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Day 1 John Muir Trail

Yosemite Valley (Happy Isles) to Sunrise Camp

Total JMT miles — 13.2        Elevation gain/loss — +6405 feet/-1265 feet

I left the Yosemite backpacker camp at 8:00 am on August 10 for the long trek up and out of the Valley floor. My pack was heavy (57 pounds), but my mood was great as I walked the mile from camp to Happy Isles, the official beginning of the John Muir Trail. I chatted amiably with a father/son duo from Cleveland who were headed to Crater Lake, from where I had just come. The son planned to do the Crater Lake Marathon, and the father was his support. They were vacationing in and around California and Oregon, and loving every minute of it. I was struck by how everyone is up to something in Yosemite, and amid the throngs of tourists you can always find a good story. I was sad to see them head to their car as I continued to Happy Isles.

Official start of the JMT

Official start of the JMT

I used a “real” bathroom one last time, and had a tourist snap a photo of me at the trailhead. I was on my way! I knew from last year that the trail starts out paved, and steep. I also knew the day would require an immense amount of elevation gain if I went to Sunrise camp, which was my intention. Last year, my hiking partner Gregg and I camped part way up and did a late afternoon ascent of Half Dome. This year, I had no permit or plans for Half Dome, and my intentions were to reach Sunrise Camp, and do it in a fashion that was less taxing than last year.  Despite camping only 6.5 miles from the start last year, that first day really did me in. For whatever reason, the steepness of the trail and the high steps required nearly defeated me last year on the very first day. This year, I was determined not to let that happen again.

I had plans for a three-prong approach to preventing last year’s extremely tough first day.  1. Hike with poles. For various reasons, last year I started without poles, and the trail was murder on my knees and hips as a result. So the poles were out from the beginning this time around;  2. Avoid the Mist Trail. While shorter and spectacular as it “mists” you from the spray of Vernal Falls,  it is also much steeper, and bypasses the

Vernal Falls

Vernal Falls

Clark Point Junction...with Half Dome, Mt. Broderick, and Liberty Cap

Clark Point Junction…with Half Dome, Mt. Broderick, and Liberty Cap

real JMT route. We mistakenly did that last year, and I paid a dear price. This year I stayed on the JMT proper, ending up at the top of Nevada Falls, and seeing Vernal Falls only from a distance;  3. Expect that it will be difficult, and take it slow and steady. This approach served me well, and having the expectation of difficulty made all the difference in the world.  I kept a steady but reasonable pace for the 3.5 miles up to Nevada Falls, and arrived at 10:15 am, just in time for a well-deserved drink, snack, and photos.

Nevada Falls

Nevada Falls

Nevada Falls

The next phase of the route was more gradually up, and felt very familiar. I took it slow and steady, up to the Half Dome Junction. I lunched there, and reflected that soon I would be in new backpacking territory for my first day out. My hips were starting to ache from the weight of the pack and the continuous elevation gain. But I was making good time, and knew I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I passed the junction to Cloud’s Rest, where we had camped last year,  and felt briefly saddened not to be taking that side trip. Of all of last year’s side trips, Cloud’s Rest remained one of my favorites. But this year, I walked on by, my destination still 6.7 miles away. While I was nearly half way there,  the toughest part was yet to come.

After several more tedious miles through a burned-out zone, Sunrise Mountain loomed ahead. I remembered it last year as a series of hot, dry, and steep switchbacks.  I also remembered it as tedious and miserable. I stopped to tape a developing hot spot on my right foot before I started up in earnest. I could feel a blister coming, and I wanted to be proactive, especially on day one.  I ate and drank. I continued to the switchbacks, as the cloudless day grew warmer. When I finally crossed the creek one last time and started up, my headspace got weird. I felt disassociated from my brain, like I was traveling in a fog. When I passed the rare person coming down, I made sure I was coherent. I think it was a combination of the heat, the intensity of the hike and day, and fatigue. I really had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other for the climb up Sunrise Mountain, and it proved equally as difficult as I remembered.

Top of Sunrise Mountain

Top of Sunrise Mountain

At the top, I was beyond ready to take a break…including a smiling “selfie”. Might as well look non-plussed!  I was relieved to have done most of the elevation for the day, and to be a mere mile from Sunrise camp. As I re-shouldered my pack again, I realized with a start just how sore my hips, glutes, and scare-iliac ligaments were. Everything was screaming and exquisitely painful to the touch. It almost felt like I couldn’t keep going. But I continued on to expansive Long Meadow, where I took one last break as I tried to figure out where to camp.

Long Meadow...at last!

Long Meadow…at last!

The Yosemite ranger had told me to camp at the Sunrise High Sierra Camp…I thought that was only for paid guests. But I staggered in there, impatiently traipsing through the High Sierra camp, with it’s huts and guests. Where was the backpacker camp?

Some nice lady told me to just keep going, past all the huts. I did, and soon reached the throng of backpackers. This backpacker camp was even more busy than Yosemite’s! I tried to find a place away from the masses, but eventually gave up due to fatigue and frustration. I dumped my pack in the only campsite I could find… to heck with my desire for space and privacy. I apologized to the gal whose tent space I encroached on…she said no worries, she had been there three nights and it had been just as crowded each night. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to spend three nights there, but who was I to say?

I was simply relieved to unburden myself of my pack for good, right about 5:30 pm. I set up camp and went exploring. I thought Sunrise Lakes was nearby, and had a fantasy of dipping my sore body into the lakes for relief. After wandering for 30 minutes and ending right back at the backpacker camp (by the straightforward approach I had missed in the first round, due to my fatigue and impatience), I gave up on the lake idea. Turns out Sunrise Lakes is miles away, and I certainly didn’t have that in me. Instead, I made dinner and tried for bed, at darkness (about 8 pm). I slept very poorly…perhaps in part because of my bear fear.

This fear, the fear of bears, was definitely on my mind. Partly this was due to a bear encounter last year on the trail, which my partner Gregg dealt with by chasing off the bear.  And partly it was because, at the Yosemite Wilderness Center this year, the ranger said they had to kill a bear merely five days earlier, who was prowling uncontrollably and threateningly at the Sunrise Camp…where I was stationed.  While sad to hear this, it also had me worried. There had been two very persistent bears…the most troublesome one now was gone, but that still left one. As I tried to go to sleep, I kept envisioning what I would do if a bear tried to get in the tent with me! I know it sounds silly, but that night, those thoughts were present. I had to work with myself and my thoughts to dispel the worry…and it DID help to know that there were lots of other people around. One advantage of camping with the throngs!

Suffice it to say that after a restless night, I was relieved to be up and out of the Sunrise Camp next morning…and onto Day 2 of my adventure.

Highlights of Day 1

The hardest day was behind me…and it WAS better than the previous first day.

I KNEW that day one would be the most physically challenging. I was front-loaded with things like fuel and toiletries, as well as carrying five days of food. I would not have to carry any more weight at any time than I carried that first day. And I would not have to gain more elevation in any given day than I did that first day. To have all of that behind me, despite the pain in my hips and glutes, was a HUGE relief. Things would only get theoretically easier from that point on.

And despite the challenges, my goal of a better Day One on the JMT was definitely met. My attitude of acceptance and having the expectation that it would be difficult definitely paid off. I was not caught off guard by the challenge, and instead rose to and met it. A big success right off the bat!

I was proactive with pain and problems.

As mentioned, I started developing hot spots with my right foot, which I attempted to problem solve that first day. I also developed a hot spot on my spine, which had been one of my biggest issues the previous year…backpack chafing along the vertebrae, which opened up and caused pain and discomfort for the entirety of last year’s trip. This year, I could FEEL it happening on that first day, despite a new pack that was supposed to have a suspension system guaranteed to prevent this. Before I left Sunrise Camp on Day 2, I asked someone to put moleskin on the hot spot on my mid-back, as I could not reach it. One of the disadvantages of traveling alone…no partner to help with such. BUT, being proactive early on with the back was a necessity, and a nice crew of men and women all offered their thoughts on how best to deal with this. We all agreed that a strip of moleskin to more than cover the spot was the best bet.

Lessons of Day 1

Advantages and Disadvantages of traveling alone…

I started a file on this topic. I really liked being alone, in terms of setting my own pace, stopping whenever I wanted to, taking pictures, or not, and basically setting my own agenda. However, there was no one to immediately share the victory with when a milestone was reached, and it was difficult to do things like apply moleskin to my back. This file and theme continued to grow in my mind as the trip progressed.

Managing my tendency for needless worry…

This theme was played out in bear fears that first night. I wondered what my night would have been like if I had NOT worried about bears…yet I felt powerless to stop it. Also, I acknowledged my tendency to worry about upcoming challenges. I started worrying and obsessing about Sunrise Mountain before it was even upon me, that it might be “too much”. Then, when I was there, I worried that I might pass out or lose it, as my head felt foggy. None of those things happened. Realizing my tendency for needless worry caused me to start a file on that also…things I worry about that don’t happen. While I felt challenged to control my thoughts completely, at least I knew I could reflect back after the fact on the worries that never come to fruition. Somehow, writing it out after that first day and night helped to put the theme and reality of needless worry into perspective.

The body really DOES feel better in the morning!

Even though I slept poorly, I was relieved that I felt mostly OK on the morning of Day 2. I know this from past experience, that a night of rest usually pays off for physical pain relief,  even if sleep is negligible. I repeated a mantra and affirmation as I packed up for the day…”I awake each day rejuvenated, refreshed, and revived.” I declared that as my theme for each and every morning remaining on the trail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 19 John Muir Trail

Arctic Lake Outlet to Mt. Whitney to Lone Pine Lake

Total JMT miles  —  12.1            Elevation Gain/Loss  —  +3035/-4495

First light on Guitar Lake

I wake up earlier than usual on this last full day of my trip. I will officially complete the JMT proper today, and hike most of the way out of the wilderness before spending one final night at Lone Pine Lake, just 3 miles from civilization. I am saddened by this reality but ready to take it on.  I am up and out of the tent even before first light. I want to get as early of a start as possible without feeling stressed. I am not in any real hurry, but I also don’t need to hang around for any reason. The summit of Whitney awaits!

As I prepare to depart, I can see a steady throng of people hike by just off in the distance, all headed towards the Whitney summit. At first it’s a constant stream of headlamps.  When first light emerges, the headlamps gradually disappear but the people keep coming. I eat breakfast, pack up, and get ready to join the masses. It’s a perfectly clear, crisp, morning and the sunrise colors are stupendous. It’s a perfect day to summit. I am completely ready by 6:45, my earliest departure time on the trip so far.

Looking down on Arctic Lake and peaks behind

Morning light reflected off Guitar Lake

Psychologically, I prepare myself for the people I will encounter on this day. The park service issues 150 permits to day hikers on Whitney, and then there are all the people who summit in conjunction with backpack trips (not only the JMT, but also other permitted trips in the area). Despite it’s daunting 14,505 foot summit, Mount Whitney in August is a busy place!  Surprisingly,  by the time I am headed up the switchbacks from Arctic Lake to Trail Crest, where people dump their backpacks to summit with less of a load, I don’t see any people. Not a one. Clearly, everyone is ahead of me. I climb that entire three mile section in utter solitude.  It’s quiet, eerie, peaceful and surreal.  But such is the nature of summit expeditions. Everyone wants to get up and at ’em, and I feel behind schedule already even though it’s barely 7:00 am!

Just before Trail Crest, I hear someone call to me. “Hey Kathie!” I don’t at first recognize the voice or face, as it’s all covered in hat, scarf, and other cold weather gear. “It’s Emily!” Now I can recognize solo hiker Emily, who I haven’t seen for two days. She slept right at Trail Crest (elevation 13,460), and has already been up to the summit to catch the sunrise from there. Now she is packed up and ready to head down. I am impressed at her organization and determination to make Whitney at sunrise and camp right out in the elements just below it. We chat for a moment, and I hear about her last couple of days and share details of mine. I am quite sure I won’t see her again, as she will be down long before me, and headed for hamburgers with her family.  I wish her well on the hike out and in her future, and tell her I am extremely glad to have met her and that I am impressed with her confidence and ability at the tender age of 21! She thanks me, wishes me well, and says I’m not too shabby either for a 50-something. She snaps two pictures of me, and we say our goodbyes.

Just below Trail Crest, where I found Emily

At Trail Crest, the trails from north and south merge. One comes up from Guitar Lake (where I have come), and one comes up from the Whitney Portal. Here, action definitely picks up. It’s two miles and just over 1000 feet elevation gain to the top from here. 30,000 hikers try for the summit each year; 10,000 make it. All 10,000 aren’t here today, but plenty are! I have an instant flashback to other wilderness experiences I’ve had in my life where it seems, from the environment and surroundings, that there simply should not be so many people present. The wild and extreme surroundings and the numbers of people simply don’t make sense together.  But alas, it is what it is, and I am determined to make the best of it. I dump my pack at Trail Crest. I plan to take only some food, water, my camera, an extra layer of clothes, and basic toiletries to the summit with me. I make sure to put all of the rest of the food in the bear canister to keep the marmots out. Marmots stand watch 24/7 here, and they keep a constant eye out for careless food security.

Similar to previous times both this year and last, once I am rid of my heavy backpack, I get into serious cruise mode. The final two miles to Whitney isn’t technical, but it is exposed, and people get cautious. It’s also relatively thin air, and that gets to people too.  I move past everybody, and no one passes me. I am not rushing to summit, it’s just what happens. I pass people in tennis shoes, sandals, and even one woman in flip flops! There are people in tank tops and some wearing enough clothing to tackle Everest! There is such a diverse array of clothing, levels of experience, and comfort vs. obvious discomfort with this last section of trail that it makes for great people watching.  But it’s difficult to navigate passing all those going up and those coming down. It’s simply a lot of people traveling up and down a narrow, rocky, and sometimes very exposed trail.

Hitchcock Lakes and Mt. Hitchcock from summit trail

Same view, slightly different lighting. Mt. Chamberlin in background

Since this is nearly the end of my journey, I want to make sure to enjoy every step. I feel conflicted as step by step I close in on the summit. I feel like I am reaching a pinnacle in more ways than one, and that life will never be quite the same once I have finished this trek, and I am not sure if I am ready for that.  I know there is nothing inherently life changing about the summit itself, since I reached it last year. But what it represents this time, at the end of this magnificent solo trek, feels momentous.

Summit Hut

But the heavy introspection soon gets tedious even to me, and I lighten up and finish it off. What greets me is the summit hut, the huge summit register, and throngs of people milling around the thankfully large area, toasting their success with miniature alcohol bottles and rampant photo and video taking. It’s predictable and yet totally spectacular, because the views really are circumferentially breathtaking!

I find Ginnie and her crew right away, and get in on some picture action. I have them take several of me, and offer to take group photos of them. It’s fun to feel a part of something — although I am not in their group photos, I still feel welcomed at the fringes. I am sure I could insert myself into a photo with them, but what would be the point? I have come this far alone, I will stick to my solo guns on the summit as well.

Photo time!

