JMT 2019 Day 20: 99 Switchbacks (and not one is fun)

September 23, 2019
Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal
Day miles: 15 mi
Cumulative miles: 215.5 mi

My alarm is set for 1:30 but I wake up at 1 AM to the sound of trekking poles clicking. I snooze until my alarm rings and promptly get up to pee and pack up. I made coffee before bed and put it in my thermos in my mostly empty bear can, and I went to sleep wearing my hiking clothes. I pack a little differently since I am wearing my puffy and long johns and pack a summit pack on top of everything. Inside my little Montbell Versalite pack are an emergency blanket, my rain pants and rain jacket, extra batteries for my head lamp, snacks and my coffee for the summit.

I start hiking around 2 AM. I start the climb but soon lose the trail because the light of my headlamp is too faint. The batteries are dying. I change the batteries and remedy the situation. (Side note: I hate the Black Diamond Spot headlamp I have. It has too many functions so the “smart” multi-touch control is not intuitive and despite a battery lock function to prevent it from turning on by accident in your pack, it seems to drain battery very quickly. I don’t use a headlamp often, and when I do it’s for reading or writing inside my tent at low brightness, but I always seem have to change the batteries in pitch black whenever I actually need to use the headlamp for night hiking.)

It does not feel cold when I wake up, maybe because I am already wearing my pant and puffy jacket, and maybe because the air is still cooling down from daytime. Right before the sun comes up is when the temperature is the coldest. As I hike I quickly delayer. I marvel at how absurd it is to be hiking at 12,000 ft in the middle of the night in a T-shirt. But as I climb higher the temperature drops and I re-layer. Occasionally, I see the light of headlamps that could be mistaken for stars, bobbing slightly and moving across the dark night above me.

It gets so cold that I stop to put away my trekking poles so I can put my hands in my puffy jacket pockets. My wool glove liners are inadequate. And then suddenly I am at Whitney Junction. It is just after 4 AM. Taking my summit pack, I head up the 1.9 mile trail to Whitney summit. The summit pack feels so light I check a couple times to make sure I remembered to bring my water bottle. The trail skirts the west side of the ridge and is full of large boulders. These must be from the many rockfalls/rock slides that have occurred over the last hundred years. We don’t do trail building like we used to (during the Great Depression). When the trail becomes unclear, I sweep the surroundings with my headlamp and always manage to find it again.

Surprisingly, no one passes me the entire climb up the Whitney trail, though I did see some headlamps bobbing below me. Finally, my headlamp reflects off a white granite wall of the Whitney Summit Shelter. I switch my headlamp light to red and stumble inside. Inside are five other people freezing their asses off. Three of them had the foresight to bring their sleeping bags and they still look cold. It is 5:40 AM. The horizon is beginning to glow. I put on my rain pants and rain jacket over my hiking clothes and sip my coffee, which is still pretty warm but doesn’t seem to have any effect warming me up.

When we can see light through the window, we all head outside to watch. I sit on my Thinlight foam pad folded into a sit pad to insulate me from the cold granite but it still gets really cold, so I pull out my emergency blanket. It is unwieldy because it is so windy on the summit, but I gradually manage to gather it around me and it does help. But after a while my toes still get so painfully cold I give up and go back to the shelter to rewarm, jumping up and down out of the wind. I meet another solo JMT hiker, Justin, who comes in to warm his hands by doing pushups. His phone is dead, so when we head back out and the sun does come up, I take some photos to send him and he takes some of me in return.

There is a sheet of clouds over the mountains to the east across the Owens Valley making the sunrise dramatic. The Sierras light up in light gray behind us. It is too cold to take many photos or watch for too long, so everyone heads back into the hut to rewarm. I eat my breakfast Probar while trying to recover feeling (besides pain) in my fingers and toes. Justin takes a great photo of this, not flattering but real.

I sign the summit register, but it’s almost too cold to write. The pen is nearly frozen and my hands are shaky. I don’t remember what I wrote. I begin to head back down at 7 AM. At the junction, I repack and switch to dry socks to warm my feet. Everyone seems slightly shell-shocked. After a bit, one group leaves and we all overhear a member of the group go “Why is there another uphill?”

