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(photos by Bill Heiser and Barbara Straka)
Trailspace member bheiser is preparing to hike the John Muir Trail in the not too distant future. Since Bill S (aka OGBO) had to cancel the land navigation course he was scheduled to teach at the Sierra Club’s Clair Tappaan Lodge, he suggested to bheiser (too many “Bill” people around here) that they get together (along with Barb, OGBO’s spouse and frequent companion in the woods and hills), and pack as if heading off for a hike of the JMT, but instead using the Pacific Crest Trail. This way, the Old GreyBearded One could review BillH’s gear list, make suggestions, and provide in-person hints, based on 7 decades of wandering the wilderness, along with commentary from Barb, who also has a lot of experience, also stemming from growing up in a woodsy family.
Figure 1. The Pacific Crest Trail traverses the snow slope on the rightbelow the ridge line, reaching the ridge top about where the tall red fir's top is
A number of email exchanges took place, including reviews of written checklists, discussions of solar panels, cameras, charging camera batteries, GPS receivers, communication devices, food, stoves, tents, and more. Although Official Summer Solstice Day was still in the future, the meteorologists were forecasting temperatures over 100F in the Central Valley of California (through which the intrepid trio would have to pass), but with promise of beautiful skies and clear mountain air.
BillH arrived at the OGBO Mansion (well, at least, the rebuilt 1953 tract house in which Bill S and Barb reside) at an early cool hour of the morning. With all three packs stuffed in the back of the vehicle, they headed for the Range of Light, with a brief stop at the Truckee Ranger Station to get the proper permits and a quick lunch at a local sub shop. Then on past Donner Lake (where many of the ill-fated Donner Party perished during the harsh winter of 1846-7) to the trailhead at Lake Mary (at the crest of Donner Pass), where they hoisted their packs and headed up the hill toward Mt. Judah, with a bit of trepidation at the sight of the snow-capped peaks. This is Summer? June 16? A forecast heat wave, with much of California under Red Flag Alerts???
Figure 2. Our trio of adventurers at the PCT Trailhead near Lake Mary
Before too long they crossed their first snow bank on the trail. At the trail fork to the Judah Loop, they debated briefly, then decided to continue on the main PCT, passing several ski lift upper terminals for the Sugar Bowl resort and continuing toward Mt. Lincoln, with Mt. Disney in the background (Walt Disney had a hand in building the Sugar Bowl ski resort in the mid-20thCentury). Fantastic scenery was visible through the huge red firs and western white pines. A brief stop for rehydration and energy snacks, then on to Roller Pass (where the later emigrants found a somewhat easier access to Central California and Gold Country). Crossing the Emigrant Trail, the brave adventurers followed the PCT until they encountered a massive wall of snow covering the entire side of Mt. Lincoln.
Figure 3. Our trio climbed straight up this snow bank from where the PCT disappeared to the ridge from Mt. Lincoln
They chose the shorter of the two sets of tracks to ascend thousands of feet (well, ok, about 50 feet) of incredibly steep snow to the back side of Mt. Lincoln. This put them on the ridge followed by the PCT southward toward Anderson Peak, the Sierra Club’s Benson Hut, and, if you continue farther, Squaw Valley Ski Resort, Yosemite National Park, and the John Muir Trail (the JMT and PCT are coincident for most of the length of the JMT), and ultimately, the Mexican border. The trail now proceeded above treeline, past fields of wildflowers and many “lightning trees” (trees that have been struck by lightning because of their exposure along the ridge top).
Figure 4. A "lightning tree" on the ridge top next to the PCT. These trees are frequently struck by lightning during summer thunderstorms.
Figure 5. OGBO and Barb hiking along the ridge on the PCT
The expectation had been to get water for meals and refilling water bottles and hydration bladders at a spring below the Benson Hut. However, as we grew close to the hut, we could see that the trail down to the spring, steep enough without snow, was blocked by a large snowbank. At the hut, we chose two flat tent sites and set up our tents, then proceeded to take lots of photographs. Our progress on this day was 5.75 miles, with a cumulative ascent of 1660 ft and cumulative descent of 455 feet.
Figure 6. Anderson Peak as seen from the north on the PCT. The Benson Hut is on the slope to the left of the peak, down in the trees
The Benson Hut is one of 4 huts maintained by the Sierra Club in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe, located on the slopes of Anderson Peak. It is frequently used by backcountry skiers following one of the favorite winter backcountry ski routes (details in Libkind's "Ski Routes of the Sierra" series) from Old Highway 40 to Squaw Valley. Since we were doing a shakedown of Bill H’s initial gear selection, we chose to camp near the hut.
