Tupper's 2 Cents

Feet on the path and eyes wide open...

Tag: backpacking (page 1 of 3)

Copper Ridge Loop — Day 4

Indian Creek to Egg Lake  — 9/13/17, 12 miles, 4000 feet elevation gain.

It took awhile for daylight to enter my deeply forested Indian Creek campsite. It was 6:30 before I emerged from my tent —  bankers hours for backpackers!  Over breakfast and coffee I considered the day ahead. First up were back to back river fords over Indian Creek and the Chilliwack River. Then a climb of 4000 feet, from the low point ((2225 feet) to the high point (6260 feet) of the entire Copper Ridge loop. Then back down to Egg Lake for the night — 12 miles total.

After breakfast and map study, I began packing up. I didn’t know what to expect with the river fords, as the rangers had said they could be “waist high”.  They also said that route finding “might be required” between the first and second crossings. All these uncertainties created more than a little anxiety as I transformed my sprawling campsite into a self-contained backpack. I left accessible sandals, extra socks, even extra shorts.  And I put my sleeping bag and tent in garbage bags, just in case.

River Fords

Ready to go by 8:15, I noticed that the couple camped just above me appeared packed up as well. I moseyed into their site, calling hello and asking if they knew anything about the river crossings. They didn’t, but we made introductions (Brian and Sarah, from Portland), and agreed we’d take on the unknown together.

It was .7 miles to the first crossing. When we got there, we looked at each other, surprised. The creek was low, and moving ever so gently. Brian decided to take off his boots and do it in socks, and I opted to do the same.  Sarah wore sandals. The first ford was barely knee high and very straightforward.  On the other side, Brian went first, easily spotting the orange tape that marked the location of the second crossing.  I walked the short distance between river banks (over rocks) in my socks. It seemed the easiest option, although a very painful one for my extremely tender feet! The second ford was equally as simple.  Again, barely to the knees. Mid-September and low water levels made these fords easy and painless.  At any other time of year, I can imagine it could be a whole different story!

On the other side, we chatted as we dried our feet and put dry socks and boots back on. Brian’s mom had just had knee replacement, and he was impressed that I was out backpacking ten months post-replacement. “You are an inspiration!” He said. “I am going to tell my mom all about you!”

They were headed to camp at Copper Lake. “That will be quick”, I said. “It’s only 5.7 miles from here.” Brian looked at me quizzically, but said nothing. That’s the number of miles I had in my head to reach the lake.

Copper Ridge Trail to Copper Lake

Copper Mountain

Brian and Sarah, clearly on a mission, shot up the far side of the creek, calling back, “See you up there!” I felt like saying “Not at that speed!” Clearly they were fast hikers, and I figured they’d be at the lake before I even reached the ridge. Plus I was camping at a different lake. I didn’t think I’d see them again, but I was glad they’d been there for the crossings. I stalled for time getting water and a snack, trying to rev myself up for the elevation gain to come.

At 9:45, I was as ready as I’d ever be. I hooked up my audiobook and headphones, wanting distraction from the inevitable challenge of hauling my 50-lb. pack up 4000 feet. After the previous day’s fall, I decided I’d take the ascent one slow, careful step at a time. The trail was steep, switchbacking relentlessly through forest. I could see why most people did the loop the other direction (the way I had previously done it). But hey, if I wasn’t going up the switchbacks, I’d be going down them, and frankly, neither option was a walk in the park! I thought of Dad again, reminding me to “put my nose to the grindstone” when undertaking challenging tasks. This was one of those times.

First views, finally!

Mt. Redoubt in distance

Eventually, the forest thinned, and I had views to further distract me. It felt like I’d been going for hours and making little progress. I was tired and wanted a substantial break, but I also wanted the sense of gaining the ridge before resting.

Boulder crossing, scene of fall #3

Finally, I came to a boulder field, and saw the first two people I’d seen all day since Brian and Sarah. I checked my watch. It was 12:45, I’d been going for 2.5 hours, and I honestly wasn’t sure where in relation to Copper Lake I stood. I asked a question I almost never ask: “Do you know how much farther to Copper Lake?”

“About four miles”, the woman, traversing the boulder field in the opposite direction, responded.

“Four miles!” I was stunned. That would mean I had only travelled 1.7 miles in 2.5 hours! That couldn’t be right. I was so rattled that I took my eyes off the ‘trail’  to look at her in horror, and tripped, again. This time I fell hard and ungracefully on my behind, a sharp rock impaling the right butt cheek. The pain caused a sharp intake of breath.

“No way,” I said. “It can’t be that far!” Her hiking partner piped up. “More like three. At the  most. It’s pretty flat along the ridge, though. And beautiful.”

