The First Pass: Donahue

July 22nd

Mileage: 11.3 (71.9)

I enjoy my best night’s sleep of the trip and wake at 6 a.m., without the help of an alarm.  The morning is once again cold and the opposite ridge keeps the sun from warming me.  I walk through the empty campsite, blinking, and find my bear canister.  Still no marks, still no sign of nocturnal disturbances.  I feel anxious about getting up and over my first mountain pass.  I wonder what it will be like.  Donahue Pass: 11,050 feet.  “Just like the Pohono Trail, easier than the bang-bang,”  I tell myself.  “Nothing I haven’t already done.”  At 7:20, I begin hiking in the mountain’s shadow.

The trail up to Donahue is rocky, steep, and picks its way among large boulders.  Small, wiry, mangled plants cover the hillside.  In the course of their lives, they seem to have grown in 50 different directions.  Whatever it takes to survive, I suppose.  There’s an opening between the trees and I look back over Lyell Canyon as the sun comes up.  I loved that place.

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Climbing out of Lyell Canyon

The river is my constant companion and I decide not to carry any water (which should have been a no-brainer decision for the past few days, really).  This same water course will turn into the gentle giant that flows down to Tuolumne.  Here though, it crashes and falls, throwing a large-scale liquid tantrum.  I meet a few hikers who must have camped below me, probably at the great campsite I passed up.  We say hello and I talk briefly with one man.  Everyone is trying to get on top of the pass in the morning.

I break free from the tree line and come to an alpine lake.  A woman there is packing her things; she camped here last night.  I tell her I’m jealous, that she picked a great spot.

“Yeah,” she says. “I did.”  She smiles and walks on.

The trail looks like it begins some serious ridge climbing once I pass the lake, so I stop for a while to let my solar charger soak up the sun, and I do the same.  I lay a wet pair of socks and underwear on some rocks to dry, and then pick through my baggie of trail mix, eating the almonds and cashews and saving the M&Ms for later on, after dinner.  I sit on top of a huge boulder, right next to the trail and for a while I feel like some sort of gate-keeper, or toll-collector.  I think of extorting sweets from the passing hikers.

“Donahue Pass?  One mini candy bar!  Lyell Canyon?  ALL your sugary items!”

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The alpine lake below Donahue Pass

For the next couple hours I walk from shelf to shelf,  each one containing a rushing stream and a small but full-to-the-brim lake.  Its nice to climb up, up, up and then walk on flat ground for some time.  I hike slowly.  Here and there, I can see water cascading down the mountainside.  Sometimes, these streams cross over the trail and flood it, forcing me to pick my way along wobbly rocks.  As I’m resting again I see a man and he stops to talk to me.

“How can the world be such a messed up place, and a place like this still exist?”  He says.  I immediately think about the duality of existence, the fallen-ness of man, the glory of creation, but this doesn’t seem like the time or place for that.  So I just shrug and say,

“Maybe it wouldn’t be if everyone hiked this trail.”

“Probably, but then it sure would get crowded up here.”

I pause for a moment.  “Maybe everyone can hike the JMT in a parallel universe then,”  I say.

“That’s a good idea.  I like that.”  And he walks away.

I push hard up the last climb to the pass, feet freshly taped.  I gently walk over all the scree that has accumulated on the trail.  With the exception of the climb up Half-Dome, this ascent has been the most treacherous.  I can nearly envision all the sprained ankles suffered on this section.  I reach the top a little after 11 a.m., and a gust of wind greets me and blows my hat off my head.  My chin strap catches it and I pull the strings tight.  There is a distinct rushing and whistling as the wind barrels up the side of the mountain, crests, and flies off into the morning sky.  I look for a cozy nook among the rocks and soon find my lunch spot.

I fill my little lunch pot with some water and toss some dehydrated hummus inside to soak; I sit and wait and look around me.  Donahue Pass!  No problem at all!  I reach inside my pack and pull out my wool cap and down jacket.  Its cold on top.  I check my map, which is safely nestled in a new, secure spot, and feel like I’m making decent time.  There’s a faux-pass (the pun, absolutely intentional) later on in the afternoon, but its only a 500 foot climb so I’m not worried about that.  I sit for as long as I can stand the cold wind and then push on into the next drainage.

The afternoons can be difficult on my body.  In particular, my neck.  I’ve had multiple visits to the chiropractor the past six months due to a string of strains which basically put me out of commission for a few days each time.  Today, as I go over Island Pass (the faux-pass) I feel more tightness and pain in that area than I’ve felt so far on the trip.  But it hasn’t popped yet.  My body is telling me to stop.  1000 Island Lake is my campsite for the night, and its only a little over a mile away.  I pause to get some water for the last section, and when I put my pack back on I can tell my neck has stiffened to a breaking point.  “No more stopping,” I say to myself.

I make it to 1000 Island Lake.

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1000 Island Lake

There’s a side trail that winds along the north shore and leads hikers to a large number of campsites, all spread out along the lake.  Its a stunning spot and easily accessible to hikers on short 3 or 4 day trips, which means it can be crowded.  But, its worth it.  After a 10 minute search I finally find a spot that’s sheltered from the howling wind and toss my pack off.

“Ahhhhhhhhh…” I think.  Get that thing off me.  Just rest.

I look out over the lake and the many little islands covering its surface.  The water is clear blue and I try to follow the small whitecaps as the stout wind pushes them along.  Here are actual small sandy beaches with soft green grass leading up to them.  Tents dot the hillside.  Fishermen carry poles back and forth.  Way above everything stands Banner Peak with its distinct diagonal top.  Almost 13,000 feet in elevation.

Maybe tomorrow I won’t hike.  Maybe I’ll just sit here on the rocks and look at the lake and read and let my neck rest.  Or maybe I’ll hike 15 miles.

Who knows.

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