Day 12: Deer Meadow over Mather Pass to Upper Basin (9.5 mi.)

Aug. 8: In the middle of the night (around 2 a.m. if I remember correctly), Iím awakened by Vicís voice.  Heís calling to Debbie that the foodís here.  Knowing that weíll be hiking up the Golden Staircase and over Mather Pass (our first true 12,000 footer) instead of out via Bishop Pass means I still need my beauty sleep.  So, I stick my earplugs back in, turn over and eventually go back to sleep.

Over the morning campfire I learn that not everyone heard Vic return with the pack train.  How they slept through all the commotion associated with unloading the mules, finding and putting away the stuff that needed to go into the freezer and refrigerator compartments, etc. is beyond me.  Plus they didnít know that weíd been saved from prematurely ending our hike.  But, everyone is ecstatic to know that we can continue on.

We do have to rethink our hiking schedule.  Weíve lost a day and cannot skip our only remaining planned layover day.  We need that day for the next resupply and to split up some of the hardest days which are yet to come.  It turns out that Iím the only one with an unmovable time constraintómy flight back to BWI from San Diego.  Fortunately, when planning my flights, I had decided to stay an extra day in San Diego for my cousinís birthday, so I had one day to spare.  We could walk out on Monday instead of Sunday, allowing me a day to drive back to San Diego and then catch my flight on Wednesday.

As to why the pack train didnít arrive until the middle of the night, this is my understanding of what happened.  MLPO had subcontracted out this resupply to another company.  They sent one young man, not a seasoned packer like Vic, with 6-7 heavily-packed mules over a newly, re-opened pass.  Somewhere, somehow, a feed bag wore or tore open and at some point started to leak grain.  The following mule spooked and, as a result, several of the mules lost their loads or had them shift.  (Pack mules are strung in a line using a rope that the wrangler holds in his hand.)  The wrangler then had to try to reload and restabilize the shifted loads all by himself.  (A mule carries 60-75 pounds on each side, and the sides must be about equal in weight.)  In the process of trying to do this, the wrangler was kicked by a mule.  He lost two teeth, and several of his ribs were broken.  At this point, he must have started to shout for help.  Meanwhile, Vic had arrived at the ranger station.  While waiting there trying to figure out what to do next, a hiker from over Bishop Pass tells Vic (the ranger isnít there) that he thinks he heard someone calling for help but didnít see anything.  Now Vic is torn about what to do nextóplay Good Samaritan on the chance that the hiker did hear something or continue on to Big Pete Meadow on the chance the pack train went there.  Soon, another hiker comes running up to the ranger station saying thereís someone up on the trail calling for help.  He couldnít see him, but, yes, he had seen or heard a pack train earlier.  With that information, Vic headed up the Bishop Pass Trail, found the missing pack train and the injured wrangler, helped him reload the mules, and led the train back to our camp.

For breakfast, we have grilled steak (not my favorite) and eggs.  The steak was meant to be for dinner last night, but, since it isnít frozen and we wonít be able to have a fire tonight, we have it for breakfast.  Besides, after our meager meal last night, we need it for the tough climb ahead.

We start hiking about 9 a.m.  About a mile after leaving the campsite (8860), we reach the end of the valley.  There are steep granite walls all around the head of the valley, and Palisade Creek tumbles over cliffs into the valley through a steep, narrow, rocky gorge.  Itís hard to believe thereís a trail going up the seemingly impassable cliff face, but there is.  It was the last part of the JMT to be built and is called the ďGolden Staircase.Ē  The Golden Staircase consists of a series of steep switchbacks that ascend about 1,000 feet in a mile.  The views back down the valley are spectacular.  As the grade eases, I stop for a Power Bar and a brief rest.  Soon the trail reaches lower Palisade Lake (10,613).  Having just stopped, I press on, drinking in the awesome views of the 14,000-foot Palisades group with their knife-sharp ridges.  Iíve only gone 3 miles and still have 3.5 more to go to the top.

Mid-way along lower Palisade Lake, the trail switchbacks up less than 100 ft. as it follows the shoreline of both lower and upper Palisade Lake heading in a southeasterly direction.  Great views! 

Lower Palisade Lake Upper Palisade Lake Upper and Lower Palisade Lakes

Soon the trail begins its rocky ascent of Mather Pass (12,100), and all one can see is a jumble of rocks and boulders as the trail twists and turns, while climbing to the pass.  (When Iím climbing these passes, I never seem to be able to pick out which of all the surrounding peaks is my destination.)  Itís well past my usual lunch time, when I take a very brief break to eat half of my sandwich.  I donít want to stop for long and lose my momentum nor have to climb the last bit on a full stomach, but Iím hungry and in need of sustenance.

Knife Edge at Mather Pass My Pack on Mather Pass Rock-sheltered Flowers on Mather Pass

When I reach the top a little after 2 p.m., Iím the only person there.  (I certainly didnít set any speed record.  Itís taken me 5+ hours to climb 3,200+ feet over 6.5 miles.)  I shed my pack and take in the views in both directions.  (I think this is the first pass to have really spectacular views down both sides.)  Then, I make and drink some Gatorade and start to eat the rest of my lunch when Pat and George arrive.  We take photos of each other and I finish my lunch.  (Theyíve already eaten.)

Itís almost 3 p.m., when we start to descend the steep switchbacks.  (I do not like these steep switchbacks going down on slippery scree.)  The trail soon eases to descend moderately into the Upper Basin, which is studded with little lakes and ponds.  The drainage from some of these lakes join to create the South Fork Kings River, and the trail generally follows the South Fork through the alpine meadows of the Upper Basin.  About 4 p.m., Debbie and her mules pass us.  And, soon we reach the campsite among the rocks and boulders with a few scrubby pines scattered here and there.  Weíre above the 10,000 ft. mark, so no fire tonight.

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