Saturday, July 30, 2011

Day 63 (7/19) What a Day

So last night the Leisure Crew never did catch up to me after the descent from Mather around the Palisade Lakes. I figured they must've camped only a mile or two back, but with their propensity fourth late starts, I didn't really expect them to catch me in the morning. I left a note on the trail leering them know where I planned to camp, so maybe I would see then again in the evening...

The day started with a set of descending switchbacks, which were described to me last night by a pair of JMT hikers as "the gnarliest switchbacks" they had ever hiked. By the time I reached the bottom I wasn't all that impressed... Try stacking these up against the ones coming down the back of San Jacinto. No comparison. The rest if the morning continued the descent until I turned uphill into LeConte Canyon. I was now following the  Middle Fork of the Kings River, so after seeing two of the forks, I can't imagine what the full river must look like. A few miles up I stopped at the ranger station and told Ranger Rick about our experience at the top of Mather. He was thankful for the info and promised to put up a sign until the conditions cleared. I also had a chance to check out the register there, and I'm two days behind Karma, Boyscout and Jeanie, and a day behind Fool. I almost caught Muumuu and Avocado, but they took the 12 mile Bishop Pass trail out to resupply this morning. It was as I left the ranger station that I realized how fast I'd been going, and had to reconsider  my plans for the day. If I stopped below Muir Pass as planned, I would be done at 4pm. If I tried to go over, I may not make it before sunset and would face the prospect of night hiking over snow. Then I remembered several people had mentioned sleeping in the Muir hut atop the pass, and that sounded like a good backup in case the climb went slowly.

The next few miles to the start of the ascent went well, and I stored to snack at a creek crossing right before beginning the climb in earnest. While I was busy putting down a Slim Jim and a powerbar, a group of three came down from the pass and stopped to chat. The older gentleman succinctly described the conditions as "soft slushy shyte" which made me chuckle each time he repeated the phrase. One of the other guys did give me some hope as he said most stuff would soon be in shade and start refreezing. They also said the other side had a good few miles of snow, so my chances of making it all the way down to dry land were slim. Nonetheless, I wanted to get this pass done today, and I definitely wasn't ready to call it at this early hour (4pm). Sadly this meant I was leaving the Leisure Crew behind as there was no way they would attempt the pass today.

The start of the climb went well and I was on and off snow for a couple miles. Then at the second lake the snow became continuous and I drifted from the official trail. I preferred to follow some of the footsteps in the snow as that provided the most secure footing most of the time. I left the footsteps at a stream crossing where they used a snow bridge that I didn't trust. They are usually reliable in the morning, but as the day hours on and the site softens, they are more and more likely to collapse below you. After this I chose not to follow the tracks and make my own way instead. When I came up on the third lake, I got to see one off the neatest things. Standing at the outflow of the lake, I could peer across the mirror flat surface and watch as the still water slowly started to gain speed, swirling in tiny eddies, and building up to a deafening roar as it quickly cascaded down the hillside.

The climb to Helen Lake was straight up a snow bank, but at the top I chose a quick detour, gaining a little more elevation to see over a ridge down along the Black Mountain Divide. What a view! Totally worth the extra 15 minutes it took. Next it was up and around the massive frozen lake, now starting to open up around the edges. A week ago you could've walked straight across it, but today that shortcut would be far colder and wetter.

I realized I was standing among giants, as I looked around at all the 13,000+ peaks. The pass was only a half mile away, but on the now icy snow it seemed ti take forever. Finally, I saw it; over the ridge stood a stone hut, my destination for the evening. I snapped some photos of the sun setting behind the distant peaks, then brought my stuff inside. I set up my sleeping bag on wooden planks atop the stone bench lining the wall, and quickly drifted off to sleep at 12,000 ft.

Miles Today: 17
Trip Mileage: 838

Photo: Muir hut atop Muir Pass at sunset

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