Tupper's 2 Cents

Feet on the path and eyes wide open...

Tag: backpacking alone (page 1 of 3)

Copper Ridge Loop — Final Day

Egg Lake to Hannegan Pass parking lot  (8.6 miles) — 9/14/17

Egg Lake, morning view

Morning at Egg Lake was crisp and magnificent! Stiff breezes the night before blew out the few remaining clouds, and cool gusts still swirled around my campsite.  I put on all my layers, including down hat and gloves with hand warmers, ready to embrace my last morning of the five day Copper Ridge loop. When I backpack, my fear of cold usually causes me to bring too many clothes. But on this morning, it felt great to be all bundled up against the cold but clear morning of what was sure to be a fantastic bluebird day ahead.

I sat suspended in time as I watched the first rays of sun come up. Mornings are my favorite time of day, regardless of where I am. But my ‘outside’ morning routine of 3 cups of steaming hot coffee, oatmeal with an abundance of toppings, writing, and meditatively gazing at the trees, mountains, and lakes, felt especially significant.  I knew it might be the last morning I’d wake up and immediately commune with mother nature for awhile, at least in the belly of the North Cascades. Fall was just around the corner, and I wanted to fully embrace the exquisiteness that surrounded me.  It reminded me of the last morning of my solo hike of the John Muir Trail in the summer of 2016. The reality of a time of solitude in wilderness coming to an end, the strong pull and desire to capture the peace and integrate it into my very core, my deep reluctance to return to ‘real’ life.

But eventually, I had to get moving.  The day held 8.6 miles of hiking, and I had an evening commitment that I had to be home for.  Reluctantly, I performed the mundane duties of breaking down camp, stalling often to feel the sun on my face as it streamed it’s way into my campsite. For this I was grateful. Warm sun on a cold morning makes the actions of camp break-down ever so much more pleasant.

I headed out at 9:30. The couple from Virginia was gone, I noticed as I passed through their empty site. After climbing out of Egg Lake basin, the 4.6 miles to Hannegan Pass continued it’s ups and downs. I was tired from the previous days elevation gain,  and struggled each time the trail went up. Thankfully, there were enough views to keep me entertained, and I worked myself into a satisfactory hiking rhythm.

Left to Right, Icy Peak, Ruth Mountain, Mt. Shuksan

Mt. Baker (r) and Mt. Shuksan (l) paying last respects

I reached Hannegan Pass at 11:30, and decided on an early lunch. Why carry food in my pack when I could consume it and use it for fuel? At the pass, I encountered the same two folks I’d seen coming down Whatcom Pass, who’d camped at Middle Lakes, when I was heading up. They introduced themselves now as Walt and Haley. Haley was Walt’s niece from New York, who’d come out to hike with her uncle for a week. I thought that was pretty cool! Walt and I had a great time sharing stories of our respective trips, while Haley chatted with another woman, resting with her elderly dog at the base of Hannegan Peak, while her partner ran up the peak with their younger and more ambitious canine. The sun was out, the day was warm, and it was hard to leave the comfortable social scene.

But I had a schedule to keep, and I took leave just after noon. It was 4 miles to the car, and I wanted to be there by 2:00. I picked up the pace, now that the trail was flat or down hill. There were a TON of people coming up the pass, especially for a mid-September weekday. Albeit a sunny one. I only had one incidence of drama on the way out, while observing three middle-aged women with backpacks by the side of the trail.  Clearly, they were headed in for some female backpacking bonding, something which I have a desire to do, but never have. As I watched them with interest,  I tripped and fell, again, landing hard on my butt, practically in the lap of one of the women!  My legs were too tired and my knees too sore to catch the fall. And I couldn’t get up for the same reasons. One of the women asked if I needed help. “Yes please!” I said, relieved. A brief discussion of the knee replacement followed, and all three were impressed that I was backpacking alone with the knee issues. I didn’t tell them about all the foot and ankle surgeries. 🙂

After that, the remaining miles flew by, even with my trail hyper-vigilance. I arrived back at the car by 1:50 — ahead of schedule for once! I was supremely glad to dump my pack, this time for good. I counted 39 cars in the parking lot as I drove off. It was amazing how few people I’d seen on the whole loop hike, then to see so many on the last four miles of this last day. Inevitable reintroduction to society, I suppose.

