PCT Day 51: Birthday in the Sierras

June 8, 2022

Tyndall Creek at mile 774.7 to campsite on Kearsarge Pass Trail 0.4 miles from junction at PCT mile ~789.1

14.4 PCT miles

0.4 non-PCT miles

Every day on the PCT, Jumbo says at least once: “I love this trail.” It usually happens at a particularly beautiful viewpoint, or when things are going well, or maybe when there’s trail magic or a good sunset or simply the feeling of being together experiencing something profound. “You have to say it every day,” he insists. It’s infectious. It reminds me that every day out here is a gift that is spilling over with things so few people get to see, with moments that matter, with friends who make your world and share everything with you: the beauty and the challenges and the days you’ll never forget.

So here it is for today: I love this trail.

Today I wake up before my alarm. I have two problems: my sleeping pad has gone partially deflated during the night (which has been happening more recently), and I have to pee. 4:45 is simply too early to deal with both, so I opt to fix the sleeping pad. I go back to sleep and then wake up with my alarm at 5:05, snooze it, and wake up again. Then I think: are those footsteps outside my tent? Nah, it’s just the wind rustling my doors around. I go back to sleep again. The next time I wake up, I definitely hear footsteps. Then I hear Jumbo’s voice: “Happy birthday, Passport. Pretend to be asleep for a little while longer.” I grin, still tucked within my quilt. I see what’s happening now.

I get out of my tent and inspect Jumbo’s work. My Duplex is completely covered in decorations: a “happy birthday” banner, colorful paper flags on a ribbon, little twirly shiny plastic thingies. “Oh my god,” I say, laughing. I run over to him. He hugs me, tells me happy birthday, and then hands me a card. It’s one of those pop-up ones with a scene in the middle, and this one has, appropriately, pine trees, deer, tents, a camper, and all sorts of other little crunchy woodland things. So many people have signed it: Pants (yep, still weird), Beetle, Catless, and Jumbo, obviously, but also the Belgians, Ishay, and the step-tramily—basically everyone who was at Kennedy Meadows with us. I’m mildly shocked that this doesn’t make me bawl my eyes out. I thought I was good at birthdays. James is next-level.

I eventually collect myself enough to pack up. It takes me a long time to extricate my tent from the strings and ribbons, but when I finally do, I save some of them and put them on the front of my pack. By the time I’ve done that, eaten breakfast, brushed my teeth, and finally gone for that pee I was putting off since 4:45, only Jumbo and I are left at camp. Ishay came by and got his crown, and the Belgians shouted happy birthday as they hiked out, but now everyone has left. We boogie out and into the meadow that will take us to Forester Pass. Time for the most epic birthday ever!

The morning is surprisingly hot. We catch up with Catless after he sheds his puffy, and then the three of us walk together towards this infamous pass, the highest point on the PCT. I remember it clearly from the JMT, and I know from experience that it is far from the hardest of the passes and that we will have plenty of time to get up and over it before lunch. We start out fast, then slow down as Jumbo starts to wilt in the blazing sun. Despite the heat, there are snow fields everywhere that we have to navigate, which mostly involves going off-trail until we find the PCT again.

The first part of the approach to Forester is super gradual, going through meadowy creek land and then entering rockier terrain up on a plateau. We slow down as the trail gets steeper and the elevation increases. We cross over more creeks and pass by crystal-clear mountain ponds. At one of them, Jumbo and Catless decide to have a rock-skipping sesh. Both of them are very impressive at this particular skill; Jumbo manages to skip one all the way across to the other side.

At the crossing of Tyndall Creek just below the Forester switchbacks, we take a break for water and pack decorating. The gold paper crowns that Jumbo ordered are apparently too big for both his and Catless’s heads, so we have to do some surgery with Leukotape before they can wear them. They also put some of the shiny twirly decorations and some paper pompoms on their pack. There we go. Now the tramily is appropriately decked out and we can start the climb.

