[to just before the Kearsarge Pass Trail/JMT junction, ~7 miles hiked]
Unlike Toby, who slept like a rock all night (I could tell because of his sweet, gentle snoring [Ooops. –Toby]), I was up a lot of the night, confused about the feel of sheets and the sound of the air conditioner. Our alarm went off early, and I started to feel my anxiety level rise. The first week was so hard and I really wasn’t sure how the rest of the trail was going to happen. The breathing at altitude had gotten only marginally better, and I didn’t feel like I was getting stronger yet, so I wondered if I ever would. And we had that four mile climb with our heaviest pack of the trip. I was not looking forward to it. But I had also spent the day before reading some of the early posts from Go Team Darkly, one of the few blogs I’ve found that reports on a NOBO JMT trip. I loved reading it before we left because it’s so well written, and I wanted to go back and see what their experience had been on the early part of the trail. It was heartening to know that they also struggled the first few days, but frustrating that they had seemed to acclimate after two or three days and I was still struggling this far in. They wrote that they had been worried about the climb out of Onion Valley, but that it ended up flying by. I was skeptical, but it gave me some hope that it might not be too bad.
My spirits were lifted by the amazing breakfast that Jim, who works at Mt. Williamson, had cooked for all the guests. We sat down to plates of eggs and bacon, coffee, and english muffins with homemade jam that I believe Strider had gotten from a friend in Nor Cal. [Because I hadn’t heard Strider mention “juice” when she told us the breakfast menu yesterday, I brought my own single serving bottle of orange juice. My juice obsession was strong. –Toby] We chatted with Leslie, a volunteer and retired English professor who grew up in Oklahoma, so we had a few things in common. We told her all about the Wonderland Trail and she sounded excited to put it on her list. The Nurse was there too, getting ready for his last few days to the top of Mt Whitney. We all joked that he was going so fast so far that he’d be on Whitney by the end of the night. Strider came in and barely recognized any of us with our clean clothes and without our hats on. She said we were leaving at 8:00 sharp, so we reluctantly left the table to make the final preparations.
On the drive up Strider gave us some tips about the upcoming trail. After the pass, we had two choices to get back on the JMT — backtracking on the same trail we’d taken off, or taking a higher trail that would entail slightly less mileage. We were worried about water sources on the higher trail but Strider assured us that we would have options. As we were talking, Toby mentioned that we were doing the trail this summer because I was changing careers, and this was my last summer on an academic schedule. Strider shared stories of her own decision to leave her work with Alzheimer’s patients in the Bay Area, which she had loved, and come to this tiny, isolated town to run the motel. I felt inspired and also recommitted to having this adventure while I could.
We arrived at the trailhead. Strider took some pictures of us and The Nurse for the motel’s facebook page, gave us hugs, and then was off. [Third regret of the trip: forgot to get a photo with Strider. –Toby] Toby and I each used the pit toilet, the last toilet-like thing we’d have access to for two full weeks, and watched The Nurse cruise up the switchbacks ahead of us. [That was the last we’d see of him. Hope your hike ended well, M! –Toby] We put on our packs slowly, not wanting to start climbing but also knowing that we should get started before it got hot. So we started. So far on this trip I had been in a routine of taking a quick breather every switchback or two, which really slows things down. We were leaving around 9am. I figured we’d get to the pass around 2 or even 3pm, and I told myself that was fine; we’d still have time to hike a couple more flattish miles to the junction. But up and up we went, and I was feeling okay. Every time we got to the turn, I thought just one more, but didn’t feel the need to actually stop for a long time. When I finally did take a short rest in a patch of shade, Toby looked at his watch and exclaimed “We’ve been climbing for half an hour straight!” Amazing! And so I told myself that it was only because we were at a lower altitude than usual, and that it would get worse as we went up, but it just didn’t.
We hiked at a steady pace for about 90 minutes, and then decided to take a break for lunch. We sat beside the trail and ate the heaviest things we could find in our canisters, waving at day hikers passing us by. We felt less self-conscious about our smell with our clean clothes, but that wouldn’t last long. And then we pressed on, looking for Flower Lake, the next lake we thought we’d pass. After about an hour I was thinking it would never, ever come, when I looked to my left and saw the unmistakable Heart Lake, which was way past Flower on the map. I had thought we had a few more hours ahead of us, but at Heart Lake we were just below a crest that took us to the last part of the climb. Around this time, three women in their early twenties, I’m guessing, breezed past us having an easy conversation. Let me repeat that. They were Talking. While walking Up Hill. I may have been having a good day, but I hadn’t mastered that talent yet. But I also didn’t care. I thought I might actually be getting my trail legs, and I wasn’t concerned about the fact that my version of trail legs looked different from others’. As I climbed, I remembered all the food I had left over when we got to Mt. Williamson, which means I had not been eating nearly enough. I thought about all I ate the day before, and decided that those extra calories might actually be making a difference. I resolved to eat most or all of my daily calories for the rest of the trip, whether I wanted to or not.
We reached Kearsarge Pass, again, and it was a bit of a party at the top, but one that we wanted to be at. There was a day hiker doing a headstand on the pass for her Instagram account in which she does headstands on things, and it was fun to be a part of. [It was! I really loved this woman’s general enthusiasm for life (and for headstands). –Toby] We also chatted with a guy who was going to start hiking north on the JMT the next day. He had done it before and we traded some stories about our experiences. Then it was on to the Kearsarge Pass Trail. This would take us back to the JMT, paralleling the Bullfrog Lake trail that we had taken on our way out, but higher up on the mountain. We had thought the views to Kearsarge Lakes were amazing two days ago, but these were spectacular. Being so high up gave us different perspectives on the color and size of the lakes, and the mountain ranges behind them. It was some of my favorite trail on the entire trip. [Same. This side trip over Kearsarge and back was so rewarding, in every way. And once we got on the Kearsarge Pass Trail, we saw hardly any other hikers, so we got beautiful views and peaceful solitude. –Toby]
After a mile or so, we passed the seasonal stream that Strider promised would be running, and it was. We stopped there and thought about taking a long lunch break, but it was so hot and buggy, and there was no shade, so we didn’t stay long. We topped up our water bottles, and then I filled up one of our bladders and packed it out so that we could camp someplace without a water source. This would give us more options, since it was a pretty dry stretch between here and Glen Pass, which we planned to tackle in the morning.
We passed a number of established campsites but they were all very close to the trail, and not that close to the junction. We decided to keep going to the junction to see what we could figure out there. Luckily, a few tenths away, the landscape switched from steep climbs and drop-offs on either side of the trail to flat stretches that were mostly sandy with little undergrowth. We wandered off the trail a bit and found a place where there had clearly been a tent recently, though it wasn’t a fully established site. It was private and low impact so we took it. It wasn’t our most spectacular camp site, but it was peaceful and just where we wanted to be to set up for the next day. We set up the tent and ate, the usual camp chores. We pulled out our sleep clothes and smelled the traces of lavender laundry detergent clinging to them. I think we both felt a little wistful about all that we had left behind when we left Independence, but we also were not nearly ready for this trip to end. Some of our best days were still ahead of us.