CA Section M to CA Section J (Belden – Mile 1366 to Sonora Pass – Mile 1636)

It took us six days to hike from Belden to Truckee. We seemed to be in a pretty dense bubble. We were seeing other southbound hikers every day, all pushing to get to the Sierra, to get through before October first. Everyone was feeling the pressure. The math was adding up though and there was a sense of excitement among the SOBOS’s to begin the most challenging section of the trail. We were still pushing big days, our shortest day in that section was 23 miles, our longest 28.

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In Belden we ran into a friend named Pacemaker. We had met him in the previous section when we were hiking with the Sunnymooners and saw him off and on. In that section we camped a few nights with him. He was analytical and precise in his approach to hiking. His trail name does not come from his age, or that he experienced a heart attack like most people assume. In fact he is a young and fit 20 something who is just good at maintaining a steady pace all day. It was fun to hike around someone else for a time, although O’Well and I both knew it wouldn’t last forever. We planned to zero in Truckee and Pacemaker would pass on through, but we enjoyed the company nonetheless. 

On our third day out of Belden we had planned to hike 27 miles, but we were approaching 24 miles for the day when we came to a road crossing. It was not exactly a highly trafficked road, so the three of us were surprised to find two vehicles, two adults, two kids, and a dog. One of their vehicles had broken down, but since they were there they offered us whatever food they had in the cars: a couple beers, a couple cans of beans and some fruit cups. It felt like Christmas. After we drank the beers we were all feeling a little less motivated, and we decided to stop at the next campsite a mile down the trail, making it a 25 mile day. Pacemaker turned down the cans of beans, the calories weren’t worth the weight of packing tin cans. O’Well however eats a “seefood” diet on trail. “I see food, I eat it.” Shortly after the trail angels left however we realized our problem. No one had a can opener. O’Well quickly devised a solution though. If you scrape a can across concrete long enough, the lid pops right off!

How to Open a Can Without a Can Opener (Click Link!)

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The next morning we crossed paths with some day hikers. They eagerly informed us of a lodge down the trail that served breakfast and dinner, maybe we could make it for breakfast the next day? After they left we took off, determined to make it that day for a hot dinner. All day we pushed hard, eager to get some food, and made it half an hour before they closed. We hiked 28 miles before 6 pm just to get a hot meal. When we arrived we were greeted by a warm, cheerful atmosphere and several other hikers, including my friend Kicks who I hadn’t seen since Ashland. I was exhausted, but seeing her put me over the moon. A moment later I crashed back to earth though when I found out the restaurant only had 1 small bowl of lentil soup left, none of their other available food was vegan like we’d been led to believe by some comments on our navigation app. I sat across the table from O’Well while he ate enough food for three people. I watched him and the other hikers enjoy their food, and I teetered on the edge of ordering something. 

My resupply hadn’t been as good as I had thought  on that section. I had eaten through most of my food and I was down to rationing half a jar of peanut butter and some cliff bars that my body was rejecting. I knew we were going to be in town the next day and I would have access to much more, a day and a half without great food options is really not the end of the world. I had heard about people who ran out of food 3 days from town and still made it. But when you’re hungry enough the only thing your brain can fixate on is food. What food can I get, how can I get it, how quickly can I consume it, and then when will I get some more?

Even before the trail began I was being warned about how difficult a vegan diet would be to maintain on trail. In my first few days on trail I met a guy who was vegan in his normal life, but on trail ate whatever he could, and this seemed to be a popular strategy. Most people cited not getting enough calories as their rationale. I told him that if I began to lose too much weight I would reconsider, but until that time I would be sticking to my voraciously veggie ways. Not once on the trail had I reconsidered that stance. At least, not until I was confronted with a restaurant full of food and only a tiny bowl of soup I could actually eat. My stomach suddenly felt like it was three times bigger than my body, and the 28 miles we hiked that day were wearing on my self control. I ate my lentil soup, then I sat in silence, and looked at the corner of the room and waited for everyone else to finish. It was a low moment. 

