Elevation Gain: 2120
I woke up at Upper Basin, where I'd camped alone the night before. Everyone else stopped above the Palisade lakes and saved Mather Pass for the morning. I'd pushed on over the pass and collapsed at the bottom of it, at the first campsite I could find. Now they were all coming over the pass and hiking past my tent.
I got up and waved to a few people. I couldn't tell who they were, but they waved back. I tried to make myself stop and take in the beautiful view in front of me. I couldn't capture it with my camera - I had a macro lens and needed a wide angle - but the pond in front of my tent, which was just a muddy hole, looked spectacular in the morning light, framed by the majestic view of mountains in the distance.
The big hurdle of this trip - Mather Pass - was over, but it was not going to be easy from here on out even still. I was stressed out. And I still didn't like my oatmeal. With my caffeine addiction waning, I wasn't that interested in my nasty instant coffee either. And the water I'd gotten from the pond the night before was full of pond scum. That wouldn't have been a big deal if I'd brought my filter, but I brought AquaMira drops to treat it, which meant that my water option included sterile pond scum in it. Or some fidgeting with my bandana to strain out the nasty stuff.
I ate a bar and hit the trail, thirsty and without water. There would be water soon, clean, running water, and I'd fill up my water bladder as soon as I found it.
A guy with red hair and a wispy beard and his (I assumed) girlfriend came along the trail. "That was a nice climb!" he said, referring to Mather Pass.
Smiling, I said, "Those weren't the words I would have used for it last night. The ones I selected then all had four letters in them."
I said it smiling and laughing, to show I was somewhat kidding, but he stared at me with a straight face, like a disappointed parent or teacher trying to convey their lack of amusement to a naughty child. Then, at last, he said, "Well I guess, it can be hard at the end of the day."
Yeah, that's right, fucker. Unlike you, I did the Golden Staircase and the pass in the same day. It was hard! It took everything I had out of me, but I still did it. This trail is hard for me, but I'm still out here. It might be easy for you, but, for me, just making it over that goddamn pass is a huge accomplishment. We're all different out here, but we're all here. Even if someone gets through the trail struggling and swearing, they still get credit for doing it, because they are doing it, not on their couch watching Netflix somewhere more comfortable.
The pair went on their way. I made a mental note to avoid them.
Growing increasingly thirsty, I found a stream with running water, and mixed my AquaMira drops to let them react for five minutes. Then I filled up my water bladder. As I waited the remaining few minutes for the drops to react, I snapped a shot of some shooting stars growing nearby.
If I'd had a different lens, and if I felt like laying on the ground on my belly to get the perfect angle, I would have attempted to capture a shot of the shooting stars in the foreground with the beautiful view of mountains behind them. But I didn't.
I was really dragging as I went along. After fifteen minutes passed and it was safe to drink my water, I started drinking. Then I began scouting locations to go to the bathroom. I needed something 100 feet off the trail, well-hidden, away from water, and with easy enough soil to dig a hole in. The area was relatively flat and barren, still among the tree line, occasionally dotted with boulders. Not ideal for pooping. I found a place that was at least far enough from the water, if not well hidden, and that was good enough.
This part of the trail is all down hill, down down down to 10,000 feet, where we crossed the South Fork of the Kings River after about four miles. Everything after that would be up again.
I saw a few people resting and stopped to say hi. They were Elliott and Amber, from Florida, the people I'd waved to from my tent that morning. I'd met them a few days before, actually, at the junction where the trail from Bishop Pass meets the JMT. I remembered that they were going out Taboose Pass to resupply in Big Pine, and we chatted about that. I told them about the food options there, and they fantasized about the sweet potato fries they would order.
Unfortunately, we were mere miles from where they would have to turn off the trail to go over Taboose Pass, so I would only enjoy their company for a short while.
A father-son duo from Texas hiked up to us, and they introduced me to the pair. Then we all went on. Resting felt great, but there was no getting around the number of miles I had to hike that day, and the only choice was to keep hiking.
As is common in the Sierras, the day began with clear, blue skies, and by mid-morning, wispy clouds appeared in the sky. Later, the cloud cover grew heavier. It might rain, and it might not. Then the clouds would clear, and the cycle would begin the next day. At some point, it would rain - but maybe not today.
A little further on, I came to a river. There were two people sitting there, resting, and I suspected they were the same pair who had been disgusted with my bad attitude about Mather Pass. I needed rest, lunch, and water, and they were sitting in the best spot for all three, it seemed. So I went over and asked if I could sit with them. I didn't mention running into them earlier, if it was them.
After I sat down, I saw Elliott and Amber sitting maybe 50 feet away. Darn. I wished I'd sat with them, but I was also too pooped to get up. I chatted with the pair I sat with, who turned out to be friendly enough. They couldn't get a permit from Happy Isles, so they day hiked over 20 miles from Happy Isles to Tuolumne Meadows to start the trail. Then they got a permit for the rest of the trail from Tuolumne. They wanted to know about the rest of the trail, since I'd done much of it. Was Forester hard?
I told them not really, but I could have laughed. Is Forester hard!!! They just hiked from Yosemite Valley at 4000 feet over Cathedral Pass at well over 9000 feet in one day, and they were wondering if anything else in the continental U.S. was hard. No, not it isn't. Not compared to what they've already done. People like that could go hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim in one day if they wanted.
