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JMT Day 2 – Forester Pass (Mile: 16.5-36.6)

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Golden light on the ridge in the distance

We woke to birds chirping in the trees as twilight gleamed its first light. We started up the morning ritual, of making breakfast and packing up. The pink sky watched over our labor and as we finished putting away the last piece of gear, the ridgeline to the west lit up in a golden orange lightshow.

All smiles this morning!

We led out from camp and gleefully headed down valley overlooking gurgling meadow streams where cutthroat trout played. The ridgelines towering above were as varied as the faces of the twisted trees we passed trailside.

Glow in the trees, gotta love watching the sun rise in the morning

The Ranger Station soon came into view on the far side of a beautiful green meadow. A creek bubbled and gurgled in its belly and song birds accompanied its tune. The air was delightfully cool and the sun had just started to reach the valley bottom as we passed by. Soon we turned north where the JMT and PCT meet and we rolled with the rising and falling of its hills as we went.

Trotting along
Beautiful bark

It was interesting to observe the felled trees across the hillside. Thinking about their lifecycles: downed dead trees with branches twisted and broken, thrust from the tree’s body as they fell; to baby trees growing next to their parents, guarded and well fed.

Blanket of snug clouds moving in
Someone found a twin!

The skies had become overcast and grey as the morning pressed on, yet as we we gained a saddle a window of bluebird sky glimmered some hope in the distance. The landscape was a granite boulder field and the trail was a dirty grey, like ground up granite with a flash of dirt, sprinkled with pinecones and bordered by boulders. As we descended towards Wallace Creek we heard a grouse call, a repeated low wooshing like someone swinging an enormous fan through the air. We finally reached the creek, filtered some water and took a moment to try and clean our dirty socks.

Beautiful ridges in the distance
More ridges to come
Hit the plateau, looking for marmots

After the creek crossing, we started a long steady climb, and at the top were rewarded with incredible vistas of a jagged ridgeline in the distance. We vowed to look up its name later, as if to get to know it better. We soon found the valley floor and the beautiful crossing of Wright Creek.

Marmot on the loose!
Fat little buggers
Onward, towards Forester!

We struck out on another long climb, and we watched as trees slowly started to fade out below until finally finding ourselves on Bighorn Plateau. We kept our eyes peeled for bighorn sheep, but we found only expectant marmots waiting for a feed from a careless traveler. Vistas were abound, Mount Whitney to the southeast, Barnard to the East, Mt Williamson and Tyndall to the northeast, the Kern Ridge to the west and Kings Kern Divide to the north. Moments like this are why we started the trail in the first place, absolutely breathtaking!

Rolling down the the valley floor
Time to go back up already?!
Forester inching closer
I spotted the top of the pass!
Gotta love that rich color!

Coming down from our Bighorn Plateau high, we found Tyndall Creek flowing well and a few hikers sitting nearby enjoying a snack. We joined them, chatting about Forester Pass ahead and where they were from. We were interested to hear the Forester pass was clear of snow, although hard to believe, we would soon find out first hand. We pressed on up out of the creek valley and onto an approach plateau just below the pass. Once again trees began to fade out, and ice covered lakes took their place. We climbed slow and steady up to the pass. We must have already begun to adapt to altitude as this ascent was much easier then Whitney the day before! We found no snow on the trail all the way to the saddle, which was very surprising, indicative of the dry winter this past year.

What a happy camper!
Glacial Lakes
Notch marks the spot! Forester Pass just over head

We found some new friends on top of the pass and chatted on about the low snow, the fires to come, and treks present, past, and future. We soon bid farewill and started down the north side of Forester. There were only a few snow patches to be found and the trail was quick and windy.

 

Made it to the top!
And down the other side!

We soon passed that magic 10,000 ft altitude and trees immediately sprung up. The valley we were entering was gorgeous, covered in moss, and cut through with gurgling braided streams. It was stark and beautiful, the tall strong granite mountains above fed the streams, like veins of the valley pumping the lifeblood to all the vegetation and animals here.

Stark beasts watching over the ridgeline
Oh hey, Friends!
All proud and ready for a swim!?
So nice to see for miles down valley

We continued north, dropping lower and lower into the valley ahead until reaching Golden Bear Creek. We stopped to top off our water before camp and rest our feet. By now some ominous clouds had moved in and the temperature started to drop rapidly. I didn’t suspect rain, but was perplexed by the strange white cloud looming over the peaks blocking out the sun’s warmth, and the distant peal of thunder. 

The lifeblood gift from the peaks
Down we go, Mount Standford and Gregory’s Monument in the background
Little lakelettes on the wat down
Beautiful views as clouds start to shroud the peaks
Dropping down into the tree line
Stoked and ready for dinner!
Clouds roll in hard!

