In my mind, this current high route I’m on (Kings Canyon High Basin Route) can be divided into three distinct sections: the first part navigates a series of high divides between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks; the second part plows north through a series of high lake basins separated by low rivers; and the third part is the turn southward that will eventually end up at Roads End. Today I finished the second part of the route when I dropped down to Palisade Creek and crossed it to pick up the John Muir Trail. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Sunrise in Lake Basin
Because first, I woke up. The nights are getting so long now. It gets dark at 7:30 and doesn’t become day again until 6am. What that means is a lot of sleep, a good ten hours or so every night. Even then, it can be hard to rouse myself, but I didn’t sleep in this morning. The dawn calls me, sucks me from sleep and into the world of the stirring.
I had a nice jaunt from camp at one of the higher lakes in Lake Basin over to Dumbell Pass, an invigorating yet considerate climb of some 1200 feet on tundra, some talus, and gravel. At the top, I met a patch of snow that was startling slick. When I first started 35 days ago, the morning snow was always very hard, but not sporting a coat of ice on top as though it had been zambonied. A few weeks later, it often wouldn’t even be hard in the morning because temperatures wouldn’t quite get cold enough overnight. Now, these snow patches seems to be melting enough during the day and then freezing overnight to make snow fields become ice sheets. I was startled by how slippery it was, and glad for the first time since Mt Whitney to break out my good old microspikes. They bit right into the icy snow and allowed me to descend what turned out to be a fairly substantial snow patch on the north side of the pass. It was quite steep in places, so even with my microspikes I proceeded with care, but before long I was off the snow and leaping through talus like a gazelle down to the lake
below. (Ok, not like a gazelle.)
Looking over the icy snow on Dumbell Pass
Snow on Dumbbell Pass
Gazelle-ing down talus
From the lake, a quick contour and another, shorter climb took me up to Amphitheater Pass. Along the way I casually stepped on a small chute of snow to cross it, forgetting the iciness, and immoderately sprawled out, limbs akimbo, just barely managing to avoid sliding down and away even though it wasn’t that steep.
Carnage from a slip on the ice. Don’t worry, it’s only watermelon snow exposed by my thrashing about.
At Amphitheater Pass, again I was greeted by a generous-sized snow field clogging up the descent chute. It was too steep to descend, so I scrambled around the north side of the pass down loose rock and sand, crossed beneath one snow patch and then hopped talus down beside another. It’s nice that there are still places of troublesome snow out here, a testament I suppose to the vigorous winter. Though I thought about sending my ice axe and microspikes home in Independence, I am glad I’ve kept them both, even though I’ve hardly used them in the last ten days or so. Well, I’ve used the axe once a day. It digs a mean cat hole.
Snow blocking the top of Amphitheater Pass
Amphitheater Pass from partway down the descent. I scrambled down rocks out of view on the right.
Amphitheater Pass is the triangle of snow in the middle of the ridge line.
After the snowy pass, I scrambled down a maze of ledges to Amphitheater Lake, and then began the long descent along Cataract Creek which would take me to Palisade Creek. There is something labyrinthine about the ledges-and-slabs kind of terrain because it can be hard to see how one ramp connects to another from above. Rarely does one have to turn around, but at one point I found myself on a little ledge that was hard to back up from, and only a few feet off the ground, so I jumped. One should never jump, and here is why. I sprained my left ankle, only a little bit but a little bit is a lot out here on all this unstable terrain. It bothered me the rest of the day.
As happens sometimes out here, there was an old trail, long ago abandoned, that once climbed into the Amphitheater Basin, and once I found it I was able to follow it for a while. Or I would lose it and then find it again and then lose it again. This descent was fairly brushy and the trail was helpful, though at the same time the brush tended to be thickest where the faint tread disappeared. Towards the bottom of the descent, five hundred vertical feet above Palisades Creek, I lost it all together and delicately picked my way down the hillside between manzanita and a burned stand of timber. At the bottom, I crossed Palisade Creek where it forked into multiple smaller streams. By crossing on a series of logjams, I didn’t even have to get my feet wet.
Small spray in Cataract Creek
The morning started dry and sunny, but just as I was packing up from lunch in the middle of the descent I noticed the clouds blowing over the ridge from the southeast, dark and serious. I waterproofed my bag, pulled out my rain gear, and just then the rain began, with it a series of thunderstorms that lasted all afternoon and evening (as I sit here typing, a rather spectacular event is taking place above me right now, flashes lighting up the sky and instant thunder booming across the mountainsides, rain pummeling at the tent).
Once I found the John Muir Trail where it runs parallel to the creek, I followed it east for a few miles, then north for a few more, before making camp deep in LeConte Canyon at the junction with the Bishop Pass Trail. I’ve been here before, some 20 days ago. In fact, tomorrow morning I’ll hike again the section of the JMT that I followed down from Muir Pass, when it was ravaged by snow and I encountered that family who was struggling mightily. This time I’ll be going up instead of down, and I expect there will be less snow. Also today, as I was descending Cataract Creek, I looked across the canyon and could see Potluck Pass and Palisades Basin, from many days ago, where I camped before climbing Mt Sill. I’m getting a chance for a little retrospective in these last days as this last route curves back north through, or near, places I’ve traveled before.
I am still trying to make sure that I finish in four and a partial days from now, and that’s a little bit harder than you’d think. Between bad weather and logistics of campsites and long ascents, I keep ending my day on schedule to finish in three and a partial day. At the end of the trip, I may just need to hike a half day and then lay around and look at the clouds all afternoon. The ones that will probably be raining on me.
Rain clouds over Palisade Creek