Ask any Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hiker about Kearsarge Pass and they will confirm that it is a main resupply route. We would run across more PCT and JMT hikers than ever before. Generally, they are the most laid back people you will meet.
After a restless nights’ sleep near Pothole Lake, we decided to leave our camp set up and venture out west of the pass. A nice breakfast of bacon and eggs got us going. The crytallized eggs are real and when mixed with water, scramble up perfectly. The pre-cooked bacon is trail ready and is good to go. We lightened our packs and carried enough supplies for our day hike. The plan was to drop down into the Kearsarge Lakes area and grab lunch next to the water.
Our camp was within sight of the pass so the last 400 ft of elevation gain was easy-peasy. There was one other hiker taking a break and we dropped our packs to soak in the vista. The views to the west were beautiful. In the Sierras, one will run out of words to describe the scenery. There were several lakes below; one I recognized from the map as Bullfrog Lake. We wanted to explore down below so we ate a snack and chatted with a thru-hiker going back to town for resupply. Like so many other long distance hikers we’ve seen, he looked like he was in need of a bath and some good food. We started down, the slope steady with what appeared to be pulverized granite rocks for the trailbed.
We ran into a few day hikers huffing their way up and stepped out-of-the-way. Trail etiquette being what it is, the uphill hiker has the right of way. We ran across a lonely stream making its’ way down to the lakes. The source of water appeared to come out the side of the mountain. A bullfrog could be heard croaking steadily. We never saw it, but heard that sucker for the next 30 minutes. We made our way down some switchbacks to a trail junction.
Wishing that we had more time to hike to Charlotte and Rae Lakes area, we hiked another 1/2 mile or so to the Kearsarge Lakes area. The trail is fairly well-defined and meandered down to the first lake. It was warmer now, around 75 degrees and other than a few people fishing on the other shore, very quiet. The only other sound were the streams emptying into the lake. We took off our shoes and stepped in to the cold, clear water. After a minute, the bones in my legs started aching. Well, probably not but that’s what it felt like. It was brisk and felt good on our hot feet. The trout were jumping every few seconds. The Golden Trout Wilderness is aptly named. We discussed getting our fishing licenses and gear before our next hike into this area. I can taste the fresh trout cooked in a pan with just a touch of lemon and garlic.
After eating our lunch and filtering some water, we reluctantly started back up the trail. The climb out was less strenuous than it would have been with a full pack. We ran into a PCT hiker who had lost the cap to his water filtration chemical bottle. It was tiny and we struck up a conversation and he eventually found it. As I was taking a breather on a bend in a switchback, another hiker was coming up behind. I usually ask hikers where they are coming from or where they are going out of curiosity. She was a PCT hiker, who had recently gotten back on the trail. She passed me and struck up a conversation with my wife who (as always) is ahead of me. They immediately hit it off and continued talking as we slowly made our way up to the pass. Conversation is a good diversion when you are in a steep climb. Of course it helps if you’re not out of breath.
The women continued to chat and it was a nice experience to meet a thru-hiker who took the time to relate their experience on the trail. PCT hikers run the gambit from those that are on a sabbatical to modern-day hippies. Sometimes I believe that long distance hikers are a sub-culture within our Americana. Her trail-name was Pillsbury, and she was quite the character. Before long, we reached the pass where we hung out with Pillsbury and the other PCT hiker who went my the moniker Dances with Bacon. He was a nice guy and we chatted for a bit. Heck, with a trail-name like that, he couldn’t be bad.
Pillsbury wanted to take some fun pics, so she climbed an outcropping and asked me to take some pics with her camera. She got up her nerve and did some hand-stands. The blustery wind was a bit much and I was glad when she finished. She was heading into town to resupply and had another 4-5 miles to go. While it’s mostly downhill from here, the town of Independence is about 13 miles from the trailhead in the Onion Valley Campground. We enjoyed our time with Pillsbury and parted ways when we reached the part of the trail where our camp was located.
We had time to enjoy our camp this time. It was nice at the site and we didn’t rush through dinner. The Black Bart Chili tasted great. It’s one of our favorites. As we settled in for the night, the wind was not as strong so the water from the lake was not lapping the rocks as loud as the previous night. Did I mention that the first night, the sound of the water was like footsteps? We were sure that someone (or some thing) was walking around our tent. Freaked us out for a few minutes until I stuck my head out of the tent around 2 a.m. and discovered it was the sound of wind-driven water against the shore of the lake.
No AMS symptoms tonight, we were fully acclimated. Slept soundly and awoke to a crisp Sierra morning. Not wanting to cook breakfast, we had some snacks and departed our hidden campsite on Pothole Lake. We took a different route out and had to do some boulder scrambling. Not sure that it was a wise choice. A fall here would have hurt.
Our walk down was fairly quick and the scenery nice. The coolness of the air as we went in and out of the forest was refreshing. The lakes that we had passed going up looked so different. Still lots of jumping trout though. We took a break near a cascading creek, the breeze and sound of rushing water enough for one to desire a nap.
This hike was a good one for many reasons, but it turns out to be our best way in for our JMT section hike next year. The JMT is a short trek from Kearsarge Pass. Mt. Whitney, here we come.
Some lessons learned on this trip:
– We experienced mild Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms on our first night. Our symptoms were headaches, nausea and a bad nights’ rest. While we have camped around 10,000 ft. before, on this trip, we left San Diego in the morning from an altitude of 500 ft. Ten hours later, we were at 11,400 ft. Our bodies didn’t have a chance to acclimate. Recommendation: When hiking at high altitude, camp at a lower altitude on the first night to give your body a chance to adjust.
– Dehydrated foods take longer to cook at high altitude. In our case, the normal 12-15 minutes of rehydration took almost 30 minutes.
