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.

John Muir Trail – Thousand Island to Southern Base of Donahue Pass

6.21.16 (Tues) JMT
We wake at 6:30 am to a bright clear sky. We take 3 hours to break camp. Very hard to leave such a beautiful site. We hike out and back up the same trail we descended last night. Up, up, up. I’m short of breath. I stop every 50-100 paces and breathe. We’re high. We are heading to Island Pass. As we climb we are serenaded by frogs. Their sound is riveting and echoes through the mountains. Oh my! What a great way to start the morning with such beautiful music. I can’t help but feel they are doing it just for our entertainment.

Along the way, we meet an asian looking guy with long hair and a shirt that says Semper Fi. Of course, Chris chats with him. He served in the USMC for 9 years, and did several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. His back was severely injured when his truck was hit by an IED, and he was not permitted to reenlist due to his physical health from his injury. And here he is doing this hike. He says he’s doing it for wounded vets through the Semper Fi foundation. He’s regaining his strength and keeps his core strong. Chris can relate. The guy looks fit, and says he plans to do the Marine corps marathon in D.C. for same cause. Inspiring young man. After hiking for 1.8 miles we come to Island Pass (10,205 feet). A young couple doing the PCT is taking a break at the pass, eating potato chips. How do you pack chips on a trip like this without them getting crushed into little crumbs? She says welcome to Island Pass. Of course it’s covered in snow, and beautiful. It’s kind of hard to tell it’s a pass. We talk with the couple for awhile, though I mainly listen. Chris is much more social and chatty than I. She’s French Canadian, and had quit her job so she could do the PCT. I can relate. He’s from France. They’ve enjoyed their journey and meet lots of people on the way. We asked if they’ve met Milkman, they hadn’t. We go on and leave them to their break. Our goal is to get close to Donahue Pass so we can summit it in the early morning.

Shortly after summiting Island Pass, Milkman passes us. We asked him if he met the couple at the pass, he did, but did not exchange names. Later, that same couple passes us, and we let them know they had met Milkman. We hike through lots of snow, and several water crossings, some with footbridges that are uneven log crossings. I manage to get across all of them without falling into the drink, though I’ve not managed to be any less awkward. There’s one crossing, before the junction to Marie Lake, where I simply do not have the confidence to cross the water on the single log footbridge. Again, Chris crosses with his usual finesse. I instead decide to wade through the icy water, so off came the boots, and on come the Teva’s. I wade across without incident, though Chris worries I’m going to fall, shouting out to me to use my sticks. He also manages to get some pictures of me with my shoes swinging around my neck. What a site I am. Ha! The water is icy cold, but so refreshing. Blood sucking mosquitos and biting black ants are everywhere, and I take up lots of time getting my shoes back on and securing my Teva’s back to my pack. Chris gets mad at me for slowing us down, but is actually really frustrated at how hard it is to secure my Teva’s and I think is worried about if I can do the rest of this hike. We snap at each other, but quickly get over it. We move on and up.

We come to a small lake and a beautiful plateau that seems the ideal place to set up camp, but we don’t think we’re yet close enough to the pass, so we plod on. I take a minute to savor the beauty of this place. My senses are overwhelmed, but I still try to absorb all that I can. We meet more PCTers along the way. Chris chats with this one man who tells him about the very difficult water crossings at the base about 2 miles before Donahue. He recommends that we go off trail, stay to our left, and cross snow banks instead of the water. We come to the water crossing, it was fast and high. A young couple is preparing to cross. We keep going per that man’s advice. The snow is unstable and difficult to cross. I go through up to my thigh. It’s doable and we make it across. It’s 3:30 and we think this is a good time to stop and a great place to camp. The couple crossing the stream still has not arrived. Chris made the right call. A group descends from Donahue and a woman in the group is eager to tell us about trail conditions. By this time the other couple has arrived and plan to summit Donahue today even though the eager woman almost begs her not to. She reports they summited this morning, and ate lunch and watched the snow get more and more unstable. It took them 4 hours to get over the pass. Extremely difficult. The other couple does not heed their warning and goes on.

We set up camp and made the decision to break camp by 7am so we could do Donahue early while the snow was hard. We watch as others come to this juncture and struggle with the water crossings. We watch one couple take over 45 minutes to try to navigate how to get across. The man had no problem, the woman could not do it. We’re not sure where they went, and they are too far away for us to be helpful. I wonder how many couples split up after doing a hike like this. We enjoy the beauty of a lone duck on the stream that is flooding the actual trail. Chris takes lots of pictures of Duck. I talk to the Marmots as they surround our camp and keep them away from our packs.

Tomorrow’s a big day! I’m prepared to climb through lots of snow. I’m prepared to get to a point that will look like the summit, but it will go even higher. Will I be able to deal with the altitude? I have some worry thoughts, but I’m at peace. Chris is a tad worried about his sore knees, but also seems content. We enjoy our evening. Again, we have the most spectacular views, surrounded by mountains, and snow, and water, and alpine forests. I look at the snow covered cliff near us, and wonder if we’re in avalanche territory. Chris says not to worry. He’s more worried about flooding with the snow melt, and it is why we moved our campsite to higher ground. We sleep with the the Marmots close by, a perfectly clear sky and another bright moon. Tomorrow, just a bar for breakfast and cold coffee that we prep tonight. I sleep well enough.