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.
To Be Continued…