– If given the opportunity, start a conversation with fellow hikers. You will meet the most amazing people from all walks of life. Many have funny, interesting stories from the trail. You won’t find many creeps out here – they’re mostly back in the cities.
– Take the time to kick your shoes off and enjoy a dip in the water. Next time, I’m up for a swim. 🙂
First half slideshow of our hike:
The continuing story of our northbound JMT section hike…..
By day 3, we all had our trail legs. You know what I mean, the steadiness that you get after a few days of stepping on, around and over stuff. Backpacks have a way of changing your center of gravity. Bend over a bit too far to smell those lupines and you’ll see how blue they really are. The night at Thousand Island Lake was amazing. The sound of the distant snow-fed waterfall created a peaceful nights’ rest.
At Thousand Island, it was a bit difficult to find a private place to do your business. Sorry for bringing it up, but it’s just one of those things that you have to do. One could write an entire blog about it, but I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say that sometimes you have to venture out to find that secluded spot and hope that the nearest trail is out of view. It is arguably one of the most challenging yet natural chores in the backcountry. Mosquitoes present a significant challenge with this, so you may need to apply some repellant where the “sun don’t shine”. The cathole shovel, tp and antiseptic wipes are essential gear. However, in a pinch so are a stick, leaves and some handfuls of dirt. Let’s leave it at that.
We admired the view from our campsite and did the usual tasks. Filtering water, making breakfast, tearing down camp and repacking those packs. The last task was usually the biggest pain. Packing around those bear canisters is like emptying a sardine can and then stuffing them back in. The climb out of Thousand Island Lake was steady and hot. The views over our shoulders of Banner Peak were ever-changing and dramatic. As we rounded a ledge, a fat marmot sat perched on a rock and it looked like a good place to stop. This is their territory and the scat is enough to prove it. Pausing occasionally to catch our breath, we would hunch over to shift the weight of the pack and lean on our poles. It was a funny sight for sure. Island Pass was like something out of a movie. Little archipelagos of grass seemingly floated around us. Birds were abundant here as were so many varieties of flowers. This area made me regret that we had to cover 10 miles today.
We descended into an area near Wough Lake and heard rumblings of thunderstorms. The skies to the north were menacing and I kept an eye on the direction it was moving. We discussed what our plan would be for inclement weather, especially if caught out in the open. Things like avoiding meadows, tall trees and shallow caves if lightning is nearby. Lightning is a strange and dangerous occurrence and you should have a plan whether you are alone or hiking in a group. In a group, it’s a good idea to spread out so a stray bolt doesn’t take everyone out. If possible, find a clump of medium-sized trees for shelter. The tallest and shortest trees are not advisable. The position for protection is simple. Sit on your backpack or sleeping pad with your two feet touching the ground or pad. Don’t lay or stand up if possible. If in a tent, do the same and don’t touch your tent frame. Enough of the morbidity, you can do some research on hiking and lightning. It is “enlightening”.
We would cross several streams over single logs perched 6-8 feet above rushing streams and creeks. It requires a sense of balance with a pack and if you are unsteady should consider having a mate take your pack across for you. Something about a skinny log, sights and sounds of roaring water can unnerve almost anyone.
We passed through a canyon and ran into a large group from Tennessee. They proceeded to tell us how they were pummeled by hail and rain for 1 1/2 hours. I must say, God protected our little group because we avoided bad weather all week. Either way, be prepared. We started the steady climb up Donahue Pass and a 80% cloud cover made it much more comfortable as we were totally exposed. The trail is well-defined and there are plenty of boulders to take breaks on. We ran across a couple of SoBo’s (southbounders) who provided upcoming trail conditions. We did the same. It’s very common to briefly stop and chat to discuss weather, trail conditions and experiences. People who are out here most often share our appreciation for the outdoors and generally are friendly with good attitudes. While I still scratch my head when we come across solo female hikers, they are safer out here than in their urban neighborhoods.
We would also run across a PCT thru-hiker who was disappointed that he wasn’t going to be able to walk 30 miles today. Man, I thought we were doing good at 10 miles per day.
Reaching the Pass, we would tread across the last remnants of snow fields and cross into Yosemite territory.
The trail becomes a bit hard to follow on the north side of Donahue as you cross more snow. Some cairns indicated the general direction.
We quickly descended into the beginnings of Lyell Canyon. The landscape, ever-changing was devoid of all but the hardiest of vegetation. The hiking poles made the descent easier as we snaked our way down. Forty five minutes later, we reached a wide creek and realized that we would have to ford it. Two hundred feet downstream was a waterfall and cascade, so no crossing there. We put on our water shoes and stepped in the cold creek that would become the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne. Here, underneath the snow of Donahue Pass, the water was a chili 40-45 degrees.
I crossed without incident, my wife mentioned that her feet were getting numb within 30-45 seconds. When fording water, it’s best to unbuckle your pack in case you fall since it can absorb water and drag you under. It took a bit to warm up from the creek as I imagined what it would have been like if there had been a heavy snow year.
We would cross countless tributaries to this creek as we ventured further in the valley. Some streams were cutting across the trail on a ledge that was five feet wide. Rock hopping was common and we definitely got better at it. We would also cross the creek twice more before finding a campsite. At the last crossing, we did it in our hiking shoes. My shoes, while excellent on the trail, were not waterproof.
We made camp around 100 ft. from the water in a beautiful stand of pines within earshot of the cascades. The sun was setting quickly as we ended a tough day on the trail. Dinner was spicy beef stew. We slept like hibernating bears. Tomorrow, July 3rd would be a race to Tuolumne Post Office to retrieve our supplies.