Pacific Crest Trail Thru Hike: The Range of Light

100 million years ago, immeasurable power changed the face of the earth. This cataclysmic event left an immense deposit of light-colored granite, which was in turn carved with the artistic, albeit clumsy hands of shifting glaciers.

Today the glaciers are mostly gone and the earth is no longer erupting, but what remains is no less awesome and immeasurable, no less beautiful. It is a hard and blazing place, wild and untamed, and buzzing with an energy that seems to seep out of the rock and flow in the rivers.

Up and over Cottonwood Pass, sits the first real view of the High Sierra. Chicken Spring Lake is a bit of a misnomer. Despite its slack jaw connotation, it is subtly elegant. Two bald, granite peaks frown into a saddle and loom over the still and clear water.

Within the white glow of the stone, and the reflection of trees in the lake water, was the confirmation that we were doing the right thing, and that everything would be ok. It was a defining moment in the hike.

The twilight air was cool but not unpleasant, and the red setting sun glinted through gaps in the tall pines, dappling the trail with a radiant glow. We stopped several miles later and camped near a rushing creek.

Guitar Lake, Base of Mt. Whitney

“Wake up, it’s time.” It was 2:00am, black, and cold. At 11,500 feet, there were no trees and no protection from the vacuous sky. A long ribbon of the milky way ran across eternity above, and a trail of headlamps could be seen switch backing up the granite face. We camped near Guitar Lake, and were awake at the early hour because of one thing- a sunrise summit of Mt. Whitney. A sunrise summit had been on the docket since before we came to the trail, and by the amount of headlamps winding their way up the mountain, it had been on everyone else’s as well.

From Guitar lake, it is a 4.5 mile hike to the summit, climbing several thousand feet in a series of switchbacks of various length. It isn’t a particularly hard climb, though the increasing elevation does bring a shortness of breath you won’t feel anywhere on the PCT. After reaching Trail Crest above 13,000 feet, the trail heads north along a ridge. Gaps in the rock to the east allow brief glimpses of the horizon and the radiating glow of red and orange, warning of the impending sun. There was barely any snow, and what was there, barely slowed us down.

So there we sat, steel in our gaze, and a hardness in our spirit like that of the granite we sat on. Perhaps 20 hikers were sitting on the rocky summit, facing east, and in the predawn light, they each looked taller, prouder, and wiser. Sacrificing sleep and comfort, energy and sweat, these people had made it to the tallest point in the continental United States, for the sunrise. Why? All I could think was,

“Oh c’est la vie. Maybe somethings wrong with me.”

I watched the sunrise show off of Legs’ dark brown eyes and knew I was where I should be. Her gaze was as hard and blazing as the sun, and showed me again all the reasons why I love her.

We made it back down to Guitar Lake before 9am, maybe throwing gloating looks at the hikers still making their way up. Maybe not, I don’t remember.

We passed out for several hours, though I think our plan was to hike out immediately and make it to the base of Forrester Pass. The best laid plans I guess. We ended up making it to a creek and getting bombarded with mosquitos before we quickly  fell asleep.

Forrester Pass 

Forrester Pass is the tallest point on the PCT at 13,153 feet. It is composed of a small cut in the rock, a notch if you will. It is insignificant in size, and for a long time, you will doubt that you are actually heading towards it and think the larger and taller saddle to its right is the real pass. It is a small V, cut into the sawtooth ridge, barely 50 feet across.

The approach to Forrester, its summit, and the hike down into Kings Canyon National Park, was the best day of hiking I have even done in my life. The trail crosses several small fords of brisk, snow melt as it meanders gently uphill for a few miles. The grade is pleasant and the views are staggering. Above the timberline, the view lasts as far as the granite walls, which burst out of the ground in sheer sheets all around you. Various lakes, frozen or otherwise, dot the landscape and at least one will be in your gaze every way you look. Eventually, snow becomes an obstacle, though a novel one, barely slowing us down. We stopped at the base and drank from a semi frozen lake nearby. The water was freezing, but crisp and delicious and did not need to be filtered.

Getting to the top of Forrester is as simple as a traversing up a couple of well cut  stone switchbacks. We stopped on top of Forrester and looked back at where we came from and gazed forward to where we were going. It would become common practice for the passes to come. No road could be seen in any direction, only wilderness.

Sliding into Kings

Glissading is the noble art of sliding on your ass down a mountain via snow. We did that, down the backside of Forrester, going down several hundred feet in a matter of seconds. We slid on our asses right into Kings Canyon, and what I believe to be, the most beautiful valley in the Sierra, apart from Yosemite. It was physically harder to keep hiking, not because of the soreness of muscles, but because of all the incredible campsites we had to leave behind. I must return there one day, and explore it more thoroughly. Words cannot describe that place’s power. I can only say that an ancient and wild energy resides there, and one cannot enter and leave, without being effected by it.

(Pictures to follow conclusion of Thru Hike)

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