Lamarck Col to Mt Whitney
Around the first of the year, Art suggests we plan a joint summer backpack entering at North Lake over Lamarck Col and heading south along the John Muir Trail, exiting a week or so later. It takes awhile to find a time period that works for both of us, but soon we are planning logistics, food drops, campsite options, etc. For the last few years we’ve been solo hikers and planning a trip with another is certainly more work, and though at times frustrating, sharing the excitement of an upcoming hike is definitely more fun.
Art and I met last summer in Lyell Canyon. We hiked together for a couple hours, chatted that evening over dinner, and hiked together briefly the next morning. We agreed to try and meet up that night at Reds Meadow (I arrived too late), but did a few days later at VVR where we enjoyed a few beers, a good meal, and good conversation.
From this chance meeting, congenial time together, and a few emails, we decided we could make the compromises necessary for a successful joint trek. My wife worried, “How well do you know this guy?” non-hiking friends wondered “You’re going to camp for a week with a guy you don’t know?” All the while I’m thinking “He’s a backpacker like me, I know him plenty well enough” and “Why not camp with someone I just met? I do it often on my solo hikes.”
I meet people on the trail all the time and will spend a few hours hiking and talking with them, and perhaps an evening or two. Last summer for instance I met Jon at Deer Meadow and we hiked together for a week finishing the JMT. And though happenstance is less a commitment than planning a hike together, I was confident in a good time.
Art and I stayed in touch every few weeks by email. The ongoing conversation really had me looking forward to this hike.
Itinerary (as it played out)
- Leave work at noon, leave home by 2pm, drive from Phoenix to Victorville
- Drive from Victorville to Lone Pine, pick up wilderness permit
- Drive to Whitney Portal, leave car, and thumb a lift back to Lone Pine
- Hang about the Whitney Portal Hostel until Art arrives
- Art flies from Pittsburgh to Las Vegas, drives across Death Valley and arrives in Lone Pine around 5:30pm
- Meet up, eat dinner, and drive to Onion Valley, camp
8/29 – Distance hiked: 16 miles; Trip total: 16 miles
- Dayhike to over Kearsarge Pass to Bullfrog Lake, leave food & beer cache
- Shower, eat dinner, and drive to North Lake
- Load up and hike to Upper Lamarck Lake for the night, camp
8/30 – Distance hiked: 10 miles; Trip total: 26 miles
- Over Lamarck Col, past Darwin Lakes, through Darwin Bench to the JMT
- Up to Evolution Lake, camp
8/31 – Distance hiked: 20 miles; Trip total: 46 miles
- Over Muir Pass, through LeConte Canyon, up Palisade Creek to just below Deer Meadow, camp
9/01 – Distance hiked: 15 miles; Trip total: 61 miles
- Up the Golden Staircase, past the Palisades Lakes, over Mather Pass and down through Upper Basin, cross the South Fork Kings River, and climb up to the creek crossing ~1/2 mile past the Bench Lake trail jct, camp
9/02 – Distance hiked: 16 miles; Trip total: 77 miles
- Over Pinchot Pass, down to Woods Creek Crossing, over the bridge and up to Rae Lakes, camp
9/03 – Distance hiked: 12.5 miles: Trip total: 89.5 miles
- Over Glen Pass to the Bullfrog Lake trail jct, retrieve food cache, down to Bubbs Creek, up past Vidette Meadow to the large tundra field/meadow about three miles below Forester Pass, camp
9/04 – Distance hiked: 12.5 miles; Trip total: 102 miles
- Over Forester Pass, through the Tyndall Creek headwaters, over the Bighorn Plateau, and down to Wallace Creek, camp
9/05 – Distance hiked: 11.5 miles; Trip total: 113.5 miles
- Over Mt Young’s arms to Crabtree, and up to the Mt Whitney summit, camp
9/06 – Distance hiked: 10.5 miles; Trip total: 124 miles
- Whitney summit to Whitney Portal and beer, burger, & fries
The start of every big trip plays out the same. I plan and think about it for months and learn from our regular email exchange that Art does as well. In April we get permits and a campground reservation. Around June Art gets plane tickets to fly in from Pittsburgh and me a hotel room to break up the drive from Phoenix. In the final month there are small purchases to round out our gear lists and buy food. And finally, in the remaining few days there is a flurry of activity to nail down everything at home and at work. And when the day does come there is a surge of energy and excitement and anticipation for the adventure.
I arrive in Lone Pine Saturday morning. I pick up the permit at the visitors center, and then drive up to Whitney Portal, leave my car, and thumb a ride back to town. I am to meet Art around 5pm at the Whitney Portal Hostel. Given my usual luck at hitching I expected this to take most of the day, but find myself back in Lone Pine at noon. This makes for a long afternoon; there is only so much to see in Lone Pine, and I see most of it…again.
