September 20, 2017
Day 92 Kennedy Meadows to Sage Flat, miles 0704-0720
Trip data: Distance; 23.3, Time; 7:43, average speed; 3.0, minimum elevation; 5849, maximum elevation; 9224, total ascent; 4450, total descent; 4685
Kennedy Meadows marks the unofficial end to Southern California and the beginning of Central California as well as the Sierras. Leaving Kennedy Meadows one climbs past the 7000 foot mark, an elevation that won’t be seen again for over 400 miles, in fact the trail only dips to the 8000 foot mark half a dozen times in the same distance.
The weather is decidedly colder today. Last night it was cold enough the horses needed their fleece blankets to ward off the chill. This morning there was ice in the water buckets. I’ve added a warm jacket to my morning wear.
Today we left Kennedy Meadows, I was firmly convinced we were about to enter the Sierras, and we did, though I have yet to see the crags and lakes that I expected. Following the trail through the Kennedy Meadows Campground was a bit challenging. Several unmarked intersections with side trails that were more heavily used than the PCT made guessing the correct path iffy. I wasn’t totally sure I was going the right way until we passed the sign that said we were entering the South Sierra Wilderness. Just a few miles later we entered the Golden Trout Wilderness. We did climb to 9000+ feet but mostly we saw beautiful valleys with tall grass, flowing water and black cows. I also saw what must be a cowhand’s summer residence, with two or three pickups parked nearby in what my maps show to be the middle of the wilderness, great job if you can get it.
Leaving the PCT I took the trail over Olanche Pass and down to Sage Flats. The first part of this side trail was really nice. The landscape was pretty evenly divided by patches of good sized evergreen trees and meadows lush with grass, one with an old stock camp with holding corrals and a picnic table. Shortly though we started down into drier country, the trail got steeper. It became obvious that this trail was mainly a stock trail, what must have been thousands of cattle over the years have beat out a five foot wide path almost entirely made up of jagged rocky footing.
On the way down the hill we passed a small wildfire on the other side of the canyon 100 yards off the trail. The fire was smoldering in a rocky area that, seemingly to me, not to have much of a chance to spread. There are three trucks from the Arroyo Grande Hotshots here at the trailhead. They said if the wind changes and starts blowing our way we may have to evacuate. For a while it seemed the wind had changed, we can smell smoke now, however it seems to have died down, at least for now. A crew of a dozen or so firefighters are hiking up to the fire while half a dozen more wait at the trucks in reserve. There’s not much for them to do while they wait so Janis, Rose, the horses and I are providing them a welcome distraction. They are giving us a glimpse into the life of a wildfire fighter.
September 21, 2017
Day 93 Sage Flats to Horseshoe Meadows, mileposts; 0720-0745
Distance; 32.3, trail time; 9:47, average speed; 3.3, minimum elevation; 5842, maximum elevation; 10662, total ascent; 8547, total descent; 4346
Leaving Sage Flats going up the Olanche Pass trail reinforced the conclusion I came to yesterday, no more off PCT trails to trailheads that don’t have a packer station. There is a reason Sage Flats doesn’t have packer, no self respecting horse person would willingly subject their horses to a trail like this on a regular basis. The trail climbs 3500 feet in the first four miles up what can only be described as a truly awful trail, all boulder hoping and sharp rock tender footing.
A mile up it started to mist, I could feel my face and the back of my hands getting wet, but the wind blew the rocks dry before the moisture could build up. Two miles up the rocks were getting wet, still a fine mist, taking it head on in the stiff wind was uncomfortable. When we reached the PCT we had to climb to over 10500 feet, up a treeless ridge, exposed to stronger winds. As we climbed the temperature dropped, the mist became a driving snow, the snow turned to ice crystals that made your face feel like it was being sandblasted. BG did not like it one little bit. I passed one south bound hiker, neither of us was inclined to stop and chat. Ten miles in we crested the hill and dropped down into some timber where we got a little protection from the wind, a few more miles and the clouds began to break up and we could see a little sunshine, though it was weak and did little to raise the temperature. By then my feet were wet, my gloves inadequate so I did a lot of walking to help stay thawed.
After the sky cleared I could see for some distance, getting just a hint of what was to come, but for the time being despite the altitude the grandeur of the Sierras was being elusive. BG and I were glad to see Janis and the rig at the Horseshoe Meadows Horse camp, a blanket, stall, mash and hay for BG, a furnace and dinner for me. Horseshoe Meadows is an extremely nice horse camp. Pipe corrals with piped water, flat and level parking spaces, paved road all the way from the highway. I wish I were visiting when the temperatures were above freezing.
