Sonora Pass

This is a story from 2013 about how to make a bunch of bad decisions to put yourself in a pretty bad situation in the backcountry, but then I like to think it’s also a story about how to get back out of that bad situation. I was at that dangerous point where I knew enough to think that I knew what I was doing, but was not experienced enough to know how much I still had to learn. Bottom line: the wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place (as I hope it always will be) and Mother Nature is unsympathetic and dangerous. Don’t be an idiot, and before you venture out into that wilderness make sure you have the proper experience, preparation, and planning for all scenarios you could face. Then, have fun and enjoy the awe-inspiring landscapes and the incredible wildlife that we get to share them with.

November 15

I arrived at SFO at around midnight Pacific Time. After finding my car, a Chevy Cobalt, I realized that TSA had been kind enough to inspect my pack for me. They even felt it necessary to open my bear canister, and upon failing to fit all the food back inside they thought it was perfectly fine to just toss everything in my pack. After repacking, I got a late start on the road headed for Sonora Pass.

I had forgotten duct tape, but at around 2 AM I passed a Wal-Mart and stopped. I picked up the tape and a few snacks and grabbed some more cash from an ATM. Heading back down the road in the middle of the night, with some lunchables in my lap, things felt pretty good. It was a long drive to the pass, but I finally arrived at around 4:30 AM.

November 16

After sleeping for a few hours in the car, I got up and walked over to 108 to look for a ride down from the pass. There wasn’t much traffic, but fortunately the first person who came by, a local retired couple who was heading to their place in Montana for a few months, stopped and gave me a ride down to 395. From there I was also fortunate, only having to wait about 15 minutes for a ride to 120 from a younger couple who were down from Oregon for the weekend. Unfortunately the last leg took the longest. Traffic was light and it was disappointing how many people heading over Tioga Pass just went right by. Finally a couple of guys from Belgium who were in town for a conference gave me a ride. They had a GoPro for their trip, which recorded our conversation.

When I arrived at Tuolumne Meadows I had to head about half a mile in the wrong direction to self-register my backcountry permit, so it was not until after noon that I was able to start up the PCT. I still had high hopes for getting in some good mileage, though. The weather was great and not nearly as windy as had been forecasted.

Near Tuolumne Falls I passed one couple heading the other way on a day hike. Once I made it past the Falls I no longer saw a single sign that any human had been on the trail since before the last snow. I stopped at Glen Aulin to refill my water and grab some trail mix, although despite the time of day I had no appetite. That, paired with the unexpected fatigue I felt, told me that my body may have been slower than usual at acclimating to the altitude.

I didn’t want to waste any daylight, so I continued on with as little rest as possible. The amount of snow was surprising, and somewhat startling given that I was still in the lower elevations. I may have chosen to turn around at that point, knowing what must surely lie on the northern and eastern slopes, but I continued on undeterred. I was actually somewhat amused and amazed at that point, seeing perfectly smooth snow covering the trail in so many places, disturbed only by sets of animal tracks.

As I made my descent into Virginia Canyon, the sun was setting fast. The sunset was amazing, with a fierce golden glow that pierced the clouds on the horizon. By the time I reached the canyon floor at about 5 PM, though, the sun was gone. I had only made it 14 miles, and I knew I had to get further to keep pace. With a full moon and my headlamp, I began the climb out of the canyon. The snow became heavy and my ascent was slow. Even in daylight it may have been difficult to find the trail in some places. The animal tracks that I had earlier viewed as a curiosity I now relied on in places to guide me along the correct path.

At one point as I approached the top, I thought the trail had become hopelessly buried. I considered having the good sense to turn back, but after many attempts I eventually found the way forward. I had reached a plateau, and continued on through the night. The worst of the snow was behind me, but the temperature was quickly dropping.

After a couple more miles I arrived at the beautiful sight of Miller Lake in the moonlight. I found a log to rest on while I refilled my water, which was a fairly terrible ordeal with my squeeze filter at those temperatures. I treated water like gold for the rest of the hike to minimize the number of times I would feel the pain of dipping my bare hand into the water and then slowly squeezing it through the filter.