While I wait Art calls a couple times. First to let me know he arrived in Las Vegas and later to advise he’ll arrive within the hour. He shows up on queue. Neither of us has ever planned a trip with someone we “just met” and the simple act of showing up brings relief.
We make some small talk and then it is down to business; dinner at the Bonanza (formerly Bobo’s) and up to the Onion Valley campground. When we arrive there is just enough daylight to get our gear organized for tomorrow’s food cache dayhike and locate our walk-in campsite. The couple next door spots us some water to save a run to the spigot; we set up our sleeping gear, and settle in. It is windy and cold, the wind gusts all night.
We wake up, or given the lack of sleep decide to get up about 30min before first light. In short order we eat, are packed, toss stuff into the car, and hit the trail.
The trail up to Kearsarge Pass is easy by Sierra standards; well maintained and traveled, and not too steep. I haven’t been this route in nearly 40 years yet remember every lake on route and that last barren long switchback to
the pass; this is a happy return. I make the pass about 15 minutes before Art does and pull on some extra layers; it is windy and cold.
There is not much happening at the pass and after a short rest, we drop into
Kings Canyon and follow the cutoff toward the Kearsarge Lakes, and our
destination…Bullfrog Lake. The wind eases as we descend and the rising sun
brings welcome warmth. Our adventure is off to a good start; we are hiking strong and have an easy way with each other. I have a flashback to our meeting last summer in Lyell Canyon; it is simply pleasant to hike with Art.
We arrive at Bullfrog Lake about 10:30 and set about finding a suitable location to stash a bear canister and two beers. A few minutes of scouting and we find a cleft for the canister and slot between tree roots for the beer. We chose Bullfrog since it has been no camping since my first visit…so at least 40 years, which makes it unlikely bear will be out cruising for an easy meal and our cache will most likely sit undisturbed until we return. We leave a few “bread crumbs” to ensure we can find it when we venture through in a few days.
The return hike up Kearsarge is a bit more challenging, but we arrive in short order and meet a young guy on day 50 of a 67 day Sierra adventure. He is waiting on his dad for resupply and a few days companionship. Wax nostalgic with me for a bit; in my 20’s, my adventure dream was to bicycle cross-country. I let that slip away and regret the lost opportunity. Advice to my kids…if you have a dream, follow it.
Back at the trailhead around 2pm, we hop in the car, and are on route to the North Lake trailhead. We have a few incidentals to take care of (showers, a quick weather check at Wilson’s, and dinner). During the drive we see clouds building over the peaks and rain falling in the distance. At Wilson’s we learn that a fast moving storm is blowing through with possible snow later this afternoon and on into the night. On that news Art buys an additional thermal shirt. We dinner and beer at Whiskey Creek, make the short drive, and are greeted with cold and a trace of blowing snow at the trailhead.
Our goal tonight is Upper Lamarck Lake. With already 14 miles on our unacclimatized legs the trail feels to climb more steeply than it probably does. I pull ahead of Art, but don’t worry much; he scouted this route last summer and is somewhat familiar with it. About halfway to Lower Lamarck Lake the blowing snow stops and dusk/night starts to settle in. I pass a sheltered campsite near a nice overlook of the lower lake and consider for a moment stopping there.
But foolishness kicks in, “we said Upper Lamarck Lake,” and I push on. I lose the trail in the creeping darkness, finally backtrack far enough to see my error, and at last light reach the shore of Upper Lamarck Lake; there is nowhere to camp that I can see. I kneel by the outlet creek to get some water, scan about with my headlamp, and spy across the creek a trail plowing straight up the valley wall. It is maybe a 50’ scramble and then a short drop to a small flattish area, camp.
I pull on a jacket, walk back to the ridge, and turn on my headlamp, and in the darkness start calling for Art. No answer, no answer, no answer. Now I begin to worry. I call again. “Was that a call back?” Call again, yes it is Art. I set my headlamp to flash and in a couple see another lamp approaching. I call again and now clearly hear Art’s voice in return as he follows the outlet creek.
Joining me he (jokingly?) chides “You couldn’t have stopped back there?” I nervously reply “We said Upper Lamarck Lake” then Art says “I think you might have found the route to Lamarck Col.” I had, either luck or divinely led. In any event I am glad we are together. We hastily make camp and settle in for the night.
Art and I arise at first light and breaking camp scout around for the route that will take us over Lamarck Col. Our campsite was on the north wall of a shallow valley, we pass a few cairns and head west up this valley for maybe 30 minutes. Art declares with certainty that we are not on the right path. We climb the south wall and atop this ridge scout for any trace of trail and landmarks that Art remembers when he scouted this route last summer. We burn about an hour when Art spies a trail switchbacking up the south wall of the next valley south.
