The stand of trees below Pinchot was only 2 miles behind where I'd planned to camp in a world where I'd summited and descended Whitney on day 1. And while the camp I'd selected instead was objectively the right choice, accessible water, shelter from the winds, the 2 miles hung like my personal albatross in the back of my mind. The plan for the day was to gain Pinchot early and descend into the canyon holding the Kings River South Fork, bookended by Taboose Pass to the east and Bench Lake to the west. Beyond Bench Lake is the Muro Blanco, a notoriously difficult bushwhack, and something I'm eager to return to. It's all sheer walls, dense brush, a boulder-hopping, river-crossing nightmare. But for now, further north on the JMT, Mather Pass lies in the shadow of Split Mountain, Lake 11598 at its north-western flank-- my camp for the night. Feeling the pressure of the discrepant two miles, and more than satisfied by the views of the trail, I wrote off my trip to stunning Bench Lake, hoping to save enough time for a summit of Split Mountain to be feasible. I rolled out of my tent for some breakfast.
I've likely made it more than far enough with introducing any of the cast of characters. In such a low-traffic year, I was incredibly lucky to hike with some incredible folks traveling at around the same pace as me. Hopper, who runs an incredible youtube channel over at Brian Without Borders, was the first; he was on the PCT north at the time, following a complex series of flip flops that had taken him from an early, snowy arrival at Kennedy Meadows up to NorCal, off-trail to nurse some injuries, and then heading north again from Kennedy to complete the missing section. We met at Guitar Lake, as I was taking shelter from the noon sun, and we played leapfrog for much of the next couple days. I thought I'd lost him for good when I went over Forester a little late in the day, but he ended up separating from the slower group he was hiking with and put down close to a 20 mile day to camp a fraction of a mile from me, unbeknownst to either of us. He and I had hiked loosely together since a surprise reconnection at the top of Glen Pass.
Leaving camp, Hopper and I passed Timmy & Katie from last night's camp, who were taking the ascent a little slower, acclimating to the altitude after coming over Kearsarge. We planned to see them atop Pinchot, and made our way up. The benefit of the ever-changing Sierra topography is that the extended climbs give every downhill-worn muscle a chance to relax, and vice versa, a pattern that would continue throughout the trip. Something will always hurt, but if you do it right, it will never be the same thing twice. At least, that's how I explained away the aches.
The first section of the climb was through that truly illogical Sierra pine forest, each tree abruptly bursting from the talus, no dirt in sight. The trees are the only plants strong enough to muscle their way through the rock at lower altitudes, and higher, the only plants hardy enough to survive direct sunlight. The trees shrunk as I climbed, the sky transitioned from early alpenglow to a pleasant morning light, noticeably cooler air than the previous day-- I breathed a sigh of relief. As the trees dropped away, the trail entered a largely barren plateau, rocks as far as the eye can see, nothing but granite and a perfect blue sky. I readied myself mentally for several hours of this alpine environment, in the event the day were to heat up.
As the trail wove its way upward, and the mountain walls closed in, I entered what I thought would be the last step up before Mather-- instead, what greeted me was a vast prairie, almost, a wide valley swept from one side to the other with a verdant carpet of grass. A family of deer grazed along the riverbank. Marmots chattered excitedly as I approached, and pika's calls rang out, a high-pitched cheep-cheep echoing off the red rock and the granite. Small birds fluttered about, chasing errant bugs; even smaller birds hopped among the rocks, chasing even smaller bugs. It felt as though I had been transported in a moment from the moon itself to a rain forest.
Pinchot Pass South, four deer frame center
I was blown away and tried just to take it all in (and catch my breath from what had been a grueling climb). The deer watched me watching them-- these were no "national park border" deer, familiar with humans and inquisitive about a potential source of food. They kept nervous tabs on me at all times, the young buck making a clear display of his antlers. Marmots, however, are the same anywhere. One hiker took a break down by the water. Their compatriot chased a very excited marmot with a newly liberated bag of trail mix, the marmot chattering excitedly. The trail mix was not recovered.
