JMT Day 9: Bodies of Water

[to the north side of Dollar Lake, ~7 miles hiked]

I’d been looking at the map before bed. It was 17 pages long. We had been out eight days, and we were on the third page of the map. I knew this was because we started about 20 miles south of where this map set begins, and because we hiked out to resupply. And I knew we were right on track in terms of our daily itinerary. But still, it suddenly seemed impossible that we could get to the last page of the map in the time we had left. As usual, the only thing to do was hike.

The morning was very cold — for the first time on this trip, I’d woken up shivering in the middle of the night, and had to pull on my puffy jacket in the dark. We were still getting used to the dramatic swings in temperature here: very cold mornings until the sun made its way past the mountains, and then all at once the heat of the day was upon you, and then as soon as dusk arrived, instantly cold again. But we had a lot of climbing ahead of us first thing this morning, so I was grateful for the chill as we left camp. After just a few minutes we hit the JMT junction and turned north, finally back on our trail again and headed for Glen Pass.

I was really looking forward to Glen Pass, though I wasn’t sure why. I think it was at least partly because it seemed so challenging. We’d read trip reports about the false summits (thinking you’re at the top, only to discover more climbing ahead), and we knew Glen was voted the most difficult climb (from both directions) in last year’s JMT hiker survey. I guess I was weirdly excited to see just how hard it would be. [I wouldn’t say I was excited, but I was very glad to have that information from the survey. It helped me mentally prepare for the climb. –Cyn]

Looking back on Charlotte Lake. We'd heard there was nice camping here, but it would've meant more non-JMT miles, so we settled for a lovely morning view on our approach to Glen.
Looking down on Charlotte Lake. We’d considered camping there the previous night, but it would’ve meant more non-JMT miles, so we settled for a lovely morning view of it instead.

We made steady progress up giant granite steps, feeling remarkably strong despite the challenging terrain. Some of my favorite sights of the trip appeared on this climb. Many flower-lined streams wound their way through the rocks. We saw several pikas, including one that sat quite close to us and beamed all of its adorableness directly at Cyn, who quietly shrieked with joy. And most incredible of all, a perfectly clear, deep turquoise tarn that we literally had to force ourselves to move on from. I think we stopped and turned back to look at it at least five or six times as we climbed. I’ve never seen colors like that before, and although Cyn made many valiant attempts, even the best photo she got can only convey about 70% of this tarn’s brilliance. It was mesmerizing. We also noticed a pair of hikers tucked into a tiny campsite on the edge of the tarn, and a pika scurrying among the boulders, and I felt a little jealous that we hadn’t camped here, because the beauty was just off the charts. (Later one of those hikers told me he’d heard a pretty big rockslide in the night, and my jealousy magically evaporated.)

Cyn making her way up some of the big steps.
Cyn making her way up some of the big steps.
Morning sun, running water, beautiful wildflowers.
Morning sun, running water, beautiful wildflowers.

Pika, looking right into Cyn's face.
Pika, looking right into Cyn’s face. [I promised this pika that it could have all of my Pop Tarts (a very big deal as Pop Tarts are my new favorite backpacking food) if it would just ride along on the top of my pack for the rest of the trip. Sadly it did not accept my invitation. –Cyn]
Possibly the cutest animal on the planet?
Possibly the cutest animal on the planet? [Definitely the cutest animal on the planet. –Cyn]

The most incredible tarn I will ever see in my life.
The most incredible tarn I will ever see in my life.

Glen Pass was a bit of a mystery. We’d been able to see our destinations for Forester and Kearsarge from quite far away, but here, the trail kept curving around, up and down [False summits are the freaking worst. –Cyn], and we had no idea where we were headed. Once when I thought we were probably pretty close, we stopped to rest and look around. As I squinted at the mountainside behind Cyn, the last set of switchbacks suddenly came into focus, like one of those old “magic eye” pictures, and it looked kind of tough. I hesitantly pointed to it. “I think we’re going…up there?” She groaned. “I think you’re right.”

There's a trail along the side of that, leading up to the top. Yep.
Believe it or not, there’s a trail along the side of that, leading up to the top.

But in the end it wasn’t that bad, and the top of the pass was, as always, the best kind of reward. [Even I didn’t think it was that bad. I mean, it was definitely hard, but I could also tell that it would have been much, much harder a few days before, and that made me feel pretty good. –Cyn] It was more like a ridge walk than the kind of gathering area we’d had atop other passes, but there were lots of boulders along the sides to sit on while we ate our pass treats. [Pass treats were special foods we packed to reward ourselves for the climb. Toby’s was a full-sized Snickers Bar. Mine was a little ziploc filled with Reese’s Pieces and M&Ms. It was such a fun little ritual. I think this is also where I decided to try cold coffee. I hadn’t made coffee in days because it was just too hot to drink something warm. So I decided to pour my water directly into a cup with my instant coffee, and it wasn’t half bad. That was how I drank coffee for the rest of the trip, and it was a really useful little energy boost. –Cyn] I felt very reluctant to leave this spot, because the view was so, so amazing — but that view was of our next destination, the Rae Lakes basin, and so it was also pretty motivating.

Super happy atop Glen Pass!
Happiness on Glen Pass (elevation: 11,926 feet)! (Just realized you can totally see the skin peeling off my nose — still healing the post-Whitney sunburn…)
Looking south from the top of Glen.
View south from the top of Glen.
Content on Glen Pass. Looking north -- Rae Lakes in the distance.
I felt so content on Glen Pass. Looking north — Rae Lakes in the distance.

