The Golden Staircase and Mather Pass to Upper Basin
Elevation Gain: 3420
I woke up to the sound of one of the women's voices: "It's 5:15."
No, I wasn't waking up at 5:15am. I rolled over and went back to bed.
I woke up on my own a few hours later. Stacy was still around. The other women in her group had gone on (at 5:15am!!) and she'd stayed behind. She was going to hike back the way she came and leave via Bishop Pass, possibly spending a few days enjoying herself as she did. She was stressed out that they were behind schedule and had to make up long miles every day, and she wanted to get home on time without risking being a day late.
We chatted as I got up and got ready. She felt good about this plan. I was just happy I got to see her again, because I liked her, and the other women she was with. I hoped I'd see the others in Upper Basin that night, on the other side of Mather Pass. They were a group from Vegas who I'd crashed with the night before, because I had thrown up and was still feeling sick, and I didn't think I should keep hiking. I stopped at the first campsite I could find, and it was theirs.
I got my breakfast down and packed up. As Stacy walked toward the trail, I found a dirty, cheese-covered spork. I called out to her and tried to give it back to her, to return to the member of her group who had dropped it. "You know what?" she said, "You'll probably see them and they'll really appreciate it. Can you bring it to them?" Then she left.
That made sense. I imagined the woman who dropped it having no way to eat her food. Not wanting to put the dirty spork in my pack, and also anticipating running into the women and wanting to make the hand off without digging through all of my stuff, I attached it to a caribiner on the outside of my pack. A day later, after determining I wouldn't run into the women again, I ditched it at Lake Marjorie.
Thus began the long, long day up the Golden Staircase and Mather Pass. I'd been advised not to do the staircase and the pass in the same day. That was good advice. But, on the other hand, I'd done almost this much elevation gain before. I did over 3000 feet in a day going up San Bernardino Peak, going from Little Yosemite Valley to beyond Sunrise Creek, going over Forester Pass, and going over Whitney from the JMT. I could do this.
I had planned some wiggle room in my schedule, but that was before my car broke. Now I did not just have to get to Onion Valley in time to drive back to San Diego, I had to get there in time to make it to Toyota in Bishop during business hours. Via either hitchhiking or Eastern Sierra Transit, which runs very infrequently and only on weekdays.
I tried to calm myself about the day's hike, but I just couldn't. Even though I knew I could do it, even though I knew it would be OK if I stopped above the Staircase and did the pass the next day, I just couldn't. I felt like throwing up. Again.
The hot weather did not help anything either. At least I had an audiobook I'd saved for this day: Loving Day by Mat Johnson. I had a good meal reserved for dinner too.
I hiked along the mostly flat terrain until I started noticing an increase in elevation. There was no sign saying "Beginning of Golden Staircase," nor was there a literal staircase. But it must be it. Right? Just in case, I looked at my altimeter to see where it was at. The trail went up 1400 feet in about two miles on the Golden Staircase. I started counting. I counted elevation gain in increments of 100 feet. With each one I did, I'd start telling myself, "One," "Two," and then as I got closer to the top, I'd start counting down, "500 more," "400 more" and so on.
Before long it was undeniable that I was definitely on the Golden Staircase. I went slowly, trying to keep my food down, and I stopped often. When I passed water, I dipped my bandana in it, and hung it either around my neck or placed it on my head to cool off.
Finally, I estimated that I was done with the staircase. I looked at my notes. I had to go up another 240 feet and I'd be at Lower Palisade Lake. I went up more than that, according to my altimeter, but I reached the lake. It was beautiful.
"THIS is why I am here," I thought. It was beautiful lakes like this one and joyous moments sitting near them or swimming in them that made backpacking worth it.
I sat down on the shore next to a couple, and they introduced themselves. I forget their names, and only remember that they were Canadians. A married couple doing a loop out of the western side of King's Canyon, not the Rae Lakes loop, but something much bigger. They did 5000 feet of elevation gain their first day, and then went down 4000 feet into LeConte Canyon. They thought it was nice to hike here in California, without any grizzlies to worry about, but they thought that Americans were strange for using bear cans (which they called bear barrels). Nobody uses bear cans in Canada, they said.
