July 18th, 2022
Onion Valley Trailhead –>Kearsarge Pass –>PCT –>Glen Pass –>XC –> Rae Col –>60 Lakes Basin
~ 13 miles +4,500 ft/ -2,500 ft
This week we embark on a very exciting adventure I’ve dubbed the High Sierra Tramp. The idea really came about with my Winter dreamings of spending a month or more tramping all around the Sierra Nevada. When that dream was born I imagined going solo, yet over the years my interest in cross country hiking has blossomed and I’ve sought hiking partners to do this with. Even still, my plans in 2021 were thwarted by the seasonal shift of wildfires and I’ve now been dreaming of this cross country adventure for three seasons. It is time to do this!
The inspiration for this particular route started with my need to complete a five day section of the Sierra High Route that I missed back in 2018 when I hiked it with Hurlgoat, link here for my blogs on that hike. What that experience embedded into my DNA was something that both terrified me and opened me up, so of course, that’s the perfect recipe for wanting more.
I contacted Christy Rosander (trail name Rockin’) to see if she may be interested in tackling this route together and she said yes! You can find her incredibly resourceful website here. Joining us this week is Christy’s hiking buddy Michelle (no trail name, doesn’t want one) whom I met earlier this year when they were out hiking a section of the Arizona Trail together. At that time, the two of them were calling themselves “Team Lounge” and well, apparently I’ve now qualified to become a new team member.
I wake just before 6am expecting to hear them rustling about, yet the morning air seems quite still and silent. We camped at the Onion Valley Trailhead last night and since I had a lot of organizing to do, I slept in my car while they tented. The morning light is just beginning to pour into the forest, it illuminates my string of prayer flags with a welcoming warmth. I am feeling quite comfortable here and could easily go back to sleep, but I need to get up, it’s time to hike! We all agreed they would get an hour head start heading up the pass, so I could sleep in a little and Christy could test out her lungs and take it easy on her first day.
Christy is healing up from recently having Covid and this is her first hike back, so she is testing the waters this morning on Kearsarge Pass, which goes right up to 11,700 ft. Our High Sierra Tramp should take us roughly 13 days, with one rest day in the middle. We have planned a 125 mile route which is 60% cross country, hoping to climbing a couple peaks, crossing over eight passes in the first week alone, including two today. The itinerary is a hefty one, hence our name Team Lounge. Perfecting the art of lounging in between doing hard things is going to be a must. And so is what Chrsity calls “not loosing your personality” which is also a requisite for being on the team.
I roll out of my car just as they are about to leave, my face feels all smashed up from sleep and my eyes feel like they are not fully open yet. Christy and Michelle are bubbling with energy from their coffee, in addition to the excitement for our adventure. They set off just after 6am while I am rubbing my eyes.
I begin my morning routine of boiling water for coffee and packing up my gear. I’ve got extra boxes of re-supply food that need to be stored in the bear locker and I need to move my car to a safe spot where it will sit for two weeks. Not gonna lie, I feel tired. I was up past 11pm last night doing all the final prep and organizing I needed to do since I only had one day off in between my last hike and this one. One day to get all the things done never seems like enough. But that’s what coffee is for and this morning I made a kick-ass pour over. Mmmmm hmmmm.
When I finally set foot on the trail it is 7:30am, a half hour later than I promised the girls. Christy was planning to go real slow to make sure her body was ok and so I knew I had a little cushion, but I know what a strong hiker she is and they are counting on my speed. I should probably keep a fairly solid pace. We are all carrying seven days worth of food, it’s a hefty carry, and my pack weighs a good 5 lbs more than what I carried on my last trip. Last week I did a “warm up” of about 135 miles I called the SEKI/HST Loop. It took me six days, averaging about 22 miles per day, pretty much all on trails. After that endeavor, I feel ready for what lay ahead. I feel strong and I’m gonna need that.
I know the Kearsarge Pass trail quite well. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve set foot on it’s lovely switchbacks. It’s the shortest and easiest access pass into the High Sierra from the East side at only 4.5 miles and 2,000 ft of elevation gain. I set off at a good clip, powering up the trail. At the John Muir Wilderness sign, there is a group of young women setting themselves up for a photo which I offer to take for them. Their energy is bubbly and light, it’s fun to feel their excitement and only ignites mine further. After that, I don’t stop until the half way point where I dunk a bottle into Flower Lake to get some water and a wicked tree branch almost impales me. Today is a picture perfect day, the temperature is balmy and comfortable in the shade, but hot in the sun. Nothing wrong with this scene whatsoever. It’s good to be here!
