Trailspace on the Pacific Crest Trail

8:03 p.m. on June 23, 2012 (EDT)
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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.

The trail along the ridge was characterized by narrow paths with steep drop-offs to the sides, with steep gullies eroded into the glacial moraines and volcanic deposits.

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

Dawn featured a very thin crescent Moon and the morning Alpenglühen on the peaks. We were not in a great hurry, so we had leisurely breakfasts, then packed for the return hike.

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.

11:43 a.m. on June 24, 2012 (EDT)
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Nice trip. I like the way this tr is narrated. :)

So I suppose bheiser will quite possibly make the trip in under the 4 weeks he was anticipating? I am also aware that terrain variations, ascents/descents and a whole other slew of stuff can factor into the rate of travel.

No need for any type of traction devices on the white stuff?

OGBO, really nice of you & your wife to do a shakedown trip w/Mr. Heiser...

I would be like a kid in an amusement park in the area in this area. So different than what I am use too out this way.

Good stuff...

1:12 p.m. on June 24, 2012 (EDT)
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Thanks, OGBO, for writing up the trip.  It looks like my photos shrank in the upload process :).  Anyway, yeah, it was a good trip.  Many thanks to The OGBO and Barbara for taking time out of their very busy lives to share their expertise and experience with me.

@Rick, I'm still targeting up to 4 weeks, but am still planning it out at this point to see what makes sense for me.  Most people seem to do it in 2-3 weeks but I'm not in a hurry.  A lot of people go on a 2 week vacation and have a plane to catch at the end.  I'm not bound by such constraints this time.   On every single trip I find myself wishing I had more time;  this time I do have that luxury, so I hope to take advantage of it.

I may have a couple "zero days", may stop early some days if I see places where I especially want to spend the night (or if that next big pass is best tackled in the morning rather than the hot afternoon (or to avoid afternoon thunderstorms), and I might even take some side trips.  But most of this comes down to how much food I can carry - my pack is already on the heavy side.

Though I've hiked a few (short) sections of the JMT, most of it will be totally new to me.  Lots of the areas are tough to see on a weekend trip due to the distances involved.  This is my chance to see them! :)

2:17 p.m. on June 24, 2012 (EDT)
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No worries, Bill. We were planning to get up to the area anyway, and when the Land Nav course was cancelled, we just added you to our alternate trek {8=>D

If you click on the images, I think they are displayed in their uploaded size. Dave could tell us, but I think the uploader inserts the images into posts at a fixed maximum size. If you compare the photos as they appear in various posts, the total pixel count looks to be pretty much the same. I have uploaded some images in the past at the maximum size the uploader allows and some smaller, with them coming out pretty much the same size. I seem to recall there are some other limits set on images to keep from overloading the web connections.

3:15 p.m. on June 24, 2012 (EDT)
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Hmmm, what puzzled me is I displayed one of Barb's with the "show full size" link, and it displayed larger than mine.  Mine were originally 1024px on the widest edge.  No biggie (no pun intended) :).

3:24 p.m. on June 24, 2012 (EDT)
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Fantastic pics folks! And a fine report to boot...


Thanks for letting us see and share!


Bill H.,

 I'm super are going to have an amazing trip, no doubt.


This is my favorite  (and what a classic backpacking photo....):




3:31 p.m. on June 24, 2012 (EDT)
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Thanks, Patman, I'm really looking forward to it.  Even though it's not "that long" a trip there's tons of prep work, gear adjustments, etc that I still need to get done.

5:12 p.m. on June 24, 2012 (EDT)
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bheiser1 said:

Hmmm, what puzzled me is I displayed one of Barb's with the "show full size" link, and it displayed larger than mine.  Mine were originally 1024px on the widest edge.  No biggie (no pun intended) :).

 Oh, wait! My bad! To speed up the download, and knowing that there is an automatic re-sizing of the displayed image, I re-sampled the images down to 500 pixels in the maximum dimension. I did the TR first in Word and stuck the images in where I wanted them (except for the limitations of Word's having its own ideas of where images go), then transferred everything into the Trailspace "compose" window. I had to resize them for the Word version, and ended up transferring the smaller versions for Trailspace. In the past, I have sometimes uploaded "full-sized" images (that is, a full-sized NEF/RAW image converted to JPG) and gotten a rejection ("image too large").

Sorry about that. I know that that lowers the quality of the image, though as the internal Trailspace resizing and uploading works, you lose image quality there, as well. I should have tried uploading your full images. As it was, I got cut off by the time limit. Two of the images are messed-up ones I took with the P6000 that I managed to partially rescue (I figured out how to open jpeg images in Photoshop as if they are RAW, which gave me a lot more control), so I ended up taking more time than intended, which ran the clock out. I didn't get to change the photo credit to include myself in the end.

8:00 p.m. on June 24, 2012 (EDT)
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No prob, OGBO.  The ones that you uploaded give people the general idea.

But for good measure, here's the sunset pic at a higher resolution :).  I feel compelled to upload this one since I did spend time editing it to remove lens flare artifacts and for some tonal adjustments :).  At the lower resolution it doesn't look quiet like what I intended, with the sunburst and all  :).


11:59 p.m. on June 24, 2012 (EDT)
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Nice to see this report! Was excited to see how the trip went and see all my "new friends" together again. Funny how even a single meeting can make people special like that meeting at MadHouse Coffee did for me. I suppose the context helps too. The Bills and Barb are some special folks to me!

May 23, 2018
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