I see nothing, and cede to his experience. There is no easy route into and across so we backtrack until almost in line with our night’s camp. There we pick up a track and sure enough it leads to the switchbacks seen by Art. We climb several hundred feet up the switchbacks, follow a ridgeline for a short distance, cross to the south and enter a meadowed cirque drained by a frozen creek; with tiny ice mosaic tiles.
The grade eases and our sense of excitement grows as we trammel a route new to both of us. Art smiles broadly and declares “We doing it!” and indeed we are. The morning is crisp, the sun brilliant in a cloudless sky, and the route to the col beautiful. We pass a couple guys breaking camp. They had set up just before yesterday’s storm hit and sat out the blustery cold.
Our route crosses a snowfield as it climbs a headwall. We follow different
routes, meet on the other side and enter a second cirque. We are soon at the snowfield and tarn below the Sierra crest. One of the notches above us is Lamarck Col.
There appear several routes crossing this snowfield, unsure which to follow we pull out pictures we brought marking the correct notch and see the scree outcrop left of Lamarck Col with tell-tale signs of a scrambling route. Art leads the way. This snow field is still hard with the nights freeze and we find it easiest kicking steps as we walk across the rims of the sun cups. We reach the scree in short order, Art again declares “We are doing it” and in minutes we stand atop Lamarck Col looking westward into lovely Darwin Canyon. We are indeed doing it; exhilarating!
We follow footprints down a few hundred steps and the route disappears into a talus field. From above we eye a route that “steps” through short sections of talus divided by small level sandy areas. The route looks straightforward down to the second highest of the Darwin Lakes.
Traversing our 3rd section of talus my right foot gets caught and I pivot, falling headfirst. Fortunately my foot pulls free, but I fall hard landing on my outstretched hands while my knees and shins drag counter clock-wise across the rock leaving copious quantities of flesh. Nothing is broken. I am wearing gloves so other than bruised, my hands are in good shape, but both legs are bleeding. It takes a half hour and every last bit of gauze in our 1st aid kits to contain the mess. When my foot caught we were both thinking broken leg, broken ankle, broken something; and are relieved that I got by just DNA marking our route. Art tapes me up and helps me settle down; it is good to have hiking partner right now and after watching him in action I am glad it is Art.
The near disaster behind us, and me still a bit shaken and wobbly, we make our way slowly and deliberately down to the 2nd lake and break for lunch. I pull out my customary peanut butter and Art pulls out some Pack-It Gourmet Black Bean Dip. Art went almost entirely with Pack-It Gourmet meals for this trip; they make most excellent trail food. A look back at the Sierra Crest…we’ve no idea which notch is Lamarck Col.
The route through Darwin Canyon passes each lake via its north shore. A fair
number of people must come this way as the route is clearly trail like and in better shape than some of the “maintained” trails of the Superstition and Mazatzal Wilderness areas back home. We reach the last lake and a spectacular campsite perched at the head of and overlooking stunningly beautiful Darwin Bench.
Granite slabs, cascading creeks, and pocket meadows entice. And in the first of many times Art says “Coming in over Lamarck Col gets you right to the good stuff.” Indeed it does. There is a traveled route, but we chart our own path down the slabs and through this wonderland. We are full of joy and awe and despite the miles already underfoot full, of bounteous energy.
At the end of Darwin Bench sits a tarn overlooking Evolution Valley. It is just another unnamed spot on the map and there are no superlatives sufficient
to describe its beauty. Here we stop for our late afternoon dinner break and wash, do laundry, rest, and recuperate in the lengthening shadows. This really is the good stuff.
Art and I have somewhat different backpacking styles. In the morning he likes to get up, pack, and walk a couple miles before breakfast. In the late afternoon he stops for dinner and then, rested, walks another hour or two in the cool, quiet dusk. Me, I like to rise and eat, and then start walking. And I’ve always eaten dinner after arriving and setting up camp. Without discussing it our compromise is my morning and Art’s afternoon/evening. And now, having done afternoons/evenings his way, I don’t think I’ll ever go back. Hiking in the cool dusk hours after a long restorative rest break and dinner is superior in every way.
Rested, refueled, and refreshed we trend south and drop wooded bench by wooded bench to intersect the John Muir Trail and make our way to Evolution Lake. We claim the peninsula as ours, set up camp, and then go to watch the sunset; beautiful. Is there any other kind of sunset out here? We meet a
wrangler on the way back to our camp and walk with him a bit, and then visit until dark with some packers cleaning up after the evening meal; nearly all their lieges in bed. As 9pm rolls around it is the same for us.
As I lay waiting on sleep to take me, some thoughts enter my mind. A hiking partner is good thing; I am enjoying the time with Art. Going uphill I hike much faster than he does; I hope he doesn’t mind. I was very lucky when I fell; I pray I don’t feel all banged up and hurt tomorrow. God, bless and care for my family, my team at work, and bring rest to me. It’s been a challenging and rewarding day.
