Editor’s note: After an injury cut short Stormin’ Norman’s early summer hike in 2004, he resumed his trek on the Pacific Crest Trail after his knee healed.
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My plan was to hike over the central high Sierra southward 540 miles from Donner to Walker Pass, located some 30 miles east of Bakersfield. But before beginning my trek, I had to make some concessions to my family.
My 2001 hike on the Appalachian Trail was cut short by a stress fracture to the top of my tibia. This spring, I suffered another trek-ending injury to the same knee (extreme patella tendinitis) that resulted in my being air-evacuated off a 9,000 foot peak in the San Bernadino Mountains.
Forced to realize that while I may have the adventurous spirit and enthusiasm of a 20 year old, it’s housed in the body of a 60 year-old. I promised my wife Tomi and daughters Elizabeth and Melanie I would limit my day’s activity to less than 15 miles.
The journey began in July with a series of three-day jaunts from Donner to Sonora Pass over three consecutive weekends. I chose this approach to test my newly recovered knee and to become acclimated to backpacking at higher elevations. It also allowed me to involve some adventurous friends in my endeavor.
On my first weekend out, I was amazed at the amount of snow remaining and had several encounters with large patches blocking the trail. On one such occasion, the trail paralleled a very steep hillside. I chose to cross on the less steep, downhill side of the snow patch but the melting snow had turned the ground into a slippery quagmire.
Finally, there was only a 6-foot rocky outcropping left. I grasped whatever hold I could find among the rocks and mud and slowly inched myself hand-over-hand up to the trail. This was the most difficult and dangerous part of my entire adventure. If I had slipped or fallen I would have skidded on the well-packed snow some 50 yards downhill into a jagged pile of rocks.
Another time, snow blocked the end of a switch back. Crossing on the downhill side of the snow patch, I failed to see the cutback going up the hill and instead followed several old sets of foot prints across the snow down into a canyon. I soon came upon what I thought was the trail, but it eventually descended slowly in the wrong direction. Trail markings along the PCT are few and far apart, unlike the Appalachian Trail which is marked by white blazes almost every quarter mile.
I trudged onward until I came to a lake and asked a fisherman if this was the PCT. He pointed to an old jeep road and said, “Nope, it’s about 11 miles up the mountain that-a-way.” Suddenly, I felt like maybe my trail name should be “Wrong Way” instead of “Stormin.”
One interesting experience on these pass-to-pass adventures didn’t occur on the trail, but happened while friends and I were driving up to Carson Pass. We encountered hundreds of cyclists participating in the “Death Ride” — a 12 hour austere event in which bicyclists climb and descend five times over some of the steepest and highest passes in the Sierra. As they slowly huffed and puffed their way single file uphill, they reminded me of a long column of brightly colored ants.
I was surprised to find Trail Mary and her van at Barker Pass. She was the trail angel I met in April at the PCT kick-off party and reunion. She was following hikers northward from their start at the Mexican Border, offering rides and assistance. On the following weekends, I met several groups of PCT thru-hikers that I had shared the trail with on my spring adventure.
I was disappointed that I failed to meet a single senior thru-hiker during these weekend sessions. Maybe most of them were section hikers like myself. The most remarkable group I encountered was a husband and wife team with their 10 year-old daughter whose trail name was Scrambler. By this time they had been on the trail for over 75 days and 1,000 grueling miles. I was absolutely amazed at the girl’s accomplishment. Her brightness and enthusiasm bolstered my spirits.
Back to the trail
I bid farewell to my family at Sonora Pass the last week of July and began a 1,000-foot climb southward to a partially snow-covered ridge. For the next 30 days, the PCT would take me across some of California’s most scenic and majestic peaks. After my initial climb, the trail passed through a series of well-trafficked meadows on the way to Yosemite Park.
At times, the narrow trail had eroded 6 to 9 inches below ground level with two to three sets of parallel paths in places. The forest service had placed branches and large tree limbs in the older ruts so the ground could recover. The wood was white from weathering, reminding me of a weird elephant graveyard.
Occasionally, I met pack trains on more popular sections, some as large as five to six riders with six heavily-loaded mules. Without offending my equestrian friends, horse traffic can be destructive to environmentally sensitive portions of the trail in addition to liberally fertilizing it with their droppings.
The forest service strives to get hikers to properly dispose of human waste, yet on these heavily traveled parts, one can’t go a mile or more without the sight and smell of “horse biscuits.” It worked to my advantage when I lost my map/guide booklet and simply followed what the horses had left behind.