With a full supply of water I descended towards Matterhorn Canyon, which I considered the first acceptable spot to camp for the night. When I arrived it was close to 9 PM and I had only made it 20 miles that day, but I had another climb ahead of me and I did not relish the thought of doing it again at night. I set up camp, confident that with an early start I could make up the mileage the next day. I still had no appetite, and it was so cold I could think of nothing but getting in my bag, so I foolishly crawled in with little more than a handful of trail mix for dinner.

I had also made the careless mistake of adding too many layers as the temperature dropped, resulting in a sweat that left my clothes damp. Even with all my clothing and my bag I was cold throughout the night. Instead of enjoying a good night’s sleep I spent most of my time wishing for nothing more than the sun to rise.

November 17

I awoke slightly after dawn and found my bag and most of my tent was wet from condensation of the moisture I had brought in with me. I climbed out of my tent and felt the incredible warmth brought by the day’s first light, one of the treasured experiences well-known to backpackers. There was no time to linger or let things dry, though, so I packed up and began the ascent out of the canyon towards Benson Pass.

I made it to the pass with only a few tough stretches of snow. It felt good to make it up the first pass, this one just over 10,000 feet. At the top I stopped for a moment to enjoy the view. My work cell phone said it had three bars of service, so I tried to send Jessi a text message to update her. It failed to go through and I was still behind schedule, so I continued on.

After a few miles I arrived at Smedberg Lake. It’d be natural to think that after a while, high Sierra lakes would begin to all look the same. I have yet to find that the case, though, with each one uniquely beautiful. I stopped for water, a task that the sun made slightly less unpleasant than the night before.

Leaving the lake, I made a significant deviation from the trail that required a large course correction. The time losses caused by navigating and climbing through the snow were starting to pile up. Eventually I began to descend towards Benson Lake and by this time I was becoming worried that I might not make it back to Sonora Pass on schedule. I tried to pick up my pace, but the effects of going without a proper meal for a couple of days were starting to catch up to me. I considered turning back, but knew that I would have to hitch back from Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass on a Monday in mid November. I decided I would probably get back to my car much quicker by continuing on.

I crossed Piute Creek, the source of Benson Lake, on a fallen log and began another long climb. The ascent had incredible views and a small lake that reminded me of one of our camping spots on the JMT. As I approached Seavey Pass, though, I made a terrible realization. A strap on one of my jacket’s zippers, the one I had my compass clipped to, had broken and fallen off. My compass, my trusted guidance and direction when the snow left no path, was gone.

A slight fear came upon me as I rushed to the top of the pass, praying for a cell phone signal. Nothing. I dropped my pack and ran ahead, hoping I might have more luck on the opposite face of the mountain. Nothing. I didn’t know what I would do if I got a signal. I just wanted anyone, anywhere, to know where I was. There were about 40 miles of snowy Sierra backcountry between me and even the possibility of another human being, and the sky was beginning to give many of the menacing indicators of an impending storm.

Slowly, I realized the situation I had put myself in. At any point on the hike I could have sprained my ankle, fallen in an icy creek, or had a bad encounter with wildlife, and no one would have known. I had no GPS beacon, I had stubbornly ignored all the signs telling me I should turn back, and my pace had left me in my current situation almost right at the midway point.

There was no time for hindsight or panic, though; I needed to move. I knew there was no quick way out, but I hopelessly scanned my maps anyway looking for an exit to the east or west. I also knew that I should stick to my planned trail, so that if I did fail to make it out they would at least know where to look. I still thought I could get back to my car fastest by continuing north, but my maps again gave me bad news. The terrain ahead would contain more sections of deep snow. Without my compass I feared the possibility of becoming lost.

The decision was made. I would head back to the south, where I would at least be able to follow my own footprints. I began a furious descent back to Benson Lake. The sunset was undoubtedly beautiful, but I was too focused to notice. As night arrived I crossed back over Piute Creek. I briefly stopped to endure a water refill, and then was on my way again. I still had over 30 miles back to Tuolumne Meadows and the snow-covered climb to Benson Pass was nearly 3,000 feet.

I made nearly half of that climb, constantly postholing up to my waste. I had not remembered the snow being that deep on the descent. I half-heartedly laughed at the times I had had to walk just a few yards back up a ski slope to retrieve an item lost during a fall. It had always seemed so tedious and difficult.

