JMT Day 14: Mountains and Lakes, Lakes and Mountains

[to a few miles south of McClure Meadow, ~11.5 miles hiked]

We had a long climb up to Muir Pass today, and since the heat had been so rough even in the morning lately, we decided to hit the trail early. We were also excited because Muir Pass is an iconic part of the trail. The hut at the top, which was built to shelter hikers from bad weather but apparently leaks like a sieve, is featured in some of the most beautiful pictures of the trail. We could not wait to see it in person. We were packing up around dawn and I saw Go For It cruising up the trail. I hoped we would catch him at the pass, but sadly the trail had its own plans and we wouldn’t see him again. [Such a bummer! –Toby] We were up and out by 6:40, feeling pretty proud of ourselves.

The waterfall next to our camp. Easier to see in the morning light.
The waterfall next to our camp. Easier to see in the morning light.
Early morning light with a tiny moon.
Early morning light with a tiny moon.

We climbed along in the cool morning. We crossed paths with a deer who seemed pretty unconcerned but was hopping up the trail to get away from us. [I actually saw this deer standing just a few feet from our tent when I opened my eyes in the morning. A pretty special way to wake up. –Toby] Unfortunately for the deer, we just kept catching up with it. The deer was probably annoyed but we were delighted to be having such a magical encounter as we climbed this steep stretch.

Soon the trail evened out a bit and we came to a gorgeous lake that was as still as glass in the calm of the morning. We were following the trail along when it turned left and started climbing again. But soon it got so narrow and rocky that we wondered if it was the right trail at all. I stopped and pulled out my phone, checking the GutHooks GPS app to see if we were on track. Another hiker came up after us and I announced that we were indeed off the trail, and on a light use trail that probably lead to a campsite instead. The man declared “Son of a bitch! Gratuitous climbing!” Toby and I chuckled and said we were going to backtrack to find the JMT again. The other guy said he was going to keep going on the side trail and try to find a way across the stream that we needed to cross. We both silently questioned this decision but wished him luck. We got back down and met some SOBO hikers who showed us where to cross, and we didn’t see that guy again. I’m gonna guess he made it? [I really hope so. –Toby]

Love these mirror-like lakes.
Love these mirror-like lakes.
Some wildflowers just off the trail, right before we took the wrong turn.
Some wildflowers just off the trail, right before we took the wrong turn.

The trail was incredibly beautiful, as always of course, but in a new way. We were starting to feel the landscape shift as we got farther north on the trail. We took a break at Helen Lake and watched birds flit around the lake scooping up some bugs for breakfast. After a quick snack we headed out to tackle the last two miles or so. Shortly after the lake, we crossed our last little snowfield of the trip. I went first and the snow was slick and a little slanted, so that this felt like one of the more treacherous crossings. Toby went after me and post-holed on his first step, scraping his ankle on a rock on the way down. [My trekking pole collapsed when I sunk in, too. This was not a fun snow crossing. –Toby] But we made it across and kept climbing. Toby’s journal says that I was really tired and slow, but I honestly don’t remember that. [Yeah, Cyn filtered water but didn’t eat at Helen Lake, so she was really dragging on this part of the climb. We finally just stopped on the trail so she could have a snack, and after that she was good to go. –Toby] [Oh right. That’s ringing a bell now. –Cyn] I do remember that this section of the trail was so rocky that we were continuously confused about where to go. We couldn’t see the trail ahead, and when we could see it we often couldn’t figure out how to get there. At one point in particular, we had to backtrack a few times until we finally found our way across a rock bed and back to the trail. This was one of the few times of the trip that I was doing okay, but Toby’s crankiness was growing. We were having trouble gauging how far away the pass was, even as we knew from the GPS app that we were getting close, and we kept getting delayed by wrong turns. [I was extremely cranky and frustrated here. Even though we’d gotten up for a really early start, all of this backtracking and losing the trail business was taking forever, and we’d lost the cool morning air already. –Toby] But finally we hit a switchback, and then another, and then I turned and there was the hut just above us. I saw it and almost started to sob — it was so surreal and moving to be seeing this thing that is literally in the middle of nowhere, that I’d been looking at pictures of for years, that I’d walked over a hundred miles to get to. But just as I thought I might truly lose it, a group of hikers came down off the pass toward us and I pulled it together. Then it was just another couple hundred feet and there we were. At freaking Muir Hut. I could not believe it.

Toby and I both confessed that we thought that tree in the background looked like a giant chicken.
Toby and I both confessed that we thought that tree in the back middle of the shot looked like a giant chicken.
Pretty on the trail. Not sure where exactly.
Pretty on the trail. Not sure where exactly.
Break at Helen Lake.
Break at Helen Lake.
Crossing the snowfield. The last of the trip.
Crossing the snowfield. The last of the trip.
Toby crossing, having recovered from post-holing.
Toby crossing, having recovered from post-holing.
Unnamed lake not far from the top of the pass.
Unnamed lake not far from the top of the pass.

