Proof in the Plodding
The Pecan Sandy Guys Do the John Muir Trail
Tuolomne to Mount Whitney.
Tuolomne Meadows to Donahue Pass | Donahue Pass to Red's Meadow | . . . to Duck Creek | . . . to Bear Ridge
. . . to Sallie Keyes | . . . to Muir Trail Ranch | . . . to Evolution Basin | . . . to LeConte Canyon | . . . over Mather Pass to So. Fork Kings River
. . . over Pinchot & Glen passes to Vidette Meadows | . . . over Forester Pass to Bighorn Plateau | . . . up Whitney, down & out
Anecdote of the Jar
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
27 July 00:~ DAY TWO
On the 25th of July I picked up Tom at Whitney Portal where hed left his pickup in the hikers parking lot, and together with two big packs we headed back northward in my Subaru on Highway 395. In Bishop we stopped to buy a few last-minute items and eat a last big dinner. At this Mexican restaurant called Amigos we met an angel who blessed our incipient journey: Diane, our waitress, who expressed concern for us in a motherly nurturing way, quite seductive to imagine coming back from two weeks on the trail to someone like her. Both of us, however, celebrating our 50th year with this longest-ever hike, are old enough to understand the unreality of such fantasies. At least I am. Next morning we awoke, just the two of us, in a Lee Vining motel, ate the largest possible breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, orange juice and coffee at Nicelys, then drove in sunshine and tourist traffic over Tioga Pass into the Yosemite high country.
We left my little wagon parked in Tuolomne Meadows next to a warning sign whose unintentionally musical rhythm made it the first of many doggerels and random melodic snatches to stick in my mind while hiking: "Vehicles Parked at Wilderness Trailheads are Frequently Damaged by Bears." Hearing this in my head over and over, and wondering about the toothpaste and Clif bars Id left in the back seat, I shouldered my load and followed Tom along the first flat stretch of the Lyell Fork. My pack who knows how much it weighed, with its three-day food supply in a black plastic bearproof barrel? seemed light at first, but over the first few hours it slowly grew heavier, geologically bending my back, gouging my hips, and blistering my feet. I expect that Tom suffered similarly but we were both practicing our stoicism, not yet at the point of sharing these intimate details. When I arrived at the first real climb, about six or seven miles up the canyon, I bonked. A combination of altitude, exertion, hot sun and not eating much, for some reason maybe I didnt want to stop? Afraid I might not continue?
Fortunately for my remaining shreds of dignity, Tom had pulled far ahead as I gasped, moaned and groaned up the rocky switchbacks. We reunited at about 10,200 feet next to a beautiful multichanneled subalpine lake below Mt. Lyell, whose shining glacier was the last and first thing to catch the sunlight.
The first of 20 days worth of camp routines: throw off pack, remove boots, pick site and set up tent with sleeping bag and pad, eat snacks and drink water or other designated beverage, saunter around new neighborhood, take pictures, put on warm dry clothes, cook dinner, clean up, watch light shift across mountains, read and write a little, then finally bid goodnight and tuck oneself away in taut little nest.
Is a tent so needful when ones alone on a California midsummers night? Its a security device at worst, at best a protection against the unsuspected shower, the intrusions of fellow campers, or the intimate attentions of mosquitoes. Id like to avoid it for some of these upcoming bivouacs, remembering so many warm bags on pine needle beds beneath the stars during my 25 years in the Tahoe Sierra, waking to a frosty nylon cocoon under crystal clear skies. I am also fresh from rereading the gospel according to St. Muir: bag of bread and tea, tin cup and matches, long woolen overcoat, pencil, notebook. The minimalist approach, scraping together a bed of boughs in a tree well, navigating cross-country by dead reckoning in the days before marked and profusely narrated trails, prior to the convenience of white gas stoves, ripstop nylon, polyester pile and goose down bags. Would Muir have availed himself of these technological prostheses even now? Or would they have blocked his transcendent communion with the joyful mountains? Another, more recent guru, Ray Jardine, has left his impression on me, though not enough to subscribe to any of his radical ultralight notions like going tentless, bootless and bear canister-less.
Next to our campsite, at a little ford across the "infant" Lyell Fork, as our guidebook author Starr calls it, we see this morning the first hikers to overtake us, four figures in solemn file, dim silhouettes in the dawn, wending their way up toward Donahue Pass where we will soon follow, looking forward already to the next cozy camp. No bears this first night is it the altitude? Well see what transpires at, say, 9600 feet.
28 July 2001:~ DAY THREE
At 9678 no bears. They just dont seem to have warmed up to us yet. Nevertheless we exercised all due precautions here at Garnet Lake, where, believe me, fish are jumpin this mawnin. However we did not bring a rod. Who wants fish guts all over a nice clean and otherwise bear-proofed camp?
Above this reflective lake loom Mts. Banner & Ritter; the latter, larger but deceptively situated behind its mate, figures in a Muir essay I read recently, "A Near View of the High Sierra," one of his miraculous, minimalist rambles from a Tuolomne Meadows camp to its summit and back in three days, partly in the dark, most definitely not on a marked trail, in Octobers "biting cold," without so much as a blanket!!! Ach, boys, thems the days of wooden ships and iron men.
Yesterdays ten miles by well-beaten trail proved considerably more painful than the first ten: a new crop of blisters on the balls of my feet, soreness of the thighs and hips, with a twinge in the knee to top it all off. My stoicism is eroding fast. Despite these trials I could appreciate the gorgeous vistas: the bright peaks around the head of the Lyell Fork, cupping glaciers in their northerly bowls; flower gardens on the south side of Donahue Pass; clear blue and green brooks laughing through the timberline meadows; a string of llamas sitting camel-style on a grassy sward amid crystalline white boulders, reddish fur against the green; Thousand Island Lake below Banner, its blue waters dotted with granite islets and whipped by a stiff breeze; Waugh Lake glimpsed like an azure fantasy down Rush Creek. In comparison, the ski runs at June Lake, visible from Donahue Pass, looked vulgar, brash, ugly even brown gullies cut into the forested slope, the raw wounds of development somehow out of place. Yes, theyre trails not unlike the one we tread, but less ancient and more mechanical. And who is more intrusive, those day skiers in a place set aside as a high-volume automobile destination, or the two of us (two thousand of us every week on this stretch) in a placed nominally designated as "wilderness"?
