8/26/09; Distance Traveled = 24.3 miles
I wake with the infant dawn, appreciate the morning’s relative warmth, set about breakfast, and while eating then packing think about the day’s destination. Reds Meadow is at this moment a remote possibility, more likely is a stop at Rosalie or Gladys Lake. I make no decision, deciding instead to see where I am by mid-afternoon and make the call then.
I start hiking, the sun just gracing the peaklets of the west canyon wall. The trail climbs steadily for 300’ into the next higher basin, full of tarns. Nonnie greets me just beyond this climb. She and Steve are camped west of and below the trail in a sheltered pocket among the boulders. Nonnie recommends I travel slowly today; the Ansel Adams Wilderness is beautiful. In retrospect, slowly is relative. I should have stopped and camped at one of the lakes. The Ansel Adams Wilderness is worth total immersion.
The trail switchbacks to the northeast winding among several tarns before making the final climb to Donahue Pass. I enter the sunlight about halfway up, but the pass, marked by a sign indicating the wilderness boundary, is windy and cold. I stop briefly, time enough for a drink and a 360o look around, and then begin the descent into the Rush Creek drainage. In the distance Rush Creek meanders along the bottom of an old reservoir? Whatever it is, it follows a serpentine path through an area devoid of vegetation that terminates at what from this vantage looks to be an earthen dam. Is this part of the Mono Lake restoration?
About a mile into the descent, several switchbacks below, are two people. One is Art, the other a woman 12 days out from Whitney Portal. I walk with Art until he stops for breakfast. He plans to leave the JMT at Shadow Lake and exit to Agnew Meadows where he’ll catch the shuttle bus to Reds; needs to be there before 7:00pm to get his resupply. He promises me a beer if I make it that far today.
The hiking is glorious; cool temps and clear skies! The trail passes through open forest laced with creeks. I encounter people frequently. This section must be a magnet for CAL alums, and the guy I meet at the Waugh Lake junction laments over the football program predicting quite accurately that once in the Top 10 they will lose to an unranked team, and then later to USC.
Island Pass is a wonderland. Views of Banner Peak, tarns tucked among the rocks tempt. With 3 weeks I just might stop here, with 13 days I take pictures and continue. Below Island Pass I chance upon Alisa Marie and her father; I know her from posts to the backpacker.com forums. They set out from Whitney Portal over two weeks ago.
Thousand Island Lake
Continuing, the panorama only gets better. Thousand Island Lake and Banner Peak constantly attract. Should I take a picture from here, or here, or here? The answer is yes and yes and yes.
The trail climbs from Thousand Island Lake’s outlet, passes intimate Emerald and Ruby Lakes, and descends to Garnet Lake. If not for the presence of Mt Ritter it would be easy to mistake Garnet for Thousand Island. Like its near twin, Garnet Lake’s beauty demands your attention. Both lakes are stunning. I hope pictures do them justice.
My body is screaming hunger so I stop for lunch and a swim at Garnet’s outlet pond. A few minutes later, Chris, from Toronto, happens by and joins me. My mental model of Canada, once away from the metropolitan areas, is that of unbridled wilderness. Curious, I ask Chris what brings him to the Sierra and not to Canada’s parks. He talks of trails, the Sierran culture of backpacking, great weather, spectacular scenery, and more. If all he wanted to do was sightsee then Canada’s parks would do, but he wants to backpack, three weeks a year, and so he comes here. We further discuss acclimation, diet, our menus, the value of fitness, and aerobic and strength training exercises we find beneficial to backpacking. Our exercise regimen is strikingly similar.
Chris recommends, if I am not a purist insistent on hiking every inch of the JMT, I exit at Shadow Lake and skip the bland 10 miles to Reds Meadow. I am not exactly a purist as I will claim to be a JMT thru-hiker despite my Mist Trail excursion, and my bypassing another mile or so as I detour to MTR for resupply, but this being my first time along the entire JMT will hike to Reds Meadow. Now, having done this I understand his recommendation.