My legs simply would not take me up a single more switchback. Luckily, I came upon a rock outcropping with a flat spot large enough for my tent. I set up camp and, bears be damned, crawled into the warmth of my bag with my beef jerky and some other snacks. I had done a much better job that night of managing my sweat, so after consuming nearly the entire bag of beef jerky I was comfortably asleep.

November 18

I stood on my rocky perch amazed and apprehensive of the view in front of me. Below, Piute Creek flowed through the bottom of a majestic valley surrounded by the granite peaks of the Sierra. Above, threatening clouds emerged on the horizon. All the forecasts and the rangers I checked with before the trip had said that the weather would be clear for at least two more days. Surely the clouds would just pass by, but I was not waiting there to find out.

As I climbed my way through the snow towards Smedberg Lake I periodically checked my phone for service. For a moment I thought I had reception, but it almost instantly disappeared. I decided to save my battery and wait for Benson Pass before trying again. I stopped again at the lake for water and then made it to the pass before noon. As the day progressed, though, the skies grew darker.

I pulled out both my phones. My personal phone had no bars as expected. My work phone again had three. I patiently began to text Jessi, letting her know of my current situation. Error, nothing went through. I tried again. Error. I couldn’t believe it. Why would a phone have three bars if nothing would work? I tried to call, and then email, and then text again. Nothing would work. I ran around the pass and up both shoulders, holding my phones out looking for more signal. I had moments of 3G, and a few times I even had four bars. Still, nothing would go through.

I was incredulous, and angry. I had wasted over an hour of precious daylight trying to get a message out. All the while, the clouds grew on the horizon. The fear I had felt the day before began to return. With little more than four hours of daylight left there were still 25 miles left to Tuolumne Meadows. Briefly I considered setting up camp. The area had spots that could provide good shelter and I had enough food and resources to last a long time, even in a bad storm.

Almost immediately, though, a different thought sprang to the front of my mind: the thought of Jessi waking up in the morning after having not heard from me. I would be fine, but my pregnant wife in a state of panic was simply not acceptable. She would then call Yosemite, which would likely result in a SAR team being sent, wasting valuable time and resources and putting other people in danger. Self-extraction was the only option I would consider. I loaded up and began down the southern side of the pass, working myself up to a level of hype and motivation that my body had not seen in years. My fear turned to resolve and I knew I would be out of the backcountry that night.

Steadily my pace picked up, fueled by a steady supply of Reese’s Pieces. I went in and back out of Matterhorn Canyon, saw Miller Lake in the daylight, and continued on through Virginia Canyon. Finally I arrived in the long, flat meadow of Cold Canyon. The view back through the meadow of the sun setting through the storm clouds was incredible. I paused briefly to relish it and then turned back down the trail, knowing I would be without the sun for the remaining 10 miles.

I quickly made the realization that that night would not be like the others. The moon was hidden behind the clouds, and as I descended into the more densely forested lower elevations the only remaining light came from my headlamp. The few miles descending into Glen Aulin seemed to stretch on forever. Fortunately, the snow was at least holding off.

Little more than 6 miles lay between me and highway 120. Once I made the 500 foot climb out of Glen Aulin the remainder would be mostly flat. Unfortunately much of that climb was on icy granite. The lighting combined with the rock’s natural sheen made it difficult to identify the icy spots. After a couple of hard falls I slowed my pace significantly, wary of injuring myself this close to my goal.

Eventually I finished the climb and the homestretch was before me. I passed Tuolumne Falls, where I had last seen another person 2 days before, and the trail opened wider to accommodate heavier traffic. I finally knew I would make it. My body, feeling my sense of urgency disappear, was instantly hit by all the soreness and fatigue that it had pushed aside throughout the day. I knew I would make it, but those last few miles would be long and slow.

The Sierra wouldn’t let me completely let my guard down, though. Small patches of ice and large granite slabs, sometimes difficult to navigate across even in the day, forced me to stay alert. I also navigated one more difficult creek crossing. My first instinct told me that they wouldn’t have such a difficult crossing so close to the meadows, and that maybe I had somehow taken a wrong turn. I had not, but by that point I honestly didn’t care. I was close enough and knew the terrain of the area well enough to know that I was at least headed in the right direction.