Afternoon was the worst yet for me. I paused high along Rush Creek to tape the newest set of blisters, and when Tom asked if it did the trick, I replied "the proofs in the plodding." We have really hit bottom, and its only the third day.
at Reds Meadow backpacker campground. "Footsore" would be the word, I believe. Besides the overall soreness, more blisters. Misery loves company but theres little consolation from the observation that many here share this general condition. And all of us, so far as I can tell, plan to continue. This days 10+ miles featured a toe-jamming descent from 10,200 to 7800, with a few subordinate climbs along the way, total elevation loss maybe 3500. I could compute it more exactly but why bother? The evidence surrounds us. As usual, though, the views both near and far vie with the agony of da feet for my attention. Various views of Ritter, Banner and the Minarets, a string of gemlike lakes in rocky bowls, pine forests swathing the canyonsides, and the most unbelievable and consistent displays of wildflowers! Not being a flower guy I can name only a few, and none in Latin. But they beckon from every direction, peeping out of every crevice, bordering the trail as if planted there in beds by officiously bureaucratic outdoor aesthetes. Yesterday, I think it was time is already beginning to slip one of those marvelously engineered granite staircases, on the way up Donahue Pass, with paintbrush, penstemon, asters pussy paws and a cluster of low bushy heather, its red flowers accenting what seemed to our new wilderness eyes like a landscape garden planned for our personal pleasure.
Devils Postpile presented our first study in culture shock; while we had noticed a higher density of hikers, particularly people with fishing rods dayhiking up from Reds and Agnew meadow (being an easy shuttle bus ride over the divide from Mammoth Lakes) I wasnt prepared for the throng of visitors at the monument, taking pictures, climbing (illegally) on the eponymous basalt columns, crowding up the trail in various stages of adolescent or other tourist-based languor, loudly complaining. "Whats this supposed to be?" "Large charge, dude." "How much farther?" "Can we buy Cokes there?" "Is there a restroom?" and the sound of amplified music from boomboxes and jacked-up personal CD players.
A story for next years festival: start by coming out with a bear canister. They told me, "Use this, or kiss your food goodbye." You know how much it costs? $78. How much it weighs? Three pounds. All this, so Yogi & Boo-Boo cant steal my pick-i-nic basket. An old friend of mine and I went backpacking along the JMT where use of these things is all but mandatory. Used to be, you know, you just threw rocks and banged pots if Bear came for dinner. Then they figured that one out, after what? Ten thousand years? The preferred strategy became to hang your food (do Bear). Bear boxes Bear learns these things, they call it "morphic resonance." In Yosemite they open cars like giant can-openers, and the technique is spreading up and down the Sierra Crest. But these things they kick em around like a black plastic football, but cant get paws or claws into or around them yet. Reminds me of Gary Snyders "Way West Underground" (do Snyder voice) break for a second "youve all heard Gary read around here." We never saw Bear. He just never warmed up to us. One night in a campsite we heard a gentleman banging the inside of his camper trailer with a broom handle Bear, we heard the next day, was up on top, shaking it and reaching down through the pop-up vent where the most delicious smells of cooking were coming from. Later in my tent, silhouetted against the atars, peering at me in my bag, a shape like a cow, with ears, looked mighty big looking up from the ground, but Id locked all the food and trash in the car and the can-opener technique hadnt spread so far north yet. So he walked on, uninterested, into the bog where the pickings were no doubt better and there were no black plastic barrels or broomsticks.
29 July 2000:~ DAY FOUR
Evening and maybe, it seems likely, our first visit from an opportunistic bear. Were at Duck Creek, camped on a rocky shelf within earshot of the rushing water and among two other hiker duos, spread out here just above where the JMT forks. It was more than 12 miles to here, the first stretch up from Reds Meadow an inferno of deep pumice, burned trees and hot sun. With my right foot in an advanced state of blisterification I was not happy, but as the trail left Reds Meadow (7300) and climbed 1500 into cooler, shadier realms I slowly rallied (with Advils assistance) and soon was leading the march on a long, somewhat level traverse high above Cascade Valley.
At the walk-in backpackers site at Reds Meadow we met Michael and Sheena Chapman, their friend and fellow Brit Tom, and a companion from Orange County, Mark. Michael & Tom seemed the standard-issue British mountaineers: wry, dry, macho, quietly competent. Sheena is smart and funny; Mark says he makes money in Orange County ("so many ways," he tells me in confidence). The British gentlemen have climbed the "Monroes" in Scotland and the what were they called, the "terwilligers"? in England, the 300 or so peaks in both countries above 3000 feet in elevation. Today they all took the bus into Mammoth to buy Mark some real boots; under the Ray Jardine spell, he had come this far, all the way from Yosemite Valley, almost 30 miles further than Tuolomne, in running shoes, resulting in "blisters on top of blisters." They plan to complete the entire JMT in 16 days, which means they have been pushing themselves and will have to pass us, despite this day off, somewhere up ahead.
Im sitting here writing and waiting, but no sign of any bruin. In the trees around us hang a number of shredded stuff sacks, remnants of unsuccessful attempts at bear-bagging. The two women from southern California camped near us (also Jardine disciples, camped under a tent fly and walking in running shoes) have already twice this evening been banging their pots to scare away a visitor, and subsequently hauled at their lines to raise the bags higher.
30 July:~ DAY FIVE
Strange dreams of low-budget films starring friends who inexplicably thank me for my indispensable assistance, paying me off with packets of cash and a case full of funny cigarettes. Walking down a city street with my true collaborator, who is miffed at not receiving credit where its due. Sigmund himself couldn't sort these out.
31 July 00:~ DAY SIX
Evidently Tom trained for this event much more than I did. Often I stagger along in his dust. Other times, especially when high on ibuprofen, I can keep up or even set a rather smart pace between snack breaks. From Duck Creek we climbed over a saddle, probably 10,500 or so, through granite and sand and pines. Then down to Purple Lake, "overused" according to these other guidebook writers Winnett and Morey. From there, another climb and descent to Virginia Lake. While Purple Lake was confined in a canyon surrounded by peaks and ridges, Virginia was high (10,400) and spacious with extensive views, windy on its open shoreline where we paused for a while, feet propped up on rocks, lounging beneath sunshine and clouds. The descent from there into Tully Hole was long, hot, and steep 1,300 feet into a lush green valley at the head of Fish Creek Canyon. Downstream the trail pushed through brush and many mosquitoes, until the creek turned into a torrent pouring over big granite boulders. The canyon abruptly steepened as we crossed on a footbridge where we stopped for lunch and watched two water ouzels at play, like this, one dancing on a rock and chattering at the other, who tried to fly away but was followed by the first who continued to dance around, seemingly ranting and raving, while around them roared a torrent considerable enough to sweep them away.
Warning off an intruder? Nagging? Courtship? Incessant, whatever it was.
More flowers: tiger lily; lupine, all sizes and colors; some shabby thing grows in patches in decomposed granite, like the ground at our campsite last night; and blue bells (I think bell-shaped blue flowers, anyway).