My first resupply point was at Tuolumne Meadows. I checked into the campground as a “walk-in.” There I was on foot at the campground entrance among a long line of cars, trucks and big RVs.
In Yosemite Park and the Mt. Whitney area, all designated campgrounds have heavy steel containers for storing food from bears. Most hikers (PCT thru-hikers are exempt) are required to carry a heavy duty plastic canister for storing food at night. California bears are just too high tech and hip to be fooled by the old trick of hanging one’s food from a tree limb at night.
I had two minor encounters with Yogi’s friends in Yosemite Park. At Glen Aulin Campground, I had a nose-to-nose meeting with Bandit, a temporary fixture at the campground. Earlier he dashed out of the woods to steal someone’s candy bar and later to grab another hiker’s unguarded food.
I was asleep when the bear came up about 7:30 p.m. and pushed its nose against the netting next to my head. I awoke to hear everyone yelling and saw a big bear butt disappear into the woods. If you see a bear, I guess that’s the part you want to see.
The second time wasn’t actually an encounter. While spending the night at Tuolumne Campground, I woke up around midnight to hear someone screaming, blowing a whistle and banging on a pan at what must have been a bear prowling around the campsite. From all the commotion I don’t think it was a chipmunk. So much for heavily used designated campgrounds.
I camped alone when possible. I tried to find a virgin campsite well off the trail and minimize any scent that might attract animals. I didn’t make a camp fire, used an alcohol stove, and boiled water to pour into different bags of freeze-dried food.
I drank the rinse water from my cooking/eating pot and swallowed the toothpaste when brushing my teeth. Thus, the only noticeable scent around my camp was me, especially after several days with no shower and the same clothes.
Once out of Yosemite Park, I shipped my bear canister home to save weight and just double-bagged my food, put it in my pack and placed the pack under my knees at night. I followed this procedure for the remainder of my hike and never experienced any animal problems, whether sleeping in my tent or under the stars.
I also kept my shoes close to me. While I never experienced this, I’ve heard numerous stories of hikers’ sweat-stained shoes, boots and pack straps chewed on by marmots, a large rodent that inhabits the higher elevations.
The one pesty critter I did encounter in abundance was mosquitoes. They came at me in droves in the valleys and marshy glades that separate the Sierra’s magnificent peaks. In some places, dozens of them at a time landed on my exposed arms. I adopted a simple swipe, wipe and hike approach to rid myself of these blood-sucking devils.
Yosemite Valley is the northern terminus of the John Muir Trail, which runs for 211 miles southward in conjunction with the Pacific Crest Trail to the end near Mt. Whitney. It passes through the highest of the high Sierra.
All told, this section of the trail crossed over a dozen imposing mountain passes above 10,000 feet. Each pass yielded its own breathtaking view.
There were brilliantly colored alpine lakes with colors varying from deep blue to turquoise green, partially snow-draped mountain sides glistening under the unspoiled sky, snow-fed streams and cascading falls, awe-inspiring sunrises that projected beautiful hues of gray, blue and reddish brown on the surrounding peaks, and the pristine beauty of forests and valleys far below.
Climbs and descents of 3,000 feet were a daily occurrence. Most changes in elevation were gentle with numerous switchbacks. In spite of the high elevation, the trail itself was virtually snow-free. I experienced no problems with altitude sickness thanks to my prior pass-to-pass training.
After a strenuous day there is nothing more pleasant than falling asleep to the soothing sounds of rushing water from one of the Sierra’s many mountain streems.
The trail between these two points is extremely popular both here and abroad. I met dozens of hikers each day and the ones from France, Holland, Japan and Switzerland added international flavor to my adventure.
During this period I met a 30ish hiker carrying over 50 pounds with 10 days of food. It looked like he was hauling a refrigerator on his back. The poor fellow was so exhausted he was dragging his hiking poles on the ground.
Throughout my hike I encountered hikers carrying mammoth packs. Many a day or weekend hiker packed more than I carry for an entire week. With a pack weight that fluctuated between 14 to 23 pounds, I consistently out-hiked individuals 30 years my junior.
Over my entire 30 day journey I was passed by only four individuals and two were young Marines.
Traveling so light meant I was not adequately prepared for the Sierra’s cold nighttime temperatures. Even with a silk liner, my 30-degree sleeping bag was not warm enough most nights.
So by wearing all my clothes and using my mylar emergency survival blanket, I was able to keep warm. I also had condensation problems inside my Tarptent on cold nights and three times it rained.
