Mulkey Pass mile 744.5 to Agnew Meadow mile 914.5
We have just completed a 14 day stint in the high Sierra backcountry, our longest stretch without resupply and our longest without seeing pavement. This stretch of the PCT coincides with the majority of the John Muir Trail, as such, we were not in deep isolation, but rather crossed paths often with south bound ‘JMTers’. We were continuing from where we had left off back on June 16th when we left the still wintery high Sierra seeking spring conditions in northern CA. Our journey now to get back down south again included many a miracle hitch, including one from a mother and daughter, and another from a woman, Tamara, who picked us up in Bridgeport at night at a gas station (after we had turned down a ride in the back of a moving van from three guys heading to Bishop.) Tamara ended up giving us a ride to Bishop, where she lives. I fell quickly asleep in the back of the car while Li An utilized her well honed social skills and chatted with her the whole way there. By the time we arrived, Tamara felt comfortable enough to offer us a bed in her spare room. The next morning we rose early and got our thumbs flexing. Before long we had secured a ride with a South African astronomer out on a Sunday trying to get his radio telescope properly functioning. He is, apparently, involved in a project to map the universe. I don’t have any idea what contour interval they use in those maps, but I wish I had asked. From Big Pine we caught a ride with a couple heading all the way up to Horseshoe Meadow (our trailhead about 20 miles past Lone Pine up a steep and windy road). They were dropping a car off for their 17 year old son and two friends who were hiking the JMT. They were then going to drive around with the other car to Kearsarge Pass to pack in about 130 lbs worth of food for the three kids. We marveled at the shopping list on order including 20 apples and pre cooked steaks.
We ourselves also had the heaviest packs yet of this journey, planning to get through in 10-11 days to Mammoth, I had 47 lbs including 10 days food, bear canister, ice axe, rope, micro spikes, collapsible fishing rod, mini tackle box, and one water bottle. Thankfully water was not going to be a significant contributor to pack weight as it was for so many hundreds of miles through southern CA. This is probably about 18-20 lbs more than I would normally carry, and I was concerned about the durability of our ultralight Gossamer Gear bags. Suffice it to say they made it, mostly in one piece, and held up better than expected, although comfort of such packs drops off quickly once you break the 30 lb barrier.
This 170 mile stretch does not include an additional 17 mile detour up Mt Whitney, which we opted to do, nor the additional 16 we did to get out to Mono Hot Springs and back on my 32nd birthday. I suppose that means we covered about 200 miles, but ended up taking 14 days instead of 11. By day 7 or 8 we were really rationing food and our bellies were paying for it, although the trout fishing in the high subalpine lakes is good, and in each of the 6 lakes we fished we were provided for. Good fortune was also had at Muir Trail Ranch where many a JMT’er had paid to have a 5 gallon bucket of food resupply packed in by mule only to discover that their appetite was not what they thought it would be. On offer there for us to pilfer through were about 30 gallons of excess supplies hikers had ditched into the ‘hiker box’ (lost and found). We easily resupplied ourselves with some extra days of food out of the hiker box, which took the pressure off of us to get to Mammoth.
The passes and valleys through which we were traveling command awe and respect, and it would have been a shame to have to rush through simply for a lack of Snickers. Besides summitting Mt Whitney (highest point in the lower 48 apparently at about 14,500 feet) we also went up and over 7 major passes ranging from over 12,000 feet to just under 11,000. Each glacially carved valley has its own unique attributes, and while the high Sierran landscape and vegetation is a fairly predictable pattern, we continued to encounter new plants along the way. The main signatures as you move north are the shift from highly arid Foxtail and Lodgepole pine forests to more lush Whitebark pine, Lodgepole pine and hemlock forests. The other clear shift is in the overall altitude. The peaks as you move north get less and less high, while the treeline (since you are moving north in latitude) also drops. I have wondered about this pattern which can be seen not just in the Sierra, but also in the Rocky Mountains as well. Peaks in Montana for instance are much lower than they are in Colorado, but they appear no less impressive as the tree line drops as well.
Snow and stream crossings were two key aspects of the high Sierra that in June slowed, scared, or forced thru hikers to quit their hike outright. The winter was deep and long, and spring came late so the snowpack in the Sierra was much larger than average mid June when most thru hikers are heading north. We have several friends who did it, and survived, but we also heard of many more who had to get off the trail due to sickness, injury, or plain exhaustion. What a difference a month makes. Our friends estimated that they saw anywhere from 70-90% of the trail under snow in June. I estimate that we hiked over 8 miles of snow in total so far out of about 200 miles, or about 4% of the trail. The river crossings were on the whole a total non issue for us now in late July, with the exception of Evolution Creek which we crossed after two days of rain. That ford hit us at about hip to stomach height, but we were able to manage easily. Actually our most difficult ford was the one which was totally unnecessary.
After hitting up the hiker box at Muir Trail Ranch we crossed over the San Joaquin via a log jam bridge to some primitive hot springs on the other side of the river. The next day when we returned, we decided to try to ford the river thereby avoiding a mile of boulder scrambling, not to mention the log jam. Well that ford was wide, perhaps 80 feet or so, and moving quick, however it was fine up until the last few feet which got just a little too deep for us to cross. While standing in the river, water rushing about us, poles firmly planted in the smooth river stones beneath, we debated what to do, go back, across nearly the whole river again and then face the log jam crossing anyway or continue to work upstream and try to find a better crossing. We opted for the latter, and eventually got ourselves into a nice little eddy in which we were able to make it across. Li An, lover of water in all forms save frozen and inclined was excited and thrilled by the crossing. I was less enthusiastic, a bit shook up and mystified by the way she assesses relative risk. Coming from the flattest place on Earth, and one totally defined by water and its movements, it makes sense that she would be so strong in river fords. Yet put her on some snow and it can quickly be a different story. Well, her skill has improved substantially in that regard as well, but like I say, we saw so little snow anyway that there was no need for the kind of gear we were hauling. The ice axes proved good for one thing only; digging catholes. Needless to say they have been ditched into the bounce box in Mammoth.
Fish? O yeah! Rainbows, Goldens, and Brook Trout all entered into our diet these past weeks
Mosquitoes? Well yeah, tis the season. But they weren’t bad, and we have thus far managed to avoid using DEET pesticide, opting instead for long sleeved shirts, head nets in the evening if needed, and mostly, just keep moving, like the Caribou do.
O and thanks to so many for the Birthday wishes. It was a memorable one speed hiking down Bear Creek amongst ancient Junipers and multi colored Penstemons, getting lost…ish, but eventually making our way to Mono Hot Springs restaurant with 6 minutes to spare. We sat on their patio after even the cook had left, and by candle light grilled our brook trout, caught that morning on a red and silver Scandinavian spoon, while feasting on fresh salad, rice, and eventually berry pie and cheesecake. It wasn’t the Olive Garden, but I guess it sufficed;) Later, under meteor fireworks we soaked in ‘Old Pedro’ hotspring, feeling more alive and yet more drowsy than ever.
There is a lot more to share, and maybe we will get another post together here one of these days, but the post office will be closing soon, and we need to hit the trail. There is no way for me to put into words the landscapes we have been passing through these past weeks. This is a magical place fit for poets and botanists alike. If you want to see it, google Ansel Adams, if you want to feel it, go there.