PCT Part 9: Ice Axe to the Head

Kennedy Meadows (mile 702) to Dunsmuir (my mile 872, trail mile 1501).

I got a ride out of Kennedy Meadows from a trail angel, along with Tidbit and a young German girl named Grit. We’d booked a rental car down the mountain in Ridgecrest. Our plan was to take our time driving the Pacific Coast Highway up to San Francisco, where we’d drop off Grit, then continue up to the redwoods.

On the way up we stayed with Steinbeck in Salinas, near Monterey. I’d last seen Steinbeck in Idyllwild, right before I landed in hospital with my freak heart problem. He’d been forced off trail at Cabazon by some problems at home, but was determined to try again next year. Given the snow conditions on trail this year, it was probably for the best.

Tidbit got a phone call in the middle of the night at Steinbeck’s place with some bad news. Her grandma, who’d been severely unwell for the past weeks, had just passed away. She would need to fly back to Texas for the funeral. Tidbit was very close with her grandma, and had been understandably anxious about her deteriorating health since I met her in Wrightwood.

The next morning we drove to San Francisco and dropped off Grit in Berkeley, where she was staying with the family of another hiker. We’d arranged to stay in the city at the home of Claudine, the wife of hiker All-In. I’d met All-In before Deep Creek and he’d asked me to join his crew that was braving the Sierra, but the reports I was reading of treacherous river crossings, knee-deep postholing and high avalanche risk were making me lean towards flipping.

I dropped Tidbit at the airport a couple of days later, while Claudine headed out to Bishop to meet All-In. I had their beautiful house near Golden Gate Park all to myself, but a persistent stomach illness (I think I may have had giardia) kept me from making the most of my time in the city. Tidbit returned from Texas a few days later, and we drove up to the redwoods in Humboldt and Del Norte counties for a few days. These trees are among the oldest living things on the planet, and they are spectacularly beautiful.

I enjoyed being in the comforts of civilisation for two weeks, but spent most of the time anxious about being off the trail. I was continually aware that I wasn’t doing what I came to America to do – fulfil my dream of the past four years. So I was relieved when we finally decided to commit to the flip, and began the long and complicated journey to the northern California town of Chester. As we’d hoped, a lot of snow had melted during our time off. The trail north of Chester appeared to offer the longest stretch of relatively snow-free hiking available.

Because of the difficulty of booking one-way car rentals for long journeys we had to drive all the way down to Sacramento to return our car, then immediately pick up a second rental car and drive it back north to Redding, then get on a bus back south to Red Bluff and east to Chester. It took the better part of two days. Finally at 4:30PM on Monday, a bus dropped us off at the trail outside of Chester. We made it nearly 10 miles before sundown, and spent our first night camped by the raging Feather River. Northern California’s notorious mosquitoes descended on us immediately, so we scoffed our dinner and retreated to the tent.

In the morning we entered Lassen Volcanic National Park, and soon reached a boiling sulphurous lake with bubbling mud pits that looked like something from Mars. Not long after, we hit the only stretch of snow between Chester and Burney. I’d been feeling guilty about skipping the Sierra and breaking up the continuity of the hike, but the snow was a convincing reminder of why I’d made that decision.

The snow only lasted for six miles, but it was tough, slow going as we trekked up and down snow drifts and repeatedly lost the trail. We used a fallen log to make a slightly dangerous crossing of a raging river – something I’d be doing several times a day if I were in the Sierra. Two hikers drowned in 2017 – another high snow year – doing just that.

We crossed another stream earlier than we were supposed to, and found ourselves bush bashing along the bank to try and rejoin the trail. At 6PM, only 13 miles after we left camp that morning, we came across the only flat piece of dry ground we’d seen for miles and decided to call it a day. In the tent that night, I calculated how many miles I would have to hike per day to finish by my target of mid-September. The number shocked me: 21 miles a day, not including any days off. I’d killed a lot of time in the desert and since while I waited out the snow to melt, but I’ve run out of days that I can afford to waste. From hereon in, I’m going to have to step it up.

Determined to make up for lost time, I got up early the next morning and we headed back into the snow. Four more hours of frustratingly slow hiking later, we cleared the snow and began the long descent towards the tiny town of Old Station. We passed through a long stretch of burnt forest, which exposed us to the blazing sun. Despite the distant sea of green, this felt more like the desert than the real desert had ever been.

I reached the spur trail to Old Station in the early evening, and Tidbit arrived shortly after. She was in bad shape. Her feet were acting up, and she was in a lot of pain. She hobbled with me to the gas station – the only store in town – and we bought a frozen pizza. The manager, an unflinchingly friendly guy in a ten-gallon hat, kindly cooked it for us.

Tidbit was in no shape to continue the next morning, so she hitched a ride about 30 miles up the trail to my next stop at the Burney Mountain Guest Ranch. I left at 7:30, and stopped by the Subway Cave on my way out of town. The cave is a quarter-mile-long lava tube with openings at both ends. It was creepy exploring it alone, but well worth the hour-long detour.

