I slept relatively well considering the lack of a tent, and the wispy clouds drifting across the moon never materialized into anything more. I awoke with the alpine glow dancing across the mountaintops in front of me, fetched water for tea, and watched the sun rise over the peaks as I listened to the snowmelt babble by. Waiting anxiously, I huddled under my sleeping bag like a massive jacket, impatient for the sun to touch down on the cold granite. Finally, I saw what I was looking for-- a spotlight of warmth further down the raised spine of rock. I ran, titanium cup of chai in hand, to bask in the light. The peaceful mornings are one of my favorite parts of backpacking, when all is quiet save for the water and the wind. As other campers stirred, I began to pack up-- Muir Pass was just a short jaunt up the hill.
Alpenglow from camp just below Helen Lake.
Frogs croaked from the expansive shoreline of Helen Lake, basking just as I had in the morning sun, waiting for the first bugs of the day as the cold lifted-- the frogs, to be clear. I had been lucky enough to have minimal bug pressure so far, and I was hoping my luck would hold for as long as possible. A lone mosquito buzzed by. I wished the frogs an easy breakfast. The short climb to Muir Pass was easy, a handful of smooth switchbacks up a gentle slope; before long, the top of the iconic hut jutted above the crest, the pass itself in sight. With the view from the gently sloping pass being mostly of the approach from either side, I scrambled up toward Point 12290, a nameless spur below Mt. Warlow, in a bid for a more expansive view. As Hopper elicited free snacks from his overburdened newfound friends, I worked my way up the boulder field, and while I wasn't met with quite the panorama I was hoping for, I pieced something together from a few different vantage points. Hungry for the tuna in my pack, I opted for a quick descent rather than pressing on for the perfect view. Many of the folks we'd camped with had joined by this time and were of a similar mind, with a few SOBOers trickling up as well, exchanging weather information and trail tips, breaking for a snack in and around the hut.
Muir Pass looking south, the way I'd come. The breakfast club continues their chat.
The stark basin holding Wanda and McDermand Lakes was darkened by incoming clouds, not threatening, but thick enough to blot out the clear-weather shine of the alpine water. Overcast, the terrain looked almost gloomy, the lack of life evident. But the stunning trail wound its way along the lakeshores, a misstep to the right or left threatening a plunge into the cold lakes. Occasionally the sun broke through, illuminating the ridgeline and the water in the bright colors of the high alpine, but more often than not, the whole affair was cast in a dark shadow, tones of greys against more grey. Again I reflected on the ability of the circumstance to color an experience-- walking through what many call the most gorgeous section of the JMT, I was simply hoping to make it to camp, wherever it may be, before the clouds broke. The air smelled like rain and I strained my eyes to see if the ripples on the water were the wind or not. Columns of rain paraded around the lakes like distant pillars; powerless to do anything other than walk, I hoped they'd circle around me as I walked like the world's slowest game of Frogger. My pack liner had already begun tearing at this point, though not enough to make me doubt that my gear would survive the rain, dry. I was less confident in my ability to keep myself dry. While my rain jacket was close at hand, I wasn't looking forward to using it. A few drizzles came and went, though more often than not I felt as though I was being spared.
Sapphire Lake and Evolution ridge: Spencer, Darwin, Mendel and Gould Peaks, right to left.
The sky darkened as I descended, passing by Evolution Lake, a cobblestone trail winding along the shores. I've never understood the cobblestone-- it's so much work to make, and on tired knees, much, much more difficult to walk on that dirt. It may look nicer, but it makes for slower going, achier joints, and more tired feet. In my mind, those things, and the obvious human influence, detracts more than it augments. Threatened by rain, I wasn't thrilled on the slow progress. Despite the trail and the weather, the trail was scenic, the lake making for a scenic foreground to the mountains in the background. It was crowded, too, a group of seniors had set up camp via mule train to allow for some backcountry day-hiking. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them in the backcountry-- I hope that's a glimpse of my future. I hadn't thought about a mule train before, but I'm a big fan of anything that increases the accessibility of the outdoors. Several JMTers passed me, heading south, exchanging pleasantries and trail advice. A group of very nice but very tired bay area folks crawled southward, I eyed the ZPacks Arc Blasts on their back. Unrelated fun fact: the way you pack your items matters a lot more for a comfy carry than dropping $350 on a backpack. The closer the center of mass of your backpack to your own center of mass, the more comfy you'll be. Heavy items at the bottom, folks!
