The way in which we think of ourselves has everything to do with how our world see us and how we see ourselves successfully acknowledged by the world. – Arlene Rankin
It was a bitterly cold night by the lake. I wore all my clothes – including rain gear – and while I never shivered, I couldn’t quite get warm. I can hear the wind as it passes the tree tops then rattles the alicoop. I am exposed here and so do the only thing I can think of besides pile rocks on all my tent stakes. I yell, “Stop it!” Oddly enough, the wind seems to be listening, and never pushes the limits. I went out to pee and the stars were brilliant, the mountains glowing and it really didn’t feel too cold. Maybe it’s laying on the ground? I think loads of warm thoughts about saunas and hot tubs and hiking Hat Creek Rim and finally knock out, my breathing more normal even at 10,500 feet.
Funny how I wake as it gets light and it turns out to be the same time each day. I do the routine trying to keep my fingers from freezing, then leave this stunning nook with the superlative view reflecting on the water. I see Nathan camping across the lake with Rob and John – I recognize his yellow pants – when I come towards them, they give me my piece of David’s thermarest that protects my bony back I dropped on the trail yesterday, then they all sprint ahead.
I am still dressed for the chill-to-the-bones cold as I circle the lakes then walk on a small piece of land through them. It’s not just that they are in a bowl of spectacular peaks, they’re also a special shade of deep emerald green. The water ripples in the wind showing me a liquid mountain. Willows burst their fluffy seeds like snow as I finally walk into warm sun, stopping to remove my down coat, mittens and wool cap.
I remember being surprised by Glen Pass seven years ago as it’s an almost completely manufactured trail on the side of a cliff. Not that all trails aren’t made, but this one must have been cut into the mountain. First, I rise steeply out of the trees onto rock, stairs and rocky switchbacks taking me steeply up onto a kind of flat connector that meets the crag for twenty-six reasonably steep switchbacks. I get the breath going and slowly power up, the Rae Lakes and some above tucked into rocky bowls reveal themselves as I rise.
When I was here last time, a man offered me a bag of M&M’s as he was about to exit and didn’t want the weight. As it reached my hands, two more hands – hands of my friends – shot out, demanding their share. I carry a bag today that I acquired from the hiker box at the VVR. I plan to eat them thinking of that gorgeous day seven years ago, which incidentally was warm, the pass filled with hikers. But I’ll wait to dig in until I’m on the final high pass of the Sierra, the highest point on the PCT at 13,200 feet. But that’s a long way off as I huff my way to the top, seeing my three new friends walk off and begin their descent.
Today, I am all alone except for a biting wind. I take a few pictures, marvel at the view from this tiny ridge, then shoot down the other side, shivering, on another series of switchbacks. This time of year is no time to linger, even with the sun out, it is bitterly cold. This trail is filled with small rocks that act like ball bearings. I slip once catching myself, and take better care as I drop into a rocky wasteland, a deep blue lake in its center.
This area – Kearsarge – is filled with lakes and at lower altitude, they’re beautiful surrounded by trees. After I walked the JMT, Richard and I took four lazy days exploring them. But now I move along wondering if it’s early enough for me to try for the final pass. I loved last night, but camping high and exposed is getting very cold and I really don’t want to do that again. It would be a nice way to end September, by wrapping up my high passes and moving through the Sierra at lower – and safer – elevations.
As I look down on some of the lakes and beautiful environs, then reach the forlorn sign pointing towards Kearsarge Pass and Bishop, I make a deal with myself that if I begin ascending out of the canyon by noon, I’ll go for the pass. I can see far out towards the next mountains and just make out where I’ll cross over. In between is a forest for miles below me. It’s gorgeous the way the granite shimmers as Bubbs Creek rushes down. I begin descending on zigzags wondering if after yesterday’s high altitude panting symptoms, I can do this and I tell myself I can always camp below the pass and just see what happens.
This canyon is filled with small streams and smells like wild onion. I pass a hiker collecting water and continue bouncing down as the trail crosses the same creek a bit lower, and right there are my friends taking a break. Rob generously gives me a bit more fuel since he’ll be finished in two days. They’re all determined to make it over Forrester Pass today, Nate telling me it’s still nearly nine miles ahead – with camping on the other side another five miles away. I’m a bit uncertain I can manage that much uphill, so I take their picture in case I don’t see them again and wish them luck.