Finally, I arrived at Parsons Lodge. I looked out across the meadows and then bounded across them towards the highway. I set foot on the road at about 9 PM, just as the clock struck midnight on the east coast for my 29th birthday. I had not seen any traffic while crossing the meadows, but I began to walk towards the store where I planned to finally take my pack off and wait for a ride.

The store was boarded up with its roof taken away, unable to handle the weight of the winter. I sat next to the road and put on every clothing item I had. It was still cold, and after about half an hour I opened my pack to take my tent out. I thought there was no traffic just because it was a weeknight in November, and that I would have better luck in the morning. Before I set up camp next to the road, though, I needed to send Jessi an update.

I knew I would get reception here at least with my work phone, because that summer even my personal phone had been able to send text messages from that very spot. I turned it on, though, and had no bars. OK, I thought, I just need to walk around a little while and find a good spot. No bars anywhere. If I couldn’t get a message out then the entire day had been in vain. I didn’t have any remaining options, though, so I went back to my pack to pull out my tent. I would get out as quickly as possible in the morning and get a message to Jessi.

Once again, a thought stopped me from pulling out the tent. Surely there had to be pay phones somewhere at Tuolumne. I looked at the store behind me. None were in view, but I decided to look around. I checked next to the restrooms and the grill. Not finding any, I began to walk up the road towards the ranger station. As I did, I glanced back towards the store. Two pay phones stood hidden behind the far side of the building. It had been over a decade since I thought I would ever use a pay phone again, much less be overjoyed at seeing one.

I didn’t have any change, so I did the first thing I thought to do: call Yosemite dispatch. A woman picked up and I told her of my situation. Quickly she informed me that there was no traffic because the highway had been closed hours earlier. A bad storm was coming. My car at Sonora Pass? That highway was closed too. She was extremely kind and helpful, though. A ranger would be on his way to me shortly and she would see what she could do about my car.

I waited about 20 minutes and called her back. There was nothing that could be done about my car. The highway was closed, it was out of park jurisdiction, and the CHP would not open it. The ranger would be there to pick me up in about half an hour, but I immediately began to worry that the highway might be closed for the winter. Would I pay for a rental car fee until April? How would I get my belongings and my important items for work out of the car?

The ranger pulled up, and it was a relief just to see another person. I got in the back and we began heading down the west side of the mountains. He explained that there was no way to get to Sonora Pass that night, and even if I could I wouldn’t be able to get my car. The storm was supposed to last 3 days, but the highway would hopefully open back up after that. Reluctantly, I agreed to call it a night and go to the valley. After a long drive and being transferred to another ranger I arrived shortly before midnight.

Finally, I got a message to go out to Jessi. I knew she probably wouldn’t get it until the morning, but at least it would be there when she woke up. I went to the restroom, delighting in the potable water that I didn’t have to squeeze through a filter in freezing temperatures. The valley floor was warm, in the 30s at least, and although I had to camp one more night I at least had the luxury of going to sleep in only my base layer. As I put my food in the bear locker I realized that I had left my Nalgene in one of the rangers’ patrol vehicles. I had relied on that water bottle for countless trips since high school. My spirits sank a bit at the thought of possibly losing it, but at that point there were bigger things to think about and the most useful thing I could do was sleep.

November 19

Under normal circumstances I would enjoy waking up in Yosemite Valley on my birthday. The only thing on my mind that morning, though, was figuring out how to get to my car and get out of there. Fortunately I was at least finally able to communicate with Jessi via text. My phone batteries were too important to make a call. I went to the lodge and the front desk told me the highways were still closed. There were a couple of computers, so I used some of my cash to pay for internet time and get every phone number I thought I might need: CHP, Avis, Caltrans, YARTS. I used my remaining time to check the NOAA forecast and snow cover. The results didn’t exactly improve my outlook on the situation.

I had to call the non-local numbers from a pay phone and since I didn’t have change I resorted to calling 1-800-COLLECT. It still existed, but it was a legacy system that I would later find out charged me over $12 per call. I informed Avis of the situation, and as expected the person on the phone had no idea what to do or what to tell me. A helpful person at CHP gave me the correct Caltrans station to call and upon reaching that number I was talking to Tony, someone who finally knew what was going on.