It’s a short climb to Trail Crest. Once on the east side of the ridge, it is significantly warmer — sunshine and no wind. But I’ve still got 99 switchbacks (and not one is fun) to Trail Camp, followed by 5 miles of steep rocky down, down, down. I can see why these last 8 miles of trail to Whitney Portal aren’t part of the JMT. They are of a completely different character, of getting somewhere fast. Who’s idea was it to end such a beautiful trail with such an unrelenting sufferfest?

Mount Whitney is the tallest mountain in the Lower 48, so it is extremely popular with peak baggers near and far. 150 permits are issued per day for day-use and overnight climbs. After the remoteness of the JMT, it is jarring to see so many people. There are Silicon Valley achievement-oriented tech-types in full outfits of expensive brand-spanking new gear; Chinese, Arab and European tourists doing it as part of their Grand Tour of the United States; ordinary families huffing and puffing along that clearly aren’t going to make it… And JMT north-bounders, carrying fully-loaded packs uphill. Respect.

I meet Suki on the way down. We start chatting and she offers me a ride to Lone Pine. Trail angel! (We’ll exchange info and meet up for Korean food in LA post-trail.) I eat my lunch at Outpost Camp while she packs up her tent. She hiked all the way up to Trail Crest today but wasn’t feeling it so she turned around. I tell her that based on the conditions this morning on the other side, she probably made the right choice.

Finally, we reach Whitney Portal. About 8 meters from the end of the trail where it’s nice and well-paved, I roll my right ankle for the third time on this hike. I hobble over to weigh my pack on the scale at the portal. Then I hobble to a pit toilet. I managed to make it all the way down without having to poop in the no poop zone and didn’t end up using my wag bag! I think my body was confused by the alpine start. It is about 2:30 PM when I finish the day’s hike, the entire JMT and the journey I have been on for the last three years. I have no grand epiphanies, no sense of great achievement, all I want to do is make sure my car is still in Lone Pine, take a shower and eat a salad.

JMT 2019 Day 19: A Beautiful Day

September 22, 2019
Tyndall Frog Ponds to Guitar Lake
Day Miles: 11.5 mi
Cumulative Miles: 200.5 mi

When I woke up in the middle of the night to pee, two pairs of eyes reflected the light of my headlamp. The movement looked low and prowling. But when I turned up my headlamp to full brightness, it was just a pair of deer. Yay! Not mountain lions. Still, I stowed the trekking pole I had left leaning against a tree under my vestibule, both as a potential weapon and to prevent deer from stealing it to lick the salt off the grips.

In the morning, as I was almost packed up and about to stuff my tent into its stuff sack, my camping partner Janine and I were treated to a coyote symphony/cacaphony that sounded like it was coming from Diamond Mesa. The evening before, I read in the Wenk book that it you camp on Bighorn Plateau (about a mile and a half south), you likely hear coyotes early in the morning. Janine had borrowed the book and read the same section and we agreed it was uncanny. Again, I highly recommend bringing the Wenk guide book on the JMT, it is worth the weight to enrich your experience.

Big Horn Plateau was unlike any place else on the JMT. Dry and desert-y with 360 degree views of the surrounding peaks, grand vista because they were so far away. Having exited Kings Canyon NP over Forester Pass, the scenery was very different from the previous week. I spent almost a whole hour on the plateau taking it all in, including a 20 minute yoga session with the best views ever.

I followed the trail down into beautiful foxtail pine forest, the trees growing out of sandy patches between granite boulders.

Then, I took a snack break on a rock outcropping with expansive views before the trail drops down into the Wright Creek drainage. Janine passed me and I said, “The trail is too pretty! I’m never going to get anywhere today!” I took a third break in a lovely meadow and then lunched on the banks of Whitney Creek right after Crabtree Meadow.

There is so much variety in the scenery in this stretch of trail. How does the trail know I had just complained the day before about being scenery-ed out? It makes you just want to say “screw Whitney!” and keep hiking south on the PCT.

