What is your favorite day-hike in the White Mountains? For me, the answer is Mt. Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge, which is why I set my alarm for 6 am and headed for the Lafayette trailhead early last week.
Heading into the high Sierra at the end of May I knew that I was going to be in for some cold, wet, snowy conditions, here are the three things that I found most useful:
1. Kahtoola Microspikes
Weight: 13.6 oz
On icy terrain my Kahtoola microspikes were a godsend. They allowed me to dance up and down the icy crust of the snowfields of the high Sierra while those without would timidly slip and slide down the slopes. 13.6 ounces may feel like a lot of extra weight, but they are definitely worth it. If they are sized correctly for your boots they are fairly easy to slip on (even with gloved hands) and they stay on your feet even when you are moving at weird angles and on strange slopes. I did occasionally fumble with getting them lined up correctly on my boots and had to sit down to put them on (not always the most convenient when you decide you need to use them, but all in all I’ve been very happy with my microspikes. I own two pair of full crampons and I would say the major disadvantage of the microspikes relative to the crampons is that you can’t really kick steps with the microspikes. The advantage of the microspikes is that they are lighter weight and easier to put on and take off.
2. Hanz Waterproof Calf-Length Socks
Weight: 3.2 ounces?
I used my waterproof socks for three purposes: 1. To keep my feet dry for the many many stream/creek crossings in the Sierra, 2. To keep my feet warm when the temps were below freezing and I was crossing creeks or walking through drifts of snow, and 3. Instead of winter gaitors to protect my feet and lower legs from the snow while postholing like mad going across snowfields in the late afternoon. Since most thru-hikers are hiking in highly ventilated, poorly insulated sneakers or trail shoes, the insulating properties of the waterproof socks helped keep my toes happy in the icy conditions of the high Sierra. The liner that comes with these socks was really nice as well… Washing them out periodically to keep the stench down is a good idea.
3. Guthook’s hiking guides phone app
With 3+ feet of snow obscuring the trail in places route finding in the high Sierra can be a real challenge. Having an app that used my phone’s GPS and showed me both where I was and where the trail was on a topo map was incredibly useful. I still carry paper maps and a compass, but as long as my phone is working and my battery is charged, I turn to Guthook’s app when I’m trying to figure out where the trail is!
* snowfields cause interesting and sometimes unexpected sunburn problems, like sunburn on the underside of your nose, and weird sunburns from the light reflected off of my metal earrings.
* rock hopping across streams in the early morning can be dangerous… The rocks were often coated with black ice even when the water was flowing and there was no snow in sight. Frost on on the log bridges can also be slick.
* I carried an ice axe through the high Sierra, but typically preferred to use my trekking poles as I traversed the snow fields.
“If you can’t fly, then run
If you can’t run, then walk
If you can’t walk, then crawl.
But whatever you do you have to keep on moving forward.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The quote that I actually had running through my head as I was on my hands and knees trying to crawl across one of the snowfields at the base of Glen Pass was from an Episode of Firefly (“the message”), where the character Tracey says, “when you can’t walk, you crawl. And when you can’t do that…”
There was snow, and lots of it, and somewhere underneath all of that snow was the trail. The PCT. In some places I’d just been able to follow other people’s footsteps through the snow, but I’d been warned that the footsteps in the snow on this section of the trail had been leading people astray and that I should figure out where the trail was myself and stick to it (always a good plan).
Both of those things ended up being being easier said than done. Firstly, the trail was buried under drifts of snow 3+ feet deep. That made it hard to find without using the GPS in my phone and Guthook’s app, which showed me my location relative to the trail. Secondly, I was hiking through the pass in the early afternoon, which meant that the snow crust on top of the drifts was soft and occasionally failed to hold my weight. Suddenly, and unpredictably, one leg would punch 35 inches (the length of my inseam) down into the snow drift and I’d have to struggle to pull myself out… This exciting phenomenon is known as postholing.