The altitude hits me again on this pass, and I have to take it slow. It gives me an opportunity to look back into the snowy, lake-studded basin we just came from and the craggy mountains in the distance. It’s just as unreal as the first time I was here. I can’t wrap my head around the existence of these mountains. They are so towering, so beautiful and imposing. As I walk up, I think about how lucky I am to be here and how epic it is to celebrate another trip around the sun by climbing the highest point on this long, special trail.

Just like I remembered, the pass is not all that difficult. The snow chute that everyone talks about is virtually nonexistent. The switchbacks end quickly. And then the three of us are walking over the top of the pass, I’m smelling sky pilot, and we’re seeing the famous metal sign telling us that we made it. Woo hoo! First pass of the Sierras!

We take tons of photos in various configurations with the sign and with the views. Obviously, I’m wearing my IT’S MY BIRTHDAY crown that Jumbo got for me, which requires many shots, but I also take photos with my glorious handmade crown that I scavenged from the Kennedy hiker box. We talk with a JMT hiker named Ko-J (or maybe Kojay? KOJ? He said it’s “like OJ, but with a K”), who takes a photo of the four of us. I only find one little sky pilot blooming, but I am so excited to see them again here on this pass that I don’t mind the small showing. I take photos of them, put my pack on again, and then we start the descent.

There’s snow, but it’s nowhere near what it was like the last time I was on Forester. Most of it is easily navigable or even avoidable. We take it slow, trying not to posthole and using our heels to cut in steps. It’s pretty straightforward, despite a few slippy sections, and soon we’re walking towards a picturesque alpine lake with a bit of ice still lingering in the middle.

I was planning to go farther before taking my special birthday lunch, but it’s almost noon, Trash Balloon is here, and the lake is ridiculously beautiful. We opt to stop. I deeply enjoy my biscuits and gravy— the meal I was saving for today—and lemon tea. We talk with her until she leaves, then we chat with KOJ for a bit while we eat. Afterwards, Jumbo and Catless have another rock-skipping session, which ends with J scooting a rock all the way across to the ice in the middle of the lake. Big Jumbo energy! He is very proud.

It’s miles and miles of downhill now into Vidette Meadow. We make our way around a few more snow fields, which pretty much end after we dip down below the shelf and approach the tree line. Everything here around us is indescribably beautiful, and the view changes with every quarter mile. We go down, down, below 10,000 feet and back into the cool coniferous world. We take a break on a rock next to the roaring Bubbs Creek, but not for long—there are mosquitoes here, of course, and of course they love Jumbo especially. “I have a three-kill limit on mosquitoes, and then I’m gonna bounce.” He gets bit four times, but he stays put until we’re ready to move again. No doubt he’ll pick up at least a gallon of DEET in Bishop.

I can’t NOT take photos of sky pilot

This forest is exactly as I remember it from five years ago. The world is a wonderland, something that seems too cool and green and coniferous to be real. Bubbs Creek roars to our left, sometimes louder and other times quieter. We go slowly and take it all in.

Alpine shooting star

As we’re through an open area, a crow flies by. Jumbo asks, “Are we going to see any good birds on this section? Like an eagle or something?”

I wrack my brain. “I think grouse, maybe? There’s even a place called Grouse Meadows.” This would also explain the low thumping sound we’ve been hearing. I don’t think I saw any grouse in 2017, but I think they’re around. Jumbo seems excited by this.

I’m pretty hungry by the time we get to the bottom of the hill, so we decide to cook dinner there before we start the climb to camp. I think this is the same campsite where I stayed in 2017; I remember the huge fallen tree and the proximity of the creek. It hits me again how amazed that version of me would be with my hiking strength today.

Soon, Qwerty and Trash Balloon come up to us and ask if we saw the bear. Apparently they just saw one about thirty feet away from them while they were walking down the trail not far from where we’re sitting now. We say that we haven’t seen it, but now I’m glad we didn’t decide to stay here tonight. Now it makes sense why we haven’t seen anyone else camping here yet!