I found a quiet and excellent campsite on the bench and tarn just above the famous Guitar Lake, which was much less marginal that I expected for my last night on the trail. Guitar Lake is the last good spot to camp west of Mt. Whitney, so it is very crowded with hikers staging sunrise climbs of Mt. Whitney. Guitar Lake is at 11,500 feet. Because of overuse and the high elevation, you must bag and carry your poop out if you are heading west to Whitney Portal from about 2 miles east of Crabtree Meadow. The problem is there’s no tree cover around Guitar Lake and campsites behind every boulder so it’s not clear where one is supposed to deploy their wag bag. Do you poop inside your tent for cover then? I discuss this problem with a group of three High Sierra Trail hikers that are the only other party to camp on the bench that night. (The High Sierra Trail cuts east-west across the Sierra and also terminates at the top of Mt. Whitney.) I offer the HST hikers some stroopwafels and they are super happy, incredulous that I have extra food, since they packed really light. I’ve had too much food this whole trip! I try to convince them to climb Mt. Whitney for sunrise. We lounge on a dip in the granite on the edge of the bench shaped like a sectional couch and watch the sun set. Then I retire to get an early night for my early start.

It will be nearly 15 miles from here to Whitney Portal and 3000 feet up and 6000 feet down. The only other time I’ve done something like that was attempting to climb Grand Teton and the 6000 feet down from the lower saddle of Grand Teton after the whole scrambling/climbing part really killed my feet. I’m expecting a sufferfest.

JMT 2019 Day 18: The End is Nigh

September 21, 2019
Center Basin Junction to Tyndall Frog Ponds
Day miles: 10.5 mi
Cumulative miles: 189 mi

When I started hiking in the morning, my glove liners were wet from stuffing my frosty tent into its stuff sack. This made my hands painfully cold for the first 15 minutes of hiking, even after I took off my wet gloves and put my spare hiking socks on my hands instead.

I climbed out of another U-shaped glacial valley, left the last of the trees and began the steady climb up to Forester Pass. According to the Wenk book, after you leave the last tree, you are still 2000 vertical feet below the top of the pass. I was leapfrogging with familiar faces I had camped with or met coming over Kearsarge Pass the day before. When the sun finally came up over the ridge, I took a yoga break and stretched on some granite slabs. Across the trail, another hiker cooked herself breakfast. Then, I continued on. I felt like I was moving slower and slower.

Finally, I reached the top of Forester Pass. It was a veritable party at the top. After the cold morning, it was warm and not windy at the top! Usually it’s too windy at the top of a pass to linger for long. But this time, it was so nice that everyone was hanging out. I enjoyed my lunch.

Following a 40 minute break, I started my descent, passing a steep couloir. After a few long, rocky switchbacks, the trail mellowed out at the headwaters of Tyndall Creek. Of course, every time I come over a pass like this, I have to poop, which is a problem because tree cover always begins a ways down. This valley lacked the little islands of white bark pines I usually rely on and there were no trees until lodgepole pine habitat starts.Thankfully, I made it. Then I was only a couple miles from my planned campsite at Tyndall Frog Ponds. I scout out a beautiful lakeside camping spot and camp with a friend from Mt. Williamson Motel.

Tomorrow, there are no more big passes, just the set up for Whitney and the following day is the grand finale. It has come to the time where I wish I could stay on the trail forever. At the same time, I am ready to be finished. Shoulder season is full upon us. Nights and mornings are cold. I have hiked 16 days, but I don’t feel like I have gotten any faster or stronger. Sometimes I feel like I have been spoiled for amazing scenery and am not easily impressed anymore, but there are still small moments of indescribable beauty — a butterfly flitting downstream — that I would never notice if I weren’t out here moving so slowly, for so long.

JMT 2019 Day 17: Back on the Trail

September 20, 2019

Onion Valley to Center Basin Junction
Day Miles: 11.5 mi
Cumulative Miles: 178.5 mi

Following the lovely family-style breakfast at Mt. Williamson Motel, we were dropped off at Onion Valley around 8:40 am. The hike back up Kearsarge Pass was not as bad as I imagined it would be prior to beginning this hike. A resupply of 4 days of food is much more manageable than 8 days of food. Based on conversation with hikers coming down the trail as I was going up Kearsarge Pass, I had missed some snow flurries and a really cold night by taking a day off. I reached the top of Kearsarge Pass by noon, had lunch at the top, and took Bullfrog Lake Trail back to the John Muir Trail. (Between my first JMT attempt and this hike, I have hiked all of the “official” John Muir Trail, except for 0.6 miles between Kearsarge Pass Junction and Bullfrog Lake Junction.)

The trail climbed out of the valley along beautiful Bubbs Creek. The smooth glacially polished granite walls of East Vidette to the west contrasted with the Kearsarge Pinnacles, pointy and fragmented by freeze thaw cycles, to the east.

