29: Kings Canyon National Park

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RamboJuice looking at the clear water of a lake in Kings Canyon National Park

Kings Canyon National Park

It is chilly this morning.  The meadow is still shadowed as we hike down, down into Kings Canyon National Park.  Waterfalls crash down the sheer, rock walls that encapsulate us.  The snow is melting and its last remnants cling to the cliffs far above.  We can see where the avalanches came down earlier in the season.  Trees have been obliterated in huge swathes, broken in half, splintered and ugly.

We ford endless creeks, leaping from wet log to boulder, trying to find the safest path.  Other times we are wading up to our knees.  I think of the other PCT hikers this year who braved the Sierras in the snow.  It must have been beautiful, slow-going, and dangerous.  I try to imagine the sounds of an avalanche.

We climb up and up to Bullfrog Lake where we get off the PCT and make for Kearsarge Pass.  It is a 9-mile hike over the pass and down to Onion Valley Camp.  The way is slow-going and steep.  There is a crowd at the top of the mountain pass.  The JMT hikers are out in full force.  There is snow on the other side, and we walk the seemingly never-ending switchbacks all the way down to the parking lot.  A chain of blue lakes guides us down Kearsarge Pass.

At the bottom, we search for a hitch into Independence and soon find one.  Howard volunteered for the forest service for twenty years, and he knows these mountains well.  He drives us to the post office for our package and kindly takes us to every motel in town.  We finally find a vacancy at the Winnedumah Hotel.  It is a 90-year-old historic hotel with hardwood floors and no television.


We are famished.  Roaming around Independence, we search for ways to relieve our bottomless pits.  The town has few restaurants, and they are all closed.  The only thing open is a Coop Grocery, selling some stale, old pizza.  We buy these and some other items, wolfing them down hurriedly.  This does not scratch the surface though, and soon we are ranging again for grub.  Can it be true?  Is that a Mexican food truck up ahead!?

We binge on tacos and quesadillas until we have to waddle back to our hotel.  Sorting our gear and resupplies has turned our room into something out of Hoarders.  The shower looks like a car wash, grey, gritty water sticks to the sides as we bathe off the trail.  An hour later we are back out, looking for more food.  I have never been this hungry.  I can feel my body screaming for food.  We spend $30 at the Shell on ice cream, candy, chips, and other unholy things.  We eat it all and then sleep.

After decimating the Continental breakfast, we mail a few postcards and then try to hitch.  It is not going well.  After about an hour two dudes in a pick-up let us ride in the bed.  I do not know why, but I love riding in pickup beds.  The dreaded hike back up the pass is over in a flash.  Soon we are back on the PCT, and we are going up again.  It is evening now, and tomorrow we will tackle yet another mountain pass.  We set up camp on the side of a sheer cliff.  There is a stand of trees sheltering us from the winds.  The Clark's Nutcracker is nearby screeching his horrid call.

Glen Pass

On the ascent to Glen Pass, it is still early and the sun has not touched us yet.  It is cold.  I refuse to take off my down jacket even though I know I will be hot as soon as we start to climb.  There are frozen lakes of the deepest blue.  Loud gunshots sound as the ice cracks and shifts.  The sounds echo off the walls of the mountains.

We use our microspikes and ice axes to maneuver the sometimes steep, snow-covered path up to the pass.  At the top, we try to catch our breath.  The reward is a view of Rae Lakes.  The chain of alpine lakes is nested below waiting for us.

The majority of snow is on the other side of the pass, and it seems to take a lifetime to descend.  I can see where other hikers crossed the snowfields way up high.  This route looks incredibly dangerous to me, and I marvel at the bravery or stupidity of some people.  The day is filled with many cold river fords.

We climb down and down into the canyon for miles.  We pass hordes of JMT hikers along the way heading southbound.  Waterfalls are frequent and loud.  We have to shout at each other to hear.  At the end of the canyon, I see the long Woods Creek waterslide crashing down the mountain.

Pinchot Pass

My legs and feet are throbbing, and the hunger takes ahold of me.  It is a raw, gnawing animal.  A suspension bridge hangs far above the roaring torrent.  It is rickety and narrow.  Some of the boards are barely fastened.  You cannot cross the bridge too fast or it will sway uncontrollably, which makes me squeal like a school girl.

On the other side of the suspension bridge, we begin climbing the mountain I have been staring at all day.  Since Glen Pass, this mountain has been staring at me.  This mountain is a monster, and I am already completely exhausted.  How will I go farther?  One foot in front of the other.  That is how.

We backpack uphill toward Pinchot Pass.  I try to concentrate on all the beauty around me.  The waterslide is huge, roaring so near to us it feels dangerous.  I stare at the slick rocks and imagine how easy it would be to fall into the raging river to be swept away down the mountain to die.

