September 2 (~07:50 – ~19:15)
Lyell Fork before Donohue Pass – Middle Fork San Joaquin River (19.5 mi / Total: 911.0 mi)
Total PCT miles: 2444.0
Weather: Warm, cloudy. A little bit of rain when grey clouds gather.
It seems my campsite selection just before Donohue Pass isn’t that great after all. The wind picks up during the night and the noise my tent makes is staggering, even when I wear ear plugs. At 2:30 in the morning one of the tent stakes is pulled out by the wind, and half my tent collapses on top of me. I go outside to find a bigger rock to tie it all down, and I decide to use the opportunity to attempt my first night sky picture, which fails. Either my settings are off, or the storm is causing too much movement for the long exposure.
Either way, by the time my alarm goes off, I’m tired. I had faint hopes of getting up early to catch the sunrise from the pass, but my interest has dwindled and instead I turn around and snooze.
By the time I do go, the sun is out, and so are the other hikers in the area. I can definitely tell I’m in JMT territory. It’s teeming with people. Just as I set off someone catches up from behind so I hurry up the piles of granite, all stacked on top of each other, lifeless but invigorating. I leave the snowy crags from yesterday behind me, and instead a collection of stairs guide me the final mile to the pass. I take pictures along every turn whenever no one else is in view, then quickly run up up up, staying ahead.
The pass is impressive. It feels intimate with several pretty little lakes but at the same time it’s huge, with all the uniform light coloured rock that is my world now and the enormous peaks lurking behind. I feel like I can breathe in and out really deep, I’m in the wild. Well, until I spot another hiker sitting down to play with his phone and I’m reminded that there’s signal here, and I quickly go online and book a hotel for a night in Mammoth. On top of Donohue Pass. It’s ridiculous to do it here but I’ve been really looking forward to a day off in town.
Then I begin the downhill on the other side, right into the spaciousness of it all, and I relish the ruggedness, so bare and simple with granite everywhere, and the most perfect meadows lower down. I wish I could stay here, I wish I’d camped here. I feel so calm, like today is a day of no worries. The trail has an easy grade, and I have enough time to get closer to Red Meadows, from where I’ll take the bus into Mammoth Lakes tomorrow morning for my day off!
I spend most of my time veering off trail to take all the pictures. I feel no rush, although I’m sure that feeling might change later in the day. I’m in good condition now, finally, and suddenly I wonder if I actually do need a rest day in Mammoth. I could use the day to summit Mount Whitney as a side trip later on instead. Or I could zero in Bishop a bit further down, which is a much nicer town that I passed while hitchhiking up to avoid the Sierra snow early in the season. I really wanted to go back there. But alas, it’s too late to consider alternatives. I booked myself a non refundable hotel room, this zero is happening.
I keep following the trail through more impressive landscapes and up the next Island Pass. It’s negligible as a pass really, it’s just a small uphill, but there’s a beautiful restful lake and then the trail moves towards the large Thousand Island Lake, which is supreme, and a little like a larger version of Lake Aloha.
When I reach the base on the other side I have a decision to make. The PCT and the JMT split and each follow their own trail on opposite sides of a valley, until they sync again 14 miles further up. The PCT is supposedly easier, and the JMT a lot prettier. It has more elevation change, but there are more lakes and the trail runs closer to the mountain peaks. I’m keen on the scenery but not the elevation change, and I feel like my PCT hike is so jumbled already, that I decide to stick to the official route.
Soon after the junction the wealth of granite turns to sparse trees and the sky turns grey. The clouds are thickening, moving together. That means something here, they are never just clouds – a storm is coming. If I’m lucky it passes before I get caught up in it and I keep going and then I feel rain. Rain, droplets falling on the floor, and then it’s gone. But the clouds remain. Perhaps this zero day is perfectly planned after all.
The trail turns to a sidle along a green hill, following a river deep in the valley, and a grand mountain range with endless peaks and granite faces on the opposite side. Then I spot a lake – a perfectly blue lake on the edge, wedged between rock, snowmelt incoming, a waterfall flowing into the valley far below. That’s where the JMT runs. I can see the elevation changes from where I am, and I can’t understand why the PCT doesn’t share that route. It’s evidently superior and we share almost everything else here. The only reason I’m happy to be on the easier trail is because my right leg has started to act up. I’ve never had any problems with this before, but the tendon right next to my shin began to hurt a little these past few days, but today it’s turned into a sharp consistent pain and it’s compromising my hiking. I stumble along, gazing longingly at the trail across the valley, and despite all the reasons for being on this side, I’m sad I’m not there.
By now, it seems to take hours to get anywhere. My leisurely morning is now stressing me, as I predicted, but it’s okay, I remind myself – I have all day. I have until it gets dark. I pass the Agnew Meadows trailhead and I continue a little longer, wondering where I should stop, or if I should go all the way to Red’s Meadow despite the risk of not finding a spot to camp. I follow the river in the forest, until I cross Middle Fork San Joaquin River and find a tentsite on the other side. I decide to set up here. No views today.