Having not prepped for altitude, I was bound to have some problems. Luckily, taking Diamox regularly most likely prevented me from experiencing altitude sickness as severely as I might of otherwise. In addition to the altitude anxiety, I was also testing out my heel from plantar fasciitis for the first time in over 6 weeks. Inherently I knew this was super dumb, but I figured that I could limp my way back down the trail if I had to and had a number of pain medications just in case. Finally, the last bit of anxiety was whether or not we would be able to summit Olancha peak. It had snowed three days prior and although we had all learned how to snow-shoe and how to camp in the snow, the peak was bound to be a much different animal. The high temperatures during the day and freezing temps at night would no doubt make the trail up the peak a treacherous icy challenge that I wasn’t excited about.
Olancha is a tiny blip on the map near Highway 395. It is in the Southern Sierra range and one of the first high points as you come out of the Ridgecrest desert. To access the Olancha Pass trail, you turn west onto Sage Flats Road from Highway 395. The end of the road is the trail-head. The top of the pass is only 2.5 miles up, but the climb of 3500′ feet into the elevation of 9400′ feet will tax your oxygen intake.
With all this in mind, I made my way to the pass with increasing confidence. When we got to the top, there wasn’t really a fantastic view. There was a marshy stream area and we could hear the chorus of frogs confirming the marsh was in full swing. Beyond that was a forested saddle.
If we continued onto the trail we would get to a “cowboy camp” and then could summit Olancha. But our wizened leader decided to go with Plan B and give us a fun challenge. He gave us a point on the map, Gaging Station Bridge that was on the PCT over the Kern River. We were to split into groups to make our way using our map and compass off trail.
This was incredibly fun. We ended up finding an old jeep trail and a couple other treasures along the way. The most exciting for me was the biggest juniper that I’ve EVER seen. It was a truly magnificent specimen of one of my favorite desert plants. Near the King of the Junipers (thus named by me!) sit two rocky thrones, one looking very natural and the other only slightly human modified. The tree and the thrones overlooked the valley where the Kern River meandered in sidewinder bends nestled in greenery and the promise of wildflowers. We could also barely make out the bridge that was our destination. This trek was only about 3 miles since we were heading “as the crow flies” as much as footed beasts can through manzanita and desert sage shrubbery.
Upon approaching the bridge, we could see the cliff swallows swooping in and out catching insects to, I assume, feed their babies in the nests. It was Golden Hour and the thrill of reaching our destination in such beauty overwhelmed me with happiness.
The icing on the top… we were now on the PCT which is the trail of my dreams.
(To be continued..)