Trekking poles have been an indispensable part of my hiking and backpacking gear for over a decade, so when I set off to hike the Appalachian Trail (2013), and then the Pacific Crest Trail (2014) there was never a question… I was going to bring trekking poles with me. I chose the Leki Carbon Titaniums for my adventures:
“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…)