8/31/09; Distance Traveled = 24.8 miles
I wake later than usual, sunlight already creeping down the faces of Mts Mendel and Darwin. The good news is I am sleeping well, the bad news, today at least, is I want to make the Palisades Lakes tonight. They are nearly 25 miles away and I have lost perhaps an hour of daylight.
Evolution Lake is a long, north-south trending lake; a twin lobed granite dome, a rouches moutonnées, separating the small oval pool at its north end from the long narrow main body. A rouches moutonnées is a granite dome that stood fast in resistance to the glacier; the first seen, I think, since Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows. The trail contours about 50’ from the lake’s shore, climbs over the saddle aside the dome, and continues alongside crossing the inlet below Sapphire Lake. I sing hymns as I hike in this special place; there is peace this morning.
Beyond Evolution Lake the trail climbs moderately toward Muir Pass, the remaining four miles of Evolution Basin captivate the hiker with ever more inspiring panoramas. Sapphire Lake, seen from above its western shore, is the deepest blue. Wanda Lake, resplendent, reposed in the morning sun. I hike slowly, immersed in transforming restorative beauty.
As the trail rises above Wanda Lake the Goddard Divide grasps my attention, its black metamorphic rock a stunning contrast to the more proximate granite. Enraptured, grateful; it is His grace, His gift that have given me access to this Most Holy Place and communion with His precious creation. I reflect upon this hike, this place, my spiritual cleansing, my renewal, gliding gracefully in a state of meditative relaxation. I reach Muir Pass in solemn mind and then indescribable joy.
God’s work is often given to the hand of man. The John Muir Trail and the Muir Hut are memorials to one such. Muir in large measure birthed the environmentalist preservation ethos, and bequeathed us the Sierra an unspoiled wilderness. I pay homage to the man then rest quietly atop the world.
My stop at Muir Pass was, I suppose, close to an hour. I didn’t mean to be antisocial and not stay and talk, but I’ve another 20 miles today. I excuse myself, wish the best, and head down toward Helen Lake.
Muir Pass to LeConte Canyon is a section of the JMT held in memory as most unpleasant. In this case memory had it wrong. It is quick work to Helen Lake another sublime body of water. If one passes too quickly they’d miss them, but there are places to camp along the southwest shore, a fact pointed out to me by a pair Cal Alums. We visit briefly. They are curious about my small pack and the gear I bring, or lack thereof, and inquisitive enough to remark surprisedly they were not as old as me. And sad to say, that despite the pre-season rankings, they too expect the Cal football team to falter. Do any of us believe anymore?
The trail overlays the outlet stream of Helen Lake, the infant Middle Fork Kings River. It is possible now, at the end of August, to stay dry along this stretch, the water rushing underfoot beneath the rock, but I suspect it is quite different in early season. This shared route traverses a short section of dark metamorphic rock at the very end of the Black Divide. After a mile the canyon opens, granite reappears, and the trail moves north of and above the creek. The moderate descent from Muir Pass ends at Eugene Lake and its spectacular overlook into LeConte Canyon. Here the trail crosses the creek, skirts Eugene’s south shore, and then descends steeply through switchbacks blasted into Barrier Rock, below which there is one final creek crossing. The trail then picks its way across the several rockslides lining the north canyon wall. Five miles from Muir Pass the trail crosses a creek flowing from the snowfields on Mt Johnson and enters Big Pete Meadow. It is time for lunch.
I sit on an erratic amidst several lodgepole pine sheltered campsites with dramatic Langille Peak as a backdrop. I again drain and dress the blister on my little toe and retape the ever present hot spots on the balls of my feet. If I don’t come up with a better plan, these too will be blisters by the end of the day. Since my shoes have quite a bit of forefoot room I suspect excessive movement the cause; taping alone does not take up enough of the slack. I decide to try wearing both pair of socks, slip them on, and it seems everything fits alright. Feet taken care of I eat a Probar, a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter, a handful of almond M&M’s, and drink a liter of water. I rest a bit longer.
The trail now follows a mostly shaded track through the heart of LeConte Canyon paralleling and generally within earshot of the Middle Fork Kings River. Tributaries, at regular intervals, rush down polished granite slabs. Where the trail passes the ranger station the river is already formidable. Trail crews are out in force, improving sections between Big Pete and Little Pete Meadows, and again south of the Bishop Pass Trail junction. I’ve seen lots of crews this hike and wonder if stimulus dollars are in part responsible?