The trail bottomed out at 10,000 after four miles, and now the uphill part began. The first mile was the worst. It was 700 feet straight up, just as steep as the Golden Staircase and half as long. A man dressed in black with an umbrella was ahead of me. He had the umbrella rigged up so he didn't need to hold it with his hands, which looked like a good idea. The heat was oppressive. He had stopped, and he was resting. I hiked toward him.
As I hiked slowly up that awful section, he was always ahead of me. He would stop and rest, and then before I got too close, he started up again. I wondered if he considered this a contest or a race. I never did meet up with him or find out anything about him.
The trail passed the junction that went out to Taboose Pass, where Elliott and Amber would leave the trail. It continued uphill but more gently, and after a few miles, it reached what I assumed was Marjorie Lake.
Three young boys hiked up to me and asked if this was Marjorie Lake. I said yes. But I wondered why it was empty. I'd met several people on the trail who said they were going to camp there tonight - an Asian woman and the Texans, among others. The boys began looking for a campsite, pointing out the ominous clouds overhead. It wasn't a wise time to go over Pinchot Pass, in case a storm started and there was lightning.
I continued on ahead, because the pass was just two miles up the trail. The weather was still OK and I could get over the pass before it rained. And it was just 2pm. It was too early to stop for the day. If the weather did not clear up, I would not go over the pass. I'd stay below the tree line, I told myself.
I took a few steps past the lake and realized how exhausted I was. This wasn't even fun. After the hellish day I'd had before, maybe the right thing to do was to just be kind to myself. Give myself a short day. And there was the weather. It wasn't raining yet but you don't want to be stuck on a pass when a storm starts.
I looked around and found a campsite. Then I pulled out my bucket and gathered water. And then, blissfully, I set to work washing my entire body, including my hair, and then all of my clothes. I hung my clothes to dry on a tree. Then I pitched my tent. It was just 3pm.
For the next few hours, I sat around. The sun was still beating down, and I was worried about a sunburn. Yet, the inside of my tent was like an oven. I compromised by getting inside my tent, opening the door, and hanging the whole front half of my body out of it. It wasn't much fun.
I felt my clean hair and realized that if I didn't do something about it, I was heading toward dreadlocks. Looking around, I spotted my spork, the only possible item on me that could comb hair. So I combed the tangles out of my hair with my spork. A new low in backpacking, I thought. By the way, it hurts to comb badly tangled hair with a metal spork.
After a while, I made dinner and ate it. It was still early, but I was bored. Then I took out my map and began plotting out the next two days. I had to get to Rae Lakes the next day. I had to because the day after that, I had to go over Glen Pass and Kearsarge Pass. And there was no way I was going to hike 7 miles to Rae Lakes from Woods Creek and then go over two passes.
I considered all of my options. It's 4.1 miles from Woods Creek to Dollar Lake, but you can't camp there. It's another mile to Arrowhead Lake. It's over another mile to where I wanted to camp, at Middle Rae Lake. If I did not get over Pinchot Pass tonight, I would have to hike 16 miles the next day.
I've backpacked 13.5 miles before. I've day hiked 14 miles. I've never done more. And given how much I was struggling on this trip, I did not feel confident in my ability to hike 16 miles, or even 15 miles, the next day. I had to get over that pass.
I watched the weather, and saw it raining in the distance, in the opposite direction of the pass. Where I was, there was no rain. I waited a while longer for the clouds to make their decision, whether they were going to rain or go away, and then I lost my patience. I packed up everything and I set off for the pass.
As I got back on the trail, I came to a lake. The REAL Lake Marjorie. It was beautiful, and it was dotted with tents everywhere. There was the kind Japanese girl I'd met, and the Texans, and others. I said hi to them as I passed, and told them I was going over the pass. When they met me with the predictable reaction (roughly: you're nuts) I just said I had a headlamp, and I kept going.
One thing was for sure: hiking over a pass was far more pleasant at sunset than in the middle of the day. At last it was cooler, and the heat was no longer making hiking as hellish as it was before. I saw some pikas, and a few marmots. And I saw a fabulous sunset as I went over the pass.
Once I reached the other side, it was dark. Really dark. With my headlamp, I had no trouble seeing the trail. I had lots of trouble scouting for campsites. You are supposed to camp 100 feet from the trail, and I was looking for an area that was flat but also a "durable surface," i.e. not just a flat area with vegetation. And not a flat area covered in rocks. I could not see far enough with my headlamp to properly see whether flat areas had rocks or vegetation.
I went far enough to find water, gathered water, and then looked around for the closest flat spot I could find. I checked several, and ultimately camped in a spot that had a bit of vegetation. I felt bad about it, but it was 9pm and I didn't think my ability to find campsites would improve as the night wore on.
I'd made it over the pass, I would have a long day - a 13 miles day - the next day, but at least I'd be at Rae Lakes. I'd be in a familiar place, a beautiful place, a place I knew well, and I'd be a day away from the Onion Valley trailhead outside Independence where I would end my hike.
This trip was so difficult but the end was now in sight.
You can see the rest of my posts about the John Muir Trail here.