Sunday, November 23, 2014

JMT Hiking Day #12: Upper Palisade Lake to Sawmill Pass Junction (Mather Pass and Pinchot Pass). Aug. 22, 2014

***18 miles, with around 3500 feet of elevation gain

I woke in the middle of the night unable to breathe.  It wasn't a gasping sort of problem, it was a lack of oxygen problem.  I laid still and listened to the girls; they were sleeping soundly and breathing deeply.  A self-inventory revealed no issues.  My head did not hurt, my muscles were not cramping, my stomach was not upset.  I simply didn't feel like I was getting enough oxygen.

The thought of waking the girls, packing everything up, and hiking down in the middle of the mountain lion territory no less...did not appeal to me.  I therefore closed my eyes, mentally reached out into the unknown, and connected with the force of life that flowed around me.

I am not a religious person, but I do feel connected to what I feel is a power greater than myself when I am in the midst of nature.  I do not call this higher power a god or goddess.  Rather, it is what I termed it above, a life force.  The life and the power and the energy from all the living things around me -- the birds, the trees, the insects, the marmots, the spiders -- the hum from every living cell -- it all flows and travels over and around and through everything.  I never feel this way inside a building, surrounded by dead materials.  I almost never feel this way surrounded by other people, either -- too many people carry too much vanity, insecurities, and preoccupation with things that don't matter.   Outside, however, in the midst of the wilderness -- that is where the honesty is.  That's where I feel at home, connected.  It's where I feel most alive, and most safe.

I focused on my breathing and asked all the life around me to protect my kids if something bad should happen.  At least fifteen other thru-hikers slept nearby, including Don and Debbie, so I was never worried Alex and Sage would become lost or left alone for long (on the JMT, if you get into trouble, all you have to do is sit on the trail...someone you've probably met will be along in an hour or less...the trail is that popular).  I tried to envision my own life source blending in with everything around me, and having that source support my breathing.  A phrase crept into my head -- "You're getting all the oxygen you need."  I repeated that phrase over and over to myself as the minutes dragged on.  Finally, after what seemed like an hour, I fell back asleep.  Just before I drifted into dreamland, however, I vowed to write about that experience and to share it with my kids.  So, for what it's worth, I'm now writing about it and, in doing so, fulfilling that part of the promise.  I'm sure some of you will think this is hokey, and that's fine, I understand.  Nevertheless, I told myself I'd make a written and public note of the experience, and so there it is.

When I awoke, it was dawn..and freezing...but I felt fine.  The girls and I broke camp and began ascending Mather Pass.  Don and Debbie had packed up and left before us.  Phil was still sleeping in his spot down the hill from the trail.

The sun didn't reach our part of the trail until we were most of the way up.  The climb to Mather Pass was therefore chilly, though the climb warmed us enough to necessitate a delayer break.

We caught up with Don and Debbie near the top.  Once at the pass, Sage took one of her Beanie Boo photos.

Photo by Sage Herr

Debbie graciously took this photo of us --

We ate snacks up top and chatted with D&D for a while.  A couple of fellows approached from the other side of the pass, and we spoke with them for a while too.  The morning was gorgeous, and we all felt on top of the world.  More people arrived, and everyone felt like we were part of some secret, spontaneous party.  Eventually, D&D said goodbye and headed down the pass, then other folks came and went, and, finally, we decided we'd better get a move-on too.

Down we went, down steep switchbacks into a gorgeous valley.  Near the bottom of the switchbacks, I realized I had left the day's map at the top of the pass.  I had the guidebook, so the map wasn't crucial, but I asked some folks who were on their way up if they could look for it and pack it out for me.  They agreed, and we carried onward.

At first, the valley was pretty.  We kept leapfrogging D&D until they stopped for a snack and we got a ways ahead.  We walked and walked and walked...and the valley began to feel monotonous.  At one point, I worried we had missed a turn, but just when we began to panic, we ran into a fellow named Stewart.  We had seen Stewart before, most recently near the Palisade Lakes.  He assured us we were on the right trail, and he let me take a photo of his map.  Relieved, we carried onward.

