14 May 2021
Wright Creek to Onion Valley
PCT Mile 771.0 to 788.5
I wasn’t sure what today had in store for me.
Last time I did this section in early June 2017, a high snow year, it took me two days (Day 1, Day 2). I camped on snow at Tyndall Creek, used my ice axe all the way up Forester Pass, and glissaded several times over 2,000 feet on its north side.
Constant postholing slowed me to one mile per hour.
I then camped on snow at Bullfrog Lake, crossed a snow bridge upstream from it the next morning, and pulled out the axe again going up Kearsarge Pass.
Also: it was really scary!
Today I did all of that mileage and then some in just one day. I never put my spikes on. I never pulled out my axe. I walked on consolidated snow in well-established footprints for at most two miles. I didn’t posthole. Not even once! And sun cups and exposed rocks kept me from attempting even a single glissade.
So, this really a story of night and day!
When I left camp this morning I realized I didn’t get a picture of Ribs and Scott yesterday. So I sheepishly took a picture of their tents.
My first climb was only 1,000 feet but it took me up to the impressive Bighorn Plateau, a sandy flat expanse covered in alpine tundra and centered on a seasonal tarn that is already shrinking away from its shores.
Then there was an easy hike down to Tyndall Creek, which is the first place my feet have gotten wet since Fuller Ridge. At the PCT crossing the water was too high for a rock hop, so I tried a spot 50 feet upstream. The very last rock was slippery (D’oh!) and one of my feet slid below the surface before I regained my balance. Oh well!
Climbing above Tyndall, I soon had distant views of Forester Pass.
Okay, I am going to geek out a little here. There are hundreds (thousands?) of unnamed lakes in the Sierra, so the convention in verbal descriptions is to give them the name of the nearest contour line on the topographical (topo) map that is below the level of the lake, and then add a plus sign to the end. So lake 12500+ is the lake just above elevation 12,500 feet. Of course, there are probably a lot of those, so usually this system only makes sense if you know what drainage a lake is in.
One annoying thing about some parts of the Sierra is that the US Geological Service decided to use meters instead of feet for some quadrangle maps. So sometimes (like today!) some of the topo lines for the same drainage don’t match up and some lakes will be named in meters and others in feet.
Anyhoo, in the interest of giving as detailed information as I can about conditions at various elevations, I’m trying to name all the lakes I saw correctly, and I’m trying to give specific elevations for where I did and did not encounter snow.
With that in mind, here are some pictures on the way up!
I caught up with a thru-hiker named Blizzard (she got her name because her friends blamed her for a snowstorm in the SoCal mountains back in March!). She will be a freshman at Brown in the fall, and she was currently hiking with Juice, a boyfriend she met on trail!
(Really? I can barely remember to brush my teeth, let alone keep the kind of hygiene needed for romance!)
Anyway, we had a fun chat and then I left her with Juice, who was waiting for her at the base of Forester Pass. After the easy walking on flat consolidated snowfields, I encountered hardly any snow at all on the switchbacks up the steepest part of the climb.
And then…. the dreaded Forester Pass snow chute! This iced-over sheer drop usually strikes fear into the hearts of many PCT hikers, and sometimes it lasts well into the summer. As a public service, Ned Tibbets, a well-known Sierra guide and instructor, would often go out early to chop steps for the hoards of hikers that would soon be crossing it.
It’s technically still the first half of May, and already the chute is essentially gone!
I didn’t bother taking out my spikes for the 3 steps. Instead I just rock scrambled below the snow. Easy peasey.
There is still a cornice at the top (I forgot to take a picture) but at the trail it is only 4 feet high, so I took my pack off, threw it over, and then pulled myself up and over.
The snow was so soft, one could probably hack a pathway through it with an axe in about 10 minutes. Either way, it will be gone very soon.
There is still snow on the north side of Forester Pass for about 2 miles, but there are also significant dry stretches in those miles, there are good steps to follow, the snow is consolidated (yay! no postholing!), and sun cups on steep fields make it less likely a stumble would turn into an uncontrolled slide.
At 9:30am there was just enough give to the snow that I always had solid footing with just my trail runners. I never even thought about putting my spikes on for extra traction.
About 2 miles from the pass the snowfields end, and then its mile-crushing time once again!
It was so pretty, I took a detour off trail to explore a couple of tarns and wander amongst the krummholz as I wound my way through grassy meadows back down to the PCT.
The creek coming from Center Basin was flowing pretty strong across the PCT, but there’s a good log upstream visible from the trail crossing.
I took a long break at the intersection with the Bubbs Creek Trail before starting yet another crazy 1,000 foot climb. I met a weekend backpacker near the top who commiserated with me and then pointed out that I was almost done with the steep part.
The views heading up were definitely worth it!
I was so so tired heading up to Kearsarge Pass, but I just kept chugging. I met a solo woman on the way down who was planning to climb Mount Rixford. Cool!
And then: success!
I got a text from Paul from East Side Shuttle saying he could be at the Onion Valley parking lot at 5:30pm, so I turned up the gas heading downhill, trying not to blow out my knees on the 2,600 foot descent.
I did stop once, to make a reservation at the Hostel California in Bishop. And when I finally got to Paul (5:45pm, 15 minutes late!) I apologized with a reference to the movie The Player:
“Sorry, traffic was a bitch!”
From hard to easy,
I’ve seen both of your faces
Inspiring my awe.