Monday, July 4, 2005

Guiding David Horton on the Pacific Crest Trail

Eleven Days Through the Snowy High Sierra With David Horton

I joined David Horton at Kennedy Meadows, the 700-mile mark of his attempt to set a speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail. He has set an aggressive goal of 63 days, achievable only as an ultra runner, fully supported, as he did on the AT in 1991. He looked good as he ran in after a 51-mile day. He was obviously tired, but in great spirits and very happy to see the group of at least a dozen well-wishers gathered to see him. It was his 16th day on the trail since he left the Mexican border and he was averaging 43-miles per day. I asked him about the desert sections he had just crossed. Neither the 90+ temperatures nor having to carry water had affected him badly.

Gary and Millie Buffington, his crew, had been meeting him with a support vehicle at every available road crossing, quenching his hunger and thirst, and setting up camp for him every night. The routine was working well for him, but we would not be able to continue in that style. Kennedy Meadows marks the last road crossing the Sierra for over 200 miles. It is also the end of the deserts of southern California, a major milestone, so I congratulated David for finishing the desert. He shrugged it off. He said he felt he was just getting started. In a joking manner, he asked if the congratulations meant the hard part was over. We both knew it was just beginning.

I came to guide him through the High Sierra to Sonora Pass, 314 miles away. In this section, it is very difficult to get crew support. Only Tioga Pass Road in Yosemite crosses the trail, and it was not yet open for the season. David’s original crew support plan, which I put together for him last fall called for several crews meeting him at all the easily accessible points along the way. Unfortunately, the last winter was one of the wettest on record. 200% of normal snowfall still covered the ground through much of the southern Sierra. Even if the support crews could all get in over the snowy passes, we could not make the miles from campsite to campsite each day. The snow would slow us down too much. Instead, we implemented a hybrid strategy. We would get crew support in the few places where the crew could reach us, and carry our own camping gear and food the majority of time.

The evening I arrived at Kennedy Meadows, I packed David’s backpack, making sure that between us, we had only what we really needed. Not including food, our gear weighed a scant 8 pounds each and would keep us comfortable down to below freezing. 6,000 calories of food added almost 3 pounds per person per day to our pack weight.

Monday June 20th took us almost 40 miles to Trail Pass. Ben Jones, Amy and Dee Dee Grafius and JB Benna teamed up to carry our backpacks from the Horseshoe Meadows trailhead and traded them for the daypacks we carried that day to Trail Pass. That was the last significant stretch of snow-free miles we would see for many days.

Tuesday was very hard for David. The 30 miles to Tyndall Creek were the least of it. Even on the AT, he had never carried a backpack before and the weight really bothered him. Even though we carried the best lightweight equipment available, generously supplied by GoLite, our pace seemed really slow to him. He is used to running and here we were hiking at half his normal pace on the tough and snowy trail. We often lost the trail in the snow, causing delay as we checked the map and scouted for trail between snow banks. Walking through melting snow is very wet and slippery and we had wet feet for days. But the hardest challenge of the day was right at the end. Crossing Tyndall Creek without a bridge meant fording fast-moving ice water almost crotch-deep. David, who has forded his share of streams on the AT and at Hardrock, was alarmed at how difficult it was. I knew there was worse to come.

Wednesday we hit the toughest terrain yet at Forester Pass. The first major pass in the Sierra is also the highest. At 13,180 feet, it is a real mountaineering challenge in early season snow. It was morning, and the snow was still quite icy. Nevertheless, we hiked right up the steep approach and across the avalanche shoot wearing Kahtoola crampons and using ice axes for self-belay. We came prepared.

At the junction to Kearsarge Pass, we met Amy and Dee Dee Grafius packing in our first food cache. They almost missed us due to the difficult conditions they had to overcome to hike over the pass. After loading up we set off over 11,978-foot Glen Pass, our second of the day. The exhausting 25-mile day ended below tree line at Woods Creek.

Thursday was another two-pass day, 12,130-foot Pinchot and 12,100-foot Mather with another tough ford in between. What we gained from recent experience was more than offset by the utter exhaustion brought on by four major passes in two days. As we descended into the soft snow near Upper Palisade Lake late in the day, our bodies couldn’t handle the strain of post-holing any more. Each step would sink deeply into the snow, sometimes waist-deep. We tried in vain to find a route that took us either over solid snow or open ground. Our shins bled from scraping on the snow and our legs muscles refused to supply the extra energy required to walk safely and catch our weight each time we broke through the rotten snow. The risk of injury was so high that I suggested an early end to the day after just 19 miles. David agreed and noted with alarm that our shortest day had taken over 12 hours!

