SHR Day 4: How to fry your nerves

September 21, 2018

Palisade Lakes, Elevation 10,865 ft

That was one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had on trail in a while. I decided at the last minute to get out of the tent and go take a pee last night, and wow did that help! I highly recommend it, even if you aren’t sure you need to go, just do it! Usually I am lazy and I don’t bother, and then I fight off the need to pee throughout the night. This is bad, for we need all the sleep we can get during such endeavors.

Today was crazy with a capital “C”. Frozen Lake Pass, let me just say, WTF? The whole entire thing was a nerve-frying endeavor -to say the least and it took us the better part of the day to get up and over it. But before I jump into that, let me share what precipitated it’s crossing.

So this morning Hurlgoat was down by the lake’s edge, hollering again and again as he’s catching fish and watching a beautiful sunrise. I smile inside because he is happy, he is in his element. I am in mine, sitting all bundled up, drinking my coffee and pouring over the maps and Roper’s book, trying to grasp what to expect for the day’s route and also where to go once we leave camp. This terrain has a lot of lakes, streams and rocky outcroppings that lead to drop-offs and such, so it is somewhat prudent to follow where others have gone before.

So, I am reading the book notes, and it’s talking about Frozen Lake Pass, and I am looking at Skurka’s maps, and it matches. But what happened to Cartridge Pass? I remember seeing that somewhere, and we had been talking about it too. Cartridge Pass was not mentioned in Roper’s book, nor notated on Skurka’s maps with a waypoint. It is labeled on the map, and on certain maps, you can even see that there may be a faint trail there. I think this is the Old JMT, as it drops very steeply down the East side of Cartridge Pass down into the South Fork of the Kings River. From there one would have to follow the River upstream for a couple miles and then connect onto the JMT and head Northbound through Upper Basin and eventually Mather Pass. That all being said, the official Sierra High Route, or at least Roper’s SHR, and Skurka’s both go over Frozen Lake Pass and not Cartidge Pass. Ok, good to know.

Lake Basin looking toward Cartridge Pass

We discussed this matter over breakfast and while we decided we would make the final decision once we got to the split off point, we preemininently chose to stick with the traditional SHR and not the route we had GPS tracks for. In Ropers book, he describes Frozen Lake Pass as one of 2 or 3 of the most challenging passes (out of 33 passes) on the SHR. Notably, the ascent consists of mostly class 2 and some class 3 scrambling across lengthy boulder fields with talus and scree. It is steep at the top, but not as steep, lengthy and precarious as the descent. Roper writes about the descent “The initial class 2-3 slope, quite steep, contains extremely unstable rock and it is difficult to avoid instigating small rockslides. Hikers should move one at a time during this nasty descent, once again making sure that no one lingers in the fall line below.” Even with Roper’s description and words of caution, I was willing to give it a go, since it is, after all, what we came out here to do.

We made our way across the lovely terrain on Lake Basin for the first hour of the day, enjoying greater and greater views as we climbed grassy and rocky steps to ledges that then led to grassy meadows and then more rocky ledges. It was like we were climbing a giant’s steps. Finally, we climbed one more steep rocky slope up to a ridge with large boulders and slabs that led to the approach to Frozen Lake Pass.

Ridge leading to the tarn leading to the pass

The Pass itself, at 12,350 ft, is a notch hidden by a narrow ridge of big, sharp rocks along the crest below Vennacher needle. From the Lake Basin area, you can really only partially see the pass. You have to first ascend a ridge that leads to another basin with a medium sized tarn situated in a cirque beneath the pass. This tarn is surrounded completely by talus and the emerald green waters sparkle in the mid-morning sunlight. The ascent from that tarn, up to the notch in the pass, took well over an hour and a half of steady balancing on talus that I hoped would not move and crush me. We stopped once, about half way, to take a brief rest and have a snack, I didn’t even take off my pack and I only ate half a bar. Gotta keep moving…..

Hurlgoat on the far left heading toward the pass

Hurlgoat is way faster than me at this kind of hiking, so I always try to keep an eye on his location in the distance, and consider the route he has taken. He will stop to check back on me and sometimes wait for me or holler out some sort of suggestion about a route that either works or doesn’t work. But basically, I am on my own. I am totally fine with this and I take my time to ensure my footing is secure, and that I am using three points of contact most of the time, as needed.

I am not sure I would call it a rhythm really, this kind of hiking, but there are times when I would notice I was sort of dancing over the rocks, tip-toing, keeping such muscle control that my landings were silent like a dancer. There was not a sound except for my breathing, and the occasional rock that would shift, or the scree that would slide under my feet. I felt an amazing sense of focus, whereby all there really was, all I could really take in, were the rocks under the gentle grip of my hands and under the rubber of my shoes. It became my own little Satori. I often found the upper slope of rock to my left worked well as a “rail” whereby I would use my hand to stabilize myself, placing my trekking poles in my right hand. Most of the ascent I was not using my trekking poles unless it was in a section of scree, so I probably could have put them away, but didn’t.

