My First Mountain Pass – Day 2 of the JMT
So, here I am at the Lyell Fork, and today I will head over Donohue Pass, my first mountain pass of the trek! Last night wasn’t too bad, but it definitely could have been better. I woke up often throughout the night, but overall, I think I got a decent amount of sleep. Peaking outside my hammock tarp I was amazed to find that not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse (yes, I love Christmas).
‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE DONOHUE – By Chana Putnam
‘Twas the dawn before Donohue, when all through the trees,
Not a creature was stirring, not even the bees.
All the tents were scattered, yet placed gently with care,
In hopes that no bear would venture near there.
The hikers were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of mountain peaks danced in their heads.” …
Ok, enough song and dance for now. I love quiet calm mornings in the crisp cool air. At this moment I’m glad I decided at the last minute to pack a few packets of coffee. Normally I don’t seem to have the time to enjoy coffee on the trail, but this is the perfect time to enjoy a hot cup before the rest of the world wakes up (oh crap! I’m rhyming again).
I get dressed, go pee, brew some coffee (well I mix in a packet of instant coffee), and just sit to enjoy the sunrise over Lyell Fork with Donohue Pass in the background. I love the moment the sun kisses the tops of the mountains. It feels kind of magical and sets the tone for the day. This is the first time I have decided not to bring my coffee cup. Instead, I drink straight from my cooking pot and the hot metal burns my lips just a bit. I don’t care though. The warmth defrosts my hands and the steam warms the tip of my nose.
Jammin has emerged from her tent and takes no time packing things away. She’s woken up with an extra kick of energy and is going to try and make it to Reds Meadow Ranch today. I won’t be there for two days though. PCT hikers are just on a whole other level of hiking. I prefer to relax a good portion of the day after a hard day of foot pounding. Her urgency gives me a push to get going though.
I pack away my tarp, quilt, and extra clothing. Next, I brush my teeth, brush my hair, and put on sunscreen. Lastly, I pack up my hammock (being sure to not forget my suspension slings like I did last summer), then I pack away my warm outer clothes, and finally pack up my bear can. Good to go! By now the camp area has been cleared out. I’m the first to rise and last to go. How did that happen?
My first challenge as I leave camp is to cross the Lyell Fork. All other hikers seemed to cross so quickly and easily that I barely even noticed them crossing, thus I gave it little thought. I suppose I should have given it more thought though, for quickly and easily is not how I would describe my crossing. There is a line of rocks that leads to the other side, and as I step out on the first rock, I realize my balance is not as good as I thought it would be. I wiggle and wobble and almost topple in before I reach the other side. Luckily I have trekking poles to save me from meeting my fate in the cold alpine water. Wow! I’m rusty. Come on Chana! Get your shit together. You’ve got this!
The trek up and over Donohue Pass is slow and steady. A PCT hiker comes up behind me and we chat for a while. She started her trek up in Washington earlier during the month of July. We talk about the scenery and the beauty of the mountain, but soon she heads off and we wish each other luck. I don’t think she needs luck though as she disappears quickly over the ridge.
I don’t see anyone else until I reach the top. The climb was difficult, but since it was early in the day it was manageable and I’m only slightly out of breath. This was also my first contact with snow. There was only a moment that I had to walk on it, but just the sight of the cool white icy patch helped to cool me down as the sun was beating on my black sun hoodie. Why am I wearing black again?
The pass itself was gorgeous! Alpine pools dotted the top and you could see the mountain range vast and far. Off to the side of the trail sat a couple. They too were hiking the JMT, but northbound instead of southbound. This was their first backpacking trip and their last pass to climb. It was bittersweet. In a few days, it would all be over. I don’t look forward to that moment. I know how sad it can be. But that moment is far for me. I’m only just beginning this adventure.
After the couple leaves I commandeer their prime resting spot. While there, I take a snack break, snap a few more photos to commemorate my first mountain pass, and then start the trek down the other side. Going downhill is pure bliss. I skip down the rocks at amazing speed and soon I come up to Jammin. She’s finally got cell service and decides to update her FarOut maps. I figure that maybe I’ll see her later on the trail, so I wish her well. Unfortunately, I didn’t see her again that day. Hopefully, I will see her at Red’s Meadow Ranch though. It’s always nice to have a friend.
The Good Times…
Once I reach the bottom of the pass, two men ask if I can carry their packs up since I seem to glide down the mountain with no effort at all. I laugh out loud. “If only you saw me climbing the other side. That would have been a whole different story.” We all laugh again, and they mention that if I’m trying to hide from others it’s not working for me. My ninja black outfit against the white rocky mountains, paired with the sun glinting off my bear can is helping me to hide just about as well as a lighthouse hides from the ships at sea. Guess there was no chance of me sneaking up upon anyone. Luckily that was never my intention.
I continue and marvel at how beautiful it is at this location. Everything is so green and there are small ponds and streams sprinkled everywhere. Tiny little frogs swim happily in the water, bees are pollinating the flowers, and birds are singing their morning songs. It’s gorgeous! Along the way, I say hello to many other hikers, including a ranger who checks my permit, confirms I have a bear canister, and reviews all of the Leave No Trace principles with me again. At this moment, I’m just thankful that I didn’t repeat my mistake from the first section of the trail in June, and forget my permit back in my car. That was embarrassing for sure!
