JMT Day 5: Forester Pass

[to ~2 miles south of Bubbs Creek Trail junction, 7.2 miles hiked]

[DAY 5!!! I loved day 5. So so so much. –Cyn]

I woke up happy, almost giddy. Perhaps this was because of the low oxygen at our 12,000+ feet campsite, but at least part of it was because I opened my eyes to that incredibly beautiful place. As we packed up camp, I fretted to Cyn: what if we’d had our most spectacular campsite on the fourth night of our trip, and now nothing else would compare? Although I’m usually eager to get out of camp as quickly as possible, today I found myself reluctant to leave. But we had a big day ahead of us: the formidable Forester Pass awaited.

Cyn hiking toward Forester. See that notch at the top of the mountain? That little tiny-looking snow patch way up there? That's where we're headed.
Cyn hiking toward Forester. See that notch in the top of the mountain? That little tiny-looking snow patch way up there? That’s where we’re headed.

I was amazed and grateful to find that my body still felt fine after the last two days. Cyn was also feeling considerably better after a good night’s sleep at high altitude, and we started a gentle uphill just before 8am. After a while, the trail curved around and what do you know, there were those freaking lakes. Of course. We were both relieved that we hadn’t tried to get to them the night before, especially since the camping near them looked inferior to the spot we’d found. They were super beautiful lakes, though.

Lakes below Forester.
Pretty lakes below Forester.
And they just kept getting prettier as we walked.
And they just kept getting prettier as we walked.

About a mile out from camp, we stopped at a creek crossing (I think this is a second crossing of Tyndall) to have a snack and fill up on water. We could definitely see the pass from here, but below it just looked like solid mountain — if I didn’t know for a fact there was a real trail somewhere in there, I’d have worried that we had to scramble straight up the side! [A guy sped past us at the creek and I spent a lot of time watching him climb the pass to see where we were going. It was still really hard to understand exactly where the trail was, but it gave me some comfort. –Cyn] We took it slow and steady, and stopped at most every switchback, as much to look at the incredible view as to catch our breath. [I was feeling sort of embarrassed about our pace, but then I remembered that I might never be back in this stunning spot, and I slowed down even more. –Cyn] The trail was pretty rocky, but not as steep as we’d anticipated. Halfway up we spotted the memorial for a worker who’d died here during trail construction. This was a sobering sight, and another reminder of the intentional human-driven manipulations of nature that allow this trail to exist as such.

Memorial plaque.
Memorial plaque. On the ground below, there were a few old, rusty tools, also part of the memorial.
Panoramic view halfway up the north side, with me looking at the memorial.
Panoramic view halfway up the south side, with me looking at the memorial.

Not long after this, Cyn suddenly whisper-shrieked and pointed. “A PIKA!!” [I really did freak out. It was partially because a pika was the animal I most wanted to see on the JMT and I was actually getting to see one, and partially because a few seconds before I was totally certain that I had seen a rock move, and thought I was hallucinating due to altitude, so I was super relieved that it was a little pika friend scampering along instead. –Cyn] We had really been hoping to glimpse one of these high-elevation cuties, which sat on a rock and had a little staring contest with us until we finally moved on. It felt like a bit of trail magic, a boost of good feelings just before our last push to the top of the pass. We still took mini-breaks at every switchback, though we didn’t always need them, just because the views below us were increasingly spectacular.

Pika! Sitting on top of the center rock.
Pika! Sitting on top of the center rock.
Looking back/down at the switchbacks.
Looking back/down at the switchbacks.
View south as we neared the top of Forester. If you enlarge the image all the way, you might be able to see a group of very tiny people just to the left of that lake. That's the Tyndall Creek crossing, about a mile below us.
View south as we neared the top of Forester. If you enlarge the image all the way, you might be able to make out a small group of people just to the left of that lake. That’s the creek crossing we’d stopped at, now about a mile down the trail.

The famous snow chute appeared sooner than I’d thought it would, and I was very relieved to see that we wouldn’t have to actually walk on any snow to get across. Whew. This made it way less scary. When we looked back on it after crossing, though, I think we were both a bit unnerved to see a steel beam supporting part of the rocks there. It was just a short trip from there to the top, though it involved a couple of giant steps (seriously, I had to throw my trekking poles atop one of them and use my hands to scramble up) next to a pretty steep drop-off. [This was the scariest part of the trail for me. It was so exposed and so high up. I had to pretend I was just watching a movie of the trail to get through it. –Cyn] Fortunately, the sky pilot up here was blooming its heart out and the whole pass smelled delicious. It was like a flower shop up there. I love you, sky pilot!

Crossing the snow chute. The steel support beam is just beyond the right edge of this photo.
Crossing the snow chute. The steel support beam is just beyond the right edge of this photo (I now regret not taking a photo of it).
As close as I dared to get to one of the sheer drop-offs near the top. Intense!
As close as I dared to get to one of the sheer drop-offs near the top. [According to the map (ahem), that lake is about 700 feet below us. But it felt much farther. –Cyn]
Sky pilot (and some other hikers' backpacks) atop Forester.
Sky pilot (and some other hikers’ backpacks) on Forester.

