Tupper's 2 Cents

Feet on the path and eyes wide open...

Tag: solo female hikers (page 1 of 2)

Post John Muir Trail — Bishop Pass to Dusy Basin

Day hike to Bishop Pass and Dusy Basin

I wake up early at Dave’s place in the small twin bed. I haven’t slept great, but it’s still so nice to find myself in a bed and not a sleeping bag in a tent. I meditate in bed until 5:00 am, as I don’t want to wake Dave and Michelle too early. Dave’s house is small, and I know they will likely hear me get up. Or at least Gigi the dog will!

Gigi in her natural element. Photo courtesy Dave Grah

My breakfast!

I am excited to make breakfast at Dave’s. Dave and Michelle brought home eggs and veggies last night per my request. I carefully and methodically assemble my scrambled eggs with salsa, broccoli, zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, a multitude of spices, and even guacamole! It’s quite the ensemble for my first breakfast off the trail. My creation takes up an entire plate, and only loosely resembles something like an egg scramble when I am done. I am just getting to the table with eggs and coffee when Dave comes out. He is suitably impressed with my huge breakfast. So am I! It makes me happier than I can express to have the luxury of this amount of food and a warm environment in which to eat it. I enjoy every bite.

We chat about the plans for the day. I plan to rent a car, and Dave will drop me at the rental place in town on his way to work. Bishop is small, and there isn’t much option for renting a car. But I have found one for $161 for two days that will get me two day hikes and a drive to the airport. While more expensive then taking the bus, it’s worth it for the independence and flexibility. I have basically two full days, as my flight does not leave from Vegas until 7 pm that following night

My plan for this day is to drive to South Lake Trailhead, 20 miles from Bishop. I will take that trail all the way to Bishop Pass (six miles in) and drop down into Dusy Basin. This is a somewhat common exit pass for hikers on the JMT who are going into Bishop to pick up food or provisions. I will likely see people doing what I have just finished doing. But today, I will be hiking  free and easy, with only a day pack to carry. I am stoked.

I pick up my Toyota Prius rental, and I am off. I have my headphones, a downloaded audiobook, lunch, water, chlorine tablets for additional water, camera, clothes, and the usual sunscreen and lip stuff. I stop at the corner market for some fresh fruit to accompany my remaining backpack lunch extras. I contemplate life as I drive to the trailhead. Everything seems so different, even being in a car. It’s a mixed “different,”  as I love and appreciate the ease of things, but I am very aware of how much I still want to be on the trail. The scenery is gorgeous, as the mountains come closer with ever mile. Soon I will be right back in my desired environment — enveloped in sunshine, and wandering into miles of peaks, lakes, streams, and all the beauty of the Sierras.

The trailhead is surprisingly full for a Tuesday morning. I know a lot of the cars are overnighters, as this trail is a feeder for multiple over night trips and nearby peak climbs. I have never hiked this trail, and I am excited. I hook up my headphones and audiobook, hit the bathroom, and I am off. It’s still a noticeable luxury to sit on a toilet seat, even at a trailhead privy!

When I hit the trail I am already into my book and I don’t feel like talking. I hope my headphones will discourage people from making conversation. I have to pass several parties right away, as they are taking their own sweet time and I am raring to go. Soon I pass two older men. They talk to me, even though I have headphones on. I politely take one off. They make some comment on how if they were as young as me, they’d be moving as quickly as I am. I tell them I am not that young. The ring leader wants to make a bet that he is at least ten years older than me. Sure, I say playing along so they will leave me alone. He wants to bet a quarter, and I say OK. I am not in the mood for games and just want to keep moving. But they have sped up since I passed them and keep talking to me. He asks how old I am, I say 52. “Ha! I knew it! You owe me a quarter! I am 63”. Close enough, and whatever I think. I don’t have a quarter and I tell him that.  He starts hounding me, telling me I am a bad bet. I dutifully smile and laugh, apologize, and move quickly ahead, thinking I am done with those guys.

Saddlerock Lake selfie!

The scenery is magnificent. I pass signs for lakes with names like Treasure Lake, Marie Louise Lake, Bull Lake, and my favorite, Chocolate Lakes. If I had more time I would explore them all! But I stick with my plan to do a straightforward trek up to Bishop Pass, then drop down into Dusy Basin for whatever amount of time I have until I have to turn back. I have promised to make dinner for Dave and Michelle tonight, and I don’t want to get carried away with my day.

I continue to Long Lake, which is, indeed long (.7 miles). It’s also beautiful, and I stop for an energy bar by it’s shores. I take fifteen minutes or so here, unfortunately long enough that the two men catch up. Thankfully, they just say hi and “You still owe me a quarter!” and go on by. I know I will pass them again in just a few minutes. The elevation gain on the trail to Bishop Pass is quite gradual, only 2200 feet over six miles, and the miles sail by.  I enjoy listening to my book and passing people as I go up and noticing others as they go down. I’m sure some of the latter are JMT hikers heading for resupply, and I smile especially warmly at those carrying backpacks. No one knows I’ve just come from there. One solo gal asks how far to Bishop. I say maybe four miles, trying to remember how far I’ve come. I learn she is also a solo JMT hiker, headed to town for supplies. For her, I happily take off my headphones to converse!

Saddlerock Lake

Trail heading up Bshop Pass, Hurd Peak in back

Crossing Bishop Creek before heading up Bishop Pass

Long Lake leads to Timberline Lake and Saddlerock Lake. They are all sublime, and I am grateful to waltz among them. Next is Bishop Lake, at which point the trail ascends the pass. Like other passes in the area, the final switchbacks to Bishop Pass are somewhat steep, open, dry, and rocky, but thankfully short. It’s an easy pass, or seems so after all the one’s I did on the JMT. I top out at 11,972, with views of Mt. Goode, Mt. No Goode, and Mt. Agassiz all welcoming me to the pass. I only stop briefly here, as I still want to drop down into the basin.

From Pass — Spearhead Lake and Long Lake

Dusy Basin is as lovely as advertised. I can see why so many people come here. It’s like a mini version of the JMT. Peaks, lakes, streams, and fantastic granite rock formations are everywhere. I am overwhelmed by the feelings of freedom, joy, and pure gratitude that I am here. I drop down for about an hour, the amount of time I can spare before turning back. I see a weather station by a very small lake, and this looks like a good place to stop for lunch before I head back. I see just one other guy on the opposite side of where I drop my day pack and prepare to shed boots and eat lunch. I still have my headphones on when I settle, but take them off to eat and enjoy silence.

In Dusy Basin, with Columbine Peak (right) and Mt. Giraud (left)

No such luck. The guy, who upon examination is really quite strange, is listening to some type of broadcast. Very loudly. It sounds like a football game, or some type of sporting event. I am puzzled and watch him for a bit. He is clearly in his own world, and it actually looks like he is playing with himself. This instantly gets my attention, and, for the first time on my entire JMT trip, I feel nervous and not safe. I can see two other people off in the distance, so I know I am not in jeopardy of this guy harming me, but his behavior is totally off for the setting and it really upsets me. I am already without boots by this time, so I stay where I am but eat a very quick lunch. I am sad and distressed that the guy and his weird behavior and loud broadcast have pretty much ruined my lunch.  I am determined not to let it ruin my day though,  and I pack up and head out as quickly as I can.

On the way back up to Bishop Pass, I think about this guy. I feel lucky that I have not had encounters on this trip with men that scared me until this day. I know they are out there, but I have luckily escaped them until today. The first two men were annoying, but harmless. This last guy, I don’t know. It does make me think about how much I hike alone, and I wonder (not for the first time) if it is always safe.

Long Lake and Mt. Goode. Photo courtesy Dave Grah

As I get close to the bottom of the trail, I encounter the first two men again. I decide to play nice, and I ask them about Chocolate Lakes, which I learn sits below the Inconsolable Range.  I am incredibly drawn to the names of the lakes and the range, and I am still considering a detour there. They say it’s back up  trail, I have missed the turn off, and it would be another mile of backtracking, plus two miles round trip into the lakes. I don’t have time to do that, unfortunately. Reluctantly, I thank them, say a final goodbye, and continue back to the car, certain I will come back another time.

Saddlerock Lake in early summer. Photo courtesy Dave Grah

Despite the miles hiked that day (14 or 15, I am guessing), I have ample time to stop back at the market to get stuff for dinner. I arrive back at Dave’s about the time he and Michelle get home from work. I make chicken, rice, a vegetable and a huge salad for dinner. It’s another very mellow evening, as they prepare for a sailing trip over the upcoming Labor Day weekend, and I relax with a book I’ve borrowed from Dave. I go to bed early, preparing for one last adventure on the drive to the airport (Virginia Lakes) before flying home.

Highlights of the Day

Off Trail — The simple stuff  — Plus the sense of knowing what I had done.

As I’ve said, it takes awhile for the novelty of everything to wear off. I made sure to enjoy all the small things of the morning — at  Dave’s (like making my fabulous breakfast!), at a coffee shop in Bishop while waiting for the rental care shop to open, and at the car place with other waiting customers.  In town, I noticed both my sense of wanting to share my victory with the world (I wanted to tell the barista and anyone else who cared to listen “I just finished a solo hike of the JMT!!”) AND my sense of having a secret sense of accomplishment that I wanted to keep for myself. With the barista, I chose the latter. But at the car place, one of the other customers waiting on their vehicle was a man, approximately my age, who had made a half-hearted attempt at the High Sierra Route (HSR), the 195 mile route that loosely parallels the JMT but is mostly off trail, with many more passes at much higher elevation, and is much more physically challenging. He and his son had made a stab at it, and quit after four days out! I shared that I had just finished the JMT solo. He was impressed and said that would have been a much  more realistic adventure for him and his son. I was impressed that they even attempted the HSR, and the idea of doing that route crossed my mind, not for the first time…

On Trail — Being back so quickly into my preferred environment.

Upper Dusy Basin

In some ways, it felt like I never left. I was able to pick back up right where I left off, and do a day hike that I had always wanted to do and explore a basin I have heard so much about, from both Grah brothers (Dave and Oliver). It was just as magical as they said it would be. My transition from trail to life was tremendously eased by this day hike. I got to spend hours in bright sunshine, in an environment I absolutely love, and by myself (mostly), and in my own world. I also got to listen to a book, which I did not do at all on the JMT. While I have mixed feelings about listening to anything out in the wilderness, over the past several years I have softened my position on this, and find the distraction of a book incredibly welcoming at times. After 20 days of silence, I was in that space.  Also, as mentioned, I enjoyed seeing the JMT hikers headed out the pass for provisions, and especially the solo woman with whom I briefly conversed. It made me feel that sense of community to go along with my preferred solitary mode.

L to R Mt. Agassiz, Mt. Windhell, Thunderboldt Peak, North Palisade

Lessons of the Day

There ARE people out there to be careful of…

So this is a tough one for me. I do a lot of hiking and now backpacking alone. Of course I am not always alone, as others are usually present But sometimes those others raise suspicion or even downright alarm, as in the case of the one guy by the side of the small lake right near the trail through Dusy Basin.  I can probably count on two hands the number of times I have felt alarm out in the woods or on trails by my home. And I have been doing this regularly for over 20 years! But it made me realize that there are dangers out there, and, sadly but for real, more so for women than men. SO MANY people asked me before JMT if I was worried about encountering strange men on the trail. My standard answer was that I was more afraid of animals (especially bears!) than men by a long shot. Partly that has to do with how safe I have felt and continue to feel on the trails, even as a woman alone. BUT, this incident got my attention. It won’t necessarily change anything about what I do, but it does raise my awareness of the risks out there. Like anything else, we all must choose what risks we take in life. For me, the very small risk associated with hiking alone continues to be one I am willing to take, with caution of course, because the payoffs remain so very great.

Follow your instincts…

Dusy Basin with Giraud Peak

I can’t begin to cover this fully at the end of an already long blog, but this day, like so many others, was all about that. I knew I needed a diversion, an activity, and one of great pleasure at that, to take up my first full day back. The idea of lounging around Dave’s house all day, while pleasant in and of itself, was very anxiety producing for me. So I took action to do what I knew would work for me to ease back into real life…and that, of course, was to go on a hike!  I similarly followed my intuition about WHERE to go, as I wanted a particular environment (similar to JMT), and one that I am not likely to get back in the Pacific Northwest. And it had to be long enough that I could go for awhile, and turn around when I needed to. And it needed to have some challenge, but not so much that it stressed me out. Bishop pass and Dusy Basin was perfect for all those things. It brought me all the calm, peace, joy, beauty, and sense of (another) accomplishment that I needed and wanted on my last full day of vacation before my return home.