I made camp around 4 pm near Center Basin Junction with a couple of southbound PCT hikers I had met at breakfast, and made some classic President brand Taiwanese stewed pork instant noodles with a vacuum sealed tea egg for dinner. I had found these treasures in the hiker buckets at Mt. Williamson Motel. Went to sleep excited to climb my last big pass — Forester Pass — tomorrow!

JMT 2019 Day 16: Zero in Independence

September 19, 2019

Treasure from the hiker boxes at Mt. Williamson Motel
Walked all 8 blocks from one end of town to the other. Apparently this was snow up in the Sierra.
Lamb shank for dinner at the random French bistro in an otherwise gas station food town. I need all that connective tissue to strengthen my tendons.

JMT 2019 Day 15: The Trail Provides

September 18, 2019
Middle Rae Lake to Onion Valley
Day Miles: 12 mi
Cumulative Miles: 167 mi

Fin Dome

I wake up to a frosted tent at 5:30 am and am hiking by 6:30. Today, I need to go over Glen Pass and Kearsarge Pass and make it to Onion Valley in time for a 3 pm ride down to Independence. Shortly, I come across a full roll of toilet paper in a ziplock bag laying in the middle of the trail. I take a few sheets for the day and put the toilet paper somewhere visible on the side of the trail with a rock on top of it to hold it down for the next hiker. The trail provides! (Recall the wind snatched the last of my toilet paper when I came over Pinchot Pass two days earlier.)

The Painted Lady in the soft morning light

Glen Pass is the hardest pass I’ve climbed so far. The trail is interminable with many false summits. When I arrive at the top, I can’t tell where I am supposed to go next. Am I supposed to squeeze through these rocks? I walk along the ridge, look down, and see so many switchbacks… I have never seen so many switchbacks in my life!

I imagine what it’d be like to ski this chute in the spring. The switchbacks turn out to be not as terrible as they look. Soon I am having my second coffee and morning snack and switching out my socks at the first grove of whitebark pines after Glen Pass. It is 9 am.

I reach the junction of the JMT and the trail to Kearsarge Pass by 9:45. I’m taking the higher trail above Bullfrog Lake, and it’s exposed and dry. I should have filled up on water because the trail skirts high above the first couple alpine lakes on the other side of Kearsarge Pass too. 

I see a lumbering silhouette ahead of me on the trail. A heavy set man with a huge, antiquated external frame pack, all sorts of lumpy objects strapped to it, including a giant sleeping roll hanging from the bottom. He appears to be wearing his rain pants with a giant tear in the butt, a loose flap of fabric flapping. This is weird because the trail is exposed, with no shade and the sun is beating down, hot.

He is laboring each step and I catch up to him quickly. His pack is so huge it takes up the entire trail. “Excuse me,” I call a couple times to try to get his attention so I can pass, but he’s concentrating so hard or suffering so much he doesn’t hear me. Finally, I manage to skitter around him, surprising him and he apologizes for not realizing I was there. He asks me if I know where the next water source is. I say I’m not sure, there might not be one until after Kearsarge Pass, and he looks distressed. But soon after I pass him, I cross a nice clear trickle of a stream over the rocky trail and wave back at him, shouting that there is water and he shouts a thanks in return.

I make it over Kearsarge Pass, get cell reception and call Mt. Williamson Motel in Independence. I get their voicemail and leave a message that I am on schedule for my ride from the trailhead and would love to stay two nights (I only reserved one) so I can take a zero.

I descend into the trees where the trail approaches a stream and am looking for a good water source / lunch spot when Ellen appears! We take a lunch break together. I ask her if she saw “an anachronism” along the trail and she laughs and says she knows exactly who I am talking about. Sadly, she has decided to leave the trail at Onion Valley and cut this hike short because it’s been a tough hike for her, but her friends had left her a resupply in the bear boxes at Charlotte Lake, so she’s packing a big bag of potato chips, which I am happy to help with. It is so nice to catch up with a friend, but she’s taking it slow and I have to catch a scheduled ride, so we part ways and I take off ahead of her. 