The thing that had brought me to my hands and knees was double postholing. As I tried to pull one leg out of the drift the other leg had punched through the surface of the snow and I was suddenly stuck waist deep in the snow and each time I tried to lift myself out and get a leg above the snow it punched back down into hole in the drift that I was already in. It was incredibly frustrating!
The snow wouldn’t support my weight. I sighed grumpily and looked longingly at the pile of rocks 100 feet away. They would definitely support my weight. I just needed to get out of the hole I was in and over to those rocks, but how?
Surface area, the key was clearly surface area. I needed to spread my weight (and that of my backpack fully loaded with nine day of food) out across the surface of the drift. I knew that it could bear a distributed load, just not all of my weight when it was concentrated in a single step. I must have looked like a beached whale as I sprawled my upper body (fully loaded with my pack) up and over the top of the snowdrift, clawing at the snow with my hands and kicking my legs up behind me, but it worked. I got out of the hole.
I inched forward on my hands and knees thinking that I needed to either put gloves on or I needed to switch from crawling back to walking. Though crawling was working, I definitely liked walking much much better. Very tentatively I switched my posture from crawling to standing and then walking.
“Think light thoughts, think light thoughts,” I repeated to myself as I tried to glide across the crust of the snow. I postholed once or twice more before finally reaching the safety of the rock outcropping. I wanted to be near the trail, but definitely not on it if it was going to be underneath a 3+ foot snowdrift.
As I slowly made my way up the trail (avoiding snowdrifts and postholing as much as possible) another thru-hiker caught up to me. I was glad to have company as I navigated my way through the pass. Based on my maps I would chose a trajectory and then shout out “I’ve got trail-trail,” anytime the muddy footpath of the PCT peaked out from beneath the snowdrifts. Though the going was slow, and the final head wall was a scree-covered scramble, we eventually made it to the top of the pass and were able to relax and enjoy the amazing scenery of the high Sierra!
As I prepared to head down the pass I looked at the cold expanse of snow ahead of me. There was a single row of footsteps (somebody had already done the postholing/trail breaking) disappearing around the contour of the mountain. The slope was very steep, so I put on my microspikes and payed very close attention to matching my steps to the ones already on the hillside, and hoped that whenever the trail turned and headed downwards it would be at a shallower angle.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a shallower angle. Suddenly the trail went from being one single set of footsteps along the contour of the mountain to being a mishmash of footsteps and signs of people sliding/glissading down the slope!! The trail was way way to steep for me to feel comfortable glissading, so I tried to slowly sidestep my way down, but it was so steep that that didn’t make me feel much better!
Eventually all of the tracks whittled down to a shortish glissade headed towards a pile of rocks. I was tired of postholing so decided what the heck, I’d give glissading a try… Everyone else had done it… It was like peer pressure, but after the peers had long since gone. I hadn’t seen any helicopters so clearly everyone had survived the glissade.
I shortened my hiking poles all the way down so that I could use them as brakes and then sat down on the snowfield (incredibly easy because it was so steep) and whoosh!! I was sliding down the slope… Fast… Faster than I wanted to be going. I tried using my hiking poles as brakes like I’d done on numerous occasions before… But they weren’t helping out much…
“Glissading is not a good idea,” I yelled up to the thru-hikers above me as I tried to get my glissade under control. I carefully used the spikes on the bottoms of my shoes to slow myself down (I’d sprained an ankle doing that with crampons once, so I was being extremely careful) along with my hiking pole breaks. It was working, I was slowing down, but not as quickly as I’d hoped. I steered my slide over towards the rocks, knowing that I’d be able to safely stop there. “Next time I attempt a glissade, I’m going to pull out my ice axe,” I thought to myself.