Highlights of the Trip

There were so many positives about this trip, it’s hard to choose. But here are some highlights that come to mind:

  1. Getting out on a good backpack for the year. I’d just done the one overnight earlier in August, and I wanted to get in at least one long backpack trip for the year. The broken finger and subsequent time off provided a perfect opportunity to take a longer trip to a place that’s been on my list to revisit for years.
  2. The variety of terrain and campsites. Peak climbs, dense forest walks, river crossings, miles of ridge walking, a mountain pass, mountain lakes, a lookout tower with splendiferous views — what more could anyone want? Two campsites in forest, two with expansive views, few people at any site.  It made me appreciate that this place is so tightly permitted, as the trail was never busy, and the most company I had in any camping area was just two other people.
  3. People showing up at the right times. With the exception of having to do the cable car crossing by myself, I was struck by how well things worked out with this. Steve keeping me company on Whatcom Pass, Brian and Sarah at the dual river crossings, Walt and Haley going up Whatcom pass and again at Hannegan Pass. As any of you who followed my JMT trip know, I crave a combination of solitude and being with others when I backpack. This trip had a perfect balance of both.
  4. Knowing I still got it, and getting affirmation for that.  Yeah, it felt good to have atta-girls out there on the trail. I forget that many people don’t hike or backpack at all,  let alone solo, or with as many physical ailments as I have.  Don’t get me wrong — I KNOW there are those out there doing it under FAR more challenging circumstances! Or facing something different all together. We all have our own adversities to confront and obstacles to overcome. But this was my first real backpack post knee replacement, and I was grateful it went well. My favorite way to stay sane and happy involves immersing myself in an outdoor environment that brings huge reward, and sometimes has risk associated with it too. I will go there for as long as I can, ever mindful of the risk/benefit analysis. On the whole, this trip went as well or better than expected. Although, I could have done without the falls. Which leads to my last introspective thoughts…

Reflections on Falling

My sum total of falls, counting the broken finger before the trip and the four on the trail, could have stayed at five. But apparently things DO come in threes, or multiples there of…

A couple weeks after  my return, I fell in the bathroom, slipping on the wet floor while trying to steer clear of one of my cats who loves to race me to the bathroom. I hit my left rib cage on the corner of the bathroom counter, and fractured  the sixth rib. My sixth, most painful, and hopefully last fall for a good long while.

Another three weeks off of work, and a whole lot of reflection about why all the falls, why now, and what’s the learning here? Space, time and patience of readership all prevent me from getting too deeply into this, but here are a few reflections and explanations I have come up with:

  1. I am no spring chicken and must adjust my ambitions (and pack weight) accordingly!   Let’s face it, getting older makes it harder to act young.  At age 53, I can’t get away with carrying as much weight as I could when I was 33. When I did this loop 20 years ago, I carried over 70 pounds and it did not phase me. This trip, my pack weighed around 50 pounds, and that was, apparently, too much.  Simply put, when I tripped or fell, I couldn’t pull it together to implement the correct musculature to catch the fall, and instead, landed quite spectacularly. Four times! Two face plants, two on my rear. Something to pay attention to. What brought me a sense of accomplishment 20 years ago,  the success of carrying of a heavy pack, must now be replaced by the satisfaction of staying on my own two feet! There is an undeniable link with packing lighter and staying upright that I can’t ignore anymore.
  2. Balance is affected as we age. Duh. We all know this. BUT to hear it and live it are two different things. Everyone, including me, says “Work on balance as you age.” Great advice, but what does that look like from a person to person perspective? Standing on one foot? Doing yoga? Walking on a balance beam? Crossing log bridges? Working on balance is HARD, and, admittedly,  I don’t like it. After surgeries, I will work on balance for awhile to strengthen my feet and ankles. But it’s a discipline I am not drawn to, and too soon, I assume I’m fine to jump back in, full steam ahead.  Next thing I know, I’m doing a crazy thing like carrying a heavy pack through brush on soft ground that I can’t see. With balance already compromised, a small trip turns quickly epic when I can’t catch the fall. Time for some more balance work.
  3. The brain has to catch up to the body.  In the aftermath of all these falls, I spoke with several other people who also experienced excessive falling in their early 50’s. Then it stopped by the time they reached 55, and the falling prevalence did not return, even into their 60’s. What’s up with that? My theory is that it takes awhile for the brain to accept what the body is already saying. As we age, we develop compensatory patterns to deal with whatever life throws us. Those compensation patterns can be quite complex, and effective. But it takes time for the mind to integrate the changes in status of the aging body. IF we are going to pursue the activities of a 30 year old at 50 and beyond,  we must adopt an attitude of vigilance about what are bodies are telling us. Or risk continual face plants.
  4. Slow down, take it easy, life isn’t a race!  Is there any better way to get someone’s attention than by tripping them up on the fast road of life? Generally I move quickly, on trails and through life, and, for whatever reason, universal forces decided to throw me a powerful lesson, or two, or six, about slowing down. And breathing. That’s hard to do with a broken rib, but talk about an opportunity to practice mindfulness of movement and breath! I’ll take it, learn from it, and share my takes on Falling as Great Teacher about Life.