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We were walking back from the lodge to our campsite for the night when O’Well told me, 

“I think it’s incredible that you stick to your principles.”

“I don’t really know what else to do at this point,” I sighed, thinking about the two cliff bars slathered in peanut butter I planned to eat before bed (I didn’t end up eating them, the thought of them made me sick.) I never expected being vegan on trail was going to be easy. Some things are more important than momentary satisfaction. I have been a vegan for three years, and a vegetarian for thirteen. When you make an ethical commitment to something, in my opinion, you stick with it. I wasn’t wasting away, I didn’t feel like I had any less energy than any other hiker out there, if anything my recovery time seemed better than others. In my moments of weakness, doing the same thing I’ve done for years felt more natural than caving in. And the next day, when I got to town and was stuffing my face with oreos and gas station apple pies, I was prouder of my decision to stick to my principles than if I had decided to eat that night. It was a good day.

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The next day we walked 12 miles to a highway, then a mile and a half along the road to Sierra City. It was a great day, we hung out outside the only store open in town with Kicks, Pacemaker, and a lady named Big Bang. Later on Milk Jug, an 18 year old I had hiked with briefly before Steven’s Pass, showed up. Kicks and I had met him together and had both been impressed by his youth and inexperience. We were relieved to see him again after he had disappeared for a state. The last I had heard, my friend Bullet had been hiking with him, acting as a pseudo “trail dad” and helping the kid out.

“One day I told him I was going to get up early and hike a big day.” Bullet told me. “Never saw him again.” After that I, naturally, harassed Bullet for abandoning his son in the woods.

We ended up staying the night in town and enjoying a family style meal with friends. I was enjoying the trail again. On the last section I had gotten really deep in my head, thinking about all the things that were hard about hiking. Those things all still existed. But after the trail ended it would be moments like these that I would remember and miss. Sitting around a table, laughing and enjoying the company of others who were all in the same boat as us, all attempting the thing that sometimes seemed impossible. We were speculating about the upcoming Sierra’s, reviewing resupply strategy and discussing the weather prospects and timing for leaving the Sierra. Anticipation was building.

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Resupply notes – We never planned too far in advance for resupplies, but the Sierra is very difficult to enter and exit and we had to have a game plan going in.

We had a day and a half of hiking to get from Sierra City to Donner Pass where we would get off into Truckee and Zero. This was a pivotal section for O’Well. The previous year he had hiked Southbound from Canada to Sierra City. He got off trail there and stayed with the family of some friends on trail in Truckee for a week, trying to recover from the illness that had plagued him since he started at Hart’s Pass. At the end of the week he tried to get back on trail, but not even a mile down trail he turned back, accepting that his through hike that year was over. A few weeks later after some testing he was diagnosed with Giardia. He had gotten it on the Appalachian Trail in 2015 and it laid dormant until he tried to hike again in 2017. Apparently he lost a scary amount of weight. A lot of people are skinny on trail, but not everyone looks like they just came out of a concentration camp. He certainly did. In summary, he hiked 1,500 miles with a parasite which caused him to vomit regularly after eating and made him unable to properly metabolize whatever he managed to keep down. 

“I felt fine.” He insisted every time I asked for clarification on this point. I decided we were going to have to make self care a focus.

In any case, Sierra City and Truckee were important as this would be the first time we would hike together and he wouldn’t know what was coming up, we would finally be doing something new together for the first time. We were also excited to get some R&R in Truckee. We had been pushing hard and it was time to rest in preparation for the next big push through the Sierra.

The last 18 mile push into Truckee wore me down. I was having a hard day, my feet and legs were hurting. I was trying to keep my pace up so we could get to town earlier and, more importantly, to food, but I just couldn’t seem to stay motivated. I realized after several miles of struggle that the struggle was something I was creating in my own head. I needed to stop fighting my body and let it move at the pace it wanted to. We would get to town when we got there, and accepting that my feet were just going to hurt if they felt like it made hiking much easier. I was growing more and more comfortable with pain, and that day was a breakthrough that was going to be immensely helpful in the Sierra’s.

