Sojourn in the Range of LightSojourn in the Range of Light
Two Weeks on the John Muir Trail
August 15-31, 2010
[What follows is a transcript of my journal I wrote while on the JMT in August 2010. Editorial comments are indicated by brackets. You will note that the early entries are not much more than notations of departure and arrival times. As I got further away from interactions with other people, my journal became more verbose.]
August 15, left Happy Isles at 1700, arrived Little Yosemite Valley 2000. [5.2 miles total] 1.2 mile side-trip to silver apron [this is between Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls. The JMT bypasses the top of Vernal Falls, so I took a detour to get there] & top of Vernal Falls. Tent up by 2005. Dark by 2020. Ate for dinner the sandwiches Barb made for me. [my sister Barbara had picked me up at the Sacramento airport and delivered me to Yosemite Valley]
August 16, left LYV at 0650. To Half Dome junction around 0730. [When I started up Half Dome,] the cables [were] scary, almost turned around. Your hands and your feet slip a bit before holding. Made it to the top just a little bit before 0900. Took pictures and explored for a while. Back to junction around 1040. Met Andy and Ben, also doing the JMT, but taking 3 weeks. We all got water at Cloud’s Rest trail junction which I left at 1111 (and haven’t seen them since). Intended on staying at creek just before Sunrise High Sierra Camp, but I got there a little after 1430, & I wasn’t ready to call it a day. Within ten minutes of leaving, had SHSC in view. They have chlorinated water and solar toilets, and a friendly staff, so I hung out there about an hour. Gave the staff STS cookies, [“Secret to Success” cookies, a dense chocolate chip cookie. I picked up the recipe from a cookbook where a successful Pacific Crest Trail through-hiker attributed his success to these cookies, both for their nutritional powers and their bargaining prowess.] & they gave me two of their cookies. Drank Gatorade and read trail guide. Left around 1600, and found campsite at Upper Cathedral Lake at 1820.
Cathedral Peak and Upper Cathedral Lake
August 17 Out of UCL at 0715. Took side trail to Lower Cathedral Lake, then down to Tuolumne Meadows. Went to Parsons Lodge & Soda Springs, and got to Post Office by 1030. Left pack there and took 2-mile loop trail around [Lambert] dome, and climbed dome. Back at Post Office by noon. Got re-supply, hand sanitizer (not in resupply for some reason), beer, & batteries, and a salmon sandwich [from the Tuolumne Grill]. Arranged re-supply, not enough room [in bear canister], so I re-boxed excess food & the JMT geology book (I brought at last minute) and sent back to Portland. Call Jill [my wife] (Snickerdoodle [our puppy] has forgotten his house-training), got an ice cream for the trail, and left Post Office at 1330 [I also took a sponge bath and washed clothes in the men’s room]. Crossed Lyell Fork [of the Tuolumne River] at 1430 & began long flat hike up Lyell Canyon. Did bare-foot hiking from 1430-1500 & another barefooter was going the other way! [Ray Jardine recommends a half-hour of bare-foot walking each day to toughen up fee] Hit Evelyn Lake Trail around 1640, and decided to push on to Lyell Base Camp. A couple of good spots already taken, & a huge horse camp across river. [I found out later that this camp was the base for trail maintenance crews] Stopped at camp 2.05 at 1802. [camp indicator from Elizabeth Wenk’s excellent trail guide to the JMT]
Camp at Lyell Base Camp
August 18 Already LYV seems like a long time ago. Left Lyell Base Camp at 0715 and began ascent of Donohue Pass. Topped out around ten, and dropped into Rush Creek Drainage. Met Chris and two of his friends at Marie Lakes junction. They plan to exit JMT 8/29. [faster than me!] They powered by me as I trudged up Island Pass. Tougher than I expected, 650 ft. elevation gain. The tortoise caught the hare at Thousand Island Lake a little before 1330. They pass me as I hike barefoot from TIL to Ruby Lake. Refilled [water] bladder at Ruby, and didn’t arrive at Garnet [Lake] until almost 1500. Spot I wanted was taken, but found a level spot on the south slope [of Garnet Lake] at 1515.
