The most vivid memory of the Eastern Sierra for me is not one of sight or sound, but one of smell. The sweet butterscotch scent of the Jeffrey Pine will be forever imbedded in this sense of mine. I smelled them before I saw them and said to Peter, ‘this has to be a forest of Jeffrey Pines…’ Soon enough, one of the mammoth trees rose in view. It’s bark a shade of burnt umber with creases so big they invited the nose in for a full dose of what always reminds me of butterscotch pudding.
Mammoth Lakes is full of these trees but it took us until day three to come upon them in the backcountry. White pines were everywhere, as well as aspen groves, junipers, mountain mahogany and so much more. And then there were the times we walked well above the tree line.
Day four brought us to places of rock and the occasional snow field. After hiking in France with the splendor of Mt Blanc and so many massive glaciers all of August, the Sierra ice fields seemed small and parched. The biggest difference between the two, however, is that in the Sierra when you are out there, you’re really out there. At times it felt we were the only ones in the mountains, a feeling I never had in Europe. Why the difference? Because in the Sierra, there are no trains, trams, ski-lifts or gondolas taking people to these places and spaces of natural beauty. Which is just the way I like it. One has to earn their presence by hard miles walked.
So the next morning with another early start, it felt fresh and new again as we hiked up along Evolution Creek. The cascading clear water cooled the heat-inducing ascent up Evolution Valley. Three massive bucks sprinted up a ridge opposite the trail, their racks impressive and fully intact. It was the second time we saw deer that morning since breaking camp along the San Joachin River close to Piute Pass. And what a beautiful camp this was. With many obvious sites on the trail, we passed by clusters of tents and group camps populated with what seemed like multi-generations of a few families. Much to our chagrin there were indeed people other than us enjoying the mountains.
Instead of settling for a spot along the trail close to everyone else, we decided to explore a little and see if that out of the way spot we knew existed was to be found. To our delight it did not take long. Peter went down the slope to a hidden spot along the river to check it out and soon came back with not one but three options. Each had a glitch and the third option, though putting us on a few small anthills, seemed like the perfect place to pitch the tarp and recover from another long day.
Instead of going a few more miles we stopped at 430pm, allowing for an enjoyment of this most beautiful camp. We hiked 17 miles that day and were happy to be done.
Because we were at only 8000 ft, which felt like the low-lands after being so much higher most of the previous days, it was possible to make a small fire. Bugs galore with noseums, wasps and flies, but being able to have this fire was worth it. Sitting beside the glowing flames as the sun set down behind the ridges after a cold rinse in the river left us both at ease. With three or four big days to come, we needed all the relaxing we could get.
Before reaching Evolution Creek, a river crossing necessitated the removal of shoes, shallow and refreshing. Peter remembered being almost swept away in that same place back in 1993 when he hiked the entire trail. It had been such a massive winter of snow most thought the Sierras impassible. In fact they almost were. But Peter and a few others decided to see for themselves, and thus, found themselves navigating the heavy volume of water flowing. With almost all clothes off, water up to the chest and pack held up over the head, Peter said he remembered being scared shitless when the current almost swept him away. Not only this, the entire range was blanketed in snow. They had to navigate by topographical maps, compasses and sheer intuition to find the way. This I cannot imagine.
We met a few Canadians on this river crossing. Initially I was worried because the woman of the couple crossing opposite to us had a look of deep concern bordering on fear across her face. To the point where I almost said ‘hey, it’s okay, we’re safe…’ When she asked if I was Canadian and if my name was Clara Hughes I was relieved because I seriously thought she had concern for her safety in the oncoming company of strangers.
But they were Canadian and so am I, and I have to admit it was a trip to be recognized with all my hiking gear on. They were heading north and had been on the trail a few weeks, loving the JMT and time away from work. It felt so good to hear their stories of being on the trail and the sheer enjoyment/appreciation that mirrored our own thoughts. I think everyone on the trail had the same amount of glee marked with fatigue that garnered instant respect for one another, no matter how short or long the trip may be.
Further along we took a break at LaConte meadow/Ranger Station area to filter water and revitalize the feet in a cold creek. I wandered around and was rewarded by the discovery of five wild strawberries, each the size of my pinky fingernail, sharing them with Peter. It’s nice to feel appreciation for such small things. Peter pointed out gooseberries plump and sweet, along with more clusters of sierra blueberry bushes.
Up and up we continued and finally the timber broke, making way for willow bushes and Evolution Lake. Which led to Sapphire Lake and finally, much later on, Lake Wanda and her stark surrounds. There is peace in the desolation; a beauty to the starkness. The sun shone and a cool breeze blew as if to remind us just how vicious it could be in the wrong season or wrong storm.
From Lake Wanda we saw the bee-hive shaped hut. Instantly we knew it’s Muir Pass. We both remembered camping at a lake on the way up to the hut fourteen years earlier. We took one of the most frigid rinses in that lake as the sun was nearly set. The wind raged, feeling like it burned our exposed, wet skin. Only this time for the life of us we could not figure out which lake it was that we made home that night.
Muir Pass, a hair less than 12,000ft, seems fitting as the namesake of the patron on the path, John Muir. Evolution Valley is one of my favorite expanses. A long break up high was not needed because the enjoyment of the area was taken in full all the way up.
Not only this, we’d only hiked eighteen miles at that point and it was starting to get late. We began to realize this 25 mile day was fast becoming an impossibility. We agreed to start looking for camp at 6pm and stopping no later than 630, the before-mentioned cut off to camp, leaving an hour of light to do the nightly deeds of setting up, rinsing off, eating, food storage followed by another early night to sleep.
We discovered a perfect spot that is unfortunately littered with tents. Base camp Everest style there in the Sierra. No thanks. We pass a man in so much pain he’s barely moving. Soon we stopped for a break and the man re-passes us, saying sarcastically ‘Not really into camping at the village’. We agreed and he inched his way along the trail ahead of us. With a short break complete we pass him again, hoping he finds a camp, and soon. And soon enough, we pass a perfect camp and although exhausted ourselves, we leave this spot for him. I can’t imagine what a world of hurt he was in and it was the least we could do.
We reached another lake and again, there are people populating the grounds around it. Just a bit down there are spots with no people. It’s getting close to 630pm and after a short inspection we deem it ‘not great but good enough….at least the surroundings are stunning!’. We’re above 10,000ft so no fire pits are around. Later on when looking for rocks to make a cache for our garbage storage and a few freeze-dried foods that cannot fit into the bear canisters we start calling it the ‘poopy camp’. Under each and seemingly every rock there is a pile of poo and soiled toilet paper. Who leaves this in the backcountry? What human(s) could be so absolutely stupid as to think this was okay to leave this mess? I just don’t understand. We go to bed disgusted with our fellow hikers who’ve left their mark in this most disgusting manner. Nature calls, yes, this is normal, but please…clean up after yourselves.
All night and into the wee hours of the morning when we rose at 430 we see flashes over to the East. Later we learn of the dry-lightening phenomenon that lit up our alpine sky. It was as if a strobe light thumped all night long. Ridges to the west illuminated with each blast. Not knowing what this was caused concern for Peter that a storm, and a vicious one at that, might move in during the night.
But we woke, early, with moisture in the air from the creeks and lakes around, but stars in the sky above. Head lamps were turned off as dawn took hold of the sky and then we were on our way for day five of the JMT adventure.