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The PCT exit point to Truckee is the Historic Donner Pass where the Donner Party famously got lost in the mountains for an extended period and, allegedly, ate each other to survive.
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Truckee was wonderful. We stayed with the same family O’Well did the year before, and they treated us just like family. Their sons, three brothers who hiked the entire PCT together (sharing a tent in fact) weren’t home, but Laura and Greg seemed to be happy to hear our stories and share some of their sons’ stories with us.  We spent most of the day eating. I talked at length on the phone to my parents and sister, I hadn’t spoken to any of them much in the last few weeks and I anticipated I wouldn’t have another chance for some time. Laura and Greg took us into Reno, Nevada with them so we could go to REI. O’Well got new shoes and I got some warmer base layers. We both got car sick, it was only about a 30 minute drive down the highway but after so long not being in a car it felt like a roller coaster the whole way. The other piece of gear we picked up in Truckee were bear canisters which hikers are required to carry in the Sierra’s. O’Well had left his in the garage the previous year, and I was able to borrow one that another hiker had left there. Greg and Laura’s house had become something of a hiker hostel the year before, and in my opinion it was the best hostel on trail. 

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Leaving town the next day wasn’t as bad as I thought. I was excited, I had new gear. I was refreshed and ready to hike. That lasted about 3 miles. Our packs were heavy. Not only did we have the additional weight of the bear canisters (mine was over a pound) but we were carrying 6 days of food. Normally 5 days was our max, but we wanted to skip over South Lake Tahoe and try to make it to North Kennedy Meadows for our next resupply to save some time getting in and out of town. I struggled up the hills, though I was still surprised to find we were passing the throngs of people out for a Saturday day hike. The views were spectacular though and the struggle was worth it. That night we camped at 7,500 feet, the lowest elevation we would be at until we left the Sierra’s. 

For the first time I was starting to think about the end of the trail and what that would mean for me. We ran into our friend Carjack, a flipper who had just 400 miles left to the point she would be getting off trail. Talking to her reminded me that this hike wasn’t going to last forever. We had just under 1,000 miles left at that point, and I knew how quickly 1,000 miles could fly by. I knew I was going to miss the trail when it was gone, and I resolved to stay present in the experience.

We hiked 25 miles the next day, and every time we ate food my pack got lighter which was a relief. My knee was hurting more than it should by the end of the day. I figured it was just from the additional packweight and the amount of elevation we were gaining though and I tried not to worry about it. The nights were getting chilly, and it took a while in the morning for it to warm up. The next night it was incredibly windy and we slept poorly. O’Well and I were lying awake around 2 am and he suggested we get up and start hiking. While I was laying there considering the option, the wind died down a little and we mercifully fell asleep till morning. After the events of the next day I was grateful we hadn’t gotten up to hike then.

That day the wind persisted. We had a big pass to get up and over that morning, Dick’s Pass at 9,300 feet. The plan was to hike 25 miles, but Mother Nature had other plans for us.

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My bear canister was packed inside my pack in this photo. I quickly started strapping it to the top however, it would round my back panel making my pack very uncomfortable.
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Wearing all my layers except my rain jacket.

Ascending Dick’s Pass was beautiful. The terrain had been changing since before Truckee, but this was the first day where I knew without a doubt we had entered the Sierra. The high alpine lakes and rocky peaks and valleys, the sparse vegetation, vast landscape views. It was breathtaking. It was cold. We stopped for our normal midmorning snack break, and about 7 hikers passed us in 5 minutes which was bizarre. Most of the time hikers were spread out a little more on the trail. When we started hiking again we caught up to a couple of them, Moneymaker and Pineapples. We had met Moneymaker at the Dunsmuir hiker hostel briefly, (“I didn’t like that guy,” O’Well told me when we were leaving town.) We followed them up the pass, chatting and relaying news. We had to shout over the howling wind, but we learned that Moneymaker and Pineapples were both flippers. They had hiked together in the California desert, but then got separated when they flipped up to different places. They had just been able to meet up again in Belden and were now hiking the Sierra’s together.

