Day 1: Taboose Pass to Taboose Pass
August 16th. I started the day having leftover apple pie, cinnamon rolls, and fresh hot coffee with LoveNote and Burly White’s wedding party near South Lake. This was a beautiful wedding, a marriage of two great people who met while hiking the Continental Divide trail and fell in love. They crowned their hike and sealed the deal by adopting a puppy together, and this great dog, “Huckleberry,” dug holes between the two as they voiced their oaths. Behind them the backdrop of the Inconsolable Range and Bishop Pass Mountains Mt. Goode, Mt. Johnson, and Mt. Thompson seemed only painted on canvas — it was that perfect. I was watching them get married and looking at familiar High Sierra at the same time.
I was something of the “wedding crasher,” having not only just met the couple weeks before, but also under the circumstance of my van breaking down in front of their new home in Lone Pine. I have been house-sitting for them, enjoying the luxury of a toilet, sink, and a gas kitchen stove. Otherwise their new home is gutted and awaiting major plumbing and drywall, an exciting project for them to endeavor upon as they continue on the next chapter of their married lives.
The father of the bride drove me to the Taboose Pass trailhead, despite the many boxes of china in the back of the truck chattering and possibly breaking while four-wheel-crawling down the dirt road. I came to tears talking to him about how this part of the trail would be difficult for me as it would bring up many recent memories of how last summer I had gotten play-married in the park in Lone Pine then hiked these same trails with my “husband,” who though absolutely brilliant and charming, turned out to be a closet drinker and a terrifyingly mean drunk. Things got really ugly and quite scary, and after only a few weeks of playing house, I ran for my life. I had some shit to work out. Having just come from a more happy wedding, the contrast with my life was startling.
Shit to work out.
Taboose Pass is a notoriously difficult hike and the perfect playground for working shit out. Having climbed several of the passes from the East Sierra at this point, I can tell you it is probably my favorite. It starts from the desert floor at around 5,400 feet and a 105º temperature and climbs approximately 6000 feet through a rainbow of terrain, along Taboose Creek almost the entire way, getting cooler and cooler. Don’t expect easy water along the first portion because the creek is down in the ravine surrounded by willows, but for any fit and experienced hiker there are ample crossings where water can be fetched. Start off with at least two liters. Especially if you’re starting at 1pm, like I was.
I didn’t make it far before I was hiding from the sun, under a lean-to rock. Under there I found several rusty nails, some obsidian chips, and a (presumable) mountain lion poop with a deer tooth in it. After an hour of loitering and texting friends, I continued up. At around 4pm, smoke from the Rough Fire started to settle in the canyon, and by 7pm it was so severe it was hard to believe a new fire wasn’t burning close by. I decided to camp in a lush wooded area and see what the morning brought smoke-wise. I camped just below a cave I thought probably belonged to a mountain lion, put a Smokey the Bear bandana up over my nose and mouth, and suffered an extremely restless night of sleep. At one point a pretty large animal ran over my torso; after that, my sleep was even more restless. Cowboy camping can get real. In the morning I discovered I had still somehow slept through an animal chewing through the cord of my Ursack.
Day 2: Taboose Pass to Palisade Lakes
August 17th. I decided to continue up the pass, mostly because I was half-way up and didn’t want to do it again, but also because I had studied the topo maps and figured out that the Kings River Canyons were smoke funnels, and Taboose Pass a major outlet. I was in the thick of it. Maybe heading north, I would get out of the thick of it. Seemed like good logic…
I passed several people headed out. They coughed weakly while remarking on the smoke, and seemed to be telling me to not go into the forest. I decided right then on a mantra for dealing with forest fire smoke:
Millions of inner city children suffer worse air quality 365 days a year, with not nearly as beautiful or as safe an environment as I had in the Sierra.
Not only did I decide this, but I also decided I would be in the woods in solidarity with the firefighters, the animals, the trees, and anything else stuck out there. There would be no complaining. Complaining would not blow away the smoke.
