Mileage 16 (195.9)
In the morning, most of us sit around in our little “kitchen” area and fiddle with breakfast items. Aaron and Monique take off, opting instead to breakfast on the trail. The rest of us talk about the day and I eat soggy, chewy cashews and sip on steaming coffee. A rumor has been flying around that work is being done on Mather Pass, and the trail is being shut down between 9 and 4. But camping at the Upper Palisade Lake has put us in a good position–only a few miles from the pass (if that)–and we’ll be heading out early. So I can afford a leisurely morning meal.
The trail crosses through an enormous basin and I steady myself over the rocky terrain. No longer do I worry about the loose rock hurting my ankles; they’ve grown strong and reliable. Once again, the trail is carved into the side of the mountain and as I walk up I can see holes drilled into the rock. I assume these are the blast-sites. The approach to Mather Pass is a great place to play “Spot the Thru-Hiker,” because the landscape is sweeping and wide open. Here and there, little dots emerge from the grey rock, moving as if by sorcery. From far away their motion seems effortless, fluid. There is no quit in anyone.
And then, at 12,100 feet, I come to Mather Pass.
I think this is the first time I’ve crossed above 12,000 feet on the trip, but I don’t consider that when I’m on top. I just look out and think…what do I think? I was struck down by the beauty of it all, and thoughts failed me.
Mather Pass is my favorite of them all.
Aaron, Monique and Carol have already come and gone, but I can see them walking down. Their voices echo up to Jeremy and I, who stand on the pass together. I wave to them and I see a trekking pole raised in greeting back to me. I’ll catch them later, but for right now I need to sit and admire everything. I sit for a long time and Karley shows up. I look down into the valley and see two dark specs moving across the ground. Sometimes, I am amazed by people.
The hike down is steep and over before I know it. Then, its smooth walking over level ground. I coast along and think, “Yes, this is the JMT I came for.” Blue skies and mountain passes. Glittering emerald lakes and soaring rocky peaks. My body is used to altitude and hard miles and responds like a charm. There is no ache, no hesitation. My legs propel me forward.
Soon, I’ve dropped 2,000 feet and walk among trees again.
By early afternoon I come to the flooded South Fork King’s River and see some of my group on the other side. They point to a series of rocks that lead across the water. I wobble and catch myself, steadying my footing with my trekking poles. Everyone has decided to go across Pinchot Pass this afternoon, which would make it a two pass day. I was not anticipating a two pass day, and my body, suddenly, feels very tired.
“I’m not going across today,” I say. “I’m camping at Lake Marjorie.” I like doing passes first thing in the morning, and by camping at Marjorie I could get up and be over Pinchot Pass first thing, but I’d be on my own again. I set out, walking uphill, gaining back all that elevation I lost in the morning and feeling my mood sour.
“I’m not walking over another pass today,” I tell myself. I fall behind everyone and take long breaks. The sky clouds up and I think to myself again, “I’m not walking over another pass today.”
When I come to the chain of lakes at the base of the ascent to Pinchot Pass I see Phil sitting there. He asks me if I’m going over today or camping here for the night. I don’t like the look of my camping options. I also don’t really want to be alone, especially if the sky opens up in another early evening thunderstorm. I decide to cross the pass.
The clouds fill in and the darkest of them sit right on top of Mt. Pinchot and Mt. Wynne, both of which are directly north and east of the pass. Pinchot is just a shade higher than Mather Pass, but it doesn’t feel very difficult. I am hiking hard and soon pass Carol, then Monique and Aaron, and finally Karley who is on the last pitch up when I meet her. Suddenly, there’s Jeremy and he’s standing on the top talking to a couple women. How did I summit that so quickly?
“You’re almost there! You’re almost there!” Karley is shouting over and over to the others. Thunder rolls out loud and long. The valley below has plunged into shadow, and I’m not in the mood to stand around on a ridge above 12,000 feet with a thunderstorm nearby. I pull out my baggie of trail mix and eat a few handfuls, then I take a long drink of water and set out into the next valley.
After another three miles of hiking we finally get to a campground. Everyone is exhausted. A little pond is nearby and many of us jump in. Mt Cedric Wright towers over us to the east and is taking a beating from the storm. Somehow, we stay dry. Clotheslines are spread everywhere and all varieties of laundry are hung up. We have arrived, after all our ascending and descending, at a campsite with almost the exact elevation profile as the one we stayed at last night. For a moment, a sense of futility hangs in my mind before its broken by the realization that, “Who cares? I walked over two mountain passes today!”
The sun sets and as usual, I’m the last one inside my tent.