From the very beginning I knew I'd be hiking into a weather system. I was supposed to leave for my starting point at South Fork Campground on Tuesday May 12th, but I ended up holding off until Friday in hopes of bypassing some of the larger storm systems which were scheduled to hit the Sierra.
My Mom drove me the hour and a half to the beginning of Sierra Mapping Project's first leg at South Fork Campground roughly 45 mins outside of Visalia, CA. Every pothole and bump in the dirt road was felt as her white Camry tried it's best to avoid major divots. We arrived at a the same spot I'd rung in the New Year with. A fitting location to begin the first of many new trips.
My mom and I got out of the car, took a short walk down to the river, packed up the rest of my belongings and then said our goodbyes. Without hesitation my mother insisted one last time... "Are you sure there's no one that can go with you? What about that girl hiking the Theodore Salomons Trail? I just wished you would be going with other people." With difficulty I tried to refrain from telling her for the umpteenth time that most all of my miles have been logged solo. I would love to have others out with me, but it's easier said than done. My mom and I embraced for one last hug before she took my photo and I began the first stretch of trail to be GPS'd for Sierra Mapping Project.
I started around 6pm. The first day I made it 5.5 miles to a beautiful campsite where 2 local backpackers were sitting next to a raging fire. The rain was still slightly falling. I looked like a wet dog. A couple named Russell and Maggie offered me a seat and I gladly obliged. Russell was curious how many miles we'd gone so far. He said he thought it was more, but the sign at the trailhead said 3.6 miles... we'd gone 5.5miles. The first major discrepancy within the first few hours of SMP. The sound of laughter and crackling embers engulfed the chilly night air as we chatted for a few hours then headed off to sleep.
Day 2 of SMP: I woke up incredibly early... which is very unlike me. I was all packed and hiking by 7am. I bid farewell to Russell and Maggie and then continued up the trail. The trees of Garfield Grove are absolutely stunning. They tower into the sky while puffy white clouds sail past the lush tree tops. Russell was talking about how their is rumored to be a tree larger than General Grant in these parts. He said it's been kept hidden and it takes quite a lot of cross-country travel to find it, but the local lore speaks of it regularly. These trees which surround me make me feel alive. I gently place my hand on the soft pliable bark and whisper my heartfelt thanks and appreciation before continuing on. These gently giants speak my language.
The next stop was the South Fork River Crossing. According to FS sign it was supposed to be 8.1 miles... it was 12.8. I knew that these mileages were going to be off substantially, but I don't think I was prepared for the shocking degree that'd Id already uncovered within such a short distance... I began wondering how many "extra" miles I would be hiking on this first stretch. I packed out 5-6 days of food for the "89 miles" Tom's maps had indicated.
The snow level was down to roughly 8k feet on day two. Although FULL snow coverage (2-3") wasn't present until closer to 9k feet. My next stop was Hockett Meadow Ranger Station. In January when I'd gone backpacking with my good friend Shepherd that was our intended destination. I was excited to see what was in store and to finally make it back to Hockett Meadows.
When I arrived at the Hockett Meadows Ranger Station I'd traveled 16.8 miles... not the noted 12 miles which the sign had stated. I was floored when I gazed upon this luxurious Ranger Station. This was quite possibly the COOLEST station I'd seen out in the backcountry. You can certainly tell a lot of money, the labor of love, and hard work, went into the construction of this palace. I moseyed around a bit, drank from the stream running through the Meadow and then continued onward just as another storm was rolling in.
A thick cloud enveloped me as I walk Eastbound. In an eerie sense it was beautiful. Even though the rain hadn't started yet, I found myself soaked. My hair clung to the sides of my cheeks and began to freeze to my bright red skin. I stopped to add another layer onto my head. I was grateful I'd decided to add another headband into my bag last minuet. Even though my pack was INCREDIBLY heavy I would end up using every single item I carried.
Since I was already running behind schedule (due to the major discrepancy in mileages) I told myself I had to make it to Mineral King by the end of the day. I walked for 4 hours without taking a break. Mostly because it was too cold to stop, and partly because I was trying to make it before I lost what little daylight I was allowed. About 4-5 miles outside of Mineral King along the Tar Gap Trail there was a moment when the clouds lifted and the sun began to peek through the trees. I welcomed the site with open arms as I let what little heat the sun gave off radiate through to my bones. I was content, but more importantly... I was happy.