I make it to Onion Valley Trailhead where I meet other hikers waiting for the same ride to Mt. Williamson Motel. A few people are joyously riffling through outdated resupplies in the bear boxes. They’ve even discovered a bottle of wine. (People often leave resupplies in the bear boxes with an expected arrival date. Past that date, the contents are fair game.) I’ve had too much food my entire hike so I just take the opportunity while we are waiting to spread my tent out to dry.

We are shuttled to Mt. Williamson Motel in a little van with a wagon hitched behind it to carry all of our backpacks. When we get out I scramble to dig out my wallet from down in my pack so I can tip the driver. (Should have used wait time at the bottom of the trail to find wallet, but at that point had forgotten that money was a thing.) Lauralyn gives us the spiel. Like VVR, Mt. Williamson Motel is a JMT institution. Lauralyn and her husband are many-time JMT hikers themselves and and recently purchased the property from Strider (the previous legendary owner). There is a free arrival beer, loaner clothes and well-organized hiker buckets. First things first, Lauralyn wants us to turn in our laundry so that she can do it and give it back to us clean before tomorrow morning. There is an efficient and hiker focused system in place. Lucky for me, they did have a room available for two nights, so I get to take a zero! Tomorrow is for luxuriating!

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.

JMT 2019 Day 12: Another Day in Paradise

September 15, 2019
Little Pete Meadow to Upper Palisade Lake
Day miles: 13 mi
Cumulative miles: 129.3 mi

Was out of camp by 7 am and, chased by mosquitoes, made it 8 miles by 11 am, including a stretch break and a second poop!


Sunrise in Le Conte Canyon


Langille Peak


The Citadel


Grouse Meadow


Deer Meadow

Early in the day there are a few wisps of rippling clouds in the sky, that a Mammoth local informs me are called “mares’ tails” and usually indicate that precipitation is on its way. It’s been perfect blue skies for the last 10 days. What is rain? By the time I reach the Golden Staircase, the sky is fully overcast. After the mosquito-filled meadows and forests, the rocky, exposed, dry Golden Staircase is actually a welcome respite. No mosquitoes! A breeze! And the cloudy skies mean that it never gets too hot. I power past a group of college-aged beginner backpackers who are clearly struggling.


Impressively tidy and well-graded switch backs of the Golden Staircase, unobtrusively tucked into a rock wall,  seamlessly traversing from one gully to the next.  When you look up you can’t quite see where it is going, or it seems to disappear, but when you are on it you can climb the 1500 feet steadily at a constant pace, and it’s actually quite pleasant. This was the last section of the JMT to be completed in 1938.


Almost at the top!

I reach Lower Palisade Lake around 2 pm and the obvious camp spots around Upper Palisade Lake by 2:30. Seems too early to stop for the day, so I contemplate going over Mather Pass and camping at one of the tarns on the other side. As I am looking for a water source to refill my water before attempting to go over the pass, I spot a single sheltered tentsite with a beautiful view of the lake in the last copse of whitebark pines before everything becomes ground hugging shrubs and granite. I continue on, but as I filter some water at a small trickle of a stream along the trail the wind picks up. I chicken out of climbing Mather and backtrack to claim that tent site, the last campsite that is not completely exposed for miles. I still have tomorrow or the day after to do a long day where I climb over two passes in one day.


Lower and Upper Palisade Lakes. There are Palisades Lakes near when I live in Idaho too, so I looked up what a “palisade” is. “Palisade” originally means a defensive wall made of steel or wooden stakes (think fort or stockade), but is a common name for cliffs (especially columnar basalt) abutting a body of water, e.g. the Palisades along Hudson River in New York and New Jersey.


Mather Pass

With all the hemming and hawing about Mather, it’s about 3:30 when I set up camp but still quite early. The sun comes out. I go back to the water source and do a bit of washing, hoping it will dry before dark, but by 4 pm the sun is weak and it’s noticeably cooler. I enjoy my dinner and journal in the last rays of the sun while perched on a rock overlooking Upper Palisade Lake, and go to sleep with my damp clothes tucked into my sleeping bag so that my body heat will finish drying them overnight.


