Through Palisades Lakes and Over Mather Pass
Wednesday, August 1
Forgive me the cliche. But I slept like a baby last night. And today I wake up feeling elevated. Maybe it’s because I’m on a ridge looking into a valley, granite peaks to my left and right. Maybe it’s because we survived two days of thunderstorms, and I’m awake, dry and alive.
I look down to the valley to a patch of trees that surround the river. Steam and myst hover around the edges. Somewhere nestled in the trees are our fellow hikers, shaking dew from their shoes, and tents. Burrr…. I do not envy them.
It’s 6 am and the sunshine illuminates our yellow tarp. I’m warm and dry. I feel thankful for our camp about 1,000 feet above the valley.
Eager to finish our climb to the Palisades Lakes, we roll out from our bevies and begin our morning routine. After several days on the trail, life fits into a rhythm, and our muscles sing a melody with every motion that we make. Our eyelids flutter letting in the light, we roll across pads that crinkle, reaching for our camp stove, mugs, and coffee. Glug, glug, glug – water falls into the mug. A lighter strike, combustion and a hiss… the flame feeds from its canister, the lid clicks into place. Now we wait for the water to begin bubbling.
We tear down our camp and decide to hike in lieu of breakfast. We figure it’s only about 1,000 – 1,500 more feet of climbing before we reach Palisades lakes, and we can eat breakfast there, while enjoying extra time in the scenery.
We stash our pockets with some almonds, and prop our legs under backpacks. I take one last look into the valley, and imagine the fellow hikers bellow, dampened with the dew, clutching to their camp mugs, bringing warmth into their fingers. I do not envy them.
The Morning Push to Palisades
When you camp before the summit, the challenge is that you start the day with a steep climb. There’s no warming up with level terrain, no chance to let your legs work loosen up. Instead you pack them up with gear, give them a brief word of encouragement, then look up and let your eyes lead the way.
Today, my legs are quick to warm up, but slow to loosen. They feel like logs I’m dragging upward, lifting my hips to pull one and then the other.
Oh, legs, blessed legs, you job is thankless and never-ending. You seldom get enough credit. And, we can’t afford to give you a day off. Thank you for all your service – please don’t fail me now.
Rachel somehow skips along the trail, creating a gap between us as we climb, often pausing to wow the view. How is it possible that each day feels more beautiful. Today will be our first full day on the John Muir, and we’re only about 1 hour into, and the reason for its popularity is quite clear.
As the sun begins to rise, the landscape becomes illuminated. Amongst the emerald green brush, and granite gray stones, a brown ribbon unfolds that we follow through this wonderland, as streams suddenly appear, almost out of nowhere. But we know there’s a lake above.
We hop across the stones to cross the stream, it’s trickle asks me to stay. I dip my hand into the reflection, and breath deep as the cold water hits my face. I’d live by this stream forever. The cool comfort of the morning, the sunshine and the trickling song of the stream is like a siren in the wild. Rachel disappears behind a fold in the trail. I snap a picture and hustle along.
We disappear into the shade, and stones now surround us. A river winds along with the trail. Above the next short climb, we know, Palisades Lakes sits, siphoning down its water, feeding life below.
I lose myself in thought, and the cool air chills my skin. It’s damp yet I’m warm. We rise over a short climb, and there’s beauty like never before. A giant emerald in the Sierras, and we’re walking through it.
Everything is beautiful. I don’t know how to take a picture that will do it justice. But I snap several then rush to catch up with Rachel. I stop again and attempt a panoramic… still it’s not big enough. I run again to catch my wife.
We stop at the shore of Palisades Lakes, and plant our packs upon a giant stone slab that sits above the crystal lake. I carefully tiptoe down the stone, dip my water filter into the lake, then hop back up to Rachel, who’s begun to boil water. It’s breakfast time and on today’s menu is powdered coconut milk with muesli, dry mango and green tea. Everything is refreshing; the air, the taste, the company.
Across the lake we see a hikers camp. Orange pads stand on end, sitting in the sun. Bright tarps are stretched out, tethered to some bushes. They must have gotten soaked yesterday during the thunderstorm. What a place to be when that storm came through – here in the open, high on the mountain.
Over Mather Pass
Once breakfast is complete, and our bellies are content I refill our bottles with water, and my Nalgene’s runneth over. Rachel’s water bottles crinkles in my hand as I hand it to her sitting on the stone slab.
“Let’s pack up our snail shells and cross this pass!”
The previous days thunderstorms loom in our minds as we make our way up the pass, gentle green grass turning to granite rubble. The sky is predominantly blue right now, and sunshine is plentiful. But each cloud we eye with suspicion, even the small puffs appearing soft and innocent. We know what their larger brothers are capable of, and we know they often travel in groups.
We stop to catch a picture.
And then we take another. The colors of this world are so simple. There’s green, grey, and blue, with a touch of white and brown. They contrast one another. So efficient and effective. Beautiful. If perfection exists, this is obviously it.
We continue to climb toward the 12,100 foot summit of Mather Pass. This will be the highest pass we’ve crossed on our trip thus far. It’s the highest peak we’ve done together. Rachel presses on ahead, and I muster my legs to hold the gap.
The switchbacks become consistent as we narrow in on the top. A small breeze blows over the snowfields, cooling me as I climb, setting my sights to the next switchback. Man, I feel slow and tired today. My legs are logs.
