This past summer (August 3-17th), my fiancé and I spent two weeks hiking through the Sierras. Having done the John Muir Trail a couple years previously, I wanted something a little more adventurous and set my sights on Steve Roper's Sierra High Route. This would be Kate's first trip to the Sierras and first real overnight backpacking trip (with the exception of many climbing trips in the past). I wanted her to see some of my favorite spots on the JMT (Evolution Lakes, Rae Lakes, the Bighorn Plateau and Mt. Whitney, etc.) as well as make a stop at the Muir Trail Ranch for a resupply and hot spring soak, so I ended up creating a hybrid route that mostly followed the SHR but began in Tuolumne Meadows and finished at the Whitney Portal. I solicited and incorporated input from BPL members (thanks!) on must-visit spots and ignored those who cast aspersions on Kate's ability based on her limited experience. The trip was awesome, and this trip report captures some of it but really the photos are the best part. Because it's pretty tedious to upload photos on this site, I kept it to a minimum but I highly recommend checking out this link for the best photos - especially if you find my writing boring!:
One last thing... the stats... because I know you love that stuff:
Total Miles: 230 (conservative)
Total Elevation Gain: 60,000';
Passes Over 11,000': 15
Off-Trail Miles: 100+
Alpine Lake Swims: 10
My Base Pack Weight: 9.5 lbs.
Make sure to check out Virga Outdoors' Facebook Page for info on my ultralight equipment - it rocks!
Getting to the Trail (Friday, August 2nd): Las Vegas to Mammoth Lakes.
Josh: We left Vegas after Kate got out of work, making a random stop for beef jerky and chili mangos at a roadside shack east of Death Valley. We crossed through Death Valley and after a gas stop in Bishop and found ourselves in Mammoth with smoke so heavy in the air that you could taste it. Turns out the Aspen Wildfire had forced actual medical advisories due to poor air quality. I was tired and rather grumpy but we finally found some good food at Toomey’s and drove into Red’s Meadow where we car camped in an actual tent. This is the only time we’d pitch any sort of shelter on the entire trip!
Kate: I was freaking out a bit about the smoke, but didn’t want to say it. From what we were seeing in Mammoth it seemed that about a third to half of our trip would be in a cloud of smoke. Not a happy prospect to say the least. My only hope was that the smoke was just sitting in the valleys and that – once high above on the Route – we’d have blue skies, clean air and miles landscape surrounding us. It’s probably also worth noting at this point that this was my first serious hike, so a lot of my commentary comes from that perspective.
DAY 1 (Saturday, August 3rd): Tuolumne Meadows to Camp above Fletcher Creek.
Josh: We dropped off our resupply when the Red’s Meadow store opened at 7 AM and then high-tailed it to the Wilderness Permit Office in Tuolumne Meadows. After getting our permit, we did some final packing, parked the car, and hitched a ride 2 miles down the road to the Sunrise Lakes TH (at the far end of Tenaya Lake).
We began hiking late morning and made the decision to skip a detour to the top of Clouds Rest due to the poor visibility from the fire. We continued south, crossing the JMT, all the way to the Merced River, where we had lunch and a swim. After the break we followed the trail up past Merced Lake and the Sierra High Camp, and continued up along Fletcher Creek and then Lewis Creek in the setting sun where we found a decent, secluded campsite.
Miles Traveled: 16
DAY 2 (Sunday, August 4th): Camp above Fletcher Creek to Twin Island Lakes.
Josh: We headed south along the Isberg Pass trail along the bench above Washburn Lake, passing beneath the Cony Crags and crossing the Lyell Fork. We continued up the far side and had lunch at Foerster Creek (including a bath in the creek). Here we turned off-trail for the first time and headed west across a beautiful, grassy meadow along the creek, and then climbed up and over Blue Lake Pass.
From Blue Lake Pass we spotted a group of hikers far below at Blue Lake setting up camp - we were just getting started! We hiked down and chatted with the hikers, then went for a swim in Blue Lake. We continued over some ridges (getting a little lost in here and picking a direct, but not so easy, path through this complicated terrain) eventually dropping straight down to Twin Island Lakes just as it was getting dark. We set up camp between the lakes and watched the alpenglow on the intimidating west side of the Ritter range.
