Start: Muir Pass
Camp: South Lake
I woke and started packing at first light. I still had a full food bag, about five days worth if I was hiking and at least a week like this. That seemed terribly ironic.
I suited up in everything I had, two pairs of socks plus a third over my airy tennis shoes, shouldered my pack and headed down the way I’d scouted two days before.
The descent was relatively easy thanks to Mark’s footprints. I only fell a couple of times, and my feet were numb but not unconformably so. In about three hours I found myself at the intersection of the PCT and the Bishop Pass trail, the point where I’d told Mark and myself I’d stop for the day so that I could descend the north side of Bishop Pass in the sun. I had no idea what either side of the pass might look like. I lay in the sun, impressed with the great warmth afforded down here at 9,000 feet. I took off my coat for the first time in five days. Then I took off one of my shirts, and finally my arm warmers. I took a chance and took off my rain pants. The rain pants Girly Girl had loaned me that just happen to fit perfectly.
I made lunch and relaxed while I played with the idea of staying, where I might camp and where water was, what the night might be like and that kind of stuff, all the while snacking on ‘LU’ – some kind of wafer with good dark chocolate on top. “Doing chocolate, ” I sometimes joke to myself when I eat chocolate for the first time in a few days because it has such a strong effect. I noticed the exact moment it hit me: my eyes locked onto the pine bows above and focused them sharply in my view. Colors grew more vivid and the world suddenly turned bright. It was like somebody had lifted the little red cover and switched on life’s afterburner. I sat up, took two bites of my lunch that was now ready, and headed up the Bishop Pass switchbacks, formatting a recipe for Trail Lasagna that I’d already written in my head.
I moved quickly and the temperature dropped quickly as I climbed the 3,000 feet to the pass. The numbness in my feet became an annoying ache, then a frozen stiffness. The top of the pass lay buried in waist deep drifts just like Muir Pass. Not surprising since it’s the same height. The crust actually supported me for a few steps in places. Then it would crack and I’d punch through sinking up to waist but not the fun kind of sinking, not the “holy moly this stuff’s deep” kind of sinking. There was no base to walk on. My feet rolled around blindly on loose rock, pitching my ankles with unwelcome suddenness to unnatural angles.
I did not stop atop Bishop Pass. I had arrived with an hour of sun left to spare, but with saltating ice crystals licking my face and everything below my knees packed with snow and turned to frozen stumps, I paused only to say aloud, “Is this really the trail?” and there was only one way to find out – trudge on, one knee-deep step at a time, and see what lay below. Three uneven steps in a row, or anything obviously pointed and sharp (like most of the granite naturally laying around) and I was probably off the trail.
A herd of dear saved me. Just as I had followed their prints for miles at a time in the North Cascades, I defaulted to following them here once I lost the trail. They lead me through notches that I’d never have suspected but that were unmistakably man-made and soon I was descending dozens of north facing, snow packed switchbacks down a cliff. Just like the North Cascades, I was kicking myself to be experiencing such a remarkable piece of trail in such harrowing conditions. I hiked until that exact moment – 13 minutes before I can’t see anymore – and pitched my camp on the first bit of snow free ground I found, a smelly horse hitching site.