PCT Day 57: How is This Real

June 14, 2022

Campsite below Mather Pass at mile 815.7 to Big Pete Meadow at mile 832.6

16.9 miles

This morning is luxurious. Since we’re so close to Mather, we don’t really have a reason to get up too early. I don’t set an alarm, and I wake up when the sun starts poking over the mountains. The minute it hits my tent, it turns into a cozy warm greenhouse. Ahh, being warm. How I cherish you these days.

Catless gives me one of his fancy Starbucks instant coffees, and I drink that while eating oatmeal (warm! Not cold soaked!) and a peanut butter tortilla. It’s hard for me to get out of my cocoon, but I eventually do. We pack up and slowly start getting ready to move. Right before we leave I try to clean my sunglasses with the microfiber case they came in, but I guess there was some sand in there or something because I end up completely smudging them to the point that I can barely see out of them. Nothing that any of us do helps. Huh. That’s going to be fun going over the five miles of snow on Muir Pass tomorrow with my eyeballs burning out of my skull.

We start up Mather after 9. It’s a satisfying climb and there is no snow on the south side at all. This is another one of those “how is this the same trail as in 2017” moments. This pass was covered in snow the year I did it, and I used my axe and spikes pretty much the whole ascent. Today it’s a series of lovely switchbacks. I keep trying to use my sunglasses, but they’re smudged and scratched so badly that it feels dangerous.

“Ugh,” I say. “It sucks with my sunglasses and it sucks without them.”

Ahead of me, Jumbo takes off his sunglasses and hands them to me. I refuse twice, but then he says, “I’m not walking until you take them.”

The world gets pleasantly dark for the rest of the ascent. I really wish I hadn’t tried to clean my sunglasses earlier. There was just a little bit of crud on them, but now they’re unusable. Ugh. I loved those things, too. They’re Goodrs! I guess I learned my lesson about trying to clean them with a potentially dirty case. Jumbo’s glasses make the climb bearable, at least. I give them back to him at the top, and he doesn’t put up a fight.

At the summit of the climb, we talk to some folks doing a shorter route on part of the JMT and surrounding trails. They tell us that the north side of this pass is pretty snowy, and that we might want to use spikes but an ice axe isn’t necessary. After my experience on Glen, I’m keen to use spikes. Jumbo is too, so we suit up while Catless blazes ahead undaunted. We also pull out our ice axes, because why not. We have them. They might as well get used!

I’m definitely glad for the spikes. The snow is still pretty slippery, and the angle is steep. This is still nothing compared to 2017, but I would have been so panicked if I didn’t have them. The crunch of the spikes in the snow is so satisfying. I dig in my ice axe with each step and feel very cool. Jumbo is having the time of his life. This is what he was hoping for from the Sierras: a real snowy adventure.

The trail alternates between snow and rock for a bit until the snow peters out for good and we’re just hiking again. Jumbo almost looks sad. “I want more!” he says.

We meet back up with Catless by a creek and then continue hiking together down towards Palisade Lake. I remember this day as being one of the most beautiful sections: once over Mather, the trail winds down through a picturesque valley of deep blue lakes, clear streams, and green meadows, then Palisade Creek tumbles down to Deer Meadow and eventually the Middle Fork of the Kings. The mountains above the Palisade Lakes are sheer granite monoliths that slice right down from the sky and into the water. The whole time we’re walking, I keep trying to take it all in. It’s so incredibly beautiful, and it doesn’t feel real.

We cross a creek easily that in 2017 was waist deep and scary fast in the evening, which reduced me to a shivering, crying mess. Today it’s an easy hop across a couple of logs. A little while later we spot Qwerty and Trash Balloon on a rock overlooking the lake. We decide to have lunch here since it’s after 12, but we have way more of the day to go than half, so we don’t stay for long. The couple does give me their nail polish that I’ve been intending to borrow, though. Trash Balloon has blue and Qwerty has yellow, and, adorably, they’ve painted their nails in alternating patterns so that TB has all blue except for her left ring finger, which is yellow, and Qwerty is the opposite, with all yellow except for the one blue. “They’re our wedding rings!” TB says happily when I notice. Um, adorable.

We carry on soon, ending up in the meadow where Palisade Creek is calm and smooth before it roars in a waterfall to the valley floor below. Here it is crystal clear water and lazy turns through grass. Catless and Jumbo spot fish in the creek, and we watch them gracefully navigate the waters.