There are two trails, about a half mile apart, leading from the PCT to Horseshoe Meadow. I took the southern one, Mulkey Pass Trail, as it was the first I came to. In hindsight the northern one, Trail Pass, would have been a better choice. The Mulkey Pass route is steep and not used as much, the track sometimes disappearing. It also discharges into the meadows and eventually leads to the road going to the people camp. From there one must bushwack cross-country up a pretty good hill to find the horse camp. The Trail Pass trail leads directly to the horse camp and is the one the pack station uses so it is well trodden and easy to follow.
September 22, 2017
Day 94 Horseshoe Meadow to Wallace Creek, mileposts 0745-0770
Distance; 24.1, Time; 7:47, average speed; 3.1, minimum elevation; 9558, maximum elevation; 11512, total ascent; 4834, total descent; 4505
Today the horses and I started our packing portion of our journey through the Sierras. It is cold, the horse’s water buckets were frozen this morning and we had to get them water from inside the camper. We will spend one night on the trail and come out over Kersarge Pass. Leaving camp at Horseshoe Meadows I struggled to find the trail as I often do around well used areas. Over time people have created a myriad of paths, none anymore major than any of the others that wander helter skelter over the landscape. I opted for one trail that seemed to be headed in the direction I was going only to find myself headed into the packer’s station. A pack string was being loaded and BG, Mercedes and I created quite a ruckus. One of the packers was happy to get me started in the right direction and out of his way.
We skirted the meadows passing the Mulkey Pass trail we should have used yesterday. The footing was soft sand until we started climbing towards Cottonwood Pass. According to the maps today we would stay well above 9000 feet passing the Mt Whitney trail junction, surely we would get some views of the tallest mountain in the lower 48 as well as the other legendary peaks of the Sierras. Despite climbing Cottonwood, 11000’, and Siberian, 11500’, passes we never really got above the tree line and in fact I was taken aback by how large the trees are at these elevations. The expected views never materialized, I did get scattered glimpsed from between the trees
The trail was working its way through a boulder pile when we came upon oddest gate I have seen on this trip. Right at the high point of this small ridge was a two pole gate, no attached fence on either side. There was meadow behind, meadow ahead and meadow on both ends of the rock pile and not a fence in sight. A horse could easily walk around the rocks and pick up the trail on the other side, which I might have done had I not already committed to going through. The rocks were so close and high that a horse would have trouble turning around on the trail. After opening the gate I led the horses through and that’s when I realized that I might be in a bit of a pickle. There was nothing to tie BG to and I was pretty sure that the sight of me scrambling up and over the rocks to go back and close the gate might be enough to send my, never too loyal, horses off down the trail on their own. It took a bit of searching but I managed to find a rock small enough and close enough to the trail to wrap my lead around. We found out later that the gate was to block an escaping pack string. Apparently they are so habituated to the trail they won’t leave it even when running away.
Mt Whitney managed to stay hidden despite its close proximity. At Crabtree Meadow we crossed Whitney Creek which was all we would see of the mountain. Climbing up out of the meadows we caught up with two packers each leading half a dozen mules. I fell in behind them for a mile or so until we came upon a place where it would be safe for me to pass. The packers stopped on the trail to allow me to swing out into the brush to pass. BG and Mercedes were cool with following the mules but not so much with the passing. Even though we were 50 feet wide of the string my girls felt obligated to rush with a hop and a skip to get ahead. I don’t know what they have against mules; maybe they just wanted to give the packers something to laugh about later.
The weather remained cold and windy. I was better prepared this time with Gore-Tex boots, cold weather gloves and extra sweatshirts. I found a nice campsite along Wallace Creek with a meadow for the horse to graze in and shelter in the trees from the wind. The horses in the meadow didn’t seem to faze the resident deer in the least as they grazed alongside BG and Mercedes as the sun went down.
September 23, 2017
Day 95 Wallace Meadow to Onion Valley Trailhead, mileposts; 0770-0789
Distance; 28.1, trail time; 9:14, average speed; 3.0, minimum elevation; 9205, maximum elevation; 13130, total ascent; 6345, total descent; 7474
We had a long way to go today, I thought about going further last night but at 25 miles Mercedes, carrying a heavy pack, was getting tired and the campsite was so good. It’s a good thing we did stop as the next water and campsite was another 4 miles and up on an exposed plateau, it was so cold anyway I’m glad we didn’t camp there. It was cold enough where we were. The only place I was moderately warm was inside my sleeping bag. I put on every piece of clothing I brought and still I was cold. I’m hoping this is a temporary cold snap and we get the warmer weather I’ve been told possible this time of year.