By 8:30 I was climbing up towards Hat Creek Rim, which I would follow for the entire day. At top, I got my first view of the magnificent Mount Shasta. This stretch of trail is the only significant waterless section north of the desert, and is almost completely exposed. The afternoon was hot, but the trail was mostly flat so I didn’t have to work up too much of a sweat. I took long breaks at the road 22 water cache and under a large tree to cool down and wait out the heat.

Mosquitoes began to emerge at dusk, and I started jogging down the trail to escape them. Unfortunately the trail in this section is full of jagged volcanic rock, so I could only go so fast without risking my ankles. I made it to a tent site at dusk and hurriedly set up my tent. I’d made it 25.3 miles – my longest day on trail so far.

I started early the next morning, and it made it the seven miles to Burney Mountain Guest Ranch by 9:30. Tidbit was there, and her feet were feeling better. I showered, did laundry, and bought more supplies from the ranch’s small hiker store. The ranch is a religious resort of sorts, complete with a replica Noah’s Ark and an enormous wooden cross looking out over a valley to an identical twin cross. Only in America.

The hiker store sold spray-on permethrin, an insect repellent used to treat clothing. Fearful of more ‘skeeters, we sprayed our entire load of laundry and left it to dry on a washing line. I lazed around the campground for longer than I’d planned as we waited for electronics to charge and clothes to dry. Finally at 4:30 we got back on the trail, and headed towards Burney Falls state park.

We reached the turnoff to the falls just before sunset, and were glad we did. The falls were spectacular in their enormity, and the viewing point offered the best possible view of the awesomely powerful spectacle. A couple of car-camper visitors peppered us with questions about the trail on the way in. Some hikers have made an art form out of using these conversations to milk curious civilised folk for their snacks and beers, a practice known as yogi-ing (after Yogi the bear). We got nothing, so I clearly need to get better at it. I think the secret is having no shame.

We camped at the park, which turned out to be a bad decision. We’d already paid our $5 each before we realised that the hiker sites were half a mile from the ranger station, at the very back of the park. As the only campers who don’t have vehicles, this seemed absurdly unfair. We had to trudge past every cabin and RV site in the entire park on the way to our patch of dirt, next to an old cemetery and miles away from the toilets.

You might think this would be nothing to hikers used to walking 20+ miles a day, but the hiker brain doesn’t work that way. After a long day on the trail, the last thing you want to do is walk more miles that don’t even count towards your total. Most of us will happily wait by the side of a road for an hour if it means some driver will save us from walking half an hour to wherever we’re going. In summary, sort your shit out California state park service.

Tidbit and I hiked 70 miles over the next three days, mostly through dense forests of ponderosa pines and incense cedars. It seemed we were always on a long climb or descent to and from tree-covered ridges, and water was everywhere. For the most part, we only had to carry a litre of water at a time. It was just as well, because I’d been lugging a heavy bear can and an ice axe since Chester.

I was carrying the axe in case we came across steep snow, but never needed to use it. I gave it a whirl on a short slope, using it as brake while I glissaded to the bottom. It’s so much fun, and in the heat I didn’t even mind getting a wet butt.

If you seek the Pine Throne, you win or you die.

We woke up yesterday 12 miles from Dunsmuir, and began the descent into town early. I was going to mail the ice axe ahead from town, and had the axe stowed in the outer mesh pocket of my pack. As I tried to push through some overgrown vegetation, a branch snagged on the axe and catapulted it behind me. Tidbit Matrix’d herself out of the way in the nick of time, and it flew by her head and into some bushes. Oops. I retrieved the axe, and she went through the overgrown vegetation first this time.

We made it into town without the ice axe embedded in anybody’s skull, and I mailed it forward along with my bear can and some other snow gear I no longer needed. Tidbit’s feet are becoming painful again and are covered in blisters, which she thinks are caused by her new shoes. She’s skipping ahead to Etna, and is going to try and find some different shoes in the meantime.

I’m waiting for a package with some more gear which is supposed to arrive today, then I’m continuing into the Trinity Alps and the last section of California.

I lay under these things at the prettiest lunch spot I’ve stopped at so far, next to a waterfall near Dunsmuir.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on my decision to flip past the snow over the last 170 miles, but the more time I spend out here the more comfortable I am with it. More and more hikers who tried to brave the Sierra are bailing out, and those staying in them are contending with deep snow and terrifying river crossings. I wish them all the best, but I’m not here to be miserable or put myself in more danger than necessary. I’m here to enjoy myself, and I don’t want my Sierra experience to be a death march. I’ll return sometime in August, when the snow and the runoff should be much lower. Until then, my goal is the same: Keep on Truckin’.

One Comment on “PCT Part 9: Ice Axe to the Head

  1. Fabulous photos, Enjoy your great adventure and stay safe. good decision to flip past the snow.


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