Monday, April 13, 2015

PCT 2014, Day 46: Fear at Forester Pass



DAY 46
June 9th, 2014, Monday
770 to 782ish


(Please read this disclaimer first. Because I really am that insecure.)

The next morning, we packed up in the chill of early morning and took off walking again. We were soon joined by Kit and Rimshot, and paced them for a long time, racing after their breakneck speed in a line, and chatted about life, jobs, church, family, homeschooling, hiking, and everything in between. They had hiked the John Muir Trail (the 211-mile trail that was now coinciding with the PCT) for their honeymoon, and were now returning to do the whole PCT. 

We followed a narrow track of beaten path that cut through fields of tough greenish-gray turf, wound through undulating ridges of rock clustered with conifers, and dipped through fir forests every once in a while. We found a raging torrent of a stream, and had to search the banks for a while before discovering a way to hop across rocks and logs to the other side. Here we rested, swatting away mosquitoes, and ate a snack. Then we continued on, talking for a while as we continued along the sparse landscape. After a bit, we couldn’t keep up with Kit and Rimshot anymore— I had to take a break. We said goodbye, hoping we’d see them again sometime.


On our break, I devoured nearly half a jar of peanut butter, straight. We had packed out a lot more snacks that usual, but we were blazing through them at an alarming rate. The day-and-a-half detour for Mount Whitney wasn’t helping, either. But our resupply lay on the other side of the highest point on the PCT (elevation 13,153 feet): Forester Pass.

I had heard of Forester Pass, and seen videos. I remembered that there was gray rock, and snow, a lot of it. At this point, I had no qualms about the idea of walking over snow. Snow is fun! It’s like sledding! Besides, it was a low snow year. We had heard that the pass was still buried, but many other people had done it before us, so it would be no problem. The Animal, with his ice axe, was super-excited to do some glissading (sledding on your butt).  

As we were headed toward the pass, we met a John Muir Trail hiker, headed southbound as most of them do. It was always incredibly easy to spot the JMTers: they had massive backpacks, heavy leather boots, brightly-colored shirts, and all the snow gear imaginable. We stopped to chat with this one, and mentioned that we were going to hit Forester Pass at about 4:00, if all went well.

“That’s a really good idea,” he said. “In the morning the snow is just pure ice! Really treacherous. Never go over a pass in the morning. You’ll have better traction in late afternoon, especially since you guys don’t have any snow gear.” 

“How much snow is there?” we asked.

“The south side isn’t bad, but the north side is pretty buried. There are a lot of exposed boulder fields, though. You should definitely go down those instead of trying to walk on the snow. It’s hard to figure out where all the footprints lead anyway.”

Feeling more confident by his assessment and empowered by his advice, we thanked him and continued on.

That was our first mistake.


Now the trail left behind almost all vegetation, and cuts its way over a gentle slope of scree. Tiny red-leafed plants, small bits of scrub, and a few gnarled trees still clung to this land, but it was mostly a barren waste— much more barren than any desert we had hiked through yet. When we crested the hill, we found ourselves on a wide plain of bare rock, with only a tinge of green around the edges of a shallow lake off to our left. The plain curved into a hill, and beyond the top of the hill we saw a bitter ridge of mountains in the distance, broken gray teeth streaked with snow and joined at the shoulders like an unscalable wall. 


It took a long time to cross this landscape, with a gradual slope always upward. Springtime hadn’t reached this place yet— we passed some clumps of grass around pools, but they were gray as the stone, and the tough turf only showed the slightest hint of a green hue. Heavy white clouds weighed down on us, so I felt like we were caught between gray rock and gray clouds, a low roof over an immeasurably wide room.

The trail climbed another small ridge, and we saw at last the feet of the forbidding mountains we had seen an hour ago. From where we stood, the land stretched out flat, covered in a huge field of snow, interspersed with wide lakes that showed patches of pale cerulean water beneath the ice on their surfaces. Piles of dark boulders were scattered throughout, ominous islands in the sea of snow. Behind them, rooted in piles of scree, the mountains reared up like an almost-sheer cliff, forming a jagged 700-foot-tall barricade as solid as the wall of a castle.

I didn’t necessarily think about it in these ominous terms at the time. All I could see at the moment was a huge field of snow (hey, cool), and gorgeous jagged mountains. One thing we were both confused about, though, was where the pass was. We scanned the massive cliff that reared up in a wide semicircle ahead of us, fencing us in as we drew nearer.

