Dumbell Pass –>Dumbell Lakes — Ampitheater Pass –> Cataract Creek –> PCT/JMT at Bishop Pass Trail Junction
July 22, 2022
This morning I again wake several minutes before my alarm. I was really hoping to go back to sleep, even for 15 more minutes, but then I hear Michelle’s alarm and I know its time. I make coffee and eat cold leftover dinner that I didn’t finish last night straight out of the zip lock baggie. It tastes pretty good.
We set off by 6:03am heading straight up a lovely, mellow ramp to Dumbell Pass. From our camp it takes all of 30 minutes to get there, a wonderful way to get the muscles warm and the juices flowing for the day.
Peering over to the other side of the pass we see nothing but talus. Yup, this is what we did not want to do last night. Good call. There are giant boulders as well as some ledges to negotiate and some gully’s to avoid. It seems every pass has a strategy to work through and areas to avoid. This one is not complex or particularly dangerous, but we still want to make it enjoyable and not create more work for ourselves so we stop to strategize on the way down.
From half way down the pass we can see across the Dumbell Lakes basin. There are two passes we are able to identify, one is Observation Col, and the other is Ampitheter Pass (aka Cataract Creek Pass). We are aiming for the latter, and this is a great vantage point from which to strategize.
We pull out our maps and compare what we see on paper to what we see in 3D. Both Michelle and I point to what we think is Ampitheater Pass but we are wrong. That one is Observation Col. It’s a funny thing, we were wrong because we made it too complcated. That, and we did not orient our maps, which Christy gently points out “Always orient your map!”
Such a simple, important habit to get into. It’s so easy to default to just holding up your map thinking you have it lined up correctly, however when properly oriented, we see our mistake. Pretty cool. We also read over our notes from Skurka’s KCBHR. His notes are pretty minimal but worth referencing as occasionally you get a little nugget of information to work with. We check our GPS’s as a cross reference and then we talk. I love this process and love the opportunity to put it into action. This is a big part of why I am out here. I want to use my brain as a tool to enhance my relationship with the landscape, making new discoveries and connecting places where I’ve previously been to new ones.
Making our way down to the basin, there are some fun ledges that we zig zag across and creatively drop into. The Dumbell Lakes area is absolutely gorgeous, especially with the peaceful atmosphere of morning light. We’ve been passing through so many lake filled basins this week. One could spend a lot of time exploring each one. Constantly surrounded by high towering granite peaks in every direction, it seems as if this land is all that exists, expecially now that all we’ve been doing for four days is moving through it.
We scout our route to Ampitheater Pass and up we go. It’s a steep grind. Michelle knocks this one out and I try to keep pace with her and I am suddenly roasting in the sun. That soft morning light has already slipped through our cupped hands. I am dripping with more sweat now than any other thing we’ve done this week and it’s only 9:30am.
At the pass we all scrunch up in the margins of shade eating snacks and enjoying the tremendous vantage point this particular pass offers. Christy is commenting on several of the features and how we can basically see the entire Sierra High Route from up here. The whole chain of Palisades is viewable from here, you can almost identify Potluck, Knapsack and Thunderbolt passes. Super Rad.
Meanwhile, I am not able to take in what she is saying as much as I’d like to. I am feeling extremely sleepy and start to obsess on finding my caffeinated energy gel. I blindly dig into my food supply while they are talking and come up empty handed. I shove a handful of nuts into my mouth instead, but it’s not satisfying. I reach in for the fourth time and eventually my hand finds an entire bar of dark chocolate with hazelnuts. Score! I tear it open consuming half the bar on the spot and it’s like a soothing infusion into my bloodstream.
I try not to focus too much on the possibility that I don’t have quite enough food for the level of energy output we are expending. I have sort of been stretching out my snacks trying to make it to lunchtime as my lunches are solid. I could use more snacks to buffer my meals. But it will be fine, it has to be. I for sure have the hiker hunger tho. After all that hiking I did last week and what we are doing now, I can tell my waistline is thinner. Hiker hunger is such a fascinating thing, your body transforms into a calorie devouring machine and the thought of food takes over your brain function frequently.
Once my blood sugar stabilizes I can focus on what we are doing next. We are still crunched up in the little bit of shade looking over our notes and maps. The travel down from the pass beyond the initial corniced drop is a lot to figure out. It’s amazing how complex a landscape can become when there is no trail. Our notes describe this as a draw, what is a draw? What’s the difference between a draw, a gully and a chute? Apparently it’s smaller than a gully, yet not as narrow and steep as a chute. Thank you Christy.
