I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little apprehensive stepping section J of the Pacific Crest Trail. I had heard from many people that it is one of the hardest sections to hike. Since it is the only section hike I have done I can’t vouch for that but I imagine the sierras are right up there with it.
The weather for our 6 day trip along PCT section J didn’t look awful save for the first few days. We figured we would get wet and then dry out the last couple of days. We started at the Kendall catwalk trailhead around Noon the first day. By the time we arrived at the Kendall catwalk it was raining. Shortly after, the rain turned to hail and thunder began to boom in the sky.
Other then the weather, which made for some good photos, the first day was uneventful. We set up our camp by Park lakes ate some dinner and climbed into bed to listen to the rain. We hoped the weather would clear the next morning.
The first morning we woke to frost, a bitter cold temperature, and thick fog. Soon after waking it began to rain again. Rain or not we both felt committed to the trip and got ready for the day.
Since we were only hiking section J of the PCT we were not sure how our mileage would work out. Instead of planning each day out in detail, we chose to wing it. After looking at our map, we hoped to make it from Park Lakes to Escondido ridge as a first full day.
The hiking from Park lakes to Escondido starts out easy. The first lake you will pass is Spectacle. Looking down on it from above, it seemed like an excellent camping spot. After passing by the lake the trail drops down through a burn area and into a valley.
From here, PCT section J meanders north until reaching the base of Escondido ridge. We spent the day taking it slow stopping for many breaks.
There is a river ford of the Lemah river that I had heard can be difficult. Being September the crossing was easy. There are no large rocks though, so if the water is high it will be tough.
Before we knew it we began the climb up Escondido and it seemed to last forever. It is very steep and in tree cover allowing for no views. The only thing we had to focus on was the burning in our legs. There are 2 or 3 spots along the climb with a view. One of a massive glacier head wall. But it isn’t until the top that the views open up.
The hillsides were lit up with all the fall colors. At one point this prompted Brandon to comment that the world out here “looks like a Bob Ross Painting”. I would have to agree…
Once on top of Escondido Ridge we both felt the elevation gain in our legs and the wind was picking up. The rain had been falling all day and both of us felt ready to eat. There is a small tarn at the top that provides cover from the wind so we chose to set up camp here.
We hurried dinner into our mouths for the night and hopped into our sleeping bags. The only thing I can remember thinking before going to bed is “this rain better stop tomorrow”.
Our second day on PCT section J had gone well. I felt tired and wet but still in good spirits.
We woke up on day 3 of our trip on Pacific Crest Trail section J to 2 inches of snow covering our tent. The ground was white and the temperature during the night had plummeted. The icing on the cake was the rain pouring out of the sky. Both of us agreed after a short conversation that breakfast did not matter. We would pack up and get off the ridge asap.
I did not bring snow gloves and would come to regret it. By the time we had brushed snow off the tent and gotten packed my hands were numb and I was ready for even a smidgen of sun.
I finally began to smile again as I warmed up and could feel my fingers from hiking along the trail.
The descent down to Waptus lake was miserable as it changed from rain to snow to hail and back to rain again. It was a relief to arrive in thicker woods at the bottom of the hill. Something was finally blocking some of the water from the sky. With little elevation gain left for the day we felt like we finally had a win.
This part of PCT section J is uninteresting but relaxing as it winds through the woods. I don’t know if there are views. The clouds took over the entire day. For those with the desire to hike down to it, Waptus lake looked like a nice little spot with many camp areas.
We continued on down PCT section J and aimed to camp at Deep Lake. Putting on dry clothes was all I could think about by the time we arrived. After eating some warm food I crawled into bed and hoped I would wake up to some decent weather.
When I woke in the morning on day 4 of our hike along PCT Section J, the weather was mild for the first time. There was light fog but sun peeking through above the clouds.
The climb to Cathedral pass from Deep lake is steep and a rough way to wake up. We took it slow stopping regularly to hang different clothing on our packs in hopes it would dry out.
The views of Cathedral Rock from the trail made it worth looking uphill for once. Watch for the spires as you climb. They are an incredible sight but don’t remain in view for long. This started as the best day yet along PCT section J.
After the pass make sure you go the right direction at the split. One way adds 6 miles to your trip and goes around another lake. The other leads to a river ford that is for PCT Section J hikers.
The trail is well made but steep and started to take a toll on my knees. The river ford this year was little more than an unstable bridge over a swift but shallow creek. In wetter years or earlier in summer this is more of a difficult obstacle to pass.