By the end of day 2 I'd made it to Mineral King. 28.4. Feeling exhausted, hungry, and sore I made camp at the trailhead before drifting off to the sound of snowflakes softly singing me to sleep as they gently slid down my silk-nylon tent.
I began noticing that even though the maps and the forest service placards were terribly incorrect, the newer ones would have a slightly updated accuracy. So where one sign may say 8 miles, the very next sign may say 10 miles because it had been updated more recently. The mileages on the maps has both over compensated and drastically undermined the milages. It'll be so nice to have one consolidated data bank where accuracy is first and foremost. A few miles here and there for a trail hardened thru-hiker is of little concern, but those same mileages given to day hikers or weekend warriors can very well mean extra days on trail without enough gear or food to get them to their destination. Thus creating a perfect scenario for SAR to go in and "rescue" said individuals.
The next morning I awoke and was on my way through Mineral King. This was my first time in the area and I was impressed to say the least. Since I'd been trekking through clouds and fog for days it was a welcome sight to see massive towering mountains blanketed with a fresh layer of snow. The inviting nature of the jagged peaks kept beckoning me towards their white sparkling summits. With a pure heart and an utter appreciation for having this "Disneyland" all to myself I set off down the road towards Sawtooth Pass.
I was greeted by many different herds of deer and one bear on my walk up to the trailhead. I exhaled deeply and took in the crisp mountain air. As I gazed up as the sky I saw clouds piling up in the distance...
I began hiking up the Sawtooth Trail. I felt the weight of my heavy pack digging into my shoulders and hips. Strapped down with electronic equipment, battery packs, extra cold weather gear, ice-axe, spikes, and bear can I stopped for short burst of oxygen intake. The welcomed breaks were delightful, but I couldn't help but severely miss the light nature of my normal 8-9 lb base weight. I suppose this is what backpacking used to be like before everyone went Ultra Light... I felt humbled.
I made it up to the turnoff for Sawtooth Pass and Timber Gap. I made a sharp right and continued up the trail towards Monarch Lake. Upon entering the clearing where Monarch Creek sails effortlessly down the mountain I was greeted by a fat and healthy red headed little Marmot. He stopped and froze solid... he was unsure why there would be people up this early in the season. According to his calculations he still had at least a solid month before he'd see traffic coming through his precious home. I called out to him... "It's okay buddy... I'm a nice human. Don't mind me. Just getting some water and I'll be on my way." And with that the little Marmot relaxed and sauntered off into one of the only remaining spots with sunshine.
I followed bear tracks for about 1 mile up the trail. I tried to imagine what Mr. Bear was looking for. If I was him, I would have been thinking about headed down to the Ranger Station where there was no snow and plenty of deer. But Mr. Bear suddenly made a sharp right down the rocky banks of the cliff. He must have known something I didn't... as is almost always the case with nature.
Around 1pm I was completely engulfed in clouds. The weather turned from overcast to white-out conditions shortly after. I was traversing the side of the trail up to Monarch Lake and the base of Sawtooth Pass. I took out my Dad's old MSR Patent Pending Icd-Axe from the 70's and slipped into my Micro-Spikes. My trail was completely covered in roughly 4" of snow. The only company I had was the sound of my breath and the coyote tracks I had been following for hours. The sound of my feet crunching down into the pristine arctic-like snow was almost magical. A couple more steps and my footing gave away. I began sliding faster and faster. I jabbed my axe into the snow and came up onto my knees and forearms. The weight of my body was pushing into my freshly sharpened axe and I stopped almost immediately. My first self-arrest of the season - success. My ears were filled with the sound of my heavy beating heart. I took a few seconds to regain my composure before kicking in steps up to the trail. The fresh power rolled passed me creating beautiful snowballs which gained both momentum and speed before they crested over the cliff and softly fell down upon the jagged rocks at the bottom.
