In 2011, I started hiking too early given the record high snowfall, but in 2012, a careful study of snow levels showed that a trip in Sequoia/King’s Canyon on Memorial Day weekend was within reach. C and I rested well during the so-called off season and we had some new gear to test: two larger packs, a bear canister, and a tent. As the day approached, the forecast indicated a sprinkle of snow that would probably happen on Thursday and continue on Friday. But Thursday came and the updated report announced snow for Friday, then for Friday evening and Saturday morning.
I tend to be wary during the border season because of the possibility of being snowed in but this time C and I accepted the risk. Saturday morning dawned bleak and cloudy with a few inches of snow on the ground while the gray skies continued to sift more flakes downward. I was amused because even then, a line formed outside the ranger station right at opening hour. I was nervous and afraid that everyone would grab the trail we wanted but as it turns out, nobody was headed our way, at least not starting today. Our issuing ranger expressed some doubt about our destination but reassured us that any campsite before then would be fine as well. The blackboard promised the snow would stop this morning, so we headed up the trail in high spirits.
Not more than half a mile up, C and I tossed our microspikes into our packs with frustration, since they grabbed the fresh snow and never let go, making the bottoms of our shoes clumpy and heavy. The trail was moderate and quite wooded, so the hiking was manageable, although I had trouble with navigation. C had a knack for following reasonable contours, spotting cut trees and prominent waterbars, which almost always led us in the right direction. The first water crossing felt awkward for both of us and we struggled not to slip on snowy rocks, not being used to so much weight in our packs (an estimated 40-50 pounds). At the second major crossing, I was not so lucky–not only did I not cross the correct branch of the creek, but I also stumbled into the frigid water, landing on my side and soaking my clothes and part of my pack. Clearly my usual part agile, part clumy self was now entirely clumsy. To get rid of some of the weight, we took a lunch break, eating two bagel sandwiches each, with prosciutto and swiss, and strangely, we both had trouble finishing the food and felt like it had no flavor.
As we started up again, C felt significantly more tired. Sometimes taking a break can do that, you get into a rhythm that you somehow lose and never find again. I offered to carry the cursed bagels and cheese and some more water, all things that weighed a lot more than they were worth. At this point, a couple on a dayhikers passed us, carrying only a small camelbak each. C remarked, “You know it doesn’t feel good to be in this position, usually we are the ones feeling sorry for other people who have to carry heavy packs.” I nodded, feeling warm with envy, as I kept on their tail. While they were not hiking incredibly fast, it was quite an effort to keep up, and I’ll admit to being relieved when they reached their destination, a pretty little waterslide of a waterfall. We took their photo and they headed back to the trailhead.
C felt uneasy and said, “Maybe we should turn back as well.” We eyed the swirling white flakes with a sense of weariness–the snow had been falling since we began and would only stop for a few minutes before resuming. Would it ever stop snowing?
“Let’s get to the first lake and see.” I replied, wanting to see how far we could push it. Now the trail became rockier and steeper, throwing a few switchbacks before the lake finally came into view. A man camping there greeted us, but it looked quite unoccupied otherwise. We discovered that the footprints near the failed creek crossing were his, so if we wanted to go farther, we were on our own now. C and I checked the time, 3 PM, not late enough to set up camp, so we aimed for the pass, which rose another thousand feet above this basin.
Half a foot of snow covered the trail but it was easy to find, since we now rose above the forest, zigzagging along steep terrain. I gave up counting the switchbacks after a while. C paused every few minutes, barely able to walk under the combination of heavy load and estimated pitches of 20% grade trail, while I audibly protested my growing shoulder pains. Rocks along the trail hung heavy with their decorative icicles and a creeping fog swept the basin below us, shrouding the white and green and blue with gray blur. Despite the pain, this was a beautiful scene, I reminded myself, as I dragged my legs up and tried my best not to imagine my shoulder blades glowing from the friction and bouncing.
Snow started falling harder, but before we could worry, a group of four came down from the pass, citing their original plans to stay in the backcountry for a few more days but deciding to bail out because of the weather. We would have fresh prints to reference on the other side, so I urged us to go a bit faster, although I feel I could not have gone faster anyway. By the time we reached the top of the pass, it was nearly 5 and it had stopped snowing, so we breathed relief and bounded down the slippery backside. We both doubted we could get to our designated lake, so we had a couple to choose between.
At what looked like a bowl that would lead to one lake, I rounded a corner to see how far we were, but a couple minutes later, I reached an icy ledge that revealed the lake was still hundreds of feet below and over half a mile away. I shouted to C that we should continue to follow the prints. I shouted again, this time as loudly as I could. No reply. I blew my whistle while I covered my ears. I sprinted back as quickly as someone with a full pack could sprint. C said solemnly, “I never heard anything.”
After that, we resolved to not separate in the slightest, trying our best to follow what might have been the trail. We reached a sign that indicated the lake was close and we reached the shore just before 7. I pointed to an arbitrary flat spot and deemed it our campsite and immediately threw down the pack and rolled on the ground, putting out the fire that burned my shoulders and legs.
C and I gnawed on some fruit leathers and the lightheadedness that came from altitude and hunger subsided. I may have spent half an hour just rejoicing in no longer having to wear the backpack before I set up the rod for some brief fishing. This evening all was still on the front and what looked like small rises were just waterbugs surfacing for quick air. I had the nagging feeling that the lake was barren but it grew too chilly to find out definitively, so C and I kicked a square of exposed dirt big enough for the tent and gathered some firewood. I hurled a stone at several pieces of deadfall, effectively chopping enough for two evenings. We had no cooking to do, so C and I grabbed enough sandwich material and granola for our dinner and I stuck the bear canister a hundred paces from our camp.
