Following Jim’s advice we trailered to the North Lake Trailhead, where we met the operators of Bishop Pack Outfitters. This outfitter is a really nice operation that uses mules exclusively. When I first questioned them about trail conditions the reply was they were cancelling the rest of their trips due to unsafe conditions. After we talked a bit and they found out about our experiences they allowed that we could “probably” get to Vermillion Valley Resort, my next resupply, but it was doubtful that I could get past there to Red’s Meadow, our next planned layover.
I made up the packs so that I could head out in the morning, but after thinking about it all night, thinking about how tired I am of being cold, at 10,000 feet and above, it dips into the low 20s and teens at night and doesn’t ever get comfortable during the day, there has been snow on the ground since Olanche Pass, the reported ice conditions on the several passes I would have to cross at over 12,000 feet, the fact that the days have become something to endure rather than enjoy, the nights are a test of fortitude, it is becoming increasingly hard to keep the horses energy and condition levels up to a standard that I am willing to accept, it became clear it is time to pack it up for the year.
The bottom line is the winter of 2017 dumped a lot of snow in the Sierras, Siskiyou and Cascades, snow that didn’t melt until late summer, we just ran out of time. I have ridden 2385 miles in some pretty tough country; the horses have done well, time to quit while we are ahead. We did what we could, but you can’t control the weather.
Driving across Hwy 120 through Yosemite Park was proof enough that we made the right call, the lower level passes there, barely 9000 feet were snow and iced in, I really don’t want to see what it is like at 12,000. Right now we are closing in on Merced, we are at 220 feet elevation, it is 88° – I can breathe, my feet are warm, home is only a couple days away.
We had a long way to go today, I thought about going further last night but at 25 miles Mercedes, carrying a heavy pack, was getting tired and the campsite was so good. It’s a good thing we did stop as the next water and campsite was another 4 miles and up on an exposed plateau, it was so cold anyway I’m glad we didn’t camp there. The highlight of today’s ride was the crossing of Forester Pass, the highest spot, 13130 feet, on the PCT. The climb was mild but steady until the last mile. Coming up the valley I had ample time to examine the ridge ahead to determine where the pass might be. Normally one can see a faint line of the trail on the hillside, but not Forester Pass. I searched in vain as we slowly gained the last four miles to attack the last and steepest mile.
The trail switch backed up a rock face that I had eliminated as being too sheer. By the time I got to where the route became obvious it was too late to do it photographic justice. At first the trail was pretty good, there was the typical rock climbing and pit run footing but the trail was surprisingly wide. The last quarter mile got a little dicier; the trail got narrower, steeper and the footing less sure. The last little bit, couldn’t have been more than a couple hundred feet, though in the moment I thought it would go on forever, got crazy, teensy narrow trail, switchbacks so short and tight I wasn’t sure a horse could turn that sharp and there was only room for one horse before you were faced with the next turn which resulted in the BG and I on one switchback and Mercedes on the next one down, going the opposite direction.
Just as I gained the top, which was a one horse length long knife’s edge, I saw a hiker almost to me coming from the opposite direction, so we stopped to wait until he saw us and we could formulate a passing strategy as the trail was too narrow for such a maneuver to be easy. Fortunately he was a grizzled old veteran who willingly held on to the sign post, (yes there was a sign, this is a National Park after all, informing us that we were at the top as if a thousand foot drop in all directions wasn’t obvious enough) leaning over the abyss so that the girls and I could get by. We chatted a few minutes about the trail, he warned of some snow I would have to cross, at least 20 feet wide. I could see the patch he was talking about and was thinking it shouldn’t be a problem.
The snow was left from last year and due to the low temperature was a solid bloc of ice. It was only five or six feet of steep climb to get on top but the horses struggled to get traction and did some slipping before we got across. Later there were some more short ice crossings, the last of which required the horse to hop up a three foot tall rock to regain the trail. BG did ok, but Mercedes lost her footing and nearly fell over the side before she managed to scramble to her feet and back on the trail. After that the rest of the day was anticlimactic. We did enter the area where the views were fantastic; I finally felt I was in the Sierras. Kersarge Pass is as beautiful as promised, making a good end to the day.