Once over the hump at Taboose Pass, the landscape opened up and the smoke thinned somewhat so I could enjoy it. Still, until I was to reach the top of Muir Pass, visibility was poor (about 3 miles). I had to think of other reasons to be out in the woods aside from sightseeing. How about working on my shit? Hemmed in by gigantic mountains and visuals clouded by smoke, I was forced into my head. How convenient.
The descent from Taboose Pass is quite beautiful and not steep at all; in fact, I hardly lost any elevation before merging with the John Muir Trail (JMT) near the Bench Lake turnoff. Instead of verging north off a Taboose Pass trail fork, I headed south. I planned to hit the trail slightly more south because that way I could celebrate the end of my SHR hike with a night at Bench Lake, a slightly off-trail yet very coveted Sierra destination. Plus, I would have a little more of the SHR bitten off.
Once on the JMT it was down to business. I was reminded how I had hiked this portion of trail the past two years in a row, both around people but technically alone. And for different reasons. In 2013, I hiked very quickly up Mathers Pass to get away from a crowd of PCT hikers who had converged at the South Fork Kings River. I liked those hikers a lot, but I liked hiking alone even more.
I have a strange phobia about people walking directly behind me, particularly up stairs and ladders. It makes me nervous sometimes to the point where I cannot move, and sometimes I even panic and collapse into a squat. Hiking behind other hikers slows me down and helps me prevent injuring myself; however, I don’t enjoy it for very long. Over time, I’ve found that I just prefer hiking alone… or at least with several yards of personal space.
So, whereas my “husband” was actively trying to rid me of my phobia by frequently hiking directly behind me (it didn’t work at all), I remember there also being a lot of space between us on the Mathers summit. There was some irreconcilable trail crankiness due in my opinion to lack of nutrition, and we were avoiding one another. At the summit of Mathers, I took a picture of him, but there was no celebrating per se.
On the way down to Palisade Lakes we had a horrible blow out, an argument about when and where to camp, and whether to eat (he didn’t want to be told to eat, was cranky from not eating, then refused to eat). When the sun went down we hadn’t exactly worked it out, but we did decide the next day on a new rule having to do with mandatory meal times. We managed to get out of the mountains without killing one another, but just barely, and with huge effort.
This year I sat on Mathers and decided to take the high route and forgive him for being an idiot and an asshole. I almost went so far as to take blame for the entire mess but then I realized I was being insane. I had to drop the whole thing, and I left it on that hill, in smoke.
I camped wherever I wanted to that night, ate happily and hungrily, and everything worked out well. There wasn’t much of a view because of the smoke, but at the same time the smoke gave it new character and I feel honored to have been the forest while we were both so vulnerable. While I slept, smoke cleared out to the north of me and the south of me, and in the morning the skies were more clear. Two does and a six point buck grazed less than 25 yards from me.
Day 3: Palisade Lakes to North Palisade
August 18th.The JMT along the Palisade Lakes and below, down the Golden Staircase, is some of my favorite Sierra trail.
I was also happy to turn off it at the lower Palisade Lake and head off into “Roperland.” I had a tentative plan to summit Mt. Sill (14,159ft). It was a coin tossing in my unsure mind… should I summit? Was it a stupid plan when at the top I might not even see anything? It would add another day to my itinerary and cause my mother to worry. I had never summited a 14er alone before, and I wasn’t a mountaineer by any means. It’s just an idea that Poet had planted in my head. I was hiking by all these 14ers, ripe for climbing, right at hand, RIGHT THERE! So until I got up to Cirque Pass I wasn’t certain if I’d do it or not. What can I say? I like spontaneity a lot.
Pulling off the JMT highway I found a little path and then found mule poop and then I found what turned out to be a trail crew camp — 10 people living out in the Sierra for two months while rehabbing the Golden Staircase.
