Great Western Loop: Day 182 - 188: Mammoth Lakes to Lone Pine
Day 182: Smoke...(22miles)
Finishing my errands in Mammoth Lakes took quite a while, as the small town is quite spread out.
I decided not to ride back to Devil's Postpile, but to hike 6.5miles to Horseshoe Lake and via Mammoth Pass back to the PCT. This added a few miles to my itinerary, but seemed to be the best option for me.
Upon leaving the town I got very concerned. The air quality had dropped significantly and the visibility was really bad, due to massive amounts of smoke. Breathing got difficult and I had to put my face mask on.
(Very smokey day...no fun hiking into this. It was actually quite scary)
When I rejoined the PCT, I met another hiker who had turned around 2 days ago, due to the smoke and she said, that the smoke here in Mammoth wasn't even that bad. I really thought about turning around, but than decided to move on and hope for yet another change of the wind direction.
My emotional rollercoaster continued. Minutes later I met a group of JMT (John Muir Trail) hikers. They had just come all the way from Kennedy Meadows South and said it was doable, but uncomfortable at times. After talking to them for a while, one of the guys gave me a spare KN95 mask, which worked much better than my buff or standard face mask.
Conversations like that continued throughout the day. In total I met 5 hikers who had turned around due to the smoke and 4 who had gone through the smoke.
Unfortunately the wind didn't change that day and it was still smokey, when I pitched my tent near Virginia Lake
Day 183: Silver Pass and Selden Pass (29miles)
The night had been clear and I got a good night's sleep without smoke. The smoke however, returned in the morning as I was hiking towards Silver Pass.
I tried to maintain a steady, but not to fast pace. Hiking through the Sierra is already hard, adding a face mask to those climbs makes it ridiculously challenging. I had to stop several times to catch my breath, but taking my face mask off, wasn't really an option, as the smoke was really intense.
(Look at the sun, almost didn't get through the smoke, and again: it looks much nicer on the photos, due to the camera settings)
(North Fork Creek)
Just before noon I crossed North Fork Creek. A raging river in May 2018, almost dry this year. I passed the junction to the Vermillion Valley Resort and started the climb over some ~50 switchbacks to Bear Ridge.
At 5pm the situation finally improved and I was able to put my mask off and enjoy even a little bit of a blue sky.
I pitched my tent just after Selden Pass, on a tentsite that I had already used 3 years ago.
Day 184: Panic!!! (29miles)
The last night had been the most uncomfortable nights on trail at far.
Due to the size of the bear can - which I am forced to carry by law - I had to put my air mattress on top of my pack. Throughout the previous day, it somehow got a tiny puncture and lost air during the night, making me sleep halfway on the ground. This however wasn't the biggest problem.
I had gone to bed with rather clear skies and somewhat fresh air. At 2am however I suddenly woke up with a feeling of not being able to breathe. The wind had once again changed and I was engulfed in thick smoke. In the darkness of my tent I experienced a slight feeling of panic for a few seconds, but got it under control quickly.
The smoke stayed for most of the morning and got so bad, that I got close to vomiting.
(People get lost out here...)
Around noon I started a 18mile climb with more than 4,400ft of elevation gain to Muir Pass and the weather finally started to improve. By the time I got to the pass, I had blue skies and some nice views.
Muir Pass wasn't the steepest of all climbs, but endless amounts of loose rocks made hiking difficult and slow. After passing Muir Hut, I continued a few miles down the mountain and stayed yet again, at the tentsite that I had used in 2018.
Day 185: Autumn on Mather Pass (25miles)
I had big plans for the day and left before sunrise. The skies were rather clear, but a few drops of rain came down in the early morning.
The weather improved on the never ending climb to Mather Pass and allowed for the best views in the Sierra so far. I enjoyed beautiful autumn colours and a lot of deer left and right of the trail.
(Deer are just incredibly relaxed, a black bar would have run away...)
(Up: This is the valley where I came from...)
(That "drop" on the far ridge in the middle of the picture, just above the lake is Mather Pass)
The climb was tough and I was happy to reach the top by 2am. My mood however dropped immediately, as the other side was engulfed in smoke.
Fortunately the wind changed again and presented blue skies on the way to Pinchot Pass. I had initially planned to climb over the Pass on the same day, but instead decided to stay at one of the lakes and spent some time to fix my air mattress.
Day 186: The race is lost! (30miles)
Day 186 started quite nice. It took just over an hour to finish the climb over Pinchot Pass and I didn't smell any smoke.
The night had been stormy and haf forced me to secure my tent properly, but I had once again stayed rather warm under my quilt.
(Is this Mordor...?!)
(You know it's cold, when your breath turns into ice in your beard...)
