JMT Day 4, and Mono Creek
Updated: Sep 12, 2019
One of my concerns going in to this trip was that Arthur would get tired of hiking just with me. He likes to have a buddy to chat with on hikes. Even if it’s someone he doesn’t see that often or know that well, he easily falls into a pattern of telling stories or discussing movies or video games. He’s always been great at making friends, and that’s how he passes the time for miles and miles. But he also enjoys his alone time. During this trip he hiked ahead of me most of the time, but never too far, and would wait for me to catch up and sometimes chat a bit, or keep hiking up ahead. He is so strong yet he was so patient with me. This was especially crucial on this last day.
While I’d been planning this trip for months, the final incarnation of it didn’t come together until 10 or so days before we left. Originally it was going to be the reverse trip with a big group. It seemed like permits were going to be a problem, and so when I was researching permits online and I found the last two permits for the trip starting from Mammoth, I snapped them up. It looked like things were going to work out. But I wondered how tough that last day would be. The pass we had to climb to get to the car was at 12,000 feet about sea level. The day’s hike would be 12 miles and 3700 feet of elevation gain.
I was also feeling a bit anxious about my role as sole leader of this trip. I’ve planned plenty of backpacking trips and even one in the Sierra but this was the first time I was the only adult. Was I crazy to have picked this route? Would we make it over that pass?
It started off easy, though, in the Yosemite-like valley where we had camped. We started a very gradual uphill and continued through the forest hugging the creek for about five miles. We saw only two or three other hikers during this stretch. The scenery was picturesque in the extreme, seemingly even more beautiful than what we’d seen on the John Muir Trail. How could it get prettier? Yet we turned back to look at where we’d come from after gaining only 100 or 200 feet in elevation and the view was already mind-blowing.
When we hit the end of those first six miles, we looked to our right and up. We would be crossing the rushing Mono Creek, but fortunately, buy this time, we had reached a spot where there was an easy crossing. It wasn’t super-clear where the crossing was, and not for the first or last time on this less-trafficked trail, I was grateful for the GPS helping us find our way. We started up the switchbacks. It was “only” 3 miles to the pass. It was noon. I figured if we made it to the pass by 5 we would get back to the car by dark.
In the end, it took almost that long. It was very slow going. Going up the switchbacks was rough, though the scenery was still amazing and I didn’t feel too bad. We saw a few other people, some of whom were hiking in from where our car was for several nights in one of the recesses off Mono Creek. That made me feel a bit less insane.
The trail got a skosh easier once or twice. There was an amazing valley with two small lakes and with a stream and lush meadows and wildflowers and I said to Arthur, “if someone set out to paint the most idyllic mountain scene they could imagine, they’d paint this and get criticized for making it unrealistically beautiful.”
About this time we saw our second or third pack of mules and horses. Our car was parked near a pack station, so this was to be expected. Rather than being an annoyance, the droppings were a reassurance that we were on the right path when the trail wasn’t terribly obvious. And at that point the idea of having a mule carry my stuff was intensely appealing.
As we climbed out of that valley, I knew intellectually that we were close, but I was suffering. I had a side stitch. I texted Nathan and asked him to google side stitch remedies. The answer: “slow down and/or push your hand into the spot that hurts.” I was already doing both those things. I soldiered on.
It was midafternoon when we climbed above the tree line and then over the shrub line. Every step was a struggle. I had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath. Arthur was worried. “Are you going to be ok Mom?” I assured him I was, but that it was difficult for me and I was doing my best. We would just have to go slow for now.
It was at that point, of course, that we heard a rumble of thunder. Arthur was pretty concerned about that, but what could we do? If we actually saw lighting, we’d shelter under a rock. Otherwise, keep going. But luck was in our favor and we heard no more thunder.
A few minutes later, a hiker with a day pack passed us at a quick pace. He had a fishing pole sticking up out of his pack, extending about three feet above his head. “Well,” I said to Arthur. “If anyone gets struck by lightning it’s gonna be him.”
As I said, we were above the line of almost all vegetation. It was a moonscape. We trudged along and over one hill to find Summit Lake, which I knew from the map was very close to the pass. We got water and marveled at the quiet. With no tree leaves to rustle, no birds chirping, no chipmunks scurrying about, it was downright creepy. We both agreed that we wanted to get out of there.
It was mostly level in this little basin, but I still felt slow. Nathan had been watching our progress, and he could tell our pace was gradual. He texted me, “you’re only 120 vertical feet from the top!” When I bought the GPS I hadn’t thought of the benefit of remote cheerleading, but it was pretty great.
Finally, at the end of the Summit Lake valley, it looked like we would reach the top. We ascended a pile of rocks and our eyes followed the trail as it plummeted hundreds of feet before disappearing behind the mountain to our left. A whole new set of vistas opened up. I’m not sure if I was too tired to make “elation” an accurate description, but damn I was happy.
Over the last three miles of the hike, we descended nearly 2000 feet in elevation. It was rough on the knees and feet, for sure. But the scenery was amazing, and it was a relief to know we wouldn’t need to do any more climbing that would leave me gasping for air.
Those last three downhill miles took longer than we expected. And they took a toll on my feet. Just the other day I lost a second toenail. But no matter. It was 100 percent worth it, for me personally -- it was a grander accomplishment than I could have ever dreamed of as an unfit kid living in flat-as-a-pancake Illinois -- and as a mom. What parent doesn't dream of having a child who shares their passion and participates in their most cherished activities by their side, whether it's fixing up old cars or playing soccer or hiking mile after exhausting mile? Arthur now believes that a forty mile backpack on the JMT makes the whole 210-mile through-hike seem perfectly plausible. I know he's capable. I feel like I could do it if I had a month; 10-mile days interspersed with rest days. Maybe we can do it in sections, a week every summer or something. I still have at least four or five summers before he's old enough to do the whole thing on his own.