This is the third and final installment detailing my Kings Canyon/Sequoia first-timer, solo backpacking trip – the original plan was here and here are the first and second posts about what actually happened.
Remember what I said in the original planning post? That part of my interest in doing this trip was that I had heard “once you hit day 4 or 5 your body acclimates to just hiking all day, every day”. Well. It’s true. On Day 4 I was hiking the John Muir Trail, I was going to be climbing a “Golden Staircase” as well as a significant mountain pass, Mather Pass, and yet I was no longer worried about the physical aspects of taking on such tasks. I packed a few too many clothes for the temperature, I would not need the emergency cold hunting clothing I packed.
There are many cute names for badass things on this trail (Devil’s Washbasin, for example) and the “Golden Staircase” is a 1200 vertical foot wall with some 90 switchbacks carved out of it. It was a few miles into my morning walk, which started at 6:40am, and wasn’t that bad – you know why? Because it wasn’t 5400′ of solid ascent!
This was followed by some relatively flat walking along next to the beautiful Palisade Lakes and then by the early afternoon it was time to climb Mather Pass. Around 1pm I started up and boy was I pleased that there were clouds covering the sun during my ascent, as well as adorable marmots, but also the trek up to 12,047′ was no big deal – you know why? Because it wasn’t 5400′ of elevation in hot sun.
Getting to the top of my first significant mountain was fascinating. I really hadn’t thought until that moment that I was going over the TOP of mountains. The word “pass” had conjured in my mind the idea of a valley between mountains, but nope – I went to the tip-toppest rock on that trail and then peeked around to see…
More mountains! And yes, that’s a thunder (and lightning) storm in the direction I’m supposed to head. Thanks for coming up the cloudy side of the mountain, tiny human, now it’s time for a 2800′ descent completely in the open. There’s really nothing else to do but start walking down, so I do. As I maneuver down switchbacks and into the open valley, I end up putting on my pack cover for the first time and also my poncho as it is drizzling on me a bit. Magically the thunderstorm keeps moving away from me as I walk toward it so the rain never got too bad.
That night I stopped to sleep for the night at 5:30pm, a full hour earlier than usual. I set up my tent in the rain with ease, and had time to bathe in the river before enjoying lasagna out of a freezer bag. It was a magical day, actually. The first where I started to feel the fun of the adventure and confidence in my routines & gear getting me through it. I slept well that night and stayed dry.
Once again I was on the trail before 7am. By this time I had become pretty skilled at breaking down my camp (even when wet), my skill with a folding shovel to make a rain trench has vastly improved, having my water treated and my breakfast eaten within an hour of waking so I could take advantage of the early morning’s lower temperatures & less harsh sun. Today there would be another mountain pass, Pinchot, later in the day and my goal was to get to the junction with Woods Creek so that I’d have two easier days of hiking left – maybe 7/8 mile days each – and Sunday I would sleep in before going back to the car. 7 days, 75 miles. I was in the homestretch.
An hour or so into my hiking on Day 5 I started meeting people on the trail. First, a young couple who were friendly and upbeat. Then an older man solo hiker who within 5 minutes of chatting I decided to pair up with for the day’s walking. His name was Dennis and he was doing the JMT – had originally had a partner who bailed out earlier in the month – and he had just turned 64 on the trail. He was a few days out from summiting Mt Whitney and feared that if the weather delayed him, he’d have to pop out for supplies. I told him how I’d shaved my 11 day trip down to 7 and that I had some extra food to spare. It was a match made in heaven. I was very glad to be useful to helping someone else’s journey with my excess. Later in the day we ran into another hiking pair – a young woman and her dad. The six of us ended up at the top of Pinchot at the same time, and got to know a bit about where everyone was from. The young couple were both science teachers in a Sacramento middle school and were on their honeymoon, this was their first major hiking/backpacking experience, they were doing the JMT. The young woman was from Oakland and worked at TJ’s in Berkeley, her dad was from Nevada and they had come in over Bishop’s pass a few days before. She had experience with both JMT and some PCT, but this trip was going to be 7 days for them and they planned to head out at Kearsarge Pass.
