August 18 (~06:45 – ~20:50)
Before Mount Etna – before Sierra City (31.9 mi / Total: 1198.7 mi)
Total PCT miles: 2168.9
Weather: Still very warm in the sun but overall cooler with some fresh wind.
It’s windy and cool when I wake up, which is a welcome change. I see the sky colour through the tent, but I don’t open up like I should, and I miss out on the morning spectacle. When I go outside I see there’s a tentsite just on the other side of the tree – perfectly flattened with a little wall built around it to break the wind. The spot I used isn’t actually a site, and I find it hilarious I didn’t spot that in the dark last night, although I do like my little site wedged between a rock and a barren plant, affectionately concealed by the tree.
I do need to get going. Yesterday I went online during an odd moment of faint signal and paid for a permit that allows an overnight stay in the Desolation Wilderness, which I pass through the day before I reach South Lake Tahoe, which marks the end (or beginning) of the Northern California section. It seems to be the only area PCT hikers need to book an overnight stay for, as our long distance permit covers everything else. I also booked a hotel in South Lake Tahoe, and I now need to do four 30 mile days, which is somewhat daunting. But I have no choice. I’ve planned two luxury zeros in South Lake Tahoe, and I’ll be there on a Thursday and a Friday – it’ll be too expensive to be there on two weekend days. To think that for a while I even hoped I could get there sooner – but with all the time spent resupplying in towns, this is certainly not happening.
When I set off I notice I feel much better than I did yesterday. I’d spent the entire day hiking uphill, and hiking in a forest with pretty much no views, and now I’m at a higher elevation, with huge panoramas all around me. It’s energising. There are still quite a few ups and downs today – mostly ups, of course, but I decide not to look at the elevation chart too much, and it helps. I’m not dreading the trail ahead of time so much.
First I move through that Northern Californian forest that always appears a little messy, then I pass those outcrops of rock high above. I meet another southbound hiker who’s a little older and on a ‘mop up’ trip, as he calls it. He’s finishing sections he couldn’t do because of the fires last year, and then he’ll do the same for the Continental Divide Trail. When he finishes he’ll have two ‘Triple Crowns’ under his belt, meaning he’s hiked all of the USA’s biggest trails (AT, PCT and CDT) twice. It’s an impressive feat. I see him quite a bit throughout the day – he walks slowly, but he doesn’t seem to take any breaks, so he passes me during my two long ones, and then I catch up to him again when I get going.
When I get higher the landscape changes. I take my first break against a hillside, close to all those yellow flowers with the large leafs that grow everywhere, but when I continue I realise I should’ve waited and taken my break after the big change – when suddenly the landscape shifts, and it’s all rock with blue alpine lakes, sporadic trees and those low bushes and it’s reminding me that I’m getting close to the Sierras. In fact, I’m technically already in the Sierra Nevada, just not the High Sierra, I guess. There’s so much going on and the path wiggles around all of it, and it’s splendid. I can’t wait for the real Sierras to start.
Annoyingly though, I get stuck right ahead of some weekend hikers for the prettiest bits, and I can’t take all the pictures I want – I have no time to wait for solitude either, I have such a long day ahead of me. It’s frustrating, and I find myself getting more annoyed with the people around me – I don’t see many thruhikers and a lot of others don’t know trail etiquette, or they don’t know that the correct response to ‘hi’ is a reciprocal ‘hi’ and not silence, which will forever baffle me. Then, as I get closer to Pack Saddle campground I find the entire area littered with dirt roads. Nature dissected into tiny pieces to make it more accessible to the masses – turning it into an amusement park, really. When I move up the switchbacks and look down at the Tamarack Lakes all I see are the dirt roads crisscrossing in front of it. It’s such a shame.
It’s 6 pm now, and I’m looking at my last uphill of the day. It’s 4 miles of constant upwards, and then just a gradual downhill to get to my intended campsite, which should be somewhere exposed along a mountain ridge. I begin the way up, slowly and steadily and surprisingly progressing well. When I reach the top, the long sidle begins down the other side of the Sierra Buttes.
It’s green here, green and bare with low bushes and lots of switchbacks. I follow the path, everything descending now, and I feel like I should make good time but I’m wrong, 5 miles is a long way, and the trail is endless. I watch the sunlight slowly disappear and the skies turn pink, and it’s only 8:15 when it’s gone too dark and I take out my headlamp and turn it on. I hurry. Now the trail is made of loose sharp rock and I need to balance, now and again I’m propelled forward when I trip and I have to save myself, and the path takes a lot longer than it should. 2.3 miles to go, and I pass the last water source where I fill up my bottles from water streaming down smooth rocks next to the trail. It’s getting chilly now. 0.9 miles to go, but it takes forever. 0.3, everything around me has turned to rock, and I look down on the little lights from the houses down in Sierra City, and I’m so alone up here. I can’t see anything now, it’s pitch black dark and my headlamp only illuminates the path just ahead of me. Then, at last, the trail flattens and widens and I shine my headlight side to side – there it is. Two spots with small rock walls beside them, to break the wind. I pick the one next to a tree. It’s 8:45. That was thirty minutes in the dark, and it felt so much longer.