On the PCT: Rae Lakes

I’ve got a confession to make:  I didn’t fall in love with the Sierra.

I really thought I would.  I’d been dreaming of seeing the region’s granite peaks, alpine lakes, high elevation meadows, and giant sequoias for years.  I’d been astonished by the beauty of pictures of the Sierra and listened as dozens of thru-hikers described the way that the region captivated them.  I’d expected that it would be the highlight of my journey.  It wasn’t.

Or, at least, it wasn’t initially.

Hiking north into the Sierra from the desert, I’d expected to be overwhelmed by the green of the mountains, by the abundance of life that would surround me, but that wasn’t the case.  The first several days north of Kennedy Meadows were home to this unique high-elevation desert-treed hybrid.  I imagined that more hiking would take me into the heart of the forests of Central California.  However, the Pacific Crest Trail is aptly named; it doesn’t often traverse valleys, and, as a result, it avoids areas where life is most plentiful.  As the PCT headed deeper into Kings Canyon National Park, I found myself struck by the starkness of my surroundings.

It’s not that there weren’t green things around; there were.  But, there weren’t forests.  The trees were far apart, and there was no understory, even where sunlight reached the ground, which was surprisingly sandy and pebbly.  The scale of the scenery remained expansive.  Granite peaks towered over the trail imposingly, and valleys stretched on for miles.  Rocky paths took us up foreboding mountain passes, bereft of alpine flowers.  I’d thought that when I found myself in the wilderness that once mesmerized Ansel Adams and John Muir I would feel that I’d “come home to a place I’d never been before.”  (Bonus: This is the summer of my 27th year, so it would have been perfect!)

The fact is that the Sierra, beautiful though it may be, is not my home.

This is what I came to appreciate after I, tired and dizzy from Lyme, fell near Rae Lakes, breaking my big toe and spraining my ankle in the process.  Thanks to the help of Pine Nut and two members of a hiking group called “The Fellowship” (who played “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to determine who would carry my pack), I made it 1.6 miles over the next two days.  There, Pine Nut and I set up camp at Middle Rae Lake, where we had easy access to water for drinking and foot soaking, a bear box for storing the scented items that wouldn’t fit in our bear canisters, shaded “durable surfaces” to lay out our tents, and a ranger station 0.4 miles away.

Alpine Shooting Star and Middle Rae Lake

Alpine Shooting Star and Middle Rae Lake

On the day after we arrived at Middle Rae Lake, Pine Nut went to ask the ranger about the nearest exit to civilization, in case I needed to take advantage of it.  After talking with Sam Webster, she returned with details about the trail to Road’s End — and a book to take my mind off my toe, ankle, and progressing relapse of Lyme disease, The Last Season.

Written by Eric Blehm, The Last Season is the story of Randy Morgenson, a backcountry ranger who went missing in the Sierra, just a few miles from our camp.  As I dove into the book, thankful for the distraction, I soon learned the book was so much more than that:  It was the tale of one man’s love affair with the wilderness I was living in.

Without any reason to rush the reading, I savored the excerpts of Morgenson’s journals that Blehm included in his book.  I read Morgenson’s descriptions of the gentian in alpine meadows, the silver bellies of fish jumping out of the water for bugs, the magical alpenglow on the cathedral peaks.  And then, as I sat on a rock next to the lake, alternately soaking and elevating my foot as I read, I witnessed each of Morgenson’s favorite parts of the wilderness firsthand.

I also read about how Morgenson, having dreamed of exploring Alaska and the Himalayas for years, excitedly packed his backpack and realized his dream.  I read of how he was astonished and impressed but how, upon returning to the Sierra, he wondered why he’d ever left, as the mountains he’d grown up near were the mountains that had captured his heart.  It struck me that someone felt about the Sierra the way I do about the White Mountains, and that made me feel fonder toward the wilderness surrounding me.

And, as time went on, I began to channel a bit of Morgenson’s love of the Sierra.

Middle Rae Lake

Middle Rae Lake

It didn’t hurt that I came to know Middle Rae Lake well as I rested beside it.  I knew the way the shadows moved across the campsite.  I knew the best places to go to avoid mosquitoes and the peaks that shown most beautifully after sunset.  I knew the marmot family that were our neighbors and the chipmunk that came calling every night just before dinner.

A summer spent thru-hiking is characterized by near-constant movement.  Hikers are always hiking onward or heading to town; there are too many miles to hike before the snows come to allow us to stay in any place long.  Because of its rarity, one of my favorite pleasures on the trail is sleeping in the same place twice.  As we took a 1.28-mile nero and two zeroes beside Middle Rae Lake, the Southern Sierra began to feel a bit homey to me.