My plan for today was at least getting close to Kearsarge Pass. I was low on food and had to leave the mountains for a resupply in Independence. I walked fast in the morning, trying to make it over Glenn Pass as early as possible, so that I could potentially cross Kearsarge Pass into Independence on the same day. Well, I managed to do that in the end, but the day turned out so much differently than expected...
(Yikes...I didn't step on that section...)
(There's a coyote looking at me in the middle of the photo)
At ~10am I started a 9 mile climb to Glenn Pass. A pass that I remembered well from 2018, because it's quite steep and very exposed.
Throughout the morning I had been followed by some dark clouds and a few drops of rain here and there.
At 11am some flurries came down and dusted the trail. At that time, I didn't expect anything bad to happen.
Those flurries however, quickly turned into a serious snow storm. I was already above 10,000ft and the snow started to accumulate quickly.
I was rather surprised and started asking myself how bad it would get and what I should do.
I thought about hunkering down for the rest of the day, but I was quite concerned about not being able to cross the pass on the next day, if the storm continued with this intensity. I decided to cross at least Glenn Pass as quickly as possible, as I knew a few potential tentsites a few miles after the pass, if I had to hunker down for the day.
Well...it got crazy.
At the time I was climbing the last mile up to Glenn Pass, I was postholing through a foot of snow. The visibility was extremely bad, the wind came sideways and I felt ice on my eyebrows. I lost the trail 2 times, but managed to find it again, due to my memories from 2018. The storm was so intense that I got really concerned about my safety, especially when I reached the top of Glenn Pass. The wind was so strong on this narrow section, that it almost blew me off the mountain.
Making progress through the snow was extremely difficult. I had crossed the Sierra in May 2018 with a lot more snow, than I experienced now, but that snow had been consolidated and I had the proper equipment (ice-axe, micro-spikes, waterproof socks...).
Now the snow was soft and I couldn't see what I was stepping on. It got slippery and I stumbled up and down the mountain. My gloves are just rags after 6months of hiking and my fingers got extremely cold.
At the top of Glenn Pass my only thought was getting down as quickly as possible. I had to find a more sheltered place, before being trapped by the snow. I was so focused on getting down, that I didn't take any pictures.
Staying on trail was hard. It was close to whiteout conditions and the wind blew so hard in my face, that i could hardly see where I was hiking. I was lucky to remember the trail so well from 2018, otherwise I would have probably gone of trail several times.
Luckily the storm eased off after a few hours and about 1.5miles after Glenn Passed I finally relaxed a little bit. By that time, I was only half a mile from the junction to Kearsarge Pass.
Kearsarge Pass is slightly lower than Glenn Pass (11,950ft vs 11,790ft / 3,600 vs 3,500m) and much less difficult.
It was 3pm when I decided to attempt crossing pass no. 3 for the day, to get out of this environment.
I had some problems following the trail to Kearsarge Pass, but managed not to get lost and finally got over the pass and to the trailhead. About 2miles down the road a family of deer hunters picked me up and gave me a ride to Independence.
Day 187: Independence (0miles)
After a very rough day in the Sierra, I took a zero in Independence.
Day 188: Lone Pine (15miles)
On day 188 I left Independence towards Lone Pine via Highway 395. I had decided not to return to the Sierra due to a storm warning. For tomorrow (monday) winds of 65-75mph (105-120kmh) are expected in the valley and the mountains. Temperatures will drop to 6°F (-14°C) in higher elevations, with severe snowfall throughout the day. Wind advisories are in place. People are asked to stay away from trees, branches and windows. High profile vehicles should only drive, if absolutely necessary and power outages, due to broken power lines should be expected. I'm currently not sure if I'll go out at all tomorrow. For now, I'll wait and see.
(Onion Valley: Beautiful valley and major water source for the big cities on California's coast)
(Mt. Whitney: 14.505ft / 4421m, just left of the prominent mountain in the middle of the photo)
Since reaching the PCT in early August i've been struggling. My mileage has dropped significantly, due to constant route changes and unplanned detours.
In general I like challenges and unexpected situations that force me to think on my feet and adapt to new situations, but I think i've reached my limit.
Especially the last few days have been utterly frustrating. It feels like the PCT is trying everything to stop me from finishing the Great Western Loop. Smoke, snow and the upcoming storm are slowing me down significantly and it feels like I'm constantly facing the roughest conditions possible. Leaving the Sierra with only one mountain pass and 2-3 days in higher elevations left, really sucks. After 188 days of hiking I have technically lost the race against a very early winter.
I have only 15% of my itinerary left, but it has become a real struggle and a mental game. I'm exhausted, physically and mentally and it's time for me to make it to the finish line.