Figure 7. The Benson Hut. On the right is the outhouse with the ladder up to above the typical winter snow level
Because the trail down to the spring was blocked by the steep snowbank, we decided to melt snow for our water. We had not intended to do so, having brought our filters. So we consumed more fuel than intended. However, since we all planned for contingencies, there was no problem.
Dinner for the Old GreyBearded One and Barb was Mountain House chicken breasts with potatoes, one of the best freeze dry dinners we have had. Having real chicken breasts, rather than little cubes of chicken was quite a treat and different from most freeze dry dinners, which are often a mushy stew. Bill H, on the other hand, chose to bring a non-freezedry dinner of his own making, chicken breast in a sealed bag and noodles. We also added some of the wild onions growing in the vicinity for a special taste treat.
Figure 8. Wild onions. We added these to our dinners for extra flavor.
After a gorgeous sunset, we all hit the sack for what proved to be a rather warm and breezy night for 8350 feet altitude in the Sierra. During the night, the clouds cleared, providing fantastic views of the stars, a few planets, and the Milky Way. Even the sparkly lights of Truckee in the distance were nice, even if they reminded us that we were not all that far from “civilization”..
Figure 9. Sunset from near the Benson Hut
Figure 10. Along the PCT, returning from the Benson Hut
Figure 11. A narrower section of the PCT
When we got back to Mt. Lincoln, we decided not to try crossing and descending the steep snowbank, though we did stop to take a photo of the brave explorers where the trail emerged onto the ridge from under the snow. Our ascent point can be seen in the photo, just above the OGBO’s head. Instead, we climbed on an alternate path up the back side of Mt. Lincoln to the ski lift, then down one of the ski runs to rejoin the PCT at Roller Pass.
Figure 12. We stopped on the return to look at where the PCT emerges from under the snow. Since Bill H and Barbara did not want to risk descending on the steep snow, we ascended the ridge to the left to the summit of Mt. Lincoln and upper terminus of the ski lift.
Shortly after Roller Pass, the two Bills decided to take the Judah Loop, while Barb continued on the PCT to rejoin at the junction of the two trails, at the Judah ski lift. Rumor has it that an authoritative guidebook to the local trails says that the Judah Loop is 0.9 miles. However, the GPS track we took showed a 1.6 mile difference between the direct PCT route and the PCT with inclusion of the Judah Loop.
From Roller Pass back to the cars, we met and passed dozens of hikers. Maybe the fact that it was Father’s Day had something to do with it. The oldest father that we met was 85 years old. The Bills encountered a family of 8 people on the summit of Judah, among many others.
When the Bills and Barb rejoined, we decided to have some lunch and enjoy the views of Lake Mary, Summit Lake, Castle Peak and other parts of the Sierra. Plus we could see the historic rail line (now abandoned) built for the first transcontinental railroad and the nearby modern railroad that entered a tunnel almost directly below us (so it avoids much of the deep winter snows that this part of the Sierra gets). As we sat on some stumps, we were approached by a rather stout gentleman with a tiny dog, who asked us if we were hiking the PCT. Well, yes, we were. We did explain that we were only doing the portion from Lake Mary to Anderson Peak as preparation for Bill H doing the Muir Trail. The gentleman (who must have weighed well over 300 pounds, with a beltline that it might have taken the 3 of us joining hands to span the circumference) said that he had done so far all of the PCT from the Mexican border to where we were, except for the 48 mile stretch across the Mojave Desert (in sections, not continuously). He had miles to go before nightfall, so we wished him well and sent him on his way.
After returning to the car, we stopped at Clair Tappaan Lodge for a short, but pleasant visit with the manager’s brother, James (Peter, the manager, is currently recovering from a hip operation). Then we headed down I80 for the Bay Area, with a brief stop at a fast food place, where we could rehydrate with multiple free refills of carbonated beverages.
Our statistics for the day were 7.3 miles, 1280 ft cumulative elevation gain, and 2445 Feet cumulative descent. Total for the hike was about 13 miles hiking, 2940 ft cumulative gain, and 2900 ft cumulative descent (climb and descent are from a barometric altimeter, so the difference between gain and descent is due to a change of roughly 0.01 inHg in barometric pressure during the 24 hours). Trailhead to Anderson Peak to trailhead time was approximately 25 hours. If Bill H were to maintain this 24-hour average, it would take him approximately 17 days to do the complete Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to Whitney Portal. Add some rest days and more photography, and 3 weeks sounds like a good estimate for the trip.