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On the shoudlers of giants

Factors for planning a hike are numerous and daunting: Shuttles, business hours, resupply packages, and the entire minutia associated with those is enough to make the planning part of the brain short circuit and freeze.

Then there’s the unknown: What if I have to reset a femoral fracture? What if someone gets altitude sickness? What if I get bitten by a snake? What if I get attacked by a bear? What if I get attacked by a bear that was contemporaneously bit by a snake?  What if that snake had hypothermia? What if I get seriously hurt and no one knows where I am? What if someone kills me out here? What if I just wake up dead one day?

It’s never as bad as all of that, I assure you, but the fear of the unknown is very real. I was fortunate in that Lindsey was the planner, and she was a damn good one; the perfect mix of bookworm, researcher, and logistician.  My approach was a much more audacious one, a tinge less methodical and consisting only of the following mentality: “You won’t die out here. Let’s go.”

I’ve come to rely on my problem solving skills, resourcefulness, and general outdoor skills to get me where I need to go. I think that setting a training plan, meal testing, and accruing lighter gear are all excuses to delay doing the hike. I dare say that I prefer when things don’t go to plan. That’s where adventure lives- in those strange crevices of unforeseen unpreparedness and ever changing conditions. As a hiking team we struck a complementary balance. She was 60% planner, 40% outdoor woman. I was 99% outdoor guy, 1% linguist that knew the definition of “plan.”

Over the course of the prior days, our plan had faltered. In the beginning, when we were young, we were going to hike the John Muir Trail, drink whiskey on Whitney, hike down to the trailhead, hitchhike to Lone Pine, shuttle back up to Yosemite.  Some photos, some high fives, a cool story to tell, and then back to Texas.

The trail teaches you a lot of things. One of the first and most eye opening and valuable things I learned- You can get anywhere by putting one leg in front of the other and repeating. Over creeks, snowfields, mountains, roads…you’ll get there. No training regiment, guidebook, map, class, assurance, or safety net needed. Find the path in the dirt. Walk. Keep moving forward. Stay vertical. You’ll get there.

Beyond Glen Pass

Standing on Glen Pass, it was never more apparent that not only had our original plan faltered, but it had stalled, started a nose dive, and then caught ablaze. Our plan now was to eject, and there’s a whole lot less certainty that comes with that. Specifically- getting back to civilization once we reached the end of the trail.  In truth, there really isn’t much you can do. We knew we were exiting. We’d deal with getting back to actual civilization when we hit asphalt in Onion Valley, similar to what we did when we started down that long asphalt stretch of road from Red’s Meadow to Mammoth…we’d walk until we got to Independence, some 13 miles down a winding mountain road. One foot in front of the next. In the worst case scenario, we could camp at the campground there before arranging transportation or hitching a ride. We’d figure it out…

After Lindsey emerged from behind the particularly beefy rock she’d chosen to hide behind, we didn’t tarry on the serrated ridge. Though we had no company on the pass and no one in sight on the trail in either direction, we knew we had miles to go and another mountain to climb before the day’s light was done so in short order we were steaming downhill on steep switchbacks.

My water bottle was about empty after the massive effort spent going over Glen Pass.

“I’m thirsty…” I whined.

Sometimes I thought that if I was an annoying, petulant child that it would make the miles go faster. Not that they needed to go faster, it was more of a way to entertain myself. Unfortunately, my audience didn’t like my act much and grew instantly tired of this bit every time I did it. This was often. It was a bit I adapted from Russel, from the movie UP. I paraphrased the movie lines and would typically spew forth the following in a whiney childlike voice, no fewer than 3 times per day-

“I’m tiiiiiired. My feeeeet hurt. I need to go to the baaaaathroom. Can we stop walking?”

It amused me every time. Lindsey groaned a few steps ahead of me and muttered something under her breath. Something good, undoubtedly. I smiled a satisfied smirk and remembered my water bottle that was in my hand.

“Oh yeah…almost empty…”

My smirk turned to a slightly perturbed grimace.

The trail was more sheltered from the wind on the southerly side, almost to the point of an eerie calmness. The rocks had morphed from black on top of the pass to grey to a tan color with the faintest amount of orange tint to them. The lot of rocks sat silent and baked in the warm sun.  It was a dry and dusty descent in an otherworldly landscape of hard angular shards. Scree slopes and fallen boulders and the remnants of once proud spires lay beneath our feet with no sign of vegetation around.  I like to imagine that we kicked up a fair amount of dust in our very deliberate descent. After 30 or 45 minutes, Charlotte Lake could be seen shimmering in the distance.

The stretch from the final Rae Lake to Charlotte Lake is long, and it’s quite dry. We were both low on water so it was a relief seeing the source of our impending hydration. 1st Rae Lake was the last reliable filling point, and the ascent over Glen and the xeric extraterrestrial rockscape on the other side offered only opportunities to suck down sips of water from an ephemeral spring here and there but never a spot to refill. 

Descending Glen Pass

We walked the rocky wasteland further and as we descended it became dotted with greenery. Stout grasses at first, then some short pines that offered a respite from the strengthening afternoon sun. Soon the trees had gathered in density and height enough to pass for a sparse forest. A sparkling gem of ultramarine flashed through tall brown branches and long slender fingers of green pine needles.

“I’m thirtyyyy. I’m tiiiiiired….my feeeeeet hurt….”

Lindsey didn’t acknowledge me, but I thought the comedic timing was perfect.

One of the best parts about hiking is trail signs. Trail signs mean you’re getting somewhere. It means you have a choice (most times) or that you need to take in some important new information, like how there are no fires permitted, or how there are bears around that will take your foodstuffs. At the bottom of the steep, seemingly incessant descent we came to such a sign. It was your standard directional sign- an arrow pointing to Charlotte Lake, and arrow pointing down the John Muir Trail. I liked the sign so much I leaned on it while Lindsey went down a short spur trail to extract water from Charlotte Lake.

No sense in us both walking further than we had to…

There are two trails that exit over Kearsarge Pass. One is a high road, the junction for which meets up with the John Muir Trail about .3 miles before the turn off for Charlotte Lake. The high road doesn’t go by any water sources, though. The lower road takes you down in elevation but scampers past the junction to Charlotte Lake and the northern side of Bull Frog Lake before ultimately climbing back up the 300 or so feet lost as it meets the high road. Both paths converge  after a couple of miles and turn in to a singular trail that leads over Kearsarge Pass and down to Onion Valley.

On a dusty, warm, barren clearing on a small hill we reached our junction with the low road. The sign stared at us like a bouncer. Kearsarge Pass via Bullfrog Lake, this way. John Muir Trail, the other way.

I knew if I stared and thought about the sign and the implications of our turn long enough I might over think things or continue down the JMT. I glanced at the sign, looked down the trail towards Kearsarge Pass and Onion Valley, and put one foot in front of the other. That was it. We were done with the John Muir Trail.

Some 5 or 6 weeks prior to that exact moment, a man that called himself Riley appeared at the end of the Onion Valley Road just west of Independence, California. It might not be ironic, but it is fitting, if nothing else, that this man would be the first person we’d have met in Tuolumne Meadows. Riley was camped adjacent to us in Tuolumne Meadows as he had just finished his trek from Kearsarge to Tuolumne; the exact opposite of our eventual path.

The first night of the entire trip, with the glow of the fire in the center of our world, and the world rife with excitement, wonder, and adventure, Lindsey and I listened to Riley talk of his failed attempts at getting a Whitney permit, of bear sightings, of sharing a single person tent with his girlfriend for a couple of nights when she joined him, and of the Rim Fire.

“Yeah I had to come in over Kearsarge.” He said.

I nodded and smiled, assuming he had mispronounced something since I’d never heard of anything called Kearsarge.

“Going South to North is hard, but by day 4 or 5 your body adapts and you’re good to go.” He’d said.

Riley was long gone by now, but I couldn’t help but think about him walking this same stretch of trail, only in reverse. We marched out knowing it was an end. Riley pounded the dirt with his trail runners knowing it was the beginning.

There’s uncertainty with beginnings. As the sun rises, no one knows what the day might bring. Just so on a hike of this scale. There’s expectation, a buildup, and finally a resolution; a sunset. For Lindsey and I, we could see the sun was setting sooner than we’d originally planned.

Kearsarge Pinnacles

We could see the sun setting literally as it set the mountains around us aglow in a warm light. Trail and trees and rocks and small rodents and mammals and dirt and switchbacks came and went as we advanced further down the trail and higher up the side of an exposed slope towards Kearsarge Pass. A magnificent ridge mirrored the other side of the valley we were climbing out of. The Kearsarge Pinnacles. Stark and sharp and steep.  I stopped in the middle of the trail to admire them across from us and to catch my breath.

“I’m. Tired. My. Feet…”

I trailed off and drank some water.

It looked as though the pass was within sight, but I’d been burned too many times before to think for a single second that the end of a mountain climb could ever be in sight. It’s an attitude which makes for really anti-climactic summits because I’ve spent the whole climb conditioning myself to believe that whatever clearing or apex it is that I see…it CAN’T be the summit. I hate being disappointed.

The route to Kearsarge pass was similar to Glen Pass in that the final ascent was a long, drawn out gradient instead of a litany of short switchbacks. I like the long ascents more because after a while, it seems like you’re walking on a flat surface. You’re really climbing at about 10 to 20 degrees, but without the perspective added by switchbacks immediately above and below your position, it seems flat. The long gradient also affords a peak at your ultimate destination ahead, be that the pass or a false summit.

I sped up my pace as the gradient pointed dead ahead towards a distinct notch flanked by fractured, angular boulders on either side. The climbing…all of the daily, ceaseless climbing. This was it. All the steps, all the miles, all the contour lines on maps and vertical feet ascended: this was the final ascent. Everything else was literally all downhill. I started to get a sincere sense of overwhelming excitement. Every milestone and in a way, every step, was a final moment. Final water stop, final trail split, final pass, final climb, final step. I took a deep breath and relished in that moment as I approached the end of the uphill, exposed climb on the side of a mountain.

And then I saw the switchbacks above me.

“I warned you about that…” gloated the part of my brain that is smart enough to not walk down the cookie aisle at the grocery store.

“I thought for sure this time it would be different.” Replied the part of my brain that makes me eat a bag of oreos in one sitting.


4 switchbacks. The final 4 switchbacks followed by 400 feet of linear distance were all that stood between us and the high point of Kearsarge Pass. I walked in front of Lindsey, fueled by another microburst of adrenaline. As I stepped on to the ridge, I raised my walking stick above my head with one hand in triumph. On the pass I lingered, waiting for Lindsey.

That very point I stood held a lot of power. It was a spot that divided east from west, light from shadow, Fresno Country from Inyo County, National Park from National Forest, victory from defeat, the trail from home. Lindsey joined me not long after and we rested and took the requisite photos.

Beyond the pass: An absolutely gnarly traverse across a seemingly infinite slope of rock, a steep descent and a long, lush valley of pines and lakes and streams.

I stared in to the setting sun and gave a look back on the High Sierra, the unrestrained rays of light assaulting and bleaching the grey and white granite, casting shadows on where we were to be heading. The wind blew cool, clean and quietly over the countless peaks and spires and notches and serrations of the Sierra, hiding thousands of secret valleys and pristine lakes. Going over Kearsarge pass was like walking out the door of a strange, beautiful, enchanting, enrapturing landscape where your only job and your only responsibility is to exist; to be. As I stood there looking west on the shoulders of a giant, gazing at the place from whence we’d come, I saw further than I’d ever seen before.

The atmosphere that rests high atop the granite spires of the Sierra Nevada is clear, and not surprisingly, I found that clarity of mind comes with it as well. I saw the landscape as it was, but also salvation and life as it was meant to be lived. For a mere 18 days we lived the bulk of our lives sleeping inches above the dirt in a non-permanent structure, but it felt like a wonderful life time. Our days were filled only with hiking. Thinking. Talking. Arguing. There were no bills, no deadlines, no current events, no sports, no shootings, no new products. It was pure; simple. The mountains absorbed the foolishness of everyday life and the lunacy we force ourselves to deal with as we swallow the putrid pill of social acceptance that we determine we must take so as to fit in with the rest of the majority who have chosen that medication as well.

The mountains didn’t care that we were there. They neither shunned nor accepted us. And that humbling feeling of total insignificance was absolutely liberating. The mountains were not our world that we’d created, tamed, and bleached; The elements fought out here, and we were travelers through their battlefield. The clouds cried and when particularly enraged, they would spit pellets of ice. Trees lived, died, and lay on the ground to rot. The winds would whip and howl strong enough to move mountains and in the next breath, blow a gentle breeze across our brow. Streams would flow in to lakes which would feed torrents and roaring waterfalls, or lakes would dry up from a lack of snow melt and wither in the light of day. Under the golden orb of the sun and beneath an effervescent spectator of a color changing sky, the world put on its show and for a short time, we had a front row seat to see things as they were meant to be; to see the world as the world was before it became infected with waste and filth and trash and excess and garbage.

I turned away from the sun to look at my shadow in front of me, and I moved my right foot down the trail. The left foot passed it. We had been in a paradise.

A few steps and it was gone from sight, and we were gone from it.

In every sense, as I stepped on the other side of the crest and began past Kearsarge Pass, I was leaving heaven on earth. And that’s a very strange, very wrong sensation.



The Climb





It sounded like someone threw a marble in to the lake.

I batted my eyelids and managed to hold them open for some moments as I thrashed and rolled violently a quarter turn like a bratwurst might do as it pops and convulses in its own grease.

I had become able to sense when Lindsey was around. It may have been because she exuded a lot of heat and gave her sleeping bag a lumpy texture and appearance. Lumpy in the best of ways; as if a svette hiking machine of a human were resting inside of the contorted down and nylon lumps. I knew immediately that she was not in the tent, and confirmed it by flopping my arm around blindly and recklessly where she should have been lumping. I stared off and contemplated.

“Eating, maybe…”

The sensible, simple side of my brain was first to the punch in this dialogue.

“Or eaten… and If she got eaten then that bear is coming for us, and we can finally execute the black bear attack protocol.” The nefarious and angry-to-be-awake counterpart of my mind offered.

“That’s stupid, and will get us killed.”

“OR it’ll get us on good morning America…”

“Your idiotic plan of drop kicking the bear and putting it in a sleeper hold while someone records the footage is entirely contingent upon someone recording it. There’s no one else here.”

“That’s a good point.”

 So I settled back in for more sleep. Didn’t matter what time it was, it was too damn cold and too damn early. Besides, I was fairly sure I caught a glimpse of Lindsey wandering around out there. A few more spastic sausage-roll maneuvers in my mummy bag, a couple of blinks, and I prepared to enter back in to the amazing world of rest and recuperation in the great outdoors.




Physics made the sun rise; noisy ass fish made me rise.

The sun served as a morning breakfast alarm and the lake came alive. The trout and cohabitating creatures of Dollar Lake feasted on morning swarms of bugs, dragonflies, and whatever small insects dared get too close to their hungry fishsy mouths. This ritualistic daily feeding of the fish was a cruel mockery. Our bear canisters were nearly empty and held only the remnants of the things which we wanted to consume the least. Some oatmeal. Peanut butter (which had surprisingly taken a long time to reach the point of overstaying its welcome, but it had by now) and some small fillets of mackerel in a vacuum bag because that seemed like a good idea at the time when we were shopping.

It was ironic in some ways because as the food chain goes, we could have eaten those fish in the lake. We were heading home because we were out of food. And here these fish were…eating because they were home, because they know how to survive, because they don’t store their food in a lexan container, because their fish societal structure doesn’t require that each fish talk to the Dollar Lake Fish government to obtain a license to eat bugs. In eyeshot and earshot, there swam a multitude of cold, delicious, white, fleshy, nutritious snacks…

I popped out of my sausage casing (if we’re still using that metaphor) and walked in to the cold mountain morning air to stare at the land under an eastern sun’s light. Finn dome towered on the skyline as dollar lake served to be a reflective backdrop of the green and gold and grey landscape. Behind it all was a bold, blindingly blue morning sky. The early light came on fierce and bright, but as ever, we were sheltered from the direct glow of the sun by rounded ridges and elderly pines. The morning was cold, maybe 30 degrees; colder than any of the other mornings that proceeded but this morning seemed especially clear, bright, and still. No one ever came to join us and camp at Dollar Lake, and we’d not seen anyone pass us on the trail yet. For the night and the better bit of a morning, we were the only ones in the world. It was us, our gear, and the symphony of splashing fish.

Not long after rising from the frosty tent, we’d gone through our own morning rituals, packed our gear and loaded up our backpacks which at this point were svelte. Moving meant warmth, and warmth was my only motivation for ever moving in the morning. If it were up to me (and even when it wasn’t up to me) I’d stay in the sleeping bag until 10am or 60 degrees, whichever came first.

Layering really is all that it’s cracked up to be, and we had become proficient at it on this trip. As I suited up in the morning I skipped the base layer pants because I knew I’d be taking them off in short order. I opted for my cut off shoes, Icebreaker merino wool socks, icebreaker 200 weight boxers, mountain hardwear canyon shorts, long sleeve REI prototype base layer, Columbia omni-freeze shirt, down sweater, and turtle fur beanie.  Lindsey bundled up in layers that would make the Michelin Man look like a slut. Ready to endure what may come, we wandered southerly on the unbeaten portion of the trail.

Through the gently radiused valleys of gray rock and granite peaks that had been rounded by time, weight, and ice, the trail snaked towards Finn Dome winding its way between robust, thick, hard scratchy golden grasses, andcold, shady pine trees. The path paralleled a softly spoken creek that fed the life from Arrowhead lake in to Dollar Lake.

The day was going to be a battle, that was apparent from the time the buckles on the backpacks clicked and load lifter straps were pulled tight. It’d be a mental battle more than a battle against the elements or terrain though there was no mistaking the physical obstacles ahead: Two mountain passes of great renown and great height- Glen and Kearsarge.  The miles between them couldn’t be construed, shortened, or shortcut. (I only know that because I stared long and hard at topo lines to find an off trail shortcut without any success…) These physical struggles of pumping lungs and pounding hearts and fatigued muscles are straightforward, and the outcome is almost always a certainty- we will make it. Whether it’s a frozen creek, a smoke filled valley, an afternoon thunderstorm above tree line, a multi-thousand foot climb to a mountain pass: We would make it. With time and food and movement, we’d make it. That is the simple eloquent beauty of living out of a backpack in the mountains. Given the time, and given the movement- You’ll make it anywhere you can see and many places you only imagine.

Internal battles, mental and emotional, aren’t so clear cut. A battle between triumph and failure had been simmering for days as the fuel for our physical battles which was stored in the bear canister evaporated. Could we stretch out what food we had left? Could we find some strangers who’d lend us their refuse food? Would ranger stations have snacks or rations? Can we hike faster? All of these things played out as potential moves on the chess board. All with the same end- checkmate. We knew the night before what our plan was. But as the night grew dark and light again, and even as we walked down this trail, it was hard to accept the reality. This was no longer a battle, it was a surrender. This day was in every way THE end. The end of the miles, mountains, dirt, dust, sweat and sun. The end of the high altitude air, cold wise rocks, gossiping creeks, playful clouds…the end of it all.

Sure, we missed home. God damn right I missed cheese burgers. And pizza. And refrigerated foodstuffs, and vegetables, and cold drinks, and ice cream, and hot water, and being clean, and soft beds, and internet, and the convenience of civilization, but I did not want it to be the end. Lindsey did not want it to be the end.

On the trail we marched at two miles an hour, wafting a gentle fragrance of ripe human in to the atmosphere in our wake. Two kids who saw a name on a brown sign during a ridiculous trip to Yosemite 6 years earlier. Two kids who’d never backpacked more than 1 consecutive night prior to this. The solemnity of the situation bounced around with the gravity of consequences in my head, and our boots shoes unwaveringly poured forth the steps that would make the miles that would lead us to the home that we were excited to see, but didn’t necessarily want to be at. 

Rae Lakes is one of the areas of the JMT that seems to stick in your head more than others, possibly because it’s beautiful and oft talked about by hikers, schemers, and locals. Possibly because there’s a ranger station and a lot of hiker traffic there. Probably both of those things. It snuck up on me because I was mostly anticipating and mentally preparing for the climb up to Glen pass. From Dollar Lake to the summit of the trail on Glen pass is only slightly more than 3 miles ahead and 1800 feet above.

For those 3 miles, yellow rays of sunlight gradually oozed in to the darker grey spaces around the trail like honey and began to warm the ground. We passed a small creek that was covered in a fraction of an inch of the clearest ice I’d ever seen. Naturally we broke it with our feet. It yielded with a satisfying crack after a little pressure, its presence alone a testament to the night time temperatures in this basin.

Ahead on the trail- an idyllic setting of clear, cobalt blue water, dirt, trees, and relentless granite rocks.

On a glowing granite mound by the waters of the northern most Rae Lake, we stopped to adjust our layers and make breakfast.  Those hikers who hadn’t hit the trail by now were just starting to rouse from their camps near the lake basin. I fired up a hexamine fuel tablet to boil some UV purified high sierra water inside a titanium cup while Lindsey grabbed our last 2 prepackaged custom made oatmeal baggies. Lindsey created a lot of the food back in Texas. The freezer bag creations were delicious. This particular one was your standard oatmeal goodness with added craisins and powdered milk and some nuts. Our last breakfast meal that we had.  I set out the goal zero solar panel to steal some of the sun’s energy for my battery pack and took the opportunity to lay on a rock and absorb as much of the warmth and light as I could while we cooked, ate, and reshuffled clothing.

