Sierras K

Sept. 9, Fri.–25.4 miles–Sierras K & L Donner Pass

Fri. Sept. 9        Miles today: 25.4      Total so far: 2,082.8      Sierras Sections K & L       Donner Pass

It didn’t rain last night–whew, and thankyou, Lord!  And the wind quietened down, too, which was great because our spinnaker fabric tarp is very noisy in wind.  But at 5:30 am, just as we were getting up–wham & whoosh, the wind was back.  Brrrrr!   We strolled over to Squaw Creek and collected a full load of water–enough to get us to Interstate 80 at Donner Pass, 15 1/2 miles away. 

Half an hour into the day’s hike, we met a SOBO sitting outside his tent.  He said he was headed for Campo.  Yikes!  He has a lot more miles ahead of him than we do.  We wondered why he was just sitting around doing nothing instead of hitting the trail and making miles.  Oh well.  After a 700 foot descent, we tackled our first big climb of the day–the 1,000-plus foot uphill to Tinkers Knob.  It ws steep going, but the views were fantastic–deep canyons, lava fomations, granite peaks.  As we got closer to Donner Pass, it was very humbling to look over such rugged country and even dream of bringing a wagon train through.  After Tinker’s Knob, we crest-walked around Anderson Peak, Mt. Lincoln, and Roller Pass, finally reaching Mt. Judah and all the Sugar Bowl “ski stuff.”   We surely are having a tour of the ski resorts!  So far I have been most impressed with Squaw Valley’s “stuff.”  Our crestwalk views had been awesome all the way, but the downside was the cold, stiff wind combined with a rough, rocky trail.  We were VERY glad for our new shoes, but the cold made it hard to stop and eat.  We met one guy we think was a SOBO, but it was so cold and the wind was bloiwng so hard that we basically just said “Hi!” and kept walking.

Near Mt. Judah, we began to hear train whistles and meet dayhikers, which meant that Donner Pass was near.  Sure enough, we reached the last series of horribly rocky switchbacks that take you down to the Pass.  Here we ran into a problem: Bill was in a hurry, figuring there was a restroom at the trailhead, but I’m awfully slow on downhill rough rocks.  (I do great on uphill rocks, though!)  So we agreed that Bill would take off ahead, down the switchbacks, while I picked my way along as best I could.  Since I didn’t feel pressured now to hurry, hurry for Bill’s sake, I did stop a couple of times to admire the whole “Donner Pass scene” that lay below–railroad tracks, tunnels, snowsheds, winding Old Highway 40, and blue Donner Lake. 

But when I got to the bottom, thre was no trailhead parking, no restroom, and no Bill.  I followed the PCT signs up a road to the parking lot for the Sugar Bowl Academy, which was plastered with lots of “NO!” signs–No public telephone, No public restrooms, No public parking, etc.  I asked some people in the parking lot if they had seen Bill.  Yes, they had (good!), but they hadn’t noticed where he went (sigh!).  So I found the PCT across the highway and just started slowly walking up and yelling for Bill, hoping he was around someplace.  And he was–WAY up on the hill, nowhere near either road or trail.  He’s funny that way–when he’s “gotta go” he goes way, way off the trail.  I’m too lazy–I just find the nearest tree trunk or set of bushes and I’m fine.   I waited and waited till Bill finally came down, and we walked a little way along the PCT before stopping for lunch.  It was so cold, with clouds often covering the sun, that I had to put on my “poly-pew” longsleeved black shirt.  We ate fast so we could get moving again and be warm!

After four more miles of wandering PCT, we reached the hiker tunnels under Interstate 80 and the end of Section K of the guidebook.  Hooray, another milestone!  After picking up some water at the I-80 rest area, we began our climb to Castle Pass.  I felt bad about being so slow this morning on the rough trails that I decided to try to make up for it on the uphill this afternoon.  So all through the 1,600 foot climb out of Donner Pass, I was “pushing it big time”.  Only once did I trip over a rock and almost fall, but managed to stay upright, whew!  Past the top of the pass, it was down a bit to pretty, green Round Valley with its famous Peter Grubb Hut.  I wish we could have stayed there, but it was way too early to stop.  The hut has a solar panel (for lights??) and of course a ladder to the second story window so when the snow is deep, you can go in and out that way.

Then came a climb up to 8,500 feet (the highest point in Section L) and a long downhill ito Paradise Valley.  What worried me all during this stretch was that there were some unsigned “mystery trails” coming off the PCT, and a couple of times it was hard to figure out which was PCT and which was not.  We lost time at these puzzling junctions with maps and compass, trying to make sense of things.  I wish they’d put up more PCT emblems to indicate which way to go!  What a relief to reach the SIGNED Paradise Lake junction and see a PCT emblem on a tree!!