The trail meandered through rolling hills obscuring the view, before a drop down an undeniably scenic set of switchbacks, Evolution Valley laid out in front of me like a green carpet spread between the mountains on either side, pines scarce at my altitude, but thickening as the trail progressed westward. Colby and McClure meadows were shockingly devoid of bugs, and the greenery persisted even this late into the season. Evolution Creek followed me west as I passed by McClure Ranger Station, COVID-season "stay away" signs posted out front. In a different year, I would've looked forward to chatting with the rangers, usually invaluable sources of information and advice. I gave the hut a wide berth. The river grew as I dropped to nearly 9000 feet, trickles coming in from all directions, the route widening as the dirt became shallow, the granite exposed, the foliage becoming thin. I was approaching a step down, into the valley of the San Joaquin River, the headwaters of which were the now-respectably rushing Evolution Creek. The sun peeked through the clouds, and before I knew it, the threat of rain was all but gone, a gorgeous late summer day upon me. The gloom dissipated, my desire to take some pictures returned, and the river playfully cascading alongside the trail made for no lack of opportunity.
Hopper and I stopped for a lengthy break before the descent. While we hadn't put down that many miles, the days were catching up with us. My pack was incredibly light, on my last day of food, but some of the pains of previous days hadn't quite faded. I was both looking forward to and dreading the resupply in under 24 hours. Though Muir Trail Ranch represented only 3 more days of food for me, the condition of my legs was tenuous enough that even that weight might mean some difficulty. And the brutal climb towards Sallie Keyes Lakes would be difficult under the best of circumstances, the steepest section of the JMT.
Some food revitalized us, and I realized that my body was finally exiting hiker hunger (where you'll eat anything) and entering the nameless phase where one's body simply accepts a calorie deficit. Left to its own devices, my body was now perfectly happy running off of less food than it needed and giving me less energy in return. I forced down a larabar and took a long, serious look at one of the peanut butters I'd been unable to eat so far before continuing, peanut butter back in pack. I felt the calories entering my bloodstream, my legs recovering, and my outlook improving. I made a mental note to be more vigilant about my food intake in the days to come. For now, though, Hopper and I decided to keep an eye out for camping near the bottom of the switchbacks, nothing but flat trail between us and MTR, an issue for the morning.
Hopper captures some footage for his youtube channel.
We were welcomed to the bottom by a crowded campsite, where once again generous backpackers offered us space, this time a wonderful mother-daughter pair from the Three Rivers area, locals. The mom was an ex-forest ranger, with seemingly infinite experience in the surrounding mountains, on and off trail. I mentally noted trip after trip idea, promising myself to finally make time for Vogelsang, and to poke around the Three Island Lake basin. In these two I also found the only other people in the world who share my absurd favoritism for the Lodegpole area, in my mind the jewel of the Sierra, in a more objective view a footnote on the way to greater things just northward. We huddled around the fire in the strangely cold air for the low elevation, mosquitos kept at bay, and I looked forward to a long night's rest, an early dusk in the dense tree cover. Tomorrow, my first resupply, a make-or-break moment. I hoped my homemade food would still be good after a few weeks in a bucket. The familiar wave of relaxation came as I reminded myself "there's nothing to be done about it now," and drifted peacefully to sleep.
Stats for the day:
+ 1140', - 4000'
Somewhere out there is an orange plastic bucket with my name on it.