We stayed there longer than we should have, but most of our stops had this same ambling ambiance.

Blanketed now entirely in light, warmth, and fueled by the recent nutrients, the hiking began in earnest.  Mountains awaited, the only way forward on the trail was climbing over them. With a final cinch of straps and a matter-of-fact exhale as if to finally resign ourselves to our impending fate, we took a step down the path.

They’re just numbers, these elevations. But they can be daunting numbers. Your body becomes better conditioned and you get faster as you become accustomed to the altitude and weight and regiment of walking all day, but nothing ever gets easier. The endorphins and the happiness far outweigh any pain and struggle, true.

I tend to make a bigger deal of the elevations in my head than any normal  person, which affected how much I could just sit and enjoy the moment by Rae Lake(s).

Back on our first round-the-west trip, we stopped at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and hiked down to Roaring Springs. Easiest half of a hike I’ve ever done. We practically skipped down the soft dusty trail, whistling a tune as we sped past massive mounds of mule shit. The red dirt on the trail, the canyon walls, the steaming piles of wretched urea smelling excrement all flew by. It was a hot, dusty, clear day. I was a 300+ pound mass of man bounding down a well graded slope with precision at speeds previously thought to be impossible for a man of my girth. So I thought.

As we tore ass down the trail, a man with one leg passed us…

This is what exhaustion and defeat in the Grand Canyon looks like. 

After about 4.5 miles of our high speed sauntering we reached Roaring Spring. I was never one to plan things out. Lindsey would pick a place or a hike that sounded good based on her readings in a paper or guidebook, and I’d oblige. I’d know the name of the trail, what it is we were going to see, and I built a world in my head of what I thought it should look like. This waterfall/spring was a total let down. What I had imagined as Havasu Falls was an uncorked flow coming out from a cliff that looked like we couldn’t even get close. Disappointment set in, not too dissimilar from the feeling that fogged me over after learning I would not be getting my hamburger at Red’s Meadow. After snacking and resting  at a hot sandy picnic table at damn near the bottom of hell’s drainage ditch, the inevitable ascent back to the top of the canyon loomed large.

Seeing no use of prolonging the inevitable, we reversed our direction and headed back up the trail. I still remember those first handful of steps ascending back up the trail. Hiking in to a canyon is the exact opposite of climbing a mountain as it turns out.

“You practically sprinted down this canyon, so all you need do is power walk up it. You can do that. You’re an athlete.” Said the part of my brain that thinks all homeless people write the honest truth on their cardboard signs.

“It’s a long hike. Go slow…You have all…”

“Shit, we’re out of breath. Let’s take a break.”

The climb out of the canyon was slow. So slow. I’d walk some steps and then rest a good minute.  Lindsey did fine. She was hot and tired, but I was the limiting factor of speed.  We stopped along some huge cliffs for a rest as they afforded some respite from the brutal sun.

I’ll be damned if that old one legged man didn’t come hauling his happy half an ass up the trail leaving a cloud of mule feces tainted dust suspended in the thick, hot, dry air behind him. I was appalled. He was moving at thespeed I envisioned myself moving. Assaulting the gradient, leaving his tell-tale track of one audacious boot print and 2 lateral crutch dimples in the sand.

“But…but that man. He only was one leg.” Pondered the part of my brain that doesn’t understand how reeces peanut butter cups are made.

“You’re fat and slow. Why are you shocked?” replied the part of my brain that’s not responsible for my hunger.

For hours we walked up and up and up. Lindsey’s cheeks turned a bright red from sunburn and heat and dehydration.  I can feel my heart in my ear drums and my pride had gone somewhere inside of me where broken things are stored. We reached the car as shadows were long. It was still light, but a quickly fleeting illumination that said we were slow…slower than 1 mph slow.  I was all too happy to jump in the Tacoma and head down the road. I had driven not even one mile down the road back to Jacob’s Lake where we were staying. I remember distinctly that my mouth was silent, but the internal dialogue was omnipresent.

“Don’t do it…don’t you dare do it.” Said the prefrontal cortex.

“blah.” Replied the hippocampus.

“Do not…”

“Tell the human to pull the car over.”

I don’t remember if I rolled down the window or walked around to the passenger side, but what spewed forth from my innards was an awesome fountain display that an uncultured homeless man might mistake for the Bellagio. I’ve never thrown up so hard or so much in my life. All of the water I drank over the course of the day. The hand full of trail mix…all of the snacks and drinks and nourishment. None of it went in to my body in those hours of hiking out. It all just sat inside my stomach for some reason. And after I’d pulled my sorry ass out of the canyon (no thanks to the energy and electrolytes that I tried to provide) my body decided to get rid of all of that.

I felt great afterwards. My heart rate didn’t come down until a day or two later in Bryce Canyon. In retrospect, that may have been due to a severe state of compensated volume shock.  That Grand Canyon hike has given me PTSD when it comes to hiking canyons. And that is why I tend to find altitude a significant psychological factor.

But on a Thursday in late September, the granite wonderland of the Sierra Nevada offered no canyons, only towering mountains and rocky passes of similar relief to that grand canyon hike. 

The Rae Lakes basin is tightly confined. The valley is runs almost perfectly in a South to North direction. Snow from Mt. Rixfordin the steep cirque-like southern confines of the valley feeds the 3 Rae Lakes to the north. Water eventually winds its way to hit Woods Creek and eventually the South Fork of the Kings River.

Once we arrived at the lower (northern most) lake for breakfast, the trail skated South for us on the eastern edge of the lakes for only a mile before quickly turning Southwest to cross a small almost-island just north of the upper most lake. This is where the climbing began.

With relatively light packs (25 pounds or so) and a final destination in mind, the ascent started in a benign fashion. The trail climbs the igneous chunks of crumbled mountain to the South West of the first Rae Lake but the path is mostly in soft, green woody areas where vegetation has taken up residence.  Intermittent shade, perfect temperatures, deep blue skies, deer grazing as they people watch made it the regular scene in the Sierra that was all too common- absurd perfection.

Less than a mile from leaving the first Rae Lake, the idyllic woodland walk gave in to a scene in the Sierra that was also all too common- the trees and shade cleared and before us was a bright grey mountain that was decaying. Boulders the size of school busses littered the land in front of us. The trail went up, but was visually lost very quickly in the cacophony of scree and mountain detritus towering in front of us.

Welcome to Glen Pass.

There is no real “base” to the mountain, but Lindsey and I stopped along the trail for some rest and electrolyte replenishment before the serious switchbacks started.  It is a beautiful area. Like Muir Pass, there’s no way with words or photos to give any justice to the size and scale of earth that is out here. It’s a sobering reminder that even at the point in my life when I felt physically the strongest, I was powerless compared to the wars that created and were destroying this huge spire. You can almost feel the tension and power and anger and noise of the earth that existed over hundreds of thousands of years during this orogenic phase. I imagined the ground shaking, sky shattering, furious noise as this monster was born and subsequent intermittent bursts of screaming agony as billions of tons of rock and minerals broke off in unimaginably large chunks as the mountain slowly weathers back to the ground from whence it came.

The mountain was silent but the wind whirred like a jet turbine. Up ahead was the infrequent but unmistakable sound of rocks hitting other rocks. Humans massaging some of the mountain’s smaller offerings under their feet.

A map would tell you it was only 800 vertical feet from where we were stopped under the watchful eye of the Painted Lady to reach the top of Glen Pass. Those 800 feet of vertical elevation were the most gnarly, intimidating, and bad ass looking feet ever. It wasn’t daunting, or a cause for worry. Glen Pass is actually quite simple in the sense that it’s there. All of it. Right in front of you. You can see the top. You can see where you are. You can see the terrain you have to overcome to get there.

So it went, sucking in lungfuls of clean and bright sierra air and walking the well-built trail that was created between the boulders. Lindsey and I and a handful of others walked to the top of the pass that day.  Nearly half way up the mountain near the end of some steep switchbacks we met a couple of women on their own adventure. We traded photographer duties, all four of us realizing that this was most certainly a “I can’t believe I did that” moment.

With my hiking stick in tow but not really doing much work, I plodded ahead. Lindsey and I would swap positions but 90% of the time she set the pace.  Following the switchbacks the trail mercifully levels out a bit and gradually climbs a long gradient to the pass. When we arrived, Lindsey and I were the only ones up there. The world we’d come from that morning looked small.

The terrain on the other side of the pass looked just the wasteland as what we’d climbed. We couldn’t see where we’d end up. The shape of the valley didn’t afford that opportunity.  

It was about mid-day by the time we crested. We didn’t linger long on the mountain pass. Lindsey wandered off behind some of the more modest sized black boulders to pee.  I stood on the pass penultimate to the peak as I pondered our position.

“Just recall that at the end of today, you will be sleeping in a hotel and have hot food and access to a shower at the end of today” the part of my brain that doesn’t waiver and accepts the inevitable facts of time said.

The wind swirled around the pass like an invisible hand vigorously stirring a cauldron. It seemed to come and go in all directions with a purpose. Staring south and looking in to the vast, sharp terrain that lay ahead of us I replied to my prior thought aloud: “I don’t see how that’s going to happen…”

Lindsey popped back up from behind her black and white speckled diorite boulder.

“Ready?” I inquired


Those words were carried away by the breeze and probably still lie stuck on some craggy scree slope of an unnamed mountain. 


Via Domus

Outside of the Weimaraner brown rain-fly the stars woke up, mountains began their secret lives, and small insects came to life. The short and thin golden-brown crunchy grass that grew in the rocky loam enjoyed its respite from the sun and slowly turned an iota darker as it went about its cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The Sierra winds picked up and rocked the staunch, weathered trees back and forth. And the permanent residents of the Sierra Nevada looked towards the glowing nylon walls of our nightly home.


It was not long after getting in to the tent that I began to feel better about the previous day’s hellish ending. Horizontality has very soothing, rejuvenate qualities to it. Maps were out, notebooks were open, pens were uncapped, and the trail guide book was sprawled open as Lindsey and I brooded over what was to come in the morning and the following days on the trail.

The good news, if there was any to be had, was that we had very little food which made our packs as light as they’d been on the entire trip. The bad news was that all of our artificially illuminated planning was for an exit and not a finish.

 “Miles away” was my ultimate determination. We were miles and miles away from Onion Valley and we were a good few Passes from having our boots (or shoes, now) hit pavement. I studied the day that was to come featuring Pinchot Pass. Being appeased with our current elevation, its ultimate elevation, and the fact that it wasn’t named Mather, I put my personal effects in to the little mesh pocket by my head and curled in to my faithful and surprisingly not-too-foul smelling Marmot Arroyo sleeping bag.

The body shouldn't idly comply with what it’d been through the past 2 days; the reserve supply of food, the elevation gain and loss, and more specifically the muscle groups utilized and the required repetitive movement of them. I was certain I would awaken sore, tired, and absolutely on low fuel in every way you can imagine after the Golden Stair Case and Mather events.

The night was bright thanks to a full moon and the reflective granite mountains around us. Though the night was over quickly, life seems to move slower in the sierra. I’m inclined to think the sun does too, lazing its way above the horizon and hiding behind the cold gray granite before it inevitably shows itself and resumes its normal rate of passage in the sky. And why not? Why care about hurrying up or time at all for that matter? Seconds are days in the sierra. Minutes are months. All told, a year in the Sierra Nevada may as well be a blink of an eye. The mountains play by their own rules and have a pace all their own. The struggle is learning how the mountains do it and adjusting accordingly.

I woke with surprise that I was not stiff, aching and unable to move. I felt quite well by the time solar radiation began to reverberate in the thin and crisp dawn air. I prolonged my stay in my sleeping bag all the same, opting to maintain my horizontal state as long as possible. My fear was that Pinchot Pass would become another Bear Creek for me, and though every hike starts the same in the morning (a little slow, a few adjustments, a bit of time getting in to a rhythm) after about 30 minutes, the inevitable truth of the state of things comes out. Very soon after moving, you know what kind of day you’re in for.

The sun washed out the mountains and set the sky a deep indigo as we sprawled our belongings around camp. Slowly, things found their way in to their right place inside of our packs. My Osprey Exos 58 smelled like a homeless man save the tinges of stale urine. Hundreds of miles of carrying a bear vault had worn a hole in the hydration sleeve and back panel (and the bladder itself).

The bear canisters themselves echoed as we filled them with what little we had left.

Benefits of carrying a tripod for 150 miles.

Around 10am zippers closed, buckles clicked, and all at once we were standing on top of where we had slept. Everything we had was strapped on our back and the path home led south and east.

Lindsey started off a little slow. After my initial diagnosis of myself, I realized I was feeling great.

Hiking never got easier. There was still labored breathing, sore muscles, tired bones, rest stops, and sweat…so much sweat. We did get faster and better conditioned, though. From where we camped at about 10,800 feet, 3 miles and 1500 vertical feet kept us from Pinchot Pass. Pinchot Pass kept us from wherever we'd stop that night. That one night kept us from the end.

Part of me wanted to go fast and get there…to the very end. Part of me didn't.

The miles, the tendons, the lack of food hit morale hard. Yet still, I didn’t want to leave this landscape. I didn’t put too much thought in to it, honestly. I avoided thinking about it as much as possible knowing that if i did not avoid it, it would consume me.

Easy to do when your heart is thumping heavily as it forcefully displaces deoxygenated blood in favor of blood with the sierra air bonded to it.

We strolled past mountains as we ascended the lightly vegetated terrain. Below the peaks, glass-still lakes waited for the winter.

It’s quiet. Breezy but not windy. Brilliantly blue above us. Clouds nowhere to be seen. Not a sign of a soul in front of us or behind us. This area was ours alone. I prefer to think The Sierra Nevada was giving us a moment of silence. Truly, though, that's just life in the mountains.

The trail crested a saddle betwixt Mt Wayne and Crater Mountain. Beyond lay more lakes dotting a lightly vegetated granite landscape. In many ways, the view and descent were similar to the view and descent atop Mather. Everything about Pinchot seemed a bit smaller in scale though. The pass was a little easier, a bit lower. The view was immense but the valley below seemed a bit smaller, more hospitable.

Not long after 11:30am Lindsey and I started down towards the jagged peaks and cold ponds.

The landscape around Pinchot Pass is broken up by igneous intrusions, oxidized rocks, and rust colored scree piles that break up the color palate of the landscape.

Some wispy clouds would creep in as we sank in to the tree cover past Mr Cedric Wright, a fortress of rock that dominates the basin beyond Pinchot Pass. The trail follows Woods Creek in a south, south westerly manner passing a few small tributaries that feed the main creek. Lunch was taken just off trail at an unnamed water feature. Like all of the other sierra water masses, it was crystal clear, cold, and delicious to drink. The bottom was a very fine silt that was easily disturbed, but we couldn’t resist walking in it anyway.

Basking in the sun, we marveled at the landscape beyond the lake, ate our remaining rations, and enjoyed the respite from joint jarring, bone pounding hiking. I indulged in our last fruit roll-up.

It was the best fruit-roll up I’ve ever had in my life.


Not far beyond the lake, a side trail over Sawmill Pass takes off to the east. We’d talked about using this trail to exit the JMT but ruled it out speculating a lack of facilities and humanity (i.e. potential rides) at the trail head. The John Muir Trail descends in elevation beyond this junction as it follows the strengthening Woods Creek.

Shadows grew long as we left miles in our wake at the rate of about 3 for every hour. It was an emotional day. I can sparse remember the scenery that lay between the lake we stopped at and the famous suspension bridge over Woods Creek, and I can’t remember what the reason for the argument was, but I do know that for the 3 or 4 miles, we walked fast. Anger has a way of making the body move faster regardless of food supply, terrain, fatigue, squeaky tendons.  So the silver lining of whatever useless argument we had which caused us both to be angry and walk far apart from one another was that we covered some ground.

Hiking south bound, the JMT makes its hard left across Woods Creek and in to a canyon. The sight of the iconic bridge changed the mood quickly, though it’d begun improving slightly earlier. This bridge was one of my first 2 memories when I was studying the JMT. I’d heard accounts of it, seen a photo, and gazed through my screen at a place I’d never be.

It’s larger than I thought. It’s higher above the creek than I thought. It shakes more than I thought. It’s like something out of Indiana Jones or Legends of the Hidden Temple. Quintessential rickety suspension bridge. It was realer than I ever thought it’d be.

Lindsey went across first after telling me to not shake the bridge while she was on it. Once she’d repeated that 4-5 times and felt slightly more assured that I might not shake it while she was on it, she walked across. I didn’t shake it, but only because I needed to video with 2 hands.

Once she was safely on the other side, I began my trip across as to oblige the aluminum sign on the pole- “One person at a time.” The bridge wobbled far beyond what I’d anticipated and I had to hang on to the suspension cables, but made it across easily. I would have stayed and played on it but some folks on a shorter backpacking trip were behind me, and I decided I didn’t want to look like a fool more than I needed to.

On the other side of the bridge, we watched shadows grow taller and we discussed our camping options for the night. We’d not gone as far as we needed to per my plan that I thought we needed to follow. On a giant trail side boulder I sat and ate a tortilla with Nutella on it and talked Lindsey in to hiking further. It was 4 miles to Dollar Lake from that point, and the hike was an ascent of about 2000 feet. It looked all very gradual on the map, though…

It almost always looks gradual on the map...

We hiked briskly as the sun started to fall behind the ridge in front of us. The streams and rocks and trees turned greyer as the world we were in fell in to the shadows.

It was a beautiful part of the trail, and another area I’d picked out as a good habitat for bears. I kept my eyes open but never saw anything. Spurred on by the idea of rest, food, and knowing that the end was in sight for this day and the whole trip, ultimately, we made it to Dollar Lake with time enough to set up in the waning moments of light.

Like the night before, as the sun went down the moon sprang up as if counter-weighted. It lit the sky in a side canyon beyond Fin Dome, and it was an hour before it surmounted the ridge and cast the area with bright white light.

The stars were incredible. I can’t fathom how it would look without a moon.

I stayed up and took some photos and watched the fish jump from the water to eat bugs and insects. Winds blew sporadically, at times making the surface of Dollar Lake as smooth as ice and other times making the whole surface smear with ripples.

With Diamond Peak high to our East, Mt. Clarence King in the West, and Fin Dome dominating the landscape South of us, we crawled in to the tent for what might have been the last time on the trip. We’d put ourselves in position to make it to a trailhead tomorrow with a 16 mile day. A 16 mile day that would have 2 passes…

The bear canisters lay far away from our tent, cavernous. Filled only with the first aid kit, a few snacks, fuel cubes. Tooth paste.

Not a soul else was around, and the mountain world was quiet. The moon and the mountains did their dance as we slept under the stars at Dollar Lake.



14.7M, LEFT @ 10, HIKED TIL 1900
10.5 ->12.1->8.9->10.5


Winter is coming

Day 14, 9.17.14

The darkness that draped us as we cooked the night before brought with it a certain chill, a cold that was exacerbated by being sweat-soaked. A change of clothes and a 30degree down bag did well to remedy the evening cold, but in the morning the temperatures had subsided even further creating a full on, bone freezing, blood slowing cold. At 10,600 and a handful of feet, the sun rises above the peaks late. Not a conducive combination to an early morning start.

As a general brightness slowly befell our tent that we’d parked under the foreboding gaze of Disappointment Peak, I made the most of my horizontal state. I wasn’t sleeping so much for rest, at this stage. It was entirely recovery. The longer I laid still and didn’t move, my brain figured that was all the longer for my muscles to recover from the constant incessant pounding of heavy footfall and other general abuse I put them through for 8 or more hours a day.

Lindsey was almost entirely ready to go, which I took as an indication that it was time for me to get up and get dressed and pack. I had made this process efficient enough by now; it would take me maybe 10 minutes to break down the entire camp, change, pack everything, have load-lifters adjusted to my liking and be trail-worthy. Others on this trip were not so expedient but they compensated by rising early.

The morning

Like many times prior on this endeavor, the lack of direct radiant heat is enough to keep you bed ridden. Life, for me, begins when direct radiation starts simultaneously killing and nourishing me.

Seems to be the trend, or at least a comfortable irony: that which saves you also tries to kill you. There’s an omnipotent but noticeably indifferent palpability to the world of peaks and valleys and trees and rivers of the Sierra Nevada. The sky looks on at you, knowing you’re there. It’s a presence you can feel. It does not care if you win, lose, conquer, fail, die, set a record, prove everyone wrong, prove people right. It’s just there. Cold clear air, pine trees with their rich scent of sap baking in the sun, cold infinite granite, bright intense light, flippant thunder storms, chaotic clouds.

It’s god damn beautiful. God. Damn. Beautiful. The Sierra Nevada deals out an experiential education for those who take the time to get to know it intimately enough. It renders life down to what it is at the core: a struggle. Our sad bastardization of life has given Struggle different faces for most people; sales numbers, quotas, laws, religions, wars, grades, salary. It’s all a struggle for life.

At no point is that more apparent than when bipedal feet compress the course grained sandy soil of the sierras while lungs struggle to oxygenate blood  as your body climbs higher and higher over a timeless obstacle that was there before you, will be there after you, will not give a damn you were ever there, and will never tell a soul or star that you existed at any point.

Knowing the struggle of Mather Pass that we’d quickly come upon; today was a big day for me. In the morning, I laced up my Kayland Zephyr boots that I paid over $220 dollars for, the boots that hard carried me all of the miles so far. As I walked around with them and felt the pain in my Achilles, I decided it was time for a change. I got the pocket knife without thinking, because I knew if I thought, I’d talk myself out of it. I took off a boot and I stabbed it in the back as I began to cut off the top of the boot. Cold stainless steel cut through nylon, leather, foam, eVent with an unforgiving bite. When I was done and I put the newly modified Kayland Zephyr shoes on, it felt like sweet freedom. It felt like America.



