September 8, 2014 / Comments (0)

Day 11: Mather Pass and Pika Sass

*This post is from my 2014 JMT thru hike. I began 7/25/14 and finished 8/8/14. Missed the beginning? Read it here!

The fifth time I wake up, it’s to finally begin my day. I startled myself a few too many times last night thinking I’d end up in a flash flood. Yesterday when I made camp, I took one of the few spots available for camp where I could see Kayla and Andy come down the trail as well as stake my tarp down. The entire area was flooded from the day’s rain and the creek ahead would have been extremely dangerous to make an attempt of crossing.

As I crawl out of my shelter, I look left and right. The surrounding water looks lower. The puddle nearby has shrunk into a half inch circle. Things are beginning to look up. I yell over to Kayla and Andy to inquire about their sleep last night. They fared well.

I begin to pack up and realize today is the climb up The Golden Staircase and Mather Pass. Today is going to be a big one. I grab a few snacks out for the day and place them into my mesh Sea to Summit bag for safekeeping and screw the top of my bear canister shut. A small group makes their way to my tent, stepping on the stones peeking out of the stream with ease. They don’t pause. There is no second guessing or deliberation between them. It’s a wonder what eight hours can do to a trail. Yesterday I had to find an alternative route to bypass that very crossing as the water level was that high.

I realize I recognize these folks, but they verbalize they recognize me at that instant. Before my trip, I had posted on various forums and online groups about this hike to prepare. Brian and Julie were actually Gossamer Gear Ambassadors like me. I knew they would be starting the day after me and we may cross paths. Having to stay only 4.6 miles in at Little Yosemite Valley and planning on being on the trail an extra two days more than them did assist with this run in.

After talking with Jen, Brian, and their group (DC Ultralight) before they make their way down the trail.
“You guys ready for a big day?” I ask Andy and Kayla excitedly. I really am feeling good about today and optimistic about the weather.
“We still have to get a lot of stuff together, you can go ahead. We’ll meet up with you in a little bit,” Andy tells me.
“Ok. I’ll meet you guys at Palisade Lakes. For real,” I respond.
Palisade Lakes is where we were supposed to meet yesterday but we couldn’t continue because of the affect the rain had to the trail. I get moving quickly and attempt to catch up to John who we assume is at Palisade Lakes now camping.
Yesterday’s raging creek crossing had mellowed out a bit, but more importantly, rocks magically appeared to cross. Yesterday, those very rocks were covered in at least seven inches of water. They weren’t in sight.
After a few minutes, I catch up to the DC crew. We chat about hiking, ultralight gear, and our trip so far. Their group splits into two with a few people falling behind to take up the steeps at a slower pace. I soon see a family including two young children bouncing down the trail. Their little girl is grinning ear to ear as her blond hair swooshes back and forth with each bounce. I chat with the mother for a couple minutes and she informs me that they’re actually heading off the trail early because of all the rain. She explains that they were going southbound and actually went over The Golden Staircase yesterday and just came back over it again to make their exit. Her daughter was very pleased with this feat. I tell her of our situation of us being separated from John because of the crossings.
“Oh, you’re with John!” she exclaims. “He told me to give you a note, but it got buried in my pack. It said that he’s going to go over Mather and Pinchot pass and he’ll see you in a couple days I guess… I was a little worried about him. He doesn’t have a rain jacket or anything. He mentioned he doesn’t have a stove too.”
“Yeah, we were supposed to meet at Palisade Lakes. I don’t know why he doesn’t just stay put. We’re almost there,” I reply.
As we continue to make our way up The Golden Staircase, we spend time asking each other, “is this part the staircase? Maybe it starts here?” I also think about John. Why would he do TWO passes in a day when we have the stove? Didn’t he think that we wouldn’t cross the creek? I tell myself to get up The Golden Staircase quick to try and catch him before he breaks camp. Maybe he decided to stay put and wait for us this morning.

The staircase isn’t the “StairMaster of the trail” that I heard it was. It was steep, but it was a lot of fun. Between the water flowing down the trail and the fog surrounding us, it was pretty surreal. I feel like the sections of trail I was worried about because of what I had heard always end up being the most fun or the most worthwhile. The physicality of hiking is there, but being able to mentally push yourself forward because you know your hard work will shortly pay off in a picturesque vista is something else.