Banner Peak and Mount Ritter from Day 4 campsite
August 19. Up at 0530, on the trail at 0613, at southern JMT/PCT junction at 1107 (eleven miles). Toward the [Devil’s] postpiles, took the short loop trip, then to the Red’s Meadows campground bathhouse. Took a shower, did laundry. Then walked road to the “Resort”. Bought beer, sunglasses, [my first pair broke in the pocket on my hipbelt] two postcards & stamps. Few choices in sunscreen, so I went without. Called Jill, and had a garden burger & shake with my beer while I wrote postcards to Jill & the folks. Then took hot, dusty trail to Rainbow Falls, surrounded by tourists. Took NW branch of trail back to JMT so as to miss the least amount of JMT. [I skipped about two miles of the actual JMT to detour into Devil’s Postpiles Monument] Got to “Third Junction” around 1530, and met Dan, a JMTer with a strong pace & no fixed itinerary. Will try to make Sat. morning VVR [Vermillion Valley Resort] ferry, so I may see him Sat. evening. The two of us got to Crater Creek (3 miles) by 1630, but I stopped to climb South Red Cone, back to Camp 4.17 by 1715. Met a party of two, father and son, son is a finance undergrad. [Also met a] Party of 3, going north, father, 2 sons. One son is undergrad accounting major, asked me about what my accounting career has been like.
Crater Meadows from top of South Red Cone, Mammoth Mountain in the distance
August 20. Rolled out of Red Cones at 0728, & trucked on! Deer Creek was buggy, got water at Duck Creek, & Purple Lake was nice. Got to Virginia Lake at 1240, & it is a very beautiful lake. Really a nice spot. Got down to figure how far to the next good campsite, & Bob came by. Older gent, done the JMT awhile ago. Married his “trophy bride” when she was 66, & for the last five years has taken her to the Sierras on backpacking trips. They live in Bend. [Oregon, not that far from Portland!] Spent 50 minutes at this lovely lake, and then pushed on to Squaw Lake, arriving at 1613. James & Theresa passed my camp at Squaw Lake. Will probably meet up at VVR, along with Dan, who walked on to Chief Lake.
Alpenglow at Squaw Lake
August 21. Off at 0705, and got to ferry landing by 1134. Not wanting to wait, I walked the five-mile trail to VVR, and arrived 1328. Got bunk in hiker’s cabin, did laundry & shower, packed resupply (mailed excess back), called Jill, & wrote and mailed postcards. Had two beers (first one free) & got third beer just in time for dinner at 1701.
Vermillion Valley Resort
August 22. After breakfast and short wait, took ferry at 0900, & was at trailhead in 20 minutes. Started walking at 0928, and covered 18 miles by 1835. Feeling good. Marie Lake is very lovely, & a real nice place. [Camped at a site described in Wenk’s guidebook as “a knob with view”.]
August 23. Off from the knob by 0728, made detour to MTR [Muir Trail Ranch, an easy, though expensive, resupply point] for fuel & water, [VVR had been out of fuel canisters for my stove, so I wanted to pick up a spare at MTR] checked out hot springs, which are warm. [not hot] Back to JMT by 1030 & saw Dan & walked with him for a bit. Took a dip in Piute Creek. Pulled into beautiful McClure Meadows 1632.
View from Camp at McClure Meadows
August 24. What a day! Off from McClure at 0705, and shut it down at 1840 in LeConte Canyon. And only 15 JMT miles, as I spent 4 hrs. climbing Mt. Spencer. I didn’t recognize Sapphire Lake from the topo (though I did notice the sapphire color of the lake). So, when I got to Wanda Lake I backtracked 1.7 miles to Sapphire (cross-country down some class 3 rock), and commenced the climb. Hard climb. On top 2 hours after leaving Wanda, & took me almost 2 hours to get down & back to my pack. [took the trail on my return!] So 21 total miles today. When I got to Muir Hut at the top of Muir Pass I mentioned [to another hiker] how my sleeping pad had failed last night. So a guy resting at the hut offered to fix it, but I didn’t know where the leak was. So I said I needed a bathtub, or I could rush back to Wanda Lake. The guy’s friend said, “ or you could go back to Sapphire for the third time.” [hiker humor ] Anyway, no joy. But on the way down from Muir Pass, I stopped at the outlet of Helen Lake, got water and checked the pad for leaks in the lake. Found two slits on the underside. Patched them at camp with duct tape. We will see how it holds tonight. [it didn’t]
Wanda Lake from Muir Pass
August 25. Oh my goodness! Another long day, off at 0705, finish at 1855, 20.4 JMT miles, but that’s not the whole story. Mather Pass was a long, hard climb. 11.1 miles from the middle fork [of the Kings River] junction took me 6:45, with 4,030 of elevation gain. Made great time cruising down LeConte Canyon, but then the climb. Golden Staircase [famous grade in Palisades Creek Canyon] was as severe as I expected, but I did not know there would be a warm-up set of switchbacks, and a final set of switchbacks just when you think you’re done. Left the trail junction [at middle fork] at 1000 and arrived at Lower Palisade Lake (6.9 miles) a little after 1330. Took on water and confirmed my sleeping pad patch is not holding. Headed off again about 1400, and finished the remaining 4.2 mile at 1645! [that is, slowly!] And then down the switchbacks on the other side, which are much milder than the north side. As I suspected, my planned campsite 1.3 miles past the pass is rocky with no trees. So I press on. At the 3 mile mark (from the pass) the next campsite is still too rocky to get tent stakes in. After about another mile, I spy a good site, even though I have to cross the creek/S. Fork Kings River to get to it. I am hopeful tomorrow will be easier, as the extra miles today should reduce the mileage tomorrow.
