Lone Pine to Independence

Feeling better, Exo and I made our way through town and got a partial hitch to our destination. We were left at a road that went directly to Horseshoe Meadows so it would be easy to get a ride here. We sat around and threw rocks waiting along a dusty desert road and jumping up whenever we heard a car. One eventually pulled over and a couple of women got out and offered us a ride. We jumped in and learned that they were doing a 115 mile section of the PCT, so we talked about it for a little bit while we made our way up a winding road into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. When we got to the Horseshoe Meadows campground a thunderstorm rolled in, so Exo and I opted to just stay here for the night rather than climb back up into the mountains during a thunderstorm. We hung out with the women and their family (a sister and two uncles) for the night drinking scotch by a fire.

The next day we hiked up and out of Horseshoe Meadows and ran into something new: People who aren’t hiking the PCT are out here. You didn’t see that in the desert because no one just says “Hey, I’ll just spend a relaxing weekend in the blistering heat with virtually no rewarding views!”.  The views of course exist and are incredible, but you have to work really hard for them. We snickered at how large their packs were and how people were bringing entire campchairs out with them. We’re not used to seeing stuff like that. On our way up we ran into another PCT hiker, and at the top we ran into an entire group and followed them to Chicken Spring Lake, our first alpine lake on the trail. It was so amazing, so we opted to have lunch here wanting so badly to jump in and swim, but the clouds overhead looked ominous so we decided it wasn’t a great idea. Shortly after, a thunderstorm rolled in so we all hunkered down and waited for it to pass by.

Once the storm subsided, we hiked on a little ways passing through lush green meadows and beautiful treelines and camped by a river watching deer run around and graze on the grass. Our camp neighbors expressed concern that we should follow bear canister rules to the T: well away from any tent. The man who approached us was so wide-eyed and freaked out, it was pretty funny. Black bears aren’t a problem in this area, and when they are a problem they’re still not going to get through a bear canister. I still opted to do it to calm him down, and even went the extra mile by wedging it high in a tree. Exo and I laughed our asses off when everyone followed suit and did the same thing.

At some point along the way Exo and I ran into a couple of girls. We were hiking along and making our way down some switchbacks and they were going pretty slowly. We asked politely if we could pass and they simultaneously said “No” and left it at that. We were both shocked, no one does that. Ever. Exo tried to play it nice but I wasn’t happy about it at all. They were trying to block us into conversation. I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation and was about to open my mouth, so I ran off trail to cool down and chill in a meadow for a bit and let them get ahead so I could eventually hike my own pace to catch up with them and miss out on all the wonderful things they had to say. When I caught up, Exo looked at me and stopped walking. The two girls kept on going talking incessantly totally unaware that we’d fallen behind. He looked dead inside and went on a rant about how annoying they were. We took a break in a rocky basin for a good hour to let the girls ahead. We would have just walked around them if we could have, but we were on a narrow ridge and couldn’t do much about it.

We made our way out of the meadows the next day and popped into more rocky granite terrain where we ran into the two women and their family on and off all day (which we dubbed ‘New Friend Group’). Our destination: Crabtree Meadows. Looming above Crabtree lies Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. Most PCT hikers take a sidetrip to climb up it, and we weren’t any different. We could see it in the distance here and there enshrouded in clouds generating its own weather systems. We lost our minds with excitement looking at it. We made our way through a huge basin and dropped down into Crabtree Meadows where we were stunned by an absolutely incredible view of Crabtree Meadows. It was the most beautiful meadow I’d ever seen in my life: tall and lush green grass protected by giant granite walls, marmot and deer everywhere doing their thing. We crossed a river and made our way up the sidetrail to a campground where we’d sleep for the night before going up Mt. Whitney. We ran into a huge group of hikers here who were being extremely loud and obnoxious and did our best to stay clear of them at all costs. Along the way we ran into the two trail blocking girls again and said nothing to them. We stayed behind them at a distance to make sure we didn’t camp near them. We got to another meadow that was absolutely littered with tents and saw the girls head over to the large group of obnoxious hikers. We ‘noped’ the hell out of there, crossed a river, and camped with all the quiet hikers for the night. We set up camp and made a plan for our Whitney summit. We’d get up at 12:30AM and try to catch the sunrise at the top. We’d maybe get a few hours of sleep if we’re lucky.

We got up on time and left camp at 1:00AM hiking through the dark. Exo’s headlamp wasn’t working so I got to lead. Usually I let Exo hike in front of me so he can set the pace, I’m a much more enthusiastic and faster hiker and have a habit of ignoring muscle pain in order to push on. Exo on the other hand is slower and more cautious about listening to his body while he hikes. I got carried away and charged along leaving him behind every once in a while on accident. We got lost in the dark at a few points, and I was relieved that I decided to keep my compass. We found the trail again each time and pressed on totally missing out on the scenery around us. We had to make our way through a large basin before we started our ascent, so it was a bit of a dull hike passing lakes we couldn’t see. We finally started our way up and Exo proclaimed that the elevation was getting to him. We had to take it slower, and we came to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t make it to the top by sunrise. Oh well, we’ll still get a good view regardless. At around 13,000 feet the sun started to rise and turned the scenery around us to a purple, to a light blue, then ignited the granite spires around us in amazing alpenglow. It was at this elevation that I started to feel the effects of the elevation. Just a little nausea and more fatigue than usual.

