Tracks in the snow

7605F389-67EB-4D67-B734-99621B6C4469_1_105_c.jpegIt was pouring the morning we were supposed to leave Mammoth Lakes and hike into the section with the highest passes on the Pacific Crest Trail.

We looked out the window — dark clouds hung in the sky. Rain cascaded off the eaves of the hotel.

I felt a mix of anticipation and anxiety. The forecast called for snow and freezing temperatures.

Why hike? I wondered. We could just stay in town and wait out the storm in a warm hotel room.

I put the thought out of my head. We got a ride out of Mammoth Lakes from an employee of the ski resort. He had worked at the resort for years and graciously agreed to drive us up to the trailhead. We stocked up in Mammoth Lakes on gear to help us get through.

We were leaving town with wind blowing in our faces. Clouds passed overhead. Rain or snow — something was coming our way. I felt as if we were racing it.

We hiked through a burn area that we remembered going on “forever” while hiking the John Muir Trail in 2015.

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We hiked past a place I remember camping in 2015. On that trip we often made camp before nightfall. On the PCT, we’re lucky to make camp before dusk.

Just as night fell, we set up the tent near a creek. We looked for a sheltered spot, protected from the storm brewing overhead.

As we climbed into our sleeping bags, the first wispy snowflakes were just beginning to fall. Another couple of hikers had made a campfire. The flames cast an amber glow against the boulders. It looked warm, but my quilt seemed even more inviting.

In Mammoth Lakes, we bought Nalgene bottles for just such an occasion. We boiled water and poured it into the hard plastic bottles. Then we put the bottles in our sleeping quilt. They warmed up the quilts and the quilts kept the heat in.

Initially the snow was light. It wasn’t even sticking, but around 10 pm it began to collect. I woke up with a start to the sound of Jake hitting the sides of the tent with his hand. Snow was weighing the tent down. I helped, smacking the walls until sleepiness overtook me again.

We’ve been through so many storms, I thought to myself. No reason to worry yet.

With that, I cinched up my sleeping quilt and fell asleep.

In the morning, I was aware of the cold first: the wet, but not saturated, feeling of a snowy morning. My Nalgene was only lukewarm. I looked at the sides of the tent. There was only a little more snow than the night before. Outside only an inch or two had accumulated.

We heated the water from the Nalgenes for coffee and oatmeal. The lukewarm water warmed up faster than frozen water would have. But it still took time. We were in no rush. Fresh snow covered the trail, making it harder to find. It would be easier if other hikers went first. Then we could follow their footprints.

We had other chores to do anyway. I bundled up in my down jacket to walk down to the creek to collect water. Little snow drifts had collected around boulders at the tentsite. My shoes left distinctive prints in the fluff outside.

Thick ice lined the creek. I plunged the water bladders into the water and carried them back to the tent. Then I climbed into my sleeping quilt to filter. After squeezing the nearly freezing water bladder in order to filter the water into a bottle, I buried my hands in my quilt to warm them up again.

We shook the moisture from the outside of the tent as we packed up. As we folded and rolled, a brown square of dirt and pine needles was revealed where the tent had been — the only visible dirt in all directions.

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Finally we loaded up our packs and got moving. As our footsteps met the trail, we saw the footprints of other hikers who had hit the trail earlier that morning.

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Among them we saw another set of tracks. At first it seemed like someone was hiking barefoot. Then it dawned on us. They were bear prints. They looked fairly fresh. We looked around.

The snow made everything seem very quiet. There was no rustling in the bushes. There was no furry snout through the trees. There wasn’t even the cracking sound of a twig. There were only bear prints going the same direction we were. So we followed the trail. Every time I thought the bear prints had disappeared, they would reappear again. We never saw that bear. I know we are supposed to be afraid of them — those stronger beings with sharper teeth. But I took comfort in the thought that we were sharing the trail for at least a mile or two.

 

Author: jenonthetrail

Jen is from Washington state between Seattle and the Canadian border. She grew up hiking in the North Cascades with her family. She went on her first backpacking trip at about 12 years old with her dad and brother. Jen is returning after seven years in Mexico City to the US to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s looking forward to mountain meadows and Cheez-it crackers.

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