Forester Pass: A story of Life and Death

Day 6 Tyndall Creek to Vidette Meadow via Forester Pass

After leaving the granite cirque and my peaceful creekside oasis, the trail led me across a maze of streams that seemed to flow in every direction, past tarns of all shapes and sizes and through more rock fields and high sierra meadows. It was almost hard to believe California is in it’s 4th year of drought, with the amount of water there.

When I reached the foot of the Kings-Kern Divide I craned my head back and searched for the notch I’d be crossing. I couldn’t tell where Forester Pass was exactly. To my right was a wide saddle but the trail didn’t seem to go in that direction. The only other notch was far to my left at about nine o’clock and that seemed disconcertingly  far away: the map showed 4.7 miles from camp to the pass and I’d already come at least 3.  Oh well, sometimes you just have to move forward and trust that the trail will get you where you want to go.forester views 2 reduced

I turned around scanning the basin toward Tyndall Creek, now below me, searching for my Arkansas friends.  All morning I’d been thinking: they have to be behind me, they like to take their time over morning coffee, so they can’t be ahead of me already.  But they’re faster, so they would have caught up by now.  And then I’d get worried, maybe they decided to move on over Forester Pass last night.   That thought depressed me a little. I like having trail friends that I can run into now and then. If they crossed Forester yesterday I may not see them again, they’d be nearly a whole day ahead of me… With hope I’d see my friends again, I hiked on.

Ok, here I go!  I excitedly began my ascent up the rocky trail neatly carved into the mountain, anxious to get my first real JMT pass under my belt!  Forester Pass is 13,145 feet. Looking up at the top of the ridge, I guessed I was at about 12,000 and it didn’t take long to feel the now-familiar heaviness of high altitude climbing.   Adding to the fatigue, this time I had my 35-ish pound pack strapped to my back. Ok, easy does it. Slow… baby steps.forrester pass trail not my photo

The climb was slow, but Whitney taught me to honor the challenge and take my time; that it’s ok to reach the top one baby step at a time. With heavy legs and pack, I trudged higher; zig-zagging up the mountain, one switchback at a time.  It was getting warmer and I was constantly wiping sweat from my forehead, catching it before dribbling into my eyes and burning. I need a bandanna. I’m going to buy a bandana when I get to Independence.  This one little thought started an internal battle that kept me amused for several agonizing switchbacks:

Critical Self: But you have a bandanna, you don’t need another one.

Wanting a bandana self: Yeah, but it’s the Scottish one that we brought to signal other Facebook people we’re part of their group and it’s bright yellow and red.  I’m not wearing THAT thing on my head. I want a blue one, to match my eyes…

Critical Self: But we have a million blue bandannas at home and we purposely left them behind. Remember, we’re counting weight here!

Wanting a bandana self: Seriously? How much does a bandana weigh? Like a tenth of gram? Stop being a gram weanie!  Besides I’ll be wearing it on my head, not carrying it.

Critical self: Ok fine, you can get a blue bandanna in Independence. 

Wanting a bandana self: Thank you. Geesh, was that so hard? 

After my argument was settled, I kept my mind occupied by making a mental list of all the things I wanted to buy in Independence: Kettle Salt and Pepper potato chips, Tylenol PM, a few gallon Zip-Locs for garbage and stuff (somehow I seemed to have a shortage) – I wonder if they sell them individually? I don’t need a whole box. And fruit. Hopefully I can find fresh fruit.

Inching higher and higher and still searching for the elusive Forester Pass, I encountered a metal sign attached to a giant boulder off the side of the trail.  Not wanting to interrupt the momentum I had going, I pushed forward. But several feet past it, the curiosity overwhelmed me and I had to turn back.