Day 19 John Muir Trail

Arctic Lake Outlet to Mt. Whitney to Lone Pine Lake

Total JMT miles  —  12.1            Elevation Gain/Loss  —  +3035/-4495

First light on Guitar Lake

I wake up earlier than usual on this last full day of my trip. I will officially complete the JMT proper today, and hike most of the way out of the wilderness before spending one final night at Lone Pine Lake, just 3 miles from civilization. I am saddened by this reality but ready to take it on.  I am up and out of the tent even before first light. I want to get as early of a start as possible without feeling stressed. I am not in any real hurry, but I also don’t need to hang around for any reason. The summit of Whitney awaits!

As I prepare to depart, I can see a steady throng of people hike by just off in the distance, all headed towards the Whitney summit. At first it’s a constant stream of headlamps.  When first light emerges, the headlamps gradually disappear but the people keep coming. I eat breakfast, pack up, and get ready to join the masses. It’s a perfectly clear, crisp, morning and the sunrise colors are stupendous. It’s a perfect day to summit. I am completely ready by 6:45, my earliest departure time on the trip so far.

Looking down on Arctic Lake and peaks behind

Morning light reflected off Guitar Lake

Psychologically, I prepare myself for the people I will encounter on this day. The park service issues 150 permits to day hikers on Whitney, and then there are all the people who summit in conjunction with backpack trips (not only the JMT, but also other permitted trips in the area). Despite it’s daunting 14,505 foot summit, Mount Whitney in August is a busy place!  Surprisingly,  by the time I am headed up the switchbacks from Arctic Lake to Trail Crest, where people dump their backpacks to summit with less of a load, I don’t see any people. Not a one. Clearly, everyone is ahead of me. I climb that entire three mile section in utter solitude.  It’s quiet, eerie, peaceful and surreal.  But such is the nature of summit expeditions. Everyone wants to get up and at ’em, and I feel behind schedule already even though it’s barely 7:00 am!

Just before Trail Crest, I hear someone call to me. “Hey Kathie!” I don’t at first recognize the voice or face, as it’s all covered in hat, scarf, and other cold weather gear. “It’s Emily!” Now I can recognize solo hiker Emily, who I haven’t seen for two days. She slept right at Trail Crest (elevation 13,460), and has already been up to the summit to catch the sunrise from there. Now she is packed up and ready to head down. I am impressed at her organization and determination to make Whitney at sunrise and camp right out in the elements just below it. We chat for a moment, and I hear about her last couple of days and share details of mine. I am quite sure I won’t see her again, as she will be down long before me, and headed for hamburgers with her family.  I wish her well on the hike out and in her future, and tell her I am extremely glad to have met her and that I am impressed with her confidence and ability at the tender age of 21! She thanks me, wishes me well, and says I’m not too shabby either for a 50-something. She snaps two pictures of me, and we say our goodbyes.

Just below Trail Crest, where I found Emily

At Trail Crest, the trails from north and south merge. One comes up from Guitar Lake (where I have come), and one comes up from the Whitney Portal. Here, action definitely picks up. It’s two miles and just over 1000 feet elevation gain to the top from here. 30,000 hikers try for the summit each year; 10,000 make it. All 10,000 aren’t here today, but plenty are! I have an instant flashback to other wilderness experiences I’ve had in my life where it seems, from the environment and surroundings, that there simply should not be so many people present. The wild and extreme surroundings and the numbers of people simply don’t make sense together.  But alas, it is what it is, and I am determined to make the best of it. I dump my pack at Trail Crest. I plan to take only some food, water, my camera, an extra layer of clothes, and basic toiletries to the summit with me. I make sure to put all of the rest of the food in the bear canister to keep the marmots out. Marmots stand watch 24/7 here, and they keep a constant eye out for careless food security.

Similar to previous times both this year and last, once I am rid of my heavy backpack, I get into serious cruise mode. The final two miles to Whitney isn’t technical, but it is exposed, and people get cautious. It’s also relatively thin air, and that gets to people too.  I move past everybody, and no one passes me. I am not rushing to summit, it’s just what happens. I pass people in tennis shoes, sandals, and even one woman in flip flops! There are people in tank tops and some wearing enough clothing to tackle Everest! There is such a diverse array of clothing, levels of experience, and comfort vs. obvious discomfort with this last section of trail that it makes for great people watching.  But it’s difficult to navigate passing all those going up and those coming down. It’s simply a lot of people traveling up and down a narrow, rocky, and sometimes very exposed trail.

Hitchcock Lakes and Mt. Hitchcock from summit trail

Same view, slightly different lighting. Mt. Chamberlin in background

Since this is nearly the end of my journey, I want to make sure to enjoy every step. I feel conflicted as step by step I close in on the summit. I feel like I am reaching a pinnacle in more ways than one, and that life will never be quite the same once I have finished this trek, and I am not sure if I am ready for that.  I know there is nothing inherently life changing about the summit itself, since I reached it last year. But what it represents this time, at the end of this magnificent solo trek, feels momentous.

Summit Hut

But the heavy introspection soon gets tedious even to me, and I lighten up and finish it off. What greets me is the summit hut, the huge summit register, and throngs of people milling around the thankfully large area, toasting their success with miniature alcohol bottles and rampant photo and video taking. It’s predictable and yet totally spectacular, because the views really are circumferentially breathtaking!

I find Ginnie and her crew right away, and get in on some picture action. I have them take several of me, and offer to take group photos of them. It’s fun to feel a part of something — although I am not in their group photos, I still feel welcomed at the fringes. I am sure I could insert myself into a photo with them, but what would be the point? I have come this far alone, I will stick to my solo guns on the summit as well.

Photo time!

You can get a sense of the size of Whitney’s summit from this photo…

I try to take it all in before heading down: the fact that I have done it, the fact that I did it alone, and the fact that I did it without serious incident or accident or anything going wrong. It is a weird feeling, being up there like that, knowing how much went into the trip, all the planning and organization, and to have it all go off so well, but to be done. I keep thinking I should keep going. I know I don’t want it to end.

So while I do turn around and come down after an hour on top, I am grateful that I have only decided to go as far as Lone Pine Lake instead of all the way out. The first 100 plus switchbacks down from Trail Crest are tight, steep, and relentless. I am back with my backpack, and I remember how little I like this part of the trail. I move down a step at a time as quickly as I can, ignoring all pain in my arthritic knee and just getting it done. As soon as I am off of that section, I feel I can breathe again. I stop at what’s called Trail Camp, a large, crowded, popular campsite for hikers coming up from Lone Pine to summit in two days…or those doing the JMT South to North. There is only a small water source, and the sanitation of the place scares me. Too many people camp here, and it just feels dirty and over used. But I stay long enough to eat my lunch, write in my journal, and begin my trip reflections in earnest. I see Ginnie and her crew again, and consider hiking the last few miles with them, to pass the time. But I don’t seek that out, they start down ahead of me, and I start out alone.

Headed back down, just below Trail Camp

Just below Trail Camp, I catch up to one of Ginnie’s crew, Mike, a “trail parent” to her mixed up group. He starts up a conversation, explaining that he is slow because of a bum knee. I can relate, and I am in just the right mood to continue it, and we end up hiking out the last three miles together.  I have to say it makes that stretch of trail go very fast, and a part of me wonders why I didn’t hike with others more on the JMT. But I also know if I had done it the whole hike, it would have made me crazy. It’s a fitting way to spend the last miles of the last full day, and I happily say goodbye and part ways with Mike at the turn off to Lone Pine Lake. Alone again, I look for a campsite.

I had expected Lone Pine Lake to be busy with day hikers, as it is so close to the Whitney Trailhead. But there are only a handful of youngsters just getting out of the lake after a swim when I arrive. I walk past all the obvious campsites and go around to the far side of the lake. I believe there is camping there, and I don’t want to be in anyone’s obvious path. I am still seeking seclusion. I find a spot, which is large and open and just above the lake, where people have obviously camped before. It’s a bit more on the beaten path than I would like if someone actually walks around the lake, but I take it. By now, the typical afternoon clouds have come in, and I am less enthusiastic about the swim I was so looking forward to. I do it anyway, but it’s cool and windy and I am and out quick as a flash. Dressed and warmed up,  I set up camp, and wonder how to while away the hours until darkness. It’s only 3 o’clock when I arrive, and my quick dunk and setting up camp only takes a short time. I have almost finished my book, and I find my thoughts being overtaken again by some heavy introspection about the trip being almost done.

Afternoon clouds obscure my sun for swimming at Lone Pine Lake

I see just two more people all afternoon. One guy who comes through my site tries to tell me I can’t camp at the lake. I assure him that my JMT bible says I can! He looks at me skeptically, and I worry that I am doing something wrong. But I stand my ground and choose to stay. The next person is a female, heavily, accented, who inquires “Are you Kathie?” This totally and understandably surprises me! “Ginnie sent me.” She explains. “I am headed up Whitney, from the Portal, doing JMT South to North. I meet nice woman Ginnie on the trail, she tells me you are camped here and how nice you are! She says to come find you.”

I am impressed that this woman has come here to find me, but I am unsure what she needs. The site really won’t hold us both…it could, but I would rather not camp with a stranger on this last night. The reason I didn’t go all the way out was because I wanted one more night alone to sort out my thoughts, etc. All this is on my mind as I finally say, “Yes, Ginnie. She is sweet too! What can I do for you?” I don’t know how else to phrase the question, to try to figure out what she wants or needs from me. We chat for a bit, and eventually it comes out that she is also doing the JMT solo, and has some uneasiness about this. Some part of her wants to camp this first night with someone, or near someone, and she has settled on me! We also discuss options farther up for her, like Trail Camp, 3 more miles up trail, where I assure her there will be plenty of  people. She wonders if she can make Trail Camp before dark, and I tell her I am confident she can. I also tell her she is welcome to stay with me, and make sure I am in the correct headspace for this once I make the offer. I watch her waffle as she tries to figure out what to do.

Eventually, she re-shoulders her backpack, deciding she will go on. I am semi-relieved, but also touched that Ginnie, who I really don’t even know, thinks highly enough of me that she would send a solo female hiker my way for some reassurance or guidance or something. I hope I have offered it. I wish the woman, Anna, well, and off she goes.

Campsite at Lone Pine Lake

The lake now is utterly quiet, and I have the place completely to myself. It’s still early, way too early to call it a night, but I am restless and tired of writing and thinking. I simply don’t know how to make better sense of the end of this trip at this point than I have done in my journal writing so far.  I know more sense will come in the days, weeks, months, and even years to come. For now, on this last evening alone on my trip, I just sit and watch the sun dance in and out of the clouds and reflect off the nearby peaks, and try to embrace as much of the actual experience as is humanly possible. Everything about this trip thus far has been magical, and this last evening is no exception. I feel a sense of deep peace and complete appreciation for the entire adventure. I enjoy a final embrace from mother nature as she works her magic color schemes as the light fades around me. It’s truly a perfect ending to a perfect trip.

Highlights of the Day

Solo hike up to Trail Crest

Early morning sunlight on Mt. Hitchcock

Sometimes, I gear up for something that I think will be emotionally taxing for some reason, and then, when it doesn’t happen, it’s just such an unexpected relief. I fully expected people on that first 3 mile stretch, as the previous year Gregg and I had encountered a bunch. Starting off heavily clothed, that meant stopping to shed layers, and the people we’d pass would re-pass us, and we would then have to pass them again.  And getting rid of the morning coffee also proved difficult on the entire stretch of trail from Arctic lake to the summit of Whitney. That’s what I was expecting. To get that full three miles completely alone as the morning sun gleamed off all the surrounding peaks, it was simply beautiful, calming, and completely peaceful. A great way to start the day.

The summit of Whitney

Mts. Muir, Newcomb, Mallory, Le Conte, and Langley from Whitney summit…Just five of the multitude!

The time on the summit was precious. Last year, I was caught off guard by the numbers of people, and that people were drinking and celebrating at 9 or 10 am. This year, I didn’t expect otherwise, and so I wasn’t thrown off at all. The views were similar from year one to year two, as smoke had mostly cleared out in year one. But let me tell you, the views from a summit that high never disappoint, and to wander all around and look out from each direction is an experience that every human should have!

The last three miles of hiking…with someone!

