 room. The next morning, I was obligated to hit the casino floor with a dollar in hand. One simply can’t go to Reno without experiencing gambling. The floor of penny slots looked like my best option for extending my dollar’s worth. I won a whopping $0.60, and quickly gambled that away into oblivion. Ah, the short high of victory.
With my gambling urge fulfilled, we crossed back into California to drop Sayter off at the train & the car off at the airport. From there, Enterprise dropped us off at the Donner State Memorial Park, where we were able to inventory our food and organize our packs in the dry hospitality of the visitor center. We alsotook the opportunity to learn about the Donner Party, because without education, history is doomed to repeat itself and we didn’t want any part of that reputation. Although between the two of us, if we have the same success rate as the Donner Party, 50% of us would survive, and since I don’t offer as much sustenance in a cannibalistic situation, I feel like I would be the one of the two of us to survive. 😀
Luckily, this winter didn’t drop 27 feet of snow over the pass as it had the winter the Donner Party attempted to cross. We made our way back into town to the grocery store and took refuge in the warm confines of the nearby Starbucks. Fortune shined down on us as a local took notice of our packs, and as a hiker completing the PCT section by section over the years, she was intrigued to chat about gear with us. Before we knew it, Janet asked the magical question: Do you guys have a place to stay tonight? Soon we were on our way to a beautiful home in the hillside where we spent the rest of the afternoon going through our gear and discussing different aspects of gear with her. As a local search and rescue team member, we learned a lot about their operations in that area.
After a very cozy night sleep, Janet had offered to take us up to the trailhead at Donner Pass before going on a day hike with a friend. But that friend canceled their morning hike due to thunderstorms and hail, which led us to question our start location since Donner Pass had hail, thunderstorms, and about 10 feet of snow still. After a short analysis of our options, Janet offered to take us 50 miles further up trail to Sierra City where the snow looked less. We wound our way through the mountain road, with the weather clearing into a beautiful morning.
We were obviously early as far as PCT hikers go, because most restaurants weren’t open yet. The General Store owner had just arrived back from vacation the day before and had a very limited stock of resupply options. The post office had very limited hours of 3 hours during the midday per day.
We weren’t the first hikers to arrive in Sierra City for the year. We met a group of four who had hiked in after flipping out of the Sierras up to Truckee and another couple, who we had met only once back at Easter dinner at Trail Angel Mary’s, had gone into the Sierras and opted to flip North after a valid attempt at hiking through. The group of four headed out that day while Steve and I were stuck waiting for mail, yet again. But the group couldn’t leave until they filled their bellies with the famous Gutbuster burger. This one pound burger is famous among the trail community as hikers are notorious for their large appetites, so the owner created a burger to satisfy their needs. A couple of them got the Gutbuster, and another hiker decided one wasn’t enough and packed out a second for dinner that evening (a meal weighing in at over 2 pounds!). We opted for a significantly smaller option for lunch as we had not been on trail in almost a week.
Fortunately, our two packages arrived a day earlier than anticipated, so we were able to get on trail sooner than we planned, with Steve decked out in his bright new rain coat. Though we only hiked about 4 miles out of Sierra City, uphill, in the rain, it was a good feeling to be back on trail. Getting out of town is sometimes the hardest thing of thru-hiking. Luckily the free camping in the Sierra City Church yard transitioned us from the cush lifestyle of beds we had become accustomed to, back to the realm of tents before we started back hiking. The rain offered a clouded-in campsite that evening, but the next morning offered beautiful views of the valleys & buttes around us.
It felt good to be back on trail. Although we weren’t ready to crush a 20-mile days yet, we still enjoyed our shorter days along the ridge lines. We encountered a few snow patches and snowfields along the way with a few causing some navigational difficulties.
The first problem occured from a new trail reroute that had just been implemented the summer before. The app we use, called Gut Hooks, had the new route mapped out, but lacked the informational waypoints, such as water, road crossings, and camping for that 10 mile section. The other app commonly used, Halfmile PCT, didn’t have the reroute factored in at all, resulting in a 2.5 mile difference between the two apps as far as mile markers go. The snowfield on top of the reroute mountain made for a confusing start as footprints went in a variety of directions. All directions except the correct direction, according to the GPS map. So we carefully walked along the prescribed path to hopefully help hikers behind us establish a well beaten path through the melting snow patches. We made our way down the valley, where we enjoyed lunch between two beautiful Tamarack Lakes, connected by a rushing creek and progressive waterfall.
Our next problem area came after the reroute in a large snow field where the few previous footprints had melted enough to not leave a discernible path. We tried to follow the GPS as best as we could while picking our way across sections of exposed trail which had now turned to streams with the snow melt. At one point, we lost the trail completely and opted to traverse down the hillside and along an old forest road until we crossed the trail again. Though not technically difficult, the snow patches proved to be unstable and unpredictable in their firmness and depth. Our trail runner footwear provided minimum protection against the cold and wet snow that would surround our feet as we broke through the top crust of the snow.
We found a campsite in a small snow-free area next to a lake to call home for the night. We laid out our socks and shoes in the fading sunset light, hoping to utilize any heat rays to dry out our sodden footwear.
The next morning, we faced our final obstacle. While traversing the steep, snowy hillside, Steve had punched through the snow, encasing his entire leg up to his crotch. I worked feverishly to dig out his leg as quickly as possible because one leg trapped in the snow left the other leg at a very awkward angle, while the rest of his body began to slide down hill. Within 10 more minutes, the same scenario happened two more times. This was becoming entirely too dangerous for us to continue. Each time he collapsed through the snow, he risked injuring his leg, which then stressed me because what will we do if he gets hurt? I can’t carry him. Rolling him down the hill 1000 feet into the lake probably isn’t the best option. The cold snow had numbed my hands while digging him free, which only compounded the stress of the situation. We decided to climb up to the forest road on top of the hill, which was significantly less snowy & more flat.
Warming up and calming down from my stressed reaction, the reality of our situation set in. We needed different gear, and maybe a different plan, to conquer this snow. We found forest roads that took us down the hill to a main road on the other side of the lake, where we hoped to hitch back to Reno to go to REI. We figured some waterproof boots and snow gaiters, as well as possibly a pair of snowshoes to help Steve float on top of the snow, would help our case. We didn’t know how much further the snow continued, or what condition the remaining snow was in. All we knew was that continuing on at this moment was too much of an unnecessary risk for us to take on.