Janis managed to set up at the packer station and make friends with the operators, Jim and
Barb Nivens, gaining some very valuable information from them. They were pretty sure we were the first horses across Forester this year. Due to the heavy snowfall last winter there is still a lot left in places. The next pass for me to cross, Glenn Pass, is considered by the Forest Service impassible to stock this year, Jim concurred saying it would be foolish to try, something he and his surefooted mules wouldn’t attempt. To make matters worse the next three passes that would take me around Glenn Pass, Sawmill, Taboose and Bishop Passes are also still snowed (read iced) in, or this spring’s floods washed the trail or road or some combination of the three. The only trail Jim thought he would try would be Piute some 65 PCT miles north. After Mercedes incident I saw firsthand how dangerous these ice crossings are, Janis and I have decided to take an experts advice and skip ahead.
Trip data: mileposts; 0770-0789, miles ridden; 28.1, trail time; 9:14, average speed; 3.0, minimum elevation; 9205, maximum elevation; 13130, total ascent; 6345, total descent; 7474
Today the horses and I started our packing portion of our journey through the Sierras, spending one night on the trail and coming out over Kersarge Pass. According to the maps today we would stay wellabove 9000 feet passing the Mt Whitney trail junction, surely today we would get some views of the tallest mountain in the lower 48 as well as the other legendary peaks of the Sierras. Mt Whitney managed to stay hidden despite its close proximity and views of distant peaks were possible through gaps in the trees. Despite climbing Cottonwood, 11000’, and Siberian, 11500’, passes we never really got above the tree line and in fact I was taken aback by how large the trees are at these elevations.
What we got was cold and windy. I was better prepared this time with Gore-Tex boots, cold weather gloves and extra sweatshirts. We found a nice campsite along Wallace Creek with a meadow for the horse to graze in and shelter in the trees from the wind. The horses in the meadow didn’t seem to faze the resident deer in the least as they grazed alongside BG and Mercedes as the sun went down.
Trail data: mileposts; 0745-0770, miles ridden; 24.1, trail time; 7:47, average speed; 3.1, minimum elevation; 9558, maximum elevation; 11512, total ascent; 4834, total descent; 4505
Leaving Sage Flats going up the Olanche Pass trail reinforced the conclusion I came to yesterday, no more off PCT trails to trailheads that don’t have a packer station. There is a reason Sage Flats doesn’t have packer, no self respecting horse person would willingly subject their horses to a trail like this on a regular basis. The trail climbs 3500 feet in the first four miles up what can only be described as a truly awful trail, all boulder hopping and sharp rock tender footing.
A mile up it started to mist, I could feel my face and the back of my hands getting wet, but the wind blew the rocks dry before the moisture could build up. Two miles up the rocks were getting wet, still a fine mist though the stiff wind made taking it head on was uncomfortable. When we reached the PCT we had to climb to over 10500 feet, up a treeless ridge, exposed to stronger winds as we climbed the temperature dropped, the mist became a driving snow, the snow turned to ice crystals that made your face feel like it was being sandblasted. BG did not like it one little bit. Ten miles in we crested the hill and dropped down into some timber where we got a little protection from the wind, a few more miles and the clouds began to break up and we could see a little sunshine, though it was weak and did little to raise the temperature. By then my feet were wet, my gloves inadequate so I did a lot of walking to help stay thawed.
After the sky cleared I could see for some distance, getting just a hint of what was to come, but for the time being despite the altitude the grandeur of the Sierras was being elusive. BG and I were glad to see Janis and the rig at the Horseshoe Meadows Horse camp, a blanket, stall, mash and hay for BG, a furnace and dinner for me.
Trip data: mileposts; 0720-0745, miles ridden; 32.3, trail time; 9:47, average speed; 3.3, minimum elevation; 5842, maximum elevation; 10662, total ascent; 8547, total descent; 4346
Today we left Kennedy Meadows firmly convinced we were about to enter the Sierras, and we did, though we have yet to see the crags and lakes that we expected. We did pass the sign that said we were entering the South Sierra Wilderness and we did climb to 9000+ feet but mostly we saw beautiful valleys with tall grass, flowing water and black cows. I also saw what must be a cowhand’s summer residence, with two or three pickups parked nearby in what my maps show to be the middle of the wilderness, great job if you can get it.
Leaving the PCT I took the trail over Olanche Pass and down to Sage Flats, passing a small wildfire on the way. There are three trucks from the Arroyo Grande Hotshots here at the trailhead. They said if the wind changes and starts blowing our way we may have to evacuate. For a while it seemed the wind had changed, we can smell smoke now, however it seems to have died down, at least for now.