It was near 9:00am when our liberated feet carried us forward on parts of the path we’d not yet traveled. With life packed in to 130 +/- liters of space between the both of us, we walked in to the unknown like we’d done every day prior on this trip.

Above us in the sky, clouds were absent and the atmosphere was a pale blue. Satellites and spacemen flew in circles somewhere far above us. Not so far above us, the blades of a helicopter broke absolute silence as it circled around, looking for someone somewhere around us. I had the feeling that the Search and Rescue team was trying to find us for as many times as we heard the heavy bass of the rotors thumping through the cold and thin mountain air.

Only a few hundred feet beyond our camp, we passed a few folks who’d also made this area home last night. In the light of day, the lay of the land revealed itself. It was an enticing visual treat, having set up under relative darkness.

Mather way in the distance. Palisade Lakes. 

It’s a beautiful area. The whole trail is, to be sure. But Palisade Lakes is a unique area of fleeting aesthetics. It’s much the same as all of the other lakes, but all at once really different. It sits ominously as a definitive marker before the infamous Mather Pass, of which I knew nothing about other than I’d heard it mentioned many times. Mather and Forester, Mather and Forester. Mather and Forester…and Whitney.

It’s a safe bet to assume that whatever pass you hear the most…that’ll be the hardest. People don’t repeatedly mention something because it was so easy. They talk about it because it was so hard, so taxing, so challenging and consuming that they can hardly believe they did it. Or in some cases, they don’t know how they did it. That which we obtain too easily, we esteem to lightly. No finer example of exertion and triumph than a mountain pass.

One of two beasts

As we gently ascended the trail in a south easterly fashion, two meaty marmots scurried on the granite fragments that have fallen from the heights some time long ago to investigate the humans. By the time you hike to lower palisade (about 5 minutes after we left camp) you can see how the trail funnels you in to a mountain range, and there’s not a glaring low point or easy route. To get out, you have to climb. It’s nice at the least for the challenger to plainly show itself instead of hiding around notches or behind trees. Mather is bold in that way.

So on little food, cumulative fatigue, and conflicting thoughts about our food supply, one foot went in front of the other. And then the other foot in front of that one. Thousands and thousands of times. About 15 inches forward, about 5 inches up every step. That’s how we’d come over a hundred miles on foot, the hard way.

The trail switch backs up and forward through a vast boulder field. Some the size of buildings, some the size of footballs, but each one awkward and laborious underfoot. We came across a group of 4 or 5 or 6 people plodding ahead on the trail in front of us.

For the first time in my hiking life, I could tell I was better conditioned than someone else. Not in better shape, no. But reaping the benefits of acclimatization, and a body that expected to walk 10 hard miles every day.

Lindsey and I stopped to chat with them and it was in this dialogue when my fear was confirmed: Alabama beat A&M. One of the men in the group had a cousin or nephew who played for Oregon, and he said Alabama was still ranked #1. (Oregon was #2 at the time) All the same, it was the closure that I needed. With a heavy heart, we bid farewell and climbed upwards.

It was a bright day, a very very windy day. Cold, besides. I hiked in my usual Mountain Hardware Canyon shortsOmni-Freeze shirt (I was freezing all on my own, but I liked the shirt too damn much) and I stopped to add my vest as we climbed ever higher. Up until this point, I’d not used the revel cloud vest except as a pillow or layering at night. Today I used it full throttle, reaping the benefits of synthetic insulation. Somewhere around 10,900 feet maybe, I put on my beanie. The wind was biting, and did too good a job of sucking away all the heat my body could generate. The layers were a life saver.

Like the Golden Staircase, (and every other climb) this was not easy. It does not matter who you are or what shape you’re in. You suck in air. You expel it. You repeat the process quickly. Your muscles crawl like an ancient tractor, and burn like a barn fire. You stop to recover often. As the summit came close, a rush of adrenaline fueled my empty aching muscles and spurred my pace up the mountain. After 50 feet, the fuel was gone and the summit was false. Dejectedly, I trudged upward slowly and steadily. Then- the summit. Adrenaline. Energy burst. 50 feet forward…exhausted. And no summit.

The third time that happened proved to be worth it as I crested a rocky ridge and looked down upon an expansive, beautiful land on the other side of the mountain. I yelled back to Lindsey that this really was the summit. Beyond the monster that we’d just surmounted, the grass wasn’t greener, and it was not the quintessential epic view that i’ve been conditioned to expect as someone rounds a blind corner or crests over a mountain.

Caged on all sides by mountains of different heights, the other side of Mather reveals itself as a valley both arid and lush off in the further reaches. The land immediately beyond was brown, dotted with lakes that danced from the howling wind. In the distance- more mountains that I assumed we’d climb over. It was part awe-inspiring, part heart-breaking. Two elemental feelings that up until then, and since, I’ve never felt at once. It’s a soul stirring compound in a good way.

Lindsey and I settled upon the serrated granite ridge and found a flat spot just off the trail. Betwixt boulders that served to block the persistent gales that continued to grow in strength, we kicked our feet up, ate Williams and Conner beef jerky and stared beyond our propped feet to speculate where we were going. Down, yes…but there was no telling where we’d be when the shadows got long, the trees turned grey and the mountains began to glow.

Blobs of molten turquoise broke up the brown landscape hundreds of feet below us. As our eyes traced the canyon past the arid landscape, some greenery began to line the deepest parts of the valley and even further, a full on lush forest of pine trees. At the furthest point we could see, a lake. This lake rested superior to the green valley below, and from Mather Pass, it looked to be 20 miles away and damn near at the base of another pass. It shone off far in the distance, the sun bouncing off it like a signal mirror as if it were looking to be rescued or at the least make itself known and say “here I am.”

The folks we’d passed who brought us the dreadful news joined us at the top of the ridge. 5 or 6 of them made their group. We swapped photographer duties, chatted, and we all rested at the apex of Mather Pass. For the 30 or so minutes we all shared that pinprick of planet where we were the entire world. Nothing else existed, mattered, or was real. Cold rock. Hard winds. Bright Sun. Soft flesh. Bloody muscle. Deafening vastness.

On top

On top

In truth I don’t think any of us stopped there so long to rest. It’s mostly basking, absorbing, taking everything in. The trail provides a lot of information to decode. At its heart, the simplest message that there ever was. It’s time. Billions of years of rock. Thousands of years of humans. Millions of years of animals. There are times when the enormity engulfs you like a rogue wave. This was one.

Each day is invariably a numerical statistic like it or not. How many miles? How many did you go, do you need to go, must you go? That lone omnipresent vise of time and subsequent required mileage is the only negative I can think of to thru-hiking. Having these brief moments atop mountains or lazing next to lakes or spending time under the trees are the necessary adhesives that make memories stick.

The winds whipped in a furious current from all directions as if it were an eagle and we were sitting in its nest next to its eggs. It felt angry that we were there. The hemispherical blue sky above was ambivalent. The desolate scrub land of brown dirt, sand, and boulders below us beckoned with a wiry smile any sane person would mistrust, daring us to come down.

Our friends descended first. The lot of them from California, they’d found time each year to section hike portions of the JMT. Our paths fatefully crossed on Mather Pass in 2013. Two kids from Texas with a crazy ass dream, a group of family and friends with a tradition. It wasn’t a spectacular meeting. It was good, to be sure. But how infinitely rare it is…Never again in that time and place will our paths and stories intersect; most likely never again will they. It’s always a privilege to share the time and space with people who choose to write their story on the pages of a wilderness path. They faded away like ants as they sank lower and lower in to the scrubby terrain.

Lindsey and I began the knee-agonizing descent about 15 minutes after they did. After a morning of screaming quads, calf muscles, and slow methodical plodding up a mountain, the gravity assisted downhill portion and incessant negative grade of the switchbacks made me miss the events of the AM but only briefly. I’m fortunate to have insanely strong knees and I much prefer hiking downhill than up. My hiking stick was still traveling faithfully with me, but it was nothing more than an instrument to pound out a cadence occasionally. Most often it just sat in my hand, idly by as sweat soaked in to the core of the wood.

On the maps, the arid scrub land is called “upper basin.” I renamed it to the tornado steppe for its barren, extraterrestrial landscape and the fact that it seemed to be the home of the angry wind god. The top of Mather was just an encounter with his angry winged disciple. Down here, I was blown off the trail more than once as the hard winds carried spoken words off in the opposite direction, angrily tore at hat brims and shirt tails, and roared like an invisible Vernal falls.

Traveling easily down grade, the JMT goes exactly where we’d speculated from our nest on Mather; down the canyon that births the South Fork of the Kings River, in to the sparse trees, and in to the forest. Here, the wind has less power, or it doesn’t care as much about you. Regular sound and silence of the Sierra creep back in instead of the chaotic cacophony of the Tornado Steppe. As we marched, we superseded the friends we’d met going up, on top of, and now below Mather. Though not hard compared to many other parts of the trail, this trek south seems long and with not many ideal water sources were available at this time of year until miles down the path.

It was hours before we were in proper tree canopy. The miniscule South Fork began its meager fight through soil, sand, igneous rock to get to an ocean somewhere. As we hiked along and it grew from streams and high mountain lakes like Cardinal, Lindsey and I stopped to get water and to obtain calories from our bear canisters. Next to the shallow, soft spoken stream we stopped. Sitting upon granite rocks surrounded by a sea of short, thick, crunchy yellow grass we ate a fruit roll up, pemmican bar, and examined the contents of our food cache.

Since leaving the horses, dogs, 5 gallon buckets, and only sign of civilization we’d seen in weeks at Muir Trail Ranch, a violent pendulum of stay-on-trail/go-home swung erratically.
Sitting there packing our resupply at the ranch, we were leaving. Exiting the trail that day and going home. The next day, we were staying on the trail…determined to make it. And then Lindsey found out I didn’t pack a lot of food. And we were going home. We climbed the Golden Stair case rationing what we had left, carefully analyzing and predicting what we would need and when, based on the difficulty of the days ahead; the hardest days of hiking on the JMT, period...and we could make it. We would stay on the trail. We went back and forth in our collective appraisal. At sometimes, we thought it’d be impossible to do it with the food we had. Other times, it’d be hard but we’d make it. Other times, we could ask other hikers for food. Or a ranger station. Or find some solution.

It was a goddamn torture rack of thought, hunger, and expectations. A bad chess game about to come to an end. We had a king and a pawn and we were running in circles on the board with the writing on the wall just to stay out of checkmate hoping for some kind of miracle or turn of fate as the opponent, Kings Canyon, sat comfortably unmoved from its place on its own board; smiling as its comrade pieces of wind and mountain and weather and miles sought to test us and take our energy and resources until we’d fold.

As we sat there surrounded by the brown grass battle ground that was already preparing for the winter that was coming, the pendulum flew off its wire and fell decisively. Our king laid down its arms, bent the knee, and we were going home. In that moment there next to the whispering, uncaring South Fork of the Kings River where the struggle was decided, the permanence of the decision set in. The battles and spars before with logistics, injuries, resupplies were not final. This was. It wasn’t about pain, pride, time, ability…we just simply didn’t have enough food to sustain the both of us safely. After 2 days of hiking on maybe 3500 calories between the both of us, it was becoming clear that climbing 3 more passes/mountains was not going to be possible.

I wasn’t sad or angry, not nearly like I was at MTR. I was glad to know what we were doing at least and excited at the prospect of a giant, unholy mass of unhealthy hamburger. There were logistics to work out like where we’d exit, how/if we’d get a ride…but the rudder was turned and the course was set for Owens Valley by way of some point North of Mt Whitney

The forest grew thicker and our elevation lessened as we entered in to the thick green patch of land that we had spied from on top of the dominating blade of granite that is Mather Pass. All at once I never thought I could walk that far in a day, yet I never knew it would take that long to cover that small-looking of a distance. Scale and perspective is a funny thing on top of mountains.

In millions of welcoming fingers of fragrant pine needle canopy, we came across our friends from Mather. They must have passed us during our long break by the river, and our somber, slothly pace never gained ground on them the rest of the day. They were setting up camp in a sandy, well frequented area where a now modest South Fork meanders through with it’s clear cold water. Lindsey and I stopped and consulted the topo map. Only about 3/4ths of a mile beyond where we stood, and 800 feet above us was a ranger station at Bench Lake that might have food…worth checking, worth staying out of checkmate. Otherwise we’d camp around one of the lakes up in this basin.

Before the climb out of the South Fork of the Kings river valley to Bench Lake commenced, we stopped in a boulder field under the pine trees and ate an absurd amount of pepperoni. “We” means mostly “me” in this case. It’s a seemingly perfect food, but at no point was I ever too fond of it. I ate it happily but it was always too greasy for my liking. The fuel was a requisite of climbing the final ascent of the day, I rationalized.

Still waiting for these calories to do something...

Still waiting for these calories to do something...

I’ll be damned if it did a single thing for me…climbing up those “800” feet felt harder than climbing the Golden Staircase.  By the time we made it up the switch backs of the ridge and popped up on the lake basin where the ranger station was, I was fully and officially exhausted. We didn’t stop to find the ranger station, possibly because I was tired, grumpy, and didn’t care. We walked on ever upwards. Slowly. So slowly…like my legs were on life support churning out a step once every 2 seconds. Lindsey, having more energy, went ahead to scout a campsite while I mindlessly, aimlessly staggered on and off the trail. She found a suitable site and alerted me to its location. I used the final ounces of processed pepperoni energy to navigate to our home. I shed my pack with a “thump” and embraced the long shadows.  

The sun counterbalanced the moon and as its yellow fire sank in the west behind Mt Ruskin. Marion Peak, and the other sentinels, the pure white light of the moon rose opposite over Mt Pinchot and Striped Mountain, casting a luminous white glow on us as the waning red rays of the sun fought to ignite the highest spires in the east as long as it could before succumbing to the horizon.


2 miles ahead of us on the trail: Pinchot pass. We were positioned to climb it in the morning. Only 800 feet ahead of us in the distance, as the light in the sky changed from white to yellow to orange to purple to black, the surface of a lake shone under the waning luminosity like a signal mirror as if it were looking to make itself known and say “here I am.”



TUES 9/17 8PM

11M DAY.
CAMP @11,100 FT


Golden Rule

Day 13. 9.16.13

Beneath the boulders of the Black Giant we camped and we rested. The diffused light of dawn slowly filtered up the canyon and cast a cold light through the trees and creek. The direct orange rays bounced off the higher topographic lines of the mountains that flanked us and for a few minutes, the world glowed orange.

Inside of the North Face Mica 2, I ran my hand on the inside of the loosely staked out vestibule wall. Cold, but dry.

Today would be a good day.

Most of the days, it didn’t matter how far we would go or where we'd stop. The only exceptions were resupply days (which we'd finished by this point) and today. Back in Tuolumne Meadows as Riley, Lindsey, and I sat around a hydrocarbon fueled camp fire, Riley told us there were two distinct hikers he'd met as he walked North and the others walked south: Those who went up the Golden Staircase and Mather pass in one day, and those who planned their day to end after the Golden Staircase and then climb Mather the next.  He noted that those who did both climbs (really more of one, long, continuous climb) in one day hated their lives. Accordingly, Lindsey had been eyeing mileages and planning on getting us to a spot where we'd not tackle both passes without a night's rest in between.

Lindsey's endeavors in bipedalism without pain were going well. Having no shoe tops had seemed to make all the difference. In my stubbornness and general unwillingness to cut up my $220 dollar boots, I pressed on in varying degrees of pain and varying amounts of tape and varying dosages of Aleve.  

Our morning in camp was a quick one. Inside the cozy confines of the small tent pad that was sandwiched between pine trees and a granite boulder we went through the morning routine. It was not a super cold night or morning even as the sun struggled to rise above the heights of Mt. Gilbert, Johnson, Goode, and the others that made the mighty ridge to our East. Certainly, by this point in the trip, the routine was a finely tuned system; a well oiled machine of efficiency, repetition, function. The packing system was concrete. Even in the 58 liters of space, I knew where every item was. I knew what I needed. Best of all, everything in my pack, I used. There were no freeloaders, no luxury items that went unused. Every item had a purpose. It seemed almost like I didn’t have enough; I'd get bored at looking at the same 7 pairs of socks, 2 shirts, 2 shorts, and other few items. In reality, it's a feeling of exhilaration and a sign of precision. My life was in a backpack. I needed nothing, I wanted nothing. My food, shelter, love, adventure, health, and life was in, around, or tied to that bag.

Fully loaded and resting on the cold earthy soil, I yanked the pack on my shoulders with a quick, smooth motion that used to be hard when we started. I was getting stronger. I felt it. I felt my body changing throughout the trip, but this day was one of the first when everything came together as a whole.

The bright yellow sun baked the infinite Earth sky in to a deep blue. Cloudless skies; endless blue that would make Montana jealous. The trail would lead us East and South. We had camped on the upper fringes of tree line. We'd hike down in to Le Conte Canyon through an artery of the Kings River that bisected mountains. This Middle Fork of the Kings River synthesized from lakes, snowmelt, and high altitude creeks. The river did not exist before Muir Pass. As we walked the other side, the river was born. It's awesome watching something as simple and as oft overlooked.

A couple of guys speed past us. They're weekend visitors who've been in this area many times. The other creatures we see, a few deer, are foraging ahead of us. They keep their distance as they meander the path we're walking. Eventually they break from the trail and head down to water as the 2 mothers and 2 fawns eat shrubs.

Maybe 40 minutes in and somewhere around Big Pete Meadow we pull over to make breakfast. There are a good smattering of established campsites in the area and since the trail parallels the path of the infant Kings River, it's a great point for us to fill up, eat some oatmeal, and tend to any medical needs.

Aside from a little tape, blister prevention, and chapstick, I'm feeling good. The morning is an array of tangerine colored sun rays warming the granite ridges and prominent peaks that envelop us. As we hike overall Southbound, at this very specific spot on the trail there are monstrous, sheer spires to our right and a very steep high grade to our left. Water did this…kind of cool. A tall, lanky NPS Ranger stops by to chat. I figure it's a permit check. And it is, but he doesn’t make me break open the pack and get out the permit. Nice guy. We chat briefly and he carries on going North on the JMT. He's got the best job in the world. But he didn’t know the score of the A&M/Alabama game.

We march on with ease (trail is a comfortable grade and downhill during this part) past Le Conte Canyon Ranger Station. Here at the ranger station is a Junction with a side trail that goes out over Bishop Pass. 12.6 miles to a trailhead. Ever since Muir Trail Ranch, I wondered if we'd go out early and exit the trail on one of these access roads. I didn't want to, so my plan was to always just keep my mouth shut and hike on the JMT unless otherwise told.

The JMT is interesting in that once you're on it, you don't really want to leave the formal JMT. David wanted to hike the exact route, every step of the way. Lindsey and I didn’t care to that level of specificity, but we did care. I wanted to stay on the well worn ruts of the frequently traveled iconic Sierra trail. There's much to explore and there are hundreds of miles of side trail, obscure loops, little seen lakes, and all are worthy of visitation. But this was a John Muir Trail Trip. Plus Lindsey and I were both feeling pretty good, albeit a little dirty. The Bishop pass trail junction came and went.

Another 3.3 miles down the Middle fork of the Kings River (which had grown considerably since we first saw it at higher elevation in the morning) and the trail makes a hard turn almost exactly east. Before reaching this junction we pass Grouse Meadows. Beautiful spot.

We reach the trail Junction. JMT goes east, Road's End Trail goes south. We're surrounded by peaks. The Citadel to the northwest. Giraud Peak to the northeast. Rambaud Peak in the southwest and Mt. Shakespeare to the southeast. All of them roughly 12,000 feet and we're sitting river side, taking a hobo shower at 8,070 feet.  We filter water, rest, refresh ourselves, and prepare for the impending ascent that is by most counts one of the most daunting of the entire trek: The Golden Staircase.

There are 13 maps in the JMT Map series that we had. We started on map 12. Today, we would start on map 5 and end on map 4. It was a good morale boost, not so much in an "ok-we're-almost-done-only-3-maps-to-go" way as a "damn. You've-hike-a-long-ass-way" way.

This eastern jaunt of the JMT starts easily enough. It meanders up Palisade Creek through a lush valley that is beautifully dotted with remnants from a fire. It's roughly 5 miles from the trail Junction to The Golden Staircase. As we slowly ascend out of the valley we hiked in to, I prepare for the big push by utilizing a secret weapon I've kept stored in my bear can- Gatorade mix. It's grape and low calorie. It was delicious. I wish it had been double-calorie. The day's food intake was scarce. Oatmeal, a meal-pak bar, NUUN tabs and some trail mix. And Gatorade mix. I felt good, energy wise. After hiking pretty consistent miles for so many days, your body adjusts and starts to perform.

We didn’t have the luxury of having the proper amount of food per person since we didn’t plan on finishing the trail when we packed our final resupply at MTR, so we rationed and we got by. Days like this one, where we wake up at 9,800 feet, hike down to 8,000, and then climb up to 10,600 have a way of burning many calories. We knew how much food we had. We knew how long it would need to last. So we managed.

Up Palisade Creek, the trail dashes in and out of forested segments. In the open sections, hikers are afforded a very clear view of what they are going to be going up and over. With subtlety, the ascent up the Golden Staircase starts as you slowly start to climb up the canyon that encloses Pallisade Creek. A few steep steps here and there and the heavy breathing starts and with it, so does the Golden Staircase. Quickly after the unimposing start, the trail begins to veer away from the creek and the work begins. A 1500 foot climb in a fairly short amount of trail.

