[to Deer Meadow, ~10.5 miles hiked]
Toby and I woke up and handled the morning like a well oiled machine. We had such a consistent routine in the mornings at this point, and we were packed up and ready to go by 7:20. We started on the still-gentle, 3.2 mile climb up to Mather Pass, enjoying the beautiful views as usual. Around 8:30 we saw some clouds rolling in and started to worry. The Sierras have a very predictable weather pattern. When it thunderstorms, it almost always does so in the afternoon, which is why we were trying to get up and over the passes, the most exposed part of the trail, before the afternoon. But still, these were the first clouds, with the exception of a handful of really tiny little poofs, that we’d seen since our first day at the trailhead. So we were a little apprehensive, especially since these were rolling in quickly and looking a little grey in places. We tried to push a little harder that morning in case a thunderstorm decided to surprise us early in the day. Luckily the trail rambled along pretty gently, and then, in one of the rare moments where we were further along the trail than we thought, we started up a set of switchbacks that would take us up to the pass. The climb was hard, but at no point did I feel like I was going to die. We were really hitting our stride out here. And by the time we reached the top, the clouds had broken up leaving us with beautiful blue skies.
We pulled out our snacks at the top of the pass and settled in to chat with other hikers and absorb the views. We saw a pair whom we had been leapfrogging for days, one of whom grew up in Illinois. They were leaving the trail that day or the next, so the IL native asked for a picture with us as a memento. Soon after, a family came up the trail heading SOBO, the mom confessing to us that they were worried about whether they could do the rest of the trail. I assured her that if they’d gotten this far, they’d probably be fine. I didn’t know how true that was until later that afternoon when we finally encountered the famed Golden Staircase. But more on that later.
As we were eating our delicious snacks, an older man sat down next to us and said matter-of-factly, “You two are the winners!” Off of our bewildered faces, he asked earnestly, “Can I take your picture for my annual Sweet Young Couple of Mather Pass?” We laughed and told him that we’re not as young as we look (I think everyone on the trail who heard that we were at U of I thought we were undergrads). But he assured us that pushing forty still counts, and snapped our picture. [I think he said, “You’re younger than me, so it still counts!” This guy was such a delight. He told us how he and his wife have hiked this area for many years, and he seemed to have such a deep appreciation for these mountains. –Toby] For the rest of the trip we would recall this moment and laugh and feel so tickled at all the unexpected things this trail throws your way.
Then we headed down a long descent. We were planning to make some good miles down into a valley to camp, and the trail would take us past some of the most amazing views on the JMT. But first we had to get through the rocky trail that always slowed us down coming down off a pass. Somehow I could never quite adjust to the fact that descending can take as long, and sometimes longer (especially as we got stronger), as going uphill. I think the one thing I really didn’t get better at was being able to speed through these ankle-twisting sections. We would see people cruising along, but both Toby and I picked our way slowly, not wanting to risk an injury and not feeling nimble enough to do that any other way. [We were passed here by a trio of guys we would leapfrog with all day. One of them, “A,” we’d met atop Kearsarge. As the second one passed us, he exclaimed “Isn’t this so amazing? Isn’t this so badass?!” and I began to call him The Badass. The third, I called The Giraffe because he was quite tall and wore giraffe print gaiters. Also on this descent, we saw a southbound family of three, with a six-year-old kiddo. Pretty impressive. –Toby]
Eventually the trail smoothed out a bit and took us along Palisade Lakes. There are no words. These lakes were just breathtaking. We hiked along on granite slabs relishing all the beautiful things that appeared before us. We have some pictures, but looking back, they really don’t do these lakes justice. I wish we had had more time to linger, explore, and swim, but we had miles to make that day.
After Palisade Lakes, we were beginning an iconic portion of the trail. The Golden Staircase was the last stretch of the trail to be completed, officially joining the Northern and Southern sections of the trail. It is exactly what it sounds like: 1500 feet of elevation change over 1.5 or 2 miles. It’s almost all steps, some of which were apparently cut for giants. And this was the part that most convinced me that we were geniuses for going NOBO, because we were going down it instead of up. It was beautiful but largely exposed, and we were hitting it in the middle of the afternoon. The heat was relentless. We passed so many people who were looking pretty miserable. About halfway down we started getting a lot of “are we close to the top?” questions, a tinge of desperation in people’s voices. They weren’t. At all. But I didn’t want to crush their spirits so I started skirting the question and responding, “You’re going to get there! And it will be so worth it when you do!” One woman sensed the “no” implied in my answer and joked, “You’re mean. Why is everyone so mean today?!” Maybe she was only half joking.
And as much as we were glad to be going down this section instead of up, descents take their toll, too. Those of you who followed along on our Wonderland Trail trip last summer might be surprised that it is Day 12 and neither Toby nor I have complained about our feet yet. The Golden Staircase ended all of that for me. I mean, it was not nearly as bad as the previous summer. I was still pretty much blister free at least. But by the end of this, my feet were aching like anything, my left ankle especially protesting with every step. Unfortunately that pain pretty much stuck around for the rest of the trip, though by the next day it would quiet down to a dull ache that I could usually tune out, at least on the flat and uphill sections, unless I stepped on it weirdly.
By the bottom of the Staircase we were spent. We found a shady spot to take off our packs. I tucked into nuun and a pop tart while Toby went off to pee. While he was gone another hiker who we’d seen a few times stopped to chat, and then he and I cheered on a pair of women who were just about to start the climb but were nervous about it. Toby returned, and after his snack we decided to try to get as far along Deer Meadow as we could that day before camping. This part of the trail was nice in that it was shady and protected, but it was buggy and not super pretty compared to the rest. So we sped along for a couple of miles. At one point, though, we passed a big party tent sort of thing set up with catering trays of hot food. It took all my strength to not go over there and pretend to be whoever that food was waiting for. We had seen a lot of trail maintenance workers in that area, so I had a feeling it was for them. But I spent the rest of the hike that day fantasizing about whatever non-freeze-dried deliciousness might have been in there.
We found a large campsite by the creek. There were many places for tents and some people were camped right along the river, so Toby and I hung back a little closer to the trail, trying to give them and us some privacy. Privacy was not as easy to come by for bathroom purposes. There was just nowhere to go here that was sheltered from the trail and camp. At one point as I was wandering around trying to find a spot, I stepped on what I thought was firm ground and my foot sank in mud up to my shin. So. Gross. I nearly lost my camp shoe trying to pull it out. So by that point I was really looking forward to putting my feet in the creek. As soon as we got the tent set up and everything smellable packed away in the bear canisters, we headed there to soak our tired feet and trickle some of that cold water over the tops of our heads. It wasn’t the most spectacular spot, but the creek water was so refreshing at the end of a long hot day that we sat feeling like we’d won the campsite lottery.