It was a memorial to the men who built the trail, and specifically, 18-year-old Donald Downs who died when a boulder came loose and crushed his arm in 1930.  I took a minute to let that sink in; realizing that I take these trails I love for granted. I never think about how much work and sacrifice went into building them. This mountain is no joke, and almost 100 years ago they were blasting it out with sticks of dynamite and moving these car-sized boulders with brute force (and maybe mules?).  To realize that someone died so generations of hikers can follow in John Muir’s footsteps (sort of) was pretty sobering. I was glad I stopped. It felt like a small way to pay homage to the people who made – and those who maintain – the trail that I feel so honored to be on. Thank you Donald Downs. And thank you California Conservation Corps (CCC) and all the volunteers who keep the trail safe for us. forrester pass trail not my photo2

Many, many, many, many, many, many (yes, that many!) switchbacks later, I finally spotted the pass- or what I assumed to be the pass… Are you kidding me? How am I supposed to get up THAT? It rested just above a narrow slit that ran perpendicular to the ridge and looked like a deep ditch slicing it in two. Am I going to have to climb all the way down and then back up that? Ok, this is going to be interesting…forester reduced I was relieved when the trail curved toward the head of the slit, not down into it.  I spotted a narrow shelf cut in the nearly vertical mountain as I entered a dark cool alcove just a few hundred feet below the pass.  It felt like being behind a waterfall, without the water.  I crossed the head of the steep, jagged ditch that cut a thousand feet down the mountain.  As I exited, voices from above were cheering me on, “You’re almost here. You’re doing great. See you up here!”   I couldn’t see them, but I heard them loud and clear.  I was elated to be so close to the top and excited for the camaraderie that awaited me. I climbed a small set of switchbacks that took me up the final stretch and spilled me onto the pass. Forester Pass! I’m here!

It was buzzing with activity. There were five, or maybe six guys sitting around enjoying the victory. After doing a couple three-sixties to absorb the views that lay behind – and ahead of me –  I searched for a suitable place to squeeze my butt and pack in on the very narrow landing.  I finally settled on a pile of lumpy rocks.  The group cheerfully welcomed me and introduced themselves. One group was from Nevada City, just a couple hours from me and the others from the east coast, I think. We had a good time sharing trail stories, talking gear and eating trail mix.  I love summit parties!

I stretched my stiff achy hamstrings and quads and then sat back and relaxed as much as I could with a bunch of rocks up my butt.   I’d been there maybe 20 minutes when the steep southerly trail delivered another hiker.  Robert!  It’s Arkansas Robert!   Where the heck did he come from? I didn’t see them coming up the trail…

forester view from top reduced

“Robert!!! Hi!” I beamed at him, excited to see my friend.

“I need a minute,” he answered with a shaky voice and headed up away from the rest of us.  He was clearly having a moment; this wasn’t the happy jolly Robert I’m used to seeing. I figured he was having a flood of emotion like I had summiting Mt. Whitney. This stuff can be pretty powerful.

Later I learned that he’d climbed Forester Pass before.  It was the summer following the last big wet winter California had.  That year, Mother Nature dumped so much snow on the Sierras that hikers encountered snow well into late summer. The Sierra/JMT hikers who were out tell stories as if it’s ancient folklore: “Back in the Big Snow of ’10 parts of the trail were covered with snow until August and we had to crampon up the passes and glissade down them. Yep, there was even snow at Guitar lake in July! AND we had to cross 2 bridges in 12 feet of snow, barefoot to get there!” (Ok, I made the last part up.)

After the rest of the Arkansas Four arrived, Robert rejoined the group and told us his story of the Big Snow of ’10: “I was coming up this pass,” he started, nodding toward the trail from which he’d come, “and it was still buried under a bunch of snow. It was icy and slick. A lot of people had gotten off the trail because it was too scary. But for some reason, I forged ahead. I was near the top, right down there,” he said pointing to a spot near the big scary slit with his trekking pole, “and lost my footing. I slid so far down… I don’t know how, but I caught myself.  In those few moments, I really thought I was going to go all the way down. I thought I was a goner.” He paused for a few minutes and I could see the emotion in his face, “and coming up here today, I wasn’t expecting it, but it all came flooding back…” His voice was shaky and his eyes were a little misty. “Whew. I’ll tell ya, I’m sure glad to be here now!” We were silent as we listened to Robert’s story. A single word crossed my mind listening to his story and reflecting on the memorial I’d passed on the way up: Respect. These mountains demand our respect. Snow or no snow, it can be a dangerous place.forester views 3

