JMT Day 23: Ursa Major

[to Lyell Canyon, approx. 6 miles south of Tuolumne Meadows, ~9.1 miles hiked]

Last night, right after we got snug in our bags, I decided to put on my thin wool gloves for sleeping. But when I pulled them out of my jacket pocket, I also found our little toothpaste tube, which I’d stashed away while finishing evening chores and then forgotten about. Argh. I dutifully exited the tent in my long underwear, shivered several feet in the dark to my bear can, and deposited the toothpaste. Good bear-proofing practices are important. A bit later, just as we were drifting off, some hikers in the distance began yelling intermittently. We grumbled to each other, and were relieved when things finally quieted down, just the soft sound of Rush Creek flowing below us as we slept.

In the morning, before 6am, the yelling was back. Cyn suggested they might be shouting at a bear, but I didn’t think it sounded like that kind of shouting. But we were now awake and feeling pretty lively. Cyn even had her coffee before packing up this morning, and we were on our way just after 7am. Today we would climb our last big pass, Donahue, and officially enter Yosemite National Park. The morning was beautiful and cool, and our spirits were high.

Cyn at Rush Creek, next to the sign pointing toward our last big pass.
Cyn at Rush Creek, and the sign pointing toward Donahue Pass. [Why does my hiking gear make me look so freaking young? –Cyn]
We started out strong, enjoying the forested areas around us and talking about our plans for the last few days of the trip. North of Donahue Pass lies the only truly flat stretch on the JMT: about eight miles through Lyell Canyon, to Tuolumne Meadows. For many days we’d been dreaming of this stretch, looking ahead at the elevation profile and giddily predicting that we would be cruising through those miles. [I think I’d been looking forward to that stretch for the whole trip. –Cyn] Because we had this easy trail coming up, and because we were feeling strong and were a bit ahead of schedule anyway, we spent much of the early morning discussing whether we should build in a side trip to climb Cloud’s Rest in Yosemite in a few days.

“I think we could do it. It wouldn’t add that many miles, and it’s supposed to be incredibly beautiful,” I said as we hiked along.

“Well, I’m open to it,” Cyn said. “Let’s decide tonight when we look at the m– OH HEY BEAR!”

I jerked my head up at her words. Oh. Holy. Shit. Just to the left of the trail, standing on a fallen log slightly above us and only about ten feet away [No exaggeration. –Cyn], a bear. A big bear. [A big freaking bear. –Cyn] Looking right at us, and not appearing the least bit nervous about our presence. I have never before felt such an instant and massive flood of adrenaline hit my body.

“HEY bear,” I said. We both began repeating this, in voices that we hoped were calm but firm. “Hey bear, hey bear…” My legs moved very slowly down the trail, but my mind was racing, trying to remember best practices for this situation. I definitely looked the bear in the eye when I first saw it, but I’m pretty sure it was just for that moment. [I might have kept doing that. We were walking backward at this point to make sure we could see if it made any sudden movements. –Cyn] “Are we moving too fast?” Cyn whispered. “I don’t want it to think we’re running away!” I forced myself to slow down even more, and we switched from “hey bear, hey bear” to “we’re not running away, we’re not running away…” The bear stood where it was, just turning its head to keep watching us. It was definitely not freaked out by us in any way, but it also didn’t seem agitated. It had opened its mouth slightly, the way cats do when they’re trying to smell better.

I slowly shuffled to my right, keeping my eyes on the bear, and then suddenly bumped into Cyn, who’d stopped walking. I shot a quick glance her way and saw her fumbling with her phone. “Oh my god, what are you doing?!” “I just have to get a picture!” she said. This kind of horrified me in the moment [Me too!! Every part of me wanted to run, but I also knew I’d regret it later if I didn’t capture this moment. –Cyn], but now that it’s all over, I’m so glad we have that photo. Because it is amazing.

The bear. We'd come around the left edge of the photo, with the bear facing us straight on when we first saw it. It only moved its head as we walked past it.
The bear. We’d come around the left edge of the photo, with the bear facing us straight on when we first saw it. It only moved its head as we walked past it.

