After nearly 12 hours, we emerge from our tent. Apparently, adjusting to physical exertion at elevation is exhausting. We are feeling rested this morning, and ready to tackle our fourth pass in four days.
I make us coffee and breakfast and then after packing up, we immediately ford the South Fork of the Kings River. It’s a cold crossing and I can hear my own voice in a high pitched exclamation above the roar of the river.
Our 2,000 foot climb to Mather pass will travel through some of the most spectacular high country I’ve ever seen. We did this particular section on our last hike in the Sierras in 2018. Then the weather was cloudy and rainy, so we rushed through the approach and descent, eager to get out of extreme elevations. I’m excited because this time, the weather is perfect. The sky is cerulean blue. It’s thankfully not too hot and I’m ready, camera in hand, to capture the scenery.
Except that today, I notice that my bag is very, very heavy. We are carrying 8 days worth of food, in order to make it roughly 100 miles to our next resupply. These miles will be some of the most difficult of the whole hike. With nearly a pass a day, each topping out at 11,000 to 12,000 feet, it’s a hiking tour d’force. The huge elevation gains and losses are relentless. This requires a lot of food.
My bag digs into my shoulders and presses on my lower back. It’s probably close to 35 pounds. Not one to suffer for too long, I stop shortly after breaking camp and take some Ibuprofen. I also readjust my straps.
The next 4 miles of trail are so wonderful, it’s hard to describe. Huge granite cliffs spring out of the landscape on either side of the trail. It gives the impression that you are walking through an enormous amphitheater. A bubbling creek splits the middle of the valley with the sound of water and life. The birds are chirping merrily, and the male grouse drum their wings in a low thrumming sound.
Everything feels so alive; so vibrant. Towering ahead is Mather Pass, a low point in a jagged wall of rock. I keep climbing, a huge smile on my face. How can a landscape be so huge, yet feel so intimate? The Sierras are a miracle.
At around 11AM, we reach the upper basin at 11,250 feet. Machete and Blue are sitting on a rock, snacking and absorbing the scenery. We follow their example and pull out some bars and nuts, soaking up the views. Marmots scurry by, keeping a close eye on us. The upper valley is more sparse and rocky. With patches of snow obscuring parts of the trail.
The final push to the pass is done via long switchbacks carved into a steep rocky mountainside. At the top of Mather I catch my breath and sit down for lunch. There is no breeze, like sitting in a living room at 12,100 feet!
Mountain passes are cool because you have a view of where you came from and where you’re going at the same time. It’s quite a perspective. Behind you lies the land you’ve crossed. You know it well – it’s topography fresh in your mind. Ahead is the descent into a new valley. New lakes, meadows and snowy peaks await you. How exciting!
At the bottom of the pass, the trail goes along Palisade Lakes. The lakes and trail occupy a narrow canyon between peaks and glaciers. It’s a beautiful place. More Marmots appear, their fluffy tails blowing in the breeze.
After the lakes, we drop an incredible 2,000 feet in just 2 miles, a section called the Golden Staircase. Dizzying switchbacks criss-cross down the valley, with giant rock steps built into them. It’s truly a feat of trail engineering. All the pounding down onto the rocks make my feet really sore. I lean on my tracking poles to lessen the load on my knees and arches. My feet look forward to the soft pine needle and dirt tread in the forest below.
Down, down, down. We’re going down.
It’s a silly little line I sing in my head, but it’s accurate and helps to pass the time until my feet can stop their relentless downward motion.
A lovely stroll through the meadow and we are finally at our destination: the confluence of the Middle Fork of the Kings River and Palisade Creek. I love this place because it’s very lush with ancient trees. From the confluence, the rush of water sounds terrifyingly powerful, as the the two rivers crash into each other with endless urgency. About .2 miles before the campsite, we see a blackbear. It’s walking along the river and notices us, but does not care.
Cactus sets up the tent and I start dinner. Soon we are laying flat on our pads, thankful for the opportunity to rest. Goodnight Sierras. You’re hard, and I’m sore. But it’s so worth it.