Taking a Hike: A walk in the Sierra Nevada

Books and, even more, movies put places on the map. Remember how Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods popularized the Appalachian Trail when it was published in 1998? Robert Redford and Nick Nolte then repeated the trick when they ineptly hit the trail for the screen version two years ago. Author Cheryl Strayed and actress Reese Witherspoon did something similar for the Pacific Crest Trail with Wild, the 2012 bestseller that became a 2014 movie.

Now, I did not end up on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at the end of September because of Wild. I ended up on the PCT because a friend was walking its entire length. I know that Dave had read and enjoyed Wild, but Dave is too serious and experienced an adventurer to take off on a trek on the basis of a single piece of literature. I think he stewed on his adventure for a good while. As well he might.

For those unfamiliar with the PCT, it stretches 2,650 miles from southernmost California to northernmost Washington, passing through desert, high mountain and deep forest. A thru-hike takes 5-6 months of relentless trudging and not inconsiderable danger. Dave set off from the Mexican border in April, but in June found the Sierra Nevada impassable with lingering snow and swollen streams. He decided to leave the High Sierra for later and resumed his march farther north and lower down. I followed Dave to Canada via his blog and read of falls, sickness, fatigue, and wildfires; but also of magical moments and breathtaking scenery.

Well before Dave set out, I said I was interested in joining him on his trek for a week or so, and thought that might happen near the end, in Washington. But when he postponed the Sierra until September, tracking him down there became my plan. I wasn’t very confident in the plan. I counted Dave a friend, but we had never hiked together. We had not met in 15 years either, since he returned to his native Australia from Connecticut. I didn’t want to interfere with his freedom by tying him to my civilization-imposed schedule, or delay him with my inevitably slower pace. But in his messages, Dave seemed genuinely to want to hook up, and in August I committed myself to the venture by buying an non-refundable ticket west.        

Dave arrived at the PCT trailhead near South Lake Tahoe just a day later than ideal — quite an achievement given the early snow he had run into in the days before. I met him on the trail, and we drove down to South Lake Tahoe in my rental car. Dave now needed a “zero day” — a day for laundry, buying supplies and ingesting as many calories as possible in the local eateries. I needed none of this, and decided to set out alone the next day. Dave would catch up with me easily. It turned out to be a great decision.

For two days I meandered with the PCT through Desolation Wilderness. It was nothing like hiking in the Northeast. The sun went in only at night. Trees were part of the scene, not a blocking screen. The trail was not composed mainly of rocks and roots, and I broke into a light sweat only on the longest climbs. Bugs seemed an endangered species. This is not to say that the hiking was easy. I was carrying a heavy pack at altitudes between 7,000 and 9,400 feet and my energy drained quickly when the PCT ascended. I hoped to be a little acclimatized by the time Dave caught me up.

Fortuitously, the scenery those first two days was the best of my five-day walk, when I could enjoy it at my acclimatizing pace. The PCT wandered from lake to lake, each turn bringing another snow-dusted, gray-rock peak into view. I camped at a perfect spot — a cliff and crag enveloped pond where the setting and rising sun gave the Sierra trees a magical light. The next morning, I climbed to Dicks Pass, at 9,400 feet almost at eye level with the nearby peaks. Half Moon Lake lay below, deep in a mountain cirque. (More of my photographs can be seen at McWilliams Takes a Hike on Facebook.)

Dave found me, as we had agreed, at camp by Fontanillis Lake. We were 44.5 miles from Donner Pass, our destination, and we both wanted to cover those miles in two and a half days. The scenery was still great, sometimes spectacular, but what I gained from those 44.5 miles was a sense — just a sniff — of what Dave’s life had been for six months. We struck camp in darkness; we walked; we took short breaks; we hit our sleeping bags soon after sundown. I didn’t fall or get sick, but by evening of the fourth day, I knew about fatigue.

And also about magic — sunrise over Lake Tahoe, for sure, but reconnecting with a friend more so. Then, at Donner Pass, Dave and I were given a ride into Truckee by a kind lady and her dog, the four of us squeezed into a small pickup cab. More magic, she took us straight to a burger joint!          


Rob McWilliams is a local resident. Taking a Hike appears monthly. Contact Rob at “McWilliams Takes a Hike,” blog and Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.