Another morning with blue sky, and another late start. I walked along the Palisade Lakes (10.800 ft) to the Golden Staircase – a steep series of switchbacks going down to 9.300 ft. It wasn’t golden at all as it was morning, and no afternoon sun coloured the Palisade Creek’s cascades. I was on the easier end, walking down, but the hikers who came up from the valley did not look happy, and asked me how far it still was. Temperature was quite high, too hot for a comfortable uphill hike.
12:30 am I was at its bottom and entered Deer Meadow, westward along Palisade Creek. An hour later I crossed a sequence of tributaries, among them Glacier Creek. A short stretch with dead trees showed the impact of a past wildfire. The trail went down more and more, until it led into the Le Conte Canyon at 7.800 ft where it bends to north and follows the canyon and the Middle Fork Kings River.
It was a bit after 6:30 pm when I stopped at a campsite with several tents close to the ranger station (8.700 ft). This place is well known for a deer who is not shy at all and visits and inspects the campsite often. It seems to search for salt as I was warned that it may chew and destroy the straps of trekking poles during the night. OK, no problem for me; my poles are part of my tent setup, and so protected inside.
And in fact, the deer came along in the evening, and again next morning.
After a dinner I did my evening routine which includes recharging first the Garmin inReach, then the smartphone out of the power bank, which in turn had been charged from the solar panel on the backpack during the day; during this time I read and wrote SMS via inReach, made at least a short report for those who follow my progress, and had a look on Guthook JMT and in the National Geographic Paper Map for the trail tomorrow.
In the morning it was unusually cold. Both on the tent and on the bear can was some ice, and the shoelaces of my trailrunners, which I had left outside, were frozen to the eyelets. But when the sun came out the air got warm quickly.
It was again around 9 am until I finally went off the camp site. Blue sky with no clouds, and quite easy walking though 1.800 ft uphill. The south side of the pass was again nearly free of snow on the trail.
Around 1 pm I was on top of the pass. This time I could have my lunch there, and continued after some rest.
Soon after the pass there was a slanted snow patch at about 35°, maybe 100-150 ft long. I saw a backpack lying on the rocks on my side.
I soon found out why: a couple was crossing this snow patch on their way southbound, and the dude had first carried over his own pack, left it on the south side and returned to carry the pack of his girl friend on the second tour. They both had neither traction aids nor trekking poles. In the above photo the terrain looks nearly flat but it was not, you have to lean your head to the right for a more precise picture. I felt quite uneasy for them, and one could see that the girl was happy when she reached the safety of the rocks.
I crossed the patch after them without my crampons, but carefully put the downhill trekking pole aside of my downhill foot as an extra safety measure. The boot track was good, the snow was slushy but still solid enough, so it worked well and safe.
Here you can see this same patch from below.
It seems to be somewhere here where less than 3 weeks later, in the morning of August 26 another hiker, Wayne Pferdehirt, slipped and slided down on the icy surface. He hit one of the rocks below with his head and died immediately.
I continued down on the north side until I hit the Palisade Lakes around 4:30 pm. There I set up my tent at 10.800 ft on a granite block, washed some clothes in the nearby creek and used the sunlight to fully recharge my power bank and camera batteries. 3 passes done, one still left: Muir Pass, which is something like the halfway point of the JMT.
Another late start around 9 am. I needed quite some time for the morning routine, and often the sun reaches the tent site in a valley only at 8 am.
The pass is 4.5 miles away, with 2.300 ft elevation to go. I passed the Sawmill Pass trail and continued uphill for 3 hours. Around 11 am it started to rain so I stopped and fetched my rain jacket. When I had put it on the rain ceased again. So back to T shirt. And though the sky stayed dark and cloudy there was no more rain. In fact, these were the last rain drops during the whole hike!
There was only few snow left on the trail on both sides of the pass, and no danger at all. The pass itself at 12.050 ft is not sensational, but has a decent views to both sides. Dark clouds everywhere, and we also heard thunder from a distance.
So I did not make a long lunch break but walked down after a few minutes. On the next miles I passed several, mostly unnamed lakes.