The dry, steep switchbacks up toward Marjorie Lake felt difficult for some reason.  Thankfully, the immediate mile after the switchbacks was flat and easy.  We passed the lake, checked the time, and felt strong enough to continue up and over Pinchot Pass.

Beautiful lake near the top of Pinchot Pass.  Photo by Alex.

Pinchot Pass looks easy on the map, but there are many false "summits."  There came a time when I wanted to shout, "Aren't we there already??"  Finally, we made it to the top.  The wind was fierce, but there was a little nook where the boulders created a natural wall.  We squished in there together and refueled/rehydrated.

Alex drinking water on Pinchot Pass.  Photo by Sage Herr
We hung about for a while, admiring the view, then we headed down the steep switchbacks toward the Sawmill intersection.

3.8 miles later, we reached the intersection and looked for the camping spots.  They were along the Sawmill Trail, 50 feet or so from the JMT.  We took one of the very few spaces, then discovered three tents perched above us, on a shelf of rock.  They belonged to some older gentlemen who were hiking the Sawmill Trail.

Didn't see anyone from the night before -- we weren't sure who traveled over Pinchot Pass and who camped near Marjorie Lake.  More peanut butter and Nutella wraps, then we fell asleep rather quickly.  Two passes and 18 miles...we were beat.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

JMT Hiking Day #11: Pete's Meadow to Upper Palisade Lake. August 21, 2014

***About 13 miles with around 2700 feet of elevation gain.

The same family of deer wandered all through our site as we awoke and broke camp.  They weren't bothered by our presence in the slightest, and they watched as we dusted all the dried deer poop off the bottom of our tent.  After cleaning our hands and eating, we shouldered our packs and headed on our way.

A half mile or so later, we stopped to delayer by the intersection with the trail leading to Bishop Pass.  There, we saw a man named Mike waiting for the llama-fellow we had met the day before.  Mike told us that he, the other fellow, and the llamas had started from Whitney ten days ago and were trying to hike north along the JMT.  Unfortunately, one of the llamas had become sick before reaching Glen Pass.  They waited two days for the llama to recover, but it died.  Next, one of the other llamas broke its leg and had to be airlifted out.  Then, another llama fell ill with what they think was food poisoning.  Now, it appears yet another llama is ill with food poisoning.  The man seemed to have a decent sense of humor about it all, but he understandably stated that this was the last time he was ever going to hike with a group of llamas.

While we were listening, Don and Debbie passed, as well as a fellow named Phil (we had first met him on Selden Pass, before Muir Trail Ranch).  We would play leapfrog with D&D and Phil all day....which we didn't mind, because all three were cool individuals.  Turns out D&D had camped just a tenth of a mile or so away from us.

After listening intently to the tale of llama drama, we wished Mike good luck and continued on our way.

The goal for this day was to get as close as we could to Mather Pass without actually going over it. We figured we'd camp alongside either Lower or Upper Palisade Lake.

The trail felt easy in the beginning...we wandered through trees on the dirt path, happily discussing how lucky we were not to have llamas in tow.  The sky was mostly clear, but there were some clouds forming way off in the horizon.

When we came to what I thought was the last bit of tall trees before our climb up the "Golden Staircase," we stopped to refuel and re-hydrate.  Once again, Phil, and then Don & Debbie, approached and joined us.  We ate together, remarked on the somewhat-cloudy sky, and then the girls and I moved on.  I wanted to get up past the exposed part and back into the trees before any potential storm could form.

Unfortunately, I don't have photos of the Golden Staircase -- it's a series of exposed, short and steep switchbacks tucked into the side of a cliff.  Thankfully, tiny streams of water seep out from the rocks and cross the trail from time to time, which is wonderful, because that Sierra sun is HOT.  The girls and I kept our bandannas wet so we could better wipe the sweat from our faces.

Once up and over the Golden Staircase, the land looks like this --

Clouds were still forming behind us, but, as you can tell, most of the sky remained clear.

