September 11, 2014
Distance: 16 miles
Traveled: John Muir Trail – Twin Lakes Outlet to near Vidette Meadows
“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains! To behold this alone is worth the pains of any excursion a thousand times over. The highest peaks burned like islands in a sea of liquid shade.”
– John Muir, Mountains of California
2 weeks. Damn.
Dawn brought calm and beautiful light. I was up before sunrise at first light. Waking up early had become hard-programmed into me by now. I don’t mind being up early on the trail, as the world before sunrise is truly magical. This is the time when wildlife is out and about, when lakes are glassy and reflections are perfect, when the air is cool and the wind is calm, when the brief alpenglow dresses the landscape in surreal light. I’ve never regretted being awake for a sunrise.
Yet despite the romantic side to a natural early alarm, I was beginning to dream of the day when I might be able to actually sleep-in. I’m not much of a late sleeper anyway, but the notion of waking up at 7:30 without pressure was starting to feel luxurious.
I had finished off all of my remaining water during the night, and woke up feeling extremely thirsty. So, I didn’t waste much time bundling up in my warm clothes to go filter* some water from the nearest of the two Twin Lakes.
* The use of the word ‘filter’ always feels like overkill to me, as I use a Steripen not a cumbersome (and heavy) traditional filter. Whenever I type the word “filter”, I internally cringe as I can’t help but associate the word with hoses and heavy filters and tedious pumping and broken parts. If you have any suggestions for a better word, let me know. I’d love to use the word “zapped” as in: “I went to the stream to zap some water” – but I’m pretty sure that sounds completely ridiculous (and isn’t entirely accurate).
Friz and Calley were still asleep, so I crept through camp down to the lake and was greeted with the most beautiful alpenglow on the quiet water. I had almost forgotten due to our late and rushed arrival the night before, how incredible the surrounding mountains were. I could have stayed in that little pocket of Kings Canyon for days. One of the many places on the John Muir Trail that I didn’t want to have to leave.
Friz emerged not long after I got back into camp. We had an efficient morning and packed up and ate quickly. Calley had a short day ahead of her, so she planned on taking her time leaving camp. We likely wouldn’t see her again on the trail, so we said our goodbyes before getting back on the trail.
The trail followed Woods Creek for a few miles and the scenery was awesome. The mountains ahead towered and loomed, and the river, though tame at the moment, was littered with much evidence of how high the water can get. I can imagine in spring, rushing with snowmelt, Woods Creek could be quite a spectacle.
Friz and I were in good spirits, basking in the beauty and perfect weather, talking and laughing. We were walking around a curve on the trail, Friz was talking, and from behind his words I heard deep, low, growl coming from somewhere in the boulders next to us. It stopped me dead in my tracks, Friz stopped talking, and of course he didn’t hear a thing. Of course. We hustled ahead a bit while I scanned the rocks next to us for any sign of the animal. We saw nothing. Not taking any chances we quickly got out of there. I made feeble attempts to replicate the sound I had heard – feeling surprised and frustrated that he hadn’t heard it, while he was likely entirely skeptical that I wasn’t going crazy. I know I heard it, though – it was distinct enough that I can’t imagine anything other than an animal making the noise . My best guess was it sounded like a warning growl of a mountain lion. A mountain lion could have been hiding somewhere in the boulders around us, and we unknowingly walked too close to wherever it was hiding out. It was giving us a warning and letting us it was there. I appreciated the warning rather than the alternative…
A couple miles later we were totally caught by surprise to find the infamous Woods Creek Suspension Bridge in front of us – “The Golden Gate of the Sierras”.
We had been talking about this bridge over the entire walk, having read about it and seen photos, but neither of us could remember exactly where it was on the trail. It was totally unexpected when we stumbled upon it, and we were so ridiculously excited.
The bridge is truly an engineering feat. It’s beautifully constructed, and the logistics of building this thing truly in the wilderness (with the closest road being remarkably far away) is mind-boggling. Apparently, the previous iteration of the bridge kept washing out, so this raised suspension bridge was the sturdy solution. It was a welcome structural novelty to break up the continuous path of dirt I had seen over the past 2 weeks.
