The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
I woke to a still, silent morning. The surface of the lakelet was again dimpled all over with feeding trout. I ate some oatmeal, packed and left.
Like all the glacially carved valleys of the Sierra, this was one of a series, separated by steep steps. I climbed the next step, pausing to remove the wool shirt, and came out of the Lodgepole Pine forest into the light and views of the basin of Evolution Lake. I stopped for water and trail mix and a chat with three young guys from Sacramento. They were the first people I had seen in two hours of walking. We talked about fishing, the only subject that seemed to interest them. They had come up from the Central Valley the previous day and were going to do the southern half of the JMT. I headed off, telling them we’d probably meet again later.
After Evolution Lake the canyon ascends gradually past a series of four lovely lakes, Sapphire, an un-named lake, Wanda, and Lake McDermand. After Sapphire Lake the trees gave out except for a few dwarfed Whitebark Pines, but I saw a tent among some boulders near the un-named lake and another pitched down near the shore of Lake Wanda.
Lake Wanda was named for one of Muir’s daughters. It sits in the broadest part of this highest Evolution Basin, surrounded by rocks and flowers and patches of snow at 11,462 feet. I looked deep into the clear waters of the lake as I was photographing some columbine that leaned out from the shore. The lake seemed barren of fish, but the water was an iridescent blue that had the warmth and feeling of life and the waves, powered by a breath of wind, vibrated like the fur of a stalking cat.
Just below the pass, I met a couple strolling along, hand in hand. They wore fairly small internal frame backpacks, and each carried an ice axe.
“Hi!” I said, buoyed by their evident high spirits. “Doing a bit of climbing?” They were obviously as glad as I for the chance to talk, they kept supplementing each other’s answers.
“Yes, we’re climbing our way north to the Desolation Wilderness.”
“Up by Tahoe. We did the John Muir Trail.”
“Starting June 10.”
“And now we’re sort of doing it again, but climbing all the peaks we just looked at before.”
I looked down at their feet. They had lightweight boots like the Angry Young Woman I had met while walking with Sean near Island Pass.
“Didn’t you have any trouble with snow on the passes, starting so early?”
“Our boots? No, there wasn’t much snow. We just did the passes in the morning while it was still frozen. Might of been a bit hard later in the day, but that’s just planning.”
“The Sierra’s so easy, if you do it right.”
“No trouble at all. And it’s so gorgeous here!” They had their arms around one another’s waists. I had the distinct feeling that this was a honeymoon trip, and the honeymoon was being a constant high. They were about 25, and made me feel old, though I had been going strongly and steadily uphill for over four hours without strain. I wished them “Happy Trails” and walked the last half mile up to the pass. They turned and practically danced down the trail.
Muir Pass, at 11,955, was the highest point on the trail, thus far. The trail crosses the pass running east- west, so the view to the west is out across the spreading basin enclosing the lakes I had just skirted, walking up. With some clouds in the sky to scatter the light and reflect in the lakes, it must have some of the most spectacular sunsets in the world. Now, at one-thirty on a cloudless July day, it was an ocean of light.
“Light. I know not a single word fine enough for Light. Its currents pour, but it is a heavy material word not applicable to holy, beamless, bodiless, inaudible floods of light.” Muir suggested the Sierra Nevada, the Snowy Range, should actually be called The Range of Light. I guess that would be Sierra Lucida in Spanish. Nowhere is that more true than at the pass that bears his name.
There’s a hut built squarely in the middle of Muir Pass, or rather, roundly in the middle, since it’s the shape of a beehive. It was built in 1930 of unmortared stone after the pattern of huts used in Southern Italy. It cost $5810.48, mostly for packing in the workmen, their tools, and enough firewood to keep them warm and fed while they patiently hacked away at the enduring granite. The Angry Young Woman had complained about how the snow drifted in through cracks in the stonework, and how she spent most of the night stuffing paper between the stones. I saw the paper, lots of it, when I went inside.
The inside was beautifully finished. The curving roof and the rough surfaces of the granite blocks made a mosaic of light and shade, a miniature Sierra Penada–a Range of Rocks.
I ate my lunch on the front step. Another backpacker was just finishing his lunch. He was about 50, and his frame pack was worn and patched. I commented on my surprise that he was only the seventh person I had seen all day.
“Sorry,” he said, “Your too late for the crowds. About 18 years too late.”