We made it over Dick’s Pass, which felt like a huge victory, and earned ourselves a panoramic view. The descent felt like a breeze, but a couple miles in I noticed some nasty looking clouds on the horizon, and I suddenly felt the urge to lose some elevation. Quickly.

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“I think I need to repack my pack.” I told O’Well. When it rained I put all my gear I needed to keep dry in a large garbage bag in the bottom of my pack but normally the bag just stayed folded at the bottom of my pack.

“I don’t know…” 

“I don’t trust those clouds.”

“They might be dissipating.” I looked at the clouds. They only seemed to be rolling in faster.

“I’m from Washington, I don’t trust those clouds.”

I kept hiking though, determined to get below tree line before I pulled everything out of my pack. When the rain started to fall I ducked under a tree and had everything repacked in two minutes.

We quickly realized that this was not going to be a little sprinkle. It was still freezing and the rain quickly turned to snow. We got on our raingear, we were no longer hiking but trudging through slush. Moneymaker and Pineapples told us they were going into South Lake Tahoe about 10 miles down the trail. Feet soaked and hands numb, it was an easy decision for O’Well and I to go with them, maybe we could split a hotel room four ways. 

The snow continued to fall, it was accumulating rapidly in a way that caused some trepidation. Common wisdom dictated that the snow wouldn’t begin in the Sierra until November first. Was it an early snow year? What did this mean for our through hike? If snow had arrived would we have to skip forward to the Desert and miss one of the most incredible sections on trail? We couldn’t do anything but keep trudging. We couldn’t stop for our usual breaks either, we were freezing while we were moving and stopping would be dangerous at this point. O’Well didn’t have a rain jacket, he only used an umbrella and a wind shirt when it rained. This was clearly not enough for the conditions, although it was funny to see him in the midst of a blizzard with just an umbrella. The wind ripped it from his hand at one point and it went spinning off away from the trail, I couldn’t help but laugh as he watched it go helplessly. Fortunately it caught on a bush before it could go too far and he retrieved it.

Snow Hiking around South Lake Tahoe

Everyone was miserable. I told the group that I had Jingle Bells stuck in my head – everything looked like a winter wonderland. We all joined in a rousing, very loud and obnoxious, chorus of Jingle Bells. Soon after that the snow slowed down and stopped, and the sun even started to poke out. It was still freezing though and our feet were soaked and hands numb. It turned out that Moneymaker was somewhat difficult to hike with. Not for his personality, but because he wasn’t constantly falling. Indeed, the melting snow was making the rocks very slick and I slipped myself a few times. But by the fifth or sixth time he found himself on his ass, I had to wonder what was going on. The snow slowed him down quite a bit and Pineapples and I hiked ahead for a while while O’Well and Moneymaker fell behind. It was nice to hike with another woman and we got along well, and the last few miles chatting with Pineapples were a breeze despite how miserable we were. I didn’t know it until later but O’Well was having much less fun than me. 

Later he told me, “I’ve never felt so much like a parent before.”

Moneymaker filled in the gaps in the story, “He kept asking, do I want a snack, do I want a break? I’m like, no man, this is just how I hike, I’m clumsy, I fall a lot.” 

O’Well shook his head, “I don’t know how he’s made it 2,000 miles.” Moneymaker had also hiked all of the Appalachian Trail, and 1,000 miles on the PCT in 2018. For all intents and purposes he should be an experienced hiker, but looking at him you wouldn’t know it. His pack is much bigger than any other seasoned through hiker I have seen, but I would bet he only utilizes about 50% of its contents. At least once a day he will ask to borrow something from you, and when you ask him he will admit that he has one, but he doesn’t know where it is in his pack. I watched him eat peanut butter out of a jar with his fingers on multiple occasions because he couldn’t find one of the three spoons he owned. 

