We are hiking the JMT, or most of it (since the Yosemite permit lottery wouldn’t cooperate): a middle-aged mom and dad, and two tweeny sons.
We have been backcountry hiking the kids since they were babies. Because of their age spacing, we never had to completely give it up. We threw the first one in a baby backpack while the other parent humped the gear in a regular pack. Our biggest worry on the one overnight backcountry trip we took that year, in Bryce Canyon, centered on whether or not the baby would wake up and crawl out of our new ultra-light floorlerss TarpTent. (He did not). By the time the second was born, the older one toddled well enough to walk on his own (though getting him to follow trails was another issue entirely), opening up a space in the baby backpack for the wee one.
Once Son the Younger was out of the baby backpack, allowing both The Husband and me to carry trail packs, we started ramping up our number of consecutive backcountry nights. In recent years, we’ve begun to reach trip lengths comparable to the ones we’d undertaken before kids. We crossed Kearsarge and Glen Passes to Rae Lakes in a three-night, four-day 24-mile trip when the boys were 8 and 10. Later that summer we went from Florence Lake to Evolution Lake and back (close to 40 miles) in four nights, five days. Last summer, when I was finishing my dissertation, we kept reined it in – a two-night, three-day loop through the Jennie Lakes Wilderness (courtesy of our close friends and fellow parent/hikers, who did the planning, which, frankly, is half the battle).
But this is the summer of fun, to celebrate my PhD, even though so much in my/our lives continues to be up in the air. Son the Elder is officially tall enough to carry a substantial hip-strap pack. Son the Younger is a hiking monster, regularly regaling me with his memories of our Glen Pass Death Hike and asking when we’re going to do it again. This summer might be the pivot, after which the Sons will take more and more weight, and we – with a problem hip, two problem knees, a wonky shoulder, and a case of diverticulosis between the two of us – start taking less. Son the Elder’s going into seventh grade and Son the Younger into fifth. We’d like to do the PCT or another long cross-country hike when they’re in high school. The JMT seems to suit the bill all around.
The next night, we sat on a granite spit jutting into the central and largest of the Kearsarge Lakes watching the sun disappear over the horizon’s watery ledge. As the day cooled, the golden trout began to jump, making a plipping sound each time one broke the surface in a lunge for a gnat or mosquito. They were medium-sized fish, six inches long, with yellow bellies, green coppery backs, and a red stripe bisecting their dorsal and ventral sides. We watched them twinkle all around us, their sides flashing in the low sun. Where shadows interrupted the sun’s quicksilvering, we watched their forms glide into the deep. They were all around us and almost constant: piscine fireworks, and as fun to watch.
To the south, huge rock faces of the Kearsarge Pinnacles loomed, and we passed time trying to describe faces or other formations in the towering piles and sheer walls. The kids had wanted to follow the trail around to the south side of the lake earlier that day, but the vast sweeps of gravel laced with snow and sharp scree spilling directly into the lake looked like a great way to slide into a hypothermic drowning incident. I suspected Mary Austin was describing exactly this cliff face when she wrote, “I remember one night of thunderous rain made unendurably mournful by the houseless cry of a cougar whose lair, and perhaps his family, had been buried under a slide of broken boulders on the slope of Kearsarge. We had heard the heavy detonation of the slide about the hour of the alpenglow, a pale rosy interval in a darkling air, and judged he must have come from hunting to the ruined cliff and paced the night out before it, crying a very human woe.”
We were more likely to lose a child due to overconfidence on unsteady ground than to an epochal shearing of rock from the cliffs high above us, so The Husband and I nixed their plan, encouraging them instead to join us as we swam in a sheltered cove near our site, one with a shallow bottom and flowering banks. We kicked up mud and slow streamers of algae as we plunged ourselves into the icy water, rinsing off the day’s sweat and dirt.
We had made it! Only one more pass to cross over before we could return to the greasemobile, have a diner lunch, and voyage through the furnace air of the Owens Valley to our home in the foothills of the San Gabriels. Our sons were giddy. Son the Younger especially enjoyed my ventriloquization of an ant heroically trying to carry a grain of rice we’d dropped on the rock at supper and hoping not to have to share it with his archrival, Fred the ant. He made me promise to write down the whole story in the trip log. He kept watch over the sky, reporting as its tones changed from the bright copper to tangerine. We watched the lake surface and sky subside into a holy blue. Previous nights, tired and vexed by insects, we’d gone to bed well before dark, but tonight we didn’t care. We watched campers across the lake plunge into the lake from a boulder, sending a clamor across the entire basin. As we were finally getting ready to zip ourselves into our bags, we watched their flashlight bobble on the promontory where they were camped.