I thanked him, still exasperated, and continued the short distance to the ridge. I thought about those numbers. 2.7 miles in 2.5 hours. I really was hiking slowly! Whatever — I tried to shake it off.  At the top, I plopped down, gently, for a lunch break. Sitting hurt after that fall. But the views were incredible, puffy white clouds against blue sky blanketing peak after peak.  I spent 30 minutes up there, taking in caloric and supernal nourishment.

Challenger Mt. and Whatcom Peak from Ridge Trail

View from Copper Ridge…

Mineral Mountain, foreground, Shuksan and Ruth Mt. in back

Mineral Mountain, foreground. Background, L to R: Icy Peak, Mt. Hagen, Bacon Peak.

Classic view of Mt. Redoubt

Mt. Lindeman, Right; Middle Peak, left

 

Copper Ridge Trail

Mostly revived, I hefted on my pack and moved along. The ridge trail wandered for however many miles, headed toward Copper Lake. I struggled to keep my eyes on the trail, the draw to unfolding views an incredible pull. I wasn’t sure when (if ever!) I would reach the lake, as apparently I was on the slow hiking boat that day. But unexpectedly soon,  at 2:15, I arrived.

Copper Lake

Looking back on Copper Lake

I filled up on water and took another break, this time only 15 minutes. The day was not over — I still had more switchbacks to gain Copper Mountain,  then a drop back down to Egg Lake.

Copper Lake to Copper Mountain Lookout

The clouds continued to thicken on my short break at the lake. I LOVE sunshine, and will take it anytime. But I was grateful for the cooler temps, as I could put a t-shirt on over my tank top. Carrying a heavy pack in a tank top always causes shoulder chafing, something I struggled with tremendously on my three weeks on the John Muir Trail. The extra layer between strap and skin brought instant relief.

Clouds building over Mineral Mountain

Looking up to Copper Mt. Lookout — finally!

Looking down into the Chilliwack River Valley, 4000 feet down

Copper Mt. foreground, Icy Peak and ridge leading to Shuksan behind…

My course after the lake was more steep switchbacks and more expanding views, including back to the shrinking Copper Lake. Soon I could see the lookout on Copper Mountain, and I knew I was close. I picked up the pace for the final distance, arriving just before 3:30. For that section, the distance I expected to cover in a set amount of time had returned.

Copper Mt. Lookout, actively used and maintained, but locked unless luck brings you there with a ranger present.

From lookout: Foreground, Hannegan Peak, climbed on first day, left. Granite Mt. right. Background: Shuksan, left, Mt. Baker right, in clouds

Looking down Slesse Creek Valley (Mt. Slesse prominent peak in distance), to Fraser River lowlands and North Shore Mountains far in the distance

And the lookout was spectacular! I’d been there twice before. Once, with Rob in 1997. As mentioned, we went the opposite direction, reaching the Lookout on Day Two. We spent the night right there, which I am not clear if you can still do. On that trip, I hauled in my pack a three-pound loaf of home-made zucchini bread and a bottle of red wine, among other things. I am not exaggerating when I say my pack then weighed over 70 pounds! I broke out the bread and wine at the lookout, and Rob was astounded, and grateful. We shared the bounty with two other guys also camped up there.  Definitely a highlight from that first hike.

The other time I was there was with an old boyfriend, Gregg, in the summer of 2014. That was an extremely low snow year, and we hiked up to Silesia Ridge for the night in early June — unheard of in all but the most unusual year. We set up camp in one of two always popular sites, but saw not a soul. After dinner, we hiked up to the lookout, again seeing no one. We stayed almost until sunset, dropping down the 1.5 miles to camp in a show of spectacular colors I won’t ever forget.

Mt. Shuksan from lookout

Southern Pickets! Including Mt. Fury and Phantom Peak

Shuksan and Baker…Baker can’t seem to lose her cloud topper

To my amazement, there was no one at the lookout this year either. I stayed up there for a good half hour, enjoying views in every direction. I kept hoping the cloud topping Mt. Baker would lift, but it persisted. The wind was brisk, and I had to put on more layers. The sun stayed mostly behind clouds, and the cloud formations in the distance made for spectacular viewing. And photos. I took a ton in each direction, trying to remember which peaks were which…

Panorama from Copper Lookout

Copper Lookout to Egg Lake

When I finally decided to leave, I wandered down slope. I found one obvious campsite, surmising that must be the place where Rob and I had camped. I noticed something that could only be a compostable toilet just below, completely out in the open. WOW, I thought that’s a toilet with a view! But also a view for everyone else too. I didn’t remember the toilet from a few years earlier, and figured it must be new. As I dropped down, though, the trail got more and more faint, and I realized I was going the wrong way. The trail down had to be in a different direction.

Toilet with a view!

Windy selfie, Mt. Redoubt on my shoulder

I retraced my steps to the lookout, and, in my short absence, a person had appeared.

“Where did you come from?” I asked. The guy looked at me very strangely, like did I think he dropped from the sky…?

“Uh, Silesia Ridge….” He answered. “Why do you ask?”