Kate: The trail to the Blue Lakes and around to the Twin Island Lakes was absolutely beautiful! Coming up on the ridge that led to the Twin Lakes was, as Josh said, complicated. An enormous talus ridge made it difficult to see and/or hear Josh if there was too much distance between us. I made a wrong turn (twice) and got into some 4th+ class scrambling up to what seemed like an endless ridge of talus. Cresting the ridge, Josh was a sight for sore eyes and camp at Twin Island Lakes couldn’t have come soon enough.
Miles Traveled: 14
DAY 3 (Monday, August 5th): Twin Island Lakes to Iceberg Lake.
Josh: After packing up we tackled the “crux river crossing” of the trip: the outlet of Twin Island Lakes. When I first saw it I verbally mocked the crossing to Kate since, thanks to a low snow year, I could hop across the crossing without even getting my feet wet. However, the creek got its revenge when Kate leapt across and lost her balance. Kate had to make a split-second decision between her trekking pole going in the drink or her entire self. She chose to jettison the trekking pole and keep herself dry - can you blame her? The torrent of water immediately flushed it down between narrow granite walls. I dropped my pack and raced down the 4th class steps trying to intercept it and finally arrived at an eddy and waited like a hockey goalie for it to arrive, but it never did. After surveying about 50’ of rapids and cascades, we couldn’t locate it. I felt a little responsible since I had foolishly mocked the crossing so I sucked it up, stripped down to what I was born with, and began wading up the chute, searching every pool and waterfall for the missing pole. Plunging into the biggest waterfall to search the hole behind it was an exercise in simultaneous sensory deprivation and sensory overload: Everything was freezing and I couldn’t feel a thing save for the pounding pressure of hundreds of gallons of rushing water. My eyes were shut tightly, and I couldn’t hear a thing save for the deafening roar of water. I felt around madly but after finally succumbing to the cold, I gave up empty-handed. It was a rough start to the morning.
Kate: I felt like such an idiot! But Josh was right – it was me or the trekking pole. I couldn’t believe Josh stripped down and stepped into the falls!?! He is a die hard for gear type. Half of his climbing rack is probably bootied gear. Take away message: As a newbie hiker wear leashes on tricky terrain! Just in case. I made due with one pole for the rest of the trip, which for the most part was just fine, but at times both would have been a huge help.
Josh: We continued up complex terrain making our way to Lake Catherine, directly beneath the western snowfield that leads up the Ritter-Banner saddle. Here we stopped for lunch. Kate was struggling with the altitude and had that awful sick look on her face that is all-to-familiar from my alpine climbing experience. The “my heart is racing, I can’t breathe, and I’m going puke at any moment” look. We took a long, long break and I tried to reign in my psych so it wouldn’t crush Kate who was barely hanging on at this point.
Kate: Josh was amazingly supportive – a good partner at times like these makes the difference between success and failure. Resting at Lake Catherine was, at first, more intimidating than anything else. Looking up at that glacier I thought to myself “I really don’t think I can do this”. If it wasn’t for Josh’s calm, confidence and patience I wouldn’t have made it.
Josh: Eventually set off and slowly made our way to the edge of the glacier. Here we donned crampons and traversed across a steep section to get to the center of the slope where the angle was lower. Once we started making our way up the slope Kate was filled with new energy that only comes from that giddy feeling you have the first time you climb a snowfield in perfect condition using crampons.
Kate: No joke – crampons rock! I was really uneasy at first, but a few steps in and I was feeling pretty good actually. At least for a while.
Josh: From the saddle we went up a steep section to access Muir’s North Face route - there was a cruxy bit at the bergschrund that involved some exposed 4th class that I found to be rather enervating, but once we had the ‘pons off and were on rock we were right at home. Some scrambling and route finding eventually took us to the summit which was anti-climactic due to poor visibility.
Kate: I was struggling at the top of Ritter. Three days before I was at sea level and this was my first ever hike that was anything more than a 2 hour jaunt to the base of a rock climb. While visibility was low/non-existent, we did spot a butterfly at the top.
Josh: From here we scrambled down the southern flank of the mountain and more or less picked up the popular SE Glacier route which was barely glaciated this season - but we did find a stretch to glissade, though sun cups made it rather unsatisfying.
