Upper Palisade Lake was a footnote at most to me before I started the hike-- often mentioned as a good stopping point should one be setting up for Mather southbound, but very little else in the guidebooks. But it was surprisingly crowded: a couple college softball players on a 15 day trip, a group of fisherman fathers on an extended 34-day tour de force of every single lake on the trail, a badass mom and her teenage son out for 24 days, a ultrarunner parked for the night-- a diverse set of people, with one great unifier: all, except the runner, were headed southbound.
And a consistent story emerged as I set my tent in the relatively crowded space. Why go north when you could go south? A lot of the SOBOs had originally planned to go north, but with COVID and the fires, slots opened up for walkups, and opportunistic hikers jumped at the chance. A southbound start gives an easier start to the trail, other than the grueling 4000' climb out of Yosemite right off the bat. But it's easier than the 6000' to Whitney, and starting at 4k' from the valley is an altogether different experience than out of Whitney Portal at 8k', in terms of available oxygen. It's understandable that so many people would flop, given the chances-- but I had made up my mind on a NOBO trip as soon as I'd decided to do the trail. To start in familiar scenery, my stomping grounds around Whitney, and end in Yosemite itself-- I couldn't imagine a better trip.
The sunset from the lake was stunning, but as I'd showed up outside of usual hiking hours (though well within daylight) I'd been limited to the sites that remained. And the pickings were slim in the first place-- the trail cut a swath through the dense brush lined among the creek, the creek in turn tumbled down toward the lake, the whole assembly perched neatly on a small ledge on the otherwise precarious slope. Small groves of trees hung onto slices of flat land where they could, eager campers happily finding shelter from the sun and from the wind. The bright side of backpacking is that nearly any human-sized flat ground is a viable spot. And here, where the options were both limited and established, the usual rules maintaining distance from the trail are waived, Which was very lucky for me, since the only remaining spot with any creek access was so near the trail that one of my guylines threatened the path. The colors of the sunset lit up the lake far below, then danced on the steep mountain walls on either side, and then faded.
This was my favorite night on trail so far-- the scenery was stunning. But that's not what this blog post is about.
This blog post is about the next day, my worst day on trail.
Lower Palisade Lake, the morning off to a good start, Mather Pass the left-most dip.
I didn't know the misfortunes ahead of me as I set out after a hearty breakfast. The folks camped at Lower Palisade Lake had encountered some horrible condensation issues-- tents hung out to dry on bushes, those more eager to get on trail were running with their tents flowing behind them like a sad, damp cape. The efforts seemed largely in vain. Until things got warm enough to evaporate the water, there's not much to be done. I hoped the day quickly got warm enough that their tents would dry-- this, dear reader, is foreshadowing. I, selfishly and wholeheartedly, regret this wish.
Just north of Palisade Lakes is the Golden Staircase, an incredible series of switchbacks down to the floor of LeConte Canyon. On a day with no passes, this was the only major elevation I was expecting. In the shade of the morning, surrounded by what felt like a million pikas and a million cheep-cheeps, I enjoyed the descent greatly. The scenery changed dramatically as the waterfall to the west came and went, crossing the trail here and there, more often, brushing up against it. The water brought with it great bursts of life as it came, brush taller than me, bees buzzing, animals rustling about, frogs croaking from the banks-- and as it went, the pines took back over, the boulders exposed, the expansive view of LeConte unobstructed, the canyon taking a sharp right turn at Devil's Crags and Wheel Peak.
On top of the Golden Staircase, LeConte Canyon laid out in front. Devil's Crags is the serrated ridge, Wheel Peak the center-back with the patch of snow.
The descent into the canyon went smoothly enough, but the sun was brutal by 10 am. With good tree cover while in the canyon, I wasn't concerned, but it wasn't necessarily optimal conditions for crushing some miles. Now ahead of schedule for the first time since I'd started, I planned to cruise by Ladder Lake, evaluate whether or not the difficult route up a few thousand feet through thorny plants, slippery rock, and steep slopes was worth it, and have the alternative of setting up for Muir Pass. The trail was smooth, soft, and made for quick progress toward the valley low point, down at 8000 feet, where the Kings Middle Fork flowed south while the trail turned north.
