Smoke and Rain: the Travails of Muir Pass

July 30th

Mileage: 13.3 (168.5)

At some point during the night the smoke cleared and the temperature dropped.  All five of us agreed it would be smart to get over Muir Pass as early as possible because weather was supposed to be poor today.  By 5 a.m. everyone was stirring and by 6 I was hiking.  Aaron and Monique are usually the first ones out, followed by Carol, and then Phil and I.  I stroll along and say hello to a group of boy scouts camped nearby.  Everyone is in much better spirits now that the smoke is gone.  I pick my way along rocks sticking out of the flooded inlet to Evolution Lake.  The morning is heavy with clouds, and some are already showing their teeth even at this early hour.  Maybe today I’ll pick up my morning pace…

Soon I am among a troop of hikers.  All of us were up early.  Hordes of people are hiking over Muir Pass and choosing their steps wisely, as the loose rock underfoot is proving to be unforgiving.  Aaron, Monique and I hike close together.  We pass the first of a series of lakes that are named after John Muir’s daughters: Wanda Lake.

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Wanda Lake

The water is cold and clear and falls away into unseen depths just a few feet from the shoreline.  The trail, at points, is just a hop away from the lake.  I keep a watchful eye on what I suspect is Muir Pass, at nearly 12,000 feet, and another on the clouds rolling in.  The mountains broadcast a certain foreshadowing, and I feel uneasy.  “What’s going to happen?” I think.

Rain holds off, and I summit Muir Pass at 9 a.m.  The ascent was long and smooth and not as difficult as I had expected.  Aaron and Monique are right behind be, as is a new wave of smoke pouring in over Evolution Basin.  It begins to rain.

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The Muir Pass hut.

I duck inside the hut and find a small group of people gathered.  The building is nearly 100 years old and the inside smells like a cave.  I can’t decide if the place exemplifies loneliness, or is posted as a sentry against such.  The weather pushes me out into the wilderness again in an attempt to out-hike the rain and smoke.

“Goodbye Muir Pass,” I say.  “Many people say they love you, but I do not.  Not yet, at least.”

I look out into the next drainage, down into Le Conte Canyon and imagine a dark, sinister, Transylvania-esque organ blaring a foreboding dissonance into the scene.  Its become clear: today, the landscape is going to play the villain.

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Helen Lake and the beginning of Le Conte Canyon.

The rain does not stop for the rest of the afternoon.  Water floods the trail and falls all over the mountains.  The Middle Fork Kings River is a raging beast.  I do not stop hiking, and in my haste and fatigue take the worst fall of the hike while navigating the slippery rocks next to a flooded stream.  “I’m OK,” I say, and get up.  Everything is soaked.

Luckily, the smoke has not followed me into this next section of trail and in a few hours there is a ranger station where I can get information about the forest fire.  Aaron, Monique, Carol, Phil and I have agreed on a campsite not far from the station, and I hope for a chance to dry some of my gear in the evening.

I switchback down, and the rain eases.  The landscape turns out to be non-villainous after all.  Instead, there is a stoic majesty about the place.  Deep folds in the mountain are home to thick clouds of mist.  Water cascades down the facades.  I realize that mountains just are.  They do not exist outside the rules of the physical world, a world that is slowly wearing them down, but they do seem genuinely accepting of their fate.  “Hold fast to the mountain inside you,” they say, “and you’ll survive.”  The dreariness of the weather actually illuminates just how beautiful and powerful the mountain’s philosophy is.  This is one of the lessons of the back-country.

Soon, I arrive at the famous rock monster.  It may be the number one photo-op on the entire trail and Aaron and Monique are there snapping pictures.  Monique offers to take mine:

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Cruel world…all these miles only to be eaten by a rock monster

I coast down the remaining trail and stumble to the ranger’s station after having lost over 3,000 feet in elevation since Muir Pass.  I am done.  I am wet.  I am hungry.  The forest fire is burning, but far away.  No portion of the JMT is under threat from the flames, which is very good news.  Weather is predicted to be a continual nuisance, but not as bad as today.

We make camp and I wander around.  Somehow, Le Conte Canyon has turned into one of my favorite places on the trail.

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Le Conte Canyon. Still so beautiful.

The five of us sit around camp, looking at maps, soaking our feet, wondering what we can do to make the ranger give us treats, considering our feral nature.  I make dinner of tortilla soup and sit down on a log to eat.

“That’s a lot of food there,” says Phil.

“Not enough,” I reply.  “Not enough.”

On the JMT, in 2014, there are two things certain in life: rain and hunger.

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