Above Little Pete Meadow the LeConte Ranger stops, asks to see, and notates my permit. I ask if the Smithsonian Hut on Whitney is unlocked; he doesn’t know and suggests checking with the Crabtree Ranger. A short while later I step aside as a large northbound group passes; a few moments later a man and a woman bring up the rear. She asks if I have duct tape, and then learning yes asks if they might have some. The guy’s boot soles have delaminated; their tape supply exhausted. They mooch fresh tape every few hikers; my turn.
I soon arrive at Grouse Meadow, stop for a water break, and meet Walter, 69 years old, hiking his 3rd and final segment of the JMT, VVR to Onion Valley. I ask about his accent; he emigrated from Germany 40 years ago. His JMT hike is non-traditional; VVR to Yosemite, then Onion Valley to Whitney, and now this hike, yet all this summer. He explains that several years ago he hiked a lot and had interest in hiking the JMT, but then got interested in sailing. Some twenty years later he got the itch and decided to take it on. He did the “easier” VVR to Yosemite section first to see if he was up to it, and satisfying himself yes, committed to the remainder. His objective tonight is Palisades Lakes, “I’ll hike by moonlight if I need too.” It being after 3:00 and another 9 miles or so he just might have too.
Below Grouse Meadow the trail drops steeply to Palisades Creek, and making a hard left, begins the climb to Mather Pass, 10 miles and 4000’ away. The JMT ascends this initial stretch on an easy grade, but it is mostly open, burned in the 2002 Palisades Fire, and receives full on afternoon sun; a hot sweaty hike toward the end of a long day, ugh. This burn area is quite interesting though. The Park Service managed, but didn’t suppress the fire, letting it burn its course. The result is a patchwork; large sections that are completely burned out interspersed with small pockets of vibrant forest clear of most ground litter. Above the creek that drains Palisades Basin the forest is unscarred, the creek evidently acting as a fire line. The shade is a welcome respite.
I stop at Glacier Creek in Deer Meadow, for water and my final snack break. Jon is also stopped there. He is thru-hiking the JMT, camped near the inlet to Evolution Lake last night, is headed to Palisades Lakes tonight, and plans to finish next Saturday. With near identical itineraries I expect to see a lot of him over the next several days. We compare notes on people we’ve met, Buzz and G-Man, Walter, and Ryan, etc. Jon is surprised I know Ryan from VVR as they met there the night before I arrived, and Jon thought both left the same day; in fact he thought that Ryan may even be ahead of him. Since Ryan plans to finish Saturday and we expect to see him again, Jon intends some friendly chastisement for slacking an entire day. We start for the Golden Staircase and Palisades Lakes together.
Beyond Deer Meadow the trail continues up canyon for about a mile, and then starts the Golden Staircase, a 2 mile set of tight switchbacks that climbs 1400’ to the hanging valley containing the Palisades Lakes. The sun, nearing the horizon, provides spotlight illumination. Midway up the switchbacks Jon says he keeps smelling fennel salami; he traces the smell to a particular plant, one that adorns much of the trail to Whitney Portal. Having now had time to research this, I think the plant is bush chinquapin. A short while later Jon stops for a water refill, while I, having hit a good hiking rhythm, continue.
At length the switchbacks abate. The sun “sets” when the trail turns northeast and enters a narrow cleft that widens after a short distance onto a small meadow. Late for my appointment with Lower Palisades Lake, I grit my teeth and continue. Where the hell is the lake? Finally in the fading light I reach the lake’s outlet. The nearby campsite looks too exposed given the stiff wind funneling through the narrow canyon, so I give it one more push. I should have stopped for the trail climbs and I am out of gas. A mile later, exhausted, the trail crosses a small creek, and I locate a small flat area in the bushes to the right of the trail. It is windy and exposed, but I am finished.
I have time to set up camp, just the bivy tonight, get water, and cook dinner before Jon passes by. He is welcome to stop, but chooses to continue and find something more protected. We both conclude Walter will not make it to Palisades Lakes today. It is already dark, and the narrow canyon will prevent a moon rise tonight. I figure to see Jon again sometime tomorrow.
Dinner at this hour, 8:00?, is an unseemly amount of food; I force it down. I should have brought more lunch foods and only single serving dinners. I note this in my journal along with a complaint about no swim today and sleeping all grungy. I make few other notes, it is bedtime.
It feels good to lie down; it also gets me low enough to be protected from the wind. I think about tomorrow. Perhaps I am due a short hiking day after the back to back 20’s. Bench Lake sounds good; it’s been on my “go there” list for 19 years. The Milky Way bisects the sky.