Wednesday, May 14, 2014

John Muir Trail: Day 26 — Deer Meadow to Upper Basin

As soon as we left camp the trail climbed steeply, switchbacking up a rugged slope beside Palisade Creek, and we knew it was just the beginning.  We had more than 3,000 feet to climb before cresting Mather Pass at 12,100 feet above sea level.

Now and then the trail crossed seeps where water trickled from beneath rocks to form lush bands of willows and mountain wildflowers.  In places the trail captured the water and we found ourselves hiking up tiny streams for dozens of yards, shrubs growing up and around us to form a lush corridor.

“It’s like we’re explorers,” said Noah.

“Good idea!”  Kai lit up.  “Let’s be explorers!”

“We could be searching for lost temples in the mountains.  Like they have in the Andes and stuff.”  And they were off, climbing side by side through a passageway of sinewy willows.

As we ascended, the trail turned dusty and the mountainside became rock-bound and dry.  The large trees of the valley gave way to scatterings of twisted and stunted pines, scree spilling down in rocky slopes beneath precipitous cliff faces.

We stopped for lunch beside the creek, just short of Palisade Lakes, and we soaked in the sun as we ate.  The sky above us was peaceful and blue, just a few wispy clouds.  However, when we reached the lakes and caught our first glimpses of Mather Pass a short time later, we found darkening storm clouds spilling over the jagged ridgeline.  That southern stretch of sky had been hidden from us all morning by the steep walls beside Palisade Creek, but all the sudden we understood that we only had a short window of time to get over Mather Pass.  In fact, we’d be hard pressed to make it before lightning hit.

“Should we just stay here?” Pam asked, looking a little nervous.

It was probably the smartest thing to do, but the previous days of rain had already set us back, and we were so low on food.  I shook my head.  “We’ll make it.  We need to keep moving or we’ll run out of food.”

The area around Palisade Lakes was gorgeous, all jagged cliffs and slate-blue water, but we hustled past it, watching the storm clouds spill over the mountains and swirl in the southeast.  Above the lake we climbed into a landscape devoid of trees, just broad slopes of grey talus and cliffs leading up to the darkening sky.  We put on our rain gear and hurried up the switchbacks, but lightning tore across the ridgeline and thunder split the sky when we were still nearly a mile shy of Mather Pass.

I stopped and looked back at Pam.  “We’ve got to hunker down somewhere.”

“Well I wish we would have done it way back when I said it.”  She looked a mile or more behind us to Palisade lakes.  “Back where there was actually some shelter!”

She had a point.  We now stood high on a bare mountainside, nothing but jagged rock all around us.  The lightning was already close, the storm moving our way.  We took off our packs and scurried across the talus looking for an overhanging rock to shelter us.  Rain started falling hard—large, cold drops pelting against our faces and raincoats.

“Over here.”  I spotted a cluster of large granite boulders that had fallen into a low area and leaned together to form a small cave-like shelter, and I waved everyone towards it.  It smelled a little of rodents, and I kicked bits of dry marmot poop away as we pushed our way in.  The shelter was just large enough to fit the four of us if we pressed close together, so the boys sat on our laps, and we watched through the opening as the sky turned wild—lightning flashing in all directions, thunder echoing off the rocks, rain turning to hail and battering the granite world around us.

The sky seethed for almost an hour without letting up, and the cold air cut through our wet clothes and into our bones.  We shivered.  At one point I scurried through the storm back to our packs and pulled out our fleece jackets, hats and gloves.  We bundled into them, and it helped some, but our bodies were so chilled that we continued to shiver.

When a break in the storm finally came, it didn’t look like it would last.  The lightning had moved northwest of us, the rain diminished to drizzle, but more dark clouds were piling in from the south.  “We should make a dash to get over the pass before those hit us,” I suggested, and a few minutes later we’d strapped our packs on and started hurrying up the switchbacks towards the narrow ridge.

It was almost a mile of steep switchbacks to the crest, and I was proud of how quickly the boys pushed themselves.  Still, just before we reached the top, rain started falling hard again and we heard thunder rumble from behind a nearby peak.  Pam had stopped to put on another layer of warm clothes, and I looked back to see her hurrying up the switchbacks, almost a quarter mile behind us.  “You alright, Pam?” I yelled back to her.  She waved and kept trudging.

Gusts of wind whipped rain against the boys and me as we topped the pass.  Kai looked back at me, his face soaked, a giant smile showing his missing front teeth.  “This is awesome, Dad.”

And it was.  I was standing with my young sons on top of a knife-edged ridge, a sea of craggy peaks in every direction, the sky rampant and boundless.  Our world was giant, wild, out of control—and we were so puny there on top of it all, like the smallest kind of ants that could be squished or swept away, and I shouted at the wonderful absurdity of life.  The boys smiled and shouted too, and for a moment we all stood there, our faces turned towards the reckless sky, shouting.

When Pam reached us she smiled, and we all hustled down the steep eastern edge of Mather Pass, lightning ripping the sky, wind whipping rain against us.  We could see our breath, and my fingers ached a little with cold.  “I love this,” I said.  “I could do this forever.”

Pam looked back at me, her lips a little blue, her teeth chattering slightly.  “I could take a hot bath forever.”

I laughed and had to admit that a hot bath sounded pretty terrific too.  If only there was a bathhouse on top of that mountain—a bathhouse with huge picture windows, a bathhouse that served smothered enchiladas and draft beer…

We hiked a few more miles as the sky darkened and turned to night, the rain shifting to icy drizzle.  We finally pitched our tent on a patch of uneven ground in the lower reaches of Upper Basin, along a tiny tributary at the headwaters of the Kings River.  We ate a dinner of nuts, granola bars and jerky in the tent, and it never felt so good to be dry and hunker into a sleeping bag.

“You guys were awesome today,” I said, smiling at my family.

“That was neat being on top of that mountain,” Noah said.

Kai gave another one of his toothless grins.  “And being under that rock and watching lightning.”

We were all quiet for a moment, rain pattering against the tent’s rainfly, before Pam added, “And finally getting warm.”

Read the full series by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Day2 – Day 3 – Day 4 – Day 5 – Day 6 – Day 7 – Day 8 – Day 9 – Day 10 – Day 11 – Day 12 – Day 13 – Day 14 – Day 15 – Day 16 – Day 17 – Day 18 – Day 19 – Day 20 – Day 21 – Day 22 – Day 23 – Day 24 – Day 25 – Day 26 – Day 27 – Day 28 – Day 29 – Day 30 – Day 31 – Day 32 – Day 33 – Day 34

J.S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.