We started our PCT hike really, really early this year — April 8 is nearly three weeks before the traditional start date for through-hikers. We could do this because of the snow, or rather the lack thereof: usually, if you start too early, you’ll hit the High Sierra before the snowpack has melted, and find them impassable. But this year, with the massive drought affecting California (check out the crazy snow surveys for this year), we knew there’d be no problem at all.
Or so we thought. We’d heard rumors of some significant late-season snowstorms hitting the Sierra, but, until now, it was neither urgent enough nor credible enough to actually worry about. (Because of both limited communication and no one canonical source of information, the PCT is full of rumors, from the weather to the couple who supposedly divorced on trail because “he walks too fast!”.) But Lake Isabella is the last real town stop before the High Sierra: it’s only about two and a half days of hiking to Kennedy Meadows, the start to the High Sierra, and only about four days past that to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the U.S. outside Alaska. So this was the place to find out what we could about the real snow conditions, because this was where we wanted to sit if we had to wait. (Kennedy Meadows, with its one small store and no cell-phone service, would get miserable pretty quickly if you were just stuck there.)
Guess what we found? The rumors were true. The PCT Facebook page showed video of a guy going over Forester Pass — the highest point on the PCT, at over 13,000 feet, and only another day or so past Mt. Whitney — and the entire thing was just completely socked in with snow. Snow all over the pass, a massive cornice, the entire sky dark and snowy. Now, Forester Pass is always going to have snow on it; you’d have to wait until August for it to be truly clear of snow. But this was a level of snow that, while we’d probably make it over, we’d really rather not run into.
We tend to be pretty conservative hikers (in what I think is a pretty good way), and this is intimidating to everyone. The guys who posted the video of going over Forester were some seriously experienced and intense hikers, and even they were clearly a bit taken aback by the weather out there. (This, of course, comes out as machismo rather than anxiety in the video, but it’s pretty clearly the same thing. 😉
This very, very late-season snow has been…an unexpected event to everyone on the trail. It’s affecting plans all over the place, and seeing how our fellow hikers react has been interesting. Quite a few people are “flip-flopping” — taking a bus, car, or plane much farther north to hike trail up in far northern California or in Oregon, then planning to come back and hike the High Sierra much later in the season when it’s snow-free. (This actually appears to be far more people than I’d expected…to us, the discontinuity would be pretty jarring and not really what we want to do. But it’s a popular plan, from everything we can tell.) Others are taking off to various places — Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, home (wherever that is) for a week or two to let the snow melt. A few people are plowing ahead and hoping for the best, although we have no good way of knowing yet whether they’re having any luck — or how scary it is.
Others, including us, are planning to just wait it out. Weather reports seem to show that the next couple of days will bring slightly more snow, but, after that, it gets a lot warmer, very fast. In nearly all years, it’ll still take a long time for the snow to melt, because the winter will build up feet and feet of base that has to slowly melt down. But, this year, there simply is no base: the only snow out there is what’s fallen in the last few weeks, and temperatures are already warm enough that there hasn’t been much build-up. So we think it’s pretty safe to expect only a fairly limited amount of warm weather to melt most of the snow and leave the passes much easier to, well, pass. (We also really want to climb Mt. Whitney again — we did it in 2012, when we hiked the John Muir Trail, and it’s an amazing place to be.)
Most importantly of all, Bucket‘s feet have really been hurting recently, and we really need to try more shoes for her. Hiking shoes are specialized enough that this either means going to a major metropolitan area or ordering online via Zappos, and doing this online requires being able to return the pairs you don’t want — much, much easier here than at Kennedy Meadows.
All of this adds up to our decision to stay here, in Lake Isabella, for at least three full days: we’ll order shoes and other gear needs today with overnight shipping, and the holiday means they’ll arrive on Wednesday. We’ll try them on, send back the ones we don’t want, and leave on Thursday. It’s a long stay, and my anxiety about making progress on the trail comes up pretty often — but my rational mind says it’s absolutely the right decision, given that heading out before then just means we’d be much more likely to run into major snow in the Sierras and pretty miserable conditions. I’m trying to relax and let that all be OK, and instead just enjoy being here.
So…between researching weather and then doing a pretty intense amount of online shopping, our morning and early afternoon pretty much disappeared. But this wasn’t before we went to the Dam Korner Café for a huge breakfast. Just like the Lake Isabella Motel, the café is incredibly charming: I don’t think the interior has changed since 1971, and I think about half the entire town comes there in the morning. It’s zero pretension, good food, really friendly service, and, most importantly, an experience that feels like home.
In the morning, too, we opened the most wonderful box that arrived here unexpectedly — a care package from our amazing friends Dan and Sara! While the Priority Mail flat-rate boxes are incredibly common along the trail, this one stood out easily, with little stickers of hamburgers, hot dogs, ketchup, milkshakes, fries, and all kinds of other fast-food staples all over it. We opened it up, and…pure magic! A sweet postcard from them topped jam, several different kinds of cheese, smoked almonds, Tabasco, crackers, olives, hummus, and a bottle of wine. Awww. We felt so loved…everything had been carefully picked out to make sure it’d keep until we arrived here, and getting a little piece of home and of our friends felt just fantastic. A huge, huge thank you to both of them for sending this. It seriously just made our week. 🙂
Midday, our friends arrived! We got a knock at the door, imagining that it was housekeeping, but instead opened it to Treeman and Hedgehog, who we’ve seen far too little! Huge hugs all around, and happiness. Then, not long after, Sarge and Stump arrived, with Dilly and Dally right behind them. The gang’s all here! We’re still debating exactly when everybody will leave, but hoping to keep everybody here as long as possible. Once again, I can’t explain just how good it is to have everybody here and feel like the family’s together again.
The rest of the afternoon we spent napping, on a run to McDonald’s for a late lunch, and then back at the hotel for yet another wonderful home-cooked dinner — spaghetti this time, along with more salad from the garden, cookies, a chocolate Bundt cake, watermelon…deliciousness all around.
Perhaps best of all, we feel really, really relaxed right now. It’s one thing to take a zero, and another to have this stretch of time where you really don’t have to do anything at all. I spent a fair amount of time today on pack chores (organizing, cleaning, etc.), yet don’t feel pressure to get them done, either today or even tomorrow. It’s a wonderful feeling, and very different from most of the trail. I really, really like it.