From beneath Ritter we skirted across tundra without dropping down to Lake Ediza: Kate told me she could make it to “one more lake” and then she was laying down the law and we had to stop and set up camp. So I made sure to stay far enough away from Ediza so it wouldn’t count. Instead we crossed over a ridge to an astonishing bird’s eye view of Iceberg Lake. We found a passage down the steep slope camped at an amazing natural alcove formed by trees next to the lake.
Kate: I didn’t know that’s why you skirted Ediza! I was beat after Ritter. I couldn’t believe such a short day could make me feel like that. We reached a tarn at one point that I was certain was Iceberg Lake – ha! – wishful thinking! Glad we pushed on through; the real Iceberg Lake and our campsite was one of my favorite of the entire trip, as was the setting sun.
Miles Traveled: 7
DAY 4 (Tuesday, August 6th): Iceberg Lake to the Deer Lakes.
Josh: Refreshed after a good night’s rest, we circumnavigated Iceberg Lake and ascended to Cecile Lake as the first light of the day struck the Minarets. From Cecile Lake we dropped down to the Minaret Lakes which blew my mind with their beauty. All I could say was “This definitely does NOT suck.”
I swam in one of the Minaret Lakes, we passed some hikers, and then picked up the Minaret Creek trail and followed it all the way down to the JMT and Devil’s Postpile. I kinda hate the section of trail from Johnston Meadow to the Postpile, but our saving grace was Red’s Meadow. I told Kate that if we made it there by noon, I’d buy her a shower and you’d better believe that she got us there at 11:59. She returned the favor and bought me a shower too!
We picked up our resupply, charged electronics, texted our emergency contact of our status, and even splurged with BLT’s and milkshakes. We also mailed our crampons back to Vegas, and were hiking again by around 3 PM.
Rather than follow the JMT to Red Cones, we headed due east up good trail towards Mammoth Pass. Before reaching the pass, we turned south off-trail and slogged up a masochistic gravel slope towards the Mammoth Crest.
It was worth it: the Crest was breathtaking and we flew along it as the sun slowly set to the west. We were racing darkness but we made it all the way to the Deer Lakes with about an hour of fading of light to set up camp.
Kate: I don’t think Josh shares my love for the carnage that remains of old forest fires, but there is a beauty and rebirth that is really fantastic! While I can say that heading down to Devil’s Postpile is a little dismal and dusty, and after spending several days in a row along some of our most remote terrain the flood of day hikers was jarring to say the least.
The Mammoth Crest is a must see! I was so energized by the beauty (and was feeling so much better than they day before) that much to my surprise I was practically running down to Deer Lakes.
Miles Traveled: 17
DAY 5 (Wednesday, August 7th): The Deer Lakes to the Second Recess.
Josh: Well this day started out well...
We dropped down to Duck Lake and picked up the JMT which we followed to Purple Lake where we had breakfast. We continued to Lake Virginia where we had a nice long swim and break. From there we continued down the Tully Hole switchbacks and then left the JMT heading east through Horse Heaven. Here we elected to follow a good pack trail up to Tully Lake instead of ‘schwacking our way to Izaak Walton Lake. However, I hope to visit it someday.
Kate: We ran into some hikers along the way, who had stopped for breakfast and (jokingly as we found out) offered us some bacon. Not nice. I was thinking about bacon almost every day for the rest of the trip.
Josh: From Tully Lake we headed up over Shout-of-Relief Pass, caught a view of Rosy Finch Lake, and then headed over Bighorn Pass. A crazy, steep descent brought us to Laurel Lake where we met some other BPL members (Stephen K. and friends). We had a great time chatting, but I think they were trying to convince Kate that they’d make for better company! They also advised us to NOT attempt to head up to the Second Recess in the darkness. It turns out they had good reason for this.
We followed intermittent trail down Laurel Creek through many downed trees and small sections of bushwhacking. After a jaunt down the Mono Creek trail, passing many nice campsites in favor of pushing onwards, we paused for a snack and the creek crossing. Kate immediately took off her shoes and waded across, but I stubbornly refused to take my shoes off and headed downstream 50 yards to cross on a log. Unfortunately, there was no easy passage back to the trail on the far side, so I set my chin and began tunneling through dense trees and bushes. This culminated with crawling, tree climbing, and eventually falling into Mills Creek and nearly losing my own trekking pole. Only Kate’s worried calling of my name prevented my total ruin. Eventually I found her - happily waiting on the trail - and we continued up Mills Creek.
