Le Conte Canyon ... next chapter

View of Big Pete Meadow in Le Conte Canyon

August 8, 2000
Grouse Meadow to Wanda Lake via Muir Pass
A little slice of Heaven ...

0545-0630 — Grouse Meadow (50°F; damp & chilly)

          We get an early start once again because I want to have plenty of time to climb Muir Pass. It is somewhat chilly and damp deep in the forest so we move quickly. We discover we are camped at the base of The Citadel (see above painting The Citadel); although, it was not visible through the trees from our camp. I shoot numerous pictures of the solid rock in various stages of sunrise illumination. None of the photos come out very well with this camera. Early morning and late afternoon is the best light for photos but you need a camera that can optimize the low light conditions. If I shoot prints ever again in the Sierra (normally I shoot slides), I will probably use 200 or 400 ASA film instead of the 100 I have for this trip. Faster speed film may have helped those deer shots I didn't get last night.

          As we move up the trail we smell a camp fire and what I'm convinced is bacon (is there such a thing as an olfactory mirage?). The AmeriCorp camp may be in the vicinity preparing for another day of dusty, dirty hard labor. We pass the packer with his stock. He is loading up the mules. I guess they all came back after their night "out on the town" clanging all about. We startle a doe with a yearling and two fawns in tow. They run off before I can snap a picture. One of the benefits of rising early and getting on the trail is that you have a higher incidence of fauna observation.

0730 — Bishop Pass Trail Junction 37°05.643 / 118°335.544 - 8.7K'

          Another benefit of rising early is you pass people who are still camped and not on the trail so you have the trail more to yourself. We pass numerous people camped near this junction. We are in a popular, populated area now. Soon the lines will form. We try to get some distance further up the trail toward Muir Pass before we stop for our first break. We have been on this stretch of JMT before.

0845-0900 — Big Pete Meadow 37°06.782 / 118°37.046 - 8.4K' (67°F/77°F)

          We stop above Big Pete Meadow for breakfast and sun screen. A couple chatty women out for a day hike who we have been trying to stay ahead of us pass by. I hope we don't get stuck behind them all day. Not content to enjoy the natural sounds and silence they are driving me nutty with their constant yapping. I bet they didn't shut up the whole way to the Pass.

1030-1100 — below Black Giant 37°06.840 / 118°38.198 - 10.3K' (93°F in sun)

          This is a beautiful approach to a beautiful Pass but my back begins to bother me regularly as each day gets long; so I am distracted. We take a break by the river below the east face of Black Giant, a grand mountain. I shoot a photo. Little do I know there is a better shot just up the trail with a view of the lake at it's base (see Chapter-Prep for painting Black Giant). I'm concerned about having enough film to get us to our resupply at Muir Ranch so I am stingy with my shots and choose not to take another photo (it won't be the only picture I didn't get on this trip).

          I do snap a photo of Kokee and Alex, two of Greg Hartland's llamas that a couple have rented to make their trip less strenuous. This couple had started at Sonora Pass. We didn't get the people's names just the llamas'. Irene has communicated with Greg about his llamas via email and he said they would be out here. Sure enough. They were passing by us so quietly we almost missed them.

          We stop briefly up the trail at that spot that had the better view of Black Giant and chat with a foursome from San Luis Obispo who we have leapfrogged with several times already this day. One time we were coming up on them and we heard an urgent "wait a minute." One of the gals emerged from the bushes right in front of us pulling up her pants then moved on up the path to rejoin the group. It is hard sometimes finding a little privacy out here. Anyway, they are on a shorter jaunt but very interested in our trip and they have lots of questions. I give each couple a card and encourage them to visit my web site and email me (still have not heard from you folks!).

          A short way further up the trail we come upon two ladies asking for duct tape. Seems one had a broken pack belt. She had coat hanger and plastic tape holding it together while she kept a tight grip on it. They are headed out Bishop Pass which is probably two days and sixteen or seventeen miles away. Fortunately, we carry some duct tape for emergencies. The ladies are thrilled. She doesn't use much of our little roll so I hope it worked. I give them a card as well and asked that they email us with how they managed the rest of their trip.

          We pass about thirty people on this segment of trail and still somehow manage to sight another cute little pika who has avoided being trampled. The Bishop Pass area is one of the most popular regions in the whole Sierra so the crowds are not unexpected.

