Day 24: Thousand Island Lake to Lyell Canyon

1-mile past Ireland Lake/Vogelsong Junction, almost sunset                  

14.6 miles, 214.6 total

It’s a new day. Yesterday is gone. I feel great and it’s going to be a good day.   This is what I was telling myself as I packed up my camp at Thousand Island Lake this morning and hit the trail around 7:00. As I began my thirteen-hundred-foot assent toward Donahue pass, I was optimistic:  Donahue Pass is my last pass above eleven thousand feet, it’s going to be tough. But I got this! 

The terrain has been changing with each step and passing day: from the dramatic glaciated granite above the tree line of the John Muir Wilderness to metavolcanic glaciated mountains of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak in Inyo.  At 11,066’ Donahue pass is the 6th highest pass on the JMT. And I had 6.3 miles of climbing to get there.

Banner Peak by Carolyn Higgins Alone on the JMT, Day 23

I kept my rosy outlook for the first half of the day, traipsing through Ansel Adams Wildness and Inyo National Forest, over Island Pass, which at 10,205’ wasn’t a walk in the park, but I lumbered up it in relatively good spirits.  Eight down, two to go! (Technically, TEN passes down: I climbed Kearsarge Pass twice for my resupply in Independence, but this isn’t included in the ‘official’ pass count for the JMT)

On the north side of Island Pass I stopped for a snack at the cutoff for Waugh and Gem Lakes, found a cozy spot next to a stream and pulled my day’s food out of the front pocket of my pack. I still had a few of the cardboard flavored Ener-G Flax Crackers relatively intact so I smothered them with Justin’s maple almond butter and wolfed them down with a chaser of water treated with iodine and infused with Nuun lemon fizzy flavor to cover the iodine flavor. I studied the map as I ate and was surprised and elated that I’d covered so much ground already.  I’d descended 600 feet from Island Pass, so I had another 1500′ to climb. Wow, only 1500 more feet over 3.5 miles to Donahue Pass. Easy Peasy!

Yeah, we know how that story ended, don’t we? 

Carolyn Higgins Alone on the JMT Donahue Pass and Island Pass PCT Sign
Donahue Pass and Island Pass Sign on the JMT




Say anything on this trail is going to be easy.


There is no such thing as easy on the JMT.  How many times am I going to let myself fall for that? Well, luckily, not too many more chances left!

There was nothing easy about it.  It was pure torture. If you look up “torture” in the dictionary it’ll have a picture of the NOBO climb up Donahue Pass. It was so long and drawn out.  A mixture of flat-ish and uphill trail sprinkled with rocks and sand and of course the dreaded sasquatch steps. And the false summits!  OMG, they put Glen Pass to shame. 

The last thousand feet of the climb was steep with uneven steps built for giants with lanky ten-foot legs, baby steps built for leprechauns and big rocks littering the trail that made navigation even more challenging.  I thought it would never end.  And my refreshed body was soon replaced by my twenty-four days and two-hundred-miles on-the-trail-body.

Carolyn Higgins Alone on the JMT trail to Donahue Pass
Trail to Donahue Pass on the JMT

 I was in hell. I whimpered and cried my way to the top one baby step at a time. For real this time. I bawled like a baby as I dragged my heavy feet up that damn mountain. I came oh-so close to plopping my ass on a stupid Giant Sasquatch step in the middle of the trail and falling apart. I really thought I’d reached my breaking point. Well, I wanted to have reached my breaking point.  But what the hell was I gonna do? Quit? Push that evil red button on my SPOT and be airlifted out because my feet hurt? Hell no! I. Must. Move. Forward. No matter how much it hurt, no matter how exhausted and achy I was, I had to keep moving forward, even it if was just an inch at a time.

And alas, I pushed through. One baby step after another. One inch at a time. Aching, whining, cursing… and finally… finally, the end came. I made it.  Stupid Donahue Pass.

I cried when I finally reached the top. Yosemite! I’m in Yosemite. I fucking WALKED to Yosemite!

Carolyn Higgins Alone on the JMT on top of Donahue Pass entering Yosemite
Donahue Pass Sign: “Entering Yosemite” on the JMT

I dropped my pack, plopped down on the flattest rock I could find and guzzled Nuun flavored water from my Nalgene, gobbled a handful of Orange flavored Bolt Energy Chews and trail mix and breathed in the victory. I did it! I climbed another eleven-thousand-foot pass.  I’m in fucking Yosemite.

