The mountains north of Walker Pass finally started looking more like the Sierra that we’d all heard about. Rough, steep, rocky and beautiful. For a few days, we’d been watching afternoon thunderstorms in the distant northern mountains. Now, we were in those mountains. As the sun heats the lower valleys, water evaporates, gets pushed up the mountains by crosswinds, cools, and forms giant thunderheads. From around 2pm to 5pm, the weather can get pretty nasty quickly. We had all heard of this phenomena, we got to experience it firsthand about 20 minutes north of Walker Pass. It didn’t just rain, it downpoured and hailed. It was a chilling painful rain, with a bunch of lightning thrown in for good measure. We were heading up toward the tops of the mountains – just where you don’t want to be in an electrical storm. But, just as quickly as it started, the rain stopped and we only had to contend with puddles on the trail. After steadily climbing for about 6 miles, we came across the dog.
When we first saw the dog, we didn’t know what to think. He was lying in the middle of the trail, not moving and looking fairly screwed-up. We feared he might be rabid or crazy and hiked around him. When we got to the other side, we took a closer look and realized something wasn’t right. This dog obviously had some kind of problem. His head was up, but his face was swollen, his eyes were half-shut and he wasn’t moving. He was just lying there staring at us. We thought he might be hungry, so we threw him a few pieces of beef jerky. He barely noticed. We stood around trying to figure out what to do. If the dog was injured, there wasn’t much we could do… just hope that someone would come back for him. After debating for 10 minutes, we decided to just move on and pray for the best. At the last minute, Jason figured we should try to give the dog some water. I sliced up one of my gatorade bottles, and Jason slid the cup of water under the dog’s nose. Immediately, he started drinking the water. Obviously, this dog was thirsty… we didn’t know what else might be wrong with him. By this time, the other hikers, Arron and Jason’s wife Lara came back. After giving the dog a couple more liters of water, we decided that we had to see this through. The dog drank everything we offered him. He still couldn’t move though. A couple other hikers, Nathan and his friend Alex passed by and donated some of their water. It was getting late and we decided to camp right there on the trail. Maybe, we thought, the dog would get better overnight and we’ll be able to walk him back to the trailhead. We even had hopes that the dog would be MUCH better after a night’s rest and we’d be able to take him to our next re-supply stop (wishful thinking!). We examined the dog closer and realized that the fur around his neck was matted down as if he usually wore a collar. This had to be “someone’s” dog, not just a stray. He didn’t appear to be injured, just thirsty. After a few hours, he still couldn’t even get up on his front legs, much less move anywhere. We named the dog “Jenkins”, after the mountain we found him on. We tried to make the dog as comfortable as possible and went to sleep.
The next morning came and the dog wasn’t any better. It was time for plan 9. Jason found a couple somewhat crooked branches, and wrapped the plastic groundcloth from his tent around them. He taped the ends of the groundcloth together (I have no idea why he had a roll of packing tape with him) and put a sleeping pad on top. We moved the dog on top of the makeshift stretcher and picked him up. It worked! It even seemed pretty sturdy. We decided that Jason and I would carry the dog back to the trailhead. Arron and Lara would hike ahead ~20 miles to a campground area which could be reached by a jeep road. Somehow, Jason and I would meet them there that evening… we had no idea how, but just figured it would work out. We gave Arron and Lara some of our load, and parted ways.
We quickly realized that this was going to be more difficult that simply walking 6 miles downhill. The dog was heavy and the branches for the stretcher were far from ideal. We found that we could only walk for about a hundred yards before we had to rest. After a half hour or so, we decided we had to find better branches, but there wasn’t a damn straight branch anywhere. Every tree was crooked and contorted. We finally found some fairly better branches though, and made do.
The sun was coming up, and it was getting hot. We had no water and a good 4-5 miles left to go. During one of our little rest stops, the dog crawled off the stretcher and into the shade. So, after putting him back, we hopped from shady spot to shady spot, taking a break at nearly every one. During another stop, the dog crawled off the stretcher again – this time to relieve himself. The dog’s urine was a pretty nasty brown color – a symptom of severe dehydration (at least he had enough sense to not pee on the stretcher!). Eventually, we made it a few miles. We were getting really thirsty, and started complaining about how there was NOBODY on this damn trail – we really needed some relief. “Nobody” must have heard us. We soon spotted someone coming up the trail from the Walker Pass area. Rick was an F-18 pilot who lived in the area and was hoping to climb up Mt. Jenkins that day. He had a liter of water with him, which we just about confiscated. He offered to help us carry the dog the rest of the way to Walker Pass.
