The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,650 footpath that runs from Mexico to Canada and passes through Mammoth Lakes. You’ve likely seen hikers walking around town with big backpacks and even bigger appetites. By the time they reach Mammoth hiking northward, they’ve already hiked 900 miles.
One challenging variable in the Sierra is weather, and the PCT hikers you’ve seen walking through town over the last few days all had the collective experience of enduring a blizzard to make it over Muir Pass and arrive in town safely.
Mammoth locals know how quickly the weather can change, and it’s even truer at 11,969 feet, the elevation of Muir Pass. Located in Kings Canyon National Park at mile 838 – there is a shelter made of granite constructed in 1930 by the Sierra Club. It’s colloquially known as the Muir Hut and serves as a refuge for hikers should they need it. Even though fires are banned above 10,000 feet in Kings Canyon National Park, there’s a fireplace inside Muir Hut, complete with a chimney and a mantel for those occasions when choosing warmth trumps obeying fire restriction.
Hikers the morning of the blizzard checked the weather on their Garmins. It read, “Clear skies. 1% chance of rain.” As they approached the summit, some became wary of the gray clouds overhead but trusted the forecast from earlier. Their optimism wasn’t enough to deter Mother Nature.
Outside of Grocery Outlet, a hiker named Sierra had just completed a resupply. She’s from Scotland and was named after the mountains of California. On a previous roadtrip driving through the Sierra, she knew she had to return to hike them one day and discover the beauty that inspired her name. She shared what the experience has been like for her so far, “The trail has been exactly what I expected and nothing like what I expected. I didn’t expect it to empower me as much as it has. I feel like I’m in this transition in life where you start to gain that confidence everyone told you you would get one day. Topping that, I’m starting to believe my body is really incredible. I’m in this happy headspace right now just from seeing the scenery of the Sierra.”
Her experience on the trail was uneventful until the weather surprise. “I was doing pretty good until about six days ago. We were 1.5 miles from summiting Muir Pass. It started to snow a little bit. It was me and one other guy hiking together. He’s from Denmark, I’m from Scotland, so we’ve been in snow on flat ground, but we have no experience with snow in the mountains. Reaching the shelter atop Muir seemed more appealing to us than going back down the mountain to try and pitch a tent in what could be a storm.
In normal circumstances, a mile and a half doesn’t take very long, but it took us two hours to push through the storm and get to the summit. I didn’t feel in immediate danger at the moment, but we were in extreme winds, extreme snow, and we couldn’t see where we were going. The emotions of it caught up with me the next day. I was teary-eyed even though I was safe and warm. Just knowing what we had got ourselves into was daunting. That was the first time I felt scared on the trail. It taught me to respect gray clouds and not go up to 12,000 feet when there’s a potential for snow. We were both terrified, but we stayed calm and kept moving.”
Another hiker, Boop, waiting for her laundry to get done on Wednesday evening, shared what it was like for her to experience the blizzard alone. “I had altitude sickness a few days prior, so I lost the group. I was trying to catch up with them … The storm hit and I hunkered down halfway up the Muir Pass. I was by myself hiking up the pass after the storm in fresh new snow. It was hard to see the trail. I kept post-holing, I was wet from all the snow, and the sun was setting. I hadn’t made it to the top, and I looked around and realized there was nowhere to pitch my tent. I had to keep going. I got to the Muir Shelter right at sunset. I thought, *Well, this is an emergency,* and camped in the shelter that night. It was super windy. It was pretty stressful.”
Sitting next to Boop in the laundromat was a mid-20’s German man called Sensei. His experience in the blizzard was lighthearted despite the challenges it presented. “It was fun. It was a complete white-out. Basically, you couldn’t see the trail at all. It was tough looking at my Garmin watch for the navigation. I was following the trail only from the watch and walking through fresh snowfields.”
In the parking lot of Vons, two women wearing nice but well-worn jackets and shoes that had been abused for hundreds of miles happily carried their fresh groceries on their way to home for the night. Their trail names are Miso and Spicy, and they too had been stuck in the blizzard. Miso was one of the thirteen that escaped the elements in the Muir Shelter. “We were having lunch and it started to snow. We thought it was funny, because where I’m from it doesn’t snow often in summer. First, we were laughing going up Muir Pass. More hikers were stopping around us and pitching tents. I thought, ‘It’s only 2 p.m., if I pitch a tent now, it’ll just be cold, I should go to the shelter on top of Muir Pass.’ Me and two others, we just hiked on. We told each other, ‘if one of us feels unsafe, we’ll turn around together.’ We kept on hiking, and then we couldn’t see any footprints in the snow because of how much snowing was falling. We never felt unsafe. It was really cool. At one point, we realized we couldn’t go back even if we wanted to.”
Carrying all the gear you may need for five months of hiking requires compromises. Sometimes these compromises don’t properly weigh the potential risks of not having a certain item. Leaving behind your favorite book won’t have real world consequences, but improperly preparing for bad weather can be a life or death choice. In The Public House, a hiker called Squirrel Daddy nearly made one of these life-altering choices trying to save weight in his pack. ”I noticed it was overcast. It’s usually blue skies in the Sierras. Eventually, it started to snow. I put on my rain jacket but still had my shorts on. I don’t have wind pants or rain pants or anything like that, so I kept going in the shorts. It got to a point right before a stream crossing where the wind absolutely took over. Eventually, I did turn back and ended up camping two miles before the summit. The tent was getting absolutely blown around with snow.”
He says he’s going to buy some pants.
While talking with Squirrel Daddy, two Dutch hikers walked into the bar with the kind of familiarity only long-term couples have. Oaty, the woman, started speaking to me about the blizzard. She apologized for her “bad English” before talking to me, even though her English was perfect. I found her bubbliness and excitement to talk about her hike contagious. “The blizzard was a nice experience. The way up was very scary. I was lucky that we were able to stay in the shelter with other hikers. When you’re there, everything is okay.” Her husband, Erick, stood next to her and agreed. Oaty then started to explain her trail name. “We eat a lot of oats. We have a bear canister full of oats. When I opened it on the trail, my trail name was born.”
Sierra, Boop, Sensei, Miso, Spicy, Squirrel Daddy, Oaty, and Erick all have their sights set on Canada. Their lighthearted reflections of of the trail and it’s hazards will keep them moving forward without dwelling in the realm of fear and paranoia. No matter how prepared you are, freak accidents and weather happen.
Randy Pausch, an American educator faced with death after a cancer diagnosis, articulated this dichotomy perfectly in his speech, The Last Lecture. “Another way to be prepared is to think negatively. Yes, I’m a great optimist. But, when trying to make a decision, I often think of the worst case scenario. I call it ‘The eaten by wolves factor.’ If I do something, what’s the most terrible thing that could happen? Would I be eaten by wolves? One thing that makes it possible to be an optimist, is if you have a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose. There are a lot of things I don’t worry about, because I have a plan in place if they do.”