“You used to come here in the sixties, when it was busier?”
“You got it. Back in the sixties I used to see dozens of hippies here, every time I came by. All camping out naked and smoking dope. I’ve seen so many sunburned asses here you could have papered the hut with the peeling skin. You couldn’t go inside, the smoke from the hash pipes was so thick.”
“You doing the whole JMT?” I asked.
“Nah. Just Whitney Portal to Reds Meadows. It’s too crowded for me up around Thousand Island and Yosemite. Too damn many people in the mountains. Too many damn horses.”
Another hiker joined us, also coming up from the south. He has doing the Pacific Crest Trail from New Army Pass (near Whitney) to the Oregon border. He shook off his pack like it was filled with down, though it made a solid clunk when it hit the ground. He was like Blair, incredibly fit, not winded by his climb up. He opened the top flap of his pack and took out–a mango!
That was really too much. A fresh, ripe, luscious mango, the sweet juice of the tropics, on top of one of the highest passes in the Sierra. He sucked it noisily, reveling in its sweet, juicy flesh. It was quickly gone, and he raked the pit with his teeth and licked his fingers enthusiastically.
“That was really great!” he said. Turning to me, he added, “I was just passing some people down the trail a bit and a middle-aged woman said, `Here, you look like you could use this.’ Far out, huh?” I nodded and nibbled a bit of now- tasteless cheese. He tossed the mango pit into a crack between two of the stones forming the stairs into the hut. I stared at him.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s biodegradable.”
“Not up here, it’s not. Nothing will biodegrade up here. It will just dry out.” My ecological conscience combined with jealousy to make my voice particularly severe.
“Well maybe it will grow. Wouldn’t that be awesome? A mango tree growing on the pass?”
Voices and loud footsteps interrupted us. A group of ten came up the trail mounted on fine-looking horses. There were two couples, two wranglers and four children, about ages eight through fourteen. They dismounted and prowled around the hut, snapping pictures of one another, gazing at the view, nibbling on fruit and candy bars. I didn’t see any mangoes, but this was obviously the source of the PCT hiker’s treat. I noticed that the packers gathered all the fruit remains and candy wrappers into a plastic bag which they put in a saddlebag. The horses were gathered off to the side among some rocks, nearly out of sight and sound of the hut. I asked one of the women how their trip was going.
“It’s marvelous, just wonderful. The kids are loving every minute of it and the staff does everything. All I have to do is enjoy the view and try to eat all the food they give me.”
Soon I packed up and left. I had carried only one liter of water up to the pass and that had gone quickly. I needed to hike down off the pass to find more.
From the hut, the trail dropped quickly to Helen Lake, named for Muir’s other daughter. Muir, Wanda and Helen– where was Louie, Mrs. Muir? I drank my fill from a trickle flowing into the lake below a snowbank, then plunged down into LeConte Canyon.
Several people had commented on how barren, inhuman and frightening they had found Muir Pass. I had thought it beautiful. Now the trail plunged down into a really scary scene, a wilderness of overlapping avalanche tracks and shattered walls. The trail repeatedly crossed snowy patches, breaking the rule that Sierra passes are snowier on their north sides. This canyon faced southeast but it was so narrow, twisting and deep that I was often in shadow, and the snow had lingered. It was an intensely vertical landscape, something out of one of those tall, thin oriental scroll paintings but with the sensibility of the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich.
When I reached timberline, it was even worse. I repeatedly crossed areas where all the trees had been snapped off fifteen feet above the ground. They stood, forests of spars, eloquent testimony to some late-winter storm a few years ago. The snow must have lain deep among these trees when a huge storm blew in, engulfing the mountains and raining avalanches, sweeping the tops of the trees into the Middle Fork of the Kings River, a thousand feet below.
At a bend in the trail I met a young guy coming up with a frame pack that had been mended with duct tape. I asked him what had happened.
“A bear.” I stared. “I was at Woods Creek Crossing. I’d gone fishing that day. I caught a few trout, cleaned’em and ate’em, that’s probably why. I had my food in the bear box, but this bear, he come along in the middle of the night, stepped on my pack, I’d left it outside my tent, and he just swiped at the top of my tent and ripped it all to hell. I shouted and he ran off. But it was kinda terrifying.”
