PCT 2019: Day 134, Middle Fork Trail to Tentsite at Mile 809.6

Operator, can you help me? Help me if you please?

After thinking more about our schedule, Bluejay and I realized we would arrive at Independence even earlier than we first thought.

When we put together our hiking plan during our zero day in Bend, Sunkist estimated it would take us at least six days to get from Muir Trail Ranch to Independence.

During our stay in South Lake Tahoe, when we made reservations for our stop in Independence, we must have added an extra day. This decision may have been for a stop at Vermillion Valley Ranch or an extra-long stay at Muir Trail Ranch.

DateWednesday, September 18, 2019
WeatherLightly overcast early, then clear; temperatures from the mid 30s to low 60s
Trail ConditionsA long climb and descent, then a steep climb
Today's Miles17.8
Trip Miles2014.3

Looking back on our decisions, Bluejay and I were a little unsure about how we got so far ahead of schedule. We couldn't remember all of the details from our planning because much of it was done by Sunkist.

At any rate, it was now clear we would be arriving at the trailhead to go into Independence in two days, September 19.

This was a problem. We had made reservations for two rooms at Mt. Williamson Motel for September 21. The reservations included a pick up that day by a shuttle driver at the trailhead.

Before Bluejay left camp this morning, I told her I would try to contact the motel and get our reservation date changed.

Last night's temperature wasn't nearly as cold as I had expected. When I went to bed, I put on an extra layer of clothing, then had to take it off in the middle of the night when I got too warm.

The sky this morning had only a thin layer of clouds. No rain fell last night and it didn't look like any would come soon.

Bluejay and I left camp together at 6:50 a.m. She was soon out of my sight when I slowed to take some photos.

As the trail turned away from the Middle Fork of Kings River and began to climb out of Le Conte Canyon, aspen trees appeared along the trail. These were the first I remembered seeing in the Sierra.

The trail followed the course of Palisade Creek in a steady ascent. The first 4.6 miles were sometimes rocky, but the climb wasn't difficult as it went up 1,100 feet in that distance.

After about a mile into the climb, I noticed a few leaves on one tree had already changed colors. This was the first hint of fall but not unexpected. The autumnal equinox was just six days away.

A little farther up the trail, I began to smell smoke. I couldn't see any but I was still slightly alarmed by it. I hoped it wasn't coming from a forest fire.

I stopped to talk to a trail maintainer named Camilo, who told me this was his fourth year of working on a trail crew. It was his second year of working in Kings Canyon National Park. He took this job because his brother did it for ten years.

Camilo told me he loved his job and that's why he continues to do it. He added everyone in his crew enjoys working with each other. They were almost done with their work for the season.

The crew lived at a basecamp nearby, which was just off the trail. Now I knew the smoke I smelled earlier came from their campfire.

Through part of the climb, I saw evidence of a forest fire. Several charred and downed trees appeared along the creek.

By now, the time was past 8:30 a.m., so I stopped to see if I could send a text message through my Garmin InReach to Mt. Williamson Motel to change our reservation. I hoped the phone number I had was for a cellphone, but if it wasn't and my message didn't go through, I had a backup plan.

Shortly after 9 a.m., I saw Pathfinder again. Bluejay and I last saw him briefly at Tuolumne Meadows. I was a little surprised to find he had fallen behind us.

When Pathfinder left Tuolumne Meadows, he told me, he continued ahead of us until he exited the trail near Red's Meadow. He spent a night in the town of Mammoth Lakes before returning to the trail.

After chatting a while, we realized we could be chatting while walking, so Pathfinder and I continued up the trail together.

Within a couple of minutes, we came upon more trail maintenance crew members. They were building rock steps and shoring up where the trail had become eroded.

While we walked, Pathfinder and I learned we had several things in common. We were about the same age, we had been involved in Boy Scouts with our sons, and we were both married to retired teachers.

By 9:30 a.m., the trail became more exposed because there were few trees.

The next six miles of the climb up the canyon were now at a much steeper pitch. The ascent would climb another 3,100 feet before topping out at Mather Pass.

On the way up, I occasionally turned around to look back in the other direction of the canyon.

I enjoy climbs like this, where I can see the route I've already walked. It's nice to have some perspective on the progress I'm making.

By 10:30 a.m., we were entering a sub-alpine zone. The ground was mostly solid granite, making it difficult for trees to gain a foothold and grow here.

This barren section wasn't completely dry, however. A trickle of water still flowed in Palisade Creek.

When we reached Palisade Lakes, I stopped to take some photos, and Pathfinder continued up the climb.

