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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!