We hung out for a bit eating our pass treats and chatting with some guys who were going SOBO. We had them take some pictures of us, and took a ton of pictures ourselves. It was hard to want to leave, but then we overheard a conversation in which the words “redneck” and “hick” were being thrown around liberally and we were ready to head out. (We heard this type of thing a lot on the trail. It seems ironic to me to be hiking in places that have been carved out of the land owned or used by indigenous and rural and/or working class people and then complain about people who are kind enough to pick up hitchhikers simply because they are rural and working class. But maybe that’s just me? [It’s not just you. –Toby])

The hut up on the pass. So excited to finally see it!
The hut up on the pass. So excited to finally see it!
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Inside the Muir hut. [Lots of people had placed little mementos on the ledge. I found a note someone left for a friend, which said something like “This trail is so breathtaking, but also so incredibly hard. That John Muir was a real overachiever!” –Toby] [We quoted this all the time on the rest of the trail. –Cyn]
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Looking up at the hut’s ceiling.
I still can't believe we were actually there.
I still can’t believe we were actually there.
View to the north from the top of the pass.
View to the north from the top of the pass.

We started cruising down from the pass and were feeling pretty strong. It was not as rocky as other passes, so we were able to make good time and occasionally look up from our feet, which was a rare treat while descending. At one point we saw a large marmot carrying what must have been a baby marmot around in its mouth. Cutest ever. [Oh my god, this just reminded me to look up this aspect of marmot behavior. Post-hike research confirms that marmots do carry their babies around in their mouths. So exciting that we witnessed it! –Toby] We began to approach beautiful Wanda Lake and decided to stop there for lunch. We found a spot at the end that was in the sun but completely gorgeous. We opted for a hot lunch that day (Mountain House spaghetti and meat sauce, I believe. Is it sad that I don’t even have that in my notes, I just remember food that well?) and ate our delicious meals with our long-handled spoons, marveling at the view surrounding us. Then it was a gentle downhill walk toward Evolution Lake. We passed so few people that afternoon, but occasionally would meet someone working their way up to Muir Pass, chatting about whether they should try to make it over that day, and where would be good places to camp on the way up if not.

View from our lunch spot. Perfection.
View from our lunch spot. Perfection.

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This might be Sapphire Lake? Hard to keep track of all the lakes on this day! [I think you’re right. –Toby]
We got to the crossing at the inlet of Evolution Lake after an hour of very hot walking, and stopped to filter water, drink a nuun, and eat a snack. I wished we could have camped here. I would have spent the whole afternoon swimming. But we had more miles to make if we were going to be able to get to our resupply the day after next at a reasonable hour. Luckily the lake was nice and long, so we spent lots of time walking on the banks and soaking in their beauty.

Just before the crossing at the inlet for Evolution Lakes. Toby could not help but note the irony of this sign at a place where the trail is perfectly clear, when we'd spent half of the morning trying to find the trail.
Just before the crossing at the inlet for Evolution Lakes. Toby could not help but note the irony of this sign at a place where the trail is perfectly clear, when we’d spent half of the morning trying to find the trail with no signs to guide us.

Evolution Lakes were ridiculously pretty.
Evolution Lake was ridiculously pretty. We’re camping here when we go SOBO, okay Toby? [Obviously. –Toby]
King of the world!
King of the world! [Nah, just trying to get the most out of the cool breeze up here. Heh. –Toby]
After the lakes we started heading down again on a steep trail. We started passing people coming up who were looking pretty wiped. I had noticed on the map that if you were going southbound, this part of the trail was toward the end of an over 17-mile uphill stretch that ended at the top of the pass. I would have been wiped too. And as usual I was happy with our NOBO choice, but not loving the downhill. My feet were still recovering from the Golden Staircase, and all of this downhill was starting to make my left foot ache like anything. After a couple of miles we got to a creek with a few campsites nearby. We had planned on hiking another mile or two, but we sat down to consider our options and I knew I was not standing back up again that day. We had done 11.5 miles anyway, and felt pretty good about that. So Toby scouted around for a campsite. He came back and had found an established site that he said was off the trail and a little secluded from the others. It was only later when I went to find a place to pee that I realized we were just off the trail; we hadn’t noticed that it curved directly down toward the site we’d chosen. But it didn’t matter. No one else passed it that day and we had the whole place to ourselves. There was a rushing, freezing creek nearby, so I sat down and soaked my aching feet, washing the dirt off my legs and later bringing some water back to our tent site to do some laundry. Meanwhile, Toby had found a gigantic knife left right next to our tent site. We talked about carrying it out to the ranger station we would pass the next morning. [Frankly, it really creeped me out, so I put a big rock on top of it before bed. –Toby] We also picked up and packed out a lot of other trash there, partially to be good trail citizens and partially to avoid the possibility that bears would be attracted to the old candy wrappers and other things we found around there. We settled into the tent and realized that in just 36 hours we’d be picking up our resupply, which had a few extra treats. I was pretty sure that the chex mix and fruit cup I’d packed for myself would be ridiculously delicious.

Toby and The Hermit.
Toby and The Hermit. [This mountain is called The Hermit. I’d noticed it on the map a few days ago, but then we serendipitously camped right beneath it! As someone who has deeply embraced hermitness for much of my life, I was delighted to respectfully share space with this beauty. –Toby] [I love this picture and catching Toby in this pose was a complete accident. –Cyn]
Bonus pic: I think I was impressed at how dirty my feet were. But really this was pretty mild. Also, you might notice some spots of chafing. More on that in a couple of days.
Bonus pic: I think I was impressed at how dirty my feet were. But really this was pretty mild. Also, you might notice some spots of chafing on the tops of my feet and under the dirt on my ankles (Also my hairy legs. Apparently many people shaved their legs and armpits on this trail. I could not figure out why you would 1) take the time and energy, and carry the extra weight and 2) risk nicking oneself and getting an infection. Because clearly we were less than clean out here.) More on that in a couple of days.

–Cyn


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