We continued moving down the trail, hey-bear-ing all the way. Just before we passed out of its sight, I saw the bear turn its head away from us and walk off. We walked another minute or so, to a spot where we had good lines of sight all around us, and then stopped to have a collective freak-out in the middle of the trail. “Holy shit, holy shit!” we both kept gasping. My heart was pounding; Cyn felt kind of nauseated. [I think I told Toby that I had to stop walking or I’d just collapse. I felt kind of calm near the bear, but once I knew we were safe it all hit me at once and I was so overwhelmed. –Cyn] But at the same time, now that our bear encounter had ended, I felt a little thrilled to have had such an incredible experience. Though I do wish that bear had seemed even a tiny bit frightened of us. [Same. –Cyn] Everything we’d been doing before we saw it should have scared it off: we were chatting constantly, and at a pretty high volume because a stream was running nearby. I wondered if this bear might be getting too habituated to humans, and I felt frustrated all over again about some other hikers’ cavalier attitude toward food storage. I also now felt pretty sure that the distant yelling we’d heard last night and this morning was bear-related, and was awfully relieved that I’d found and locked up that toothpaste tube.

Once our heart rates went down a little, we hiked on, recounting the bear sighting over and over again as we walked. “Oh my god, that was like ten feet from us!” I said. “I think I saw a tooth!” Cyn said. We passed a solo southbounder and warned her to be on the lookout. [Ha! I remember her because she was trying to get a sense of how far away it had been and she said, “like where that tree is?” pointing to one a little way off the trail. We said, “no THIS tree” pointing to one just off the trail. She sort of blanched at that. –Cyn] Then near the Marie Lakes Trail footbridge, we saw a pair of southbounders packing up their campsite and encouraged them to be alert for the bear too. The woman shared that she was having lots of foot pain from her boots, and she looked somewhat regretfully at our trail runners. “I notice all you young people are wearing those light shoes, maybe I should have tried that.” I wondered if Cyn and I should have written our ages on our shirts, or tattooed them on our foreheads. But seriously, these two were very nice. They had just begun their hike a few days ago, and I let them know how jealous I was. It was really starting to sink in that we only had a few more days out here on this adventure.

At the Marie Lakes footbridge, Cyn hit 200 miles hiked on this trip! Triumph!
Somewhere close to the Marie Lakes outlet, Cyn hit 200 miles hiked on this trip! Triumph!

The bear-related adrenaline propelled us most of the way up Donahue Pass. I barely noticed the elevation — we flew up that climb, still telling the story to ourselves over and over. “It was SO CLOSE!” This was a very beautiful climb, though, and I was able to occasionally turn my mind away from the bear in order to appreciate the sweeping views all around us. About two-thirds of the way up, we passed two tents set up in the grass just to the left of the trail. We exchanged a look — these tents were definitely breaking park rules and general leave-no-trace rules: they were on grass, next to the trail, and next to water. “Three strikes,” Cyn said, a bit loudly. But then as we continued, we found a hiker atop a stack of boulders, struggling to get reception on his cell phone. He seemed to be trying to find a way to get his hiking partner off the trail. “Yeah, we made it through the night, but…” I heard him say into the phone as I passed by. Yikes. I felt bad for being so judgmental about their tent placement, since they’d obviously had some sort of emergency overnight, and reminded myself to be more generous with other folks out here.

The remaining hike to the top of Donahue was a snap, and I spent much of the last half hour of the climb thinking about how much stronger we’d both gotten over the course of this trip. I no longer even noticed the effects of altitude, and my legs could just go and go and go forever, it seemed. It felt a little cruel that the period in which we were able to hike with the most ease coincided with the final days of our trek — I wanted to enjoy my body’s new strength and stamina by speeding up, but I also wanted to stretch out every moment of this last section.

Views from the climb up Donahue.
Tremendous beauty on the climb up Donahue.
Hundreds of red paintbrush wildflowers on the way to Donahue.
Hundreds of red paintbrush wildflowers on the south side of Donahue Pass.
More views. This was a really spectacular climb.
More views on the south side. This was a really spectacular climb.

