September 10, 2014
Distance: 14 miles
Traveled: Upper Palisade Lake to Twin Lakes Outlet
“Now away we go toward the topmost mountains. Many still, small voices, as well as the noon thunder, are calling, “Come higher.” Farewell, blessed dell, woods, gardens, streams, birds, squirrels, lizards, and a thousand others. Farewell. Farewell.”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
The moon had been so bright during the night that I kept waking up thinking it was dawn. But finally, when the moon fell behind the mountains to the west, I was able to get some sleep.
I woke up a bit before sunrise and spent some time in my tent still nestled in my sleeping bag, organizing my stuff and writing – procrastinating on packing up in the cold. I was a bit anxious about the day ahead, as today would be the “2 Pass Day”. We would be hiking over both Mather Pass and Pinchot Pass before days end. I had been told that if you’re going to do 2 passes in a day, these were the two to do, but I knew better than to assume any of it would be easy
Friz emerged as I made breakfast, and the two of us went about our morning routine, with no sign of life from Calley’s tent. As we were getting ready to leave she made her morning appearance, and said she was going to take her time getting ready but would see us down the trail.
We set off as the sun was just starting to peak over the Palisades.
Not far up the pass I spotted this little heart lake that I had seen photos of, and was so looking forward to seeing.
I was pleasantly surprised that we had done most of the climb up Mather Pass the day before. We had only about 1.75 miles to the top of the pass from our camp, and it felt like a surprisingly easy walk in the cold morning air with my rested lungs and legs.
Barely an hour after starting our day we were already at the top of Mather Pass (12,100’). We stopped for photos and to take in the views.
Friz climbed up a talus-covered slope above the pass, while I wandered around taking photos. Suddenly I heard the sound rock hitting rock. I looked up and didn’t see Friz anywhere. I yelled his name. No response. My heart immediately skipped a beat in sudden panic. I yelled for him again. No response. My mind started racing, fearing the worst – he fell, a rock fell, something happened because I didn’t see him anymore and he wasn’t answering me. I yelled again. No response. Shit. I was getting ready to dive for my pack to dig out my first aid kit and my inReach and start up towards where I last saw him, when he emerged from behind a boulder above. I yelled to him that he almost gave me a heart attack. Somehow he didn’t hear me calling his name, and he had no idea what the sound was that I heard. I was relieved, yet partially wanted to club him for scaring the crap out of me.
We started down into Upper Basin, and I moved on ahead while Friz took his time leaving the top.
Hauling-ass down the backside of passes had become a favorite pastime of mine. After huffing and puffing my way up, and recovering at the top, I was able to fly down the trail incredibly fast. It always felt so good to speed downhill with such little effort after an uphill slog. Though I did come up with a few “Lessons Learned on the JMT” while out there – one of which was:
“What goes up, will go down, and eventually will go way way up again.”
I stopped at a lake at the bottom of the switchbacks to grab some water before the hot, exposed, traverse through the basin. Three other thru-hikers that I had not met before were sitting by the lakes edge. They were moving much faster than Friz and I, and were planning on finishing in only 2 more days. They were already mentally in town – gushing about all the pizza they were going to eat, beer they were going to drink, and football they were going to watch when they got to Lone Pine. Dreaming of eating real food and drinking cold beverages was not something I was yet allowing my mind to think about, as it would be mean nothing more than inner torture. We were still 4 days away from town, and I needed to stay present. I needed to appreciate every moment on the trail, because I had no idea if I would ever see these places again. No vegan pizza dreams for now….
Upper Basin was incredibly sparse, yet breathtaking. It truly felt like a landscape from a far-flung planet. Huge boulders were strewn everywhere, many seemingly oddly out of place. The boulders and rocks scattered though the basin had not rolled down from the surrounding mountains, but had hitched rides with the glaciers that carved out the landscape eons ago.
The walk was easy, and relatively flat, and not having to watch my step constantly allowed for me to look up and around (you don’t realize how much time is spent while hiking staring at the dirt in front of your feet, until you’re blessed with even ground that does not require constant focus). I noticed a small ‘cave’ in a mountain to the west that quickly captured all of my attention. It looked exactly like what I would imagine a Yeti cave to look like, and strikingly like the Grinch’s cave from the How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I walked south, wishing I had time to stray from the trail and go check this mysterious, deep, dark, cave.
Upon closer inspection of my photos later, I would discover that it wasn’t actually a cave, but just a dark rock face. Total disappointment.
There was no shade to be found, and it was super hot. I stopped under a group of the first small whitebark pines I came across to cool off, drink some water, and eat a snack. While stopped, Friz caught up with me, and we walked on together for a bit. He decided to stop at a crossing with the Kings River to fill up his water bottles and take a short break. While we were stopped, Calley arrived, and I was happy she had caught up with us. Having just taken a small break I decided to leave them and continue on. More than anything I wanted to get out of the heat, and back down below treeline to the shade.
