July 13: Day 5, Cathedral Lakes - Tuolumne Meadows
When waking up at a beautiful lake like Cathdral Lake, nothing will do but a morning swim. I woke up my friends Sigmund, Erlend and Andreas whom I incredibly had met the previous evening, insisting that they join me. They are, after all, responsible for the frigid dip I have taken every January 1 for the last three years. They, of course, didn’t protest, immediately got up and jumped in the water. A 6:30 am. Or that’s how the official story goes ;)
Happy campers. Andreas on the left and Sigmund on the right.
We bid farewell to our perfect campsite and my Norwegian friends, who were going the opposite direction, and I took up the rear, bopping along and listening to my MP3 player in quasisolitude. The trail was first flat and technical through the trees before turning into switchbacks down a steep hill. For the first time, but not the last, I mused that we were now loosing all the altitude we worked so hard to gain the day before.
This day would be short, only six miles to Tuolumne Meadows. But I was starting to experience the kind of hunger that comes from being outside all day every day, and I couldn’t wait for the burgers that rumor had it one could purchase at Tuolumne.
As we came to the outskirts of Tuolumne, our hiking pace turned into a frenzied rush. I was starving, but tried to fend it off rather than eat in anticipation of a huge lunch ahead. Mistake. We stopped at a signpost a mile from Tuolumne, but rushed off as soon as Pennie, who is slow downhill because of a bad knee, caught up.
Around 11 am we arrived at the outskirts of the campground and chaos ensued. There was a rushed debate about whether to claim a spot in the main campground or try the backpacker’s campground, which might be cheaper. We finally trotted off to the backpacker’s campground, with part of our bewildered group trailing behind us, and grabbed the first empty spot, having heard rumors that these spots filled up quickly.
At this point I was starving, and I behaved atrociously; I think I might have actually growled in my quest to find all the calories. Lesson learned: snack when hunger! Mom was agitated about setting up the tents though, so Dad, Zoe and I went down to get food while the others set them up. On the way we stopped at the campground office.
It turns out that at the backpacker’s campground you pay per person, while for a regular tent site you pay a flat fee which is cheaper if you are more than 4 people (and we were 7 at this point). Lesson learned: better to get the facts before making a rash decision about campsites!
Have learned some lessons, we thusly consumed gigantic burgers. And soft serve ice cream.
Karin and Annavitte and ice cream at Tuolumne. Photo by Pennie Rand
We finally got settled into a campsite, and Annavitte and I went to look for a place to swim. The Tuolumne River is dotted with dreamy swimming holes, the kind with mild whitewater churning into a shoulder-deep shimmering pools with big polished rocks on the bottom. Everyone else joined us for a splash in the pools.
Then the girls (Zoe, Annavitte, Karin and I) went back to the campsite to do some strength training. Annavitte’s a cross-country ski racer, and her dedication to doing strength training for the better part of the trip was impressive. Although towards the end, things got harder and we had less excess energy. I wish she was here in Norway to help me keep up with the strength training I promised myself I would do!
We also unpacked the resupply from the van, White Thunder, which Pennie had parked in Tuolumne before the trip. I had clean clothes to wear, which felt like cheating, and got rid of the things I had imagined were weighing down my pack. Mom set about cutting her book in half to cut weight. Her book weighed 900 grams, while my Kindle clocked in at 250!
We consumed a huge dinner of chips, fresh salsa, burritos and fresh salad from the tiny campground store. Then most of us were gearing up for an evening hike up Lembert Dome, and something got me really ticked. I can’t really remember what it wa, something about our plan for the following day. But all of a sudden, I was irrationally angry and sick of everyone. So I stalked off into the woods and sat on a rock killing mosquitoes. All I wanted to do was call my boyfriend, Audun, but there was no cell reception. All I wanted was to be alone. Maybe I should hike alone. Or maybe I should just quit. Who it their right minds hikes the JMT with such a big group anyway. Then I had sort of an epiphany.
All this togetherness is hard, but it is a challenge in its own right. Maybe the JMT won’t be so much of a physical challenge, but a challenge of working as a team with my fellow hiker. I should embrace this type of challenge the same way I do physical exertions.
So I walked back to the campsite to apologize to Mom, who I had snapped at. Everyone had gone up Lembert Dome but Mom and Pennie, who were drinking wine. They had emptied the tiny bottle of wine they had. It was 7:52 pm, and the campground store, which was easily a 10 minute walk away, would close in 8 minutes.
“Molly can make it!” they exclaimed.
I ran like the wind, although a slightly heavy wind because my stomach was super full and I was at altitude (8600 ft). I marvelled at how go it felt to move fast, unencumbered by my backpack, after days trudging heavily. Needless to say, I made it.
July 14, Day 6: Tuolumne Meadows - bridge over the Lyell Fork below Donohue Pass
It took a long to reshuffle at Tuolumne the next morning, getting rid of all the excess stuff in our packs and packing the bear canisters, and we didn’t leave until 9:15 am. There were only six of us heading out of Tuolumne; Pennie was taking three days off to nurse her knee and driving the van around to Red’s Meadow, the next point we would see civilization.
Although I enjoyed the food, I was kind of glad to leave the little corner of civilization that is Tuolumne and get back on the trail. Except I missed Audun, but there was still no cell phone coverage, so I wrote another postcard, savouring the image of him reading it.