Our campsite at Evolution Lake was damp and the night cold; I wake with a layer of ice on my sleeping bag. Art tells me to hike ahead and dry out while waiting on Muir Pass. It is another glorious Sierra morning and the dawn light on Evolution Lake and sunrise over Sapphire Lake encourage the heart.
On way to Muir Pass I stop and visit with a number of people camped just off the trail. Even with these delays it is less than 3 hours walk to the hut. I spread my gear in the sun, eat a snack and wait. Art arrives about an hour later.
At Muir Pass we meet Jen and Lauren, Bio-Engineering grad students at the University of Washington. They are thru-hiking the JMT, out for about 2½ weeks total. Art and I oblige and take photos of them on the porch and inside the Muir Hut. I comment on Lauren’s legs which are beat up as badly as mine, except have a couple more days healing on them. One of their goals today is a swim in the pools at Grouse Meadow so their rest on Muir Pass is short. Since they plan to exit Whitney Portal on the 6th, as do we, we’ll undoubtedly see them often.
Before long we arrive at Helen Lake, rimmed by the basalts of the Black Divide, the deepest blue, and water so clear you can see the lake bottom 20’ from shore. The trail rounds the south shore and then follows the outlet creek…part of the Middle Fork Kings River headwater…as it plunges into LeConte Canyon which is just coming into view. The temperature rising, we stop and rest in the shade of some Whitebark Pines at the outlet to ‘Eugene’ Lake 10,800. Frogs hop about in the shallows of the lake, disturbed as we refill water bottles.
The hike into LeConte Canyon is a long hot descent, 6 miles and 2750’. I have always taken this in one leg, but making it two is a better plan. I feel particularly strong leaving Eugene Lake and fly. I wave to Jen and Lauren lunching at the cascade near Starr Camp and continue on to Little Pete Meadow. I rest quietly and rehydrate and in my stillness a doe and three fawn pass by within arm’s reach. I am there about an hour when Jen and Lauren pass, as does Art and a guy he met on the descent. I hoist my pack and fall in behind.
In short order we reach the bridge crossing the Dusy Branch; the girls continue on. Art introduces me to Ric, also a JMT thru-hiker. After Art agrees to give Ric a ride to the Las Vegas airport and gives his phone number, Ric continues. Art and I then settle down for our afternoon dinner break. The fast moving creek feels much like a cold water Jacuzzi; it washes away salt, grime, and weariness.
Art gets a second wind, I don’t. I am pretty much spent from my afternoon sprint. Still it is a pleasant walk in the late afternoon, and a nice downhill grade all the way to Palisade Creek. We look for the girls swimming as we pass Grouse Meadow, they aren’t there. I recall last summer’s chance meeting with Walter as we pass the giant erratic just right of the trail; “Do not underestimate the German!” I pause for a rest at the Middle Fork Trail junction while Art continues. Our goal is to find a campsite in the next 15-20 minutes and be well positioned for a morning hike up the Golden Staircase on route to Mather Pass. Five minutes later I’m on my way.
I catch Art and we immediately pass by Ric, looking to settle down in some kind of a thicket…I don’t know about that site. I get a little ahead, and see the girls in a nice spot on the bank of Palisade Creek. Lauren invites us to camp near them, but I decline. It was a gracious offer, but with Art and me it would have been packed pretty tight, plus I generally like to give people, even those I’m friendly with some space. I immediately hope I don’t regret the decision, but no worries, I find a big packer site a few minutes up trail with easy access to water. Art arrives a few minutes later. Whew, we logged nearly 21 miles today!
Morning brings a big climb, the Golden Staircase. Walter, Jon and I tackled this at the end of the day last summer wearily reaching Lower Palisade Lake
well after night had settled in. What a difference hiking it first thing in the morning! I power right up. A while later Art, Jen, Lauren, and Rory arrive. Rory is a bit older than me, and reminds me of a say, a hippie cowboy. He’s been backpacking the Sierra for about 40 years as well.
Art and Lauren swim, and Lauren christens Art “Dipper” since she says he tends to take a dunk in every reasonable size body of water he passes.
The girls, Art and I collect again on Mather Pass. Lauren climbs on a rock for a photo shoot leaving me a bit unnerved…the dad instinct. I encourage my kids to push the edge, it is okay to risk a little, but Lauren pushes it way past my comfort level. I watch nervously and take the picture. She and Jen head out, Art and I sit tight and lunch.