You can get a sense of the size of Whitney’s summit from this photo…

I try to take it all in before heading down: the fact that I have done it, the fact that I did it alone, and the fact that I did it without serious incident or accident or anything going wrong. It is a weird feeling, being up there like that, knowing how much went into the trip, all the planning and organization, and to have it all go off so well, but to be done. I keep thinking I should keep going. I know I don’t want it to end.

So while I do turn around and come down after an hour on top, I am grateful that I have only decided to go as far as Lone Pine Lake instead of all the way out. The first 100 plus switchbacks down from Trail Crest are tight, steep, and relentless. I am back with my backpack, and I remember how little I like this part of the trail. I move down a step at a time as quickly as I can, ignoring all pain in my arthritic knee and just getting it done. As soon as I am off of that section, I feel I can breathe again. I stop at what’s called Trail Camp, a large, crowded, popular campsite for hikers coming up from Lone Pine to summit in two days…or those doing the JMT South to North. There is only a small water source, and the sanitation of the place scares me. Too many people camp here, and it just feels dirty and over used. But I stay long enough to eat my lunch, write in my journal, and begin my trip reflections in earnest. I see Ginnie and her crew again, and consider hiking the last few miles with them, to pass the time. But I don’t seek that out, they start down ahead of me, and I start out alone.

Headed back down, just below Trail Camp

Just below Trail Camp, I catch up to one of Ginnie’s crew, Mike, a “trail parent” to her mixed up group. He starts up a conversation, explaining that he is slow because of a bum knee. I can relate, and I am in just the right mood to continue it, and we end up hiking out the last three miles together.  I have to say it makes that stretch of trail go very fast, and a part of me wonders why I didn’t hike with others more on the JMT. But I also know if I had done it the whole hike, it would have made me crazy. It’s a fitting way to spend the last miles of the last full day, and I happily say goodbye and part ways with Mike at the turn off to Lone Pine Lake. Alone again, I look for a campsite.

I had expected Lone Pine Lake to be busy with day hikers, as it is so close to the Whitney Trailhead. But there are only a handful of youngsters just getting out of the lake after a swim when I arrive. I walk past all the obvious campsites and go around to the far side of the lake. I believe there is camping there, and I don’t want to be in anyone’s obvious path. I am still seeking seclusion. I find a spot, which is large and open and just above the lake, where people have obviously camped before. It’s a bit more on the beaten path than I would like if someone actually walks around the lake, but I take it. By now, the typical afternoon clouds have come in, and I am less enthusiastic about the swim I was so looking forward to. I do it anyway, but it’s cool and windy and I am and out quick as a flash. Dressed and warmed up,  I set up camp, and wonder how to while away the hours until darkness. It’s only 3 o’clock when I arrive, and my quick dunk and setting up camp only takes a short time. I have almost finished my book, and I find my thoughts being overtaken again by some heavy introspection about the trip being almost done.

Afternoon clouds obscure my sun for swimming at Lone Pine Lake

I see just two more people all afternoon. One guy who comes through my site tries to tell me I can’t camp at the lake. I assure him that my JMT bible says I can! He looks at me skeptically, and I worry that I am doing something wrong. But I stand my ground and choose to stay. The next person is a female, heavily, accented, who inquires “Are you Kathie?” This totally and understandably surprises me! “Ginnie sent me.” She explains. “I am headed up Whitney, from the Portal, doing JMT South to North. I meet nice woman Ginnie on the trail, she tells me you are camped here and how nice you are! She says to come find you.”

I am impressed that this woman has come here to find me, but I am unsure what she needs. The site really won’t hold us both…it could, but I would rather not camp with a stranger on this last night. The reason I didn’t go all the way out was because I wanted one more night alone to sort out my thoughts, etc. All this is on my mind as I finally say, “Yes, Ginnie. She is sweet too! What can I do for you?” I don’t know how else to phrase the question, to try to figure out what she wants or needs from me. We chat for a bit, and eventually it comes out that she is also doing the JMT solo, and has some uneasiness about this. Some part of her wants to camp this first night with someone, or near someone, and she has settled on me! We also discuss options farther up for her, like Trail Camp, 3 more miles up trail, where I assure her there will be plenty of  people. She wonders if she can make Trail Camp before dark, and I tell her I am confident she can. I also tell her she is welcome to stay with me, and make sure I am in the correct headspace for this once I make the offer. I watch her waffle as she tries to figure out what to do.

Eventually, she re-shoulders her backpack, deciding she will go on. I am semi-relieved, but also touched that Ginnie, who I really don’t even know, thinks highly enough of me that she would send a solo female hiker my way for some reassurance or guidance or something. I hope I have offered it. I wish the woman, Anna, well, and off she goes.

Campsite at Lone Pine Lake

The lake now is utterly quiet, and I have the place completely to myself. It’s still early, way too early to call it a night, but I am restless and tired of writing and thinking. I simply don’t know how to make better sense of the end of this trip at this point than I have done in my journal writing so far.  I know more sense will come in the days, weeks, months, and even years to come. For now, on this last evening alone on my trip, I just sit and watch the sun dance in and out of the clouds and reflect off the nearby peaks, and try to embrace as much of the actual experience as is humanly possible. Everything about this trip thus far has been magical, and this last evening is no exception. I feel a sense of deep peace and complete appreciation for the entire adventure. I enjoy a final embrace from mother nature as she works her magic color schemes as the light fades around me. It’s truly a perfect ending to a perfect trip.

Highlights of the Day

Solo hike up to Trail Crest

Early morning sunlight on Mt. Hitchcock

Sometimes, I gear up for something that I think will be emotionally taxing for some reason, and then, when it doesn’t happen, it’s just such an unexpected relief. I fully expected people on that first 3 mile stretch, as the previous year Gregg and I had encountered a bunch. Starting off heavily clothed, that meant stopping to shed layers, and the people we’d pass would re-pass us, and we would then have to pass them again.  And getting rid of the morning coffee also proved difficult on the entire stretch of trail from Arctic lake to the summit of Whitney. That’s what I was expecting. To get that full three miles completely alone as the morning sun gleamed off all the surrounding peaks, it was simply beautiful, calming, and completely peaceful. A great way to start the day.

The summit of Whitney

Mts. Muir, Newcomb, Mallory, Le Conte, and Langley from Whitney summit…Just five of the multitude!

The time on the summit was precious. Last year, I was caught off guard by the numbers of people, and that people were drinking and celebrating at 9 or 10 am. This year, I didn’t expect otherwise, and so I wasn’t thrown off at all. The views were similar from year one to year two, as smoke had mostly cleared out in year one. But let me tell you, the views from a summit that high never disappoint, and to wander all around and look out from each direction is an experience that every human should have!

The last three miles of hiking…with someone!

I am not sure why I so enjoyed hiking with Mike for that last three miles, but it just really felt good to connect with a human on the level that we did. Partly it was because we were both of similar age, and both addled by a combined multitude of orthopedic injuries. It started out with him dumping his orthopedic woes on me, as I am a good listener and I definitely get it. But, as I felt brave enough to share some of mine with him,  it shifted to more even ground, and we were able to have a mutually uplifting and encouraging hike, as opposed to a suffer fest about all our ailments! I was able to talk with him about my probable upcoming knee replacement, and some of my thought processes in coming to that decision, which I hadn’t really talked to anyone about until that point.  It felt like a good and solid connection for that hour and some until we parted ways, and left me with a smile on my face.

Lone Pine Lake…alone

Parting shot of final campsite

I started the day alone and ended it alone. And it was very fitting to be camped at Lone Pine Lake! Again, like the start of my day, I had no expectation of solitude at the lake, and was unexpectedly blessed with such. I could not have asked for a more beautiful setting for my final night. I was close to civilization such that the morning’s hike would be a walk in the park. But clearly enough away that I got to experience one final night of just me and the mountains and chipmunks and whatever other wildlife joined me and my thoughts and introspections.

Lessons of the day

The recurrent theme and contrast of time alone vs. time with others

This day was similar to the whole trip which is similar to my whole life…the quest for balance between time alone and time with others. For whatever reason, on the trail and in life in general, I have a need for vast amounts of time alone. And yet, within that, I also am deeply drawn to people and conversations and connection and feeling a part of something much bigger than myself. This day had it all — time alone, and time with many, and the noticing of that and seeing how I can and do flit in and out of it all. The entire day just fit in so well with the big picture of  my life. I don’t have the balance mastered, and I still long at times for one when the other is missing, but I do understand how important both are for my well-being, happiness, and very survival.

It’s simply impossible to sum up something as big as the JMT in one final day

I stayed at Lone Pine Lake to try for closure or ease the challenge of re-adapting back to “real life” by one more night. But I realized that it can’t happen in a time-compressed fashion. Processing the trip, and getting all there is to get out of it, takes much longer than the end of the day on which it finishes. While it was a heavy thinking day, I was also able to eventually let the day be and just take it for what it was…the last day of a fantastic trip that will likely take years to finally settle into my life. And I found that thought reassuring, the knowing that I didn’t have to have it all figured out by the end of the last full day. There is much writing about and pulling together still to come!

Day 18 John Muir Trail

Lake South America Junction to Arctic Lake

Total JMT miles — 11.8        Elevation gain/loss  —  2070+/1410-

I awake early this morning, hours before daylight, with a keen awareness that the end of my Great Journey is inconceivably near. This time tomorrow, I will be headed up to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the “official”  end of the John Muir Trail.  While the trail officially ends on the summit, you still have to hike out the ten miles to the Whitney Portal and back to civilization. Nonetheless, tomorrow I will be done with the official trail, and the next day I will hike out of the Sierras for the completion of my trip. I lie awake in the early morning darkness considering how I want this day to look. I feel reflective, contemplative, and aware of the slightest beginnings of sadness. I make a pledge to myself before I leave the warmth of my tent to enjoy and embrace each and every minute of this last full day on the JMT proper, whatever may come to pass.

Again it’s cold at the campsite, and I struggle mightily to get myself packed up without freezing. Thankfully, I have hand warmers for each of my last two super-cold mornings, and I enjoy the small amount of warmth they exude inside my gloves. I do all my morning tasks while deep in thought, and I want to slow down time so that the day never ends. It’s an easy day in miles, just under 12, to hike above Guitar Look, to the outlet of Arctic Lake, guarded carefully by Mt. Whitney herself. There is nothing particularly challenging about the day, except my reluctance to start it. I know that once it starts, it’s conclusion is the inevitable outcome. But eventually cold and the need to move forces me to turn it on, and I get packed up and move out.

Craggy trees to start my day

Craggy trees to start my day

First up is a bit of forest, and I move quickly to warm up. I am grateful that there is some elevation gain here to get the blood flowing. Soon the trail opens up, and I emerge onto a flat barren of sand. The views are vast and open, and I can see peaks in all directions. The trail crests at what’s called Bighorn Plateau, a place named after a long ago sighting of sheep off to the east.  My book says it’s uncommon to actually see sheep here, but coyotes and soaring birds of prey are commonly sighted. It’s a pretty magical place on the whole. Last year we took off from Bighorn for a quick jaunt up Tawny Point for a full panorama; I consider that side trip briefly, but after the previous days challenges on the Lake South America Trail, I decide I don’t feel like going off-trail. But the views are fantastic, and I take lots of pictures.

Kern Ridge from Bighorn Plateau

Kern Ridge from Bighorn Plateau

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Unnamed lake and Kern Ridge

Unnamed lake and Kern Ridge

Mt.Hale (foreground), Mt. Whitney (back, right), Mt. Russell (back, left)

Mt.Hale (foreground), Mt. Whitney (back, right), Mt. Russell (back, left)

Kaweahs from Bighorn Plateau

Kaweahs from Bighorn Plateau

Leaving Bighorn Plateau, I drop into the Wright Creek drainage. It’s a minor elevation drop with multiple stream crossings adding to the magical surroundings. I am once again walking in a wonderland of meadows and creeks, surrounded by peaks, and I feel blessed and lucky with each step. I am really enjoying myself, and feel as if I am walking on air in spite of the weight of my backpack. The trail goes up and down repeatedly. None of it is difficult. Soon I come to the place where the JMT and PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) split for good. Prior to this, the JMT largely follows the much longer PCT, but at 202 miles in,  I head east toward the summit of Whitney to finish off the JMT, and the PCT heads south towards the Mexican border. Briefly, I wish I was on the PCT just so my journey wouldn’t be so close to an end. I let myself entertain for a moment the idea of doing such an adventure in the future. Realistically, I know I won’t, as 2650 miles is just too much,  and I have no desire or inclination to be out on the trail for five months in a row! But it’s fun to day dream on this already dreamy day, and I let my thoughts wander along with my feet.

In no time I am at the junction to Crabtree Meadow. The JMT actually bypasses this gem, by you can enjoy it if you head a mere two tenths of a mile south. Crabtree Meadow, just 3 miles from where I will camp and 7.5 miles from the summit of Whitney, has ample camping, food storage boxes, a ranger station, and even a sit down toilet! It also has a lovely creek that runs through it, Crabtree Creek,  and a great potential lunch spot that I discovered last year when I left the trail to find water. All morning I have looked forward to having a long lunch in this meadow by the creek, and I am ecstatic to actually be here.

I immediately pull off my boots, socks, and get down to as few clothes as I can — jog bra and shorts. I plan for some serious sunbathing and relaxing. It’s only noon, and I have nothing else to do this afternoon but complete the three miles to Arctic Lake outlet. I figure I deserve a good long break. I eat slowly, taking in the views. No one else is around, which amazes me. After I eat I lie back and let the warm sun sink right into my weary body. I wonder if it is a mistake to get so relaxed mid day with a handful of miles still to cover. But I can’t help it. I am in heaven. It’s far and away the most relaxed I have been on this trip. The time with Dave, Oliver, and Olivia, (Day 10) when we spent much of the day in camp, I was relaxed, but it was just cold enough that I had a hard time totally letting go. Here, the sun at 10,700 feet feels fantastic, and I seriously don’t want to move. I consider just camping here for the night.

Crabtree Meadow and Creek, Mt. Hitchcock behind.

Crabtree Meadow and Creek, Mt. Hitchcock behind.

Instead, I pull out my journal and write, to capture the essence of where I am. Here is what rolls off the pen:  “Midday at Crabtree Meadow — So peaceful, sunbathing, eating lunch, boots off, and I could not be happier. I am liking this day because it is SO relaxing, I can barely stand it! When I think of what I could possibly feel stress about right now, there’s nothing. I have a great lunch spot, I am alone in the meadow by this lovely creek, with just a little farther to go today and ample time to get there. The weather looks good, and all seems to be totally in line for a relatively relaxing and easy summit tomorrow. I have enjoyed this trip beyond belief. I have gotten so comfortable with myself in all ways out here. I have seen bobcats, a coyote, deer, marmots, and tons of small critters. I have blessedly not seen a bear! I am absolutely loving this trip so far, and I wouldn’t want to change a thing. I am completely in sync in all areas of my life right now. There is simply no other place I would rather be than just where I am.”

It’s hard to top that, and it’s hard to leave. But I want that coveted spot up above Guitar Lake (most people camp at the lake the night before summiting Whitney). Last year Gregg and I made the extra half mile push up above the lake, and the views down to the lake were spectacular, as well as the fact that we were well away from all people. Since I am still seeking solitude, I push on from Crabtree after a fantastic two hour break.