I was disoriented at first because after so many miles on the SHR I wasn’t expecting to find a mark of civilization. Dan was the only one left at the camp, there to watch over the gear (a full kitchen, explosives) until a helicopter could come in and evacuate him. The only problem was, helicopters wouldn’t fly in the smoke. Dan made me promise that if I took a picture I wouldn’t use it to complain to his bosses that his camp was a stain on the precious, unadulterated backcountry. Apparently people actually have written letters to the Park Service complaining about having to see these camps. I cannot believe this.
I’m tired of walking on trail that has only been used and abused. It seems like most hikers are unwilling to lift a finger to maintain trails they use themselves, when rocks are turned out of place or there is litter. But when someone else is hired to come in and do it, they also complain? What is wrong with people? Where do people think their trails come from?
I asked Dan about Sill and he said of three people who attempted summits from camp, only one made it. Hm.
I gave Dan a hug (who doesn’t hug friendly, good-looking, dreadlocked men?), thanked him for his work on the trail, and wished him luck getting out. The fact that I was able to climb the steep face behind their camp without trouble gave me confidence that maybe I could tackle Sill as a side trip. And now the fuel of having two different people say discouraging words about climbing Sill, it made me even more determined. I went for it.
And I made it. The smokey views were otherworldly but limited; the swollen feeling in my chest at the top came largely from the accomplishment of solo-navigating a 14er summit.
Even though I got down off Sill alright, I still had to find my stashed gear and make it over Potluck Pass…
I crawled back over beneath North Palisade and cowboy camped. The sound of that skeletal mountain crumbling all night was… disarming.
Day 4: North Palisade to Muir Pass
Many of these miles were familiar to me, those of Bishop and Muir Passes, anyway. But the early morning miles between North Palisade and where the SHR hit the Bishop Pass trail were full of charming alpine lakes and places I would definitely return to.
Knapsack Pass managed to hammer home the lesson that Potluck Pass the day before failed to nail through my head: attack a pass from dead center first, then move to one side or the other if necessary. Generally, from the bottom, an approach is easiest from the middle. I attacked both passes from the right/east, and barely lived to regret it. I definitely felt a bit foolish for getting creative and trying to make shortcuts. Especially on Potluck pass, where I found myself on some class 4 sections, dropping my water bottle and having to climb them twice.
JMT hikers were indeed evacuating up Bishop Pass, which for most backpackers is a monster of a hike (they haven’t tried Taboose yet), and going down into the canyon I was definitely steeping myself in thicker smoke with each step. At the bottom I wrapped my Smokey the Bear bandana around my face and began my storm of Muir Pass.
First, I thought I’d play a little with the Muir Pass Mr. Potato Head. Which do you think looks better?
I thought it was pretty funny how horrified some JMT hikers got when I deconstructed him and scattered the rocks. To me, it’s horrifying that folks wouldn’t find the natural beauty of the mountains enough – they somehow get bored enough to feel the need to redecorate. In their urge to conquer nature and “improve” upon it, they leave behind childish foibles that most of us run to the woods to escape.
Once we’ve left footprints everywhere, where can a person go to be alone, feel distance, and experience true wilderness?
That night, I stayed atop Muir Pass and cleaned out the historic hut, carrying out about a pound of trash. I slept well despite the breeze. The smoke stayed to the south.
Day 5: Muir Pass to North Lake Day Use Area to Bishop to Lone Pine
I thought this day would be easy because it involved a lot of existing and use trail, but boy was I wrong. And it was a total mind-fuck, to boot. Coming down off the north side of Muir Pass is spectacular, and I was rewarded with much clearer skies and visibility. Southbounders were nervous, full of questions about the smoke, and invariably planning their evacuations.
