Jacob Leistra / "Game Boy" / PCT 2019

Days 62 - 67: Donahue, Tuolomne Mosquito Hell, Benson, Seavey, Senora, Tahoe

Day 62: Mile 917.0 -> Mile 942.6

It was my first day out alone and I wanted to tackle two passes: Island and Donahue. The former isn’t so much a pass as it is a hill, so it was easy. The second is definitely a pass at a bit over 11,000 ft. There was a well-defined boot path on the way through the snow, so that’s what I followed.

Even though Tuolomne Meadows (the campground and store) aren’t open yet, I decided to push the 25ish miles today to get there. It wasn’t a particularly hard day and I was feeling energized. A few friends reached out and will be meeting me in Tahoe (south and north sides), so I’m motivated to get going and cruise through this section.

When I got to Tuolomne I checked the store. Yup, still closed–but it opens tomorrow! Which means I can buy some more food and get a hot meal, and then hike on to Sonora Pass in a few days.

It was a great day. Except for the mosquitoes. But it was still a great day.

Day 63: Mile 942.6 -> Mile 967.5

“You’re the first customer of the season,” the cashier said. I was waiting outside of the Tuolomne Meadows General Store for about 25 minutes until 8:00 AM hit and the doors were opened. I quickly got in, grabbed anything I wanted to eat today, and got back on the trail. I would have bought breakfast at the grill next door, but it wasn’t opening until noon. Oh well, Pop Tarts would have to do.

I had an ambitious day of doing Benson Pass, about 24 miles away from Tuolomne Meadows. It was a lot of ascent and descent, and almost entirely in mosquito territory. But if I wanted to get to Kennedy Meadows North by Sunday and then Lake Tahoe the following week, I needed to keep a steady 25 mile/day pace. I’m comfortable and happy to do it, but normally I get a start around 6:00 AM, not 9:00.

The day was marked with amazing meadow views and quite a few water crossings. All of them were chill, and it was actually pretty nice keeping my feet cooled off.

Benson Pass was probably the easiest real pass so far, but it was still tough getting up there at the end of the day. Since there was nearly no snow, it was doable at about 5:30 in the evening.

Something cool from early in the day: the PCT passes by Soda Springs right past Tioga Pass (HWY 120). These springs bubble up naturally sparkling mineral water in various spots.

Day 64: Mile 967.5 -> Mile 998.2

I fucking hate mosquitoes. That’s the big takeaway from today. Today involved descending from Benson Pass, ascending Seavey Pass, doing a few big climbs, hiking through a long valley, and pushing past Dorothy Lake Pass. Every single step of the way I was attacked by mosquitoes. Part of the reason why I did 30 hard miles today is because I felt like I couldn’t stop. Not because I felt great and wanted to hike more, but because I would get swarmed by mosquitoes every time I slowed down. It was like a Hitchcockian nightmare.

I had just a tiny bit of bug spray left, and it didn’t do much good. I’m going to buy a ton of bug spray tomorrow when I get to Sonora Pass. I don’t care if all I can find is a heavy can of aerosolized environment-destroying bug Agent Orange. I will not suffer any longer. I may also cave and buy a tent.

Otherwise, today was a big day with lots of ground covered. I have a big climbs tomorrow to get to Sonora Pass, but there will be a resupply and maybe ice cream at the end of it.

Right now I’m staring at mosquitoes assault my bivy netting at the edge of a lake. Here’s a little of what I saw today:

And by my count, Dorothy Lake Pass is the last of the Sierra passes. Here’s what it looked like in the golden hour of 7:00 PM, and me happy/sad to be done with passes:

Day 65: Mile 998.2 -> Mile 1016.9 -> Hitch to and from Kennedy Meadows North -> Mile 1020.9

Okay, I lied. I thought it was the last pass, but today’s climb out to Sonora Pass was… well, a pass. It involved switching between mountain ridges and crossing a mountain range to descend on Sonora Pass, a section of HWY 108 that crosses through the Sierra. In terms of anticipation and expectation, today was one of my hardest hikes. But it was one of (if not… the!) most beautiful days. Here’s why.

The day started like any other normal day in the Sierra. I wake up around 5:00 AM, I convince myself to get up and moving, and I start packing up. As I inhale a couple Pop Tarts, the mosquitoes start to attack. I finish packing up, brush my teeth, and get hiking. I’m going downhill for about 5 miles, and then uphill for 13. The uphill starts and the snow begins. The mosquitoes stop. The wind kicks up. All of this, save for the incline, is perfect. After getting to about 10,000 ft. and doing a gnarly climb up mixed skree and slushy snow, I get this view:

This view made it really apparent that the Sierra is ending soon. Which is sad, but also exciting. I get to see some friends and family soon, and I get to hike in some unfamiliar environments (NorCal, Oregon, Washington).

The hike along the ridgeline before descending to Sonora was honestly one of the top hikes of my trip so far. I was surrounded by snowy mountains while walking a thin exposed rock line. I felt very alone–even though I wasn’t–and I loved it.