“Seriously,” I said, “where’s the pass?”

Zach scanned the wall, shaking his head. “I don’t see it.”

But then we had to turn our attention to finding the trail. A maze of footprints crossed the snow field. Although we had our maps and GPS, we wanted to take the most straightforward route.

Without any trepidation, we stepped onto the snow and started walking across the well-packed surface. Zach went several yards ahead of me, scouting out the trail as it wound from rock island to rock island. Sometimes the snow shifted or gave a little bit under my feet, but it still hadn’t occurred to me— me, a Missourian who had never stepped on snow that was more than a foot deep— that I was walking over a thin sheet of packed snow that poised precariously over an a deeply-creviced boulder field.

Up ahead, we saw a larger cluster of boulders, where someone had found enough room to set up a tent. Zach, still walking a dozen yards ahead of me, stepped lightly onto the rock and because chatting with the woman sitting next to the tent. 

I started to follow, but when my left foot thudded down into its next step, the crusty layer of snow shattered.

With surprising violence, my left leg plunged down into the looser-packed snow beneath, bashing against the side of a boulder and burying itself up to my hip. With a short shriek I hurled forward, catching myself with my bare hands, which stung against the icy snow. My right knee crashed into the ice, making a deep imprint, and my backpack slammed against my head.

“Are you okay?” Zach yelled.

“I’m fine!” I answered, catching my breath. I had heard of post-holing before, but for some reason I had always imagined it like a deeper version of walking through a foot of fluffy new-fallen snow. Now I realized that the top layer of snow was essentially ice, while the bottom layer was much mushier, and also starting to melt.

I’d caught my breath, so I carefully put my weight on my hands and right knee and tried to pull my left leg out of the snow. My foot moved half a centimeter and hit into a solid layer of ice. Uncomprehending, I yanked harder, feeling a cast of ice gripping my leg. My body heat had melted the snow for a moment, then refroze the snow into ice. Instead of calmly wiggling free, panic gripped me, and I slammed my foot against its ice prison, jabbing at it with my trekking pole (which also started getting stuck). 

Meanwhile, Zach was still chatting with the woman. Just as I was about to yell, “Leave that floozie and get over here to help me!”, my foot tore free and I half-stumbled, half crawled onto more solid snow, trying to keep my weight spread among my four limbs. Zach glanced over, wondering what was taking me so long. Gingerly, testing every step, I eased my way over to the boulders, then collapsed on the solid rock.

That’s when I started hating snow.


The “floozie” turned out to be a woman in her 50s who was hiking the trail solo. She was camped here, waiting to go over Forester Pass in the morning. We were worried about her crossing it when it was ice. (Silly us.)

“Where is the pass, anyway?” I asked.

The woman pointed, and for the first time I saw a tiny diagonal slit of snow at the meeting of two mountains. A tiny notch in the rock was barely visible, and below the notch was a completely sheer cliff. Now I was more confused than ever— we could see it, but how would we get to it? We looked in vain for the trail leading up to it. There was nothing to do but follow the trail under our feet.

Zach and I made the call to go ahead and eat before trying to climb Forester, which turned out to be a very good decision. We made half a pasta meal (we were rationing a lot by this point), then gathered our things and continued across the rest of the snow field. I didn’t posthole again, but now I was paranoid at every shift of the icy crust beneath me.

At last we emerged onto solid rock, and I saw with relief that the JMT hiker had been right: this south side had hardly any snow on it. The trail turned to the right, away from the notch, then doubled back on itself. And for the first time, we could see where the trail was going.

That cliff is 700 feet high, and the notch is the pass.
It was a set of switchbacks, carved straight into the side of the sheer 700-foot cliff. There had clearly been some dynamite involved, because there was no way on earth you could have made this trail without blowing away a narrow zigzag of ledges for the hikers. We even saw a commemorative plaque honoring a construction worker, Mr. Donald Downs, 18, who had died from complications of a surgery after a boulder crushed his arm in the building of this trail in 1930.

I wondered aloud, “Who on earth decided that there should be a trail here?” 

And so we started the murderous series of switchbacks, narrow and gray, sometimes heaped on the edges with snow but never fully covered. Zach and I stuck close to the inner wall, trying to ignore the cliff that grew higher and higher with each step.