Another hiker doing a small loop shows up named Juan. We talk a bit and he is incredibly impressed I’m walking the PCT. When I ask if he thinks I should try for the pass today he says, “Why not? It’s still early” And I realize, he’d right. So I say goodbye and start walking, catching up with the guys just as we pass a sign that indicates Forrester Pass is actually only seven miles away. Boy, am I glad Nate had that wrong!
We begin ascending right away, but it’s gradual and I can keep a steady rhythm. I walk with Rob as we have the same pace. He is such a relaxed, fun guy and makes me laugh. Most of this part is through forest and we pass the site where I camped before, right on the creek. It must be a popular place because there’s now a bear locker installed.
We move along steadily climbing, Rob keeping track of our altitude. I am split on whether I like to know where I am. It can help motivate, but also deflate when you realize there’s still over 3,000 feet to climb. I make my goal exiting the trees before having a little lunch. Rob gives me his extra food too and I share some of my summer sausage. I’m on my way now, so the M&M’s are opened and handfuls are shared. John catches up and Nate admonishes me to drink more. I’m not thirsty in cool weather, but I think I had altitude sickness yesterday because I was dehydrated. I take in a liter and feel instantly stronger.
We push up to a rocky section of stunted trees and I spy a final camp spot, happy to be pushing past it. I took off my rain gear at lunch since I was overheating, but out here in the wind, I’m freezing cold again and need to put it all back on. My Columbia Outdry jacket and pants have been ideal for rain, hail, snow and wind. This is definitely one area I’m not willing to skimp on in terms of weight.
I tell Rob why I’m here and how I’m using this opportunity to reset. He shares some of his own tough life issues and we walk quietly for a while after that, crossing a rocky basin with a stream running through, small plants taking advantage of the damp. Nate races past us into a kind of crevice in the rock that works up zigzags next to the stream, now a waterfall. Little grows here, then nothing at all alive, only rock, likely eroded from the mountains above and left in a giant pile.
We cross over the stream then back again, looking for the pass above and uncertain where it is. Rob has his jacket on too and a jaunty sun hat. He tells me in my brightly colored Kavu hat, I look like I’m out for a little Sunday afternoon stroll, which makes me laugh out here in this austere high altitude climb. Then he says, “You know, a lot of positive things can come out of something negative. I really believe that.” I smile knowing he’s right and feeling a spark of support and camaraderie as we both have had our share of hard knocks, but find ourselves in this moment with this opportunity to hike, test ourselves and see outstanding beauty.
I know I’ve mentioned that I tend to take climbs all in one go. I’m not super fast, but I power up one step at a time as the trail bends this way and that, finally crossing a gully and ramping up the side of another rock pile, with the help of an added wall. I see two lights ahead, possibly light reflecting off something, though they look like eyes. I wonder if it’s from an emergency shelter. This would be a good spot for one with absolutely no place to hide.
Nate is high above now and John brings up the rear. Rob stops often to reset and I charge on, passing a group supporting a woman finishing the PCT, a project she’s been working on over a decade. They have a beautiful black standard poodle and I stupidly point out no dogd allowed in the national park. But this one is her helper since she has limited vision. I feel like a jerk, but they don’t seem to mind coming down as I walk the final zigzags to the top. Nate is gone now, likely because the wind is picking up. I snap a selfie and wave to Rob slowly coming up the final piece, then head down myself into a wondrous plateau of lakes and streams, low vegetation in autumn colors.
It’s more switchbacks built into the side of the crag, the wind icy and biting, scratching at my face, making my nose run and making me run too, down and down. I love this landscape but move quickly over it towards trees far below where I hope to camp out of the wind. I put on wind gloves and cover my face like a bank robber out of the old westerns. Thankfully the trail is mostly gritty sand and I can move fast.
I arrive at the place I camped seven years ago. Nate is here and decides to set as well next to a creek racing down slabs of granite. Soon, John and Rob arrive telling us we’re ‘machines.’ Nate tells me I’m an atypical PCT hiker because I seem to really enjoy the trail. There is something so nice about walking with these JMT hikers who are not pressured to move fast or far or feel overwhelmed by the massive distance. We’ll part tomorrow as they head for Mount Whitney and the grand finale of their walk. I have summited it twice, so will continue the PCT, still in the Sierra but at more manageable elevations and no more big, exposed passes.
I can’t express how happy I am to have met Nate before my first pass and then to keep a similar pace through the entire JMT portion of the trail. I feel like I’ve completed an important milestone of my hike – and even moving fast, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. There’s still a long way to go and I’ll be above 10,000 feet in the coming days, but now, for the most part, I’m out of the danger zone as far as winter weather.
And those get/over-the-final-pass M&M’s? They’re all gone.