August 22, 2014
John Muir Trail (JMT)
Day 19 – Upper Palisade Lake (10,840) to above Twin Lakes (10,890ft) via Mather Pass (12,100ft), South Fork Kings crossing (10,040ft) and Pinchot Pass (12,130ft),
Camped on a ridge between two lakes just above Twin Lakes.
This epic day, crossing two 12,000ft plus passes, started at 7:30AM and ended some 11 hours later. When we packed up this morning we weren’t intending to hike so long or so far. At day break clouds were already hovering about the mountain peaks, unusual for the Sierras. By late morning they had cleared. By midafternoon the general haze we’ve seen in the air for the last several days cleared leaving those crystal clear skies we love. Stunning in the late afternoon light. Under these conditions you just have to do the second pass.
But let’s start at the beginning. We headed out early this morning just in case they were blasting at Mather Pass and would have the trail closed for part of the day. However, we soon heard from other hikers that that they had finished the project the day before and that the trail was open all day. We never did see any evidence of any work being done at the pass.
From the forest of scrubby pines above of the upper Palisade Lake it’s a straightforward gentle climb up a talus cliff face on well graded switchbacks to Mather Pass. Despite the altitude the even track makes it easy to maintain a steady rhythm. At a slow pace we make the pass by 9:15AM, less than two hours after leaving camp. At this hour the views in front of us – barren white granite cliffs – are not the most interesting.
The Palisade Peaks behind us, lit in the morning sun, however, add an engaging element to the ascent.
On the other side of the pass the stark landscape continues in a wide valley surrounded by rugged peaks. In the distance we see the forest where the trail climbs a new ridge towards Pinchot Pass. But first we must get there.
It’s a long march across the open valley floor. Pretty little waterways wind along the trail. The seemingly endless march continues into the forest with the last mile or more following the South Fork of the Kings River that we cross twice. The second and main crossing (10,040ft) marks the low point of the day.
After a break at the crossing cascade we climb steadily along switchbacks through dry forest with few views. At the top we enter the basin of lakes and peaks that leads to Pinchot Pass. The wind picks up as we make our way up the basin.
The terrain here looks more volcanic with different colored rock formations – a red cinder peak rises above Lake Marjorie in stark contrast to the brilliant white peak of fractured boulders to our left. Patches of grass and wild flowers line the trail practically to the top of the pass.
Nearing 12,000ft for the second time today, I’m feeling the elevation as that end of the day fatigue sets in. It’s more difficult than it was this morning to maintain an even rhythm – the trail alternating between steep sets of switchbacks and long sandy sections that climb more gently as the trail meanders around rocky knobs up to the cliff face wall. For a long time it’s hard to see the actual pass as the final ascent along switchbacks is well hidden in the rocks.
Despite the punishing wind at the top, the views in the late afternoon sun are worth the effort. The colorful volcanic peaks continue on the other side of the pass, surrounding an expansive valley floor dotted with tarns against a green grassy meadow.
The descent is quick at first, down switchbacks, but then meanders above the tarn filled meadow. It takes us another hour and half, about 2.5 miles, to find a campsite, much longer than anticipated.
The vegetation becomes more robust as we descend. Finally below 11, 000ft we find a ridge between two lakes with a large campsite under lodgepole pines that help block the wind. The ridge traverses a north south line such that the last rays of the setting sun fade from the peaks on one side while the first rays of the following morning descend down the peaks on the other side.
We’re all alone tonight. The numerous hikers that were camped around the Palisades Lakes the previous evening have all dispersed. It feels strange sometimes to have other hikers around and then suddenly no one, but then again it’s wonderful to have a small piece of the Sierras all to yourself.
Tired and hungry we’re thrilled to pull out the dehydrated chicken a la king that happens to have the most calories of the meals in our bear container and takes the least amount of time to rehydrate. Delicious at the end of a two pass day!