At last, after a long, taxing climb, we found ourselves walking toward the diagonal line of snow we’d seen earlier, with the cliff on our left. We could see from here that the trail cut across the snow and then did a set of tiny switchbacks on a bare outcropping of rock that looked like it had been constructed by hand. It looked entirely too exposed for our liking, but we plowed ahead. There was a narrow ribbon of trail, recently melted, that allowed us to avoid walking over the snow, and then we wound our way up the tiny, steep switchbacks, at last emerging at the top of Forester Pass.

Here, from a flat surface of dust and boulders wide enough to let us relax a tiny bit, we could see a sweeping view to both the north and the south. We looked to the north first, the wild card: it was indeed covered in snow, but there were several boulder fields exposed in the steep expanse. The mountain spread out in a fairly gentle slope for a little bit, ending in a sheer cliff a bit ahead and to the left, and delving down steeply off to our right. The trail cut through the middle, then disappeared into a maze of footprints. At the bottom of this first tier of the wide mountainside, a mostly-frozen lake, oblong and parallel to us, lay at the foot of the cliffs to our right. Far down and to the left, we could see the start of greenery, promising a nice place out of the snow and under trees where we could camp for the night.

To the north


To the south, where we'd come from
We were both a little winded, a little worried, and a little tired, but we wasted no time in starting down. We both donned our sunglasses— we had already learned that if you don’t wear sunglasses while crossing a snowfield, the entire world starts to look like it’s been Instagrammed with a sepia filter, and you know that can’t be good for your eyes.

The trail was clear at first: a single path of many footprints that led down to a large scree field. Zach started down it first, and I followed him, scooching along in the slushy snow, trying to use my trekking pole for balance (which wasn’t much help, since it just pushed into the snow as well). Although the snow on top was soft, it seemed firm enough underneath.

“Hey, this isn’t so bad!” I said.

I’m pretty sure that several minutes lapsed between that comment and what happened next, but in my head it felt like it happened at that moment— I post-holed again. Again, my left leg slammed down up to my crotch, I hurled forward, I yelled, and the snow closed around my leg and froze. There was a small snowbank on my left which half-collapsed on my arm, soaking my hands and arm with freezing slush.

This time, I couldn’t yank my leg free. I struggled and squirmed and jabbed at the ice with my trekking pole, but the ice still gripped my leg like a vice. Zach backtracked to try to help me, and I began struggling like a fox caught in a snare, nearly hyperventilating. Zach took off his backpack and pulled out the trowel we used to dig cat-holes and handed it to me. I furiously dug away the snow around my leg, and it seemed like hours before I was finally able to loosen it enough to yank my icy, numb leg free.

“You’re okay,” Zach said, trying to get me to calm down. “Just try not to panic.”

I stuck my icy fingers in my mouth, trying to warm them up. “I’m okay,” I mumbled, but anxiety was bubbling up inside me.

The slope is a lot steeper and the snow
patches a lot wider than they look.
Carefully, as if walking on thin ice (because I was!), I followed Zach to the nearest boulder field, and there I collapsed once more on the solid ground, taking deep breaths. Now all the snow around me— this vast field, pocked only with boulders here and there— seemed like a minefield. I didn’t mind that much sinking into the snow, or even getting my leg caught— but I hated the violence and suddenness of the action, the uncontrolled fall that put my ankle in jeopardy of snapping against a rock. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I just had my body weight to deal with, but the extra thirty pounds strapped to my back made me feel less stable. All I could imagine was me breaking my ankle and lying, bleeding, on the snow, while Zach tried to find someone to get a helicopter to rescue me. There were a lot of other hikers behind and in front of us, we knew, but I still felt alone.

From here the sets of footprints scattered in all directions, so Zach and I decided to take the JMTer’s advice and follow the boulder field straight down the steep cliff to our right to the frozen lake. We knew that the PCT ended up at the left tip of the lake that lay below us, so if we went straight down and then turned left to cross the snowfield by the lake, we could make it back to the PCT in good time.

With new courage, Zach and I tiptoed over the snow to the boulder field and started down the cliff. The angle got pretty steep after a while, but it seemed like a better option than walking on snow the whole time. 

Before long, the slope turned into what could reasonably classified as a cliff. It was a very steep tumbled slope of boulders, many of which were stable, but most of which were lying loose and would skid or tumble away at your footstep. Although this was still better to me than the uncertainty of the snow, I still got a jolt of adrenaline every  time the stone beneath my foot shot out from under me and went clattering down the hill. Zach went ahead of me, but I never stayed directly above him for this reason. We considered turning back once or twice, but Zach scouted ahead a bit and said that he thought the cliff never got too steep to climb down, and so we continued.