We made much better progress with Rick’s help. We did a three man rotation every time we stopped at shady bit of trail. Rick told us he had seen a “lost dog” poster at the trailhead, with a description that matched this dog. Apparently the dog’s name was Amigo. We only had a couple hundred yards left to go when the stretcher fell to pieces. Amigo was laying there on the hot trail, spitting distance from safety. We tried coaxing him to walk just a little bit. He actually did, a hundred feet or so and then collapsed. Rick finally went over, picked up Amigo and slung him over his shoulders. He ran the last bit of trail and put the dog in the back of his pickup truck. Rick recognized the phone number on the “lost dog” poster as on-base. So, we all got in his truck and headed toward China Lake and the town of Ridgecrest. We stopped at a Chevron to call the number (and get some much needed Gatorade!). Jason talked to the dog’s owner, who seemed happily surprised that his dog was found. The owner worked on the military base though, and couldn’t get off shift. So, we drove the dog to the local vet to get some medical attention. While there, we weighed him. Amigo weighed 65 pounds. The veterinarian couldn’t be completely sure what was wrong with him. He was definitely dehydrated, and had possibly been bitten by a rattlesnake. Luckily, the prognosis looked fairly good now that he was at the vet.
While we were there, Rick called his wife and told her about the day’s events. It turns out that Rick’s wife was a reporter and couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a good human-interest story. She came over with her camera and note pad. The story later ran in the Bakersfield newspaper. Rick and his wife Karen offered to let us take a shower at their home (an offer we couldn’t pass up!), and Rick later drove us up the jeep road to meet Lara and Arron.
We got to the campground at about 5:30pm or so. Lara and Arron showed up about 7pm. Apparently, it was a pretty rough section of trail – they looked wiped-out. So, I missed 20 miles or so of the PCT. I’m sure I’ll get back there at some point in my life. Jason and I figured that the ordeal with Amigo made up for the 20 miles.
The next day was easy. Someone at the campground had agreed to drive most of our gear to our next stop at Kennedy Meadows, so we were able to slack-pack the ~20 trail miles. On the way there, we were treated to our first good views of the distant snowy sierra peaks. From this vantage point they looked like little white ripples on the horizon, but we knew that they were massive. Many of them rose over 14,000 feet, and we’d be hiking among them for the next few weeks. The trail finally made its way to the area of Kennedy Meadows. After what seemed like an endless walk through a flat expanse of sagebrush, we made it to the general store to get our resupply packages.
We arrived at Kennedy Meadows on Memorial Day weekend. Fishing season had just opened, and the campground was crowded with weekend vacationers. We all had a good couple days of relaxing at Kennedy Meadows. A lot of hikers got there the same weekend. I finally got to meet the Swiss couple. They’d been a day or two in front of me since the border of Mexico. I had only known them through their entries in the series of trail registers along the trail. There were a lot of people in our extended group. We spent our days hanging around the general store and taking care of various chores – doing laundry, organizing supplies, etc… One of Nathan’s friends (Nathan had a lot of friends meeting him along the trail) even lent me a van. A bunch of us took a ride all the way back to Ridgecrest to buy some things and check up on Amigo (he was doing much better). At night, we sat around a campfire talking and singing songs. The stay at Kennedy Meadows was delightful and refreshing. I was as ready as I could be to hike ahead into the high sierras.
I left alone on Monday morning. The rest of the group was still getting ready, and I assumed they’d be an hour or so behind me. Some other hikers I knew had left the day before. The hike out of Kennedy Meadows was a slow steady incline, following a fork of the Kern River upstream. I passed a number of weekend backpackers who were returning to Kennedy Meadows. As I got further these encounters became more rare, and before too long I had the feeling that I was the only one out there. The trail turned away from the river and steadily climbed up the surrounding hills. Kennedy Meadows was at about 6000 feet elevation, and I was heading toward 10000 feet on the slopes of Olancha Peak. As I got higher, the landscape became wetter and greener. I could tell that the climbing was getting harder due to the thin air. I finally made camp at about 10000 feet on the southwest slopes of Olancha Peak.