Kate: Ha! “Happily waiting on the trail my @$$!” After the Twin Island Lakes talus ridge and Ritter, my nerves hadn’t quite recovered. I eventually got more confidence (as one does with experience), but early on along the trail – if I lost sight of Josh – my heart would start to race.
Josh: We passed several OK campsites as it gradually went from fading light, to dark, to pitch-black. We pushed onwards until we found ourselves wandering back and forth through a steep, loose talus field. Surely Lower Mills Creek Lake was close? No, it was not.
Kate: I would have called them “good” campsites. Josh is pretty particular.
Josh: Cairns were simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Our headlamps were useless. Finally, in despair, we found a patch of semi-level ground and immediately collapsed into sleep.
Miles Traveled: 22
DAY 6 (Thursday, August 8th): The Second Recess to Marie Lake.
Josh: We survived! In fact, we woke up optimistic: We’d put some serious miles behind us and nothing could possibly be worse than that night, right?
It turned out that those BPL’ers were right and we would have never navigated the Second Recess in the dark. The terrain was way too complicated and the passage through the talus field was not clear even by daylight. We were also still a fair ways from the Mills Creek Lakes, but we did eventually reach them. Between the Lakes we lifted our spirits by taking a few minutes to trundle boulders down a massive slab.
We continued around Upper Mills Creek Lake and hopped endless boulders on our way up and over Gabbot Pass. Gnarly!
On the far side of the pass we dropped down across expansive tundra quickly and, unexpectedly, found ourselves at Lake Italy. We took time here to have a meal and relax, and I attempted to swim but only achieved wading.
We descended the Hilgard Branch and picked up the JMT at Bear Creek which we followed to Marie Lake where we set up camp amongst the crowds and I managed a real swim as the sun was setting.
Kate: The night before was brutal and camp ended up being less than OK, but to be honest, I’m glad we pushed on as far as we did.
Miles Traveled: 17
DAY 7 (Friday, August 9th): Marie Lake to Muir Trail Ranch.
Josh: We rewarded ourselves with a short day to MTR. Blitzed Seldon Pass in the morning, had breakfast at the Sallie Keyes Lakes, and stumbled down the horrible switchbacks leading to MTR.
Here we picked up our resupply, charged electronics, upgraded some of our meals from the buckets and schmoozed with other hikers.
Eventually we made our way out of the Ranch, crossed the creek and set up camp with a nice northbound guy from Brooklyn who was on his way to Tuolumne where he would exit and attend a friend’s wedding. He offered us whiskey which we added to our hot tea and greatly enjoyed. We also enjoyed the hot springs.
Kate: Unlike Red’s Meadow, which we did as more of a grab ’n’ go as far as resupplies go, at MTR we took our time – systematically going thru every bucket of leftovers and passovers from those before us. We exchanged some trail stories with fellow travelers, who to be honest, I only remember today as the Texans, the guy who refused to swim the entire trip, and the “herb” farmer. I was disappointed at first that a thru-hiker can’t get a hot meal or a shower without paying over $155/night/person (with a two-night minimum), but to be honest I think it would have felt like a cheat. We ended up finding a nice spot to camp by the river, and, as Josh said, had a nice soak in the hot springs. There were three in close proximity to one another of varying temps and size.
Miles Traveled: 7
DAY 8 (Saturday, August 10th): Muir Trail Ranch to the Humphries Basin.
Josh: We hiked the JMT to the bridge over the South Fork of the San Joaquin River leading into Kings Canyon. Here we ate breakfast and briefly considered skipping the next segment in favor of the faster and shorter JMT, but we felt good and decided to go for it.
We hiked up the stunning Piute Canyon, and we ran into a young deer who seemed to be our spirit animal guide - running along just ahead of us for half a mile before finally being spooked by some hikers heading in the opposite direction.
Kate: Beautiful detour – highly recommended!
Josh: We continued up French Canyon, and had lunch by the creek before crossing it southwards and heading off-trail up the slopes leading to Puppet Lake. We passed the lakes and headed up over the easy Puppet Pass and dropped down into the spectacular Humphries Basin. This is an interesting area because even though the views are expansive, the terrain undulates in such a way that many key landmarks (the lakes) are hidden from view.