This was a far cry from the fret in which we’d woken and begun the day, with Son the Younger harping on crossing both passes before noon and bursting into tears when his altitude- and exercise-swollen feet wouldn’t slide into his damp tennis shoes. His exhaustion and anxiety expressed themselves as free-floating anger which he took out indirectly on us – the tormentors who’d planned this whole affair – in bursts of stridency (not tantrums: he kept walking, just ranted his anxiety). I worked with him on his breathing, instructing him to inhale to the count of four, hold it for as long, and exhale slowly. I tried it myself and found that it actually helped. It’s harder to be worked up when your body’s breathing is slow and regular. The harder part is actually letting go of the strange pleasures of being worked up.
Except for his anxiety, the beginning of the hike went well. We were steeled and our loins girded, since this time we knew in considerable detail what we were up against, having hiked down it less than 24 hours earlier. We ascended from the lake through the alpine meadows with alacrity; even the first snow chute turned out to be a quick, aerobic ascent. It wasn’t till we reached the first major obstacle – the long snow slide – that we had any real problems.
We decided to pick our way up the partial trail to the side rather than trekking alongside the chute through the snow. We were hoping to avoid a breakdown on the potentially hypothermia-inducing snowsheet, but instead, we got our breakdown on the rocky face of the mountain’s first serious foothill, when Son the Younger hit his shin. He’d been hiking hard and fast, with an angry edge, and when he stumbled, his intensity boiled over.
I sat with him, coaching him on his breathing. Observing Son the Younger over the years has provided me with a unique kind of therapy: he’s inherited a lot of my personality, complicated aspects of it I don’t think he’s been able to observe directly, or at least not consciously, in his first eight years. Things that have to do with my attitude towards work, time, and self-worth. Seeing him, for example, develop an arcane system whereby he reads fifteen or twenty books at a time has helped me to find a certain amount of compassion for myself; I’d always thought my mild OCD and perfectionism were character failings and somehow my fault. When I saw Son the Younger trying to control the world around him with his methodicity, or fight back tears at the slightest, most offhand expression of disapproval from an authority figure, I could see that he couldn’t help acting this way. In him, I could also see in a way I couldn’t see in myself that these behaviors were the results of certain strengths he had: self-discipline, emotional perspicacity, a drive and ability to do things well.
I’d been encouraging him on this hike to take care of himself, to realize that he wasn’t performing for anyone and that he needed to hike at a pace that would let him keep hiking for several days. I was trying to practice this mentality myself, having realized within the last few years that at some level I was always trying to hike fast and hard to fit in with that erstwhile band of Lost Boys with whom The Husband had once hiked. So as we sat, I tried to help Son the Younger take care of himself: to breathe, to let go of the unreasonable expectation that we’d be able to hike out before dark, to try to appreciate how special it was that we got to be in this place: as many hikers had pointed out, not many eight-year-olds get their asses over Glen Pass.
I understood the power of his unreasonable expectation: it was an aggressive goal, one whereby he could communicate not only his frustration with us for pushing him on this long hike, but his undeniable and ruthless competence, or his will to develop this competence. Son the Younger plays soccer and when a game is not going his way he tends to flop. I get this; he’s a talented player and there’s nothing more frustrating to a talented person than having the expression of that talent get tangled up and thwarted. During games, I often encourage him to tap into a kind of ruthless mastery, to show the other team what he thinks of their rough play by nailing goal after goal, which sometimes he can pull off. On the side of the mountain, though, I saw freshly that the vicious exercise of ruthless competence is a tool that must be used carefully, as it redounds upon one in exhausting, disheartening, and ultimately disorienting ways – disorienting because my addiction to mastery makes it hard to follow paths on which I think I might fail or otherwise fuck up, even if those are the paths that I really want to follow. You have to be able to turn on will-to-power when you need it and not let it take over.