We all have similar, powerful examples from life.  What are yours? I would LOVE to hear your stories of getting slammed down only to pick yourself back up with new perspective. PLEASE DO SHARE! 

Last shot of Mt. Baker




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 3

Whatcom Pass to Indian Creek Campground — Sept. 12, 2017

As I lay in the tent waiting for daylight, I thought about the elusive trail to the lakes (Tapto and Middle) that I’d failed to find the previous afternoon.  Mentally, I retraced my steps from campsite to Whatcom Pass and beyond. I remembered a trail to the left, just at the pass, but blocked off with logs. Universal trail speak for “don’t go that way”.  Of course that had to be it! I knew the trail went left, and I knew it went up. The “blockade” only indicated that it wasn’t the main trail. I had to laugh at myself. Sometimes, I miss the most obvious things in my desire to be a rule follower and conscientious hiker.

Inspired with my realization, I grew impatient for first light. Morning light comes earlier on the top of a ridge than in the forest, and I was able to get up and at ’em by 6:10. It was a beautiful dawn, sky mostly clear, last stars fading into the promise of a beautiful day. At least for the morning — Derek, the German, had thought the weather was changing, and I wanted to day-hike the lakes, return to my site, pack up, and get down off the pass before any weather came in.

Day hike to Tapto and Middle Lakes (4 miles total?)

I left my campsite at 8:15,  jacket pockets stuffed with provisions as I had no day pack. When I passed Forest Service guy’s campsite, I noticed he wasn’t there, apparently already up and about.  I crossed the small creek just beyond, the sun so bright I had to put my sunglasses on to see. The morning air was crisp with the coming of fall only days away.  I relinquished fully into the late-summer day that lay before me.

Challenger Glacier and Whatcom Peak from Whatcom Pass

When I reached the “blocked” trail heading left, I saw Forest Service guy coming down. Had he been up to the lakes already? He was holding a cup of coffee, so I gathered not.

“Good morning!” I called,  glad to see him and eager to pick his brain about the hike to the lakes. “Have you already been to the lakes?”

He laughed. “No, just out for a morning wander. Are you headed up?”

“Yes!” I replied, my enthusiasm bringing a smile to his scruffy face. “I want to do both Tapto and Middle before heading back down to Indian Creek for the night.”

He introduced himself as Steve, saying he was off duty and camping at the pass for a couple of days. As we chatted it became obvious how well he knew the area, including to the lake region where I was headed.

“Do you think I will see any bears up there?” I asked. Steve had come in late last evening, wandered into my site to see who was there. He’d scared the pants off me, convinced as I was that HE was a bear after my earlier bear sighting. I still had bear on the brain.

“Very possibly”, he drew the words out slowly. “Did you know that from here down Little Beaver Valley to Beaver Pass has the highest concentration of black bears anywhere in the North Cascades?”

“No way.” I replied, alarmed. “Seriously?”

“Yep. Do you have bear spray?”

“No, should I?”

He shrugged. “I don’t carry it. Some do. I am sure you will be fine.” He paused. “But just so you know, you will have to work for the lakes! It’s a steep and rugged trail.” His eyes danced as he said this, even through his sunglasses. I couldn’t tell if he was messing with me or just appropriately cautioning me.

For a brief moment, I reconsidered my plans. But I knew I’d go.  “I’m always up for a challenge.” I said. “But hey, are you going to be hanging around for awhile this morning? It would be nice to know that someone knows where I’m going.”

Again he laughed, held up his coffee cup. “I’ll be hanging here all day, gazing at the mountains and sipping coffee and vodka.”