This day was a fun change up compared to the previous 4 days of deep solitude. Meeting people on the trail and having short & excited interchanges, having conversations all day made moving the miles towards the goal so much faster. Not only that, we had amazing weather and while there was the hint of another thunderstorm building up in the distance – it never came close to us. We got to our Woods Creek junction camping – which involved going over a cool suspension bridge – at a still-sunny 4pm which was my earliest end time to date. Not only did I get to bathe, I was able to dry my gear out in the sun before setting it up and for the first time I washed my base layer shirt which was very salt & dust impregnated by that stage. Thank heavens for wool though, cause it didn’t really smell bad after 5 days of no washing and constant wear.
That evening I ended up making a plan with Kristen (the young woman from Oakland) to do the next day’s miles all in one go so we could get back to Oakland on Saturday night instead of Sunday. It would mean 15.5 miles in one day, but it would be almost entirely downhill and I sure got excited at the idea of a burger for dinner instead of the freezer bag meals.
You know how my original plan involved about 8 days where I would do more than 15 miles? Well today I learned what 15 miles feels like and I now know with certainty that I’m not going to be one of those backpackers. 12-14 miles is plenty and I had a couple of those days. 15.5 miles, even when almost entirely downhill, left me walking on STUMPS by the end of the day.
I packed up and got on the trail at 7:30am and started booting it toward Road’s End, I was so excited it was my last day. Kristen caught up with me midday and we hiked the rest together. As we got closer to Mist Falls, we were both dying to get in the river for a cool-off. It’s such a tease to hike next to a roaring river for 13.4 miles but not jump in. Passing through upper, middle, and lower Paradise Valley gave glimpses of beautiful, natural swimming pools, but we held out to Mist Falls so we’d be closer to the end of it all. At a certain point in the descent I started to feel like I was returning to being a mere mortal – no longer one up on the mountain tops – and there was some sadness. I was reminded of how I used to come out of the woods in Michigan after a week of hard work in the festival bubble. We’d roll up to do laundry on a Sunday all covered in dirt & bruises, feeling feral and invincible – unreachable by the norms of the regular world. I found that feeling again in the mountains and I didn’t realize it until I started passing day trippers on the trail. People who smelled strongly of detergent. People who didn’t know what I had just seen & been through for the last 5 days. We’d see babies and small children, or people with nothing but a tiny water bottle in their hands and start laughing to ourselves “if they’re here, we must be close to the trailhead”. We were a little bit delirious from sun & constant descent.
Around 2pm we got to the promised bottom of the falls and rushed to the water, leaving our packs, tearing off clothes and then sitting in the rushing river, in the sun, cooling off and refreshing our feet. Eventually it was time to get back on the trail – maybe 30 minutes later. Those last 4 miles from the falls to the parking lot were the hardest. At 2 miles to go, we were on a wide, flat, gravel trail to Road’s End that was completely sun-soaked. The two of us were zombies by then and our river time felt like a totally different day. Funny enough, I ran into the same ranger I had picked up my permit from a week before (Ranger Sailor!) and had a short chat with him about how I had changed my route. When I said my original plan was overly ambitious for a first time solo trip he expressed that he’d thought so too (even without knowing it was my first time) and it makes me wonder to what degree rangers will interfere with people’s plans…like, how intensive would it have to be for someone with experience to interrupt and say “No, you actually can’t do that”. Doesn’t matter in my case because I found my own way to create a transformative instead of destructive itinerary, but I’m just curious. I took an 11 day, 156 mile plan and reshaped it into a 6 day, 75 mile experience and I learned a ton figuring that out on my own.
We got to the car around 4:30pm and hit the road to Fresno. In n Out burgers were had and Kristen ended up deciding to go to her parent’s place in Nevada so I dropped her at the Greyhound station and then did the 2.5 hour drive back to Oakland alone, with music and a call to my moms.
I think I’ll make a separate post at some point about how I’d adjust my food planning for future trips. I have leftover food and it beckons to be taken out. I’m wondering how late in the season one can still do short trips because maybe in October I can go visit those mountains again…there’s a ‘popular’ loop around Rae Lakes that’s only 42 miles…