My Friend

The skies still radiated brilliant blue but the sun was sinking ever lower. A few hours or so were all that was left in the day by the time we were about halfway up the climb. We stopped and had to eat. I had a really good rhythm going up the switchbacks. I'd figured out my secret breathing technique while going up to Muir Pass and I implemented the same strategy here. It worked brilliantly, but the body…it won't do anything without energy. We split a Snickers. I saw a caterpillar next to me.

We chatted for a bit. We had our ups and downs. There was a time I thought I killed him or her. In the end, it was just afraid of me. And for that reason I'm sad. But as long as I live, I'll never forget my moment with that caterpillar, a fatigue induced delirium that is the lone memorable spot in a span of about half an hour.

My brain protested more than my body, but eventually I rose to dusty boot covered feet and we kept marching up, and up, and up. The views were amazing as the sun set directly behind us. The light was beginning to cast the trademark hue on the golden staircase. Had we been 30 minutes slower, it would have been an epic sight. I'm content settling for the awesome sight that it was.

Most climbs have a false summit and then a moment of triumph when you're at the undeniable summit. Golden Staircase is kind of similar. There are a couple of points when you think you're there at the top. The time comes when you are at the actual top of the Golden Staircase. You can look back, marvel at the view and what you've just done, and then you think you can go on to "normal" hiking. Maybe it's because I was so tired and needed food, maybe it's because I expended all my energy climbing 1500 feet…

There should have been a lake here. 

The trail beyond the Golden Staircase wanders over to the Palisade Lakes. On paper, the trail appears flat or at the least, nothing near the steep haul we'd just come up. My recollection is that this is not the case. The trail goes up and down varying steepness of terrain. By this time in our day, the sun was no longer in sight as it dropped below the ridges we were now concealed behind. We were exhausted and in a weird trail purgatory; caught between an insane climb and a good camping spot. Around every mountainous hill I expected to see a lake. We'd camp there. It'd be great. I could eat dinner.

Around every mountainous hill- I was wrong. No lake. A creek, sure. But no lake. This happened a few times before Lindsey and I decided to say "screw it." We decided that we'd camp at the next spot that looked appropriate.

Sure enough, minutes later we found a spot. I dumped my backpack off and I sat on the sandy, flat patch of land that we would call our own for a few hours. Priority 1 was eating.

Last night when we rolled in to camp, I was light headed, tired, slightly weak and I knew it was from a lack of food. Today was a similar feeling and situation. It was probably slightly dangerous to be hiking this way, but I could feel what my body needed or wanted. It's a pretty cool ability you get used to after a few days of eating for fuel and not to be full. This long trek up the Golden Staircase was particularly memorable because I specifically recall feeling my body get smaller. I had to keep cranking on the belt of my shorts.

So we opened up the bear cans and made some Bear Creek soup. The soup, Bear Creek Soup, unlike Bear Creek Trail, is actually good. We made some mashed potatoes, and then I ate a tortilla with Nutella. I hoped this dinner would be like last night's dinner. Whatever was in the food I had eaten 24 hours prior was amazing.

I wandered around in the bright moonlit night to find water for drinking and more cooking and stumbled upon a torrent of a creek with a cool 5 foot waterfall. We set up camp, put on our jackets, and watched the mountains under the glow of the moon for a bit. Then I took notes. And then I slept like a champion knowing that tomorrow morning, we'd be starting by doing the same thing we'd just ended with- a 1500 foot climb to Mather Pass.

Notes from the Trail-

9/16 20:36



Aether and Vulcan

Day 12. 9.15.13

The September atmosphere of the Sierra Nevada calmed itself throughout the moonlit night. The creek next to us trickled like an old toilet that won't stop running and the air brought with it a certain chill. It had rained the past few afternoons and dampness was still lingering. The miniscule drops of moisture hovering in the cooling air nucleated together. Nary would a droplet fall from the sky, yet by dawns early light, our equipment was drenched; soaked thoroughly by the cold condensation.

I was starting to learn that camping near rivers and creeks is bad news. I've camped many places in many tents. Truthfully, the morning ritual for camping had degenerated in to this: become half conscious. Stir in sleeping bag. Stretch. Feel tent walls to see if they are wet.

This was never a more critical process than when we owned a single wall tent. It was a short rogue period in ot7 and really, we only bought the Eureka domicile out of necessity. Our other tent, a 13 lb Wenzel monstrosity of 5 person living space had run away. We had set the Wenzel up at Big Bend on our inaugural backpacking and traveling road trip (yes, we bought a 5 person dome tent and took it backpacking). The Wenzel tent stood tall and mighty in the Texas desert after we'd slid the fiberglass poles though, but the ground would not take a stake. We weighed the corners down and went off exploring knowing that this would be enough to keep our shelter stationary. The one rainstorm per year that comes through the desert of West Texas came after we left our camp, and it was preceded by some winds. So as we are coming back home to our tent that we had previously put in a very conspicuous location (bright maroon and grey tent in a flat brown desert) we had to do a double take. Our chairs were there. Our little table was there. But that was it…no tent. Nothing. Lindsey found the tent a hundred meters away in a gulch. It had run away to be with a mighty ocotillo. At first they were inseparable, but after some hard persuasion, we separated the two. No idea how that ocotillo is doing these days. I knew it had to be done though. And like most hard separations, you know damn well there were hundreds of tiny holes in the rain fly. And you know damn well the rains would come that night. Half a roll of ducktape kept us mostly unsaturated, but we still got dripped on. Good thing we had a shit load of room in that tent. This all happened on day 2 of the anticipated 40 day trip. So by the time we hit Vegas we went to Dick's and bought the Eureka Zeus tent. Waterproof, light weight, and cheap. That's the story of how I came to own a single wall tent. The condensation is why I will never own another. I think every night we slept in the Eureka tent we woke up wet. Every morning in the tiny one door, 2 person teal Zeus tent I'd wake up and run my hand on the inside fabric of the single wall. Every morning it was wet. It's physics. This ritualistic habit persisted…

So back on the JMT I'm doing the Eureka condensation test and we are in bad shape. Real bad shape. Maybe the wettest night to date and that we would see on the whole trip. From the fringes of the trees where we had camped with cuben fiber camera man, the sun was blocked perfectly by the tallest peak around us. This was becoming a pattern I was figuring out. The revelation clunked in to my brain. "Tall Mountain block sun." It was a caveman-like revelation.

So we went through the process that was familiar at this point. Delicately take apart the rain fly.  Set in a place to dry. Pack gear.  Lay out tent to dry. Trouble was we had no direct sun for a good while which meant the cold and moist air was all we had.  When the sun did surmount the granite spire in the east, the rays bathed us in beautiful warmth and cast a splendid light on the valley we were in.

Slowly and steadily we watched and waited for the moment. I could see the bright white glow in the sky behind the mountain and I knew it had to come over the peak at any moment. It was a pretty spectacular scene standing in the dying grassy meadow that was cloaked in thin, ground level foggy mist and watching the sun rise inch by inch over the mountains. The light dusting of crystalline frost that clung to brown blades of grass transpired back into the atmosphere from whence it came. All at once, the magic and warmth and light of the sun kick started our journey. A light breeze began to float through the meadow.

Today was going to be a map changing day, which was exciting. From McClure Meadow, a long 9.5-mile stretch would lead us to Muir Pass, one of the keystones of the trail. Perhaps one of the most famous passes for its name and its hut. For years, I'd scanned Google Earth images and satellite photos. Today, I'd be on the ground and in real life. I could touch the damn thing if I wanted to.

In the morning I was feeling well enough. About 30 minutes in to the hike, I'd warmed up enough to start shedding layers. I was down to my REI Base layer and my trusty, well worn, smelly, salt infused Colombia Freeze Degree shirt. The Columbia piece was laced with their new Omni-Freeze technology which I'd planned on putting to use in late August when we'd originally planned to be on the trail. In September, when we actually did the hike, there were times that the omni-freeze worked too well. But it was my go-to shirt, and on this day I was comfortable in my standard outfit. 95% of the time-

Outdoor Research SOL hat.
Columbia shirt.
REI base layer
Mountain Hardware Canyon shorts
Icebreaker 250 Merino boxer briefs
Icebreaker socks
Kayland Zephyr Boots.

(Full gear list)

It was a money combination. In the cold mornings and nights I'd throw on the down sweater. On super cold nights, I'd throw on the Revel Cloud vest. Thus far, I'd not been cold enough to wear the insulating layers while hiking.

Even though it was 50 degrees and we were 45 minutes in, I was sweating like a whore in church. The trail wanders next to Evolution Creek for a ways past McClure Meadow and then makes a turn to climb up to Evolution Lake. Up until that turn, it's a nice flat walk. By the time we hit the switch backs, I was tired. Today was one of those days…switch backs were going to be slow, clumsy, and with heavy breathing. Much like two nerds making out.

The morning was so bright and clean and clear though. It was alright with me. Slowly and steadily we climbed up and out of the green and tan lushness of McClure Meadows and we ascended back in to the granite crags and rocky talus of the High Sierra. This was Muir Pass Country. This is what I thought the whole trail would be; Barren moonscape. Winds. Rocks. Lakes. Isolation. Beauty. Solitude.

David, Cuben Fiber Camera Man, had gotten a jump start on us in the morning.

Lindsey was looking forward to Evolution Lake, which we were supposed to be approaching. I wasn’t as enthused. I was still breathing heavily, going slow, and carrying my hiking stick as a passenger in my hand. It felt weird at this point to not carry the stick with me. As we rounded a bend, the trail leveled out and the terrain changed a bit. The trail opens up to a new, higher level of a mountain valley. Only a few trees dot the terrain around us, but high peaks frame us in on both sides. Lush and thick green grasses around us in the lower part of the land indicate water is near. Large, eroded and weathered boulders lie in the middle of tiny meandering brooks.  At this point, we are maybe 10 vertical feet below Evolution Lake. Looking in the distance, I can't see the lake but I can see the moraine that is holding it back. It's a cool feeling knowing you're standing in front of a mighty mass of cold, untamed, ancient water. And all that's holding it back--the boulders, rocks, and debris that a glacier plowed in front of it.

As we hike and make it to lake level, we stop for a decent break at a large rock mass that juts out into the cold blue depths. It's windy now. Really windy. And though it's not cold, the wind makes it chilly when you aren't moving and your body is wet from sweat.

Lindsey filters water, eats, does laundry, and I lay down in the fetal position in the sun. I'm still not feeling well. Slow, sluggish, inefficient.

It's hard to figure out what your body is trying to say sometimes. I thought mine was saying "Stop being an asshole and feed me." To which I deposited into my stomach some Nuun tabs, a meal-pack bar, and whatever rations we had. We were getting hungry but we did not have a ton of food, so we cut back a little. Maybe it wasn’t food, maybe I was just tired. It wasn’t a soreness or tired-of-walking sensation. I drank water. I laid in the sun. I watched a beetle. I looked at the ants. I stared at the crystals that made up the granite sand that was on the granite boulder in the clear, cold, blue water of Evolution Lake. I watched the wind kick up waves on the water. After 30 minutes it was time to go.

By my guess, we were about halfway to Muir Pass and the trail would keep climbing steadily.

Crystal clear blue skies matched the translucent waters of Evolution lake as we headed further south on the JMT. Through perfect Pika habitat, we wandered as ancient, giant peaks watched us, their shadows almost nonexistent by this time of day. Through the glacially carved corridor we marched under Mt Mendel, Mt Darwin, Mt Spencer. The trail hugs the side of Evolution Lake and the creek/lake system that feeds it as it leads us in to the higher, more barren lands.

Once we made it to the southern point of Evolution Lake where the influx point is, I was moving. I'd gotten a pattern of breathing down that was absolutely dynamite. Two quick, sharp inhales and one longer exhale. It sounded like "huh huh whoooo." It kind of sounded like a train, which is what I felt like at this point. My body was doing better. I felt a little headache but I felt capable. I chugged like a train up the trail. Steady pace unaffected by topography, 35lb pack, stiff head wind that was growing in its might. We marched.

At Sapphire Lake, the first big lake past Evolution Lake, we stopped for another break. While sitting here we came across the two guys we'd seen at Muir Trail Ranch. They were rockin in their 70-pound backpacks. We exchanged greetings and they marched on. The one guy still had his 18" long Kermit the frog doll pinned on the outside of his pack. The only others that we'd seen on the trail so far were a small group heading north and back at the beginnings of Evolution Lake, two ladies that'd we'd been leapfrogging since MTR. We never exchanged words with them, but I liked their style. They were fast hikers.  After our stop at Sapphire lake, I figured we'd not see the team of guys or the team of girls again.

Lindsey and I started speculating where the pass was. Dead ahead of us on the trail was a notch in a huge mountain. I figured that was it.

Terrain from a distance is a hell of a thing. It never looks hard, it just looks far away. And then you get closer, and you realize it's a real bitch. It's steep. Those tiny rocks are the size of houses. It's not as friendly, welcoming, and easy as it looks from afar.

After a fruit roll up and some water, we march on South for a few minutes and then the magic time comes.

New map page.

Mercifully, the trail curves to the east. So that notch I thought was the pass was actually just a giant mountain. Even better, it was a whole divide. Goddard divide. We weave in-between large and small lakes and head east to Muir Pass. An unnamed lake of small size passes us on the left. On the right, and absolutely giant and idyllic Wanda Lake danced in the stiff wind, sparkling like a constant rain of diamonds. Wanda Lake has a few small islands and a pretty sweet craggy peninsula in it. This whole area is one of my top areas I want to explore with more time.

That lake is hiding something in her depths. I can feel it.

At 11,426 feet, Wanda Lake is within striking distance, elevation wise, to Muir Pas at 11,955.

The relentless, cold wind blows hard and shadows are starting to regain some length. I've layered up now. For the first time on the trip. I'm hiking in the vest and immediately putting on the down sweater during breaks.

Lake McDermand goes by on the left. Winds nudge us off the path we're walking and we push back.

In the distance, we guess where the pass is.  A tiny blip looks like it might be the famous Muir Hut.

A small lake goes by on the right.

The Hut is easily visible now, and the easy gradual climb that I thought would lead us to it turned in to a fairly steep switch backing affair. Judging terrain from a distance. Should know better…

A large group that I think was a family passed us. They were going northbound. They looked worn the hell out. They'd left from one of the Pete Meadows (little or big, I forget). From that point on the trail where we met, Big Pete Meadow is about 5 miles away. It sounds like a long day, but doable if we want to get there.

We switch back up and up, thinking that each next turn will be the top until it's finally true.

In sheer wondrous massive glory lies a structure that looks like it was raised from the surface of the mountain itself. Muir Hut.

The winds whip and blow hard and we take the opportunity to rest inside of the hut. It blocks the wind, but damned if the rocks that it's built of don't absorb and then radiate the cold. Inside I sat in my sweat soaked clothes for a bit. I took off my shoes and my socks. I took off the Omni-freeze shirt since it was not really in its element and put on my REI Sahara shirt. 

REI sizes are weird, I think they size everything larger than normal. I've got a size large Sahara shirt and it wears like an XL. So for this trip, I bought a purple/dark blue Sahara shirt in Medium. When we left, it fit snug but I figured I'd make do. When I put it on in the hut, it fit almost well. Sleeves are too short, but it was an indicator other than my integrated shorts belt that my body was changing and adapting. And it's the first time I've ever worn a medium in anything.

We exited the rock cathedral through the wood and wrought iron door and were met with a blast of the cooling and strengthening wind. Until this day, I'd not hiked in my insulating layers (vest or jacket.) Today things changed. It was chilly.

Past Muir Pass, the terrain descends in to some of the gnarliest, wickedest, coolest, most awe-inspring and geologically impressive terrain there is on the trail and the world (that I've hiked.) The Black Giant, a massive feature that dominates the landscape in this section of Kings Canyon stands like an ancient mythological god. Far removed from the bright white granite, this thing is a beast. And whomever named it has the same uncanny skills that I have. Short, to the point, descriptive, unavoidable. Black Giant. You god damn right it is.

(My friend once found a little black dog abandoned on the road. I "watched it" for a day…and that ended up being forever. She was sweet and maybe the best dog I've ever owned. Her name: Black Dog. She and Orange Cat were best friends. That's a 100% true story.)

The terrain that lies at the feet of this geologic sentinel is a hell-scape. Black, red, orange igneous rock and mica litters the trail with its sharp and jagged shards. You can't move fast through this terrain if you wanted to. Steps are large, rocks are large, the trail bobs and weaves through the mangled terrain going past Helen Lake and some other small, unnamed bodies of water.

I quickly understand why that family that passed us looked so worn out. If you're climbing through this section going North, I can only imagine all of the effort and energy it takes out of you.

For my money, Helen Lake might be the most beautiful lake on the trail. Obviously It's hard to pick, and it's subjective. But the size, location, color, depth, and remoteness made it an instant favorite for me. Its outlet stream is subterranean. The rocks and boulders that comprise the trail allow for the water to flow well beneath the surface. You can hear and sometimes see the water but for the most part it's unseen in many parts. Sitting next to Helen Lake- a spire I'll call Little Black Giant.

I'd originally thought that this black mini-mountain was Black Giant. I apologize, Black Giant. I realize what an insult that was to you. Seriously, you need to see this thing. In the range of light and in the land of peaks, ridges, mountains- Black Giant stands alone and in its own class.

We slowly descend through the madness. Going through the terrain, geology, and completely different color and texture of the land put me in a surreal place. It felt like I was in a video game or post apocalyptic world. There's something really primal and really human about walking through this area. You can feel the power and the rage and the force of the earth that shaped this region. It's the most violent, powerful area I went though and I loved it.

Today happened to be the day before Lindsey's birthday. I'd not prepared a cake or brought anything on the trip to gift, so as we walked down into the infancy of LeConte Canyon I thought about what I could do.

Sun light was behind the mountain tops. The sky was turning a dark blue. The clear, crystalline day had succumbed to a few puffy white clouds but they were leaving with the sun now.

Holed up in a sheltered flat spot was a Go-lite Shangri-La tent. A few hundred feet past that was our two friends with the 70 pound packs. They were setting up camp in a small flat spot with a couple of trees.

The trail wandered on endlessly. Each downward step was heavy and abrupt sending jolts through my frame. I was tired. My form was shot. We were both tired. On our descent, a small unnamed lake rested on our left.

It's perfect. Lindsey loves lakes. I gave it to Lindsey for her birthday in true anglo-saxon fashion.

After consulting the guide book, we determined there were some campsites within a mile so we started searching and found a secluded area tucked up in the side of a ridge. Directly west- The massive Black Giant. Behind us to the North- The wicked and convoluted trail from whence we'd come. To our south- LeConte canyon and an almost full, bright white moon that shone bright through the invisible winds that filled the canyon.

We set up camp in a small tucked away campsite and were welcomed with the scurrying of a few little mice. They knew the drill. They knew people meant food. By the time we stopped, I was famished. Light headed and weary I knew food would fix it. We got the dehydrated Szechwan soup Lindsey had made from the bear can. I added about half a pound of peanut butter to it and rehydrated it all with boiling water. It was the best meal I had ever had.

We ate under the light of headlamps and for the first night of the whole trip, I spent a few minutes playing with the intervelometer and taking night photos in general. The winds were gentler now. The night was bright.

At the end of the day, we'd gone about 13 and a half miles over some of the most iconic, roughest, toughest terrain of the whole trail. My body started slow, but we ended strong. The night wasn’t frigid like some before it. Tucked away between trees and boulders, I wrote in my notebook and then rested. A rouge breeze would lightly shake the tent every so often.

Notes from the Trail





The Answer


Day 11 9/14/13 cont.

Tens of thousands of years ago (possibly further back in time than that) man (or possibly dinosaurs) found ways to manipulate regular objects in to tools. From the bones of creatures came javelins, spears, handles. From the limbs and trunks of trees came clubs and structures. From rocks came adzes, axes, knives.

Today knives come in thousands of flavors. They've come a long way from the chert and bone collaborations our ancestors used. In every way though, knives are doing today what they were meant to do back then- kill, cut, and/or set free. Though the Gerber mini-paraframe we carried is made to higher standards than those our ancestors had, and though I will unfortunately never get the chance to pierce thick dinosaur hide in the heat of an all out reptilian brawl, it was always on standby ready to kill if called upon. On this day, it performed its cutting task like a champion. It made fast work of the thick textile shoe. Subsequently, we were set free.

Not more than one hundred feet beyond the gate of Muir Trail Ranch, Lindsey was feeling vastly better, free from the high top part of the shoe that ensnared her hours before. With free range of motion, and no parcel of shoe pressuring the achilles tendon, her foot could live freely. 

I gave quick thought to doing the same thing to my shoes right then, but I couldn’t bring myself to chop up my $220 boots that I'd been saving specifically for this trek. I pressed on.

Back on the trail. 

The trail immediately beyond MTR is mostly flat, wooded, and visually beautiful albeit a bit uninspiring after everything we'd seen. The clouds from the previous few moons lingered over us today as well. They weren't as threatening as they were comforting.

The Piute Trail splits off from the JMT 3.3 miles past MTR. This was our discussed and decided escape route that we'd talked about the night before and settled on earlier in the morning. We traipsed the 7900 foot contour line just north of the San Joaquin River's South Fork in an Easterly direction and followed the John Muir Trail to its eventual intersection with the Piute Trail that would take us out over Piute Pass and back to safety, comfort, hamburgers, and society.