1300-1330 — nameless lake 37°07.285 / 118°39.231 - 11.3K' (75°F)

          The climb is not that bad but my back is really killing me by this time of day. We break for food, foot rest, to pump water and to rest. We have only come about six and a quarter miles from camp. I'd like to either get over Muir Pass today or camp at a high lake. Right now though I just want to rest my back. (When we get home after the trip Irene discovers while cleaning my pack that the metal support that gives the pack shape somehow was upside down and backwards. No wonder my back hurt! The bloody lumbar support was between my shoulder blades. All along I thought the bear canister was the problem. It is now corrected for our next trip)

          On the trail again, Irene complains we are moving too fast through such a beautiful pass. I'm distracted trying to keep my back from spasming. The gorge below Helen Lake is quite spectacular and the shear size of Helen Lake filling the immense rock basin is impressive. We could camp here but there are no suitable sites; and besides that, it is still early in the day.

          We discuss the option of climbing Black Giant from the west side. Most people climb the mountain from the west; it appears to be relatively straightforward. We could camp at the large lake below it and climb the mountain first thing in the morning or we could try climbing today. While we are considering what we will do, the chatty dayhiking pair of women pass by on their way down having reached the pass. They patronizingly tell us we are almost there. I retort "we're thinking about climbing Black Giant first." They shut up for the first time today and move on.

1500-1630 — below Black Giant

          We leave the trail and head cross-country toward the lake below Black Giant. Halfway across the plateau we stop to prepare for the climb. I convert the top of my Dana into a butt bag which we stock with a few essentials. I estimate the climb is about 1.5 miles and 1200' from this point. I am weary but happy to get my pack off my back for a while. The going is slow, bouldering all the way to the lake. Once at the lake it is apparent we don't have enough time or energy to climb this mountain today. There is also an element of risk. Should something unexpected happen, we could jeopardize our whole trip. So is the extracurricular climb worth it? We decide not and promise to return another time on a specific mountain climbing trip.

          While we are up here we enjoy the view and I shoot a few pictures. We head back toward the rest of our gear stashed in the rocks. Now which rocks were those? I test Irene to see if she knows. Rocks have a tendency to look very much the same up here. I did GPS the location and also took note of landmarks so I know where we are and where we are going, in fact, from a half mile away I can actually see our bags in the rocks and beyond the path to the pass. I love the alpine region because it is so open. The most deceptive thing is scale. Up close Black Giant is more climb than we thought. And those little rocks are as big as houses. We beeline to our packs and regear for the trail. Then it is a short cross-country back to the path and up to the pass.

Muir Pass

Muir Pass with hut and full moon over Mt. Solomon

1700-1745 — Muir Pass 37°06.723 / 118°40.253 - 11,955'

          We have the Muir Hut and Pass all to ourselves at this time late in the day. I shoot a bunch of photos and we enjoy the expansive views on both sides of the pass. My GPS latitude data matches my map estimates exactly, but longitude is off by about an eighth of a minute probably because the Pass is so wide and hard to know where to take the reading. I take it at the hut.

          There are a couple camping pads so we could stay here for the night if we only had more water. We decide to head on down to Wanda Lake to camp. On our way down we pass herds of marmot foraging before dusk. Entertaining but not finding us a camp site. As we drop lower it becomes disturbingly apparent that around Lake McDermand and Wanda Lake the land is not a nice flat sandy area but rather covered with little rocks ... millions of little rocks ... everywhere. There are no open 6'x6' spots, not even one.

1830-2000 — Wanda Lake 37°07.302 / 118°41.324 - 11.5K' (78°F)

          Finally, we find a spot 12'x12' at the top of a rock outcrop between Wanda Lake and the path. It is an established camp site with a short rock wall on the southeast side. Later we discover the purpose of the wall.

          I pump water. With my chores complete, I monitor a fabulous sunset as Irene makes dinner. We enjoy a filling meal although food supplies are beginning to dwindle. The sun lights up the mountains and lakes with a golden glow. I shoot lots of photos even though the film is dwindling as well. We are approaching Evolution Lake and Evolution Valley which are by most accounts the high points of the JMT and I don't want to be out of film.

          The sunset lingers, the moon rises approaching full, wisps of clouds form and shred like golden cotton candy and finally the stars begin to bloom (see Chapter-Gear for painting Muir Pass). It is a magical moment in a magical place. Another big day that is gone in a flash. From dawn to dusk we have covered probably twelve miles of ground and visited a variety of completely different worlds. It is almost too rich. Now exhausted, muscles aching, sufficiently nourished finally able to lie down and be still, looking up at the heavens contemplating here and now, it is easy to know life is good and slip away into peaceful sleep.

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