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.
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.
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.
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 shorts, Omni-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.
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.
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.”