JMT 2019 Day 1: Return to Upper Lyell Base Camp


September 4, 2019
Tuolumne Meadows to Upper Lyell Basecamp (11 mi)

I set off from the Tuolumne Meadows backpacker campground around 7 am, foregoing hot breakfast at Tuolumne Meadows Grill which doesn’t open until 8 am. Lyell Canyon is gorgeous of course, with the river running over bare granite and open meadows just starting to yellow for fall. The forecast posted at the the general store said thunderstorms after 11 am, so I want to get as far as I can by then.


The trail up Lyell Canyon, a classic U-shaped glacial valley, is pretty flat. My pack, loaded with 7 days of food, is manageable but not comfortable. Every hour or so my shoulders start to cramp up. But if I take a short break I quickly recover and am able to keep going again. It hails a bit, but when I finally pull over and duck under a tree to put on my rain jacket, it stops. And that is the function of rain jackets, e.g. if you don’t bring one, it will definitely rain.


After a leisurely 300 feet of elevation gain over almost 10 miles, suddenly you reach The Wall, and begin to climb what feels like straight up out of the valley. I leap frog with a couple other solo lady hikers and reach my intended campsite at Upper Lyell base camp just before 3 pm. I could have hiked farther but I don’t think I want to continue on up Donohue Pass before eating some more of my food (and lightening my pack)!

This is the same campsite Jackie and I camped at in 2017. This time it is warm and pleasant instead of deathly cold. The bad thing is mosquitos definitely gather when the wind dies down. Good thing the location tends to be very windy from the katabatic winds coming down from the pass. When I camped here in 2017, the wind snatched the gray stuff sack for my tent when I unpacked. Blown into a landscape of gray granite, the stuff sack was lost forever. Since that day, I have preferred bright colors for my outdoor gear.

After setting up camp, I roll out my Thinlight foam pad to do some yoga and promptly roll my right ankle on a tuft of grass. First day of my hike and of course I injure myself when I’m not even hiking!

I am sitting on a rock in the breeze writing in my journal when Larry rolls up, followed soon after by Ellen, both also hiking solo. These are my campsite mates for the night and we have dinner together. Larry is talkative, wears bright compression socks and works for one of the big four accounting firms. Ellen is a former athlete with a career in sports medicine. In her 60’s and having sustained injuries and worn out her body over the years, she hikes completely hunched over her trekking poles in jerky movements, overcoming pain with pure tenacity. She’s an experienced mountaineer, warm and funny, packs a handle of whiskey and is a total bad ass.


View of Donohue Pass from my campsite.

2017 Upper Lyell Basecamp

Same exact view September 23, 2017. The small lake is actively freezing over after the sun dropped down behind the mountains to the west.


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