Art and I agree to meet up at the South Fork Kings River crossing for our dinner break. Our hiking paces are much different so having a clear meeting location is important. I love the downhill blast from Mather Pass and then out across Upper Basin. This is my 4th time along this section, always fast
and easy, and today is no exception. I shoot out ahead, and reach the South Fork in a couple hours. The South Fork has deep pools for a cold soak, good sunlight to dry laundry, ample shade to keep cool, and the JMT crossing is quite busy with people so you never lack someone to talk to. It is one of my favorite rest spots.
When Art arrives it is clear that the heat in Upper Basin has got him. He is dragging, and no amount of rest or fuel is going to give him a second wind today. While there I suggest we head up and camp in the vicinity of the Bench Lake Trail junction. The climb is not too steep, just under a mile, and with a good rest here should take a half hour at most.
A half hour proves aspirational. I wasn’t being much of a friend and didn’t realize just how tired Art was. After dinner I blast out and reach the trail junction in no time, but it is almost an hour later when Art arrives, with Ric. Both are wiped.
At last light we scout along the spur trail toward the ranger’s tent in search of a place to camp. We meet the ranger and chat a bit. He tells us of a campsite on a knoll west of the trail about 5 minutes away. Running on vapor, Art and Ric dig it out and we find it, a beautiful open sky campsite bathed in brilliant starlight. Art and I set up camp, while Ric, who hasn’t eaten dinner yet, sets up to cook. Shortly after his water boils he lets a stream of expletives; he dumped oatmeal, five breakfasts worth into his cook pot, not rice. He recovers the soggy oats as best he can; I truly hope they don’t sour on him. We’ll look after him and ply him with a bit of food should he need it.
Our gang of 5 – me, Art, Ric, Jen, and Lauren – collect again on Pinchot Pass; Art, Ric, and I arriving just as the girls are rested and ready to move on. After a breather of our own Art, Ric, and I continue. It is a warm descent into the Woods Creek drainage.
An hour or so from the pass we stop to rest and collect water from a pond just right of the trail. At a hole in the meadow grass at the pond’s shore is a small cache of cooking gear, been there years and will probably remain hundreds if not thousands more.
Leaving this pond we again spread out along the trail. I push it in a single leg all the way to the Golden Gate. There at creek side on the far side of the bridge are Jen and Lauren. I cross the bridge and hand Lauren my camera. Retracing my steps I cross back to the far side. My third and final crossing she records in video. Art arrives a few minutes later. We pull up aside and talk and lunch and rest. Woods Creek is raucous at the bridge crossing and must be a massive river during peak snow melt.
The JMT between Woods Creek Crossing and Rae Lakes is a busy thoroughfare. I hike this section with the girls learning of their Wonderland Trail hike the previous summer, where home is, aspects of their studies of interest to them, and so on. Jen is always in front with Lauren 2 steps behind; the same tight formation since they left Happy Isles. We meet dozens hiking the opposite direction. Closing on Dollar Lake we pass through a huge group of backpackers from Japan, must be 30 of them…not sure how they swing that given permitted max group size is 15. The group sweeper is an older woman, she pulls me aside and asks “Beautiful girls, you their father?” “No, no” I reply, “But if they needed a father I’d be there for them.”
I am surprised to hear myself say that, being generally more reserved. But thinking on it, why not? These are special young women. If either had need of a dad, I would be there.
It’s been just three days and yet the lives of 5 people, are inexorably intertwined. We can depend on one another and this connection will extend off the trail. We didn’t ask we didn’t make anyone earn a place in this; we simply gave unconditionally – the essence and heart of Christian Love.
I get a trail name
I catch the girls at Dollar Lake and show the reflection view of Fin Dome.
They sit on the shore, I go for a swim. They are singing “I want to rock and roll all night, and party every day.” They take a light hearted dig at me when I note that song came out when I was in college. They reply…in stereo “We weren’t even born” followed by laughs. And then they are off to find the best campsite at Rae Lakes, across the isthmus and to the right. I wait for Art; this will be our dinner stop.
Art arrives to a field of laundry drying in the sun. The long days and continuous hiking needed to make them are taking a toll and I am pushing, always pushing, perhaps too much so. We have a food cache to retrieve tomorrow and I want to get there by lunchtime even though all we really need/want tomorrow is the beer, but I am pushing us faster than that, conscious of getting about ½ the climb up Forester Pass out of the way before we camp.
The break at Dollar Lake seems to work wonders. We resume hiking in the cool evening just as dusk settles in. I fall in behind Art and we make the last 2 miles of the day a leisurely stroll. It is beautiful. Smoke from fires near Roads End creates a diffuse pink haze; the air all about in otherworldly glow. Walking late in the day after a long rest and dinner break – I am sold.
Ric calls from atop an erratic on the shore of the lowest Rae Lake. He invites us to camp. We stop to visit and then move on to what I think are better sites at the middle lake. My first visit here was in 1990 and since the trail has been routed high above the lake and I am not quite sure how to find the spot I used back then. Back then the trail passed through a jumble of sites tucked in various nooks and crannies. We follow the “bear box” trail and find the sites, now a place of mass desecration from 30 years overuse.
