9/3/09; Distance Traveled = 15.8 miles
The trail climbs gradually, mostly through forest, alongside and sometimes quite close to Bubbs Creek. Feeling recharged, Jon credits last night’s fire, we hike at a fast pace and soon reach the creek flowing from Center Basin; a few people are camped nearby. We stop briefly and are passed by a fellow thru-hiker; he hiked the AT last year, and the Colorado Trail earlier this summer. We now leave the forest and climb more steeply toward imposing Kings-Kern Divide, a seeming impenetrable 3000’ headwall.
Bubbs Creek Drainage
The trail takes a hard left toward the ridge separating Center and Junction Peaks and follows the creek draining Lake 12248. We circumvent a large alpine meadow passing it on the south then east, and reaching the base of the ridge resume a southward track. For the next mile or so a large trail crew is hard at work building steps and inlaying erosion prone sections with stone “brickwork” similar to the Grand Canyon’s Hermit Trail. The trail now crosses Lake 12248’s outlet, takes a couple switchbacks and then follows a ridge, rising steeply above the lake’s western shore. I settle into a rhythmic gait, push up the ridge, and then grind out a last set of switchbacks twisting the final 700’ up Forester Pass. A runner, attempting the JMT speed record, passes me northbound.
View North from Forrester Pass; Jon on the switchbacks
Two guys on a loop out of Onion Valley greet me at Forester Pass. Their route today takes them cross country over the saddle south of Caltech Peak to Lake South America. They ask if I know anything about their route today, no, or about Harrison Pass, yes, which they plan to cross on Friday. They start down as Jon arrives. He and I indulge in a long break, catch our breath at 13,200’, and enjoy the views.
At length we start down on switchbacks etched onto the west face of Junction Peak, into the huge basin between Diamond Mesa and Caltech Peak that in turn opens into even larger Kern Canyon. Everything is of epic scale, mind-expanding epic. My mind withdraws from conscious thought but is 100% engaged, subconsciously processing a tidal wave of input. For a moment I am observer and participant, mind seeming separate from body. As if dreaming I see myself hiking, yet at the same time experience myself hiking, and I hear the sound of all I see being processed, some into memory some into thought, pondering self and significance amidst awesome might and power, the force, the hand of creation. As a physical being I am insignificant; I am small, this place immense, I am young, these mountains ancient. Along each switchback, tucked into sheltered pockets are tiny plants with red flowers. Each exposes just enough of itself to grasp a ray of sunlight and renew life before winter’s bite forces retreat and dormancy. Why? As a sentient being awakened I know there is something more; just as this place and the tiny rockfringe were purposed in the creation, my being here is not accidental and not entirely self directed, it was, can I say, also purposed?
The descent is short and we are soon hiking through a vast expanse of tundra, alongside barren lakes, and hopping the multiple creeklets that aggregate into Tyndall Creek. At first glance the basin seems devoid of animal life, but a closer look reveals Marmots have run of the place. A subtle pop and Jon’s hiking staff snaps like a cut glass rod. We stop and Jon pulls his spare, experience instructed he carry an extra, then resume hiking. Minutes later a second pole snaps followed by a few choice words. Stunted trees appear; they are twisted and leaning, haggard, aged by harsh winters. The wind blows and clouds amass, trapped against the divide, a storm brews.
A lone hiker approaches and stops to talk, a man, in his 50’s, in good spirits. I note a sierra cup, relic of a prior age, hanging from his belt. He recalls that time, of dipping and drinking fresh, untreated water. Two more hikers approach, his teenage sons. They are burdened with huge packs and in appearance as unhappy as he is happy; I suppose I too would enjoy the hike more than the pack mules carrying all the crew gear. He is leading them over Forester Pass today; most likely through rain, or worse.
Near the Lake South America Trail junction we reenter forest littered with ghost trees. Some lay, broken and fallen, others stand, defiant and proud. All remind of lightning’s power. We remain small and awestruck, not fearful, but not entirely at ease; allowed passage, but not invited.
We stop for lunch at the Shepherd Pass Trail junction and are greeted by rain. I don my poncho. Jon flashes back and recognizes me from a rainy Sunday outside the Tuolumne Meadows Grill. Then I was just a strange looking guy wearing a poncho and a hat; 11 days later not much has changed.
The trail now starts to climb through the rubble at the base of Tawny Point. In minutes we reach the junction to the Tyndall Creek Ranger Station and then the large camping area near the frog ponds. We consider, for a moment, camping here, but it is still early, and to us walking in the rain is preferable to sitting in the rain so we continue. The uphill abates on the gravelly moonscape of the Bighorn Plateau.
We pass a stand of foxtail pines, mostly ghost trees. The few living ones cower, none wishing to be tallest. Each skeleton hosts a covey of ravens that suddenly take flight and then alight, hundreds on the distant ridgeline. Jon marches off to stand amidst the birds, and then suddenly changes course.
Clouds, ethereal veils, pull back to reveal a stunning “Gods-eye” view of creation. Mt Whitney, towering over Mt Hale, rises above the horizon. Jon aims for a better look. I catch him and we sit, agog and excited, envisioning ourselves on its summit. Elsewhere, everywhere, we are surrounded by epic panoramas. The Great Western Divide positioned guardian of the Kern River Canyon; at its center the Kaweahs dark and baleful, daring passage. The Kings-Kern Divide stands sentinel of the north, encased in storm. And the Bighorn Plateau, the vast moonscape, lies proximate at our feet, its lake a mirror, an eye into the sky. Against this greatness we are nothing. Yet in our humility are by grace lifted up and considered worthy and granted privilege to experience such grandeur.
By comparison the hike to Wallace Creek is ordinary. Glacial erratic strewn meadows, forested benches, and a lacework of streams are now ordinary.
Wallace Creek marks the first crowded campsite; several groups, at least 20 people are camped nearby. We leave space and speak softly so as to not disturb, but the message is clear; we are nearing the end of our great adventure. There is sadness in the realization, but also, a deeper joy, the blessing that flows from a grand experience.
Our day concludes with visit. Ann Marie drops by to ask if we have any Tequila. Also, did we leave a bottle brush, hush hush it looks like a bong cleaning brush, by the creek? Off the wall maybe, but it opens a conversation. She is hiking a loop out of Mineral King with two others, a couple who plan in 2 days to exchange vows by the lake on the Bighorn Plateau. They all live in a commune outside of Mendocino. Jon is familiar with Mendocino and they talk about various places and the Boonville Beer Festival. Ann Marie has a son at home, first time mom has been away, but she still declines Jon’s offer of the sat phone. We talk a long while and its getting dark so she returns to her friends. She leaves the brush on the bear box for any takers.