Jacob Leistra / "Game Boy" / PCT 2019

Days 46 - 51: Mosquitos, Meadows, Mountains, Whitney, and Forrester

Day 46: Mile 702.1 -> Mile 721.8

Today is our first day officially in the Sierra. It’s obvious to me that cell reception will be hard or impossible to find in the Sierra, so I’m going to be journaling most of the Sierra days in sections. This section will include getting out of Kennedy Meadows, summiting Mt. Whitney, and crossing Forrester Pass, the highest point on the PCT.

The first thing I realized about this section of the PCT is how hard it’s going to be on my body. With the amount of miles we want to be hitting, and the amount of extra gear we have to take, my legs and shoulders pretty much started suffering the first day. Luckily we’re no longer in a section where we need to count on every water source. We have the luxury of carrying just a liter of two for most of the Sierra, while simultaneously not worrying about being cooked in the desert heat.

The downside of the water is all the insects. Early morning and evening around camp were tortuous with mosquitos. I can’t count how many times I was bit, and that’s with multiple layers of clothing and a head net. But that’s just how it’s going go for the next 390 miles, and probably all of Oregon.

The first night was cold, so it’s time to really up my game on correct camp execution. Setting up my bivy, getting my quilt comfortably in place, and ensure my sleeping pad(s!) won’t move around are all an important part of getting good rest at altitude.

We’re treated to amazing views of a different type. Our first Sierra meadow greeted us and literally took my breath away. And there’s only more to come.

One really cool sight was the bridge crossing over the Kern River into Monache Meadow. Under the bridge are tens of swallow nests with birds effortlessly surfing the wind. It looked like they were catching bugs in the breeze across the river, and it was a fascinating experience. The river was pretty nice to relax at, as well.

Day 47: Mile 721.8 -> Mile 735.4

We miscalculated or didn’t calculate our first week in the Sierra, so we have to shorten the next two days to put us in position to summit Mt. Whitney on June 28. That means our next two days will be a combined 33ish miles, despite feeling fresh enough to do more. There’s also limited snow right now, so it’s prime time to move fast. Alas, we can’t, because we need to be at the Crabtree Meadow camping area in a couple days. So I guess we’ll have to take it slow.

It was a quiet day, sort of a small “on ramp” for what’s to come.

Day 48: Mile 735.4 -> Mile 756.5

Last night was cold and restless, but at least there weren’t any bugs. Today is a bigger 20ish mile day to set us up for an mellow day tomorrow.

We trudged through lots of snow today, and I’m prepared for that being the new norm. It’s not really that big of a deal, but it’s tiring to not only step through slushy snow, but also lose the trail in a field of white sun cups. But I’m still having a ton of fun.

In our miscalculation of days, I realized I shorted myself a day of food. So I’m stretching my 5+ days of food into 6+ days. A rough calculation says I’ll be eating about 2700 calories a day. I don’t even know how many I’m burning, but it’s way more than 3000, especially due to the snow. So the next few days are going to suck because of the mild hunger I’ll be feeling. Oh well! At least the sights and sites are gorgeous.

Random thought: stumbling on a random meadow is absolutely breathtaking. Meadows are my jam.

Day 49: Mile 756.5 -> Mile 767.0

Tomorrow is an exciting day. Climbing Mt. Whitney has been a dream of mine for a decade or so. Ever since I heard that the the continental U.S. high point was in California, it’s been on my list of hikes to do. I can’t believe I get to do it tomorrow, and I didn’t have to get a lottery permit or anything crazy.

We had a light day so we could camp at Crabtree Meadow, a spot off the PCT (and on the John Muir Trail) so we can summit Mt. Whitney with minimal difficulty (though still difficult). We are planning on getting up at midnight and starting on the trail by 12:30 AM. There are a ton of people here, so the name of the game is to get out early.

Day 50: Mile 767.0 -> 15 Miles Round-Trip to summit Mt. Whitney -> Mile 774.6

Our alarms rang at midnight and we were up and ready shortly after. The excitement was palpable in our group. Unfortunately, Beets did not want to join us, but we were too quickly on trail to worry why.