The hike yesterday up to Silver Pass began with the "dank ravine" Winnett describes, filled with more mosquitoes than ever before, and black flies too. Incoming clouds cooled us, along with a few drops of rain, but generated so much humidity that the fir trees (I think they were, covered with moss) were dripping like in a tropical forest, enough to steam my glasses and soak my bandana. As usual the whole feel of the place changed when we emerged on the canyon wall and traded flowers for granite, majestic pines, and vistas of "hacked and shattered" peaks all around. High lakes, tarns nearly, a small snowfield, then the top, 10,880 feet! Far to the north Ritter and Banner, very distinctive shapes against the far horizon. Hard to believe that we camped at the base of Banner, only three day previous. On foot the whole way! And my feet feel it. Painful hobble down Silver Creek, past the lake and its one perfect campsite, already occupied and a desperate (for me) final stretch to the first decent spot with water, a boulder-strewn flat.
. . . to continue the travelogue, feet didnt fail me this morning as Advil-less, I pounded down the switchbacks (call this account The Art of The Switchback), passing the campsite we shoulda had, with Silver Creek for water rather than two scummy little seasonals. Oh well, be grateful, willya, we woulda eaten after dark if we did.
Began to run into more and more folks today as we walked down Mono Creek after all, Vermillion Valley Resort is only a few miles down the canyon, across Lake Thomas Edison via water taxi. Most of the JMT through-hikers weve met Jay, the "girls," the Brits, the redheaded kid and his friend are resupplying there. Evidently they cater to hikers with free beer, cheap meals, and convenient resupply. Sounds like a BIG party. We, on the other hand, have two more days three, actually to our next food cache at Muir Trail Ranch, which is more remote but closer to the trail, and oriented mainly toward its guests, who must walk or ride in from Florence Lake.
So instead of free beer we drank liters of H2O, ours for the effort of pumping it, as we climbed Bear Ridge on endless switchbacks from Mono Lake Bridge (7,700 feet) to the top at 9,950 feet. It was overcast most of the way, with sprinkles of rain, so again we traded heat for humidity. I felt pretty wiped out for the first part but then made Tom stop for lunch and afterwards felt better, slipping into some kind of trance-hiking overdrive.
While stopped just off a bend in the steep trail, we saw a pack string of mules go by, Bishop-bound via Lake Italy. Also a tall older guy with some sort of braces on his knees; he held up a bike bottle half full of green liquid and said hed gotten separated from his partners and had no purification tablets or water filter -- could we spare some water? There was some over the ridge, he indicated vaguely up the trail. Ignorant of the true distance to another stream,we declined, and he went on down in a huff.
Good campsite high on the Bear Creek canyon wall, a juniper bench approximately a few thousand yards down the trail once it began to descend steeply. Id taken an ibuprofen before this descent and as a result my evening in camp was pain free. We arrived early enough for me to do some laundry and bask in the sun on big granite slabs while Tom did his exercises and we admired the view of Mt.Hildegard
across the canyon, and to the west the view of ridge after ridge. I got my first feeling of "California," imagining the pines giving way to oak-dotted foothills and finally the Central Valley -- all this the watershed of the San Joaquin. Sky hazy -- a few days ago leaving Reds Meadow it looked and smelled like a fire somewhere not too far away. But no smoke, only haze today, lying to the west.
At night the wind began to howl, like an approaching train. Far off a dull roar, louder and larger until wooossshhh! The tent rattled only a little, for we were sheltered by these enormous junipers. I awoke and lay there wanting to go out and check up on my hat, socks and shirt hanging to dry but too scared! Of what? The dark!?! In the wind I heard music, pipes and voices. A few spatters of rain, a reality check.
1 AUGUST 00:~ DAY SEVEN
(Tuesday, I think.) Usual 9 am start, down to "rollicking Bear Creek" (Winnett). Not losing too much elevation, for a change -- down to only 9,000 feet or so. Met two old guys with white beards, similar porkpie hats, flowery tops and general tall lanky appearance. Very formal, slow and funny. Ronald says (he is the slow one) "we got 44 days so who gives a shit?" They are going slowly through what Ronald calls "the greatest show on earth" which he says he used to call the Roman Catholic Church. These guys -- they could be us someday! His friend Carol is an artist in Bonny Doon, in the Coast Range above Santa Cruz from where McKoy recognized him, more or less. Passing them, I was for the first time sustaining a respectable pace, climbing toward the headwaters of Bear Creek, up out of aspen and ponderosa back into lodgepole country, through walls of polished white granite on a gradual ascent, finally steepening as we left the creek. Passed several trails to other lakes and passes, sun coming and out of clouds, then leveled off at "charming" (Winnett) Rosemarie Meadows. Lush, subalpine, enclosed by shattered granite walls with looming peaks a prelude, Im sure, to Evolution Valley. Here among the flowers beside a little waterfall the rain began to fall, enough that we took shelter for a while beneath a pine grove and ate our lunch. Sun came back out for the climb to Marie Lake, but the sky over Selden Pass (10,900) was growing darker and darker. By Maries shore it began to pour, lightning cracking down on the ridges above. I made a little tent for myself by hugging my poncho to my folded knees, McKoy did something similar, and we waited it out for 15-20 minutes. Then it was time. A few switchbacks and we crossed over the pass, the black sky blowing west, into the South Fork San Joaquin country. Above Heart Lake on the way down, were visible the most interesting folds in strata among the rocks above, below our gaze shooting stars everywhere (the flowering kind!) and finally though we covered only 8-9 miles today the Sallie Keyes lakes, where we found a nice site on the ridge between the upper and lower lake, a good site on a knoll above the upper lake already taken.
Still more flowers: on the trail above Cascade Valley, I think, one solitary Mariposa Lily. Ronald also reported one the same? Right in the trail, poor thing! And here in the meadow, bistort? Also that low-lying thing sort of like a lupine, but at close range it shows purple and white leaves, in 3s
but leaves like lupine, sort of hairy ones. And phlox.
Sunny morning at Sallie Keyes but the clouds are rolling in again for the second day. The huge meadow of mystery flowers were camped next to is damp from yesterdays rain, and it looks like more on the way. On the way out we hear voices, see dogs and a tent. This camp of ours is evidently used by Muir Trail Ranch for pack trips. Only seven miles further to the ranch, in the San Joaquin canyon for below.
3 August 00:~ DAY NINE
(Thursday?) Its amazing what tiny traces of humanity persist along the trail, and how easy it is to spot them in contrast to the tinier flowers, mosses, etc.
The rain began just after we descended into the forested slopes below Sallie Keyes, as we passed a big meadow with a snow survey shack made of logs, and a smaller pocket meadow" then the thunder cracked and we marched on, regretting not having brought rain pants and me, a decent waterproof jacket, my red Patagonia being more of a wind shell, chosen for what I imagined would be cold dry windy conditions in the higher country. Instead, these thunderstorms, coming earlier every day! The similarities to Colorado increase. On the way down into another deep river canyon, the South Fork of the San Joaquin, we met a young women, fresh-faced, bright dark eyes, legs newly shaved, unfazed by the weather, with a tall dour men whod hiked with her from Walker Pass, 150 miles south of Mt. Whitney! Heading to Reds Meadows making way for us with the traditional trail joke about any excuse to stop and rest. A steep switchback descent, out of the lodgepoles into the junipers, aspens, even sagebrush and manzanita on open slopes the overcast wetness maybe a cool relief from what could have been broiling sun on an open south face.