Midway through the high Sierra I encountered the only bad weather on my adventure — rain and thunder storms for three consecutive afternoons.
The most serious situation arose as I descended from Forester Pass, elevation 13,180 feet. It started to rain as I traversed a ridge and then came the deep rumble of thunder. Soon I was pummeled by hail and snow pellets.
I didn’t see lightning so I continued slowly across, in and out of tree cover. I ran out of trees near the top and unwilling to become a lightning rod, I stopped under the last group of trees to wait it out for the next 20 minutes.
I proceeded to the top of the ridge and came to a large barren plateau. At first glance the ground appeared to be composed of lightly colored gravel or sand. But this time it was 2 inches of slush.
It was getting late but I certainly didn’t want to camp under those conditions. To save weight I didn’t carry a ground cloth and my tent had only a very thin nylon floor.
I pushed forward on a trail that I expected to be nearly obliterated by the weather. Imagine my surprise and relief when I saw huge, size 13 foot prints marking the trail. I followed them across the plateau and down to lower elevations. At 10,000 feet the slush had melted and I set up camp.
South of Mt Whitney, the terrain and weather changed drastically. The trail descended into high desert plateau. Gone were the snow-fed mountain streams and alpine lakes, cool temperatures, pine-scented forests, dazzling mountain peaks and the many day hikers.
In their stead were arid meadows and ridges, cactus and other desert-like vegetation, scorching temperatures, and an absence of fellow hikers. I met only one hiker, Bodacious, on this last five day, 60-mile section of the trail. He was a young man from Arkansas, whom I had met along with a friend on the Appalachian Trail during my 2003 hike. We had shared a forest ranger’s cabin on a mountain top in New Hampshire one stormy night.
His only comment was, “Man, you don’t want to go as far south as the edge of the Mojave where I started.” It was August — I believed him. Our meeting really made my day.
Finding good water was difficult. I began my first day out of the mountains carrying only a quart. I planned to fill up at the Kern River which was five miles down the trail. When I got there it was full of cattle. Yuk!
I decided to press on and get my water at the next creek five miles away but when I got there, it was dry. The next water source was another seven miles. In short, I had a 17.5 mile, eight-hour waterless day. I resolved never again to pass up a water source, no matter what it looked or smelled like.
My resolve and ingenuity were sorely tested. The next day I came to a long steel trough with a pipe at one end gushing water. Away from the pipe I could see mosquito larva swimming in the water. There were also long green undulating strands of algae. I pumped, but from directly under the pipe
Another time I came upon a stream that didn’t appear to be flowing. It looked like a 2-foot wide series of dark buggy puddles. I could tell that cattle also used this tiny stream as a water source. The situation was a good test for the bacteria filter on my pump. I knew that it takes more than a week before one is affected from drinking bad water, and by then I would be home. So I pumped from the deepest spot I could find, a 2-inch deep puddle right next to a cow’s big hoof print.
My last source of water was a 6-foot area of seepage on an embankment next to the trail. I used my knife to dig a small hole and used mud and rock to block off the flow and form a small basin. When the debris settled, I pumped.
Crossing an occasional vast barren meadow presented another problem. Knee-high sage brush was scattered across these treeless sections. Sandy washes and cattle trails crisscrossed the main pathway making it easy to lose the trail. Again fortune came to my rescue. There in the sand were those good old size 13 footprints for me to safely follow to the end of my journey.
I found myself on the sides of steep ridges and a canyon the last three days of my journey. So I simply camped in the middle of the narrow trail under the stars. They were actually nice places to camp with spectacular views of the sunrise and sunset, but with a 500-foot drop off only a foot away, probably not a good place for someone who tosses and turns a lot in his or her sleep.
On my last night, a strong wind whistled down the canyon where I camped. Since there were no trees, I laid my wet hiking clothes out on a large rock to dry during the night. I weighted them down with rocks for fear the wind might blow them into the canyon below, leaving me near naked to finish my adventure.
My hike concluded at the highway on Walker Pass. I was there about 15 minutes before I was picked up and given a ride 35 miles into the small desert resort town of Lake Isabella. I got a motel room, took a most refreshing shower and made arrangements for my trip home.
Later, I purchased a cheap set of clothes as most of my sweat-soaked, dirt-laddered hiking clothes were beyond washing. I had successfully hiked 390 miles in just 30 days over some of the most rugged and desolate terrain in California. I celebrated the end of my little odyssey as I began, with a large fat-filled, cholesterol-loaded, vein-clogging meal of hiker food.