Mt. Muir from trail leaving Crabtree

Mt. Muir from trail leaving Crabtree

Timberline Lake

Timberline Lake

West side of Mt. Whitney

West side of Mt. Whitney

headinguptoguitar

Whitney's getting closer!

Whitney’s getting closer!

Look closely and you can see the helicopter...

Look closely and you can see the helicopter…

Some clouds come in, and the air is noticeably chillier. I am aimed straight at Whitney as I hike, and I have a sense of my destiny emblazoned in my soul. I know how it all ends. I am starting to become more okay with things ending, and in particular I am ready to be done for the day. My legs are feeling especially fatigued, as if they know the end of their responsibility on this trip is drawing near. I tell them to hang in, we are almost done! Thankfully, the miles pass quickly, as I head past Timberline Lake and on towards Guitar. Between these lakes, I first notice helicopter activity. I start paying attention, assuming it is some type of a mountain rescue. Last summer, I had a front row seat to a helicopter rescue of a dead body in the Enchantments, outside of Leavenworth, WA (see Day 2 Enchantments). I am instantly taken back there. I hope it’s not a dead body, or any body for that matter, that they are currently rescuing. But the helicopter keeps on circling and circling. I don’t like that the noise breaks up the quiet, and I don’t like what the helicopter may represent. This stays on my mind, the first time I have let worry creep into my head all day. I try my best to let it go, as I ascend the last bit up to Guitar Lake.

When I arrive at Guitar, friends from Day 13‘s rainstorm, Ginnie and Tracy, call a hearty “Hey Kathie!!” I feel like a celebrity! Their group has grown, to about eight in all, and I immediately drop my pack for a quick hug and hello. These are the gals that set up tent so closely in the rain, then we hiked more or less together until Mather Pass on Day 14. I lost track of them after that, and I am really glad to see them.  I ask them about the helicopter. “Just training sessions,” they assure me. “They have been at it all afternoon!” I am relieved about that. I ask them their plans for the morning. They expect to leave to summit by 5 am. I tell them I am headed up to camp at Arctic Lake outlet, and don’t expect to be on the trail quite that early, but that inevitably we will run into each other on the summit. This makes me super happy, as I have lost track for good of my former comrades Ashley, Rob, and Marcus, and I would love to at least be on the summit with some folks I feel like I know well enough to celebrate with.

I do the last distance to Arctic Lake outlet on a high. There is no sad mountain rescue at hand, I have encountered friends I will see on the summit tomorrow, and I will be at camp and set up in plenty of time to enjoy the sunset over Guitar Lake.  I am in for a surprise, though, as, where last year there were just two other campers up above Guitar, this year, there is a throng. At least 20 backpackers are there, evenly spread out over the meager camping spots available. I am determined not to let this discourage me, and I set about trying to find a perfect spot for myself. I wander amongst the open slabs of rock, with their shelves on which one can barely fit a tent, and look for a spot away from the others. Eventually, I find one, and it’s actually pretty perfect. It has a ledge up above the flat rock below, which makes a built in table for me to spread my stuff out. It even has a seat off to the side of my tent slab, for writing and reading. It’s all rocky and exposed, and I know it will be cold, but it looks down over Guitar Lake, and it’s away enough from others that I don’t feel like I am right in anyone’s back yard. It’s more than good enough, and I happily begin making myself at home for the night.

Guitar Lake from my campsite

Guitar Lake from my campsite

The evening passes slowly, after an early dinner. I still have hours before darkness, and I finish a book and then do some more writing. Finally, I can’t think of any reason not to, and so I get into the tent even before the sun goes down. I think maybe I will get that early start in the morning after all, depending on what time I wake up and get moving.

Highlights of the Day

Hanging out in Crabtree Meadow

I am not sure why it took me until Day 18 to achieve complete relaxation on the trip. But for my time at the meadow, I was there. Surprisingly, I only saw a few other people the entire time, and mostly, it was just me by the creek, enjoying the peaceful sounds of water dancing as I rested, ate, and wrote. Perhaps it was my intentionality to enjoy the day that created in me such a sense of peace. Perhaps it was that I was so close to the end of my trip that there was just plain not much left to worry about. Perhaps it was that my body finally said, “Hey! We deserve a break here!”, and I listened. But for whatever reason, that time in the meadow was not only a highlight of my day, but also of the entire trip.

Campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

My campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

My campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

For whatever reason, my sense of being relaxed and accepting of everything continued into the evening and my time above Guitar Lake. I was just plain not stressed out.  About anything. I kept thinking there must be something I should worry about, at least I could get nervous about summiting in the morning. But even that didn’t do it for me. I just felt calm, cool, and collected, and very at peace in my environment. Like I fully belonged there and was one with my surroundings.

Lessons of the Day

When the pieces fall into place, it simply feels great.

I came on the trip to relax into being by myself in the magnificent beauty of a somewhat extreme mountain environment. I wanted to feel peaceful and calm and a part of that world. I wanted to be comfortable and at ease with myself and my natural companions of weather, animals, lakes, creeks, and stark mountain peaks surrounding me on all sides. I wanted to feel at home here. I finally got that in spades on Day 18. I was finally and completely at peace. Everything about the day was just like magic. I HAD fully and completely embraced all parts of the day, and it felt just great.

The realization that I was going to make it finally set in.

This wasn’t so much of a lesson as a realization. As I write and reflect back on this day, the magic largely had to do with knowing I was going to make it.  I knew it with a certainty that was as complete as my peace — I was going to complete my solo trip of the John Muir Trail. I let the magnitude and emotion of that really started to sink in on this day. Nothing stood between me and the end.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 17 John Muir Trail

Lake at 12,250 to Lake South America Junction

Total JMT miles —  5.9        Side Trip miles — 8?

Total elevation gain/loss —  1670+/2870-

First light at Lake 12,250 illuminates Junction Peak

First light at Lake 12,250 illuminates Junction Peak

The morning at Lake 12,250 dawns clear, cold and stunningly beautiful. Words can’t capture the sheer beauty as the first hints of light bounce off the peaks surrounding the lake. It’s too cold  and windy for easy conversation, so, while our tents are a mere 30 feet apart, Emily and I eat and pack up our belongings in near silence. We are both on track for an early assault on Forester Pass (13,110), the highest pass on the official JMT.  We watch the lone, older man who camped down closer to the edge of the lake pack up and hit the switchbacks even before first light. His progress seems painfully slow, and we comment that it’s a good thing he got an early start.earlysunlake12250

I have never camped so close to a pass before, and I am excited for an early ascent. It’s just under 1000 feet of elevation from where I am camped, and I don’t remember it being particularly challenging. However, one IS at high elevation, the air IS quite a bit thinner, and, as I have said before, a pass IS a pass! So I approach it as smartly as possible in terms of clothing to wear and an appropriate pace. Emily gets on the trail just before me, and I follow her up at a good clip. As I climb, I take photos and thoroughly revel in the early morning sun as it dances off the peaks and lakes below.

Center Peak, right, and University Peak behind, heading up Forester Pass

Center Peak, right, and University Peak behind, heading up Forester Pass

Lakes and peaks seen from trail to Forester

Lakes and peaks seen from trail to Forester

Looking back near the top of the pass

Looking back near the top of the pass

We pass the older guy not too far from the top of the pass. He introduces himself as John, and, frankly, he’s a nearly toothless wonder!  It appears that he’s been out in the mountains for quite some time, with his raggedy clothes, antiquated backpack, and less than Martha Stewart clean appearance. He joins Emily and me at the pass, and the three of us enjoy remarkable views and pictures at the top for 15 minutes or so. It is cold, windy, and beautiful on top…but there isn’t a lot of space, and John seems determined to talk all four of our ears off! So both Emily and I bid our adieus quickly, relieved to get away from the lonely mountain man with his abundance of stories. It’s not that I don’t like stories, but at 9:00 am on the top of the world near the end of a three week solo journey….well, you get the gist. I am okay with choosing my need for silent appreciation over his need for a sounding board.

The switchbacks down are steep, dramatic, and exposed. At times, they are cut right into the rock, and at other times, built atop stone walls. It’s remarkable the amount of effort that went into the making of the JMT trail generally, and this portion is a striking example.  A bit down the pass, at 12,500 feet, sits a memorial plaque to an 18 year old that died during the building of this section of the trail. After igniting dynamite for trail work, Donald Downs hid with his co- builders behind some large boulders off to the side. This was standard practice at the time. Unfortunately, rocks shook loose from above, and pinned Donald’s arm and injured three others. The boulder was successfully removed off Donald’s arm, but the arm was shattered. A doctor came to the scene as quickly as possible to perform amputation, but infection set in, and Donald died before he could be evacuated. Reading this story, and passing this plaque for the second year in a row, touches me greatly, as well as gives me an even greater appreciation of the dedication and sacrifice that went into the creation of this fantastic trail.  I say a silent thank you to Donald as I pass.

Mt. Barnard and lake below Forester Pass

Mt. Barnard and lake below Forester Pass

Caltech Peak, right, and Kern Ridge, back, headed down Forester Pass

Headed down the pass

Headed down the pass

At the bottom of the pass, the trail crosses the Tyndall Creek for the first of multiple times. Then it follows  a simply divine course through a broad and gentle valley for several miles. The path and landscape are sandy, punctuated by boulders. Emily and I hike at a similar pace for these first few miles. Soon we encounter the spot where the first trees appear, a mixture of lodgepole and foxtail pines.  I remember this place from last year…suddenly there are trees, where previously there were none. It’s just so incredibly distinct, and something that happens often at this elevation, the moving above and below tree line, into and out of forest. At just below tree line, we reach the signed junction for Lake South America. This is definitely on my to do list since it didn’t happen last year. I call a goodbye to Emily, and decide to go find a campsite, dump my stuff, then day hike the 6.5 mile loop that goes by Lake South America. I like the name of the lake, and Elizabeth Wenk, the author of my JMT “bible”, says it’s worthwhile. Two good enough reasons to spend an afternoon there, I reason, as it’s only 11:00 am and the day is young.

I deliberately cross Tyndall Creek before looking for a site, to get away from the crowds that might descend as the day progresses. I follow the Kathie Tupper site finding process, of leaving the trail, then wandering up, looking for flat spots that have been camped in before, but are not obvious from the trail. I find a perfect site, and this time I set up my tent and establish camp before taking off. While the skies were still mostly sunny, clouds are coming in, and I don’t want to get caught in another (albeit unlikely) rain storm while I am away, without my gear being stowed safely. She can be taught, I think with a smile 🙂

Just before Lake South America Junction...notice where the tree line starts

Just before Lake South America Junction…notice where the tree line starts

I pack up my daypack — lunch, water, dirty clothes I envision rinsing in Lake South America, and a change of clothes that I envision putting on after rinsing myself in the same lake. I return to the signed junction off the JMT, and take off on a quite well established trail. The trail splits in less than a mile, the right fork going to several other lakes then eventually Lake South America, then around into the headwaters of the Kern River. The path straight is where the loop comes around, after you have toured the lakes and river basin. True confessions, I don’t have a good map of the area, only the rather inadequate map in my John Muir Trail book. Plus my book contains a three-line description of the 6.5 mile loop hike.  I am not particularly worried, however, as I figure the trail will be popular enough to be at least somewhat well-travelled and, hopefully, easy to follow.

Scenes from Lake S. America Trail

Scenes from Lake S. America Trail

lakesandpeaksfromsat

From Lake S. America Trail

From Lake S. America Trail

The terrain is initially flat, open, and vast, and the trail is easy to follow. I encounter several lakes after a couple of miles, each time wondering if it is THE lake I am looking for. I am in a mood of second guessing everything. In my hometown of the North Cascades in Washington,  I think little of heading out on a day hike, even if  I am less than 100% confident in the route, and don’t expect to see many people. Here, in such unfamiliar territory, it feels risky and a bit scary. I let my imagination get to me, worrying that a storm might come in, and I will not be able to find my way back. I also worry that the clouds are going to keep me from being able to clean up in the lake if I ever find it, as it’s cold and windy when the sun plays hide and seek with the abundant puffy white clouds. I try to laugh at my anxieties, as none of them are founded in anything other than my imagination and fear of the unknown.

I come to a Lake that I am certain is Lake South America. It’s cold and cloudy, but I strip  down and jump in anyway, before I can talk myself out of it. It takes a bit of courage, as the lake, at over 11,000 feet elevation, is very cold.  I do the deed quickly, then shiver my way back into dry clothes just as fast as I can. I eat my turkey jerky and dried fruit by the side of the lake, teeth chattering uncontrollably. Ever tried to eat jerky with chattering teeth? It’s not easy!  I keep hoping the sun will reappear,  but it is now pretty convincingly cloudy. I feel silly for having jumped in the water, but also refreshed and very invigorated. As soon as I finish my food, I pack up and hit the trail again. At the far end of the lake,  I see the sign for Lake South America — .2 miles off in a different direction. I tell myself it’s not worth it, I have seen enough beautiful lakes. I  want to keep moving around the loop, towards the headwaters of the Kern and back to the JMT. I figure I’ll warm up on the trail, and I don’t want any diversions. I am on a mission of movement!

Lake I bathed in...that wasn't Lake S. America, after all!

Lake I bathed in…that wasn’t Lake S. America, after all!

I follow the trail past more lakes, and into the river basin. The trail becomes progressively more difficult to follow, and several times I have to go back up to where I last had it to try to determine where it goes. The setting is distractingly magical, with the Kern river valley laid out at my feet. Plus, I warm up as I walk, and that greatly helps my state of mind. I pass a set of two female backpackers, who are headed to Lake South America for the night. They are the only hikers I see. As the trail continues to be difficult to follow, I start getting nervous again. I assume there will be some sort of sign pointing me back to the JMT, as the trail thus far has been well-signed. But I spot no signs, and again, start to second guess myself. I let worry get the better of me.

First views of Mt. Whitney, far, and Mt. Muir, close, from Kern River Basin

First views of Mt. Whitney, far, and Mt. Muir, close, from Kern River Basin

Kern River Basin

Kern River Basin

Upper Kern River Basin

Upper Kern River Basin

At one point, the trail begins to drop down steeply. I look at my inadequate map, and notice that there IS a trail that drops down into the Kern River Valley, that will NOT take me back to the JMT. I become convinced that I am on that trail, and headed toward the bottom of the river basin. Immediately, I head back up to see where I have missed the turn back to the JMT. I wander around for quite some time, looking for the trail I am sure I have missed. By this time, I am beyond nervous. I feel incredibly silly that I might be lost in such a place, but I really don’t know where the trail is, and have no means to find it besides “looking around” for it. That is almost pointless in this type of environment, as nothing stays self-explanatory for long, and you are soon traipsing up and over scree fields, boulders, and basically doing the “cross country” thing which I so dislike!

I do this for about an hour, and then say to myself screw it. I take off cross country in earnest, in the direction that I think the trail must head. It’s a rough go, as I quickly discover. I am traversing steep scree fields, having to gain ridges, and dropping into lake basins that I have no idea where they lead, but it’s continually not where I expect. It’s about 4:00 pm by this time, and I am worried. I fear that I will be caught out after dark, and I have NOT brought a flash light, and I don’t not have enough clothes to spend the night at 11,000 feet without getting very chilled. I feel really chagrinned that I am not more prepared for these potential challenges on my “easy” 6.5 mile trip!

