PCT Day 154 : Switchbacks And Silver Pass

September 5 (~06:45 – ~20:10)
Duck Lake Outlet – Fish Creek (23.5 mi / Total: 872.4 mi)
Total PCT miles: 2482.6
Weather: Overcast, thunder in the morning, then showers and ample grey clouds throughout the day.

After Mammoth, I feel like I’m headed deeper and deeper into the High Sierra – the passes, the moonscapes, the land of rock I’ve seen all those pictures of. I’m excited about going over Silver Pass today, but I have just one worry: the weather.

The forecast warns for showers between 10 and 11 am, and after that there’s a chance of thunderstorms. This means I should really be at the pass by 10, and then I could hurry down if I need to. So I get up early, fumble around in the dark, and set off before most of the other hikers near me. It’s chilly this morning, and thin clouds pass by. I follow the early morning contours of the mountain, and pass all the lakes one by one, all quietly buzzing with people getting ready to start their day.

By now, the mountains glow in the sunlight, and feature as perfect mirror images in the still lake water. I pass by Lake Virginia, surrounded by meadows and the freshest green grass when suddenly the clouds on the other side of the lake thicken, grow a deep grey and lightning strikes. It’s not even 9.

Clearly the weather is on its own agenda, and the forecast was very wrong. I keep walking, knowing I’m descending into a valley before the big climb up to Silver Pass, and I can reassess from there. I move down the switchbacks, and pass two other hikers as they’re putting on their rain gear.

Looking forward to going over the pass, I joke, and I chat with one of them. Where were you planning on going today, he asks, and I tell him, some 23 miles away, and he’s impressed. He’s clearly not a PCT hiker or I would’ve been embarrassed by my low mileage.

I move on, and suddenly heavy rain plummets down. It’s too bad I traded in my Torrentshell rain jacket for a wind breaker, but I do have that two dollar supermarket poncho exactly for purposes like these. So I stop, pull out that blue giant piece of plastic and pull it over my head without trying to suffocate myself. I adjust it so it fits over my pack as well, and then I run.

I run down the mountainside, past another couple hiking south, and watch out for the skies. The clouds are grey, moving fast, and it’s impossible to know what’s going to happen. There’s no thunder, but there may be soon. I cross the bridge over Fish Creek at the bottom and start to go up in the forest on the other side, the very start of the trail to Silver Pass. The rain keeps stopping and starting, and the sky looks so threatening I’m afraid to go too far up, of suddenly going above tree line and getting stuck in thunder and lightning.

So I decide to stop. I climb up the rather steep slope next to the trail, find some rocks to sit on and trees to hide under. I pull the poncho on top of my pack and myself, and hide my head inside, creating a small cave. I sit there, just barely warm enough, watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager while the hikers I just took over all continue their way up, clearly less concerned than me. I stay for what’s probably about an hour, until the rain lessens and I move on as well.

I haven’t heard any thunder since passing Lake Virginia, so I carefully move up the pass, hoping it’s all behind me. It’s 3.5 miles to the highest point, which sits just under 11,000 ft. As I get higher, the trees get sparse and a lake sits at the foot of a wall of rock. The clouds move, change, grey and dark grey, rain and no rain, always in motion. In the colourless weather everything looks dull, and I wonder if this pass is any more splendid in good conditions. I wish I could see it on a better day.

I keep going further up, the trail easy but the weather threatening. Suddenly the rain and wind pick up, and I find a significant flaw to my supermarket poncho: a gust hits it from the backside and the entire thing gets blown upwards, right against the back of my head, and I can’t pull it down over my pack again, everything wet and clinging to each other, and then the hood gets blown backwards the same way. It’s raining harder now and I’m getting closer to the pass, widespread views everywhere, and the weather is just getting worse. I figure it’s probably best to hide underneath one of the last trees here so I organise myself, and stand there, waiting for a little while.

When the rain lessens once again I make a go for the pass. I’m a little worried for the thick grey clouds but I can’t stay under these trees forever. I tell myself these aren’t storm clouds, I’m sure of it. It’s just rain. I make sure my poncho covers everything and steadily ascend all the rocks until I’m on top and then I’m on the other side, looking out over the drawn out descend, everything miserable on top and hazy and white in the far distance, and I’m ready for the long way down.

I begin the descend in the rain, and just as I cross a large meadow below the pass, the weather changes. The sun comes out and shines on me while I sit on a rock for a few moments. I get lower and lower, there are more meadows, more boulders, and then I hit a steep descend made of switchbacks carved into the granite mountainside that I heard were terrifying in the snow. I can only imagine – this would’ve been a near vertical wall.

As I head down I can see a river cascading down smooth rock a little further on, and the mountains here are just made of multiple platforms of rock and it just doesn’t end. Trees are scattered all over and I wonder how this rock can even support life, how do these trees exist?

When I get to the bottom I find myself in a forest again. I hide from a batch of hail and rain for another moment, and then I keep on moving, following this river down, and then I pass a tentsite and everyone is either already inside their tents or busy setting them up, and it’s not even 4. I guess most JMT hikers are only doing about 15 miles a day, and I’m jealous. Today’s been pretty miserable with the weather, and I wish I could stop, but I know that instead I’ll be walking until dark.

There’s one more hill I want to get on the other side of, and I climb up the hellish steep switchbacks for some 3 miles, and never even reach any views. Moreover, I keep kicking wet sand and gravel in my own shoes which is increasingly frustrating, and my lower leg really hurts – it’s the downhill that does it. The land flattens out at the top but I’m still in an ordinary forest, and the weather is just murky now, drab and colourless. It makes this all feel like more of a task, getting through this terrain, climbing over these mountains. There’s no joy today.

To make it all worse, Guthook comments mention some cell phone service on top of this mountain, and I’m desperate to check a few things, especially since I won’t have signal again until I reach the next town. Apparently, a side trail called Bear Ridge has service, and I fruitlessly run down it for a few minutes, but I get nothing. Then I rush down to several campsites with amazing views along the mountainside but again, no service. I have to give up.

I continue my way down and decide to find a campsite and water. I fill up at one of the many streams, hold the heavy soft water pouch in my arms, and scout the place for suitable tentsites as it’s getting dark. I keep seeing flat spots but they’re just a little too exposed, and it makes me feel uncomfortable in case of bad weather returning tonight. If not that, the sites are too close to the trail, which is frustrating – all these impacted sites in spots that are actually against national park guidelines. I end up walking in the dark, in and out of small forests until I spot something next to the trail, a little higher up on the mountainside, and that’s it. Home.

One thought on “PCT Day 154 : Switchbacks And Silver Pass

  1. I continue to be impressed with your dedication to take these gorgeous photos! These days sound so long and difficult and I imagine the extra energy and time it took to set these up. You’d better write a book!


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