As we traversed the basin, we ran into a solitary hiker named Byron who had just come over one of our possible passages over the Glacier Divide - Snow Tongue Pass. Byron helped us to orient ourselves by pointing out Mt. Darwin as well as advising against Snow Tongue - I was fine with this because I really wanted to see the Darwin Bench and Snow Tongue avoids that area. We wished each other well and made our way across the basin, ultimately setting up camp above a tarn above Upper Golden Trout Lake. This was one of our favorite camps.
Kate: I would love to go back to this area! It’s very mysterious to me. Desolation Lake on the USGS topo is enormous — one of the biggest lakes we pass along the route (I think), but somehow, even though ascending from above it escaped our view. Even running into Bryon somehow seemed a little surreal to me. Like landing on Mars and seeing a life form in the distance walking your way.
The sunset at camp was spectacular and joined Iceberg on the A-list of campsites.
Miles Traveled: 17
DAY 9 (Sunday, August 11th): Humphries Basin to Big Pete Meadow.
Josh: In the morning we climbed a slope up to Goethe Lake, affording us a good view down to Muriel Lake. We crossed Goethe on an isthmus while debating the pronunciation of the philosopher’s name (the closest we can get is “ger-tuh” but it’s actually a phoneme that we don’t have in English). We then climbed up towards Alpine Col which was very fun boulder hopping but very tiring.
Once on top, we sat for breakfast overlooking Lake 11,910’ far below. We scrambled steeply downwards and made our way between the lakes at 11,540’. Here we dropped down further still to the Darwin Bench which was beautiful.
Kate: I remember lots of purple flowers, a meandering stream, and trout – lots of trout! Much more foliage than we’d seen boulder hopping over talus the last couple miles, and just spectacular views.
Josh: From the Darwin Bench we continued descending into Evolution Valley, picking up the JMT and briefly heading the wrong way on it before realizing our mistake and heading up to Evolution Lake where we had lunch and a swim.
After lunch we hiked past Sapphire Lake and around Wanda Lake with striking views of the Goddard Divide which I hope to explore on a future trip.
I was feeling good here so with Kate’s permission I decided to hike on ahead and see how many other JMT hikers I could pick off on my way to Muir Pass. I caught everyone within sight, and then waited at the Muir Hut for Kate to arrive. After a brief break, we headed down into the barren terrain around Helen Lake and then into the upper reaches of Le Conte Canyon.
Kate and I both were feeling very tired at this point and Kate in particular was being hindered by muscle tweaks, but we pushed onward past many occupied campsites until we finally found one somewhere in the vicinity of Big Pete Meadow shortly before dusk.
Kate: Muir Pass really took it out of me! I think it might have been one of my least favorite passes (2nd only to Forester Pass) – this had more to do with how my body was feeling then it did with the pass itself (I think). Just before making it to camp I was aching and limping. I’d somehow strained my groin early on in the trip and it wasn’t easing up on me.
Josh somewhat jokingly said at one point “We can always go over Bishop Pass and get some bacon tomorrow.”
I studied his face before responding. I’d be lying if there wasn’t a small part of me that was tempted by this idea. After all, this was my first big hike and I had begun to realize days before I hadn’t done my due diligence in getting as physically prepared as I should have for this trip. Josh was right - running the 55 flights of stairs in my New York City office building would have been a good idea.
“No. We can’t do that. What fun would that be?!” I said.
My pride pushed the thought of a real bed and bacon out of my head and I popped a couple ibuprofen and crossed my fingers that a good night’s rest would take my limp away, sooth my aches and pains, and that the mountain gods would return my other trekking pole to me in my sleep. Alas, two out of three wasn’t bad.
Miles Traveled: 17
DAY 10 (Monday, August 12th): Big Pete Meadow to Lower Palisade Lake.
Josh: Our triple-pass day. We woke up and enjoyed watching a deer who was obviously frustrated that we were near the tastiest grasses in the area. He circled us and patiently waited for us to finish breakfast, pack up, and move on. Unfortunately for him we enjoyed a relaxed morning and watched many hikers pass us as we soaked in a little sun before motivating to get back on the trail.