Still the nightfall and next morning views of Dragon Peak, Painted Lady, and
Fin Dome over the lake are stunning. And the neighbors, an eclectic group of 5 who met online and gathered to thru-hike the JMT, make good company. We talk until well after dark and bedtime; a fitting finish to the day.
We take our time getting started. Art’s sleeping bag is wet from condensation; a stake pulled overnight the roof sagged, plus there are pictures to take, and neighbors to talk to. I head out while Art let’s things dry. I am not in a hurry and in any event will wait for him on Glen Pass. I snap picture after picture from the isthmus then spend nearly an hour trying
to find a mostly shit free spot where I can dig and do my business; further evidence this area gets way too much use (definitely need to think twice about camping here again) and to top it off far too many of the people who do visit here are pigs and don’t follow basic leave no trace principles.
The hike up Glen Pass is a breeze and I summit to find Jen and Lauren, and Rod and Sarah. Jen and Lauren said I hike uphill impossibly fast and set out describing a scene from “The Princess Bride” and say “Inconceivable!” then laugh and give me a name, Blaze. They’re ready to go, intending if they can, to make it over Forester Pass. I say goodbye, not knowing if I should see them again.
Meanwhile I visit with Rod and Sarah, father and daughter. Rod pastors a United Brethren Church in Pixley, Sarah is a Marine Biology student at UCLA. They are surprised that I know where Pixley is – it sits along the “back way” to Visalia when driving up from LA – and that I know something of the history of the United Brethren Church, to which Rod adds a great deal more detail and depth and tells me how to find his church should I ever pass that way; a nice invitation.
Peanut butter, beer, and stew
I reach the Bullfrog Lake trail junction before Art, leave the contents of my pack, and walk the short distance to claim our food cache. It is undisturbed. I load it and start back, with a short detour – a swim in Bullfrog Lake. A few minutes later I meet up with Art doing likewise in a pond halfway between Bullfrog Lake and the JMT junction.
We take lunch at the shaded junction and are joined by a couple up from Road’s End. I watch and smile as they pull lunch from their packs. First appears a spoon, a jar of Whole Foods Peanut Butter, and a package of multi-grain tortillas also purchased at Whole Foods. I pull my identical ration…someone who eats exactly the same lunch as me.
From here the trail drops into thickening smoke to Bubbs Creek. We meet several people on the hike up from Road’s End including a couple rangers. The second, a youngish woman, is on patrol cleaning the trail and vicinity of as she call them “shit sandwiches”; a pile right on the ground, topped with toilet paper, and then topped with a rock. More people practicing the “leave a big trace” ethic. Otherwise she loves being a ranger. The downhill ends at the Road’s End Trail junction.
The JMT resumes climbing alongside Bubbs Creek, first gently through Vidette Meadow up to Center Creek, and then more steeply as it climbs the eastern canyon wall. It is fortunately late in the day and the sun has already “set”. We stop to camp just below the vast meadowland 3000 feet below Forester Pass.
We set the beers to chill in the nearby creek, set camp, and start dinner.
Tonight I dine compliments of Art sharing his Tuscan Beef Stew with Polenta. When ready to eat I retrieve the beers and we set to our backpacking feast. The stew is the tastiest dehydrated meal ever and the beer golden even if it is just a tall boy can of Coors Light. We enjoy the light buzz, recount some enjoyable shared moments from the first half of our adventure, and then ease into conversation sharing more about our lives and families.
After dinner we hike about the meadowlands, orienting to the peaks, gauging from the topo maps the route, and wondering if Forester Pass is visible or tucked away. We use headlamps for the walk back to camp. For the first time I sleep through the night; and soundly. Art even sounds a bit jealous that I didn’t even wake up to pee.
The route to Forester Pass is not particularly hard, especially being acclimated. We enjoy the early morning stroll across the meadowland, hike on newly rebuilt trail (under construction this time last year), and then begin the climb. The climb is long, but not all that steep built in long sweeping switchbacks until just below the pass. From there just 20 or so short switches leading to a narrow notch in the Sierra Crest.
Then south of Forester Pass the Sierra abandons intimacy. The Kern River Canyon is huge and the views span its 15 mile width and peer some 25 miles down its length. I find mind blowing majesty in its scale.
We are 7 days out now and stride under a brilliant sun cast high in a cloudless sky and through a vast tarn dotted tundra blanketed canyon, the headwaters of Tyndall Creek. Art is 10-15 minutes ahead. I think about his repeated statement, “Coming in over Lamarck Col gets you right to the good stuff.” And the headwaters of Tyndall Creek are really “good stuff.”
