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Pacific Crest Trail: Sierra

Kennedy Meadows South has been on every hiker's mind since the start of the Pacific Crest Trail. It's a significant milestone to make it 700 miles into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Kennedy Meadows South is where hiker trash can hang out, swap gear, rest up their tired bodies, stuff their faces with food, and build up the courage to set out again—this time leaving the desert behind and stepping into unfamiliar territory, the High Sierra. Thankfully, I had a full four days of much-needed rest and laziness. A couple of days spent at Kennedy Meadows General Store, hanging out at the river and having a hiker dance party at Grumpy Bears, and a couple of days back in Ridgecrest catching up with Tyler. It's incredible what an authentic home-cooked meal can do after two months on the trail. It was tough saying goodbye again and homesickness soon set in.

The start of the High Sierra has been the most difficult for me. I was leaving out from Sherman Pass alone, trying to catch up to my tramily one day ahead. It took me two and a half days to bridge the gap, leaving me with a lot of alone time. While I loved the new scenery, I despised the awkwardness of the bear canister and climbing to higher elevations. Being in a compromised mood, I started to miss home and family, thinking that maybe I had set out on a journey too big for me. It wasn't until five days down the trail sitting atop Mt. Whitney at 14,505ft, staring at the vast expanse of gorgeous mountains, that I knew I had to keep pushing on for myself. This spectacular opportunity has brought me too much euphoria, mixed with a bit of pain and anxiety, to stop now. I signed up because it is a challenge I want to complete, start to finish. I may not know what tomorrow will bring, but for now, I am soaking up everything this trail has to offer. That includes snow, high elevation, mosquitoes, and river crossings.

While it was a very mild snow year for the Sierra, there were still several passes with snowy traverses, particularly on the north sides of the mountain. Typically, hikers wouldn't want to leave Kennedy Meadows South until mid-June, when the snow levels were steadily and quickly decreasing. However, this year we had timed it perfectly, leaving Campo in Late March and hitting the Sierra in early June. I had worried countless nights about my start date before ever setting foot on the trail. March is too early for most hiker's comfort for an average snow year. This year it was perfect!

With some snow remaining at higher elevations, our hiking schedule changed dramatically from the desert section. Our strategy was to make it over a pass in the morning, often getting an earlier start than usual. The goal is to tackle any snowy sections before they become too slushy in the afternoon, making them more dangerous in some cases and, in other instances, super annoying. I had always known there were dangers associated with trekking across mountains in the snow. Having been snow skiing several times, I felt a little more prepared than those who had never experienced snow before. Still, until I stood atop a pass at 12,000ft staring down at the snowy ridges, I wouldn't fully understand the anxiety someone can have because of snow. There were only a couple of times when I felt the potential for bodily injury if I were to slip and slide down a snow field. Focusing directly on my footing and not looking down the steep slope was my only saving grace. If my focus broke and I did happen to look down, my anxiety would flare up, and I would freeze. I couldn't allow myself to cry, though, because that would cloud my vision, making it even more challenging to find my footing. Every time I managed to make it down, slow and steady, often following my tramily's footsteps to safety. I am glad that most of the dangerous snow crossings are behind me.

The High Sierra gets its name from the high elevation the trail travels through. Instead of mountains topping out around 9,000 ft, we're traversing passes over 11,000 ft and camping above 9,000 ft most of the time. Higher elevations do bring the risk of altitude sickness. Surprisingly some of the fittest people we had come to know on the trail had to be helicoptered out from the altitude. My breathing got a bit harder, and it took more energy to hike the exact distances I would have in the desert. Over time, I could tell my body was adjusting slowly, but I often struggled to settle my stomach, and my eating dropped off a little. Compared to several others around me, I knew it could have been much worse.

Not many people talk about the dangers of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I didn't think that I was putting myself in danger before leaving out at the Southern Terminus. It wasn't until the High Sierra, with altitude sickness and sketchy snow, that I realized we were all at risk, no matter our skill level. I wish more people would open up about the threats. It wouldn't have changed my mind about wanting to start on this adventure, but I would have done more research ahead of time to have been better prepared.

Mosquitoes, while not as dangerous as snow and altitude sickness, were a nuisance. In Texas, mosquitoes are a big problem in the spring, summer, and fall months. Typically you'd spray yourself with insect repellent before stepping outside for long. I didn't think I'd have such an issue with mosquitos in the Sierras. Boy, was I wrong! I had expected the insects to pick up around Oregon, but this year's weather has them riled up early. Instead of sitting around enjoying the company of other hikers at camp, we were all stoved up in tents away from the bloodsuckers. If you stop moving for a moment, you will get attacked. Don't leave your bare behind unattended during a pit stop because mosquitoes don't discriminate against body parts.

