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John Muir Trail, Day 18: Upper Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Frog Ponds

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The morning of our biggest and final ‘official’ pass, Forester, was upon us. I knew this one was gonna be a doozy, but we’d been hiking for 16 days at this point – how much more prepared could we be, really?! The story was different for Chris though – he’d started his adventure in high elevation, carried in our shit along with his own supplies, and now his second day on the trail was going to be this? Poor guy.

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We got started later than usual – around 8:15 today. Jennifer and I had our own routine when it was just the two of us, but it was little slower going with one more person in our group – Chris likes to take his time in the morning, and I think we were all procrastinating because of the ~2k of climbing we had to do. Nonetheless, we finally got going.

Since Chris wasn’t sure how he’d fare on this giant climb up to Forester, we’d made a deal to meet up at the top, assuming we’d be hiking differently. He was worried about ‘dragging us down’ (his words), so he made it clear that he didn’t want us to wait for him if he got too far behind. Turns out, that never really happened. We started out at a nice leisurely pace, and while we did eventually separate out during the last half, we were actually only separated by maybe 10 minutes. We were all able to see each other for most of the ascent, which was sorta fun – I was in the middle, so I could look up to see Jennifer a couple of switchbacks ahead, and I could look back to see Chris making his way too.

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the pole felt so. far. away.

The views of the forest behind us reminded us how far down we were when camping the night before (which was still over 11,000 feet!). Even though I’d obviously never hiked this area before, in a way I felt like I was showing Chris my home. We’d been out here for so long and become so used to the expansive views, the towering mountains, the trees that looked so tiny at times, and the sparkling sapphire blue lakes – it was interesting to see a newcomer, and to watch his reaction to seeing this beautiful place for the first time.

J:  Every time we passed a north bound hiker on the JMT, we were warned about Forester Pass. I’d been dreading this climb almost more than Mt. Whitney, but was also looking forward to kicking it’s ass.  

The beginning of the climb was a gradual uphill and wasn’t too terrible.  Once we got up higher, the wind picked up and almost blew me over in some spots.  I was a little further ahead of Heather and Chris (don’t know how this happened) and kept hopscotching another hiker from Germany the whole way up.  Having some music on, soaking up the sun and the expansive views, trying not to blow off the mountain, and chatting with my new German friend made the never-ending switchbacks go by a little faster.  Then, all of a sudden (or 2+ hours later), there was the top of Forester Pass! 

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The journey up to Forester Pass was long and winding. While the ascent seemed to never let up, I still felt that Glen Pass, the day before, had been more difficult. There were enough people standing around at Forester that a round of applause ensued every time someone made it to the top. It made it feel like even more of an accomplishment! It was fun to cheer Chris on as he rounded the final switchback – Jennifer and I were waiting, feeling pretty proud of him for conquering the pass in the time that he did. Once he caught his breath, he admitted that he felt ok until the last 700 feet or so – around 12,500 feet was when he really seemed to noticed the change in elevation, and the sparse air.

J:  I still can’t believe Chris made it up Forester as fast as he did. I understand why all the north bound hikers were warning us about Forester. They hadn’t had any time to acclimate to the elevation. Hiking southbound, we were able to “practice” on all the climbs leading up to this point. The higher elevation definitely takes a toll on your breathing and if you aren’t used to it, then it’s especially tough on day 2 or 3 of your journey.  

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one brave mother fucker…marmot tried to eat everyone’s food at the top of Forester

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two chapped smiles, but smiles nonetheless!

So unfortunately, while Chris originally reported that he had chapstick with him, when we stopped to look for it in his pack yesterday, we came up empty-handed. As it turns out, he’d left his chapstick in the car, and we were now all 3 without any. Awesome, right? Of course, for all the horrible things that could happen to someone on a 3 week trip in the wilderness, not having chapstick probably wasn’t that big of a deal, even though I remember thinking it was pretty miserable with every gust of wind and every big smile (of which there were many – of both).

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Forester Pass celebratory Snickers toast. View looking south, towards our destination.

Chris was a HUGE fan of our celebratory Snickers Bars. What’s not to love about it, other than having to wait to eat it?! I know there are people who literally live off of these things when backpacking – I was starting to understand why. Snickers definitely satisfies.