Soon we’re turning downwards onto the Golden Staircase, a long series of small switchbacks that work their way down from Palisade Lakes to Deer Meadow. (It’s not labeled Deer Meadow on Guthook, but I’m pretty sure I remember that from my JMT topographic maps, so we’re rolling with it.) I’m glad to be going downhill, but it’s still not exactly pleasant as the trail consists of large steps and irritating rocks. It’s getting hot, too, and I sense that Jumbo is starting to do that wilting thing he does in the sun. Heck, I’m wilting by the time we get to the Palisade waterfall. We sit in the spray for a moment and then continue with a sigh. I’m trying to be conscious of the beauty around me, which I am, but my eyes are also burning up and my feet are screaming and I want to be out of the sun.

Soon we enter the forest again and I get my wish. The path turns soft and dirt again, and it’s bearable to look around. It’s so lush down here in these trees, conifers above and ferns below. We stop for a break, and I dunk my hat and buff into the cold stream. They feel amazing against my skin.

We go through a burn area that I remember clearly from the last time. It gives us great views of the walls of the mountains around us, but it’s also still so hot. Eventually it turns back into thick forest again, and I am cruising. I peel away from the boys and walk on my own for a while, which feels good and right in this forest.

At the bottom of the descent, near the Middle Fork of the Kings, I sit and wait. Catless and Jumbo appear after a while and we have a snack break. Jumbo does not look good. He says his ankle is bothering him and he’s just messed up from the heat and the rocky descent. Dang. Why can our good days never line up? I feel so great today. We sit on a log and are joined by Mosey, who we’ve been leapfrogging with for the past few days. She decides to camp with us if she can’t find the other folks she’s been hiking around.

Middle Fork of the Kings River

Soon we get up and start hiking the last five miles through my favorite part of the entire JMT section: LeConte canyon. This is another one that isn’t labeled on Guthook, but I will always remember its name and the way it feels to be here. Jumbo speeds ahead in music mode. I pull over to get a good view of the Middle Fork waterfall that is spraying mist everywhere. The evening light comes through the water and does amazing things.

Catless passes me, and I’m alone. The forest turns quiet save for the distant roaring of the river. I’m walking softly on the dirt path beneath so many gentle conifers in the golden light. It feels right and good to be here. This forest has something; it is so obviously alive, a person, a spirit. A Rumi quote pops in my head then: “There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen.”

It feels like Alice in Wonderland, like something from another dimension. I see a clearing up ahead and something shifts within me. This is Grouse Meadows, the most magical place on the Nüümü Poyo. The light casts slanted rays as it falls through the towering mountains. It lands on a triangular rock with a tree growing right next to it. Otherwise, the meadow is wide and green. The Middle Fork, so gently a raging torrent, is here a slow, patient, meandering stream. I see Catless and he points me to a deer grazing on the opposite side of the water. Then I walk forward into the meadow and stand there beneath the light remembering the last time I was here and feeling the same spell.

Its 5:45 and I know I need to keep moving if I want to make it to camp. But I don’t want to leave. I want to drink from this place like water. I want it to fill me forever. I want to be that rock in the sunlight. The deer grazing in the grass. The breeze running through the trees. I close my eyes and feel how alive this place is and how incredibly lucky I am to see it, not once but twice. It is magic.

For the next four miles, I try to balance taking in the night of LeConte Canyon and hiking fast. I feel pretty good and I don’t want to lose my momentum. I don’t listen to music; the music of the river is what I want for now. That evening light pouring through the mountains does such things to my heart. This canyon is cool and calm as I work my way up. There’s another waterfall; there’s the Citadel with its impressive towering face. Up, up, looking back down at the raging river, looking ahead to McClure meadow. We see Jumbo waiting for us at a stream crossing, and the three of us slowly make our way the last mile and a half to camp.

As usual, the last part is the worst. We stop for water at the foot of a hill that is way bigger than I remember. Finally, after what feels like forever, the trail levels out and we are in Big Pete Meadow. We find a campsite—the same one as in 2017—and we call it a day.

Dinner is a far too large bag of mashed potatoes and stuffing, and it leaves me so full that I am uncomfortable until I lay down. Ugh. Bad decisions made on that front, but now there’s a lot more space in my bear can.

I feel so lucky to be out here. I can’t believe I got to see my favorite places from the JMT again. This canyon just has something special.

Muir Pass tomorrow!

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