We hiked at a comfortable pace, not grueling but not slow enough to allow for heads held up high and relaxed breathing. The trail comes to cross a mighty bridge that spans the roaring Piute Creek. In the spring and in times of high snow melt, I can only imagine what it would look, sound, and feel like. We stop to filter some water and take a quick break. I set my heavy pack on the ground and sit on a little rock and contemplate while drinking 32 ounces of water that I'd added a Nuun tab to. 

50 feet behind us on the John Muir Trail, the turn off to the North bound Piute trail beckons. In front of us....I can't tell where the John Muir Trail leads but as I look around and try to guess our direction of travel, I figure we're heading into a pretty amazing valley between two monstrous mountain ranges. I slither down to the water and fill it with fresh water so I can stick the Steripen in my bottle of water and wait the 90 seconds for it to kill the bad stuff. Then I grab Lindsey's purple Nalgene bottle and then hike down the steep bank made up of Volkswagen sized boulders.

My water filtering policy is this: filter from where the water moves fastest. Seems fresher, cleaner, tastier in my head. Is it true? World may never know. I put myself in a prone position on a boulder that juts out into the quickly moving, cold water. This position allows me to safely stretch and reach out into a fast flowing channel of the mighty river, but I'm still pretty far extended.

Anyone who knows the simple truths of Chris Oswalt knows that I have no fears, but of all the things in the world, I've got a nice healthy respect for fast moving water. There is not a way in hell or creation that I am going to fall in to this torrent. So I lay belly down on this big rock, I'm secure. The good, rapidly flowing water can only be reached at maximum right arm extension. I hold the empty bottle by its dainty black cap and dunk the 32-ounce cavity into the raging river. The bottle fills instantaneously and due to some laws, bylaws, rules, or regulations of physics, bottle decides that it is taking its mass downstream. The bottle decides to disassociate itself from the black plastic cap that i'm holding. So I'm left with a cap in my right hand and a bottle- One of the two bottles we have on this trip- that's starting to white water raft itself down to the Pacific Ocean.

 With my left hand that's been faithfully by my side this whole time (and my whole life, for that matter) I make one last ditch effort to grab the bottle that has begun to rocket downstream. I stab my arm in the water and hope that I grab a part of the bottle. I close my hand around something round and retrieve my arm from the water. In my grasp- a purple nalgene bottle full of fresh, cold river water. I put the lid back on and climb up the embankment and act as if nothing ever happened. I didn't think Lindsey needed to know I almost lost her water bottle

Water under the bridge, aka the spot the bottle almost got away.

Piute Creek marks the boundary between National Forest and National Park.

We're not going out over Piute Pass. We're going to move on. 

We're going down the JMT and we're in King's Canyon National Park. We've made it into new territory and it's a huge morale boost.

It's a much needed one, because every now and then I get this weird feeling that my achilles tendon is squeaking like a poorly fitted joint on a rocking chair. Weird things happen in your brain when you realize that inside of you, parts of your body are audibly and palpably creaking. I stopped to adjust my footwear and then started hiking.

Couple of steps in and then I felt an I.V. of fire being injected in to my foot. It was the worst pain I'd felt on the trip, and the worst pain I'd ever felt in my foot. I have no idea what it was or how it happened or anything other than I could not move my foot. So I stopped again on the side of the trail and for the first time, I taped my foot up hoping it would help.

What a cruel swing of emotions it was--anticipating with joy the huge food cache at MTR, being at an all time low deciding we have to hike out, last ditch hail-mary slice of the knife and we're back in business, and then I'm down to 1 wheel. All in the span of 24 hours. After resting and taping and letting a few other hikers go by, I get up and we hobble on. The tape feels 1000% better, but I've seen better days. All the while I've been carrying my hiking stick that I found in Bear Creek with me. It's mostly been a passenger, but as we proceed up the river basin, I rely on it as much as I have since the day I found it.

The mostly flat trail keeps following the San Joaquin River upstream and then makes a sharp left. It's here after the sharp turn that we have the privilege of doing some greatly missed (sarcasm) steep climbing. A series of switchbacks placed in the terrain leads us up to Evolution Creek and its amazing meadows, waterfalls, boulders, pinnacles, and scenery. One of the guys from MTR that we'd met, David the Cuben Fiber Camera Man, was hiking at the same pace as us. We all stopped and chatted at the base of the switchbacks and then Lindsey and I went up. 

Evolution Creek below Evolution Meadow. Golden lighting, dark clouds.

From the start of the switchbacks up to the Evolution basin, creek, and meadow system, the trail is pretty much a 3.5 mile straight shot to McClure Meadow where there's a ranger station. Before getting to the idyllic meadows, there are some notoriously challenging obstacles. Namely Evolution Creek, itself. There is an un-aided (no bridge, no stepping-stones, no nothing) crossing of the river about 1 mile in to this segment.

We press on up the switchbacks at a slow, steady, pace marked by heavy breathing.  We walk on hard granite ledges next to roaring white water falls, stunning meandering creeks weaving through pines, and towering peaks.

The welcoming clouds from the earlier parts of the day morphed in to welcoming dark grey masses that produced rain. Golden rays of light shot sideways over the landscape; the dark dense clouds blocking out the direct overhead lighting. The Sierra Nevada was cast in a glow of gold, like someone shining a giant incandescent bulb on Evolution Meadow.

As we came around a bend, the trail descended into a 30 foot wide river and disappeared. On the other side of the shore, the well traveled path was perfectly clear. This was our river crossing.

The dark clouds dropped light rain on us as we figured out what we wanted to do. Posted nearby was a sign that said something about walking up stream if the river was too high. It was not high, by any means. Maybe 3-4 inches above ankle height. It was slick, however, and there were slight overtones of irony in that this was the one and only spot Lindsey probably needed high top boots. I let her cross first. I stood down stream to video her. 5% of my logic was to catch her should she accidently try to emulate her Nalgene bottle's antics earlier in the day.

After a good while, she made it halfway across having only dropped a sock in the river. Her method was to go directly across sans socks and shoes with the aid of both her trekking poles.

Lindsey was about halfway across when my staff and I decided that was enough of a head start. The rain was coming down a bit harder, so I went 20 feet up river and found a shallow, rocky park that was 5 or 6 inches deep in most spots. With socks, boots, and everything else on, I lifted my stick up and started tight roping across the stream on the most promising looking cobbles. I was able to make it across without getting any water in my boots. Lindsey was still about 10 feet away from shore.

A mother deer and its fawn grazed on this new side of territory I had found myself on. The rain was coming down and sprinkling the surface of the creek with tiny explosions. When Lindsey made it to land, we took shelter under the trees as she put on new socks. Cuben Fiber Camera Man comes up behind us and goes terminator style through the water. I don't think he took his boots off. He just walked straight through, giving exactly 0 damns. We all chatted on the other side again before we took the lead.

The forest was covered in a nice coating of fresh rain. A beautiful sight, but the light dirt on the trail was now partially mud. Only the top fraction of the trail surface was mud, though, and it came easily unattached from the dry substrate below it. What this resulted in was a lot of mud being kicked up and flung in to boots, shoes, and socks. It also made it hard to find seating areas because all of the good boulders were covered with moisture. We found a mostly dry boulder and stopped for a Snickers. Cuben Fiber man comes up to us and we chat for a second. 

On this day, it seemed like we were the only 3 out here. Not another soul did we see. The forest was silent. The river rolled on. Dust floated on the air as the sun cast a spotlight on it flittering through the gentle breeze. The whole Evolution area was devoid of human sounds and creations, seemingly more than any other place. It's like the rain washed everything away, sent the humans into hiding and brought out the best nature had to offer. Deer grazed, birds bolted between trees, and the timeless rivers and streams wore away at the rocks that constrained them all under the golden rays of the sun. There was magic in the Evolution Meadows.

Through the damp and still forest we marched, meandering along the trail. We came upon McClure Meadow after some time. We were tired and hungry after a decently long day. The most pressing matter on this Saturday was not our ankles, food, campsite, it was this: did Texas A&M beat Alabama again? We had no way of knowing. As we passed the McClure Meadow Ranger Station, I figured it was worth asking. 

I went up and knocked on the door. And older, kind gentleman opened his screen door and welcomed me. He was tall, average built, and understandably looked like he loved his life. Afterall, he was living in a cabin in the middle of the Sierra Nevada. No power, no cars, nothing. Wildness. 

He had no idea who won the game and announced himself more of a soccer fan. He did point me towards his favorite camp sites after I asked for suggestions though. The good news- They were about 100 yards away. We'd made it one more day.

My ankle didn’t blow up, but it still creaked. Lindsey was doing better. The rain had drifted away from us and Mount Mendel and Mount Darwin had a clear view of us as they glowed bright orange in the waning light.

Sunset in McClure Meadow

Cuben Fiber Camera Man walks in to the camping area not long after Lindsey and I. We invite him in and on this day, we're the only souls that inhabit this amazing place. 3 of us surrounded by peaks, creatures, grass, rivers, freedom, wilderness. We chat about why we're out here doing this, what we've experienced, where we came from, what we do back home. He eats a dehydrated Backpacker's pantry meal as Lindsey and I pour olive oil in some sundried tomato couscous.

Before going to bed, I turn my headlamp on its brightest setting and shoot the beam out into the vast meadow in front of us. Some green eyes peer up and stare at me 100 yards away.

No idea what animal it was. I'd hoped it was a bear at the time. I knew it was probably a deer. I went to sleep content, without fear, and happy.

Today wasn’t the day we'd leave the trail, and that was all that mattered in the moment. 

Piute in Light Blue

Notes from the Trail

(Sunday morning, 9.15)

8:45 AM>


The End

Day 11 9/14/13

Somewhere on the trail miles and miles behind us, some hikers had already begun their day. They, like us, would make the pilgrimage to Muir Trail Ranch to get their food and prepare for the final 10 day push to the summit of Whitney.

MTR is the last spot near the trail that you can resupply before the end. For this reason, It becomes a buzzing hub of activity; hikers picking up buckets of food sent from all across the globe, rummaging through their old meals, casting out any items they haven't used or are too heavy. As resupplies go, MTR has an amazing system down. I have no idea how it works, but it is a well oiled machine. You register on their site, pay their flat storage fee of $55 or so dollars, and you get a few bar codes. One to put on your 5 gallon bucket (no other size containers. Barcode displayed on lid and on side. Lid taped on securely.) The other bar code they give you is to keep on your person. You give this to them when you collect your package.

A week or so before we loaded the car for California, we sat in Lindsey's house and went through our meals, snacks, powders, candy, medicines, and treats. It was in those moments that things went from abstract book learnin' to staging, preparing, and planning for later interception. Things got real on that day.

Across the country and world, a few other people were doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. As the fates would have it, on this day, we'd meet  the group of travelers that'd converge at the same place at the same time after weeks of heavy planning, years of dreaming, miles of muscling over mountains.

Leaving camp for Muir Trail Ranch

Lindsey and I woke up and packed camp fairly early. MTR opened at 8am. We slept 100 yards away. We figured we'd get a jump on the day and be the first ones there.

In the morning, Lindsey was in pain still. The night before she had this really weird puffy, fluid like thing going on around her Achilles tendon. The night had not brought great improvement. I was pissed off. Not at her, but that the writing was on the wall. There's no way we can hike the final 10 days to Mount Whitney. Between the two of us, we've got 2.5 good legs, and this final 10 day section is the hardest of the trail. Lindsey is sad and in pain. I'm angry and in pain.

It's a beautiful, warm day. Way to rub it in, day.

So we were going home.  There was the long lingering question of if we'd be able to finish at Whitney, given the mounting pain. We now had the answer- No.

Lindsey was pretty silent, obviously upset and disappointed. After my initial general anger subsided, I was upset and disappointed too. That's the way things go. There is no sense in causing permanent damage or getting yourself more seriously injured. We had to do what we had to do. We'd plan on leaving over Bishop Pass and in 2 or so days we'd be in a hot California basin dotted with tiny towns. We'd go home.

 We the first ones at MTR at 8AM. I followed behind Lindsey as we went through the latching gate. When I passed through, my right sleeve, covered with my Down Sweater, caught the sharp edge of a sawed off galvanized bolt. An audible rip. Down clusters flying away.

Way to rub it in, gate.

The lush green grass at MTR is a change of scenery from most of the rest of the JMT, but it's not out of place like it is in central Texas or Arizona. It was soft, springy, thick, and super green.  One of the ladies from the ranch showed us to the food storage building and she grabbed our bright yellow McCoy's bucket that we'd slapped a Lowes lid on. My two favorite hardware stores.

MTR is a city of buckets. There are hundreds of them everywhere. They make the legs of benches, they are trashcans, and those not being used create a huge pyramid stacked upside down near the food shed. 

In addition to buckets, MTR is home to some horses, some ponies, and a few awesome dogs. There is a corral littered with saddles, leather things, and equines. Two or three structures are on the land where we were. These look like permanent, year-round domiciles. The rest of the structures that comprise MTR are platform tents or something similar.  

We gathered our bucket, wrote our name on the log that was a hundred or so pages long (I'm guessing that's from the 2013 season) and we set up on one of 3 tables MTR had built for sorting food.
Behind us- about 10 buckets sat in a row on a long bench. On the lids of the buckets- the contents written in sharpie on a silver strip of worn duck tape-"Meals, Store bought." "Meals, home packed." "Spices." "Toiletries." "snacks." "Peanut butters, jelly." Every single one of these buckets full of food, gadgets, spices, pills, and almost anything you can think of. We would have been able to subsist on free food instead of mailing ourselves the huge bucket since it was so late in the season.  

Opening that bright yellow bucket was like Christmas. I had forgotten what I'd packed myself but I knew we'd saved the best stuff for this final stretch. I pried open the lid after ripping off the packing tape and let the conglomerate food smell soak in to my olfactory system. I picked through the contents and took only the best; only what I wanted. This way I didn’t have to pack the bear can full for our 2-3 day hike out and I'd get to eat all the delicious treats I wanted and none of the crap I didn’t want.  

The simple and easy process of shoving contents in to a bear can took us two and a half hours. I was going slowly. Neither one of us cared. We'd hit a pretty solid low point. Maybe not rock bottom, but not too far above it. Some other hikers trickled in as we wasted time.

Sally's younger, more energetic friend. 

Lindsey went to go buy some tape for her ankle since we'd used most of our two rolls. I sat on a stump and played with the dogs of MTR. One young, way too exuberent black border collie looking thing and another, more geriatric and shorter creature. The cool one, this mellow, old, mostly black dog was Sally. Think Basset Hound without a slobbering affliction and super huge ears. She was tubular shaped. If you went to the grocery store, bought a 40lb tube of ground beef, painted it black, stuck four 5" legs on it and named it Sally- You'd be really weird. You'd also have a good idea of what Sally looks like. As the other border collie would fetch anything that looked like a stick and bother me to throw things, Sally figured out I'd just pet her if she laid down. I spent a lot of my time playing with dogs.

Two guys walk in to MTR. 40,50 years old. Their packs were massive.

A guy hiking solo strolled in. Cuben fiber pack, super lightweight gear, two full sized DSLRs straped to his shoulder straps.

Two guys who'd camped near us the night before showed up a little while after we did.

A few other folks, none of them familiar.

I sat on a stump and had stripped off my jacket (that I'd fixed with Duck tape) by this point. I was in my REI base layer and shorts. It felt nice outside. The sun was burning white in the clear blue sky.  I'd pet Sally. Other dog would bring a stick. I'd throw it.

To my right, through the gate, I see another lone person sauntering in with a jolly gait.

She walked in at a slow steady pace, the same pace she'd hiked with when we saw her before, and she set her red Osprey Ariel pack on the table next to me with a huff.

This was Jo. We'd met her first around Ruby lake when we were hiking to Red's Meadow.  Jo is my favorite person I met on the trip. I alluded to why earlier, but running in to her at MTR solidified it.

Lindsey and I had almost quit once, and were hiking out now. We'd taken a 0 day once, and had some slowish days. We'd also made up for lost ground with some heavy mileage days. Lindsey and I had been tired, frantic, rested, rejuvenated, hurt, fixed, elated, broken, excited, disappointed, lost, found, infuriated, overwhelmed, and overjoyed.

I don't know the story of Jo's trail encounters, her emotional roller coaster, her moments of great fear or triumph. But I know that Jo walked in to MTR like a steady, unstoppable hiking machine.

She didn’t seem tired, hurt, fatigued. She was not contemplating stopping at all. She set up on the table next to us and we chatted a bit here and there. I didn't catch where she was from, I don't know what inspired her to do her hike. I knew that she budgeted 8 miles per day. No more, no less. And god damn if she didn’t get it done every single day.

She had a jovial, sunny, disposition. She reminded me a lot of my mom.

One of the biggest barriers to getting outdoors and enjoying recreational pursuits in our finest parks, wild lands, and trails is psychological- it is all about looking the part. If you don't fit in to any of the niches, then you get these judging, scrutinizing looks. I've been there. Now days I don't really give a damn since I've some decent experience, know-how, and working credentials. It wasn’t always that way.

First hiking trip I ever went on I had high top timberland boots, socks that went half way up my leg, a leather hat, and I looked like I was going on Safari. My aim was to look like Indiana Jones. I felt I'd fit in this way. I've learned better, now. Or I've learned not to care.

These days, if you use popular, name brand gear on a technical trail or a thru-hike then you're ignorant. Hyperflyweight super ultra sil pack is obviously the only pack you should take. Trekking poles are necessary. Carbon fiber of course. You're using a jet boil/MSR/stove? What are you doing? You should be making one out of tin cans and burning animal feces. This is a serious hike…you need to train, be in shape, and have all the right gear, clothing, shoes.

 Hiking enthusiasts are like car enthusiasts. For the car guys, Oil is religion. For hikers, the gear is religion. There are strong feelings about it and people trying to convert the masses on the daily.

The good majority of hikers will say, "Hike your own hike." Different folks will have different levels of sincerity behind that phrase, but that is largely the attitude and mindset that is prevalent.

The vocal minority are loud, though. Like it or not, that supremacy and ridiculous trail judgment exists. Above all the gear, the clothing…the first thing that these types will do: it's a quick one shot glance and an internal thought- "do you look like you belong here?"

This is not a wide sweeping condemnation of all hikers, because it's not everyone with this mindset, but it isn't pure conjecture, either. Not many folks started "backpacking" with a 36 liter pack, king sized air mattress, canned food, and body weight of 320 pounds. I did. So I've experienced this. I've studied the traditional emotional, physical, psychological barriers to getting outdoors for different genders and races. If you're fat, too old, too young, too black, too woman, your gear isn't new or made of this material- you're not accepted. It's high school all over again. Instead of trapper keepers and clothes it's trekking poles…and clothes.

For all the silent judgment, disparaging looks, high and mighty "I would do it this way…" attitudes that  are palpable in certain circles, Jo hiked through that giant wall at a slow, steady, unyielding pace and it all crumbled behind her and then it burst in to flames.

Most of what I know about Jo is inferred; my knowledge is all things I've pieced together and ascertained. Some of it conjecture, some of it based on unfounded assumptions that should mostly hold true, but might certainly be wrong. Here's what I know about Jo-
Solo hiker
Hiking South Bound in September
Meticulously planned her trip

Here's what I'm guessing-
Jo has a family. She's got one or two kids, I'd guess boys. They're college aged or older. Her husband is deceased, divorced, or was unable to do the hike.
Jo was retired (maybe recently) from a teaching or similar semi-sedentary office job.
Jo had a dog or a cat.

Jo was a jovial 5 foot 5 inch, unyielding, no damn giving, unstoppable force of a human being, silently exuding an aura of unimposing determination, will power, inspiration, familiarity, and understanding.

The cast of characters at MTR went through their resupply. We all chatted, peaked at provisions, and rummaged the free barrels like vultures when another hiker would dump something in.

Lindsey was examining her feet. I was still on my stump entertaining the dogs. The black and white border collie type creature with tons of energy still wanted to find every stick in the woods and bring it to me

A MTR employee let a pony, or foal, or mini-horse, or regular baby horse out of the corral. It grazed on the dense green grass field that lay in front of us. The inferno sun was burning higher in the cloudless blue sky.

Nearby, another hiker who must have had a dog back at home had found the MTR dogs. The 2, and occasionally 3 dogs would run around, mouths open, tongues hanging out, smiling. They would play, bark, and allow all of the hikers to treat them as their own pets for a little bit.

Jo was about done packing up her things and was telling us how hard it was for her in this last stretch to pack enough food since she could only go 8 miles a day.  She had her canister crammed full and with a tinge of indifference and an overtone of disgust asked if anyone liked salami.

I took a minute to process the question.

-Do you like salami, self? Hell yes you do. Is she taking a survey or trying to get to know you? I don't know. This may be an offer for free meat. You like meat. You need meat. You ate all of the salami you packed when you were at Red's Meadow. I wonder if those jerks who got married are divorced yet. Mmm. Hamburgers. Focus.  You may get a reprieve. Act fast. The guy with the cameras is eye balling it!-

"I DO!" was my verbal jam of my foot in the door. Hah. Beat everyone else. It turns out she was offering the salami for free or best offer, and we were the lucky winners. It was a Trader Joe's creation with some kind of wine mixed in. A delicious looking, greasy, meaty, proteiny and fat filled delicacy that would fuel me up and away from this place. Over bishop pass. Out to the car. Back home.

Some 2 hours after ripping my jacket on the entrance, I was now doing the final packing of my backpack. Put my clothes and gear back inside. Put in my 60% full bear can that I'd filled with only the things I wanted to take. I left the other things from our 5 gallon bucket resupply for others to enjoy.