Friday we hiked over somewhat flatter ground with just one major pass. 11,955-foot Muir Pass has very gradual approaches on both sides requiring no use of crampons or ice axe, but we slogged through deep snow for many miles. The day ended with the toughest ford on the PCT, Evolution Creek. In the chill of early evening, we waded out into chest deep, fast-moving water. More than halfway across, with my trekking poles completely under water and my feet numb from the cold, the current pushed me off balance. I had visions of being swept away, but I recovered with just a few unplanned steps. David also nearly turned into a swimmer, but managed to regain his footing too. We were eager to camp as soon as possible, but we ran another mile trying to get some feeling back into our cold-numbed bodies. It was a 31-mile day.

Saturday June 25th we met JB Benna at the Florence Lake junction. He brought us a day’s worth of food and walked with us most of the way up 10,900-foot Seldon Pass. There was an abundance of snow, but compared to the passes we had already seen, it was nothing. David was so tired of carrying full gear that he changed our support plan on the fly. Using his satellite phone David arranged to stay at Vermillion Valley Resort, 26 miles away plus a few miles off the trail at Edison Lake, and added a resupply stop at Red’s Meadow. JB carried out much of our camping gear, allowing us to travel from there with just day gear.

Sunday we again set out with day gear, this time headed for Red’s Meadow another 30 miles away. 10,900-foot Silver Pass was on the way, but the snow-slogs were much less severe than those we had already done. Of more concern was the navigation challenge of snow-choked trail below tree line. We frequently lost the trail even at lower altitude. This required difficult map and compass work to travel cross-country through steeply wooded terrain. Without camping gear, we had to either complete the daily mileage or freeze overnight. We came very close to running out of daylight before we ran out of snow. But we arrived in Red’s Meadow just before dark, and were greeted by a large group of supporters who had all hiked or biked in to meet us on the still-closed road. Someone found us a cabin and we enjoyed a wonderful hot meal cooked by Brannon Forester as Josh Yeoman, Larry Haak, and Bill Andrews catered to our every need.

Monday, June 27, was yet another very long day to Tuolumne Meadows. The 35-miles took us over our last major pass, 11,056-foot Donohue Pass. With the road now open, we would have full crew support at Tioga Pass Road, so again we took off with day gear. After barely finding our way out of the snow before nightfall the previous night, I carried a sleeping bag, just in case 35 miles was more than we could do. But we arrived well before dark to another large crowd of well-wishers, including a surprise birthday visit from my wife Sophia and my father Roy! Wow, what a thrill that was.

Tuesday we entered northern Yosemite, another rugged and remote section with little chance of resupply, so we carried full backpacking gear once again. The next 77 miles would take us most of three days. That’s a big load of food, and our crew was game, so we arranged to meet Josh Yeoman half-way through even though that would require him to hike a 36-mile round-trip to resupply us. We were not the only ones doing big miles!

Northern Yosemite dished out some of the hardest trekking yet. There were several deep and swift fords. Falls Creek was another chest-deep ford, but the current was slower moving than Evolution Creek. At Piute Creek we crossed on a log to avoid having to swim, but it cost us nonetheless. David slipped on the log and lost a trekking pole.

The combination of steep terrain and ubiquitous snow cover was the worst we had seen yet. Early in the day, the snow was icy, and we longed for the crampons we had jettisoned to save weight. I led, kicking steps as best I could. It felt like we were hanging on by our toenails as we inched our way down steep hillsides and across several miles of side-hill snow along Rancheria Creek in Kerrick Canyon. The far bank was mostly snow-free, but the whitewater was so ferocious we could not find a safe place to ford. A slip would have sent us tumbling into that water.

But the hardest travail of all turned out to be our food supply. At 8,000-feet, where we had agreed to meet Josh, we barely found the trail junction in the snow. Unfortunately, the snow was too much for Josh and we were on our own. Very tired and slow, we hiked the next 26 hours without food, 27 miles toward Sonora Pass. Josh hiked in the last four steep snow-covered miles to meet us Thursday afternoon. I have never tasted a better turkey and cheese sandwich in my whole life!

Overall, this was as tough as any 11-day hike in my life. The trail had more snow than in May of 2001 during my Calendar Triple Crown hike. Successfully completing such an arduous hike is a real joy, but it paled in comparison to the privilege of guiding a bona fide trail running legend over one of my favorite trails in conditions that few people can handle. I am very proud to say that I played a part in David Horton’s latest adventure.

Flyin’ off to Cyprus now for our wedding trip,

Flyin’ Brian Robinson