I felt great when I woke up the next day. I was cold and alone, but the area was enchanting. Once I started hiking, I warmed up and enjoyed everything that I passed – the valleys below me, the creeks that ran through them, the rocky terrain, the immense trees and the snowy peaks to the north which were getting closer all the time. For the first time in my trip, I didn’t see another soul all day. Not even a speck of a distant backpacker climbing some far off peak. Even though I knew there were people a couple hours behind me and others up ahead, I felt I had the world to myself. The trail stayed in the range of 8000 feet to 10000 feet as it wound around the sides of the mountains, occasionally dipping down to a valley below then back up the mountain. I stopped to cook dinner around 4pm. I was a little worried as this area was well known for a large bear population. One way to minimize encounters with bears was to cook in the afternoon and hike on. This way, you’re far away from the smell of your own dinner when camping. I found that I really liked this routine for other reasons too (a nice break in the middle of the day, not having to deal with dinner at the end of the day, having increased energy late in the day…), and I kept it up for the rest of the entire trip. I finally camped in a large flat area about 22 miles from where I’d camped the night before.
The wind had picked up that evening, and the temperature dropped. I had heard that a small storm was brewing, and I knew that I’d most likely catch some of it. I hadn’t really thought about the way high mountains tend to amplify small storms – the air gets pushed up higher and gets trapped by the mountain tops. You wind up with a longer, wetter, colder storm than the forecasts often predict (the forecasts are usually for low-laying areas, unless otherwise stated).
The next morning it was chilly and windy. I started up the trail, bound for Cottonwood Pass. Cottonwood Pass was a non-PCT pass, meaning that the trail dipped down to it and then went back up the other side. Cottonwood Pass connected the dry desert valleys to the east to the mountain valleys to the west. I soon caught up with Spice, another hiker who was in the group in front of me. I passed Spice and proceeded to get briefly lost. I mistakenly took a side trail and wound up walking 1000 feet down a mountainside, then back up the other side. I was following what I thought were the footprints of someone in front of me. It turns out they were made by someone else with the same boots (Solomon boots were pretty popular that year). I probably lost about an hour, and made my way back to the PCT. A short while later, just before Cottonwood Pass, it started snowing. Nothing too serious – just a few flurries. But one look at the clouds to the west said there was potential for a lot more. When I got to the cottonwood pass area, I caught up to John, a retired doctor who I’d seen a number of times on the trail. Even though it was cold, he was hiking in shorts and seemed to be enjoying himself. We exchanged small talk, then I took a break and John hiked on. I later saw him ahead of me, climbing up to a small tarn (a high mountain pond) where he planned to camp with a friend.
I continued on, the area was beautiful. It was a landscape of granite boulders, pierced every now and then by a huge ancient tree. There were still some snowbanks on the ground, left over from the previous winter. New snow was coming down intermittently, dusting everything with a thin white blanket. Before too long, I had crossed the southern border of Sequoia National Park. I had been to Sequoia NP once before to see the giant trees in the valley below, but this was another side of the park. There weren’t any throngs of brightly colored tourists, just me and an endless landscape of mountains. The trail wound down to a pretty stream called Rock Creek. I passed Spice on the way, but he didn’t hear me – he was all “mummied-in” his sleeping bag inside his tent. I finally camped right next to rock creek. It was really cold that night, but at least I was protected from the wind.
I woke up to a frozen ground dusted by half an inch of snow. The trees which protected me from the wind also blocked out the warmth of the sun, and I was reluctant to get moving. While I was sitting there, Nathan and Frank caught up to me. They were planning to make it to Guitar Lake on the base of Mt. Whitney that evening and try to climb Mt. Whitney the next day. That sounded like a good plan to me, and I agreed to meet them near the ranger station at the base of Mt. Whitney. Soon after that, Spice passed me, and we continued to pass each other again and again on the way to Mt. Whitney. It was almost comical – every 30 minutes one of us would pass the other one, who was sitting on a rock munching on a snack. I finally made it up to the base of Mt. Whitney where Nathan and Frank were trying to dry their stuff in the patchy sunlight. After a quick meal, the three of us headed up the mountain.