Shortly before taking off cross country...note the faint trail visible, from which I could not find the trail back.

Shortly before taking off cross country…note the faint trail visible, from which I could not find the trail back.

The best I can do is to just keep moving in the general direction that I think I should go. I know the loop trail is a loop…it stands to reason that it will come out or be visible at some point during my efforts. The hardest part is that I just keep going up and over things…and this isn’t easy. I know a trail would be much more straightforward, and I am incredibly frustrated that I can’t see it and I am most definitely not on it! I make my way down yet another steep lake basin, convinced that if I can just get up and over the ridge on the far side, I will know where I am. I slip and fall down the steep, loose scree. But I don’t  sustain injury except to my pride. Thankfully, I have my poles to assist with my less than graceful descent.

Last scree field and last lake before I finally came into view of the trail

Last scree field and last lake before I finally came into view of the trail

Finally I come up over the top of a small ridge on the other side of the steep lake basin. I look down, and there, right in front of me, is the junction to the trail I left five hours before. I have come out less than 100 feet away from where the trail from the Kern River returns to the main trail, which leads back to the JMT. I dump my pack, throw my arms in the air, and give a dramatic “YES!!”, complete with fist pump. I sit down, drink the last of my water, and eat my last bar, letting the joy of knowing where I am embrace me. I feel silly about my fears and doubts of not finding my way back. I am thankful that no one was with me on this journey, at least not in my head. It takes me awhile to collect myself back into feeling like a “successful hiker.” My self-confidence and self-image both took a hit, no doubt. But I take it all in, the relief and feelings of embarrassment at “getting lost”. I reason it’s all part of being an adventurous hike, and I am just thankful I am found!

My campsite

My campsite

I return to my campsite via the JMT. I pass several women camped right off the trail, who comment that I am “traveling light”. That’s not the normal response to my usually heavy backpack, but of course I am just carrying a day pack. I tell them I have been on a day hike, around the Lake South America loop. I don’t tell them I missed the trail back and hoofed it up and over wild terrain, cross country style. I am happy that I crossed the river earlier in pursuit of a campsite, as I find that no one else is camped on my side of the creek. I need the solitude and reflection, the privacy and seclusion, to sort out my thoughts and be with my intense pleasure and relief of being back in my comfort zone. I can watch the folks across the river, their distant enough presence adding to my feeling of being safe and cozy in my surroundings.

Highlights of the day

Forester Pass

With Emily at Forester Pass

With Emily at Forester Pass

While the conditions were less than optimal with chatty John, I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment sitting atop Forester Pass. It’s hard to describe what it feels like, to be sitting up there, so close to the end of the trail, with so much of the trip behind and yet a whole mountain to be climbed before it’s all said and done. The environment at 13,000 is stark, the peaks and valley extend out below as far as the eye can see,  and there is an incredible sense of spaciousness. I felt simultaneously minuscule AND a part of something wildly vast and mystical.

Chilling at Forester Pass

Chilling at Forester Pass

Finding my way back to the trail

I did not like the feeling of being lost. I did not like the feeling of being unprepared. I did not like that I let these things get to me so much. BUT, on the whole, I DID like my adventure, because it all turned out well in the end.  It’s ironic that I never made it to Lake South America, because that it what I was aiming for. But I did take on an off-route loop, and I made it back without incident, and I saw a whole lot of beautiful country along the way. Most of what “bad” happened took place in my head. I never was in any real danger. Being in that whole circular loop, both in my head and in actuality on the trail, taught me some valuable lessons…

Lessons of the day

Don’t second guess everything!

If I had a dime for every needless worry I had on the trail, I’d have come home financially set! It still amazes me how much I get in my head and have anxiety about things that just plain don’t come to pass. I do this in my regular life as well as in my adventurous life. How does one get beyond that? Maybe by jumping in and doing it anyway. I watched myself on this day, on the lake loop, worry about everything. The weather, going out alone, believing I might get hypothermia after jumping in the cold water, getting off trail, believing I’d lost the trail, worrying that I tried to forge a way back that wouldn’t actually work….and on and on. And again, none of those things happened. If I spent more time…in preparation, having the right maps and knowing how to read them, and less time in needless worry, who knows how the adventure would have felt in the aftermath. Possibly less adventurous, but certainly less dramatic.

Carry a map and compass…and know how to use them

I am embarrassed to say that my knowledge of map and compass is limited. That’s partly why I chose the JMT as my solo trail, as it is relatively straight forward and I had done it before so it was familiar. I wish now that I had had a map and compass on my Lake South America loop, so I could have experimented and learned something actual and concrete about taking care of my self when going off-trail. Since that’s not what happened, next time I WILL be prepared. I see now that just “winging it”, while it worked here, is not always the easiest solution.

Trust your intuition

All of the above being said, and after all of the self-reproach about not being prepared and worrying about everything that was unfamiliar on the loop, the thing that I did right and that ultimately led me back was that I trusted my intuition. I knew which direction to head, and I trusted that if I followed my inner guidance system, it would not lead me astray. In so much of my life, whether it’s out in nature, or back home in the humdrum of every day life, when I tune into, trust, and follow my intuition, I am never steered wrong.

It’s a complex world we live in, whether it’s on the trail or in life. Relying on what we know is good; having tools to add to that is very helpful; using the tools to contribute to  that which we know intuitively is the best possible combination.

 

 

 

Day 16 John Muir Trail

Charlotte Lake to “Lake 12,250”

Total JMT miles — 8.5          Side trip miles (including climbing Mt. Bago)  —  4

Elevation gain/loss  —  +4340/-2290

I awoke this morning determined to be nice. I decided I wouldn’t get up until I was sure I could be friendly to my very nearby neighbors. Despite my hope that they would be early birds, packed up and ready to go before I got up,  they were still sleeping when I emerged at first light. I promised myself I would say hello just as soon as there was obvious life outside their tent, and pretend like the awkwardness of the previous evening (when they had looked up from my campsite to see me using the toilet!) hadn’t happened. My determination seemed to have, in fact, reawakened my normally generous spirit, with the help of a decent night’s sleep. 🙂

When the two men stepped out of the tent, first thing I noticed is that they were older than I had expected. One of them had been wearing a fluorescent pink t- shirt when they showed up in camp the previous evening. That is not something you see too often on older males, and especially not hikers in the mountains! In some way, their age in conjunction with the pink shirt offered some sort of explanation of why they chose to camp so very close. Perhaps they just didn’t have a good sense of awareness about how to pick a site, or of the trail “rule” to give others as much privacy as you can. I can be OK with this, I reasoned, as I value individuality and being your own person. So I went to say hello and good morning with an open mind, and inquire what they were up to.  They were not JMT hikers or Sierra High Route backpackers,  but were doing a three day loop of some kind. They similarly inquired of my plans, and I told them I planned to climb Mt. Bago before returning to the JMT for some undetermined amount of miles.

After morning pleasantries, coffee, and breakfast, I broke down camp and moved out. I was excited to climb Mt. Bago, a 11,870 ft. peak. I assumed it would be a piece of cake compared to Day 12’s Split Mountain (14,042 ft.). I desperately wanted to knock off one more peak before Whitney, a mere three days away. I dumped my stuff just off the trail heading back up to Sandy Junction. It looked to be a fair amount of scrambling off trail, which I wasn’t looking forward to. I knew it was short — less than two miles to the top from where the cross country trek began. Excitement combined with nervousness about climbing this peak  — most peaks bring this on, especially when I know I will most likely be the only person there. It was a similar feeling as to when I did Split Mountain…heading off trail, into the unknown, climbing a peak without an obvious  route, and without anyone to bounce the route off of.

From Summit of Bago -- Charlotte Lake, Mt. Rixford, Dragon Peak, and Black Mountain

From Summit of Bago — Charlotte Lake, Mt. Rixford, Dragon Peak, and Black Mountain

From Bago, North Guard, Mt. Brewer, South Guard

From Bago, North Guard, Mt. Brewer, South Guard

I worked my way up, though trees, boulders, scree, and loose footing. The going was relatively straight forward until near the top, when I ended up on some steep, red, loose rocks that I had a hard time navigating up. After a small fall and blessedly easy recovery, I topped out. In retrospect, I realized I should not have gone that way. While it appeared to be the most direct route, sometimes the quickest apparent route takes longer because it is much more dicey.  Mt. Bago is not as high as many surrounding peaks, but  it is the only one in the area — hence, the views are stupendous all around. I took my time eating, taking photos, and trying (in vain) to master the art of the selfie. Selfie stick, where are you when I need you?!?

And again...

Bad selfie!

The way down Bago was much more straight forward. I avoided the place where I had fallen, and worked my way down slowly and cautiously. I was back with my belongings by 11:00 am. I decided on an early lunch before climbing out of the Charlotte Lake basin and back to the JMT. The sun was out, it was a fantastically warm day,  and I felt good and strong. I knew I had a varied course ahead of me once I returned to the JMT. I set a tentative goal of reaching the highest lake just below  Forester Pass (13,110). The lake, aptly named “Lake at 12,250” gets you within shouting distance of Forester, and would set me up to accomplish my final pass until Whitney early the following morning.

Headed down into the valley, West Spur in foreground, Center Peak in back

Headed down into the valley, West Spur in foreground, Center Peak in back

The trail past Sandy Junction drops 1190 feet, through White Bark and Lodgepole Pines. At times the forest was dry and sparse,  at times lush and green, and at times very woodsy. It was both varied and familiar, and I remembered this stretch well from last year. Two significant things happened on this stretch —  one this year, one last year. This year, I quickly passed the hikers from the previous night. I recognized them by the one’s fluorescent pink shirt.  I made sure to be super friendly as I passed, and asked questions about their morning. They asked me about Mt. Bago, and we chatted for a good bit. All in all, I felt great about my decision to be friendly with them, in the morning and on the trail, as I would end up passing them yet another time on that day, before they finally turned off to complete their loop via a different route.

West Spur, right, Deerhorn Mountain in back

West Spur, right, Deerhorn Mountain in back

Bubbs Creek and Center Peak

Bubbs Creek and Center Peak

And second, last year, Gregg and I were trying to find a place to camp for the night during this stretch. We settled on a campsite in Lower Vidette Meadow, right on the trail, and with a bear locker in the site. We had been warned of bears in the area, but a combination of fatigue and disbelief that we would actually encounter one prompted us to set up camp in the first spot we found. Long story short, we DID have a night time visitor, in the form of a black bear running off with our mesh bag of clean dishes. Gregg performed heroics and scared off the bear, while I cowered in the tent, scared speechless. The bear eventually dropped the bag a ways  away, and Gregg went to retrieve it. We had had everything else in the bear locker, but didn’t think to put the clean dishes in there. Lesson learned, but the experience stayed with me on my solo hike each and every night as I prepared for bed. I did not want a bear in camp at all, as clearly there was no Gregg this time around to scare one off. In honor of this memory,  I asked a fellow backpacker to take a picture of me sitting on said bear locker…and thanked my lucky stars that, so far, I had not had a bear encounter myself.

Infamous bear locker at last years campsite, Lower Vidette Meadow

Infamous bear locker at last years campsite, Lower Vidette Meadow

Once all that was done, I was in for a climb. I had 2700 feet and seven miles to reach the lake at 12,250. With a myriad of peaks standing guard, the trail passes meadows, creeks, and piles of talus as it climbs. This type of terrain hosts chipmunks and pikas, with their cheeps and whistles. . The whole seven miles was unbelievably scenic, and soon there were no more trees, and it was just a talus scramble. At one point I glanced up to see a coyote, highly camouflaged in the rocks it traversed, sneaking slyly away. It’s beauty struck me, and I felt awed and amazed me to have come through so much variety in one day. I knew I was on track to make Lake at 12,250, but it seemed to never come. I asked at least five people if, in fact, there was even a lake up ahead, fearing that both my memory and the maps might be wrong as it took so long to appear.

Center Peak and University Peak, gaining elevation out of VIdette Meadow

Center Peak and University Peak, high above VIdette Meadow

FINALLY, about 5:45, I arrived at the lake! It was as spectacularly barren as I remembered, with Junction Peak jutting up right from it’s shores. I felt an anxious thrill about camping here, as it was highly exposed. But mostly,  I was ecstatic to have made it. I immediately began setting up camp, and just as I finished and was working on dinner, Emily showed up! I hadn’t seen her since the last rain day, and we had more stories to swap. I was impressed by her decision to camp at this high lake, and she might have been at mine too. We were definitely two solo female backpackers open to the adventure of high elevation camping. There was one other person down below, a man, age undetermined, who greeted neither Emily nor I. A safe loner, I presumed.

Campsite at Lake 12,250

Campsite at Lake 12,250

The night was peaceful, despite the wind and cold. I loved being there. I felt again that huge sense of accomplishment — a peak climbed, plus a good long ascent, to reach the place where I most wanted to be at the close of day 16. There is no way to fully describe the joy and satisfaction, and sense of a job well done, that I took to bed with me that night.

Highlights of the day

Climbing Mt. Bago

Simply put, I do like climbing mountains. I have an appropriate mixture of fear, awe, and draw, that keeps me coming back. I have done glaciated peaks (Mt. Rainer, Mt. Adams, and Glacier Peak to name a few) in my “youth”. I am not so much drawn these days to climbing volcanoes, as I prefer peaks that require less preparation and no roping up or glacier travel. But I do love being on top of the world, even if only by definition of being on top of the highest peak around. There is nothing quite better, in my view, than having an entire mountain range laid out before me. The only thing missing? I wish I had the wherewithal or interest in identifying surrounding peaks once I am there. I do have interest, but I never remember the names anyway, and they all tend to run together as simple, ultimate beauty and majesty in my mind. And that is enough.

Still trying to master the selfie, on summit of Bago

Still trying to master the selfie, on summit of Bago

The Coyote sighting

It’s hard to explain why this was so meaningful. It happened within the last 1.5 miles below Lake 12,250, when I was debating if I could or should continue. I was tired, weird in the head, and pretty much psychologically done for the day. Yet I wasn’t where I really wanted to end the day. I was sitting there debating what to do when that coyote waltzed across high rocks right in front of me. It felt like a clear sign to keep on. And so I did, and I was rewarded in my decision.

The campsite

Last year, when we went by this lake, I commented to Gregg how cool it would be to camp at the high lake right below the pass. I am not sure why I was so drawn, but I kept it in my mind as somewhere I definitely wanted to spend a night. To reach the lake, then have Emily unexpectedly show up too, just felt perfect. Enough company such that I wasn’t completely alone (or with the one solo guy), but not at all too crowded that we didn’t all have our own ample space. It was a perfect spot.

Lessons of the day

Mindfully take things one moment at a time

This theme, of approaching things mindfully and with presence, was one I was able to do well on this day. It started with my mindful approach to greeting my neighbors in the morning, continued with my ascent of Mt. Bago, and the careful descent. Then the steady miles of forest, with my thoughts about last year and gratitude for safety along the trail thus far. The last seven miles called for mindful hiking the most, though. It was a steady up, and I wasn’t exactly sure how it would end, or when. I lost hope a couple of times, fearing I was on an “endless” slog with no certain destination. For that last mile or so, it was all about putting one foot in front of the other. Similarly to previous days when I was tired at the end of the day, I knew if I could just keep at it one step at a time, I would get to just where I wanted to be.