Needless to say, we were relieved when we finally made it to the Echo Lake trailhead. I beelined for the pit toilet, I’d been unwilling to peel off my soaked rain gear in the freezing temperatures to pee. When I emerged I found everyone else huddled under an overhang. The little store was closed for the season, and there weren’t a ton of people around. Getting a hitch into Lake Tahoe didn’t seem likely. Fortunately there was a list of trail angel phone numbers, and Pineapples started calling them one by one to see if someone could pick us up and take us to a hotel. The fourth number she called did the trick. His name was Kevin, and not only would he give us a ride but he invited us to stay at his house for free!

When we arrived at Kevin’s there was a fire going and he directed us to the showers and our rooms. It took a while to thaw out. I have never enjoyed a hot shower more and that is saying something. By the time we warmed up Kevin had cooked us dinner and left to go to his trivia club. We enjoyed a pleasant evening hanging out in the kitchen, and the next morning he cooked us breakfast and took us into town. We went to the gear store (O’Well bought a real rain jacket) and the grocery store to resupply. He also gave Pineapples a pair of gloves as hers hadn’t been warm enough and let us go through the hiker box he kept at his house. We all felt Kevin deserved the trail angel of the year award.

While in town we also learned that snow this time of year was highly unusual, and the weather forecast looked good. There would be one more day of rain and then it would be sunny again, though cold, for the foreseeable future. We were relieved. I had resigned myself to the possibility that an end to end through hike might be impossible if the weather didn’t cooperate, but I didn’t want to skip a section at all costs. It looked like the Sierras would still be passable though. For now.

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Trying on rain jackets. He didn’t buy this one.

Kevin took us back up to Echo Lake and we hiked out with Moneymaker and Pineapples. There was another adventure about a mile in, a big creek with no good way to cross it at the trail. We went upstream and found a decent log to cross on. I went first, followed by O’Well then Pineapples. Then we waited for Moneymaker. First he tried to cross on his feet, but it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. There were no good handholds and his balance was tragically poor. He finally tossed his trekking poles to Pineapples and crawled across the log on all fours with much care and precision. We all cheered when he made it to the opposite bank. 

Later on that day Pineapples asked if we wanted to team up for the Sierra’s. She had hiked a couple of big passes earlier in the summer when she was still Northbound before she had decided to flip up, and some of her stories were incredible. Big river crossings, snow bridges, waking up at 3 am to start hiking before the snow got soft, long days. She knew firsthand how important it was to have other people around in the Sierra’s. O’Well and I agreed to stick with them, though tentatively. We also knew how hard it was to hike with other people. Something always comes up where your plans differ and we didn’t want to get too excited about having a trail family since it may not last.

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The very next day our little trail family was challenged for the first time. It was super windy all day and there was a little rain here and there, but mostly it was just cold. There was maybe an hour around midday that I could feel my hands. Not only that but we were gaining lots of elevation. It was one big climb after another, and though it was beautiful it was brutal. Early that morning we met a lady hiking north. She had been going south but the night before she camped up on an exposed ridgeline and the wind tore her tent apart so she was hiking back to South Lake Tahoe to figure something out. 

We made it to 21 miles and our last water source before our planned campsite at 25 miles. We gathered around, filling our bottles and discussing what to do. We were all cold, and up on the hill above us a couple section hikers had a fire going. From where we were we would only be gaining elevation, most likely any campsites higher up were going to be very exposed and we knew the weather wasn’t going to be any better that night. Pineapples and Moneymaker had already decided to stop there for the day, they were tired and it had been a tough day. O’Well and I waffled. In the end it was the memory of the lady this morning with the hole in her tent that kept us from hiking on. That night we were grateful we stayed put. Just as we got our tent set up it started to rain for real. We enjoyed the campfire a little but soon escaped into our tent to stay dry.

