Day 13: Unnamed Creek below Mather Pass to LeConte Canyon
August 30, 2015 at 5 am: Waking up below Mather Pass
I had a rough night. It was freezing and the rocky ground causes every muscle and bone to ache, even through my Therm-a-rest. It’s definitely not as cushy as the dirt floor below the tree line. Even with Advil PM, I tossed and turned all night, feeling every scrape, rash and sore muscle. (I scraped my fingertip on a rock while soaking yesterday and it’s throbbing!).
On the bright side, every time I got up to go to the bathroom (which was a lot) I was thrust from the comfort of my tent into the desolate and barren landscape of Upper Basin, in the shadow of Mather Pass. The near-full moon cast an eerie glow onto the other-worldly bouldered moonscape. I paused: acutely aware of my alone-ness and a tranquility so smooth and silent. Have I woken up to a dream? Is this real? I pondered how a place so devoid of sound and movement can exist on the same planet as my every-day world full of hustle-and-bustle and noise and light. I took a long slow breath, inhaling the cool night, and slowly turned. All around and above me, millions of stars carried out their nightly duty: twinkling innocently and ignorantly in a far-away universe.
I ached to absorb every atom of the extraordinary world enveloping me. It pulled me in, seducing me with it’s silent tranquility. As I stood motionless, my Earthly Being merged into the landscape. Once again, I became Nature and Nature became me. I reveled in the power it had over me and in the knowledge that I was a mere speck on the ancient historical timeline of this place that now held me.
Chilled – and maybe a little spooked – I’d hesitantly crawl back into my tent and try in vain to get a few hours of sleep….
I’ve finally given up. I unzipped my door and rainfly to enjoy the view from the warmth of my sleeping bag: the bright sparkling star of The Hand Constellation is just above the eastern peaks of Cardinal and Split Mountains. The world is silent and still. I’m sipping my coffee, anxious for the sun to rise. I’m ready to get on the trail, but for now I’m enjoying the silent serenity of a world that I have all to myself… just the stars and the sky and the fading moon to keep me company.
12:30 – Lunch – Descending into Leconte Canyon from Mather Pass
No wonder most of the South Bounders I’ve run into today have been grumpy. Mather Pass is a bitch; my irritating descent is their horrific 4100’ never-ending ascent. How I missed this on my maps, I’ll never know – oh wait, that’s right I fucking SUCK at reading topo map! Plus, I keep making the same mistake over and over again; thinking it’s going to be an easy day. I was so full of excitement and optimism as I half-assedly studied my map this morning, broke camp and merrily skipped along the trail toward Mather Pass. I was like the Mary Poppins of JMT hikers, all that was missing was the umbrella and the “Sound of Music” piping through the mountains as I frolicked.
You’d think that after my Glen Pass melt-down I’d have learned my lesson. Repeat after me: THERE ARE NO EASY DAYS ON THE JOHN MUIR TRAIL! When will that sink into my head? Damn my optimism and willful ignorance! It bites me in the ass every single day out here. On top of a grueling 4100-foot descent down rocky slippery, torturous trail, my quads and hips are achy (despite handfuls of ibuprofen), I think I’m getting blisters, a couple of my fingertips are cut and bleeding and throbbing and the rash on the back of my legs is burning. Yeah, this shit is real. Being out in the elements and hiking 100 miles over 13 days takes a toll on my fragile ill-equipped human body!
On top of all that, my pants have become annoyingly baggy (I would have never thought in a million years that I would complain that my pants had become too baggy. Sear this moment into your brain and forever cherish it.) They’re falling from my hips and drooping all down my ass, chaffing my already rashed butt and legs. Seriously, I’m getting the weirdest ailments. I planned for sore muscles, minor cuts, scrapes, infections; but fingertips that split open and throb constantly, a rash on the entire back of my lower body; who would have thought to prepare for such nonsense?
After what felt like decades of trudging downhill, I finally stopped to eat lunch on a huge flat rock overlooking a gorge with a cascading waterfall. As I devoured my favorite Cashew Caramel Go Macro Bar and handfuls of trail mix, a tall lanky dude about my age stopped next to me. He just stood there for what seemed like a ridiculously long time without saying anything to me. He stared at the river flooding through the narrow gorge. Does he not see me, I wondered. How can he not see me? I’m RIGHT next to him.
“HI!” I yelled to him over the roaring noise of the water, trying to snap him out of his clueless trance.
Not taking his eyes off the gorge, he mumbled something I couldn’t hear.
He mumbled again.
Ok, now this mumbling intruder was just annoying me, “I can’t hear you over the waterfall.”
He raised his voice about a half a decibel, I think he asked, “is this the Golden Staircase?”
“I don’t think so. Isn’t the Golden Staircase further north near Donahue Pass?” I answered.
“No. I think this is it,” he replied, still studying the gorge and not looking at me.
Okay, if you’re so damn sure, then why did you ask??? “Hmm. I’m not sure then…”
Then he suddenly jerked his head around as if noticing me for the first time and just stood in place on the trail a foot away from me, watching me pick cashews out of my trail mix. He was starting to creep me out. I was sitting on the edge of a gorge after all and there was no one around for miles. Will this be the day my flippant, “No one hikes into the wilderness to kill people” reply to “aren’t you scared hiking alone?” bites me on the ass?
Why was this odd tall man watching me eat? Finally he mumbled, “where are you from?”
I’d been meeting people from all over the world and I never assume anyone knows where little Concord, California is, so I replied, “The Bay Area – San Francisco, Bay Area.”