From Pinchot Pass to Mather Pass it is just 10 miles. But you must walk down from 12.050 ft to the South Fork Kings River valley at 10.000 ft and then up again to 12.100 ft.
After two fords with quite some water I ended around 6:30 pm at just 10.300 ft. I left my backpack at the planned tent site, and walked a bit down to the river to fill up my water bottles. When I turned around from the river I saw the back of a black bear (of brown colour) disappearing between the bushes maybe 50 ft away. He did not care much about me, and vice versa. I was lucky that he had not tried to undergo my lonely backpack a closer examination.
I set up the tent and prepared the dinner. Half an hour later a deer passed by very closely.
Since some nights my inflatable matress, a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite, seemed to slowly loose air and flattened overnight. But the leak was so small that I would never be able to locate and then repair it. I suspected the valve and had tried to seal it with duct tape, but with no success. So I used my inReach to ask a friend order a new matress for me from REI and let them ship it to VVR. This means that I will have to deal with the flattening matress for another week – no fun.
Next day, next pass. OK, only approach to Pinchot Pass, because the pass itself was 14 miles away, so I would have to walk >15 miles to cross it. Too far for me.
I started a bit before 9 am, with beautiful weather, along the east shore of Rae Lakes. A mile later I passed Arrowhead Lake. At around 10.000 ft elevation in the high valley a marmot was close to the trail, enjoying the sun, too.
After the Baxter Pass Trail junction the JMT went downhill into the Woods Creek valley (8500 ft). Another 4 miles, and I reached the well known Suspension Bridge past noon.
I had my lunch there, and the sky started to get more and more cloudy, with even some drops of rain. But I continued without my rain jacket as the trail now went uphill again; so some water cooling was welcome; it was warm due to the lower elevation.
But an hour later the rain got heavier, followed by hail. I walked together with a hiker group from France, and we finally sought shelter under trees, and stayed there for half an hour, until most of the shower had ended.
I continued until a camp site before the Sawmill Pass Trail junction, at around 9800 ft, and 4.5 miles from Pinchot Pass. I would have liked to come a bit closer to the pass. So more miles left for tomorrow.
When I set up camp and the waxing moon appeared over the horizon, the sky was blue again!
I slept well and long. When I woke up I heard someone whistling the German national anthem. It was a German southbound hiker from around Berlin who has seen the flag on my tent; we talked for 20 minutes until he continued to Forester Pass. I had a late breakfast and then packed up for the day.
Every day another pass – this would be the motto for a faster hiker now. There are 4 passes, each around 12.000 ft, in a sequence: Glen Pass, Pinchot Pass, Mather Pass and Muir Pass. For me this was not 4 but 6 days.
Today Glen Pass (11.900 ft) was just 2 miles and 1.400 ft away from my current tent site. But with my late start after 9:30 am I reached it only a tad after noon. I still felt the day before, and walked slow and with many breaks.
There was not much snow left, only one field directly after the pass on the north side, and some short patches here and there. Quite easy compared to Forester Pass.
In the afternoon, 3 miles after the pass I approached Rae Lakes. I decided to set up camp a bit earlier today and use the lake to wash myself and my clothes. So this was the shortest stretch of my hike.
The Garmin InReach I had found 2 days before on the north side of Forester Pass now had been recharged, so I coupled it to my smartphone app and accessed the stored messages. It seemed it had been lost just a few days before I passed by, and I selected a mail address and sent a message that I had found the InReach. It was the father of the owner who was happy to hear about. I proposed to sent it out from VVR in about a week, and got the address. It’s a bit sad that I never got a response from the owner, and e-mails sent later to the father remained unanswered.
Today I wanted to refill my bear can down in Onion valley. So I left my tent and most other stuff at the trail junction, and started not too late – 8:45 am – off the JMT along the Bullfrog Lake trail with a lightweight backpack. This trail joins the Kearsarge Pass trail after about 2 miles. I met a mule train – well, it consisted only of the leading mule and one cargo mule, to supply some hikers who did not want to go down themselves.
