28 miles hiked total
A mile after breaking camp in the morning we’re on the JMT headed north towards Muir Pass. The beautiful John Muir Trail, with its multitudes of hikers, struggling under the weight of their packs in this high thin air. There is water everywhere- this is the biggest snow year in the sierras in 20 years (don’t quote me on that) and there’s still snow chunks on the north sides of the high rocky passes, the water is still seeping, trickling, the small trickles running down the trail, joining together looking for a river in which to rage. The streams are raging! We’ve got a bunch of stream crossings on this route, and a few of them can, according to the notes, be sketchy in high water years. We’ll see how that goes…
Hiking steeply up towards Muir pass in the bright sunshine on the wondrous rocky trail in the mushy snow is exhausting. I’m still getting used to being above ten thousand feet! I’m not keeping track of our daily elevation gain and loss on this route, but just know that it is A Lot- per Andrew Skurka, this route has seven thousand feet of elevation change (gain and/or loss) for every ten miles. This is a very large amount. So, we will always be going either steeply up or steeply down. Hold that in your mind, if you will.
We reach Helen Lake just below Muir Pass in time for lunch and sit on a patch of damp alpine meadow next to the cold water eating every possible thing. I’m so hungry! This steep trail and the high air makes me hungry. Have I brought enough food for this stretch of trail, the 68 miles to Roads End, where there is supposedly a small cafe and store? How long will 68 miles even take us? How slow will this route become once we leave the JMT and are headed cross-country? We shall see.
Speaking of leaving the JMT and going cross-country, we do so just after Helen Lake, hanging a west onto a snowfield that leads up towards Black Giant Pass, and my heart flutters with excitement. No more trail! Not a line, even, just a smattering of dots! Making our way across the chunked-up earth using only our wits and our two good legs! First off, we’ll be traversing Ionian Basin and then the Goddard Drainage, which is, according to Skurks, the hardest part of the entire KCHBR, although we don’t know that yet. (This section is usually done at the end, but due to the direction and starting point of our loop hike, we’ll be doing it first.) Since we’re starting with the Ionian Basin/Goddard drainage section, I haven’t yet looked at Skurka’s notes for the section before it, since we’ll be doing that section last. If I had, I would’ve seen this warning-
Although I will be glad, in retrospect, that I didn’t see the warning. It’s always good to have as much information as possible on routes such as this one, but anxiously anticipating a hard thing is almost always worse than the actual hard thing, amirite?
Talus. Today’s talus is not the bright sticky granite that is so characteristic of the high sierra but some sort of smoother, more jagged-edged stone that is, according to Skurks, infused with quartz. I do not like this talus. It is slippy, and just brushing against its edges will draw blood. I am already slow on talus, slower than most- leaning on my trekking poles throwing my body weight forward instead of putting the poles away and leaping from boulder to boulder, gazelle like, as my friends do- because I am afraid of falling, because I do not trust my own body, because I cannot let go and trust the tread on my shoes- but on this more slippy talus I am even slower, and time creeps almost to a standstill. No matter, though. We huff and puff our way up to Black Giant pass and the land beyond of austere rock and quiet lakes is so beautiful as to be unreal, and morale is high and I am happy, so happy to be here.
We connect the dots on Skurka’s map past tooth lake, then chasm lake, through more talus and watermelon snowfields (watermelon snow is the lovely pink snow created by an algae up here)- the soft afternoon snow is easy to traverse without microspikes which is good, as we only have one set between the two of us. Then there’s a steep drainage we’re meant to climb, a creek roaring down a crack in the earth, and the entire drainage is invisible under a thick (seeming) snowbridge and so we hike up this snowbridge, stamping steps into the watermelon snow laughing in delight as the creek roars beneath us, this is much easier than talus! And there are only a few gnar bits where a hole appears in the snowbridge and we traverse the ford-ranger sized talus to the right, handing up our packs and I fall on a wobbly rock and cut my knee but then we reach a grassy ramp! Which is to say a patch of grass pointed skyward like one might walk to reach heaven, with little flowers unbent in the alpine winds and fat marmots on their rocks flashing their long yellow teeth as they split the quiet with their piercing whistles and then, by god, we are at the top.
Not the top top, but one of many tops. There’s always gonna be another mountain, as M. Cyrus says. I’m always gonna want to make it move. Always gonna be an uphill battle, sometimes I’m gonna have to lose. Ain’t about how fast I get there, ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the cliiiiiiiiimb…
Skurka has a dot on his maps for the “highest point in the Ionian Basin.” It just so happens that this dot marks one of the most serene campsites I’ve ever seen. A perfectly flat spot amongst the chaos of talus, above a clear tarn ringed in snow. Not a breath of wind, quiet as the beginning of the world. We drop our packs with relief. How can we NOT sleep here, in this church of granite and light. Kodak pitches his massive zpacks flat tarp so it hangs over our cowboy camp and keeps the condensation off, but won’t obstruct the view.
We cook our dinners in awe, almost without speaking. The warm day fades towards gloaming, the gloaming heralds the coming of the cold stars. Presently the milky way is out, singing us to sleep. If this isn’t peak embodiment, I think, as I hang, suspended in the galaxies above, then I don’t know what is.