We were the first group atop Mt. Whitney. It took us until 5:00 AM to slog through pitch black snowfields and switchbacks, but it was 100% worth it. The wind, cold, and limited visibility were merely small obstacles to accomplishing one of my life goals. By the time we finally crested the top and saw the Smithsonian Observatory building, I was choking on held back tears.

I reached the far edge of the mountain to view the the best sunrise of my entire life. It was indescribable and incapturable. The 360-degree view of the horizon was one of if not the most beautiful sight I have witnessed.

My off and on tears were unexpected and unexplainable. I just felt immense satisfaction being at the top of the continental U.S. and seeing the sun.

Insert Legend of Zelda you-just-opened-a-chest-and-found-an-ice-axe jingle:

But it was windy as hell and surely below freezing, so after replying to a few text messages (I had reception for the first time in 4 days, but then quickly lost it), we booked it down the mountain.

The hike back was significantly harder than the ascent, but I guess that’s to be expected. Luckily we got to see all the beautiful hike on our way down that we obviously missed with headlamps on the way up. We got back to camp around 9:45 AM and all quickly climbed into our sleeping setups. We napped until noonish and then got moving again.

We did 3 water crossings that afternoon, something you shouldn’t really do on fast moving streams. All of them had moments where a wrong step could have you swept downstream. But we took them slow and scouted out the best spots to cross, and we did them all quite well.

Today was hard but immensely rewarding. Tomorrow will be hard as well as we go through Forrester Pass.

Day 51: Mile 774.6 -> Mile 788.9

We got up before the sun and were packed up at 4:30 AM. Before we left the creek’s edge We saw the familiar red lights of headlamps across the creek. We beckoned them over and showed them the best place to cross. After waiting for the first of their group to successfully cross, we hopped on trail. We had a big day ahead of us, but it wasn’t as bad as a near-freezing water crossing in the early morning.

Our plan was to go through Forrester Pass and get as close to Kearsarge Pass as possible. At 13,123 ft., Forrester is the highest point on the PCT. After having an awesome time on Whitney, we weren’t expecting to be very technically challenged, just tired from a slow ascent and descent. The approach was pretty rough going: it took a long time to find the trail as it winded through snowy mountainsides and in between lakes. When we finally got to the base of the pass, we quickly followed established steps to work out way up to clear switchbacks. After just a few minutes of switchbacks, we arrived at a final snowy traverse. We all crossed in a flash and were at the top of the PCT.

(Side note: As we approaches the ice chute traverse, we saw a group of 10+ taking turns crossing. After every crossing the group cheered. I expected it to be pretty dicey, but I found it fun and sufficiently adrenaline-boosting, so I took a selfie in the middle of the ice chute. I was totally secure and comfortable, but it was also a “you slip, you slide and maybe die” situation.)

The rest of the day was trudging down nearly 4000 ft. of snow fields and washed out trail. It looked like a major flood or avalanche had destroyed several areas of the trail. The pine trees strewn about and buried in patches of snow were enough of a clue that some kind of serious weather occurrence had been through this section of the Sierra in the winter.

I also got to do my first glissade (sledding without a sled), and got to tear my already torn wind pants. Here’s Horse Seducer glissading down effortlessly:

We arrived–slowly–at our campsite. We were situated between huge patches of snow, but we didn’t mind. We have 9 miles of hiking and Kearsarge Pass to climb before we arrive at the Onion Valley trailhead, and a couple of (big) hitches away from Bishop.

Looking back at the last two days, I’m feeling very confident on our challenges ahead. With the high snowpack in most of the Sierra, a lot of worry and fear was spreading through the thru hiking community. A lot of people have flipped north to do different sections before finishing the Sierra. I’m glad we stayed, and having completed the hardest two days of the Sierra, I’m psyched for what’s to come. Also, I loved doing “technical” stuff with an ice axe and in steep snow. I definitely want to look into alpinism when this is all said and done.

But first, visiting one of my favorite places, this time not as a climber.

Main Photo: The pre-sunrise eastern view on Mt. Whitney. June 28.