The trail lead us back into the forest and twisted up Lyell Canyon. This section was flat and easy going, but soon we would be heading up to Donohue Pass and the true High Sierras. Our tempo was causal, and we took a long lunch break to swim. Dad, ever the biologists, keys out flowers. There are so many flowers.
It was nearly 2 o’clock by the time the trail started zigzagging up towards Donohue Pass. The forest was different as the climbing started; the trees became smaller seemed older, more mysterious, more magical.
Then came the thunder, swiftly followed by the pouring rain, then hail, bouncing off the ground and my thighs in their short running shorts. Somehow, I felt really good in the adverse weather conditions, like I was on an epic quest or something. Beating the odds, fighting the weather.
Putting on our rain gear. Photo by Rick Strimbeck
I lead the charge up Donohue, and we passed other hikers cowering under trees for cover. Maybe they were smart, but we were strong, brave and bold, so we forged on. I was drenched.
Mist in the forest. Photo by Rick Strimbeck
At the bridge crossing the Lyell Fork, the rain was letting up and we decided to start looking for a campground. We picked out a site that wasn’t too wet, then barely had time to change into some warmer clothes before the rain came down again. We waited out this downpour, huddled under the trees eating trail mix. Now that we had stopped, I was cold, and just wanted the sun to come.
The rain did stop and we revelled in hot tang (pronounced HOT TANG! for the entirety of the trip, and the preferred beverage whenever it was cold) and warm clothes. The sun never came out though, and we spent most of the evening looking hopefully at the sky. I felt thoroughly damp, and hoped the sun would dry off all of our stuff the next day.
The Lyell Fork. Photo by Annavitte Rand
July 15, Day 7: Donohue Pass - Garnet Lake
Our things hadn’t dried over night, and it was still chilly the next morning. We quietly munched on our oatmeal breakfast, layered in most of our layers, before setting of for Donohue, the first truly alpine pass. We climbed a mile or so through the forest before coming our onto a high alpine meadow. A rocky valley extended before us up to the spires of Lyell Peak.
The view up to Lyell Peak. Photo by Annavitte Rand
We met a few other hikers as we hike steadily up towards the pass. Nico and Jasper, two JMT hikers who we also met in Tuolumne, were stopped to pump water in a high alpine stream. Everyone in our group except Mom decided to drink that water unfiltered. There’s been much discussion amongst us about whether or not water purifying is hysteria. In Norway, no one would ever consider purifying water in the mountains. You just don’t drink a source near a glacier or below sheep grazing turf. But maybe there are more impurities in the water in the Sierras? At any rate, we daringly suck down the cool, clear water. It tastes really good, and (spoiler alert) we didn’t get sick.
Annavitte and Mom on the climb
If there’s one thing the High Sierras are good at, it’s flatly graded switchbacks, easing the need for power on the climbs. Along the switchbacks up to Donohue Pass were more flowers than I could ever hope to remember the names of (although Dad tried!). The vegetation petered out around 10000 ft as the trail approaches the final, rocky climb to Donohue. There were fat marmots lazing around the top, and a whole new landscape of Mammoth and the Eastern Sierras spread before us.
Fat marmot, example 1 of approximately one zillion on the trail. Don’t feed the wildlife, people!
The weather was so nice that it’s hard to imagine the cold drenching storm the day before. A dozen or so hikers lounge around the top of the Pass. Jasper had a horse’s head mask he put on for a picture.
Jasper and Nico on the top of Donohue Pass. Photo by Rick Strimbeck
We hiked the Pass down a ways, and dark storm clouds start to appear. I wanted to continue, so that we will have hiked as far as possible before the storm hits. But Dad insists that we should take our time, we still have many miles to go and if we are going to get wet, we are going to get wet. So we stopped by a stream for lunch, drying our gear the last rays of the sun and rinsing off in the chilly water.
Mom on the trail, before the thunderclouds roll in. Photo by Rick Strimbeck
I was scared of a repeat of the day before, and practically jumped into my rain pants at the first peal of distant thunder. But the ominous, distant warning proves to be just that, and we escaped with only a few drops. I soon took off my rain gear again, even though dramatic, grey clouds were visible on the horizon.
Clouds over Banner Peak, from Island Pass.
We pulled over the smaller Island Pass to more thunder and a dramatic view of the Banner Peak range, and descended to Thousand Island Lake. Although our original plan was to camp here, we decided to push another 2.5 miles to Garnet Lake. Mom was not pleased. “I can do it,” she keeps insisting, “I’ll just be slow.”
“Have you had enough to eat? Have some gorp!” I say. (Gorp means ‘good, old raisins and peanuts’ and is an expression we use for any kind of trail mix).
“No, it’s just that my feet hurt,” she sighs. Later she confided that she hadn’t been snacking diligently the way I was learning to do, as part of my Hanger Management Plan.
At Garnet Lake, we had trouble finding a campsite. We first set up our tents in a sparse spot, only to realize that is was too close to the mouth of the lake, and thus an illegal campsite. So we moved our campsite to a small spot halfway up the switchbacks above the lake. The view was beautiful, but we had to fill all of our water bags and bottles and carry them up - 20 liters all together.
The campsite above Garnet Lake, Mt Ritter and Banner Peak obscured by the clouds. Photo by Rick Strimbeck.
We regaled in more trail food, and Annavitte, Karin, Zoe and I sang all of the songs from the Sound of Music before hitting the sack at sundown. Tomorrow would be our longest day yet - all the way to Red’s Meadow.
- The Wild Bazilchuk