Tonight, we’re only eight miles from where we camped last night, unexpectedly — and gladly. While we were planning to go over Forester Pass, the highest point on the PCT, today, and yet tonight it still remains nearly five miles off. Instead we made camp at something like 3:15 PM — incredibly early — and have been taking it easy ever since. Why? Weather and judgment.
For comparison’s sake, here’s a story we heard this morning. While descending from Whitney yesterday, we ran into a hiker we know — who shall remain nameless, because he’s a great guy — coming up the trail. This was just below Trail Crest, at about 13,700′, just after 5 PM. We were more than a little bit surprised: at that point you’re almost guaranteeing that you’ll be doing a good part of the descent of Mt. Whitney after dark, and that is far from an easy descent. If we’d encountered an incredibly experienced mountaineer with crampons, ice axe, and so forth, that’d be one thing, but our friend, while wonderful, wasn’t that — he had only his trekking poles. We tried to dissuade him from continuing up, but to no avail, so we kept descending. When we woke up this morning, I looked for him, and thankfully he was there…looking somewhat worse for wear. Here’s what apparently happened to him.
He reached the summit of Whitney yesterday evening — and found the clouds had lifted, and it was just beautiful. But then he continued: just as we expected, night had fallen by the time he was at the top of the endless switchbacks, coming down. That was when he discovered that the batteries for his headlamp were dead, that his phone had only 4% charge remaining, and that his emergency beacon had only 14% remaining. (To say that these are the kinds of things we check on religiously before any outing would be a big understatement.)
Basically, he proceeded down these endless switchbacks in the pitch darkness, seeing only a few feet in front of him on this cloud-filled night. He kept going, but the return trip seemed completely endless: each time he thought he must’ve been at the campground, he wasn’t there yet, and, because his phone was dead, he had no way to check. Eventually he panicked and started running down the trail, full-tilt…and that’s when he pitched forward and crashed, hard, onto his knee.
He screamed in agony, loud and long. To his utter luck, he was actually only a few hundred feet away from the campground — and some other late hikers were still awake, and heard him. They came and helped him limp to the campground, and bandage up the giant cut he now had on his knee…a cut that apparently bled all night long.
Our friend is going to be OK — well, especially after he exits the trail to see a doctor — but this is exactly the kind of thing we try extremely hard to avoid out here. There are a number of decisions we would’ve made differently in order to avoid that kind of situation — we’re pretty cautious hikers.
Which is exactly why we’re here tonight. One of the reasons we’ve been so aggressive in hiking in the past few days is that we heard there was supposed to be a storm coming late tonight or tomorrow, and we wanted to make it over Forester Pass before it got here. As it turns out, it just wasn’t to be. We slept in really, really late this morning (that means 7:30) and didn’t hit the trail until a quarter after ten. By the time we were getting close to Forester Pass, the sky started to darken in the direction we were headed, the wind picked up…and we started seeing snowflakes fall onto us, sometimes from a pure-blue sky overhead. The weather was here.
Rather than try to climb the pass, we stopped. There’s a beautiful campsite with a river nearby, a bear box to store our food, and an amazing view of the pass. We set up camp midafternoon instead, making sure we were set no matter what happened. It turns out that was a wise choice: maybe 45 minutes after setting up camp, not long after we crawled underneath our tarp, it started hailing…at first a little, then fiercely, coming down fast and hard. Being caught out in that while scaling a 13,000-foot pass with biting winds and clouds all around would’ve been absolutely miserable, if not downright dangerous.
Instead, we’re here, safe and warm, curled up under our tarp, in our sleeping bags, having eaten mashed potatoes for dinner and had pudding for dessert. Instead of just cresting the pass a half-hour ago and having to fight the utterly changeable weather (as I write this, it’s bright and sunny out again), we’re snug and will get to bed really early, prepared to take on the pass tomorrow. Instead of being miserable or even in danger, we’re happy and safe.
I, personally, think that kind of judgment is far more important than nearly any gear (well, OK, except for maybe a sleeping bag) out here. It may have slowed us down a little, but we’ll make up the miles tomorrow, and we’re vastly happier for it. Instead, we’ll take on the pass tomorrow, with fresh legs and fresh, happy minds, and be ready for whatever comes…and probably with clear, sunny skies, as well. Hooray!