Zach was actually having a bit of fun at this point, enjoying the challenge of the steep boulder scramble. I was holding everything together pretty well, still caught up in how relieved I was that we didn’t have to walk across much more snow, and Zach commended me for being brave. He was a little premature.

Now we were a few hundred yards from the shore of the ice-encrusted lake, and we could see, for the first time, a better perspective of what we were up against. We could even see a narrow unsnowed-in track of the PCT, far off to our left along the tip of the lake. Between us and the PCT lay an unbroken snowfield which, from the top of the cliff, had looked flat. Now, we saw that it was a steep slope, draped in shadow, that emptied straight into the lake.

We stared at our intended route, smooth and white without a footprint to be seen. In fact, we were in a no-man’s land of footprints, except for a single pair which circled off to the right, tracking in the snow all the way to the (much further away) right tip of the lake and looping back around to the boulder fields on the other side of the lake. It was probably about four times as long as cutting straight across the snow slopes.

We stared at these two options in horror. I could not let go of the shorter path: I wanted to cut straight across the slopes and get it over with. But Zach put his foot down. “No,” he said. “That’s not safe. If we try to cross those we’re going to slide into the lake. I think we need to walk around the other side.”

I stared from the dangerous snow slides to the huge detour around the lake (which still had a lot of snow to cross, although it was flat). I had kept it together decently well for the past hour, and now I could not. Fear, raw fear, flooded me and I felt drowned by it. Hunger, exhaustion, and adrenal fatigue hit me like a truck, and before I knew it, I was sobbing like I have rarely sobbed before. These sobs wracked my body like a seizure, each one punctuated by a primal-sounding scream. My mind raced, trying to convince myself to convince Zach to take the shorter route, safety be damned. I knew that he would give in if I begged.

Zach stood in silence for a while as I displayed my incredible capacity for dramatic breakdowns. Then, in a calm, kind, but very firm voice, he said, “We have to make a choice soon, because the sun is starting to set.”

It was true— already it had slipped below the towering peak of the wall of mountains. I shut my mouth, sobbed into my throat a few times, then let out a long breath.

“Okay,” I said thickly. “Let’s go the longer way.”

Zach squeezed my arm, giving me a look that showed absolute confidence, authority, and compassion. “Then let’s go.”

Dimly, through the hunger- and exhaustion-induced terror of that day, I felt incredibly blessed to have a husband who could take charge like that. Despite my fear, I knew that I could trust him.

The trek around the lake was awful. The snow gave a little under each step, and we often heard the sound of hurrying water a yard or two beneath our feet, reminding us that the snow was melting into a fragile crust beneath us. I post-holed twice more— the first time my ankle smashed into a rock, tearing off a layer of skin even though my socks, and the second time I nearly disjointed my hip with the violence of the fall. Zach post-holed a couple times, too, but he dealt with it silently, pulled himself out, and kept going. We paused on the islands of rock, but to get to them, we had to cross the dangerous “moats:” snow and ice melt more readily around the perimeter of rocks, so the snow was often thinner at the edge of the islands. It seemed to take hours as we scrambled from rock to rock and inched our way across the fragile snow. After I post-holed the second time and hurt my hip, Zach began stomping the ground with his feet to test the path for me. 

When we were struggling along the other side of the lake, we saw a couple that we knew, Phil and Ashley, hiking down the actual PCT. They had skirted the top of the ridge near the cliff that had been to our left, then followed a set of snow-buried switchbacks down to the trail. They did it in about half an hour. I began crying, thinking of how royally we had messed up the route. And I vowed never to take advice from a JMTer again.

The cliff we scrambled down, as seen from across the frozen lake. It was 500-700 feet tall, at least.

Three hours after we stood on top of Forester Pass, Zach and I stumbled off the snow onto a sandy camping site. Ten feet away, clearly cutting through the grayish gravel, was the PCT. It had taken us three hours to travel one trail mile.

“We made it,” I said.

Zach nodded, and then collapsed on the ground.

I followed suit, not even bothering to take off my backpack, and we both lay there, curled up into fetal positions, on our knees, hands stretched out before us. Zach thanked God that we had made it safely through, and that neither of us were injured. I had never been so fervently thankful to be in one piece. After a while, we sat up shakily and split a Snickers bar, but we agreed that we didn’t want to stay here, in the waste of ice and rock, for the night. We still wanted to get to the tree line.

