Coming to you live and illegally trespassing from my sleeping bag while attempting to remain hidden behind the Bridgeport Methodist Church (and you thought you were living a luxurious lifestyle). It’s been quite the interesting stretch transferring from the desert to the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. I remember thinking “ANYTHING but sand.” Now I would pay a significant amount of cold hard cash to transform this ice world into a sand ridden path.
I’m going to primarily cover something I’ve never talked about before; expected to talk about, or even wanted to talk about… Snow. One of those four letter words. This winter, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range (the most difficult section of this trail) received more snow than it had seen in the past 22 years. The kind of snow that refuses to melt before the following winter. My thoughts? Being from Alabama, the first day (of the month I will spend in it) was fun…
Let’s start off with some of the extra gear that is necessary to carry for the conditions. First, there are crampons. At first glance, they appear to be something out of a horror film. Crampons basically transform your shoes into big, scary, metal spikes. This allows you to dig into ice for traction and also makes walking on rocks or hard ground a significantly unbearable experience.
Next, we have the ice axe. Basically looks like a fun-size version of the grim reapers reaping device. I have a few issues with the ice axe: 1. It’s heavy. 2. The only time you will ever use it, is to save your own life. 3. The odds of using it successfully in a life or death situation as an amateur (me and 95% of people on this trail) is around 50%. The only good thing about it? You feel like a BOSS.
There are a few things about snow travel that make it unbearable. First, we have sun cups (google an image). These are deep, bowl-shaped depressions with sharp ridges in a snow field that basically resemble an incredibly choppy lake. Every single step is a matter of seeking the perfect foot placement. If you miss a step, a rolled ankle is nearly guaranteed. Next, there is post-holing. This happens when you step into a spot on the snow and your leg falls through the snow down to your knee or even waist. This can get extremely frustrating when every other step turns into sinking into the snow depth and you still have 12 miles to walk.
Daily mileage is typically sliced in half under these conditions. Averaging 20 miles per day quickly turns into 10 miles per day for the same amount of effort. This makes walking all the way to Canada SUPER encouraging. Once you have completed your whopping 10 mile day, campsites can be few and far between when you have 90% snow coverage. This issue is icing on the cake when tension is already running high because everyone is exhausted. “Are we there yet? NO!”
Obviously, with snow travel comes elevation. I personally begin to feel the effects of elevation around 10,000 feet. The air gets thin and you become winded. You take 10 steps and can’t believe you need a 10 minute break before your next 10 steps.
Another interesting aspect of this type of backpacking is descending and climbing on sharp angles. Snow and ice are naturally slippery (obviously) and when you are traversing a 45 degree angle on nothing but snow and ice with a 500 foot slide of more snow/ice below you, it can become pretty nerve-wracking. This is the time to have that ice axe (that you have no clue how to use) ready to save a potentially fatal fall (if you’re lucky).
Speaking of horrifying trail conditions: water crossings. On this particular year, crazy amounts of snow melt have transformed streams into raging rivers. It has also transformed raging rivers into totally impassable monsters that require a 5 mile detour just to get back to the trail. If you are LUCKY, there will be a solid snow bridge or fallen tree that requires a decent balancing act to cross.
Enough about the infamous white powder, let’s get into some “Trail Tidbits!”:
– While strutting back to the trail on the road one day, we receive some very unconventional trail magic. Snapper tends to pick up any litter she spots. On this day, it provided a completely unscratched lottery ticket off the roadside. We immediately scratch it off to reveal that we were the proud winners of $20.
– Shortly after the lotto ticket, a guy creeps up to us in a car and rolls down his window. He is gazing at us with a huge grin on his face. Without saying a single word, he proceeds to extend his arm out of the vehicle with two small, plastic containers in his hand. I look at him thoroughly confused and say “Are those for us?” His massive smile doesn’t falter and he nods a distinctive “Yes”. I take the containers and thank him. He excitedly nods again to signify “you’re welcome” and drives off without ever saying a single word. We open the purple, plastic containers to reveal a single massive joint in each. Judging by the strange man’s actions, they were probably laced with meth…
– Sometimes while in town resupplying, we will stay the night and “stealth camp”. This is the high-class act of sleeping behind a church, park, or dumpster and being stealthy enough to evade being caught. However, there is an arch nemesis of stealth camping… the infamous 4am sprinkler system. This unfortunate enemy has managed to strike twice already on this trip. In a major defeat, our friend Kayla left her entire pack directly on top of one. We lost a lot of good, dry socks that day
– While on the topic of camping issues, it has dipped into cold enough temperatures twice to freeze my sleeping bag while I was sleeping in it. The best part of waking up is realizing that your bed has transformed into an ice cube.
– I plan an entire day around a restaurant that is 2 miles down a road that crosses the trail 21 miles from my current location. Word on the street is that this restaurant closes at 4pm. I basically ran all day with 30 pounds on my back to make it by 3pm. At 2:45, I walk on to the patio, see that they do in fact close at 4pm, order a margarita, and kick back. After 30 minutes of reading the menu and waiting for my drink, I go to check on the status. Both doors are locked. I knock on the door and an angry manager answers (without opening the door) to inform me “We’re closed.” I respond with “The sign on the door says 4pm.” She then informs me “The health department showed up right after you ordered. We’re closed.” I couldn’t decide whether I was mad at the health inspector or not. The health department might have saved my day/life from food poisoning, but they also definitely blocked any chance of me receiving my delicious, tropical, adult beverage.
– Boo Boo losses his cook pot. He decides that the best replacement will be a $3 dog water bowl. After we watch the paint boil into his pasta on the maiden voyage, he decides that an actual cook pot will be for the best.
– While night hiking one night, I notice that there is a significantly large drop off to my left. I shine my headlamp toward the depths of the canyon to see how far of a drop I’m facing. At the bottom, I discover a pair of brightly, glowing eyes that appear to be far larger than human… and then comes the reflection off the white teeth. I run. Fast.
That just about wraps it up for this round. I’m not quite out of the Sierras yet so plenty more snow to come. However, it has been around 100 degrees every day the past week. You would think snow would melt in those temperatures… False. 973 miles down.