“Together?” I wanted to ask, but instead said, “Ok, I plan to be back by 11:30, noon latest. If I am not back by 1:00, will you come looking for me?”

“Yep, you got it.” Steve answered, glancing at his watch.  “I won’t lose track of time, I promise. And have a great hike. It’s really beautiful up there. It’s why we come here.”

I thanked him, wished him a good morning, and headed off.

Challenger Glacier from trail to Tapto Lakes

Another view…Whatcom Peak (right) and Challenger (left)

Tapto Lakes

The first mile of the trail was incredibly steep, requiring hand over hand assistance in places to gain it. I wondered how the two hikers I’d met the previous day, who had camped at Middle Lakes, had done it with backpacks. I was grateful for no pack weight, and for my poles to help with balance and upward mobility.

After a mile or so, the trail split. To the left was Tapto, to the right Middle. I decided to go left first. The views of Challenger Glacier and Whatcom Peak behind me grew in magnificence the higher I climbed. The route was completely open, the trail faint in places, but easy enough to follow. I ascended a steep section of scree, but the trail didn’t in any way make me nervous. The two large, fresh piles of bear scat that I saw on the the trail? Those definitely made me nervous. And very watchful.

Tapto Lakes

L to R: Unnamed Ridge with Easy Peak, Mt. Shuksan, Ruth Mt. (from Tapto Lakes)

I reached the overlook to Tapto Lakes, and opted to drop part way down into the lake basin. I could see I wasn’t going to gain much by going all the way down. I sat on a rock for 15 minutes, gazing down at the lakes and up to the surrounding mountains, taking it all in. I embraced the feeling of being nestled in while watched over, embraced by the clear mountain air, one with the stillness, and completely at peace.

I retraced my steps back to the junction with Middle Lakes, taking photo after photo as I went. It’s often difficult to capture moments in photos, and I never used to even try. I’d just immerse myself in the experience, believing that photos took me out of the moment. But with time, I’ve accepted that I LIKE to look back at my photos, and they’ve also become a way to visually share with others my adventures in the mountains.

Middle Lakes

The trail branching toward Middle Lakes was also vague. At first it followed a mostly dry creek bed surrounded by blueberry bushes, then turned upward. On this short section I saw three more piles of bear scat, for a total of five. Same bear, or several? I tried not to think about it.

Soon I reached a large scree and boulder field, the way marked with the sporadic cairn here and there.  Just enough to get a sense of where to re-enter trees on the other side. After a  brief tree section, I was in a wide expanse of mostly boulders, the early stages of fall color apparent on the slopes of Red Mountain, which I knew guarded the Middle Lakes.

A bit of route finding was required to find the first lake, as the trail disappeared into rocks.  I made sure to pay attention to landmarks so I could find my way back. Quickly I dropped down to what clearly was the lower Middle Lake, and, while nice, it wasn’t that spectacular. I returned to my boulder landmark, and headed up to what had to be the upper lake. This lake was much more spectacular, steep snowfields coming right down into it. I sat briefly and gazed, remembering Steve’s comment: “This is why we come here.”

Challenger Glacier from Middle Lakes

Lower Middle Lake

Fall Color on Red Mountain

Upper MIddle Lake

Windy selfie at Upper Middle Lake

At 10:30 I headed back. I kept a watchful eye, both for potential bears and to make sure I stayed on trail. It was a steep and fast descent, and I was back at camp by 11:15. A few clouds had gathered, and I was eager to get down  off the pass while I still had sunshine. I broke camp and was set to leave by noon. Since Steve’s site had been empty on my return, I left him a note, telling him I was back safely, and thanking him for his information on the hikes.

Whatcom Pass to Indian Creek  (8.1 miles)

The way down the pass on Brush Creek trail was uneventful.  I listened to an audiobook to help pass the steep 5.4 miles. I saw no one. Clearly not many people camp at Whatcom Pass, at least not mid-week in mid-September.

Clouds building up as I head down…

Creek headed down from Whatcom Pass

At the junction of Brush Creek and Chilliwack Trail, I continued straight to reach Indian Creek Campground. It was only 2.7 miles from the junction, and I was making decent time. I wasn’t in a hurry as I knew I’d reach camp plenty early. The trail was once again brushy and thick, sometimes hard to see, and, remembering my fall on day one, I was careful with my footing.

