It always seems impossible until it’s done. —Nelson Mandela
This is a continuing series about a mother-and-daughter thru-hike on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from July 19 to August 13, 2015. Other installments may be read here.
Day 5 / 10 miles: Lyell Canyon (elevation 8,900 feet) to Rush Creek Junction (elevation 9,670) via Donohue Pass (elevation 11,073 feet)
The first item of business everyday upon waking is to get the weather report, which means looking outside the tent at the sky. After three days of rain, including a couple of torrential downpours the likes of which we had never experienced before, we were hopeful for a cloudless sky.
But, then again, most every summer’s day in the Sierra begins with no clouds. Those mischievous balls of moisture usually build up later in the day, so during stormy periods getting an early start on outdoor activities is essential.
There were a few clouds hovering about to the west along the Cathedral Range and to the east hanging above the Kuna Crest. To the south, our direction of travel, the high peaks of Mount Lyell and Mount Maclure also had some levitating clouds. Clouds this early were a sign that we were probably going to once again get wet.
This initial assessment was the impetus for us to wriggle out of our sleeping bags at 5:30 a.m. and begin packing, even though it was barely beginning to get light. We had a 10-mile day planned, which included a 2,100-foot climb to the first major pass of the trip. We had about five miles of trekking to reach the pass, and we preferred to be up and over the ridge before the thunder and lightning began the afternoon matinee.
After packing, filtering water, and enjoying a hot morning drink and granola breakfast at the creek, we were on the trail at 8 a.m. The first couple of trail miles toward the head of Lyell Canyon are easy traveling. But soon we left that refreshingly flat and superbly scenic section of trail and began the climb to the pass.
The terrain changed from grasses to granite, lodgepole pines to stunted bushes. The scene was breathtaking as we headed straight toward the southern edge of the Cathedral Range, where Mount Lyell, at an elevation of 13,114 feet the highest point in Yosemite National Park, dominates the horizon. Looking back at Lyell Canyon far below also provides a marvelous vista. And a grand waterfall tumbling down a granite wall reminds us that this is indeed Yosemite.
Reaching Donohue Pass is accomplished via a series of benches. Leveling out on the first step, there is an excellent campsite alongside the water just beyond where the trail makes a sharp right turn and crosses the Lyell Fork of Tuolumne River. This was our first major water crossing, and I balked. At this time of year, it required some creative rock-hopping only, but the water was flowing fast and a misstep would certainly have meant an injury. Jennie made it across easily, talked me through from the opposite side of the creek, and even came back across partway and outstretched her hiking pole for an added measure of balance.
This newfound phobia of creek-crossings must be age-related. I used to bound across logs and rocks and don’t recall ever doubting that I could make it. Practice helps, and so does necessity, because I got better at the crossings as the trip progressed.
The trail steepens as it climbs out of this little canyon along the west slope. Then the trail descends slightly into the next hanging valley, maneuvers north, and crosses the snowmelt stream coming right off the Lyell and Maclure glaciers. We were at the very headwaters of the Tuolumne River, which we had been following for five days.
All this pristine water is bound for the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and, next stop, the faucets and toilets of San Francisco and dozens of other Bay Area cities. John Muir spent the last years of his life fighting to save this river from being dammed. The bill allowing the flooding of the scenic wonder that was Hetch Hetchy Valley was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on December 19, 1913. John Muir died December 24, 1914.
Here, in a pocket-sized meadow at the base of Mount Lyell, we were surrounded by massive granite cliffs and the dwindling glaciers. Black clouds and a few colossal thunderheads gave the landscape an ominous, wintry feel. Before continuing on, we left the trail to peer over the rim of this canyon to the lake, campsite, and creek-crossing now far below.
After the trail wanders in and around boulders and low ridges in this wide cirque, it begins the final assault on Donohue Pass. With about 500 feet of climbing to go, we were watching the sky closely as we headed toward the ridgeline. There was blue sky beyond, but directly over us and extending to the jagged peaks surrounding Mount Lyell, the clouds were beginning to look angry.
We tend to linger at passes, looking at where we have been and where we would be going. But it was cold and windy. The pass is a wide, open plateau that is identified by a sign, broken in half vertically and held together with string, announcing that we were entering the Ansel Adams Wilderness portion of Inyo National Forest. Farewell, Yosemite National Park!
We hurried off the pass and began our descent of the innumerable switchbacks on the north side of the ridge. The landscape changed dramatically with alpine meadows dotted with tarns and huge boulders strewn about where the glaciers had retreated and left them behind.
We left the Tuolumne drainage that had been our constant companion since embarking on this journey and entered the San Joaquin River drainage. This wilderness is named after Ansel Adams for a reason. It is a spectacularly photogenic region.
We had walked from the west side to the east side of the Sierra. Things were different here, we discovered. What we first noticed is that the clouds were no longer threatening. For the first day of five, we would not be walking in a rainstorm.
Here, the dominating mountains are the Minarets in the Ritter Range, made up of metamorphosed lava instead of granite. And Mammoth Mountain was in view.
We reached the bottom of the ridge, found a sunny spot overlooking several small tarns, and took a lingering lunch break. From there, we would descend a few more miles to our day’s destination of Rush Creek.
A California Conservation Corps contingent of trail workers received much gratitude from us as we passed by their current section of the summer’s projects. This was a busy section of trail; we had passed hordes of hikers: couples, senior citizens, women, and solo hikers, including a really young-looking guy (18 maybe?) that we would see again off and on over the weeks.
I recall this as being one of our hardest hiking days. Jennie had a strained muscle in her leg that bothered her greatly on the uphill stretches, so Donohue Pass was a test of her mettle. This injury was evidently caused by hoisting herself and her 35-pound pack up and over some giant granite steps during our two-day climb out of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.
We both had hipbones and collarbones that were sore and inflamed from the weight of our packs. Our quadriceps were still healing from Day One’s 10-mile downhill stretch. Basically, our bodies were desperately trying to convince us that hiking day in, day out, wasn’t a good idea.
My feet were hurting at day’s end as I had decided against wearing boots on this trip, opting for my old, comfortable trail-runners with a “zero drop” footbed (shoes with a level profile and no “drop” from the heel to the forefoot). I was wondering if I had made the right decision, but it would turn out that I did. In fact, Jennie and I were greatly rewarded for the time and thought put into footwear; we both had extremely happy feet at the end of the trip with never a blister, hot spot, blackened toenail, or callous to show for the 200-plus miles.
But, for now, at the end of this 10-mile day, we were the most tired we had been so far. The ascent to Donohue Pass probably had something to do with it, but we’d better toughen up as we had 10 or so more passes to go, and they become incrementally more difficult.
At this point, it was hard to put in the extra steps to find the optimal campsite, and there seemed to be slim pickings, so we grabbed an established site in a clearing by Rush Creek even though there were carpenter ants working the area and mosquitoes salivating at the scent of warm blood.
Our campsite was visible from the trail, and other backpackers were obviously as tired as we were. Four separate groups stopped to inquire about where to camp. Another trio seriously considered pitching a tent in the adjacent boggy meadow but thought better of it and moved along.
Despite our physical challenges, once we shrugged out of our packs, dunked in the icy creek, and rehydrated, we were rejuvenated. Even while experiencing some pain and discomfort, there was nowhere we’d rather be. We were becoming accustomed to our new life on the trail where our only responsibility each day was to walk.