The Bad Times…
So far on trail everything is great. I take a break, eat a snack, filter water, and continue on. It’s just a walk in the park… until the incline changes. No longer is this an easy meandering walk through the woods. I now had to climb and keep climbing until just before Thousand Island Lakes. It’s like I’d never hiked a day in my life. I swear I took a breather every five minutes or more. I would find a rock to sit on, gulp some water down, and check my GPS.
Am I almost there? Nope. Okay, continue on. This went on for what seemed like hours. I’d look up and say, “That must be the viewpoint. It sure does look like a viewpoint. I hope it’s the viewpoint”. Nope, it was never the viewpoint. Then, magically, I was there! It wasn’t a miraculous viewpoint like I thought it would be, but there were pools at the top that overlooked the mountain range and my FarOut map said this was the top of the incline. That’s all I care about right now. It’s all downhill from here baby!
Unfortunately, I was so exhausted from the climb, that the pep in my step of downhill skipping was gone. Now I don’t want you to think I’m a complainer. I sure was happy to be going downhill and I was definitely happy when the glorious lake was in view! “You made it!” I’m a little surprised that anyone on the trail would know me, but I realize that sitting on the rock with two other hikers is the PCT hiker that I saw quickly disappear over Donohue Pass this morning. “Yep! I’m here!” The three say they will be continuing for another seven miles, but the thought of that sounds terrible. I’m dropping camp here. I don’t care if it’s only a little after two in the afternoon.
Thousand Island Lake
First things first. Where do I want to camp? Do I want to see the sunrise or the sunset? I decide that I want to see the sunset. I’ll probably leave before sunrise, so there’s no point in that. It’s settled then. I want to camp on the East side of the lake. I make my way in that direction, even though there is no official trail on that side. No worries. I get lucky and there is a very light unofficial trail to follow. Quickly I realize this side is not going to be easy to find trees. They are all sporadic and tiny. Even so, I continue on. I’ll find something as I always do.
I walk and walk further away from the JMT. I hate adding these extra miles, but I want the perfect spot. Nothing! There are no good trees at all, yet I continue on stubbornly. Finally, I come to a spot where I think I can get my hammock to work. It’s not ideal, but doable… I think. I set up everything and sit down in the hammock. Nope! I instantly sink to the floor. This won’t do at all. I’m so exhausted though that I lay there for a while to have a snack and close my eyes.
Finding The Perfect Spot
Thirty minutes later I drag myself back out of my hammock. There has to be somewhere that I can hang around here. I think I saw a spot that might work on the other side of this cluster of trees. Carefully I take everything back down and move it over. Yes! I can make this work. It’s even better because I’ll hang over a stone slab and dirt, plus it’s shady and will block the afternoon sun. With a little finagling, I finally get my hammock up. Yes! Rest and relaxation at last!
I only lay for a minute before deciding to walk through the lake to the closest island. The lake is dotted with numerous little plots of land (thus the name, “Thousand Island Lake”), and this little island is only about twenty feet off the shore. I love exploring. Especially when I arrive early to camp. The water is icy cold and about calf-deep when standing on rocks, but I get used to it quickly, and luckily I don’t fall over. The island doesn’t have much on it except bushes and a single bone. I wonder what it was from? I walk back across the lake, dry off in the sun, and crawl into bed. Maybe I’ll just close my eyes for a bit.
Let The Show Begin!
Around 5:30 I decide to make dinner. That should kill time before sunset. I can tell it’s going to be amazing! The clouds are perfectly framed around the mountains where the light show will play out. I cook my favorite backpacking meal, spaghetti with marinara sauce from Mountain House. It’s true comfort food for this Italian girl. While eating, the show begins, so I pull up a rock to sit on and wait with anticipation. It’s a long, gradual, progression, and one has to be patient to see it’s various phases.
At first, it begins with a white light reflecting off the clouds and into the water. I watch as I eat my pasta. Then comes the yellow as it dips deeper into the horizon. I snap several pictures and go grab my dessert. The colors keep progressing, but it’s slow. I set up my tarp, brush my teeth, and get everything packed away. Patience pays off! The grand finale brings light oranges, blood oranges, reds, and just a touch of pink. I would clap if I didn’t think it would disturb the show for others around the lake, although I do hear a few hikers hooting and hollering with appreciation. I wish David was here. He would have loved it.
Speaking of David, I text him a few times to ask about his day. It was a shitty day at work and I decide not to tell him about the sunset. Instead, I say I’ll give him a long massage when we meet up in a few days. I can’t wait! He’ll be driving up to Vermilion Valley Resort to spend my zero day with me. It’ll be nice to see him before I sink back into the forest for the second half of the trail. That’s enough texting though. It’s time for bed. The night is settling in, and it’s windy, freezing, and looks like it might rain. Two days down and eighteen more to go. Good night!
*NOTE: Trail miles are based on JMT miles. Actual miles hiked are higher due to side trips hiking off trail.
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