Day 64 (Monday, July 12): One mile beyond Bishop Pass Trail, 832, to Evolution Lake inlet, 842.5
Stacks was the first up, and I second, so we had breakfast at the bonfire. I had three packets of hot cocoa at once. It was so peaceful and quiet. Later on, Ursa Major broke the silence with the delicate sounds of a Native American flute. It was so perfect in the background that it intruded my head. I kept hearing flute music in my head for the next hour only to see that Ursa had, in fact, stopped playing.
The first part of the morning was sunny, snowless walking next to the Middle Fork with its numerous waterfalls. The trail followed the cliff wall next to it. I took a break earlier than usual to snack, blog, and stare at the river. I was mesmerized by one little standing wave in the creek. It reminded me of sunny days on the Jersey shore and the little waves that often spoil the summer.
When I got to Frog Lake, it’s unofficial name, the snow was already extending into the lake. There were frogs in and on the lake’s edge. Maybe they too think it’s fun to hang out in cold water. The ranger estimated 7 miles of snow leading up and over the pass, and apparently it began here. The trail was already hidden and required eagle vision to set a course. The lowest snow was quite hazardous to travel upon since it was so soft and the rocks under it so large; the constant broken ankle threat. Walking in the ice water was easier and safer, so I did that. Immediately after, Answer Man and Chipper decided to follow tracks on inclined snow above the Middle Fork Kings River. Flyboxer and I crossed the creek at the lake’s edge to what was trail. Answer Man joined us. Every foot on trail was a reassurance that we were temporarily going the right way. Team Sinking Ship was reunited, as unlikely as it seemed. I began to scour the hillside for beaten path and after scrambling some, found it. Chipper was taking his own route and Fozzie was ahead on a wall of rock bisected by the river. We aimed for Fozzie. We rock scrambled for about 10 minutes and then the ice axe came out to cross a snowfield extending toward the river hidden below beneath it.
There was a rock cairn to mark the trail where the river was falling through a notch and disappearing behind a snowfield. There was only one way across: the snow bridge. Of course, should the snow bridge fail, you would meet a hasty end by either drowning or trauma or both. This was Fozzie’s call, since he was there: no way. We took his advice as he teamed up with us to cross a series of snowfields sloping toward the river, climb and descend some rocks, and then cross the icy river to trail on the other side. Some raindrops began to fall at this time, but fortunately, they were few in number. The trail then went an area I referred to as ‘the subway’, where the river goes through a shallow canyon, carving any rock and snow in its path. Again, we climbed as the trail climbed. Then we reached another waterfall where the river decided to instill even more fear in me. It dropped into a gaping hole in the snow, the hole holding a VW bus-sized snow pyramid, it’s power reverberating and shaking the very rock we were standing upon. We crosses the river just above this point, at the outlet of Lake Helen, named after one of John Muir’s daughters. Here we met a blond hiker babe hiking solo, later to be called Suncups in present company, a rare piece of eye candy in this barren and stark piece of natural real estate.
The climb of Muir Pass was not nearly over. One consolation was that we had seen the last of the Middle Fork Kings River since we were now in the upper basin where smaller streams and creeks had not yet given birth to the mighty Middle Fork. We pressed on- Fozzie, Answer Man, Flyboxer, and I,- across some very long snowfields linked only by the occasional rock outcrop. The going was moderate. Any laziness in choice of steps resulted in a posthole. We crossed many of these snowfields, most dipping toward a creek running beneath the snow, and then up the other side, onto rock, and again. There had been no trail for the last two hours when the final hurdle presented itself. I knew where the pass was, and to get to it, there was the choice of a snow moderately sloped headwall or a rock wall. Fozzie, Answer Man, and I discussed the options and elected the snow route. Flyboxer was already mid-scramble. It wasn’t as steep as it looked, but I had my ice tool in hand. This part was fun and carefree mountaineering. I climbed joyfully and energetically, topping out on the snow flats atop the pass, and stepped off the 3 feet of snow into the solid ground at Muir Hut.
Muir Hut is made entirely out of stone and cement mortar. If was so strong that it supported Stacks as he erected a tiny cairn on top of it. It’s round and it has a stone bench that circles the inside. I slept in it four years ago, even though it’s for emergency use only. It would have been a great place to sleep this year, but the fear was that it might be buried under 10 feet of snow. We didn’t use it as a motel, but it made a great spot to admire the surrounding peaks, oncoming storm clouds, snow as far as the eye could see, and our lunches. Ursa Major almost had his SPOT emegency beacon stolen by a yellow-bellied marmot in the hut. What a disaster it might have been.
It was around 4PM when we got going down the north side of Muir Pass. It was about as steep as a kids’ sledding hill but endless, endless snow. Early on, I postholed really badly. I was the last one in the bunch and my foot was temporarily stuck, as was I, about waist deep in slush. It took some wiggling to break free and get back on the surface snow that wasn’t. We were a string of ants against the sugar white snow; Answer Man, Flyboxer, Chipper, and I. Snowly, yes, snowly, we passed Lake McDermand and crossed the icey creeks that fed into it. We then worked our way next to Wanda Lake, another of Muir’s daughters. Each struggled to stay on top of the snow, make forward progress, find sensible trail, and ignore frozen toes and feet. It was slow motion, but motion nonetheless Wanda Lake was an artic landscape. Like most other lakes in this elevation, it had snow and ice almost reaching its banks. When we reached the outlet creek of Wanda Lake, it was back into the frigid water and another lengthy crossing. You would think that dread would be a natural emotion, but it wasn’t. I was so used to the cold that it made no difference. At least in the water, you could see the bottom. Not the case with the snow. The slope steepened as we descended with the creek toward Sapphire Lake. The shade of blue that it’s capable of capturing was absent. The dominant color was black. The black of the storm clouds above the Goddard Divide. I injected some more blue into the scenery with my blue rain coat. In the growing weariness, we saw a snowman on the trail, smiling at us, and frowning for those who might see him first coming from the opposite direction. This was the creation of Ursa Major, Blackgum, and Stacks. About an hour later, we crossed the last snowfield, faced a long and swiftly-moving creek crossing, and began to see the skies smile with evening light. I could sense a dazzling sunset. Fozzie’s tent signaled flat space and a spot to unwind for the night. The sunset over Evolution Lake is really beyond words, so I’ll leave it at that.