To the north were thousands of acres of vast rolling hills and mountains blanketed in Pine, Fir, Incense Cedar and Sequoia.   I gazed at mountains and terrain I’d been backpacking for decades, from my very first backpacking trip near Vogelsong to Glen Aulin when I was just twenty-five.  It felt familiar. It felt like home.  I felt a twinge of sadness that my journey was so close to its end.

Now I get to go downhill the rest of the way! At least that’s what all the SOBOers told me: “It’s downhill from Donahue pass into Yosemite,” they promised with cheerful knowing smiles.   We’ll see!

Coming down the north side of Donahue Pass was almost as brutal as going up Donahue Pass. Steep. Very steep. Big granite steps, tiny granite steps, running water over slippery river rocks, sand, dirt, pebbles, broken rock of all sizes and shapes. For two or three miles. Downhill.  Slow and easy… And finally, I reached the bottom.

Entering Lyell Canyon was everything I expected it to be.  A lush green sub-alpine meadow trimmed with conifers and dwarfed by mountains of granite on the eastern side. It was alive with wildlife; ducks, birds, chipmunks and squirrels. At the beginning of the meadow I passed several adequate camping spots on the edge of the meadow, but decided to push deeper into the canyon, not knowing the entire east side of the trail, close to the meadow, is under restoration and closed for camping! That means I had to climb up the rocky hillside on the west side to find a camping spot.

I ambled along the flat and wooded trail another mile and a half or so scanning the steep hillside on the opposite side searching for someplace flat enough to pitch my tent.  After scrambling up a few hillsides, I finally, found a spot above the trail: home for the night. 

Carolyn Higgins Alone on the JMT, Day 24, camp in Lyell Canyon
My Camp above the Meadow in Lyell Canyon, Day 24 on the JMT

It was another tough day, but on the bright side, I climbed TWO passes and had some gorgeous views I had a peaceful lunch by a babbling creek and Lyell Canyon is gorgeous. I met a nice Australian couple, got good miles in and it’s warm enough to sleep without my rain-fly tonight and it’s going to be another moonless night.  Not that I’ll be awake long enough to do any stargazing. Hopefully.

I’ll sit here and watch the happy ducks on the little pond in the meadow below me as I eat my dinner of black beans and rice followed by a cup of chamomile tea and a BoBos lemon oatmeal bar.   I look forward to putting on my clean merino wool base layer and crawling inside my bag.

I’m only four miles from Tuolumne Meadows. Holy crap. I’ve hiked 214 miles!

Carolyn Higgins Alone on the JMT Day 23 Thousand Island Lake, rabbit
Bunny at Thousand Island Lake on the JMT

I’m looking forward to Tuolumne Meadows.  It’s a popular camper and hiker spot with a small store, gas station and fast food takeout place. I’ll be able to plug in my nearly dead phone at the camp store and have lunch at the hamburger stand. I heard they have a veggie burger!  It’ll be good to eat something besides reconstituted mush. Maybe I’ll call Camp Four Paws to see how Capone is doing. I keep having this panicky feeling that he died. What if he died?  What if I get off the trail and he’s gone? I mean he’s not a young dog. Anything could happen. My first dog, JT was just seven when he laid down by the side of the house and died while I was at work.

Carolyn Higgins Capone Backpacking in tent with me.
Capone on another backpacking trip with me.

I told my ex (and Capone’s emergency contact) that if anything happens not to call me. It doesn’t make sense to upset me on the trail; it could wait til I got home. But I almost can’t stand it anymore. The not knowing. Maybe I’ll call tomorrow.

Maybe I won’t.

What a rough day. But the challenge is part of the adventure and when all is said and done at the end of the day, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. I didn’t sit down and cry: I cried while I hiked. That means something. What I’m not sure. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. It’s kind of symbolic of what my whole life has been about. This defiance in me: my challenges won’t break me, they won’t win.  I just keep moving forward.  Even if I have to crawl and claw, blubbering the whole way, I will move forward. And I’m grateful to be here in Lyell Canyon watching ducks play in a pond.

Just 40 miles to go. I can’t wait to see Capone!

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