We didn’t stay dry for long, I quickly realized that a puddle was forming on the floor under my sleeping mat. Though we were ready to sleep we had to solve this problem. I ended up poking a hole in the floor of the tent to drain the water out. After a lot of awkward maneuvering we figured out what the problem was; our tent has a single wall and a bathtub floor. It is designed so that the wall of the tent extends past the bathtub floor, and the two pieces are connected by a strip of mosquito netting for ventilation. (For an example just Google “Zpacks Duplex.”) If you aren’t positioned in the tent right however, you can poke the bathtub floor out past the wall of the tent and water will drain right through the mosquito netting, turning our tent into an actual bathtub. We put our packs outside in the vestibules and made sure we were positioned in exactly the middle of the tent and finally, finally fell asleep. We woke up dry and cozy.

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The weather did improve, though I was beginning to realize that cold was going to be on the menu for the foreseeable future. We did 24 miles the next day, and it was just getting to dusk when we made it to camp. By the time we had set up and cooked dinner the sun was gone, the stars were out, and every breath was a puff of smoke. I zipped myself into bed with the ice cubes attached to my hands that were my fingers.

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Wind selfie!

O’Well and I got up at 4:30 the next morning. We were meeting his uncle around noon but we still had to hike 13 miles, including a big climb that would take us up over 10,000 feet for the first time. On the way up we ran into Ghetto Spoon (I hadn’t seen him since Oregon when we lost track of Bullet) and Milk Jug. (It was the last time I would ever see him on trail. He was freezing and I gave him one of the handwarmers I had broke out that morning, a last ditch effort to help the poor kid out.) The sun came out, and I got some wide open views. I had pulled ahead of O’Well, energized and powering up the hill, and when I got to the top I was giddy. I was elated. We had been through the wringer for the past several days, and now we were truly arriving. This is what the Sierra was all about. Big challenges, big rewards.

North Kennedy Meadows is the official entry point to the High Sierra’s (South Kennedy meadows is considered the “exit”.) It’s also a notoriously difficult hitch from Sonora Pass down to the campground where there is a restaurant, small store, and hiker amenities. We were fortunate to get picked up by O’Wells uncle, Don. He came down with his wife from San Jose to meet us and they were even kind enough to bring me some new shoes, my old ones were already showing signs of giving out and I knew they wouldn’t make it through the Sierra. We picked up our resupply, had lunch with them, and socialized a little, but time was short.

We saw quite a few hikers we didn’t know, once again we had fallen out of our bubble. Pineapples and Moneymaker did show up just when we were getting ready to leave. Pineapples wanted to get on trail that night like we were, but Moneymaker wanted to linger in town, but whatever they did they were going to stick together. O’Well and I knew we needed to get on trail that night, even if we only made it a couple miles. Town was a trap and the High Sierra’s loomed above us: thrilling, but ominous. We wondered if we would see our little trail family again as we headed back up the pass in Don’s little old minivan (it climbed that mountain like a champ.) Back at the trailhead we encountered a group of hikers looking for a ride into town. Don happily agreed to take them back down with him, after first snapping a few pictures of us struggling to fit all our food in our packs and some quick goodbye hugs. The biggest prize was a big batch of cooked sweet potatoes Don’s wife had brought us wrapped in tin foil and some fresh oranges from the tree in their backyard. Highly impractical backpacking food, we got a few funny comments about the sweet potatoes over the next couple days but we were giddy with excitement about them.

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We made it a couple miles out of town; our packs were heavy, the sun was going down, and the trail was only going up. I didn’t fancy night hiking up to 11,000 feet to camp so we stopped there. It was a bit of an early night, and we sat outside eating dinner and contemplating what was coming. I was surprised to find that O’Well was feeling a little off balance.

“People make such a big deal out of the Sierra’s. And now we’re here, we’re doing it.” 

I knew what he meant. Hiking Southbound people are talking about the Sierra’s from day one, everything about your hike is focused on making it through in time. We knew we were cutting it close. We knew we were exhausted and verging on burnout and heading into what was bound to be the most trying section of our entire hike. I knew I was going to hike it anyway. No matter what happened I was going to make it through to South Kennedy Meadows and the California High Desert. 

Ridge Walking in the Sierra

One thought on “CA Section M to CA Section J (Belden – Mile 1366 to Sonora Pass – Mile 1636)

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