The climb to Pinchot itself wasn't bad, and after a short set of switchbacks, I soon found myself at the top. I'll take a steep and brief climb over several thousand feet of climb distributed over a handful of miles any day. Hopper met me at the top-- and the convenient part of hiking with someone is that you can get pictures of yourself taken. And you can not know what to do with your hands.
Bois and gents, ladies and theydies, Pinchot Pass summit, looking south. The mountains from yesterday's sunset are on the far, far right side, the green streak visible bottom right.
Hopper and I broke for a snack, pondering our options. We kept an eye out for Timmy & Katie, who had almost identical plans for the day's mileage. Even from the top of the pass, they were nowhere to be seen. They may have been reconsidering their plans, though, as we were: the southbound hikers I'd seen told me that the camping I'd planned on before Mather, on the south side, was, politely, shit. Exposed, windy, storm-prone, rocky, poor water, no views. Furthermore, Split Mountain was in bad shape with the current weather patterns-- thunderstorms starting around noon for the last week or so; better to try again another time on a dedicated trip. And with Pinchot and Mather being separated by a mere 10 miles, pass to pass, and it only being 10 am, it was a very real option to simply continue on to Mather's north side. And so, over almond butter, the decision was made: let's see how the descent goes, first. No sense planning ahead in the mountains. Inflexibility can be a very dangerous thing.
The descent was incredible. I'm not sure how much of this recurring north-side euphoria is due to actual, noticeable changes in scenery, or if I'm just always glad to be heading downhill, but as I'm looking back now, writing this, there are very few passes where I found the south aspect significantly more beautiful than the north. I think this reinforces how important a positive mindset can be when attempting to enjoy the outdoors. It has a real, visceral impact on how one perceives the environment. The stark tarns at altitude relented as I dropped, with tree-studded lakes in the distance. Upon arriving, the trees were stunted, a result of the harsh sun, the unforgiving soil, and a shortened growing season. I descended further, into real groves of pines, and watched the tributaries of the Kings River South Fork grow in number and in flow.
Pinchot Pass north. The top row pictures the same lake, note the lake-left stand of trees.
As the trail dropped ever so slightly into the upper montane zone, I was treated to a true pine forest, complete with undergrowth. At the upper limits of the timber zone, the pines can create the necessary shade for the otherwise too-fragile brush to survive. Wildflowers were abundant, even this late in the season, but the record of what I'd missed was clear. Many of the flowers and grasses had entered their dormant states, a musky red or rich brown, others had disappeared entirely, hiding in buried seeds until the thaw. The dormant plants had their own beauty, a wonderful contrast to the deep evergreens. It's the Sierra's very own fall colors.
The trail skimmed along the shores of Lake Marjorie, and near the bottom of the valley came a memorable water crossing, hikers given the option to cross a single, wide river, or first make their way half-across to an islet, a tiny triangle of land suspended in the center of this rushing fork. I chose the islet, a couple careful jumps across some boulders and a too-mobile log. Hopper attempted the direct route and ended up stranded halfway, having run out of protruding rocks. Across, we paused for a much needed snack on a very comfortable looking log-- at least, until I noticed a carpenter ant on my leg. And another on my backpack. And, another-- actually, they're just everywhere. There comes a point where you stop noticing where the ants are, and try to find anywhere that they aren't. We had parked ourselves directly on top of a series of massive anthills and the carpenter ants were none too pleased. Aside: a largely unique feature among ants, they like to bite and then hang on for the ride as the recipient tries to remove them. While the bite isn't the most painful, their sheer size adds a certain psychological factor to things. The local ranger walked up as Hopper, shirt rolled up and held under his arms, was picking ants off his chest, and as I was fishing them out of my short shorts, wind pants removed since the pass. The ranger stifled laughter. I don't blame him.
