May 12 (~07:55 – ~15:20)
Lower Echo Lake – Susie Lake (8.6 mi / Total: 1101.6 mi)
Total PCT miles: 713.8
Weather: Cold in the morning, hot during the day. The sun is strong on the snow. In the afternoon the sky goes grey and it begins to thunder. It clears up later in the day, after we’ve set up our tents.
We wake up on the jetty. It’s cold. Freezing cold. The sun hit us until late last night, which means we’re now on the wrong side of the lake to catch the early morning sun – it’s still deeply hidden behind the hills and the trees behind us. There’s frost on our quilts, and my shoes and socks are still wet from yesterday. The water on the lake has frozen over. We all take too long to get ready and head off separately, immediately after finishing packing up – our feet are blocks of ice already and it’s too cold in the shade to wait around.
When I’m ready I climb back up to the trail and sidle through the snow blanketed hillside, towards the first glimpses of sun. My feet are in pain, the icy shoes gruelling first thing in the morning. I find Speedy and Prince next to the trail, shoes and socks off, revelling in the first opportunity of sun. It feels so much better, instantly. Regardless of the amounts of snow, the sun is bound to get hot today.
We decide the snow isn’t dangerous and there’s no need to stick together today. I’m happy, Speedy and Prince go off and I follow the few footsteps marking the snow. People have been walking to some of the cabins, but soon enough they thin out. I loose Speedy and Prince’s footsteps, and I walk alongside the cabins, making my own route through the fresh snow at a lower elevation than the trail, meandering back and forth, skirting Echo Lake.
It’s a slow progress, I think I navigate in the right direction, and only a few minutes later I realise I’ve gone wrong. I get close to a small river and find my first giant paw prints – a bear, undoubtedly. Suddenly I feel less secure about walking on my own here, and I speed up a little, traversing the whitest, never ending snow fields in the bright sun.
It takes all morning to walk the 5 miles to Lake Aloha, where we were supposed to camp last night – we clearly would’ve never made it. I find Speedy and Prince on a collection of huge rocks, drying out their sleeping bags and I join them, spreading out my own damp quilt, and take off my shoes to dry in the sun. The lake on the other side is entirely covered in snow, except for a small patch of clear light blue water. It’s a marvellous sight, but it makes me wonder how much more beautiful this would be without most of it covered by all the snow.
With our slow progress we wonder where we should aim to get to today. Speedy and Prince want to get to the other side of Dicks Pass, a short but steep climb up and down, which would add another 10 miles to our day. We’ve only managed to cover 5 miles this morning, and I fear it’s not the most realistic goal. It may be better to aim for another 5 miles, and camp just before the pass. A 10 mile day is soul-destroying, but there’s not much we can do. We skipped the Sierras to get out of the snow but we’re still in it – although at least we are in lower elevations trying to get through. We are the first ones in this new snow and we’re trailblazing, it’s a time-consuming slog.
When I’m ready to leave I follow Speedy and Prince’s fresh footsteps. The sky behind me has gone a dark grey, but I’m still walking in the blinding sun with snow that reflects so bright I have to squint my eyes to get across. I move towards mountains covered in rock with snow drifts so big I’m relieved I have footsteps to follow down the sheer drops. I’m happy I have all afternoon for the next 5 miles, and enjoy the cooling weather, until I hear thunder.
The grey sky has intensified, and I’m literally hiking on the cusp of a swiftly approaching storm. The thunder is closing in, and I’m here in the snow, all alone. All I can think is, GO GO GO and I hurry down the trail, terrified. I try to run but it’s impossible in the snow and my legs are so, so tired. Now and again I cross a small snowfree area around some trees and loose the way, nervously looking out for footsteps hiding in the distant snow.
Finally I find Speedy and Prince, camped just a mile before the start of the mountain, right next to Susie Lake. Phew. I cross a snow bridge and join them, eternally grateful I’m not on my own in a thunderstorm. It hasn’t helped my mood though – I’m rushed and tired and frustrated because of the snow and the thunder and being back on trail in these conditions. It’s windy and the ground is too rocky to get my stakes in. Speedy has to help me collect rocks to keep my tent safe and then I hide inside.
Just a few hours later the storm has passed. We never got the full brunt of it, and I’m happy I won’t be experiencing a terrifying night in my tent. I wonder how long this snow will last. Another day? Another week? I close my eyes, hoping for a better day tomorrow, when my eyes begin to burn. Almost immediately it gets worse – I can’t close my eyes because it’s too painful, I can’t blink because it’s too painful, and I can’t keep them open because it’s too painful. Tears burst out and cripple me with even more pain. I can’t lie down so I try and hunch forward – I can’t do anything anymore, and it just gets worse.
I realise I’ve burnt my eyes in the snow, and I’ve burnt them badly. I spend the night crying out in agony, and ready myself for the early morning, when I plan on pressing the SOS button on my emergency device.