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John Muir Trail: Day 3, Forester Pass

Camped at Wallace Creek, I went to sleep before the sun had even set, around 7 pm. Assuming it would be beneficial to keep my sleep schedule consistent, I had an alarm set for the now-standard 3:15 am-- or so I thought. Nothing went wrong with the alarm, as far as I could tell. I had just slept through several hours of low-level beeping, maybe dampened by my sleeping bag, and certainly by the level of exhaustion I'd built up over the last couple days. I didn't wake until the sun shone directly on my tent walls, filling the space with a welcoming golden-green glow. The 12 hours of rest had been good, and I exited my tent with more energy than I'd felt the rest of the trip combined. I wondered how much of my apathy about Whitney had been due to exhaustion and sleep deprivation-- it was important to me to soak every moment of this experience up like an intrepid sponge, and feeling like I was autopiloting through any portion needed quick corrective action. And I think the ideal corrective action was a nice, long nap.


I took my time that morning, cooking a homemade oatmeal packet, oats shored up with espresso & chocolate chips, walnuts, whole milk powder, cinnamon, and almond flakes. A cup (bowl, rather) of chai had me leaving camp closer to 9 am. But my willingness to hike into the night granted a lot of flexibility with the timing, and I found myself setting off at a good pace. I had planned several side hikes in the event I was ahead of schedule-- which obviously wasn't happening. The first side hike was aimed at Tawny Point, a brief step off the JMT, and a wonderful panoramic viewpoint above Bighorn Plateau, my first feature of the day. And after a brief stint in the ever-thinning trees, a stunted pine forest rising up from sun-bleached soil, I found myself in the middle of . . . nothing.


Bighorn Plateau is a unique feature in the sharp terrain of the High Sierra. At the horizon, a panorama of mountains rise at distances great enough to lend a certain haze to their shape, a certain instability to their image. With the exception of the forgettable bulge of Tawny Point (which I bypassed), the view in any direction ends in peaks. But it's not the views in the distance that mesmerize-- in the foreground, the impossibly flat, barren, empty land is captivating, accentuated by a perfectly cloudless sky. The significance may be best explained by contrast, as an extreme foil to the incessant peaks and valleys of the rest of the Sierra, a featureless plain, devoid of plant life, of so much as a single rolling hill. It's a genuinely shocking departure from the norm, an aberration, in some ways, a jewel. In certain seasons there's a tarn or two, a collection of runoff with nowhere else to go, some local minima awaiting evaporation. The main tarn was present as I passed by, several large birds surrounding. They looked like egrets, but my pictures came out poorly and my years-old bird identification knowledge eluded me. What's the difference between a heron and an egret? The internet may know, but I don't.


a picture struggles to explain how . . . large? . . . this vista is



Bighorn Plateau is interrupted by the rise of Tawny Point, image right



Following Bighorn Plateau, the trail dips in elevation a bit, traversing a wide-open glacial valley. It was impossible not to visualize the ancient mass of ice slowly carving out this mile-wide and picture perfect "U", leaving behind detritus and erratics in its wake. The once-sharp edges of the "U" were worn down by millennia of freeze-thaw cycles, water runoff, and high winds. At altitude, the land is densely packed with wildflowers, growing wherever they could get respite from the sun, shrub brush, hardy enough to withstand the weather, and not a single tree. I hiked for hours without shade, eventually gaining in altitude as I entered a Russian doll of progressively higher and ever-smaller steps. These steps form where natural phenomena suddenly increase the relative erosive force of a glacier, whether it be two glaciers merging in their march downward, or a change in the type of rock underfoot. I transitioned from the glacier valley to a hanging valley, then to a cirque, then a bowl, and what can only be described as a dead end.


 

The trail from this moment northward is easily understood as a series of rises and falls, passes and interludes. For decades, the JMT as we know it was incomplete, diverted around two impassable ridges of mountains-- this dead end, as I saw it, was the first. Forester Pass, the first missing puzzle piece, is the highest pass outside of Trail Crest, and notoriously the most difficult pass on the JMT. Before it was discovered, a preliminary route made a detour over Junction and Shepherd Passes, and it wasn't until 1931 that the route out of this cirque was discovered. While the detour is only a couple miles more (and something I'd like to see, as it passes through incredible Center Basin), it does tack on +1500'/-1500' elevation, which would be the steepest section of the JMT. Luckily, following the discovery of the pass, this section of trail was completed a mere year later.


