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Hiking through the Sierra Nevada mountains

After 700 miles through the desert, the scenery changes drastically after the tiny town of Kennedy Meadows (inhabitants: 200)

All of a sudden, the low manzanita bushes turn into towering pines, water is plentiful and rattlesnakes and lizards make way for marmots, chipmunks and black bears. Not that I’ve seen any of that last species yet, alas.

The changes in the landscape also necessitate changes in your equipment. You need less water-carrying capacity, but you do need to add a bear canister, microspikes and an ice axe.

Snow chains for your shoes

Microspikes are like snow chains for my shoes. I’ve had to use them a few times before while crossing the San Jacinto mountain range. They are smaller and lighter versions of crampons that are compatible with my trail runners and for which I don’t need heavy mountaineering boots. The ice axe is to self-arrest should I slip and fall while crossing a steep and snow-covered section of trail. There’s not all that much snow this year, so I might not need them very often, but I’ll carry them nonetheless. Better to have them and not need them, than to need them and not have them, right?

The bear canister is a big and unwieldy plastic canister that every hiker needs to carry while hiking in the Sierras. At night, I need to put everything that has any smell at all into the canister (except for myself). Toothpaste, lip balm, sunscreen lotion, all my food and my trash. Then, I place it somewhere far away from my tent, if possible somewhere downwind from my tent, so a marauding bear will come across the canister before it reaches my tent and spends its night trying to figure out how to open the darn thing.

Bear canister Tetris

Straight at the start of the Sierras, I need to figure out how to fit 7.5 days worth of food into the canister. A tall order!

It sort of feels like I’m playing a game of 3D Tetris (advanced level). The food I’m taking also needs some adjustments. It needs to be compact, have an easily-packable shape and be as calorie-dense as possible. Well, I guess I’ll just have to survive on Snickers for 8 days.

No more room for luxury items or extra snacks, and I need to find another way in which to pack my bag, so everything is arranged around the bear canister.

After trying every other way possible, I figure out that the only way it’ll fit my bag is standing up vertically in the main compartment, near my back. Everything else needs to go under, over, or next to it. As the days progress and the food disappears, room opens up inside the canister and I can cram other items into it. Looking on the bright side: I can also use it as a chair or table during lunch or dinner. Multifunctional, just what every hiker wants. The idea behind the plastic canister is to prevent bears or other wildlife to be able to get to your food. Once bears get onto that easily accessible and consumable, high-calorie food we carry around with us, the temptation to find more will be great, and they might become a danger to people. As they say: ‘A fed bear is a dead bear’.

Besides, I would also be rather cranky if a bear ran away with my food and I’d have to hike out for a few days without any Snickers bars.

While trying to get the hang of it, I repeatedly forget to add small things to the canister at night. The lip balm that is still in my hip pocket, the empty candy wrapper in my trouser pocket. But eventually, I get used to checking everything and I start planning ahead and separating the things that need to go into the canister at night.

Mountain passes and more mountain passes

The intensity of the hike is noticeably higher, as the terrain changes rapidly. Straight away, we need to conquer high mountain passes still covered in a fair amount of snow. The best is to do this early in the day, when the snow is still frozen from the previous night. But sometimes, the planning won’t allow us this luxury and we have to cross a pass in the afternoon. The snow is soft by then because most days are quite warm. Occasionally, I sink into the snow up to my ankles or even knees (post-holing) and my socks and shoes are soaked right through at the end of the day. But there’s only about 50% of the average snowpack this year in the Sierras, so we certainly can’t complain.

Circumstances this year seem ideal to hike the PCT. The snow is melting rapidly, but the rivers we have to cross are not so high as to be dangerous. The biggest inconvenience so far has been the occasional swarm of blood-thirsty mosquitoes that appear with the rising temperatures.

Fire or ice?

I didn’t realize how very different the Sierras could be until I talked to a hiker who hiked this section in 2019, a high snow year, with 200% of the average snowpack. He shows me pictures of Forester Pass, the highest point of the PCT at 13,153 ft., which I just crossed a few days before, but I don’t recognize it. It looks completely different.

The low snow year is convenient for the PCT class of ’22, but less snow also means less water and less water means a higher risk of fires. After hiking for 2.5 months, I’ve still hardly seen any rain. Just a few drops here and there, no more. This means forest fires could become a real concern later on in the trail, and most people from around here seem to assume that’ll certainly happen. That’s how much forest fires are or have become a part of daily life here every summer. It’s hard for me to fathom, coming from a country where forest fires are pretty much non-existent. (also, forests are pretty much non-existent here, so that might explain it)

Getting my trail legs

The number of miles per day in the Sierras is significantly lower than in the last desert section. My bag is heavier, and so is the trail. After Sonora Pass, I’ll be able to get rid of many of the Sierra items, which will lighten the load quite a bit. The mountains will gradually get lower and lower, and it’ll be time to get a move on.

I hope to finish the trail by mid-September and to make that, I’ll have to up my daily mileage considerably in Northern California, Oregon and eventually Washington. Once I get to Sonora Pass, I’ll do the math.

At least by then, I will have gotten my trail legs, I assume. After 1090 miles of dragging my pack through the desert and over mountains, it’ll be about darn time!

Want to know what happened after the Sierras? Click here. And before this? Click here.

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