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California Section J
Sonora Pass (Hwy 108) to Echo Lake

    Rejuvenated and resupplied, we headed north from Sonora Pass.   We quickly ascended,  wove around to the north side of the mountains, then started down.  Somewhere on a snowbank 4 miles north of Sonora Pass, the trail passed below 10,000 feet.  It would never again climb above that altitude.  Donna had an altimeter on her watch.  We made sure we didn't miss the event.  The trail continued down the Carson River canyon and eventually reappeared from under the snow.  We decided to hike late that night since we got a late start (which later turned into a self-perpetuating cycle).  We climbed up a canyon and slept on a ledge at the top.

    We thought we had finally seen the last of the serious snow fields.  The trail was getting lower, and the mountains to the north looked free of snow.  The mountains tricked us again.  We were looking at the south sides of all the mountains ahead.  Whenever we were routed to a north face, the trail disappeared under the snow again.  By this time, any novel joy of having snow on the ground had worn off.   Whenever we saw snow, we'd roll our eyes, pull out our maps, take a deep breath and move on.  The trail took us through a series of snow-covered mountainsides.  It was slow going, and by this time it was very frustrating.

    At one point, we noticed some huge fresh bear tracks on the snow.  They kept going in a line - the same direction we were headed. "Hey, he's hiking the PCT", I mentioned to Donna.  I hiked ahead of Donna, took a break at a saddle near Tryon Peak, and waited for her to catch up.  She was taking longer than usual.  Just about when I'd lost my patience, I saw her coming up the trail. "Did you see that bear?  It was right on the trail!". I hadn't seen it.  Donna was only about a minute behind me when she saw the bear.  She said it was fat, and slowly lumbered away from her.  Apparently, I had walked right by the bear... never noticed it.  The trail continued on down across Noble Canyon  and Noble creek.  We climbed out of the canyon in the dark and camped.  

    The next day started out as more of the same - route finding in the snow.  We quickly passed Ebbett's Pass and saw an interesting trail sign, it read, "Scenic View--->".  Were they kidding?  The whole damn trail was a scenic view.  Still, we had to go see what prompted someone to erect the sign.  We got there and had a wonderful view of... Highway 4 through Ebbett's Pass.  To each their own.

    A little way past Ebbett's Pass, the trail broke out of the snow once more.  We were hiking below a magnificent ridge to our immediate left.  The landscape here was unlike any we'd hiked in previously.  The tops of the steep green mountains were pierced by jagged pillars of rock.  Every few hundred yards, our viewing angle would change, and we'd see new intricate formations.  I felt like I was walking on the planet Vulcan or something.  It was so cool that I exhausted my supply of film while trying to capture the feel of the place.  Damn.  I thought I had another roll, but apparently I miscalculated.

    We continued dipping in and out of river canyons which started at the top of the ridge.  I spotted a huge hawk streaming across the sky.  As it got closer, I realized that it wasn't a hawk at all, it was a golden eagle. The wind was blowing hard and rising up over the jagged ridge.  The eagle was riding this cushion of air back and forth.  With a simple tilt of its wings, it was able to achieve incredible speeds. One moment it was on the other side of the canyon, the next it was soaring over our heads.  It wasn't hunting or defending its territory, it was just having fun and enjoying the freedom of the air.

    We kept going at our own incredible speed of roughly 2.85mph and eventually had to stop at yet another steep snowbank.  There was a 30 foot long wall of icy snow covering the trail. The side of the mountain was steeply sloped. The snow wall continued down a couple hundred feet and ended in a pile of jagged rocks.  There were some shallow footprints in it, but not enough to gain a foothold on.  So, I took out my ice axe and began the tedious process of chopping steps.  I chiseled away for a good half-hour, making steps which would fit an NBA center.  I was pretty proud of my work, but I had no way to sign my name to it.  Oh well.  We headed down a mountainside, and camped in a flat wooded area called wet meadows.

    We awoke the next morning to two PCT hikers zooming through our little camp.  They didn't say anything to us.  They splashed through a little stream which crossed the trail, not even taking a precious few seconds to cross on a nearby log.  They had home-made packs that weighed 15lbs, k-mart sneakers, nylon shorts. Yup, "Jardinites".  I never did meet these two.  I've always felt that everyone should "hike their own hike".  I'm not sure if "hiking Ray Jardine's hike" counts though. (Among other things, Ray Jardine hiked the PCT 3 times. He wrote a book on his lightweight backpacking style - "the PCT hiker's handbook".)  I hoped they were having fun. I sure was... I didn't start hiking till 9am.