I told him about the toilet, and heading down the wrong direction. He said simply “The trail down goes the other way. Just on the other side of the towers. You can’t  miss it.”

OK then, clearly he didn’t know me and my propensity for missing obvious trails! I thanked him, and returned to the tower, and, sure enough, there was an obvious trail down. And another hiker coming up, who was the first guy’s hiking partner. I asked this guy for a photo, and he obliged.

Headed down the correct trail from the lookout

On the correct trail now, all was familiar. I remembered heading down the steep switchbacks with Gregg as the sun got low on that gorgeous June evening. It was pretty now too, although cloudy, and I was tired of hiking and wanted to be at Egg Lake. The day, while grand, felt like it was going on forever.

Once down the switchbacks, the trail headed back up.  Again. I was tired of gaining elevation! I could see the lake basin, but still the trail climbed. Finally, I came to the signed junction for Egg Lake.  Then it was just .3 miles of elevation loss, and I’d be home for the night.

Egg Lake, finally!

Campsite at Egg Lake

Egg Lake Campsite

The first campsite contained a woman and gear.  She explained that were staying in that site, but her husband was off checking out the other two sites, each of the three spaced far from the other. “Hey, honey!” She called to him, “Which site is the best over there?”

He started reporting back from the other side of the lake the specs on the two available sites. I’d call back a question, he’d shout the answer. Realizing how silly this was, he finally said,”Let’s wait until I get closer.” He came back, and gave me the low down on the other options available. We chatted for a good 15 minutes, and I learned that they were from Virginia, here for a ten-day North Cascades backpacking and hiking trip. The distance they’d come to immerse themselves in this beauty made me incredibly thankful that I could attain that so close to my home.

While I enjoyed the chat tremendously, I had to get my pack off.  I thanked them and moved out of their site. I decided on the site farthest away, and with it’s own compostable toilet! But not one that was visible to all the world. It was a great site, high above the lake, with views back towards the lookout tower. And exposed. The wind was brisk, and I changed clothes before setting up camp and getting dinner. I kept thinking about the surreal nature of the day, in terms of how long it took me to cover distance, and I finally pulled out the map while I waited for my backpacker meal to rehydrate.

That’s when I learned that I’d transposed numbers. What I thought was 5.7 miles to Copper Lake was actually 7.5! No wonder it had taken so long! While still no speed record, at least that helped explain why it felt like I was hiking but getting no where. The steep section was nearly two miles longer than I thought.

Somehow this reassured me that I was still in the game. I didn’t feel terribly old or slow throughout the day, but it did get my attention. Now, I realized it was just a mis-read of the map. I contemplated this while I ate. How a belief about something can hold strong even in the face of contradictory evidence. I know generally how fast I hike, yet by believing the incorrect number, I believed I was way off my normal pace even though I was not.

Evening light from Egg Lake campsite, looking back toward Copper Lookout

Reflectively, I watched the colors of the sky turn their oranges and pinks, staying up until the last bits of light had faded away. The encroaching night air was cold and windy.  Gratefully, I crawled into my tent, satisfied and with a sense of great accomplishment about the day. The mysterious pieces finally all fit together.

Alpenglow on Copper Mountain, end of a great day!

 

 

 

 

Copper Ridge/Whatcom Pass Backpack Trip — Day 2

Mt. Challenger, (L); Whatcom Peak, (R), from Whatcom Pass

U.S. Cabins Campground to Whatcom Pass.  Sept. 11, 2017

I was stiff and sore when I woke up Monday morning. I felt about 100 years old as I literally crawled out of the tent at first light.  Maybe I am not so cut out for backpacking with a heavy pack as I thought! But after walking to the pit toilet, which was a LONG way away, and some stretching, the aches and pains started to dissipate. I settled myself around the huge fire ring, breakfast makings at the ready. I felt more like myself with each breath of clean air…and hot cup of coffee!

The morning was as quiet as the previous night, with only a few birds and the nearby river lending auditory company. I contemplated the day ahead. I knew nothing of the trail up to Whatcom Pass except that it was steep, but I had all day to cover the 7.2 miles. Plenty of time to arrive, get settled,  and still get in a day hike from the pass, I reckoned.

U.S. Cabins to Brush Creek Trail Junction

I took my time packing up, and didn’t hit the trail until 9:45. The first mile was flat, the trail loosely paralleling  the Chilliwack River. It was wet and brushy, and I was careful not to trip. I was all up in my head about the cable car crossing just ahead. I had a multitude of memories and some concerns about my mode of transportation across the river:

First, I remembered with hilarity this crossing from 20 years ago. On that hike, my ex-husband Rob and I had our dog, Magnum, with us. An 85-pound yellow lab, Magnum was not even supposed to be with us. Dogs are not allowed in National Parks, and, I confess, we snuck him in. Back then it was much more lax than now. Rest assured, I would not do that now!