I was getting more lackadaisical about my route-planning and turned off the JMT/PCT right at the outlet of Evolution lake, following a use trail that led nowhere. I then bushwhacked north a bit until I found myself back on the JMT, and then after another quarter mile or so I again prematurely abandoned the JMT again, headed for Darwin Bench. I was reading Roper’s route description carelessly and totally missed the fact that the trail up Darwin Bench had nothing to do with the approach to Snow Tongue Pass, further northwest. So in my head, I was again surprised at how well cut-in the SHR had become up the bench to the first lake. In my head, I was thinking “even if I wanted to take my own route,” I couldn’t/shouldn’t because there’s already such a distinct (and un-mapped) trail formed!” It was seeming more and more like the High Route was a trail, and that it was practically impossible to escape.
I wasn’t anywhere near Roper’s high route.
I was on an alternate, headed over fairly difficult terrain towards the slightly-easier, but still deadly, Alpine Col.
At the base of that col, I took a lunch and stared fearfully at it. It was a sheer wall, and if the topo had anything to say about it, the other face would be just as steep. I gathered courage and attacked it, swallowing that lump. It’s sort of true that a hill looks much steeper until you are on it — but don’t look down.
Alpine col has a nice shelf up top where one could rest, but I stupidly did not; I continued down the other side.
I continued down the other side forever.
It took me about two hours to get 2.5 miles down to Muriel Lake, over talus ranging from brick to Sprinter van size. I tried to hustle and began talus-hopping, but that only lasted a handful of seconds before I slipped, my legs went over my head and I fell into a 10-foot deep crevasse. My spoon and my water bottle went flying and in that slow motion split second I listened to the sounds of them bouncing, and waited for my head to crack open like an egg. I landed dangling by my elbows and jumped up immediately, feeling embarrassed and worried about my water bottle. I fished the bottle and the spoon up from deep cracks, dusted off my elbows, and carried down toward the Goethe Lake outlet much, much more slowly.
I found use trails leading all the way from Goethe Lake down to Muriel Lake. An old man quietly fished the lake north of Goethe Lake, and I quietly passed him and his camp, headed further down the shelf wondering how he managed to get out there. Of course, once one falls in love with the Sierra, I’m sure one would do anything — including crawling — to get up over a pass and into that nirvana. Undoubtedly it took that man at least a couple days of walking uphill, with camp and a pole on his back, to get to that lake. But from the looks of it he was in his happy place.
By the time I reached Piute Pass I was no longer paying any attention the the trail. It was well-worn, groomed, my pack was light, and I could sail. The concern was getting cell reception to alert my mother I was OK (because I was a day behind schedule), getting to Bishop before sundown, maybe getting some groceries, and hitching to Lone Pine for bed. I raced down Piute Pass to the parking lot only to find a ghost town, and hitched for thirty minutes only to get passed by cars and trucks packed to the gills with campers and fishermen. Finally near 6pm, I put my head down and cried, defeated by exhaustion. A man looking straight out of the mid-1980s — wild Wayfarers and neon colors — pulled his small 4×4 Ford over and asked what I needed. Such a huge kindness from a stranger! I felt like a little girl, so vulnerable, and here he was blown away by my mountain conquests. He drove me to Vons so I could shop, and told me how when he hiked Alpine Col, he found another hiker pinned by a huge rock and trapped on his way down, and initiated a rescue… Oh, my God.
After getting groceries at Vons, I walked from one end of Bishop to the other, stuck out my thumb, got passed by a cop giving me the “no-no,” and immediately picked up by a nice Mexican American woman who happened to be living one block from LoveNote and Burly White’s place. She had very little English but excellent taste in pan flute music. As we drove through the sea of thick smoke pouring out of Taboose Pass, we pretended we were taking a lady’s road trip along the ocean coast, and that perhaps all those invisible mountains were in fact an invisible ocean.
An Ursack is a bear- and rodent-proof sack made out of dyneema thread, and in some parks can replace a plastic bear vault.
A 14er is a mountain over 14,000 (4,267m) feet tall.
Talus, oh how I love thee. Read all about my romance with talus here.