Upper Palisades Lake from near Mather Pass
August 26. On the trail at 0716 and done for the day at Dragon Lake at 1832. 20.3 miles, a long day. But I wanted to adjust my planning. I realized I had planned a 23+ mile day to Guitar Lake, followed by an 0300 wake-up for Whitney. So I figured if I could position myself to make Tyndall Creek by tomorrow, I’d have a much easier day to Guitar Lake. Problem is, between the last feasible camp in Bubbs Creek and the first good camp on Tyndall Creek is 7 miles and the final 2,000 foot ascent (in 3 miles!) to Forester Pass. Anyway, today the descent down Wood’s Creek was strange, as the trees are very sparse. No evidence of fire damage. At the creek crossing, “Golden Gate of the Sierras” the tree cover is back, maybe even some Sequoias? [no, just junipers] Down to 8530 ft., [in elevation] and start climbing up to Rae Lakes & Glen Pass. Made good time, for going uphill. Got to Dollar Lake (original destination0 at 1630 & decided to push on: Walter P. Starr [author of the first guide to the John Muir Trail] thought the view from Dragon Lake was one of his favorites, so I decided to try for that. About a mile east of Upper Rae Lake, off the JMT, it turns out there is no real trail, just a cairned route. [marked with small piles of rocks, known as “ducks”] But I spotted the duck at the side of the JMT, & followed a faint tread through a meadow, and followed cairns up a hill, placing a few extra ducks to ensure I could find my way back. Dragon Lake was exquisite & isolated, & I was able to enjoy Starr’s view, and a great alpenglow as the sun set.
Starr’s View, at sunrise
August 27. Off at 0700 & back on the JMT by 0720. Started the climb up to Glen Pass, though I can’t really call it a pass. Keep going uphill, above treeline, through the talus. Ascending a steep slope, I see a person on the ridge. That must be the pass, but it is more like just a ridge line that is lower than the surrounding peaks. Anyway, up to the ridge, which is quite narrow. Then down, down, to a nice view of Lake Charlotte, and I can see smoke from a forest fire downstream to the west. I thought I smelled smoke this morning at Dragon Lake, & I guess I did! Cross some flat terrain & start descending to Bullfrog Creek. I make a short (0.5 mile) excursion to the head of Bullfrog Lake to see another of Starr’s favorite views.
View toward East Vidette Peak from Bullfrog Lake
Then back to the JMT & down to Vidette Meadows. Now begins the 3500 foot climb to Forester Pass. I had originally planned to camp at Golden Bear Lake in Center Basin, about 1.5 miles off the JMT. With the change in plans, I’ll still like to make an excursion to check it out. However, there is no real trail, so I have to watch for a cairn or tread. But where I think the trail should take off, near Center Basin Creek, I only find thick forest. I don’t feel like bushwacking with the schedule I have, so I push on. I pass the timberline camp at 1350. I wanted to pass this camp no later than 1400, so it is a good thing I didn’t go to Center Basin. I begin the 2,000 feet of remaining ascent, and it is long and arduous. Part way up, I meet a trail crew just finishing work for the day. They are shoring up some rockwork first done in the 30s that is very impressive. Turns out their camp is at Center Basin! But the trail was about 0.2 miles north of where I had been looking. Finally I tackle the last 17 switchbacks up to the pass, where it is quite windy. At first all I see is a steep couloir on the other side, but then see the trail go uphill slightly before descending some remarkable switchbacks built on rockwork. As with Mather Pass, the south side of Forester has many steep switchbacks, & then you are on a mild slope. Four miles to trees & 4.5 miles to camp, so I walk on, and reach Tyndall Creek by 1822.