Muir Trail Ranch finally, a collection of pleasant ramshackle wooden buildings, corrals, workshops. Private ownership since the late 19th century. The camping area is east of the ranch proper, up river about ¼ mile. Big ponderosa-shaded tent sites amid granite slabs. We selected a shelf overlooking the big river and immediately went over to the ranch to pick up our resupply cache. Wally, the head wrangler (a real Zane Grey type) directed us to a nearby shed where probably 50-75 white plastic buckets were stacked, all sent here by through-hikers, names of the parties sometimes marked on 2 or more five-gallon buckets (we had only one 2 ½ gallon model).
The little "store" was currently dominated by 3 women from Canoga Park, one considerably younger than the others, on a leisurely 7 mile-a-day southbound hike, chatting animatedly, writing postcards, and completely ignoring scruffy old me. Besides cards and stamps the place offered sports-related knickknacks like sunblock, insect repellent, candles, socks, emergency ponchos and plenty of fishing gear, all strewn about in a close dark cluttered shack. You select the goods you desire, then write up your own receipt, computing tax from a chart, and either paying the wizened matriarch whenever she wanders in, or making your own change from the cash box.
While waiting for her I flipped through the book of 3-part receipts to see which part I should keep, when I lit upon the name "Sheldon Felich." Sheldon! From whom (with his future ex-wife Suzanne) DQ & I bought our new house in Kingswood! Inquiring of Russ, who was at work with a can of ether trying to start one of the ranchs 3 military surplus cargo vehicles, I heard that Sheldon was across the river fishing with his kids. So after returning to camp to drop off the bucket, Tom & I forded the river, which was swift, cold and knee-deep (how would you do this in the spring or in a really wet year?) bracing ourselves with our hiking poles, then followed the trail through the woods on the other side into a big meadow, first finding a little hot pool, then a big warm lake on the other side of which Sheldon was fly fishing in rubber waders and booties. As I rounded the lake and got closer I could read his T-shirt: "Women Want Me Fish Fear Me." He explained that he was using a damsel fly larva, but not earning his self-announced (and probably self-bestowed) nickname of "The Provider" as he tried to demonstrate catching a trout to his son Gavin.
Both lakelet and hot pool are in Blayney Meadows, which Starrs guidebook calls one of the famous old campsites of the Sierra, up difficult, narrow (but paved) roads from Huntington to Florence Lake. A vast flat, grassy, and wet area spreads below big granite slopes dotted with ponderosa and juniper. A plume of white smoke about ½ way up indicated a brush fire or burning stump; a hiker had earlier reported another fire upriver, a result of the mornings thunderstorms. She and her friends, wet as hens, had come down the trail from the south, very concerned to report it.
Sheldon, whos quite a talker, invited us over to his cabin for a beer before dinner. He and his 3 kids were part of a group of 25 or so, who like most large groups had taken the ferry across Florence Lake and then hiked or ridden on horses the five miles to the ranch while their gear was transported on one of these Korean war surplus ammo carriers. Organized by Sheldons cousins the McKinneys, friends of Galen Rowell I was told, the group had booked the ranch for the week (for something like 5 or 600 dollars per adult).
The cabins are simple but electrified, all facing a side stream burbling through the aspens. I felt twinges of the old Sierra, some romantic golden age post-Muir David Brower California, families in groups summering above the Valley heat and Bay/LA fog/smog, hiking, horseback riding, picnicking, fishing . . . Sure. As good now as it ever was, even if more of the couples are divorced or on their second marriages. Fewer alcoholics, maybe. Less tobacco.
Sheldons kids ran with the pack while we drank our Sierra Nevada Pale Ales and listened to him play James Taylor on his new Santa Cruz guitar, "Sweet Baby James" which had been running through my head and another one I hadnt heard, one of the most harmonically complex of JTs, "Its More Than a Dream in Rio" or something like that, Brazilian jazz flavor, from a live in 1985 recording.
On our return to the campsite we discovered that 16 "Scouting Outbound" (?) kids from North Carolina had moved in near us theyd been "doing peaks." Also the "girls" showed up, whose names turn out to be Amy (the taller and darker one) and Lynn (shorter, blond, kindergarten teacher) both from southern California near Big Bear somewhere. Theyve got great senses of humor call us the "Pecan Sandy Guys." Theyre vegetarians, pretty organic (Theyre growing sprouts in their packs, and traveling light as previously noted.) but finally sprang for some bug juice here at the Ranch. So far they havent lost any food despite having to hang it every night.
But in the middle of last night, a bear raided the North Carolina group. I must have slept through the yelling and pot banging, but Tom got up and prepared to defend our humble but crucial resupply bucket.
NOTE: little systems developing. How to pack the pack, set up camp, clean the kitchen, wash and dry the socks, etc these routines are settling down. Sometimes improving. I wonder how many millennia it would take to turn these into folkways?
Rain before dawn, then a sunny morning. I sat on a warm rock drinking tea and writing, then received a visit from the girls on their way back from the hot pool. We will probably not see them until the end, if then maybe when they lose a day going out over Kearsarge Pass for one final resupply. Afterwards Tom & I sorted the new food from our resupply, fitting nearly all of it into our two bearproof canisters ("Bearisters"?) and giving the remainder away or discarding it along with our trash.
Tom went off to the hot pool then, and I sat in my tent and read Virgil. Priorities. Later I went over there myself, Tom having left and headed for the log crossing upriver. As I sat and soaked, I met a German tourist from Bavaria, on a pack trip (told him no beer at Florence Lake store, & he: "In Bavaria we have much beers.") He left with an "Auf Wiedersehn" from me, which made him smile, and I just enjoyed the quiet and the warm water, finishing up with a rinse in the lakelet. Still sunny, but clouds were rolling in. I followed the trail back to the log crossing, passing a big fairly fresh pile of bearshit (which made me start singing loudly) and by the time I got back to camp the black sky was threatening. Tom helped me move my tent to a drier spot & then left for the Muir Trail store while I performed minor surgery on my right foot, where granite grit had somehow gotten inside a blister days ago maybe the 1st or 2nd -- & caused great pain while walking, which Id been holding at bay as much as possible with doses of Advil. The surgery was successful the patient lived as well and I lay back to finish the Aeneid and take a nap. But soon the rain started and the thunder & lightning woke me up: intense flashes, splitting cracks, almost nonstop booming echoing from the granite mountains and down the canyon. The rain intensified and soon my tent floor was soaked. Dirt spattered its walls, and though I was dry and warm enough, the clothes and equipment around me (including my nearly empty pack outside, I guessed) were pretty wet.