The JMT climbs 500’ from the Garnet Lake outlet before descending twice that to Shadow Lake. Near the top of this climb I meet Dale. We hike together until his lunch break at Shadow Lake. In this short time our conversation spans life and politics; mine conservative libertarian, his liberal. We hit it off pretty well and sitting along the south shore of Shadow Lake talk about tonight’s destination, both considering though not quite deciding to camp together. We agree on Johnston Meadow as a likely stop, provided there is decent camping. Dale lunches and I head on. We agree to watch for each other.
The trail climbs steeply to Rosalie Lake and then moderately to Gladys Lake before a gentle descent to Trinity Lakes. All have good camping, but it is too early to stop and Rosalie is “booked” for the night by a large group of fishers. The trail descends, more earnestly, to boggy Johnston Meadow and reed rimmed Johnston Lake. I am ready to stop for the day and could probably have found a nice campsite there, but the lack of clear running water waves me off; the downside of not carrying a water filter.
The trail continues steeply and dustily down through dense dry forest lacking visible camping spots. By the time I reach Minaret Creek I am pretty tired and rather grungy. Happy to find water I look around for a suitable campsite and disappointedly find none. I resolve to walk the two or so miles into Reds Meadow, but first take a long rest, soak my feet, finish off my lunch ration, and down a liter of water.
The sun has about set when I arrive at Devils Postpile. It hasn’t changed much in 36 years. I groan with weariness on short loop over the top. I didn’t bother hiking to the top when I came here with the Boy Scouts, being more interested in the Soda Spring, which rightly or wrongly assuming it is an algae mess like the one in Yosemite, I skip. The top of Devils Postpile does resemble a tile floor; also visible are striations that mark the glacier’s direction.
It’s another 10 minutes to Reds Meadow. Where the spur trail leaves the JMT I leave a sign for Dale in event he gets this far too. The trail spur dumps onto the Minaret Road, I guess correctly “left” round a bend and enter the campground. I ask a few campers and eventually find someone who can point me toward the backpacker campsite.
At the backpacker site is a group of four getting ready to start a loop trip tomorrow. One of them points out the bath house and water spigot, and in a big letdown tells me it is 7 o’clock; too late for the restaurant, too late to get my resupply, and not seeing Art too late to get a beer. Of course the bright side is that breakfast tomorrow will taste really good. I set up camp, gather my things and head to the bath house. As I leave the campsite, Andrew and Lauren arrive with their resupply bucket.
What is there to say? The bath house is wonderful. Yeah it has a funky moldy smell to it, yeah the water comes out almost too hot, and yeah you need a lamp to see after the sun sets, but a hot shower three days in is a godsend. I take a long hot shower.
It is dark when I return to camp. I hang my laundry and start boiling water for dinner. Looking around I see another person arrived while I was showering, but still no Art or Dale. This guy comes over to put his food bag in the bear box and talk. He is solo-hiking Roper’s Sierra High Route. I have lots of questions about the route, especially some of the dicey divide crossings. He seems to have had little problem. As he describes, it must be quite the adventure. He estimates needing another 8 days to Twin Lakes, to finish. My calculus says he takes cross-country travel at a fast pace; obviously a pretty hardy guy. Note to self: add the section from Reds Meadow to Tuolumne along and over the Ritter Range with a loop back via the JMT to the must hike list; next summer?
8 o’clock and I am almost too tired for dinner. I force myself to eat and feel better for it. I clean and put things away. After a slam to seal the bear box the backpacker site is quiet. I sit for a few more minutes and reflect on the day. Thru-hiking the JMT is not a solo experience. There are periods where I hike alone, but mostly it seems I have good company; unexpected, but pleasantly so. I am only 3 days out and already, bar none, this is the best backpacking experience of my life. I log a good part of today’s adventure in my notebook and call it a day.