After 2.4 miles and 1300 ft elevation gain I reached the Kearsarge Pass at 11.760 ft.
On my way down into the valley I heard someone speak Swedish. And in fact it was a couple from Stockholm, Sandra and Carl, who walked the same trail. We found out that they had a plan and schedule very similar to mine: they had started 2 days later than me but skipped Mt. Whitney, and wanted to be at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley also 2 days after me. We continued together – they walked a bit faster but had more breaks – down to Onion valley. The next two weeks I met them often along the trail, until a farewell lunch at Tuolumne Meadows.
It got hotter and hotter walking down. I was happy to have enough water with me. Soon one had a first view into Owens Valley, and later even saw the road up to the Onion valley campsite, where I had stayed for one night a week ago. We were happy when we approached the parking lot.
At the parking lot I first had to search for the right bear locker – in which one had I put my bucket? – but finally could successfully retrieve my treasures. I filled the bear can and put aside some more food for tonight. I restarted around 2 pm. Now the hard part began, with all the food in the pack, and uphill.
Close to the pass I met a landscape photographer with his tripod and camera set up for a shot on the Pothole Lake. He told me he was now up here the 5th time, trying to catch the right mixture of dramatic light and clouds, but until now he had not hit the right moment. I fear he may have to make this tour up and down the pass some more times until he can meet his ambition. For me the light was good enough for a shot.
I arrived on top of the pass around 6 pm after an elevation gain of 2.700 ft. But then another 2.4 miles and 1.300 ft descent waited for me.
After a tough day of over 11 h I arrived back at my tent when it got really dark, around 8:15 pm. A late dinner, set up the camera for another milkyway timelapse, and then I slept well and long.
Forester Pass is the second highest point on trail, after Mt. Whitney. But my plan for today was not only to cross the pass before noon, but I should then continue the JMT until the junction to Kearsarge Pass / Onion Valley. So I should not leave too late.
It was 7:45 h until the morning routine was finished, everything packed, and I continued the ramp up to the pass. The next 4 miles were a nearly continuous ascent; the terrain changed more and more to barren alpine, and the snow patches got larger. But the trail stayed nearly free of snow. When the pass became visible in the mountain range I could overview the Diamond Mesa with its partly icy lakes behind me.
Yes, this is the pass. From a distance the climb looks like serious mountaineering, but on a closer look the switchback structure on the right side can be recognized.
There were quite a lot of hikers heading up and coming down these switchbacks which were free of snow. Even the notorious “chute” had melted down so far that the trail was just exposed. Apart from the height and thin air it was an easy hike, but I may not have liked it under more adverse conditions. Finally I reached the top at 11:30 am.
After a break on the pass and some talk with the other hikers I continued down. Soon the trail disappeared to the right under a snow field but a boot track continued straight. I used my crampons – the first and only time on the trail – while some people in front of me had no aids. This boot track seemed to run on a shoulder for quite a distance, on snow interrupted by some rock climbing here and there. I was not happy about this path – you cannot walk well with crampons over boulders. So I looked for an alternative.
I found the original trail with the help of Guthook JMT and could spot it free of snow just one or two switchbacks down from where I was. So I left the group and carefully went down a snowy 30° slope with the help of my crampons and hiking poles. After a short rocky section I was back on the original trail. And I could walk there much better and faster than along the boot track, just had to pass 2 or 3 short snow patches of a few meter length on flat terrain.
And, look! – there I saw something orange in the snow and collected it -I had found a Garmin InReach! Someone obviously had lost it there. I put it into my pack and continued. But then the trail was going up again and disappeared in a huge snow cornice! I was lucky: the right end of this small ridge was free of snow, and I could easily climb up there and shorten the switchback. Now I was really back on a good part of the trail, and much ahead of the group I had left after the pass.
Some more short snow fields followed which I passed without crampons using the well established tracks.
With lower elevation more and more vegetation appeared, also a lot of water from the melting snow; later I saw a deer close to the trail. From 13.200 ft down to 9.500 ft (Vidette Meadow) it was a lot of downhill walk. At 5:30 pm I crossed Bubbs Creek.
