Separated into different levels, Muir Pass is a sustained 12 mile ascent, and plays like a video game. Each level with its own boss- either snow, or fords, or steep grade, or photo opportunity (the hardest one!). Muir Pass is the last crucible in the High Sierra, the last rocky behemoth standing between you and the tamer passes of the north.
The climb starts easily enough, running next to the Kings River, slowly ascending, then flattening out, ascending, flattening out. Helen Lake, a large chunk of dark, blue water tucked away in a granite cirque, marks the halfway point of elevation gain, and the threshold of the more difficult levels.
The trail quickly vanished under a healthy amount of snow. I followed a footpath heading towards what I believed the right direction, and we gained some hard and wet elevation. Eventually, we hooked back up to the real trail, but still progressed slowly.
The land was exploding in a symphony of color all around us. Incandescent, white snow swirled with the electric blues of the lakes, all under an endless, pale, blue sky. The radical colors, the mirrored lakes inverting the world, the endlessness of earth created a heady, fun house effect. The air I breathed felt not of this world. I felt not of this world.
The air above 12,000 feet is cold, thin, and pure. The lakes, undecided in their decision to be frozen. The views, unimpeded and ostentatious. Again, the trail vanished under snow, and again I followed footsteps in the snow, but this time, in the completely wrong direction.
To the south of Muir Pass, is in fact another, nameless pass. In my defense, I was following footprints in the snow after the trail vanished and we were moving quickly, eager to get to the top, but I simply did not pay attention. We made it to the top of this false accomplishment, and I immediately knew I had messed up. In the distance, about 2.5 miles away, I could see hikers making their way up what was obviously the right pass. I had gone left when I should have gone right, following some other fool’s path in the snow. Needless to say, I was miserable, post holing an extra 2.5 miles to get to the true pass. Legs, her usual bubbly self, seemed not to mind much.
Is it irony that there is a hut on top of Muir Pass? I wonder if he would have wanted such a man-made fixture in such a wild place. Perhaps, he may have made an exception for this hut, as it is beautifully wrought from the stone of the mountain, and allows people to sleep right on top of a high elevation mountain pass. Technically, you’re not supposed to sleep in the shelter except in emergency situations, but many thru hikers told me they slept up there, and honestly the odds of seeing a ranger up there are slim. (When you’re up there, you’ll see what I mean!)
The hut is a stout, stone igloo with a rock chimney, belying the fact that no real fire-place exists anymore. Stone benches line the walls and a stone floor slopes down to a drain. The only thing that didn’t come from the mountain around it is the wooden, dutch door and the mortar for the stone. Legs and I took a long break in the dark hut, eating, laughing and discussing safety techniques. Through the top half of the dutch door, we watched clouds the size of cities drift lazily over the range, casting bovine shadows on the mountainside.
Leaning through the door, I gazed back to the pass I had mistaken as Muir and silently laughed at myself for thinking it was the right way. At the time, I was salty about the extra mileage, especially due to the fact that we had to post hole. From my perch,I found it hard not to value the off trail experience. To have spent just a little more time in that heady, untouched place was a gift, not a hiccup.
After Muir Pass, the trail descends a brief bit of switchbacks, then levels out in the Evolution Basin. A small tarn marks the headwaters of this stunning causeway. Walled on both sides by earthen palisades, the trail writhes through the various tarns and lakes, as you descend long, gentle steps, like those from a giant’s staircase.
The Rocks of Wanda Lake
Within the basin, there is a lake called Wanda. Carved by bygone glaciers, the water deepens suddenly, sinking into darker, but no less clearer depths. Off the shore, the water was still frozen. The ice lay atop the clear liquid, white and chalky in the thicker parts, and transparent around the rim. On the ice, a plethora of small to medium stones graphed the scattered efforts of hikers. With enough stones on the ice to build a small cottage, it was obvious that many hikers had attempted to break the ice. Despite what must have been several hundred rocks, there were no holes in the ice, even in the transparent, weaker sections. The rocks varied in size, from pebbles to softballs, but none had penetrated the frozen armor. Of course, Legs and I stooped to pick up a rock.
Nothing! Maybe a small cracking noise when we hit the thinner, transparent ice, but no holes. I picked up bigger rocks, and threw them as high as I could. Still nothing! I wanted it to break, I needed it to break! I would just have to aim for the end of the ice, where is it almost invisible and at its weakest. I would use a huge rock and throw it as high as I can!
The stone hit the ice and spat out a crack like a gun shot, but still the ice did not break. I was ready to stay there all day, searching for bigger rocks. Hell, I would have stayed until the ice melted! Luckily, Legs was immune to this siren’s call. She pulled me away, otherwise I might have stayed there forever. I certainly wasn’t the only tempted one.
Darwin Sleeps at Evolution Lake
The trail flowed lazily down the gentle basin. Each time the terrain flattened out, another gleaming pool winked into existence, all connected, all flowing down.
At the confluence of the basin, the earthen walls open in a wide yawn, and Evolution Lake crackles with energy. Grassy banks line the star burst shore, and fat marmots scamper between small hillocks. The sun moved steadily towards the western horizon, illuminating the complex backdrop of granite ridges and peaks in brighter and brighter gold. We made camp next to the lake shore, donned our birthday suites, and plunged into the lake.
When the shock of fiery pain fades, the medicinal qualities of jumping into an alpine lake cannot be ignored. It begins when you your body breaks the icy film of the glacial fed liquid. When that first bit of flesh begins to burn, begins to freeze. Then your head is underwater, and the world has gone dark, and you’re scared. And in that moment, when you heart beats with the fear of death, and the entirety of your flesh bursts into cold flames, and your brain screams, “KICK!” Then you are truly alive.
We lounged on the springy grass, drinking the sun, and buzzing with power. The backdrop of granite stayed lit for the duration of the sunset, and provided a wholesome light by which to eat. We slept under the powdery sky, tracing the Milky Way with tired, but satisfied eyes.