I am not sure why I so enjoyed hiking with Mike for that last three miles, but it just really felt good to connect with a human on the level that we did. Partly it was because we were both of similar age, and both addled by a combined multitude of orthopedic injuries. It started out with him dumping his orthopedic woes on me, as I am a good listener and I definitely get it. But, as I felt brave enough to share some of mine with him,  it shifted to more even ground, and we were able to have a mutually uplifting and encouraging hike, as opposed to a suffer fest about all our ailments! I was able to talk with him about my probable upcoming knee replacement, and some of my thought processes in coming to that decision, which I hadn’t really talked to anyone about until that point.  It felt like a good and solid connection for that hour and some until we parted ways, and left me with a smile on my face.

Lone Pine Lake…alone

Parting shot of final campsite

I started the day alone and ended it alone. And it was very fitting to be camped at Lone Pine Lake! Again, like the start of my day, I had no expectation of solitude at the lake, and was unexpectedly blessed with such. I could not have asked for a more beautiful setting for my final night. I was close to civilization such that the morning’s hike would be a walk in the park. But clearly enough away that I got to experience one final night of just me and the mountains and chipmunks and whatever other wildlife joined me and my thoughts and introspections.

Lessons of the day

The recurrent theme and contrast of time alone vs. time with others

This day was similar to the whole trip which is similar to my whole life…the quest for balance between time alone and time with others. For whatever reason, on the trail and in life in general, I have a need for vast amounts of time alone. And yet, within that, I also am deeply drawn to people and conversations and connection and feeling a part of something much bigger than myself. This day had it all — time alone, and time with many, and the noticing of that and seeing how I can and do flit in and out of it all. The entire day just fit in so well with the big picture of  my life. I don’t have the balance mastered, and I still long at times for one when the other is missing, but I do understand how important both are for my well-being, happiness, and very survival.

It’s simply impossible to sum up something as big as the JMT in one final day

I stayed at Lone Pine Lake to try for closure or ease the challenge of re-adapting back to “real life” by one more night. But I realized that it can’t happen in a time-compressed fashion. Processing the trip, and getting all there is to get out of it, takes much longer than the end of the day on which it finishes. While it was a heavy thinking day, I was also able to eventually let the day be and just take it for what it was…the last day of a fantastic trip that will likely take years to finally settle into my life. And I found that thought reassuring, the knowing that I didn’t have to have it all figured out by the end of the last full day. There is much writing about and pulling together still to come!

Day 17 John Muir Trail

Lake at 12,250 to Lake South America Junction

Total JMT miles —  5.9        Side Trip miles — 8?

Total elevation gain/loss —  1670+/2870-

First light at Lake 12,250 illuminates Junction Peak

First light at Lake 12,250 illuminates Junction Peak

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

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

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

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

Lakes and peaks seen from trail to Forester

Lakes and peaks seen from trail to Forester

Looking back near the top of the pass

Looking back near the top of the pass

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

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

Mt. Barnard and lake below Forester Pass

Mt. Barnard and lake below Forester Pass

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

Headed down the pass

Headed down the pass

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

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

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

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

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

Scenes from Lake S. America Trail

Scenes from Lake S. America Trail

lakesandpeaksfromsat

From Lake S. America Trail

From Lake S. America Trail

The terrain is initially flat, open, and vast, and the trail is easy to follow. I encounter several lakes after a couple of miles, each time wondering if it is THE lake I am looking for. I am in a mood of second guessing everything. In my hometown of the North Cascades in Washington,  I think little of heading out on a day hike, even if  I am less than 100% confident in the route, and don’t expect to see many people. Here, in such unfamiliar territory, it feels risky and a bit scary. I let my imagination get to me, worrying that a storm might come in, and I will not be able to find my way back. I also worry that the clouds are going to keep me from being able to clean up in the lake if I ever find it, as it’s cold and windy when the sun plays hide and seek with the abundant puffy white clouds. I try to laugh at my anxieties, as none of them are founded in anything other than my imagination and fear of the unknown.

I come to a Lake that I am certain is Lake South America. It’s cold and cloudy, but I strip  down and jump in anyway, before I can talk myself out of it. It takes a bit of courage, as the lake, at over 11,000 feet elevation, is very cold.  I do the deed quickly, then shiver my way back into dry clothes just as fast as I can. I eat my turkey jerky and dried fruit by the side of the lake, teeth chattering uncontrollably. Ever tried to eat jerky with chattering teeth? It’s not easy!  I keep hoping the sun will reappear,  but it is now pretty convincingly cloudy. I feel silly for having jumped in the water, but also refreshed and very invigorated. As soon as I finish my food, I pack up and hit the trail again. At the far end of the lake,  I see the sign for Lake South America — .2 miles off in a different direction. I tell myself it’s not worth it, I have seen enough beautiful lakes. I  want to keep moving around the loop, towards the headwaters of the Kern and back to the JMT. I figure I’ll warm up on the trail, and I don’t want any diversions. I am on a mission of movement!

Lake I bathed in...that wasn't Lake S. America, after all!

Lake I bathed in…that wasn’t Lake S. America, after all!

I follow the trail past more lakes, and into the river basin. The trail becomes progressively more difficult to follow, and several times I have to go back up to where I last had it to try to determine where it goes. The setting is distractingly magical, with the Kern river valley laid out at my feet. Plus, I warm up as I walk, and that greatly helps my state of mind. I pass a set of two female backpackers, who are headed to Lake South America for the night. They are the only hikers I see. As the trail continues to be difficult to follow, I start getting nervous again. I assume there will be some sort of sign pointing me back to the JMT, as the trail thus far has been well-signed. But I spot no signs, and again, start to second guess myself. I let worry get the better of me.

First views of Mt. Whitney, far, and Mt. Muir, close, from Kern River Basin

First views of Mt. Whitney, far, and Mt. Muir, close, from Kern River Basin

Kern River Basin

Kern River Basin

Upper Kern River Basin

Upper Kern River Basin

At one point, the trail begins to drop down steeply. I look at my inadequate map, and notice that there IS a trail that drops down into the Kern River Valley, that will NOT take me back to the JMT. I become convinced that I am on that trail, and headed toward the bottom of the river basin. Immediately, I head back up to see where I have missed the turn back to the JMT. I wander around for quite some time, looking for the trail I am sure I have missed. By this time, I am beyond nervous. I feel incredibly silly that I might be lost in such a place, but I really don’t know where the trail is, and have no means to find it besides “looking around” for it. That is almost pointless in this type of environment, as nothing stays self-explanatory for long, and you are soon traipsing up and over scree fields, boulders, and basically doing the “cross country” thing which I so dislike!

I do this for about an hour, and then say to myself screw it. I take off cross country in earnest, in the direction that I think the trail must head. It’s a rough go, as I quickly discover. I am traversing steep scree fields, having to gain ridges, and dropping into lake basins that I have no idea where they lead, but it’s continually not where I expect. It’s about 4:00 pm by this time, and I am worried. I fear that I will be caught out after dark, and I have NOT brought a flash light, and I don’t not have enough clothes to spend the night at 11,000 feet without getting very chilled. I feel really chagrinned that I am not more prepared for these potential challenges on my “easy” 6.5 mile trip!

Shortly before taking off cross country...note the faint trail visible, from which I could not find the trail back.

Shortly before taking off cross country…note the faint trail visible, from which I could not find the trail back.

The best I can do is to just keep moving in the general direction that I think I should go. I know the loop trail is a loop…it stands to reason that it will come out or be visible at some point during my efforts. The hardest part is that I just keep going up and over things…and this isn’t easy. I know a trail would be much more straightforward, and I am incredibly frustrated that I can’t see it and I am most definitely not on it! I make my way down yet another steep lake basin, convinced that if I can just get up and over the ridge on the far side, I will know where I am. I slip and fall down the steep, loose scree. But I don’t  sustain injury except to my pride. Thankfully, I have my poles to assist with my less than graceful descent.

Last scree field and last lake before I finally came into view of the trail

Last scree field and last lake before I finally came into view of the trail

Finally I come up over the top of a small ridge on the other side of the steep lake basin. I look down, and there, right in front of me, is the junction to the trail I left five hours before. I have come out less than 100 feet away from where the trail from the Kern River returns to the main trail, which leads back to the JMT. I dump my pack, throw my arms in the air, and give a dramatic “YES!!”, complete with fist pump. I sit down, drink the last of my water, and eat my last bar, letting the joy of knowing where I am embrace me. I feel silly about my fears and doubts of not finding my way back. I am thankful that no one was with me on this journey, at least not in my head. It takes me awhile to collect myself back into feeling like a “successful hiker.” My self-confidence and self-image both took a hit, no doubt. But I take it all in, the relief and feelings of embarrassment at “getting lost”. I reason it’s all part of being an adventurous hike, and I am just thankful I am found!

My campsite

My campsite

I return to my campsite via the JMT. I pass several women camped right off the trail, who comment that I am “traveling light”. That’s not the normal response to my usually heavy backpack, but of course I am just carrying a day pack. I tell them I have been on a day hike, around the Lake South America loop. I don’t tell them I missed the trail back and hoofed it up and over wild terrain, cross country style. I am happy that I crossed the river earlier in pursuit of a campsite, as I find that no one else is camped on my side of the creek. I need the solitude and reflection, the privacy and seclusion, to sort out my thoughts and be with my intense pleasure and relief of being back in my comfort zone. I can watch the folks across the river, their distant enough presence adding to my feeling of being safe and cozy in my surroundings.

Highlights of the day

Forester Pass

With Emily at Forester Pass

With Emily at Forester Pass

While the conditions were less than optimal with chatty John, I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment sitting atop Forester Pass. It’s hard to describe what it feels like, to be sitting up there, so close to the end of the trail, with so much of the trip behind and yet a whole mountain to be climbed before it’s all said and done. The environment at 13,000 is stark, the peaks and valley extend out below as far as the eye can see,  and there is an incredible sense of spaciousness. I felt simultaneously minuscule AND a part of something wildly vast and mystical.

Chilling at Forester Pass

Chilling at Forester Pass

Finding my way back to the trail

I did not like the feeling of being lost. I did not like the feeling of being unprepared. I did not like that I let these things get to me so much. BUT, on the whole, I DID like my adventure, because it all turned out well in the end.  It’s ironic that I never made it to Lake South America, because that it what I was aiming for. But I did take on an off-route loop, and I made it back without incident, and I saw a whole lot of beautiful country along the way. Most of what “bad” happened took place in my head. I never was in any real danger. Being in that whole circular loop, both in my head and in actuality on the trail, taught me some valuable lessons…

Lessons of the day

Don’t second guess everything!

If I had a dime for every needless worry I had on the trail, I’d have come home financially set! It still amazes me how much I get in my head and have anxiety about things that just plain don’t come to pass. I do this in my regular life as well as in my adventurous life. How does one get beyond that? Maybe by jumping in and doing it anyway. I watched myself on this day, on the lake loop, worry about everything. The weather, going out alone, believing I might get hypothermia after jumping in the cold water, getting off trail, believing I’d lost the trail, worrying that I tried to forge a way back that wouldn’t actually work….and on and on. And again, none of those things happened. If I spent more time…in preparation, having the right maps and knowing how to read them, and less time in needless worry, who knows how the adventure would have felt in the aftermath. Possibly less adventurous, but certainly less dramatic.

Carry a map and compass…and know how to use them

I am embarrassed to say that my knowledge of map and compass is limited. That’s partly why I chose the JMT as my solo trail, as it is relatively straight forward and I had done it before so it was familiar. I wish now that I had had a map and compass on my Lake South America loop, so I could have experimented and learned something actual and concrete about taking care of my self when going off-trail. Since that’s not what happened, next time I WILL be prepared. I see now that just “winging it”, while it worked here, is not always the easiest solution.

Trust your intuition

All of the above being said, and after all of the self-reproach about not being prepared and worrying about everything that was unfamiliar on the loop, the thing that I did right and that ultimately led me back was that I trusted my intuition. I knew which direction to head, and I trusted that if I followed my inner guidance system, it would not lead me astray. In so much of my life, whether it’s out in nature, or back home in the humdrum of every day life, when I tune into, trust, and follow my intuition, I am never steered wrong.

It’s a complex world we live in, whether it’s on the trail or in life. Relying on what we know is good; having tools to add to that is very helpful; using the tools to contribute to  that which we know intuitively is the best possible combination.

