Bullfrog Lake to Onion Valley
(7 miles, +1,000/-2,700 feet).
So, last night was my worst night ever in a tent.
All night long I was tortured by the fear that Kearsarge Pass was wrapped in a wall of ice just like Forester.
The words of the thru-hiker I met before my trip rang in my ears: “Kearsarge was worse than Forester!”
I can’t believe all the gory and weird daydreams I had as I never really fell asleep but instead just drifted in a weird purgatory of dread.
And to make matters worse, I developed a slow leak in my sleeping pad that required me to blow it up again every hour to stay above the snow and warm.
After what felt like a million years, the day finally broke and I awoke to pack up and face my doom.
I did not yet have a clear view of Kearsarge Pass, so all my worst fears were still before me. And to make matters worse, clouds were playing on the hillsides, threatening to possibly reduce visibility on the ridge.
But once I started walking I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. In the distance I could see that there were lots of bare switchbacks above a much more manageable slope of snow. Plus, there were suncups everywhere, raising my hopes that it would be easier to find footholds on the slopes.
The approach up the valley was easy. An overnight frost had crisped the ice, making it perfect for microspikes, and the incline was incredibly gentle.
Although I had mentally plotted a route around the snow to get to the pass with some class 2/3 climbing, I discovered that there were several paths from people who had come in the last few days when the snow was slushy. Their deep footprints had hardened into almost perfect stepping stones, so I chose to try the icy slope.
I still used my ice axe and I still hated every minute of it, but I felt thrilled that I knew I would not die. It felt like an hour, but it was probably more like 20 minutes to get up the worst part.
When I was nearly to the pass, I found for the first time on this trip some wildflowers. If I were religious I might have thought they were sent from god.
And like that it was done. All my worrying for naught.
Once again, the other side of the pass was slushy, which would make for some good glissading.
There were two traverses above Big Pothole Lake, a high one and a low one that started at the bottom of a glissade.
Just as I decided to take the low route, I met a thru-hiker named Pandora. We chatted for a minute and then I pressed on. The glissade towards Big Pothole Lake was thrilling in a good way, as I felt completely in control and had no fear I would die.
After the glissade, the hard work of the steep traverse above the lake began. Again, I did not feel as bad as I did on Forester, but I still hated having to work step by step with my ice axe to avoid a potentially fatal fall. I’m sure others could manage it with just trekking poles or even with nothing at all, but that’s apparently not one of my talents….
Soon Pandora and his three fellow hikers (Freckles, Shoe Bandit, and Salty Dog) caught up to me. They were from Australia and New Zealand and had some great stories about the 700+ miles they had traveled so far.
They had been out for 8 days since Kennedy Meadows and boy were they fast. It felt good to try to keep up with them as they raced down towards Onion Valley. And now that I was no longer afraid, I was finally able to enjoy the spectacular record snowfall I had come out here to see.
Just to put a point on it, nature chimed in with an amazing sight. Across the valley an enormous pop sounded like a cannon and we turned to see a huge avalanche sail down the lower reaches of University Peak.
And then just like that we were at the end of the snow.
To make matters even better, when we got to the bottom there was trail magic. And not only that — the trail magician was none other than the legendary thru-hiker and author Carrot Quinn.
I offered to take my brief new trail family to Bishop where they could recharge. They accepted and were more than up to the challenge of fitting a thousand pounds of hikers and backpacks into my tiny Honda Fit.
It was so nice to end a high note, given how stressful the last 36 hours have been.
But one thing I have definitely learned about myself: I do not like working hard to avoid dying. I have no problem with dry class 2 and even class 3 climbing. But there is something about a steep slide down an icy slope hundreds of feet long that I just cannot cope with. This may very well be the last time I ever bring my ice axe on a trip. If I think I might need one, I will probably just try a different itinerary.
I know that limits me for thru-hikes. And as a result, it has been making me rethink my desire to thru-hike. Maybe I should just continue to section hike, choosing different sections according to seasons that are safe and enjoyable.
It’s really hard because for two and a half years I have focused on the identity of becoming a thru-hiker. There really is something magical and impressive about walking from Mexico to Canada in one go. It’s sort of like what I already did with my life, spending two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. The magic is in the struggle.
But maybe long distance thru-hiking not for me. And maybe I shouldn’t arbitrarily think there is such a big difference between walking 2600 miles in one year or in ten.