PCT – CA Section J (Sonora Pass to Echo Lake Resort above Hwy 50)
Day 1 – Sonora Pass to Small Camp by a Creek (Mile 1016.9 to Mile 1033.7-ish)
Thursday, August 18, 2016
An Inauspicious Start
My hiking buddy for this trip would be my son Jared, 18 years old and college-bound. Jared’s a good sport and one of my favorite hiking companions, despite his quietness. This would be our last hurrah together – a blistering 76-mile march in four days from Sonora Pass to Echo Summit, just above Highway 50 heading into South Lake Tahoe—before he heads off to college. Jared had everything he needed for his freshman year packed and stacked in his room, ready for an early morning departure on Monday. Time was not on our side. If he was to keep his plans intact, we had very little margin for delay if we were to make our planned nineteen miles per day.
In order to get an early start on Thursday morning, we decided to camp Wednesday night at Pinecrest Campground, some thirteen miles west of Sonora Pass along Highway 108. Jared’s grandparents, my in-laws, who are some of the most supportive in-laws in history, agreed to drive us up to the trailhead knowing that it would include a night of camping without a tent or trailer. They slept in the back of their pick up and lent Jared and I some rather comfy cots.
We awoke early enough, but still managed to get to the Ranger Station after another group of hikers who peppered the only Ranger on duty with all manner of questions and shared all manner of details about their planned excursion. Me? I’m into simplicity and efficiency. I just wanted to get my permit and to get out of there as quickly as possible. Thanks to the gabby leader of the aforementioned group, we didn’t leave the Ranger Station until roughly 8:45. We were already 40 minutes behind schedule.
No sooner did we hit the road than we came upon road construction crews and signs warning of delays. They held true as we stopped several times to wait our turn to use the only available lane. My foot began to tap involuntarily as I realized we were burning daylight and would have trouble making the necessary nineteen miles that day. That, I knew, would impact the rest of the trip.
At 10:30 or so, we finally hit the trail after pictures and hugs and plenty of warnings from my mother-in-law to be safe and take care of her grandson. The starting elevation is 9620 feet. We came from nearly sea level the night before. I knew the first few miles were going to be killer as we had to climb up and over the highest point of our journey, a 10,500-foot saddle between two volcanic peaks, within the first three miles. What a way to start. “Welcome to back to the Sierra, boys. Here’s some thin air for you to suck on!”
2.9 miles into our first day and we were winded. We sat to rest and Jared, who is not one to complain or whinge, said with one of his patent wry smiles, “You know, Dad, we could just head back down to the highway and catch a ride home. It’d be a lot easier.” Tempting as that offer was, I remained steely in my determination to check off another section of the mighty PCT and prove to my son that I could handle a little pain and exertion. And so could he.
We pressed on a few more miles, rounding the shoulder of the second volcanic mountain. We kept a steady pace as the trail undulated across the rocky, semi-barren landscape. Somewhere around mile five, part way down the first of many gradual descents between mountain passes, we stopped under the shade of a group of stubby pines overlooking a moss-green lake in a meadow several hundred feet below. Five miles in with what we thought was the toughest climb behind us and we were feeling pretty good.
The trail was mostly empty. We had passed two groups of day hikers in the first couple of miles and met a couple of southbound through hikers heading toward Yosemite. But that was it. We hadn’t seen anyone else. It felt like it might just be the two of us alone in the wilderness for the next four days. The cool thing was, we were both OK with that.
The pattern for much of the next seventy plus miles began to take form after lunch. The trail bottomed out toward the end of the canyon we had been descending. We crossed a creek or two, then began to ascend with the aid of several switchbacks which grew progressively steeper. As we neared the top of the canyon wall, one false summit gave way to another, and another, until we finally traversed a pass or saddle and began to descend another canyon. Drop a thousand to fifteen hundred feet, cross a creek, ascend a thousand feet or two. Repeat.
At one point coming down one of those canyons, I had stopped to take some pictures and Jared had kept motoring ahead of me, knowing we needed to keep an aggressive pace if he was going to get home and keep his planned timeline. I came around a bend as the trail skirted a meadow and entered a forested area. Jared leaned against a rock. His eyes were wide open and his ear turned to listen. “Thought this might be prime bear territory,” he said.
“Did you hear something?” I asked.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure what it was. Might’ve been nothing. But, you never know.”
“Smart thinking, son.”
We stayed together, smartly, and talked out loud whenever we came upon areas where our visibility was limited. I was proud of Jared for his situational awareness and for remembering some of the things I had taught him when I was his Scoutmaster.
