September 1, 2014
Traveled: Lyell Forks to Garnet Lake
“Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierras
Today would prove to be my favorite day on the trail.
I woke up alone in camp for the first time of the hike, and it honestly felt great. I have my own little camp routine when I’m solo that is so comfortable and familiar. It felt nice to get back to that.
After a night of oddly-unsettling sleep (see the end of day 3), I was up before sunrise, jolted awake by the oddest noise. Being woken out of a dead sleep I couldn’t place what was going on a first – thundering, deep sounds, and the ground shaking a bit – an earthquake?! No. I peeked under the awning of my tent – it was actually a pack train of about 10 horses crossing the Tuolumne River near my camp. The sound of their heavy hoofs on the trail echoed in the ground. They splashed loudly through the river to the north of the bridge, and ran up the steep river banks to the trail. The last horse – not tied to the others – lingered for a drink from the river for a few minutes, and then sprinted through the river past my tent and up the trail to catch up with the pack.
Camp was packed before sunrise at 6:00. I ventured to the river to chug a liter of water before setting off, and planned to find a pretty place to stop for breakfast in about an hour. Today I would tackle the first major pass of the hike – Donohue Pass, and I hoped to be up and over it before the sun climbed too high in the sky.
As I got on the trail, I met a guy who was hiking the JMT with his Dad. They were planning on exiting the trail the same day as I was, but in typical JMT-fashion, I never saw them again after that day. This tends to happen if you’re hiking at the same pace as someone, you may never even see them, though you’re walking right on their heels for two weeks.
The trail followed the Tuolumne River for about 1.5 miles and then opened up to a beautiful lake sitting below Mt Lyell and Lyell Glacier – the largest glacier seen from the JMT (though sadly, I believe it no longer is classified as a glacier, as in the recent years it has stopped moving). The scene was breathtaking, and though I had barely been walking for 30 minutes, I decided to linger for breakfast and enjoy the view before continuing up the pass.
While boiling my water for my morning cereal (I ate TeeChia with freeze-dried blueberries every morning on the trail – later it would earn me my trail name of Birdseed), a guy that was camped nearby came over to ask me about my ULA Catalyst pack, and my camera. He was also an avid photographer, and he wanted to know more about my Sony RX100m3, as he was looking for a smaller camera option to take backpacking. I let him play around with it for a bit and showed him my Circular Polarizer setup using a Magfilter adapter and 52mm B+W CPL filter. Though I have always hiked with my DSLR, this little setup was proving to be worthy of the weight savings so far. We talked for a while – him and his friends were supposed to be continuing to Donohue Pass the day before, but his friend got a bad bout of altitude sickness (10,185’ here at the lake) so they decided to set up camp and hang out there for an extra day. We ended up talking for too long, and I was having a tough time breaking away from the conversation. I finally ate my (now cold) breakfast and managed to pack up to get on my way.
Leaving this spot by the lake was the first river crossing of the hike (though, by this time of year the water was low enough that it was only a matter of rock-hopping across). As I was heading back to the trail, I met two more southbound JMT hikers – Jim and John. I had heard of “Jim & John from Tennessee” the night before when talking to the couple I was camping near. I knew right away these two guys were good people, and they would prove to be friends I kept in touch with for the rest of the trail. Jim and John were hiking half of the trail to Muir Trail Ranch this year, and are planning to head back next year to finish the 2nd half.
The climb up Donohue Pass proved to be so much more beautiful than I imagined. Leaving the small lake behind, the trail climbed to the west and looked down on the turquoise blue water of river below.
After an initial steep climb the trail dropped down into a small hanging valley at the headwaters of the Tuolumne River below Lyell Glacier and looming Mt Lyell (13,114’ – the tallest peak in Yosemite). The water here was bluer and clearer than anything I had ever seen – a color that that almost seemed of someone’s imagination. It was particularly neat to be at the headwaters of the Tuolumne, where it is merely a glassy meandering stream – when a few months before I had hiked along this river for 25 miles through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne (GCT) and seen the beautiful power and impressive strength that it becomes. Sadly, all of this precious Sierra water is eventually trapped behind the dam of Hetch Hetchy and destined for the faucets and toilets of San Francisco… a fact that I find particularly depressing. It’s said that the passing of the bill to construct the damn for the Hetch Hetchy reservoir on the Tuolumne River is what killed John Muir, in that he spent the last part of his life fighting the city of San Francisco tirelessly to save the Hetch Hetchy valley which he thought to be one of the most precious places on the earth. He was devastated when the bill passed, and died a year later….many say from a broken heart.
