Lyell Canyon to the Rush Creek Junction
Elevation Gain: 2210 ft
My friends woke me up when they got up - at 6:30am. There was no way I was getting up with them. At a quarter to eight they told me they were heading out. They were going to hike at least to the Marie Lakes junction, and ideally to the Rush Creek Junction. They'd put out a bandana on the trail to mark where they had camped so I could find them. And they left.
I went back to sleep, expecting my tent to eventually get baking hot and drive me out of it, as it always does when the sun beats down on it. But it didn't. I was in the shade, and my tent stayed cool. Around 9:30, I got up.
The bugs were still bad. I cooked breakfast and took care of all of my chores in the sun, where the mosquitoes did not bother me as much. It was strange suddenly rediscovering old routines I had not done in a year.
I have to pack my water first in a pocket for it in my pack. Next is my sleeping bag, on the bottom of the pack. Then my bear can on top of that, my sleeping pad to one side of the bear can, and my down jacket on the other side. Everything else goes in after that, and I close up the main compartment of the pack. Food for the day and other things I might need as I hike go in the outside pockets: AquaMira, soap, my trowel, toilet paper, bug repellent, my notebook and pen, my mosquito net outfit, and my sun gloves.
But where were my sun gloves? I couldn't find them. I'd look for them later, I figured.
To get everything done as efficiently as possible so I could pack in the right order, I let the air out of my sleeping pad while I was still on top of it, rolled up my sleeping bag and put it in the stuff sack, and then I got up and dressed. Normally I would put on my camp shoes, but with the mosquitoes as they were, I put on my socks and hiking boots. I also put on my mosquito jacket and pants.
Once out of my tent, I began by mixing the Part A and Part B drops of AquaMira, which take 5 minutes to react. Then I went to the river to get water.
When I came back, I filled my pot with water, lit my stove, and put the pot on to boil. While it was going, I filled my bladder with water and added the AquaMira drops. Then I checked my watch, and put the full water bladder in my pack. It required 15 minutes before the water was safe to drink.
Next, I got out my breakfast food: a bag of oatmeal and chia seeds, a bag of brown sugar, a bag of raisins, and a packet of Starbucks Via instant coffee. The coffee's gross, by the way, but it's less gross than other brands of instant coffee I've tried. The oatmeal is gross too.
While waiting for the water to boil, I divided the food in my bear can into two groups: Stuff I needed to eat during the day - cheese, salami, jellybeans, and a bar - and stuff I didn't. Everything that I wasn't eating during the day went back into the bear can.
The water boiled and I turned it off. I'd already put the Starbucks Via into my mug, so I poured enough water in there to fill up the mug. Then I put oatmeal, raisins, and brown sugar into the remaining water in the pot and mixed it with my titanium spork. I really don't understand the purpose of using a spork while backpacking. I never use the fork part of it. It's basically a stupid looking spoon with a dumb name.
I accidentally spilled too much sugar into my oatmeal, and I ate it all anyway. It tasted like overly sweetened paste with a mild hint of taco seasoning. Another bag in my bear can contained refried beans and smelled strongly of taco seasoning. I guess it's a mistake to bring anything with strong spices in a ziplock baggy unless you want your oatmeal to taste like it for the entire trip. Last year I brought curry and my oatmeal tasted of curry.
With my oatmeal eaten and coffee drunk, I washed my dishes with some of the remaining water in my collapsible bucket. Then I washed the underwear I wore the day before and poured out the rest of the water, hoping the bucket would dry. I like to do my laundry in the evenings if I can, but I was just too dead tired the night before to bother. I wasn't willing to wear dirty underwear, but I didn't bother washing my shirt or socks. Neither really smelled that bad and I just couldn't deal with them.
Now I was ready to close my bear can and begin packing. First I put in my sleeping bag, then the bear can. I rolled up my sleeping pad and put it to one side of the bear can, and stuffed my jacket in on the other. Then I added the rest of my clothing, except for my wet, clean undewear, and my bucket (still a bit wet). I put my fuel and my lighter inside my pot, and packed my pot. Then I closed up my pack.
I packed most everything else in the outside front pocket. I attached my camp shoes by their straps to my mug, which has a carabiner as a handle, and attached the mug to the outside of my pack. I tied my bandana to the outside as well. I hung my underwear off of the pack to dry as I hiked.
