[to just north of Starr Camp, ~11 miles hiked]
I started having restless legs every night around this point in the trip. This was baffling — how could my legs be restless when they’d literally been working all day? Go to sleep, legs! And weirdly, the bottoms of my feet were incredibly itchy at night, which also kept me awake. Despite my poor sleep, we were packed up and on our way out of Deer Meadow just after 7am.
Cyn was low on water, so we planned to stop at Grouse Meadow to fill up. It was a pretty easy hike, but already so warm out that I was soaked with sweat after the first mile. Unfortunately, the water there was murky and stagnant, so Cyn left her pack with me and ran back to a stream we’d recently hopped over. [I didn’t literally run, but I almost wanted to. Walking on the trail without a pack felt Ah-Mazing. I felt like I might float away I was so light. –Cyn] As I sat on a boulder eating a snack, I heard a little rustle below me. And then the cutest tiny face ever peeked up through the grass. This face was so intensely cute that it almost seemed more like a cartoon animal than something real. “Oh my goodness, what are you?” I whispered, and it immediately darted behind a rock. No more than 8 inches long, it scampered in and out of the rocks while I took some blurry photos, and then finally disappeared into the meadow. By the time Cyn came back, I’d decided it was a weasel. (Some post-hike image searches confirm this. Did you know that weasels are incredibly, unbelievably cute?!) I felt really disappointed that I hadn’t been able to get a good photo for Cyn. That sucker was fast. [I was super bummed to miss it! –Cyn]
As we filtered the water, two more deer chased each other through the meadow, one wearing a bright orange tracking collar. Fueled by PopTarts and eager to climb away from the mosquitos, we hiked through LeConte Canyon like nobody’s business until we hit the footbridge by the Bishop Pass Trail junction. [That was some of our fastest hiking so far! We were crushing it. Too bad that didn’t last for the rest of the day. –Cyn] Here we stopped to consume more calories in the shade (I was now firmly dedicated to the “keep eating, no bonking” school of hiking). Around the next corner we ran into a solo hiker who asked if he could hike with us for a bit, because he’d heard there was a bear on the trail ahead. As the three of us set off, I realized we should probably chat, to alert the bear that we were nearby. And just like that, we’d found a fellow northbounder that we clicked with. We hiked together for almost two miles, I think, and our easy conversation made the climb go by a lot faster. [It also went faster because I was hiking my butt off. I was embarrassed about how slow we usually go, so I was trying to pretend that we were regular hikers who cruise up hills. Unfortunately this meant that I was too winded to do much talking, but I think Toby sensed what was happening and picked up the slack. –Cyn] [Yeah, I’ve got you covered. –Toby] By the time Cyn and I needed to stop for lunch, we’d discovered that this was our new friend’s first long hike and first solo trip, and he was doing both the High Sierra Trail and the JMT at once. I think he’d only been backpacking for two nights before jumping into this. Impressive! We learned his name right away, but for the blog here maybe I’ll just call him Go For It. He hung out a bit more while we ate, and then hiked on ahead of us.
After lunch, things got serious. The heat had really set in, and we were starting a more intense climb to set up for Muir Pass tomorrow. We hiked only a little bit before Cyn requested a break; already overheated, I was only too happy to stop. Then, luckily, I glanced over to my left and saw the famous JMT rock monster! I knew it was just south of Muir Pass, but thought it was much further ahead and hadn’t planned to start looking for it until tomorrow morning. We were so lucky that Cyn decided to stop right here, because we totally would have missed it! I was also glad for this little morale boost just when we were both feeling tapped out from the relentless heat.
After the rock monster fun, though, it was back to climbing, and now we were out of the trees, trudging along an awfully steep stretch on white granite that just reflected the sun right back at us. So hot. So hot. [SO hot. –Cyn] We stopped for water and rest at every tiny patch of shade, and still I was just dragging my legs along on each step, feeling utterly depleted. I really needed the break every time we stopped, but also felt terribly discouraged to have to stop every fifteen steps or so. And the views were pretty nice here, but we were both too miserable to properly appreciate them. [Were they? I barely remember what this looked like. –Cyn] Finally, Cyn stepped to the side and had a little meltdown. It was not unlike our second day on the Wonderland, actually. [It even happened the same way. I had the same irrational thought — this will never stop going up — and just lost it. –Cyn] As usual, as soon as one of us seriously freaked, the other calmly took charge. I sprang into action, sitting a crying Cyn down on a shady rock, pressing my damp (and relatively cool) buff to her forehead, and making electrolyte drinks. I also made an executive decision to stay in this spot until 3pm, to lower our body temperatures and wait out the sun. I think I gave a little pep talk here, but honestly I have no memory of what I might have said. [Moral of the story: Toby is the best. –Cyn] [Awww. You’d have done the same. –Toby]
After this, the hiking felt a bit easier, and as we climbed higher, a mild breeze came through periodically (though not as frequently as I would have liked). We made our way up to and alongside a huge waterfall; yellow flowers lined the trail on one side, a sheer wall of rock on our other side. It was still hard work, but the dusty granite eventually gave way to lush green grass, and we soon popped out into an alpine meadow. We had arrived at Starr Camp. Although it’s labeled on the map, I still have not been able to figure out what Starr Camp is/means — my guidebook says only that it was named this “long ago.” ?? At any rate, it was an idyllic spot. We veered off trail slightly to get to a wide lazy creek surrounded by flowers and soft grass, and we were delighted to see Go For It, who’d already found a tent site in the nearby trees. We joined him for a luxurious foot soak in the creek, and I filtered some water while we all chatted. He and I agreed that we kind of wanted to hike this trail again southbound, to see how different it is from the other direction. I think the Golden Staircase was still too fresh in Cyn’s mind for her to consider this! [It was. But now I totally want to. –Cyn] [Yesssss. –Toby]
Cyn and I decided to hike on up a little further, to cut some mileage off of the next morning’s ascent, and we waved goodbye to Go For It, expecting we’d see him again on the pass tomorrow. As we left the peaceful Starr Camp, I overheard some other hikers calling it the Shire. Yeah, that seemed about right. We climbed only a little before spying a few established campsites that looked promising. A group of older guys seemed to be claiming them all, but beyond them, near a few small trees, a single open tent site beckoned. This was the most amazing spot we’d found since Dollar Lake: just a few feet from our tent, the cliff dropped off to a beautiful river below, and if you walked uphill a bit, you could sit overlooking another incredible waterfall and a green valley cut through with boulders. It was perfect.
As we ate dinner, we smelled some incense that the guys “next door” were burning. Unsurprisingly, this was quickly followed by the smell of weed. I thought it was pretty cute that they made an effort to cover it up with the nag champa. I convinced Cyn to join me for dessert overlooking the waterfall. The setting sun was in our eyes and I think Cyn was ready for bed, but I couldn’t stop looking at this landscape. It was one of the moments when I felt most consciously grateful to be out here, experiencing all of this magnificence. With the completion of this tough day, we were officially halfway through our time on the trail. According to my trail journal, I don’t seem to have realized this at the time — I was too busy thinking about the next morning and its 3.6 mile climb to Muir Pass. Other hikers had told us, wide-eyed, that Muir’s south side had lots of snow, and I fell asleep excited and anxious about what was to come.