September 9 (~08:10 – ~20:20)
Before Lake Marjorie – before Kearsarge Pass junction (19.4 mi / Total: 790.3 mi)
Total PCT miles: 2564.8
Weather: Freezing cold in the morning. Sunny and warm during the day, despite a chilly wind. Cold again in the evening.
I wake up and it’s so cold I don’t know how I’m going to get out of my sleeping bag and get ready for the day. I’d wanted to get up early today – I’m headed into town tomorrow and wanted to get as close as possible to the trailhead by evening, allowing me more time in town. It means getting over three passes today, hopefully – Pinchot, Glen, and then the off-trail Kearsarge Pass that would get me to a trailhead to hitch into town. But it’s not to be, it’s all I can do to get ready while my tent is still encumbered by shade. When I pull out the final stakes, the sun finally settles on my spot and the plains around me.
With the sun brightening, I can finally see the small lake I had no idea of, which sits closely behind me, and I can see the mountains around, feeling the spaciousness of everything here. I love this spot, it’s so free, it has such a simple beauty to it. I feel like I’m on a different planet, in a different reality.
I’m already close to the first pass of the day, Pinchot Pass, but before I begin the climb up I approach Lake Marjorie, and with the adjacent white mountain reflecting in the water, it looks almost milky white, and it’s the first time I’ve seen a sight like this. Immediately after the final climb up begins, and it’s one of my favourites. It’s so peaceful, but so interesting at the same time. Several more lakes spread out, and the light coloured rock is interchanged for red, and brown mountains. There’s green grass contrasting and tiny patches of pure white snow.
I take so many pictures I find myself leapfrogging with a few very slow JMT hikers, and I want to hurry but I just can’t, I don’t want to. The ascend is short and easy, and by the time I reach the pass, the sun has warmed up and despite the chilly wind, I have taken off all my extra layers.
The pass is al craggy, black rock, and unfortunately I arrive when the other two are there as well. Much to my dismay, the guy is taking a break right at the top, so I continue to head down the other side, take a few pictures a little lower down and essentially wait for them to move on. I really don’t want to leave without attempting to get a few nice shots. When they’ve both passed me, I head back up and take the pictures I want. I look out over the large plains with small lakes and locate the trail meandering through. Then it’s time to descend.
The way down proves to be a mixture of everything. From descending layers of orange and grey rock, the trail flows through the hilly landscape, then through wider plains, and ultimately it follows a river all the way down a rocky trail to a suspension bridge, where I lie on rocks and dry my quilt in a tree and watch several JMT hikers with uncomfortably large packs and I feel bad for them. Not because everyone should be a lightweight hiker, but because they look so hindered by their own belongings.
I’m off again after 2 pm. It’s another 9 miles of uphill to Glen Pass, then about 2 miles down to where the PCT junctions with the 7 mile side-trail leading over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley, the trailhead where I’ll be hitching into town. It’s quite a bit more walking to do, and getting up to Glen Pass proves to be not so easy. At first the landscape is just a repetition of the half-forest, half-open space blends I’ve grown used to, and I mostly zone out while I walk, although I do spot the two fawns eyeing me up from next to the trail, and I take over quite a few other hikers along the way. It’s quite obvious I’ve got most of my strength back, and I notice walking comes so much easier to me compared to the JMT hikers.
When I get a little higher, the open spaces reveal meadows and calm waterways, and I hop across all the rocks to get across streams without wet feet. Then I approach the Rae Lakes. Three lakes, blue and surrounded by green, and hugely popular. I spot many tents, but I also notice how cold it’s up here in the shade. The air is icy, and when I break to quickly eat some food, I decide to put on more layers. I’m pretty sure I’ll regret doing this once I get going again, but instead of overheating, I notice how very, very cold it’s got, and I need all the warmth I can get. It’s freezing. I look out for the sun and it’s now completely gone, it’s moved behind the mountains.
While I continue along the last lake, I gaze at the last of daylight shining onto the pointy peaks across the lake, and it’s such a vivid view I pause to take more pictures, even though I’m reluctant to stop in this cold. Once I’ve left the last lake behind me, the sharp incline begins. I look up to find the trail and the pass but I’m not sure where I’m going, I can’t quite tell, and after the first levels of meadows and tiny streams, I’m surrounded by rocks of imposing magnitude.
The crest is high above, all around me, but where is the pass? Whenever I get higher, the mountain just gets bigger, and as the light fades, I’m a little awestruck, and quite overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Quite frankly, it’s a little scary. The lakes are dark and cold, the pass out of reach. The last light shines fiercely onto the mountains behind me, and low fog is dancing in the distance. I’m here alone, entirely isolated, climbing up this mountain of rock that just never seems to end.
I push through, and somewhere along the way, I reach the pass. It’s different from the others, for the very first time it’s actually a proper ridgeline, and it’s scary. It’s scary because it’s dark now and I can’t see where I’m stepping, a forceful wind blows, and I peek through the rocks to the other side where the views make me gasp. The moonlight shines bright onto the tall peaks that encircle a black lake, and low hanging clouds are on fire in the distance, yellow and red and so mysterious, it’s a sight that’s a little beyond me.
As I crawl across the ridge to leap down the other side, I lose the very last of light and I try to take the final few pictures with my camera. It’s only 19:30, the days are short, and I descend down the dry rocky path, my headlamp out soon, but I still can’t see enough, it’s not easy to get myself down these steep switchbacks, and I’m scared I’ll trip over the rocky path and fall down the side somewhere.
When I spot a stream lower down I stop to fill up on water, and I decide to put on more layers, which means I wear the blue two dollar supermarket poncho that normal people wouldn’t want to be caught dead in. But it’s plastic, it adds warmth, I need it. Then I spot a headlamp coming down the pass behind me. Another hiker. It must be a PCT hiker, no one else would be out here in the dark. But once he gets closer I realise it’s not – he’s a trail runner, and he’s planning on going over Kearsarge Pass and get out all the way. His pack is so small I don’t think he’s carrying any gear, he’s probably just here for a long run. He passes and disappears quickly. He’s fast.
I also wanted to get across Kearsarge but it’s cold now, I can’t see well in the dark, and I pass a small spot under a tree right at the bottom of the switchbacks. Perhaps I could stay here. I could get up early and do Kearsarge first thing in the morning. I should keep going, I really should, but I’m quickly convinced. Night hiking has never really suited me. I like the idea of it, I just really don’t like to actually do it.
So I set up. I set up in the crazy cold and try my hand at a few more night pictures now that I’m out here, but they are blurry still. I need to find out how to take them. I get into my tent and struggle to warm up. I keep my hiking clothes on and layer my camp clothes right on top, in the hopes that it’ll keep me warmer and help me get up earlier in the morning. I fall asleep only barely warm enough.