I talked to him about his desire to hike out, his litany of panic about not getting over Glen, not getting over Kearsarge, not getting to Golden Donut, the carrot he’d hung for himself across those passes. I call that kind of piling-on of worry catastrophizing, and it’s another bad habit I’m surprised to see emerge fully formed in him, like a handwringing Athena from Zeus’s clammy brow. When I feel the sensation of worry, I told him, sometimes I search around in my consciousness for what might be producing it, and I can usually drum up a pretty good list. Then I let them all bounce around in the echo chamber. I think I feel like I need to justify the intensity of the physical sensation of worry. Maybe I like worry, maybe I’m a little addicted to the helplessness it authorizes. Like the ruthless competence thing, it gives me ways to stay off the high rocky paths, the ones that might involve failing at exactly the things I care about the most. When I do that, I sometimes try to look at the worry realistically, I told him. See if it’s actually likely to happen. Think about what might happen if it does come to pass and whether or not that’s actually bad. What happens if we don’t get over Kearsarge today? It means we’ll have to cross it tomorrow. We’ll have to get donuts tomorrow instead of today. Is that really that bad? What happens if we take an extra day in the backcountry? You’ll miss a day of camp. Is that worth panicking over?
Even better, I went on, try to observe the feeling of worry instead of the worry itself. Notice that it doesn’t last forever, sometimes because it just stops, and sometimes because events eliminate the uncertainty you were worrying over in the first place. The feeling passes. Focus on the feeling, where the worry makes your body feel something. See how long it lasts.
After some of this talk, Son the Younger decided hiking was better than listening to his mom. The rest of the climb turned out to be easier than the descent, especially the dread traverse, which we crossed without incident. We handed out Jolly Ranchers at the top, exchanging stories with two women from Ventura County and a through-hiker who’d made incredible time by not taking any zeros. We rested there at the top of the world, feeling the tired solidarity of our bones with the boulders.
The final obstacle was a steep downward scramble past three snow-over switchbacks. I had a moment of panic, feeling my (unlatched) pack sway out from the mountainside as I backed down, but The Husband spotted me, and before I knew it, the three of them had hiked out of sight. I walked slowly, breathing, enjoying the sepulchral lakes and the wildflowers bursting from the rocks.
I caught up with the boys at the biggest lake, its waters sealed in by a sheet of ice already grown gappier than it had been the day before. The boys threw rocks onto it, some of which slid and others of which splashed into the cloudy turquoise. We descended terrace by terrace, snaking our way between pools still gathering volume from the patches of snow basking on the surrounding boulder fields, a season-long osmotic filtration. Eventually the broad curve of Charlotte Lake came into view, and we descended out of the heights onto the broad plateau that sloped down to Vidette Meadows. We lunched at a trail crossing, toasting tortillas and cheese on the Whisperlite.
From there it was a steady and uneventful hike down another set of switchbacks through the piñon and juniper to Bubbs Creek, which we followed back past Bullfrog Lake, enjoying the tall purple wild onion blossoms, and through the rocky waste at the foot of the Kearsarge Pinnacles back to the Kearsarge Lakes.
We trekked along the shore, crossing barefoot through a neck of water that connected two of them. There we found the perfect spot – promontory, boulder spit, swimming cove, fast-moving stream. And we had the whole evening to enjoy it.
We waited till the sky was dark before retiring to our tent. Anxiety dreams woke me halfway through the night. I climbed out of the tent in the middle of the night. Moonlight was pouring into the basin through the notch between University Peak and Kearsarge Pass, throwing the cliff faces into new patterns of relief and floodlighting the terrain we had just watched recede into darkness. I looked up to the stars in the light-washed sky. The fish had gone to sleep or turned to submarine matters. Before long, a mosquito joined me. I thought better of staying out in the strange enchanted basin and so unzipped the tent and climbed into its familiar warmth.
This was part of a five-day hike from Onion Valley (a few miles east of Independence, CA), over Kearsarge Pass to the Pacific Crest Trail/John Muit Trail, which we took north over Glen Pass to the Rae Lakes. We spent day 1 packing, driving to Onion Valley, and acclimating to the high altitude (Onion Valley is over 9000 feet), day 2 hiking over Kearsarge to a small lake just west of Bullfrog Lake, day 3 hiking over Glen Pass to the Rae Lakes, day 4 returning to Kearsarge Lakes, and day 5 hiking out over Kearsarge Pass. My account focuses on days 3 and 4 of the hike. This is part 1.