    The wind picked up more and more during this day.  We hiked a good few miles on the slopes of an exposed mountain appropriately called "the nipple".  It was a big round mountain with a giant boulder on top.  The wind nearly blew us off the trail.  I was glad I had my hiking poles to stabilize myself.  Eventually, we had to head down yet another snow-covered mountainside.  By this time, we were getting pretty good at finding the trail.  It was kind of a game actually.  I chuckled every time I noticed footprints in the snow going the wrong way.  "Ha, that guy is headed into the swamp.", I'd say to myself.  We climbed up the other side of the valley.

    The next little bit of trail was one of those sections that had me swearing out loud.  The trail headed up a small mountain called "Elephant's Back".  Every time we thought we were at the top, we were rewarded with a view of the trail headed further up the mountain, to a summit we hadn't seen from below.  This happened 3 or 4 times.  Finally, after cutting across another steep snowy slope, we made it to the top.

    It was all downhill to Carson Pass.  On the way down, we passed multiple groups of well-dressed day-hikers.  I'd get a whiff of some deodorant or shampoo, say "Ahhh", and move on.  We finally made it to the pass - Hwy 88.  At the road, there was a small ranger station / store and a big parking lot half-filled with cars.  I headed into the building, it was run by a downright nice elderly couple (unfortunately, they didn't sell any film).  While Donna and I were sitting outside cooking a meal, they brought us some fresh fruit.  It was a brief visitation by more angels of the trail...  We thanked them and devoured their gifts.

    We headed up the PCT, determined to get as close to Echo Lake as possible that night.  The trail went up and down the mountains north of Carson Pass.  We waded across the headwaters of the Truckee River, up yet another snowy mountainside, and arrived on a flat, snowy, forested mountain ridge.  The trail was only visible in small segments every 50 yards or so.  The rest of the time, it was buried under huge snowbanks, some of them over 10 feet high.  So, up and down and up and down the snowbanks we went.  It was "find the trail" at its highest level.  There were very few landmarks to look for, just a flat expanse of forest.  We finally stopped when it got too dark to continue.  That night was cold, windy and miserable.   

    The next morning, we continued our game of "find the trail".  We'd had enough, when was this sh*t going to end!!!? It was July, and we were still walking on huge snowbanks at 8000 feet.  We had walked on at least some snow every day since leaving Kennedy Meadows a month ago.  We managed to stay on the trail though.  One last steep snowy slope took us down the ridge and out of the snow.  The rest of the trail to Echo Lake was mostly through the human sprawl which surrounds Lake Tahoe.  A couple small ski-hills, backyards of some rental homes,  we kept going through the woods until we arrived at Echo Lake.

    I was initially happy to be at Echo Lake, I was looking forward to a couple days off.  It was the 4th of July weekend, and Donna's boyfriend was coming up from San Francisco to meet us.  My mood turned sour once I started dealing with the people who ran Echo Lake resort.  They couldn't find my resupply package.  I made them look twice, until they started to get angry with me, "it just isn't here!".  I couldn't figure out what happened, I'd never had a problem before.  I would have cut them some slack if they were just doing a favor by holding hiker packages, but this place was a licensed US Post Office.  They acted thoroughly un-professionally with me. They seemed to view all the hikers as an annoyance - we weren't renting any rooms there, and I'm sure they preferred that we just went elsewhere.

    The place was packed full of weekend vacationers, most of them looked hurried and frazzled.  THIS was a vacation?  People galore, whining kids, and overpriced crappy food?  Still they kept reassuring themselves "Isn't it great that we're here?".  It was so windy that they had to cancel a scheduled outdoor picnic.  I heard stories of sailboats on Lake Tahoe that went careening into lakeside restaurants (most likely rich city folk, who took their boat out twice a year).

    A few hours later, Donna's boyfriend arrived and rescued us from the chaos.  He rented a house in South Lake Tahoe, and we took the next 4 days off.  It was a nice and welcome break.  We enjoyed the fireworks from a boat on the lake, saw a couple movies, went golfing, and just relaxed.  I bought some new gear, and sent some other stuff home.  By the end of 4 days, I was more than ready to hit the trail again.


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