And then we were on top of the pass, the highest pass on the trail, and I felt the feelings coming on, but…it was packed with dudes up there, yelling down to their friends, yelling to each other on the pass, generally taking up a lot of space. I know we all celebrate achievements and enjoy things in different ways, so I tried to be generous here, but it just wasn’t our scene, at all. I think I’d expected something a little more contemplative, or maybe just a little quieter. Or maybe I was just having a lot of my own emotions about making it up to the top, and watching Cyn make it up beside me, and just really needed a different kind of space for feeling and expressing them. At any rate, we’d expected to spend some time up there enjoying the top, but quickly revised that plan. We moved a pack that someone had dropped right in front of the sign, and took some photos. Forester Pass is on the border between Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks, so we had now officially entered national park #2 of 3 on this trek. And as we were eating our pass treats (another Snickers bar for me!), we chatted briefly with a few folks. When we asked some of them if they were on the JMT, one explained that they were hiking around on side trails and exploring their own areas, because “the JMT is like a highway, you see.” Oh, okay. [A minute later that guy asked me what trail we were on. I really, really wish I had thought to just say, “the highway.” –Cyn]

Facing north at the top (exiting Sequoia).
Exiting Sequoia…
...and simultaneously entering Kings Canyon!
…and simultaneously entering Kings Canyon! [13,200 feet! We did that!! –Cyn]
Southern view from the top.
Southern-facing view from the top.
Northern view from the top.
Looking north from the top.

So we started descending the north side sooner than we’d planned, but this would ultimately be fortuitous — as it turned out, we needed a lot of time to make our way down Forester. Just a few switchbacks down, we lost the actual trail. Well, we could see the trail below, but where we were, it was completely covered in snow. Huh. We could see where all the other hikers had cut a path essentially straight down through the snow, so we followed that. The snow was slick and my second step slid right out from under me, landing me on my butt and sending me a few feet down. Then it happened again. Then I started to see the talus under the snow and got scared about breaking my tailbone. So I turned around to face the side of the mountain and climbed down backwards. This proved much more stable, but still, when I finally placed my feet on dirt and rock instead of snow, I gratefully exclaimed “Trail! I missed you!” I think Cyn might have actually found this section kind of fun, but I hated it. [I did think it was fun. But for some reason I didn’t have the problems with slipping that Toby did. –Cyn]

We slid/crawled straight down this snow field.
We slid/crawled straight down this snow field.

A bit further down, we again found the trail covered in snow. This time it took us a minute to even figure out where it picked up again, and by assessing other hikers’ tracks, we realized we had to literally climb up over a snow bank and then scramble across a mix of snow and boulders. I think this was the scariest, sketchiest part of the entire trip for me. Most of the rocks were stable, but the ones that weren’t really got my heart racing, and then I postholed (i.e., my foot plunged through the snow instead of staying on top of it) and scraped my shin on a rock underneath the snow, and that super freaked me out. Very relieved to finish this section, and rewarded by a beautiful ridge walk with sweeping views on both sides.

Cyn got this shot of me carefully navigating the snow/boulders section. I did not enjoy this part.
Cyn got this shot of me finishing the snow/boulders section. It looks so much less nerve-wracking than it felt.
Cyn walking on the ridge.
Cyn on the ridge.

One more snow traverse, less dramatic than the others, and then seemingly endless downhill to the bottom of Forester. Several times on the way down, we agreed that we were happy to be going north: we couldn’t see any place to camp if coming up this side, which meant no way to break up the long climb. Along the way, we considered the “JMT highway” perspective, which led us on a wandering conversation about the myth of some untouched — and therefore more desirable or impressive — part of the wilderness, and how that myth connects to legacies of white “exploration” and colonization, extending to the conquering of supposedly savage/wild spaces (and people). Not that we believed the individual hikers we met had this in mind, of course, but that we saw connections between these histories and some current tendencies we’ve observed in which more popular and well-used trails are valued less than trails that are very remote and less traveled. I think this also connects to the so-called “Wild effect” that Cyn discussed previously, and anxieties about “too many” people knowing about certain trails, etc. (There’s a lot more to say about all of this, and maybe one or both of us will write it up in a separate post soon.)

Final snow section on Forester. This one wasn't too bad.
Final snow section on Forester. This one wasn’t too bad.
We were mesmerized by these tarns. (I also thought the one closest to us looked like that bowl of dark-magic water that Dumbledore has to drink in book six...)
We were mesmerized by these tarns, far below us. (I also thought the one closest to us looked like that bowl of dark-magic water that Dumbledore has to drink in book six…)

As we turned away from Forester, we saw ahead and below us a small shimmering lake with a few hikers, and decided to stop there for lunch. Once down there, we lost sight of it and had to backtrack, but it was worth it. Just as we arrived, most others were heading out (remaining: only a pair singing with a ukelele on the opposite bank), and we stripped down to our underwear and eased into the water. It was refreshing and not as freezing as one might expect, but it did have very serious mud that almost sucked my water/camp shoe right off. As usual, Cyn did some real swimming and I waded out (careful now to step on rocks instead of mud) and crouched until the water came up to my neck. But both of us emerged feeling cleaner than we had in several days, and let the sun dry our skin while we made hot lunch. Cyn held up a water bottle and saw “a shrimp friend” in the bottom of it. Oops. We dumped that tiny guy on the grass [I thought about releasing it into the lake, but since it came from a different water source I was worried about the possibility introducing a foreign species. It’s also possible that it was dead. It was hard to tell. –Cyn] and filtered anew before hiking on.

Cyn at a short water treatment break at the base of Forester.
Cyn at a short water treatment break at the base of Forester. (This is probably where we picked up the shrimp friend.)
Our first lake-swimming spot of the trip. It was so incredible here.
Our first lake-swimming spot of the trip. It was so incredible here.

We’d planned to hike quite a bit further, but after two miles we saw some nice camping areas near Bubbs Creek, realized we had only six miles left for tomorrow, and stopped early. I found a great spot for our tent tucked away between some boulders, and we enjoyed a few extra hours of down time before dinner — reading, journaling, and a bit of blister surgery/management (quite minor compared to last summer). I recall a feeling of satisfaction at the end of this day, knowing we’d successfully navigated some really challenging stuff and were finally starting to settle into a comfortable daily routine.

–Toby


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