My butt was very cold by the time I got up and resumed my slow side-stepping/postholing pace down the mountain. It was very slow and careful going and eventually the slope of the mountain got shallower and the hiking didn’t require quite as much attention. Here, on the lower slope, I did feel comfortable attempting another glissade, especially if it meant avoiding more postholing agony. I sat down and began a much slower, more comfortable and fun glissade towards RAE lakes. I kept sliding until my butt became achingly cold…. Brrrr…. I got up and finished hiking across the snow to a sunny granite outcropping at the bottom of the pass.
I wasn’t done hiking for the day yet, but I needed to take a break, warm up, and refocus before crossing the 2 miles of snowfields between me and where I intended to camp that night. From the sunny granite outcropping I was relaxing on I could look back up at the slope I’d just come down. It looked pretty darn impressive even if I do say so myself.
As I sat there a group of three thru-hikers I’d met in town the day before began descending the steep section. I watched them with fascination as they began side-stepping their way down the slope until… Uh oh!!! One of them fell and ended up upside down and backwards on the slope and not moving… I tried to quell the raising panic in my chest. Surely they were ok, but they still weren’t moving… I was too far away to help and too far away to know what was really going on…
I pulled out my camera, took pictures, and then zoomed in to see if I could figure out what was going on! Within a couple of minutes one of the other thru-hikers (that was closer) hiked back up the slope to the fallen hiker and before long they were both on their feet and continuing their long descent down the mountain. Phew! They were ok.
Now that I found myself safely over the pass I was worried about all of my friends that hadn’t come through there yet… I hoped that they would come through it ok too. Once the group coming down made it to the shallower slopes I picked myself up and started down the trail again. I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but I still had a couple more miles to go.
As I headed out across the snowfields I reinstated my mantra, “think light thoughts, think light thoughts.” It was definitely posthole-o’clock as I was picking my way towards camp. I was making slow, but good progess when suddenly my left foot and left hiking stick postholed all the way down.
My hiking pole broke, sheered itself in half from the impact of the vertical force (perhaps aggravated by the cold temperatures), and my left leg firmly embedded itself in the snow. I tried to pull my left leg free but to no avail… It was stuck in the snow, all the way up to my hip.
I looked accusingly at my broken hiking pole and thought that maybe this was the right time to throw myself a self-pity-party as I squinted back tears. Neither the self-pity-party nor the tears were going to help, so I gritted my teeth and started grumpily trying to dig my leg out of the snow bank with the broken halves of my hiking pole.
Stab, flick, grumble… Stab, flick, grumble… It wasn’t the most effective snow removal strategy, but it was making me feel better. As I was in the process of digging, one of the thru-hikers that was behind me caught up, “could you use some help?” he asked.
It’s not always easy for me to ask for help, but in this case I really could use the help. “My leg is stuck,” I admitted with exasperation. “Hmmm… Is it ok if I try to pull it out?” I nodded and hoped that that would work, if not I could at least have him grab my mittens from the back so my hands would stay warm as I dug.
He reached down with both hands, grabbed my leg, and pulled it free! “Try to avoid the really deep ones from here on out,” he jokingly admonished me as we continued hiking down the slope and postholing periodically. I smiled, i would do everything I could to avoid postholing… Not that it would do me much good!
As we got closer to camp that night I remembered the rest of the quote from the firefly episode were Tracey says, “when you can’t walk, you crawl. And when you can’t do that…” As he trails off, like I had earlier, one of the other characters (Zoe) chimes in to finish the thought with, “you find someone to carry you.”
That single act of kindness, pulling my leg free of the snow, reminded me that I wasn’t alone, that there is a bond that all the thru-hikers out here share… We look out for each other… That thru-hiker had pulled me out of a low point, both physically and emotionally… And I was extremely grateful for that.
The emotional roller coaster of that day, and the reminder of the bond we share as thru-hikers, made it especially hard for me when the thru-hiker that pulled my leg free went missing later that day (to be continued…)
“Wooooah!” I was on a steep incline trying to traverse a snowy slope in the dark when the snow beneath my right foot collapsed and skittered down the slope leaving my foot dangling without the foothold I’d hoped for.