We had no idea what we were in for with Magnum and the cable car. Somehow, we loaded him into the cable car, with me as his escort. Rob hauled us both across, hand over hand, as I tried to calm a very nervous Magnum in the swaying car, far above the river below. We unloaded at the platform on the other side, and waiting while Rob came over with both packs in the second round.

There we all stood, looking down the straight up ladder, about 12 or 15 feet (see pic) that we had to descend.  How do you get a large animal down a steep ladder? Always good problem solvers, we put Magnum “on belay”, such that he was roped up in an improvised chest harness.  Rob “lowered” him down from above, as I went down step by step, attempting to calm the flailing (and flying!) Magnum as we went.  It was both nerve racking and hysterical, and a true highlight of that trip!

The infamous Magnum belay spot!

Cable car

Pack’s in, now to load in self…

But this time, there was no Magnum. Or Rob. Or anyone. I was on my own, not having seen a soul all morning. The car was “parked” on the other side of the river, so I had to haul it back over before I could entertain my current worry:

The rangers, when I got my permit, said there had been a hornet’s nest in the car, but they didn’t know if it was still there. Stuck in a car with angry hornets would surely be worse than any challenges with Magnum! In that case, I’d have to ford. But once I got the car to my side, I checked it out. Thankfully, no nest.

I loaded in my pack, then myself. I began the slow process of pulling myself and my pack, at least 175 pounds total, back across the river. I wore gloves, and this helped some. But I also had the broken finger to deal with, and the process was tedious and tiring. The rope was that old yellow kind, not super keen on sliding easily through the cables. Each pull was a Herculean effort! Even under the best of circumstances, but the finger (splinted for protection) made it even harder.

When I finally reached the other side, my arms were burning with the effort. It was one of those times when I realized that backpacking alone ain’t always easy! Where was that partner when I needed him? (or her)?  BUT, it also gave me an immense feeling of satisfaction to have done it, and I was relieved it was over.

Pack back on, I clamored up the river bank, the trail nearly hidden by the wet and heavy brush. No rest for the weary! Finally, I came to the junction with Brush Creek trail.

Brush Creek Trail to Whatcom Pass

Normally, I don’t haul a heavy pack up to a place like Whatcom pass just to spend the night. Usually, I’d day-hike it instead. But I’d heard great things about the pass itself, with it’s views of Challenger Glacier and Whatcom Peak, as well as down to Little Beaver Valley, and a collection of lakes above that I also wanted to explore. Since I had time, I decided to camp at the pass and enjoy all that in a leisurely time frame.

Heading up, I had my moments of doubt! Brush Creek trail gained gradual elevation for the first 2.5 miles, but steepened dramatically after that. My pack felt heavier with each upward step. I kept thinking the trail would break out and I’d feel the sunshine I was so craving after yesterday’s forest walk.  But the trail stayed mostly in the trees, with peek-a-boo views coming into play only periodically.

Whatcom Peak making an appearance.

One of many creek crossings headed up the pass

Glad the trail isn’t going that way!

But I was in no rush, and took frequent breaks in those rare moments of sunshine when they arrived. Near the top, I encountered two people coming down, the first I’d seen all day.  A 60’s-ish man and young woman, who said they had camped two nights at Middle Lakes, one of the day hikes I was coveting. They said it was serenely beautiful and well-worth the effort to get there. That spurred me on to the top.

I reached Whatcom Pass at 3:45. No speed record for sure, but I felt great to finally arrive. I found Derek, the German dynamo, in one of three campsites. His previous night had been much closer to the pass, and he seemed like a go-getter. I asked him when he’d arrived “Oh, about 10:30” he replied.

The site I chose was open and windy, but just what I needed. It overlooked a sprawl of  peaks I couldn’t name, and the sunshine I’d been craving was full-on when I arrived. After last night in the forest, I really wanted air and exposure.  I dumped my pack in relief. Wanting to explore while the sun was still relatively high, I chose not to set up camp, but took off instead with my coat pockets full of provisions.

Day hike exploration — Little Beaver Trail and Whatcom Arm

I chatted briefly with Derek on my way past his camp. He gave me what I thought were directions to head to the lakes. Said it took him “an hour up, and 45 minutes down” for his day hike to Tapto Lakes. I knew I’d have enough daylight to do that and get back to set up camp. He said something about trying to camp at a different site than he had a permit for, but I only half listened. I wanted to get hiking while daylight was still on my side!

At what I thought was the left hand turn he’d mentioned just over Whatcom Pass, I left the “main trail”.  Quickly I realized this trail was dropping down, switchback after switchback, instead of going up toward Tapto and Middle Lakes. I realized I was on the Little Beaver trail, which heads down valley for seven miles to Beaver Pass. I decided I’d follow it for a half hour then turn around. Some views of the glacier appeared, and I was happy enough with my wander. The sun was too low to shine on me, though, so mostly I was back in shade.