The fire was dangerous, drawing us in closer with its radiant heat, but it didn’t offer the insulative warmth we needed and we should have gone into the tent right after eating. We did finally climb in after the twilight had mostly gone. C was becoming hypothermic, shivering violently and starting to panic.
“I can’t feel my feet!” C shook the entire tent.
“Okay, we’re going to be fine, let’s get into the sleeping bags.” Mine was rated for 20 F and C’s may have been good for 0 F. I was not clear if these were comfort ratings or survival ratings, as I uneasily tried to settle in, hearing the undeniable soft pittering of snow falling on the tent and feeling the temperatures drop into the 20s. I convinced us that this was just snow billowing off the surrounding pines, although I couldn’t muster the will to see for certain. I noticed I still had a whole Toblerone bar in my pocket. We had to eat this or risk becoming bear fodder. I swung the bar against my thigh, breaking off a third and commanded C to eat it, while I stuck the rest in my mouth, and twisted off a piece. Bitter chalk crumbled and melted into drying brown paint speckled with wood chips. I gagged but forced myself to swallow it. C dutifully consumed the dark almond chocolate but refused to have more.
“Just eat it!” I was growing angry with concern. A calorie is a unit of heat energy, and heat is what the body needs to get through cold weather like this. Don’t eat and you die. C didn’t budge so I sighed and ate the rest. It was too quiet in the tent, C was drifting into a weary sleep.
“Talk to me,” I shook C with my free arm. I considered wrapping myself against C to share body heat but our bags are entirely different and more body heat would be lost that way. C was better off in a small enclosed bag alone. Still, I tried to scoot as close as possible to C’s right side, throwing down our bags against C’s left side to block the cold air from outside.
“Talk…about…what is there to talk about?” C was giving into exhaustion.
“How are you feeling? Are you warm?”
“So cold, I can’t feel warm, I can’t…”
Despite my best efforts to spur a conversation, I listened as C’s ragged, nervous exhalations slowed in cadence, dropped in pitch from high and frantic to measured and deep, peaceful. Right? Not in danger. Still I could not sleep, periodically holding my breath for up to a minute to make sure C’s breathing was regular and normal. When the sun hit the tent at around 6, I felt we were finally safe and fell into a deep sleep until 9.
We didn’t leave the tent until it was almost 10 AM, an incredibly leisurely day. C didn’t carry a pack and I took the absolute minimum. The air remained cold and crisp like the previous day but sunlight made the same scene more hopeful and gentle. Our map was outdated so it showed significant distance to our destination, motivating me to find a shortcut. However, I once again ended up on a steep rocky outcropping with no lake in sight and I had no desire to descend icy slabs. We backtracked and found the trail, which turned out milder than I expected. Right as I started to struggle with staying on it, we ran into a group that headed the opposite direction. The day looked to be much better now. A gentle descent turned into a gentle ascent until we reached the shore of a half forested, half granitoid lake, shimmering with promise.
I saw someone on the slabs but by the time we rounded the lake, he had gone elsewhere. I had just started to feel bad for crowding him out when I noticed ample surface feeding from half a dozen brookies. All methods of fishing produced equal interest, including sloppily hurling a spinner from the fly rod, which we ultimately deemed strange yet effective. I admit we did not have to harvest any trout for food but even thinking about sandwiches made us lose our appetite, so we took about 7 total. One not very bright brookie willingly slurped down my alimony fly, swayed confusedly after release, and went straight for C’s black ant, staggering again after another release. It almost went for my fly again, but I pulled it out of the way. We thought there was something off about this one, and maybe we should eat it before it suffers a worse fate but somehow it disappeared after that.
C and I stretched our incredibly sore muscles against the warm, sloping rock as we listened to shattering ice echo from peaks above. As the snow melted and slid into the ground, so did the tangles of uneasiness in our minds. Too soon, we had to return to camp, which was now a world apart with its tattered patches of white. Campfire roasted fish vanished immediately, tasting so much better than sandwiches, warm and tender, wrapped in a rich skin layer with just a hint of piney bitterness.
Careful not to hover around the fire too long, we headed to bed early.
Day three was yet another world apart from the previous days, and as the sun torched the tent, I felt the distinct buzz of warmth. Better get going or today may be too hot to tolerate. C and I made slow progress back up the pass, again amazed by how little snow remained. At the first lake, I took a fishing break, catching brook trout that were arguably just as big as the ones we ate. C noticed mosquitoes starting to awaken, so we didn’t stay long.
Now without the snow, the trail unfurled in a series of gentle curves, looking picturesque along every stretch, making it hard to believe we were simply retracing our steps. A solemn, harsh beauty transformed nearly overnight into saturated spring, glowing with hope, having finally thrown off the last cloak of winter.
By the time we reached the road, we were dripping with sweat in the middle of a hot day. I volunteered to run to the car and pick C up, shortening our time under the packs. After I returned, we downed a heavy pale ale each and I wasted half an hour sloppily casting to picky trout in the river while reckless parents and children splashed around along the banks. When we determined we were good to drive, we had some pizza at an infamous restaurant just outside the park. The trip was not quite what we had hoped but it was an incredible learning experience.