FLASH! BOOM! FLASH! ZZZBOOM -boom-boom-boom. A rumble echoes up and across the sky, weird acoustic effects like soundwaves canceling one another out. Sonic shockwaves. I lay there, my thumb throbbing where I smashed it climbing up the slabs in my Tevas to get firewood its all bandaged up. Handwriting in this journal terrible. And firewood? Hah wed be lucky to get a fire started the whole rest of this trip, it seemed like, so much water was everywhere. Tom, it turns out, had pitched his tiny Walrus tent in a stream bed, or what amounted to one, and while I slept hed had to move it & dry it out inside in the heavenly torrent.
When the rain finally stopped, sometime after 5 p.m., hikers began straggling into the campground, including the Brits, whod detoured to Lake Edison (where they not only have much beers, but give free ones to through hikers). Sheena looked rather wet and unhappy, but of course her husband & his mate will press on in weather that after all isnt so different from what theyre used to in northern England, Scotland & Wales. Mark seems a little disconsolate too; his new shoes bought at Mammoth Lakes are sturdier but hurt his feet more than the lightweight ones, which he had discarded back at Reds Meadow. Abandon all hope, dope.
5 August 2000:~ DAY ELEVEN
(Saturday): It was a sunny one the following day, Day Ten. A few bedraggled folks straggling in after the rain had stopped, after the Brits a Swiss woman through-hiking the whole PCT to Canada, whose mother had sent a package of storm gear which shed missed at the last P.O. Also, after dark, 2 women from Ojai, Crystal & Teresa, who we didnt meet until the next (sunny) morning. Theyd come in and were going out via Florence Lake, and had been caught by the storm up canyon along the South Fork. Crystal works at Ojai Valley School, a private school where she teaches something like Western Traditions. Early in the morning Id gone way off above the camp on some slabs to do my duty, and found the Teddy Bears Picnic: a bear had gotten these womens food bag and spread it out on a little flat grassy shelf, the gnawed containers all neatly arranged around the two shredded stuff sacks. I traded my Aeneid which Id finished in the rain for some bandages and tape, and for taking their trash into our empty resupply bucket, which were privileged to leave at Muir Trail Ranch, included in the $40 (?) resupply charge.
Spread out in the morning sun, our stuff dried fast, so we packed up, paid our last visit to the Ranch where we bought some Coleman fuel, mailed a few postcards, and picked up the trail along the San Joaquin toward what everyone, including the both guidebooks, say is the JMTs scenic crescendo.
That old "pack magic" -- tough having it back on the shoulders and hips like a giant lead leech after 36 hours off with hot pools, and now all the new food loaded into the bearisters. However my foot is so much better now hurray for home surgery! We sweated along the north side of the river then climbed up past the big waterfalls on Evolution Creek into high meadows where it was much cooler, though of course it seemed like forever until we got there, even after a nice wet ford of a shallow sandy stretch of the creek (the official trail comes to a rather deep place to cross, so we followed the newer guidebooks advice to continue along a use trail to the better ford). We camped with an awesome view across McClure Meadow, where no bear was evidently marauding that day anyway. Tom walked out across to where the creek sauntered along between low grassy banks. Kneeling there, pumping water with the amphitheater of peaks beyond Lyell, Darwin, etc. picking up the alpenglow, his bright red pile jacket florescent in the low magic light. A nice campfire, but as usual we are too tired to linger long in its subversive glow.
Next Day (TODAY, DAY ELEVEN!) came the climb into Evolution Basin and over Muir Pass. I wont even try to describe the crescendo of scenery beyond; well, Ill try, but I wont do it justice. Even larger peaks, some bearing glaciers, looming over the prettiest lake yet, wooded at its near end. "Hacked and shattered" ridges, slabs of white granite bordered and bedded with wildflowers, clear blue-green water by where we pause for lunch on a ledge, looking back. As we climb from around 9200 up to 10,300 then 11,900 at the pass, more lakes and lakelets and it grows more and more barren a moonscape.
Right when we attained the Basin we ran into the guy from Massachusetts headed on a day hike up to the Darwin Bench to view the wildflowers. He told us about the Lamarck Col, a quick and increasingly popular shortcut into the Basin. THEN! A young couple headed north stopped to beg some ibuprofen for her monthlies. It was Ajax, a student from a few years back, with his new bride Sintara. Theyd been camped off the trail and over a ridge at McGee Lakes, over the saddle from Sapphire, and recommended it highly "nobody there" for days.
Thats the ticket take enough time to leave the trail and explore. Whereas the hours brought hiker after hiker past us, a short climb in almost any direction insures utter solitude and spellbinding beauty.
7 August, Monday:~ DAY TWELVE!
Camped last night at about 8800 in what the guidebooks called Deer Meadows, but were unable to find either meadow or deer, just a dark brush-choked corridor between a sun-baked granite cliff and Palisades Creek. Tired as we were, we each dropped our pack and reconnoitered, thinking we were just a few minutes short of the meadows which, however, never appeared. Despite its loudness, the creek yields water from a precarious bankside perch only after a difficult bushwhack. Today we are climbing the "Golden Staircase" up to 10,500 at Lower Palisades Lake, then up to 12,100 at Mather Pass.
Night before last we camped, or rather perched, on a bench overlooking "Upper LeConte Lake Camp" at the head of LeConte Canyon just this side of Muir Pass (11,900) past Lake Helen and down this remarkable narrow rocky gorge running with beaucoup water beside, below, and all over the trail cut into the bare rock. In the distance to the south, jagged mountains in the late afternoon light that looked incredibly high.
Before the final pitch up Muir Pass we were walking along big, beautiful, desolate Wanda Lake (was Muirs daughter, after whom it was named, big and beautiful?) when we were warned by several young and lightly loaded hikers going in the opposite direction about predatory clouds of gnats. Sure enough they made their sudden appearance, clinging to our skin, our clothes, and our packs in thick desperate swarms though not biting. Hours later, some still remained. Maybe gnats are all manufactured at Wanda and migrate to the rest of the planet via unsuspecting through-hikers.
As I plodded up the final switchbacks, silhouetted atop the beehive-shaped summit hut I saw 2 people posing, joining hands, looking like giant weather vanes or a publicity shot from Bergmans film about the chess game with Death. Made me laugh, which I sorely needed at that point. Clouds filtered the hot sun, too this was the place where the guidebooks warned the sun could strike unrelentingly, a stretch of quite a few miles with no timber and scant shade. We ate our lunch at Wanda sitting against a low granite wall, stretching our tarps as makeshift sunshades.
On the way down past Helen Lake Tom slipped on some loose rocks and banged his head. OK except for a cut above his eye, for which he was able to grab handfuls of snow from the abundant banks along and over which we walked.