To our left, clouds come creeping over the summit, shading us from the sun, once plentiful and warm. Every cloud appears darker than the last. Is this the one? Will it spill open? What weather awaits us, obscured by a granite wall?
Ahead of me, Rachel reaches the summit. And, slowly chugging behind, I make it too. We can see brown and gray for miles, eventually meeting a patch of green. The clouds are hard to read. Our descent appears shorter on this side than what we just came up. Fatigued by the altitude and several days of hiking, I’m happy to be going down.
Walking on the Moon – The Descent from Mather Pass
On the descent from Mather Pass, there’s something abundantly clear. We’ve never been anywhere like this. We zig zag down the switch backs and are released into a baron brown wasteland. I feel like we’ve arrived on the moon.
The foliage is ever so sparse and fragile. The ground is gritty and rugged, with stone rubble strewn about. The mountains all seem distant, and expansive, surrounding us on each side, creating a border to the wasteland we walk. Small ponds sit docile, a reminder of the snow that is often here.
I’m inspired by the imagery and fire of a barrage of photos. I’ve landed on the moon, and I must bring back evidence.
Again, I run to catch up. Spots of green begin to accent the desolate baron soil. The trail appears to wind off into forever. We continue as it gently, ever so slowly descends. Airy puffs of clouds criss cross from all directions. Rain drops begin to fall. We ignore them and keep moving. There’s not enough to get us wet, just a warning tapping us for attention.
We notice another party, a group of three, including a child. They appear to be eating lunch on a large rock just off the trail. To our left there are dark clouds, and the rain has become slightly more consistent. Thunder rumbles from somewhere. To avoid getting wet, we succumb to digging our ponchos out, and pulling them over our heads. Oh crap, there’s a tear in the hood of my poncho. No bueno. We keep marching.
It never really pours on us. The clouds just hang over, dripping sporadically. Eventually I grow tired of my poncho, and fold it into my pack, careful to not tear it further. This is all I got to keep me dry. Don’t you let me down. The thunder rumbles again, from a far off destination.
As we continue to descend we come upon a campsite with two men, and we stop to chat about the weather. The one man is tall and lanky, with calves that are enormous. He’s wearing a Bishop Ultramarathon shirt. I get the idea his legs get a lot of action.
“How was the weather coming over Mather?” he asks. From here the pass is hard to read. He’s eyeing the clouds that surround it. We tell him it was blue skies on the other side. Everyones worried about the weather. We’re all coming from different directions, yet we’ve all had a few hard days. Our friend introduces himself, but I can’t recall his name. As we’ve been chatting it’s stricken me who he reminds me of – my friend Ron, who is also an avid hiker. In my head, I dub him Ron, and his true name is erased.
“This is Bob” the man says gesturing to the other man with him. Bob sits on a stone, wearing a hat that says “Bob”. He says hello. He’s a squat man who doesn’t say a lot. His name says it all. It sounds like the two met on the trail and have been hiking together for a day or two. Ron has a satellite phone and has been checking the weather. They’ve opted to wait for the clouds to clear before crossing Mather. He tells us he’s been checking in with his wife, telling her “I’m making safe choices. You’d be happy with me.”
We laugh at the two men, and then we carry on. We wander down the trail for several more miles, continuing to needle our way between the clouds. For once it feels like there is weather and rain everywhere around us, but not where we are right now. The sun becomes more consistent and begins to warm our backs. Trees arise along the trail, the trail threads between.
South Fork Kings River
Amongst the trees and sunshine, we arrive upon a river crossing. It’s the South Fork of the Kings River. The location is peaceful and inviting.
I pull off my shoes and wade across to the other side just to test the crossing. It’s about the length of a two lane street, and below the knee at it’s deepest. No problem. The water feels good on my feet.
I wade back across then Rachel and I both cross with our packs on. We stop again on the other side to enjoy the atmosphere. I take a quick dip in the stream to refresh myself. The cold water, and the warm sun satisfy my soul in unison. It’s obvious we both are having trouble leaving. And, before we hike away, leaving our oasis, we notice several campsites. Maybe we should stay here. We deliberate the decision, then obviously feel great once we give in to calling it good. It’s only 3 pm, but we could use the relaxation.
We setup camp and make some chili hot chocolate. Rachel takes a nap under the tarp. I lay next to the river, on a boulder reading my book – about a pilgrimage through Spain. I make notes in my journal. I close my eyes to enjoy the warmth of sunshine.
Rachel awakes and joins me for some cocoa. We notice two hikers across the river. They’re looking for a crossing. We yell across the river – we just crossed barefoot in the shallow. They travel upstream a little further then cross along a log. As they near our campsite, we recognize them from yesterday. We saw them setting camp in the myst below Palisades Lakes. We chatted briefly before we kept on hiking. He was the man in boxer briefs.
As it turns out, they are both from Oakland. His name is Greg and he’s from New Zealand. Her name is Joe, and I believe she is originally from the Pacific Northwest. We tell them we live in Spokane right now, and they’ve driven through on their way to visit Greg’s brother in Nelson, BC Canada. He says it is amazing. It has a climbing gym, great food, and it’s beautiful. I’m sold. Rachel and I take a mental note, and add it to our “to visit” list.
After the socializing we continue sipping our chili hot chocolate, and sit upon a rock next to the river. I listen, relax, and write. Here is where I sit.