You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate. – Elizabeth Gilbert
I wake up in my rocky wonderland, the sky lightening gently with just a touch of breeze. Such a heavenly place to lay my head. It felt like maybe I stopped early last night, but then I had time to eat slowly by this magical lake, so small, it has no name. Perhaps this – Perfect Sierra Pool. Works for you? My little tent site is surrounded by blocky granite in stair steps and views of magnificent mountains now turning pinky-orange.
I feel much better this morning. No dew or frost on the alicoop and I slept deeply. It’s a lesson to try to simply live through feeling down, knowing eventually I’ll feel myself again. I linger over chococoffee and a pop tart – I know, I know, I can never eat like this again, but this is how it is right now – then pack up Olive Oyl for a big day of big climbs. I do not remember the JMT having climbs this steep or relentless. This section of Yosemite is turning out to be the hardest of the PCT, at least so far.
My little spot is hidden away and when I rejoin the trail, I see Mosey camped here as well as someone still sleeping in their tent. I never heard a peep, just as I like it. I imagine they do as well. Mosey catches up on the steep, rocky descent. She wears sandals and does not use sticks. I can’t imagine how she stays upright! She’s a beast out here, but most people pass me going down as I really take my time so as not to slip. Huge towers circle this valley of polished granite. I’m happy to see hikers even though I’m alone about 90% of the time, or more. I have a GPS with an SOS, but somehow seeing others out makes me feel safer and secure knowing this trail can be done.
Donuts is camped near the bottom and waves. Again, there’s a river running through that I cross before taking off my warm clothes, putting on hat and sunglasses and preparing to climb over Benson Pass, about 3,000 feet in seven miles. And, as we all know, there’s only one way to get over this monster – one step at a time.
The trail so far in the Sierra is totally different from the Northern Cascades. In Washington, it was switchbacks, usually long and even, slowly jacking me up bit by bit. The Sierra is so full of rock, it’s an engineering marvel that a trail is even possible. I’ve mentioned stone stairs, stone bricks and stone walkways before, but there are also stone balconies blasted into the mountain. Sure, a path can be made in forest, but it’s so steep, the trail creators needed to add stones to keep it from washing away. When I looked over from the top at this side of the valley, I couldn’t imagine where I’d walk or how I’d get up this huge wall.
But here I am, breathing hard and rhythmically and pushing up, step by step. I tend to do it all in one go. I take photos and write notes, but I try to find the perfect speed to keep heading up. And it’s absolutely magnificent in here. I start by climbing up a face, but then I’m in a tight canyon, the granite seems to grow around me, twisting as I zigzag up over small boulders and around huge monoliths broken and dragged by glaciers.
I come to shelves that are flat, crossing a stream and passing a meadow of green and yellow. Then it’s up again before I reach a junction that sends me way down, over and finally up a rocky section that leads me to a bowl and stunning Lake Smedberg, a lake of many islands. I pass it for now wondering if I’d ever climb all of this again to come back here. I walk onto a meadow of dry grass, a creek meandering through and look ahead at a rock face I will climb. The trail cuts up and around rock outcropping, then takes me into forest, up and up.
Just when I see blue sky and feel the end is near, I pop out onto another flat area – not so much a meadow as maybe a dried lake filled now with low, clinging plants dressed in red this first day of fall. I cross to the end where another face greets me and it’s one last push up through a narrow opening, evidence of water here at one point, straight up to a crest, and finally, a new valley.
Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony plays along as I crunch down on a dry path. I think I see where I go up next, not bothering to look at my map. I stop at the first water source, a perfect little waterfall. It’s nearly noon, taking me half the day to get over the pass, but I’m elated as it was so beautiful even if such hard work. I filter water and eat lunch, getting chilly in the shade. The sun is deliciously warm this time of year and I’m hoping I’m given more days like today for the mountains ahead.
I don’t go up and over as I had hoped, but rather down first, following a crystal clear stream as it splashes against rocks. I sidle the mountainside walking on clingy granite with extraordinary views before plunging all the way to the bottom, the creek here slower snd wider through meadows. It’s flat for sometime, so I go into high gear until I reach a junction and my turn (again!) to go straight up the mountain.
It always seems like I see blue sky and I’m approaching the end, only for the trail to zig back and take me up a few more zags. I get lost in breathing and never letting myself get out of breath. I’m definitely doing better than yesterday, still sounding like a locomotive, but not getting that high altitude spaciness.
I reach the top without a valley opening this time. It’s woods before sparkly Miller Lake, then more up before a long series of switchbacks, all on dirt for a change. Down and down I go, feeling a bit shattered I lose all that height in an instant. At the bottom I fill up from a gorgeous stream and follow it down, the water stairstepping waterfalls on granite, the dry part where I stand, scalloped and smoothed by spring melt.
I cross a feeder stream before heading up yet again. It’s shorter and less steep taking me to a narrow ridge all in trees. Yet next to me is a magical meadow, dancing firs, green grass and pools of water where a few hardy butterflies flutter. I’m headed to a spot to camp just before I head down to the falls. A hiker comes towards me and I ask if he’s seen more pools where I can collect water. He says he hadn’t noticed but wasn’t really looking, then offers me a liter of his water. Ron tells me he’s walking home because in Truckee, he’ll have finished the PCT. I promise I’ll pay forward the water and I move on, walking on deeply eroded trail through dried meadows this time, spying pools but happy that now I won’t need to filter. More granite appears as the ridge widens, an erratic like a giant paperweight on a shelf.
I round a bend and see the magnificent Cathedral Range in the distance with its fanciful spires and towers. I find a place to set the alicoop as the sun turns it pink. I’m starved and eat two dinners, knowing I’ll have a burger in Tuolumne tomorrow. I can hardly wait to be back on the JMT – the John Muir Trail I hiked in 2012 – and have the chance to visit one of my most favorite places in the world. I smile thinking of how lucky I am to be here right now.