Lake at 12,250 to Lake South America Junction
Total JMT miles — 5.9
Side Trip miles — 8?
Total elevation gain/loss — 1670+/2870-
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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
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.
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.Feel free to share!