Up until then the snow had been moderately firm, and each foothold had been secure, but beneath an icy crust my foot had just discovered a foot and a half of light, fluffy, non-load-bearing powdery snow. A wave of adrenaline surged through my body as I took a deep breath and tried to find another foothold… It was a long way down…
Anytime I’m on terrain that feels sketchy or exposed I pretend that I’m rock climbing and make sure that I have three good, solid points of contact at all times before I try to move forward. In this case I was very thankful for that instinct. I could afford to replace my floundering foot without panicking.
I reseated my foot and this time it held. “Phew!” But my relief didn’t last long, my second foot didn’t hold either. The snow beaneath me was skittering to a stop somewhere at the base of the cliff… Not exactly reassuring, but my pervious foothold was solid and once again I was able to recover and find better footing.
It was just those two steps that stood out as hair raising moments as I night hiked Mount Whitney so that I could watch the sunrise from it’s summit. The rest of the climb was just hard work and beauty.
As we set off from camp at midnight the sky was clear and amazingly beautiful. There were so many stars that you couldn’t count them and the Milky Way was awesomely obvious. We knew if nothing else, we would remember the stars of this night.
As we ascended the mountain the snow got deeper and the temperatures dropped. We donned our microspikes to help with traction and additional warm layers of clothing. Before long the water in our water bottles had frozen and we were wiggling our toes trying to remember what they felt like. At that point I switched to my neoprene socks, which definitely kept my feet warmer.
As I hiked the tune from the Christmas sing “silver and gold” got stuck in my head, but I replaced the lyrics with “fingers and toes, fingers and toes, everyone wishes for warm fingers and toes.” I had plenty of warm clothes, but my fingers and toes were definitely cold. Though it was a hard, slow climb, we made it through the snow and up to the summit of Mount Whitney for sunrise. It was a truly spectacular experience!
As dawn broke on top of Mount Whitney the temperatures were in the teens… It was definitely cold up there! 10 PCT hikers curled up in sleeping bags and crammed into the tiny shelter on top of Mount Whitney. We were all anxious to warm up our poor fingers and toes before spending more time outside enjoying the amazing vistas.
As soon as my fingers and toes warmed up I was anxious to go back out and enjoy the views. I had insulated pants and an insulated jacket (or two) on so that I could stay warm out on the summit. In many ways, the scariest part of the day was when the door to the shelter jammed and I thought we were all going to be trapped in the shelter at the summit of Whitney!!
Lucky for me, the jam was only temporary and I was able to escape the shelter and get outside to enjoy the impressive vistas! After soaking in the views I was actually both excited and impatient about heading down. Since our entire climb had been in the dark (literally), everything was going to seem new as we descended.
Somehow in the daylight it seemed like there was even more snow than we’d realized as we were going up. Lots and lots of snow. We were amazed that we’d gone through so much snow during our night hike! On the way down I pulled out my ice and used it as I traversed the sketchier sections that we’d come up over. With ice axe in hand I tried to cut better, more stable steps into the snow/ice. I didn’t want to have any of those adrenaline inducing steps on the way down… The two steps of that going up had been more than enough for me!
After I got through the short, sketchy part, I relaxed and enjoyed the stunning views around me. People had been telling me for months about how amazing the Sierras are and now I was finally there. It would be hard to be more Sierra than this and it would be hard to be more spectacular than this.
When asthma forced me to leave my job, I never would have imagined that a year later I would be standing on the summit of Mount Whitney in May with a bunch of my fellow thru-hikers! Sure, at below freezingf temperatures at 14,000ft I’d had to warm up my inhaler so that I could use it, but I was there… Doing amazing things… Doing things that I hadn’t even dared imagine a year ago!
I’m looking forward to the rest of the Sierras and to what my future holds!
(Rumor has it that I’ve gone through the scariest part of the Sierra, so now I get to sit back and enjoy the snow and the stunning scenery.)