I had to continue and hike uphill again after Vidette Meadow, another mile and 1000 ft elevation, to reach a good starting point for tomorrow. I found it at the Bullfrog Lake Trail junction. While the Bullfrog Lake itself is a no-camping area, there are 2 or 3 tent sites close to the trail directly at the junction. There I set up my tent after a long day. Tomorrow I will make a round trip down to Onion valley, to replace the diminishing food supply in my bear can.
The next challenge on my way to the north was Forester Pass. From Guitar Lake it was a bit too far for me to reach it in one day; my intention was to come as close as possible, for a crossing the next day before noon.
I started around 8:30 pm on the well known trail to Crabtree Meadow through rocks and wildflowers.
There I used the privy once more, and then followed 0.8 miles further west until the JMT meets the PCT and bends to north. Through Sandy Meadow the trail goes up and down a bit until it descends to Wallace Creek (10.400 ft).
After an easy ford I walked uphill again to the Bighorn Plateau (11.400 ft). The second ford, Tyndall Creek (10.900 ft), followed 4.5 miles later. Again no high water though it was already mid-afternoon. I even took photos while crossing.
Now I was at the final ramp up to Forester Pass. I walked up a short stretch until 11.400 ft and set up my tent there. So the uphill tomorrow morning will be no more than 2000 ft.
Many hikers try to summit Mt Whitney before sunrise and do so starting at 2 am or earlier. When I left at 4:30 am, after a cold breakfast, I could already see their headlamps along the trail like fireflies.
I started with two other hikers, and we helped each other to find the trail in the dark when its course was a bit doubtful. The trail sometimes became a little creek. But the higher we went, the less water, and soon the new day began to dawn.
After 3 hours I reached the JMT / Whitney Portal Trail junction close to Trail Crest (13.700 ft) where those who will exit the Sierra today via Whitney Portal leave their heavy packs during the summit hike. I carried only a light pack with me all the way since Guitar Lake where I had left my tent and most of my stuff.
In a long row we continued the path to Mt Whitney. Only 800 ft of elevation gain remained, but the thin air made each step uphill a strenuous one. After another 2 miles and a final snow field to cross we finally reached the summit (14.494 ft) before 10 am.
Everyone made photos, signed the summit register and enjoyed have reached the highest point in the 48 states.
After a short hour I started my way down, with nice panoramic views again.
Back at the trail junction I had a short break and watched a marmot which inspected the backpacks without any shyness. You should not leave any food in your pack if you do not want to see it chewed!
Quite tired I arrived at the lakes, and stayed another night at my tentsite before leaving the next morning. Now my JMT has really started, on the summit of Mt Whitney.
The next morning I had a late start around 10 am but I was not in a hurry: my destination today was Guitar Lake, the Mt Whitney “base camp”, just 8 miles away, and through decent terrain.
I fully went up to Guyot Pass (10.900 ft) and then followed the PCT further through a wonderful landscape until the Crabtree Meadow Trail leading to the ranger station.
There is a large campsite which was nearly empty because of the high snow reaching into July, and thus few southbound hikers at the end of their thru-hike. And it has a privy!
Crabtree Meadow (10.600 ft) is also the boarder to the Mt Whitney area so a friendly ranger checked my permit. The hike from there until Guitar Lake (11.500 ft) passes the Timberline Lake while the landscape gets more alpine again.
When I arrived at the lake I was not alone – more than 10 tents already set up at various sites, but I easily found a place for myself. After a Mountain House dinner I tried to sleep for an early start tomorrow.
The second morning, after the routine including breakfast and tent takedown, I started at 7:30 am. Around 9 am I was close to the pass.
I weighted my opportunities to climb up to the top while waiting for my hiker friends from yesterday who had started a bit later. In such a situation it is better not to be solo.