The rest of the hike into Sonora was sketchy and steep, with plenty of snow. But I made it down and met a really cool couple of guys (Scott and Aaron) from the Bay Area. They gave me a quick ride into Kennedy Meadows, where I resupplied, ate a cheeseburger and fries, and bought a pint of. ice cream.

I hitched out after my electronics were charged and made it a few more miles. The next few days will be relaxed as I head into Lake Tahoe and close out the Sierra.

Day 66: Mile 1020.9 -> Mile 1046.1

This might be the last push of the Sierra. Not really, because there’s a few days left before I’m past Lake Tahoe. But in terms of Sierra experience–snow, river crossings, altitude, etc.–this day has it all, and I’m don’t think the next two days will.

I woke up at my damp camp spot and realized I was surrounded by snow and frozen puddles. I’m sure I recognized them last night, but I didn’t really care. This explains why last night was one of the coldest on trail thus far. I got packed up quickly and started moving.

I didn’t see anyone for about 5 hours, which was nice. I was achy and sore and tired from a light night’s sleep. Nevertheless, I wanted to do 20+ miles, so I kept walking and listening to my audiobook (IQ84). After a while I passed Dino, Smoothie, Songbird, and Hot Wheels, four hikers I haven’t seen since Kennedy Meadows (South) at mile 702. We chatted for a bit and it was great to catch up. One of the best things about hiking alone is the awesome surprise of seeing (relatively, in trail time) old friends.

The day went smoothly and I found a good tentsite, albeit a windy one. Hopefully it dies down before too long. I’m cowboy camping again as I have for 99% of the trail, but I’m wearing all my layers tonight. Being toasty is the goal.

Day 67: Mile 1046.1 -> Mile 1071.6

After I wrote yesterday’s entry, I laid down at the ripe time of 7:30 PM. Right as I was falling asleep, I heard heavy shuffling of feet in the dirt. I shot up and glanced in the direction of the noise. Some German guy wanted to share the tentsite with me and was scoping out a spot. “You scared the shit out of me,” I told him. “Sorry,” he replied, “you have a nice site.”

I slept well and got up at 5:30 AM. As I was packing up I heard, “Game Boy?” I turned to see the German guy and a girl in his tent. It was Sgt. Pepper and Walkie Talkie! These two were the slow members of the group from yesterday, and I also hadn’t seen them in over 300 miles. We chatted and caught up, I apologized to Sgt. Pepper for my grumpiness the night before, and they shared some hot coffee with me. It was a good morning already.

The rest of the day was as predicted–relatively mellow grades, no water crossings requiring getting wet, and amazing views of the waning mountains and retreating snow. I deliberately went slow and stopped shortly after 4 PM just so I wouldn’t be too bored tomorrow. My plan is to hike to just a couple of miles away from HWY 50, and then hitch into South Lake Tahoe early on Thursday.

There was some more of the “exposed-windy-ridgeline” hiking today and I loved it. In fact, I’m camped on a rocky site with sporadic gusts. Hopefully it dies down shortly after sundown. But if not, I’ll have a lot of time tomorrow to be tired. I’m only hiking 17 miles or so, so I’ll be sure to take a few breaks.

Day 68: Mile 1071.6 -> Mile 1087.4

Today was a great day because it was so different. Not so different in terms of hiking, but different in terms of time management. Normally I’m hiking to get somewhere and move through the scenery efficiently. Today I had all day to cover 17ish miles, which is normally a very light day for me. As such, I slowed down, took more breaks, spoke to as many passing people as possible, and thoroughly enjoyed kicking back.

The highlight of the day was the Carson Pass Visitors Center. Staffed entirely by volunteers, the visitor center really takes care of PCT hikers. When I leisurely rolled through at 8:30 AM or so (even though it was just 5 miles away from my campsite), I saw a bunch of hikers out front talking to the kind volunteers. In addition to the trail register out front, the volunteers supplied us with cold sodas (I had a Coca-Cola for the first time countless years), baked goods, candy, and fresh fruit. An amazing volunteer named Allison also gave me a perfectly ripe white nectarine. I savored each bite as the juice dripped down my face. It was one of the best things I’ve eaten on trail thus far.

I spent over an hour hanging out and talking with them. Ken, another volunteer, was from Sutter Creek, but used to live in Lodi. We talked about the Sacramento area, hiking in the Sierra Nevada, and all things Lake Tahoe. After Walkie Talkies showed up, she and him realized they both knew people in Santa Cruz and when on talking for some time about their connections. These volunteers were really amazing.

The rest of the day was spent cruising through gentle hills approaching Lake Tahoe. The PCT rejoined the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), a trail I did in 2017. That trip was what convincwd me to someday hike the PCT. I specifically remember the section where the TRT connects and overlaps with the PCT right after Round Lake. I took a photo of that junction, just as I did two years ago.

I ate lunch at Showers Lake, just as I did in 2017. I’m camped at the exact spot I camped at in 2017 as well. I feel bittersweet and also warm and fuzzy thinking of the parallels between those two years. It’s good to be back, but it also blows my mind that was two whole years ago.

Time is crazy.

Some passing hiker pointed out this plant as a “monument plant,” hinting that they were rare?

Main Photo: The windy, exposed trail leading to Sonora Pass on June 14.