The John Muir Trail, when hiked north to south, reveals itself as a series of watersheds each more spectacular than the last; much like God reveals Himself: not all at once, there is always more, always something deeper, always something greater than can be imagined, and yet when revealed never more than one can handle.
Accessing the JMT via Lamarck Col drops you right into Evolution Basin, in my opinion the Holy of Holies of this outdoor temple of God. Jesus’ death on the cross allows us to enter God’s presence, the Holy of Holies, and this entering in marks not the finish, but the start of our Christian walk. It is entirely fitting to begin a hike here and walk onward into the expansive glory of the next watershed, and the next, and the next; symbolic of my spiritual growth since His grace first allowed me to enter.
I relish trail time, walking in solitude and meditating on His direction, seeking meaning in/for my life, seeking atonement from my transgressions, and finding renewal. My one great idea, “finish one big hike and start planning the next,” always one week or longer, long enough to settle into the simple routine and rhythm of the trail, and enough time to rediscover the quiet stillness of His peace.
But today I realize that it is not my idea at all, rather it is only my response to His call. There is a rebuke of my busy-ness; I spend too little time in prayer, too little time meditating on His word. I consider this and momentarily hang my head, but then I am overwhelmed, overwhelmed by the love of a God who will not allow my spiritual growth to stall. No, He loves me enough that even though I may ignore Him, He’ll call me out to take this time.
And reflecting…my walk this year took an unexpected turn. At work, in January, I was given the added responsibility for a small engineering team. As I prayed over the group I was challenged to love them unconditionally as Christ loves me, and that each person needs to experience this love first hand. “Okay…” I heard the message though did not understand. Later, as I met with each person my heart became heavy, many were dispirited and some angry; the greatness within each bound. My team leaders were determined, but frustrated with their charge. One cried as the love she gave was returned, it seemed, with only complaints. But in her love was Truth.
Love isn’t easy. And this morning, in His time, the thought of loving them that much weighed heavily. Is there ever enough love? How much is too much? Or is it even possible that there can be too much? What if I get lost in the effort or what if I run short? Is there a balance I need to strike, or must I go all in? The answer comes like a clarion call…”All in.”
Today, in His wisdom, I learn to see myself a window into which and through which these, in fact all, should see Jesus. The revelation is humbling for I am nothing close.
And further He teaches me the purpose of leadership:
“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” – John 10:10
At first I cannot see how I can carry this responsibility; to lead and help those on my team live richer, more abundant lives. This leadership commission is much, much larger than simply meeting the company’s goals. Peoples’ lives extend far beyond the 8 to 5 work day. They are much richer, much more complex, and often more demanding. And it is the extent to which they see Jesus in me that sets the extent to which I can fulfill this purpose. This commission matches the scale of this Kern River Canyon into which I am but a speck. I cannot do this myself and surely need His help to meet this commission. Then I am reassured by His presence.
I take up this challenge and in doing so will be stretched and tested as never before. Yet I will be more than equally blessed; strengthened beyond sufficiency by an awesome God. I don’t yet have all the answers, and probably never will, but the vectors are clear. I can never be all this yet “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me” Philippians 4:13. If I rely on me, then I fail. If I rely on Him I can go all in and be the loving boss I am commissioned to be and not get lost.
I am encouraged, and I am recharged, and I sing, and I praise, and in minutes catch Art who notes, “You were bounding down the trail.” Yes, joy unspeakable and full of glory! When life weighs me down it is the wild places, mountains and canyons carved by the hand of God, to where He brings me, and I have and take time to seek Him, where I am restored, renewed, and pushed to grow.
Yes, this is the good stuff.
We reach the Frog Ponds around lunch time and stop to eat and take a long swim. The first pond as you walk from the JMT is shallow, ~5½ feet deep at the middle, and the water is a warmish 60F; rather pleasant! I enjoy a refreshing shore to shore swim.
Then up to the ghost forest atop the Bighorn Plateau. Art and I had discussed camping here, but there is too much sun left and too much exposure. We circumnavigate the pond and enjoy the panoramic view from
the high point on the plateau’s western edge. Smoke from the Cedar Grove
fire sits as a gray haze over the Great Western and Kings-Kern Divides, and to the southwest stands Mt. Whitney.
As we descend Art’s after burner kicks in and he is soon out of sight. He pauses near the crossing of Wright Creek and we hike together through this delightful erratic strewn basin pondering whether to stop at one of the camp spots that line the moraine south of the trail. We instead continue to Wallace Creek a sizeable gathering area where the High Sierra Trail intersects the JMT. There, having gone missing for the last couple days, is Ric.
We talk about tomorrow’s hike and whether to stop at Guitar Lake or continue on and camp on top of Mt. Whitney. Mt. Whitney’s summit sounds enticing, and especially so to me, having been denied a year ago by stormy weather.