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Chris and me on Forester right before we started the descent

It is always pretty chilly at the top of the passes, and by this point we’d learned that the descents aren’t usually that much better until you really get into the swing of it. This was no different, and in my opinion, worse than most. The south side of Forester was really windy, and really steep. So much so that I had written “day of wind” at the top page of my journal entry. I’d also written that this section of the trail was my 2nd least favorite, after the trip down into Red’s Meadow, which felt like so long ago. Once we’d gotten down a little over 1,200 feet, it wasn’t as steep, but it was still quite barren, very desert-like, and still really really windy – an awesome combo for the chapped.

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north side of Forester…no treeline until waaaay in the distance

Lunch that day was uneventful – we found an area that allowed a slight break from the wind that doubled as an area to fill up our water.

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One of the highlights of the day was our first sign for Mt. Whitney – we were SO CLOSE! It was hard to believe we were only a couple of days away from being finished.

We finished our day shortly after we passed the sign (above), ending the day at Tyndall Frog Ponds, shortly after the Shepherd Pass Junction, and right after the start of the first ascent for the morning.

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last campsite with our trail family (and with trees)

Brittany, Courtney, and Andrew had by this point decided that they were going to try their damnedest to summit Whitney at sunrise after tomorrow, which the three of us had absolutely no interest in doing. That said, this would be our last night camping with them, as they were going to head up as far as possible for tomorrow night. We celebrated our journey together by dividing up the bottle of wine that Chris had brought in (nothing says class like a nice bottle of Broc Cellars Cab Franc out of a plastic collapsible bottle!) paired with our best dehydrated dinners and some amazing dessert, which was either a chocolate pudding or key lime pie – or both? I can’t remember…

J:  We had been debating how to finish up the hike for a few days.  There was supposed to be a meteor shower the night before we summited Whitney so I wanted to get up early (around 3 am) and start hiking under the stars.  I had zero desire to hike up any earlier in order to catch the sunrise on top of Mt. Whitney since I knew it would be way too cold for me to actually enjoy it. Luckily H+C were both on board with the no-sunrise plan, but I still had some convincing to do on the 3am start.

We still had to figure out our exit plan, but we knew it was our last night with our trail family so like Heather mentioned, we stayed up a little later (around 8pm!), ate some chocolate mousse, drank some wine, and fantasized about all of the “real” food options in Lone Pine.  I wasn’t sure if I would eat pizza or burgers first but one thing was certain,  there would definitely be beer…

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look at all that color!

Before closing out for the night, we all walked over to the Frog Ponds, where we met up with our favorite group from Tallahassee. They were happy to take a group photo of our trail family, which was a perfect way to end the night.

Next up – the journey to Guitar Lake, and the discussion about whether we finish in 20 days or the originally planned 21.


Day 18 details (August 11, 2015):

Start-finish: Upper Bubbs Creek to Tyndall Frog Ponds
Daily miles: 11.4
Mileage tally: 211.8
Camp elevation: 11,100 ft
Hiking elevation: 2,632 ft gain; 2,056 ft loss

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John Muir Trail, Day 17: Rae Lakes to Upper Bubbs Creek

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Alrighty! The start of Day 17, to me, was so very different than the other days. I knew we had a lot of climbing to do, and I was actually excited about getting to Glen Pass, if only to see the beautiful Rae Lakes from a different angle. But I also knew that our hiking routines would change drastically when we met up with Chris, so this was the last morning that Jennifer and I had to stick with our normal routine. Jennifer on the other hand, was probably glad of this, as it meant she’d get that pristine tent all to herself ;).

It was also crazy to think that after 16 full days of hiking, I’d reunite with my husband in a matter of hours if all went according to plan. He’d show up like our knight in shining armor – a fresh smile and a pack full of food, duct tape, apple cider powder, whiskey, and wine! This was all very very exciting. The least exciting part was that he’d written a sentence in my journal the night before that said, “This is your last chance to talk about poop”. I’m sure he knew this really wasn’t going to happen, but he sure did try to clean us up!

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Rae Lakes and the Painted Lady were just as stunning in the morning as they were the night before. It was really hard to walk away from this beautiful spot – it really was the best campsite ever.

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Rae Lakes selfie!

We were happy to have an extra mile out of the way since we’d stayed at Rae Lakes, but since Brittany and Courtney usually hit the trail earlier than we do, we felt pretty certain we’d run into them shortly after we started. Sure enough, about 30 minutes into our hike, we heard them coming up behind us! We all hiked together for a good part of the ascent up to Glen Pass, but eventually they went ahead of us, while Jennifer and I stayed back and took a few more pictures here and there.

