John Muir Trail-Donahue Pass to Lyell Canyon

6.22.16 (JMT) Wed.
We wake with a strong determination to get on the trail asap. I’ve already spied a lone hiker heading for the summit. I test out the snow around me and find it’s hard and crunchy. This is what we want. But the morning is bright and warmer than we expected at this altitude. The snow will get slushy fast. We eat our bar and our cold coffee and we’re on the trail by 7 am sharp. We head on up, up, up. We pass a group of 3 young men that remind me of boy scouts that made camp a little farther up for us. They are just starting to pack up. They ask us if we were bothered by the Marmots, and we said not really. Apparently, they came to their camp because they had better food.

The mountain is covered in snow and we’re not sure if we’re on the trail. There are several sets of tracks. We do our best. We look up and know that we have to bear to the right. The snow is holding us well, though still unstable in places, especially near big rocks, making it kind of scary to step on and off of. There are places we can see where the snow has given way as swift moving water cuts underneath the snow we’re walking on. Some holes seem bottomless, especially near the rocks. I’m reminded of a story Milkman told us where a girl stepped and her leg went through the snow wedging her foot deep down and as the weight of her pack propelled her forward her ankle broke. This is the risk.

We move on at a steady pace. I try to follow in Chris’s footsteps, but he gets far ahead of me as we climb. I find my own path and catch my breath every 50 to 100 steps. It is beautiful beyond words. We see some hikers way up ahead which gives us a visual of where the trail is. We hope they are on the trail. For the most part, we see no one else and are on this vast mountainside covered in snow and granite. We’re above tree line and we continue to climb up. The sun is intense and hot. I enjoy the coolness of the snow as we climb. A young couple comes from behind and I let these fast hikers pass. They mention that they are very experienced backpackers. In other words, I shouldn’t feel bad for being slow. I don’t. We quickly lose site of them. My legs feel like jelly. I’m stopping now every 30-50 steps to take a few extra breaths. And all of a sudden, we reach the summit. We’re here. We summit the dreaded and highly anticipated Donahue Pass. The experienced hikers are taking a break and assure us this is the summit and congratulate us. I’m doubtful. Yesterday we were told by the eager woman that when you think you’ve summited, you haven’t and there’s more to go. But this is it. Now I’m grateful. I wasn’t sure my legs would hold up much more. I see the sign letting us know we’re entering Yosemite. We chat with the experienced hikers. Chris asks the woman about her head gear and she gives us a demonstration of how it works and only paid $6.00 buying it on Amazon. Just another day chatting with the locals, here on Donahue Pass. Surreal. It’s about 8:30 am. It took us one and a half hours to travel 1.5 miles. I’m feeling joyful and proud. The rest is downhill from here. The experienced hikers go ahead of us.

We take a few minutes to look back from where we came, enjoying our last views of the Mount Ritter range and Ansel Adams Wilderness. Ahead we savor the view of Yosemite Valley, so lush and green, and so far down. As we continue on our journey, the trail is unclear. We decide to follow the experienced hikers because they are experienced, so they say. We start a long steep descent through the unstable snow. I see the couple ahead, the man is far ahead of the woman. I see her fall and struggle to get up. Chris is ahead of me. I yell for him to stop so I can take his picture. He appears to be standing on the horizon. He is anxious to keep moving before the snow gets to slushy and does not want to stop but I get the shot. It’s also at this moment I decide to divorce him. How dare he ruin my moment of joy. Our emotions lie close to the surface. We continue to follow the couple but lose site of them and simply follow their tracks. We come to the edge where it appears we can go no further. Is this what a previous hiker met when he said you will “cliff out”? To our left is a ridge of rocks. We see some hikers coming the other way that used this ridge to hike up to Donahue. We turn left and backtrack along this ridge of rock. It’s on a cliff and is clearly not the trail. We scramble over some huge boulders, and it is here I feel some anxiety due to the feeling of exposure and fear of falling. I do not look down and keep my eye on the safe place ahead. We eventually find the trail and make it down this rock face via some switch backs. We then lose the trail again due to the snow and cross a long snow bank. The snow is more unstable. Chris tells me to step where he steps. I do. I go through the snow up to my hip. I am not hurt, but I struggle to free myself. I clamor up onto a boulder and make a leap to where I hope the snow will hold me. It does. Chris and I take a moment for each other and I’m in love again and no longer want a divorce.

We see there’s a big wide stream that needs to be crossed. We see a potential place to cross, but it requires another long trek through unstable snow. We know it will get us to the other side, but we still are not sure where the trail is. I look to my left and see the large mountain where we just came from covered in snow. I think I see tracks way up there. Geez, I’m hoping we don’t have to go up. We come to a place that has granite slabs that cross the water. We make our way across, but are faced with a big climb. Chris goes ahead to survey the landscape and see if he can find the trail. After awhile, I follow. I think I see the trail to our right. I yell to Chris and he backtracks to me and we cross another unstable snow bank. We eventually see the trail and where it gets covered in snow. It’s confusing. We also see the ‘Boy Scouts’. They found a different place to cross the stream that involved getting wet, but was closer to the actual trail. We eventually find the trail after scrambling up some rocks and snow, and begin our descent along the side of a steep mountain covered in wildflowers. I feel some anxiety due to the exposure of this high place, but it’s manageable and I’ve hiked on much worse. We come to a waterfall that needs to be crossed and I notice an increase in my anxiety, but manage across without incident. We continue down a series of switchbacks and I realize how steep this climb is for hikers going up. We’ve been told that traveling north is the more difficult route, and there were times on this hike I’ve harbored much anger towards Chris for choosing it, though he denies it. Though now I have my doubts. It’s challenging either direction with lots of ups and downs. When we finally reach the bottom of this beautiful mountainside, we have a wide stream crossing, at it’s apparent that our feet will get wet.

We cross and take a break at a beautiful mountain tarn surrounded by meadows and plenty of boulders to rest on. I’m guessing this is a popular camping site for those heading south and wanting to tackle the ascent to Donahue in the morning. We take off our shoes so they will dry in the sun and are greeted by many hopeful Marmots. As I sit relaxing, I hear a noise behind me where my pack and hiking sticks are resting, and I see a cute little fellow gnawing on the handle strap of my stick. We shoo him away, but not before he gnawed almost all the way through the thick nylon strap. Go figure…no wonder these cuties are considered pests. After a very relaxing break, we continue our descent. It’s only Wednesday and we have until Saturday before our permit expires, and before there’s no public transportation to get back to Ruby, our truck. We’ve got plenty of time. As we descend, the snow gets less and less. It’s steep and rocky, much of it uneven steps. We hike through pine and get gorgeous glimpses of the valley. We eventually make our way to the valley floor and are greeted with wide open meadows and the meandering Tuolumne River. We again find a gorgeous campsite and have beautiful views of whence we came and of Kuna Creek cascading down the east canyon. We are serenaded by her music. As the setting sun dips below the mountain behind us, her shadow is cast upon the meadow providing a cooling relief to the intense sun, and we watch it come alive as deer come out to graze on sweet meadow greens. We think we only have about 8 more easy miles before our journey’s end.

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