Upper Palisade Lake — my tent is tucked in the trees to the right

JMT 2019 Day 11: Swimming with Tadpoles

September 14, 2019

Evolution Lake to Little Pete Meadow
Day miles: 13 mi
Cumulative miles: 116.3 mi


Moon-set over Evolution Valley

I fall asleep watching the full Harvest Moon rise over Evolution Lake. I wake up to Orion hanging right outside my still half-open tent vestibule. No bugs, no wind, warm night. My sleeping pad stayed full, though I give it a few extra breaths at 5 am before deciding to get up early anyway and watch the moon set. I eat a Clif bar without trouble, make my coffees, and am on the trail hiking at 6:40 am.


Leaving camp at dawn

Evolution Basin is gorgeous and shaded from the morning sun and the combination of great scenery and cool morning makes for a brisk pace.


Trail skirting Evolution Lake


Evolution Lake

After about an hour of hiking to warm up, I take a 20 minute yoga break at Sapphire Lake to enjoy the sunrise. Ken and Danny pass me as I am rolling up my yoga mat and I leap frog with them all day.


Sapphire Lake

I stop on the banks of Wanda Lake, inflate my sleeping pad and submerge it in the clear waters. No bubbles confirms no leaks!


The shore of Wanda Lake looked like a rainbow


Ken and Danny passing me, as I stop to check my sleeping pad for leaks at Wanda Lake

It’s a steady, mellow incline up to Muir Pass alongside sapphire lakes, reflecting the intense blue of the cloudless sky, among stark white granite. I catch up to Ken and Danny on the top of Muir Pass. We take photos of each other and have lunch by the famous stone shelter. They make fun of me when I pull out my thermos of hot coffee. I think they are jealous.


Crazy beautiful sky mirrors


Muir Hut

One the other side of Muir Pass, the trail follows snow melt streams down another string of beautiful alpine lakes. It is sunny and hot so I decide to strip down to my underwear and jump in alongside the giant endemic tadpoles. (No fish up here!) I think I manage to stay in for 2 or 3 minutes. It was pretty cold! It was the perfect day for a swim; by the time I got down to Big Pete Meadow, my underwear was dry.




Rocky descent




Mountain Yellow-legged Frog tadpole!

Following the string of beautiful lakes, the trail follows the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Kings River as they become an impressive series of cascades and then mellow into a river meandering gently through lush meadows at the bottom of a glacially scoured granite canyon — Le Conte Canyon. Apparently, this is what Yosemite Valley used to be like before “they paved paradise, put up a parking lot” and all that jazz.



Hello! Le Conte Canyon!

The day was so gorgeous, the scenery so magical, I felt so physically strong. My sleeping pad was fixed. My pack was carrying well since it had lightened up. The climb up Muir Pass was steady and not too steep, and the rocky descent was broken up into interesting and varied sections. There were so many small beautiful things on the trail: the sound of water tinkling over smooth rock, the sun glinting off glacier polished granite, the intense colbalt blue of the lakes, wildflowers. I am so so stoked, just elated to be out here in paradise.


Feeling goofy with the Le Conte rock monster, another JMT “Easter egg”

I pass Ken and Danny setting up camp in a shady grove of trees at Little Pete Meadow, but determine that campsite is too buggy for me. (I am very mosquito susceptible.) I hike a little further and set up on a little shelf behind a tree on the other side of the trail where it is a bit higher up and drier and, I hope, less buggy.


My home for the night

But I’ve had such a great day I want to talk about it, so I take my dinner re-hydrating in its foil pouch down to Ken and Danny’s campsite, where I hide from mosquitoes in the smoke of the campfire they have built. We review our upcoming itineraries. At Ken’s advice I decide I will alter mine to go over Mather Pass and Pinchot Pass in a single day, since those are the passes with the least elevation gain/loss between them. Then a family of deer come to investigate. Did you know that baby deer meow? We’re sitting around the campfire and not 10 feet away the deer circle and sniff at Ken and Danny’s tents. Then they take off, not running away startled, but romping, hopping like bunnies on all four feet across the meadow. The sight is comical. I say, “I read on Guthooks that a deer at one of the campsites in this area will steal your trekking poles. Maybe it is this one.” I glance at the guys’ trekking poles just stuck upright in the ground in the campsite next to their respective tents. The guys laugh, but don’t move their trekking poles and we keep talking.

Two days later, I’ll see them on the climb up Mather Pass and they’ll say, “You were right!” They woke up and their trekking poles were gone! They found them in the meadow covered with deer spit and had to rinse them off in the river. As proof, Ken will show me how the deer chewed the brand logos off the wrist straps of his poles.