Over the next 7 days I would use my trusty ice-axe to self-arrest over 30 times... 3 of them being life-saving scenarios. I come alive when I'm in situations which require your utmost attention. These are the environments I feel alive in. These are the times I enjoy the most. Filled with adrenaline and a newfound vigor I began hiking again.
By 2pm the storm had rolled in with a vengeance. After a gnarly self-arrest which had me 20feet from dropping off the side of a cliff I gingerly made my way back up to my tracks. I was in complete white-out conditions. I took out my axe and cut through the snow to the trail so I would have a somewhat "level" foundation to sleep on. I set up my tent with my trekking poles. Instances like these make me incredibly happy that have a free-standing shelter... although I can't stand tents, I was beyond grateful for this set up. I jabbed my umbrella into the side of the tent to help keep the snow from caving in the side. I had absolutely zero room. Nestled on a tiny ledge on an exposed ridge I waited out the storm until the following morning.
One of my top "Hiker Trash" moments occurred at this spot. I peed into my cookpot. With complete white-out conditions, raging wind, and freezing temperatures I had to resort to peeing in my pot. Now... I'm not proud of this moment... but it 100% beat going outside of my tiny little shelter. Rest assured I boiled water and cleaned out my container thoroughly before eating out of it again... this was not THE most Hiker Trash moment... but I'll save that for another date.
The next morning when I awoke I was thrilled to open my vestibule and see the towering giants I had been surrounded by. Feeling blessed and alive I stepped out of my tent. I made it to Monarch Lake and looked up at Sawtooth Pass - the pass I was supposed to be going up. The current snow/ice/powder conditions made me think long and hard. This ascent would be right at the crux of my comfort level. Had another person been there with me I would have gone with no questions asked. But seeing as how I was the only living soul around for miles on end I decided to play it safe and smart and backtrack to go up and over Timber Gap, Blackrock Pass, and finally emerge by Little 5 Lakes... over 24 miles extra hiking by deciding to turn around. The MOST important thing in the backcountry is knowing your limits. If you don't feel comfortable then listen to yourself. Sometimes the mountain doesn't want you on it, and you must listen or potentially pay the ultimate price. Needless to say, I have to map every trail anyways so by no means was I looking at this as a "loss." Quite the opposite really.
I made my way over to Timber Gap in over 4 feet of fresh snow at 9k feet and descended down the canyon of Timber Gap Creek before another massive storm system rolled in around 2pm (again) forcing me to set up my shelter. These are the only 2 times in over 10,000 miles where I have set up my shelter for inclement weather instead of hiking straight though it. The Great Sierra in May is unpredictable and you MUST be willing to be on the mountain's time.
The next morning (Day 5) I set off on the trail around 8am. My destination was Little 5 Lakes Ranger Station... which I was almost at the previous day before I decided to back-out. I would be cresting over Blackrock Pass. Fully rested, I began climbing from 7k up to 11k. 300 feet from the top of the pass I put on my spikes and took out my beautiful life-saving partner, my trusty axe. My mileage per FS Signs and Maps was 6.5 miles... at mile 7.6 I crested up and over the 15ft cornice where I was greeted by one of my favorite critters - the Pika.
That day I made it all the way to the High Sierra Trail where I finally made camp at Lake Moraine. Day 5 ended up being over 25 miles long. Now... you also have to take into consideration that mapping and recording takes a huge amount of time. I stop every time there's a water source/crossing. I document the mileage, write it on top of the maps as well as in a notebook, document how much flow the water is putting out in terms of Liters/second, document how the size of the source... For trail maintenance I document down trees, washouts etc. Thus turning my normal fluid hiking pace into a very stop and go process. But it's well worth it!
I made it down to Moraine Lake and I fell asleep to the familiar sounds of frogs and crickets chirping in the background.
Day 6 I woke up early and was on trail by 7:30. I made it down to Kern Hot Springs before taking my first break for the day... over 4 hours of hiking. The maps to my next break spot said 7.7 miles to Junction Meadow... the FS sign said 9.2 miles. I finally reached Junction Meadow having logged 12.8 miles. This was by far the most inaccurate data... mostly because I wanted to badly to be at the junction and it took about 2 more hours to get there than planned... This is why we need Sierra Mapping Project!
