JMT 2019 Day 14: Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail

September 17, 2019
Small tarn at 11,000 ft south of Pinchot Pass to Middle Rae Lake
Day Miles: 11.1 mi
Cumulative Miles: 155 mi

I wake up to my wristwatch alarm at 6 am and discover my campsite is beautiful, perched above a little pond reflecting the mountains above in its glasslike surface now that things are calm. I make my dinner for breakfast. The good thing about making Mountain House meals for breakfast is I get to sit with a little hot water bottle in my sleeping bag while I wait for my food to rehydrate.


We are back to beautiful blue skies with nary a wisp of cloud. Last night my wrist was still itchy and swollen from the bee sting at VVR. To sleep through the storm, I took some Benadryl. As a side effect, the swelling in my wrist is gone. Highs and lows on the John Muir Trail.



The so-called “Golden Gate of the Sierra”, a very bouncy suspension bridge over Woods Creek


I liked this sign at the large campsite at Woods Creek Junction, just across the bridge.

In Kings Canyon NP, the JMT’s MO is to climb a hanging valley up to another hanging valley, go over a pass connecting two glacial basins, follow the headwaters of a creek down until the creek turns into cascades, descend into a valley until the creek meanders in great wide S-curves through a meadow, junction with another creek, follow that creek up, up, up… and so on. Just when you think, “Whose idea was it to build this insufferable trail that goes incessantly up one canyon and down another!” you reach Dollar Lake and discover another high alpine paradise — the Rae Lakes. Such is the JMT, like an emotionally abusive romantic partner that is just so beautiful and talented, you endure being jerked up and down.


Dollar Lake and Fin Dome, which looks like one of the Tetons came over to the Sierras for a vacation.


Rae Lakes Basin

I set up camp at Middle Rae Lake pretty early, taking it easy after yesterday’s harrowing day, and spend quite a bit of time wiping black dust from everything with my bandana. Even after that effort my hands still turn black from touching any of my gear. Once upon a time, my tent was impregnated with red dust from Southern Utah, now it’s black dust from under Pinchot Pass!

I soak my feet in the lake, wash some laundry, hang it to dry on a rocky perch by the lakeside, leisurely heat up and eat my dinner, journal… And then, when I go to wipe out my cook pot, I cannot find my bandana! It’s green, plant-based hand-tied tie-dye and made of hemp that dries quickly. I bought it over 15 years ago in Okinawa, while on the 55th Japan-America Student Conference. I’d been giving it quite a work out on this hike, and it was starting to develop holes from all the wear, but I love it and it is my everything towel! What am I going to wipe my nose with? By now, the campsite is full of other people and I make the rounds asking everyone if they have seen a green bandana fly by. When I have given up and return to the spot I was sitting and pick up everything to bring back to my tent, I find my bandana! (Smushed under my electronics bag to prevent escape.) Yay! It’s funny how losing anything on the trail incites panic, because you’ve stripped down everything you packed as much as possible and if you can’t find something, you need that thing! That one particular thing, much more than you would in normal life, where you can easily get a replacement.


The Painted Lady at dusk

JMT 2019 Day 13: The Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Windstorm

September 16, 2019
Upper Palisade Lake to small tarn at 11,000 ft south of Pinchot Pass
Day Miles: 14.6 mi
Cumulative Miles: 143.9 mi

I treated myself to hot breakfast — a breakfast burrito filled with Mountain House scrambled eggs — and was on the trail by 7 AM. My firefighter friends caught up with me halfway up Mather Pass. It was so windy. The clouds were racing by overhead. I kept all my warm layers on for the whole climb. Someone was taking a timelapse on the top of Mather Pass, capturing the terrible beauty of the ominous clouds and dramatic rays of light streaming through breaks in the clouds and illuminating the walls of slick shiny granite.


View toward Mather Pass in the morning


View south of Mather Pass

I could have stayed to watch forever… if it wasn’t so cold and windy. So, after a few sips of hot coffee from my thermos, I headed quickly down the other side. I had just finished the steep and rocky decent and pulled out my iPhone to take a photo of nice flat trail following the rolling glacial moraine when I rolled my ankle, hard, and collapsed flat onto the nice flat and straight trail. I always twist my ankle when the ground is flat!

Flat, straight trail that I proceed to fall on.

I tried to pull over to eat some food in a grove of whitebark pines under the pass, but they didn’t provide much wind protection. I couldn’t find a place to pee all day where my pee didn’t spray right back at me. It was a bit better at the bottom of the valley, where the South Fork of the Kings River crosses the trail and the trail begins to climb up toward Pinchot Pass. The trail climbs up to another beautiful bench of alpine lakes. Above treeline below Pinchot Pass, the wind picked up again. Despite the sun emerging, I had to wear my Buff in balaclava mode.


Still windy in here


In the southern half of the JMT there is the least amount of mileage and elevation gain/loss between Mather and Pinchot passes. But, what brutal weather conditions.


Taboose Pass closed due to the fire I’d seen smoke from on Highway 395 before I started my hike


View from the climb up Pinchot Pass


Atop Pinchot Pass, lenticular clouds were stacked like pancakes, evincing how strong the winds were. On the descent, I had to stop and brace against my trekking poles every time a wind gust picked up to keep from falling over. And then I had to poop. This would often happen after climbing a pass, and usually I try to make it down past treeline, for cover and soil adequate for cathole digging. Whitebark pines are my friends! But this time I wasn’t going to make it. I’d already gone 14 miles over two passes, my feet were spent (especially with my ginger right ankle), and with wind whipping my face all day, I was just about over it. Where the trail rounded to the left, I took a right cross-country to a pile of boulders, behind which I dug a cathole best I could. I did my business and as I unzipped the small ziplock bag that is my shit kit, the wind swooped down and snatched my last three sheets of toilet paper and whipped them into the air and who knows where. You gotta be f-ing kidding me! Honestly, this was not a super big deal because I still had wet wipes, but at the time I was so defeated.


Lenticular clouds about Pinchot Pass


I made it down to the first groups of whitebark pines and started looking for a tentsite. I just wanted to set up my tent and get out of the wind. I finally found a site sheltered by a half-circle of trees, but I still had to stretch out prone on top of first my ground sheet and then my tent to manage to stake it down. I tied one of the guy-lines to a tree with the thought that at least my tent wouldn’t fly away with me in it and ducked inside.

I crouched upright in my tent wondering what to do next. The inside of my tent was rapidly coated with a layer of fine black dust, sieved through the no-see-um mesh around the edges of my tent. It’s all over my hands and face. No point in trying to cook dinner. I ate two Clif Bars for dinner and lay down, pulling my sleeping bag over my head. It was still bright and PCT hikers were still walking by. For the first and only time on this trip, I went somewhere else, listening to Desert Solitaire on audio book off my phone. I listened to Abbey describing desert sandstorms blowing little piles of red dust through the cracks of his trailer, and it seemed fitting.

When I woke up at 11:30 PM, it was quiet. I cautiously left my tent to re-tension it, saggy from all the violent jerking by the wind. The moon and stars were bright and close in the calm and clear night sky. I peed and went back to bed.