Lindsey was packing her backpack in-between laments of her left behind low hiking shoes. If only we'd brought our low shoes instead of the high boots, we would almost certainly be better off.

Earlier in the trip when the pain was less debilitating, I'd joked that we could always cut the tops off her shoes. Her Kayland Zephyr boots I had found on a couple of years ago. They were $20 or less. Awesome boot for that price. I'd followed suit after she got hers and ordered mine at the full retail price, some $200 dollars more.  We'd gotten them because backpacker magazine had raved about them.

The thought popped in my head again as we were nearing departure from MTR and departure from the JMT…Why the hell not?

Why not chop the tops off these pieces of garbage and see what happens? At worst, Lindsey is a little more comfortable and in less pain as we exit the JMT over Bishop pass.

Chris Oswalt. Professional Shoe Cobbler 

I grabbed the Gerber Mini-Paraframe knife we'd purchased at the Tucson REI and I started chopping. The knife was surprisingly sharp and made easy work of the leather, foam, eVent, nylon, and stitching.

I taped the exposed internals of the boot with athletic tape to keep them from being too destroyed too quickly.

In 5 minutes, Lindsey had her low top hiking shoes she had been wanting.

Low tops. Triple OG

Yes weigh. 

Yes weigh. 

There's a scale hanging on the food storage shed at MTR. The two guys with huge packs were taking off and had made a quick stop to weigh their gear. I tuned in because I was interested to hear what other people were carrying weight wise. He relayed his weigh in to his friend, and the number seemed to cut through the low clatter of voices, breezes, bucket lids flapping, dogs running.

"80-something pounds"

Hmm. I would not want to do it that way, but amazing that they were doing the trail with that weight. They were staying ahead of us, as well. More power to them.

We stopped by the scale on our way out. Lindsey and I, between the two of us, carried less than that one man did in his one pack. About 35 pounds each.  Jo, Cuben Fiber Camera Man, and a few other folks delved through buckets, packed resupplies, played with dogs. Lindsey and I left through the gate that tore my jacket and we hit the trail towards home. By the end of the day, we'd be off the John Muir Trail and on to the side trail that takes us over Bishop pass and out of the wild. 

To be continued…


Long way down

Day 10. 9/13/13

The atmosphere is a hell of a thing. Long ago in grade school, they tried to mold my mind to grasp the scientific concepts of it all. I'm by no means an invalid. I even enrolled in, appeared sparingly in, and barely passed Atmospheric Science in college (It was at 8am with an old man wielding a more mono-tone voice than Ben Stein). Regardless, or, if you are an invalid- irregardless, I know a little bit about a little bit.

Our tent was (and still is today) made of lightweight nylon, mesh, some stitching, a few plastic tabs. On this morning, every single square inch of the tent was soaked with water, yet it did not rain.  The outside of the rain fly was saturated. The inside of the rain fly was drenched. With the lightest breeze, zipper pull, or shake of the tent, droplets would fall onto the mesh and then onto us.

A decent lesson was taught. In times of moisture producing weather, try not to camp in low river/creek drainages. Truthfully there was no way around it for our circumstances. Lindsey was injured, I was slower than a fat kid chasing broccoli, we had to camp where we did. It didn’t matter whether the weather was pristine or brutal.

As usual, Lindsey had gotten up before I did and left the tent. In my slightly conscious and always-alert-for-bear-fights state, I heard her groaning and cursing aloud. "Mmm. It's warm in here." I probably thought. When Lindsey wiggled her way out of her thoughts shifted. In the world of backpacking tents, getting in or out without touching anything is impossible. It would be like Micheal J. Fox beating Operation. Doable, but ain't nobody got time for that.

She crawled out of the tent and little droplets thunked on the mesh. They paused their descent there before squeezing through the fine mesh holes. Tiny frigid droplets hit the little amount of face skin that I couldn’t cover. So it was time to get up. Cold, slightly achy, and dissatisfied with my lack of 9+ hours of sleep I put on my Patagonia Down Sweater and started to surgically remove the rain fly and not drench everything inside the tent.

Drying the madness

The careful act took a good few minutes, but I was fairly proud with extraction. It was not perfect, but with Lindsey off in the woods, I felt I did well. Trouble was that the sun rises in the east. And to our east- A huge ridge that towered 800 feet above us. We would be in the shade for a while. I laid out the rainfly on some exposed granite that was free of dirt, needles, twigs, sand. I left the rest of our stuff that had invariably gotten varying degrees of wet inside the tent to dry. We waited. The sun came over the landscape and graced us with its warm, drying rays around 10 or so.

Another timely start.

After basking in the sun with the nylon parts of the tent, we were all warmer, dryer, and trail ready.

Today was another pass day. Selden was standing between progress and us. From our camp, at roughly 9320 feet, Selden was 1560 feet above us and 5 miles away. Not a taxing day at all compared to some of the passes. On paper, Selden looked respectable but doable. However, today was also a 12 mile day. Our destination was Muir Trail Ranch for our main resupply of the trip: a 5 gallon bucket stuffed full of 25 pounds of food awaited us. MTR was back in the lowlands at 7790ft though. Home was 12.2 miles away.

Despite the injuries and whatever made me basically crawl up the trail the day before, we were in good trail shape. I didn't pay a second thought to throwing my 30ish pound backpack over my head. I didn’t give a first thought to carrying it up and over rocky mountain passes. It felt normal. Blisters were not an issue. We'd taken good care early on to prevent and care for the few that we did get. Our feet hurt sure, but nothing more than that. 10 miles seemed not easy nor hard- It seemed like a fairly short, manageable distance that we could easily make. How long it would take was dependant partly on terrain and partly how badly we wanted to get there. It's a good feeling.

It was good feeling better. Lindsey was doing okay. I was back to my normal super-human self. Faster than a speeding sloth, more powerful than a mini-bike, able to hike up 10" in a single bound. And we went.

This was a beautiful part of the trail, and the moist start had turned into a beautiful morning. The sun baked off the dew and condensation that befell the yellow and tan vegetation that was past its seasonal prime. Trees were still green, gorgeous, and gargantuan. We stayed next to Bear Creek on our way up to Upper Bear Creek Meadows and then Rosemarie Meadow shortly after.  The JMT meets two little spurs at Rosemarie Meadow. One goes west, one goes east. Each about 2 miles, these side trails lead to lakes that look fairytale-esque on paper. Give more time, it's high on my list of places to go back and explore.

Marie Lake Basin

Then Marie Lake. Oh, Marie Lake. As we went on past the aforementioned junction, the vegetation recedes, the granite and talus dominates, and another quintessential Sierra lake comes into view. Of course, Marie Lake was my new favorite place of all time. It was much smaller than Thousand Island Lake but little islands jutted through deep translucent azure waters in a similar way. The rocky micro land masses had a tree or two on them, grass grew on a few.

At Marie Lake after chatting with Tall Beard. Hiking stick still going strong. 

The trail goes right by the western side of the lake so it was a convenient place to stop, break out the steri-pen, and replenish our water. As we sat in the clear sunshine and high mountain air, a trail crew of US Forest Service workers walked by. The abnormally tall bearded one of the group stops and says hi, his greeting just semantics because saying "Show me your permit" is too direct. By sentence two we've made it to the let's-see-your-papers phase.

"Do you all have a permit?"

"Yes." I say.

7-9 second strange pause as I just sit there.

"Can I take a look?" Tall beard says.

And I open my pack back up, dig around the mesh pocket under the lid and pull it out. He looks at it and says thanks. He was a cordial person who informed us that a good many people actually go on the full JMT without permits. After a short chat, he went to catch up with the rest of the workers. The crew was off to the Hooper lakes, I believe, to deconstruct illegal camp sites. There is no trail to these lakes; it's all route-finding.  

Lindsey and I wrap things up and aim our bodies for Selden Pass, which we can see from the lake we've been resting at. So far we've made quick work of the 5 miles behind us. It is a short 300-foot climb through a saddle in the mountain ridge and we get a view of the terrain before us from atop Selden Pass.  A vast expanse of mountains building a wall on the horizon. Light blue skies with white clouds. Dark green valleys, shiny blue lakes. The first of which is right on the trail about 1 mile away. Heart Lake.

The top of Selden Pass, Heart Lake in the distance

I hike to it at a moderate to grueling pace (on meager rations) as Lindsey follows. We're still above tree line and the landscape is all talus fields, granite boulders, loose scree on the sides of the trail. We had not seen a Pika on this trip, and I'd not seen one ever. However, every now and then when we'd hike through a rock debris field like I was going through now, I'd hear a really high pitched "CHIRP." I deduced this was the sound a Pika made.

Shortly before Heart Lake, the JMT bottle necks through a little canyon of sorts. Decently steep rock fields are on either side. CHIRP! I hear the sound, and I stop. Because I'm going to outsmart these jerks. I am going to stand perfectly still and do nothing until the rodent reveals itself. Lindsey comes skidding down the trail behind me and stops as well. I simply motion her to be quite in an "I'm hunting wabbits" kind of way.  I'm ready and prepared.

Pika. Video to come...

A little ball of fluff hops on a rock right in front of me and stares at me. "CHIRP!" And it sits there, 12 or so feet away on a rock that's nearly at eye level. I fumble for my camera and telephoto lens, knowing that the big ass tan cotton ball with ears will bolt. Surprisingly, it stayed there. For a long time. Sadly, probably conditioned to expect food from humans. Or maybe it just wanted to say hi. Without a doubt, cutest thing on the whole trip.

Heart Lake comes along. And it was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen in my whole entire life.

I paused for a bit to see some marmots scurrying their heft away from me in the distance. I took in the scenery--an actual heart-shaped lake with the most gorgeous colors. Its inlet was a shallow alluvial fan of rust and tan colored sediment that dropped off into the deep blue unknown. A few hundred feet down to the tip of the heart was the outlet stream that seemed to drop off the face of the mountains.

Lindsey didn’t stop for as long so I carry on to catch up. After all, I'm the bear defense system.

The elevation keeps dropping and a larger bowl of lakes appears in the near distance. These are Sallie Keys Lakes, maybe 1 mile beyond Heart Lake.

I'll be damned if this wasn't the most beautiful place I'd ever seen.

Between Sallie Keys Lakes

Truthfully, with the benefit of  hindsight, retrospect, and deep analysis, Sallie Keys is in the top 3 of all the places I saw on the trail. And I don't have a formal 1-2-3, but it's on the short list for sure.  Absolutely insane area surrounded by mountains. The JMT tightropes a little ridge between two of the lakes and meanders through a perfect conifer forest. It's silly.

We stopped at the northern-most lake and had a snack. I finally broke open the Salmon I'd bought at REI. Best stand-alone thing I ate on the trail.

Further south beyond Sallie Keys Lakes, we dropped back into big forests for a few miles and then hit serious switchbacks that descend into the San Joaquin River Valley where Muir Trail Ranch lies. These short, exposed switchbacks were reminiscent of Tully Hole. Steep, incessant grades zig-zagging down a shrub covered mountain side.

The skies threatened rain with their gunmetal clouds. The sun, which was hidden behind the larger masses of cloudery, gave its best to fight through. Beams of light radiated down into the river valley where we were headed. Perhaps shining light on our future camp site. We marched down the gradient as some rain drops began to fall.

Sun shining over the valley 

The rain fell incrementally harder so I broke out the rain jacket and we hiked a bit more. At the end of a switchback I was on, right before it made the 350 degree turn to continue on down, a large pine tree grew. Having firsthand experience at how effective these guys are at being a shelter in a light rain shower, I plopped down and leaned against the tree. We waited for the shower to pass as we took in the scenery.  Within minutes, the hardest of the rain had stopped so we kept on hiking down and down and down.

We reached the junction where the switchbacks end and the JMT veers east, but Muir Trail Ranch was another .9 mile section of even steeper, shorter switchbacks. Somewhere in this section, Lindsey made a game of kicking a pinecone down the trail. For over a mile, she kicked the same fat brown pinecone until it was decimated.

She seemed a little down when she was finished. And since she had to be in front of me to play this game, I decided to help her out. From about 20 feet behind, I teed off on a particularly meaty looking cone that was on the forest floor. I punted it hard and far. Lindsey saw it go flying past her and land right in the trail. She screamed "Yeah!" with elation and started kicking again, the new pinecone rejuvenating her obviously riveting game.

Closer to MTR I just stopped. I wasn’t tired. But with backpack on, having just hiked down relentless switchbacks and dropping about 3000 feet, I picked up a pine cone and punted it. And then I picked up another one. And I punted that one. And for a couple of minutes, I went crazy picking up and subsequently kicking pine cones, seeing how far and hard I could hit them. It was awesome.

We'd made it to MTR. They were closed for the season aside from resupplies and didn’t have a kitchen, food, or lodging, but it wasn’t a big deal. There was a prime camp site nearby so we set up and went to explore our surroundings in the final hour of light that we had.

The public hot spring. Also home to Swamp Thing. 

The book told of hot springs nearby. Getting to them is the hard part. The land and trail system in this area is a puzzle of public and private incongruencies. You can cross the shallow cobble bottomed river and make it to the hot springs on the other side, but there is more than one hot spring. And you can't go to the private ones. You can go to the public one that is on federal land, but you have to hike a circuitous, public land back way to get to it lest you trespass. We ended up crossing the river at the easiest looking spot. This, of course, is the private area. It is not well marked, though. There are two hot springs here. One is a clear bathtub sized pool with a sign marking it as private land. The other is a black water hole that's warm. Even further south, past an old fence with a "US Forest Service" sign is the public hot spring: a sulfur scented, soil stained, watery bath. There's 0 visibility in the water so I have no idea how deep it was. Part of me feared it was a pit or portal into an alien world and that if I got in, I wouldn't be able to touch the bottom and a swamp monster would grab my leg, take me down, and that'd be the end. It did feel amazing when I dipped my foot in. Maybe the waters are clearer at other times. It wasn’t in the cards for us though, so we went back to camp and slept 200 feet outside the gate of MTR. In the morning, we'd grab our yellow McCoy's bucket full of food and then decide what to do.

Lindsey was better, but still in big pain. For the past few days, there was talk of ending the hike via a side trail. We were leaning towards hiking out because of her ankle pain.

I was still in pain too. My ankle hurt just about every step of the way but I was used to it and just raised my pain threshold. Sometimes it was debilitating for us both. I checked Lindsey's foot. The area between her foot structure and her tendon was soft and puffy with what appeared to be fluid.

 I was hoping rest would help.

The San Joaquin bubbled over ancient round stones that made its river bed. The forest fell silent. The night was bright with the moon almost at full throttle. The atmosphere settled to stillness around us and we were sung to sleep by pine needles lightly falling around us with rarity.

Tomorrow would be a game changing day no matter what. Tomorrow would be decision day. I went to sleep knowing that tomorrow would be the first day of the end. 

The Path

Notes from the Trail


Bonus Pika


Lean on me

Day 9. 9/12/13

In the small, cold, dark, wee hours of the morning, someone had been up early preparing giant breakfast burritos inside the VVR Restaurant/store/main building. Lindsey and I awoke and left our tent cabin to go check out the usual breakfast offerings- cereal, coffee, toast, oatmeal. None of these things have prices. No one knows what they cost. I settle for some toasts and a packet of condiment style salsa. It had a 35 cent sticker on it. Not sure that got put on the tab. I do think that the toast and jelly went on there. As well as the coffee. The Brits came in shortly after and put a hurt on the burrito cache.

After breakfast we packed our washed clothes, washed selves, smelly backpacks and reluctantly headed for the cash register. It was time for us to move on so we closed out our tab, which had accrued nicely after a tent cabin, a few beers, lunch, dinner, and a salsa packet. And laundry soap.

The ride/shuttle service to Bear Creek was free, though.  As we waited for the shuttle (which was a Chevy Silverado driven by an 18 or 19 year old employee who normally operates the water taxi) I rummaged through the 55 gallon drum outside that was labeled "Hiker barrel." A few Clif bars. Some mac and cheese, other unnamed delicacies that had been discarded by desensitized travelers.

We bade farewell to Simon and Jonas. They'd decided to stick around VVR another day to explore and hang out. Kevin and Allison were gone or sleeping. We didn't see them. The Brits were breaking camp as we got in the truck. They'd camped atop the soft pine-needly camping area.

The Chevy Silverado quad cab taxi drove us to the Bear Creek trailhead which isn't anything more than a sign at the end of a road which is in the middle of the forest. After 7.6 miles, the Bear Creek trail intercepts the John Muir Trail 6 miles beyond where we'd originally turned off JMT proper the day before. This circuitous route circumnavigates a devious looking section of switchbacks and allowed us food, civilization, company.

The kid in the Silverado delivered us to the trailhead. With the car running, he hopped out of his driver's seat to help us get bags and shake our hands. Good kid. Firm handshake. He'll go far in life.

If there's one thing I can do, it's judge character on the slightest bit of information. That kid had moxy. (which, if you're ever in the Northeast, is also the name of an odd but delicious tasting soda.)

I adjusted my black Osprey bag on my back and off we went.

Here's what I knew of Bear Creek--they make powdered soups that are a backcountry staple.

Bear Creek

We wandered up and down a not very well worn trail. It was late morning by this time. 10:30 maybe. We stopped after 15 minutes to address foot needs for Lindsey. I opened my bag and got out the bag of beef jerky I found. I planned on eating a bite or two.

I ate about the whole bag. I'm not sure if it was my body's way of adjusting to the massive intake of calories from proper meals and saying "KEEP FEEDING ME!"or if I had a parasite, but I was ravenous. I ate. We moved on. We stopped. Filtered water, did the whole bit. We were not traveling slow by any means, but the day was not going by quickly.

A couple of miles in the skies thickened with low hanging grey clouds.

I tried walking faster. I couldn’t. I tried taking bigger steps. My body wouldn't let me. My body as a whole was revolting for some reason.

Every step was laborious. Uphill was a nightmare. I felt like I'd been saddled with an extra 80 pounds. Movement took on the speed of molasses crawling up the side of a bowl. Lindsey, for once, was the fast one. I trudged along the trail as it slowly gained elevation. Time crept on.

After an indiscernible amount of hours, I looked up to examine the sky again.


The trail took us through some more vegetated areas; thick brush and foliage choked out the dim light and made me feel like I was walking down an unlit hallway.

I heard the faintest "click" sound. After a second, I heard another one.

We were going uphill on a section of the Bear Creek Trail that was flanked on one side with low bushes and leafy vegetation, small aspens and an occasional huge pine tree on the other side.  The clicking hurried.

It sounded like a chorus of 100 people clicking pens as fast at a comfortable pace.  It was raining.

I was tired, I'd hit a wall. Food did not give me any energy. I felt like a toy with dead batteries. I slumped my body down on the uphill side of the trail under one of those huge pine trees. I laid myself on the soft semi-wet ground that was teeming with beetles, ants, spiders, sap, pine needles. In the fetal position, I rested. Lindsey sat upright under the tree.

The view from my fetal position

The view from my fetal position

The sky dropped rain drops steadily, but not heavily. Under our tree, none of them reached us. I must have laid there with my eyes closed a good few minutes. Then I laid there with eyes open. Then I half-assedly sat myself up, leaning heavily on my left elbow. I'd come to the conclusion that my body needed electrolytes. I had no other explanation why my muscles which were unsore would not respond to what my brain told them to do. It was the damndest thing.

I chugged a nalgene bottle of water with two NUUN tabs.

20-30 minutes later, I got up. Lindsey got up. She hiked on up the incline of the trail. I hiked slowly in her wake.

Psychologically, I convinced myself I felt better. A short bit after my long break under the pine tree though, I was back to feeling like I was running on no energy. I walked slow, head down, staring at the ground and into my site pops the most glorious thing.

Lindsey is clanking away up the soil and granite with her trekking poles. She'd offered me one but I didn’t want to take it. I used hers for a little bit and offered it back to her.

I'd spotted on the left side of the trail in a cluster of dead tree debris the most perfect, arrow-straight staff in all of the woods. It was about 6 feet long, 1 inch in diameter. Straight, smooth, weathered. Old.

This would be my hiking stick.

I took one end and wedged it between a rock and a tree trunk. With heft, I pushed my weight into the other end of the stick and it broke with a loud "SNAP." It was the perfect length.

For the next few hours, I'd hike with the help of my staff. On the climbs and uphill steps, I would plant the stick in front of me, grab it with two hands, and use all of my upper body strength to hoist myself up the 7-10 inch steps that littered our route. It was slow and hard. I'd swing the staff forward in my right hand. Plant it in the ground. Push it into the ground with all my might. It would shake as I transferred my weight forward past the stick. I'd pick it up and repeat. In my head for the next few hours as I'd rely on this twig to get me where I wanted to go, I couldn’t help but imagine the stick singing "lean on me, when you're not strong. I'll be your friend, I'll help you carry on. For it won't be long 'til I'm gonna need somebody to lean on." Me and that stick had a bond. We were partners now. It was my pony and I was its 200-something pound jockey.

That's how this day went. Off and on sprinkles. A constant struggle to maintain a casual strolling pace, much less a decent hiking pace. Staring at the ground instead of Lindsey.

Atop the granite hill. Only known photo of me and stick on the first day we met.

I did start to feel better a couple of hours after drinking my electrolyte mix. By the time I felt better, we were off the dirt and soil trail and onto a large granite hillside. I was bounding up it at regular speed! It was a miracle. I used the stick, but didn’t have to force all my weight on it. At the top of the granite hill was a small notch that led us down a tight granite corridor. We dropped down on the other side of the rise and then Lindsey yelled "OW…" and a mix of bad words.

