I maintain that there is nothing more likely to get me out of bed on a cold morning than a front-row seat for a sunrise. I make a habit of always sleeping with storm features open when feasible, so I often wake up just as the sky starts to brighten, as the alpenglow starts to turn the mountains pink. The fact that you can see it from your sleeping bag is what makes it so enticing-- if you can't see it, it's easy to shrug it off as not worth it, or not as good as continuing to be cozy.
In retrospect, I should've faced the camera the other way-- but you live & learn.
Finding myself in these places makes me feel like a photographer, because it's nearly impossible to end up with a bad picture.
I enthusiastically set off for the trail, having detoured to find the ideal camping spot. I met with Hopper at the junction. Nursing a sore knee, he'd opted for a more accessible spot, but it meant he was ready rather earlier than I was by the time I got there. I hardly slowed as I rolled through the junction, and we began the ascent.
Island Pass is barely a pass-- many maps, descriptions of the trail, and JMT hikers either ignore it or don't know it exists. It's a small enough elevation change, a mild undulation, that it isn't easily differentiable from other such features on the trail. While its >10k' altitude qualifies it as "high sierra" or an alpine pass, it certainly doesn't feel that way. Approaching the crest, dense woods inhibit the views. But immediately before plunging into the trees for several miles, the view of the lake opens up behind you.
The smooth ramp up the right shoulder of Banner was nearly enough to pull me off the JMT.
After cresting Island Pass with not much ado, the trail takes on a new character, with intimate, small spaces; dense trees are punctuated by creek crossings, small enough to hop over, their own miniature worlds, tiny fish hunting tiny bugs, pebbles instead of boulders, twigs instead of trunks. The trail is soft, and easy, the landscape rolls by, and it's comfortable: none of the rugged nature of the high country, the stark or sometimes austere granite walls, the vistas that remind you of exactly how far you have to go. Coming over Forester NOBO, you can see the next eight miles or so; descending the Golden Staircase, you can see six miles up-trail, up to where the trail sharply banks in the face of Wheel Mountain and the Citadel. That experience is humbling, and awe-inspiring, sometimes jarring, but the experience on the far side of Island is a nice counterpoint.
The trail gradually leaves this little enchanted forest, with no discernible end. Donohue from the south is difficult to pick out until the very end of the climb. Hopper and I moved our way up the steeply slanted plateau, not knowing which of the myriad notches was ours-- the alpine terrain is boulder-strewn and indistinct. The smoke rolled in heavily, and views back south were nearly non-existent. We ran into a decently sized pack of hikers at the top. Surprisingly, a couple of them were other NOBOs, two of the only folks headed the same way as me that I'd seen. We exchanged trail info, snacks, and stories, and I scrambled up a small berm to the south in an effort at a 360 view. While I was able to see in just about every direction, the visibility at range was so poor that it yielded no good pictures, instead delivering a wonderful memory of some of the biggest smiles I've ever had as I was absolutely buffeted by some of the strongest wind I've ever been exposed to. And that's good enough for me!
Other hikers visible at pass saddle as black dots, image left.
The wind did a good job of keeping smoke levels low at the summit and on the north side of the pass, which was lucky-- the trail north from Donohue showcases phenomenal views of the largest remaining permanent glaciers in the central Sierra, Maclure and Lyell. Both sides of the Cathedral Range house glaciers, with the north side hosting more, but the views of them are mostly blocked by the Ritter Range in the south. As much as I hate hiking in the snow, it's pretty enough that seeing it always jogs the urge to do some shoulder season backpacking out here. Maybe next year!
Difficult not to keep looking south as I continued northward
With Donohue Pass being the border not only between Mono and Tuolumne counties (the importance of which to a thru-hiker I cannot understate) but also the border between Sequoia/Kings Canyon N.P. and Yosemite N.P., it represented a certain milestone for my JMT journey. I had chosen NOBO not only for easier permits and to start in more familiar country, but because there was something undeniably alluring about ending a trip in Yosemite Valley, something charming about mingling with tourists and day hikers after walking 200 miles to get there. I wasn't sure what this corner of the park would be like, whether it would be tourist-thronged, overdeveloped.
Luckily, with a few other contenders, Lyell Fork is probably the least-visited corner of the park. Its only connecting trail to the Yosemite trail system is effectively made redundant by a more direct trail also leaving from Tuolumne, so the majority of hikers I encountered were on the JMT. And while it has very little in the way of massive granite faces and waterfalls, walking down the Lyell Fork was one of the most beautiful, calming parts of the trail.
In the late afternoon, the wind shifted, and the smoke rolled in heavily from one of the several fires that had cropped up in the last few days. The photo above was taken about 45 minutes before the photo below-- the smoke rolled in like waves, visibly streaming over the hills from the east.
At a certain point, a thru is a thru. None of these local fires were burning when I had set out nearly two weeks prior, and what will be will be. I took the smoke in stride, slowing the pace a bit to go easy on my lungs, and soaking in the unique views of the park as the dramatic backdrops faded away. With little news from the outside world, I just hoped that the folks more directly impacted by these fires fared ok.
I took a breather for some preventative foot first aid, to filter, and to watch a gorgeous brown bear snack on some berries just off the trail. Hopper and I found a wonderful camping spot nearly at Tuolumne, setting him up for the push to Echo Lake, and me for my long day toward the Valley. Some boulders sheltered us from the wind, stood up a hundred feet off a gentle bend in the Lyell river. It had been a long day, but the miles had come easy, and I'd found my trail legs just in time to start thinking about the end of my journey. After all, this would be my second to last night on trail. I watched the fog play on the river as the sun went down, trying to process the inevitable end of something that I hadn't yet arrived at.
Stats for the day:
+2500' / -3600'