Bushwhacking, Rock Climbing and Skiing Without Skis
Sierra City to Quincy, CA
We just arrived to Quincy, CA and I took my first shower in seven days. With each section of the PCT that passes, I feel like “THIS is the dirtiest I have ever been.” Well, THIS really is the dirtiest I have ever been (odds are we will top this further down the trail.) But as the dirt washed off, the bruises, scrapes and bug bites from the days prior revealed themselves. They are reminders of just how hard this section was. I had hard trail days back in the Southern California desert, but the NorCal Mountains said, “here, hold my beer” and upped the anti on tough. As I reflect back on this section, I am grateful. For seven days, I lived in the present with no worries of what was behind or what is ahead. I had to focus (hard) on my next step. I had two bad ass human beings (Kilo and Fish Tank) there to help me. Looking back on rough days in the past it was typically related to work and a failed sale, bad presentation or upset customer. This section of the PCT redefined a tough day. This was, not to sound overly dramatic, about survival and preservation of my body. There was feet of snow, we were running low on food, we were exhausted, eaten alive by mosquitos, and there was a bear....
We planned a late start out of Sierra City and short hiking day because we always struggle the first day out of town with packs full of food and water. It was a one mile walk down the main road back to the trail head, and then switchbacks up 4 miles to camp beneath the Sierra Buttes. Kilo always hikes in front of me as he is the navigator. About two miles up trail he let out a yelp and started running. Apparently he gotten too close to a rattle snake that was camouflaged into mountainside. Because of our late start it was hot, but once we got to the campsite at the top of the switchbacks we had the rest of the evening to enjoy the view. Already at the campsite was Fish Tank and Turtle. We had met them the night before while having dinner in Sierra City. Turtle was only camping out for one night and then hiking back down in the morning. Fish Tank was headed Northbound on the PCT. Last year he had hiked the PCT from Campo to Donner Pass, but when the trail was closed for miles past Donner Pass due to wild fires he decided to go home. This year he is back to complete his walk to Canada and we are happy to have him join us on this ridiculous adventure. Fish Tank is a retired police officer from Salt Lake City. His first hike ever in life was the PCT last year (hey, go big)!
In the morning we said goodbye to Turtle and began our climb. We knew from Guthook we would hit snow in seven miles, and we did. Despite wearing micro spikes, I was constantly slipping and falling. On a particularly steep down hill, Kilo, who was in front of me, fell and had to self arrest using his ice axe. He was able to stop himself just before falling into a large tree well. Witnessing this completely shook me as I was about to tackle that same down hill. Sure enough about halfway down I slipped, fell on my left hip and was sliding rapidly towards the tree well. Kilo literally caught me at the bottom of the hill just before falling into the tree well. This fall rattled my confidence in terms of navigating the snow and all I could think about was falling. With all of my focus on not falling, I fell more. With every downhill and every snow chute we traversed I was terrified. I was so tense and trying so hard not to fall that both my arms (from holding onto the ice axe) and legs were shaking. I was so relieved once we dropped below the snow line at about 6,500 feet. At least for a couple of miles I could hike stress free. We did have two stream crossings which were freezing from the snow melt, but at this point I would take stream crossings over snow chutes. We reached a campground with pit toilets (what a luxury) and took a small break before heading back up to elevation. On the way back up, we ran into Finder who was hiking Southbound. Finder gave us the low down on the upcoming snow we would be facing and I did not like what he had to say. We had one final stream to cross for the day and then we set up camp just at the snow line. We were able to camp in dirt, but knew first thing in the morning we would immediately walk back into snow.
As we got ready in the morning, we put our micro spikes on knowing that in about 25 steps from camp we would encounter snow. We hiked through snow all day, 8 plus hours. It is slow and laborious. In an effort to avoid particularly steep ice chutes, we chose to climb over large boulders and even bushwhack through sections that were snow free. As we bushwhacked through a dense section of shrubs and trees, Fish Tank and I turned the corner to realize Kilo had fallen face forward over a branch and was now stuck with his butt up in the air and his large backpack hanging over his head and pulling him down. He could not get up. Fish Tank sprung into action and picked Kilo’s backpack up freeing him of that weight so he could push himself up. After we realized Kilo was okay, we had a good laugh about coming around the corner and seeing his backside up in the air in a sea of shrubbery. Fish Tank then took the lead and within his first five steps he fell backwards into the bushes. It was as if the fall was in slow motion. He landed on his backpack cradled in a bed of bushes. This was getting ridiculous, but it felt so good to laugh. The trail provides so many highs and lows in a day. The laughter quickly faded as we hit snow again. I slid again this time into a shallow tree well. At this point I was so frustrated, I threw my trekking poles and started crying. I was not injured, just infuriated with the number of times I had fallen. I was tired. I was hungry. There was no way we could carry enough food to counter balance the number of calories we were burning. I cried for about one minute and then it was time to get over it, climb back up the hill and finish crossing the snow chute. Somehow we made it through this day and camped on a dirt road as it was the only snow free spot we could find.