We reached Lower Palisade Lake and saw the one camping spot mentioned in the guidebook.  It was completely out in the open.  I didn't like the thought of camping there, completely exposed, knowing we'd have to get up the next morning and make our way past both lakes.  We therefore rejected this spot and headed toward nearby Upper Palisade Lake.

Our guidebook said there were a few camping spots at Upper Palisade Lake, but the first spots we came to, just off the trail on the right, immediately after topping a steep stretch, were taken.  Looking toward the curve of the lake and the way the trees were situated, I felt certain there must be a few more camping spots along the curve of the trail, before passing the lake entirely.  I was right -- this choice spot was less than a tenth of a mile away from the previous camping area.

There were also a few smaller spots close by, each just large enough for a small tent -- Don and Debbie came along and took the one closest to us, and when Phil arrived, he took one that was situated closer to the lake, downhill from the trail.

The girls were excited to have dinner because I'd promised them we could have Nutella and peanut butter wraps.  We sat and ate these delicious, can-only-eat-this-while-thru-hiking concoctions for half an hour.  Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

View toward Upper Palisade Lake from our dinner rock.

We lounged, ate, and wrote in our journals for a long while.  After an hour or so of enjoying the views, the fresh air, and life in general, we thoroughly cleaned our eating area and ourselves, readied ourselves for bed, looked up at the gorgeous sky...and saw this fellow in a tree above our tent, staring down at us.

Photo by Alex

He/she was a moderate-sized bird of prey.  He/she didn't seem bothered by us at all -- in fact, the critter stared down at us continuously as we looked up and returned the gaze.  Alex fetched a Sierra birding book she had bought at VVR and identified it as a Cooper's Hawk.  I walked over to Don and Debbie's area and invited them over to see our new friend.  The five of us stared in admiration as the fellow/gal calmly sat and stared back.  Eventually, we all went to bed.  I kept our rain fly up so we could continue to look at the magnificent creature in the moonlight while we dozed off.  It was still there when I fell asleep.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

JMT Hiking Day #10: McClure Meadow to Pete's Meadow via Muir Pass. Aug. 20, 2014

About 16 miles with about 2300 feet of elevation gain.

--As I mentioned in a previous post, the girls and I limited the number of photos we took per day to two or three each.  We were worried we would run out of battery power before we arrived at Whitney (I had a solar charger with me, but it was as helpful as a sack of rocks).  I therefore have only a handful of photos to share.  However, if you'd like to see some large, beautiful images of Evolution Basin and Muir Pass, then check out this post on the Cooking in Tongues website.  Don and Debbie, the folks who write the Cooking in Tongues blog, hiked through Evolution Basin the same day we did.

The girls and I woke early and were up and out before anyone else in our little camping spot.  It's a long, exposed, ten-mile haul from McClure Meadow to Muir Pass, and we wanted to be sure we could get up and over before nasty-looking afternoon clouds could form.  We set our pace to Fast and reached the edge of Evolution Basin in short order. The grade from McClure Meadow to the inlet of Evolution Lake is moderate, so covering this ground quickly was not a problem.

Evolution Basin is breathtakingly beautiful.  Here we are, on the edge of it (thanks, kind guy hiker, for taking this photo).

The path is almost flat as you walk by and around Evolution and Sapphire Lakes.

Photo by Alex

Then, however, the trail goes up.  There are a series of steep switchbacks, and they give the impression that you are about to top off near the pass...but no, you end up by Wanda Lake.  You can then see, far away and above you, a lump in the distance on the top of a pass...that's Muir Hut.  You then realize just how far you still have to go.  Though the scenery is gorgeous throughout this entire area, the path feels a bit like a never-ending journey.  The last few switchbacks are tough -- the grade becomes steeper and the altitude starts to wear you down.  I wasn't enjoying life during the last five minutes of the climb..but then we were there, and it felt wonderful to be up top.