My sleep is fitful and cold; guessing being in a small valley, Wallace Creek collects cold damp air, at least this night it did. Our morning is slow and the sun is up before Art and I hit the trail. Ric gives us a shout as he heads out.
We catch Ric and the 3 of us arrive at Guitar Lake around 2 o’clock. Art looks at me and says “You really want to go on.” “Yes.” I reply. He and Ric are more leaning to stay, but seeing the yearning in my face they agree to continue. So onward we go.
We spread out as we scale the 2 hour switchbacking climb to Trail Crest and
the Mt. Whitney junction. As I make the last turn “Blaze!” echoes in stereo. And we have another reunion; Jen and Lauren are at the junction waiting for the Crabtree Meadow ranger to descend, thinking he would not allow them to stay the night on top.
In time the ranger greets us on his descent, and the 5 of us set out for the final push to the summit. 5pm and we have all arrived. The register is signed, we take victory photos, and greet Saeed and Iman, last of the
ascending dayhikers. For them, Iman in particular, it has been struggle, but
the victory is sweet.
We visit as they prepare a meal. The shadows lengthen and we express concern over a dark descent to Trail Camp, but Saeed is at ease and assures us they’ll be fine. We bid them farewell and a safe hike, still concerned.
We collect in the Smithsonian Hut and prepare our evening meal and set up the buffet. A week ago strangers, we are now friends breaking bread. After dinner we lay out our sleeping bags; it will be cozy in this room. And then we step outside to watch the sunset.
The sun lights up the smoky haze. The peaks of the Great Western Divide stand in purple silhouette, above them heavens glow a brilliant red, ascending then to orange, and atop all gold. Behold; the streets of the New Jerusalem. Stunning!
The dawn equals the sunset and for the 2nd time in as many years I witness God’s daily creation. There is no finer way to start the day.
Of beer, burgers, and Brian
We leave the summit together, and are mostly one group to the trail junction. From there Art and I sprint ahead down the 100 switchbacks weaving between the throngs climbing from Trail Camp. And downward we go. The hike down the Mt. Whitney Trail is a different experience altogether when the start is the summit and not Guitar Lake. And instead of seemingly endless downhill Art and I finish before noon.
Now the proper way to finish the Mt. Whitney trail is to continue hiking west for about 100 yards after reaching the trailhead sign. This route leads through an open door, past a few touristy knickknacks, and stops immediately in front of a refrigerator. Open the right hand door and grab a beer. Today I grab two beers, one for Art and one for me.
Art and I take our beers and return to the trailhead to await Jen and Lauren. They arrive on cue, smile and proceed to walk right past us. Jen embraces a good looking guy standing nearby, it is her husband Brian. Following that reunion Art and I congratulate. Jen introduces us. Brian understands the needs of the through hiking backpacker; he has a cache of Blue Moon and slices an orange.
We sit to lunch on Mt. Whitney Store burgers and fries, and yes, another beer. Lauren says “You destroyed us.” to which Art replies “Do not get between old men and beer.” ‘Nuf said. Ric arrives and soon with his order, joins in. We share some stories, but most of the conversation tends toward what is next and our going separate ways.
Art, Ric, and I say our farewells to Jen and Lauren, and Brian, and then walk to my waiting car for the drive to Lone Pine.
Ric and Art discuss tomorrow. Art is thinking about day hike opportunities. Ric talks about sitting in a Lone Pine motel room and watching TV. Besides, Ric needs to get some clean clothes…the price of a ride to Las Vegas. Me? I ponder getting a room in Lone Pine, but not sure.
After a shower at the Mt. Whitney Hostel Art and I set out once more to North Lake. We collect his car, drive into Bishop and enjoy our last meal together (again at Whiskey Creek) and head our separate ways. I start the long drive home.
It has taken nearly 9 months for me to complete this trip report, in large part because the experience was so personal and the people I shared it with are more than just acquaintances. Writing day by day journals is easy, but writing of the love I shared with four others…even if the text reads of day by day…dug deep and pulled forth emotions that took time for me to understand; let alone write about.
And off trail and especially at work I have prayerfully sought to let Jesus shine through me. And though I mostly see my failings, God has blessed. I cannot recall a moment where I even remotely could have appeared to another as Christ-like, yet my team is on fire and rocking it. Evidently, however klutzy, love is still love.
Finally I learned on this trip that I am not a great backpacking partner. I may be great so far as being a strong backpacker, but given the choice I’d rather be a great partner. I am fortunate and was given the chance to prove myself a couple months ago. I passed that test. And this summer I have a shot at redemption…Art and I have planned another.
I have grown though remain incomplete and strive that others see Christ in me.
My entire photo album for the trip. Pictures are full resolution and available for download.
A copy of my gear list. Hasn’t changed much over the last 4 years.
My menu. Warning…it is not adventurous.