What makes Forester so unique, in my mind, is that the bulk of the climb points up to an impassable headwall, through a precariously steep talus field, rife with loose rock. It isn't until the final approach to the top of the cliff that the trail cuts a horizontal path across the exposed face, making a beeline for a curious notch that, even at this point, doesn't seem to be navigable. But once at the top of Forester, the view in each direction is stunning. To the south, the way I'd come, the rolling hills no longer obstruct the view, and the great Y-intersection of the Tyndall Creek drainage and the valley holding the highest headwaters of the Kern River is clearly visible.


Forester Pass south. Diamond Mesa's west aspect appears an unbroken cliff. The top of Tawny Point just rises above the dip in Diamond. Lake 12251 and 12182 lie below.


The magical thing about High Sierra passes, to me, is the opportunity to survey the land you've just passed through, to begin to understand the scale of the world you're walking through, to try to find some context to the peaks overshadowing you. The peaks and the passes are a hiker's moment to stand on equal footing with the environment at large, to feel the prevailing wind currents, to feel the indescribable closeness of the sky.


Forester stands atop the Kings-Kern Divide, separating the respective watersheds. A drop of water on the south side of the divide, the Kern side, will flow through the Sierras' only south-exiting river, the Kern, through Isabella Dam, and irrigate the lands around Bakersfield. A drop of water on the north side, in Kings, will run west through the mountains, through Pine Flat Dam, eventually irrigating the agriculture in Fresno. The Kings-Kern Divide also splits Sequoia Nat'l Park and King's Canyon Nat'l Park; Junction Peak, just to the east, adds the limit of Inyo Nat'l Forest. On the north side of the pass, the Bubbs Creek drainage flows down Vidette Meadows, in the shadow of the Kearsarge Pinnacles.


I headed north, looking forward to some downhill after several hours of climbing.


Baby's first JMT pass!


I told myself that I'd make great time through this section, legs relatively fresh and miles of uninterrupted downhill ahead, through the end of the day. But the area was scenic enough that I found myself stopping frequently to take it all in. As my elevation dropped, the greenery progressively returned, the plants more vibrant, trees cropping up, stunted at first, but eventually full-height pines. A reprieve from the sun was welcome, as the unseasonably warm temperatures had taken a toll. The Bubbs Creek drainage with every step opened up before me, with Vidette Meadows coming closer and closer. The trail ambled downward, against the shoulder of the Pinnacles, alongside the ever-growing creek. A few thousand feet can do a lot for a flow rate-- but nobody told that to my Sawyer, who was already slowing down. I told myself I'd backflush it soon. Looking back at the pictures now, the enormity of the terrain cannot be overstated, and I'm eager to return to this area.


I had been surprised by the ease of Forester, coming from the south. It was a pleasant, brief climb to the top, switchbacks steep enough to be efficient but not too steep so as to be unassailable at pace. Forester from the north would be altogether different, a long, slow climb to altitude, the trail never quite as steep as one would like, that unfortunate balance of steep enough to be tiring, but not to go anywhere. The views, however, more than make up for it.



(Sneaky) slideshow of images descending from Forester-- feel free to click the arrows!


Vidette meadows came out of nowhere, as the last time I'd seen it was an hour prior, entering into a dense pine forest. I nearly forgot it was coming, winding my way through the trees, admiring the granite features finding holes in the foliage. It's not the most clearly defined meadow on the JMT, and certainly not the most stunning, but it's a popular camping destination, close enough to Zumwalt to be accessible, a decent number of bear boxes, and a good setup for Forester for southbounders. Due to its elevation, it's also one of the more consistent water sources in the shoulder season, when the upper reaches of Bubbs Creek are inconsistent. I had planned to work my way a little closer to Glen Pass, to make it the next morning before the heat came. But as I passed by a few scattered sites near the north edge of Vidette, I noticed the elevation-- just a smidge below 10,000 feet, and per the rules in King's, legal fire territory, my only opportunity for a long way in either direction. I called it immediately.



A cozy camp at Vidette. Fire 40% to (unsuccessfully) ward off mosquitos.





Stats for the day:

16.5 mi

+3400' / -4300'


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Hey, thanks for stopping by!

I appreciate you reading! I hope it was fun, useful, or interesting.

 

The dream is that by running this blog, I can give those I care about a way to keep up to date with what I'm doing. Bonus points if someone stumbles across this and it helps them plan a trip or get into the outdoors. Always feel free to drop me a line if you've got questions about anything posted here!

Much love,

Riley

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