Ditching the John Muir Trail for the Sierra High Route ~ Thousand Island Lake to Red’s Meadow and Mammoth Lakes ~ California OR “If plants can grow there, I can go there “

Day 8 ~ Thousand Island Lake and Garnet Lake ~ The Minarets

Tuesday morning brought a lovely sunrise. Smoke from the fires settled overnight and we took about 1000 pictures of sunrise and Thousand Island Lake. Tim was determined to count the islands, being quite sure there were far less than 1000… I spent the time doing yoga!

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Sunrise over Thousand Island Lake

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Watching the ducks

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Ducks!

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Yoga in the morning at Thousand Island Lake

After spending our first week sticking to the JMT, this was the place we decided to get off the beaten path and do some sections of the Sierra High Route. This is sort of a trail, described in a book by Roper, but requires some route finding and is much more challenging. Mostly it stays above treeline and goes over a series of high passes.
We followed the first of the SHR passes between Thousand Island and Garnet Lakes. It went over giant boulders down the backside and just about killed my poor knees! The extra weight of a pack is murder on my aging knees with that sort of concussion… So we gave Tim some more weight. He is strong like an ox!  We saw 5 other people doing the same route but the opposite direction.
Garnet Lake is also lovely. We stopped for a snack and evaluated the next SHR pass next to Banner Peak. It was scree and looked too steep (like 75 degrees) for me. We looked at the map and the mountains and opted to take another pass between peaks on the other side of Garnet Lake. We wandered our way up the hillside, up many false summits and around several cliffs. It was fun to choose our own way instead of following a path. At the top, we found several lakes. We dropped our packs to see our options for the other side and found ROUGH terrain and sheer cliffs. We could see five high-altitude glacier-fed lakes in the valley. We decided to camp at the high lake, which had amazing views of the Minarets and was little-visited. It isn’t even named on the maps!

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We bathed and warmed up on the rocks like lizards. There was smoky haze from the fires after 4 pm. We had dinner and astronaut ice cream. My solar charger won’t charge and is basically useless, so my phone died (which would be fine except that I am using it to take pictures! ) We also reorganized the food, as Tim is going to carry both bear cannisters and lighten my load. Each day he gets more fit and strong, while I seem to stay the same. I guess I was in pretty good shape to start, but I don’t really seem to be acclimating or getting any more fit… Now he is having to constantly wait for me ~ so my solution is for him to carry more weight! He outweighs me by 80 pounds anyway, so it seems fair to me (ha ha!).
We are excited for the views we should have for sunrise, and sit up on the cliffs to plan our route for the next day. The valley is huge and striking. The continuation of the SHR appears to be a scree cliff over glacier-fed Iceberg Lake.
I’ve now adopted my new motto: ‘if plants can grow there, I can go there’!

Day 9 ~ Mt Ritter valley of lakes

We heard lots of animal footsteps and noises overnight. Now there are quite a few animal footprints around the lake! We actually got up before sunrise to hike to the top of the rocks to watch over the Minarets. Our unnamed lake also has an incredible reflection of the mountains.
Despite getting up before 7, it was still 10:30 before we managed to leave camp! We began our route- finding and hiked past every single lake in the back valley. Lakes, falls, mines, and rocks and cliffs of many different colors all awaited us.  We met two girls who were headed up to climb Banner and Ritter.  The back of the valley is at the base of a glacier with waterfalls coming down from it. We went down the side of the valley to the floor, then back up to Iceberg Lake and our campsite for the night. Tim startled a large hare who flew across the field, then suddenly stopped and stayed immobile in front of a large rock.
Storm clouds formed, but then broke up at sunset giving us a nice view. No rain (yeah!) though it might help with the fires.
A mouse really wanted into our tarp area and showed up repeatedly at the corner of the ground cloth. I suspected we might have covered the opening to his house! I apologized to it, and promised to let him back in tbe morning. Tim saw him again at night, poor little guy!
There is one other couple camped on the other side if the lake, bringing the total number of people we have sern today up to 4!
My knees are really swollen, but we’ve decided that we really prefer to be off-trail. The JMT seems to follow the valleys and always looks like the easiest route. We are planning how to stay more in the backcountry and avoid people and maintained trails.
The stars are lovely. Orion, Taurus, and the Pleiades are shining bright and clear in the early morning hours.