Entering the Sierra water is no longer a limited resource. With the abundance of snowmelt and natural springs, I didn't have to worry about locating the next water source and ensuring I had enough water to get there. Usually, most hiker's carrying capacity through the Sierra is two liters. I decided to carry two SmartWater bottles and my one dirty water bag, totaling three liters of water if needed. Only once did I fill up all three liters of water at the very beginning. Because of the Sierra, I don't know that I will ever see streams and rivers the same. Passing by them now, I contemplate if they will taste cold and refreshing, and often I rely on the scent to determine if it will be any good before drinking it. Before the Pacific Crest Trail, I had never filtered and drank straight from a natural water source. Now bottled water doesn't taste the same, and I am usually underwhelmed as it touches my tongue. I don't think I will ever drink water as fresh again.

Another significant change from the desert to the Sierra is the prevalence of black bears; hikers must carry a bear canister to protect their food. It's a big, round chunky piece of thick plastic with a lid that is as difficult for a human to open as a bear. Two pounds of extra weight may not seem like much, but when you have longer food carries and more strenuous hiking to accomplish, it can be a bigger difference than many think. Thankfully, with the increased water sources, we don't have to camel up like in the desert. Less water to carry means less weight, which turns out to be almost an even swap with the bear canister. Even though black bears are more common in the Sierra, I never saw one. There was a 50/50 split between hikers who wanted to come across a bear and those who didn't. I was one of the latter. FJ did see a bear running away and up a mountainside farther along in the Sierra section. I had been ahead at that point in the day and must have just missed it. Phew!

Some of my gear, which had held up well during the desert, is now seeing some wear and tear. There are two patches on my tent. One covers a mysterious dime-sized hole on the mesh of my tent. And the second covers a small slit where my ice axe caught fabric just below my door's zipper. Mosquitoes also splatter across my tent's rain fly and mesh where the bugs have been smooshed between the two. I do my best to treat my equipment nicely so it can last as long as possible. In some cases, equipment fails even with babying. Leaving Tuolumne Meadows, my sleeping pad suddenly started leaking exponentially. After dunking the pad in a river, no holes were found; after further inspection, I found the valve had failed. If it were a hole, I'd be able to patch it and limp it along until I got a new one. Since it was a faulty valve, there is no magical fix. I spent the last five days to Kennedy Meadows North and four to South Lake Tahoe, sleeping on my short-length closed-cell foam mat. Thankfully I had the mat. Otherwise, I would have been on solid ground entirely. From this, I have learned that I can survive without a luxurious sleeping pad cushioning me at night. Still, I certainly prefer it—best of luck to the rest of my gear moving forward.

Along with the change in terrain and gear, the people who hiked the 700 miles of desert with us were no longer the familiar faces we saw on the trail. After some time off, the hiker bubble we had been traveling around had sped ahead, and the next wave of hiker trash now surrounded us. This is the cycle of the trail. People step off for several reasons, and others pick up their pace. I had been very blessed to have a tramily that had stayed together for so long. The support was especially needed during the sketchier snow sections on mountain passes, but it was also lovely to have friends to let loose after a long day of stressful hiking. Moving forward, I do not know who's familiar face will accompany me if any.

After 26 days in the High Sierra, I was ecstatic as I rounded the last switchback to the Sonora Pass trailhead leading to Kennedy Meadows North, running down the trail quickly so I could ditch my bear canister, shower, do laundry, and refuel on a cheeseburger. Kennedy Meadows North is another big checkpoint for hikers. Moving north means you are exiting the High Sierra and are no longer required to carry the bulky bear canister. It also signifies the start of Northern California and usually easier days on the trail. Just like Kennedy Meadows South, Kennedy Meadows North is usually a big party for hikers as we have completed another massive milestone in the 2,650-mile trek to Canada.

With all the changes surrounding the mountainous landscape of the Sierra, it took time to get used to a new routine and terrain. Once I stopped speeding through the day trying to hike 20 miles like in the desert and started taking it a bit slower, I got to appreciate the beautiful scenery of the Sierra. Even though the snow was a bit terrifying, the mosquitoes were menacing, and the territory was tough on my lungs and joints, I have seen the most beautiful views I have ever experienced and what many others will never see in person. Although I teared up many times out of fear or frustration, there were many more times I teared up because of the electrifying emotions that ran through me, over every pass, through every meadow, and around every glacial lake. 26 days may not have been long enough.

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