Trip data: mileposts; 0704-0720, miles ridden; 23.3, trail time; 7:43, average speed; 3.0, minimum elevation; 5849, maximum elevation; 9224, total ascent; 4450, total descent; 4685
Today BG and I started back north. Yesterday we were in the Owens Peak Wilderness, crossing the road where we were camped we entered the Chimney Peak Wilderness. We climbed to 8000 feet over a ridge where we entered the Domeland Wilderness, and then we dropped down the other side to the south fork of the Kern River. I thought as we were climbing to the top of the ridge that we would be getting a panorama of the Sierras but it wasn’t to be. From the top of the ridge what we saw were more burnt trees and more dry ridges. The trail itself was good, mostly sandy tread, it did get soft and deep in spots, but the grades were steady but gentle and the pure rock ledges rare.
Every thru hiker knows Kennedy Meadows. Meadows would be a loose term, high desert flat is more accurate, except for a narrow strip along the Kern River which is thick with willows and grass. Kennedy Meadows is also a remote hamlet reached by 25 miles of narrow, STEEP, twisty road. Kennedy Meadows offers the last on trail resupply for the next couple hundred miles. There is a small general store and an internet café, both of which offer meals, camping, showers and laundry to the hikers. In the spring the businesses are awash with hikers waiting for the snow to melt in the Sierras. Kennedy Meadows marks the unofficial end to Southern California and the beginning of Central California as well as the Sierras. Leaving Kennedy Meadows one climbs past the 7000 foot mark, a number that won’t be seen again for over 400 miles, in fact the trail only dips to the 8000 foot mark half a dozen times in the same distance. Tonight we are camped along the river which is a high mountain stream at this point. The horses are enjoying the running water and even got baths while the sun was still hot.
Trail data: mileposts; 0681-0704, miles ridden; 23.9, trail time; 6.22, average speed; 3.7, minimum elevation; 5643, maximum elevation; 7991, total ascent; 3904, total descent; 3562
Today was the first day of the Sierra segment of the trip. Actually it was the first day of the preSierra portion. Janis rode BG and I took Mercedes, accompanied by our faithful dog Rose on her first real trail ride, we rode south from Chimney Creek campground to where I was frustrated by downed trees last May and forced to turn around. I had been told by hikers that I passed that day that had I only gone another half mile the trail would have been clear for me. I think that in the last half mile we passed four good sized logs I would have had to cut out and several more that would have been challenging go arounds. Perhaps I could have made it through, or perhaps I could have fallen off the cliff in the dark, given what I knew then I still think I made the right choice.
Good trail most of the way today, sandy through huge boulder fields and hillsides. There were some rocky ledges to go over but even they were in the not so bad class. It is kind of nice to ride some trails where you are only going to fall a couple hundred feet instead of a thousand. We noticed the sun was different here than in the North Cascades, it seems more intense, the air is definitely drier. I thought we might get away from the smoke but a fire northwest of us is making a slight haze that obscures distant ridges. Tomorrow we resume our trek north.
Trip data: mileposts; 0681-0672-0681, miles ridden; 18.9, trail time; 5:20, average speed; 3.5, minimum elevation; 5525, maximum elevation; 7013, total ascent; 3136, total descent; 3099
Getting ready to leave Harts Pass I was feeling a little excitement as the Washington part of the trip was coming to a close. I had really wanted to finish the entire trip in Canada but the reality is it is less likely to have early snow in the Sierras than in the North Cascades.
Morning broke to a foggy day with no smell of smoke in the air. I was of mixed feelings as the fog restricted visibility but might help with retarding the wild fires spread. As I rode along the trail I wondered when the fog lifted whether the smoke would return. Riding in the fog the miles seem so long, you just go along without any sense of going anywhere, my world extended no further than the few hundred feet I could see. As it turned out the smoke did seem less thick as the fog cleared, especially at the higher elevations and some of the grandeur of the area was exposed to my view.
I began to pass hikers returning from the border Monument 78. These people had chosen not to enter Canada and were returning to Harts Pass in hopes of catching a ride back to civilization. Congratulations were offered to and from those who had completed their goal and those who were within a few miles of completing theirs as well. Several of the hikers were those who I had met earlier in the trip, some from as far back as Southern California two thousand miles before. Among the hikers I passed still going north the excitement and joviality was palpable, “Meet you at the border” was the cry of the day.