Peeking at my watch, I am making quite good time and that’s encouraging. There’s no sign of the girls, so they must be making their way closer to the pass. I push on and as I find my climbing rhythm, I start to really take in the tremendous beauty all around me. A few clouds are rolling in making the lighting more dramatic, casting shadows on the steep granite. The trail is dotted with twisted trees, small pristine lakes and dangling waterfalls. I pass by a certain familiar tree which sits right next to the trail, it’s like an old friend and I always greet it when I pass by. Today, the light happens to warm the golden bark so beautifully. If you’ve hiked this trail, you know this tree.
I love this tree. I love it here. I have great memories from this trail, from my first JMT thru-hike in 2013 to both my PCT thru-hikes to several day hikes up to the pass. I entered the Wildweness here for the SHR in 2018, following the trail down to Roads End. It goes on and on. The last time I hiked here was Oct 2021 when I was trying to find my friends (the Wander Women) in a fierce snow storm. I hiked to the pass three times in a 12 hour period, and yes I found them on try #3. Today I am in the beating July sun, beads of sweat are surfacing from the intense UV rays, yet as I gain elevation the air temperature produces a cool breeze that does wonders for my level of comfort.
Just prior to the final set of switchbacks at treeline, I cross paths with several hikers who inform me that my friends are at the pass waiting for me. Crap. They moved fast! Rumor has it that I am a very fast hiker but that I’ve been lollygagging. How does my reputation preceed me already? I better not let them down or I might be booted from my Team Lounge status. Can’t disappoint!
I feel energized knowing they made it to the pass already, that’s a good sign for Christy! I use that energy to push myself up the last of the switchbacks and when I arrive I see it took me exactly two hours, my best time yet! They have been up there for almost an hour and somehow there are about 20 people there all buzzing about. I could really use a snack, but we boogie on down the trail to escape the crowds. I am super thrilled to be with my friends, now it feels real. This is the beginning of what I know will be a great adventure!
We walk for a mile until we reach the first little creeklet streaming down from a higher elevation. The ice cold pristine mountain water is deeply refreshing and we all guzzle. We munch on snacks while taking notice how the weather is beginning to roll in, things can change so quickly in the mountains. As we walk away we are all wearing full rain gear. We still need to get over Glen Pass today, so we move on down the trail. Can’t do too much lounging today. As we walk, our conversation naturally falls to other hikes and climbs from this area, there is a lot to do here. The two of them share stories with me about climbing Mount’s Bago, Gould and Rixford which are all within striking distance.
By noon we are all very hungry so we stop at a tarn about a mile below Glen pass for a proper loungey lunch break. The rain had stopped for now, and we sit on some lopsided boulders, take off our shoes and rain gear, spread out our stuff to dry and commence eating and making tea/coffee. Before even 10 minutes have passed, the rain starts up again. At first we are all in denial, taking no action whatsoever. We are busy eating. Then suddenly it is flat our pouring on us and we are getting wet real fast. We frantically shove the remaining bites of food in our mouths, trying to get our shoes back on and simulatneously get everything back into our packs. We put rain gear back on and start hiking again cuz what else can we do? We each only ate about half a lunch and drank our coffees way too fast.
Even in the rain, the hike up to the pass is lovely, it’s a quite striking landscape here with a lot to admire. As the rain continues at a steady fall, I start feeling anxious since I did not line my backpack with a plastic bag this morning like I really should have. Finally I have to stop next to a large boulder and re-pack everything to make sure everything stays dry. Michelle stands by me trying to provide some protection from the falling rain, it does’t do much except her moral support is appreciated.
I think the mountains in this area attract weather, there’s no two ways about it, it seems there is more often than not, some storm system or clouds or wind, something going on most every time I come here. We climb and climb with our hoods up, our heads tucked down and the rain continues until we reach the pass. At the top we enjoy what’s available of the stellar views since much of the basins on either side are pretty socked in. Fortunately now, the rain has slowed enough that we can see our cross country route down below.
We pull out our maps and study the terrain. This is the perfect spot to do this. We identify where we will leave the trail, analyze some of the features we want to aim for and mentally map out the general route to Rae Col, our next objective. This is a fantastic way to plan your next moves from so high above!
We make use of the trail all the way down the pass to flatter ground but do not drop as low as Rae Lakes. Down there exists a trail called the 60 Lakes Basin Trail, but we are headed cross country into that basin a different way. The rain continues off and on and as we step foot away from the good ol’ JMT/PCT Christy shrieks with excitement. We are off trail,whoo hoo!! It’s like stepping through the looking glass when you leave the trail. You enter another world, like an alternate dimension, everything changes. When you hike cross country, every step you take requires attention and intention. Gone are the days of mindlessly following the path laid our before us, we are engaged in the terrain in a whole new way now.