The last 200 feet revealed a little dirt path where you could tell others had gone before, it was well worn, made of fine slippery dirt interspersed with rocks of varying sizes, occasional grass and other plants that held the soil together, just waiting to be trampled by the hikers. I try my best not to trample the little delicate plants, but inevitably, it does happen, especially if I am feeling a bit unsafe, and I must use vegetation to secure a foothold. Sorry little plants!

Made it to the top!

We made it to the top of the pass around noon or so, I am not entirely sure, and when I got up there, bracing myself against the wind, Hurlgoat says “you’re not gonna like what the descent looks like babe”. I’d already prepared myself for a very difficult if not downright scary descent, based on what I read in Roper’s book though. When I got up there and looked down, it was atually not as bad as I thought it would be. This is mostly because there was a little trail that sends the hiker straight down squiggly little switchbacks, and for some reason, the fact that it was not just giant boulders, gave me a sense of relief. Don’t worry, the VW bus size boulders come later.

We took several photos from the pass, I finished my protein bar that I’d eaten only half of at our last “break” and quickly we set off to get out of the wind. I could see to my right, giant walls of granite, with dark streaks embedded in long lines and it cast deep shadows from the overhang, under which there were still a couple lingering snowfields. I don’t honestly know what would have been better for me, descending on the loose, slippery scree-dirt-talus or a field of snow, which I am carrying traction for but haven’t needed yet.

looking down from the pass
the route into Upper Basin and Mather pass

Nevertheless, I followed Hurlgoat’s lead, and took my ever so careful and tedious time making my way down. I did not like the feeling of the Earth slipping from under my feet on the slope that must have been 30 degrees. It was all I could do to resist a fall, a slide, with my momentum wanting to barrel down that hill. Hurlgoat literally barreled down it though, sliding and skidding down, setting off rock slides, and watching him do this did not make me feel any better. Especially because now he has to wait for me. But I still went as slow as I needed to, in order to feel like I was safe and in control. All of those “fear” emotions were welling up again and I tried to maintain my composure by taking steady, deep breaths.

looking back up at the initial descent

Seriously how much adrenaline must be pumping through my system this morning? I found myself occasionally taking a break from the skidding and taking a long sigh, releasing all the muscle tension….then I would take a look around, snap a few photos of where I was and what I was doing, not because I was having such a good time, mind you, but because I wanted to be able to look back and confirm later, it was not a dream. It took me nearly an hour and a half to drop the steep 500 feet over what we determined was about a tenth of a mile from the pass to the little tarn below.

A tenth of a mile! 500 feet!!

When I finally got to the tarn, the emerald clear pool swooned me, and I wanted nothing more than to sit by her shore and rest, my knees were killing me and my nerves were fried. So, that’s what we did. At this point, we were still on boulders and talus, so it was not a relaxing break, but it was necessary. We both ate a light lunch and I attempted to share some of my feelings of fear with Hurlgoat, hoping that he could better understand all that I was going through emotionally because clearly we were having very different experiences.

He had said to me at one point during the descent “you just need to be more confident with your steps” and boy that really pissed me off. Like confidence was a swich I could just turn on and I had just absentmindedly forgotten to? I don’t feel confident in the terrain we crossed today at all. Even the ascent, while I did just fine, I was never confident or relaxed to the point that I was “enjoying” myself. To the contrary, on this crazy-ass descent, Hurlgoat was playing music from his phone and singing as he works his way down.

Trust me, I want to enjoy this too, and I do enjoy the beauty all around me, but the activity of boulder hopping, talus negotiating and trying not to let momentum and gravity take over me at every step of the way is downright nervewracking. In the aftermath of the accident from this Summer, I can’t help but visualize the worse case scenario of extreme injury and having to be rescued again. No. No. And No.

I was definitely out of my comfort zone for many hours today, and getting to the lunch break after the initial descent from Frozen Lake Pass was only the half of it. I thought about the comfort zone, and how important it really is to get outside of it and see what you find. Well, I did that today, and I am not really sure what I gained just yet. Earlier this Summer, while hiking the Colorado Trail, I was talking with Prince about finding my “edge” and learning what my upper limits are. Today I thought I may have found it, and to my surprise it didn’t have anything to do with pushing myself physically, but rather it was about overcoming the emotion of fear.