 

 

 

Day 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 13 John Muir Trail

“Split Lake” (Lake 11,595) to Main South Fork Kings Crossing

Total JMT Miles — 4       Side trip miles — 1     Elevation gain/loss — +200/-1670

Morning at 'Split Lake" campsite

Morning at ‘Split Lake” campsite

Day 13 started innocently enough. I awoke after a wet and cold night at my lake of solitude. It was not raining at first light, for which I was grateful. I gave myself a hearty pat on the back for having survived my first night of rain on the JMT, and I felt good and optimistic about the day to come. The day’s goals were simple:  Dry out my gear from the previous day, and get in some JMT miles. I hoped to catch back up to my hiking friends, Ashley, Rob, and Marcus. I knew they had camped at Marjorie Lake, six miles away, the previous night, and I wanted to bridge the distance with a long day. I didn’t have a destination in mind for the night, but I was physically and psychologically prepared for a day of miles. I could see the sun attempting to peek out of the heavy cloud over, and I earnestly believed that the rain was gone, and that blue skies would return with conviction. So I lingered in camp to see if I could reap some benefit from the sun’s natural ability to dry things out.

S. Fork Kings River, with (left to right) Striped Mt., Mt. Ickes and Crater Mt. Note the skies are blue here!

Mt. Ruskin

Mt. Ruskin

But as the morning progressed, and the cloud cover persisted, I gave up my hope of sun-dried gear. I packed up my wet tent, clothes and sleeping bag and moved out. I left Split Lake and was back on the JMT by 9:00 am. My mood has lightened despite the clouds, and I was glad to be back on the solid footing of the JMT.  The going was easy, the views were good, and I removed layers of clothing as I cruised along. Soon I was down to shorts and a tank top, admittedly trying to draw back the sunshine with my light hiking attire. I sat pleasantly enough by a stream for my 10:00 am snack, and began to relax into the day.

S. Fork Kings, Mt. Ickes, and clouds!

S. Fork Kings, Mt. Ickes, and clouds!

Soon thereafter, the trail entered forest, and my views became obscured by trees. Again I crossed the South Fork of the Kings River, and continued dropping gradually for another mile and 700 feet. I could FEEL that the clouds were getting heavier, and I kept looking up, willing lighter skies to come back.  I had to stop and put on another layer, as clearly my approach of “dressing for” was not going to bring back the sun. Right on cue, I started to feel the first rain drops. “Only a light shower”, I assured myself. It was only 11:00 am, I had only travelled four miles, and I wasn’t ready to stop by any means. But within minutes, literally, and just as I reached the lowest point of the day elevation wise,  the skies opened up and rain began to dump. Accompanied by thunder and lightning, it was sudden, extreme, and a bit scary. I was rather unexpectedly in for a full on mountain thunderstorm!

I decided to stop right there and wait out the storm. I pulled out my rain jacket, and a hefty garbage bag for my pack. I experienced instant regret about NOT purchasing an actual rain cover for my backpack, which protects that pack while leaving the straps free, and would have let me keep hiking.  At the time, I didn’t want to add the extra expense to an already costly adventure and I assumed, as I could now see naively, that I would not need a pack cover, since on the previous year’s JMT hike we had experienced virtually no rain.

So I sat under a big tree, pack covered, still in shorts, but top half dry in my Gore Tex jacket and waited, watched, and listened. It was frankly eerie, as the sky crackled with lightning and boomed with thunder, one right on the heels of the next. I felt good about my location, trying to remember where you were NOT supposed to be in a thunderstorm — on a pass, in an open area with few trees, near a vertical wall, or in a cave. It seemed OK to be seated under a large tree that was one of many.

I told myself I would sit there until noon, see what the weather was up to, then make a decision to set up camp or move on. I was hopeful the weather would break, but it showed no signs of doing so. Eventually, a hiker came up, and I was ecstatic, both to see a person and that it was Emily, a young gal hiking solo who I had not seen since Donahue Pass on Day 3. I thought perhaps she had quit her JMT endeavor since I hadn’t seen her for ten days, and so was doubly glad to see her. She asked if she could sit under the tree with me, and I warmly welcomed her company for the storm vigil. We sat and talked of our trail adventures to date and those to come. She planned to go up to Bench Lake for the night, another few miles up and off the JMT. I told her I had day hiked there the previous year and that it was lovely. Of course, when we were there it was warm and sunny, not a full on thunderstorm. After we sat and talked for a half hour, it was clear no let up was in sight, and Emily decided to move on, committed to her mileage goal.  Reluctantly, I stayed behind to set up camp. With a backpack cover,  I might have joined her, but I was reluctant to get any wetter than I and my gear already were.

The campsite I was in was large, and rivulets of water were starting to form all around the flat areas. I chose what looked to be the driest spot, and set up my tent. I was efficient despite the cold, wet rain, this now being my second time in two days of setting up my tent in the rain. I was in the tent and warming up by 1:00 pm, and ate lunch inside.  I wondered if the smell of food in the tent would be a bear draw, but honestly, I was beyond caring at that point. I was relieved to be under cover and out of the rain.

Once the setup and lunch tasks were done, however, my good mood quickly evaporated.  I felt discouragement and then depression descend and wrap around me with a dampness on par with the conditions outside. I was angry at the rain for thwarting my plans. I had only gone four miles!  I tried to embrace this as another rest day opportunity.  I lay down with my book to read. I tried to sleep. My thoughts were racing, though, as I dwelled on the fact that now I was really “behind schedule” to meet up with Dave again in two more days for the second ten-day food drop. My brain knew I still had time to do the miles, but I found myself obsessing anyway. While I knew intellectually I’d made the right choice in stopping, I still felt distressed and angry about being stuck in the tent when I would rather be hiking. I tried to just chill out and accept my fate, and rest and relax. Finally, I was able to doze a bit.

Suddenly, I was rudely awakened by a mass of hikers entering my personal campground. I could hear voices, many of them, and they were discussing where to pitch their tents right there in the exact same spot I was in. It was a large spot, but there were also other campsites nearby, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they would want to camp right there almost on top of me. I could hear four tents going up, which meant at least eight people, and they had me surrounded! I was really irked, and lay in my tent fuming and writing. It reminded me of Red’s Meadow on Day 5, when all the late backpackers came in and set up camp in the already over crowded backpacker camp right at dark. I was extremely puzzled, again, by why people would want to be so close…to each other, and to someone they didn’t even know. I let out all my frustrations through the pen, then forced myself to try to see it from their perspective. It was 3 pm, which meant they had been hiking in the rain for hours and were probably soaked. They probably saw my tent and a site that seemed doable, and just decided to stop. I tried to be forgiving and gracious. I told myself I would not get out of my tent until I could be kind and courteous.

I stayed in the tent until 4:30, when the rain finally started to let up. I cautiously poked my head out, and the woman who had set up the closest to me was right there in her tent with the fly open. Literally, I crawled out of my tent and hers was less than a foot away.  I recognized her as Ginnie from Red’s Meadow, the labor and delivery nurse who I had really liked. Her tent mate was Tracy. They apologized for their super close proximity, and I told them no worries. I was still irritated, but I was relieved they were at least people I had previously met and liked. The other surrounding tents’ occupants were inside, and I chatted for a few minutes with Ginnie about their day and how they had ended up there.  I wandered a bit to find a place to pee, then came back and decided to make an early dinner since I was up and out of the tent anyway.  The rain was down to a drizzle, and the thunder and lightning had stopped. I foraged through my pack, thankfully dry from the garbage bag, and found stove, food, and water to make my simple dinner. Ginnie joined me, and we cooked our dinners side by side on the one flat rock in our deluged camp site.

After dinner, I decided to go on a walk. I had been sitting or lying for over six hours, about my max for non-movement. I started on the JMT in the direction I would head in the morning, just to move and see what I was facing. Since it was the low point of elevation where we were all camped, I knew it would be uphill. I hiked for about 45 minutes, up switchbacks that I vaguely remembered from the previous year. It was nice to move, and the hiking warmed me up and brought blood back circulating into my muscles. It was still a dark and gloomy day, and I was still discouraged about losing a day’s hiking and the continued rain and wet, BUT I also felt my mood revive, as always, after a good walk. I returned to my tent, and people were in theirs so I didn’t have to make conversation. I got ready for bed, still accompanied by persistent drizzle, and was back in the tent by 7:00. I wrote some more, and read until darkness. I was frankly relieved that the day was done and that I had regained my sanity despite my frustrations.

Highlights of the day

Getting through it without being bitchy!

I have a tendency to want and need to withdraw into myself when I am frustrated, angry, or depressed. I was prepared to do that on this day when the rain came — be alone, and just tough it out. Then people came in, and I had to be a bit social, or else seem completely rude. I was able to strike a balance with that, being mostly alone with my disparaging thoughts,  but also somewhat interactive.  Especially with Ginnie, who I did really like. As we cooked our dinner together, we chatted and I learned more about her and how she ended up on the JMT. It helped tremendously to have this time with her to get out of my self-imposed pity party.

Getting out on a walk!

I have said it a thousand times before and I know it to be true…after periods of inactivity, whether sleep, a long car ride, or hours spent cooped up in a tent, movement is the ticket for me to feel “normal”. Just moving my body, and getting blood flow to stagnant muscles, and being out in nature, even if it was rainy and wet, did wonders to lift my damp mood. I cannot say enough about how this small endeavor shifted my perspective from one of despair to gradual acceptance of my reality.

Lesson of the day

Frustration with lack of control exists in nature as well as in civilization.

It’s a simple but true statement…I take myself and my tendencies wherever I go. I could see it with the Llamas a few days prior, and I could see it here. I don’t like it when I have a plan and something gets in the way. Until this day, my plans for the days activities and miles got met, despite inevitable obstacles.  But the conditions on this day were too much. I felt an immense amount of irritation about something I could not control. Out in the wilderness, I realized, is just a microcosm of the bigger picture of life. I let myself dwell and obsess on the weather holding me back, just as I let myself worry needlessly and endlessly about things in my day to day “normal” life that I can’t control. I struggle with acceptance of the things that get in the way of my carefully laid plans. I was reminded on this day of the AA serenity prayer: To accept the things I cannot change (the weather), to have the courage to change the things I can (my attitude) and the wisdom to know the difference (embrace instead of fight the reality).

 

 

 

 

 

Day 7 John Muir Trail

Quail Meadows Junction to Rose Lake

Total JMT miles  —  11.3       Side Trip miles  —  1       Elevation gain/loss  —  +3060/-930

(Note to reader: If you are squeamish about bodily processes, or if you are a male, you may want to skip ahead in this post!) 

Day 7 started abruptly. I was awaken in my tent at 3:30 am…not by a bear, but by the sudden knowing that I was bleeding. I was suddenly and inexplicably having my second menstrual period in less than two weeks, after not having had one for four months prior to that. At 52, menopause is coming, and the periods had started coming less and less frequently. After one exceptionally heavy period on the road trip down to Yosemite, I was pretty darn sure that was it for the rest of the trail. I was relieved that it had come when it had, as any female backpacker will tell you, trying to manage a period in the wilderness is a challenge.

You can imagine my dismay when I started spotting the previous day, on my descent down from Silver Pass. I totally downplayed this, and assumed it was just residual. I had exactly six tampons with me from the last go around. I thought for sure that would get me through any spotting. When I suddenly awoke at 3:30, I knew I was full on into another heavy period. I jumped out of the tent, and, without going into detail, suffice it to say that I literally went down to the creek by flashlight to clean up in the water. Part of this had to do with my fear of bears, as bears and menstrual blood have a particularly mysterious and scary known connection. Cleaned up but worried, I lay back in my tent and considered my options:

  1. Catch the ferry to Vermillion Valley Ranch (VVR), and get tampons there. This would literally be an all day affair.
  2. Try to hang on with the supplies I had and make it to Muir Trail Ranch, which would not be until the following day. Plus supplies at MTR I knew were very limited, at least those you could purchase. The hiker food buckets are phenomenal, containing everything left behind by resupplying hikers who realize they have way too much stuff.  However, you can only access these buckets if you have a food drop at MTR, which I did not…
  3. Ask every age-appropriate female I encountered on the trail if she had any extra tampons she could spare. And hopefully get enough to get me through.

I mulled this over until daylight. I don’t like needing others, as this goes against my independent and self-sufficient spirit. Especially when it’s an unexpected need. I also felt a little betrayed by my body, and frustrated by this. I wanted to problem solve my way out of my dilemma alone, but I also didn’t want to lose an entire day doing so. Largely this had to do with the upcoming meeting with my food drop party in two days. I couldn’t afford to lose an entire day with a side trip to VVR, as I would not be able to make up the lost miles in time. The clear option became #3, and I resigned myself to bucking up and asking for help.

(That’s it for the bodily function part for now…)

I left my campsite knowing I was immediately in for a big climb. The climb up to Bear Ridge is a forested 4.5 miles, with 2000 feet of elevation gain. I remembered it well from last year. It’s not so much the overall gain, but there are no breaks in the steady uphill, and it’s tedious. Last year, I struggled; this year, I was completely ready for it. I gained the ridge in no time, not even needing a break on the way up. I felt empowered and strong, and it boosted my overall confidence in a big way. I was back in control of at least some physical things.