They were hiking with their aunt, Rose, who was slower than they were. Rose joined us at last, and went for a swim. The three of them had lunch - a real lunch that they prepared, not just snacks. I sat with them, basking in happy denial that I had more hiking to do before the day was done.
When they finished eating, we all got up and left. They hiked ahead of me - even slow Rose was faster than I was - and we hiked on to the campsites I knew we'd find above the lake. My notes said there were many campsites with great views of both Palisade Lakes, upper and lower. And there were. I passed tent after tent, with other hikers settling in for the night and enjoying themselves, having finished the staircase. They would do the pass in the morning. I had to get over it that night.
It was just another 1500 feet or so above Lower Palisade Lake. I could do that.
As on Bishop Pass, Mather was covered in white columbines. I saw a few pikas, but no Sky Pilot, a flower I was eager to see.
As if on cue, my audiobook finished at the very moment I reached the top of the pass.
The sun sat low in the sky and at last, when I made it over the pass, went behind the mountains. It wasn't dark yet, but at least I was in the shade. At last it was cool as I hiked. I considered putting on a sweater, but I didn't want to open my pack. I just wanted to get to a campsite before dark and wash up before it got too cold to be wet and naked. (I didn't know it but I had nothing to worry about. Last year the weather turned icy cold as soon as the sun set. This year, with hotter temps all around, it didn't.)
As soon as I got over the pass, my upset tummy calmed down and the nausea dissipated. I don't know if the problem was anxiety or heat or both - probably both - but my body responded well to putting Mather Pass and the Golden Staircase behind me for good.
According to my notes, there were places to camp just 1.3 miles from the top of the pass. I estimated I'd get there at 8pm and I arrived at 8:05. Upper Basin was barren and exposed just like the area south of Forester Pass. I looked for an area with some rocks for a bit of shelter, in case it was windy, and I found one. As I looked over to it, I saw there was a flat spot for camping there. Others had sought shelter and camped there before. I went over to it.
The campsite had a fire ring, which I dismantled because it was too high in elevation to have a campfire (they are prohibited above 10,000 feet), and a good supply of rocks to sit on and to place over my tent stakes to hold the tent down. My first priority, however, was bathing.
I'd hoped to see others camped there, especially the women from Vegas, who said they would camp in Upper Basin that night. I did not see a single other human being anywhere. But at least that meant I could bathe in perfect privacy.
I got a bucket of water from the pond in front of me, and it came out filled with pond scum. Gross. It seemed to settle on the bottom of my bucket, so as long as I could keep it that way, I could scoop out some clean-ish water to boil for my dinner.
I took off all of the clothes on my top, and washed my top half. Then I dried my top half, and put on a clean shirt, a hoodie, and my down jacket, anticipating the cold weather that would soon come.
Then I took off the clothes on my bottom half and washed myself there. My legs were filthy.
The mosquitoes, deprived of prey in this desolate place, soon found me and grew excited. I dried off my legs and put on clean underwear. My pants were far from clean and I didn't have time to wash them now.
I pitched my tent and climbed in it to escape the mosquitoes, bringing my pack with me. I had to take my down jacket off because it was too hot. What was going on with the weather??? Please don't let this be the new normal. I'll gladly take the freezing nights and mornings in exchange for cooler daytime temperatures while I'm hiking.
Then I put all of my cooking equipment outside and began to boil water on the ground in front of my tent. My meal would be Indian Vegetable Korma by Good To-Go, my favorite brand of backpacking food. I'd certainly earned a celebratory meal.
I was now on track to complete my trip on time. This was a long, hard day, and every day for the rest of the trip would be too.
I hoped to fall asleep quickly, but instead I laid in my tent and felt every part of my body ache. It was like each body part needed to complain, to let me know how very much it hurt, and how much it did not appreciate lugging a heavy backpack up 3400 feet.
"I need a zero," I thought, as I went to sleep.
You can see the rest of my posts about the John Muir Trail here.