Top of Whatcom Pass, with Challenger Glacier

Challenger Glacier

Looking down into Little Beaver Valley

After thirty minutes, I took some pics and turned around.  Maybe I’d still have time to find the lakes, I thought. Distracted, I didn’t notice the black bear feasting on berries a mere 20 feet away. He (or she) saw me though, and bolted up the steep hill, in the direction I was going (of course!) Scared the crap out of me! I had just seen a bear on Mt. Dickerman 9 days previous, and two bear sightings in 10 days was more than I wanted. I scurried back up the hill just as fast as I could!

At the junction where I turned down, I went straight and headed toward Whatcom Arm. I knew this wasn’t in the direction of the lakes, but I wasn’t ready to head back just yet. I wandered a bit on a ever-diminishing trail that got rockier and rockier as it went, and soon deposited me in a scree field that went straight up. I wasn’t into a scree scramble, so I turned back towards camp.

Campsite excitement!

As I passed Derek’s site on the way to mine, I noticed it was empty. This puzzled me greatly. It also alarmed me. Now I was alone on Whatcom Pass with a bear nearby! I felt a bit anxious, but decided to embrace those feelings and be brave. I recited one of my self-compassion phrases to myself over and over: “May I stand strong and courageous in the face of fear!”  I did all my camp set up with a watchful eye, and cooked my dinner as far from my tent as the site would allow. I had great rocks for sitting and cooking, and I let myself relax into contentment.

Campsite at Whatcom Pass

View from my campsite

I was in this reverie of enjoyment, watching the setting sun. Suddenly I heard something moving into my campsite! In a split second, all calm was broken as I turned toward the noise. I thought for sure it was a bear! But instead, it was a burly, bear-like man coming round to my site. “Oh my gosh!” I said, totally startled and rattled. “I thought you were a bear!!”

The guy apologized, said he had just arrived, and wanted to see if anyone else was camping at the pass. Recovering my composure, I told him about my earlier bear encounter. “Don’t worry”, he said, “I’m with the Forest Service, and I will be right next door. If you have a night time visitor, just holler!” Apparently he’d set himself up in Derek’s vacated spot.

My sense of peace returned. I watched the light do it’s last dance on peaks across the valley, the colors of the sky gradually fading from their dramatic oranges and pinks. I settled myself in my tent and prepared for sleep. The wind had died, the night was still, and, admittedly, I was happy not be alone on the pass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copper Ridge Loop and Whatcom Pass Backpack Trip — Day 1

Copper Ridge Loop, with spur hike to Whatcom Pass, plus day hikes to Tapto and Middle Lakes, and Hannegan Peak.

A broken finger and a weather window combined in perfect harmony to allow me to take five days last week and get away on a solo backpack trip. I broke my right ring finger in a dog accident (bowled over from behind by three dogs!) on August 31. There are many things one can do with a broken finger, but, alas, delivering massage is not one of them.

But backpacking with a splint? No problem.

I had wanted to do the Copper Ridge Loop for years, having only done it once with my ex-husband, back in 1997.  We also did it in September, and it stayed in my memory for it’s high ridges with stunning views, deep river valleys with exciting crossings, pristine alpine lakes and meadows, old growth forest, a spectacular lookout, plenty of mileage, and great day hike potential. It just doesn’t get much better than that!

View from Copper Mountain Lookout

Stats on my trip:

TOTAL DISTANCE  —  About 55 miles.       LOCATION  —  Begins and ends at Hannegan Trailhead (FR road 32).  ELEVATION GAIN —  About 8600 feet.         HIGH POINT —  Copper Mountain Lookout, 6260.     SIDE TRIPS  — Hannegan Peak, Tapto Lakes, Middle Lakes, Egg Lake.      DIFFICULTY  —  Strenuous! But so worth it.   REQUIRED — Backcountry permits to camp (available at the Glacier Service Station), first come first served. Northwest Forest Pass for parking.

A word about permitting:  This is a very popular loop hike, and permits are required. I showed up at the ranger station the day before my planned departure, which is the earliest you can get a permit. The rangers were extremely helpful with trip planning. I wanted to take the loop clockwise, as that is how I’d previously done it, and that seems to be most “recommended”. However, campsites were not available on the dates I wanted to go that direction, so I opted for counter-clockwise. And an extra day — originally I planned for 3 nights, but to do all I wanted looked like it would take 4 nights and 5 days.  I left the ranger station excited and ready for adventure!

I will break this trip into five (hopefully short!) posts. But don’t wait until the last post to consider this for a great fall backpack trip. Fall color and blueberries await!