Day 10 ~ “I’ve found my limit “

My phone is 100% dead.  The solar charger is broken or junk, but pretty hard to return to Amazon from the backcountry!
There are clouds at sunrise… Actually, Tim thinks “the sun is stuck “! At any rate, it was a cold morning until the sun finally broke through the clouds.
I talked to the couple camped across the lake. They came down the pass from Celine Lake to Iceberg Lake the day before and thought it was pretty sketchy and steep. The same two gals that we saw the day before came by. One lives in Portland and the other in Truckee. They weren’t able to summit the peaks as the glaciers were too melted and the going too mushy and wet. They were now hiking out to go to some hot springs. We watched them go up and over the pass as they got smaller and smaller…
We started up the ‘trail’ to Celine Lake. I learned my limit. I fell early and scared myself. The pass is on scree and rocks and (leg-breaking) boulders. They all seem to move and be unstable. At one point I caught myself audibly whimpering. Tim saw a baby pika and I didn’t even care!  He was patient and looked after me and pointed out easier areas to traverse. We got too high up a boulder field at one point and he got scared for me and talked me back down to a safer place. The end was quite steep, but had good hand-holds so was less worrisome for me.
We walked around the lake over more boulders. At one point, two women in their 50s appeared. One addressed me rather rudely and asked where we came from. I pointed it out and they disappeared in that direction. My guess is that they tried to descend down a chute and got pretty scared! That looked even worse than what we had done…
We had snacks at the far side of Celine  Lake, then found our way down to Minaret Lake. Such a beautiful place, and with awesome smells of sage and pine. Someone along the shore was playing a flute. We had lunch along the lake. Tim kept feeding me bars ~ he was worried because I was stumbling a lot and fell again. I felt up to continuing on, and so we headed up to Dead Horse Lake. No trail to the lake, so more wandering. Mostly Tim scouted the route and I followed along. We saw a big buck. There were several fake lake areas, but we finally got to the glacier-fed, green-blue lake. We were alone and didn’t even see footprints! We found a nice campsite in the shelter of rocks and pine trees. It was quite an emotional day, and my sweat smelled of fear. The wind off the lake was arctic, but the sky (which had been overcast all day) cleared at sunset. We were really happy to have made the extra effort to get to this seldom-visited amazing place!
I’ll have to add more pictures later when I can download from my camera!

Day 11 ~ Devil’s Postpile and Red’s Meadow

We were actually up early because the sun found us early at the high lake. Tim took another swim (brrr) in the lake.  We meandered back down to rejoin the JMT. Another huge buck was sighted. After finding the trail, the walk was pretty boring and dusty. We were going down, down, down, and were lamenting the fact that we would have to later go up, up, up! The flute player from Minaret Lake was ahead of us and playing his flute for part of the way, though only on the downhill sections!
We ran out of water on the way down as the creeks were all dry. We arrived at Devil’s Postpile National Monument and headed to the ranger station. We filled up our water bottles and got an update on the Rough Fire which was burning in Sequoia National Forest. Turns out that the smoke was so bad at times that they had to close up the station and filter the air. Not good news. Even worse (for tired me), the shuttle had stopped running two days earlier so we had another two miles to walk to get to Red’s Meadow. Ugh.
Back on our feet, past the postpiles which were formed from lava cooling into geometric columns. We made it to Red’s Meadow, picked up our resupply boxes, and found that all the cabins were full. Over lunch at the cafe, our waitress Wendy was super-helpful. We had WiFi, so could check email and such. Funny, there were heaps of comments on Facebook about Tim wearing the same clothes and probably being smelly, but none about me! Funnier, he actually bathes in freezing cold lakes every night and washes his hiking clothes! Me… not so much. It is way too cold, though I do take bucket baths and wash clothes periodically.

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Next, we decided because of the fires to bail out from here. Since we needed to study maps and do some planning and reorganize our food… we opted to go to Mammoth. Lucky for us, the lovely lady (TJ)  doing cabin check-in was going to the high school football game in Mammoth and agreed to give us a ride! She has an apoloosa horse and does extensive trail riding and horse packing in the area. She actually retired from a bank job in Bishop and now works even harder helping out at Red’s and watching grandkids.

On our drive out, the smoke was thick and the sun was a dark red orb in the sky. We felt pretty happy about our decision!

Into Mammoth, check into the Best Western (into a room with a jacuzzi tub no less! ) and walk across the street to stuff ourselves with excellent food and wine. Gluttony at its finest! We spent the next day looking in outdoor stores, which is quite fun if you haven’t been to one in a few years.  We rode the trolley around town, had a nice lunch, and even caught a free bluegrass concert with a masssage booth at the finish line of a bike race! Mammoth Lakes is a nice town, reminds me of Bend (Oregon) in the late 90s. Then back to the room to study our maps and plan our next section: the northern section of the Sierra High Route.

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