As we’re finishing up our food (and coffee in my case), a group of hikers starts to go by. Jumbo locks in on one of them. “Is that Jupiter?” he asks quietly. I look over. I can’t tell for sure, but the hiker in the white shirt with the tiny pack sure does look like the trail-famous ultralight YouTuber.

“Hey!” Jumbo calls, waving. “Do I recognize one of you?”

The group stops. “Maybe?”

“Jupiter?”

“Yeah!”

Jumbo stands up and starts to walk towards the trail. “Oh man. Let me give you a fist bump real fast.”

We all collectively try to keep our cool as Jupiter walks over towards us. He is the chillest dude, just another hiker—albeit a famous one—out here enjoying the adventure. We talk to him about his journey so far. He asks if we’re going into Bishop and tells us that it’s a great town. Noticing my headband, he wishes me a happy birthday. We take a group photo, wish each other well, and then he’s off.

“Can I get bonus points for spotting him?” Jumbo asks after Jupiter has loped away. We are all reeling. I can’t believe I got to meet Jupiter on my birthday! I feel like a good luck charm.

Jumbo, me, Jupiter, and Catless Ahh! *Fangirling*

We only have two miles to go to our campsite at the top of the hill, and it’s still pretty early. We leisurely pack up our things, get more water, and then start walking down the trail that is now filled with soft golden light.

We cross a pair of wide creeks, and I slip and get my feet wet. I’m annoyed about this for a few minutes until I see Jumbo and Catless stopped on the trail, looking at something. I follow their gaze, not registering at first. Then it snaps into place. It’s a female grouse and her chicks bobbling up the hill. The longer I look, the more fuzzy little chicks I see. There are three, five, seven. They are tiny and soft, their little bodies glowing in the evening light. We watch as they toddle up the hill and away. I can’t hold it together. I squeal in delight. I think I might be on the verge of tears from cuteness overload. The odds of seeing a literal grouse family after just saying that to Jumbo earlier simply cannot be that high.

“Passport, how much more magic is going to happen on your birthday?” Catless asks, stunned.

Bubbs Creek

We start working on the hill that will take us to our campsite, switchbacking up the mountain. I remember this climb from the JMT because I couldn’t get over how perfectly shaped the mountain across the valley was. It’s just so mountain-y! We marvel more and more at the view as we make our way. It’s not a bad climb, but I’m pretty tired, and I kind of want to take in the last couple of miles of my birthday. I trudge slowly behind Jumbo and Catless.

At the top of the hill, we run into several people camping, including Qwerty and Trash Balloon. Another group tells us that they saw multiple bears. We decide to go into quiet mode as we turn right onto the Kearsarge Pass Trail. Maybe this will help us spot a bear—what a way to end this magical day that would be! We start walking silently on the sandy, pebbly path. I’m looking around for bears, and in the process of not watching where I’m going, I trip over a rock and both of my water bottles and my toilet bag go flying and land on the ground. The three of us fizzle into hysterical laughter. Classic me. No hope of seeing a bear now.

Jumbo took this photo while he was bottle-shaming me

We wind up at a small campsite nestled between rocks and trees. We set up our Duplexes in a triangle, with our doors opening up into the middle so we can talk. We were hoping to camp with the Belgians and other folks we know, but we don’t see anyone. Ah, well. It just gives us a nice quiet place to rest after this magical day. Jumbo decorates my tent again, and this time I get to watch the process. I eat more food out of my bear canister just because I can. My rationing has paid off, so I can eat an entire probar and my Wild Zora meat bars. Wahoo!

Before I go to bed, I thank J for all the amazing birthday surprises. “I just wanted to make sure you had a good trail birthday,” he replies.

Quality friend. 12/10. ❤️

It was a great birthday, full of unexpected surprises and beauty and joy and friendship. I’m grateful for my friends who wear crowns to celebrate and cover my tent in decorations. I’m grateful for the towering mountains that are my home, at least for a little while. I’m grateful for the magic that is the PCT and the unbelievable privilege I have to experience it.

I’lll say it again. I love this trail.

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