We slogged our way to the last stretch where we ran into a snowfield. I was elated, I love snow hiking. It also gave me a chance to use my crampons which I was starting to feel like I brought for no reason at all. I clipped them on and pushed directly up the snowfield while Exo made his way meticulously along a footpath already carved in the snow. We met back up below the top and pushed our way up passed a shelter. The summit was crowded, and we ran into another trail friend (Smooth) who told us that the obnoxious hikers were here too, brewing beer in the emergency shelter. I stayed at the very top long enough for some pictures, then made my way down a bit for my own little quiet spot in the rocks. I chose an excellent spot that blocked the incessant wind from beating at me and chilling me to the bone. It was freezing up here, so I put on every layer I owned on and laid down, staring out at the peaks awaiting me in the distance for a couple hours.

We made our way back down making way for all the exhausted hikers making their way up. We were excited to get back down and check out all the things we missed in the morning. It was absolutely beautiful, a large space void of anything but streams, grass, granite, and large alpine lakes full of crystal clear snowmelt and fish. We were enjoying ourselves for a bit until the obnoxious group (which we dubbed “The Party Group”) caught up with us and we noticed an annoying trait about them: we could hear them from a mile away. A literal mile, maybe more. We tried to outhike them but they were catching up. They eventually stopped at the last large lake in the basin to bother some fishermen. As we made our way up a hill, I looked back at them and the last thing I saw from them that day was one of them tearing their shirt off and screaming at absolutely nothing.

We dragged ourselves back to camp. We’d been out for 13 hours that day. I shuffled along and collapsed under a tree by my tent fighting sleep. If I fell asleep now I’d get up too early tomorrow and my sleep schedule would be ruined. Exo went to hang out with the New Friend Group. As I sat there a random dude walked directly through our camp and didn’t say a word to me. I watched him poke at some trees and he eventually asked if he could set up his hammock here. I didn’t have a problem with it, he seemed chill. I talked with him for a while about technical outdoorsy stuff like climbing and such, it’s refreshing to be around another person who’s done more than day-hike. A lot people I talk with on the PCT haven’t done much more than that before they decided to hike from Mexico to Canada oddly enough. He’s not hiking the PCT but the JMT (John Muir Trail), a trail that winds its way through the best parts of the Sierra Nevada range at 200 miles. I hoped I’d run into him again.

Whitney adventure over and some much needed sleep gained, we made our way out. Our rest wouldn’t last long, the trail would be getting much harder from here on out. We’d be going up a mountain pass every day, and we were about to hit our first one: Forester Pass. This is also the more notorious one on the trail given its very narrow and icy nature. We camped just before it in the treeline due to warnings from Rangers of a thunderstorm potentially rolling through. Exo wanted to push on and camp in totally exposed terrain, I protested. I’ve had experience being at elevation in a thunderstorm, he doesn’t know how horrifying it is. We found a nice spot in the trees and Smooth came by to camp with us.

We got up early the next morning and refused to get out of our tents. It’s freezing outside and the will to pack up our sleeping bags just wasn’t there, but eventually we got out and packed up and made our way along the granite littered basin up to Forester Pass where there were waterfalls and streams everywhere. At one point I stopped and went off trail to get a closer look at a waterfall, and when I came back there was a woman talking to Exo. I caught the end of the conversation where she said she was probably going to quit the trail at the next town. I didn’t say much and she pushed on. Exo and I followed shortly after. Before long we were under the little notch in the mountains they proclaim to be a pass and we took a break here. Every once in a while a Marmot would come by and investigate us, hoping for food of some kind. Eventually the New Friend Group came by and hung out with us, but I was starting to get antsy. I really wanted to just get up and over this thing, but I felt like it’d be an hours long ordeal again like Mount Whitney was. I approached Exo and told him I wanted to go up alone at my own pace, I set a time limit of 30 minutes and wanted to see if I could make it.

I left them behind and ran my way up the pass. I felt good and felt like I could make it up by my time goal. At some point along a narrow ridge I tripped on a rock and all I could see as I fell was the ledge and the thousands of feet drop below me, but I landed on the trail. I always leave enough clearance just in case something like this happens, but it was still a little nerve wracking. I laughed it off and pushed on. I eventually came to the more famous part of the pass, a very narrow ribbon going through a large snow chute near the top that becomes extremely icy. I pulled out my ice axe and navigated across with no problems, it wasn’t as bad as it could potentially be which was a little disappointing to be honest. I’m here late in the season and most of the snow is gone unfortunately. I made my way up and waited for Exo at the top. As I did I saw that the girl who came by to talk to Exo was hesitating a bit at the snow chute and seemed nervous about crossing. I watched for a little bit and ultimately decided to make my way back down to help, and as I did I noticed Exo had it covered, and also helped everyone else cross.