The final trudge up to Donohue Pass began. The sun was out in full force, nearly blinding off the granite, and there was no sun protection now that I was above the treeline. I hiked with Jim and John for a bit, and then stopped to take off some layers and put up my umbrella. While I was stopped, I met Shawn another southbound JMT hiker. Shawn had turned 70 this year, and had decided that for his 70th birthday he wanted to hike the trail solo. Impressive and inspiring to say the least.
The sandy and granite path eventually arrived at top of Donohue Pass (11,060’), and also marked the entrance to the Ansel Adams Wilderness. After 4 days, Yosemite was behind me. The view was incredible, the first real glimpse of where I was heading and what I was getting myself into. From the top you can see Mammoth Mountain – just the thought of walking from Yosemite to Mammoth the next day (two places that are so very separate in my mind) had me floored.
At the top of the pass I took off my pack, and actually found I had cell service, so I snacked on a ProBar and was sucked into the luxury of text messages and phone calls and solar charging for a while. The pass also proved to be an unexpected wilderness social hotspot. Jim and John, and Jeff and Tracy (the couple I met the night before) were at the top, Shawn arrived not long after and took a break, and I met a girl named Sasha that was hiking solo from Yosemite to Mammoth on her first backpacking trip. While up at the top of the pass, snacking, iPhone-ing, and chatting with Shawn, a guy named Jeff made it to the top as well.
Jeff was asking everyone if they had seen yet another JMT hiker named Patrick. No one had seen Patrick. I then informed Jeff that there was cell service, to which he also then immediately indulged in his phone and preceded to tell me he hoped he was sending what might be the first Snapchat ever from the top of Donohue Pass.
I found this whole experience comical. I had so many people concerned about how I would fare alone in the wilderness, and if I would get lonely – and here I was 20 miles from the nearest road, sitting on the top of a remote mountain pass at 11,000 ft, and I had already met about 10 people since 7am. I wasn’t sure true solitude on this trail was actually going to be possible.
Jeff was getting more concerned about the whereabouts of this Patrick guy. No one had seen Patrick.
After cell-phoning, and snacking, and hydrating, and map reading, and mileage calculating it was time to head down. It was another 7 miles to Thousand Island Lake (where everyone I had met that day happened to be planning on camping as well), and there was still another pass to get over before days end. Just then, a guy hiked up over from the top of the pass. Patrick!
Hey, Patrick – Jeff has been looking for you…
Patrick, was also hiking the JMT solo (turned out Jeff and Patrick were actually both hiking alone, and had only met yesterday in Lyell canyon). Everyone else had continued south by then, and Patrick, Sasha, and I ended up heading down together. On the climb out of Yosemite Valley a couple days before, Patrick had tweaked his knee, and I could tell the downhill was super painful for him as he limped with every step. He was already concerned that he may have to bail the trail early at Reds Meadow.
Not too far down from the pass I tripped and slammed down on my knee hard. I don’t know how I avoided a serious injury from that fall as it could have been much worse…fortunately, I was able to just walk it off. I was grateful.
Entering into the Ansel Adams Wilderness the scenery changed dramatically to alpine meadows dotted with small pools, streams, ponds and huge boulders strewn everywhere…left behind in the wake of glaciers that plowed through here eons ago. It was one of my favorite stretches of trail. It was obvious that this wilderness was named after Ansel Adams for a reason, as this was a truly uniquely beautiful part of the Sierras (and one of his most widely-recognized Ansel Adams photos is of Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake in this wilderness).
I hope to someday see this part of the trail in early summer, lush with wildflowers, green grass, and snow-capped peaks.