As I was soaking in the Hot Springs I looked up and a massive BLACK wall was coming towards me. I immediately jumped out of the concrete bathtub with such vibrance that I knocked over my trekking poles, got my clothes soaked, and almost toppled over. I murmered under my breath... "SHIT!" and then I clambered into my wet clothes and booked it for a tree to take cover. Within minuets the pleasant sunny temperatures had gone from mid 70's to full blown snowflakes the size of quarters. This makes for the 6th straight day of snow.
The snowflakes that began to fall from the heavens were perhaps the largest flakes I've ever seen in my life. I stood transfixed under my umbrella watching their soft movements sway back and forth until the arrived safely upon their destination on the ground. The left and right swaying movement instilled in the snowflakes reminded me of a pendulum swinging ever so softly with the energetic frequencies of life. This was one snow storm I was blessed to be in!
I had originally planned on going out Kearsarge Pass, but with all the extra miles, losing a day of traveling, and the snow I decided to backtrack once on the Pacific Crest Trail to head up and over Mt. Whitney down into Lone Pine to resupply. I ended up pulling a 28 mile day on day 6 to make it to Crabtree Meadow Ranger Station. I walked through the dark in fresh powder sometimes more than 1 feet deep (in severely wind blown areas) but for the most part the snow was consolidated to roughly 3" near 10k feet.
Every now and then I'd let out a "KOOO-WEEE" to see if any other thru-hikers were in the vicinity. But my call was answered back only with the silence of snow falling upon a trail free of any signs of human life. I was alone out here... 6 days without seeing another human soul. I knew there were hikers on the PCT... but the trail lacked any information on their whereabouts. As far as I was concerned nature had covered up their tracks and I was beautifully isolated in the middle of the High Sierra.
I made it into Crabtree Meadows around 930pm. The tracks of coyotes, deer, and the occasional bear lead me right up to the campground. I crossed a log full of snow on my hands and knees because I had no idea what hidden "peekaboo" slots I'd find in my down tree bridge. Upon entering the meadow I saw 3 tents. There were hikers out here! I put up my tent and made dinner as quietly as possible. I hoped I was being quiet. It was afterall past hiker midnight (9pm).
When awoke the following morning, day 7, I was greeted by 3 PCT thrus. Apple Pie, Lizard, and some foreign gentleman who left before 6am. Turns out I'd met Apple Pie 3 years prior in San Diego at Adventure 16 where he read a story of his from the Pacific Crest Trailside Reader. Such a small world.
Running utterly low on food (I'd been rationing to 1000 calories the past 3 days) I ate my last bagel and told the boys that they'd pass me up the trail. At this point in their hike they've got over 700 miles on their legs... and I've got 7 days. They both passed me after Guitar Lake and the two broke tread up to Whitney. We bid each other farewell since I was exiting Trail Crest and they were summiting then heading back down. They were the first people I'd seen in a week and I was beyond thrilled to have some company to talk to and their energy to help break trail. I will forever be grateful to those two awesome humans!
When I arrived at my departure to turn right to Trail Crest I was following the tracks of about 4-5 people from what I could discern. I knew that they had no returned to go back down Whitney. When I got to Trail Crest I was met with 100% white out conditions. I couldn't see further than my hand. The tracks which were being held in place were now exposed beyond the nice little windbreak and they disappeared into the mountain. Wind rushed passed my face and I started to cry. After a couple seconds I stood there and asked myself... "why in the world are you crying?oh... ya.. you need food." And just like that I stopped. I took out my phone and called my mom. She hadn't heard from me since she dropped me off and I was a day late coming out.. not to mention I was exiting a different location than planned. She answered and immediately I knew I shouldn't have called. She was panicked. I told her I was fine. I was going to set up my tent and wait so I could discern a way down the completely snow covered path. I knew this would involve making my own way down, but I was okay with that. My mother however, was beyond concerned. She spoke of calling SAR... frustrated with her lack of understanding, hungry, and tired, I spoke with a tone that conveyed the utmost importance that she NOT call SAR. I would have been beside myself if she did. I hung up and told her I'd call her again when I went into town. I was miffed. Thank goodness she ended up calling my Dad who assured her I was fine and that calling SAR was the most unhelpful thing ever. All i needed was to wait till I could see again.