As we started down, we ran into snow almost immediately. At least this time there were only a few tricky steps, and then a corridor of snow to walk through. Lots of scree and big steps on the descent, making for slow hiking. But it was cool and breezy, and continually beautiful all the way down to the first Rae Lake. We walked around the edge of it and then stopped for hot lunch under the trees. In our resupply, we’d packed some food items that we hadn’t had on the first leg, including the ingredients for peanut-butter-and-honey tortilla wraps, an old favorite. But we also had freeze-dried spaghetti with meat sauce, which I made here for lunch. We’d enjoyed it when tested at home, but on the trail, with real hiker hunger finally setting in, it was magnificent. [SO magnificent. –Cyn] I savored every bite, and kept a close eye on the opportunistic marmot who crept around the perimeter of our lunch site.

Cyn hiking carefully through a snow corridor.
Cyn navigates snow on the north side.
Wildflowers on the descent from Glen Pass.
Wildflowers on the descent from Glen Pass.
Most southern of the Rae Lakes.
Most southern of the Rae Lakes.
NOBO pride!
NOBO pride!

At an outlet joining two of the lakes, we opted to ford. Then, as usual, we watched a few other hikers nimbly scamper across the logs that had looked really unstable to us. But the cold water felt so refreshing on my feet and calves that I didn’t regret it. [Neither did I. I just remembered that the person we met on the very first night who was doing 14ers had to leave the JMT years ago because she slipped off a wet log and tore her calf muscle. She advised us to ford whenever we had doubts about rock hopping or log crossings. Seemed smart to me. –Cyn] Soon after, we turned a corner and who should be standing there but John Ladd! I was surprised to see him again, but then remembered that he’d said something about exploring Sixty Lake Basin, just west of these lakes. He walked with us a bit on his way to the ranger station, and when he learned that I teach gender studies, told us all about his daughter’s research on sexual assault reporting mechanisms. I was touched to hear how proud he was of her work, and glad to learn about it myself. I admit I was a little sad to say goodbye to him — this was the first conversation we’d had with someone on trail that felt real. Not that we hadn’t met nice people, because we had — but mostly we’d just had brief conversations about trail conditions or hiking gear, and we hadn’t really met anyone going northbound that we clicked with yet. (I think we were also both puzzled about the demographics of the hikers we’d crossed paths with so far. The majority were men who seemed ten or fifteen years younger than us, and this was so different from last summer on the Wonderland, where we met tons of women and people older than us.)

Fording with care.
Fording with care.
One of the Rae Lakes, with an island in the middle.
One of the Rae Lakes, with an island in the middle. Could not get over that water.

It’s incredibly beautiful in this basin, which explains why the Rae Lakes Loop Trail is so popular. Over the next few days, we’d pass lots of hikers doing this ~40-mile loop. I’d initially planned to camp here, but we’d made it over the pass faster than expected, so we hiked on, looking for a new camp destination. Cyn found a nice site at the edge of the last Rae Lake, but it was very close to the trail and I thought we could do better. We passed Arrowhead Lake and then made our way to Dollar Lake, which I had high hopes for. By the time we reached its northern edge, we were pretty tired and ready to set up camp. So we were disappointed to see a sign stating “campsite closed for restoration,” and stood around trying to decide our next move. I wasn’t sure there would be any viable camping in the next few miles, and neither of us really wanted to pack out extra water to dry camp again tonight.

The iconic Fin Dome.
The iconic Fin Dome.
Arrowhead Lake.
Arrowhead Lake.
So, sure, getting and filtering water on the trail requires more work than turning on a faucet. But who can complain, when this is where you retrieve the water?
So, sure, finding and filtering water on the trail requires more work than turning on a faucet. But who can complain, when this is where you retrieve the water? (Outlet just past Arrowhead Lake.)

Finally, Cyn walked a little further around the lake and discovered a few established sites on the far north side, well away from the closed campsite and with a truly stunning view of Fin Dome across the lake. Because our site was on bare granite, we also got to enjoy the challenge (seriously, it was a fun puzzle!) of setting up our tent without using stakes. I was glad I’d pre-tied some loops on our guylines, making it easy to tie everything out to rocks. We ate dinner while a chipmunk scampered nearby — I joked that his strategy was to distract us with cuteness so his comrades could sneak in behind us and steal a snack (for the record, no animals got our food). Then while I soaked my feet in the lake, Cyn waded in, finally psyching herself up enough to go for a very quick swim. Every time she swam on this trip, it was the same funny routine: giving herself a little pep talk, then jumping in and yelping “COLD!” followed immediately by “no, it’s okay, it’s not that bad, it’s not that bad.”

Contemplative Cyn on the north side of Dollar Lake.
Contemplative Cyn on the north side of Dollar Lake.
Cyn, Dollar Lake, Fin Dome. Everything is beautiful in this photo.
Cyn, Dollar Lake, Fin Dome. Everything is beautiful in this photo. [Awwww. *blushes* –Cyn]
One of my very favorite campsites of the whole trip.
One of my very favorite campsites of the whole trip. I just felt so, so grateful to be here.

We turned in around dusk, but just as I was starting to doze off, I smelled smoke. Some hikers nearby had built a campfire. Because the wind had picked up, and because I know summer wildfires are a total epidemic in the Sierra Nevada, I had too much anxiety about their campfire to sleep. So I partially dozed for a while, lifting up my head every 15 minutes or so to check whether they’d properly put the fire out yet. Other humans remain my biggest source of fear/anxiety in the backcountry. (Oh yeah: this fire was also completely illegal, because we were camped above 10,000 feet elevation. Argh.) This was a frustrating way to end the evening, but it couldn’t spoil the incredible day we’d had, and once the fire was out I quickly let go of any bad feelings, falling asleep full of gratitude instead.

–Toby


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