But before I approached this point, the LeConte Ranger Station, the trees began to thin, and the truly oppressive heat kicked it up a notch. Things went from "uncomfortable but manageable" to "maybe we better take a siesta and pick it up after the heat passes" very quickly. Determined, I pressed on. But as I passed the ranger station and the long, uphill climb began, the nagging pain in my knee intensified. Every step felt laborious, and it exacerbated the other difficulties of the day. At this pace, even in the shade, I felt my energy draining in from the temperature, feeling like I couldn't drink enough water to stay hydrated. Looking back now, I would've wanted to double-check my salt and electrolyte intake! But in the moment, I decided to just slowly press on as best I could. Ladder Lake was out of the question, saved perhaps for another time. As I struggled up the canyon, I tried to find solace in the incredible views, some of the most traditionally scenic I'd had so far. But honestly, I think I get more enjoyment out of these pictures at the time of writing than I did at the time of taking.
The valley narrowed ahead of me and the real climb began. The trail elevated further off the river; the trees grew sparse, and the sun was intolerable. My knee twinged badly with each step and felt weak with each foot placement, and I started to form an exit strategy, just in case. The vast majority of trails to the east led to remote trailheads still many miles from a major roadway, with poor water availability. The trails to the west led to endless Sierra foothills. Any exit at this point would be further than Muir Trail Ranch, where I had a resupply bucket waiting for me. A mule train regularly takes supplies between MTR and a nearby town, so in a worst case scenario, there was some kind of emergency help available. I crossed my fingers that it wouldn't come to that. I took a series of long breaks, hopping from lone tree to lone tree, soaking up the shade where I could and giving my knee a rest. It didn't help much, and the tough conditions and increasing pain made for slow going. I struggled to find joy in the scenery,
It wasn't until 4 pm that the heat began to dissipate, and the climb became steep enough that, ironically, my knee felt a little better. I identified a camping spot just before Muir Pass-- a grove of pines, shelter from the harsh winds, only a handful of miles away. As the conditions improved, so too did my outlook on the hike. Leaving LeConte, the lowest reaches of Muir Pass were incredible, sheltered enough by the slopes for the brush to come back, and winding upward alongside a series of cascading waterfalls. Higher, the waterfalls gave way to a gently meandering streamlet, tributaries joining from all directions.
Sloped waterfall down a granite slab at the upper limits of the timber zone.
Higher still was Lake 10830, and my first sighting of the Mountain Yellow Legged Frog (MYLF)-- and they were everywhere. MYLF adolescent tadpoles flitted in the shallows, from shadow to shadow, and freshly hatched MYLFs squirmed en mass. Fully grown MYLFs were scattered around on rocks, one here, one there. Once-near extinct from the introduction of trout into the High Sierra lakes by fishermen, the NPS and Forest Service have been removing fish from alpine lakes in order to rehabilitate MYLF populations-- and in many places, like this lake, the effects are noticeable. Though they remain at barely 10% their historic range and at a tiny fraction of their equilibrium population, their numbers are on the rise due to dedicated conservation efforts.
A small group of tadpoles of different ages.
As my mood (and knee) continued to improve with the higher altitude and setting sun, and the correspondingly lower temperatures, the last few miles to camp seemed to come easier and easier. By the time I saw the frogs, I was in high spirits; Hopper and I joked about doing Muir Pass-- the site we were aiming for on the south side only had a few spots, and in the event they were all taken, that joke might become a reality. There were no other sheltered sites without a significant backtrack until we reached Muir Pass north, so the humor felt as though it was preparation for a potential change of plans. As the sun continued to lower, we arrived at the planned camp-- packed to the brim with campers. Drying clothes hung from branches, and tents were visible through every gap in the trees. Hopper and I looked for another spot-- nothing. Nothing save for this spur of granite with pines growing out of it, somehow more hospitable than the land surrounding.
As we weighed our options, someone from the camp called out-- "hey, you fellas are awful late!"-- and so Hopper and I walked up to ask about space. It was nearly 7, only a couple hours to hiker midnight, and having been offered "any space we could find", Hopper and I each secured a cowboy camping spot, eyes on the sky, Hopper's a little too exposed, mine a little too close to the de facto bathroom. With no room to pitch a tent, sleeping on it as though it were a ground cover would have to do. Cooking dinner, the sky went through an incredible transformation. Without a cloud in sight, the sunset was just a single pastel gradient fading to black in slow-motion. I'd survived what would turn out to be the only truly miserable day of the hike, and exited from it in relatively high spirits. And in that moment, watching the sun fall beyond the deep blue horizon, I knew it was all worth it. There's a reason thru-hikers always say to never quit on a bad day. And this, right here, was it.
Looking south, perched below Muir Pass in a cowboy camp.
Stats for the day:
+3700' / -3200'