At the start of the climb I was quite warm and delayered. However, as I continue to ascend, it becomes rather cold. Brian checks his thermometer and it reads forty degrees Fahrenheit! I hope Kayla and Andy won’t be too far behind and Brian shares the same concerns for his group members. We discuss whether to wait here or continue up toward Palisade Lakes. When we stop it will be much colder.

We take some smaller breaks and attempt to locate where we were yesterday. It’s motivating to not be able to see the pass or meadow you traversed the day before.

We continue toward Palisade Lakes and much to our surprise, it gets warmer. Once atop, we take a seat and grab our snacks. Brian begins to make coffee. I give their Sawyer Squeeze a try to filter some water. It’s light and versatile, but I am glad to have the updated Sawyer Mini.

Upper Palisade Lake

As we rest, I look for signs of John. If he’s not in sight, maybe his pack or LEKI poles are. No such luck. Before long Andy and Kayla catch up and mention how nice The Golden Staircase turned out to be.

Mather Pass, here we come!

Mather Pass (12,096 ft) is the next challenge and we still have another 2000 feet of elevation gain to get there. We follow the switchbacks up a scree covered trail to the top of this beast. I notice myself breathing harder as I make my way up. The air is thinner than my East Coast lungs are used to. I feel someone behind me and step aside to let a group of California Conservation Corps members by. They are sporting brown long sleeve button ups and brown pants, yet they seem to be floating up the trail. I stop to rest and watch the group go by. I take out a Gu and a snack. Kayla and Andy catch up and we rest for five.

I point up ahead. “See those tiny people?” They look almost as small as ants at this point. “That’s the group that passed us not too long ago.”

We continue up and swing left and then right following the steep switchbacks. Out of the corner of my eye I see a ball of fluff. dart by us. It scampers by again, but this time right over Kayla’s foot. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a Pika! Pikas are very small mammals, closely related to rabbits that live on high altitude mountain sides, making burrows in crevices.

The final five minutes before reaching the top are actually easier than the rest of the ascent. It never levels out, but being able to see others make it to where you need to go not too far before you is motivating.

At over 12,000 feet, I don’t feel any signs of altitude sickness and I continue to feel good on my way down.

The John Muir Trail is known for allowing pack animals on much of the trail. I was surprised to see two alpacas at the summit of Mather Pass!

In four hours I hiked up 4,000 feet of elevation gain between the Golden Staircase and Mather Pass. Not too shabby! The descent, as one might expect, is steep. After all that progress up, I made my way down toward camp. Everyday there was a sense of going two steps forward and one step back. The elevation profile below shows outlines the dramatic ups and downs of the trek. Every single day I climbed up only to hike down. I loved it.


As I hike down I hear a boom. This time it’s not thunder, but a sonic boom. I look up but don’t see a plane in the sky. We continue to hear these booms are we hike in the afternoon. Once we make some significant progress toward camp, we decide to stop for lunch. We are actually very excited for today’s lunch. Kayla bought some milkshakes we’ve been wanting to try and today is finally the day to have them! The trail is completely flat at this point and it’s easy to trek far and fast.We settle down and notice the sky has opened up just over us and we enjoy the sun as it warms us.

We filter water and stir in the milkshake powders. I examine the packet and notice the word “Spirulina” in small print. I shake the concoction in my cup and attempt to break up the clumps. I take a sip and it’s horrid. Kayla fishes out a packet of honey, but it doesn’t help. Kayla and Andy choke down the rest of theirs, but I don’t make much progress. It’s far too disgusting even after all this hiking. I opt for a bar. This disappointment is followed by another. I find a miniature rock monster which is cute, but I realize that pushing through the rain yesterday caused me to walk right past the larger rock monster (or whale?) along the way.

Late in the afternoon we pass a handful of very suitable campsites. Some were very beautiful, but we want to get a head start up Pinchot Pass before the real climbing starts tomorrow. Our short and steep 500 foot climb is worth the effort and we reach J. Bench Lake. We are quick to set up camp and choose dinner. We devour hearty meal of mashed potatoes and vegetables drizzled with olive oil and hot sauce before crawling into our tents. I scribble down notes from the day and listen to the rain fall once again.
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Last modified: December 6, 2014

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