Monday, July 7, 2008


Truckee, CA

Dear all-

I hope you all enjoyed the 4th! Reason and I were in the vicinity of Lake Tahoe, and rather than becoming embroiled in the hectic energy of town we decided to hike to the top of Mt. Tallac, the highest point on the Tahoe rim, and watch the fireworks over the lake. Though the pyrotechnics were in miniature from our vantage point, we saw three shows around the lake!

We are now in Truckee, CA, at Pooh Corner. Pooh hiked the AT and PCT and opens his home near Donner Pass to hikers each summer. (No, we did not have to resort to cannibalism at Donner Pass. We had enough candy bars to make it through!)

Since I last wrote, Reason and I have hiked about 400 miles. We are at about mile 1156. We are nearly halfway to Canada, but even at the halfway point we will still be in California! As you may be aware, there are something like 1200 fires in California at the moment. A one hundred mile section of the trail north of us is closed, so we are working on a way around. Some hikers are hitching around, others are walking on roads. We will likely road-walk so that we won't have to return to this section to complete it. It would be easy to hop up to the Oregon line and hike north, but the heavy snow conditions in Washington and Oregon this year make that impractical. We still need a few weeks for the snow in those states to melt.

Otherwise, all is well. We easily passed through the High Sierra. This is a "low snow" year for the Sierra: great for hikers, bad for Southern California which depends on ALL of the Sierran snow melt for water. I learned that Los Angeles (county?) began buying land and water rights over a hundred years ago in the Owens Valley that lies parallel to the east of the Sierra Nevada. Huge Owens Lake was quickly drained and is now called Owens Dry Lake.

The PCT through the High Sierra coincides with the John Muir Trail for about 250 miles. The optimum time to hike this section is early August after the snow has melted and the mosquitoes have waned. Most JMT hikers walk southbound as this allows them to start at about 8,000 feet and end at Mt. Whitney at over 14,000 feet, acclimatizing along the way. We PCT hikers do the complete opposite. Lucky for us, we had little difficulty with snow or the altitude. According to an article I recently read on Mt. Everest, the human body has about 75% of the capacity to take in oxygen at 9,000 feet above sea level. This capacity diminishes as the elevation increases, and some people experience headache, nausea and sometimes life-threatening pulmonary edema. Resting at altitude helps the body adjust, though I'm unclear on the science. At any rate, Reason and I were able to camp at 10,000 and 11,000 feet for three days in a row before summiting 14,000 foot Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. Apart from feeling breathless during ascents above 10,000 feet, we were lucky not to have any problems with the altitude.
Hiking in the snow was a new experience for me. At about 10,500 feet and above, there was still much snow. This often meant that the trail was buried for several miles before and after each mountain pass, or high point, on the trail. Since the PCT is rarely marked or blazed, Reason and I relied on our topographic maps to find our way. Reason dubbed such route finding "choose your own adventure hiking". Since we couldn't always find the exact location of the trail, it just didn't matter! Often we just hiked straight up a snowy mountainside, switchbacks be damned! Coming down the north side of each pass was even more fun: depending on how steep and rocky the terrain, we could often glissade down the mountain, simply sitting down and sliding down the snow! I did strap my crampons on my shoes twice, but the ice axes turned out not to be necessary.

The most difficult part of the snow was walking across fields of sun cups. No, sun cups are not pretty flowers! Sun cups are a natural dimpling of the snow, a phenomenon of the way snow melts that results in crenelations that can be shallow or up to several feet deep. My guess is that this has something to do with the changing angle of the sun throughout the day. Regardless, walking across sun cups is annoyingly tedious. If the dimples are shallow, the walking is slippery but easy. If the dimples are a foot deep, walking becomes increasingly difficult because one must balance on the high, sometimes narrow, rims of each cup. As the day advances, the snow warms and becomes increasingly slippery. At that point, walking across a mile or more of sun cups is exhausting. Which brings me to post-holing: if the snow was very soft, it was not unusual to step deep into the snow at any given moment. One time one of my legs post-holed up to the thigh! There was nothing for me to do but sit down and dig out my own leg because my shoe, being perpendicular to my leg, was wedged under the snow! Such snow conditions required us to strategize our approach to each mountain pass. We always tried to position ourselves so that we hiked up and down each pass before the snow became to soft to navigate.

But I hope we've had the last of the snow for several hundred miles. We've entered a wonderfully beautiful volcanic area. According to some ladies volunteering at one of the ranger stations we've passed, the abundant wild flowers are at their peak. We've crossed mountainside after mountainside full of purple lupine, yellow mule-ear daisies, red and orange Indian paintbrush, fragrant mint, and many others I can't identify.

So much more to tell, but I'll save some tales for this winter!

Best to all,

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