The summit party got even better with my trail friends there. It was good to be reunited with familiar faces. The others left and we had the pass to ourselves: lounging around for a long time sharing trail mix and snapping photos.  I found out they’d stayed at Lake South America last night where they found a remote and picturesque lakeside spot that sounded perfect.

forester group pic
Arkansas Four and me (with Zinc Oxide all over my face.. geesh)

We spent the afternoon hiking together toward Vidette Meadow. Descending Forester pass we were immersed in soupy-thick smoke. The expansive views were diluted and cut off by a wall of yellow smoke: but displayed before us were vast glacial bowls and cirques dotted with patches of subalpine greenery and gloomy charcoal gray tarns sweeping toward the north. The air quality was the worst it had been since it rained ash at Crabtree Meadow.  Feather light shreds of burnt forest – some as big as a quarter –  wafted down upon us.  I felt a slight burning in my eyes that wasn’t sweat and my breathing was a little more labored than it should have been (we were descending!). It was so bad that some of the SOBO hikers we passed had bandannas over their noses and mouths trying to filter the polluted air. I guess this will go down in trail lore as the “Smoky Wildfire Year of ’15”.

By 3:30 we’d descended into Vidette Meadow Valley and the smoke wasn’t as bad.  Around mile ten, we found a big clearing with a bunch of sites next to a small creek and there was some discussion amongst the group about camping there. After exploring the area and finding lots of options for camp I dropped my pack and decided to call it home for the night.  I was hoping the guys were done too and was a little disappointed when they decided to move on.  I was enjoying their company and didn’t want it to end.

Yesterday at Wallace Creek, in their characteristic respectful way they’d invited me to camp with them. Tim was the first to offer, “we don’t want to infringe upon your independence in any way and we want to honor your solo adventure, but we want you to know you are more than welcome to camp with us…”  I was so appreciative of the offer  – and the way he presented it. This is why I love backpackers – we just ‘get’ each other.

But today, I was being characteristically stubborn and maybe a little pig-headed.   I thought that by staying with them, I’d be giving up something; latching on to men for comfort.  And I didn’t want to do that. That’s not who I am or why I came out here. I’m doing this alone dammit! I must do it alone!  So I dropped my pack and boldly proclaimed. “I’m home for the night.  I hope to run into you guys again.”

We said our farewells and as I watched them disappear around a bend into the thick forest, I felt my stomach sink and then a flood of loneliness swelled inside like a noxious gas.  I just stood for a few minutes in the big barren clearing, all by myself, in complete silence for the first time since ascending Forester Pass. I shrugged it off, picked up my pack and headed into the woods toward Vidette Meadow which by now was glowing vividly through the trees beneath the afternoon sun.

With boots off and feet soaking in the cool water, I looked back at the contents of my pack scattered about, ready to set up camp.  I got an uneasy eerie feeling being so deep in the trees and realized I didn’t really like the spot I’d chosen.  I didn’t want to be there… “Fuck this,” I said out loud, pulling on my socks and boots and leaping up to pack up and go find my friends. I’m not sure if I just needed an excuse or if I really just didn’t like the spot, but once I got back on the trail, I was excited and I comforted myself about my decision as I hiked along:  It’s ok to not want to be alone. This doesn’t lessen my experience or make me any less independent. Some company tonight will be nice…  

The two miles of trail between my almost- campsite and my friends’ camp was easy and quick.  And about half a mile in I stepped over a giant pile of fresh bear poop. I knew I didn’t like that site or a reason. There are bears here!

Within an hour, I again emerged from the woods and appeared on the edge of the camp of four friends from Arkansas.  They were clearly surprised and seemed genuinely happy to see me. “Yes, of course, we told you – you are more than welcome to camp with us! Find a spot to pitch your tent and come join us for dinner,” Tim said as I approached them asking, “hey is there room for one more?”

dear near vidette for blogh
nice buck near Vidette Meadow

After pitching camp, taking a hiker bath down the creek away from camp and filling my water, I joined them for dinner. We had a good time telling stories and watching the dear in the meadow over dinner.

