It stormed off and on all night long. The place I stopped to camp is a heavily used site along the JMT, and to get a little space from all the other tents, I was set up in a marginal site: exposed, thin soil on granite, and a slight depression. So when it began to rain hard, I had dirty backsplash, and water pooling under my tent all night. When you use a down sleeping bag, keeping it dry is one of the critical tasks during a hike, and while the weather is good of course this is straightforward. But if it gets wet, and doesn’t have a chance to dry, it will lose its insulating capacity. I had to make sure I was arranged in my very tiny tent effectively so that it wouldn’t get wet, and then because the humidity was so high, when I woke up everything was wet anyway. I packed up a very wet tent and a damp sleeping bag (and damp everything else) and hiked off into a cloudless morning, my first since probably the beginning days in early August. I was excited by the possibility that perhaps I wouldn’t have the near-daily afternoon or evening storm today. Given the terrain ahead, that would be a miraculous gift of nature.
First, though, I had a 3000 foot climb up towards Muir Pass over roughly seven miles on the JMT. As the morning wore on under a crystalline blue sky, I wound upward in the tight canyon over granite benches and past small lakes. I passed far fewer people than when I hiked this same stretch of trail in August, and I suppose now that it’s September people are leaving the high country and returning to their lives, and allowing the mountains to return to their own business absent of hosting humans. I did pass one group of Sierra High Route travelers, headed north bound (so going in the same direction I was) and I encouraged them to consider Snow-Tongue Pass after learning they were leaning towards an alternate. No Big Deal, I thought to myself, a theme of my trip: things often sound much worse than they are, and turn out to be easier when we confront them with our bodies in real time rather than with our minds in imagined time.
Landscape climbing up to Muir Pass
As I climbed I also took stock of the dramatically different landscape from three weeks ago. The trail had been ravaged by snow and runoff in its higher reaches when I came through before. Now much of it has melted away, and it’s possible to almost never walk on snow most of the way to Helen Lake.
Helen Lake, just below Muir Pass, is where I turned away from the John Muir Trail for the last time, and struck out south cross country towards Black Giant Pass,
my entry into Ionian Basin and then the long and difficult descent of Goddard Creek.
Black Giant Pass
Looking north of Black Giant Pass, to the direction I had come from
Looking south from Black Giant Pass into Ionian Basin
Ionian Basin marked a change in the surrounding rock from white granite, presumably the brightness of which is responsible for Muir’s name ‘range of light’, to black and red angular schists. I descended to the first snow-studded lake, slipping on the loose shards of this richly hued rock on the way down. Once on the bank, I took an early lunch. I could see clouds beginning to gather to the southeast, and I wanted to dry out my tent and sleeping bag before the weather turned again. I had a nice time there, in the sun but still quite chilly at 11,800 feet. I didn’t linger long though, because I wanted to be sure I made it through Ionian Basin before camp, down to Lower and less exposed environs. One never knows in advance how slow or difficult the terrain will turn out to be. Better to prepare extra time.
In this case, the terrain turned out to be both slow and difficult. I would expect even in normal conditions it would be slow to cross this basin of broken rock pieces. There is a fair amount of steep climbing and descending to do, and lakes to pass with complex cliff structures complicating their shores. But the snow was really the main obstacle today. Especially around the lakes, huge and steep snow fields clung between the cliffs. Sometimes it was straightforward to sidehill across, even though the snow was soft and quite slippery. Other times, the snow was too steep, or too marred by great cracks, or went straight down into the lake, or was too undercut, or all of the above, and then I had to find a detour. In one case it particular, I had to go around the lake in the opposite direction and climb up and down through cliff bands on that side in order to avoid a particularly dramatic and difficult snow field. All this time, I felt my soft body a visitor in this land of rock, ice, water.
(Following are many pictures of Ionian Basin. The landscape was stunning and I had a hard time choosing which to include.)
It was a slow passage. I thought once or twice about stopping in that dramatic and harsh land, but I decided to press on, recognizing that there would be a storm this afternoon after all and still hoping for a more protected sleeping place. After that last difficult lake navigation, and one more snow-clogged transition beyond a small tarn, I was looking over a dramatically steep descent out of Ionian Basin, around 11,800 ft, down to a large lake at 10200 ft in less than a mile. It was a cliffy affair, lots of zig and zag required to slowly find a connected path down. Meanwhile, thunder clapped overhead and the rain began, my daily friend. It was a tiring descent, occasionally slick as the rain wet the rocks, but I made good time. I was hurried along by the weather; a cliff is an unpleasant place to get stuck in a storm. I crossed a few near-waterfalls that were like arteries for heavy brush, descended a large scree slope, and then I was contouring along just above the lake shore on a game trail. All the snow was confined to Ionian Basin: this lake had trees, meadows, and was blissfully snow free. I went just a bit beyond the lake outlet and made camp in a grove of pines for some protection.
Looking down at the lake at 10200 feet
The valley I camped in, containing Goddard Creek
This is the third night in a row that my camp has terrible mosquitos. Tonight is the worst: thick clouds of them are hovering around my head, my hands, my backpack. Perhaps this is the fall bloom. It rained off and on as thunder storm after thunder storm rolled by overhead, but I was able to set up, cook, and eat mostly in the drier space between the storms. I’m grateful for that.
Tomorrow I continue the descent along this creek, whose waters started high in Ionian Basin above me (among other places), all gathered into this large lake at 10200 feet before being sent on its way to the low country. I’ll have a couple easy miles first thing tomorrow morning, but after that begins the most difficult roughly seven mile stretch of the whole route. Given that, with the snow, this was one of they more challenging days that I’ve had in awhile, I’m anticipating a long slow day tomorrow.