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8/12. Passes that kicked our asses

Rooster: The Sierras were awesome, but extremely challenging. Despite waiting 6 weeks, there was still a significant amount of snow at the higher elevations. In the early morning, it would be firm, and our microspikes gave us a lot of traction. By mid morning, it would be getting soft and slushy.

Adding to this were the rivers and streams that needed to be crossed. Sometimes we made an effort to keep our feet dry, but most of time we just plowed through. We had everything from ankle deep to waist deep. And the current ranged from mild to a serious push. And it was always painfully cold.

But the hardest part of this section was the passes. A pass is basically a low point in a ridge line or group of mountains. And by “low” I mean around 11,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. Usually we’d attempt to get to the top before the snow softened up, and then rush down to get close to the next pass by nightfall. And they were difficult. 3-5 miles and a couple thousand feet of elevation gain. The trail was generally covered, so you’d either be route finding through patchy snow or scrambling over boulders. And then the descent was more of the same. It was slow and exhausting. The passes included Forester, Kearsarge, Pinchot, Mather, Selden; it seemed like we had to go over one every single day.

But by far the most difficult was Muir. We had heard that both the approach and descent had a solid two miles of snow on each side. Plus several crossings. We got a very early start, and still struggled to make it to the top by lunchtime. There, it was starting to rain, so we hunkered down in the stone hut. Over the next hour, the storm intensified, with some lightning and a little hail. We waited it out till we thought we had a decent break in the weather, and started down at around 2pm.

And then the storm returned. We were stuck in this shallow valley with lighting all around us, racing through the slushy snow and rocks. It alternated between rain and hail, completely obscuring what little we could see of the trail. Between the snowmelt and the rain, the crossings were getting sketchier by the minute. And we were carrying aluminum/carbon trekking poles: nice lightning rods, especially when you’re standing in water. Our rain gear put up a good fight, but it was wet through after about two hours of this madness. Hypothermia was a very real threat at this point, so our only choice was to continue rushing down valley.

After nearly four of the most harrowing hours of our lives, we were finally below the snow line, and the storm was subsiding. We camped near a lake, beyond exhausted, both physically and mentally. It was another lesson to never underestimate Mother Nature.

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