PCT Day 157 : Stairwell To Mather

September 8 (~07:10 – ~20:10)
Before Big Pete Meadow – before Lake Marjorie (23.3 mi / Total: 809.6 mi)
Total PCT miles: 2545.4
Weather: Cold in the morning. Hot and sunny during the day, though windy and chilly at higher elevation.

It’s cold. It’s very cold. I don’t know if it’s the seasons changing or the location in the shady valley, but I leave with all my layers on, and it’s not until the sun hits me that I warm up.

I have a productive morning. The trail stays level as it moves through the forest and nears meadows for the first 5 miles, and it feels good to just walk. Only when I turn around a corner to follow Palisade Creek towards the eponymous lakes, do I hit the sun for the first time. I can finally take off all those layers. I’m warm again.

This is when I pass an older charming lady called Elisabeth who’s headed towards the Palisade Lakes for tonight, and I tell her I’ll be going over Mather Lass today, and she says I must be fast, and although I’m not – today I actually am. Or perhaps everyone I meet today is slower. Either way, I pass every other hiker I see, and I feel good. The uphills aren’t so painful anymore. I have more strength.

Palisade Creek runs through a long valley, and the whole stretch is quite overwhelming. There’s so much going on. A mess of vegetation along the way, and at the far end imposing rock scrambles with no way out but the trail up – the creek turns to a vertical river here, and water cascades from the lakes high above. The Palisade Lakes sit over 10,500 feet, with Mather Pass over 12,000 beyond that. The path up is carved out of endless stairs, steep switchbacks in an endless motion upwards, and fields of loose rock precariously on the mountain slopes nearby. There is white sharp rock, smooth vertical rock faces, black rock, plants and flowers and scents and colours and everything else is right here. It’s all so much and it’s oh so steep but I just keep on moving, and it feels good.

When I think I’ve reached the lakes I’m still locked in a maze, manoeuvring around all these elements, and I’m looking out at the craggy peaks up high now, and then it’s there, Lower Palisade Lake, with a helicopter parked right in front.

I speak with one of who people who’s just flown in, and apparently, there’s a huge fire around Taboose Pass, which is luckily not where I’m headed. Lightning, they think, and the people in the helicopter are about to fly over to act as stewards, or guards or something. We can see the fire from behind the mountain, which looks just like a white cloud.

When I continue my way I pass the most beautiful little break spot right next to Lower Palisade Lake, which is a beauty in itself. It’s right next to the pristine water, and I figure that’s how I want to spend my lunch – submerge my feet in water, the sun on my face, and this beautiful lake. I decide to keep going just a little longer, and find a spot along the next lake perhaps. I pass a slow-moving couple while the path begins to climb up beside the first lake, and then the second. It’s already too late when I realise the path isn’t going to get close to the lakes anymore, and I’ve missed my opportunity to break next to the water. I can’t believe it. What about my feet? I find another nice, dry, spot overlooking the lake, but it’s not the same.

When I’ve passed the lakes, the climb towards Mather Pass begins. The higher I get, the more rocky everything becomes. I look back, the lakes are surrounded by rock, and everything becomes more pure as I get higher. It’s all white and pink and grey and I follow the labyrinth upwards, all these piles of rock creating switchbacks and eternal steps all the way up. I can see tiny figures ahead of me, high above, making steady movements, up and up and up. When I get to the top, there are some northbounders and the couple I passed earlier, before I breaked. Go ahead, they say, you passed us twice already, and so I hurry down, down the countless huge switchbacks in the rocky mountainside, into the huge expanse of the valley. I couldn’t imagine doing this in the snow.

When I hit the valley floor it turns into an easy walk. I’m enjoying the open spaces, the maintains surrounding me, the lakes and the forests. I slowly get to lower elevation and when it gets too cold I sit down and pull all my layers out of my pack. Better. I continue through the forest, which is littered with tents. But I want to go further. I want to get closer to Pinchot Pass, and I keep going despite losing the light. As it gets darker I’m going up again, and I keep thinking that I can see light through the trees, and I should be hitting tree line soon, but it doesn’t happen, I just climb further up and up in the forest and I’m surprised I can still follow the trail, and I wait until the very last moment to take out my headlight.

And then I’m outside of the forest. It’s dark but I recognise the spaciousness. I can see mountains rising around me and it’s splendid. I follow the trail for a little longer and then I begin to look out for campsites and water. The site I aimed for is just after a small stream but it appears occupied, so I backtrack a little, and go off trail to investigate a big tree, and there’s a spot as well. It’s freezing cold but it’s a perfect site with all these mountains nearby and I’m so happy I pushed through and I’m here. I even stay outside and try to take some night pictures but I still can’t get the settings right, I don’t know how to take them. They end up blurry – it’s such a shame with this perfect night sky.

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