Sage took a photo of our critters at the entrance to the hut --

Photo by Sage
The hut itself --

Photo by Sage
Inside the hut, a hiker was telling his friends how safe the structure would be during a thunderstorm.  Though it did feel cozy in there -- the fireplace looked lovely, and there were benches -- I spoke up and told them that this hut, a lone structure at 11,955 feet, would be the last place I'd cower if caught in a storm.  There are no lightning rods and stone is an excellent conductor of electricity.  In other words, this hut is a great way to get out of the wind, but it's a deathtrap during a thunderstorm.  The guy argued with me, saying the hut was safe because it was "solidly built."  He actually got testy about it...I gave up trying to inform him of basic lightning safety facts.  I highly encourage all of YOU good readers, however, to learn your lightning facts before hiking the JMT -- Muir Hut and the structure on Whitney were not built with lightning safety in mind.  Open this pdf file from the National Park Service and scroll down to the lightning section for more information.

The views in both directions were gorgeous, so we sat and took a long lunch break.  We demolished most of a large bag of ranch-flavored sunflower seeds (scrumptious!), said hello to some familiar faces as they reached Muir Hut, and then finally began the hike down the rocky eastern side of Muir Pass.

We descended into the trees and walked toward Starr Camp, my Plan A camping spot for the evening.  It was still early when we reached this area, though, so we kept going.  We said hello to the infamous Rock Monster...

...and continued on toward Pete's Meadow, where we came to an area with a few tiny camping spots right next to the trail (legal, since the trail-to-camp spacing requirements are minimal along this section of the JMT).  One of the spots was occupied by a tent and a bunch of harnesses...the owner emerged as we were walking past.  I asked the fellow if he had mules, but he told me no, he had llamas.  Sure enough, less than a tenth of a mile later, we came across a grassy area where four or five llamas stood chewing.  They stopped and stared at us as we passed.  We bid them a calm and quiet greeting and continued on our way.  A tenth of a mile or so after that, we saw a spur path to our right.  Following it, we found a large camping area.  I was done for the day so, even though the area was littered with deer poop, we pitched our tent.

I enjoyed this site, but Alex and Sage didn't.  I liked it because it was quiet and peaceful, and a family of deer kept wandering through our space.  The girls didn't care for all the poop.  There was quite a bit, but it had all dried so there was no smell.  One just had to be careful where to sit and step.

As we were eating dinner, a helicopter flew by, circled around, then came and lowered itself right over us.  It was a "fire" helicopter -- we could tell by the symbol on the bottom section.  I told the girls not to wave, since I thought this helicopter might be looking for someone and I didn't want them to think we were lost and therefore trying to attract attention.  The helicopter hovered for a few seconds, then tried to land on a nearby boulder.  That didn't work out, so it lifted back into the air.  I heard it move toward the field where the llamas had grazed, then land there.  I waited for men to appear, since, by now, I was half-convinced Hugh had called Search and Rescue on us (since we hadn't had cell or internet contact in days).  Nobody appeared, however, and, a little while later, we heard the 'copter fly off.

A trail crew was camped nearby.  I saw some of the fellows after they returned from their day's work, and I asked them about the helicopter.  One of them told me it was indeed a Search and Rescue 'copter, and that it was involved with the recovery of a person who had gone missing.  A couple of days later, we were told from other hikers about  Gregory Muck.  That's a sad story, and I feel for his family and friends.

The next day, we'd hear more about the 'copter...and about the llamas (lots of drama with those llamas!).  More on that in my next entry, which I'll post by Friday the 14th.  I truly wish I could post more entries more often, but the girls' academic and extracurricular schedule, along with some personal deadlines, are making it difficult for me to grab more than a few minutes of free time a day.  I do hope this blog is proving informative, however, to those who are researching the JMT for their own adventure.  I'll definitely complete all posts by the end of this year (December 2014), including the gear list/review.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

JMT Hiking Day #9 (Trail Day #15). Muir Trail Ranch to McClure Meadow. August 19, 2014

**About 11.5 miles with approximately 1800 feet of elevation gain.

Nothing better prepares you for a nine or ten day hike in the wilderness than a giant breakfast of chocolate-chip pancakes and maple sausage.  Muir Trail Ranch's cooks are nothing short of amazing.