Another 3 miles down the trail I came to a river crossing at the South Fork Kings River and decided it was a good place to stop for lunch and wait for Friz. The river looked inviting, with big shallow pool full of small trout. Friz arrived as I was soaking my feet, and we took roost on a large granite slab next to the river and made lunch. I pulled out my solar charger to charge up my phone, and lay down on the rocks for a little siesta in the shade. I had no idea what day of the week it was, or even what time it was. Only miles, food, and water mattered. It was shaping up to be another awesome day on the trail.
After our rest, and filling our stomachs, we motivated to continue our southbound walk toward Pinchot Pass, our second pass of the day. I was feeling great.
It was one of my favorite afternoons on the trail. We passed the uphill miles with stories of our past – growing up, childhood stories, love stories, stories from what felt like past lives. The weather was perfect, the miles passed easily, and on this 13th day of walking I felt truly in the moment. So happy to be exactly where I was. So happy to be walking.
We took a break near the shore of Lake Marjorie for the final snack of the day, and Calley caught up with us, bringing with her a fresh burst of energy – which was welcome as this 2-pass day wound to a close. We would all tackle Pinchot together.
While starting back up the trail we ran into a guy we had seen on the trail a couple days before walking towards us from the other direction. He asked if we had seen the older guy he was hiking with the day before – his Dad. They had gotten separated earlier in the day, and he couldn’t find him. He was extremely worried and didn’t know what to do anymore. The panic and worry emanated off of him. Friz suggested it would be best to not wander too far from the area, as the chances of finding him might be better if he stayed close. We told him we’d keep an eye out for him as we headed up the pass. He continued north back down the trail in his search. All of us were shaken, and concern weighed on us as we watched him walk down the pass continuing his search
It was only a bit later that we witnessed touching trail magic. An older man appeared on the slope above us moving down the trail. Before we even had the time to recognize who he was, his son appeared…rushing up to his father. They grabbed each other in a tight hug and both began to cry, the dad saying as he clung to his son “I thought I’d lost you”, and his son saying, “I’ve been looking over ledges, Dad.”
Tears welled up in my eyes as we all looked on at the sweet reunion. His father explained that he had lost the trail, and kept heading on in the direction of the pass hoping he would find it again. When he hadn’t found it, he turned around and headed back in the direction he had last seen the trail.
We were all incredibly relieved they had found each other, and touched that we had been there to witness their reunion. We said goodbye and exchanged wishes of good luck and safety on the rest of their hike, and left them to continue on.
The sky was clear blue, and the sun was sinking low on the horizon as we took our last steps up to the top of the pass. It felt so incredibly good to have two more passes behind us. We stood on the top and took our victory photos.
The view from the top toward where we were heading was incredible. The mountains were red and purple and unlike any other I had seen in the Sierras. We were still in Kings Canyon, but the landscape was changing. I was now over 170 miles into my walk, and looking south toward where we were headed, I felt like we were finally in the southern Sierras. Mt Whitney, my car, and the end of this trail all felt within close reach.
It was late, and camp and dinner were calling. We didn’t stay long at the top, as we still had another 2 miles to our planned camp at Twin Lakes. The walk down from the pass into the alpine basin below was so beautiful. By now most of the landscape was in shadow except for the top of the surrounding peaks. I couldn’t stop staring at the mountains around me – their red and yellow coloring so vibrant compared to all of the granite I had seen over the past 13 days.
We reached camp after sunset, and the three of us quickly pitched our tents, put on our warm clothes, and started making dinner. This would be the last night we would be camping with Calley. She would be stopping tomorrow night at Rae Lakes to wait for a resupply she was having packed in, and Friz and I would be continuing on over Glen Pass. Calley would actually be walking beyond the end of the John Muir Trail, and was combining it with the High Sierra Trail. She wanted to see the Giant Sequoias (which are not found on the JMT), so she was planning to continue from Mt Whitney back down to the HST and finish in Sequoia National Park – where she would be surrounded by the giant conifers. Giant Sequoias are some of my favorite living things on this planet, and being that I make an effort to see (and hug) them every year, I totally supported her venture to meet the “king of all conifers” and “the noblest of a noble race” (as John Muir referred to them). I was bummed we would not have more time with Calley on the trail, as I really was loving her company – but, this was the way of the trail.
The stars were incredible that night. I briefly forced all of us to stand in a clearing beside our camp and look up at the sky, again referencing the fact that everyone believes before heading out on a backpacking trip that they will spend endless hours staring at the night sky…but instead, we’re often in our tents by dark. That was my go-to guilt trip to make Friz look up at the stars with me until we were too cold to appreciate it anymore. It was a rewarding star-filled 3 minutes. We couldn’t have gotten back to our warm sleeping bags any faster.