Then I put on my hat, set my camera (in its case) and trekking poles next to my full pack, and put away my tent. I attached the tent to the outside of my pack, and I was ready to go. I put on my pack, attached my camera case to my hip belt, grabbed my poles, and set off. It was comforting to have a routine to fall back on in the morning. It took me an hour to get ready even though I felt like I'd done everything at a relaxed pace.
The first 2.5 miles or so were basically flat. The scenery was very much like that of the previous day - lush meadows, sometimes with standing water where mosquitoes were breeding, and nice views of the river and of the canyon and mountains around us.
Standing Water in the Meadow
Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River
At 2.5 miles, I started the climb. Steep, stone steps going up 700 feet in a mile. I stopped to entertain myself by taking pictures.
Boisduval's Blue butterfly
Pussypaws, which really does look like a cat's paws. I first encountered this flower in Yosemite, on my first trip there, so now it always reminds me of Yosemite. More than any other flower except for perhaps Mountain Jewelflower (Streptanthus tortuosus), when I get to Yosemite and notice pussypaws, after not thinking about it since my last trip there, I always feel like "Oh yeah... I'm home again."
At 9700 feet and 3.5 miles into the day's hike (10.4 mi from Tuolumne Backpacker's Camp), the trail stops climbing and goes down 50 feet to Lyell Fork Bridge, a wooden bridge across the river. I stopped and sat there, eating a bar and some jellybeans. Jellybeans feel like such a luxury on the trail, with each one a different flavor.
After the bridge, the trail began climbing again. This was it. I was going up to 11,060 feet, the top of Donohue Pass. It was about 1400 vertical feet from the bridge. I told myself to just get to 10,000 feet and focus on that for the moment. I think about altitude in chunks of 100 feet at a time, using my altimeter on my watch to keep track. Each time I go up another 100 feet, I tell myself, "400 to go," "300 to go," and so on.
Before long, another trail habit kicked in. I noticed a spot and identified it as a good place to go #2. It looked like an easy place to dig a hole, sufficiently away from water, and not in an area so full of mosquitoes that my butt would get eaten. I didn't want to stop though. I had just stopped.
A few more minutes along, I noticed another good spot. I'd better stop. I would have to sooner or later. So I did.
The trail went consistently up hill, although it was never again as steep as it was during the mile before the bridge. I saw some guys camped at Upper Lyell, about a mile past the bridge, where you have to cross the river again but now without a bridge. It was a nice campsite. The river there was surrounded by paintbrushes blooming so thickly that the ground looked red. I refilled my water before going on.
Already I was above 10,000 feet, and I rallied myself to get to 10,500 feet. But before I reached it, I realized I had already gone 700 feet up, and I was halfway up Donohue from the bridge. That had to count for something. I looked at my watch, and calculated I'd get to the top of the pass by about 2:30pm, and I'd get to camp by about 5:30pm. That wasn't bad.
I passed some marmots and took a few pictures.
Then I passed some other backpackers who were sitting down, having just come over the pass from the other direction. We chatted for a bit, and our conversation set me back a bit. Maybe I wouldn't reach the pass until 3pm. Then I wouldn't get to camp until 6pm. I felt hurried, and yet I couldn't go any faster than my usual pace. Even as I hiked, I began to get a cramp in my side, and I knew I had to just slow down and breathe. I would get to camp when I got there, a torturous realization for an impatient person like me. I wanted to get there in time to do laundry and wash up before the mosquitoes came out.
I stopped to chat with another person coming past me in the opposite direction. He said snow covered the trail in some parts, but I could go around it by scrambling on rocks if I preferred. No, I didn't prefer, I thought. But then he said to be careful of the snow in one part, because it wasn't safe to step there. I couldn't tell where he was referring to. Maybe I'd have to scramble. Wouldn't there be footprints in the snow to follow?
When I reached the snow, there were no footprints. I just went around it. I lost the trail for a moment, then found it again. Then there was more snow, and it happened again, but now I did not find the trail as easily. I saw some women coming over the pass toward me, so I headed to where they were walking, since they were on the trail.
"It's just up there," one of them said. "You did it."
I followed the trail to where they had come from. I kept expecting to go down the other side, but there was a flat section on top to hike across first. And there was more snow. I stepped around it again.