The Venetians were up top already, and we immediately shared our bear story with them. We wondered if we’d acted appropriately: standard advice when encountering a black bear is to yell, wave your arms, and possibly throw rocks toward it, to try to scare it off — but we’d been so close to it, and it had seemed so calm, that we were reluctant to agitate it. But The Venetians affirmed that we’d done the right thing by moving off slowly. After they headed on, we broke out our final pass treats and chatted with a very kind PCT hiker named Arrow. He had started northbound from the Mexico/U.S. border, but arrived in the mountains to massive snow, so had flipped up to Ashland and was now hiking south. He told us how he’d been struggling with plantar fasciitis, and how many of the friends he’d made during his hike had left the trail for various reasons, and I felt glad about my decision to hike the PCT in sections over the next few years, instead of trying to cram it all into one season. A group of SOBOs arrived, and I marveled at the fact that this was their very first big pass, and our very last. Everything had begun to feel bittersweet at this point. We asked them about water on the north side of Donahue, said farewell to the (very nosy, obviously quite human-habituated) marmots around us, and began our descent.

Looking south from Donahue Pass.
Looking south from Donahue Pass.
Old broken sign on Donahue, marking our exit out of Ansel Adams Wilderness and Inyo National Forest.
Old broken sign on Donahue, marking our exit out of Ansel Adams Wilderness and Inyo National Forest.
With the sign marking our entrance into Yosemite National Park, the last of our three national parks for this trip!
With the sign marking our entrance into Yosemite, the last of our three national parks for this trip!
Our last pass selfie. The sun was shining in our faces, and Cyn said "on the count of three, open your eyes really big!" and this is what happened.
Our last pass selfie. The sun was shining in our faces and making us squint, so Cyn said “on the count of three, open your eyes really big!” and, well, this was the result.

Just after a pretty tarn on the north side, the views opened up and we could gaze all the way down into the valley below: Lyell Canyon. It was breathtaking. And a long way down.

Beautiful tarn just on the north side of Donahue Pass. Pretty sure this is the last snow we saw on the trip.
Beautiful tarn just on the north side of Donahue Pass. Pretty sure this is the last snow we saw on the trip.
Looking down into the valley. That light green area winding around in the far distance -- Lyell Canyon, our destination.
Looking down, down, down into the valley. That light green area sort of curving around in the far distance — Lyell Canyon, our destination.

About halfway through the descent, we arrived at a magnificent stream and stopped to filter water, have a snack, and take it all in.

The beautiful stream. This was one of my favorite spots. It was hard to move on from here.
The beautiful stream. This was one of my favorite spots. It was hard to move on from here.
Another shot of the stream. Cyn is a tiny figure in the background.
Another shot of the stream. The trail pictured is just a side trail out to the edge. We’d come down from Donahue from the left, and to continue on the JMT, we had to rock-hop across to the right. Cyn is the tiny figure in the background.
Meanwhile, Cyn took this one of me.
And Cyn took this shot of me at the edge.

More downhill. Endless downhill. Fortunately, the views continued to be spectacular, and for a while the trail was pretty interesting to navigate, too. At one point we literally hiked through/across a waterfall that poured down the side of the mountain.

Looking down into the valley.
Looking down into the valley, the Lyell Fork below.
Me crossing the waterfall, which continued flowing down to the left.
Crossing a waterfall, which continued flowing down to the left.

Then the trail turned into sets of smallish steps cut into the granite. These were challenging, because the “steps” were just too small to fit your whole foot onto, so you could never get a good rhythm going, and they were sloped very slightly downhill and mostly covered with fine sand, so you had to be very alert to avoid slipping. We managed to stay upright, but these steps went on and on, and although they weren’t too terribly bad on my body, they were pretty mentally tiring. It was slow going.

We saw this lone, abandoned boot just before a water crossing, and wondered what its story was.
We saw this lone, abandoned boot just before a water crossing, and wondered what its story was. [I feel like whoever this boot belonged to, they must have had a very bad day. –Cyn]
From the footbridge.
On the footbridge where McClure Creek merges with Lyell Fork.
A brief respite from the steps.
A brief respite from the steps, but still descending.

By the time we reached the footbridge, Cyn was complaining of an ache in her lower left leg, but we carried on. By the time we finally reached the valley — and our much-anticipated flat trail — she was limping, that lower left leg now in considerable pain. [I think the point at which the pain switched from an ache to a sharp, acute pain was only about 100 feet from the flat part. Such a bummer. –Cyn]  We stopped at the first access point for Lyell Fork, so she could soak her leg in the cold water. It was so cold her toes were numb. She rolled out her calf and ankle with our little rubber massage ball while I filtered cold water. And when she stood up after this, her leg felt fine — for about 30 seconds. Then the pain came back with a vengeance, and she began to seriously limp again, leaning on her trekking poles like crutches. Uh-oh. We slowed our pace down to a crawl. I think we were both hoping that the pain would sort of work itself out, as minor pains usually do, but this was definitely not minor. Here we were on the flat stretch, the miles we were supposed to cruise through, walking at about a half-mile per hour pace. Poor Cyn. She was really struggling, and I knew we were both starting to worry about the rest of our trip, though we hadn’t vocalized that worry yet.

