Pacific Crest Trail – CA Section L (Donner Summit at I-80 to Sierra City at Hwy 49) – 39.6 miles
July 31, 2015
Did we really do that?
The sweet chirping of birds in the trees overhead mixed with the low roar of motors speeding and wheels rolling along pavement on Interstate 80, just a few hundred yards away, as the first rays of the sun filtered through the forest canopy. I blinked hard to recall where I was and how I got there. My boys and I had just finished our 40-mile, one-day trek along the PCT. Every muscle ached, but my legs and feet cried out the most when I attempted to move too quickly. Toes and ankles wrapped in white athletic tape at first ignored the commands my brain was sending to them. Because of the linear blisters that spread across the back of each foot, caused by the brand spanking new insoles I had put in my boots the day before (not the best idea), my feet hung off the end of my fully-inflated REI Stratus sleeping pad so as to avoid contact between the blisters and the pad.
That’s when I remembered spreading out my tarp on a flat spot just a few strides from the edge of the parking lot, blowing up my pad, and crawling into my sleeping bag at midnight, just before exhaustion overran me.
Giving in to the demands of my stiff muscles, I refrained from moving and lay gazing up into the pines as a sense of accomplishment spread through my weary bones. On my left, curled up in his baby blue mummy bag, only the dark locks atop his head visible, my 17-year-old son, Jared, slept soundly. To my right, I sensed the shifting and tossing of my 21-year-old son, Jake. Fatherly pride swelled within me as I recalled trying my best to keep up with these two stallions throughout the entire previous day, watching their long, confident strides as they marched over mountain and meadow, through forest and glade. I was proud of the way they handled themselves despite the long, tough slog we had undertaken. They hardly complained and kept their humor up throughout the experience, making it a pleasure to be with them, physical pain notwithstanding.
And, truth be known, I felt more than a hint of pride in myself that a) even at 48, I was never more than a minute or two behind them (possibly due to their benevolence) and b) that my boys were still willing to spend time in the wilderness with their dad. All those Scout trips over all those years didn’t push them away. Marty, the fellow PCT-er I had met in this very parking lot twenty-four hours earlier, had looked at my sons and told me I must have done something right for them to be out here with me. Yep, I thought, I am blessed and these boys are awesome.
In one day? Why?
The genesis of this particular PCT outing was a question posed by Jared back in April: “Dad, are we going to do any backpacking this summer?” He was interested in spending some time outdoors with Jake, who had been away from home for a couple of years. What else could I say except, “Of course. Let’s see if Jake’s up for it”? Jared had hiked with me and my 19-year-old son, Dallin, from Horseshoe Meadows to the top of Mt. Whitney and onward over Forrester and Kearsarge Passes on a 65-mile odyssey along the PCT in August of 2013. Jake and Dallin had done the same trail with me in 2011. All three boys had been on two other 50-mile hikes with me and the Scouts in 2010 and 2012 and numerous shorter hikes through their years in Scouting. Both sons said separately that they missed being out in the back country.
My original plan for this summer was to hike the PCT from Mammoth to Tuolumne Meadows in conjunction with my goal of ticking off the entire trail, section by section. But, as other demands reduced my available time to just a long weekend, I decided to do something closer to home and a bit shorter. That’s when I read about the 39.6-mile Section L. Starting at Donner Summit just off I-80 made it close to home and ultra convenient, saving us valuable travel time. That meant we could leave on a Thursday night after work, camp at the trailhead, and hit the trail Friday morning. The boys were bought-in and we had a plan: A three-day jaunt from Interstate 80 to Highway 49, a very doable 13 miles a day.
As luck would have it, more competing plans encroached on our weekend and we needed to be home by Sunday. No problem, I thought. We can do 19 miles a day since there is relatively little elevation gain and the altitude isn’t extreme.
On Wednesday night, my boys and I sat around the dinner table mapping out our trip. I read from the guidebook, “Northern California Pacific Crest Trail: From Tuolumne Meadows to the Oregon Border.” The introductory paragraph says that heavily laden through-hikers will do this section in two days, but strong hikers can do it in one long day. Well, that’s all the challenge the boys needed. They looked at each other, nodded, and said, “Dad, we totally qualify as strong hikers. You’ve said it yourself.”
I tried to protest and keep to the two-day plan. “But Dad,” said Jake. “You did the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim in one day. That was what, 47 miles? We can easily do 39 miles, especially if we’re not loaded down with full backpacks.”
I don’t know if they would say we did it “easily,” but we did it. We hit the trail shortly after 7:30 a.m. on that beautiful, slightly overcast, Friday morning. We hiked under cloud cover in very pleasant mid-70-degree weather most of the day and enjoyed some light sprinkles in the late afternoon.
Three miles in, we ran into the new friend we met in the parking lot, Marty, who had driven to the other side of the freeway, hiked up to Castle Pass, and was heading back to his car. He greeted us fondly and expressed his admiration for the boys and their great attitudes. He told a few stories and encouraged us onward by stating that the Sierra Club’s Peter Grubb Hut was about a mile ahead and was worth exploring.
As we continued, we all felt strong and comfortable. Of course, we realized that we had summited only the first of a dozen passes and saddles we would need to climb before the day was through. We enjoyed talking and reminiscing and joking, but realized we were not making good time thanks to our longer-than-expected conversation with Marty.
After our tour of the Peter Grubb Hut, owned by the Sierra Club and well worth a look-see, we realized it was nearly 10:00 and we had only covered four miles. We picked up the pace and crossed meadows and creek beds left dry by the ongoing, four-year California drought. What should have been lush greenery was left yellow and brown. This scene repeated itself numerous times as we traversed undulating peaks and crossed canyons. There was no running water.