When I reached the other side, it was clear I was no longer on any sort of trail. And, in a cruel irony, I'd lost my map. I always keep it in my camera case, along with notes about where I'm going. I've done this whenever I backpack and I've only lost two maps ever. The same map. This one. I lost it last summer while hiking this part of the JMT, then I replaced it with a new one, and now I lost it again this summer. Maybe I need to reconsider where I keep my map.
I saw two groups of people coming up from the other side. One was quite far from me, to my right. The other one was to my right as well, but closer.
"Is the trail over there?" one asked.
"No," I told him.
"I think they are on the trail," he said, pointing at the other group.
He pointed to my left and said that the trail came from over there. Just go around those rocks, he said, it's around there. I told him how to get to the top of the pass, where I had come from. There was a wooden sign up there, making it easier to spot from a distance.
I looked around and tried to figure out where the heck I was. Off in the distance to the slight left, I saw a mountain with ski slopes. That must be Mammoth. If I looked all the way to my left, I saw what I assumed were the Minarets. I must be heading in the general direction of the ski slopes, I guessed. The view, by the way, was magnificent.
I began scrambling down rocks toward where the man said the trail was. I didn't want to damage the fragile alpine vegetation, but it was difficult. I cut my leg on a rock and it hurt. I knew it would bleed, and feared I had torn my brand new hiking pants too. Damn.
I guess it was a choice between damaging the fragile alpine vegetation and damaging my own body. I decided if I had to choose, I'd better protect my own body. Eventually, I saw the trail, and made my way to it. Once there, I couldn't tell which direction I was to go on it. I took a guess, and headed that way. Before long, the trail was going down hill, and I had clearly gone the right way.
The people coming up this side of the pass all wore mosquito head nets. I ran into a PCTer, and we chatted a while. He introduced himself as Gandalf, and gave me the trail name Jellybean, after my preferred trail food. I told him about the services available in Tuolumne, where he was going.
"Don't take this the wrong way," he said, "But I love you."
I went on my way again, now sure I would get to camp later than I wished. 6pm, maybe 6:30pm even.
Another group came up, and a man told me that the valley he had come from, that I was hiking to, was the most beautiful place he had ever seen in his life. I thought to myself, "Then you must have never been to Rae Lakes or McClure Meadow," but I said, "Is it worth the mosquitoes?"
"No," he said.
The rest of the hike was just a long, hard slog to complete my 10 miles and get to camp. The mosquitoes were awful. I wore my bug suit the whole way. I hoped my friends had gotten tired early and camped at the Marie Lakes Junction, but they hadn't.
When I knew I must almost be to the Rush Lake Junction, I saw a large group of campers with a campfire. I called out my friends' names.
"What?" a bearded man I assumed was a PCTer called back.
"I'm just checking if you were my friends," I said.
"We can be," he said.
I smiled, but kept going. When I reached the Rush Lake Junction, I saw my friend's bandana right at the sign. I looked to my left, and there they were.
It was a nice little camp, and I hurried over. They came out of their tents wearing their bug suits over their pajamas, and immediately began helping me. I pitched my tent, and one of them got me water and began cooking my dinner while the other blew up my sleeping pad for me. I was overwhelmed by their kindness. I love these friends because they are fun to be with, but there is something more there. These are good, loving, generous people who I can trust fully. I told them that I'd hike with them to Agnew Meadows instead of splitting with them to go to Reds. I rarely get to see them, and it was insane to sacrifice spending time with them just to be able to say I'd hiked every inch of the official JMT. Besides, taking their shortcut with them would only cut 5 miles from the trip. And, Agnew Meadows is full of wildflowers.
The bugs were so bad that I could barely stand to be outside long enough to eat my dinner. I went with my "treat" meal - Wild Mushroom Risotto by the brand Good To Go, which costs too much to eat every night but tastes better than any other backpacking food I've ever eaten. It was amazing.
I wanted to stay out and hang out with my friends, who were willing to brave the bugs to hang out with me, but the mosquitoes were too much. They were biting me everywhere my body touched the bug suit, mostly on my legs. After my dishes were washed, I went into my tent without doing laundry or going to the bathroom or washing myself. I'm sure I stunk. I changed into my clean underwear and my dirty-but-less-dirty-than-the-one-I-was-wearing shirt, and went to bed. I realized I had only peed twice that whole day. I probably did not drink enough water.
This was the hardest day of this portion of our trip, and the hardest day of my friends' entire trip, since they were going home from Agnew Meadows. But at least we'd made it over Donohue, at last.