I took a well-deserved break at Bear Ridge Junction. Last year, we left the trail here for a fantastic side trip to Volcanic Knob. A quick word about side trips on the JMT. There are over 100 peaks accessible within two miles from the trail. I like nothing better than to ditch the backpack, get off trail, and go climb a peak. It breaks things up and vastly increases the overall experience. We did this a fair amount last year, especially in the first half of our trip before we lost our views to forest fire smoke. I absolutely loved the peaks and side trips, and I was strongly tempted to take off and go do Volcanic Knob again. But for the first half of my trip, I didn’t have that luxury.  I had to meet the food droop party on Day 9, at 127 JMT miles. I kept reminding myself of that, plus my current dilemma of needing to take care of my body’s needs.

Bear Creek

Bear Creek

bearcreekkt1

Bear Creek "Victory Pose"

Bear Creek “Victory Pose”

So instead I took a good half hour break, snacking,  hydrating, and rearranging my hanging wet clothes from the previous night’s river encounter. As I was leaving, Rob from LA, who I had met at  Squaw Lake, hiked up. He called a friendly “Hello”, and prepared to move on after a moment.  Since I was ready to leave, I surprised myself by asking,  “Do you want to hike together for a bit”? Fit, trim, and just shy of 24 years old, I knew he was faster than me. But I also knew we were in for a two mile downhill stretch, and I felt confident I could stay with him. Also, as mentioned, his personality, energy, and demeanor were very similar to that of my 24 year old son,  Kyle. I felt the sudden desire for company, and time with a “substitute Kyle” seemed like a great idea! I very much enjoyed the next two miles, as we chatted and I learned about his JMT quest and how it came about. I told him he reminded me of Kyle, and he said that my doing the trail encouraged him to get his mom out to do something like the JMT. We had a mutually beneficial and inspirational rest of the morning, culminating with photos, and lunch at the waters of Bear Creek.

I left Rob to continue up Bear Creek to the Bear Lakes Basin. Was it just a coincidence that everything that day seemed to have BEAR in it’s name?? It certainly kept reminding me of my dilemma, and I knew I had to get serious in my quest for tampons. Over the next five miles, I asked the seven age-appropriate women I encountered if they had any to spare. I learned a lot, but only got one tampon. I was starting to get worried. I REALLY wanted to camp at Rose Lake that night, one mile off of the JMT. Gregg and I had been there the previous year, and I remembered it as an absolutely lovely and easily accessible lake, where I figured no one else would be. I was very intent on camping there. BUT, I did not feel comfortable heading off trail without supplies. The person I kept wanting to run into was solo hiker Ashley, as I KNEW she would have tampons. I could tell from our interactions that she was one prepared kind of gal. But I had not seen her since the previous evening, right before we both found campsites at Quail Meadows. I kept envisioning her on the trail, hoping my vivid mental image would turn into reality. I told myself if I didn’t see her or somehow get provisions by the junction, I would not go to Rose Lake.  Instead I would keep going until I found some way to get what I needed to get through the night and following day.

After intently holding the vision of Ashley for the previous five miles, I was not completely surprised to find her sitting and chilling at the junction of Rose Lake with Marcus and one other gal. I was ecstatic! My usually reserved demeanor broke into a huge and exuberant hello and hug for Ashley! I told her how happy I was to see her, how I had been envisioning her all day, and there she was! After asking Marcus’s pardon (he’s English, after all!), I explained my situation and need. Of course she had tampons, and an abundance there of, just as I had expected. She gave me a good supply, and told me she had MORE coming in her resupply at MTR, the following day. “If you need more”, she assured me, ” just ask!”  I was thrilled and relieved, and headed off to Rose Lake with a smile on my face and a sense of all being completely right with the world…as well as struck by the mystery and wonder of how things like that work out.

Rose Lake

Rose Lake

Evening at Rose Lake

Evening at Rose Lake

Everything at Rose Lake was perfect. From the previous year’s side trip, I knew exactly where to look for a campsite. As expected, no one was there. I had my choice of several sites, a whole lake and evening to myself, and hands down, this was my favorite campsite of the whole trip. I felt blessed, thankful, and restored in my sense that everything was working out just fine. I went to bed that night supremely happy and at peace.

Highlights of the day

Flying up Bear Ridge

Anytime something challenging comes up, to have something unexpectedly easy follow is always a relief. After the stressful early morning, the strength I felt climbing up Bear Ridge really boosted my spirits. It gave me a sense that if I could still knock off elevation with power and finesse, surely I could handle any miles and trials yet to come.

Hiking with Rob

Our two mile stretch and the time at the river, though brief, was fun and rewarding. After hiking alone for

Hiking buddy Rob

Hiking buddy Rob

the entire trip up to that point, it was nice to hike and talk with another person for awhile. It made me realize just how much I had missed the

Hiking with Kyle last Spring

Hiking with Kyle last Spring

company of a good connection.  It helped, of course, that the time with Rob made me feel warm and fuzzy, as it reminded me of all the hikes Kyle and I have taken together in the past.

Running into Ashley at Rose Lake Junction

This was a highlight for obvious reasons. Not only did I get my feminine hygiene supplies, but it was certainly another instance of uncanny, perfect timing. Again, similar to the day I ran into Shannon and Kevin on the trail, I

"Trail Angel" Ashley

“Trail Angel” Ashley

felt that sense of being just one player in a much bigger picture. As with so many previous occurrences on this trip, I felt strongly guided.  I KNEW that I was supposed to be just where I was, doing just what I was doing. I don’t particularly like the phrase “Trail Angel”, but Ashley was definitely that for me on that day. She appeared just at the right time, and eased my stress and worry completely just by being there….and by having tampons, of course!

Camping at Rose Lake

Rose Lake at Sunset

Rose Lake at Sunset

This calm and private lake, after stressing for much of the day on what if’s,was just what I needed. I had a leisurely afternoon swim, pleasant dinner, and sunset views off the lake and peaks. That evening was actually the first time I had seen any clouds since starting the trail, and they added a rich dimension to the  scene. I felt deep gratitude to be on the trail, at that lake, and back into the zone that all was well.

Lessons of the day

More needless worries…

That file I started after Day 1? Of things I worried about that never came to fruition? That file got fuller on Day 7. I watched myself worry about the what if’s…What if I couldn’t find anybody with tampons? What if I had to take a whole day to get some and consequently missed my food drop party on Day 9? What if I had to use TP and became a bear magnet? What if, what if…? As I hiked the miles, I kept myself somewhat diverted from these worries with the intense physicality of powering up Bear Ridge, the fun distraction of hiking with Rob, and the practice of visualizing Ashley on the trail…all of that took place simultaneously woven in with my obsessive worry. And what was the worry for? It all worked out. Everything was fine, and, in the end, I got exactly what I needed. Would I have had the same result if I had not worried so much about it? I don’t know the answer to that, but watching myself be in the process of dilemma arising, worrying about it, and problem solving it all in the space of aa day was a highly valuable experience for me.

Incorporate in the unexpected.

This goes without saying. You cannot possibly be prepared for everything on a trip like the JMT…or in life in general. I could have carried tampons for another period, a tourniquet for a broken limb, extra clothes, food, and provisions for a trip that lasted 30 days instead of 20… After initially beating myself up for “not being prepared” with extra female supplies, at some point I realized that I could only be prepared for what I reasonably thought MIGHT happen. Beyond that, I would just have to deal with and problem solve in the moment as the moments unfolded. As I lay in my tent in the utter peace and watchfulness of Rose Lake, I felt good about how I had handled myself well through the unexpected that day. Not perfectly, perhaps, but certainly good enough to move confidently into the rest of my days on the trail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 6 John Muir Trail

Virginia Lake to Mono Creek (Quail Meadows Junction)

Total JMT Miles  —  13.3         Elevation gain/loss  —  +1750/-3980

The morning of Day 6 dawned clear, cold, and beautiful. Virginia Lake, elevation 10,330, was my highest and coldest campsite yet. Frost adorned my backpack and tent. I used hand warmers again for the making of breakfast and packing up and moving out. The cold hands issue came up repeatedly on last year’s JMT trip. This year, I was prepared with the hand John Muir Trailwarmers, although I only brought about 10 sets. Obviously,  they added bulk and some weight to my already heavy pack. While I was grateful for them on chilly mornings, I knew I would have to partition them out so as to save some for the latter higher elevation campsites on my trip. I was eager to get on the trail and get moving. Movement, as I have witnessed over and over again, is hands down the best way for me to get warm. Even better than the three cups of coffee and hot oatmeal I ate and drank each and every morning on the trail!

I left my campsite cold but ready for the day.  I had pushed the previous day to get there, as I wanted to create distance for myself from the Red’s Meadow crowd. I had successfully achieved that. Day 6, I decided, would be an easier day. The day’s mileage would hold lots of ups and downs. A significant elevation loss at the outset, followed by a gain to Silver Pass (elevation 10,740 ft. ), the 4th of 10 passes on the trail. The pass would be followed by a loss of 2840 feet to the Lake Edison/Quail Meadows Junction, (7900 ft.), where I planned to camp.

View before dropping down to Tully Hole

View before dropping down to Tully Hole

After the cold but invigorating hike out of Virginia lake basin, I began the dramatic descent to Tully Hole, a series of cool pools in Fish Creek.  I remembered Tully Hole from last year, both the steep switchbacks getting down to it, and the fact that I FELL IN the water trying to get to a lunch spot on a rock. I was incredibly irritated and frustrated by this, as my hiking partner Gregg and I were having a tiff about where exactly to stop. The tension and conflict “caused” me to lose my footing, or so I told myself. We ended up resurrecting the experience, by both taking a dunk in the pool and lunching on the rock. As I filled water and shed some clothes at Tully Hole this year, the memories really flooded back. I was grateful to be dry and, at that moment, solo. Again, with no partner, there were moments of loneliness on the trail….but there were also no moments of conflict about when and where to stop, as I was completely in charge of my own decisions.

I hiked alone all morning, hardly seeing a soul.  It was incredibly peaceful. All the previous day’s hikers seemed to have vanished! I meandered along Fish Creek for awhile, until the trail turned to start it’s gradual ascent toward Silver Pass. The forest of hemlock and lodgepole pine was comforting and shaded. As I climbed, the forest thinned, and eventually disappeared all together as I reached Squaw Lake. A beautiful little lake below Silver Pass, last year’s hike stayed etched in

Looking back at Squaw Lake

Looking back at Squaw Lake

my mind as I remembered taking a nice long break and even a short nap at this lake. This year, I was greeted at the lake by solo hikers Ashley, Alexis, Marcus, and Rob. They were hanging and lounging by the lake, enjoying a leisurely lunch and rest before the pass. I had previously met Ashley and Alexis (“Pippi”, from Day 2) and Marcus, who came all the way from England to do the JMT. Rob was new to me, and he instantly reminded me of my son Kyle. About the same age, with a laid back and easy demeanor, I liked him instantly.

I hung with these guys for a half hour or so. It was great to let myself do that, enjoy the company of others on the trail, even as I debated if it would put me off my “schedule” and agenda. I felt both relaxed and restless…really relishing the camaraderie, but also eager to push on. I left the group still lounging, and began the ascent to Silver Pass. I

Silver Pass Lake

Silver Pass Lake

Packs on break at Silver Pass

Packs on break at Silver Pass

passed Chief Lake and Silver Pass Lake on the way up, both pristine and otherworldly. At the top of Silver Pass, I asked a hiker for a photo but didn’t even bother to take off my pack to rest. I was on a mission of sorts, but for what? Even I wasn’t sure.

The descent from Silver Pass was long and grueling. It was on this major elevation drop that I noticed without a doubt that my decrepit right knee was perpetually sore and occasionally feeling unstable. I have had four surgeries on that knee, and it’s due for replacement. I had received a cortisone shot three weeks before the start of my hike, and it had gotten me this far. But I seemed to take a turn for the worse on this descent, and the knee became increasingly problematic, both for that long 6.3 miles drop, and, unfortunately, for the rest of the trip. It was not anything I couldn’t deal with, as I have been coping with severe arthritis for years in that knee. But I realized I would have to be careful and cautious. I was again very thankful to have my hiking poles to help reduce the impact as I descended on rocks, roots, and uneven ground. I resumed my trail mantra, take it one step at a time.

