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.
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…
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.