After lingering on the south side of the bridge for a short break and a snack, we began our uphill march to Rae Lakes for lunch. It was a hot, exposed trudge, and our words were few. We came to a creek crossing and I decided to dunk my shirt in the water to cool off – wearing wet clothing (or a wet hat) is an excellent tactic for a little natural air conditioning on a hot hike. The water along the entire trail was way too damn cold for my liking. Before leaving for the John Muir Trail, I had romantic notions of swimming in alpine lakes everyday. Um, yeah, no. I soaked my shirt in the small stream, and holy crap did it work to cool me off! The water was frigid. Putting my sopping wet shirt back on I wasn’t sure if I instantly felt better or if I instantly regretted it – but it definitely cooled me off.
I was looking forward to seeing Rae Lakes Basin, and when we emerged next to Dollar Lake, I was not disappointed. I could see why it is such a popular area. Dollar Lake was actually my favorite lake in the area – even over the Rae Lakes. It was so beautiful and clear.
We watched trout hovering in the emerald water below as we wound along the edge on the trail.
The meadows were still holding a bit of their summertime green. I can imagine in the height of summer, the area is incredibly lush (and buggy).
We stopped at Lower Rae Lake for lunch. I think we were both feeling particularly exhausted and hungry by the time we reached the lake. We found a spot by the shore, put on our camp shoes, ate some ounces from our Bear Canister and I closed my eyes for a bit.
It was a weird afternoon. The sun was bright, the sky was clear, but the wind had picked up along the lakes, and despite the sun I was shivering. I put on all of my clothing layers and lay down in the sun in an attempt to stay warm, and I was barely warm enough to stop shivering. I became a bit nervous I was getting sick – as I felt like I had a mild fever. I didn’t feel sick though, just cold.
I hadn’t seen myself in a mirror in 2 weeks, but I was worried I was losing too much weight. My pants and shorts were hanging off of me, and several times over the past week I had asked Friz if I was looking ‘too skinny’ (assuring him I was not looking for reassurance or a particular answer – but rather the 100% truth). He kept telling me I looked skinny, but not unhealthy. As I lay there in the sun with pants and my puffy jacket on, shivering, he reminded me that I had probably lost all my body fat which is probably why I couldn’t stay warm. He was likely right. I was eating what I had calculated to be enough calories to maintain my weight on the trail (2700 calories), so I was hoping to avoid losing any weight, but I had started to think that in walking 12-16 mile days for 2 weeks straight, some weight loss would be unavoidable.*
*When I finished the trail, I was actually very surprised at what I found. I started the trail around 127 lbs., and I was very worried when I finished that I would be under 120 lbs. (way too skinny for me). But, actually, I had only lost 4 lbs. – instead I burned off most of my excess fat and gained muscle. I’ve always been strong…but I walked off the trail with a true six-pack, which was kinda awesome. I was super relieved to know that my food planning was spot-on and my body had enough fuel to stay healthy.
Before we packed up, we wrote out a goodbye note to Calley and stashed it in the bear bins next to the lake. We thanked her for her generosity, awesome trail food, good company, and left her our emails hoping we would hear from her after she finished her hike. Before we walked away, I texted her on my inReach (because she was carrying one as well) to let her know where we left the note.
I know I’ve brought this up before, and I totally sympathize with the technology naysayers that say to leave all electronic leashes at home, but honestly, my inReach was an awesome luxury out there. I knew it would be great to stay in touch with my husband at home, but staying in touch with others hiking the trail was an unexpected perk. When we got off the trail, I would still check my inReach for updates from Calley (such as hearing about the nasty weather that had brewed atop Whitney the day after we finished).
Our break dragged on pretty late, and we didn’t leave our lunch spot until shortly after 3:00. We had just started down the trail when we saw Calley headed our way! We were glad we had a chance to say a “real” goodbye, and we pointed out where we had stashed our note. And in an amazing gift of generosity, she offered to take our trash from us (!). The packers would be packing out her trash, so she figured she’d throw ours in with hers. What a gift! If you’re not a backpacker, you may not understand how much dead-weight 5 days worth of trash can be. Calley was a true gem for taking our trash off our hands. A true gem.