It’s better to be nice than not…

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I will say that again, on this day, I learned this lesson in spades. If I had chosen to be rude and ignore my morning campsite comrades, it would have been awkward seeing them two more times throughout the day. My small amount of effort to say hello and be friendly made it so much easier for all of us, and, while I am sure they didn’t analyze what had gone on as closely as I did, I think my kindness probably made a difference in some small way for their day as well.

 

 

 

 

Day 15 John Muir Trail

Dollar Lake to Charlotte Lake

Total JMT miles — 7.2          Side trip miles  — 3         Elevation gain/loss —  +2150/-2015

My perfect campsite at Dollar Lake was even more magical with the promise of morning sun. It was still mostly dark when I emerged from the tent, but I could tell the skies were clear. I was extremely grateful to have weathered rain for parts of three days, and figured I was due for a return of that good old Sierras-in-August sunshine! With the weather stabilized, I let my mind wander, and became somewhat melancholy as I prepared breakfast. I realized that my trip was slowly coming to an end.  As I ate and wrote, watching the morning sun glint off nearby Fin Dome and Mt. Rixford, I became reflective. Dollar Lake, at 172.4 miles, was less than 50 miles from the summit of Whitney, where my trip would end. I wasn’t anywhere near  ready for it to end, and thankfully I still had five more days. I vowed to myself that I would enjoy each of the last five days to the fullest.

Early light on Fin Dome and Mt. Rixford

Early light on Fin Dome and Mt. Rixford

Campsite at Dollar Lake

Campsite at Dollar Lake

I took my time over breakfast and coffee, taking advantage of the sun’s rays to lay out my tent, fly, and sleeping bag for some solar drying power. I was in no hurry. The days mileage was short, only 7.2 JMT miles to where I was meeting Dave for a food drop at Charlotte Lake Junction. My plan was to scoot down to Charlotte (.9 miles off the JMT),  find a campsite, then hike back up to meet Dave at 3 pm. Along the way, I planned for a swim in Rae Lakes, a set of three lakes that are simply divine. I had not been in the water for five days, due to the rain. I was ecstatic that the weather looked like it would cooperate with my intentions for a dunk on this day.  All told, I descended from my morning camp in a fabulous mood.

Landslide into Dollar Lake from Diamond Peak

Landslide into Dollar Lake from Diamond Peak

Fin Dome and Mt. Rixford

Fin Dome and Mt. Rixford

The Rae Lakes Basin

The Rae Lakes Basin

It was still early when I arrived at Middle Rae Lake, the lake of choice for bathing. I had the place almost to myself, with only one late start backpacker still lingering. I found a small beach off a meadow by the lakeshore. I rinsed some clothes, then waded in fully, completely enjoying the cool water and glorious sunshine. I sat on the shore of the lake for a long while, basking in the warmth and beauty.  I was supremely content and feeling great.  While I was reluctant to leave the lake, I was looking forward to the next several miles which are beautiful beyond description. The trail continues around Middle then Upper Rae Lake, then two other lakes above, as you ascend Glen Pass. Views surround in every direction…looking ahead, around, and back at the lakes while climbing the pass. I remembered this pass from last year as being challenging, as it has a “false finish” where you think you’re done but you’re not.  I was mentally prepared on this day, though, and moved quickly up to the 11,970 ft. pass.

Upper Rae Lake and Mt. Rixford

Upper Rae Lake and Mt. Rixford

Looking back at Rae Lakes, Painted Lady visible in background

Looking back at Rae Lakes, Painted Lady visible in background

It was busy at the pass. There was an extended family of sorts, an 11 year old son with his father, mother, and grandfather. The 11 year old was doing great, and I could tell the parents and grandfather were very proud of him. They were out for five days, not doing the entire JMT, but were really enjoying having their son/grandson out in the environment for likely his first time. I had a good time people-watching, both this group and several others who were up there. For some reason, all of the people on the pass that day were ones I had not previously met or encountered. It is at this point, in fact, on the JMT, when you run into backpackers traveling the High Sierra Route (click here for more info). This route travels 200 miles in the High Sierras, and rarely drops below 10,000 feet. The route is also rarely on a formal trail, and very challenging on all levels — the route-finding, the extreme nature of the route (33 passes in 200 miles), and the uneven nature of the terrain. If I was 20 years younger, I would no doubt be considering this route as a possible one for next summer’s adventure. I remember from last year the jealousy I felt for people that were doing such an “extreme” version of the JMT, that their young bodies could pull off something that, sadly, I will probably never be able to do. But chatting with some folks up to just that on the top of Glen Pass gave me a sense of being right there with them on their adventure.

Top of Glen Pass

Top of Glen Pass

View from Glen Pass

View from Glen Pass

Dropping down off the pass, it’s a short 2.3 miles and 1200 feet loss in elevation to the junction to Charlotte Lake. I knew I was on schedule to reach the junction early enough to make it down to the lake to find a campsite before hiking back up to meet Dave at 3 pm. I cruised right along, comforted and watched over by all the surrounding peaks. I passed the sign to Kearsage Pass, the pass that Dave would be hiking in on, and soon after arrived at the big, open,  sandy area that was the junction to Charlotte Lake. I hiked down the steep .9 miles, and started looking for a site. I found a prime spot, close to the incoming trail, at the beginning of a second trail that parallels the lake, and got all set up. I scurried back up to the sandy junction, arriving there at 2:45. I sat on a flat rock right in the middle of the junction, eating the last of my food, knowing that Dave was bringing me five days worth. As I polished off my last packet of peanut butter, I wondered for a brief moment what I would do if Dave didn’t show up. I knew that was extremely unlikely, as Dave is as reliable as they come. Just in case I made a quick back up plan, to hike out Kearsarge Pass and get food in Bishop if absolutely necessary.

Waiting for Dave at Sandy Junction

Waiting for Dave at Sandy Junction

I didn’t have long to entertain my worries. At 3:02 pm, a man in a pale blue dress shirt, no shoes, and head cover called out “Is that you, Kathie?” Dave had been sitting in the shade for 30 minutes, waiting for me to come from the direction of the JMT. Since I had dropped down to Charlotte first, I was not coming from the direction he predicted. In effect, we had both been sitting there for 15 minutes waiting for each other, me in the sun, he in the shade, without being able to see each other. I was relieved and so happy to see him! After a warm greeting hug, he told me Olivia had tried to hike in with him over the pass, but she got stopped because they had their dog. She was waiting somewhere along the trail, while Dave made the rest of the 7.4 mile trek alone. I told him of my days since I had seen him last, especially about the weather and summiting Split Mountain. It was a short visit, as he had to get back to Olivia and the dog, but I got my five days of food, and he took my garbage. Again, what a great deal for me — gain food, lose garbage, and  all in the presence of a smiling and familiar face.

With Dave at Sandy Junction

With Dave at Sandy Junction

Charlotte Lake

Charlotte Lake

I dropped back down to Charlotte, happy as can be. I had the rest of afternoon and evening at Charlotte Lake, and now had food to get me through the rest of my trip. The sun was out, the temperature was perfect, and all was extremely well in my world. When I returned to the lake, I rinsed some clothes, read for a bit, then decided on an early dinner. After dinner, I was heading up to find a spot to serve as a bathroom, when I looked down and saw two male campers looking right up at me, almost directly from my campsite. Clearly, they were looking to set up camp right there…less than 30 feet from me. I was super irritated, again, as I KNEW there were multitudes of campsites all along the Lake. It was an odd and disturbing deja vu…of Red’s Meadow, and of South Fork Kings in the rain.  Again, I asked myself, what is it about people that they would chose to voluntarily camp in someone’s space, when there are so many other sites around?  When I dropped back down to my site, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything, as I was frustrated and beyond politeness. So instead, I secured my camp, and went for a walk. I walked all along the shore of Charlotte Lake, and it was just lovely as the sun dropped low in the skies surrounding the lake.

I got back to camp, right as the sun set. I was a bit calmer, but still irritated with my campsite mates. I knew there was nothing I could do about it, and at least they were older men, and hopefully not too loud. They were just finishing up their dinner when I returned. We all went about our evening business, and they talked to each other but I didn’t say anything to either of them. I knew I needed to have a night’s rest to calm down, and decide how I wanted to be with them in the morning. I was still happy to be camping at Charlotte Lake, and vowed to be kind the following morning.

Highlights of the day

Rae Lakes in all their splendor!

The Rae Lakes are so popular and beautiful that they limit camping here to two nights per party. I don’t know how they enforce those rules, but it must  happen, because the lakes were not at all crowded when I went by. To be able to jump in Middle Rae in the middle of the day, unclothed, and not be seen by anyone, indicates that they are doing something right as it relates to preserving this spectacular environment.

Rae Lakes from way up Glen Pass

Rae Lakes from way up Glen Pass

 

Middle Rae Lake with Mt. Cedric Wright and Crater Mountain in back

Middle Rae Lake with Mt. Cedric Wright and Crater Mountain in back

Glen Pass

As mentioned, last year I let this pass get the better of me. I knew this year would be different, since I knew what to expect. I also have worked through to a large degree my pass dread, and I try not to get too wrapped up in worry about what is to come. And being on the pass was great too, as I got to watch families and those doing the Sierra High Route share stories and accomplishments. Once again, the passes never get old, and the victory of picking off yet another one was substantial.

Glen Pass

Glen Pass

Meeting up with Dave

What can I say? I felt incredibly fortunate to have Dave so willingly agree to bring five days of food over Kearsage pass. The original plan was to have Dave, Oliver and Olivia bring over all ten days earlier in the trip. This would have been a struggle on many levels, as carrying ten days of food adds over 20 pounds to one’s pack. I wasn’t at all excited about that. Plus, trying to fit ten days of food into a bear canister is simply not possible, at least with the amount of food I bring. So when Dave offered to split the food and hike the second portion over Kearsage, I was beyond thankful. I also know Dave well enough to realize that if he volunteers to do something, he is totally into it. And seeing his smiling face in the middle of the sandy pit just made my day!

Lessons of the day

The joy of sunshine after rain…

Black Mountain, Blue Rae Lakes, and blue skies!

Black Mountain, Blue Rae Lakes, and blue skies!

I cannot overstate how much the return of the sun improved my spirits. I find it simply impossible to be crabby when the sun is out. I think the perspective I gained from hiking in the rain was invaluable…and being on the other side made it all the more cheerful and special.

More mental adaptation is necessary…

I couldn’t believe I had another night of campers in my space! First I cannot fathom why people choose to camp right near where someone has already established camp. Granted, once someone has decided to camp near the lake, my spot was the first one they would come to. But there were many, many other excellent sites just a bit further down the trail.

But if I step back enough to walk in another’s shoes, I can empathize with a party trying to find a spot as quickly as possible. That was certainly the case with me on Day 8 (Goddard Junction), when I just plunked down wherever I could find a spot after an extremely long mileage day. So I tried to give it some perspective, and not be too irritable. In reality, their presence only slightly altered my enjoyment of Charlotte Lake. The the other side of the coin is how I can manage my attitudes and reactions, really the only two things I can control.

On the whole, It was a beautiful lake, with a great campsite, a supreme lake walk, and sunset views. It doesn’t get much better than that. And each time I am presented with an opportunity to adapt to change, it is worthwhile….despite my resistance. Apparently, life’s lessons keep showing up until we get them!

 

Day 14 John Muir Trail

Main South Fork Kings crossing to Dollar Lake

Total JMT miles  —  15.7               Elevation gain/loss  —  +3800/-3620

Truth be told and not surprisingly, I didn’t sleep well on the night of Day 13. Every noise from nearby campers filtered right into my tent, and I struggled with dampness in my internal and external environment. I was up in my head through the restless night about how I wanted to interact with my neighbors in the morning, my concerns about the weather, and my need to make up the previous days lost miles. However, things always seem brighter in the morning, and I remembered my pledge to myself from Day 2  —  May I awake each day revived and refreshed. I know well enough that this is a chosen state of mind more than a reality, and I adopted that motto on Day 14 with wholehearted optimism.

I could hear people up and about even before first light, and I organized myself to emerge from the tent as well. Inside my tent, everything was still damp, but manageable. I had slept in many clothes, and had put others in my bag with me, in an effort to utilize whatever warmth and drying capacity my body heat might offer.  Nothing seemed any wetter than it had the night before, which was the best I could hope for. My tent and fly had proved worthy, and I was thankful for the extra room provided by the two person tent. While it weighed an extra pound, it’s larger capacity made it much easier to bring things in out of the storm. My pack outside was still dry enough, covered with it’s large Hefty trash bag.

Again I cooked a meal with Ginnie, my closest neighbor and a woman of similar age (mid-50’s) and physical aptitude. A road biker at heart, she had ended up on the JMT on a bit of a fluke, after securing a permit and posting her intentions on her local bike club’s website. The only person to take her up on the offer of hiking the whole JMT was her current tent mate, Tracy, who was a mid-30’s, outspoken woman with little backpack experience. They made an interesting and interdependent pair, and I enjoyed watching their interactions as much as I did chatting with Ginnie. As we drank coffee and ate oatmeal, Ginnie shared that she had miscalculated and was low on food. She asked if I had any to spare. I was surprised, as she seemed so organized, but volunteered that I did have a bit to spare. I was meeting Dave for another food drop the following day, and mentally calculated what I had and what I could do without. I was able to give her a hearty ‘protein puck’, and two energy bars. It wasn’t much, but she was grateful, and I felt really good about the opportunity to help someone when so many others had helped me.

I watched other neighbors from my flat rock perch as I lingered over cups of coffee. I recognized a couple from Day 4 Red’s Meadow infusion, Katie and Ian. Happy in love despite the rain, they had laughed and giggled all night long it seemed, and I was both envious and frustrated by this. Chatting with them in the morning, though, all was forgiven.  I made a point to introduce myself to everyone in camp, in an effort to make up for my seclusion of the previous day and night. The conversations helped to keep my mind off my freezing hands as I attempted to put my sprawl of gear back together. Everything was wet, and the day at hand was thankfully clear but consequently cold. I was still conserving my few remaining hand warmers, so I did without. It was one of the coldest overall morning pack-ups,  in terms of my hands, and everything was a struggle. I was the second to last person of the nine of us to leave camp, finally packed up and on the trail by 8:15.

On cold mornings with cold hands, I am all about setting a fast pace as quickly as possible. I carefully crossed the rushing S. Fork Kings River out of camp, calling a happy goodbye to my longest campsite to date — 20 hours in the same wet spot. I climbed the switchbacks I’d visited the previous evening as quickly as I could, welcoming the warmth from exertion and the promise of sun. At first forested, then gradually opening up, I could see from the trail that the sky was blue and the sun was out just up ahead. I was ecstatic, and my mood elevated. I came up to the Bench Lake cutoff, where solo hiker Emily had camped the night before. At the cutoff were Ginnie, Tracy, Katie, and Ian, all of whom I had caught up to in my quick ascent. Emily traipsed in from Bench Lake after a couple moments, and we had a great little gathering for a few minutes before the first four moved out. Emily and I shared stories of our wet and stormy afternoon and night. She had experienced hale and snow at Bench Lake, and her pictures, while beautiful, convinced me I’d made the right choice in staying down below with just the rain.