Yet again it was hot. We had been walking for a couple miles and the inviting tarns dotted along the trail became too hard to resist. We stopped to get some water and soak our feet. Sitting on the banks of that pool was one my favorite moments of the whole hike. Hanging out with some new trail friends, a beautiful endless blue sky, my feet soaking in clear, cold, Sierra water….no concerns, and nothing to do but walk.
I decided to wade deeper into the pool, and was surprised by a big frog! Could it be? I looked closer. It had yellow legs…
Turned out I was sharing this pool with one of the most critically endangered amphibians in North America – the Sierra Nevada Yellow-Legged Frog. At one time these frogs were so numerous that people would encounter them by the hundreds…and now their population is down 95% and still in decline. Sadly, recent surveys believe this frog is headed toward extinction.
I was truly captivated by this frog knowing who he was. I spent some time staring at him, and told him that we were rooting for him. But it is unsettling seeing an animal whose entire species is in peril, so close. Seeing this lone frog in his beautiful natural home, knowing that likely during my lifetime, him and his relatives will disappear from the planet entirely – because of something, or many things, that my species has done. I’m sorry, Mr Frog. In a bit of hope we did see many tadpoles in a smaller pool upstream – at least, for now, there is still another generation fighting to survive.
Great video from The National Park Service on the Yellow-Legged Frog:
We continued the march down. Sasha fell back, hiking at her own pace, and Patrick and I continued on. The Ritter Range rose on the horizon, drawing closer with every step. Sitting at the foot of Mt Ritter would be Thousand Island Lake. The photos I had seen of this lake years before was one of my inspirations for hiking this trail.
Reaching Rush Creek we ran back into the crowd again. Jim & John, Jeff & Tracy, and Shawn. We stopped to chat with them as they finished their lunch break. Seemingly out of nowhere Jeff stumbled in from stage left, “I fell asleep.”
After briefly talking, Jeff threw his pack back on, and headed off with Patrick and I – marching ahead in the intolerable heat toward Island Pass.
During this trudge up Island Pass a few things were established:
- We learned that Jeff’s trail name is Frizzle or Friz, which he was given on the Appalachian Trail (which is a very self-explanatory name when you see him and his unruly silver hair overflowing out the top of his hat). Friz, a thru-hiker of the Colorado Trail and large chunk of the AT, having been bestowed with a trail name, is now officially licensed by the Universe to give out trail names.
- Patrick and Jeff warned they may steal my umbrella in a fit of jealous rage. My love and gratitude for my trusty GoLite umbrella deepened. I also begin to question whether I would have made it this far without my trusty umbrella – as the sheer misery I felt under my umbrella in the heat of the day, is dim in comparison to that I would have felt without my travelling shade. This video sums up how I felt about my umbrella:
- Jeff was planning on finishing in 15 days (I had budgeted 16 – with 2 extra days of padding that I could use if I wanted to take a zero day or in case of a setback), and Patrick was on a very short schedule – needing to pull 20 miles a day if he was to summit Whitney in time to catch his flight.
- I am not to be trusted when gauging how close the top of a miserable climb is. “I think I can see the top”, “Looking at the map, we should be close”, “I think that’s it just up ahead”. My stellar credibility and wishful-positive-thinking earned me the tentative trail name of False Hope. Though, Jeff knew deep-down that False Hope was not my destiny….for now, it would do.
- Unbeknownst to me then, but obvious in retrospect: this would be the point in the story where my solo JMT hike would go from referring to “I”, and instead, referring to “we”.
Island Pass was not much of a pass. To be sure, it was an uphill trudge. But with no remarkable views to speak of, essentially the only reward at the top was enough gusty winds to know you were measurably higher than you were before.
The reward for the climb ended up being down just a ways from the top of the pass – a turquoise-blue unnamed lake, with Banner Peak framed perfectly in the distance. Nature’s infinity pool. This lake ended up being one my favorite lakes on the trail. I’m a sucker for glacial silt.
From here it was another 1.8 miles to Thousand Island Lake. It was an easy downhill, the wind was feisty, and the sun was dipping low enough to make the temperature more tolerable. I was eager for the first glimpse of Thousand Island Lake, and when it first came into view I was giddy.