The odd man snarled at me, turning up his lip in disgust. Showing obvious contempt, he snapped, “you could have been more specific!”
I gave him a questioning look. His annoyance caught me off guard and I wanted to reply, “Ok, is “none of your fucking business”, specific enough for you?” but since I was sitting on the edge of cliff overlooking a gorge I thought it best to not provoke the odd man. “Ok, I’m from Concord, Concord CA. Why, do you know the Bay Area?”
Again with his annoyed tone, “Yeah, Orinda.”
Silence. He just stood there. Looking at me. Looking at the gorge. I started packing up, I wasn’t taking any chances that he was trying to figure out if he could push me over without taking himself down in the fall too…
Finally, he mumbled something and moved on. I watched him hike up the trail (that suddenly seemed an awful lot like a staircase…) and out of sight. Relieved to be alone again, I laid back onto the rock and let the warm sun wash over me, thinking, What is up with today? I have not met one “normal” hiker today, just a bunch of people who seem like they’ve never been on a trail before and absolutely hate being out here. But then, I suppose the people who passed me climbing Glen Pass could’ve thought the same about me. Trudging up this hellacious mountain must kill every ounce of joy in even the best and most optimistic hiker.
So today it was the Mather Pass descent, more than the ascent that killed me. Really, that fucking mountain just went down for days.
With all my odd physical ailments and wavering mental fortitude I’m realizing that my fantasy of dropping out of society, loading up my backpack with as much survival gear as I can carry, grabbing Capone and traipsing deep into the wilderness to live off the land probably isn’t a realistic option. Besides being completely grossed out by the idea of having to kill things to eat, I’ve only been out here 13 days and already I miss my warm comfy bed, hot showers, soap and shampoo, fresh veggies, real coffee and lotion (my skin is so dry). Yes, that fantasy has died within me over the last several days. I would surely starve and die a slow and wholly uncomfortable death without Peet’s coffee and 900 thread count sheets.
8:30 pm at Le Conte Canyon
I hiked 16.4 miles today!!! And I finally broke my 100-mile mark! Woo hoo!!
After a long and strange day with lots of cranky people and a brutal 4100’ descent I finally stumbled into LeConte Canyon around 6 pm. I was determined to make it here tonight, so for the first time I hiked past 4:00. Why have I been stopping so early? I got an extra 3 ½ miles in! (That’s right, “I’m not in a race. I’m supposed to be enjoying the journey… blah, blah blah… Yeah, I’m pretty much over that – I’m ready to be home!)
Guess who’s here!?! Arkansas Tim and Tony!!! I was so excited to see my old trail friends! But I quickly noticed they were one short, “Where’s Robert?” Tim told the story of how his knee got worse after tweaking it coming down Pinchot Pass and he had to exit. They’d gotten to LeConte Canyon yesterday and hiked Robert out to Bishop over Bishop Pass today so he could get medical help. Having hiked their friend out over a brutal pass, sharing the weight of his gear and their day packs, and then back to LeConte Canyon in one day, they were physically exhausted, emotionally drained and worried about their friend. But there’s a hiker code: you do what you can for your injured comrades-in-boots, but in the end you have to hike your hike.
It made me sad to hear the bad news and missed Robert’s big happy smile and his familiar “you just never know who you’re going to meet out here” greeting. Knowing that fit, tough Robert – the happy-go-lucky workhorse of the group – had to exit the trail was another reminder that this endeavor is no joke.
They invited me to camp with them so I excitedly pitched my tent and ate dinner with them. And while we shared stories of trail challenges and triumphs, the concern over our friend’s health hovered in the air like a heavy fog.
(Oh and-Tony confirmed that mumbling, Specifically-Orinda guy was right, it was the Golden Staircase I was descending. How did I not know that?? *Sigh*)
I’m relaxing in my tent now, getting ready for bed and studying my maps. Tomorrow will be a tough day: 7.9 miles to Muir Pass. (7.9 TOUGH miles, I KNOW this one won’t be easy… see how I’m reversing the psychology on this one?? I hope it helps!). Then on to Evolution Basin and Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) for my next resupply!!!
I had a low point today coming down the endless 4000’ Mather Pass Golden Staircase (more like “Staircase of Hell”) where I was bored with being out here and ready to be done. I don’t want to quit, but I wouldn’t mind picking up the pace to get out sooner than 30 days. I miss Capone terribly and I worry about him being at puppy camp all alone. I miss my bed. I miss showers. I miss not having every inch of my body ache or burn or pulse in pain. Maybe I was just a little tired and lonely and I was reacting to all the negative people I ran into. Being with Tony and Tim has made me feel better. All in all, I’m happy to be here and tomorrow is another day…
Sidenote: A thought I had on the trail today after the Golden Staircase:
Ahhh, I’ve descended to 8700’! I’m speeding along the trail and the little hills, my muscles feel less fatigued and I can breathe! I mean REALLY breathe! I feel like Super Woman! I can do anything at 8700’!!!
I can only imagine what it will be like when I get home to sea level! Watch out Bay Area. When I get home I’m gonna go on a huge Oxygen bender. I’ll be sucking in all that thick sea-level ‘O’ the Nine-Two-Five is known for! Oh yeah! My lungs are jonesing for a big whiff of that good stuff! I’ll be running the streets and doing cardio like a mother-fucker! Watch out Bay Area, here I come!
Yeah- the trail gets boring and you find interesting ways to amuse yourself! 🙂