Kearsarge Pass

Bullfrog Lake to Onion Valley
(7 miles, +1,000/-2,700 feet).

So, last night was my worst night ever in a tent.

All night long I was tortured by the fear that Kearsarge Pass was wrapped in a wall of ice just like Forester.

The words of the thru-hiker I met before my trip rang in my ears: “Kearsarge was worse than Forester!”

I can’t believe all the gory and weird daydreams I had as I never really fell asleep but instead just drifted in a weird purgatory of dread.

And to make matters worse, I developed a slow leak in my sleeping pad that required me to blow it up again every hour to stay above the snow and warm.

After what felt like a million years, the day finally broke and I awoke to pack up and face my doom.

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My final camp above Bullfrog Lake

I did not yet have a clear view of Kearsarge Pass, so all my worst fears were still before me.  And to make matters worse, clouds were playing on the hillsides, threatening to possibly reduce visibility on the ridge.

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An otherwise beautiful pre-dawn view

But once I started walking I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief.  In the distance I could see that there were lots of bare switchbacks above a much more manageable slope of snow.  Plus, there were suncups everywhere, raising my hopes that it would be easier to find footholds on the slopes.

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A more hopeful view
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Crossing the Bullfrog Lake inlet
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A pinkish hue
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Morning alpenglow
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Sunlight playing on the clouds

The approach up the valley was easy.  An overnight frost had crisped the ice, making it perfect for microspikes, and the incline was incredibly gentle.

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The Kearsarge Pinnacles
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A gentle traverse
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Kearsarge Lakes

Although I had mentally plotted a route around the snow to get to the pass with some class 2/3 climbing, I discovered that there were several paths from people who had come in the last few days when the snow was slushy.  Their deep footprints had hardened into almost perfect stepping stones, so I chose to try the icy slope.

I still used my ice axe and I still hated every minute of it, but I felt thrilled that I knew I would not die.  It felt like an hour, but it was probably more like 20 minutes to get up the worst part.

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View of the slope from above
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Yay for dry switchbacks!!!
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Kearsarge Basin view

When I was nearly to the pass, I found for the first time on this trip some wildflowers.  If I were religious I might have thought they were sent from god.

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Magical
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Kearsarge Pass

And like that it was done.  All my worrying for naught.

Once again, the other side of the pass was slushy, which would make for some good glissading.

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Big Pothole Lake

There were two traverses above Big Pothole Lake, a high one and a low one that started at the bottom of a glissade.

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You take the high road and I’ll take the low road

Just as I decided to take the low route, I met a thru-hiker named Pandora.  We chatted for a minute and then I pressed on.  The glissade towards Big Pothole Lake was thrilling in a good way, as I felt completely in control and had no fear I would die.

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Bottom of the glissade

After the glissade, the hard work of the steep traverse above the lake began.  Again, I did not feel as bad as I did on Forester, but I still hated having to work step by step with my ice axe to avoid a potentially fatal fall.  I’m sure others could manage it with just trekking poles or even with nothing at all, but that’s apparently not one of my talents….

Soon Pandora and his three fellow hikers (Freckles, Shoe Bandit, and Salty Dog) caught up to me.  They were from Australia and New Zealand and had some great stories about the 700+ miles they had traveled so far.

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The gang’s all here

They had been out for 8 days since Kennedy Meadows and boy were they fast.  It felt good to try to keep up with them as they raced down towards Onion Valley.  And now that I was no longer afraid, I was finally able to enjoy the spectacular record snowfall I had come out here to see.

Just to put a point on it, nature chimed in with an amazing sight.  Across the valley an enormous pop sounded like a cannon and we turned to see a huge avalanche sail down the lower reaches of University Peak.

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Avalanche!!!
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Heart Lake
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Flower Lake
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Gilbert Lake
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Pothole Lake outlet

And then just like that we were at the end of the snow.

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Party time!
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Last bit on dry trail
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My blue (Honda Fit) heaven

To make matters even better, when we got to the bottom there was trail magic.  And not only that — the trail magician was none other than the legendary thru-hiker and author Carrot Quinn.

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Carrot (right) and the gang

I offered to take my brief new trail family to Bishop where they could recharge.  They accepted and were more than up to the challenge of fitting a thousand pounds of hikers and backpacks into my tiny Honda Fit.

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Hey, it really did fit!

It was so nice to end a high note, given how stressful the last 36 hours have been.

But one thing I have definitely learned about myself: I do not like working hard to avoid dying.  I have no problem with dry class 2 and even class 3 climbing.  But there is something about a steep slide down an icy slope hundreds of feet long that I just cannot cope with.  This may very well be the last time I ever bring my ice axe on a trip.  If I think I might need one, I will probably just try a different itinerary.

I know that limits me for thru-hikes.  And as a result, it has been making me rethink my desire to thru-hike.  Maybe I should just continue to section hike, choosing different sections according to seasons that are safe and enjoyable.

It’s really hard because for two and a half years I have focused on the identity of becoming a thru-hiker.  There really is something magical and impressive about walking from Mexico to Canada in one go.  It’s sort of like what I already did with my life, spending two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador.  The magic is in the struggle.

But maybe long distance thru-hiking not for me.  And maybe I shouldn’t arbitrarily think there is such a big difference between walking 2600 miles in one year or in ten.

We’ll see.