Kate: We must have seen 3-4 deer at this camp, and Josh saw a buck with an impressive set of antlers! I missed it because I was still half asleep when I heard Josh say
“There’s a duck.”
“Meh” I thought “I’ll opt for more sleep.” The phrase you snooze you lose comes to mind.
Josh: We followed the JMT down Le Conte Canyon to the junction with the Bishop Pass Trail and then ascended this trail eastwards, frequently trading places with a horse packer on the way up. Once we reached the Dusy Basin we again went off-trail heading south across the Dusy Basin and up over Knapsack Pass.
We dropped down to the Barrett Lakes beneath the relentless high-altitude sun and had lunch in a small patch of shade behind a boulder, and then continued up over Potluck Pass.
Two down, one to go.
On Potluck Pass we met a very cool, experienced couple who were doing a section of the original JMT. I wish I could remember their names, but they were kind enough to point out the best route over our third and final pass, Cirque Pass.
With amazing views of North Palisade and the other peaks in the Palisade range, we traversed up and over Cirque Pass and then followed crazy ledge systems steeply downwards passing some tarns high above the Palisade Lakes. After a little 4th/low 5th class scrambling, we picked up the JMT again for about a quarter mile to a camp on the far side of Lower Palisade Lake. I swam.
Kate: I couldn’t believe how much better I felt today compared to how I was feeling the day before. I still can’t say with certainty whether it was how my body was feeling or the degree of beauty across the landscape that had the great impact on how I viewed each day – but this day was definitely one of my favorites! Josh caught a picture of me as the sun was setting over Lower Palisade Lake contemplating the day – and even now when I look at the photo I remember exactly what I was thinking. Life is an amazing adventure that is of our own making. It’s more complicated than saying this was a good or this was a bad experience, because in the good experience there are hard times, struggles and even pain. Philosophers have said this same thing more eloquently then I ever could, but you can’t fully appreciate the beauty and joy of this world without also experience the pain. Today, has been unforgettable and I hope to have more of those sorts of days then of the kind that are.
Miles Traveled: 13
DAY 11 (Tuesday, August 13th): Lower Palisade Lake to Lake Marjorie.
Josh: In the morning we hiked around the Palisade Lakes and made our way up and over Mather Pass, then descended along the South Fork of the Kings River.
Here we made our only deviation from our “intended” trip plan: The plan was to break off of the JMT and head west up over Frozen Lake Pass into the Lake Basin and then continue over Cartridge Pass following the Old JMT down to the Kings River and following that back upstream rejoining the current JMT again. Kate had exactly two weeks off work so, just in case, I had incorporated several alternate “shortcuts” like this into the itinerary. Up until this point we had totally kept on course which was quite an accomplishment. This one, being the smallest and last of these alternate routes, seemed like a small sacrifice to make in the interest of keeping to a reasonable schedule. Ironically we encountered a group of hikers along our path that were trying to identify which notch in the mountains to the west was Frozen Lake Pass. I was at a loss to assist, though they did ask what a moraine was (a landmark on their Harrison map set) and at least I knew that. Hope they found it!
From here we continued up to Lake Marjorie and found a great campsite nestled in the trees near the water. We even had a diving platform of which I took full advantage.
Kate: Loved this campsite! Because of our early start and decision to skip part of the Sierra High Route in favor of the easier and shorter JMT, we got to camp early! There was plenty of sunlight left for laundry, bathing and basking. There really isn’t anything that makes you feel more alive than a dip in an alpine lake!
Josh: As we settled into our bivies, we were fascinated to watch a bird systematically peck into the small red pine cones of the nearby trees to get at the pine nuts within. After watching them I sampled some myself. Not bad but a little bitter. Anyone know what this bird was?
Miles Traveled: 11
DAY 12 (Wednesday, August 14th): Lake Marjorie to Vidette Meadow.
Josh: We departed Lake Marjorie and made quick work of Pinchot Pass. This one is easy. We made the long descent down to Woods Creek and then followed that to the bridge. I find the stretch along Woods Creek to be miserable: dusty with baby heads and hard trail.
