Day 62 (Saturday, July 10): Sawmill Trail Junction, 804.2, to snow-free zone below Mather Pass, 819
The walk up to Pinchot Pass was 3.7 miles and an elevation gain of 1800 feet. Pinchot is one of my favorite passes because the approach and final ascent are more or less gentle, and perhaps a bit drawn out. This makes things a bit easier with a pack. Also, the colors of the rock in the surrounding mountains varies from jet black to a rich maroon. For me, on this day, I had it all to myself.
There was a good bit of snow traversing, route finding, and rock scrambling. Past footsteps lent some clue as to where the trail might be concealed beneath the snow. But there was still a lot of guesswork. I trusted my natural sense of direction and was right most of the time. It took longer than I thought, despite my quickened pace. There were angry looking clouds over the pass, gray and dark. Would this be the first rain, or snow, in 2 months?
I topped out on Pinchot Pass feeling good about having soloed a second pass, this one to Glen Pass yesterday. Having a remote mountain pass all to yourself is a one-of-a-kind feeling. There was little time to celebrate with the storm clouds on the way. I made my way down the snow and trail to where another JMT hiker was just getting ready to ascend what I had just descended. He was the one that reminded me that today, it was 2 months since I had started the walk in Campo.
I carefully made my way across the many snowfields in the flatter areas. These were inherently more dangerous. Breaking through the surface, which is called postholing, kept me focused. I stopped at a point overlooking Lake Marjorie for some wasabi peanuts, wishing that it was less overcast. This turned out to be much too great a request. Just minutes later, a cold rain began to fall. I scrambled to get my rain gear on and stow my stuff sacks in a big, black Hefty bag. It was so cold when the rain hit my hands. My wool gloves were somewhere inside my pack and I had mailed home my rain overmitts that Baba and I had sewed together two days before I left NJ. The rain only lasted for about 20 minutes, after which the sun returned. I decided that lunch and drying things out would best be done simultaneously. Stacks came within 15 minutes and did the same. At least I got to see part of one of my favorite passes in the raw sunlight.
Right before crossing the South Fork Kings River, Stacks and I passed the Bench Lake Ranger Station. This was the ranger station where Randy Mortenson worked for 25 years as a backcountry ranger. In 1996, he went missing, and a huge search and rescue was set in motion. Andrew and I witnessed just the tail end of it, and enjoyed some leftover fruit, which they were giving away to hikers. I don’t know how his story ended, but it’s chronicled in a book titled ‘The Last Season.’ Please don’t tell me how it ends. I’d like to read it myself.
The South Fork Kings River was one of the crossings I feared would be made more difficult with the rain that had fallen. Stacks and I decided to tackle it together. This took a great weight off. It was a river, not a creek, so this would prove to be a more formidable challenge by the semantic difference alone. After all, people go river rafting, and the Kings River is one of the best, but further downstream.
On the way to the river crossing, we saw Flyboxer talking to some JMTers. I invited him to get the crossing overwith with me and Stacks. The South Fork was pretty wild and crazy, but still crossable. We three crosses on a log that the ranger had indicated with a handwritten note. Ursa Major and Chipper crossed right at the trail, sketchy or not, they did it. Answer Man and Blackgum were behind. All seven of us were planning to do two passes today. We had already done Pinchot Pass. Mather Pass was next, and it was the only thing between me and my dinner. Allez!!!
We were all energetic to Mather Pass, so we began marching toward the Upper Basin where flatter terrain became steep, cminating in the pass. As if one crossing of the South Fork had not been enough, there was another. It wasn’t as tough as the first could have been, but still, the water that rages above and below, and sometimes at the crossing, is a constant reminder to be on guard. This one came up to my knees, so that was a bit unnerving. The trail was absolutely full of water. Streams, mud, and flooded trail were constant. Keeping your feet dry is utterly futile. Your feet are soaked or in snow most of the day. Then the snow began. Long crossings between rock outcrops.
Before the pass itself, I saw Ursa Major talking to a ranger. Oddly, he was buck naked. He and Stacks have taken to climbing passes naked and swimming in one alpine lake, usually with icebergs. in the nude. Fact. It was really cold on the approach to Mather Pass, but sure enough, they did it.
Mather Pass was just another pass between successive mountain valleys, one that I did not get worked up about. I hadn’t heard the talk that Mather Pass is somtimes referred to as a “Mather Fu*****.”. Had I known , I would have had some agita going into it. From far away, it’s a little dip between two peaks. Up close, you see it’s a 1200 foot wall of rock that is overhanging at the top.
Mather Pass was going to live up to it’s reputation very quickly. After conquering the last of the pre-pass snowfields, some with creeks running beneath them, it was on. The first switchback had two snowfields intersecting it and then it was clear. This was about it for the switchbacks for 400 feet. There was a choice; climb a vertical snowfield or scramble a dirt and talus slope until the switchbacks resumed above. Stacks and Ursa Major were up in no time. They made it look so easy. I went the scrambling route, trying to zigzag up the incline. It was tricky going, sometime with long slides backwards. Remember, my pack still weighed over 40 pounds. Slowly, looking down, you could see the lone switchback below and rocks, boulders, and dirt, and ultimately a snowfield below that, a long way away. Looking up, it was a mountain of granite, fractured into millions of pieces, overhanging by about 100 feet, like a cresting wave of rock about to send you to your grave. Flyboxer and I did not dilly dally. We got to the final 20 foot cornice and the top and were on the pass. Chipper came by a route of his own making, up the center of the pass. Ursa Major and Stacks were already there.
Now that we were on top, how to get down? The only visible trail dead ended onto a precipitous snowfield. The only other option was scrambling down to an almost equally steep snowfield that had tracks on it. The scramble was difficult, technical as some say. It was down some steep rocks and traversing a legde while bear-hugging a boulder. Then the moment of truth: stepping onto the steep snowfield and avoiding a gaping hole right next to the outcrop. This was a dodgy manuever with a backpack on. Obviously, I made it, shaking my head in disbelief. In rock climbing, sometimes getting to the base of a climb is as scary as the roped climb itself. This was one of those cases. Then began a long series of snowy traverses and descents, which lasted about 1 1/2 hours. Coming to the edge of a cliff, I could see trail zigzagging below. Getting to it, again, required using all fours on the rocks. Finally, trail and snow in alternating turns. This was wearisome as well. The less snow there was, the softer, and more dangerous it was. I postholed a lot, and once I came crahing down on a traingular piece of rock sticking up, right near my toes. Walking in and crossing streams of 33F was without interruption. In my rear view, the gray clouds were still stacked. Rolling into where Stacks and Ursa Major were already camped, I had only one rule; no camping near snow. It was like sleeping with the enemy. The mood was good but everyone’s endurance was tested. Chipper appeared soon after, as buoyant as ever, and later, in thr dark, Blackgum and Answer Man. I had some typing to do, so I passed on the bonfire. I gambled with cowboy camping, as did Answer Man, Stacks, Ursa Major and Blackgum. I felt like the little pig which built his house out of straw. Would the Big Bad Wolf come knocking diguised as Baba? I set up a quick insurance. I used my tarp-tent as a blanket and asked Answer Man to wake me up if it started to rain.
Thanks so much for reading!