She'd been feeling the hurt Achilles sensation here and there as well. Whatever she did and however she stepped- she was immobilized. She limped over to a rock and I taped her ankle up to immobilize it. We ate some Fritos we'd bought at VVR. After a good long rest, we walked slowly forward.

Not much later, we hit the trail junction and saw the familiar JMT trail blaze on a tree. It felt awesome to be back on track but it was not a good day. We hiked past some folks camping near the trail and filtered water near their area. It's about 6 now, which amounts to a bit less than a blistering 1mph of hiking. It's not dark, but it's certainly evening and we need to be thinking about camp. Lindsey is hurt, I've been leaning on a twig the better majority of the day, it is still cloudy, and we don't know what's in store weather, campsite, or dinner-wise.

The JMT follows Bear Creek further up stream and we get nearer to its source.  On our left a trail junction appears. It's a side trail up to Lake Italy. Some fractions of a mile after that, a meadow opens up in a wonder of stream meanders and creek crossings.

We're camping here.

Sunset from camp.

Tired, hurt, now completely beef-jerkyless we set up our tent on a rock and gravel island. We sleep with Bear Creek to the west, Steep Sierra cliffs on our right. The moon is waxing and getting brighter every night. The 30 or 40 percent that's visible shines with spot-light intensity. We eat. I get in the tent, make my notes, (there was a lot to write about) and then I sleep. 

day 9.jpg
Bear Creek Trail

Bear Creek Trail

Notes from the trail:

The actual notes from the trail.

The actual notes from the trail.

9/12- (Morning)

FOOD WAS OK.  (this was initial general displeasure talking. Food went hard in the paint)


9/12- (Evening)
IN BED AT 1940.



This Fire Burns

Day 8. 9/11/13

With the Vermillion cliffs behind our heads, we slept in Quail Meadows on one of the sparse patches of earth that was not solid granite. Some soil had managed to fill a depression in the otherwise bubbly, solid granite outcropping. In truth, this was one of my more favorite camping areas. Complete Solitude, a nice view of the cliffs, fair to good chance of seeing a bear, creek nearby, shelter in the form of trees. It was a beautiful area.

Each night at every campsite we slept, we would go place our bear cans down wind and put a rock on the top of them. The rock on the lid was not a deterrent or an immovable object for a bear, but an audible alarm. If something knocked over the bear can and we heard the rocks fall, then it had to be something big. By this point on the trail, I was kind of sad we'd not heard anything. The morning of Day 8 brought no new surprises. No mighty bruin had smelled peanut butter and decided to juggle the canister. In my head it would be slightly comical, whimsical, funny.  In practice, maybe my peeing in a circle around our food cache that was placed 50-100 yards from our tent was overkill. Better safe than sorry…

As a quick aside, I've amassed a fair amount of knowledge regarding bears over the past years. Nothing scholarly or ground breaking, but identification, behavioral traits, attack cases, some biology here and there. And being the smart man that I am, here's how I break down the hazards of traveling in bear country:

Grizzly bear country- Mace. Taking/relying on a gun to take down a charging grizzly bear is a sign of absolute ignorance, fear, and general backwoodsery. I'd take 2 cans of bear mace and keep the safety off.  If grizzly gets to me still, play dead, cover the neck, so and so.

Black bear country- Let's brawl. If a black bear is coming hot, it's time to fight. Playing dead won't do anything for me. So my black bear prevention system is a meaty stick and then fists. I went over this scenario with Lindsey and I try to refresh her every time we go into black bear country. I think that, when the time comes, she is not going to execute. Therefore, I reiterate it a lot-

If faced with a black bear and it chooses to advance towards us at a high rate of speed and slobber, Lindsey is to grab a camera and video immediately. I will wait for the bear, probably roaring back at it and slobbering as much as I can. Moments before it is within swiping range, I will lunge at it and put it in a sleeper hold. I will proceed to neutralize the threat by rendering bear unconscious. Lindsey will save the video. I'll shake the passed out bear's hand for being a worthy adversary.  If its cubs are around I will pet one. Then I'll hike on, tell my tale to the media and become the most famous outdoors man ever.
Delusions of grandeur. I has it.

Having said that, in 100% seriousness- I bet I could take a black bear.

Day 8 would not be the day I'd find out. Spoiler alert- none of these days forthcoming would be the day, either. I'm certain my day will come…

We went through the normal routine of packing up and breaking camp. The beauty of day 8 was that it was a civilization day like the day we made it to Red's Meadow. We were, on day 8, to come in contact with the trappings of the outer world. Groceries, beer, fruit, vegetables. Hamburgers. At least that's what the plan was. Having been broken by what happened at Red's Meadow, my expectations were low.

Lindsey's guidebook told tales of Vermillion Valley Resort and its free cabin for JMT hikers and a free beer for each hiker. It sounded like a food and drink oasis. Oh, there were showers too. Glorious showers.

None of our maps showed the full side trail to VVR, but 95% of it was marked on our JMT map pack. About .5 miles further from where we camped, there is a boat landing where a shuttle boat from Vermillion will pick up hikers and take them to the resort. There was conjecture before we left about if the boat was operating due to low water levels. We'd not heard any news until passing a green sign posted on a tree. It read something along the lines of:

"Due to low lake levels the shuttle cannot run. Proceed on the trail 6 miles to VVR. We will offer a land shuttle to Bear Valley and Bear Creek Trail heads."


VVR is an interesting case of expectations; I'd never been, I'd heard about it, I knew what I'd read. I had an image in my head of what I expected it to be. Before I ever saw it, it was a green pasture with canvas tent cabins spread throughout it. There was a little bar inside, a fire place, a mix of vacationers, hikers, and staff members. It was never really more than that. I didn’t imagine the minutia of it all. It just seemed like an above average resort. I imagined the Lake Thomas Edison to be deep blue, clear, and massive given the scale of the map. I expected the shuttle boat to be a large pontoon number with a shade canopy.

We'd stopped to filter some water from the creek we'd been walking next to for the past 1.5 miles. It's a beautiful stream with good flowage. I remember thinking to myself how awesome it would be to see the creek during July or August when it was running hard and fast with snow melt . On the opposite bank, faintly stained in to the rock was a water line from a time when it carried vast amounts more.

I looked to the west to see where the creek went, and I saw a desert. A sandy, flat plain.

Lake Thomas A. Edison.

First view of the lake

I could see why the water taxi was not running. So we walked. The map decreed a mere 4.8 miles to Vermillion Trailhead. I assumed this trailhead was dead center of the picturesque encampment of VVR.

So we hiked up the rocky ridges of the artificial lake. Artificial. The map cuts off the end of Lake Thomas Edison, but I'd gathered by now that at the western most end, there was a dam. The terrain and alien landscape of an empty lake throws up some key hints, too. We'd seen small pools that were dried up, but nothing like this lake. 20, 30, 40 feet deep when it's full and there was not a drop.

Another green sign from the VVR staff comes up. "please do not hike in the lake bed. "

We see footprints down there and it sure as hell looks easier. But we stick to the trail. This pays off eventually as the dried lake gives way to some random pools and muddy spots. We switchback up and down small ridges as we lose overall elevation.  We're around 7800 feet now, and the temperature reflects that. The day is warm and even slightly humid with a thin, translucent blanket of white wispy clouds building in the sky.

It feels like ages. I'm tired. We're hungry because we calculated being to VVR by lunch time and eating there. I'm pissed off the water disappeared and took away my water taxi. After what had to be 5 miles or more, I saw a structure in the distance. An arching wooden bridge. Behind it, I saw VVR. Thick, natural wooden cabins, a little lodge, tall pines, grassy knolls. I saw it all.

The only thing that was really there, as we got closer, was the bridge. I wanted to be there so badly that I made the whole place pop up out of nowhere, and my brain believed me. Maybe I caught a glimpse of a barren tree or something. There were no other structures. Just the bridge. Nothing on the other side of the bridge.

We were tired, hot, and ready to be at Vermillion. The absolute worst thing on any hike is thinking you should be somewhere at a certain time and being nowhere close. The feeling of going 6 miles but in reality only going 4 is a killer. It's a morale destroyer, energy sucker, spirit stifling thing. It makes you go slower, and then the miles take even longer.

Dry even from space.

A green sign on a tree.

"Horses, take a right to the stables. Hikers, continue left another 3/4ths of a mile."

Sigh. Another almost 1 mile. After we've walked what seemed like 8. I get angry.

And angry hiking is fast hiking.

What feels like a mile and a half passes.

Green sign.

"Trail head 1/4 mile ahead. Take a left and walk on the road to VVR"


But we do make it to the trail head. There's cars, bear boxes, and other signs of development but no resort. We have to follow the signs and walk another half mile or so down a dirt forest road.

A building comes in to view but who knows what it is. As we get closer, I can read the sign.

"Vermillion Valley Resort."

Heading West of the JMT; The road to VVR. 

Heading West of the JMT; The road to VVR. 

I start taking my pack off while I'm hiking. Hip belt first. Sternum strap next. The 35 pounds in it are resting 100% on my shoulders. As we step on to the property the straps come off and the bag does a firm but slightly controlled flop to the ground. I lean it on a stump.

Free tent cabin. Free beer. Hot food. And the Brits.

Eh. Take the good with the not so good.  They were eating amazing looking hamburgers, and we decided we would too. We'd gotten there with minutes to spare for their lunch time serving hours, but they didn’t close their kitchen. (looking at you, Red's) We order and grab a beer from the convenience store style fridges.

VVR is a weird place. The main building is half store, half restaurant. The whole thing is not very big. The indoor seating area can hold maybe 30. The outdoor seating area about that many as well. They've got the standard hiker needs in their store- first aid, food, batteries, misc. crap like stickers, bandanas, crappy knives. In about every way- it's a gas station for hikers. The fuel is food they cook, and it is good and priced pretty well. The stuff in the store is all the things a hiker could need.

Like Red's meadow, VVR has a hiker barrel full of things that people have gotten tired of on their treks. As they pass through, they pick up some new tasty things from the store or from a resupply they sent to VVR and the discard their unwanted food in the hiker barrel. Hiker barrel items are free. And in September, Hiker barrels are full.

Our burgers and fries came out and we ate them. They were delicious. It was everything it should have been; thin crispy strings of fries, a meaty, cheesy, vegetably hamburger. Tons of ketchup. It was delicious.

Having settled our lunch, we had to figure out how VVR worked. We didn’t pay or swipe a card for the burger. We just grabbed beer from the fridge. And I was looking for my free tent cabin.

The man whom I assume is the owner comes in and we start a tab. Everything works on tab system. You want a room? Put it on the tab. Beer? Put it on the tab. Ordering lunch, dinner, or breakfast from the kitchen? Tab. Want a bag of fritos? Grab it. Let the person know. They put it on your tab.

We ask about the free hiker tent cabin. Turns out they did away with it because it was a horrible mess. It was sad news to us. But they did have a regular tent cabin (hikers all had to share the free one) that we would rent at 70 something per night. Tokens for the shower were a tiny bit more. Laundry soap was a tiny bit more.

It'd seem the survival of a Sierra Resort such as VVR is dependent on the nickel and dime philosophy. By no means was it a bad place, but it was far from what I'd expected. The tent cabin was  a canvas tent on a wooden platform with 4 steel twin bed frames, each with an orphanage quality mattress. The kind with a stripe pattern and springs that click when you sit on them. It was the most comfortable bed I'd ever seen in that moment.

On the floor was a rug that had to have been the alter of a ritual yeti sacrifice. The original pattern of the rug had succumbed to an immeasurable amount of white fur. The fur then covered socks, clothing, and anything that came in contact with the floor.  RIP Snow beast. We hardly knew ye.

Shower facility was newly built and nice. Hot water lasted about 5 minutes. Soap and shampoo dispensers were mounted on the wall and produced a liquid form upon depressing the corresponding button.

The laundry facility was a small side room with a busted washer, a working washer, and a dryer. The clothes loved it.

After indulging in lunch we hung out in the restaurant area looking at maps, books, relaxing, hanging out. Inside, we met two folks we'd never seen before- Kevin and Allison. They had been maybe a mile or two right in front of us the whole time. They were the couple that Greg alluded to on day 2. Their story was much like ours and they were awesome. We talked about the sights we'd shared on the trail we'd sauntered down for the past days.

After chatting with Kevin and Allison we ran across two other people we had seen on the trail; Two guys from out of the country. Simon and Jonas had arrived as well.

The whole crew was there; the Brits, the dynamic german/sweed/swiss duo (they were really Swiss). Peppered with some other travelers, hikers, and seasonal visitors, VVR was a bustling hub of hiker life.

We relaxed for the rest of the day and walked the 40 yards back to the main building for dinner.  Kitchen staff was one extremely tall man who was the chef and an untold 2,3,4 other helpers. The food was awesome. It took us a long time to get our dinner because a huge group ordered before us. It was a worthwhile wait. After eating, we went outside where there was a decent bonfire. We sat around it and talked to the people who were enjoying its warmth on this 40 degree night.

A group of 4 older guys sat around telling stories of their previous travels. They'd driven up from some other part of California. The Swiss duo joined us as all 6 of us sat In plastic lawn chairs around an elevated fire pit. The flames roared hot and crackled with sparks every so often from the dried pine wood.

The older guys told of a trip they'd had in the Sierras some time ago. I'm unable to put it as eloquently as the original phrasing, but essentially one of the gentlemen had a revelation. He was hiking up a pass, sucking as much oxygen as his lungs could get , bent over in a heap from the incessant beating that a day of climbing a mountain will do. And he took the short fall to the side of the trail as he sat for a break. He said that as he saw his life flash before his eyes, and as he thought he was about to meet his maker, the epiphany came to him. His heavy pack, boots, water, and gear all sitting weightily beside him on this trail side he realized, and he shouted to us with exuberantly joy around the camp fire as he realized in that moment on the trail- "I CAN PAY SOMEONE TO CARRY ALL THIS!!"
these Gentlemen did things smartly. They had horses to carry all of their gear. They had horses to carry their asses.  Their trip was off north to the Graveyard Lakes.

20 feet away around the table was the majority of the people staying at VVR. The massive group of Brits, Kevin+Allison and some others. They were drinking and playing card games.

We sat around our fire and talked to the Swiss about their lifestyle across the world, what they thought of America, why they'd chosen to hike the JMT, and other snippets of life.

Random bursts of yelling and laughter would roar every so often behind us.

The fire would explode like a small firework.

"POP" and a crackle of sparks would shoot everywhere.

The older guys were the first to head off from the fire. We chatted with Simon and Jonas for a bit and decided we should get to bed as well; we still had to pack and leave in the morning and resume the trip.

Out of my green plastic lawn chair and into the cooling California night we hiked to Tent Cabin 5 and called it a night.

In the half day we'd been at VVR, I was dumbstruck by it. It wasn’t what I'd expected, but it was uniquely kind of cool once you get past the culture shock aspect of it. Certainly that's a universally true statement of anything.  Above all else, though, VVR is a pit stop in many ways. Not that the trail is a race, but everyone gets spread out and goes at their own pace. All the while, folks are never really more than a few miles apart. When a rallying point/cheeseburger opportunity arises, you can bet that most people will make the short side trip and replenish their body and souls.

Even hiking with someone and meeting others, it can get lonely on the trail. Not dust-and-tumbleweeds-blowing-in-the-whistling-wind-lonely, but I-really-want-to-share-this-with-people-who-understand-it lonely.

It's different for everyone. You've got people out there looking for different variations of adventure, redemption, salvation. You've got people in different camps as far as what gear to take and how heavy it should be. There is an amazing amount of diversity amongst the small group of people who choose to take part of their life on Earth and spend it hiking into the nothing. Into the great, wild, nothingness and everythingness of nature.

Thousands hiked before us, Thousands will hike after us. I'll hike it again. These stops like VVR, Red's Meadow, Muir Trail Ranch are punctuation marks on the journey. They're a stop, a pause, a question, an jubilation.

 VVR was an slightly eccentric, eclectic area of tent cabins, run down RV trailers, smelly backpackers, long time patrons, young seasonal workers. All people who love the outdoors and spent themselves in a worthy cause.

Inside the canvas tent, the moon and starlight showed through seams and gaps. Lindsey and I pushed two twin beds together and zipped our bags together. Good in theory. In practice, her mattress must have been sourced from a more luxurious prison than where mine came from; it was about 2 inches taller. We managed.

I closed my eyes.

The faint sound of laughter and yelling would grace the light evening air.

I smiled with a bit of regret. I wish I would have learned to play the Brits' game. 

No notes today


Let the rain sting my neck


9.10.13. Day 7

One calendar week since we'd laid first foot on the John Muir Trail. That is how long we'd been out on this endeavor now. In one week, we'd almost quit, had stays in two hotels, seen 0 bears, made a handful of friends, and most recently we'd met some British fools.

In one week, I'd felt both stronger than Zeus and tremendous amounts of debilitating pain. I'd missed home. I had missed being on the trail more. I'd been cold, I'd been hot. I carried with me the scent of a feral human. It's a smell that's identical to a homeless man sans any strong tinge of urine. I'd bathed in frigid waters, I'd showered in glorious hot water.

The literal ups and downs of the trail paralleled the emotional ups and downs. I suppose that's what makes hiking what it is. That's what makes an epic trip like this truly epic: the highs and lows. It didn’t feel like it had been a week at all. It felt like we had been out there a day, day and a half.

When I drifted off to sleep around 9 or 10 last night, the Brits were clanging away and probably laughing heartily as they drank ale and regaled one another with Mr. Bean impersonations or whatever the hell they do.  

Outside temperature has not reached critical threshold. ©Lindsey

I'd like to say I went to bed with the sun and woke up with it. That is half true. When the sun set, it got markedly colder so much so that it was bed time. Patagonia Down Sweater, base layer, and beanie be damned. I was disappointed that I'd not taken any good night photographs at this point. I hadnt even broken out my intervelometer. I was saving it all for the end since I couldn’t charge my camera batteries with the solar charger, but the honest truth is I was partly too tired, mostly too cold. So I went to sleep when the sun did, at least.

More correctly, I'd go to bed with 48 degrees and awake with it. The times of the night that were colder…no thanks. I'd stay in my sleeping bag.

48 degrees came around on the morning of September 10th and I unzipped the mesh door on my left just enough to unzip the vestibule and expose my eyes to my surroundings. I checked the rainfly to see if it was saturated in condensation.



I tied back my vestibule of the Mica 2, opened my mesh door all the way and then climbed clumsily out of the tent so that my nice warm body could be reintroduced to the cold, biting air of the Sierra in September.  In the distance to my right, a cluster of tents in a haphazard circle lay silent. The troglodytes inside probably passed out in their underwear like a swine that got ahold of a wine cask. I imagined them all passed out in their individual tents, slobbering with labored breathing.

The Ghost man was all packed up and just starting to hit the trail.

On this day, I happened to be up and out by 8:45 or 9:00; the waning moments of fish jumping to eat little bugs, birds singing their songs, and the foraging of other wildlife. I was able to catch the tail end of nature's morning show.

I stood outside on the rocky soil in my bare feet and took in the perfectly calm water, the bright white mountains, the stillness of the air, the silence.  In the distance was the stiff rustle of nylon and the muted bass of footfall as ghost man walked away. Then complete silence. Motionless, still air and silence.

Lake Virginia in the morning. After the eagle flew over.

Then the coolest thing I saw on the trip.

The silence as broken by something behind me and to my left. It sounded like a really loud heart beating at about 80 beats per minute. I kept my feet planted forward and turned my head up and to the left just in time to see a Bald Eagle flying only a handful of feet above my elevation. In the silence of the morning and the clear air, all I could hear was the sound of mass amounts of air being moved by the bird's huge wings. It flew on and was gone in a matter of seconds. Replaced in its absence was immediate silence, followed a little while later by grunts, groans, and the struggles of creatures trying to grasp the idea of language in a camp site across the lake from us.

I wasn’t even sure that I saw it but as we were packing up our camp, I overheard the British talking about it. "babble babble babble bald eagle mate. Tea, crumpet, god save the queen, jolly good. Fish-n-chips." This gave me enough affirmation to know that I did not hallucinate.  

We finished packing our camp. The direct rays of light from the sun still not hitting us, we set off in the direction the ghost man went. We left the Brits behind as they clamored in a circle beating their chests and scratching their heads. Good riddance.

The rest of the day unfolded like most others. Wake up. Pack up camp while waiting for Lindsey. Wait for Lindsey to pack up her stuff. Put on the packs. Wait on Lindsey to adjust hers. Start walking. I'd turn around and scan where we'd camped/stopped/taken a break to make sure I didn’t leave anything important. Then we'd walk in the cool mornings with all of our layers. I'd stop and strip a layer off. So would Lindsey. I'd wait for her. We'd proceed.

I gave her a hard time about all the waiting I did. Sometimes it was justified, most times I was making light of it. However, I was usually waiting on her to pack up camp, or be ready to go after a rest stop. We fine tuned things to the point where we'd stop for a break and when it was time to go, she would be buckling straps on her hip belt before I'd even get up and start packing my stuff and putting my shoes on. It worked out well because I don't really have variable speeds. I'm either on or off. I did find myself on rare days where my "on" was slothly slow. But otherwise I'm full speed ahead or dead stopped.

On this day the big feature was Silver Pass. At a mighty 10,895 feet, it seemed like a fair challenge. We headed out on the trail almost directly south into Tully Hole. Much like Thousand Island Lake, Tully Hole was a spot I'd heard much about. I expected great things from it and in ripe anticipation I made a song that I annoyingly sang on the trail probably too often.  The lyrics went as follows:
"Tully Hole!"
Sung to the tune of Jai Ho. Specifically the part where the dude in the background says in an auto-tuned voice "Jai Ho"

This was a logical tune in my head, because years ago when this song was brought to fame thanks to Slumdog Millionaire, I always heard the dude in the background saying "Tally ho" instead of "Jai ho"

Which, in retrospect, made little sense. But it's something that sticks with you.

