September 22, 2018
Barrett Lakes, Elevation 11,500 ft
I dreamed a lot last night, let’s either say it was the Full Moon or the Minestrone soup, because Hurlgoat had lots of dreams too. I was in the middle of a dream when the sound of coyotes howling in the distant valley pierced my ears. I was only dully aware of them, as if there were a thick buffer between wake and sleep. Hurlgoat whispers to me “babe do you hear that?” and I muster a response out of my slumber “mmm hmmm”. I then roll onto my other side and drift back into that wonderful state of not awake and not asleep. It was already 7:00 am and it didn’t matter, we were in no rush today.
Waking up in Palisade Lakes basin is a treat to be sure, and we lingered all morning looking over maps, eating breakfast, washing socks and underwear. We were drinking it all in like a tall glass of water before having to move on. After some sock washing, I sat by the rushing creek, listening to the most pleasant of sounds as the sun warmed me. The water spat fresh ions into my lungs and brain. Those negatively charged molecules of Hydrogen and Oxygen when set into motion, miraculously make human brains secrete more serotonin, that lovely hormone that makes you feel happy.
Alas, we set off by 10:30 am, our latest start yet, because we knew we only had something like 8 miles to get to Dusy Basin. Mileage, if you haven’t noticed yet, is elusive out here. We have resources like Skurka’s charts and like our GPX way points, but they tend to differ. Thus, we are simply guessing on mileage every day. And, it really doesn’t matter, because the actual terrain dictates our pace, and how far we go each day. Anyway, from Dusy Basin, we will pick up the Bishop Pass trail and take that down to South Lake Trail Head. From there, we’ll hitch to Bishop and hopefully stay at Hostel California, the BEST hostel around. We only plan to get there sometime tomorrow, so we are in no rush and today is a little bit of luxury day.
Still, today we had to climb two major passes, Cirque Pass (11,929 ft) and Potluck Pass (12,146 ft) and get to Barrett Lake for the night. From there we will be set up to head over either Knapsack Pass or Thunderbolt Pass to get into Dusy Basin. We hiked a whopping 6.3 miles today and climbed 2,100 ft, descended 1,400 ft. Out highest elevation of the day was Potluck Pass at 12,146 ft. Damn that was a beautiful pass! More on that later.
This morning leaving Palisade Lakes, we practically floated down the good ‘ol JMT/PCT in the sun and chilly wind. We ran into a myriad of JMT hikers and stopped to say hello to them. We took a ton of photos, loving the light glittering on the surface of the lakes and admiring the golds and yellows of the Fall season. This entire basin is absolutely magical, and I just smiled from ear to ear all morning as we walked to it’s end.
The SHR takes a sharp right off the trail at the Northern end of the Lower Palisade Lake, heading more East and Northeast. We broke off the trail and began ascending big slabs of granite interspersed with grassy ramps, and some class 2 scrambling. Cirque pass itself was not visible to us from where we were, and we learned it would elude us for quite some time. It was necessary to attempt this pass in stages, whereby you would climb up some boulders and grassy ramps to get to a bench where you found little lakes and lots of beautiful yellow grasses, little water outlets and the views back down into the Palisade basin were insane. Insane.
I wondered why more people don’t know about coming up here. As we climbed, the smell of mint filled the air and with each step I wondered how many people had placed their foot on this place on Earth? I am feeling really special these days. As I walked along, negotiating small boulders, slabs, grass, drying flowers, and sparkling little tarns, that song “almost paradise” from Footloose started playing through my head, and it made me laugh because the song is so cheesy, but it’s how I felt out there today.
We´re knocking on heaven´s door
How could we ask for more?
I swear that I can see forever in your eyes
We climbed to yet another bench after a few hundred additional feet and then reached the final approach to Cirque Pass, which eventually led us along a steeply angled polished granite slab that swept us up like a steep escalator, right up to the pass at 11,929 ft. The views from up there were absolutely stellar! I am loving this day!
We spent some time taking photos, videos and just taking it all in. Then we looked to our next goal. We needed to get down to the “unnamed lake” below and get ourselves set up for Potluck pass next. The first drop off of Cirque Pass required me do do some sitting on my butt and sliding down, as it was a narrow and steep little chute with loose scree and polished granite combined. I scooted down on my bum very carefully, using my grip on the coarse granite around me to control my momentum while Hurlgoat stood at the base of the chute, ready to catch me if I lost control. It wan’t that bad, but I was glad he was there. And, at least it went by quickly!