I had heard from oncoming hikers that they had scrambled over rocks and/or snow on the right side. I prefered the center; there was a gap between the right of the two big rocks and the deeply frozen snow which could be reached without dangerous moves and then used to climb up like in a chimney, about 2…3 m high. One of the other hikers joined and helped me while the second prefered the right side. We all made it to the top.
Now the trail got easier, I hiked west on the Army Pass Trail to the PCT which I met before the Rock Creek ranger station. I followed the PCT further west.
I passed the campsite at the creek crossing (9.500 ft) down in a wood with many mosquitos and then bent to the North and went up to Guyot Creek (10.350 ft). There was a nice flat area a few 100 yards before the creek where I set up my tent after a total of 10 miles today.
After my first night staying on the Horseshoe Meadow campground (10.000 ft) I started around 9 am on the Cottonwood Lake Trail to the New Army Pass (12.300 ft). My plan was to cross the pass in the afternoon and hike until Soldier Lake. But I had heard of a huge snow cornice on top of the pass so that I was in doubt if I can make it.
It was a good trail and quite flat in the begin, not too difficult with the heavy pack. The landscape became scenic in its combination of granite mountains, lakes, meadows and primeval forest. So scenic that I missed a little marker to New Army Pass, and thus could enjoy the beauty of some more lakes, at the expense of two or three extra miles (see map above).
Back on the right trail the terrain soon started to become more alpine, and one could see the ridge where the pass is located – but which is it?
I found out later that this is the pass – it does not look very passable…
I continued the trail and was caught up by two other hikers. Together we decided it was too late to try the pass today, and looked for tent sites around the High Lake (11.500 ft), about 1.5 miles from the pass, at 5 pm.
I found mine on a granite block, protected from the winds but with a spectacular view to the east, so could expect an early sunrise. It is a bit more work to set up the tent on rock but you are rewarded by its heat storage capacity which makes the early morning a bit warmer.
Time for food and sleep. I felt my legs and had some muscle cramps but then got just tired and slept well.
On Sunday after a breakfast I started from LA via Hwy 14 and 395 into the Owens Valley east of the Sierra Nevada. This was a few hours of driving. The photo shows my Nissan Frontier pickup on a rest area looking into Palmdale. I did not like the high position of the windows and rear-view mirrors: in the LA traffic you easily overlook a low-rise car next to yours.
In the early afternoon I arrived at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center just south of Lone Pine. I talked to a ranger about the snow situation at the passes and got my reserved permit for Tuesday. I was told that the New Army Pass has a snow cornice on top but there is a way to cross it.
I continued to Independence and turned to the road up to the Onion Valley campsite at 9.000 ft. Obviously I was right there:
I put my orange resupply bucket in one of the bear boxes at the parking lot, in addition to those from other hikers waiting there for their owners.
Then I went to the campsite and set up my tent. After a backpacking dinner I went to sleep. Around 2 am an urgent business drove me out of the tent, and though I had not put on my glasses I could easily recognize that there was a bright starry sky. So I fetched the camera and tripod and started to make some long-time exposures.
The next morning I found that I had a new tent neighbour who had arrived late in the night. He was born in France but has lived most of his life in the US and since more than a decade in New York working for the UN. He had hiked exactly the trail I wanted to start tomorrow, from Cottonwood Lakes over New Army Pass, Forester Pass and Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley, and gave me more information about the snow situation. It seemed to be doable for me.
After my breakfast I gave him a ride down to Independence where he had a room reservation in the Independence Inn. Then I drove back to Lone Pine for a hiker gear shop because I seemed to have lost/forgotten my headlamp in LA. I bought a similar model there, and also more DEET spray. Later on trail I found the lost headlamp in the bottom of my pack, so now I had two.
Then I had to hurry: drive to Bishop, pack all unused stuff into the big cardboard box and ship it to LA, also ship the two remaining resupply buckets to VVR and Red’s Meadow. VVR wants to be shipped via UPS which office opened only at 12 am; after that I had to refill gas and return the car, and finally try to catch the bus back to Lone Pine at 1:15 pm. No time for lunch.