I finally got to enjoy some of the spectacular panoramas that the Sierras are so famous for. We climbed from Wallace Creek into open country almost immediately. Crossing the Bighorn Plateau I felt as if I had reached the top of the world, a feeling that would repeat throughout the day. Crossing Tyndall Creek and passing the Ranger Station I had a chance to speak with several hikers that were camped there. They asked if I had any reports on a coming snow storm, which I did not. They also mentioned the Ranger was talking about closing shop for the season.
The highlight of today’s ride was the crossing of Forester Pass, the highest spot, 13130 feet, on the PCT. The climb was mild but steady until the last mile. Coming up the valley I had ample time to examine the ridge ahead to determine where the pass might be. Normally one can see a faint line of the trail on the hillside, but not Forester Pass. I searched in vain as we slowly gained the last four miles to attack the last and steepest mile.
The trail switch backed up a rock face that I had eliminated as being too sheer. By the time I got to where the route became obvious it was too late to do it photographic justice. At first the trail was pretty good, there was the typical rock climbing and pit run footing but the trail was surprisingly wide. The last quarter mile got a little dicier; the trail got narrower, steeper and the footing less sure. The last little bit, couldn’t have been more than a couple hundred feet, though in the moment I thought it would go on forever, got crazy, teensy narrow trail, switchbacks so short and tight I wasn’t sure a horse could turn that sharp and there was only room for one horse before you were faced with the next turn which resulted in the BG and I on one switchback and Mercedes on the next one down, going the opposite direction.
Just as I gained the top, which was a one horse length long knife’s edge, I saw a hiker almost to me coming from the opposite direction, so we stopped to wait until he saw us and we could formulate a passing strategy as the trail was too narrow for such a maneuver to be easy. Fortunately he was a grizzled old veteran who willingly held on to the sign post, (yes there was a sign, this is a National Park after all, informing us that we were at the top as if a thousand foot drop in all directions wasn’t obvious enough) leaning over the abyss so that the girls and I could get by. We chatted a few minutes about the trail, he warned of some snow I would have to cross, at least 20 feet wide. I could see the patch he was talking about and was thinking it shouldn’t be a problem.
The snow was left from last year and due to the low temperature was a solid bloc of ice. It was only five or six feet of steep climb to get on top but the horses struggled to get traction and did some slipping before we got across. Later there were some more short ice crossings, the last of which required the horse to hop up a three foot tall rock to regain the trail. BG did ok, but Mercedes lost her footing and nearly fell over the side before she managed to scramble to her feet and back on the trail, not without acquiring a couple of minor nicks. After that the rest of the day was anticlimactic.
The next ten miles we traveled down the gently sloping Bubbs Creek Valley, where the views were fantastic; I finally felt I was in the Sierras. Rugged pinnacles and peaks towered overhead on both side of the valley. We left the PCT to cross Kersarge Pass, which is as beautiful as promised, then down to the Onion Valley trail head made a good end to the day.
Janis managed to set up at the packer station and make friends with the operators, Jim and Barb Nivens, gaining some very valuable information from them. They were pretty sure we were the first horses across Forester this year. Due to the heavy snowfall last winter there is still a lot of ice left in places. The next pass for me to cross, Glenn Pass, is considered by the Forest Service impassible to stock this year, Jim concurred saying it would be foolish to try, something he and his surefooted mules wouldn’t attempt. To make matters worse the next three passes that would take me around Glenn Pass, Sawmill, Taboose and Bishop Passes are also still snowed in, or this spring’s floods washed the trail or road or some combination of the three. The only trail Jim thought he would try would be Piute some 65 PCT miles north. After Mercedes incident I saw firsthand how dangerous these ice crossings are, Janis and I have decided to take an experts advice and skip ahead.
Note: We spoke to Mike Morgan of Bishop Pack Outfitters located at North Lake. Mike said he was canceling the rest of his planned pack trips this year as trail conditions were too dangerous. Janis and I thought that if the professionals were not willing to risk going back into the high country, then I shouldn’t either. The goal at this point is to return in 2020 to finish the portion from Kersarge Pass to Little Lasier Meadow.