At the top, we were a little dismayed to see that the snowfields on the opposite end were pretty much melted. We had planned to glissade down the pass (slide down the snow on your ass) A: For fun, B: It eliminates the need to hike down. But I looked to the left and saw a huge one a bit off-trail. I took off my pack and made my way along the ridge of the mountain which became a little out of my skillset at times becoming more of a solo freeclimb, but I found a safe way for us to cross with our packs on and came back. We pushed along the edge sinking into the snow at times and found a good spot. I went first to show Exo how to stop with an ice axe. I’d never glissaded down something this extreme before and was a little nervous about it, but there wasn’t any turning back at this point.  I sat down on the snow and immediately took off flying down the face. I sat at the bottom and watched Exo take his turn, but he dropped his ice axe halfway through and managed to stop with his feet. I climbed back up to help him out, but he figured it out on his own and zipped by me. I took the opportunity to climb up a bit more and slide down again. Then I climbed up one more time to do it again.  I think I could have done it all day, it was totally exhilarating, I felt so alive after the scramble and flying down the side of this mountain. My gear took a bit of a beating, I’d torn my wind pants and had a few holes in my shirt/backpack.  Woops. We chilled in the sun for a moment to let our gear dry.

We pushed down and ran into that girl again. We talked quite a bit and eventually started hiking together down Forester Pass.  The prospect of another person joining the group was exciting to me. Oddly enough, finding some chill quiet hikers out here is hard sometimes.  I took some tips from her to lighten my pack and we made vague plans to meet up again later on. We pushed down off the mountains and made our way into an awesome basin surrounded by dramatic granite walls and waterfalls, and descended into the ever-awesome Kings Canyon national park area. We were already technically within the boundaries of Kings Canyon, but this is where things were going to get awesome. We made our way down and tried to find a campsite but were constantly being chased out by hoards of mosquitoes. We were getting desperate for a campsite and hiked back and forth all over the place trying to find something. We eventually found one just under 10,000 feet of elevation which meant we could have a fire (the Forest Service bans campfires above 10,000 feet because wood is sparse, letting wood sit to decay is important to the ecosystem). We set up camp and watched the trail for friends to invite them over for the fire – a rare thing for thru hikers. We’re usually too tired at the end of the day to bother with it.

Friends came by, they declined. The girl from earlier today came by and was down for it, and some other hikers we didn’t know came by as well. We stayed up a little too late swapping trail stories and laughing our asses off, nothing beats a good night by a fire on the trail. Exo and I woke up late the next morning and everyone was gone. That’s how it goes out here, under usual circumstances people would get upset thinking “Why didn’t they wait?!”, but on the PCT it’s totally cool and acceptable.  I love that. Today we’d be leaving the trail via Kearsarge Pass, we were looking forward to it discussing all the food we’d eat in town. We made our way up and out of the canyon where we were rewarded with dramatic panoramic views of the range before we hit the pass trail and were granted brief respite from the mosquitoes. The way up Kearsarge Pass dragged on for a little while, hiking off the PCT is always a shock to the system. They way down however was utter torture. The trail wound around in nonsensical directions, and two hours away from the bottom we could see the parking lot. We nearly had an aneurysm getting down. When you’re heading off trail to get into town, you just want to get the hiking for the day over with. You’re thinking about all the things you’re going to do and eat and you can’t stop thinking about it.

We finally got to the bottom and Exo scored us a ride immediately. We got dropped off at a hotel in the town of Independence and I went up to the office to pay for a room. The door was locked and there was a sign saying to knock for service. So I did. When I do, some guy just manifests out of some interdementional tear in time space and starts yelling at me about trying to wake up the owners when they’ve worked so hard today. It was only 3:00PM and I had no fucking way of knowing they were asleep. I’m already on a bad foot with this dude who’s running around acting like he owns the place. We just left and found somewhere else, which was booked. We were down to our last option, and they only had one room left that was like $270 a night. No thanks. But they had a hostel as well that was almost empty, so we opted for that. We entered the Hostel and found Smooth hanging out there along with some other familiar faces. We chilled there for a bit, gorged on Subway, and came back for more chillage. The owners of the Hostel were throwing a BBQ party for the hikers since it was Independence Day totally free of charge and even lit fireworks and stuff for us. It was awesome. Under normal circumstances I’d feel uncomfortable sharing a cramped space with all these people, but I felt so at ease and happy here hanging out with these awesome people.

We stayed there another day and ran into MuffinMan. His hiking partner and girlfriend Pokey had quit and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue on. We talked him into continuing on with us, and had another fun night of hanging out at the hostel. I ran and got fresh pizza from the local coop for everyone and it was probably the best pizza I’ve ever had. Some new faces poured in later in the night but didn’t talk to us at all barring one guy section hiking the PCT.

Independence is a run down town with nothing to do and nothing to eat but some food from the coop and a Subway, but it was probably my favorite trail town so far. I loved it there and had a blast hanging out with people at the hostel. I didn’t want to leave.

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