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. 🙂

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

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.

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

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.

And again...
Bad selfie!

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?!?

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 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.

West Spur, right, Deerhorn Mountain in back
West Spur, right, Deerhorn Mountain 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.

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

Still trying to master the selfie, on summit of Bago
Still trying to master the selfie, on summit of 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.

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.

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