This is the fifth installment of Chelan Pauly’s and Hannah Kiser’s epic 2,660 mile journey to hike the entire Pacific Crest Trail. It should be noted that Chelan and Hannah have at the moment parted ways, due to the high snow in the Sierra. Chelan decided to push through the Sierra and Hannah decided to bump a few hundred miles ahead and come back to do the Sierra in the Fall when there is less snow.
by Chelan Pauly
The Sierra Nevada: 2017 style
The Sierra. This word holds a special place in the heart of PCT hikers. It means crystal clear alpine lakes, spectacular granite crags, and meadows full of brilliant wildflowers. It is the longest uninterrupted section of trail (without roads) and arguably the most scenic of the entire 2600 mile journey. The Sierra Nevada, literally translating to the “snowy mountain range” is also known to be the sunniest and most fair-weathered of major mountain ranges in the world. It is approximately 400 miles long and includes three national parks, 20 wilderness areas, two national monuments and the highest point in the contiguous US (Mount Whitney).
All of this makes the Sierra a memorable PCT highlight, but for the class of 2017 it has been a defining aspect of the trail for another reason. Due to California’s near record snow pack (approximately 200% of historic average), the passes have been buried under 10’s of feet of snow and the river crossing have been raging with melt water. Instead of a typical continuous thru-hike from Mexico to Canada, north bound PCT hikers were faced with the decision to either skip 500 miles or learn how to mountaineer.
For the first 700 miles of trail, the Sierra loomed over us as an unknown. When will the snow melt? How high will the creeks flood? When will the roads and resupply points become accessible? Should we hurry and try to go through when snow bridges are still intact? Should we slow down and hope things melt out? If we go for it, who will be on our team? What extra gear do we need? Obviously an ice axe but what about a rope? Crampons verses micro-spikes? Boots verses trail runners? Extra insulation for sleeping on snow? There were endless questions, hours of speculation, and of course LOTS of fear mongering.
It became a rather divisive issue and friends scattered in all directions. Some people decided the risk wasn’t worth it and jumped ahead hoping to have enough time to finish those 500 miles in the fall. Others got off trail and gave up the dream until a year when they can finish the PCT in its entirety. In some ways it was sad to see the
tight-knit community split ways. However, I am grateful to everyone for making those difficult decisions. There was real danger on the steep slopes and in the fast moving currents and many accident’s were prevented by each individual evaluating their own technical skills and preparedness.
I feel extremely lucky to be part of a small group of hikers who continued all the way through the Sierra. We got to see those mountains in a condition that very few people will ever witness. Not only because of the record snow levels but also because of the lack of people. Normally the John Muir Trail (JMT)/Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) trails are heavily used by weekend warriors, thru-hikers, and section hikers alike but this year we found solitude and spent entire days enjoying the magnificence as if it were our own private piece of paradise.
That is not to say it was easy. The difficult conditions brought everyone together and bonded the few hikers that were left into a very tight-knit group. We formed small teams for accountability but took care of each other within the larger herd as well. We crossed rivers together, climbed passes together, planned logistics together, and slept side by side in the tiny snow free flat spaces we could find. My particular team solidified into a tight unit of seven. We called ourselves the Naked Suncups as a reference to our embracing the miles and miles of sun cupped snow as well as our love of jumping in every alpine lake in our path (clothing optional). Some of us had a fair amount of mountaineering experience going into the Sierra and others just had a lot of grit and a willingness to learn. It was beautiful to see the team come together and each person grow individually.
All in all, I wouldn’t trade my month in the Sierra for anything. My feet were wet 90% of the time, the 2:15 am wake-ups were cold, the miles of slippery suncups were exhausting and my bug bites still itch, but I loved it none the less. There is something about facing challenges 16 hours a day with friends at your side that makes the sunsets more beautiful and the ramen dinners more delicious. With nothing to hide behind, life in the mountains is pure… pure water, pure emotion, and pure joy. I was inspired everyday by the resilience of the wildflowers and the marmots who make their lives in such tough conditions. If they can do it, then we can do it too.
It was also beautiful to see those rugged glacial landscapes work the way they are meant to. As the huge snow pack began to melt, drainage networks did their jobs filling lakes, flooding rivers, and washing away trails. Just a small reminder that humans will never master nature, we can only walk along and admire.
Chelan and Hannah are raising money for an organization called Inspiring Girls Expeditions. For every mile they hike, they plan to raise at least $1 to help send a high school girl on a wilderness-science education expedition. This means each step is not only part of a personal adventure but also part of a broader purpose. Please go to https://www.crowdrise.com/pct-fundraiser-raising-1-for-every-mile-we-hike-to-help-future-young-adventurers/fundraiser/chelanpauly to learn more.