We talked a bit more about bears and how to avoid being woken up by them attacking your tent. Then we parted. He said, “Happy Trails! May the wind be always at your back.”
Soon after this meeting, about 2,000 feet below the pass, I stepped on a smooth, sloping rock covered with a thin layer of sand. My foot slid on the sand then held when the rock ended, but the momentum of my slide was transferred by the inexorable laws of physics – “a body in motion tends to stay in motion …” and the weight of my pack carried my torso ahead. I fell forward onto my left side, hand, knee and elbow.
I rolled over and sat in the trail, leaning against my pack. I didn’t seem to be injured, but I knew that it was better to wait a few minutes before trying to stand. I took stock of my situation. There was nobody around, but I was quite literally on the busiest trail in the area, so even if I couldn’t walk a step, someone would find me soon enough. It would be a hell of a job getting me out of this deep canyon, no chance of a helicopter setting down anywhere nearby. I was acutely aware of just how thin an edge I was treading, backpacking alone. One mistake or accident like this, combined with a bit of bad luck (kneecap banging hard on a sharp rock, for instance), and my hike would turn into an adventure. Like the Boy Scout James, only worse.
Eventually I got up, gingerly, testing my legs, knees, feet, etc. Everything seemed to be in proper working order, no new pains anywhere. I gripped my ski pole and set off again, slowly.
I camped that night at Little Pete Meadows. At first I was going to go on because the only dry, smooth bits of ground I could see were in a narrow strip wedged in between the trail and the edge of the meadow. Also, a big pack group was camped there. There were at least 20 people (more than I had seen all day) gathered around a blazing fire. I would have gone on, even though I had already covered 17+ miles, but they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse–beer!
Most of the mounted people I had met all along the trail were friendly to backpackers. I had been given two apples a few days earlier by a horsepacker, I had seen the PCT hiker with his mango, and now I was drinking beer someone had packed up on a horse.
Backpackers, as I had seen, didn’t appreciate all this good will and largesse. Most went out of their way to criticize horsepackers for tearing up the trail, polluting the mountains and waters with manure, and building huge campfires at elaborate campsites. Many were clearly affronted by the presence of would-be cowboys in their sacred mountains, mountains made holy by the travels of the great mountain-prophet, Muir.
Yet Muir rode and built enormous fires, and even burned the slow-growing, alpine zone Whitebark Pine to stay warm. Some of the things he did were simply ignored by his admirers. They didn’t fit in with his image, the image of the wandering scholar-seer. He started the image-making process himself, of course, but the difference between image and fact is particularly vivid when it comes to horses. For most backpackers, horses are a sacrilege in their sacred space. Some only object to commercial packers, not to privately owned horses, since “commercialism” smacks of “money-changers in the temple” –sacred space again.
I’m too aware of how practical a horse can be, and how little damage they do if they are properly managed. Horses don’t have to tear up meadows if trails are routed on dry ground, or if the horses are kept off the trails until they are dry. They don’t have to deposit piles of manure next to watercourses if they are not tethered in such spots. They don’t have to run away and tear up lush meadows if they are properly managed, particularly by placing the camp between the grazing horses and the nearest meadow.
The outcry against horses in the Sierra has been growing in recent years, and the horsemen are scared. They see the likelihood that they will soon be excluded from certain trails, perhaps even from whole districts of the mountains. The Backcountry Horsemen of America is a new organization founded for the purpose of perpetuating horse access to the mountains by a threefold strategy, volunteer service (cleaning up litter, restoring impacted campsites), educating horsemen on minimum-impact or no-impact horse handling, and becoming involved in planning and lobbying. Their publication, “Back Country Horsemen Guidebook” is an excellent manual for avoiding trouble, though it does suggest hikers should wait on the downhill side of the trail for the stock to pass. I will stand quietly uphill and depend on the horsemen to keep their animals from bolting as they pass. This may seem a little hard on strings of mules, since mules are notorious for forgetting that they have ever seen a hat or whatever before, and are likely to shy away at this unknown object perched on a person’s head. I’ve spent enough time in the Himalaya, trekking for weeks on end with pack horses, so I’m not outraged by sharing the mountains with them.
Hours later, drifting off to sleep, I heard some of the group heading up the trail, out for a moonlight ride. They came back hours later, the horses hooves rattling the ground a few yards from me. It was almost enough to make we wish I’d gone on. Except for the beer.