Day 1 — Hannegan Trailhead to U.S. Cabins (10.2 mile).  Side trip to Hannegan Peak (2.2 miles). Sept. 10, 2017

Trailhead to Hannegan Pass

My permits secured, I drove straight to the trailhead Sunday morning.  It wasn’t as early of a start as planned, but I was on the trail by 10:25. My pack was heavy — much heavier than I wanted. Not only did it contain 5 days of food, but extra clothing galore, as I had been warned of potentially “waist high” river crossings. Plus, while Day 1 was mostly clear, it had rained substantially the previous two days (thankfully, as it cleared away significant forest fire smoke) and rain remained a slight threat in the forecast. I knew I’d be hiking in a river valley for two days, and I am absolutely paranoid about getting wet and cold. I didn’t weigh my pack, but it was on par with last years heaviest on the John Muir Trail — 57 pounds. I struggled to even get it on at the trailhead!

One more note:  This was the first significant backpack trip since knee replacement last November. Though healing has been good, I am a bit knock-kneed as a result of the surgery. I tend to drag that right leg a bit, and I trip much more often than I used to. So I knew I would have to be extra careful with the added weight of the pack.

The first three miles of the trail were uneventful. Ruth Mountain emerged after a couple of miles, and she was spectacular despite the clouds. I have climbed Ruth once, and I loved it. Good memories of that trip and watching her come into view made the tedious going up the pass somewhat easier.

Ruth Mountain from Hannegan Pass Trail

I arrived at Hannegan Pass (four miles) at 12:30. I immediately dumped my pack, fished out a jacket with pockets and stuffed in my lunch. I wanted to climb Hannegan Peak (1.1 miles, 1100 feet elevation) while I could. The day was mostly clear, and this would be my only view opportunity for the day, as I knew I’d be heading into forest for the remainder.

From Hannegan Peak trail…Mt. Sefrit, Nooksack Ridge, and Mt. Baker

Also from Hannegan Peak trail…L to R — Ruth Mt., Jagged Ridge, Mt. Shuksan

I sailed up Hannegan Peak, enjoying the absolute freedom of hiking with no pack after miles of slogging upward with a heavy one. I joined four other people at the top, all basking in the intensely powerful views.  I took pictures in each direction, trying to determine which peaks were which. I settled down and ate my lunch squarely in front of Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan, Ruth Mt., and the Nooksack Glacier and Tower.

Shuksan from Hannegan Peak

Top of Hannegan Peak, with Baker and Shuksan

It was hard to leave this scene,  but I still had 6.2 miles to go for the day. After 40 minutes, I reluctantly retraced my steps back down to the pass and re-shouldered my heavy pack.

View North to BC peaks and Silesia Creek Valley

Hannegan Pass to U.S. Cabins

The trail drops for a mile, then splits in three directions. To the left is Copper Ridge Trail, the one I would be taking if I had my druthers. To the far right is a trail to Boundary Camp, which, thankfully I was not staying at. Apparently, it’s trashy. Instead, I followed the Chilliwack Trail, loosely following the river.

I didn’t particularly like this section, as both the ground and brush were very wet from recent rain. The trail was mostly cut away, but in some places I had to blindly plow my way through wet brush. At times I couldn’t see the trail at all, a bad scenario for me. I tried my best to move carefully, yet keep up some speed.

Then the inevitable happened. I tripped, tried to save my fall with my right pole, but the ground was too soft. My pole sank uselessly a foot or more into the soft ground, and I landed hard, face first in the wet dirt, pack pinning me down. I was both surprised and embarrassed, though no one else was there. There was no way I could get up except to unhook my pack and ungracefully roll out from under it. I was covered in dirt and frustrated.

Shaking myself off, I continued on. I remembered the very first time I backpacked, at age 7. Then I was carrying a pack too big and heavy for my small size, and I similarly tripped. The pack went over my head, such that I was bent in half, unable to get up until an older sibling helped me. At least then I was agile enough to stay partially upright! With age, I’ve found I fall more spectacularly, as it seems to be easier on the body to not fight it.

After the fall, I slowed down, checking footing with each step. When I came to Copper Creek campground, I saw my first hiker since Hannegan Pass. Named Derek (pronounced Dirk — he was German), I learned he was headed the same direction as me, and on a similar hiking schedule. We’d be at different campsites that night, but would both end up at Whatcom Pass the following night. I was grateful for at least one person hiking my way, as the trail had been so quiet.

The theme of solitude continued when I finally arrived at U.S. Cabins campground, right at 5:00 pm. I had my choice of sites in the sprawl, as no one else was there. I chose the site closed to the Chilliwack river, both for ease of getting water and for the calming sounds of the flowing water.  My site was big enough for 6 at least, and I got to do the Kathie Tupper Sprawl! The evening was stress-free and leisurely, as I spent time writing and reading after dinner. Magnificent colors emerged at sunset, and I crawled into my tent by 7:40, even before complete darkness fell. A great first day, fall and all.