After they closed 108 they went back up to check on my car, worried that I was stuck up there. I couldn’t believe that they didn’t tow it down, but I suppose they thought it might have been shelter for me if I was still up there. Tony had gone back up in the morning, and the snow was pretty bad. There was absolutely no way of getting the car down at that point, but he was pretty confident that the highway would open up in a few days. I gave him my number and he promised to update me if anything changed.

I grabbed a YARTS schedule on my way out of the lodge. After wandering the valley for a little while and collecting my thoughts I went by the store and grabbed a breakfast that consisted of a microwave pizza, a honey bun, and a Yoo-hoo. At that point I had no options on my car. There’s no way I could stay in the area until the highway opened; I had to get back for work. At that point I just needed to get out of there, so I went back to break camp.

As I was packing up I realized one of the connecters holding my pack to its frame had come out. Apparently the day before I had been too narrowly focused to notice. I headed for the YARTS stop for the reverse of the trip that Jessi and I had taken earlier that year when we returned to the valley after the JMT. My wallet was in the car, but fortunately I at least had some cash, my driver’s license, and a credit card (and my all-park pass).

The ride seemed long, but was uneventful. At Merced I boarded an Amtrak headed for San Francisco. It was the 4th time in 6 months that I had taken a train. Of course nothing on this trip could go smoothly, though, and as my stop neared I realized that I couldn’t find my license and credit card. I was worried that I may have carelessly set them down and someone had stolen them. After a minute or two of panic, I finally found them in the crack between the seat and the wall.

I exited the train in San Francisco. Out of all the trips I’d taken to the Bay Area, this was my first time actually in downtown San Francisco. The conference I was supposed to be at was in San Jose, but I had nothing but my backpacking gear and clothes with me, so I took a bus to the Ferry Building, walked to a BART stop, and headed for the airport. By that time I had at least contacted people at work to let them know of my situation.

A manager for Avis called me, who explained all the fees they were going to charge me. I didn’t want to deal with it at that point. I just wanted the car off the mountain and myself home. I had tried to call my friend Adam, who had trained at the mountain warfare training base just below Sonora Pass. I hoped he might have a friend who would get the car if I mailed them the keys and some cash. I was unable to reach him, so I gave the keys back to Avis. The woman at the counter was very friendly and helpful and assured me I would not be charged for all the time if it was stuck up there all winter. I just wish it had been her who actually handled my case.

American Airlines had no sympathy for my situation, charging me the $75 change fee to fly back a day early. I then forgot to put my knife in my checked bag and lost another $15 mailing it to myself. An hour later, though, I was finally on a plane and headed home.

Epilogue

Jessi picked me up from the airport the next morning. Seeing her again was something I had thought about from night 1 of my hike. We arrived home, and although I hadn’t slept much on the red eye (thanks largely to a horrible movie), I needed to head into work. It was an important week and already Wednesday. Less than 2 days after hopelessly looking for a cell phone signal on Benson Pass, I was back in a suit and tie at work.

The highway took another week to open back up (although 120 was closed permanently for the winter). The Caltrans person I dealt with was extremely helpful. The Avis person, not so much. If a tree had fallen on the car I wouldn’t have owed an extra penny, but the car was perfectly fine other than being stranded on a mountain. The first bill from Avis totaled over $2200. I first managed to get that reduced to around $1200, and then from there to about $800. I found similar occurrences in which car rental companies had given the customer a much better deal, but by that point I just wanted it to be over. If my car insurance covered part of the towing fee it would help some more and they would be easier to deal with than Avis.

Two weeks after I left the backcountry, I finally was back in possession of everything that I had left in the car. Then after about a month my trusty old Nalgene was shipped back to me. The whole ordeal was tough and the financial cost hurt, but when it comes down to it much worse things could happen. I learned a great deal and had an experience that I will never forget. Putting myself at risk doing something like that, though, with a family at home and without proper preparation, is one of the stupidest things I’ve done (and as far as risk of physical harm goes, I’ve done some pretty stupid things). Other than the Avis bill, though, I’m glad I have the story to tell.

Revenge on Sonora Pass

I returned to complete that hike the following summer. There were some pretty bad storms and I got a rough ankle sprain, but this time I was properly prepared for the conditions and had an incredible trip. After seeing the terrain on the northern half of the route, though, I’m glad that I decided to turn around when I did on the previous trip.

Left: Trip 1, Right: Trip 2

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