At Bench Lake cutoff, with Mt. Ruskin in back

At Bench Lake cutoff, with Mt. Ruskin in back

I was able to shed all my layers as we chatted, and I was down to my preferred shorts and a tank top again. Life was grand! I knew the next miles were open and gorgeous, past lakes and headed up Pinchot Pass. I anticipated the day to be one of much elevation gain and loss. Up 2090 feet to Pinchot Pass, down 3620 feet to Woods Creek, then back up 1710 feet to Dollar Lake. That was my plan, a total of nearly 16 miles, and I was starting to believe the weather would cooperate and I could do it. Emily and I discussed our plans, and hers was right on par with mine for the day’s mileage goal.

Lake Marjorie, with Mt. Ruskin (center) and Vennacher Needle (right)

Lake Marjorie, with Mt. Ruskin (center) and Vennacher Needle (right)

Lake Marjorie, with Mt. Ruskin, Vennacher Needle, and Middle Palisades off in the distance.

Lake Marjorie, with Mt. Ruskin, Vennacher Needle, and Middle Palisades off in the distance.

As we hiked separately and in our own heads, we criss-crossed paths multiple times, past lovely Marjorie Lake and all it’s magical tributaries. I was incredibly distracted by taking pictures, as the previous day I had taken none after the rain came. I stopped multiple times, for photos, food, and water, so I was bringing up the rear as I headed up the pass in earnest from Marjorie Lake.

Lake Marjorie

Lake Marjorie

There I hit my stride. I was suddenly back in powerful female backpacker mode. As the switchbacks wound tightly up the pass, the winds picked up, clouds started to come in, and I sailed past everyone. I made the top before all five of my current comrades, and they were impressed with my determination. It reminded me of ascending the Golden Staircase on Day 11, when I found a burst of energy that impressed other hikers. I don’t think of myself as being particularly fast, but sometimes the pieces all come together, and I feel like I can fly up anything.  As I hiked, I felt light, unencumbered, and free. I focussed on how each step felt, and relished that my body could haul a 50-ish pound pack up a pass with such ease.  I love that feeling of power and competence, and, while it doesn’t always happen, when it does, it’s magic.

Unnamed lake above Lake Marjorie, headed up the pass

Unnamed lake above Lake Marjorie, headed up the pass

Unnamed lake below pass, Mt. Ickes in background

Unnamed lake below pass, Mt. Ickes in background

The views from the pass were simply stupendous, despite the incoming clouds. Ginnie wanted a photo with me, whom she now called her “trail angel” after I gave her food. I happy obliged, again experiencing that welcome feeling of camaraderie. The warmth of connection, the physical beauty of the pass, and my current confidence in my physical strength, all created an overall sense of being on top of the world. It’s difficult if not impossible to qualify ‘peak’ experiences on something like the JMT. Each day offers something, and it feels like one peak experience naturally flows into the next. Instead of trying to make one be better than another, I was learning to take them all in, and fully embrace each on its own terms as it came. In some ways, I could have stayed on that pass in that warm happy glow forever. But all things must end, and I was back to mission orientation after 30 minutes of pure heaven on Pinchot Pass.

With Ginnie at Pinchot Pass

With Ginnie at Pinchot Pass

View from Pinchot pass

View from Pinchot pass

Looking down into Paradise Valley

Looking down into Paradise Valley

Tarns in Paradise Valley

Tarns in Paradise Valley

 

 

 

As I dropped down the tight, steep switchbacks into the Woods Creek Drainage, the views remained. A series of tarns (small mountain ponds) dotted the surroundings, and I could see exactly how and where the trail went through and amidst them all. I love looking down from a pass when your next few miles are laid out before your very eyes. It’s easy to transport oneself from here to there. While I didn’t want to rush the getting there,  I was getting nervous about clouds and weather on the pass. I could again FEEL that the cloud cover was thickening, and with it, my fear of rain. I hiked quickly down the pass, and continued my rhythm that I had found going up. Again, I passed all hikers I encountered, though not without calling a hello as I went. Emily and I continued our back and forth on the trail. It entered my mind we could hike together, but I was still much too in need of space to do that. So we’d chat briefly each time we passed and re-passed each other, as the trail stayed high up in the alpine meadows of Paradise Valley, where the JMT repeatedly crosses Woods creek and it’s multiple tributaries. A simply tranquil and splendid stretch of trail.

Mt. Cedric Wright

Mt. Cedric Wright

Mt. Clarence in distance

Mt. Clarence in distance

Mt. Baxter

Mt. Baxter

White fork of Woods Creek with Monkey Flower

White fork of Woods Creek with Monkey Flower

I kept moving. I was definitely feeling the steady elevation loss in my arthritic right knee. The knee was a hindrance, and it slowed me down some. It wasn’t just painful, it was also feeling unstable and unpredictable, which had my attention. But I knew rain was in hot pursuit, and I was determined this time to stay ahead of it. I finally took a lunch break at the White Fork of Woods Creek, a beautiful setting with late blooming Monkey Flowers. I allowed myself 15 minutes, then scurried along. It was within a half mile of Woods Creek Junction, the low point of that day in elevation, that the sky opened up and rain hit. I watched everybody stop and put on rain gear. I debated what to do. I didn’t want to stop, as I knew I was close to Woods and I would evaluate there. I kept going, feeling silly hiking in my tank top and shorts in the rain.  Emily joined me for that last half mile, and we debated our course of action. We independently and together agreed we would take a break at Woods and each decide there.

Waterfall running into Woods Creek

Waterfall running into Woods Creek

Woods Creek Suspension Bridge

Woods Creek Suspension Bridge

We came to a super cool suspension bridge that I remembered well from the previous year. It’s supposed to be a one person bridge, but Emily came on it right behind me. It swayed and bounced crazily as we crossed the roaring creek below! I knew we’d be fine and I didn’t want to say anything. We sat (again!) under a big Pine tree just across the bridge. Other hikers were doing the same thing, clearly debating what to do. It was 3.8 miles to the next decent camping, and space at Woods was ample. But I was envisioning a night like the previous one at S. Fork Kings — rain, too many people all on top of each other, plus giving up because of rain before I was ready. Both Emily and I decided to move on, rain be damned. There was no thunder and lightning this time, and I figured a little rain wouldn’t hurt, despite having no backpack cover.  Emily left first, and I trailed a bit behind, to create that hiking alone phenomenon I was still craving.

The next four miles were tough. I was tired, my knee hurt a lot, and it was all up hill. It was another 1710 feet of elevation to gain in that 4 miles — not a ton but I felt every step. The rain kept me moving, though, and I was very focussed on the destination. I did not remember Dollar Lake from the previous year, and the guidebook said the camping was limited. I knew many others were doing the same exact thing as me, and I hoped and prayed for a decent campsite. I played out my strategy for finding a site in my head as I went. I would get to Dollar Lake, take in the scene, then leave the obvious trail in pursuit of something up above the usual campsites.

When I finally got to Dollar, the rain had temporarily stopped, and I acted on my good instincts of where to camp. I passed the small but beautiful lake, then headed up through still vacant sites far off to the side. I kept climbing, despite my fatigue and readiness to dump my pack. I worked my way up and over boulders, looking for flat sites as I went. I lucked out! High up above the lake, but not so far as to make the retrieval of water a project, I found a large, completely hidden flat spot, that clearly had been used before. I could see down to the lake, but others couldn’t see me. I knew I would not be joined for the night, and I dumped my wet self and stuff gratefully into my home for the  night.

Evening at camp, with Fin Dome and other peaks watching over me for the night.

Evening at camp, with Fin Dome and other peaks watching over me for the night.

I immediately went down to get water. I knew I was on borrowed time from rain reprieve, and I wanted to get everything set up before it came back. I hurried down and back up with my bottles, and quickly but meticulously set up my camp.  The sky was thick with clouds, but enough blue to create a spectacular scene. I took it all in as I moved quickly to establish camp just as I like it — sprawl and all. Just as I finished, the skies opened up, again, and rain returned. It was just a shower, I could tell, and I made a quick decision to cook dinner under the tent’s large fly. I had not done this before, and I know ‘they’ say not to use a stove under a tent fly. But I felt confident in my ability to keep everything safe, and I was in a state of very high presence and awareness. I cooked, ate, and peered out at my surroundings. It was a truly gorgeous evening, with the wild clouds and late sun glinting off nearby Fin dome and other great peaks. I felt again that sense of peace and calm that only comes with being in the mountains in a beautiful spot, watched over by giants and surrounded by peace. It was a fittingly spectacular end to a phenomenal day.

Highlights of the day

Being a “trail angel”

It simply felt great to help someone out with a supply need. I was  happy I had some food for Ginnie, and that I could return, in some small way, the generosity that so many had shown me. From the get go, I had multiple “trail angels”.  Ashley on Day 7 with the tampons I so desperately needed; Oliver, Dave and Olivia with the first food drop; and Dave trekking over again the following day with another drop. Not to mention the people who helped so much to make the trip happen in the first place! I felt great gratitude as I reflected on these helpers as I hiked, and I was thankful to be able to return the favor in some small way. So much of that goes on on a hike like the JMT — hikers sharing and helping others. Because I was a determined soloist, I mostly wanted to rely on myself or my planned helpers (food resuppliers). But it was nice to step into the spontaneous role of trail angel, if only for a moment.

My campsite at Dollar Lake

It ended up being one of my favorites of the whole trip, this site high above the main group of hikers below. I felt close enough to others in case some bad thing happened, like a bear coming into camp, but far enough away and hidden from view that I had the serenity and solitude I was so craving. It was a perfect site after a perfect day.

Lessons of the day

I can hike in the rain and survive!!

I did it, hiked four and some miles, in rain, without getting so wet that I could not recover. I don’t care so much about my person getting wet, but I do care about my stuff getting wet. I have a down bag and coat, and I hate the feeling of dampness in my tent. But I made a calculated decision at Woods Creek that the rain was not so bad that I would be soaked beyond repair. I gambled some, but used common sense and my admittedly limited knowledge of weather patterns to determine that it didn’t look too risky to continue. My gamble paid off. I was wet, but not soaked. My gear was not much wetter than it had been when I started the day, and for that I was grateful. And I got where I wanted to be, and did not have the feeling of disappointment of giving into the elements. I felt really empowered by this!

I can cook under the tent and stay dry

This sounds silly, but it did open up a feeling of greater flexibility for me. I like to relax while I make dinner, and it’s hard to relax sitting outside in rain for 30 minutes of cooking and eating. So to be in my tent, cooking under the fly, and able to look out periodically but stay dry in the process, was all just a big bonus. Again, I was grateful for my tent (MSR Nook, two person), which allowed me to do all of this — comfortably, safely, and all undercover. I was proud of my problem solving on this front, and I went to bed feeling good about myself and my day in all respects. What a difference a day makes! 

 

Day 13 John Muir Trail

“Split Lake” (Lake 11,595) to Main South Fork Kings Crossing

Total JMT Miles — 4       Side trip miles — 1     Elevation gain/loss — +200/-1670

Morning at 'Split Lake" campsite

Morning at ‘Split Lake” campsite

Day 13 started innocently enough. I awoke after a wet and cold night at my lake of solitude. It was not raining at first light, for which I was grateful. I gave myself a hearty pat on the back for having survived my first night of rain on the JMT, and I felt good and optimistic about the day to come. The day’s goals were simple:  Dry out my gear from the previous day, and get in some JMT miles. I hoped to catch back up to my hiking friends, Ashley, Rob, and Marcus. I knew they had camped at Marjorie Lake, six miles away, the previous night, and I wanted to bridge the distance with a long day. I didn’t have a destination in mind for the night, but I was physically and psychologically prepared for a day of miles. I could see the sun attempting to peek out of the heavy cloud over, and I earnestly believed that the rain was gone, and that blue skies would return with conviction. So I lingered in camp to see if I could reap some benefit from the sun’s natural ability to dry things out.

S. Fork Kings River, with (left to right) Striped Mt., Mt. Ickes and Crater Mt. Note the skies are blue here!

Mt. Ruskin

Mt. Ruskin

But as the morning progressed, and the cloud cover persisted, I gave up my hope of sun-dried gear. I packed up my wet tent, clothes and sleeping bag and moved out. I left Split Lake and was back on the JMT by 9:00 am. My mood has lightened despite the clouds, and I was glad to be back on the solid footing of the JMT.  The going was easy, the views were good, and I removed layers of clothing as I cruised along. Soon I was down to shorts and a tank top, admittedly trying to draw back the sunshine with my light hiking attire. I sat pleasantly enough by a stream for my 10:00 am snack, and began to relax into the day.

S. Fork Kings, Mt. Ickes, and clouds!

S. Fork Kings, Mt. Ickes, and clouds!

Soon thereafter, the trail entered forest, and my views became obscured by trees. Again I crossed the South Fork of the Kings River, and continued dropping gradually for another mile and 700 feet. I could FEEL that the clouds were getting heavier, and I kept looking up, willing lighter skies to come back.  I had to stop and put on another layer, as clearly my approach of “dressing for” was not going to bring back the sun. Right on cue, I started to feel the first rain drops. “Only a light shower”, I assured myself. It was only 11:00 am, I had only travelled four miles, and I wasn’t ready to stop by any means. But within minutes, literally, and just as I reached the lowest point of the day elevation wise,  the skies opened up and rain began to dump. Accompanied by thunder and lightning, it was sudden, extreme, and a bit scary. I was rather unexpectedly in for a full on mountain thunderstorm!

I decided to stop right there and wait out the storm. I pulled out my rain jacket, and a hefty garbage bag for my pack. I experienced instant regret about NOT purchasing an actual rain cover for my backpack, which protects that pack while leaving the straps free, and would have let me keep hiking.  At the time, I didn’t want to add the extra expense to an already costly adventure and I assumed, as I could now see naively, that I would not need a pack cover, since on the previous year’s JMT hike we had experienced virtually no rain.

So I sat under a big tree, pack covered, still in shorts, but top half dry in my Gore Tex jacket and waited, watched, and listened. It was frankly eerie, as the sky crackled with lightning and boomed with thunder, one right on the heels of the next. I felt good about my location, trying to remember where you were NOT supposed to be in a thunderstorm — on a pass, in an open area with few trees, near a vertical wall, or in a cave. It seemed OK to be seated under a large tree that was one of many.