Sunset on unknown peak from campsite, Day 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First backpack trip of the year, Yellow Astor Butte and day hike to Tomyhoi Peak

Looking down on Yellow Astor ponds and Mt. Shuksan from trail up to Tomyhoi Peak

Yellow Astor Butte and Tomyhoi Peak (8/21 – 8/22)

The past three summers have involved multiple backpack trips, but this was the first for the summer of 2017.

I went with my friend Doug, and it was his first backpack trip in 40 years! We chose Yellow Astor Butte for it’s ease of access, short distance, and familiarity. Both of us had day hiked it a dozen times, and I had previously backpacked there with my kids, so I had a good idea of where to camp. Plus, climbing nearby Tomyhoi Peak was on the agenda for day two.

Doug and his new pack — no more external frame for him!

Stats on Yellow Astor Butte

LOCATION  —  Off the Mt. Baker Highway, 542, 46 miles east of Bellingham. Take Twin Lakes Road (FR 3065), just past Shuksan Maintenance Facility.  It’s 4.5 miles to the trailhead.    DISTANCE —  7.5 miles, give or take.      ELEVATION GAIN —  2677 feet (to the top of the Butte)   REQUIRED — NW Forest Pass. NO PERMITS REQUIRED TO CAMP — but get there early, it’s a popular spot!

The Hike in

Typically for us, we didn’t get an early start. After accomplishing all the details of packing up,  we finally hit the trail early afternoon. With such a short distance to hike, we weren’t worried. The day was gorgeous,  the trail straightforward and, as always, spectacular. Yellow Astor Butte is a favorite of mine, as views unfold magically and continually once you leave a short forested section, and it’s guaranteed that your jaw will drop seeing Shuksan and Baker in all their glory.  I’ve done many hikes this year featuring those two mountains, but it never gets old!

 

Baker view trail break!

Still plenty of flowers on the trail…

Camping at one of many Yellow Astor Ponds!

At the junction with the butte, we gazed down at some of the dozen, ponds, or tarns, trying to decide where to head. One in the distance caught my eye, far enough away from close-in campers. Even on a Monday, I knew it would be busy!  We wandered past the closer ponds and campers, and found a spot. I dropped my pack, peered over a rocky outcropping where we’d cook…and saw that there was a couple not far below that. The guy was clearly unhappy that we were going to camp there, even though we couldn’t see them from our selected spot and could give them visual privacy from the rock. Momentarily, we hesitated, as the last thing I want to do in the mountains is piss someone off or have them feel encroached upon. Many times,  I have felt my space invaded, especially on last summer’s solo JMT hike. Doug and I discussed it, and decided to camp there anyway, as it was a good size for our two tents, and enough distance away from the party below.

Looking down on tarns…where to camp?

Where we settled.

After setting up camp, we took a swim in the nearest tarn, cooked dinner, and settled in for the night. The best part of all this was Doug’s supreme enjoyment of the whole experience. Instead of putting words in his mouth, I will share his write-up on our trip:

Doug’s take on the trip…

Kathie and I did a backpacking trip to the tarns at Yellow Aster Butte (4 miles, 2150 vertical feet) on Monday, 8/21, then the hike up Tomyhoi Peak (5.5 miles round trip from our camp and about 2900 vertical feet–nearly all of it coming in just 2.2 miles) and the return to the trailhead (4 miles again and about 400 vertical feet) on Tuesday, 8/22, for a two day total of 13.5 miles and 5450 vertical feet.  

Kathie and I had previously been on a day hike to Yellow Aster Butte on July 24.  It’s a short, straightforward hike that quickly breaks out of the trees, runs through meadows full of wildflowers, crosses a snowfield, and at the end, climbs straight up to spectacular views.  We’d gone late in the day and had the top to ourselves for more than an hour.  This time, instead of climbing we turned left and descended to the tarns, 12 shallow ponds left by melting snow, most of them three to four feet deep, a few deeper.  Another magical place.  From the heights we counted at least three occupied campsites, and as we walked through the rocky, rolling terrain down on the ridge, we found we were racing two other couples also looking for places to camp.  We found the perfect spot, not far from two tarns, sheltering behind few trees and a small mound of rock with a full view of Mt. Shuksan and a partial view of Mt. Baker, where we’d spend most of our time.   

Mt. Baker from our campsite

Our cooking rock with views of Shuksan and Baker

I hadn’t been backpacking in decades, not since I was 24 and hiked in 12.5 miles to the Chinese Wall in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness with my brother Rick and his ex-wife Susan.  I remember my pack had an external aluminum frame I was proud of and it weighed in at just under 50 pounds.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it to the campsite the first night and camped in rough terrain just off the trail.  I slept in a small gully under a tarp in a heavy sleeping bag that featured flannel.  Air mattresses were not yet the thing, so I made do with a ground cloth.  I wore a wool shirt and jeans–what else?–and army boots that were shredding my feet.  The second day we got to the campsite and set up, but because my feet were so blistered, I didn’t go on the hike we’d planned using a paper topographical map we’d happily bought at the Power Horn.  6-12 (or was it Off) kept the mosquitos at bay.  We searched for springs where we could fill our steel canteens.  Toward the end of the day, we gathered “squaw wood” to build a fire for warming, make coals for cooking (how could we have lived without tin foil), and after a restless night we plunged into freezing temperatures to build another fire to start the coffee in a steel coffee pot so we could stop shivering.  There was dried food, sure, but only raisins and oatmeal–and in those days, nuts meant peanuts–which may account for my aversion to them all today.  On the third day, we hiked out.  I was hobbling for a week or more on those feet.  That was the last time; is there any wonder?