Some recommend taking the long way around the lake early in the year. Elated to finally have my clothes drying out, my spirit felt lifted and I was loving every minute of the day.
The 6 or 7 miles of PCT section J after the river ford are easy. But, It was on this gentle stretch that my body decided it had enough. I was out in front of Brandon a little and both of us were taking it easy.
On a flat section of trail I took a big step up and heard an audible “pop!”. Immediately I felt as though someone had taken a baseball bat to the back of my right leg. Nearly in tears as Brandon came around the corner, I decided to try and play it off. I took a few deep breaths and once Brandon was in sight I managed one full step forward on my left foot.
As soon as my right foot came down, my leg quit working and I almost face-planted. I didn’t have to say anything. Brandon and I both knew something serious was wrong. He immediately asked if I was okay and I replied with “I may have torn a muscle”. After a brief discussion about calling SAR I only remember saying “I’ve got this”. I turned and began limping up the trail.
At this point we stood almost exactly in the middle of our journey. We had around 30 miles left to Steven Pass and our ride home. I still had my 40-pound pack to carry and every single step felt like fire going through my leg.
After arriving back home I would find out that I had ruptured my right Achilles tendon. The doctors performed multiple MRI’s and placed several casts before I hiked again.
They told me one year before I was back on the trail. I managed to be back on snowshoes within 6 months.
Nonetheless, By the time we arrived at deception lakes I was in the worst pain of my life and terrified to even remove my shoe.
The camping at Deception lakes is excellent. When you see the first lake continue hiking down PCT Section J until you get to the outlet stream of the second lake. Watch on your right (going northbound) for an opening to a large flat area. There are multiple sites on the hill. If you keep going you will find many more sites as you round the lake. It was by far our best campsite of the trip.
After we set up camp I was the first one done and ready to start cooking. Brandon was still setting up his sleeping bag and I headed to get water for us. We had met a guy named Martin along the trail who was camping nearby. I also offered to fill his bottles as I walked by. I took the time to soak my leg in the icy water while filling bottles.
When I returned to camp Martin and Brandon were laughing together. Brandon then gave me the nickname “Waterboy”. He said it was because of my occasional temper along the trail and the fact that I was the one getting water every night. Even injured I was still trying to hydrate people.
The night was as cold as any other had been, but the tree cover made sleeping and getting warm so much easier. Plus the rain stopped for most of the night as well. Thank goodness for Nalgene bottles full of hot water and a dry sleeping bag.
Looking at our days’ elevation changes, the trail looked favorable to my condition. There was only one big section of gain between us and our next tent site. PCT section J leaves from deception lakes and immediately gains a little elevation. Then it drops down into a basin for several miles.
Within 15 minutes of leaving the lakes my leg felt like it was on fire. To combat this, Brandon gave me one of his hiking poles. I crudely lashed it to my leg to use it as a peg while walking. It didn’t solve the whole problem but I was finally moving at a decent pace again.
There is one pass to confront for the day when heading northbound. As we wandered between boulder fields and through meadows I kept wondering how I would get to the top of it.
Me climbing to that last high pass along PCT Section J had to be quite a sight. On my left side I would take a normal step I was hobbling my way to the top like a pirate. On my left I had to push myself so hard to keep going that I stopped thinking about the pain. When I reached the top of the pass, all I could do was sit down and rock back and forth clutching my leg.
According to Brandon there were two people at the top he had a short discussion with. He says they asked me a few questions but I didn’t respond. I was too busy rocking back and fort in pain.
The rest of the day to Mig lake was easy as the trail winds along the ridge. As we hiked the sun kept getting stronger and the clouds were clearing. The views opened up and in my current condition I was happy to experience it. Anything to take my mind off my leg.
Mig lake was more of a strange tasting mud puddle than a lake. To make the filtered water taste drinkable we added loads of Mio. It helped a little bit but for the most part it tasted like mud.
Despite the terrible tasting water we were happy to feel the full sun on our skin. Both of us sat back without our raincoat for the first time in days to enjoy a meal.
We ate our last trail dinner and had our eyes toward a shower a home-cooked food. Finally, we would go to sleep without rain falling on the tent. Soon I would find out how damaged my leg really was…
We woke up around 5:30 in the morning to the sound of a SAR helicopter circling our campsite. For a moment I wondered if I told my family the correct day that I would be back home. As the helicopter finally pulled away it was a relief to know none of us was going to have to pay that bill. Especially considering my legs very swollen condition.
It was bittersweet to be ending our journey. But with a ruptured Achilles, wet gear, little food remaining and the promise of libations, it was time.