Since my plane ticket home is on September 17, I have a fixed number of days to fill before the end. There is nothing to be gained by moving faster, other than perhaps a day in an airport motel in Fresno. As fun as that sounds, I’m aiming not to exit the wilderness until the 16th. Which means I can, nay must, go slower than I have been, slower than is my natural inclination. Consequently, I had a glimmer of thought this morning of sleeping in when my watch alarm beeped next to mywat 5:30 this morning.

But I did not. When I checked the forecast in Independence before leaving, today had the grimmest outlook: snow, rain, thunderstorms after 11. The odds would seem low anywhere else, only 40%, but since I’ve gotten some rain or stormy weather most days when the odds are sunny or 20%, I thought 40% seems unnervingly certain. Today was the day I had to cross the long ridge running west of Mt Clarence King, either at King Col or somewhere else, and I thought it best to try to do so before the weather turned. I was walking out of camp at 6:45, waving goodbye to the considerate bears who left me alone all night.

The climb up to King Col was oddly exhausting. Maybe not so odd–it was steep and several thousand feet, navigating a basin of somewhat complex topography and trying to make sure I was heading in the right direction. My plan was to try King Col first, and if it wouldn’t go, look at some alternates that maybe would allow to me access the same canyon at a different point. I wanted to be in that canyon eventually so I could follow it down to Woods Creek, and other ways of getting to Woods Creek sounded terrible. It’s a hard thing to climb forever to a pass that may turn you around, but when hikers aren’t prepared to practice turning around, trouble ensues. It’s like training in non attachment: even though it took hard hours and pain and suffering to get to this point, you may just have to give it up. Try not to throw good money after bad.

The benign approach to King Col, hiding just behind that dip in the ridge.

I had steeled myself to prepare to turn around for the last couple days. Honestly, I didn’t think King Col would be passable, and I had more or less been told so by several. When I finally arrived at the top and looked down, I saw what I expected to see: a thick snow field reaching from wall to wall in the narrow, steep chute. The chute was so steep that I couldn’t see down it all. I could only see the wide, white rim of the snow on top. However, I could also see that it would be possible to downclimb a rugged section of rock on the left and reach a small patch of bare dirt, and from there it might be possible to assess the condition of the rest of the Col. I stowed my poles in pack, not anxious, not fearful, just curious, and crawled down the rock right next to the wall of snow, putting my clawed hand into a few times for support. Once I hit the bare dirt and peeked around the corner, I could see a snow-free route down the chute along the left wall. It was a succulently sweet moment, to realize I wouldn’t have to detour around this pass, which would have been hard and time-consuming.

Snow blocking the top of King Col

But wait! What about that bare patch down there?

Hallelujah! It’s clear!

The descent is a little treacherous: extremely steep, and hardpacked dirt and loose rock. One must quickly dispense with notions of standing, because it is really too steep to walk down upright. Instead, I squatted and slid on my feet, using handholds on the wall and embedded rocks in the ground to slow my body down and keep from tumbling into the chute like a free-falling stone. But it never felt dangerous per se. Only that it required care and attention. Ultimately, during this slow and careful passage, I found myself more concerned for my clothes than for my body, because the ground was rough and abrasive and I didn’t want to tear a big hole in the seat of my pants. Before long, I was off this steep slide of dirt and rock and hopping on unstable talus blocks headed for the lakes below. I felt very uplifted to have made it through this pass, what I’ve been thinking of as one of the last hard obstacles of the trip (but fear not: there will be more challenges).

Happy to be making it over and down King Col

King Col from the lakes below

It was around 11:15, and I stopped for a luxurious lunch break at the lake below the pass. My plan was only to make the descent to Woods Creek, some 2500 feet below down steep granite slabs, and camp, but it was early in the day and, though it never rained or snowed or stormed, it’s been pretty chilly, the air beginning to carry the bite of fall. Getting to camp early sounded cold, all that sitting around. So once I made it to the bottom of the descent, knees and ankles aching from its relentlessness, I forded Woods Creek (knee deep, somewhat swift) and then followed trails for a few miles to my next cross country rendezvous: following the White Fork creek up and over White Fork Pass. It was a fair bit of climbing over a few miles on these well-made trails from the ford at Woods Creek to where White Fork Creek crossed the trail, and I made my steps slowly. I turned away from the trail there and, still slowly, followed the White Fork upwards, back into the realm of pathlessness, through talus and open meadows until I reached a Lodgepole stand. I was able to make camp in a little sheltered area of trees around 5p. The entire climb up to White Fork Pass is near 4000 feet and I happily (slowly) made about half of it today before stopping.

The view of the lakes below King Col

Trees in a granite sea on the descent to Woods Creek

The weather held today after all,to my surprise, and I’m a few miles ahead of my slow itinerary. Maybe tomorrow I’ll sleep in a little.

Camp in a grove of pines

Day 32: to see for oneself

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