Once it opened up, LeConte Canyon continued to amaze us. Far below we saw Little Pete and Grouse Meadows, to the sides of us huge Yosemite-like walls and white granite buttresses, beyond which loomed larger peaks. Cascades roared along the creek, the main headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kings River, and at one point I hiked off the trail and down a slope to get closer for a photo of one nice set. A deer crossed our trail one of the few wildlife specimens wed gotten close to so far, but it wobbled and moved uncertainly as if it were sick.
We stopped and talked to the ranger of the place, Rob Hayden; though it was his day off he chatted gladly, standing in the hot sun which made me, at least, a little woozy. He gave us news of the big fire at Kennedy Meadows near Kernville, which was under control or even out by now, and also told of numerous small spot fired in side drainages which were being allowed to burn themselves out, hence the haze wed noticed. (Those on our timeline who went to Vermillion Valley Resort said it had been taken over by troops of firefighters.) Rob seemed a gentle guy, as you might be living alone all summer for 10 years with only undependable radio contact and fragmentary conversations with the likes of us. He said that, despite the fantastic big walls along the west side of the canyon, few climbers ever came because, he thought, of the labor of toting extra gear over the passes. He said the wire gates were across the trail because occasionally pack horses or mules escaped their drivers and made their ways back up and over Muir Pass, all the way down to Goddard Bridge where Evolution Creek flows into the San Joaquin, "a hell of a long way in cowboy boots."
I wonder if you could make your way up here along the Kings. Too far, I think, on an abandoned and pretty bad trail further down past the Palisades trail. This river, though, which we saw begin sloppy, multibranched and adolescent in snowfields and glaciers high in the canyon above us, flows slow and majestic through Visalia? Well, into reservoirs above Visalia, anyway. But to think of the Central Valley, steaming so far below us to the west . . .
Somehow a couple of families made it up here and pitched big house-sized tents on the edge of the meadow, where they lounge sleeping, eating, playing chess. This I think is the key to an endless summer, to come to a place like this with no plan other than to relax and stay long enough to forget what day it is.
Frost in McClure Meadows a few mornings ago made me think of "Autumn Leaves," which is now stuck in my head: "Et le mer epasse sur le sable, les pas des amants desunis.") Few footprints on this rocky trail, like a set of rails. The exhausted hiker need not navigate, just mindlessly follow the track laid down by "les amants de la Sierra" three-quarters of a century ago and more.
Back to the present atop Mather Pass (12,080) with "indescribable" (Starr) views, knife-edged ridge.
huge sheets of granite ready to exfoliate, the massif of the Palisades above Palisades Lakes, Split Mt. which we saw towering in the afternoon sun so far away from our perch at the head of LeConte. I felt strong on the ascent, slow and breathing hard but painless and steady on the interminable switchbacks among big blocks of crystalline granite, jumbled & tumbled in sublime disarray. Looking up from Palisades Lake below the pass had appeared impassable, but invisible to us from down there were the ledges and benches among which the trail, most admirably cut, cleared, braced, rip-rapped and graded, wended its way. Tiny alpine flowers [drawings] red and [drawing] yellow continued the floral symphony as we climbed, and the flowers grew more freshly along the alpine creeks pouring down from basins and glaciers. Listen! The rumble of a rockfall, a tiny movement in the tremendous million-year migration of rock from crest to the basins, leveling the mountains, geological time ticking away what, once a day? Once a year? Once a century for the house-sized blocks? Soon . . . in 100 million years or so . . . the Sierra will settle into the peaceful rolling rhythms of the Appalachians, as the seas lap (once again?) at its eastern flank.
Like the boom behind our camp in so-called "Deer Meadows" last night luck of the draw? A ranger was killed not too many years ago, riding his horse out on a flake of granite which chose that moment to peel away from the main mass.
Still later the same day, at our camp on the Main South Fork of the Kings River. Having traversed and followed the headwaters of the Tuolomne, San Joaquin, Kings and soon to traverse the Kaweah (barely) and the Kern, we are in effect hiking the headwaters of California, the great rivers that join to irrigate the worlds vastest and most productive farmland and to fuel the faucets of tens of millions of urban residents. People think of SF & LA when they think CA, but the real state, and its future, cradles the Central Valley. And we are up on its roof.
8 August:~ DAY THIRTEEN (?)
About 65 miles to go and last night Tom and I realized we had only four dinners left, not including our emergency serving of oatmeal, of which we have 6 breakfasts left. So we need, in this steepest and highest part of the JMT, to increase our average daily mileage from 11-12 to 13-14. The final day, probably a long one, will include the ascent of Mt. Whitney and subsequent plunge to Whitney Portal. Although my feet still hurt, home surgery notwithstanding, Im optimistic we can do it. And theres always the oatmeal.
9 August:~ DAY FIFTEEN (?)
Lunching by Vidette Meadows. Somewhere ahead of us, maybe on the summit of Whitney as I write, the Sprout Sisters Amy & Lynn, the Brits & Mark. We heard tidings of the girls as we descended Mather Pass: a woman climbing northward said "Oh, you must be the Pecan Sandy guys, David & Tom." Shed met them at Lake Marjorie, to which we climbed the yesterday from our So. Fork Kings camp en route to Pinchot Pass. Another beautiful dry cool California mountain day a few clouds in the p.m. maybe a stray T-storm somewhere but not near us.
Huffin & puffin up Pinchot, then the long "plunging" (Winnett) descent into Woods Creek. Another case of "I wouldnt want to climb this sucker!" Down into and along the canyon, back into aspen and sage country. Cascades along the creek, below huge scree slides from ridges looming thousands of feet above us. And hot! Finally we came to a really cool wood & steel-cable suspension bridge, tipsy as you walk across it. The campsites came equipped with the first bear boxes weve seen since Reds Meadow, and the area was crowded, in fact I was surprised to see teenagers who looked for all the world like theyd walked less than a mile down from a parking area.
We climbed the cool side of the fork of Woods Creek leading toward the Rae Lakes, walking into the evening, bear poop on the trail, and finally at dusk when Dollar Lake proved full and the lakeside campsites closed for habitat restoration, we continued about a mile to Arrowhead Lake, beneath stunning Fin Dome. Late, cold, tired, hungry and when we awoke this morning, ice on the tents and in the water bottles, frost on the sedge grass. Fall? Or just high altitude summer?
Last night as we passed Dollar Lake we met Melissa and her mother Carol. Just when we had realized we couldnt camp in this convenient dream spot right on the shore, a stocky bearded fellow sauntered over and offered us their leftover dinner, about half a pot of chicken Florentine. Tom produced a cookpot and soon it was nesting in his pack. Then a young woman came out & offered us more food. These two women had been "adopted" by these two archeologists whose entire team hadnt shown up, leaving them oversupplied. Plus, Carol had popped her ACL somewhere back between Mather & Pinchot passes (both of which they climbed in the same day!) so they were planning to bail at Kearsarge Pass and wanted to lighten their load. So we scored big time upon pitching camp in the dark we gobbled the still-warm chicken, plus a pot of soup. And ate these strawberry crème wafers that one archeologist had pressed on us with the admonition that an "old Montana custom" was "refuse gift of cookies, kill entire family." Yummmm.