Excerpt from my journal that night:

It’s been dark a while. I stayed up late enjoying the company of fellow backpackers and hearing their many stories of adventure.

I’m inside my tent now getting ready for bed and feeling veeeeery relaxed.  Someone I may or may not have met on the trail may or may not have given me a Xanax to help me sleep (in case the DEA is reading this, I don’t remember what they looked like and I didn’t get a name) :-).  I think it’s already kicking in… I hope to sleep tonight.

It was a good day!

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19 comments on “Forester Pass: A story of Life and Death”

  1. Carolyn,
    What an incredible post. I look forward to reading the rest of your story, Im sure its amazing. I found your post researching a 2020 trip over Forrester Pass that I have just started planning and will use you as inspiration as I psych myself up for a trip that this 54 yr, chubby guy probably shouldn’t attempt:) I gain confidence from real life stories like yours and equally from my hiker daughter who says i have no chance( she’s the best;))

    Take care,
    Regards, Kevin

    1. Hi Kevin,
      I think it’s awesome that you’re challenging yourself. You absolutely SHOULD attempt whatever the heck you want to attempt!
      If I did it, anyone can do it!
      If you’re looking for more inspiration, I hiked 576 miles (Oregon and southern WA) on the PCT this past summer. I’m now 52 – and in your words, chubby. LOL. I’m not gonna lie. It wasn’t easy. But I did videos of my journey and you can check them out on YouTube here:

      I wish you all the best in your planning and your adventure. I believe in you..

  2. I love reading your blog and I always try to leave a comment of support and to be honest, admiration. This time my comment is simple – Write a Book Carolyn.

    1. I want to leave a comment on every new day but I’m too anxious to get into the next. It is now 11 a.m. and I told myself I would get up a hour ago to do what I planned for the day. Oh well, life is short. Enjoy the moment. My work will wait.

  3. More, more, more please. 🙂 I read a section every night before bed. Im getting ready for a possible solo, but definite JMT hike this August. Your blog is helping me face my fears (being alone at night with mysterious noises outside my tent) and nudging me closer to getting my mind right. Step by step. Thank you so much for sharing your adventure.

    1. Laura, I’m so excited for you! Going out solo is such an amazing experience, but I’ll admit, the first few times I did it the noises at night left me paralyzed and breathless inside my tent until I fell asleep. Just remember – noting out there wants to hurt you! Good luck and thank you very much for reading and leaving your comment. – Carolyn

  4. So I have been seeing a few of your blog updates on the JMT FB page. But today I went back and read your first entry, your “story”. Then subscribed, because I don’t want to miss any more posts. I think we were on the trail and probably passed by each other last year. The. Year of the great smoke out! We started on August 26 and bailed over piute pass on Sept 4. My husband has respiratory issues and we finally decided at Mc Clure Meadow to go back and finish this year. Today I was so encouraged by your life story. I have a 31 year old daughter trying to run from herself and her demons thru alcohol. You give me hope that one day it maybe different for her. Thank you for being open and honest.

    1. Karen, Yes, it was a rough year to be out on the JMT, for sure. I’m sorry to hear you weren’t able to stay and I hope you get to finish it this year – under better conditions. And thank you for sharing your daughter’s story – that touched me very deeply. I’m so glad that you found hope in my story. I wanted to share it for that exact reason; to reach people who are struggling with their own demons and maybe, just maybe they can learn something about themselves that will help. I do hope your daughter finds her way… Thank you for reading and good luck to you. ♥♥♥

  5. I’m glad you went! I was cheering for that! Sometimes being around people is harder for me than not. But, when you explained how you felt at your first spot, my heart screamed, no! Go to them! Glad you made that choice! I had a super rough day today, but, while at work I saw this new post in my email and was so relived. Maybe you did what you did to fulfill a deep part of you, but, know you are motivating, comforting and empowering so many by sharing your story… Thank you. ?

    1. Wow, YOUR comment made MY day. I am so glad you find my story motivating and comforting and that it brought a little light to a tough day. Thank you very much! I hope tomorrow’s better! 🙂

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