With shaky legs, we stood up and picked our way down to the PCT. We followed it along the edges of ice-shrouded blue lakes, through stone, across more shallow snowfields, along the edge of a cliff, across icy mud, and at last, into a green bowl of land tucked into the corner of a giant sweeping cliff. We had made it.


In retrospect, as I have said, Forester Pass was really not that bad. We chose a poor route, and it took us ages, but it was one of those things that felt ten times worse than it actually was. If you ask other people about Forester Pass, you’ll hear a lot of rave reviews.

“That was so cool— I got to go glissading!”

“There wasn’t as much snow as I’d hoped for, but it was okay.”

“Wasn’t that view awesome?”

“Forester Pass was my favorite! But I did get really high before I went over.”

But for me, hungry and malnourished and exhausted, with a fight-or-flight instinct slamming into my body every step for three hours, it was pretty traumatizing. 


We were down near the tree line now, and there was green grass and a large round pond with several places to camp. The Animal had set up his cowboy camp there, and called to us to come join him. After a moment of indecision, we did, setting up our tent next to him. The air felt downright balmy, as if we hadn’t been scrambling through snow all day, and the pleasant chirp of frogs seemed to be coming from a springtime after a year of winter.

The Animal asked us, “Man, wasn’t that awesome?!” To him, Forester Pass had been one gigantic playground. It turned out we had been following his footprints around the far side of the lake. He said that once he had post-holed into a crevasse, and found his legs swinging in space over a chasm who knows how deep (this seemed really exciting to him). When we said it was hard and scary for us, he looked puzzled and then said, “I guess you guys haven’t done anything like this before, huh?”

“Yeah…” I said, and began setting up our tent.

That night, my body felt so stressed and fatigued that I couldn’t even eat. We managed to muscle down half a Snickers each, and then we passed out. All that night I had dreams about cliffs and snow. The next day, I wrote in my journal, “Hands down the worst, scariest day yet.”

~~~

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5 comments:

  1. Thought I'd just comment to let you know I've been reading since your guest post on another pct blog. I'm really enjoying your entries, thanks for writing :) Don't worry about the judging (which I'm pretty sure is just you, judging yourself... :) ! You're doing (well, did) such an awesome thing! Anyway, thanks for writing, and thanks for including the emotional elements.

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  2. Ah, so you're the ones who camped nearby in the 11.5k meadow. I could hear some of your voices - you seemed pretty stoked. As I've been reading your NOBO accounts, I realized that we crossed paths on 6/9. I left early the next morning, so we never actually saw each other on the trail.

    If you're interested, here are some of my reports of that particular trip:

    http://www.highsierratopix.com/community/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=11167

    http://www.whitneyzone.com/wz/ubbthreads.php/topics/38005/Re:_6/11_switchbacks_open_for_#Post37395

    http://www.whitneyzone.com/wz/ubbthreads.php/topics/37400#Post37400

    That's a harrowing tale - on my way up, I saw a few people 1/2 way down on that same route and calling up for advice. I yelled down at them to stop where they were in order to traverse over to the ridge to avoid getting cliffed out at the lake you circumvented. Yipes!

    Also, interesting about the JMTer advice; generally, you want to hit the passes early to avoid postholing.

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  3. Thanks for sharing. I climbed Forrester on May 28th last year twelve days before you. I too encountered a large snow field on the south where I had to climb up to the switchbacks and an even more massive one on the north. What was especially challenging was I hiked solo and therefore was alone when surmounting challenges like this pass - alone at 13,200 feet staring on a sea of white. When I wrote in my journal the entry was entitled "The most harrowing of days". Sincerely, Tartan

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  4. Thanks for the kind words, guys! I'll have to check out your links when I have a moment. Kudos to Tartan and anyone else who hiked it solo, especially earlier in the season! I would not have had the willpower to do the PCT solo.

    Hobbes, yes, I'm really not sure what that JMT hiker was thinking— Zach and I tackled the rest of the passes at about 11 in the morning, which was SO much easier. I wish I'd gotten a chance to get a feel for snow-walking before tackling Forester, but there's not much opportunity here in the Midwest. :)

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  5. I think you did awesome and handled the situation well...you survived it and weren't injured so you could continue. You have my heart racing as a read about your harrowing days and I can only imagine! I'm sure much worse when you're actually going through it! I will also check out those links above...love reading about different perspectives. I thought I wanted to do this solo and now I'm completely on board with having someone else along. I have a friend who is much more adventurous than me, so we will make a fine pair...me, the voice of reason (i.e. caution)...hers, the voice of "we can do this"!

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