Halfway up the second canyon wall on our way to the second of many high altitude passes on this hike, we saw the seventh person of the trip and the first one since about mile two. This was eleven or twelve miles into our journey. He had an expensive camera around his neck and a waist pack with a couple of lenses along with his rather small hiking pack. He didn’t seem to want to stop and talk, but blew past us with nothing more than a “hello.”
Toward the end of the day, our legs were weary from our long and steady march over hill and dale. Our feet were sore and hot. And, dark clouds shrouded the sky above the jagged peaks to our left. A storm looked to be blowing in from the northwest. Moments later, raindrops began hitting us intermittently.
A Couple of Heroes
That’s when we saw the eighth and ninth people of the day and trip. Two older ladies were working to put up their lightweight backpacking tents. I waved and asked them about their hike. They had started at Yosemite and were working their way to Donner Summit. Although eighty miles into a two- hundred-mile trek, these two gals, who I estimated to be in their early to mid-sixties, looked cheerful and energetic. They told me they had been rained on enough this trip and wanted to get their tents up before it really opened up again. I expressed my admiration to them, telling them that I wanted to be like them – still hiking and enjoying the outdoors at their age. They wished me and Jared well and said, “We probably won’t see you again. There’s no way we can keep that kind of pace.” Yes, Jared and I were booking, trying to get as many miles in as we could before the rain started in earnest, but I remained impressed with these two brave and hearty souls and wished I had the time to talk more with them.
That was mile fourteen or so. Still way below our goal.
We pushed on as the rain was still only teasing. It would come down for thirty seconds then stop. Then do it again a few minutes later. Undaunted, we quickened our pace and came over another saddle. As we crested the summit, we passed through a barbed wire gate and began winding down alongside a small creek. The “gate” was really a couple of posts with several strands of barbed wire between them held against a post secured in the ground by a couple of loops of bailing wire. That should have been a clue.
“Do you hear that?”
To us, it was another milestone that marked our progress on the “Halfmile PCT” map app I use on my phone. We were roughly fifteen and a half miles from our starting point and somewhere around a mile or so from a promised creekside camp spot. An expansive meadow lay before us and to our left. Trees and another jagged peak rose toward the sky on our right. The creek headed into some trees. The trail followed, then climbed to another saddle. That’s when we heard it: a strange chorus of sorts. At first, it sounded like rushing water. Maybe there’s a waterfall ahead, I thought. No, it could be voices, Jared said. Lots of voices. That surely meant a scout troop camped where we were hoping to camp. That meant we were screwed and would have to hike longer than we had hoped, perhaps into the dark as it rained. As we continued, the trees thinned and we started through another open meadow. That’s when the origin of the sound became more clear. It was the sound of bells. Dozens of bells clattering on the collars of dozens, perhaps hundreds of cows grazing in these mountain meadows.
With the haunting sound correctly identified, our only concern now was avoiding a stampede and the occasional “trail pie” left behind. Of course, we were also worried about the rain as the clouds had thickened up and darkened considerably.
After winding our way through a gulley or two, we came around a bend and spotted a tent in a small stand of trees and heard the sound of a creek. I checked the app. Yep, this was it. Mile 16.7 and the small camp site it promised. We announced our arrival to the occupant of the tent and asked him if he minded if we camped there. He was more than gracious – almost anxious. We thanked him, learned his name was Jesse, and hastily scouted out the best spot to pitch our tent.
Within twenty minutes our tent was pitched, our raincoats were on, and our dinner was cooking. Or, I should say, was reconstituting. (Mountain House Spaghetti). As it sat in its bag soaking up the water we had boiled, we filtered more water for drinking into our water bladders and bottles. Dinner was amazing, as any food is when you’re that hungry and exhausted, and we finished it just in time. Drops started to spatter as we cleaned and repacked our utensils. Perfect timing.
During dinner we learned that Jesse, the tenth person we’d seen since starting on the trail, was from Portland and was hiking south from Belden to Yosemite, a 250-mile section of trail. Once in Yosemite, he planned to hike many of the trails in and around the park before the end of the summer.
Although we didn’t make the nineteen miles we needed to, we felt accomplished. 16.7 grueling miles in a little under eight hours. An extra mile or so each of the next three days and we’d be fine.
Exhaustion overtook us shortly after climbing into our sleeping bags. The rain stopped even before we fell asleep, but the clanging of cow bells in the distance provided an auditory backdrop to our dreams most of the night.