The girls and I ate heartily, said goodbye to Don and Debbie (who were leaving the same day, but an hour or so later), spoke a while with Bobby and Melissa (who had arrived the night before and, I thought, were staying another evening), and headed into the lounge to pat Honey one final time.

Honey, the Muir Trail Ranch cat.  Photo taken by Alex
After the girls took another few photos of Honey, we hit the trail.  My pack was 42 pounds and I carried an additional 8 pounds in my arms (Ursack).  I gritted my teeth and reminded myself that we would eat through the weight after a day or two of hiking.  All this food would get us to our resupply rendezvous on Aug. 25.  The plan was to meet Sequoia Kings Pack Trains on the trail a couple of days from Whitney to receive our mailed food.  They did meet us as planned, but I have mixed feelings about their service...more on that later, when I've gotten to that portion of our trip.

Alex, Sage, and I agreed to take only two or three photos per day from this point forward.  There are no places to charge batteries between Muir Trail Ranch and Whitney, so we couldn't take all the images we wanted without risking losing our camera capabilities before the end of our hike.  It's a pity, because the scenery every day, in almost every location, was drop-dead gorgeous.  We did the best we could...between our blog and all the other JMT blogs out there, you should be able to get an idea of what the southern portion of the JMT looks like.

The first 3.2 miles out of Muir Trail Ranch felt rather flat.  The trail leads you through beautiful meadows and underneath gorgeous Jeffrey pines.

After crossing a steel footbridge and entering Kings Canyon National Park (where there are plenty of campsites), we hiked another few flat-ish miles before ascending a mile and a half's worth of switchbacks.  Ordinarily, those switchbacks probably wouldn't have seemed like a big deal, but my pack was heavy from the extra food.  This part of the day, therefore, wasn't much fun for me.

Evolution Creek was low, so we had no problems crossing it.  We removed our shoes and waded through the slow-moving water -- even on the girls, the water didn't come up past our calves.  I have heard this creek can cause problems in high-water seasons, and there are signs by each bank advising hikers not to cross if the water is high and fast-moving.  We had no issues, though.

After a couple more miles of gently uphill trekking, we reached McClure Meadow.

Our goal for the evening was to camp close to the Ranger Station, so we began looking for a place to pitch our tent immediately after passing the Station on our left (the cabin is up from the trail a bit, on a can see bits of it from the trail if you're keeping an eye out).  Soon after crossing a little stream, we saw a herd path leading to our right.  We found a perfect camping spot not far from the trail, right by the meadow.

Photo taken by Sage
We were first at the spot, since it was only 1:45.  We weren't tired, but our guidebook stated there were no other places to camp for the next 10 miles.  I didn't want to schlep all that food any farther, so we settled in and ate as much as we could manage.

The skies grew overcast and thunder rumbled in the distance...other hikers began showing up and tents were pitched every which way.  No one wanted to continue with the threat of lightning, so our secluded area became a temporary tent city.  It was nice to have so much company, actually -- we met a nice fellow named Keith, a guy named Larry, and a slew of other folks whose names all now escape me (sorry!).  Bobby and Melissa arrived an hour or so before nightfall -- I didn't expect to see them because I had mistakenly thought they were staying at Muir Trail Ranch another night.  Everyone hung about within the trees and watched the sky.  It rained for about half a second at one point, but most of the storm passed us by.  This would be the last time we would see so many hikers in such a small area until we reached Guitar Lake on the 26th.

The girls played their usual game of cards and wrote in their journals (I had extra paper in my resupply, so Alex and Sage began writing down their own impressions of their journey).  It got dark, we went to sleep...and the next day, we hiked through Evolution Basin and over Muir Pass.  Those details will be included in the next entry, which I intend to post by Wednesday evening (Nov. 5).