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J:  On the way out of Rae Lakes, we stopped to take about 50 million photos.  I’m so glad we stopped to camp there the night before.  Since we had estimated we wouldn’t meet Chris until later in the afternoon, we knew we had plenty of time to get to the meeting point so I had no issues taking my time heading out of Rae Lakes and getting up that mountain.

The morning was pretty chilly, as usual, but not as bad as it had been on the prior two mornings. We had about 3 miles and 1,500 feet to climb – it didn’t sound like it was going to be that hard, but it seemed to go on forever. I think the tricky part with Glen Pass is that you can see so much of the pass while you’re hiking, and you can see so many people up ahead of you as you go up each switchback. But the views – man, the views! Amazing – it was worth stopping often just to stare. We’d get there eventually.

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J:  This view (above) looking up to the top of Glen sort of sums it up…climbing mountains is hard work.  Glen Pass was probably one of my least favorites.  It was a rocky trail that just kept winding up and up through multiple switchbacks.  When you thought you saw the end in sight, the trail would take another turn.  Once you finally get to the top, the trail follows the ridge of the mountain, which is pretty cool as long as it isn’t too windy.

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the final jaunt along the ridge, with Brittany and Courtney in the background

Once we got to the top, we met a really friendly, chatty girl who was solo-hiking the Rae Lakes Loop. We’d come across a few people here and there who were hiking various sections of the JMT, and not the entire trail. We learned a little about the loop she was doing (~40 miles or so), and both Jennifer and I immediately made a mental note to come back to do this in a few years – it was by far our favorite part of the trail, and a place we both knew we’d want to revisit.

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the usual celebratory Snickers bar! And this is a great picture to really illustrate the use of duct tape on both of our pairs of sunglasses. go us!

Brittany and Courtney were waiting for Andrew (he’d done his usual – taking his time and starting after everyone, since he was able to hop on up the trails pretty quickly), so we stayed up there for a bit too and took the opportunity to get a group photo since there were people at the pass. Plus – we had plenty of time to go before we thought Chris would show up at our meet up spot, so why not?

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Jennifer, Heather, Courtney, Brittany – looking North

After a few more minutes of admiring the views and letting the wind continue to chap our lips, the 5 of us started the descent into the Bubbs Creek area. The views down looking south to Charlotte Lake weren’t too shabby either, and we’d heard the lake itself was really nice. We’d run into Samuel one last time, and he’d mentioned he was going to check it out possibly.

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view from the JMT of Charlotte Lake  with smoky skies in the distance

We eventually separated from the rest of the group and made our way to the junction where we’d turn off the JMT and meet up with Chris. It was hard to believe that we were just hours away from seeing him! We turned off at the Bullfrog Lake Junction and made our way to Bullfrog Lake, which was not quite a mile off the trail.

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pretty sure this is the view East from Bullfrog Lake, and the dip in the back mountains was Kearsarge Pass, where Chris came from.

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It was a nice place to chill out for a while – we had lunch and just lounged around. But for Chris to make it to us, a lot of pieces on his end had to come together, too. We were happy we’d kept to our end of the deal and were where we were supposed to be with plenty of time to spare!

Chris’ plan: Drive down from San Francisco to Lone Pine on Saturday where he’d pick up his section permit and rent a small bear canister. He had a night down in Lone Pine in case he needed the next day to get those things accomplished (the drive was over 6 hours) and was to meet Paul with East Side Sierra Shuttle mid morning on Sunday down at Whitney Portal, where he’d leave the car for the week. Paul was to drive him up to Independence (30 minutes or so) where he’d check in at the Mt Williamson Hotel, then the plan was a breakfast the following morning (today/Monday), a courtesy drive from Stryder to the Onion Valley Trailhead at which point he’d likely be hitting the trail around 10AM.

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The hike from Onion Valley to the JMT via Bullfrog Lake was about 7.5 miles, and probably a little under 7 miles to the actual meet-up point – Bullfrog Lake. So I’d figured the absolute earliest he’d be at the lake if he left at 10 was 1:30 that afternoon, since the hike in required a trip over Kearsarge Pass which wasn’t easy by any stretch – a gain of about 2,600 feet, and then the descent to the lake and the JMT – and he hadn’t been hiking for 2 weeks in elevation. I’d allowed a grace period after 1:30 until about 4 – which was the point I felt like I should worry if we didn’t see him. I’m sure it sounds silly, but it was just a lot of pieces that needed to work out!