Whatever they gave us, it got us up Glen Pass this morning, from 10,500 to 12,200, passing and gradually leaving below us the truly lovely, warmly wooded Rae Lakes. We found Melissa & Carol on top, in the company of a father-son team, the father, Peter, an orthopedic doctor and former Squaw Valley ski patrolman, the son, Greg, a burly high school athlete. Peter doctored Carol and Greg carried her pack up and then down Glen Pass, a narrow windy knife edge that nevertheless hosted plenty of people. In fact, since LeConte Canyon with its access to Bishop Pass, and more especially since Woods Creek with its trail through Paradise Valley to and from Kings Canyon National Park, we have been seeing a lot more folks, most of them on loop hikes or out n backs. I suspect well see even more hikers as we close in on Whitney.
10 August, Thursday:~ DAY SIXTEEN
Apprehension last night, nervousness at the prospect of Forester Pass only four miles from camp on Bubbs Creek near the Center Basin trail junction. From where we walked for water was a gorgeous view up in that direction, like the Coors logo, a cascading stream with snowstreaked granite peaks beyond, the apotheosis of clean and wholesome. A beer would be nice right now. Nearby camped a guy from Houston, in his late 30s or 40s, guiding three women in their 60s, who had extra food so we scored some gorp, jerky, and candy bars little premade snack packets in ziplock baggies.
Tired of my gross and greasy clothing, I took it to the stream in a trashbag, filled it with water and a couple squirts of detergent, then did my best imitation of an agitator. Dumped the sudsy black water way back in the rocks, then a few rinses et voila! Mr. Clean. Mr. Relatively Clean, that is.
As my laundry snaps in the sun and breeze, Toms starting preparations for our most substantial dinner yet: corn pasta & dehydrated veggies in a bullion/olive oil broth, three helpings each, washed down by strawberry crème wafers.
I knew it was time to get up this morning when lying in my sleeping bag I began doing mental long-division calculations of Foresters grade: lets see, 2700 in 4 miles . . . click click whirrrr, approximately 10%. But we blasted over the dreaded pass, next highest to Whitneys summit. Even me, used to dropping into granny gear and staggering up the last miles of a pass, I led the way for once, nearly nonstop, into successively higher basins full of tumbled light-brown rock and emerald tarns, then back-and-forth toward what only reveals itself near the end of the climb as the summit.
Atop the pass, more of a knife-edged notch than anything and quite windy, we could see south down the Kern Canyon toward the haze and smoke of the Valley. To the southwest, forested ridges undulating into a maze of foothills; to the east, over the nearest rocky ridge, ranges on the other side of the Owens Valley stretching into Nevada and the northern reaches of Death Valley. To the north, row after row of serrated ridges, pinnacles and peaks back toward the Palisades. Starr writes that an even more comprehensive view results from a climb of Junction Peak (13,888) immediately to the east along the ridge weve climbed. We consider it but decide not to attempt this sidetrip despite what looks like an easy scramble (later, looking back and up from Tyndall Creek, we see that far more climbing and traversing would have been necessary). Still, we would have seen, indeed stood atop, the exact junction of the Kings-Kern Divide and the Sierra Crest. As soon as we began descending Forester, on an amazing bit of switchbacking trail cut into the sheer rock of the passs southern side, we could see the entire Great Western Divide, the Kaweah group of peaks that separate the headwaters of the Kern from those of the Kaweah until they meet farther west for the joint trip downcanyon to the farms and faucets of the Valley.
Weve crossed now from Kings Canyon National Park into Sequoia National Park and consequently are seeing a lot more people, most of them Whitney-bound now. Previously the route of choice sounded like a loop of sorts from Roads End in Kings Canyon through Paradise Valley, up Woods Creek to Rae Lakes, over Glen Pass (grunt grunt) then down to Vidette Meadows and back west to Sequoia. Many other loops possible using Kearsarge Pass and Taboose Pass (supposed to be rough) and, from further north, Lamarck Col and Bishop Pass.
All these folks but still no bears. Heard from the Houston man that his party had had a bit of trouble at Kearsarge Lakes, evidently a popular campsite. Their food properly stashed in canisters (bearisters), Bear nevertheless chewed on a couple of empty packs poor frustrated, neurotic Bear! Grandfather in a smelly fur coat!
From Forester we continued our third-to-last day by descending the broad valley of Tyndall Creek, northernmost tributary of the mighty Kern. In the distance a helicopter lifted off from the apparent location of the ranger station, maybe with a sick or injured hiker. Looking back, it was hard to see where the pass crested the ridge, this side was so sheer. No quick way out of here except by climbing. We finally crossed the creek, climbed its other side and ended up at Tyndall Frog Ponds, at the foot of Tawny Peak, what we assumed (correctly, as it turned out) would be our last truly secluded campsite. Well, somewhat secluded anyway. So we took a dip, washed the socks, lit up the Cubans Mayock had bestowed upon us, indulged in a dollop or two of rum, and relaxed as much as you can when some yokels yelling across the little lake youre camped at. It was quiet later.
Next morning, Day Seventeen, a climb to Bighorn Plateau and a thirty-minute side jaunt recommended by Starr to offer one of the best views in the Sierra, from a bare hilltop SW of a little lake on the trail. We looked down the Kern, over to a couple of 14ers, across to the Kaweah Peaks, back to the Kings-Kern Divide, etc. and down into Wright and Wallace creeks, where the High Sierra Trail from Sequoia park meets up with the JMT.
Then what seemed like a long hot climb, though only a few hundred feet of elevation gain, up and over to Whitney Creek. At that point I got a little sick, exhausted and unhappy, blaming it on overconsumption of old salami, the cigars, the rum . . .
Lunch by a stream at Upper Crabtree Meadow was in close proximity to the largest public campground wed seen since Muir Trail Ranch, but this one more like the cars were only a short stroll away, spaces spread out on big flats under the trees. Somehow, salami and all, I staggered the three miles and 1300 feet up to Guitar Lake, a virtual human zoo and the staging area for Whitney. We found two rocky tent spaces near the neck of the guitar, nearly all that was left but close to the water. In less than an hour, five tentfuls of Boy Scouts from Whittier had moved in only a few yards away.
A little further along the lake we met Jay and his son Seth. Jays the Vermont State Forester, his son a newly graduated engineer about to start work for a Massachusetts computer company. Talkative, for New Englanders in fact, they bemoaned what they said was less sociability on the JMT compared to the AT.