I told myself I would sit there until noon, see what the weather was up to, then make a decision to set up camp or move on. I was hopeful the weather would break, but it showed no signs of doing so. Eventually, a hiker came up, and I was ecstatic, both to see a person and that it was Emily, a young gal hiking solo who I had not seen since Donahue Pass on Day 3. I thought perhaps she had quit her JMT endeavor since I hadn’t seen her for ten days, and so was doubly glad to see her. She asked if she could sit under the tree with me, and I warmly welcomed her company for the storm vigil. We sat and talked of our trail adventures to date and those to come. She planned to go up to Bench Lake for the night, another few miles up and off the JMT. I told her I had day hiked there the previous year and that it was lovely. Of course, when we were there it was warm and sunny, not a full on thunderstorm. After we sat and talked for a half hour, it was clear no let up was in sight, and Emily decided to move on, committed to her mileage goal.  Reluctantly, I stayed behind to set up camp. With a backpack cover,  I might have joined her, but I was reluctant to get any wetter than I and my gear already were.

The campsite I was in was large, and rivulets of water were starting to form all around the flat areas. I chose what looked to be the driest spot, and set up my tent. I was efficient despite the cold, wet rain, this now being my second time in two days of setting up my tent in the rain. I was in the tent and warming up by 1:00 pm, and ate lunch inside.  I wondered if the smell of food in the tent would be a bear draw, but honestly, I was beyond caring at that point. I was relieved to be under cover and out of the rain.

Once the setup and lunch tasks were done, however, my good mood quickly evaporated.  I felt discouragement and then depression descend and wrap around me with a dampness on par with the conditions outside. I was angry at the rain for thwarting my plans. I had only gone four miles!  I tried to embrace this as another rest day opportunity.  I lay down with my book to read. I tried to sleep. My thoughts were racing, though, as I dwelled on the fact that now I was really “behind schedule” to meet up with Dave again in two more days for the second ten-day food drop. My brain knew I still had time to do the miles, but I found myself obsessing anyway. While I knew intellectually I’d made the right choice in stopping, I still felt distressed and angry about being stuck in the tent when I would rather be hiking. I tried to just chill out and accept my fate, and rest and relax. Finally, I was able to doze a bit.

Suddenly, I was rudely awakened by a mass of hikers entering my personal campground. I could hear voices, many of them, and they were discussing where to pitch their tents right there in the exact same spot I was in. It was a large spot, but there were also other campsites nearby, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they would want to camp right there almost on top of me. I could hear four tents going up, which meant at least eight people, and they had me surrounded! I was really irked, and lay in my tent fuming and writing. It reminded me of Red’s Meadow on Day 5, when all the late backpackers came in and set up camp in the already over crowded backpacker camp right at dark. I was extremely puzzled, again, by why people would want to be so close…to each other, and to someone they didn’t even know. I let out all my frustrations through the pen, then forced myself to try to see it from their perspective. It was 3 pm, which meant they had been hiking in the rain for hours and were probably soaked. They probably saw my tent and a site that seemed doable, and just decided to stop. I tried to be forgiving and gracious. I told myself I would not get out of my tent until I could be kind and courteous.

I stayed in the tent until 4:30, when the rain finally started to let up. I cautiously poked my head out, and the woman who had set up the closest to me was right there in her tent with the fly open. Literally, I crawled out of my tent and hers was less than a foot away.  I recognized her as Ginnie from Red’s Meadow, the labor and delivery nurse who I had really liked. Her tent mate was Tracy. They apologized for their super close proximity, and I told them no worries. I was still irritated, but I was relieved they were at least people I had previously met and liked. The other surrounding tents’ occupants were inside, and I chatted for a few minutes with Ginnie about their day and how they had ended up there.  I wandered a bit to find a place to pee, then came back and decided to make an early dinner since I was up and out of the tent anyway.  The rain was down to a drizzle, and the thunder and lightning had stopped. I foraged through my pack, thankfully dry from the garbage bag, and found stove, food, and water to make my simple dinner. Ginnie joined me, and we cooked our dinners side by side on the one flat rock in our deluged camp site.

After dinner, I decided to go on a walk. I had been sitting or lying for over six hours, about my max for non-movement. I started on the JMT in the direction I would head in the morning, just to move and see what I was facing. Since it was the low point of elevation where we were all camped, I knew it would be uphill. I hiked for about 45 minutes, up switchbacks that I vaguely remembered from the previous year. It was nice to move, and the hiking warmed me up and brought blood back circulating into my muscles. It was still a dark and gloomy day, and I was still discouraged about losing a day’s hiking and the continued rain and wet, BUT I also felt my mood revive, as always, after a good walk. I returned to my tent, and people were in theirs so I didn’t have to make conversation. I got ready for bed, still accompanied by persistent drizzle, and was back in the tent by 7:00. I wrote some more, and read until darkness. I was frankly relieved that the day was done and that I had regained my sanity despite my frustrations.

Highlights of the day

Getting through it without being bitchy!

I have a tendency to want and need to withdraw into myself when I am frustrated, angry, or depressed. I was prepared to do that on this day when the rain came — be alone, and just tough it out. Then people came in, and I had to be a bit social, or else seem completely rude. I was able to strike a balance with that, being mostly alone with my disparaging thoughts,  but also somewhat interactive.  Especially with Ginnie, who I did really like. As we cooked our dinner together, we chatted and I learned more about her and how she ended up on the JMT. It helped tremendously to have this time with her to get out of my self-imposed pity party.

Getting out on a walk!

I have said it a thousand times before and I know it to be true…after periods of inactivity, whether sleep, a long car ride, or hours spent cooped up in a tent, movement is the ticket for me to feel “normal”. Just moving my body, and getting blood flow to stagnant muscles, and being out in nature, even if it was rainy and wet, did wonders to lift my damp mood. I cannot say enough about how this small endeavor shifted my perspective from one of despair to gradual acceptance of my reality.

Lesson of the day

Frustration with lack of control exists in nature as well as in civilization.

It’s a simple but true statement…I take myself and my tendencies wherever I go. I could see it with the Llamas a few days prior, and I could see it here. I don’t like it when I have a plan and something gets in the way. Until this day, my plans for the days activities and miles got met, despite inevitable obstacles.  But the conditions on this day were too much. I felt an immense amount of irritation about something I could not control. Out in the wilderness, I realized, is just a microcosm of the bigger picture of life. I let myself dwell and obsess on the weather holding me back, just as I let myself worry needlessly and endlessly about things in my day to day “normal” life that I can’t control. I struggle with acceptance of the things that get in the way of my carefully laid plans. I was reminded on this day of the AA serenity prayer: To accept the things I cannot change (the weather), to have the courage to change the things I can (my attitude) and the wisdom to know the difference (embrace instead of fight the reality).

Day 12 John Muir Trail

Lower Palisades Lake to “Split Lake” (aka Lake 11,595)

Total JMT miles — 4       Side trip miles, including Split Mountain  (14, 042 feet)–  4.5

Elevation gain/loss  —  +4000/-3005

I awoke surprisingly refreshed after a cold, windy, and dusty night up above Lower Palisades Lake. The campsite offered spectacular early morning views, and I took my time with breakfast, coffee, and writing. From my perch I could see campers below, as they packed up to move out, and watched Ashley, then Rob leave for the trail. I knew Marcus would be somewhere behind. I was hoping to be able to hike with them some, but they were too fast for me on this lazy morning.

I was uncertain what the day held for me. The first task of the morning was straightforward —  gain Mather Pass, less than four miles away.  But I would have to make a decision at the pass what to do next. The previous year, Gregg and I had made a half-hearted attempt on Split Mountain, a just over 14,000 foot peak easily accessible from the JMT.  That time, I didn’t have enough clothes with me for a 14,000 peak climb, the views were obscured by smoke anyway, and Gregg simply didn’t want to do it. So we only hiked to Red Lake Pass (12,630 feet), which still gave reasonably good views under the circumstances. This year, I was strongly drawn to complete the mission of climbing Split, and strategized all morning about how I could pull that off.

Headed up Mather Pass, looking back at Upper Palisade Lake, and Middle Palisade Mt. and Mt. Sill

Headed up Mather Pass, looking back at Upper Palisade Lake, and Middle Palisade Mt. and Mt. Sill

The hike up to Mather Pass is beautiful in and of itself. I first traversed Lower, then Upper Palisade Lake, crossing small streams along the way. The final ascent to the pass is through loose talus, with nary a tree to be seen. Mather Pass (12,100 ft.) sports simply spectacular views, as you can see a total of six 14,000 foot peaks from the top. Even with a late start and easy pace, I made the pass by 11:00 am. I took it all in, enjoying the company of other hikers, including late-start Marcus, and the three older hikers from the day before who termed me “legendary”. There was also a group of men from Texas, backpacking a five-day loop hike that incorporated in parts of the JMT and came in and out nearby passes. There are a multitude of backpack trips possible in the vicinity, and many hikers are up to something entirely different than a JMT through hike. It was nice to relax and take my time on the pass, as I contemplated my next move.

From Mather Pass, L to R, North Palisade, Mt. Sill, Middle Palisade

From Mather Pass, L to R, North Palisade, Mt. Sill, Middle Palisade

Palisades from Mather Pass

Palisades from Mather Pass

I looked down at Split, and the lake below it. I kept thinking I would have to drop down the pass, hike over to the lake, dump my stuff there, climb Split, return to get my stuff, get back to and on the trail, and THEN find a campsite for the night. All that seemed overwhelming, and, sitting there looking down, it finally dawned on me that I could just camp at the lake below Split for the night. I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me earlier. I think my mindset, of being JMT through hiker, made my first thoughts go to the place of only camping on the trail. But having camped with Oliver, Dave, and Olivia at the unnamed lake a mile off the trail, I realized I could do the same, by myself. It was a weird rush of both confidence and fear that I could do something like that alone. Get off trail, find a campsite, go climb a 14,000 foot peak, return to my site, and sleep there, ALL BY MYSELF. As I sat on the pass, the idea started to form, and I knew that is what I would do.

Split Mountain and "Split Lake" from Mather Pass

Split Mountain and “Split Lake” from Mather Pass

I told Marcus of my plans, as I knew he would pass it on to Ashley and Rob. I didn’t want them to think I had dropped off the face of the earth if I didn’t catch back up. I was nervous in my declaration, wondering if it was safe to do the peak alone, as I knew no one else would likely be there. The sum total of my over 14,000 ft. peak experiences to that point was Mt. Whitney the year before, and Mt. Rainer twice in my 20’s. Admittedly, I was already at over 12,000 ft. as I thought all this through, but still…a peak is a peak, and I didn’t want to be foolish or rash in my pursuit of bagging another “14.”

Each step after I left the pass became a step on a mission. I wanted to be established at camp and on the way up Split by 12:30. My guidebook said it was a six hour diversion from the JMT. I figured I could do it in four hours from the lake, five tops, giving me plenty of time to come back to camp, eat, and get settled for the night. I dropped down the side of the pass, and to the place where I remembered heading back up towards the unnamed lake below Split (which I came to call Split Lake). Once I left the trail, I became cautious, as cross-country travel (hiking off trail) is not my forte, especially with a heavy pack. I made my way to and part way around Split Lake before finding a suitable site, a place where clearly people had camped before. I dumped my stuff, rinsed some of my very dusty clothes from the previous night in the water, and hung them out to dry. I made sure to hang them where I could see them on my return, as I didn’t want to miss my site entirely after the ascent. After a quick lunch, I packed up my day pack with extra clothes, more food, water, gloves, and the guidebook. The guidebook was vague at best in it’s route description, being a JMT guidebook that merely mentioned Split Mountain as  good possible 14,000 foot peak side trip.

On the way up Split, looking back at Mt. Bolton Brown and Split Lake

On the way up Split, looking back at Mt. Bolton Brown and Split Lake

The nature of fear for me when doing something like Split Mountain is different than the run-of- the-mill worry that I might be doing “too much” in any given day. Physically, and time-wise, I knew I would be fine. The anxieties associated with climbing Split had much more to do with inexperience off trail, and the fear that I would “miss” the easiest way up. I looked at the route description, and it simply said to pick your way up the eastern side of the slope, then cross over talus to the western side, looking for vegetation and possible ‘use trails’ along the way.  I realized that I needed to get to Red Lake Pass, then on the mountain and feel it under me, in order to gage my path and progress, one step at a time. That’s what I know how to do best, just get myself on a task, and take it as it comes instead of overthinking the “right” way to do it.

Building clouds over Mt. Bolton Brown, The Thumb, and Birch Mt.

Building clouds over Mt. Bolton Brown, The Thumb, and Birch Mt.

The other fear I had, another unknown, was the weather. I could see the clouds were building, and I knew that afternoon thunderstorms were notorious in the Sierras. It was still mostly sunny when I left Split Lake, and I did not even bother to set up my tent to put my belongings inside, figuring I’d be back long before any significant rain. But as I started up and continued along the ascent, the clouds continued to thicken, and the wind was at times fierce. It was invigorating, exhilarating, and frightening all at once. I knew I would not be blown off the mountain, but sometimes it felt like I would. The wind was so loud at times, I could barely hear myself think! I was thankful for the layers of clothing I had brought, as I knew I would need them all. Cool temps, wind, and my anxiety all kept me moving up the challenging ascent at a rapid pace.

Split Mountain, Elevation 14,051

Split Mountain, Elevation 14,051

Looking North from summit of Split

Looking North from summit of Split

I can’t say I ascended Split with any great finesse. At times, I was clearly “doing it right”. At other times, I picked my way up, through steep, loose rock, a smattering of vegetation, and some exposure. I never feared that I would not make it, but I did feel quite alone and wished for company in my (lack of) best route-finding skills. I reached the top in exactly two hours from when I had left the lake below. At the top, despite the clouds, the views were stupendous.  I put on all remaining layers, took photos, and ate the food I had brought. I stayed 15 or 20 minutes up there, taking it all in, but also keeping a close eye on the continuously building clouds. I felt a great sense of accomplishment that I had done it, and allowed myself to embrace that feeling before letting fear seep back in. I knew I still had to get down and back to camp, and hopefully before rain and thunder.

 

Looking East from Split to Red Creek Basin

Looking East from Split to Red Creek Basin

I had a better view of the use trail from the top. I did my best to follow it going down, and it was much easier than my disorganized and indirect path up. But the use trail flitted in and out of boulders, scree, and vegetation, as often as not disappearing all together. I was trying to keep a good pace, but it was steep in places; thankfully, I had my hiking poles, and I relied on them heavily to ease the seemingly endless downward slope. I was making good progress, mostly, when I felt the first rain drops, about half way down. I really tried to pick it up then, which resulted in a good slip and fall.  I jammed my finger in between two rocks, inside my gloves. It hurt like the dickens when I pulled it out.  I also scraped up my leg pretty good. I had blood running down my leg, and my finger was hurting, but I kept going. The rain came in earnest as I got down closer to the lake, with it’s accompanying thunder and thankfully distant lightning. I kept my eyes peeled for my hanging laundry the closer I got to camp.  I knew that my stuff would be getting wet…down sleeping bag, down coat, all my other clothing. I wished I had set up my tent before, but there was nothing I could do except keep on a step at a time.

When I finally got back to camp, I scurried into rain gear and began setting up my tent as quickly as possible. I did the whole thing in my gloves, realizing in some corner of my mind that I was bleeding through my gloves, but not caring. I simply wanted to establish a dry place to put my things out of the rain. It’s worth noting here that I have very little experience backpacking in the rain. That fear, of weather and rain, was near the top of my anxiety list coming on the JMT solo hike. But, since I had basically no rain the previous year, I somehow assumed that I would not have it this year. So even as I watched the clouds build, I STILL stayed in the zone of denial that it would actually rain on my otherwise perfect parade! But mother nature clearly had something else in mind for me on day 12.