Eventually it is time to get this done. There is a snow cornice on the North side of the pass, it looks scary from here, however when you examine it more closely, there is a way around it that is very workable. After our Team Lounge photo at the top of the pass, we are “dropin’ in”. Making our way carefully around the snow cornice isn’t bad at all, but I do feel a little dizzy looking down initially. We each crawl through a little wedge that gets us around the ice slab then take another look around. We are stoked to find that so much snow has melted in the “draw” what remains is a sandy, talusy, loose but doable little use trail down the first couple hundred feet or so.
It’s a quite pleasant drop from the pass and once we reach horizontal ground again we find ourselves standing on top of rocks with water running underneath. Ahhh, that sound! I love that sound of the hollowness between rocks cradling fresh snowmelt. It’s the most natural sound and like you can hear the rocks filtering the water with a little underbelly echo. This water is pure snowmelt and we take advantage of this by guzzling as much as we can. This is the best water we’ve had all week. Not soon forgotten.
We get our fill and then face what’s next. It is a lot of talus, it is steep, slanted, and there are precipitous drops offs. You need to negotiate above some cliffs and and stay in the sweet spot in order to gradually make it down to the outlet of the glittering Ampitheater Lake below. Here we have a great opportunity to hone our micro-navigation skills and we accomplish small goals like a large boulder ahead or a tree that gives us some lovely shade. We piece it all together in a little string of short complex moves as we eventualy we make it down to the outlet of the lake.
Time for our lunch break, whoo hoo!! But first things first, we all dunk completely in the water under the rushing outlet with full clothes and shoes on. That way we can sit on the grass soaking wet and enjoy the soft breeze while much needed calories get consumed. I can’t recall ever having been so warm while hiking in the Sierras. This dunk in the water is the most refreshing and lovely thing, only second to that water we guzzled an hour ago.
We now practice the art of lounging since we really haven’t done any proper lounging thus far today. We lounge for a good while before we start talking serious again about our route for the afternoon. The next section is super interesting. The drainage we are to follow is along Cataract Creek. It was previously burned twice and is now totally overgrown where there once was a trail ages ago. So the mission for the afternoon is to negotiate a very tedious few miles before we connect with the PCT/JMT again.
We follow a faint trail here and there and we get stuck in thick bush a lot. There are downed trees throughout and thorny bushes that claw at your skin, something you must avoid especially if you are wearing shorts. There are a lot of places we need to cross the creek and a lot of confusion as to where the old trail goes. The idea is to stick as close to the trail as we can for purposes of efficiency and ease of travel but it is definitely lacking in definition and there is a lot of time spent turning back and scouting around a lot of dead ends. This would be a lot more frustrating to do alone! After a “fair bit” of this, we are all hot again and starting to feel the mental fatigue.
We stop at several of the creek crossings to wet our heads, necks and feet. I am also managing my menstual situation by having to rinse and change out my little towels and I am feeling crampy, achy and generally tired on top of everything else. That said, when I bring myself back to the present moment I am able to truly take in what we are doing and regain my sense of stoke, intrigue and gratitude. This is definitely a solid little adventure down here and the ragged terrain makes for a feeling of wild that you don’t often get.
And wouldn’t you know, about half way down Cataract Creek we spot two people cruising down on the other side of the drainage. Who’d have thunk! People! We watch them move, they are swift, they see us and turn to wave. We wave back and then they disappear as if they were only a mirage.
The final mile is the most intense in terms of navigation challenges as it is even more overgrown with thick, thorny brush, downed trees, large boulders and water crossings than the upper canyon. We can see we are getting really close to where the PCT/JMT will be, yet we know this is going to be a very tedious last push. We keep to the rocks and eventually drop to a flat creek crossing that we are able to wade through. We never do regain any semblance of a trail.
We make it to Palisade Creek and step right in, walking downstream enjoying the refreshing water. We have succeeded! On the bank of the other side, there is what we would call a “normal” forest, meaning that trees are upright and there is generally space underneath the canopy to sit and relax. We dunk in the water once more, top off on snacks and sit tucked in the shade for our last lounging session of the day. From here it’s just a quarter mile push up the hill to reach the trail. When we are getting close we have to cross some mushy boggy areas and then bush bash through a field of tall grasses and wild onions growing under the forest canopy.