I stepped on a mound loose dirt and pebbles, making way for a line of hikers coming up the tail. I tried to make sure Son the Elder and Son the Younger had secure footing. The group appeared to be two fathers, each with two sons; they had the clean-cut, can-do look of Boy Scouts. As they strained up the trail, I could see that stricken, glazed expression that emerges somewhere halfway up an arduous ascent at the moment when you’re sure the pass will be a minute or so away but then you realize you have at least another mile of hard climbing. This expression worried me for what it implied about the climb they had just done, which we were about to do in reverse.
We had reached Glen Pass – 11926 feet – after a long morning of climbing through otherworldy, boulder- and ice-crammed lake basins, past rocks sprouting bunches of purple blossoms, and patches of snow faintly red with a peculiar algae. We were surprised by a couple of snow traverses: snowed-over sections of trail into which earlier and better-equipped hikers had etched shelves of footprints. The traverses on the way up – the south side of Glen Pass – were mostly short, maybe twenty or thirty feet. Only one of them felt dangerous, involving an off-trail scramble past two switchbacks. I breathed a sigh of relief when I, my eight-year-old (who, as my husband likes to point out, has only recently outgrown the small-child habit of falling down for no reason, even on a level sidewalk), and my ten-year-old stepped back on to the well-constructed, beautiful trail and we could see the knife’s edge of Glen Pass only a few steps away.
My relief was short-lived. As we doled out the celebratory Jolly Ranchers and tried to find a comfortable seat amongst the broken rocks and four or five through-hikers also taking a breather, the realities of the descent before us dawned on me: first of all, the longest and most vertiginous snow traverse I’d ever seen in twenty years of high-country hiking. Half a football field in length, the field of crystalline, sparkling snow stretched down the bare mountainside, ending at a sickening angle in an endless stretch of grey-green rocks that glinted in the cold sun. Second, how could we possibly get down that far? The mountain fell away to an ice-lake plateau a thousand feet below and thereafter another heart-stopping thousand feet to the grassy basin which had collected two aquamarine lakes from aeons of mountaintop snowmelt. Friends had sung praises of the Rae Lakes to us, touting them as the crown jewels not just of the John Muir Trail (which mostly doubles the Pacific Crest Trail in the High Sierras) but of the whole 2650 mile stretch of the PCT, and we had gone dreamy over the description of the high pure lakes. Now we could see them – but how could we possibly get to them without at least one of our children perishing in the process? I had read in the guidebooks that I should expect snow in the high passes until July, but five years of drought in Los Angeles, not to mention a three-day, triple-digit heat wave in Pasadena immediately preceding our departure, had lulled me into expecting that this year would see early melting. Standing there at 12,000 feet, miles of mountain landscape before, behind and most emphatically below me, I couldn’t imagine turning around, but I was not prepared for this descent. I didn’t have the gear or the skills for snow, and yet now, unless I wanted to turn tail and head back to Kearsarge Pass and out to Onion Valley and Independence, I was about to take my two children through a major snow hazard for which they were completely unprepared.
We sat on the crest of the high Sierras, feeling the wind and sun pour over us, and watched somberly as one, and then another through-hiker – grimy, bearded, and pinwheel-eyed with weeks of fifteen-mile days behind him – grasped his poles and marched out into the bright snow, cool as Shackleton. The figure of a hiker on the white ground threw the path into relief. For at least the first section, it rested at the bottom of a trough that would stop any but the most spasmodic and unlucky fall. The second half was less protected. “You’re supposed to unstrap your pack on a traverse, right?” Having answered the same question several times on the way up, my husband ignored me. We settled on an order – Son the younger, me, Son the Elder, husband – and set out. I unbuckled my pack, feeling the swing of its weight.
We passed through the tunneled-in section easily. I grasped the top of Son the Younger’s backpack lightly and reminded him to test each footstep. Besides tumbling down a traverse, one can step through a thin crust into a hollow and twist an ankle or slam a shin. Halfway through, the protective buffer flattened, and I stole a glance down the snow sheet, eyeing the patient rocks made spectacular by the mountain’s cathedral sweep. I chose to fix my eyes on the path ahead of me from then on. If I could make each step – and why on earth shouldn’t I be able to? – I could cross the snow. I told Son the Younger the same.
