The Golden Staircase

July 31st

Mileage: 11.4 (179.9)

“Bear!  Bear on fire!”

“mmmmfffgggg….huh?”

“There’s a bear out here!  On fire!”

“Oh,” I say.

I had asked Aaron to wake me up when he and Monique started moving, and this was his method of doing so.  I stay in my tent for another 5 minutes, unwilling to get started on my hike today.  I can’t shake the tired feeling for some reason.  Muir Pass took something out of me, something necessary for forward motion.  Last night I binge ate a bunch of trail mix so I have to skip my small portion of nuts this morning.  It’s very difficult to make myself stop eating once I start.  My hiker hunger has evolved into a being unto itself and it will not rest.  I get out my little stove and boil water for coffee.  I sit in the dirt and draw stick figures in the soil.

By 7:30, I’m on the trail and I see blue skies.  Deep, dark, richly colored blue.  The Hallelujah Chorus bursts into my head.

2014-08-20 10.14.17
Blue skies in morning

I stop at Grouse Meadow, which signals the end of Le Conte Canyon.  Water has soaked the area, and where the meadow isn’t flooded the ground has become saturated and squishes pleasantly when stepped upon.  Most of this would have been hidden from view just 12 hours ago.  I’m glad I get to see it now.

2014-08-20 10.14.54
Grouse Meadow.

I’ve taken to just drinking half a liter of water when the grinding noise in my stomach becomes unbearable.  Its like a little child, or my crazy dog, that will not stop until its given something, anything, to fill its attention.  I’m saving my food for a little later, so water will have to do for the moment.  As I’m drinking Brian walks up.  I was wondering when he was going to catch me.  I last saw him at Muir Trail Ranch.

“Getting ready for the Golden Staircase?”  He says to me.

“Umm, no?  That’s today?”  I say.

“Yeah, you’ll be there in a few hours probably.”

“Oh, great.”

“I’m going to hike until I find a nice sunny spot next to some water so I can lay my stuff out to dry and get hydrated.”

And like that, he’s off.  I assume I’ll see him in an hour or so while he’s on his break.

Its important to talk a little bit about The Golden Staircase at this point.  Often maligned, this stretch of trail is basically carved out of the side of a mountain.  I’ve heard it said that it was the last piece of the trail to be completed.  The problem is such: a hiker must hike out of Le Conte Canyon and somehow get over Mather Pass (the next pass going south), but there is no logical route that flows naturally from the landscape.  One had to be created.  My destiny for today was to hike over this creation.  Like anything else that is spoken about with equal parts reverence and hatred, its myth grew and grew in my mind.  “What is The Golden Staircase going to be like?”  I thought.  “And shouldn’t the map-maker have indicated where it was, just as with all the lakes and meadows and passes?”  In this fashion, I grumble-hike for the rest of the morning.

And then, I am there.  So is Brian, and he’s pointing at the side of the mountain and saying, “Can you see it?  Can you see it?  Its the diagonal lines way up there!”

I couldn’t see it, but I could see three moving forms that I assumed were Carol, Monique and Aaron.

Phil arrived and we sat in the sun, baking, taking in precious calories as we prepared ourselves to go up.

Once I started, I tried not to stop.  In fact, I tried not to think about anything.  My mind went blank and I told my legs to just keep moving.  We had an agreement: you carry me over this thing, and then I’ll sit down for at least an hour once its over.  The switchbacks kept piling up, one directly on top of the one before it.

2014-08-20 10.17.35
The Golden Staircase

I caught up with Monique and Aaron, and then, it was over.  The Palisade Lakes stretched out before me, and past them, the mountain chain the holds Mather Pass.

2014-08-20 10.20.03
After The Golden Staircase, looking toward Mather Pass

As per our agreement, I stop at the Lower Palisade Lake and rest my legs.  I dip my feet in the icy water and sit and think about this glorious flat ground.  I decide that if a person can hike over The Golden Staircase with a 35 pound backpack, that person can do almost anything.  I see Brian and learn he’s going up and over the pass today, so we said goodbye.  At his pace, we won’t meet again.

Then, I think about the Ambling Alp, Eric, whom I hadn’t seen for maybe a week now.  For all I knew, he was done with the trail.  One of the sad parts about thru-hiking is that sometimes you make friends and they are in and out of your life in a day or less.  Rarely do you get the chance to say goodbye, or even know that its the last time you’ll see someone.

I find Monique and Aaron at a campground above the Upper Palisade Lake.  Aaron and I complain about how we thought the trail was going to lead us along the edge of the lake, yet here we are hundreds of feet above it.  Monique is a good sport, and if she ever complains I don’t ever hear it.  Good campgrounds are scarce, and we happen to have claimed the best one.  As I’m gathering water and washing socks, Carol and Phil show up.  Then Karley and Jeremy and everyone tosses up their tents and begins eating or doing other, less important things.  A couple we haven’t met before camps nearby and they come over and sit and talk with us after dinner.  Soon, the party is broken by flashes of lightning and loud thunder.  Everyone retreats to their tents for the night.  Around 8 p.m. the storm sounds like its diminishing, so I get out and sit and wait for the night to come.  I watch the storm die down, break apart, and fly off to the northeast.  The sun sets and turns everything purple.

2014-08-20 10.18.51
The storms breaks apart and rolls away.

“If this is the reward for hiking The Golden Staircase,” I think, “I’ll return to it again and again and again.”  Then I crawl into my tent and fall asleep almost immediately.

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