This posts takes us back to the High Sierra when we carried solar panels, extra clothes, and bear cans. Refer back to the previous two posts about both Forester and Glen passes - climbing them took time and required some logistical coordination. Surely climbing two in a day wouldn't be a great idea...
We had put ourselves in a tough spot, we hiked out from Kearsarge with 6 days of food hoping we would be okay hiking through the Sierra, we had a deadline. To get to the next food resupply we needed to hike both Pinchot and Mather in the same day and we thought we could do it.
The two passes were only 5 miles apart, both were over 12000 feet. Pinchot was straightforward, we camped in its shadow so the approach would be easy: hike a short distance and climb 2000 feet as soon as we woke up. I woke up late - around 7:30 or so, and was hiking alone. The climb was steady, but snow fields covered the trail most of the way. It was easy to get lost with the pass not yet in view.
I lost the trail several times, but once I could see where the pass was I just hiked straight for the it. Closing in on the final climb I stopped in the snow field. When I looked around and saw Quinoa and Pedi making their way in the snow behind me. Somehow I had gotten ahead of them by climbing over a rise in the snow pack while they followed the trail around the rise. I laughed because I was ahead now and because I was having the time of my life in the most beautiful, rugged landscape I'd ever been in. The pass was in sight and Half and half was ahead. It was time to get to the top. Looking forward, I saw the trail in the distance and plenty of foot prints in the snow to guide me.
I was third to gain the pass and the view was incredible. All four of us had made it and we ate a late breakfast together. Next we set our sights on Mather. The descent from Pinchot was easy - the trail was mostly uncovered and the north side of the pass was fantastic to look at.
Mather was a more gradual climb over 6 miles, but took longer than two hours. On the way up we encountered a ranger! She was headed the opposite direction and just asked for our names, but it was an incredible encounter to me. She was clean and carrying a huge pack and a shovel. She wished us luck and took down our names and let us go. I couldn't help but admire how clean she looked next to us, with our worn out shirts, shorts and tiny backpacks. She was hiking out to her summer appointment, most likely.
We made it to the final climb quickly - a couple stream crossings and walking on some snow, we crunched across hoping to avoid postholing as we went. It had looked easy from distance, but was not. The first part of the climb was fun compared to the other passes. The switchbacks were steep. I was able to look around and really observe the scenery. Mather had a gradual approach with a big lake at its base and the trail snaked around to the east. As we began the climb up switchbacks we entered the shade of the afternoon sun and we were totally exposed. After just a short way up I looked back to see what where we had come from. I took in that moment in the mountains.
The High Sierras are really like no place I've ever been. Snow covered and treacherous, they command respect. From the high places we could see vast expanses of white and grey teeth jutting upwards. We got to sample some the forces that helped shape the landscape as the cold wind whipped. I felt my own smallness and was struck by my insignificance relative to the giants I crawled upon. In that moment, on the side of a mountain pass, I was humbled by the enormity and majesty of the raw expanses which I was granted passage over. My moment of romance passed quickly, though - I had more altitude to gain and then we had to get down safely.
Loose talus (gravelly rock) and snow covered, the trail on the last few switchbacks was a littler nerve racking, and the mountainside was a deceiving 60 - 70 degree incline so no one fancied slipping. At one point I was clambering on softened snow and ice and slipped, feeling a shock from my feet, up my spine and in my neck - the image of me with my heavy pack (bear can included) sliding and falling down a mountain flashed in my mind. Immediately, I punched my fist into the snow on my left side and stabbed my trek pole hard on the right. No harm. Just sweating like crazy and that image not fading quickly enough. The snow had been in the sun all morning, after all, we couldn't rely on it to carry our weight as we gained altitude in the hundreds of feet.
The rest of the climb I finished carefully and was really happy to see the final switchback was mostly cleared of snow. The down climb was going to be rough - it was late in the day and the snow was soft and the first part of the descent was completely covered with thick snowpack and a few jutting rock points.
Pedi and Half and Half chose a different route than Quinoa and I. All of us postholed over and over again. I was soaked from falling in the soft snow, sweaty and exhausted by the slow, slipping down climb - fearing with each step I would sink into the snow, into some unseen pointed rock. Oh, and I was concerned the other two wouldn't find a safe way down and that I'd hear a yell from higher up on the pass as the sun began to set. The north side of Mather Pass was steep and had some shear cliffs and the trail probably navigated them well, but we had no idea where the trail was underneath the layer of thick snow.
Finally I made it to a boulder field and could hop from rock to rock downwards. Quickly I descended and found the trail - until that point I was just searching for a route in soft snow that led safely downward. Even though the trail was acting as a channel for ice-melt, I walked the cold water, completely soaked, but happy to take a full step again with confidence. To make progress. After what seemed like hours, I was anxious to find the others and to find a spot to camp.
After a few minutes of trudging in the water I saw Pedi and Half and Half! And they were ahead of me! Quinoa had postholed a lot and fell once or twice, but scrambled down quickly as well - I had a sense he was not far behind me the entire time as I could hear him cursing when he postholed (I'm sure he could here me, too. I'm not Soapbox because I'm the quiet one). Finally we could hike down and find a spot to sleep without slipping. We were exhausted.
With the four of us reunited and the trail immediately in front of us we hiked as fast as we could to find a place to camp for the night. As a reward for our double pass day we hiked to Palisade Lakes just as the sun set. Beautiful end to a day, but the Sierras had taken quite a toll on us.
Cheers and thanks for reading,
Dan (aka Soapbox)