At that junction, we hesitated a little.  The weather was looking worse and worse–dark racing clouds, and very cold.  Could the clouds maybe mean….snow???  And the next part of the trail went up and over a high, bare mountain shoulder.  Usually we would say, “Oh, no problem, if the sun goes down while we’re still up high, we’ll just camp up there.”  (We did a lot of that in the High Sierras, but that was on nice hot afternoons with clear blue skies!)  In the end, we decided to go for it, pushing up the hill as fast as we could, and we made it–up and over and down into the forest on the other side!  Before dark, we’d found a nice campsite in a grove with a soft pineneedle duff “floor”, out of the wind.  But it was VERY cold, and the clouds looked pretty menacing.  We rigged the tarp very securely again, and I must admit I really was asking God’s help and protection for us weatherwise both tonight and tomorrow, as I wrote my journal notes and figured out mileage. 

Sept. 8, Thurs.–27.4 miles–Sierras K

Thurs. Sept. 8            Miles today: 27.4          Total so far: 2,057.4               Sierras Section K

Without Bill’s watch alarm clock, I kept waking up and checking my own watch by headlamp (while staying well-burrowed in my sleeping bag–it was COLD!).  At 5:30 am, the stars were beginning to fade, so I woke Bill and we got up.  It was still a bit dark when we started to hike, but Icould see the trail OK.  We headed down from Peak 8235, crossing varous jeep roads, and got to Richardson Lake, where I’d planned to get water for my platypus.  But when we got there, I didn’t like the looks of the water (Bill said I was being too picky, but I didn’t want to risk it), so we pushed on till I could get some much better water at Miller Creek. 

Then it was basically a climb through the forest on a nice DIRT trail, up to Barker Pass, where we met three people and a dog getting ready to backpack as far as I-80.  Besides them, we met only one other person all day.  After Barker Pass, the PCT really climbs up to the crest, and the views were awesome.  We had lots of opportunities to look at “Big Blue”–Lake Tahoe–in the distance.  We could just make out the sailboats and powerboats.  While we were stopped for our noon break, along came the folks with the dog.  “What happened?” they asked when they saw our sleeping bags spread out on the bushes.  “Did you get wet last night?”  “Nope,” we told them, “we always air our sleeping bags every day.”  Meanwhile, I had to chase the dog away from our food bags.  (That made 2 days in a row of shooing animals–the ground squirrel yesterday, and now a dog!!) 

After that, the PCT began what the guidebook called “a classic crest walk.”  And indeed it was–five miles of walking a bare, narrow, very volcanic Sierra crest, with amazing rock formations (wish I had pics!) and views of Alpine Meadows ski resort far below.  We passed a lot of bright orange “ski boundary” signs.  The only difficulty on this otherwise wonderful trek was the wind–it was blowing very hard and cold.  A lot of clouds were blowing in with it, which worried us.  And, there was NO water.  But in the end, 16 long switchbacks (I counted!) took us down to Five Lakes Creek AND out of the wind.  At the creek crossing, there was a little pool and a whole bunch of trout in the pool.  We could literally have caught them with our bare hands if we wanted to.  The poor trout were frantic when we stood and watched them.  Lucky for them we’re not set up to cook trout!

Then we began the climb up to Granite Chief Mountain, which included a step-across ford of the headwaters of the American River, and on through acres and miles of steep gravelly hillside covered with browning/yellowing/brittle-leaved “mules ears” plants.  I’ve never seen so many mules ears in my entire life!  As we climbed higher, the mules ears were replaced by acres of another plant that had already turned a bright autumn red.  It was very pretty, especially when the sun went lower and shone through the red leaves. Finally we reached the shoulder of Granite Chief, with several trails down to Squaw Valley.  Man, did “Squaw” have a LOT of ski lifts, buildings and fences way out here in the “back country”.  And all of them looked very well-maintained.

With a gorgeous sunset now overhead, we hurried down some sandy switchbacks and camped among the trees near Squaw Creek.  Even though the sunset-lit clouds were lovely, there were an awful lot of them, and looked like they could maybe turn into rain.  We didn’t cowboy camp tonight–we rigged the tarp, and rigged it well in the cold and windy evening.  When I did our mileage math, we cheered–we didn’t think we’d made that many miles today with all the ups & downs!