As we closed in on the final third, Son the Elder began to panic. I could hear my husband’s voice, deliberately calm, cajoling him to take the last few steps. And all of a sudden, we were on the wet rocks on the far side of the snow. We caught our breath and turned to the next task: a precipitous descent over a path blocked periodically by drifts mountain snow, shrunken by a month or so of warming into piles of granular ice. The going was delicate, but not impossible. On one steep scramble, I lost my footing several times but regained it easily, and I watched the kids do the same. It was about then we passed the two dads and their sons. Up to that point, I had been rationalizing our continued descent by figuring the worst was behind us. When one boy stopped, slipped the crampons off his boots, and handed them to Braird without a word, I wasn’t so sure. “At least you’ll be going down when you get to the slide,” one of the fathers said. I smiled and nodded like I knew what he was talking about.
At a bend we paused to survey our progress, and we caught sight of what he meant: a long trough through the snow piled at the foot of the peak, a slide that represented a significant shortcut past a section of loose, improvised trail. It was a couple hundred feet long and involved a hundred feet of elevation loss. A couple who had passed us on the way up to Glen had just reached it, and we watched their descent. The man launched himself, zigzagging around a patch of rocks about halfway down the slope. The woman screamed as she shot past the rocks. When she reached the bottom she hopped up, replaying the experience for her boyfriend’s benefit. We heard the excitement in her voice but no words except one sentence: her reaction to her near-confrontation with the patch of rocks, which was, “And I was like, ‘Fuuuuck!’”
Mary Austin, who explored the Kearsarge section of the high Sierras in the early 1900’s, describes the high slopes of these passes as the “ice-worn, stony hollows where the bighorns cradle their young. These are above the wolf’s quest and the eagle’s wont, and though the heather beds are softer, they are neither so dry nor so warm, and here only the stars go by.” We were up there, thrust into the purview of the stars, and trying to pick our way down from the pile with our little family, lightly furred mammals not unlike Austin’s one other four-footed denizen of the alpine regions, “some small, brown creature, rat or mouse kind, that slips secretly among the rocks.” We were much bigger than mountain rats, and much clumsier than bighorn. We were saddled with huge packs bearing four days of food and clothes.
The Husband and I looked at each other: take the slide or pick our way down the poor trail? Both looked potentially deadly, but the slide had the advantage of being faster. When we got to the bend that opened out onto the snow, we considered. It was a wide, tempting path down to the plateau, not unlike a sledding hill, only much longer, steeper, and there were no sleds. We worked through different configurations – just The Husband would slide while the kids and I picked our way down? He’d go first and then we’d try? Two at a time? Finally, we opted to stick together: a four-person caterpillar, dad in front, mom in back, kids protected in the middle.
We plunked down into the snow, and The Husband tested it for a few feet; by leaning back, he could use his pack as a brake. We made our way down in peristaltic motions, with him shoving forward and then stopping just as the momentum reached me at the back of the line. I shouted for him to go faster, but then everyone was shouting. Snow piled between our legs as we plowed down, and I began to row Son the Younger and myself forward using bare hands against the drifts of granulated ice. I began to get cold and had the sensation that my pants had torn clean away. My fingerpads grew numb. We slid to a clumsy stop where the slope flattened, clambered out of the icy drift and onto a waste of angular boulders. I jumped up and down and put my fingers in my armpits and then my mouth to warm them. I couldn’t feel the tips of the last three fingers on my left hand. I was cold, robbed of my core heat by prolonged contact with the snow.
Everyone else was fine, and after a rest, we set out over fields of boulders interspersed with patches of snow. At least they were flat, and Son the Elder relished putting on his snow spikes every time we came to a new patch of snow. We reached one last drop to a green plateau wet with streams and flowers – another slide, but this one a straight shot and only about as long and high as a traditional staircase or old-school playground slide. We shot down it. This time I used my elbows to row forward through the piled snow. When we got down, we crowded in the shade of a cypress and ate peanut butter and crackers. Son the Younger was despondent – cold, wet, tired, wanting to go home. I changed him into his one set of dry clothes and hung the wet ones on gnarled branches.
