The Timberline or
With every “project” backpack trip I like to understand the experience I’m looking for before I leave. Before I left for the John Muir Trail in 2004 I was committed at all costs to speed. I wanted to set the record and knew there would be misery involved and no time to stop and enjoy. That’s not what I’m looking for on this trip. I want a trip that will be physically demanding but I want more than a pure physical challenge. I want time to contemplate the more spiritual elements of the alpine zone.
Why do I backpack? It’s to experience a way of living generally unavailable today. Our lives are so cooperative and specialized it’s hard to see the results of your actions and decisions. In days gone by it seems that people were more directly affected by their day to day actions. If they planted and the weather cooperated, they ate. If they cut wood and kept it dry, they stayed warm through the winter. Backpacking lets me see the results of my decisions and preparation. Every decision before and during the trip has consequences that reverberate throughout the trip. Every step can bring you closer to your goal or result in a twisted ankle. The feedback is immediate. Lightweight travel amplifies the importance of each decision and places a premium on things you can’t carry in a pack: experience, imporvisation, and knowledge.
My GoLite Speed pack modified for lighter weight sat by my door. Inside was a home made tarp and bivy sack, a 13 oz Nunatak sleeping bag, and assorted personal items. Carbon fiber hiking poles and a matching bear canister filled with 6 days of food sat beside my pack. A pair of Montrail Hurricane Ridge runners sat on my bear canister. I had carefully chosen my gear for the conditions I was likely to encounter and kept the base weight to 7 pounds. With the required 2 pound bear canister, 6 days of food, and 4 pounds of water I would start hiking with a 25 pound pack.
I woke at with the first light and left our bandit camp by Mammoth at after breakfast. Dad drove me to the
It was already 91F when I left the trailhead and there was no breeze chattering the branches of the desert scrub or cooling me. The trail sits in a desert filled with sage, sand, and lava. Taboose Creek gives a curving line of more varied and verdant life as it spills onto the desert. Then it’s sucked up by the Los Angeles/Owen’s Valley water project and the extra life provided by the creek is gone. The trail went up in fits and starts like an old rollercoaster and I was excited wondering what the ride would be like. The canyon walls were steep, and fresh crushed aspen and pine gave evidence for the power of the season’s avalanches.
A solitary juniper appeared and introduced me to his neighbor a Jeffrey Pine. A small grove of red fir appeared adding their sweet and pungent smell. A single leaf pinion faded into the distance as I climbed. Finally I moved from the heat of the south facing slope to the cooler shade of the north exposure and its’ red fir forest. Huge ramparts of granite appeared to block the way, but the trail dodged right following the creek as it sliced between the steep walls. As I rounded the corner, a steep 200’ cascade appeared and the smell of willows was in the air which had cooled to 75F by the breeze. After only two hours I already had a painful heel blister. It was still a very long way to
As I continued to gain elevation, the trees showed evidence of the many tough winters they’ve faced. Many of the trees had been bent by the snow or topped by an avalanche. Their branches were thin and many on the windward side were dead. I share an empathy with the struggles of high alpine trees. Sometimes when I’m having a tough day I pause and my mind pulls up the image of a specific tree at a specific place, adds snow, an icy wind, and imagines the toughness required just to survive. This resolute image strengthens my determination and makes my difficulties disappear.
I continued to climb past small streamside willow, purple heather, and the occasional grassy meadow. Up I continued past where roots can grasp hold of a meager living but a full life. Here life is simpler, containing only rock, air, and snow. Soon the raucous call of a Clark’s Nutcracker welcomed me to the top of
The trail from
My day became tougher from here. My late starting time means my planned 12 hour day will end at —in the dark. In the
The meadows of the upper
Crossing from Potluck to
It was perfectly still across
I continued across the relatively level ledges of the Darwin Bench and descended into the first of its lakes. Copse after copse of welcoming whitebark pine greeted me on the way. As I sat by the small lake, the distant caw of a
So carefree was my mood that I just about missed
From a distance all wilderness looks forbidding. Looking across Humphrey’s Basin, barren rock and scraggly trees is all that is apparent. However when you get closer, a myriad of comfortable and inviting features beckon. My lunch meadow perched above
I started again at and hiked over White Bear Pass after greeting a group of four climbers on a bench above Black Bear Lake. I was so focused on the route down to Brown Bear Lake that I forgot to leave my standard marker on the pass. On every pass and trail crossing of this trip, I left four rocks in a square with a smaller fifth rock with my initials, date, and time upside down on the flattest of the other four. Traveling alone is more risky than with a group but I had decided against carrying a satellite phone or personal locator beaconIt might save my life and at worst my wife would take comfort knowing how I met my end. For safety, I also introduced myself and my itinerary to hikers I met.
By my breakfast at
The ascent of the
The descent of Shout of Relief Pass just north of
I got an early start today but the John Muir Trail was a shock. After hiking across talus, meadows, and solid granite for days, the dust and loose rock was a punishing surface. Mix in ground up horse shit and it was a very unappealing dish. This is one of the most heavily traveled and worst sections of the John Muir Trail. After arriving at
After a satisfying lunch and a natural hot spring shower I left Red’s Meadow heading to the steep but beautiful
Early sunshine this morning put me in a Sunday mood. Since I was ahead of schedule I meandered slowly through the Minarets. I hiked from
Luck I had. The “trailed” portion of the descent was snow free and the traverse above
I camped just below a small ridge coddled in a small granite basin with a comfortable backrest. As I cooked dinner the
I woke at and finished the last cross country mile to the Tuolumne Meadows Trail. I forded the Lyell Fork of the
The lodge cafeteria was closed for lunch but I did have a shower. I called Carol and talked to each of our three children. I found it unsettling how home routines continued without me and how the mundane details of life seemed to overshadow life itself. Yet somehow the haircuts, the new teachers, and the daily discipline reflected the bigger principles of life. I knew it was time to resolve the metaphor I was living into my everyday reality.
Beyond the noise of
In two days more I knew I’d be going home. I wondered where my home really was. Whether it was hiking 14 hour days over rough passes or teaching my family about honesty, commitment, and compassion? Whether it was crossing rocky passes or taking care of patients that current technology can only help so much? Deep inside I knew that I had to return and somehow I bring the lessons I’d learned on this trip back to my everyday life. As I left the mixed forest and emerged into
It was just too spectacular. I was sitting on top of the
I had lunch at the grassy outlet of
The trip across
I camped 1000 vertical feet north of Horse Creek Pass. I would have preferred camping on the south side as the view is nicer, the terrain more gentle, and I would have had more time to relax. However, I was concerned about the snow refreezing overnight in a steep chute on the north side of the pass I would descend in the morning. I probably could have taken a slower and riskier route to avoid the snow, but I was glad I hiked on. I paid my respects as I descended below 10,000’ knowing I would return in just a few days this time in the Kaweah range with friends. I had one more night sleeping in the shelter of whitebark pines and listening to the gushing of Horse Creek. I knew I’d be happy to finish in the morning, have a big breakfast at the café, and prepare to return home.
This version of the