We said our goodbyes, left feeling many ounces lighter, and with the measurable newly freed space in my bear canister, I could fit my Jetboil in it for the first time in 5 days! A total pack space-saver! I had a spring in my step…
The spring in my step didn’t last long. Winding down the trail past the other Rae Lakes toward Glen Pass, I would have thought I’d be in awe of the beauty of the landscape. Instead I was picking up other peoples litter – granola bar wrappers, toilet paper, a Ziploc baggy. Honestly, I thought Rae Lakes was over-used and abused, and I was disgusted at what I saw. The shoreline of the lake was lined with bubbles from people’s soaps and detergents. I get so incredibly frustrated when I see this in lakes and streams. PLEASE DO NOT WASH ANYTHING (dishes, clothes, your hair, your hands) IN ANY BODY OF WATER. Your soap does not disappear! It does not biodegrade! I honestly don’t believe the people that do this are aware of the damage they are doing, but informed or not, at the end of the day they are single-handedly destroying an otherwise pristine ecosystem by doing so….and it’s totally frustrating and heartbreaking.
Hey! If you are reading this and you are thinking (a little embarrassed) “I totally wash my dishes in a nearby lake when I go camping, I mean how else am I supposed to do my dishes?” or “Oh crap, I thought it was cool to give my kids a bath in the river when we’re camping – I only use a wee little bit of soap!” or “I use ‘biodegradable’ toilet paper on the trail, which means it disappears when I walk away after I poop.”…then please leave this story for now and take some time to familiarize yourself with the Leave No Trace Seven Principles. Mother Nature and the people that enjoy spending time with her will all thank you! They also have an awesome little online course you can take!
So many side-notes in this post…
We continued our approach to Glen Pass (me, still wearing all of my clothing layers).
Glen Pass has a reputation ….it’s sneaky. I wasn’t sure how this sneakiness would manifest, but I caught on to the charade pretty quickly. It’s a totally classic example of the “I think that’s the top is right there” game (if it was a mountain, it would have had 4 false summits). After a few times, I just gave up on believing we would ever reach the top. Glen Pass had no top. The worlds only never-ending pass.
Of course, as soon as I gave up on anticipating the top, we actually found ourselves very near to it (though, until I could officially see the other side, I was still skeptical). Despite it’s sneakiness, it was a truly beautiful climb, and the views all-around were unparalleled. The view to the south was ridiculous.
It may have been my favorite views from any of the passes.
It was windy at the top, and it was getting late, so we didn’t take a break at the top, and continued the walk down without a rest.
On the way down the south side of the pass, we spotted perhaps my favorite campsite ever – definitely my favorite on the JMT. We couldn’t stop gushing over it. There was one lone tent, perched near the edge of the slope, near to the shore of a small tarn surrounded by the most incredible cirque. For any of you reading this that have camped there, I am very jealous. This campsite is a must for my next JMT hike.
After an hour of downhill we reached a large, dry, sandy flat area and the intersection with the trail leading to Kearsarge Pass (the last convenient exit to the east before Whitney), and Charlotte Lake. The sun was setting and we began to rush, hoping we wouldn’t end up looking for a campsite in the dark.
We moved as fast as we could, trying to keep up with the sun. The trail dropped down steeply with no flat ground for camping. We finally spotted a flat site ahead, but found a large group already occupied it – I was starting to get tired and grumpy. I had heard that camping along this stretch can be a little trickier as the trail tends to be more populated with people doing the Rae Lakes loop, so I was starting to get nervous about finding a spot.
Just as the light was truly fading, we spotted an awesome spot just off the trail in the trees. It was an unexpectedly magical little spot with a small stream running through the middle of the site. Friz camped on one side, and I camped on the other – with him having to do a “stream crossing” to get to the camp kitchen. I slept awesome that night. Lulled into an exhausted sleep by the sound of the stream rushing behind my tent.
Tomorrow would be the last pass of the hike, and a true beast – Forrester Pass at 13,118’. The last pass before Whitney. The end was drawing oh-so-near.