This time, everything had changed.  It’s true, I’d dropped a grand and Kathie had borrowed a tent to make it so, but I was COMFORTABLE.  I ate well, slept well, made tarn water potable with Sawyer and Platypus filters and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Baker in last light

Mt. Shuksan in last light

For this I have Kathie to thank.  She’s an inveterate backpacker–two summers ago she did all 215 miles of California’s John Muir Trail plus several peaks along the way over 17 days (13 mile days if you don’t count the side trips), but that was with a friend, so last year she did the same thing alone.  Kathie and I love hiking together and have done a dozen high-country day hikes so far this summer.  She was determined to share her joy and take me to the next level.

Which she did.  I loved watching the light ebb and flow over the mountains as night settled in. 

Morning light on Baker and the knob I would climb up and over later that day.

Doug in his COTTON pajamas…he wanted comfort!

Day hike to Tomyhoi Peak — Doug’s report

The hike up Tomyhoi Peak was a real treat:  I’d seen it from the top of Yellow Aster Butte and it didn’t look like much, but boy was I ever wrong!  I knew Tomyhoi was a rectangular block only about a mile and a half south of the border with Canada and its summit required technical climbing skills (way beyond me), but what I didn’t know was it had at least three false summits, was topped by a glacier, and had incredible views from the top, even on a-little-less-than-clear day, which we had.  The trail was up, up, up, sometimes demanded hands to clamber over rock, offered long traverses across scree, and at one point skirted a 200 foot drop-off.  Only five rocky steps to be sure, but exposure enough to shiver my timbers.  The “top” where we stopped above the glacier was exposed as well.  Had we had our minds set on summiting, we would have had to make a 30 meter crossing of the top of the glacier–which didn’t look all that hard–but a slip would send one sliding into the crevasses below and would likely have been fatal. Reports I read afterwards recommended crampons and ice axes, and that was just to get to the technical climb.  No, I was happy just where I was. 

After Tomyhoi, Kathie added probably another two miles and 800 feet to her total as she climbed over a series of knobs on a boot-beaten trail to check out the long-rumored connection between the tarns at Yellow Aster Butte and the end of the High Divide ridge hike at Welcome Pass. She’s a mountain goat at heart with rock climbing in her past, but the going was tedious even for her, a steep scramble much of the way.  I’m glad I opted to cool my heels and make (potable) water.  

Kathie’s Note:

The connection does eventually lead to Welcome Pass. I almost made it, but turned around because of time and fatigue with the rocky path. After Tomyhoi, another 1.5 hours of steep up and down on sometimes very sketchy, nearly non-existent “trail” was more than enough!

Looking up at Tomyhoi Peak, way off in the distance, beginning our day hike.

Doug starting up trail to Tomyhoi Peak

Layers of views on our way up to Tomyhoi. Whatcom Peak and Challenger Peak in the distance

Five layers of views! Fourth out — Copper Ridge, my next backpack trip. Beyond, far right, Mt. Redoubt, left, Mt. Spickard

Not far below summit of Tomyhoi

Canadian Border Peak, left, American Border Peak, right, from near top of Tomyhoi

 

 

Trip Highlights!

There were so many, it’s hard to list. But here are my top four:

  1. Doug’s excitement of his first backpack in 40 years. I love to share the experience of backpacking with another, and what a great customer he was!
  2. The day hike to Tomyhoi Peak. I’d done this twice before, but forgot how challenging and interesting of a hike it was. I loved doing it again with the very enthusiastic Doug!
  3. Our campsite. Despite our crabby neighbors, it was pretty much perfect!
  4. Being out backpacking, finally. I have missed it so much since returning from the JMT last summer. What a great joy to be back into the mountains again for an overnight!

 

My backpacking excitement renewed, I have a three night solo backpack trip planned at the end of this week to Copper Ridge/Whatcom Pass loop. I can hardly wait!  Hopefully, smoke will abate. A tough year for forest fires. 

Enjoy the remaining weeks of summer!

 

Dropping back down the steep trail, Winchester Mountain and Whatcom Peak in distance

Mt. Slesse from Tomyhoi

Seen from my final wander…American Border Peak, left, Mt. Larrabee, right, and down to ponds.

 

 

 

 

 

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 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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