We trekked on and found a gorgeous camp perched just above Golden Bear Creek. The jagged ridgeline lined the sky, beautiful pine trees and granite boulders scattered the landscape. We set up our tent, cooked up our dinner, finished the obligatory pre-dinner stretches before slinking off to our cozy tent in refuge from the cold night that was starting to set in on us. What a magical day.

Sketch from camp over Bubb’s creek
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JMT Day 1 – Mount Whitney (Mile: 0 – 16.5)

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11:30 pm and the alarm blasted. The trees were all black now with some stars peeping through as I checked the time, nudged Izzie to start getting ready, and fired up the JetBoil for the much needed coffee to shake off the 3 hour nap we took under the forest at Whitney Portal. We were soon sorted, packs on, taking our first steps on the trail guided by our little bubbles of headlamp light. The town of Independence gleamed behind us to the west in the undoubtedly hot valley below, I was glad we were headed up into the alpine.

Backpacks, ready to go for the trip!

Miles went quick to the soundtrack of Lone Pine Creek roaring like a ferocious tiger in the night as we plodded up the canyon. The stars shone high above, blocked out only by the giant stone faces lurking in the dark. The dusty trail slithered through huge foxtail pines, up and around a maze of granite boulders. Sometimes we found millipedes on the trail, or the occasional flash of a mouse all under an amazing blanket of stars.

Sketch of Whitney Portal the night before our start

It was 3pm before we found our first snow patch, and in the dead of night the exhaustion started scratching at the back of our eyes, a stumble here or there shocked us back into alertness for fear of twisting an ankle.

Millipede on the trail

Finally the moon started to rise, and soon behind it the gleam of pink twilight from the rising sun revitalized our steady march. We were soon at the base of the 99 switchbacks and stopped to break out the Jetboil for a round of oatmeal and another instant cup of coffee. We watched the sun rise and stuffed our faces as we looked over the small camp below us, the mirror lake, and the gigantic granite faces coming into light with orange glow.

Sun begins to rise just before the 99 switchbacks
Smiling despite the lack of sleep =)
Izzie topping out Trail Crest
Up up and towards the summit

We were on the move again and as we rose in altitude, so did our heartrates. Even hiking a slow steady pace made you feel your heartbeat in your ears. We slowed, but finally made it to the pass just south of Mount Muir. Peering to the west we were slapped in the face with a sea of granite. It seemed to rise and fall all around us, yet frozen in time. Some great faces looked like a great granite pipe organ, while others looked like a million fingers reaching for heaven.

Checking out the Needles and the summit hut in the distance

We trekked on, stopping at the trail junction where the JMT heads west and the Whitney summit trail continues north to drop a pack and consolidate snacks and water. The trail itself was pretty easy, just some boulders here and there to navigate, but the pressure from the altitude felt immense, always trying to hold back your next step, making every inch an effort. It became a game of “not too much”. Not too much speed, not too much water, not too much heavy breathing, not too much food. Felt like making the wrong move would leave you trailside gasping for air. We pressed on, past the Needles, peering down the gaps between to look down on Owens Valley far below. One step at a time, and finally after what seemed like a long 1.9 miles from the junction, we saw the house at the summit.

One step at a time!

Relieved we had made it, we plopped down, pulled out our sleeping bags for quick warmth, water to rehydrate from the arid alpine, and snacks to fuel our journey down and north, further along the JMT. We had a quick nap, and finally decided our high altitude life had to be put on pause for the next adventure, and we headed down.

Mount Whitney Summit! Highest Point in the Continental USA.

The air was still chilly but the sun warmed you, so we plodded down, back to our packs in hoodies taking in the scenery and admiring the vast granite frozen sea. Little lakelets could be seen from the ridge, and eventually pines down in the lower valleys. We reached our packs, shouldered our belongings and headed north down towards the valley floor.

Let the decent begin!
Mount Muir in the background

An oversight we made was not filtering enough water before our Whitney ascent, so now, as we headed down, we began rationing our last liter of water. I had remembered there were creeks below, but every creek bed we came to was dry . . . we plodded on with parched tongues. Soon Guitar Lake came into view and we counted the seconds before we reached its only running stream. We were delighted to see flow, and quickly broke out our bottles for a fill. After the long dry last 3 miles, not to mention the rationing during the miles before, this was a godsend and our stomachs rejoiced.

Dropping down towards Guitar Lake (in the background)
I can hear the strings strumming!

We meandered over to Guitar Lake, found a nice spot for lunch and had yet another nap, should I be feeling guilty by now? Nah, we had a midnight start after all! We packed up once again and wandered on down the trail until we found a nice group of foxtail pines, singing birds, and a view of the meadow below. Soon with a tent pitched, dinner made, and stretches done, we crawled into our tent for some much needed rest after a very long day.

Guitar Lake lunch spot
On down the valley, towards camp
The pines always impress
The tree colors are stark against the grey sea of granite that surrounds us
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Day 1: JMT Map (Click to Enlarge)
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