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17 Comments Add yours

  1. randoark says:

    Jimmyjam, really enjoyed reading your blog entries. I met the two New Zealanders that you gave rides to while doing outfitter runs for Scout & Frodo in San Diego as they were about to start their trip! I feel compelled to post because of the end of this blog post. While there is in many ways no difference between hiking the PCT in many sections or in one go (and i’d say the many sections is probably the hardest way), there is definitely a big difference in the feeling you get the longer you’re out there. And reading all these blog entries makes me think you’re definitely very equipped and able to do the PCT in one long thru-hike. For one, you probably won’t thru-hike during the biggest snow year the Sierra has scene in a long time. If you do, you don’t have to go through as early as you did now – most people should be hitting this stretch in mid-July, 5-6 weeks away.

    Anyways, don’t give up the dream. If you’re in SoCal i’d be happy to meet up and go for a hike or grab a beer/coffee and give you more encouragement! Thanks for the great write-ups.

    -Barrel Roll, PCT 2010

    Liked by 2 people

    1. JimmyJam says:

      Thanks so much — would love to chat some time. My email address is posted on my professional website at fowler.ucsd.edu if you want to get in touch.

      Like

  2. Jawbone says:

    Oh, I really enjoyed this blog and in so many ways! Just marvelous and so emotional. Not to mention the photography!

    While I get it about the fear of ice and the exhausting effort required just to stay alive, I am going to play cheerleader and side with Randoark’s very well-written comment.

    That said, you lived it and you know yourself! You’ve already succeeded on so many levels. It ain’t over yet!

    Jann

    Liked by 1 person

    1. JimmyJam says:

      Thanks Jawbone! Like I said, “We’ll see….”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great hike, and great writing! I’ve done that same trip before, but in a mild snow year at the end of July, so it was nothing like yours! I am heading back there to go from KM to Sierra City in July, so it will still be pretty different than yours.

    I have a question about the mechanics of your blog. What did you use for a camera, and what did you use to write your blog. It looks like you posted every day. Was there decent reception?

    Thank you for writing!

    Steve

    Liked by 1 person

    1. JimmyJam says:

      I used my iPhone 6S and mac’s Photos software for cropping and enhancing. I post after the fact when I get home — I’m always too tired to deal with typing on my phone on trail and there isn’t any reception out there on this section. It’s easy on WordPress to choose the day you want the blog to appear, so I just choose the day that the trip happened.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Scott Desposato says:

    Great trip. But very sobering. Those types of adventures are easier when w a companion. Experience helps too. If you did the hike again, would you be more confident?

    S

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. JimmyJam says:

      Probably. But I really did have a huge mental problem with the icy slopes that was qualitatively different from any other wilderness dangers I’ve experienced. It would be easier if I did another icy slope but I’m not really interested in doing one again any time soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great read. Thanks for posting.

    Persevere!
    Getting comfortable on steep snow is an essential foundation of mountain travel. Kids don’t give up driving just because the spooky blind spots in the mirrors scare them. Put in some work, take a class, test limits in a safe area. Overdo it on gear until you feel more secure.

    This trip did not look to have too many sketchy creeks, but that’s an issue in some ways more frightening than steep snow. Especially when traveling solo.

    Jan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. JimmyJam says:

      Thanks for the advice. It might be a while before I am willing to accept it though! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jimmyjam! You absolute legend! I loved reading about your travels even though we heard them from you first hand! Thank you again for the lift into town you are a total angel! As for thru hiking or section hiking you’d be welcome to team up with us again any day! We loved your company! Your happy attitude and your willingness to give it a go! I hope your pants found a way to repair or be replaced and your trip home was a safe one! Just to finish off I should say there are some days I’m scared witless…and I don’t know what pushes me on…perhaps friends, perhaps the fear of dropping out is greater…we head back up Kearsage today, back to the daily grind of the glorious fearful unknown! Thinking of you in your comfy house!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. JimmyJam says:

      Really great meeting you guys — you really turned a tough couple of days right side up for me. Have fun and stay safe!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Barrel Roll says:

      HI Corinne and Tim! It was great meeting you guys at Scout and Frodo’s 🙂 – good luck out there in the Sierra, i’ve been enjoying the updates on your blog and Facebook.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Glad you’re following along barrel roll feel free to add me on Facebook too to see more Corinne Phillips, or instagram thewalkingtwo we are up near the front of the pack now…how did we find our way here? We have no idea…here goes nothing!

        Like

  7. susieant says:

    I understand your fear. Sometimes it keeps me from going out. I enjoy hiking but not when I’m so afraid I can’t enjoy it. Still trying to “Move Closer, Stay Longer” from a book of the same name. I’m glad to hear the real truth from a fellow hiker. Thanks for being vulnerable and sharing your truth. Just found your blog will go back and start from the beginning. Are you done for now?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. JimmyJam says:

      No, I just want to avoid icy walls! I have another trip coming up in 9 days out of Pine Creek Pass. I plan to leave the ice axe at home for now and just do parts that need nothing more than microspikes.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Jawbone says:

      I have fear issues, too, Susieant! The vulnerability of being a female alone. Just yesterday I parked at a wayside along the Rogue River here in Oregon and took a (very) short solo walk to a viewpoint. I was not 100% relaxed. Otherwise, physically, I could hike all day long!

      I’ve re-read JJ’s account of his experience on the icy slopes a couple of times and I truly appreciate his fear and concerns. I believe him when he describes feeling close to death for what must’ve been the longest hour of his life.

      It’s easy to cheerlead from the sidelines, but I’m glad he accepted his successes up to that point and will be going back in a few days to face fresh, new challenges!

      Lucky us, as we can look forward to some great reads, photography, and genuine emotions.

      Jann

      Like

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