The miles took awhile, and the relentless pounding was made more tedious by the heat. It must have been 80 degrees or more.  I stopped and ate and drank, and Ashley and Alexis (hiking together) passed me. We leap frogged and chatted as we continued to encounter one another. It occurred to me that I might like to hike with them, to learn more about them, to ask them their stories and WHY they were there. What had brought 21 year old Alexis and 29 year old Ashley to do a solo hike on the JMT? This inquiry and desire to know occupied my brain as I went, keeping me focused on something other than the monotony of the descent and the pain in my knee.  But I also felt unsure how to ask. I am 52, and no doubt in a different place in my life. Just because I am so curious as to what drives others, would these “youngsters” be as eager to share that with me?  Or were they just into hiking and zoning out? So I didn’t ask, and I didn’t insert myself into hiking with them. But what I DID do was to decide to ask them for their emails, so perhaps I could get more information about their stories at some point in the future.

At the bottom of the big drop, Alexis turned off to Vermillion Valley Ranch, a ferry ride across Lake Edison to a resort and common food drop location for JMT and PCT hikers. Ashley continued on, as did I. We were both going to camp at the junction of Edison Lake and Mono Creek, also known as Quail Ridge Meadow. I had not camped there before, but remembered from last year that there were multiple good sites. I started getting nervous about finding a good spot alone…I knew Ashley, Marcus, and Rob, as well as many of the others from Reds were also camping there. Again, I couldn’t fully explain my need and desire to camp alone, but there it was.

As I crossed the bridge over Mono Creek one last time, a whole host of people waved to me. I am really bad at recognizing faces from a distance, my kids will tell you that. So I am not sure who all was waving, but the greeting was both welcoming and made me feel a bit anti-social. I waved back, thought momentarily about stopping, but instead continued on in my quest for solitude. That same theme again…desire for connection, versus the even stronger pull to be alone.

Again, I followed the trail just a little farther, then left it, veering back toward the creek in search of a campsite. I found a huge and private site, close to the river, but down river from the group. It was perfect, and I dumped my pack to settle in for the evening. Immediately I went to the river and took a swim. I rinsed some clothes, and enjoyed the refreshment of the cool water, and the peace and quiet of my site. I felt nicely fatigued, contemplative about my solo nature, and supremely grateful for a relatively uneventful day. My site was at low elevation, so I made sure to adequately store all my food in my bear canister as well as any scented toiletries I could fit. I made dinner and crawled in my tent at 7:30, happy and spent. I read and wrote for 30 minutes until dark, then relinquished into sleep. It was one of the nights on the trail when sleep came easily and convincingly.

Highlights of the day

It was a day of no extremes

Simply put, nothing dramatic happened in either the supremely positive or negative direction. The miles were enough, but not too much. The sun was out, and while it got hot as I lost elevation,  I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of sun on my limbs and face. I ascended Silver Pass with ease. I had a good combination of time alone and some social interaction. I stayed thoughtful and contemplative on the trail, and reveled in the moments as they unveiled themselves. I was accepting of all aspects of myself, even my aching knee. My foot problem continued to resolve itself, and I hiked without pain or a limp from blisters for the first time in days. I felt peaceful and at ease about most things, and held a healthy curiosity about those aspects of self that got my attention.

Hanging at Squaw Lake with the four solo hikers

Although I didn’t stay for too long, I did again feel a part of something bigger as I chatted with and heard stories from Ashley, Alexis, Marcus, and Rob about their days on the trail. I wished I had taken a picture of all of us at Squaw Lake, but I was immersed in enjoying being there and it didn’t enter my mind. It felt good, though, to decide to get email addresses for future possible contact. It removed some of the pressure I felt to “get to know them all” on the trail.

Lessons of the day

Hurrying is a habit that’s hard to break…

I watched myself be in a hurry, or needing to keep a time schedule, all day, even though there was no pressure of time whatsoever. I realized that this propensity to always keep moving, to fill my day up with something, is a habit from daily life that I brought to the trail… even when I didn’t need to. While I could sit for 30 minutes at Squaw lake, anything more than that and I started getting antsy. I didn’t even take my pack off at Silver pass for a break, just took a couple photos and kept moving. I understand why I move when I am carrying the pack, as I don’t like the weight on my neck and shoulders. But to feel the  sense of urgency, even when no need for urgency existed, definitely made me stop and take pause. I reflected on this as I lay in the tent that night. I buy into the self-induced pressure of time, even as I realize that part of why I came on the trail was to slow down and relax. I still struggle to reach that seemingly elusive desire for balance between knocking off the miles and the accompanying sense of accomplishment, and stopping to enjoy the lakes and splendid views for more than just mere moments.

My commitment to staying solo trumped my desire to engage with others…

Chief Lake

Enjoying solitude on the way up to Silver Pass…

I identified two main reasons for this. The first was that I really wanted a solo trip.  I feared if I engaged too much, next thing I knew I’d be hiking, eating, and sleeping with other solo hikers, and no longer doing a solo trip. I tried to find an acceptable balance between interaction and solitude, with the clear tendency coming out on the latter end. And secondly, I was really enjoying being by myself! This surprised me, how comfortable I felt hiking and particularly camping alone. I found my company to be quite satisfactory, and I grew increasingly confident in my ability to enjoy just being with myself. This was relatively new for me, and I continued to delight in the fact that I was actually really digging my time alone!

 

 

 

 

 

Day 5 John Muir Trail

Red’s Meadow to Virginia Lake

Total JMT miles  —  15.7            Elevation gain/loss  —  +2950/-330

I awoke on Day 5 in a surprisingly decent mood after the previous evening’s events. Getting myself worked up  over the crowd of late-arrival backpackers, I didn’t expect to sleep much at all. But surprisingly, after everyone settled and the over-packed campsite quieted down, I did sleep some. I awoke with a fresh perspective, and a realization that I had perhaps over reacted in my strong initial response to the late comers. As I wrote in my journal over breakfast and coffee, what came to mind was a sense of a “Restored faith in Humanity”. People ARE basically good, and not as “inconsiderate” as I had termed the masses to be the previous evening. This made me smile, as it was something my dad would say, and I felt incredibly close to him in that moment. He has been gone almost five years now, but in times like these I strongly feel his presence. I felt comforted and no longer quite so alone.  I also chewed on the reality of my own seriousness, another trait of my dad’s, and why it is difficult for me to be happy-go-lucky, and fun-loving, as were the post-drinks and dinner crowd from the night before. While I am usually accepting of my tendency to take myself seriously, I do pay attention to opportunities to shed light on this, as well as learn from those that do less so. Sometimes the weight of being serious gets to me, and my renewed perspective on Day 5 allowed me to shed some of that. I left the Red’s backpacker camp at 7:00 am, my pack and spirits light. Just in time to pick up five more days of food and weigh (at least my pack!) right back down again!

Red's' Meadow Resort

Red’s’ Meadow Resort

At Red’s Resort, I paid $5 for a five minute shower. It was fantastic! I also spent some time problem solving my right foot. I had come to the realization that there was nothing wrong with the foot itself…the problems with blisters had to be related to what was inside the shoe. I took out both the orthotic and insole, borrowed scissors, and started cutting away where I could tell it was rubbing. I am embarrassed to say that it took me four days to figure out that the problem wasn’t with my foot, but with the orthotic and insole in the shoe. I kept reasoning that if no problem was happening with the left foot, why would the right orthotic be so troublesome? Instead of getting to the source, I kept taping over the problem, thinking that would solve it. Not so…definitely a time when using “bandaids” to cover something up did not serve me well. My initial cut-away job of the morning seemed to help some, although I left my tape job on as the blisters and hot spots were still there. I committed to careful observation throughout the day of how my foot was feeling in the shoe, instead of just ignoring it and trying to tough it out.

Clean and ready to go!

Clean and ready to go!

I packed up my pack with the five days of food, which added at least ten pounds to my pack.  As I prepared to leave Red’s,  I felt great despite the pack weight…clean, in good spirits, and ready for the day’s challenges. It would be the reverse of the previous days elevation loss…Day five, I knew, would be mostly a day of elevation gain. It would also be a day of more trail monotony, but I felt psychologically much more prepared for that. I wasn’t inclined to let any demons in that day, (another favorite expression of my dad’s) as I wanted to redeem my poor attitude from the previous day.

I left Red’s with the masses. There was a steady stream of folks doing just what I had, getting their food and moving out. For some reason, most of these were women, or at least it seemed that way. I saw solo-hiker Ashley from Ohio again, as well as Alexis from day 2. I met a mother/daughter combo, which I thought was very cool. I also met Ginnie, a friendly Labor and Delivery nurse from CA, and her hiking pal Tracy. All these women and more I leap-frogged with over the first few miles after Red’s: I would take a break, they would pass me. They would break, I would pass them. I liked meeting and briefly exchanging hello’s, but I was definitely in the

Feeling good on the trail

Feeling good on the trail

mood to hike alone.  Eventually the pressure of having people right on my tail after I had passed or re-passed them inspired me to keep a good and steady pace, and I gained distance on the group. I was in a good hiking rhythm, making good time, and feeling strong and empowered.

After five and a half miles,  I came to Deer Creek. This is the last water for another 5.5 miles, and,  while it was early for a lunch break, I knew it would be a good place for one. I sat on a rock in the sun, and took off my shoes for freedom and further evaluation. I decided to ditch the tape on the right foot for good, washed my foot in the creek, and let it dry before applying simple moleskin. I cut away a bit more of my orthotics. I sat and ate and people watched for about 40 minutes, letting my feet and mind be worry-free. The Red’s group came and went, and I observed that no one else was deliberately sitting in the sun. While the day was warm, it wasn’t too hot, and I loved being there in the sun on a rock. I was trying to gear up for what was to come…my trail book called the next 5.5 miles “some of the most monotonous on the trail”, due to the lack of a change of scenery and no spectacular views. I remembered this from last year, and we camped at the end of the 5.5 miles that year. This year, I fully intended to press on to Virginia Lake, another four miles beyond that. There was a fair amount of elevation and 9 miles remaining to get there, and I wanted to stay in my good head space.

Feeling strong at Duck Crossing

Feeling strong at Duck Crossing

Fueled up, hydrated, and with a new freedom for my right foot, I left Deer Creek. As I hiked the dry, unchanging, uphill terrain from Deer Creek to Duck Crossing, I remained strong and steady. I got into mindful hiking, putting one foot in front of the other. I let myself focus on just that, and being ok with the monotony. The 5.5 miles went quickly, with just one packs-off short break. At Duck Crossing I felt good. I remembered being completely spent at this point last year, and barely being able to navigate the necessity of finding of a campsite. This year, I knew I could make the remaining four miles to Virginia Lake. Two things were pushing me toward Virginia…First, I had learned during the day that the Red’s masses were

Purple Lake

Purple Lake

camping at Purple lake, two miles past Duck and two miles before Virginia. While a beautiful lake, camping was limited and restricted at Purple lake, and I knew it would be hard to find a spot. And secondly, I remembered Virginia Lake as being one of THE most beautiful of all lakes from last years trip, and I really wanted to immerse myself in that pristine environment.

I coursed around Purple Lake, waving and saying hello to the campers that had already arrived. I gained the elevation to  Virginia, and it was just as gorgeous as I remembered. There were campsites all along the lake, but many were taken, and I desperately wanted to be away from people for the night. Though I was tired, I continued around the lake, past the people and the inlet, and on the far side of the lake I started looking for a site. I found one just up and off the trail, but out of view of passing hikers, and definitely by myself. It was perfect, and I was incredibly relieved and happy to be there. The day had not been easy, with nearly 3000 feet of elevation gain, a later start than normal leaving Red’s, and some challenging psychological parts of the trail. But I knew I had handled it all very well, and I felt proud of myself for that. And I was oh so

Virginia Lake, images from 2015 JMT hike

Virginia Lake, images from 2015 JMT hike

virginialakevery happy to be camping alone in my perfect little spot!

Highlights of the Day

The shower at Red’s Meadow

Simply put, it was nice to get cleaned up. It’s funny, the psychology of trail cleanliness. There are lakes to swim in, rivers to get refreshed in, but it’s never the same as a real shower. My pledge to myself on the JMT was to try to “clean up” in some capacity every third day. I slept better and generally felt better about myself. Getting that shower in, with soap and hot water, gave me days in the cleanliness bank, where I didn’t have to think about that for awhile. I could focus on the trail and knocking off the miles to come, and enjoy my illusion of cleanliness.