I made my way back to the windbreak and waited for the folks who summited Whitney. Within 30mins they appeared and I informed them that they'd added another hiker into their group. I quickly became friends with 5 wonderful Russians and we all went down the Chute of Mt. Whitney together. We rappelled down the first 30 feet, which was an exciting first for me! Then the 6 of us went down the mountain together while talking and laughing. Food was on the horizon and I was stoked to have the promise of a hot meal and a snow-free night in store for me.
When we arrived at Trail Outpost 4 of the members of the group were staying and Aleksandr had to be back in Lone Pine that evening. I waited for a few moments for him to pack up his gear before the two of us headed down together. The Russians made me 2 cuts of delicious tea and sent us on our way. Immediately upon us departing Aleksandr decided to take his own route down the mountain. I watched from the trail as he toppled through huge cascading snow banks and scrambled across rocks down climbing with a massive pack. I was beyond concerned. My heart was racing as I tried to follow him down the "canyon." I clutched my angel necklace my great buddy Maz, of the incredible movement "AMelonADay" had given me. It's a pendant his brother Tim drew when he was a child and he made it into necklaces. Tim passed away because of a Traumatic Brain Injury, a cause I hold very near and dear to my heart. His angel resides indefinitely around my neck. I muffled a few words to Tim and asked him to protect and look after Aleksandr.
As I proceeded to make my way down the trail i lost sight of Alex. When I rounded the next switchback he was leaned up against a rock with his arms folded, legs crossed, donning a smug little smile. I briskly walked over to him, slapped him square in the arm and told him never to worry me like that again! He laughed and in his thick Russian Accent told me to take the lead. Half laughing and half shaking my head we finished the Mt. Whitney trail together.
The closer we got to the trailhead the more the sky cleared up and the warmer it got. We peeled off our layers bit by bit. Finally stripping down to our normal hiking attire. When we arrived at the trailhead I was greeted by a man and his brother (whom had summited Whitney 7 times) and they'd heard about me and Sierra Mapping Project. He interviewed me on his phone and Aleksandr got a few words in as well.
Alex and I drove down into Lone Pine together, stopped for dinner at the Totem, then split a room. After 7 days of not seeing a soul I was thrilled to be my normal social butterfly again. With a happy belly and a clean body I drifted off to sleep.
There's something ornately beautiful about trails. These mountains bring people together in a way that has been lost in our current culture. Having never met this man, we spent an entire day together, shared a meal, and split a hotel room. The trail is full of mystery and magic. The people that you meet out on these excursions stay with you forever. Every time I go into the mountains... or desert... any trail really... I always come back more humbled, thankful, and revived in humanity. This simplistic way of life is an incredible foundation for our society to evolve into. Being stripped down to the raw necessities. All barriers are taken away and you become friends... true friends with the other folks out in nature.
The following days in town I met many new friends and had a few surprise visits from old buddies. Laughing and sharing stories we interacted with one another... real human interaction. We didn't bother with television, phones, or radio, we simply eased into our current environment and shared our true selves with one another.
I made my way to the Andersons, of Casa De Luna, to help out for a couple days during prime hiker season. Mama T (Terri Anderson) is a Trail Angel on the PCT and opens her home to thousands of hikers every year out of the goodness of her own heart.
Right now I'm heading back into the High Sierra near Strawberry Mine on the west side of the Sierra (23 miles due west of Devils Postpile). I'll be mapping that area for the next few days.
The Sierra Mapping Project is badly needed. If you can donate to the cause please do. I'm doing this because it needs to be done. And this information should rightly be free. Currently everything has been out of my own pocket. My non-profit will exist indefinitely- constantly charting current conditions and working with trail crews to ensure our beloved trails remain hike-able. There's 17 days left in the campaign. Please donate anything you can! Every bit helps! This information is for you!
When I return I'll post a spreadsheet with the variations between the Maps, the FS signs, and my actual GPS readouts.
With love, laughter, and the happiest of trails,
Sara BloodBank Fry - Founder of Sierra Mapping Project