The good part of that is that we had a decent amount of time to just hang out without thinking about it, but once 1:30 hit, it was hard to not look up every minute or two! Jennifer told me to chill but it was really hard – I knew he was fine, but of all the things we’d planned, this was the one thing I had absolutely no control over once we started the JMT – I just had to know it would work.

J:  Oh man…Heather did not “know it would work” and was kinda freaking out a little.  I knew this day, this moment, would be tough for her since she had zero control over this situation.  

While Heather went and put up signs along the trail and asked anyone that passed by if they’d passed a hiker in a green shirt, I tried to get her to relax and eat some lunch and just WAIT…It was hard work.

Oh shit. I completely forgot that I put signs up. Thanks for trying to reassure me, Jennifer! I really did try not to be a total nutcase.

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duo becomes a trio! Chris didn’t warn me that he’d bought a really dorky Rush bandana ;).

I knew what he’d be wearing (his green shirt) so I knew I’d be able to spot him pretty easily. Surely enough, around 2:30, I saw a green shirt on the other side of the lake. Jennifer and I both stood up to look closer and I saw him raise his hiking poles in the air – confirmation that it was him and he knew it was us, too! It took another few minutes to get around to our entrance to the lake, but man, were we excited. I of course was all weepy with happiness, relief, and admiration for him – he was carrying 5 days of food for 3 people, after all! I think Jennifer was pretty happy too – I mean, they aren’t married or anything, but it was still nice to see a familiar face, AND it meant we had made it to the final ‘stretch’. We were all so badass is what it meant – clearly.

J:  He made it!!! It was so good to see another familiar face and hear stories from the “real world”, about Jon (my husband), and about Chris’ adventure in to meet up with us.  I was especially excited that he’d brought us wine, whiskey, and more duct tape!

Chris had a hiking buddy he’d met on the shuttle in, and they had hiked together up to this point, and even stopped at Kearsarge Pass for lunch. They really hit it off, so I was glad to know he had a good adventure in. We said goodbye to his friend, stayed at the lake for a little longer, and eventually got moving since we had about 5 miles to go before meeting up with the rest of the group.

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[I should mention here, since we haven’t talked about it too much, that our little GPS Spot tracker that I carried on my pack was what looked to be low on battery at this point (and other times along the trail). So we didn’t waste batteries, we’d usually wait until the battery died before replacing it so we could ensure we didn’t run out of supplies – it used more battery than expected, and we’d already bought more at VVR. I later learned that when the ‘low battery’ light was on, it actually wasn’t transmitting – so there was basically no tracking us the day before while we hiked with the low battery AND while we waited for Chris. I know this was difficult for people at home who were tracking us, knowing this meet-up was taking place but not knowing where we were – it later remedied itself as we changed the batteries right when we learned from Chris that there were times it wasn’t working – and we learned later this was one of them. This was one of the reasons I had voted against (and lost) even having this device – I didn’t want people to worry if it malfunctioned! At the end of the day though – it gave more comfort (and fun!) to people than worry, so it was probably worth it.]

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not too shabby…trail after scooping up Chris at Bullfrog Lake

Ok, so with that – most of the rest of the day was downhill until the last little bit, but as usual the last section of the day never seems to end! It took us quite a while to get there, but we took a lot of breaks along the way, readjusted our supplies, and we eventually met up with Brittany, Courtney, and Andrew at yet another awesome campsite long Bubbs Creek. It was fun introducing everyone and exchanging stories. Chris quickly learned that he’d have to hear poop stories from us all. And one of the best parts aside from him being there? He’d also brought in some booze – something we hadn’t really wanted until recently. So we all had a nice cup of whiskey + apple cider powder (thanks, Safeway! and Chris!) that night before hitting the sack.

J:  We also shared this amazing oreo pudding concoction that I’d been carrying.  It was like a little dinner party…almost.  Drinks, dinner, and dessert.  Then, the best part, I got a tent all to myself for the final few days…so luxurious.

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view from our campsite at Bubbs Creek

As much as Jennifer wanted me to stay in the tent with her, I didn’t. I heard her crying a little that night, but it didn’t last long ;).

Tomorrow? The biggest pass of them all – Forester. What a day…


Day 17 details (August 10, 2015):

Start-finish: Rae Lakes to Bullfrog Lake to Upper Bubbs Creek
Daily miles: 10.0
Mileage tally: 200.4
Camp elevation:10,000 ft
Hiking elevation: 1,439 ft gain; 1,831 ft loss