Cool log formations on trail to Indian Creek

Despite my best efforts to stay upright, however, I tripped and fell. Again. This time,  I tried to save the fall with my left hand, instinctively protecting the broken finger on the right. In the process, I hyper-extended my left thumb. It hurt, and I instantly remembered my dad dislocating his thumb in a similar type fall skiing once when I was a child. An orthopedic surgeon, Dad put his own thumb back in place right there on the slope, the pain evident on his strong face. The memory made me cringe, as I lay face down in the dirt, pinned once again by my pack, but extremely thankful I wasn’t injured.

It did give me pause, though, two falls in three days. Was I a has-been with heavy pack hiking? I decided not, but I did feel shaky as I unbuckled my pack so I could crawl to my feet. I’d just have to further up my care and vigilance with footing. I hate falling, and twice was more than enough.

I knew I was close to Indian Creek, and I finished out the last half-mile ever so carefully. And humbly. A suspension bridge over Indian Creek brought me to the campground at 3:45.  I dumped my pack with relief and went looking for a campsite. There were several, and no one else was there. I chose one close to water and the bathroom.

Suspension Bridge over Indian Creek

Chilling in the River!

I felt dirty and tired, and a dunk in Indian Creek was calling. I headed down with a change of clothes plus extra warm clothes, my camp towel, and water bottles to fill. I thought about going in the creek in my dirty clothes, but since no one was there, I stripped down to nothing and waded in. It was cold and invigorating! There was no place deep enough to dunk, and the water was moving rapidly, so I had to make do with cleaning up via bandana, splashing around happily like a bird in a bird bath. I even dunked my head to get the grime out of my hair. I felt cleansed and revived as I dried off on the shore. And glad no one had showed up! I filled up my water bottles, plunked in chlorine tablets, and returned to my campsite.

Bathing spot at Indian Creek

Back at camp, I set up my tent and prepared my space. It was a large site in which I could sprawl, my favorite. I cooked, ate, and was writing when a couple showed up about 7:00 and took a site up above mine. While I was prepared for solo camping, I’ll admit it was nice to have company. Eased my bear anxiety for sure.

Through my writing I processed the various events of the day. The interaction with Steve, the solo day hike to the lakes, the spectacular views, the fall on the trail, and the rejuvenating bath in the river. Another day that had it all.  I reveled in gratitude as I prepared for bed: grateful to be there, uninjured, and ready for a good night’s sleep. I knew I’d need it, as the next day held longer miles with intense elevation gain.

Campsite Day 3

















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










Day 18 John Muir Trail

Lake South America Junction to Arctic Lake

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

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

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

Craggy trees to start my day

Craggy trees to start my day

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

Kern Ridge from Bighorn Plateau

Kern Ridge from Bighorn Plateau


Unnamed lake and Kern Ridge

Unnamed lake and Kern Ridge

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

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

Kaweahs from Bighorn Plateau

Kaweahs from Bighorn Plateau

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

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

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

Crabtree Meadow and Creek, Mt. Hitchcock behind.

Crabtree Meadow and Creek, Mt. Hitchcock behind.

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

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

Mt. Muir from trail leaving Crabtree

Mt. Muir from trail leaving Crabtree

Timberline Lake

Timberline Lake

West side of Mt. Whitney

West side of Mt. Whitney


Whitney's getting closer!

Whitney’s getting closer!

Look closely and you can see the helicopter...

Look closely and you can see the helicopter…

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

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

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

Guitar Lake from my campsite

Guitar Lake from my campsite

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

Highlights of the Day

Hanging out in Crabtree Meadow

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

Campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

My campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

My campsite at Arctic Lake outlet

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

Lessons of the Day

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

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

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

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






Day 17 John Muir Trail

Lake at 12,250 to Lake South America Junction

Total JMT miles —  5.9        Side Trip miles — 8?

Total elevation gain/loss —  1670+/2870-

First light at Lake 12,250 illuminates Junction Peak

First light at Lake 12,250 illuminates Junction Peak

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

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

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

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

Lakes and peaks seen from trail to Forester

Lakes and peaks seen from trail to Forester

Looking back near the top of the pass

Looking back near the top of the pass

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

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

Mt. Barnard and lake below Forester Pass

Mt. Barnard and lake below Forester Pass

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

Headed down the pass

Headed down the pass

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

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

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

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

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

Scenes from Lake S. America Trail

Scenes from Lake S. America Trail


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 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.



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