Breakfast at the bridge and then an enjoyable climb up past Dollar Lake, Arrowhead Lake and on to the amazing Rae Lakes. We had a long break here: Lunch, and even an actual swim (rather than the usual truncated jump-in-get-out-as-fast-as-possible) out to a mushroom-shaped rock offshore. Once we were there, we had to get back, so in fact two swims.
A big day today. We continued up over Glen Pass. Kate was feeling really strong but I was hurting and lagged behind - especially on the descent. We both put on our headphones and listened to music and podcasts for the first time on the trip. This was just what I needed and really helped me to push on.
Kate: We had some discussion about what our goals were going to be for this day. Originally, we thought (like other hikers we befriended along the way) that we would make a short day of it today and camp at Rae Lakes and save the big day for tomorrow (hitting Glen and Forester). Remembering how I felt on Ritter, I advocated for a double pass today (Pinchot and Glen) – Forester was probably going to be enough on its own. Glen was hands down my favorite pass, and I was feeling strong.
Josh: We followed the bench high above Charlotte Lake and then descended down to Vidette Meadow as darkness settled in on us. After much back-and-forth looking for a suitable campsite, we ended up flopping down in the dirt right next to one of the Vidette bear boxes near the trail. It wasn’t the most aesthetic of campsites but it served its purpose.
We succeeded in a killer high-mileage day which set us up for a really enjoyable finish to our trip.
Miles Traveled: 24
DAY 13 (Thursday, August 15th): Vidette Meadow to Wallace Creek.
Josh: The following morning we hiked up Bubbs Creek and stopped for breakfast by the creek beneath Center Peak. We then continued up to Forester Pass. With Kate’s permission, I took off ahead - I was feeling invincible and pretty much killed it all the way up the pass. I overtook multiple parties and almost ran the thing. After 12 days on the trail I think I must have finally acclimated.
Kate: I tanked on Forester. My groin was as sore as ever and the pass seemed miles away. Perhaps, I’d pushed it a little too hard the day before. At one point, I passed some northbound hikers descending and, just to be sure, asked them if I was still on the trail to Forester Pass. They laughed and assured me it wasn’t too much farther. From my vantage point that seemed like a kind exaggeration, as I’d taken to using both arms and my only remaining trekking pole to support my left leg/groin with each step.
Josh: I waited about an hour for Kate to catch up but was very entertained by a cute little pika and a solo female hiker who complained about getting her feet wet in creek crossings but was happy to have a cell phone signal on Forester Pass.
On the far side of the pass we watched as a helicopter brought in supplies to a trail crew who were repairing a section of the crazy switchbacks that had caved in. Together we descended Forester Pass and paralleled the Diamond Mesa down towards Tyndall Creek. The beautiful ambiance was occasionally ruined by USAF jets doing flyovers providing me with yet another reason why I think our military should be drastically reduced and defunded.
At the Tyndall Creek crossing we stopped for lunch on beautiful golden rocks and enjoyed a long break while we discussed life, hiking, and marriage of all things. We then packed up and continued east and south, passing a random unbridled and unsaddled horse roaming in the meadows.
We had timed it perfectly by arriving at one of my favorite parts of the JMT - the Bighorn Plateau - just as the sun was low in the sky. I always feel like I’m walking through a sacred ground there - as if it’s inhabited by spirits and ghosts. I speak in a low voice but can’t resist pausing to take lots of pictures.
On the far side of the Plateau we get our first glimpses of the backside of Mt. Whitney and I feel uncomfortable emotions around the knowledge of our trip reaching its conclusion. We drop down to Wright Creek and decide to continue down to Wallace Creek. Suddenly there are a lot more people than we’re used to, but we find camping along the far bank of Wallace Creek nonetheless.
Miles Traveled: 15
Day 14 (Friday, August 16th): Wallace Creek to Camp above Guitar Lake.
Josh: On our 14th day on the trail, we enjoy a short, leisurely day hiking up towards Mt. Whitney. We reach Timberline Lake early in the day and then continue on to Guitar Lake where I take a quick, refreshingly frigid, dip.
We then continue up, passing the outlet of Arctic Lake and finding a camp amongst the tarns on the lower flanks of Whitney’s west face. Here we are joined by some fellow ultralight backpackers Mike and Margrette and their two young boys (ages 7 and 9) who are about to finish the JMT. Great folks!