Northbound, the plant life dropped away almost immediately. The adverse camping conditions I'd been told about weren't just inhospitable for humans, the treeline barely extended past the bottom of the valley. The wide, gently sloped walls were the perfect funnel for wind, racing down the canyon, battering me back toward the river. Which, at that moment, was not the direction I wanted to go. An afternoon thunderstorm was forming over Pinchot, moving down to the valley floor. I hoped Timmy & Katie had made the pass before the weather broke, the haze of distant rain was just barely visible over Pinchot. I kept an eye on the clouds, hoping they would follow the Canyon of the Muro Blanco west-- instead, it slowly worked its way up the valley I was in, racing me to Mather. This situation is exactly why it's best practice to traverse a pass in the morning-- the Sierra is prone to afternoon thunderstorms that occur with great regularity, often for weeks at a time. The last place you want to be is on an exposed pass in the middle of a lightning event. So perhaps the worst place you can be with a storm building is on your way up a pass-- and yet, again, here I found myself.
Looking south toward Pinchot and the Kings South Fork at the furthest reach of the pines. Those clouds are looking a little dark for 1 pm.
The grade toward Mather was my favorite kind-- soft dirt, not steep enough to be tiring, or even noticeable, but enough for the gain to add up over time, only 1600' over 4.5 miles. Not a lot of gain, but certainly more palatable than a similar gain over a mile-- a la the Mountaineer's Route. The bright side of the impending weather was that the light drizzle kept the dust down, and I wasn't worried about the water with my rain gear right on the top of my pack. But in my mind, I had to make Mather before the lightning started. The aforementioned thunder over Split Mountain had already started, the mountain shrouded in darkness like some kind of cursed weather magnet.
The inhospitable upper reaches of the Sierra are some of my favorite parts of the range. There's a wildness to them, as though the land itself is too difficult to be tamed or inhabited. It feels like California's Lost Coast, in a way, both places where the land itself seems to move and breathe. The Lost Cost seems this way due to the tide, the ever-changing landscape, the rhythm of the water. The Sierras feel this way because there's nothing else to examine as you wander the wind-swept basins. Life everywhere, sure, but I wouldn't say anything here is thriving. Even the lichen is scraggly. So without the distraction of fauna and flora, what's left? One starts to tune into the stone, the cracks left by many freeze-thaw cycles, the gently sloped glacial features, the detritus and erratics left behind, large boulders sitting happily in the middle of a granite plain. The rock glaciers slowly making their way down a couloir, sometimes bursting downward in a rockfall, more often heard than seen, the crashing echoing off the empty valley walls. And once you notice this, the rhythm of the land-- it's everywhere. The same processes that have shaped those barren upper valleys are at work everywhere in the mountains, constantly reshaping the Sierra. And it's a beautiful thing to watch.
South-facing, the basin below Mather Pass' south aspect.
Spurred onward by the threat of lightning, Hopper and I pushed toward the pass. Nearing the upper limits of the final bowl, the storm circling Split seemed poised to drop on top of us, the storm approaching from behind seemed about to overtake us. Confident in our ability to keep pace up the pass, we began the switchbacks. It was a fast climb, a grueling, head-down march, fear of the weather increasing. The wind was picking up, whipping loose rock around my feet. Suddenly, halfway up the switchbacks, the clouds over Split fell down the far side of the Kings-Inyo Divide; nearly in sync, the storm behind was frozen in place. The relief of the now-gone storm threat was drowned out by the anticipation of being at the top, and before long, I was there-- the top of Mather Pass.
The pleasant climb up the south side transitioned to an unstable scree field heading north, the trail constructed out of what could very generously be called cobblestone, a tough surface on the knees and ankles. On the bright side, Upper Palisade Lake, the actual camp for the night, was in sight from the top of the pass. I made my way to the lake rather quickly, excited to rest my feet. The camp itself was on a ridge high above the lake, but with good water availability from a strong creek. The spots were sheltered from the wind by a grove of hardy pines, and the mountains surrounding the lake proved an excellent backdrop for the sunset hues. I set up my tent and spent some time by the water, soaking my feet, ahead of schedule, and looking forward to dinner. I'd made good time today, and I was feeling strong, trail legs on their way,.
Stats for the Day:
+ 4600' / - 3500'
Camp above Upper Palisade!