PCT Part 15: Over the Pass

Mount Whitney (my mile 1530, trail mile 767) to LeConte Canyon (my mile 1600ish)

I was up before dawn the day after my Whitney summit, determined to get over Forester Pass early in case the previous day’s afternoon storm was repeated. At 13,153 feet above sea level, Forester is the highest point of the PCT and probably the most notorious pass on the trail. It’s also the first major pass that northbound hikers have to tackle, so there’s not exactly much of a learning curve.

I hit the trail as the first rays of sunlight hit the top of the western peaks, and soon came across my first real Sierra creek crossing. The water was only up to my calves, but it was freezing.

I’d downloaded the Lord of the Rings soundtrack in preparation for the Sierra, and listened to it as the mountains rose up from the horizon to meet me. I passed many JMT southbounders over this stretch, all nearly at the end of their 200-mile journeys.

I was amazed at the variety of people that tackle this difficult, remote trail, including many parents with their young children. Kids can be tougher than they get credit for.

I met a JMT northbounder from Boston (whose name I’ve since forgotten) about five miles out of camp, and walked with her for the next couple of river crossings. She fell behind as we began the long climb towards the pass and told me to go on ahead. I’d have liked to keep hiking with her as she was a good conversationalist, but clouds were beginning to form overhead and I was fearful of getting trapped above treeline if a storm rolled in. I hurried to the pass.

After a few hours of steady but not overly difficult climbing, I reached the base of Forester. Huge peaks walled me in on two sides, while the pass loomed ahead. I reached the start of the switchbacks that mark the final ascent and began climbing.

Halfway up I came across a memorial to trail worker Donald Downs, who died at age 18 in a dynamite accident while building this section of the trail in 1930. Beneath the plaque, an assortment of rusted tools that look like they might belong to that era were lying on the ground. Could they be?

Forester Pass

I laboured up the last mile of steep ascent before I came across the infamous chute, essentially a steep funnel of loose talus above a dizzying void. I could see why it would be absolutely terrifying when covered in snow, but thankfully I’d waited long enough. The chute was clear.

I could feel the lack of oxygen in the air as I huffed up the last switchback and reached the top of the pass. I got my first glimpse of the valley on the other side, which was still heavy with snow.

The chute

A father and his young teenage son who were going southbound reached the top a few minutes after me, their ascent having been much more difficult. They’d scrambled up the snow-covered north face all the way from the bottom, as their lower vantage point meant they couldn’t see the well-formed bootpack that led to a snow-free talus field on the opposite side of their approach. I took the talus field down, and spent the rest of the day spreading the word to every southbounder I came across. I felt like a backcountry preacher.

I descended towards Vidette Meadow, where a perfect half-pipe of mountains framed a spectacular view. I stopped for a late lunch at ledge and took a time-lapse.

I wanted to get as close to Glen Pass as possible to give myself a chance at getting over Pinchot, the following pass, by the following afternoon. I spent the last two hours of daylight huffing up the long climb out of Vidette, then made camp at a site about a mile from the top.

It was the perfect spot to watch the sun sink over the horizon, turning the mountains gold and then blood orange as it did so. I could see why John Muir referred to the Sierra as the “range of light”.

I made it over Glen Pass without too much difficulty early the next morning, then began the long descent towards Rae Lakes. The lakes, fed by pure snowmelt, were crystal clear and stunningly beautiful. They were also freezing. I stopped at the shore of one and attempted a swim, but only made it up to my waist before chickening out.

I followed the valley for the rest of the morning before crossing a suspension bridge that swayed wildly over the rushing Woods Creek. Then I began the climb to Pinchot, which felt like the longest and most arduous of all the passes. I spent hours and hours wheezing my way up the steep trail, seemingly climbing endlessly. Awesomely powerful tributaries of Woods Creek rushed beside the trail.

I finally hit the top of Pinchot as the mountains began to cast their shadows over the trail. I descended to the next valley, and made camp next to a pristine alpine lake. Again I was treated to a spectacular sunset.

I woke the next morning to find a layer of crunchy frost covering my tent, my shoes and my bear can. Not wanting to numb my hands as I had before, I waited for the sun to rise over the mountains and dry out my gear.

I began the climb towards Mather Pass, which required me to scramble on a log over the south fork of the Kings River. An array of colourful wildflowers followed the trail as it wound its way up. I reached the top of Mather Pass just before 11AM, and met a backcountry ranger who was waiting to radio in her daily check-in.

I’d recently been listening to The Last Season, a book about a Sierra backcountry ranger who disappeared in the mid 90s, and was fascinated by the lifestyles of these rangers who spend entire seasons living in remote cabins to protect their patch of wilderness.

The descent from Mather Pass was the diciest of all, winding down steep banks of loose snow above fields of sharp rocks. I put my microspikes on and picked my way down at a snail’s pace, often stopping to consider each individual step before committing to it. Once I cleared the worst of it I took the spikes off, then began the long descent past Palisade Lakes and into LeConte Canyon.

I came across dozens of southbound JMT hikers, nearly all of whom quizzed me about the conditions on the pass. I was shocked by how many of them had found room in their packs for books, umbrellas, camp chairs and even a ukelele, but almost none had thought to bring microspikes.

A miles-long staircase led down into LeConte, where Palisade Creek was gushing down from the lakes above. It was deafening. After a few bone-jarring hours of descent I finally made it to the bottom of LeConte Canyon and began the gradual climb towards Muir Pass.

I passed the Bishop Pass trail junction and stopped a couple of miles later by the JMT rock monster (see below), where a mum and her daughter of about 12 had made camp for the night. They were hiking a section of the JMT southbound, and quizzed me about my experiences on the PCT before snapping a picture of me being devoured by the monster.

I ate mac and cheese for dinner and crawled into my sleeping bag. I spent a few minutes reading on my phone before I felt my heart skipped a beat, and then struggle to find a rhythm. It thumped irregularly, the rate rising and falling without provocation. My A-Fib was back.

One Comment on “PCT Part 15: Over the Pass

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