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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





Best since Day 1.