2018 Thru Hike of the Sierra Nevada - Section 3; Bishop Pass to Mount WhitneyPosted by Adventure 16 | 10.09.2018
On the morning of my thirteen day I was eager to get back on trail. I’d spent two days resupplying and enjoying the conveniences of the front country in Bishop, CA, the cultural capital of the Eastern Sierra. My previous six day hiking section had taken me here from Mammoth, CA. All packed up and with that last egg burrito, danish, and large coffee onboard, I headed off to the post office for my final errand of mailing off my bounce box. It was right then and there that I was struck by a lightning bolt of trail magic.
Perhaps it was the surreal Murakami novel I’d been reading the preceding two weeks on the trail but none of this seemed at all out of place. A bearded man in his mid sixties, driving an old pickup truck, wearing oversized women’s sunglasses, dangle earrings and a full length dress pulled over as I walked and asked if I needed a ride to the trailhead. “Yeah!” I said and while contemplating his fashion choices I thought to myself “Well, what exactly is a trail angel supposed to look like?” So with that unusual yet fortuitous development I was headed back to the trail without even having to unfurl the cardboard sign I’d tediously sharpied “South Lake” on the night before. Magic!
I blazed up Bishop Pass elated to be let loose in the wilderness once again. Despite only having five days to cover the next 100 or so trail miles I decided to head cross country and explore the Palisades Basin. I left the trail at Dusy Basin and headed over easy Knapsack Pass, took a swim in Barrett Lake, then crossed Potluck Pass and made camp at Lake 11.7K' where I watched the setting sun paint some of the most impressive 14er’s of the Sierra range.
North Palisade and Polonium Peaks in the Palisade Basin.
On day fourteen I faced some tricky route finding as I navigated Cirque Pass then gradually descended to Lower Palisade Lake. I compounded my slow travel attempting to contour east to the trail instead of sacrificing some elevation and heading directly south. I eventually reached the JMT at exactly 11a and feeling behind schedule, challenged myself to make it to the top of Mather Pass in an hour.
I hiked steadily and made great progress as the trail climbed. As someone who lives at sea level I’m always amazed at how quickly the body acclimates when given time in the mountains. At the switchbacks the steep grade and higher altitude forced me to increase my effort to maintain pace. With ten minutes until my completely imaginary and self imposed deadline expired the pass still looked a ways off and I briefly wondered “Why do I do this to myself?” but immediately banished those thoughts recognizing them as prologue to self negotiation (i.e “You’re not really in a hurry Tim, why don’t you slow down just a little?”). I pushed on for the top now gasping for breath and with hands on knees took the final steps to the ridge, my watch reading exactly 12:00p. I made it! I rewarded myself with some salmon jerky and sunflower seeds and stared at the views of Upper Basin feeling good about having regained some lost time.
A fantastic stretch of the John Muir Trail in Upper Basin.
The wide open Upper Basin is one of my favorite places on the JMT so I put my trail legs into cruise control and enjoyed the descent. Fatigue started to creep in later that afternoon as I climbed to Pinchot Pass. I took a break at Lake Marjorie and dove in despite the howling wind. The water temperature was a few notches below “refreshing” which is of course what you say when it’s actually cold but you don’t want to sound like a wimp. After only a few seconds I was chilled to my core and back on trail I got some curious stares as I hiked in my puffy jacket and beanie, a tad overdressed for the pleasant, mid-sixty degree afternoon.
After coming over Pinchot Pass I explored the basin to the east and not finding much in the way of campsites I dropped another 1K’ then crossed back over the trail to an unnamed lake. With the sun already behind the ridge I pitched the tent in the crisp shadows. I warmed up with a cup of coffee as I cooked, ate my dinner, then climbed into my sleeping bag to read a bit before bed. Luckily the call of nature urged me from my tent just as the skyline was erupting into a spectacular fiery sunset.
Evening skies ablaze near Crater Mountain.
My stomach was in knots as I woke on day fifteen. The previous nights dinner that I’d pilfered from a hiker box lacked an expiration date and seemed to be the culprit. I trudged down to Woods Creek and crossed the famed suspension bridge thinking back to when the bridge used to have wooden slats, many of which would typically be broken or completely missing, and the sense of exhilaration the crossing used to carry, now somewhat missing from the new, albeit much safer, aluminum retrofit.
I arrived at idyllic Rae Lakes and found a spot in the sun by a large rock that provided protection from the gusting wind. I took a break, swam, washed my clothes, and ate salami and cheese. After a glorious hour or so I felt much better and I pushed on to tackle the pass.
I often hear people complain about Glen Pass. It’s high. Endlessly long. Steep. Rocky. Exposed. Yes, I get it. For me Glen Pass and its laundry list of attributes ticks every box of why we come to the mountains in the first place! To push the legs and lungs in the thin air, to find enjoyment in the exertion, and to relish the hard earned, rewarding vista once at the top. When folks tell me how horrible Glen Pass is, or any other pass for that matter, I reflexively smile and say “I like it!” with complete sincerity.