After lunch, we looked out to the far side of the little gemlike tarn we were sitting by, and as far as the eye can see were piles of giant boulders. Beyond the horizon, the eye wanted to make sense of what came next, but you can’t see over the edge. We could not anticipate what was going to happen next. So, we just started to navigate across and through, around and on top of the VW bus size boulders. And they just kept getting bigger and bigger. Boulders the size of vehicles were common for the next hour.

boulder field after the tarn

From our lunch spot at the little tarn, we didn’t know it, but we had a solid 500-700 ft descent down to the next tarn and flat-ish “ground” and all of it was comprised of giant boulders. We spent the good part of the next hour and a half tackling that descent. It wasn’t nearly as scary as the descent immediately after the Pass, but by now my knees were really sore and I was sort of done with the boulder scramble thing. When I finally reached the bottom and caught up with Hurlgoat, I reached down and grabbed a handful of the first dirt I stepped on and gleefully tossed it in the air, dirt!!!

Looking back at the drop from the tarn

As I mentioned previously, I was super excited to have entered Upper Basin from Frozen Lake Pass, a completely different approach than I ever knew possible, having hiked in the N-S direction on the JMT/PCT a few times. Indeed, it was pretty dang cool. Especially once we started our traverse Eastward toward the center flat section of Upper Basin, looking back to the Pass, seriously it was mind-blowing what we just came down. I don’t even know if I have comprehended it just yet. It looks absolutely insane!

where we just came from at the pass

We made our way across Upper Basin, negotiating much easier terrain, mostly long grassy patches, a few boulder scrambles, some squishy spongy Earth near little creeklets and lots of beautiful golden or auburn vegetation that began to glow in the afternoon light. We even saw a group of bucks near the trail who were curious enough about us to allow us a photo! Finally we came right up to a 12″ wide pure dirt path heading in the N-S direction, and we rejoiced, the JMT!!! Oh wow did it feel fantastic to walk on an actual trail, let me just tell you. From here, we would be on trail for the next 4-5 miles, up over Mather Pass and to our campsite in the Palisade Lakes area. We walked along at a good clip from here on, heading North toward the approach to Mather Pass.

When we reached the base of the climb for Mather, it was 5:15 pm. I was in a way better mood now that I had done some “normal” walking and the climb only reinforced my confidence once again, as we made it to the top of the Pass in only 25 minutes. I had looked around on the way up, reminiscing that climb I did in 2016 up this pass in the snow, and what a bitch that was. That was undoubtedly one of my more difficult days on trail. That day, we were nowhere near the actual trail and it was slosh and post-hole hell. This was, compared to that, and especially compared to the day we had today, a literal dream to walk up. I was barely breathing hard when I crested the high point and checked my HR, it was only 110 bpm. Chill, for a 11,900 foot pass. My what a difference a trail makes!

The decent into Palisade Lakes is one of my favorite hikes of all time. There is something magical about this basin, and every time I hike here, I just want to stop and go really slow and absorb it all. Today was no different, except that we were loosing daylight, there was an icy chill to the rising wind and we still had a ways to get to our camp. So, we pressed on, taking some photos of the sunlight warming up the walls, and practically gliding down the well maintained trail.

Hurlgoat had a tentsite in mind, near the Palisade Lakes, which he’d camped at in 2014 on his JMT hike. We decided to make this campsite our goal. It is just about 1/3 of the way along the upper Palisade Lake, and tucked into some trees that protect you from the wind.

As we made our way along the floaty and ethereal trail, the wind began to pick up and it started getting pretty cold. I stopped to bundle up in my puffy and hiked with my hands in my pockets. We stopped at a lovely peaceful creek that crossed the trail and filled up on water for the night. Having stopped and now looking around, I started to reailze I had finally relaxed, I made it through this day and I was safe. I was safe and I was in one of my favorite places on Earth. Hallelujah!

We set up camp as it got dark and then made minestrone soup for dinner. Oh my was that soup amazing! I was just out for a pee when I looked up to the crest of a high ridge behind our camp, rising a solid 2,000 feet above, when I noticed a glimmer so bright, at first I thought it was a star. Turns out that glimmer got bigger and brighter, and soon I realized it was not a star, but the moon, swiftly, subtley, just floating up into the night sky to watch over us. Thank you Universe, for getting me through this day!

3 thoughts on “SHR Day 4: How to fry your nerves

  1. Very well said, I enjoyed reading this as I had a similar experience going up and over Frozen Lake Pass. It took me an entire day to hike from Marion Lake to the Upper Basin region. The fact you made it over Mather in the same day is quite impressive. Next time I am in the Lakes Basin region think I will go over Cartridge instead of Frozen Lake. That pass is so intimidating and those VW size boulders halfway down after that first tarn … sucks!!!! DoubleTap

  2. Real serious adventure that you won’t soon forget. Your writing & the pictures really bring it to life for the reader!!!

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