For dinner we cooked up a pot of nearly everything we had left: garlic sautéed in olive oil, sundried tomatoes, dehydrated onion flakes, dulse, Janes Crazy Mixed-Up Salt, and chili powder, all to spice up a big pot of polenta. Next morning was a two-holer, Im afraid several mad dashes into the jumble of rocks behind our tents, trying to dodge the eyes of all the people who had settled into even more sketchy sites than ours, some of them having arrived after dark.
Jay and Seth were long gone when we finished our cold breakfast of gorp washed down with tea, struck camp for the last time and began the long slow dramatic climax of our journey.
Up through the dim early light, feeling a little spry in the cool air, climbing gradually at first past the upper bench lakes, in retrospect a better place to have camped. Up the long grade and then set after set of switchbacks, turning on their heels in cool rocky alcoves, spiraling up sections of slope between sheer dropoffs, approaching the trail junction below the crest, and as we rose, and the sun line crept closer, projecting Whitneys needling skyline across the lakes basin and far-off ridge, the most awesome view slowly spread out before us, marred only to the south by smoke from various wildfires small & large, smoke which only obscured the most distant elevations to the southwest, far below in the Kern Canyon Merle Haggard coming to mind, oil rigs around Bakersfield, Okies in the Valley haze, just over a mountain or two from the palm-studded fleshpots of LA what did they know of these savage ridgetops cradling glaciers, these cool burbling mountain streams and waterfalls roaring over white granite? The Kern by the time they knew it, a broad placid flood streaming west and north to its San Francisco Bay rendezvous, a setting for trysts, parties and other passions unless it was a rainy February or prematurely warm April or May and the great brown flood came, flecked with foam and swimming with pine logs, uprooted oaks, timbers and dead cattle, to spread over the old tule lands where the Indians used to float on family-sized houseboats before the farmers came.
Worth exploring, maybe some spring or fall away from the summer heat: these canyons, the Kern and the King, walls up to 8000 feet from river to rim, the highest such relief in North America, or so says Starr. But I wouldnt really be "exploring," rather wandering as an adventure tourist in places many feet have already trod, under much poorer circumstances of supply and equipage.
At the appropriate place we added our packs to the growing pile at 13,500 feet, took some water, snacks and cameras, with the last roll of film, and headed for the summit. We joined a river of early risers up from Trail Camp on the eastern approach, quite a parade in the bright morning sun. Here came Jay and Seth, headed down already, with tales of the several dozen who spent the night huddled on the summit, tents flapping in the wind ("some of them really stupid," Jay leaned closer to confide) and freezing in badly chosen sleeping bags. Up and up some more, a long traverse along the summit ridge past startling views of the Owens Valley two miles below, scenic vignettes framed by the "notch windows" along the ridge, like big slices into the stony backbone. Finally a maze of ad hoc pathways through the slabs and sliding scree to the top, populated by dozens of wandering hikers in every direction, some puffing for breath here almost three miles above sea level, some marching in close formation, twos and threes mostly, some stretched-out processions, one big guy in dreadlocks, full pack and Teva sandals, and a pair of men, one in a kilt, carrying a set of bagpipes. "I had not thought that death had undone so many."
A large square stone hut with metal roof and wooden door, array of lightning rods and an imposing summit register, the contents of which (McKoy informs me) are stored at the Smithsonian, those pages that dont blow away, a distinct possibility. Around us, 40, 50, or 60 people coming and going (mostly coming at this time of the morning) and groups of all sizes sitting around on slabs, the main activity of the day seeming to be dialing cell phones, scurrying around the broad summit plateau looking for the best signal, and calling Uncle Frank ("Guess where I am!" How many of them know?) Little of the reverence I would have accorded to the highest point in the Lower 48, with the grandest and most complicated view across three or four divides, across eastern California and Death Valley, the Owens Valley sacrificed, sucked dry for the personal pools and municipal fountains of the LA Basin, the thicket of peaks wed just crossed on our 17 ½ -day trek, the grand suggestive immensity of the Kern and distant wooded foothill ridges across the ranges to the west; and not to ignore the closer 14ers, lakes below us to the east and west, and the final incontrovertible tilting of the fault block, evidence that the Sierra Nevada did in fact tear its way straight up from the eastern side, tilting toward the west as the rivers cut their canyons
Tom & I strolled the summit for a while in a kind of culture shock, watching orange-helmeted climbers arrive from the mountaineering route, others fussing with their phones, yet others taking pictures of the views and one another. We shot our last frames and eventually began our descent to the pile of packs 1000 feet below, passing those dizzy or nauseous with altitude sickness, or still working their dogged ways upward. Once again burdened, we climbed a few hundred feet to Trail Crest at 13,600, then down, down, down, going down. Ninety-nine switchbacks, trailworkers maintaining them even as we pounded downward, ever downward. With only a few pauses, one at the Trail Camp solar toilet beside the bleak rocky moonscape of a campground, crowded with tents and hikers and smelling ever so faintly of excrement, we determinedly descended the 8.2 miles and 6000 vertical feet to Whitney Portal and Toms pickup patiently waiting. "The horse home to the barn" effect, my companion called it, our implacable, irresistible, wordless surrender to the gravitational attraction of that narrow green notch so far below, white canyon walls converging like an arrow pointing out into the swirling brown Owens Valley, bisected and trisected by geometrical roads, farms and fault zones.
Although the views and changing vegetation interested what little of our awareness remained, not a single campsite looked worth taking, despite a few blue-green lakes, umber-barked foxtail pines, bushes loaded with juicy gooseberries, flowers, creeks, waterfalls, bright granite. Nothing appealed to our aesthetic sensibilities like the glint, far below in the V-notch of Lone Pine Creek canyon, of parked vehicles at the trailhead.
And so. Like us unsatisfied with the camping possibilities, Jay & Seth were waiting for us at the final few steps as we unbelievingly passed the trailhead sign, footsore, dirty, thirsty but quietly exuberant (speaking for myself, at least), so cruelly delayed and played with by uncountable switchbacks and looping traverses. Truck intact, unmolested by the bears that nightly roam the parking lot, and within the blessed bags of clean clothes, sandals, and money wherewith to buy a couple of beers and telephone for a room reservation in Bishop. Jay treated us to steak & prime rib dinners at PJs in Lone Pine, after which we drove them to their rental car at Onion Valley above Independence and below 9200 Kearsarge Pass, the convenient entry point they had used (although Winnett warns of "ghastly bear problems" and the tale we heard at Bubbs Creek seems to bear this out).
The motel in Bishop showed up none too soon, and after showers that in my case at least turned the rinse water black and washed a twig from my hair, we sank grateful and clean into the softest beds in the universe, stared mute and uncomprehending at the 50 channels on the TV, and fell asleep to the sound of America pursuing its summer migrations up and down Highway 395 in the moonlit shadows of the High Sierra.
Back to Fenimore home page . . .