The jubilation of coming over Glen was short lived however, and soon gave way to a feeling of drudgery. I’d been out of water for a while, my energy level was equally low, and with dwindling daylight I was facing having to camp in a suboptimal area. I plodded on, filled water at the Bullfrog outlet, and with the sun well behind the Deerhorn range, decided to push passed the Vidette/Bubbs Creek junction, an area over visited by humans and bears alike. I continued ascending to a nice campsite in Upper Vidette and as dusk completely overtook the valley I got the tent up, the water filtering, and I took a chilly bird bath in the creek.
I awoke on day sixteen knowing I had more time than miles left on my hike. At 7am it was still thirty three degrees inside the tent so I made another cup of coffee, laid in my sleeping bag and read. Once the sun finally thawed the valley I packed my things and got back on trail immediately bumping into another hiker filling his bottles in the creek. Surprised he said, "You're the first person that's caught up to me the whole time I've been on this trail".
He finished getting water then hastily set off, me following closely behind to continue our chat as we hiked. Fast. Very. Fast. It turned out we had a lot in common and were on similar life paths which made for an interesting but short winded conversation. I also learned he was doing the JMT in seven days and averaging thirty five miles a day. Thus the aggressive pace and the reason no one on trail had caught up to him!
We hit Forester Pass proper and after climbing about 1K' our speed combined with the altitude began to seriously curtail our discussion. After 12K’ no words were spoken between us. It would require the use of expletives here to accurately retell just how fast we were hiking so let’s just say we were absolutely flying up the trail; a two man team racing some unidentified opponent for some unknown reason
By now the top of the pass was getting close but the handful of people gathered up there still looked like ants. A bit like the fabled frog in boiling water I hadn’t appreciated our exertion level slowly creeping up but now I was truly suffering and it hurt. In a former life I’d been a bike racer which was basically a multi-year meditation on “this sucks!” and I tried to cast my mind back to those teachings. In a sick, masochistic way it was fun to be working that hard, moving so efficiently through the mountains, and I devoted my mind to embracing that belief, leaving no room for thoughts of pain to intrude.
Forester Pass is the highest pass on the entire Pacific Crest Trail at 13.2K'. By my math we covered the last 4.5 miles and 2,800 vertical feet in 80 minutes. It was literally the fastest I could have possibly gone up it and I could’ve only done so with someone else there to push me. Once on top it felt amazing to have produced that kind of effort and I thanked Mr. 35 miles/day, said goodbye as he sped off, and returned to my originally scheduled day of leisure that would soon find me soaking my feet in Tyndall Creek as part of an extended lunch break before casually making my way over the Bighorn Plateau to camp in lovely Wright Basin.
The barren Bighorn Plateau with Mount Whitney at far left.
On the morning of day seventeen I ran out of stove fuel halfway through making coffee. It wasn’t really even a decision. Cold curry rice for dinner didn't sound appetizing. I had two days left on my permit but calculated that I could hike the approximate 20 miles to get out of the wilderness and still make the drive home before midnight. With renewed purpose I got underway setting my internal transmission to all day pace and descended Wright Basin to rejoin the JMT.
It started warming up as I hit Guitar Lake and began the long climb up to Trail Crest. I happily removed and stashed my backpack at the trail junction to tackle the remaining two miles to the Whitney summit unencumbered. It was a Sunday and the trail was busy with day-hiker zombies fresh from somewhere-at-sea-level, gulping in the thin air, their glazed-over, oxygen deprived faces only changing to disdainful glares as I ran the less technical sections to the top.
Above the Hitchcock Lakes with the Kaweah Peaks in the distance.
With a schedule to keep I only stayed briefly at the crowded summit then ran back down to Trail Crest stopping a couple times to check that a few haggard looking day hikers were doing ok. I retrieved my pack and started down from Trail Crest. I’d forgotten how brutal the descent was but the big steps, off camber slabs, and large rocks in the trail did a good job of refreshing my memory. I shelved my desire to make quick progress and figured I'd get there when I got there!
I stopped at the creek below Consultation Lake, laid on my back completely submerged, and slowly counted to ten. While not an entirely comfortable experience, it never fails to refresh and re-energize me. I strolled the remaining miles to the Portal relieved to find my car still there. I changed into my flip flops, an act that felt far more wonderful than it usually does, and started the drive home accompanied, at least initially, by a large pizza in the passenger seat next to me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Tim Axall bought his first sleeping bag from the San Diego Adventure 16 store as a kid in the late 80's. His interest and passion for the outdoors have persisted since. He cherishes time spent in the Sierra Nevada's hiking, backpacking or skiing. Most recently Tim took his adventurous spirit a bit further afield, spending 6 months traveling through Southeast Asia experiencing
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