The afternoon light is streaming into the forest and I can’t help but feel mesmerized by this scene. It is truly beautiful, magical, ethereal. And speaking of ethereal, where is the Hermit Thrush these days? I have not heard it’s song for a little while, I miss it! Michelle is the first to touch her toes on the good ol’ PCT/JMT and we celebrate this feat. Whoo hoo, trail!! We are now on a crusiy dirt trail for the rest of the day. How lovely.
And it is lovely, being back on the PCT, my love of loves. There is just something about it. And this section is magical in it’s own right. As we cruise along Palisade Creek toward the Middle Fork of the King’s River my thoughts drift back to my first time hiking here in 2013 when I hiked the JMT. I can now indulge in nostalgia since we are walking on a trail that does not involve any mental work and this feels like such a treat.
We settle into a fast yet relaxed pace and now it seems we are all feeling the drain of energy from the day because now we can let our guard down and relax our brains. But we need to push on like six more miles so we aren’t done done. We had anticipated greater heat down here at 8,000 ft but we are pleasantly met with some comfortable early evening walking and Michelle and I dive into classic hiker convo about places we dream of going. New Zealand is one of mine hence the use of the term bush bashing. It’s fun to say, and more fun to do when you say it with an accent.
At the junction of the Middle Fork I venture over to a familiar tree. I have several photos of myself hugging this tree and I need to add one more to the collection. Hugging trees is so therapeutic and I believe it’s a mutual exchange. The trees give us strength and nourishment, in return we give them love and appreciation. There are even scientific studies that show how being in a forest both strengthens our immune system and alleviates depression. Lets take it a step further and just hug the trees!
As dusk falls upon us we parallel the Middle Fork and stop to collect water at a little side creek. Two people walk up, they are absolutely filthy and show some wear and tear. They have holes in their gear and ripped up clothing. They definitely don’t look like your standard JMT hikers, especially the wild look in their eyes. They ask us if we just came down Cataract Creek and we draw the connection. They are the hikers we saw earlier and in that instant of recognition there is an easy camraderie that follows. They are doing a route as well and have been out for 9 days. We all chat there at the water for a spell exchanging deets on out travels while the mosquitoes devour us.
There is something that happens after a certain period of time spent successively in the woods. I’ve read that the neural pathways shift after 72 hours, and our beta brain wave state finally chills out. I’ve definitely experienced what I call neural re-wiring that feels like a frequency shift for the better where I become more in vibrational harmony with nature. It’s probably likened to a feral animal breaking out of the confines of domesticity.
Indeed, one of my favorite song lyrics by Appalachia Rising is “we move from complacency back into the wild”. That really hits the nail on the head IMO as far as how it feels to get out into nature and immerse yourself. Get out of your comfort zone and re-wild yourself. Allow yourself to live more by instinct and cleanse your energy field from all the interference of modern civilization. When we are free from the interferences of civilized life, we can truly tune in to something so much larger than our selves. I am reminded of another great quote by Terry Tempest Williams “Nature quiets the mind, by engaging in an intelligence larger than our own”.
It is getting well into the evening now, the sun has disappeared behind the towering ridge and we need to think about finding camp. We pass several occupied spots along this superhighway of a trail. Many folks are sitting in camp with mosquito nets over their heads. Too close to the water. We push on up the trail hoping to find something more secluded because we aren’t used to camping around people. We may not have much choice tonight.
When we reach the trail junction for Bishop Pass there is one spot that is not occupied and will fit us just fine. It’s not close to a water source so no bathing or anything indulgent like that is happening tonight. We will go to bed dirty. Thats what dirtbags do. And since I want to completely embrace the dirtbag part of myself, I go ahead and pitch my tent in the dirtiest spot ever where there is a fine powdery soot from old fire pits. Literally there is no other place for me to pitch so I just say “fuck it” and get even dirtier.
We cook our dinners and climb inside our tents, zipping ourselves in and the mosquitoes out. I am absolutely filthy after pitching camp in all that ash. I change into my sleep clothes noticing how my legs are stupid sticky, uber scraped up, banged up and bruised in places I didn’t even know. This is our first night sleeping under trees and tonight is almost the new moon so the stars are -a- shinin’ thru the forest. We tune into to the distant backdrop of the powerful force that is the Middle Fork of the Kings River and gaze through our tent screens at the silhouettes of towering trees. I am filthy, exhausted and entirely blissed out.