Camp at Tyndall Creek
August 28. Last night was cold! Probably in the high 20’s. Had to put on more clothes in order to sleep, then overslept to 0630. On the trail by 0745. Ascending up the Bighorn Plateau, I pas the camp of Martin & Annette, a German couple from Darmstadt. Our paths cross several times in the next two days (unlike Bryan and Dan, who I haven’t seen since McClure Meadows). When I reach the Plateau, I scramble up Tawny Point for the 360-degree view (near another of Starr’s favorite views).
Looking North to Forester Pass from Tawny Point
The climb gets me behind the Germans, so when I catch up to them, I ask them if they have a repair kit for my sleeping pad. They do, so when I get to Crabtree Meadow, I wait for them, & try to patch the pad. Then I begin the climb to Guitar Lake. Just as I get to the lake, my camera stops functioning! Anyway, I decide to go on to a tarn [alpine lake] above Guitar so I have a bit of a head start [in the morning]. After a half mile, I find a tarn with a couple of guys camping. This is the only tarn on my map, so I stop at 1615 and camp. The Germans pass, & say they are going for the tarn 0.5 miles further up that is mentioned in the guidebook. They plan to get up at 0200 to be on the summit by dawn. My pad still leaks, so the two guys (now four, as their friends have arrived) let me use their patch kit. [which still does not stop the leak!]
August 29. Another very cold night, even colder than last night. I wear most of my clothes and close the tent down [close the tent flaps]. As I warm up, I open the door to reduce condensation. I have a hard time sleeping, but the alarm does wake me at 0300. Frozen water bottles, frost on the tent, & condensation inside. Pack in a hurry, no breakfast, & I’m on the trail at 0335. Less than 3 miles to the trail junction, but it is 2,000 feet up. Get to the junction at 0530, and already dawn is starting to break. And it is cold. However, on the climb up I started to overheat, so I took off my down jacket. At the junction I notice my water bladder tube is frozen solid. Off to the summit, less then 2 miles away, but another 1,000 feet up. Between pinnacles I check the progress of dawn, and realize I won’t make the summit by sunrise. So at 0613, I find a good vantage point, & at 0618 the solar orb breaks the horizon. I saw a magnificent sunset last night, & now I see a great sunrise on the summit ridge of Mt. Whitney, only about half a mile from the summit itself. Then on to the summit. I approach the hut about 0645 just as Martin and Annette are leaving. I have them take a photo of me with the hut in the background, and then we go in the hut so that I can give them my email address.
At the summit of Mt. Whitney
It is very cold and windy, & all my fingers are numb despite my gloves. There are six or seven other people in the hut (after Martin and Annette leave) trying to get warm. Rather miserable. After a bit, we all leave. I take a group photo of four of the guys, & I briefly have the summit to myself. But it is too cold to stay. I walk briskly back to the junction, but now have a decision to make: should I go cross-country 2 or 3 hours to Sky Blue Lake, called by some the most beautiful lake in the Sierras, that has a great sunrise off surrounding peaks, or should I go to Trail Camp, which has the option of a short pre-dawn scramble to a good vantage point of sunrise off Mt. Whitney? The problem with Sky Blue Lake is that the route out goes down a couloir [gully] to Mayan Lake. From reading the route guide & talking to the Crabtree Ranger, this couloir sounds rather sketchy, especially as a solo hiker. I could just do an out-and-back to Sky Blue & return to Trail Crest by the same route I take in. This route has some scree & talus [loose rock], but is well within my capabilities. But I have heard there is a possibility of snow tonight, & more sub-freezing temperatures. As my fingers have just gotten warm again, this prospect is not very appealing. The Sky Blue option was a way to add another day to my JMT adventure, but I am just about adventured out. So I head down to Trail Camp, down the 98 switchbacks. Trail Camp is right at the bottom of the switchbacks, but it is cold, windy, & treeless. I decide I want to spend my last night of the trek among trees, so I continue down, releasing the idea of a dawn reflecting off Whitney. It also seems way to early to stop [1000 or so]. So, I don’t stop until the very last campsite , 2.5 miles from the trailhead, at 1232. Lone Pine Lake, a very pretty place.
The switchbacks down to Trail Camp (first lake); Consultation Lake (large lake); Lone Pine Lake (barely visible past Consultation Lake)
August 30. Off by 0635, and at the trailhead by 0752. Pack weight 23.5 pounds, 22 pounds after dumping trash & waste. Easy hitch to Lone Pine from Doug & Lisa, after a great conversation with the Doug that runs the Whitney Portal store & makes HUGE pancakes. About 20 minutes in Lone Pine to catch ride with another Doug going to Burning Man. Then short ride to Mammoth itself, in town by 1330.