Tyndall Creek (PCT mile 774.7) to Bullfrog Lake
(14 miles, +3,000/-3,700 feet).
Today was a life-changing day for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not claiming that anyone else would have my experience. In fact, in talking to others today who did Forester Pass, I’m pretty sure my experience is unusual.
But I am me and no one else and I can only report what I myself saw and felt.
In short, I was absolutely terrified.
For about an hour, I thought I was going to die.
I will elaborate below, but I first just want to explain why this matters, above and beyond the dying part.
For two and a half years now I have been working so hard towards being a thru-hiker, full of faith and self-confidence that by sheer force of will I could conquer the PCT or any other long trail for that matter. And while I still think that I have the capability to do it, I found today’s experience so unpleasant that it has completely sapped my will to try a thru-hike some day.
This is so confusing for me, because today was also one of the most beautiful hiking days of my life.
Let me begin in the beginning.
I awoke after a fitful sleep, worrying a little bit about the task ahead. I didn’t know how truly awful it would be, but I was definitely focused on the problem of climbing up an icy slope to get to Forester Pass.
The morning started lovely and light as I packed up my things.
The ice was crunchy and perfect for walking in microspikes as I started my ascent up towards Forester Pass.
After about an hour I found a dry patch to stop for breakfast and watch the sun rise over the ridge. Just as it did, coyotes howled in the valley below. Although it was beautiful at the time, I now wonder if it was ominous!
I was in good spirits after breakfast and continued the gentle approach.
A short while later I breached a ridge and got my first view of Forester Pass.
I filled up with 2 liters of water this morning, but as it turns out that was unnecessary since the outlet from Lake 3700+ was open.
My walk was made especially pleasant this morning because I could follow the tracks of someone who had recently come through in MSR snowshoes.
As I neared the approach to Forester, I searched the contours endlessly, trying to calculate the best strategy.
Knowing what I know now, I should have headed straight up the mountain to the first dry switchback, which is about 20% from the right edge in the picture above. But instead, I started traversing to the right, and as the slope got steeper I found I could no longer traverse. My microspikes do not have the teeth on the edge necessary to grip or to easily kick side steps.
I panicked because I did not really know how to descend, and I increasingly was uncomfortable with going up, fearing that the forward steps I was digging out with my microspikes were too inclined to hold my weight.
My legs started to wobble as I grew more and more afraid. It had been an hour since I started and I still had a third of the way to go.
I made it to a rock and took a short break. The taste of cortisol and adrenaline burned in my throat and I wondered how I was going to make it up the next third.
I also realized that there was no way I was going to hit the switchbacks. I was way too far to the right. So even when I made it up, I had a climb of unknown difficulty before me.
I decided to just head straight up and try my luck. Almost by accident, I discovered that I was not putting my ice axe into the ice deeply enough. If you plunge it hard enough, it will go in several inches and you can use it as a handhold to literally pull yourself up the mountain. I guess I forgot that part from youtube self education course on ice axe technique!
I was not comfortable, and it was really, really, slow, but 6 inches at a time I made it up the last 200 feet.
The rock climb was really scary because I did not know what I would do if it was impassable. But at worst it was only class 3 — some exposure but I certainly never felt unsafe the same way I felt on the icy slope.
By the time I got to the dreaded snow chute, it looked like a piece of cake by comparison.
And then, after two hours, I finally made it to the top.
Now, on top of the climbing ordeal, I was worried about how on god’s green earth I was going to now descend a similar slope on the other side. But by 9:30am the snow was slushy, and the rest of the day was quite enjoyable because I did several glissades. These are controlled slides down steep slopes. Between my shoes and my ice axe, I could keep the brakes on and slide down anywhere there was enough flat runout at the bottom to make it safe.
Once I finished the glissade, I then had to traverse a steep slope, but it was not as nail-biting since the snow was slushy and I felt confident I could stop myself from sliding. Nonetheless, it is exhausting to be constantly on guard against a deathly slide.
Earlier this morning I saw three hikers above me on Forester, but I guess they chose not to glissade and I passed them on the way down. When I stopped for a snack they caught up to me and we chatted a bit.
As I made my way back down towards tree line, Bubbs Creek opened up and I found a nice shady spot to refill my water and eat some lunch. It’s such a different experience than when Half Cookie and I did the Rae Lakes Loop — no mosquitoes this time!
The other three hikers once again caught up to me, and I joined them for about an hour. They were in their 60s, and two of them were a couple doing a 20th anniversary hike to commemorate their thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (wow!).
I asked them about Forester and they did not seem to mind the ascent. They all had whippets and crampons. Although I am sure I would not have felt as afraid with better equipment, I think I still would have felt afraid while I worked my way step by step up the mountain. Sigh.
I enjoyed and admired this group, but we were hiking at different paces and so I said farewell. After my terrifying experience on Forester, I am equally worried about Kearsarge Pass which is coming up tomorrow.
Hiking below treeline in snow can be exhausting because of all the ups and downs caused by the huge snowdrifts. And I was emotionally exhausted from the day and sort of sick of the snow. So I veered off the PCT at the outlet for Bullfrog Lake and found dry patches to do the climb out of Bubbs Creek.
The climb was beautiful and not too hard, never really more than class 2.
I refilled my water bottles at Bullfrog Lake and then headed for Kearsarge Lakes to camp for the night.
I am sure that some of the problems I had today can be attributed to a poor choice of equipment. Instead of bringing crampons like everyone else I encountered, I brought microspikes, which are lighter but have shorter and fewer teeth to grip the ice. I made that decision in part due to my commitment to an ultralight philosophy, but also in part due to reading about what others have done. Andrew Skurka, for example, crossed Forester in microspikes in May during a normal snow year, which probably had similar conditions to those I experienced today. And ultimately, I did survive too. But I would never, ever, ever recommend to others to do what I did.
I am also deeply worried about tomorrow. One of the thru-hikers I spoke to at Onion Valley said he thought Kearsarge was worse than Forester. I am imagining another terrifying wall of ice.