We come to a seriously sketchy snow bridge.  The waterslide is close.  I can hear it roaring under the snow.   Needless to say, after Rambo's fall in the Marbles, I hate snow bridges.  We cannot go around.  Above the trail is a bramble of impassable shrubs.  I hug the shrubs trying to stay on the trail, but I cannot see it.  It is fifty feet.  I can do this.  Fifty.  Forty.  Thirty.  Twenty.  Ten.  Whew!  We camp just on the other side of the snow and waterslide.  The mosquitoes try to eat us, but we lather on the bug spray and don our bug nets.

Still Climbing

I wake up in a funk.  Sleep did not come easily last night.  The mosquitoes are horrid outside, everything hurts.  I walk like a zombie.  We start climbing again.  The terrain is tough.  The trail is a series of what feel like gigantic steps.  I feel like I have to leap to get up them, and I am tall.  How would a short person do this?

My pack will not sit right.  Wet snot runs down from my nose, and I wipe it constantly causing it to burn and chafe.  It seems like it takes hours and hours to make this ascent.  Where is this damn pass?!  Finally, we are standing at the top, crossing over into another wonderland of bright, blue lakes.  I feel better.  That climb was a bitch!  I have another name for Pinchot Pass:  "Pinche Pass."

On the other side, we climb down for miles.  The Sierras fall into this pattern daily.  You go up for miles, followed by going down for miles, repeat.  I am nervous about fording the south fork of the Kings River today.  Strawberry's body was found there in mid-July.  Pom Pom and Still Walking described an alternate route to us where you do not have to cross the river at all.  If the ford is sketchy, we will take their advice.  It turns out that my anxiety was unnecessary, the water levels are down enough to cross on the trail.  I could definitely see where this River could be out-of-control when full.

After the second crossing of the Kings River, we set up camp near Mather Pass, our challenge for tomorrow.  The word is that Mather is tough, and there is still snow on the pass.  It not yet hiker midnight, so we listen to Dolly Parton and talk until darkness comes.

Mather Pass

It is COLD!  My nose is running incessantly until we start climbing Mather.  The sun is touching the mountain, warming my skin.  We hit some snowfields straight away, but with our microspikes, they are easily traversed.  Because it is early, the snow is hard, making it stable.  The ascent is steep with many boulders.

There is only one part that is worrisome on the way up.  You can see where other hikers have gone around it.  The way around looks even more sketchy to me.  They have scrambled up a steep boulder field.  I look at the snow clinging to the mountain, covering the trail.  It is only ten-feet or so.  It would be a long fall to the boulders below.  The spikes are on and the axe is out, and soon we have crossed the patch of snow no problem.

On the other side of the pass, there are large snowfields that require some bouldering and steep descents.  A few pairs of broken trek poles have been abandoned along the way.  This is why the axe is good.  We climb down for hours, and the hike is breathtakingly scenic.  The Palisade Lakes are glistening in the sunlight, and hikers are swimming and sunbathing.  There are steep cliffs and a golden stairway.

Rock Bottom

I suddenly become extremely fatigued.  The problem with the bear canister is that you can only carry so much food.  We are not getting enough to eat, and we have created quite a calorie deficit.  This terrain is challenging, and we cannot walk as many miles as we are used to hiking.  I lie down and instantly fall asleep.  I have developed narcolepsy.

We hike down into the canyon.  I have been holding my bladder for too long.  I announce that I am dropping trou, but I cannot undo the tie on my pants.  It is knotted up.  I squirm trying to get it undone in time, but it is too late.  I have pissed myself.  Well, this is some shit.  I sit down in the river and cry.  Rambo does not understand what is happening.  Why is Stretch sitting in a river crying?  Women are mysterious.

I gather my dignity and hike on.  A ranger, Sam Watson, stops us for our permits.  Oh, goodie!  We have been carrying this dang thing all the way from Mexico.  He is a friendly fellow and tells us the word on Muir Pass.  His advice is to stick to where the trail is even if it is covered in snow.  Do not just follow footprints, he says.  We camp at Pete's Meadow along the raging middle fork of the King's River.  It is wild and indifferent and could sweep us away in an instant.

Thru-Hiker Tips:

  • Plan your hike carefully in the Sierra Nevada.  If there is still heavy snow, hike the pass in the early morning.  The snow is harder and more stable.
  • The terrain in the Sierra Nevada is challenging.  Your mileage will drop.  Do not worry.  Enjoy this beautiful place.
  •  Be mindful.  There are many potentially treacherous areas on this hike.  Take care where you place your feet, do not rush, especially when you are fatigued.
  • Try to pack as much calorically-dense food as you can into your bear canister.  You will be famished.
  • Make sure to use your sunscreen.

In the spring of 2017, we set out to hike the PCT.  Hear our full story.

Continue to our next adventure on the PCT.

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