June 15, 2022
Big Pete Meadow at mile 832.6 to campsite at mile 848.4
It’s a slow morning. We aim to leave by 6:30, but it’s after 7 before we get moving. We had to eat breakfast, get water, pack up, and chat with Qwerty and Trash Balloon, after all. Part of me feels like there’s no need to leave early in the Sierras, but another part of me says we should be making bigger miles than we are. I hate that constant tug-of-war. I’m here to see this place and enjoy it, but I also have to keep moving if I want to do this thing.
Anyway, once we get going it’s a beautiful day. It is a tougher climb than I remembered to Muir Pass, though. The trail follows the Middle Fork of the Kings River almost the whole way up, switchbacking through forest and exposed rock. We are all not loving it. We take a lot of breaks. My ankle starts to twinge, perhaps in sympathy for Jumbo, who’s doing better than he was yesterday but still not loving all the rumble rocks—annoyingly sized scree between larger blocks that make up much of the steep parts of this section.
At mile 834.6, Tribute is born. Catless drops his pack and declares, “It’s time.” He holds up his trowel and heads off into the forest. Jumbo and I are shocked. No warning? No fanfare? Just like that? He’s been Catless, as in, cathole-less, as in, has not once had to go number two in the woods on this trip, since the beginning. This was the planned evolution of his name: Catless, as in Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, becomes Tribute once he’s forced to dig a cathole. It’s a big moment. Catless goes into the woods and emerges as Tribute.
Recovering from that shock, we keep walking up the massive hill. We cross the Middle Fork, me upstream and the boys just downstream of the crossing. We wind our way around a corner and into a notch in the mountains, where a perfectly clear lake reflects the sky and the snow begins in earnest.
It’s nowhere near 2017 levels. For one, I can actually see the creek that was covered in snow that year. It’s also not five straight miles; there are breaks in the snow where the trail becomes walkable. It is still just as stunning, though, from the crystal clear lakes to the snow-dotted peaks towering above. I get my feet wet in the crossing of a lake outlet, which is annoying, but they soon get covered in snow anyway when we start going up the cut-in footpath. It’s actually pretty fun. None of it feels super dangerous, and since the slope isn’t that steep until the end, we don’t use microspikes. I have to wear my very scratched sunglasses because the snow is just too bright not to, but it’s frustrating not to be able to see the world clearly.
Helen Lake is stunning. Its frigid waters are so clear that it’s almost hard to tell which rocks are underwater. We take a pause there before the final ascent, which is straight up a hill. At a break in the snow on this climb, another hiker points out a pair of nesting grouse.
We summit around noon. It’s much later than we planned to be up here, but that approach was a slog. We eat lunch, and then Tribute has the brilliant idea to make snow cones out of snow and Mio water flavoring. We do so, and it is delicious. Will I get giardia? Stay tuned!
The descent is also snowy and long, but still, much less than 2017. I can actually see Wanda Lake this time; it’s not frozen and covered in snow. When the path walks right beside the water, I can’t take in the beauty. I take off my sunglasses and sunglasses and really try to wrap my head around what I’m seeing, this lake, this valley.
We work our way down the slope mostly in comfortable silence, losing the trail a few times, finding it, switchbacking down to Evolution Valley. We pass Sapphire Lake beneath the craggy Evolution Mountains, cross an outlet, and take a break next to Evolution Lake. We’re trying to work out the math on whether or not we have to go to Vermillion Valley Resort, a popular but expensive stop for hikers. Jumbo is cutting it close on food, but
Catless Tribute and I are still okay, so we offer to give J some of our food. It’s going to be a nine-day stretch if we can make it, which is our longest yet. We’ll see.
We follow Evolution Creek as we start switchbacking down, down. We planned to go 17 today, but our knees are shot and we’re fatigued from the climb. When the trail evens out into beautiful Colby Meadow, we find a campsite and take it. There are hella mosquitoes, so I have to put on my wind pants, puffy, and head net, but it’s still worth it for the view of the meadow. Jumbo accidentally spills his rice side everywhere and I have to swat the mosquitoes away as I eat my chicken curry. It’s not the most relaxing dinner, especially when J starts making calculations about how many miles we have to average to hit his target end date (23, if we take a zero every five days). By the time 8:30 rolls around, I’m a little over it all. We retreat to our tents.
It’s pretty early, so I decide to paint my nails with the polish from Trash Balloon and Qwerty. I get a tiny bit of yellow on my quilt and panic, but the fact that I manage not to get it all over my tent makes me feel very accomplished.