Getting a handle on my foot issue

This was a relief beyond belief!  I was imagining hiking the rest of the JMT with complex taping, the drawbacks being running out of tape and the dislike of having that much “stuff” in my sock, as well as the fact that my strategy wasn’t working! So I finally took the time and effort to get to the root of the problem, and cut away at the orthotic and insoles. And noticing throughout the day that that really WAS what I needed to do, fueled my sense of effective problem solving. It’s difficult to explain why I didn’t think of it earlier, but I suppose I thought it was the “job” of the Physical Therapist who had done my orthotics to “decide” if they were fitting right and working right…or not. Since he was not there, I just had to go for it and start tinkering on my own. I reached a good compromise of cutting away enough to get pressure off the hot spots and blisters, but not so much so as to render the orthotics ineffective. A great place to finally arrive on day five!

The campsite at Virginia Lake

Virginia Lake campsite

Virginia Lake campsite

Reflection time at Virginia Lake

Reflection time at Virginia Lake

And again...

And again…

When I went back at the end of my trip to rank my overall favorite campsites, Virginia lake came in second (stay tuned…the best is yet to come!) It was perfect in so many ways, and I felt a sense of profound relief and peace being there. Part of it I am sure was the direct contrast to the previous night’s chaos of so many people…here, not another soul was seen or heard from where I camped. I had a lovely backdrop of boulders and mountains, and the full-on view out to Virginia Lake. I got to watch the sunset with it’s alpenglow on the surrounding peaks, and the morning sun reflecting off the lake soon after waking. It was clear, cold, and just downright beautiful for my 14 hour’s there, and I loved every minute of it.

Lessons of the Day

Acceptance of self as Solitude Seeker…

I got clear on this, that it’s OK to prefer solitude while out in the mountains. It doesn’t mean I am a loner or somehow flawed. I am generally a social being and very much enjoy engaging with people. But on this day I craved and made happen the necessary solitude I was seeking, by hiking in the “gaps” between people, and camping alone. And instead of making it be about something negative, like I should be engaging or conversing more,  I let myself absolutely enjoy and accept my preference for time alone…with my thoughts, feelings, and the majestic and calming surroundings as my only companions.

Sometimes, putting one foot in front of the other is the best I can do…

As mentioned, the mantra one foot in front of the other, just focus on the trail and take it a step at a time, worked well for me this day. I got through the tedious parts of the trail with relative ease. I called upon and utilized my mindfulness training, and let myself BE IN THE MOMENTS  as they unfolded, without thinking too much about being anywhere else. I did well with this strategy, and it paid off with a day of good miles achieved over potentially challenging psychological conditions. And I knew that, having done it on this day, I could successfully do it again in the days and weeks to come.

The trail, like life, has good days and bad, and they can come in quick succession.

A final view of Lake Virginia, courtesy of Adobe Stock photos.

A final view of Lake Virginia, courtesy of Adobe Stock photos.

This sounds incredibly obvious…but trail as metaphor for life gelled in a new way this day. I noticed how quickly things turned around, in large part from my change in attitude, my surroundings, and by prioritizing what matters to me. A difficult and discouraging day was immediately followed by a day of renewal and strength. I have seen that in my life so many times. I knew the trail would be no different. Yet to see it so cleanly played out in such a short period of time was both reaffirming and grounding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 4 John Muir Trail

Emerald Lake to Red’s Meadow

Total JMT miles — 16.5               Elevation gain/loss — +670/-2850

I awoke early as usual on Day 4, a habit that, conveniently or not, I brought with me from Bellingham. My waking time in “normal” life is between 4:30 and 5:00…No change occurred with the relaxation and potential for “sleeping in” on the JMT. I remained an early waker, the difference being that there were no lights to turn on and the daylight didn’t occur until 6:00. That would be the time I emerged from the tent each and every morning, somewhere between 5:45 and 6:00 am.

Morning sun from my campsite

Morning sun from my campsite

emeraldlakeam1

Garnet Lake reflection

Garnet Lake reflection

Day 4 was no different, despite not sleeping well the night before due to my partying neighbors. But I was well enough rested, and the morning was absolutely gorgeous. Morning sun played on the nearby mountains and in the trees surrounding “my” lakes.  I was struck again by the stunning beauty of the campsite, and also thankful that the neighbors were dead asleep. Honestly, I could hear them snoring, that’s how much the sound travelled.

After photos and breakfast I quietly left my campsite and returned to the trail. The morning was warmer than the previous, and I could tell it was going to be a hot one. The day’s sublime unfolding continued, with lakes, creeks, and views galore. I was definitely in my happy place. I saw solo hiker Erin from the previous day, camped above Garnet Lake. A large and beautiful lake, the JMT keeps it in view for quite some time. I was happy to see Erin, and stopped to chat. She was heading off trail into Mammoth to get new boots as hers were simply too small. The recommendation for a trip with some mileage like the JMT is to get boots a full size bigger, to allow for the inevitable swelling that takes place. A full size bigger always seemed too big for me, and I had settled on a half size bigger as a good compromise. I mused that I wished I could blame my right foot blister problems on too small shoes, but I knew that wasn’t the case. I was still taping, getting more elaborate as the amount of hot spots increased. I was definitely troubled and puzzled by this, and also observed that trying to avoid pressure on the blisters was starting to affect my gait.  We talked of feet and bodily ailments for awhile, I wished her luck in her boot mission, and moved on.

Banner and Ritter from Garnet Lake

Banner and Ritter from Garnet Lake

Trailside conversation and picture time!

Trailside conversation and picture time!

 

 

 

 

 

I encountered an older couple as I coursed around Garnet Lake. I stopped to talk with them as well. The beauty was keen, I didn’t want my views of the lake to end, and I was looking for reasons to dawdle. The old folks told me of a fire south in Cottonwood, and that got my attention. It turned my fire and smoke radar on, as last year we encountered intense smoke from fires for the entire second half of our trip. I was definitely nervous about that this year as well, as August is prime forest fire time. The air seemed a clear blue, however, and I let those worries fade.

Shadow Creek

Shadow Creek

Shadow Lake

Shadow Lake

The morning continued unveiling it’s magic, as I came to and followed Shadow Creek for a spell. Last year we lunched and bathed in Shadow creek, and I stopped for a snack to commemorate that exact spot. It’s a beautiful and fast-flowing creek, and eventually runs into to Shadow Lake. The climb up and out of Shadow Lake was the only real elevation gain of the day, and I cranked out the mile and some quickly. Soon I came to Rosalie Lake. This lake, like Garnet, was absolutely gorgeous, and deeply nestled in some cliffs. I reached Rosalie right at noon, and I had an extremely enjoyable lunch on rocks above it’s shore. The setting was heavenly, and I was tempted to while away the afternoon doing nothing but sitting and gazing at the beauty below. On the far shore of Rosalie, as I was getting water and preparing to leave the lake for good, Erin hiked up. She was going to swim in the lake and invited me to join her. Again, I was tempted to forget my plans for Red’s Meadow and do just that. But I had a food drop to pick up, and I wanted to stay “on schedule”, so I declined. I said goodbye in earnest this time, as I wasn’t sure I’d see her again. I did not, and I REALLY hope she returned to finish the trail after her trip into Mammoth. She had come all the way from Orlando, solo, for the adventure. and so deserved to complete it.

After Rosalie, things started to decline for the first time that day. For the first time in several days, actually, as day’s 2 and 3 on the JMT were equally as delightful as the morning of day 4. The way continued with interesting lakes, but much of the trail was amongst downed trees from a 2011  windstorm that felled 10,000 trees in the area. While trees didn’t obscure the trail, the blow-downs obscured the majesty of the place. I grew impatient…with the lack of views, with my sore right foot, with the monotony of the trail, and with my reluctant and slow pace. I still had 9 miles to reach Red’s Meadow when I left Rosalie, and I had kept a leisurely pace all morning with my conversations and such. So I picked up the pace, but then was more troubled by my foot. I was headed downhill and the day was warm, a combination that put extra pressure on my blistered right foot.  I found myself getting discouraged, impatient, and cranky for the first time on the trail.

Devil's Postpile

Devil’s Postpile

devilspostpile2I struggled with this state of mind all the way to Red’s Meadow. I hiked past the turnoff to Devil’s Postpile, where Gregg and I had camped and side-tripped last year. I took a food, water, and picture break looking at the very cool striations of the rocks across from me that were Devil’s Postpile, then cranked out the last 2.5 miles. Suffice it to say, I was not in a great mood when I finally arrived at Red’s Meadow about 5:30 pm. I was hot, tired, and just plain done with the day. While a long day (16.5 miles), the hiking was not that difficult, and I was bummed and puzzled at my state of discouragement.  I was looking forward to turning it around…possibly with a hot shower, certainly with a real bathroom and running water, and with the opportunity to check in with family and friends via text as there would be phone reception. And I was hoping for a decent night’s sleep.

Arriving at Red’s, I wasn’t so sure how many of those things would happen.  Right off the bat I met Ashley, a super nice solo hiker from Ohio. I asked her where the backpacker’s camp was. She said she didn’t know, and that she had camped in a paid site the previous night when she didn’t find it. I asked around a bit more…I knew there was a backpacker camp, but no one seemed to know where it was. I was perplexed and irritated, as I was counting on a place to unload…my pack and my frustrations of the day. Finally, someone pointed the way on a short .25 mile trail. They did not tell me where at trail’s end the backpacker camp was, and I actually wandered around for 15 minutes or so after the short trail trying to find it. I asked again, and was directed to a very small spot designated for walk in backpackers like me that could maybe house ten tents. There were at least ten tents there already, but I found a spot, right by the road, and by the bear locker. Certainly not a quiet spot, as cars were going by (servicing paid campsites of a much more spacious nature, just across the road), and I knew people would be in and out of the bear locker. But at least it was a site.

I put up my tent, ate dinner (there is a cafe in the main resort area, but since I had food I had carried, and would be picking

Right foot before problem solving…

up five days more food, I ate my dehydrated meal), and tried to be happy. After dinner, I walked back to the resort, with toiletries for the bathroom and with my phone. I texted friends and family for an hour outside, all the while people watching. I took pictures of my now heavily taped foot, and surmised ways to problem solve the blisters. I knew Red’s was the only place I would have reception until the end of my hike, and I much enjoyed checking in. The texting back and forth and sending of photos really cheered me up, as well as brushing my teeth and washing my face in running water, such that I was in a much better mood when I returned back to the camp.

I was sitting at the picnic table writing in my journal and waiting for darkness,  my habit before bed. Suddenly, a throng of people arrived in the camp…all at once, and with a huge amount of noise and ruckus. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. It was very nearly dark…where had all of these people come from? And were they all planning to camp right there, in the already overly crowded small site? Turns out, they were a large group of backpackers, who had been dining and drinking beers back at the resort. They ALL came in together at the last minute, with their backpacks, to join the rest of us camping for the night. I was completely thrown off. Where would they all go? There were at least another 8 tent’s worth of new folks…there was no way they would all fit. Gradually and noisily they all found a spot, anywhere they could physically fit a tent. So much for my hope of a good night’s sleep! As with any large and rowdy group, it took a long while for them to get their tents set up, and certainly to settle in and quiet down. I laid in my tent, writing furiously by flashlight, trying to get OK with all of this. I felt like fleeing, my upset was that keen. I knew they were just having fun and excited to be there and together, having just shared food and drink. And they were just youngsters, most of them by my initial observation, and not aware of their apparent “intrusion”. They certainly had a right to be there too…there was just no space left. I knew all of this intellectually…but I couldn’t keep my frustrations at bay. The whole incident made me feel old, crabby, and out of place. I asked myself what I was doing there camped among them. That is NOT what I had in mind with my solo hike of the JMT, and I felt a deep sense of despair. I wanted to be in my own peaceful world with nothing but nature as my companion.

Eventually, quiet enveloped the raucous night air, and I tried for sleep.  I kept telling myself over and over, just get through tonight, and tomorrow you are out of here!

Highlights of the day

Pretty much everything until after lunch…

Shadow Creek pools

Shadow Creek pools

As mentioned, I loved the morning lakes. In addition to Emerald and Garnet, there is also a Ruby. All are as beautiful as the birthstones they are named after. I also loved Shadow Creek and Lake, and my leisurely lunch at Rosalie Lake. Maybe I

Rosalie Lake, the calm before the storm!

Rosalie Lake, the calm before the storm!

SHOULD have stopped there, and swam and camped at Rosalie, as things started to “go south” after that…and I don’t mean just the direction in which I was headed!

I got through the day and night, nothing bad happened, and I didn’t lose my temper.

At Red’s, I got to touch base with family and friends as mentioned,  and I very much enjoyed using the bathroom and sink with hot water. I made it through the night, even slept some. I didn’t say much to anyone, that night or the following morning, attempting to follow the adage “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  There were good things about Red’s Meadow, and I am sure in retrospect I over-reacted to the people in camp. It really wasn’t about them, it was more about me, I could see that. even the following morning, and asked myself, what can I learn from this?