Kate: Kudos to the family from San Francisco! What an inspiration to be getting out there with their boys at such a young age. Though, they were killing me with the talk of all the Snickers bars that their youngest wasn’t interested in eating. It was all I could do to not scream “ME, ME, ME….I’LL TAKE THEM! WHERE ARE THEY?!” Josh had packed perfectly, perhaps even too perfectly. Not an ounce of extra food weight. We’d be walking out of the Portal with nothing left.
Josh: Dinner that evening was almost stolen by a marmot but was saved by a minor miracle: the pot toppled off the stove but somehow landed right-side up. This was the closest we got on the entire trip to a bear encounter.
We have a long time to rest and relax before settling in for a good sleep. Big day tomorrow and the conclusion to our trip!
Kate: It was hard for me to fall asleep. This was our last night on the trail – I couldn’t believe it. I was dreaming of burgers, bacon and sushi, and every time I woke I spotted head lamps on the mountain in front of me. “And I thought we were planning on an early start?!”
Miles Traveled: 8
DAY 15 (Saturday, August 17th): Camp above Guitar Lake to the Whitney Portal and Home.
Josh: The alarm sounds at 3 AM and we are packed by the time the water boiled for our tea. We begin our ascent by headlamp and arrive at Trail Crest while it’s still dark. Here we decide to continue with our packs so that we have the option of descending the Mountaineer’s Route if we so choose.
We make the summit just at sunrise and despite Kate being freezing cold, we can’t stop smiling and taking photos. We did it!
Kate: It was beautiful! Mt Whitney cast a shadow over the mountain scape to the west that left no doubt we had just summited the highest peak in the lower forty-eight. I was actually a little surprised by how many people were at the top at sunrise. And it was SOOOO cold! The coldest temps we experienced the entire trip – and I had every bit of clothing on that I had packed.
After taking in the glory for a bit, I was eager to retreat to the hut for some warmth and my last ProBar.
Josh: After a quick bite to eat in the hut on the summit, we scour the north edge of Whitney for the start of the Mountaineer’s Route. I wasn’t too worried about trying the descent sight unseen, so long as we could find the start. After ruling out a few choices, we began down. Fortunately the route was entirely dry thanks to the low snow year, and the sketchy stuff was over quite quickly. This path was interesting, fun, and direct - and more importantly light years more enjoyable than the endless switchbacks down what I call the “tourist route”. We passed a guided party on our way down and then continued around the Boyscout Lakes. This area was beautiful but it seemed to drag on forever - lots of interesting alpine train, lush vegetation and beautiful watercourses and slabs. At one point we made a tremendous route-finding error and ended up tunneling down vertical jungle along the drainage of the lakes - it was absolutely insane but at a certain point it seemed irreversible so we just pressed on. Scratched, dirty, sweaty and a bit perturbed we eventually popped out back onto the trail which we then followed endlessly down to the Portal. We of course ate entirely too much food before sticking our thumbs out for a ride back to Tuolumne Meadows and our car.
Kate: I was a little nervous about the descent at first. Mainly because I couldn't feel my fingers and wasn’t feeling secure about my grip and footing. As we descended further my body warmed and my confidence grew. Unlike Josh, I’ve never been down the more traditional way, but I’m really glad we did it the way we did. It was a fantastic end to the route.
Miles Traveled: 15
Josh: I’d like to thank everyone on BPL who provided their advice and opinions on route planning, those who support Virga Outdoors (my UL gear company), and the six different folks who gave us rides when we were hitchhiking (you guys rock!!!).
After driving back to Vegas that night we went out for a real dinner and caught up on sleep. The following day we relaxed and Kate packed for her return flight to New York City that evening.
For the entire 60,000’ of elevation gain and 230+ miles of travel I carried a small package in my pack which contained an engagement ring, carefully concealed by a lot of duct tape. It was really light but definitely didn't qualify as a multi-use piece of kit. My plan had been to pop the question on the summit of Whitney, but once there, I suddenly felt the strong sense that I didn’t want to distract from what was already in and of itself a sublime experience to share with someone. That, and the fact that Kate was shivering even wearing every layer she had. And I was rather terrified. So I decided to keep silent until we arrived home. The night Kate was due to fly back to NY, we drove out to Red Rocks and parked at the overlook where I finally rallied the courage to ask. She said yes.