By 12:30, we had only covered nine and a half miles. We were only a quarter of the way through and already our feet were starting to moan for rest. The thirty-minute stop for lunch was just long enough to take off our boots, stretch out on a tarp, eat, and contemplate what lay ahead.
Throughout the day, we were treated to spectacular vistas. We strode along crests overlooking long, verdant meadows a thousand feet below us. We switch-backed up hillsides dotted with reddish volcanic rock and scraggly Jeffrey Pines to reach saddles that afforded us views filled with mountains and trees and lakes that stretched to the horizons. Stunning and breathtaking, we appreciated the feeling of being “out there” where relatively few others had traveled.
By 6:00 p.m., two things crossed my mind. First, I realized we had only seen six other humans on the trail, four of them within the first hour. The sixth, a female solo hiker, we had just parted company with a few minutes earlier. Second, the guidebook talked about water being available at several creek crossings. Thus far, we had seen no running water. We stopped and inventoried our supplies. We each had more than two liters left. Fortunately, we each started with three liters of water and nearly two liters of Gatorade. We figured (incorrectly, we later learned) we had twelve miles to go, so we were in good shape in terms of our food and water.
At roughly 7:00, we reached the road to Jackson Meadow Reservoir, the very road we thought we had crossed an hour before. That meant we were at mile 27.5. We had more than twelve miles to go instead of the eight and a half or so we had incorrectly calculated. Knowing we had that much farther to hike was like a punch to the gut. Again, we sat down, took off our boots, massaged our weary feet, ate some beef jerky and Cliff Bars, and pulled together every ounce of reserve we had.
At 7:30 when we stood to begin the last twelve miles, we hobbled like old men, lactic acid stiffening every muscle. At that point, most of our blisters were just babies. We would have taped them had we not left the last of our tape on a rock somewhere just after our lunch stop. Moleskin and a few band aids were applied, but the damage was done. Our gait was far slower thanks to the fatigue and we treaded far more gingerly because of the blisters, but we pressed northward in the waning sunlight.
Are We There Yet?
Our conversations had grown quiet by 8:15. That’s when we realized we were walking through a jumble of weeds and rock, not on a real trail. Twilight was upon us and we knew we’d be screwed if we couldn’t find the trail before dark. I pulled out my phone and tapped the Halfmile PCT app. Within seconds, it informed us that the trail was 650 feet to our right, up a steep hill. As I studied the map, however, I realized that we could save some steps—a very important goal at that point in the march—by heading straight forward. By the time we met up with the trail again, we had bush-whacked nearly half a mile. That little side trip through dead-fall, rock fields, and undergrowth slowed our progress and sapped our strength, but could have been disastrous had it not been for that app. If you plan on hiking the PCT, download Halfmile PCT before you go. It could save you valuable time, if not your life.
Two other times as we trudged through the darkness, we used Halfmile PCT to verify which fork in the trail to follow. Again, saving precious energy and reducing the number of painful steps required to reach our goal: the car at the trailhead off Highway 49.
With our headlamps glowing, we reached a point in our descent where we realized it was much less painful to go with gravity and run rather than walk. Dodging rocks and roots and steep drop offs, we weaved our way down switch backs and along hillsides above unseen creeks and rivers, sometimes at breakneck speed, jogging most of the last seven miles downhill. We could only hear the rushing of the water, knowing it was close by, but impossibly dangerous to access if we ran out of drinking water.
At 9:45, we encountered the seventh and last person we would see on the trail. He was camped near a bridge along Haypress Creek. He was a southbound through-hiker who gave us words of encouragement and offered us some of his hot meal. We thanked him for his offer, but knew it would be wrong to deprive him of food he would surely need later. Plus, the magnetic pull of the car and the sleeping bags in its trunk was far too powerful to overcome. We knew we had only two and a half miles to go, so we pressed on.
After crossing the river two more times, enduring two more sets of downhill switchbacks and several other mild ascents, we came to a spot where the forest thinned and lights could be seen. A flat, open area where it was hard to spot the trail with our head lamps spread before us. I pulled out my phone and consulted the app again. By that point we heard a car engine in the distance. What a blessed sound that was. Five minutes later, we were at the edge of Highway 49.
It was 10:25 when we crossed the highway and caught a glimpse of my son’s ugly blue Saturn, which had never looked so inviting. Our 15-hour, 39.6-mile trek through a gorgeous, unspoiled piece of the Sierra was over. Mission accomplished, life long memories earned. Our first fully completed section of the PCT (according to the sections in the guidebook) conquered.
My two regrets are, first, that we surely missed some stunning scenery during the last two hours as we hiked and ran through the forest in the dark. Hearing the roaring river as we crossed the bridge at the Haypress Creek gorge was cool, but seeing it would have been cooler. The second regret is that Dallin couldn’t be with us. It would’ve been that much more memorable with him there.
Driving from the trailhead parking area just east of Sierra City back to Donner Summit without falling asleep at the wheel was the day’s final challenge. Our one-hour drive back to where we started that morning, to where the other car was parked, felt like pure mockery of our struggle to cover that same distance on foot, but we were glad to return to the spot where we had camped the night before full of vim and vigor and courage and energy. As we stretched out there for a second night, all of that had been replaced with the very real sense that we had done something hard together, that the experience had galvanized our already strong bond, and that we would enjoy more excursions as a family in the future. After we recovered from this one.