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.
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.
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.
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. Rainier twice in my 20s. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 its 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
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.
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!
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.Feel free to share!