The next morning we were actually able to hike without our micro spikes for about a mile and a half. It was giving me hope that perhaps we were out of the snow. Such a silly thought. We reached the summit of the mountain where we had cell service and were able to call our dads for Father’s Day. I was feeling good until we realized the downhill portion of the trail was on the North Face of the mountain which meant more snow. There was an extremely steep snow chute we wanted to avoid, so again it was back to bushwhacking and rock climbing over the dry spots. Just as we were coming up over the next summit the sky started to darken and we heard thunder. We pulled out our rain gear and continued hiking. It started to rain gently at first. And then the hail came fast and furious. We ran under a group of trees for some shelter and stood there for about 45 minutes waiting for the worst of the storm to pass. The hail was mostly pea-sized, but an occasional golf ball size piece of ice would fall from the sky. Of course it was hailing. That was just the cherry on top of what was already the toughest section of the trail for me thus far. We started to get cold in our rain jackets and shorts so we had to get moving again to generate body heat and avoid hypothermia. We only had about a mile or so until camp so we hiked it in the rain. The storm was over by the time we hit our tent site, but it had left about an inch of ice balls on the ground. We pitched our tent on the hail and hunkered down for the night trying to stay warm.
The next day was our longest milage day of the stretch at 16 miles as we finally walked out of the snow line. We started in snow for the first couple of miles so my optimism for a fall-free day was low. The three of us were tired. You could feel the exhaustion in the air. No one said a word as we trudged through those first miles of snow, but as soon as we hit dirt all of our moods lifted. Again we camped on a dirt road. We found dirt roads to be our best snow free camping options when planning out our days. There is no way anyone will be driving on these roads any time soon. The snow has really beat up the roads and the trail, and there are trees down everywhere.
We were getting close to Quincy, CA the next town stop. Today we had a 3K climb in six miles at the end of our hike. It was hot and humid outside, about 85 degrees. We were all sweating profusely climbing that mountain. We reached the summit and set up camp for the night. The campsite was beautiful and had an amazing overlook of the surrounding mountains. We could see the Sierra Buttes, where we had come from, far in the distance. Again we were held hostage in our tents by the mosquitos and this time, bumble bees. The three of us look like we have the chicken pox as we are covered in bug bites. We watched the sunset from our tent. It was a clear night with no chance of rain so we left the rain fly off. In hindsight, perhaps we should have left the rain fly on so we could not see the outside (if you do not see it, it is not there, right?), but we could not have known how the night would go. About an hour into sleep I awoke to the sound of an animal walking through the bushes by our tent. Kilo, who was still awake, saw it was just deer so I fell back to sleep. About an hour later Fish Tank came running over to our tent, his tent was about a 200 feet from ours. “Kilo, wake up. Dude, there is a bear in my camp and it’s been circling my tent. I’ve tried yelling at him and throwing rocks at him and he will not leave. I just wanted to let you guys know in case we need to pack up and leave camp.” Dear god. I was now fully awake and my heart was racing. There would be little sleep tonight. Fish Tank went back to his tent and played loud music in an attempt to keep the bear away. Thankfully it worked and he was able to fall back to sleep. Kilo and I eventually fell back to sleep as well. However, not an hour later, again there was an animal in the bushes near our tent. Kilo and I broke out our headlamps and shined them on the bushes. “A mountain lion?” I exclaimed. It was half question, half surrendering to the fact that I was going to die on this mountain. Just go ahead and eat me to take me out of my misery. Turns out the “mountain lion” was the deer again, but I just saw his muzzle and in my dreary state thought it was a big cat. Thank god. Kilo laughed his ass off at my moment of both panic and surrender. I finally got another hour of sleep and then we woke up at 5am for the sunrise.
Town day! We were exhausted and so ready for food, a shower and no mosquitos. We had an eight mile hike to the road where we could hitch into Quincy. We jammed through that hike with our bug nets over our head as we broke through swarms of mosquitos and these little black devil bugs that bite. Once we hit the road, I was slightly concerned we would be sitting there all day as this was a rural mountain road in Plumas National Forest. Within five minutes of sitting on the side of the road, a pick up truck stopped and picked us up. What an absolute saint considering how bad we smelled. We were in Quincy, a small mountain town, within 20 minutes. Our first priority was food. Fish Tank had been talking about chicken wings for days so we found the one restaurant in town that serves wings. Suddenly, all was right in the world. This section has reinforced what my mom has always said to me in tough times, “This too shall pass.” Each day felt like 5 different days with so many highs and lows within 24 hours. When I was miserable and in tears from falling in the snow, suddenly the trail would turn to dirt and I knew everything would be okay. We are taking a well-deserved day of rest in Quincy to do our laundry, eat, resupply, heal our bodies, and take multiple showers. There is more snow ahead, but it is melting quickly. I feel recharged and ready to take on the new challenges I know the trail will throw at us.