Initially I planned to camp at Hopkins Lake, 25 miles from Harts Pass, ending my ride the next day with a 15 mile ride to the road in Manning Park. When I got to the lake there were several tents already pitched, as it was only 4:00 in the afternoon more people were sure to stop as well. The no-seeums were thick by the lake so I decided to ride the six miles to the monument where there was reportedly a nice camp with a stock corral and good creek water. The horses were feeling good, making good time down the hill towards the border; we made the six miles in just a bit over an hour.
At the monument I met some day hikers, the Moroccos, who took pictures of Mercedes, BG and me at the memorial. They questioned me about the Klickitat Trek sweatshirt I was wearing as they have been to that endurance ride as well. John rides a Tennessee Walker in endurance and was pleased to see how well Mercedes and BG had held up on our trip.
Another quarter mile and we were at camp, the first ones in for the evening. Mercedes and BG appreciated the corral and not having to be tied all night. There was a little grass for them to eat as well as the feed I had packed for them. As dark approached another ten or so people set up camp nearby. Despite their high spirits by 9:00 all were turned in for the evening. About 3:00 the horses put up quite a fuss, squealing and snorting. I got up to see to them, couldn’t see what had set them off but went ahead and gave them their morning hay and went back to bed. The next morning I couldn’t find one of the nose bags for their grain. There is a bear box at this camp for people to store their food in; I put the horse’s grain ration in it as well. As I was walking to the box I happened across the missing nose bag a good 25 yard from where I had left it. It was soaking wet, as if it had been dunked in the creek. Later as I walked around the back side of the corral I saw fresh bear scat which had not been there the night before, oh that’s what got the horses stirred up.
The first four miles of the trail into Canada gave me a whole new appreciation for the job people have done on the US side on trail maintenance. The horse punched through rotten board walks, scrambled over sloughed off trail, jumped over washed out spots and sank in boggy places. I even had to cut a couple logs out that must have fallen after someone, fairly recently – there was still chainsaw sawdust, had cut other trees out. I was really worried that after all this way that one of the horses was going to get hurt. But at the halfway point the trail conditions improved dramatically, really nice going the rest of the way. Now all that remains is back to California and the Sierras.
Trail data: mileposts; 2619-2658, miles ridden; 38.1, trail time; 9:41, moving average; 3.9, minimum elevation; 3850, maximum elevation; 7076, total ascent; 5918, total descent; 8320
I am a little disappointed that this part of the trail, which is so magnificent, was obscured by smoke. On the other hand I am thankful that the trail has not been closed and I was able to continue on my course. Everything east of the PCT is closed, I couldn’t see any flames but I know with that much smoke there are firefighters somewhere at risk.
Big milestone this day, we passed the 2600 mile marker. Summer is coming to a quick ending. Berries that were plumb and juicy yesterday are dry and leathery today. Suddenly, with no warning, the vine maples and tamaracks have turned gold.
I met with Janis at Harts Pass; she left the trailer in town and came to camp with me in the evening, bringing everything I would need to pack for the last leg to Canada.
Trail data: mileposts; 2589-2619, miles ridden; 31, trail time; 10:10, average speed; 3.0, minimum elevation; 4277, maximum elevation; 6977, total ascent; 6369, total descent; 4828
Another smoky day in paradise. I stopped at the Ranger Station to take a few pictures, use the toilet and poke around a little. I saw a water tank and pump set up on a ledge behind the cabin, tank was full, have to pack water from the river – humph.
Bridge Creek campground, five miles from High Bridge, was an interesting spot. An official campsite, limited permits available, must have been five or more acres with several buildings and a semi permanent packer station, running water and several vault toilets. It is on the Stehekin Valley Rd, and looks to me to be able to hold a hundred hikers without anyone getting crowded. It is hard to say how many hikers per day come through here; I doubt it is more than 25 though. Maybe there are more hikers at times than what I see now.
The rest of the ride was pretty much through the smoke, not much to see. I did come across a broken bridge where three Forest Service employees were just getting started building a replacement, all with hand tools. I would have like to stay and help, moving the support logs into place with hand lines and rigging would be something to see.
Trail data: milepost; 2569-2589, miles ridden; 20.6, trail time; 6:46, average speed; 3.0, minimum elevation; 1519, maximum elevation; 4864, total ascent; 5195, total descent; 1852