We made it about 200 feet down before we decided it was time for lunch, and we were out of the wind, so we sat there and took a break with, again, stunning views. From there it was a pretty easy drop down to the lake where we crossed the outlet and started the arduous task of climbing to the top of Potluck. From below it looks seriously daunting, there are just these walls of big slabby granite that you can’t see beyond, because it is steep, you do not have depth perception from down below. You simply can’t see the pockets in a third dimension which you will soon be climbing upon. Roper’s book describes this segment as “from afar, the upper part of this pass looks impassable because of steep, monolithic cliffs.” We had to negotiate several different possible routes and eventually worked our way to the approach. That is, after negotiating some massive car sized boulders, just to get around the shore of the lake. I don’t think we took Roper’s recommendation on this part and we went the harder way. Let’s just say we did some serious upper body maneuvering on this one!
This feels more like climbing than hiking for sure!
Climbing to the pass was a mix of class 2-3 scrambling followed by little grassy and rocky benches that angled upward, followed by more class 2-3 scrambles. It’s hard to say what is class 2 or class 3 out here, but what I can say is that much of the time I am using my hands on rocks to either balance myself or hoist myself up. It goes without saying my shoulders are sore! We zig-zagged our way up the shelves until eventually we found ourselves on the last straight away on a narrow ledge that led to a notch that was the pass. The ledge forced you to climb yet another 40 feet, class 2-3 up to the top, and I definitely was glad to have Hurlgoat’s hand, literally, at the top to make the final pitch, because it was a stretch for my 5 ft frame.
Once we were up there, oh my were we elated. It was jaw dropping gorgeous. Standing on a narrow ridge, like we were on the top of the world, taking photos was definitely a highlight of the day.
This is why we come out here!
We stood up there for maybe 20 minutes, taking in the views, taking photos, feeling very accomplished with this one. The views in every single direction were of massive mountains, far off into the vast distance, and up close were towering jagged peaks dominating the scenery. In these places, you just feel so small, so vulnerable. And yet- so invincible- at the same time.
Making our way down Potluck pass was easy peasy lemon squeasy. We descended into a basin with more little tarns, flat grassy meadows, meandering streams with spongy Earth, drying mud and interspersed boulders that poised themselves next to shelves that dropped off. It was peaceful walking and meandering up here and often times we found ourselves following a faint trail. It took us about an hour to make it to the main Barrett Lake, where we planned to camp. We were quite fortunate and found a perfectly flat spot nestled among a couple large boulders, about 200 ft above the lake and positioned directly below the towering North Palisade Peak. At 14,267 ft, North Palisade is the 3rd highest in the Sierra, with a 1,500 ft face. Talk about feeling small. Very very small.
It was actually really nice to get to camp so early tonight, 5:30 pm! We got everything set up, and Hurlgoat went down to the lake to try his luck at fishing while I continued to sit in the sun, basking, relaxing. It was actually pretty chilly out, and I needed to get warm and stay out of the breeze. I sat leaning against a rock and closed my eyes, as the lake reflected the sunlight so intensely, blindingly. We were facing due West and I loved the feeling of the sun on my skin. I nearly fell asleep. Then, suddenly, I heard Hurlgoat screaming and exclaiming “Oh my God, Holy shit” and then “this is the biggest trout I’ve ever caught…hahahaha!” I threw on my warm clothes, grabbed my empty water bottles and raced down to see this sight.
I’ve never fished before, and I certainly never saw how to gut and prepare a fish for dinner, so this was interesting to me. Not to mention very exciting to eat a fresher than fresh trout from a pristine lake at over 11,000 ft elevation, what??!!
I watched the whole process and he explained to me what he was doing step by step. We thanked the beautiful female fish for giving us her life, for her body to feed our bodies, and ended up with a beautiful body of pink protein, ready to cook. We slowly simmered her in the water for about 30 minutes and then effortlessly the bones slipped away from the meat, so we could then add our other ingredients to the fish, or the fish to the other ingredients. Either way, this was by far the best trail meal I have ever experienced!
We sat in 30 F temperatures, surrounded by large boulders, keeping us out of the chilly wind, enjoying our meals. As we silently ate, we watched the stars emerge and the nearly full moon graced us with her glowing presence, lighting up the towering granite above us, glittering her light on the lake, and smiling down on us as if in a blessing of good fortune. Yes, this isn’t just “almost paradise” it is “actual paradise.”