This excerpt from Journey on the Crest, Cindy Ross’s account of her 1982 – 1984 PCT hike, recounts her near-fatal fall on the icy slopes of Sonora Pass. Any PCT hiker who has walked this stretch of trail can readily visualize the sweeping snow bowl that generally remains snowbound for most of the season. Crossing it involves a long, exposed traverse.
This story will be posted in two parts. You can read the conclusion on January 10. And, of course, you can read the entirety of Journey on the Crest which has been reprinted as is again available.
By Cindy Ross
AUGUST 6, 1982
We awake to find dripping rain. An aura of dread hangs over us in weather like this. We must move quickly. The day is not relaxed. Breaks are short and hurried. Gloom fills our spirits, as it fills the sky.
We are eighteen miles from Sonora Pass. We were supposed to meet our friend Brian at the pass last night. We hope he understands and waits until tonight. This section has been far more difficult than we anticipated.
We leave behind the glaciated canyons and begin to see some signs of volcanic activity. The rocks are gray. Flowers grow abundantly in this soil. It looks like someone’s cultivated garden. Raindrops cling to the orange and red straw flowers and fuzzy, pink pussypaws. The air is misty and cool, for the first time since I left Mexico. Our food is down to the minimum again. We were figuring too closely. We didn’t consider the arduous climbs that increased our hunger. Crackers soaked with gasoline from a leaky fuel bottle are all we have for lunch today.
The wind is blowing sleet against us as we climb.
There aren’t enough calories in our stomachs, to produce much heat. We stand on the ridge, shaking, red skin raw from the driving sleet. Time to put on plastic.
Six miles of exposed ridge lie before us. We attack the trail vigorously, as if to make the distance go by more quickly. We want the day to be over, to see Brian, to be warm, to eat. The side of the crest where we walk is gentle and sloping. I peer through a cloud break and spy Levitt Lake far below. Up here the mountain is jagged and devouring, as though the earth has cracked open and I am looking past its teeth down into its throat.
Snowfields increase at ten thousand feet (not an image from Cindy Ross’ trip)
The snowfields begin to increase at ten thousand feet. I don’t feel like leading and kicking steps, so Nancy says she’ll go first. Her willingness and lack of hesitation prove that she’s not the same fearful woman who carried two ski poles on Forrester Pass. Our arms tire quickly, unaccustomed to using ice axes. The muscles have gone soggy in the last snow-free weeks. The weather is getting colder and we’re increasingly fatigued. What little warmth was present during the day has dissipated. By 6 p.m., we round some corners, fly down a few switchbacks, and spot the road below. Is that Brian’s truck? Then the trail curves around into a tremendously snowy bowl, stopping us dead in our tracks. The PCT cuts across the snowbound bowl, through hundreds of yards of steep snow, looking like it adds miles of unnecessary walking. A set of prints from a rock outcrop come our way.. Someone else was here.
Above us, the slope looks more gradual. We’ll start high and walk down to meet the rock outcrop and follow the prints, just as we have so many times, over so many passes. The snow has always been soft enough for us to take plunging steps down the slope. Even today, with overcast skies, we’ve been able to kick good steps. No reason why we shouldn’t now.
Nancy leads, angling us with every step. She can’t seem to go down! Ascending slightly seems much easier. I follow right behind, placing the sides of my boots in her footholds. About twenty feet out, she starts losing control. Her whole body starts to shake.
“You’re dong fine,” I assure her. “We’re getting there. Just take your time and stay calm.”
I really feel quite confident. The end is in sight. I can see Brian’s truck down below on the road. It’s so close. Besides, I’m in the rear, the easy part. Once again, I think she’s overreacting.
“I don’t think I can go anymore,” she concludes.
“Okay. Try to move us and I’ll go by and lead.”
“I’m really scared,“ she whispers, as I pass. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
I hurry a little, but not enough to be careless. I slam the side of my foot two or three times into the slope before taking a step. I can’t seem to get a good foothold. There’s only about a half-inch to stand on. Suddenly, my foot slips! My heart sinks and I catch myself.
“Be careful!” Nancy screams from behind.
Steep snow common in the Sonora Pass area
Boy, I didn’t like that one bit! It shocks me into realizing the seriousness of this traverse. We’re moving closer to the center of the bowl – the steepest, iciest section. There are chutes of ice that are too slick to stand on, so we must step over them, forcing our feet too far apart for good stability.
Across one of these chutes, my rear foot goes out from under me again! But this time it pulls the other one along! In a fraction of a second, my feet are racing down the slope, with the rest of my body trying to catch up. I look up at the hand that holds my ice ax, watch it pull loose from the slope. My mouth opens in a scream and I go down.
On my back I race downward at blinding speed, desperately trying to shove my ice ax and heels in the slope. It’s no good! The ice is thick and offers no grip. I skid down the slope like a hockey puck, hurtling toward a rock outcrop. I make one more mad attempt to stop myself, but my feet succeed only in spraying snow on my glasses. Suddenly, time stops, and I remember nothing else.