The views opened up more around each corner. I wandered about 100 ft off-trail and found the entire lake laid out in front of me.
Camp was starting to call. My feet were sore, my legs incredibly dusty. When I got down to the shore of Thousand Island Lake there were some decisions to be made. Jeff and I had both planned on camping here that night, and if Patrick was going to stick to his schedule, he still had another 6 miles to his camp at Rosalie Lake. The sun was setting fast and Patrick’s knee was really starting to bother him. He knew he probably wouldn’t be able to make it that far that night.
Meanwhile, Jeff and I were lingering by the shore and admitted to each other that neither of us were really “feeling” this spot. It was super windy, and would likely be super cold that night (I dreaded it might be another crappy windy night like the night at Lower Cathedral Lake two days before). But more so, I just didn’t want to camp there. Also, the next day would be ending at Reds Meadow with a resupply, real food, and a shower – so any miles I could make up today would get me there that much earlier tomorrow.
After pouring over maps and counting miles, we all decided to continue on to Garnet Lake, another 2 miles ahead. 2 less miles to walk the next day.
Once we rounded down the trail to Garnet Lake, it was instantly clear we made the right decision. It was incredible – far more impressive than I expected.
The sun had already fallen behind the mountains, we were starving, and with the shore of the lake being steep granite all the way around – we felt pressured to grab the first spot we could with room for 3 tents. We snagged an awesome established spot right on the shore.
I have an admiration for Garnet and Thousand Island Lakes after seeing the true size of these backcountry bodies of water in-person. In all of my wanderings I have never seen such a large beautiful lakes untouched by humans – truly still wild. I’m amazed that over the course of history some Homo Sapien didn’t come through here and screw these lakes up by building some crappy cabins, or some devastating asphalt road out to them. I don’t know how they managed to avoid the fate of becoming an RV attraction, or a jet skiing destination. Not only are they still wild, but they’re also decently far from the nearest trailhead (about 9 – 12 miles) – far enough to protect them from hoards of day-hikers.
That night camping with my new trail-friends was truly great. We soaked our tired feet, had a sunset dinner pow-wow by the shore of the lake, talked, and laughed. Patrick was truly stressing about his ambitious schedule, and we spent a while working through his options. 20-mile days with a knee-injury was not only going to be miserable, but likely not even possible. Dinnertime also turned into what would eventually become a camp tradition: reading aloud from Elizabeth Wenk’s John Muir Trail guide about the upcoming section of trail, so we would know what we were getting into.
By the time dinner was done and the bear canisters were stashed, the Milky Way and planets were making their appearance. We talked about how before you go backpacking you usually have a romantic notion that every night you’re going to spend endless hours gazing toward the heavens at stars and satellites…but what really ends up happening is that by the time the sky is dark, your body is exhausted, it’s super cold, and though it’s only 8:00pm it feels like it’s 2:00am, and you end up falling asleep by 8:30. There’s no stargazing. The only stars that are gazed at are the stars you barely see while rushing out in the middle of the night to pee. But, I had promised myself before leaving for this trip that I would make a point of admiring the Sierra stars each night (which, sadly, definitely did not happen).
We all decided to take a moment, and watch the night sky unfold as the sun fell further toward tomorrow.
I went to get my camera. When I came back, Patrick thought he was seeing some lights under the water. Jeff and I missed this weird phenomenon, but it reminded me of some stories I heard a couple years before on one of the JMT forums about strange things people had seen on the trail – and someone had described seeing glowing lights over a lake (though I couldn’t remember which one). Another odd experience to add to mine from the night before.
I also busted out my awesome Star Walk iPhone app, which shows the full map of the current night sky as you move it overhead (and if you point it at the ground you can see the stars on the other side of the Earth which always blows my mind).
After admiring the night sky, and contemplating life for many hours under the vast expanse of the universe (or rather, standing there shivering for 20 minutes until I couldn’t feel the tips of my fingers, and not thinking about anything other than curling up in my sleeping bag), we all turned in for the night. Thoughts of my first re-supply box, a hot shower, and laundry lulled me to sleep.
To quote directly from my journal entry for that night: “I slept like crap.”