Wet, bleeding, and finally in the tent, I took off my gloves to see the damage. I had a significant cut and missing chunk of skin on my right middle finger, and had consequently bloodied up everything I had touched in my haste to set up camp. My tent, sleeping bag, pad, and clothes were now all wet AND bloody. Just what I need for bear protection, I mused. But frankly, I was so relieved to be in the tent and out of the rain, I continued to take it a step at a time. I found first aid, bandaged my finger, and used my ample supply of handi-wipes to clean up as much blood as possible. I sat there, relieved, happy, and warm enough despite the wet. Had I dodged a bullet? Was I really at any great risk? No, I decided.  I just got wet and cut, but no major damage was incurred.  And I had done Split Mountain, like I had so wanted to.  I was supremely relieved to be back in camp, in the tent, at the base of a fantastic peak, by a fantastic lake, and, so far, I had weathered the storm. And all that all on my own!

I waited for a slight break, cooked dinner, and crawled back into the tent for an early night of reading and writing. I was optimistic again about weather…hadn’t my book said usually the storms moved in and out fast? So I went to sleep fully believing that would be it for my rain experience on the JMT, and thankful that I had survived it just fine.

Highlights of the day

Climbing Split Mountain

Red Meadow Creek Basin from Split Mountain

Red Meadow Creek Basin from Split Mountain

Mt. Bolton Brown, Middle Palisades, and The Thumb from Split Mountain

Mt. Bolton Brown, Middle Palisades, and The Thumb from Split Mountain

I had a goal, I saw my obstacles, I pondered them, and I did it anyway. I formed a strategy to do it logically and practically, by basing my operations out of Split Lake instead of off the JMT. I loved the views from the peak despite heavy clouds, and while it would have been nice to have someone up there with me to share in the experience, I fully embraced being there alone. I felt unquestionably satisfied and proud of myself for doing it, despite the complications and challenges.

Confronting fears

There was ample opportunity here. Fear of the unknown, fear of climbing a peak alone, fear of establishing camp alone off trail, fear of weather, fear of getting wet and cold, fear of falling. A little bit of all those things came to be, and it was all OK. I fell (again), and survived (again). I got wet, my stuff got wet, but I problem solved as well as I could. I accepted my fate, and I was actually able to embrace it as all part of a great overall experience.

Lessons of the day

Make camp before you embark on the task at hand

This was the biggest learning for me on this day. If I had set up my tent ahead of time, and put my stuff in the tent instead of leaving it all out, I would not have had the same sense of having to scurry down the mountain so fast. In turn, I may not have fallen, and I probably would not have cut my finger, or bled all over everything in my haste to get my belongings secured. I thought I was saving time by leaving immediately after getting in camp. I assumed the weather would hold off until my return. That’s not what happened, and I paid a price.

Optimistic thoughts don’t always overrule mother nature!

Ominous Clouds forming into rain

Ominous Clouds forming into rain

On some level, I knew I was at risk for rain. I was in denial, though, and believed that my optimistic thoughts could somehow hold off the rain. I had been SO blessed with good weather and lacked any real weather related challenges on on all of my previous backpack trips. I just assumed my luck would continue. I believed that the rain would not come, or if it did, it would come at a time of convenience for me! I was not shocked or angry when it came, but I did realize how little control my thinking, even when positive, had over the actual forces of nature. If a storm is coming, it’s coming, regardless of how much I may choose to believe (and hope) otherwise! Surviving this first storm, I felt empowered and grateful for it. I actually assumed (again!) that that would be it for my weather experiences. Again, I was wrong in my assumptions, as the next couple of days would demonstrate…

Live and learn…

Simple but true. On the trail, off the trail, and in life, that’s what it’s about…and Day 12 was a really good one for that.

 

 

Day 11 John Muir Trail

Unnamed Lake to Lower Palisades Lake

Total JMT miles — 16       Side trip miles — 1     Elevation gain/loss  —  +2570/-3940

Day 11 was in all ways a great day. I awoke amongst friends and ended up among more friends. In between, I encountered some of the most intense scenery so far, with peak after peak and creek after creek. It was a day of huge elevation loss, followed by difficult elevation gain. Not my favorite sequence, as I would have preferred to start going up and end going down. But the JMT doesn’t always cooperate like that. And frankly, after a rest day on Day 10, I was fully prepared and up for anything.

Packing up and heading out

Packed up and headed out

I ate a last breakfast with Oliver, Olivia, and Dave. They gave me “egg crystals” to supplement my regular oatmeal, a backpackers breakfast item, that gradually turns from runny goo into tasty scrambled eggs under the forces of heat. Good stuff, and two breakfasts really had me fueled up and ready to go. I experienced a mixture of sadness and excitement as I packed up my belongings and prepared to set off on my own again. I was sad to leave behind friends and companionship, but excited to be back on the trail after two days of low JMT miles.

I had in my head two main objectives as I left the party at 8:00 am:  First, I was determined to be very careful descending from the lake back down to the JMT, as that is where I had taken my fall the previous day. And second, I let myself entertain the idea that I might be able to reach lower Palisades Lake by evening, 16 JMT miles away, and meet up with Rob, Ashley, and Marcus for one more night, as they had mentioned they would be camping there.

Looking back to route from Unnamed Lake

Looking back to route from Unnamed Lake

I took it slow and easy on the initial descent, and was back on the JMT by 9:00 am.  I continued my descent into LeConte Canyon. This stretch was especially sweet, in fact this entire day was, as the previous year much if not all peak views had been shrouded in forest fire smoke. The trail plunged deeply down switchbacks for mile after mile of creek crossings, story book meadows, and stellar peak sightings. Much of this section was dynamited right out of the cliffs in the building of the JMT, and, while rocky underfoot as a result, the precision with which the trail was created is very impressive. Since I was on a mission of sorts I moved quickly, but never missed a scenic beat as peaks continued to emerge and views unfold all the way down to and through LeConte Canyon.

Middle Fork Kings River and Black Giant

Middle Fork Kings River and Black Giant

Looking down into Le Conte Canyon

Looking down into Le Conte Canyon

One last look at Black Giant

One last look at Black Giant

 

At one point, I came upon four young male backpackers, and I passed them while they stopped for photos. Shortly after, they passed me when I took a break. I was booking along, when I glanced them resting again in a nearby campsite. I waved a hello, but they called after me,  “Wait, don’t you want to see the monster?” I turned around and went back. They pointed to a rock configuration to which someone had added teeth, and I went to examine it and they took some pics. I was grateful they pointed it out, and I was immediately aware that my propensity to stay hiking on auto pilot almost caused me to miss something that cool.

Llamas and handler blocking the trail

Llamas and handler blocking the trail

themonster

The Monster!

My mission was again interrupted a few miles later, when I was abruptly stopped by two llamas and their handler on the trail. Somehow, the llamas had come unhooked from each other, and, for whatever reason, the handler couldn’t get them hooked together again. Three other hikers were stopped in front of me, and I desperately wanted to pass them all to keep on with my pace. The handler didn’t seem to speak english, or any language actually, and worked in slow and contemplative silence with her charges. All three were blocking the trail, and the underbrush was too dense to go around. So we all stood there and waited and waited. I felt so impatient, and had to force myself to stay calm. It was probably only a ten minute “road blockage”…but the amount of unrest it caused me did not go unnoticed. Finally, obstacles removed, I jetted past. It was one of those times on the trail when I did NOT feel like a very good trail steward!

Big Pete Meadow

Big Pete Meadow

Little Pete Meadow

Little Pete Meadow

After nine miles and 3430 feet of elevation loss since rejoining the JMT, the trail crossed Palisade Creek and the Middle Fork of the South Kings River. At 8030 ft. elevation, that was the lowest point I would be for the remainder of my trip until after summiting Mt. Whitney and heading out for good.  The trail back up was gradual at first as  I hiked a three mile section through another burned out zone, this one from a fire in 2002. Black, charred tree trunks and avalanche debris made it the only less-than-scenic part of my day,  and I was all up in my head about what was to come next. The last four miles of my day, should I choose to take it on, would be up the Golden Staircase, the route between Palisade Creek and the Palisades lake basin. While I really wanted to get there, I remembered the climb as steep and seemingly never ending,  I had told myself when the day started that if I got to the base of the Golden Staircase by 4:00, I would go for it. If not, I would make camp down below and tackle it the next morning.

Looking up the Golden Staircase

Looking up the Golden Staircase

Looking down from Staircase to Devils Crags

Looking down from Staircase to Devils Crags

I arrived at the final campsite before the staircase at 3:45, and I knew I would keep going. I was taking a break, snacking, drinking, and basically psyching myself up, when three older hikers came up. I’d seen them a couple of times that day, flip flopping as we took our breaks and passed each other. They were also headed up the staircase before calling it a day. As we chatted, one of them asked, “Hey, are you that famous 105 pound woman with the 50 + pound backpack?”  I laughed and said, “Well I don’t know…surely I don’t weigh 105, but my pack is over 50 pounds, yes.” They replied, “Ah, we’ve heard about you! The legend has grown over time!” This both made me chuckle, AND it strangely invigorated me. I had spent all day stressing about whether or not I would have enough OOMPH to get up that climb at the end of a long day. Suddenly, I was buoyed by their comments, and I started to see myself as that legendary woman who was strong and powerful and could do it.

Devils Crags (left) and Wheel Mt. from top of staircase

Devils Crags (left) and Wheel Mt. from Staircase

I won’t say I flew up the staircase, but it went much better than I expected. I kept a steady pace, passing both the three of them and two other hikers farther up. Part of my strategy for making a rapid ascent was to stay in my preferred hiking attire…shorts and a tank top. Clouds and wind had arrived, and it was chilly so wearing a scant amount of clothing really motivated me to keep moving. Finally at 5:30 I arrived at the very top, with the Lower Palisade lake basin laid out before me. Sure enough, there were Ashley, Rob, and Marcus, welcoming me as if they’d been waiting for me to show up. I was ecstatic to see them!  I dumped my pack in their camp, immediately put on warm clothes, and we caught up on our respective day and a half since I had last seen them at Muir Pass. I was strongly tempted to find a site right there with them, but I was also incredibly drawn to camp in the exact same spot Gregg and I had camped last year. High up on rock slabs, I knew the views overlooking the Palisades were priceless…and highly obscured by smoke last year. I had envisioned that camp site all day in my quest to attain it, and I wasn’t going to fall short after coming so close.

I said a temporary goodbye to my solo pals, now a convincing party of three, telling them I’d be back down for water before bed. I ascended the last bit to my camp from last year, and it was just as remarkable as I remembered. It was also very dusty, windy, and cold, and I made sure to get my tent set up properly so I didn’t have a repeat of Wanda Lake’s partial tent collapse. I had just enough daylight to set up camp, make and eat dinner, and go back down to the creek and the crew for water and to say goodnight. I didn’t know at the time that it would also be goodbye to the three, as I would not end up seeing them again due to the circumstances of the next several days. So it was especially sweet in retrospect to have had a bit of time with them, and I am grateful for their strong presence and hearty welcome at the end of a long but very satisfying day.

Campsite at Palisades

Campsite at Palisades

Last light from campsite, Wheel Mt. and the Citadel in back

Last light from campsite, Wheel Mt. and the Citadel in back

Highlights of the day

Wandering among the giants!

Langile Peak from Big Pete Meadow

Langille Peak from Big Pete Meadow

The Citadel (left) and Langille Peak

The Citadel (left) and Langille Peak

The sheer vastness of the 12-, 13-, and 14- thousand foot peaks that emerge and stand before the JMT hiker during this stretch is phenomenal!  I passed so many peaks, there was no way to keep track of them all.  I did my best to capture them with photos, and I relied on Peak Identifier Extraordinaire, the afore-mentioned Oliver, to help me identify them after the fact and for this post. I hope some day I can hike this same territory and say “that is this peak, and this one…” as I wander through. But for this trip I let the sheer beauty envelop me, as mile after mile of trail sported spectacular vistas that I had missed the previous year due to the smoke.

First views of Mt. Jepson (left), Palisade Crest and Middle Palisade (right)

First views of Mt. Jepson (left), Palisade Crest and Middle Palisade (right)

Interactions with people

Even though I was mission-oriented on Day 11 and hiked determinedly alone,  I had great interactions with people. From the breakfast with Oliver, Dave, and Olivia, to the guys on the trail who showed me the monster, to the three hikers below the staircase who told me I was “legendary”,  and finally with Ashley, Rob, and Marcus as happy to see me in camp as I was to see them, I felt positively inspired in my personal interactions. I experienced a mutual caring for and appreciation of others, even in the briefest of interchanges. My seriousness of mission was appropriately balanced by the lightness and laughter I experienced being with these folks. In my ongoing quest for balance between time alone and time with others, this day was nearly perfect.

Lessons of the day

Positive affirmations work!

I was struck by how much the positive things people said to me on the trail helped in pulling off a physically challenging day with relative ease. Even the four young “monster” hikers were “impressed” with my pace on the trail. I am sure I had 25 years on all of them, but they were resting more than I was, and as we chatted at the monster, they gave me lots of accolades. Then, the three hikers at the bottom of the staircase boosted my confidence tremendously by their recounting of the “growing legend” I was supposedly becoming (I am sure my legend faded fast…but it was nice while it lasted!). And finally, when I reached the top and was hanging with Ashley, Rob, and Marcus, Ashley commented, “I wish I had half your energy!” So again, I was struck that maybe I do have it, at least on some days — an energy, willingness, passion, and enough fitness to pull off a stellar day in style!

Rest days work!

I am quite sure the two days of easier miles and resting with Oliver, Dave, and Olivia, helped make Day 11’s accomplishments a bit easier to attain. In the past, when I used to run half marathons and train for marathons, I would have to force myself to take even a single day off, let alone a full-on taper before a race. Consequently, I always battled overtraining and overuse injuries, and never even made it to the start of a single marathon. I am not saying I am out of the overdoing woods just yet…my propensity is still to push on and do more, even when intellectually I realize that often, less IS more. But the ease of the 17 mile day (that ended with a significant climb), did cause me to stop and say “Huh.  Maybe there IS something to this rest day phenomenon after all.”

Impatience doesn’t work!

When I think of the llamas, their handler, and the three other hikers waiting for passage, I feel embarrassed at my reaction. That was really the only negative in a day of otherwise positives, that I let myself inwardly and outwardly become so impatient with an in-reality quite trivial trail blockage.  My obvious frustration did nothing to clear the path more quickly. The llamas moved on when they were ready, and the whole silent communication between handler and llamas was completely out of my control and influence. It’s absurd to think that somehow I could have done it “better”.  Who am I to judge someone else’s way of dealing with a problem I know absolutely nothing about?  Even as I sailed past all of them once the trail was free, I felt chagrined at my attitude and semi-inclined to go back and apologize. But my mission orientation prevailed, and instead I moved right along. But not without getting the lesson…and seeing the humor in the whole situation.

On the whole, Day 11 was very nearly a perfect day on the JMT.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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