The Pacific Crest Trail has been called “the trail of extremes.” It winds through seven ecozones, from sandy deserts to the alpine zone of the Sierra to the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest. It takes thru-hikers through deep sand and deep snow, and it’s not unusual for a hiker to worry about heat exhaustion and a freezing water filter in any given day. The trail reaches its lowest point, 180 feet above sea level, at the Oregon-Washington border, and it climbs to its zenith, 13,153 feet, at Forester Pass in the Sierra.
Apparently, I was so excited about reaching the hike’s high point that I needed to climb Forester twice.
Pine Nut and I reached Forester Pass the day after we’d hiked Mount Whitney. After feeling some altitude sickness on the top of the contiguous United States, I woke up feeling weak and a little dizzy but no worse than I’d been feeling for the previous week or so. Next to lower Crabtree Meadow, we packed up and then headed northward.
The day was warm, and the woods were beautiful. After spending the entirety of the previous day above treeline, I was so grateful to be back among foxtail pines, in a forest full of life. But, as long trails do, the Pacific Crest Trail (particularly where it and the John Muir Trail are one and the same) is always going up or going down; it wasn’t long before we were once again climbing above treeline.
This time, the barren world we found above the trees struck me as unusual. I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it was that was odd. It may have been that the climb from Lower Crabtree to Forester Pass took us over a high plain, which was unlike the peaks and passes we’d seen before. Walking there, I felt as though I was back in the desert: The sun beat down on me, vegetation consisted of a few clumps of green things, and the air felt hot. Granite peaks towered above me, and I felt so little, so insignificant in the vast emptiness.
But then, I climbed over a rise and was nearly as awe-struck and confused as Pi must have been when he spotted that flowing island. In the middle of this desert-like expanse was a grassy meadow, and in the middle of the grassy meadow was an alpine lake.
If someone were to tell me that I imagined the whole scene, I would believe her. The still waters of that lake, the soft and lumpy meadow surrounding it, the marmot running through the grass — it all felt surreal.
I hesitated for a moment, disbelieving, before I hurried over to the water’s edge. I took off my pack, slipped out of my socks and shoes, pulled off my shirt, and waded into the crystal clear waters.
How is this my life?
It was with a heart so full of this Sierra beauty that I approached Forester Pass. Pine Nut and I snacked near one of many alpine lakes at its base and then began our ascent. Forester Pass is a behemoth, and it would, no doubt, be particularly formidable in a high snow year. However, after climbing Whitney, Forester felt almost easy. My altitude sickness remained manageable, the switchbacks were gradual, and the footing was good. At least in my memory, it didn’t take long to make it to the top.
The north face of Forester had a bit more snow, but there wasn’t much post-holing as Pine Nut and I descended. Seeing the trees and grasses below us, my heart felt happy, and we laughed and chatted until we were roughly a mile from the summit. At that point, I realized that I wasn’t wearing my sunglasses, which I’d taken off while taking a photo.
I’d left them on the top of the pass.
Now, my sunglasses aren’t anything special. I got them for tree planting crew from Wal-Mart a few years ago for $5.00. The trail has taken its toll on them, and the temples of the glasses are held on with little safety pins. But, I wasn’t about to “leave a trace” by letting them stay atop the ridge.
That’s why, at 5:30 in the afternoon, I set off up Forester Pass once more. I left my pack with Pine Nut, who (in spectacular friend fashion) decided to wait for me before hiking to camp, and climbed with just my trekking poles.
Twenty-five minutes later, near the top of the pass, I met Whatever, a young hiker and friend of ours. He called up to two JMTers at the top of the pass, inquiring about my sunglasses: They were, indeed, still up there. As the shadows darkened the north face of the pass, I hurried onward; as I did, a generous JMTer began hiking back down the pass. He met me a few hundred feet below the ridgeline and handed off the dilapidated sunglasses.
After thanking the JMTer, I put the sunglasses on my head and took off down the trail. Feeling strong and weightless without my pack, I ran. I scurried over the snow, jumped over rocks, and zigzagged down the switchbacks, enjoying every moment.
Twelve minutes later, I reached Pine Nut, exhilarated and elated and high on life. Then, I grabbed a pack of crackers to snack on while walking and shouldered my pack, and we headed down into the shadow of Forester to make camp.