Slow hiking through Lyell Canyon.
Slow hiking through Lyell Canyon.

More beauty in Lyell Canyon.
More beauty (and dramatic clouds!) in Lyell Canyon. [Despite how really painful this walk was, this was one of my favorite spots on the whole trail. Just lush and green and gorgeous, unlike anything we had seen yet. –Cyn]
We’d planned to camp at the last legal area before Tuolumne Meadows, but after only about a mile and a half of the slowest (and for one of us, the most painful) hiking ever, Cyn said she needed to stop for the day. I think I’d suggested this a few times already, but she was trying to carry on. It wasn’t worth it, though. [I didn’t want to come up short on miles, but at this point, I really could barely walk. It didn’t make sense to keep going. –Cyn] She sat on a rock while I scouted around for a place to set up camp. I found a nice flat site just around the corner, but it required a very small amount of uphill to get away from the trail, news that I broke to Cyn apologetically. She said she could make it, but it clearly took every ounce of strength to walk up that hill. And once we took our packs off, the real emotional roller coaster began for both of us. Her leg was definitely not good, and not improving. Many tears were shed here. I clung to one small hope, which stemmed from the fact that she only felt pain when actively using her leg — when she sat down, it felt fine. I thought this probably meant that it was not a true injury, but something that just needed rest to get better. We had no idea how much rest would be required, though.

I put up the tent and filtered water. Cyn got out the massage ball again. We ate dinner. We got into the tent and I massaged her calf, ankle, and Achilles tendon for a long time. [Also at one point I had to go pee, which was excruciating. Walking far enough away from our tent to be compliant with low-impact guidelines was painful enough, but squatting felt like torture. –Cyn] Then we scrunched into our sleeping bags and made approximately 25 contingency plans. Fortunately, her injury had appeared on the easiest section of the whole trail, and we were only about six miles away from Tuolumne Meadows, a tourist area with roads, a small store, and a ranger station. If the pain had lessened a little by tomorrow, we could walk our super slow limping pace there and find transportation out of the park. Or, we could split up there, with Cyn getting a ride to (and hotel room in) Yosemite Valley while I hiked the rest of the way alone. [This is what I was arguing for, because I couldn’t deal with the guilt of cutting Toby’s trip short on top of my own disappointment. –Cyn] [Whereas I would have felt guilty for doing those 30 miles without you! –Toby] Or, we could take a full rest day at this campsite and try to make up the miles later. Or take a rest day (or two) and then limp to Tuolumne and get off the trail. Many more tears were shed during this conversation. Cyn felt guilty, I felt worried. And we both just felt utterly crushed by the thought of not being able to hike the last 30 miles or so of this trip. I tried to rationalize that feeling away: we’d already seen and experienced so much, we really wouldn’t be missing a lot of the trail, many southbounders actually begin their trip at Tuolumne Meadows, etc. But there was no thinking myself out of the feeling of deep disappointment that we’d come all this way and might not be able to finish the last few days as planned.

But there was nothing to do and no way to know anything until the morning. I tried to take comfort in the fact that we had a lovely, secluded campsite here, just a little bit above the Lyell Fork, which meandered so peacefully we couldn’t even hear the water from our tent. I’d heard that Lyell Canyon is an area with a lot of bear activity, and just before I finally fell asleep, I hoped fervently that we wouldn’t have a visitor in the night. If this was indeed the last night of our trip, at least I wanted it to be a quiet one.

Lyell Fork, not far from our campsite.
Lyell Fork, not too far from our campsite.


2 thoughts on “JMT Day 23: Ursa Major

  1. I have thoroughly enjoy your JMT blog. Your writing style is easy to read, never had to go back and reread a section due to ackward wording. You will be completely the trip record? I have started planning my NOBO hike, solo at this point. You have answer some question I had. Good luck on the PCT in 2017.


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