When it became apparent that I needed medical assistance, I packed up and hiked on, but not without wishing my goodbyes to Rae Lakes.

On the PCT: Forester Pass

The Pacific Crest Trail has been called “the trail of extremes.”  It winds through seven ecozones, from sandy deserts to the alpine zone of the Sierra to the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest.  It takes thru-hikers through deep sand and deep snow, and it’s not unusual for a hiker to worry about heat exhaustion and a freezing water filter in any given day.  The trail reaches its lowest point, 180 feet above sea level, at the Oregon-Washington border, and it climbs to its zenith, 13,153 feet, at Forester Pass in the Sierra.

Apparently, I was so excited about reaching the hike’s high point that I needed to climb Forester twice.

Pine Nut and I reached Forester Pass the day after we’d hiked Mount Whitney.  After feeling some altitude sickness on the top of the contiguous United States, I woke up feeling weak and a little dizzy but no worse than I’d been feeling for the previous week or so.  Next to lower Crabtree Meadow, we packed up and then headed northward.

The day was warm, and the woods were beautiful.  After spending the entirety of the previous day above treeline, I was so grateful to be back among foxtail pines, in a forest full of life.  But, as long trails do, the Pacific Crest Trail (particularly where it and the John Muir Trail are one and the same) is always going up or going down; it wasn’t long before we were once again climbing above treeline.

This time, the barren world we found above the trees struck me as unusual.  I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it was that was odd.  It may have been that the climb from Lower Crabtree to Forester Pass took us over a high plain, which was unlike the peaks and passes we’d seen before.  Walking there, I felt as though I was back in the desert:  The sun beat down on me, vegetation consisted of a few clumps of green things, and the air felt hot.  Granite peaks towered above me, and I felt so little, so insignificant in the vast emptiness.

But then, I climbed over a rise and was nearly as awe-struck and confused as Pi must have been when he spotted that flowing island.  In the middle of this desert-like expanse was a grassy meadow, and in the middle of the grassy meadow was an alpine lake.

If someone were to tell me that I imagined the whole scene, I would believe her.  The still waters of that lake, the soft and lumpy meadow surrounding it, the marmot running through the grass — it all felt surreal.

I hesitated for a moment, disbelieving, before I hurried over to the water’s edge.  I took off my pack, slipped out of my socks and shoes, pulled off my shirt, and waded into the crystal clear waters.

How is this my life?

It was with a heart so full of this Sierra beauty that I approached Forester Pass.  Pine Nut and I snacked near one of many alpine lakes at its base and then began our ascent.  Forester Pass is a behemoth, and it would, no doubt, be particularly formidable in a high snow year.  However, after climbing Whitney, Forester felt almost easy.  My altitude sickness remained manageable, the switchbacks were gradual, and the footing was good.  At least in my memory, it didn’t take long to make it to the top.

The north face of Forester had a bit more snow, but there wasn’t much post-holing as Pine Nut and I descended.  Seeing the trees and grasses below us, my heart felt happy, and we laughed and chatted until we were roughly a mile from the summit.  At that point, I realized that I wasn’t wearing my sunglasses, which I’d taken off while taking a photo.

I’d left them on the top of the pass.

Now, my sunglasses aren’t anything special.  I got them for tree planting crew from Wal-Mart a few years ago for $5.00.  The trail has taken its toll on them, and the temples of the glasses are held on with little safety pins.  But, I wasn’t about to “leave a trace” by letting them stay atop the ridge.

That’s why, at 5:30 in the afternoon, I set off up Forester Pass once more.  I left my pack with Pine Nut, who (in spectacular friend fashion) decided to wait for me before hiking to camp, and climbed with just my trekking poles.

Twenty-five minutes later, near the top of the pass, I met Whatever, a young hiker and friend of ours.  He called up to two JMTers at the top of the pass, inquiring about my sunglasses:  They were, indeed, still up there.  As the shadows darkened the north face of the pass, I hurried onward; as I did, a generous JMTer began hiking back down the pass.  He met me a few hundred feet below the ridgeline and handed off the dilapidated sunglasses.

After thanking the JMTer, I put the sunglasses on my head and took off down the trail.  Feeling strong and weightless without my pack, I ran.  I scurried over the snow, jumped over rocks, and zigzagged down the switchbacks, enjoying every moment.

Twelve minutes later, I reached Pine Nut, exhilarated and elated and high on life.  Then, I grabbed a pack of crackers to snack on while walking and shouldered my pack, and we headed down into the shadow of Forester to make camp.