The timing was tough but I was lucky: just when I had parked the car the phone rang, and there was “Lone Pine Kurt” telling me he was just passing Bishop and could pick me up there, instead of meeting me in Lone Pine. Kurt Pauer is a retired commercial airline pilot who helps hikers with his small scale private shuttle service. He has German roots and had even been in Germany the year before. We had ample of topics to talk about, and so time was flying. On our way we stopped at the Mt Williamson Motel in Independence which has new owners, and at his home in Lone Pine. Then he drove me up to the Horseshoe Meadow campground (10.000 ft) where we arrived around 4 pm.
I set up the tent and used the last rays of the afternoon sun to recharge my devices.
This night was new moon so I set up the camera for a milkyway timelapse:
My journey started with the bus and train transfer to Frankfurt airport (FRA) on Friday, July 26th. I had plenty of time as I left home before 8 am and the flight departed after 2 pm, and thus could easily compensate a one-hour delay in the train system.
My luggage comprised my cabin bag, a separate photo bag, and a rugged army duffelbag weighting 22 kg which contained the backpack and most of the other gear plus some food. The total weight was above 30 kg, so I tried to minimize carrying. Checking in the baggage was a bit complicated because the normal check-in counter did not accept the duffelbag, and I was sent to a special counter for bulky luggage though the dimensions were within the regular limits. Advantage: there was nearly no queue, and I had my bag checked in after few minutes.
The flight was nonstop to LA with Lufthansa, departed and arrived on schedule. During the 10 h duration I stayed awake, eating, avoiding alcoholic beverages but accepting every tea I could get, talking with a group of French travelers sitting around me, watching a movie and reading in one of the JMT guides. I still was quite awake when we arrived after 4 pm PDT (1 am CEST). The immigration process went smooth after I had answered the first question – what I will do in the US – the officer told me about his own hiking experiences overseas. Noone wanted to see my customs declaration.
Outside the terminal, after some waiting, the shuttle bus to Enterprise arrived. It was close to 6 pm until I had finished the process there which seemed to be overly complicated because it was a one-way rental. My old grey driver license with a photo from 1978 was accepted with some concern.
So I had a car, a phone with a US SIM card, and a motel reservation. After a 30 mins drive I arrived there and got my room. Enough for today!
Saturday morning I started early as I had quite some tasks to complete:
Home Depot: buy three 5 gallon buckets with lid, duct tape and a big cardboard box
WalMart: buy food
Target: buy more food
Find an ATM to get some cash
REI: pick up the preordered bear can, and buy some more gear like gloves, a map of Mt Whitney zone, two gas canisters, and a good assortement of Mountain House menus
Though I was in a WalMart superstore the food selection was not impressive. A big supermarket in Germany has more variety. I could not buy special products like dried vegetables off the shelf but should have preordered them days before and then wait in a queue to pick up my items at a counter. There were only few cash desks open with inefficient operators – I waited nearly half an hour – customers should use self-scanning under the supervision of an employee. It was a bad customer service experience. I will not return.
Target was much better, I got some of the missing items like BabyBel cheese, two big cans of cashews and Swiss Miss cocoa. Also bought a set of lighters, and then felt I had all I would need for survival.
The ATM allowed me to withdraw a maximum of 120$, at a 6$ service charge. Luckily I still had some cash from my last stay so it was enough to pay for bus and shuttle service.
At REI my preorder 4 weeks earlier has gone wrong though I had got a confirmation from them that they keep my items until I pick them up. But I was lucky, they had BV500 bear cans on the shelf, and also gave me the special Independence Day sales price. Friendly people, smooth business.
When I returned to my hotel it was late afternoon. In the evening I tried to stuff the bear can with the food for the first stretch, and then prepared the three buckets for Onion Valley, Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) and Red’s Meadow. VVR to Red’s is only three days so there was much space left in the VVR bucket which I filled with a 1.5 l bottle of Californian red wine and 3 Pringle tubes. Lots of ziplock bags for couscous, milk powder (Nestlé Nido), granola mix, Skratch hydration powder had to be filled and partitioned. It got quite late until I had finished all but obviously my inner clock had already adapted well to the local time.