The family that eats together stays together.
The Donner Pass gives special meaning to the old adage about the bonding effects of the communal table. After taking a wrong turn in their Conestoga wagons, the famed Donner party failed to get across the Sierras before winter. As every school kid knows, the would-be emigrants ended up eating one another to survive.
That pass is today’s destination, and the trail wastes no time in giving me a taste of the Donner experience. No sooner have I climbed out of my sleeping bag, in dawn’s chilly light, than it’s up, up, up — first through the pine forests of the valley where I spent the night, at the Five Lakes campground at mile 1136, then through vast meadows of flowers often more than a square mile in size.
After a quick 1200 feet of elevation gain, I camel up at a stream cascading from the ridge above, where you can see the top lifts of the Squaw Valley ski resort amid a few lingering patches of snow. According to the PCT grapevine, the lodge offers a free beer to hikers. But who in their right mind would climb all the way up there?
A pair of southbounders amble past, he in a cowboy hat, she in leopard tights. As it turns out, they just did. And so do I, it turns out, for after a series of long switchbacks the PCT passes right by the trail for the Squaw Valley mountain house.
As I slog along — shedding layers as the temperatures soar — I’m suddenly seized by an absurd hiker fantasy. A guy sent up by Squaw Valley sits by the cut-off to the resort, a cooler at his feet. As I pass, he opens it and pulls out a long-neck bottle of that promised beer. O how it glitters. O how it sparkles with condensation. He waggles it tantalizingly. It’s only eight in the morning, but I yearn for it. It will taste so unbelievably good!
Just then my phone chimes. Reception! And the mirage fades. That’s when I decide to get off the trail about 12 miles ahead and hitch into the town of Truckee. There I will find that beer. Little do I know that, in the coming miles, I will earn every drop.
For now, still early in the day, I sit atop the Squaw Valley pass, the ski lifts running up the mountain off to the side, and admire the forever views to the south across Lake Tahoe, and to the north and east ridge upon ridge of mountain ranges, each bluer than the last marching into the distance.
North of Squaw Valley, the wilderness deepens. I pause at one point along the twisting trail to simply look and listen. Silence, save for a distant woodpecker and, further still, a small plane. All around are high bare peaks, like mesas, flat-topped with the stones slowly eroding.
A glance at the map shows that the trail goes over them, too. I let out a little primal scream, self-consciously as if disturbing the peace, and it echoes back to me.
The trail climbs and climbs. Then it climbs some more. Insanely, a group of trail runners comes by, 9 miles from where they began at Donner Pass, where I hope to get to by mid-afternoon. It’s the Truckee ultra mountain marathon. “You make this look easy,” I say as one group chugs pass, downhill at least. “You’re doing the hard work,” a man replies. “How much does that pack weigh?”
Too much, I confess. Too much. It’s laden with food for my next resupply at Sierra City, 50-odd miles away. My personal Conestoga wagon, strapped to my back.
My phone starts chiming again, telling me I am finally near the top of this particular ascent, marked by a peak called Tinker’s Knob at 8,900 feet and the slightly lower Mount Anderson. The sun beats on the south-facing slope as if it were still the desert. Climate change? I pack snow into my hat to stay cool. It’s dangerous up here.
The trail meanders along the crest ridge, far above the tree line, with no cover of any sort. It’s beautiful but a bitch. Up and down, up and down, with the temperatures rising into the high-80s. By now, the acres of wild flowers have ceased to charm. So have the views. Around mile 1152, an hour or so from Donner Pass, the trail enters a small stand of pines at a saddle in the ridge, then looks to go straight up another steep bare slope.
I let out an expletive. Who designed this trail? Why go over the top when there’s a perfectly good contour through those nice cool trees just below? That’s when I lose it. Fuckfuckfuckettyfucking PCT!
I yell. I stomp. I throw my hat, jump up and down and totally embarrass myself in front of some astonished day-hikers who abruptly materialize from around a bend. And then I realize that the trail in fact does just what I thought it should, veering off across a small snow field into the shade of the trees beyond.
Once again I pack my hat with snow, cool my temper and go on. And suddenly, not so far in the distance, just past Emigrant Pass that cost so many so much enroute to California, is Interstate 90 at the Donner Pass. And what should await at the trailhead? Those promised beers, left not by Squaw Valley resorters but by some anonymous trail angel.
And it’s cold, too.