Lessons of the day

I have a strong reaction when I perceive that people are somehow “invading” my space.

My reaction to this was a great curiosity to me, as it also happened the previous night with the partying old guys. WHY did it bug me so much that the youngsters were having fun and being loud in camp at Red’s? Besides the obvious reason of seemingly “disrespectful” campers, clearly there was a much bigger issue for me to work out on this trip.  This theme, the premium I placed on personal space and the upset it caused me when someone moved in, came up over and over. I started to see then and I certainly realize now that it has to do with a perceived loss of control in my environment. I suppose I thought on the JMT that I would get to choose when and if I wanted to interact with others, and that solitude would be the name of the game. With 6000 permits issued to hike it this year, that was not to be the case. Realizing this and coming to terms with it was not an easy task for me, on that night or any of the subsequent one’s during which it came up. But I was willing to look at it, seeing as it had come up two nights in a row…

My fear of backpacking alone was replaced by my very keen desire to do just that!

Before I set off on my solo JMT endeavor, backpacking alone was right at the top of my list of fears and unknowns. I realized after Red’s how much I preferred and sought that out, over camping with others. In a few short days, one of my greatest fears had turned into my most keen pursuit.

I hike much better when there are views to distract me and variations in terrain and trail.

I realized on this day that I don’t like monotony or destruction on the trail. I don’t like hiking through burned out zones (like on Day 1 of JMT), or areas of windstorms or other effects of natural devastation. I am not sure if this is because I don’t like being reminded of nature’s fury, as in I know it could happen again, or because it alters the beauty in ways that aren’t that appealing to me. It’s not that I am in denial of such events, or even the importance of them in maintaining balance in nature. I can simply report that, when the trail either gets repetitive and “boring”, or I am in an environment that is not so beautiful and breathtaking, my attitude is affected, I get discouraged more easily, and I tend to focus on my physical ailments more. I certainly noticed that on this day, and knew I would have to pay attention on subsequent days when the surroundings were less stellar. The trail, like life, inevitably has ups and downs, highs and lows…and I didn’t want to let it get to me in the coming days as it did on Day 4.

Overall, not my favorite day or night on the trail, but a good one for learning things about myself and my reactions to things. It certainly put my mindfulness training to the test!

Top View of Boot on the trail with the text: Practice Mindfulness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 3 John Muir Trail

Evelyn Lake Junction to Emerald Lake

Total JMT miles — 14.2             Elevation gain/loss — +2720/-1820

Day 3 dawned cool and crisp.  The night temperature had dropped to freezing, I realized as I collected my previous days rinsed socks that were stiff with frost. I breakfasted and packed up my sprawling site with the benefit of hand warmers, a surprise necessity at such a low elevation (8900 ft.) I was on the trail by 8:00 am, a blue and cloudless sky promising warmth to come.

Ready for sunshine!

Ready for sunshine!

The weather thus far had been perfect. I had not seen a cloud in the sky since I’d left Bellingham. I know for some the heat and sunshine can be tedious while hiking and backpacking, but I love it and never tire of it. Having yet another cloudless day on Day 3 had me in wonderful spirits. The day held the promise of stellar scenery, as well as the reality of crossing up and over two mountain passes. After the previous days flat journey, I was ready for that.

Lyell Creek

Lyell Creek

Views began with a bang, as morning sunshine glinted off the Lyell Creek. The trail gradually gained elevation after leaving Lyell Canyon for good. I could see Mt. Lyell ahead, and what used to be the

Mt. Lyell and "snowfield"

Mt. Lyell and “snowfield”

Lyell Glacier. In 2013, the glacier was demoted to a “permanent snowfield”, after it lost sufficient mass.  A sad reminder of climate change, I reminded myself… as I continued to nevertheless enjoy the sunshine. I saw several deer along the creek in the early hours, a nice change from the deer where I live in Bellingham. Seeing them out in the wild like this, they seemed a different creature altogether than those that I see every morning and evening on drives to and from my house.

Heading up the pass...

Heading up the pass…

I had to stop early to tape my right foot, as my hot spots were getting worse. That was really the only physical issue I was having on this day, as I had moleskin on my one back hot spot, and my hips and joints were mostly recovered from the challenges of day 1. Despite the foot, I was feeling good and strong as I continued up toward Donahue Pass.

Less than two miles from the top of the pass, I encountered three solo female hikers, all in quick succession . I was amazed…four solo female JMT hikers all ascending the pass at virtually the same time!  One I recognized as Alexis from San Francisco (aka “Pippi”) from the day before. The other two were Erin from Orlando and Emily from California. All three were young, early 20’s at most. It was very empowering gaining the pass with all

Looking back to Yosemite from Donahue Pass

Looking back to Yosemite from Donahue Pass

of these young women, and I felt good and strong as I continued up. I was the first up, followed in quick succession by the others. We had introduced ourselves on the trail, and I loved that we were all up there together!

When you leave Donahue Pass, you officially exit Yosemite National Park and enter the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The views really start to unfold, and I continued to feel flooded with warm and positive feelings.  I had vivid memories as I descended the switchbacks, from last year  when the thought first entered my mind that I had to come back. I remembered thinking how much I would love to do this hike with my son, Kyle, and planned in my head how that night play out.  I knew

Beauty and introspection headed down from the pass...

Beauty and introspection headed down from the pass…

he would love it and felt a keen desire to share the experience with him. I had hoped he and I could do it the next summer, the summer I was now in. But Kyle started Physical Therapy school in June, and that wasn’t an option. Never once last year did I consider doing the trip I was now on, a solo trip of the JMT. That Idea wouldn’t come until early winter. But as I hiked, I felt reflective and awed that I was actually doing it, walking these paths again, by choice alone, all under my own power.  The journey from idea to reality and the wonder of “being there” in actuality occupied my mind as I dropped down the pass and into the multitudes of lakes below.

Indian Paintbrush

Indian Paintbrush

The day continued to be marked by lakes, creeks, and mountains…and even a few late blooming Indian Paintbrush. The hiking flew by with finesse, and I continued to feel strong. Even encountering the second pass, Island pass, I knew I would be fine and ascend without trouble. There was a huge boy scout troop heading up Island Pass, at least 20 of them total. I didn’t envy the leaders as I cruised by, having to get all of those young boys up and over a pass in the afternoon heat. I was struck again by the EASE of traveling alone, setting my own pace, and cruising at whatever pace felt right for me in any given moment.

Shortly after Island Pass, I glimpsed my first views of Thousand Island

Shores of 1000 Island Lake

Shores of 1000 Island Lake

Banner Peak and 1000 Island Lakes

Banner Peak and 1000 Island Lakes

Lake, with prominent Banner Peak and Mt. Ritter in the background. The previous year, Gregg and I had camped at Thousand Island Lake, and, while beautiful, it’s popularity made it hard to find a campsite. This year I had decided to go just beyond 1000 Island Lake to Emerald Lake to look for a site. I knew there were only a couple of sites at Emerald, but hoped I would luck out and get one.

The day’s good fortune continued. There was just one group of men camped in the one obvious spot.  I asked them if they knew of other sites, and they said go just up and over, and between Emerald and a small, unnamed lake, I would find a site suitable for one tent. I found said site, dumped my stuff, and dropped down to Emerald for a quick swim before setting up camp. The sun was still out, the day was still warm, and sitting in my site drying off I felt like a million bucks. The site had views of both lakes, and was (almost) incredibly perfect.

Highlights of the Day

Female Energy on Donahue Pass!

Top of Donahue Pass

Top of Donahue Pass

In addition to the four of us solo female hikers,  there were two other women and only one young man on the top of Donahue Pass.  I asked the guy if he felt outnumbered…he smiled a smile that indicated he was loving it!  As we snapped photos, lunched, and chatted, one of the two non-solo women asked me, “Weren’t you on the JMT last year”? Surprised, I answered “Well yes, actually I was”.  She remembered meeting me and Gregg last year, towards the end of our trip, as we discussed finishing early since we were running out of food. I was AMAZED that she remembered me and the accuracy of her recollected facts…it added to the sense of camaraderie I already felt being up there with so many powerful females. It was also a continuation of the previous day’s theme of connectedness. The whole experience left me feeling warm and fuzzy, and I knew it wasn’t just the altitude of the pass (11060 feet)  🙂

Being in the Ansel Adams Wilderness

The very name brings to mind coffee table books with dramatic black and white nature scenes…to be there is like wandering through a full-on color picture book. It simply doesn’t get much better than that. And I knew that was just the

Minarets in Ritter Range

Minarets in Ritter Range

bannerpeak

Banner Peak, Mt. Ritter

Banner Peak, Mt. Ritter

beginning…the views as you go on the JMT continue to get more and more dramatic, if that is even possible. I felt periodically exhilarated and overwhelmed as I hiked at the sheer honor of being present to all the magnificence. It’s difficult to fully capture in words or pictures…

Accomplishing two passes in a day…

There are a total of ten mountain passes on the JMT…by the end of Day 3, I had knocked off three. Last year, I struggled with “pass dread”, a phrase I coined to describe the anxiety with which I would anticipate the upcoming pass. This year, having “been there, done that”, I had MUCH LESS anxiety about passes and elevation gains. I accepted them as a necessary and invaluable part of the trail. You simply can’t get the variety and expanse of scenery without going up and over, then dropping back down, then doing it again the next day. Or even twice in a day. This shift in perspective, from dread to acceptance, was big and beneficial, and served me well on this day. I similarly knew I could take the strength and conviction with which I totally “got” this into the passes yet to come.

Lesson of the Day

Even old guys like to party…

The ONLY problem with my perfect campsite was apparent as soon as I crawled in my tent at 8:00 (darkness) to try for sleep. I wrote and read for awhile, but I could hear down below, just out of view but definitely not out of earshot, that the “old guys”, probably 50’s and 60’s, were in for a long night. It was one of the nights when the meteor shower was expected, and the night was perfectly clear. These guys were away from their wives, up for a single overnighter, and had brought beer and camp chairs and planned to witness the meteor shower. I learned all of this during my swim in Emerald Lake, when one of them was attempting to cool the beer in the lake. I didn’t give it too much thought, as I figured they were considerate enough to not be too loud for too long at night.

I was wrong. They talked, laughed, and made no attempt to keep their volume low, long past darkness. I was frustrated and unsure what to say or do. On the one hand, they were there first, and I came after. Perhaps they had the expectation of utter solitude in their campsite, and felt no need to behave in a fashion that was respectful to me, since I came later. On the other hand, the one guy I talked to in the lake had purposefully gone swimming in shorts, simply because he knew I was there and wanted to respect me. I felt conflicted, as to whether or not I should say something, or just try to ignore how loud they were. I didn’t care if they talked and laughed, I simply wanted them to tone it down a bit. I had visions as I lay there getting more and more worked up that this would go on until 2:30’s expected meteor shower, which I knew they planned to be up for.

Finally, at 9:30, I got out of the tent. I called down towards their site “Hey you guys…” After a short break, in which the reality that someone was talking to them hit, they stopped talking. “I know you guys are just having fun”, I continued, “but every word you say comes into my campsite at full volume. Do you think you could tone it down just a bit, so I can maybe sleep some?” I tried to be casual and non-confrontive in my tone.

There was a pause, followed by a “Sure, we can do that”. It’s like they hadn’t considered or realized that sound carries with such clarity when the only surrounding barriers are air and water.

My (almost perfect) campsite, Day 3

My (almost perfect) campsite, Day 3

This theme, my perception of the unaware and sometimes inconsiderate backpacker intruding into “my space”, was one I encountered over and over in the days following this first occurrence thereof. I am not sure WHY this theme kept repeating, or even how much responsibility was mine (to just accept it), and how much was “the others” (to be considerate of neighboring campers). I realized then and there that my expectations of being alone and solo, especially when in camp, were not in my complete control. I would have to remain open and flexible. But for this night, I was thankful that they DID tone it down, and I was able to get some sleep in my “nearly perfect” campsite.

Post script:  As I finished this post, I read my daily thought from Abraham Hicks Publications. Here is what it said:

“Just like the wild beasts, you want your own autonomy. You want freedom. You want freedom from negative emotion. You want freedom from somebody telling you what to do. Whether you are consciously away of it or not — what all of you want is a sense of Well-being.” 

Above 1000 Island Lake

Above 1000 Island Lake

Somehow, that seemed very fitting as I finished my recap of Day 3!

 

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