There were two lakes here, which were about 3.6 miles from the top of the climb.

After more than three hours passed without a reply from Mt. Williamson Motel, I decided it was time to implement my backup plan. I sent Kim a message through my Garmin to ask for her help.

I didn't want to alarm her into thinking I was in danger, so first I said, "All well here, but I need your help." Then I asked her to reply so I would know she received my message.

She answered immediately, and I filled her in about our dilemma. I asked her to call the motel to change our reservation. Bluejay and I also needed details on the time to meet the shuttle driver at the trailhead.

Within minutes, Kim texted back to me that she was able to reach the motel. She passed along to me the information we needed and also told me our resupply boxes had already arrived.

Smoothly fixing our arrangements like this would have been impossible in the backcountry if not for my Garmin and Kim.

By the time I received Kim's reply, I had caught up to Pathfinder and Bluejay. They had stopped to eat lunch about a mile from the top of the climb.

I filled in Bluejay about successfully changing our plans. Pathfinder said he was also planning to go to Independence.

While we ate lunch, I spread out my quilt in the sun. It had gotten a little damp from condensation last night, and this was a good spot to dry it.

As we finished eating, I needed a few more minutes to repack my quilt, so Pathfinder and Bluejay left without me.

In the final approach to Mather Pass, I met two hikers who warned me about smoke from a fire ahead. They were unsure if it would cause the trail to be closed.

I also met a young woman from Hawaii who was struggling with the altitude. She admitted she didn’t eat dinner last night. I encouraged her by telling her she was beginning a long descent, which would help with the altitude. I also suggested she try to eat, even if she didn't feel like eating.

Mather Pass was at 12,094 feet in elevation. When I arrived, Bluejay and Pathfinder were already gone, but two northbound hikers were there. I offered to take their picture, then one of them took mine.

The pass was named to honor Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. He remained in that capacity under three presidents.

Several other places besides the pass are named for Mather as memorials to his work. Among them is the park service's training center, which is just steps away from the Appalachian Trail in Harper's Ferry.

As I began walking down from the pass, I saw a marmot sitting on a rock. I pulled out my camera to take a couple of photos, but with my attention focused on the marmot, I almost stepped off the trail. Had I not caught myself in time, I might have tumbled several hundred feet down a steep ledge.

Soon after, two more hikers hiked up the trail. I warned them to watch out for a distracting marmot.

For the rest of the way down from Mather Pass, the trail was uneventful. The descent was long, gradual, and easy to walk.

Along the way, the trail crossed several small streams. This upper basin held the headwater tributaries that fed the South Fork of Kings River.

I reached the bottom of the descent at 5:30 p.m. The trail crossed the river there, and I stopped to filter some water.

Though there were several rocks in the river, it took me a few minutes of study to find a suitably safe and dry way across.

The trail then began another climb. This one would go up more than 2,100 feet, but I didn't need to go all the way up. I knew Bluejay and Pathfinder were planning to stop at a campsite about halfway up.

When I arrived at the junction of a trail to Taboose Pass, I realized what the hikers were talking about when they warned about smoke.

A ranger had posted messages warning that the trail to the pass was closed because of fire. The note emphasized there were no closures for the JMT and PCT, so I continued upward.

As I neared where I thought Bluejay and Pathfinder might be, I saw a tent in some trees. I walked toward it to see if that was where they were camped but only saw a woman there.

I asked her if she had seen a woman hike by recently. She asked, "Does she have blue eyes?"

Surprised by this non sequitur, I answered, "I don’t need to know that. I’m not married to her."

The truth was, I had never made note of Bluejay's eye color.

Minutes later, I saw Bluejay's bandana perched on a stick that had been jammed into the ground. At the same time, I heard her call my name from a higher spot next to the trail. Pathfinder was also there.

Bluejay told me members of a fraternity were camped nearby. One of them was very sick and was unable to keep food down. Chances are, we thought, he was experiencing altitude sickness.

We were camped at 11,000 feet, so this wasn't the best place for him to be. Still, Bluejay said the rest of the group was doing a good job keeping an eye on him.

The temperature dropped as soon as the sun sunk below the ridge behind our campsite. This was going to be a chilly night.

From where we sat while eating dinner, we could see Mt. Pinchot. It was about two miles away and painted bright orange by the setting sun.

Operator, can you help me?
Help me if you please?
Give me the right area code
And the number that I need
My rider left upon the midnight flyer
Singing like a summer breeze

From "Operator" by Ron McKernan (Grateful Dead)

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