Rae Col is a small dip in between two not very promenent features but still we have to srategize on how to get up there as we could stay higher on a ridge, but maybe run into some cliffs, or drop into a little ravine, then climb steeply to the Col for roughly 300 ft. We pull out our maps, get them oriented and calibrate our compasses to the correct declination. This is getting fun! We make our way in a zig zag up the steep slope, sometimes over rock and other loose soil yet other times lovely grassy Earth. From the top of Rae Col we can see our next objective which is the 60 Lakes Basin where we aim to camp for the night. From here, we can see the basin for sure has a string of four visible lakes, but 60? We wonder how it got that designation?
There is a lovely use trail leaving the Col and we ski-walk down the deep sand in a comfortable fashion loosing elevation very quickly. As is usually the case, when we look back at where we just came from, we can’t even see a route and we are all glad we were going down and not up. Soon we cross a small snow field and get to ski some more.
From here we can see the back side of Fin Dome, a prominent granite feature that’s well recognized when walking in the Rae Lakes area. It’s really cool to see it from a completely new perspective. The sights and sounds around us now are 100% wild too. The rain has slowed to an occasional sprinkle, the winds kiss the pine boughs, the creeks running below rush in a soft flow, and guess what? I hear the Hermit Thrush! I point this out to the girls and obsess on it for a minute. I am in love with this bird and I’ve been fortunate enough to hear it every single day I’ve been up here this month!
We are in such a lovely basin now with the ability to meander to our hearts content. We have plenty of time too, as it’s only around 4pm. We agree to continue to around 6pm before we stop for the night so getting some fueling in now seems to be necessary for us all. In just the small amount of cross country hiking we just did, all three of us need more calories. It is here that we get to hone our Team Lounge skills for the first time today.
The dynamic between us is a mix of quick chatter, banter and laughter most of the time, then we will fall silent as we pick our way through the magical scenery. We settle into a nice flow as the afternoon wanes and early evening births. This is my favorite time to hike. There is no more rain but the mosquitoes are appearing. Michelle is very allergic to them so requires a keen attention to their whereabouts and behaviour. We all have bug juice of various sorts and head nets, and we bust it all out for the final mile.
The 60 Lakes Basin Trail is no more than a faint use trail back here and we follow it for about a mile, then begin looking for a place to call home for the night. We need water, but not a lake, we need flat spots for three tents, but not a meadow. We scout around several areas before settling on a good spot. Christy points out “this is a good camp here” as we continue to walk, then a few seconds later “this is a good camp here” and then again “good camp” and once again. I’m giddy and she makes me laugh, I ask through my laughter “hey have you seen any good camping here?” We are all laughing now and so ready to stop walking and settle in for the night. It’s a good camp indeed!
It’s around 6pm and so lovely to be in camp this early as I typically hike until it’s nearly dark. Thus, I enjoy taking my time setting up my tent, getting my sleep system dialed and laying out my gear to dry. We actually get a few rays of sun so our camp looks like a giant yard sale of gear strewn across the rocks. Nearby, there is a small waterfall and the loveliest stream lined with vibrant grasses and wildflowers. It is the idyllic Sierra Nevada scene within treeline and we each make separate trips to the water to freshen up and fill up.
In camp we cook our meals and enjoy a satisfying hot dinner. We are all feeling quite satiated not only from the food, but from the wilderness around us and each other. By 7:30pm we are winding down as the day is coming to a close. They are both crawling into bed ahead of me, as I finish up my desert and make my bedtime tea. I stay out among the mosquitoes to do some stretching before crawling into bed. I am amazed my body is feeling quite good after last week’s demanding hike. Sweet!
It’s just after 9pm now, I am tucked inside my tent, all cozy, sipping tea and writing. Darkness is swooping in and there are faint whisps of cloud cover lingering but a low chance of rain tonight. Good thing, we’d like to start out tomorrow with dry gear.
Tomorrow is a big day and I’d be lying if I said I’m not anxious about climbing Baxter Peak. In the process of making the maps for our route, I calculated the slope angle of the final pitch to Baxter at 63% and gaining 1,200 ft in a quarter mile. Of course it will all be talus, I just have no idea how the hand holds will be, nor the exposure, nor how stable the rock, yet it is apparently just a Class 2 peak, so I’m probably overthinking it. Once on top, we will have a super cool looking ridge walk before dropping off the Northwest slope of the peak into the next basin. The drop makes me nervous too. I haven’t done any hiking like that since the SHR in 2018 so yeah, I just feel a little uneasy about it. Something in my intuition tells me I am going to be way outside of my comfort zone. These two ladies, however, are quite experienced and have shared many adventures together. I couldn’t ask for better partners, so I’m going in. You know what they say, courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.