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JMT Day 3 – Kearsarge Pass (Mile 36.5 – 40.5)

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Morning View

Zippers, feet, and creeks. I started the day by pondering over zippers and how critial they are to backpacking. Tent doors, backpack pouches, puffy jackets, there are just so many things that would be so much harder without them . . . what’s the next invention to take the zipper’s place. I pondered this as I was packing up my sleeping bag and Izzie was boiling up some coffee for breakfast as a part of our morning ritual. We placed a stroopwaffle under our warm mug to make them like freshly baked cookies.

Cold in the shade but ready to trek!

Soon once all the cooking was done, Izzie went to the creek to tend to her foot, and I packed up our damp tent. Pro tip, if you camp near a creek or river, it’s highly likely you’ll have a ton of condensation on your tent and sleeping bag, so be sure to find some time at lunch to unroll them and dry out before you reach camp for the next night (no one likes to crawl into a wet tent). 

Golden tipped peaks warm our hopes while our toes are still frozen

Back to feet: Izzie suspected she had broken a bone in her foot weeks before on a work trip, and on the descent from Mount Whitney she twisted her ankle agrivating the injury and making both her ankle and foot painfully swollen. She was taking it in her stride, dousing it in the river whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Every turn is a mural, further down the valley we go following the river

After all was said and done, we were all packed up and left out of camp in good spirits. We were in the shade of the morning and only the westerly ridge was lit up by the morning sun, but our cool trail was still in shade. Izzie stopped abruptly in the trail and a deer appeared quickly bounding away. He hopped like a rabbit as if to say “look how easily I am gracefully bounding away, you couldn’t catch me if you tried!” It was our first big game sighting of the trip!

Izzie is still all smiles, despite her foot wanting to give up on her
We found the end of the downhill, next the climb to Frog Lake!
Someone found a friend! Plump and Happy!

The flora began to change as we pressed further north, we found fragrant sage, twisted currant, and our first lonely fir standing proud and plump! We finally reached the first climb up towards Bullfrog Lake and eventually Kearsage Pass. We both put our stride into low gear and steadily ascended the manzanita, snow brush, fir, and fern lined trail. Creeks leaped across the landscape and pines stood proud and well fed by the plentiful water here.

You can just see the excitement in Izzie’s eyes for the climb
Finally getting to see that valley floor from above! Climb climb climb

We finally popped out above the trees as the golden sun shone on the granite faces above. I started to think about how they always depicted Cleopatra, clad in flowing white dresses and weighed down with gold jewelery. I think of the mornings in the Sierra with white granite faces clad in beautiful golden sunlight. It’s nothing less than magical!

Had to stop for a photo op, and some air!
Only 3.5 more to Kearsarge!!!
Bullfrog Lake! Woot, first big climb done! One more to the pass!

We finally reached Bullfrog Lake, a beautiful blue teal with healthy green algae at its rim. We climbed up and past Kearsarge lake and the cold seemed to intensify as we passed treeline and the blustering wind picked up. We plodded slowly up the chunky granite switchbacks until finally we took the pass!

Mountains guard the lush green lake paradise
Onward and upwards!
Kearsarge Pinnacles looking rugged in the backdrop!
Kearsarge Pass, finally in sight!
Made it, woot!!!!!
Izzie with he stoke on 12! All down hill from here for the day!

We popped over the ridge and the wind seemed to subside, we could see hikers speckled across the winding trail below until it disappeared into the pines. We could see a few beautifully clear lakes and hoped to soon be at their shores. Hikers seemed to spring up like weeds, we would pause and chat, seeing day hikers, PCTers, fishermen, mountaineers, weekend loop backpackers, all sorts with their own story to tell. We finally found Maverick Lake and set up out tent for the night.

Big Pothole Lake, cooking crisp and cool! Anyone for a dip?!
Gilbert Lake, just before to drop to Onion Valley Trailhead

With Izzie’s foot being a nuisance, we decided to have her guard our gear while I hitched into town, grabbed our resupply, hitched back to the trailhead, and hiked back up to the lake in time for dinner (no easy task when you’re counting on the humanity of others, but I had faith!). With an almost empty pack I bombed down the trail! I would see a cascading waterfall, hear the buzz of a cicada, and finally a glimpse of the road leading to the Onion Valley Trailhead. I was stoked and pressed on briskly!

Indian paintbrush, snowbrush, and short scrub bushes lined the trail as I descended. I was soon at the parking lot, standing at the end with a big smile and a thumb out, hoping for the best in my stylish hawaiian shorts. It was only 10 minutes or so before I was picked up! A kind fellow who turned out to be an ex sheriff who loved the Sierras and jammed to some light Christian rock in the background of our hitch banter. We soon got to Mount Williamson Hotel and I quickly grabbed our resupply of 7 days of food for two and dumped it into my empty pack . . . . needless to say, I was laden down.

Down down we go into the warm desert below!
Would ya look at that?! Just look at it!

I got a ride from one of the shuttle guys who worked at the hotel and was (to my amazement) back to the trailhead at almost 3:00 pm! As soon as I stepped out of Doug’s shiny new Toyota Tacoma, I met Workout and Goldie, a couple trekking for 3.5 months on the PCT. We chatted on and soon figured out they were both biologists and I insisted they stop off for a quick break from the Kearsarge climb at Maverick Lake to meet Izzie and chat about fish and conservation. They led out like a couple of bats out of hell! That’s what happens when you have your trail legs on you!

New Friends, Goldie and Workout!

Switcher after switcher I just mainly tried to hold onto the send train and hoped I wouldn’t fall behind! We were soon at the lake after some aggressive uphill, hanging out, having a snack, while the chat of America’s fish future was discussed. I sat back quiet while the 3 bantered on. Soon they decided to press on and we made dinner, completed our required stretches, and found ourselves back in the tent, hiding from the cold wind and winding down for the night with some warm curry and a cozy sleeping bag. Another great day on the trail! 

Cheers friends!
  • Hike Stats
      • Miles: 13.7 Total:
        • JMT Miles 4 (36.5 – 40.5), Kearsarge Pass Miles 9.7  
      • GPX Track
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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
  • Hike Stats
Day 1: JMT Map (Click to Enlarge)
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