The lakes were in sight, perhaps 500 feet below us: a steady, winding, occasionally switchbacked descent. As we exited the meadow, two bucks lifted their heads from where they nibbled at the edelweiss. The sight of the lakes infused the boys with spirit, and they hiked out of my sight. Austin describes the lakes of the high Sierras as mysterious in their origin: “the eye of the mountain, jade green, placid, unwinking, also unfathomable. Whatever goes on under the high and stony brow is guessed at. It is always a favorite local tradition that one or another of the blind lakes is bottomless. Often they lie in such deep cairns of broken boulders that one never gets quite to them, or gets away unhurt.” I watched the placid jade eye draw closer as I passed down through the piñon and juniper. Before long, we were crossing the archipelago that divided the two lakes. I took off my shoes and put my feet into the cold water. For thirty minutes, I could do nothing but lie on my back and take my feet in and out of the freezing lakewater.
Our campsite looked out into the basin of the northern Rae Lake, a great green chalice of “sky water” (Thoreau’s phrase for Walden Pond) gathered from the towering mountain slopes that encircled us, dampness and shadow that had seeped down through the pines and scrub oak for ages out of memory and pooled there, inviting immersion, the slaking of all appetite in its numbing embrace. We found a cove and swam in the water, painfully cold to enter but so electrifying that once you stepped out you could hardly wait to plunge in again. Son the Elder, true to form, ducked under, porpoised about, and splashed everyone. Son the Younger went in up to his chest but hesitated to get his hair wet. We saw people on a flat rock on the far side of the lake and couldn’t tell if they were young or old, friends or lovers. We undressed and dried off in the thin high sunshine.
We had just enough time before dinner to hike to the ranger station on the east side of the north lake. I had always loved ranger cabins, from the first I’d seen in the backcountry of Glacier National Park somewhere over Stony Indian Pass. That one had been empty, but we’d visited a cabin used as a fire lookout in the Umatilla National Forest in southeastern Washington state one summer and had a pleasant visit with a grey-haired woman in a cabin with windows on every side and a huge map on a table smack in the center of the tiny enclosure, like an informative kitchen island. It was never clear how these structures had gotten built, how planed boards and nails and mallets and axes could have made it up these distant ridges.
I was hiking in Chacos, with a pebble stuck under the sole of my foot which I was too tired to shake out. My hips, legs, and feet ached. Son the Younger didn’t feel much better, complaining about the elective status of this hike. “I don’t want to see any cabin,” he told us again and again. The path ascended the lake’s steep east side, and we could look out over its entirety from between the sheltering pines. Late-afternoon sunshine filled the lake’s basin with a light that was practically sound, a ringing that thrilled the body’s core. We crossed streams rushing down creases in the mountain to feed the lakes’ mysterious stillness. Finally, we came to a red wood cabin on a promontory, and I was shaking hands with another pinwheel-eyed backcountry hiker.
Son the Younger availed himself of the Adirondack chair, and Son the Elder slipped into the underbrush to examine the devices the ranger had installed to aid water collection from the nearest stream. The Husband examined the trail box, finding an endless supply of Idahoan instant potatoes (which the kids hated) and even a Ziploc baggie of dehydrated mushrooms. We snagged those and mixed them into the olive oil/shelf-stable parmesan/garlic salt sauce I stirred into a pot full of spaghetti noodles back at our campsite. We ate wafer cookies and then, getting needled by mosquitos and being too tired to enjoy the sunset anyway, we zipped ourselves into the tent. It must have been 7:30 pm.
Son the Younger was worried, crying a little and wishing we were home, planning with a kind of desperate optimism how we might cross not only Glen but Kearsarge Pass the next day. He had his sights set on a stop at Golden Donut in La Canada on our way back into town, and we had reminded him they closed at 4 pm. I told him that it wouldn’t be good for any of us to cross two passes the next day. He cried more and said he just wanted to be home. I did too, honestly. I couldn’t get comfortable on the ground and I was too tired to think but not sleepy. So we lay there in our bags, wondering about getting back up the side of the mountain the next day as the sky grew pale and then dim. As shadows darkened the tent’s corners, we slept, the peaks high and silent over our gamy lair.