So logically and simply, I plugged "tully" in for "tally" and "hole" in for "ho."

Tully hole!  

7 quarter rests.

Tully hole!

My song made my day go by quicker, anyway. Not sure that could be said for my hiking partner since out of nowhere I'd randomly shout "Tully hole!" to that tune.

Tully Hole snuck up on the map. I didn’t know we were near it, I didn’t know we'd go through it, and I didn’t know how much of a drop in elevation it was.

We started this day from our camp at Lake Virginia, 10,338 feet. Over the next 2 miles we'd drop into Tully Hole at 9,520 feet. This was a steep switch backing section of relentless downhill into the Fish Creek drainage. It was a beautiful area, and Riley (whom we'd met on the very first days we were in Tuolumne) said there was some bear activity in this region.

Tully Hole.

Without trekking poles and having knees made of whatever the strongest material known to man is, I jaunted down in to Tully Hole. We stopped, watered ourselves, and then descended even more to the trail junction at 9,080 feet. From that point, we had the unique privilege to crawl our way out of this valley and over Silver Pass, 2.7 miles away and 1500 feet up.  

Though we were over and done with Tully Hole. I'd still sing my pointed lyrics every so often.

Tully hole!

This 2.7 mile section after trail junction started in a magical forest; Not dense and overgrown with gross under brush, but mature and lush. You could see through the trees and get a sense of how vast the forest was. I made a note on my map by circling this area and writing "like."  The trail goes by a creek for this lower elevation part. The flowing creek water is the output of Squaw and Warrior lakes a couple of miles in front of us, right below Silver Pass. About one mile in, we stopped at this creek to rest, eat, and so I could soak my feet in cold water.

While we're stopped we get passed by the two foreigners who were going to Duck Lake we'd seen earlier yesterday. We stopped and chatted for a bit. I figured their accent was German so in my notes, I called them the Germans. Simon and Jonas.  Simon and Jonas talked about how they enjoyed Duck Lake and we shared the usual info. Where you from, where you going, where'd you start, etc. They were on their way and we sat on a dry rock in the middle of the creek. I'd walk down in to a 2 foot deep pool to soak my feet and enjoy the feeling of the sandy bottom and 50 degree water.

After the Germans (who were really Swiss) had departed us, we followed suit not long after. I was thankful we'd not seen the Brits. Maybe they stopped to buy Corgis or ran out of knickers or something.

We hiked up the trail as the dense forest gave way to smaller, squattier trees. I'd still chime in every so often-

"Tully hole!"

Like something out of Star Wars, the chattering of voices behind us in the distance. Soon, the sound of heavy boots trampling the earth. Shortly after, the sound of the imperial march. Immediately after, heavy breathing.

The Brits were here.

I'd gotten a visual on them about 200 yards behind us. We kept up the pace and did our best to stay ahead of them.

Stay away from them, we did. They stopped to take a break and we pressed on away from trees and up into the craggy, rocky heights that stood between us and Silver Pass. In fact, we had reached the lakes that fed the creek where we rested earlier. Squaw Lake lies just feet east of the JMT so we stop near its shores. We filter water, I eat pepperoni for a good little bit. I take off my high top boots, merino wool socks, and I rest.

And then the gig is up.

A handful of minutes later just like clockwork, plodding up the trail we'd just been on like a 14 legged swine came the Brits. They'd caught up to us. And they decided to share our lunch spot. They rested near us but not near enough for conversation between us. Both factions could hear everything everyone had to say, but we shared no words. Their cotton shirts drenched in sweat, some of them decided to take them off all together and sit in just their tiny soccer or rugby shorts that had an embroidered crest of some menial significance on it. I'd tell you they made oinking sounds and rolled in the dirt. That would be an embellishment.  I am certain that they ate, and talked. Shortly after their arrival, we saw fit to depart. From Squaw Lake, it was a little over a mile to the top of the pass.  Winds were picking up and clouds were rolling in. It looked like rain. A choice: Go above tree line into the storm or hang with the Brits.

On the top of Silver Pass

Above tree line we went. Into the storm, away from the madness.

When we'd get a good vantage point, we could see on the other side of the pass glimpses of rain clearly falling. This was the first time of the trip we had a visual on precipitation. There were cracks of distant rumbling thunder every now and then, but nothing imposing. We pressed on the final miles up the rocky and barren mountainside. We'd talked about a plan if lightening did come our way, and I'd pin pointed a pretty nice little shelter in a stand of trees back down at a lower elevation. In reality, the Brits had probably inhabited it and were drawing cave paintings and hitting rocks trying to make fire. We made it to the top of the pass without incident, and we had a better view of the moisture in the distance.

The night before, when we were looking at the map for potential spots to camp today, I marked an area between 10.5 and 12 miles. That's a good number to hike in a day, and the area looked promising on paper and in the guide book as far as potential camp sites go.

We descended the other side of Silver Pass and walked by Silver Pass Lake (new favorite place. So long Lake Virginia) before dropping down into our target camping zone.

Somewhere around this part of the trail, Lindsey and I disagreed on something. I don't remember what, nor is it smart to try to rehash it. But for a good few miles we argued.

The rain we'd walk towards.

It ended up working out well, because towards the end of the day when you're tired, a nice disagreement and arguing and yelling in nature has a way of making you walk faster and making the miles go by faster. The day had turned grey as we fought more. We descended steep switchbacks as fat, cold rain drops stung the back of my neck. I didn’t stop to get my jacket out. The clouds didn’t have it in them to pour on me. I knew that.  Or at least I thought that. I get more audacious when I'm mad.

In fact, the clouds didn't have more rain for me. Grayness. Thunder. We marched on well past the 12 mile mark. We decided we would try to camp at the Quail Meadows Junction, some 2 more miles away. The trail was a steady decline by now. After topping out at 10,895 feet on top of Silver Pass, we sank down to 8,960 by the time our dispute was at full throat.  By the time we got to our destination at Quail Meadows, we'd be at 7,720.

It was a really erratic, up and down day.

Under gray ceiling skies, echos of thunder, and occasional rain drops we walked briskly down the final miles of flat trail. We weren't saying a whole lot by this point, just hiking. Breathing.  The fight had kind of blown over. Whatever ill feelings remained, they disappeared when the sound of a clumsy, uncoordinated, mouth-breathing machine became audible. I checked my 6 oclock.

The Brits were back. And they were steamrolling.

We had to unite against a common enemy.

What next ensued was a battle. A low speed hiking battle. We pushed our pace so that they could not pass us. It was close to the end of the day. We were near camp sites. We had to be. No way was I camping next to these morons again. With our 30, 35 pound backpacks we walked fast. Faster than we had all day. Every now and then around a slight bend or turn I'd check on our competition.

They were closing.

Like a freight train with fewer brains, they marched heavily, head down. Not talking much by now either, they just pounded the ground with their heavy feet.

I glanced over my shoulder.

Closer still.

This race raged on for 5 or 10 minutes.

I glanced over my shoulder after we crossed a creek. I knew we were close to the camp sites at the trail junction, but they were right behind us.

We pulled over.

Sons of bitches won. They passed us while we stopped and let them go. Once they were gone, we restarted our pace. Much slower now. Dejected. Losers. Let down ourselves. Let down our country.

The bridge that seperated us from tyranny. Across it: the JMT and the brits. To the right- Vermillion Valley Ranch

About 30 or 45 minutes later, maybe even less than that, we'd come to the trail junction where there were ample camp sites. The Brits were setting up their gear on the other side of the creek. We could have stayed in that area, separated from them by a river and a metal and wood bridge. But prideful, I chose to carry on down a side trail that would eventually lead us to tomorrows destination: Vermillion Valley Resort, a side spot we wanted to check out and relax at for a day.

We veered off the hot spot of camping where the Brits and many others were. They all stayed right around the junction of the VVR trail and the JMT. We headed 3/4th of a mile down the VVR trail at the behest of the guide book. It suggested there were good camp sites a short ways down the trail.


We proceeded down a side trail. I have never seen more prime bear habitat in my life. Trees down and decomposing, torn apart by the 3 inch claws of Ursus Americanus. Rich soil, tall grasses, a creek nearby. The evening closed in on us and as we entered this thicket the quickly fading light that reached us earlier faded a dimmer black as the heavy foliage aloft blocked out the light. We were walking on the trail surrounded by deep, dense trees. So thick we couldn’t see but a sliver blueish black sky above. It was dark and dim and uncomfortable on the trail at this time of day.

I picked up a thick hearty log about as big as my entire arm and wielded it should I receive my long anticipated bear fight.  Sadly, or gladly depending on who you ask, I didn’t need it. We hiked on the soft, moist, muddy trail for a ways. I dropped the log as we came upon a clearing in the dense forest. Quail Meadows.

We set up the tent in this camp area. Not a single soul besides us occupied the area. We ate and then slept under the Vermillion cliffs.

Earlier in the morning I'd seen the most awesome thing on the trail in the Bald Eagle. In the evening, I saw the strangest thing I would see for the whole trip. I'll never have an explanation or understand why, but coming opposite our direction of travel trotted a lone man in a top hat with no shoes. He passed our camp and walked into the dusk. We never saw him again.

I partly thought that barefoot Abraham Lincoln was going to kill me this night, but I sang myself to sleep.

Tully hole!

Notes from the Trail

9/10 -> AM
14M DAY.



The British are coming


It was a cool morning in Mammoth, maybe 55 or 60 degrees by the time our Kayland Zephyr boots hit the earthen colored, chalky mountain dirt. In our time away from the trail, I had the chance to rest physically and satiate what I thought was an insatiable lust for hamburger. Even the egg-white McMuffin I ate for breakfast, when you extrapolate the contents, is a form of hamburger. I was happy.

Back in to the wild. 

At the Cold Water Trail head I rifled through my backpack and pulled out the series of 13 maps from Tom Harrison's JMT Map Pack. I purchased it with my dividend at REI back in 2007. Extensive enough to contain the side trail that we were hiking back in on, I made notes of landmarks, topo lines, and distances we were about to be facing.  We were 6.8 horizontal miles and 2,000 vertical feet away from the John Muir Trail's junction with the Duck Lake trail which we were about to embark upon.

The first backpacking trip I ever did was up in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend. We got to the visitor center, told them we wanted to backpack, and they asked how far we wanted to go on the first day. I said "6, 7 miles."
We settled on an awesome site that was only 3.5 miles in. Toll Mountain. 1800 or so feet in elevation gain. 3.5 miles. Cake walk. I was even slightly disappointed.

Somewhere in the West Texas Mountains around mile 2 with my 35 liter pack that was crammed full of heavy junk, I was cursing my life. I'm glad we didn't go 7 miles. I would have died. It took us hiking with headlamps in the dark for us to finally reach our destination after going painfully slow all day. Back then, 3.5 miles was incredibly hard. 7 miles in a day was a pipe dream.

And here we sat in California, 6 years and a couple of months after that initial backpacking trip that arguably started this whole infectious desire and in that moment, 10 something AM in Mammoth Lake, we were almost 7 miles from the trail that we wanted to be on. Game on.

Admittedly I was in better shape now (and 100lbs lighter) and I had better gear, but regardless of how ready you feel or prepared you are or how well conditioned you may be, miles and elevation are still daunting on paper.  In reality, it's only a product of labored breathing, one foot in front of the other, and time. It is not hard or stressful or bad. Nor is it easy. It's trekking. It's part of the human condition; It's living. It is uniquely fun. 

And so we went down the Duck Pass trail, one foot in front of the other past some 9000ish foot Sierra lakes.

Having thought only 2 days earlier that we had met our end and we were done, I was elated to be back on the trial. My Achilles hurt still. I was so happy to be back hiking and ready to intercept the JMT that it didn’t much matter.

I'd decided in regards to my ankle problems and pain to adopt the following policy- rock it til the wheels fall off. If it snapped, broke, dislocated, fell off, then I'd stop.  There were times on this segment as well as others later where I thought it would break; I expected the tendon to just snap in half at a moment's notice. Most of the time, it was a nagging blunt pain that was punctuated by seconds of sharp intense fire like sensations that would then linger on. I knew there wasn’t any way to escape it. I took Aleve. I tried to walk without moving my ankle much. One foot in front of the other.

About 2 hours or 4 miles in on this trail we came to Barney Lake. We were still some 3 miles from sniffing the JMT. And I've never been an advocate for anything named Barney. Stores, people, dinosaurs. Don't like it. Barney Lake is the only exception.

The winds were stiff at Barney Lake. It was about 71, 72 degrees by noon which made it perfect hiking weather. We stopped a good while at the Lake and enjoyed the Caribbean colored waters, ducks, and soft sandy seating.  Back towards the east, from whence we'd come, smoke was settling over the town of Mammoth. The past 2 days had seen increasing amounts of smoke start to roll in.

Even at our start in Tuolumne more near the epicenter of the fire, conditions were clear. The weather and the winds were such that we'd finally been chased down by the haze and burnt pine tree particulates. It smelled like a camp fire. And visibility was 5-10 miles. F'n hunter with your illegal fire...

Immediately after Barney Lake, we start our ascent up a cirque that leads us to Duck Pass, the high point of the day. After Duck Pass, we'd walk a pretty even grade of 2 miles back to the JMT.  This climb was the first real test of the day; a fair ascent of 800 or so feet in our newly reloaded, optimized packs, on my broken ankle, and in our freshly refueled and rested bodies.

The combination of renewed enthusiasm, rest, and replenished glycogen stores proved to be a magic one. We didn’t sprint up the mountain, but we climbed steadily and I felt amazing at the top. Not tired, not labored. Being fortunate enough to have made some steep climbs earlier on in our hike, I was elated at how the climb from Barney Lake unfolded. It's not possible for me to quantify how or what was different, but I was surprised when I made it to the top of Duck Pass high above Barney Lake and was feeling as good as I did. I took it as a good omen as the smoke continued to thicken. 

Smoke from the Rim Fire filling the valley beyond Duck Lake

Since day 2 I'd been making mental notes of my favorite places on the trail and really, favorite places I'd ever seen.  Truthfully it started on Day 1 with the lakes below Donahue Pass. That was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. Day two my favorite was the blue bird meadow. By day 3 Thousand Island Lake had topped everything prior and an hour later Emerald lake surpassed everything. Day 4 and Rosalie Lake bested everything else that my eyes had gazed upon. Today my favorite place I'd ever been, the most beautiful place I'd laid my eyes on in the world that I've discovered was Barney Lake. An hour later, it was Duck Lake.

The most beautiful place in the world in the moment I discovered it. Duck and Pika lakes. 

As we came across the Pass at 10,979 feet, Duck lake and a little subsidiary, Pika Lake came in to view. Duck Lake was massive. A huge, deep blue body of water that floated in the valley below us. Its terminus at the far end just dropped off into the smoky Sierra Nevada valleys and peaks below. At about 2 miles long, we walked on the western edge of the lake and peered down in to the deep, crystal sapphire waters. Some birds that looked like gulls flew around. We saw no one on this stretch of the trail. We stopped at the outlet of the lake to replenish our water supply and then we crossed over the outlet stream and started dropping down the final fractions of a mile to reach the John Muir Trail. As we were heading southbound and down the Duck Lake trail we passed two guys, mid twenties with thick foreign accents. We'd seen them days earlier on our trip but I didn’t really recognize or pay them much attention. They were JMT hikers because we'd passed them, and they'd passed us a few times.  I suppose they were just going to check out Duck Lake. And it was a good choice, since it was the most beautiful spot I'd ever seen. And I'd seen a few good lakes in my day (or past 5 days) The foreigners went north as we rested. I elevated my legs hoping it would help my ankle feel better. It didn’t.  After a snack, 10 minute break, and water, we walked 50 feet and saw the JMT Trail junction sign.

In that moment, it seemed easy. All it took to get back on the trail was

A- deciding to do it.
B- walking for a little bit.

Oh, and, by the way, the walk to get back to the JMT is going to make you go by these beautiful places with insane mountain views, solitary vistas, and fairy tale lakes.

Saying that continuing on through the pain and unknown was worthwhile is an understatement. A large understatement. 

Having moved the car to the end of the trail was a great relief as well. All of the uncertainty and time constraints of logistics were gone. We could just walk. Walk and eat. Walk and eat and sleep. Repeat.

Purple Lake. Water source. Meeting spot. First major landmark that we cross back on the John Muir Trail

It was getting later in the day by the time we made it to Purple Lake. Purple Lake rested 2.3 miles down the John Muir Trail after the Duck Lake trail junction. We'd gone a total of 9.1 miles since 10am. It was not getting dark yet, but we were looking for campsites within a decent range. In the guidebook Lindsey decided to carry, the author wrote of Lake Virginia as having many good campsites. Lake Virginia, though, was still 2 miles away- at least another hour. We purified water from Purple Lake and chatted with a solo hiking gentleman. He was going the same direction as we were and looking for campsites just like us. He went on down the trail to Lake Virginia and we too decided to press on through the ever thickening smoke, dimming sky, and cooling atmosphere.

The miles past Purple Lake passed in a flash, and soon we were descending towards a picturesque lake as the sun's light rays highlighted the higher granite peaks around us in an orange hue.

As we started walking down the trail towards the lake we saw our friend from Purple Lake, the man was in his 40s maybe, a wise face with mostly dark hair, some gray.  He and I both wore legit wilderness beards by this point. He started hiking early in the morning, hiked until the evening. I wonder what he was out there looking for. I liked him, though. He seemed to have an ethic to him that jived with me; like he was out there for solitude and wanted to leave no impact. Almost like he didn’t want so much as the mountains to know that he was there. He wanted to be small and marvel at what there was to see. I can appreciate that. He was still very friendly. He'd set up camp in a thicket of trees to protect himself from the winds. We walked on about 100 yards past him and found the only other little grove of wind battered vegetation that could serve as a camp site. We set up there on the east side of a little influx stream. 

Besides for the ghost man and us, there was one other group camping at Lake Virginia.

On the morning of day 2 when we met Greg he spoke of a couple who was about our age doing exactly what we were doing. They were a few hours in front of us he said. Greg also told of a larger group of British guys doing some kind of training exercise. I thought to myself on Day 2 "glad the British guys are in front of us and we don't have to deal with them."

This is how the revolutionary war started I'm pretty sure. 

This is how the revolutionary war started I'm pretty sure. 

On the shore of Lake Virginia, literally the shore, a tent city was being erected by a loud boisterous group of stubborn or stupid men or boys. They spoke in thick accents and even at 150 yards away from us, their words were mostly loud and clear. Lindsey and I ate near the shore and watched the sun set.  Across the lake on our right, a fireball erupts from a stove and loud laughter ensues. This raging inferno goes on for a bit. Loud annoying British talk goes along with it. After these Neanderthals have figured out how to singe the food they put over their carbon fueled inferno, they wash their dishes in the lake. The loud clanking of cutlery resonating in aluminum bowls and cups. This high pitched tin sound cut through the crisp mountain air and was faintly reminiscent of the salvation army bell ringer.

I hoped a bear would come gnaw on one of them just to give them a reality check. Not kill, don't get me wrong. Just eat a good hunk off of one of them. 

These were not young guys, but not old. Probably late 20s, early 30s for some of them. Some of them in great shape, some of them more barrel shaped. There was one token black guy. He didn't seem like he cared much to be out there.

Lindsey and I finished watching the sun set and we got into the tent as temperatures dropped in to the low 40s. Across the lake, the boisterous British buffoons babbled on about the queen or whatever they talk about.

In full disclosure, the head of the department I worked in back when I had a real job was from England. He, much like this group, had 0 regard for anyone other than himself. If the agency I worked in was going to get an enema, they'd put the tube in his office. I had not much tolerance for the group from the outset as their behavior reminded me of this bulbous mound of incompetency. The groups lack of regard for rules, hiking ethics, and practices made me dislike them. 

They camped on the grass 50 feet from the lake. Against regulations. Dumped food in the water. Against regulations. Almost started a grass fire. Guessing against regulations. Were super loud and annoying. That's just general douchery. I know there's awesome, respectful British folk out there. 0 for 7 here.

What I don't understand is that in this group of 6 or 7 guys, assuming a generous lima bean-sized brain in each one- they collectively have the smarts of a squirrel. Maybe Scrat, from Ice Age. They don't know much, but here are a few givens that they must know regardless of their cranial incapacitation-

  1. There's a list of rules, regulations, and laws. You cannot be out there without having received them from a ranger. Ranger dumbs everything down and spoon feeds you this crap like you're a retarded squirrel (I see why, now.)
  2. This is not the mother land. You're a guest in a different country. You do not own the soil, you aren't immune, and you're not above the laws.
  3. You're outnumbered out here by "locals" from America who are enjoying the trail and trying to abide by regulations to keep it from becoming a bear killing ground or a dump like state parks and city recreation lands.

Show some god damned respect you sanctimonious, self important, depraved, insolent monkeys.

This wouldn't be the last we saw of them. In retrospect, I should have thrown a bunch of acorns maybe. Or called Keith. Keith would have loved chasing them. Bet he wouldn't know what to do when he caught one, though. Silly Keith. 

On this day, day 6, their slovenly presence wouldn't be enough to detract from the show of the sun setting on Lake Virginia or the stars slowly rotating around the pinnacles that enveloped us on all sides of our tent.

And as we went to sleep, I decided that Lake Virginia was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen.