PCT 2019: Day 136, Rae Lakes to Independence

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky

The expansive beauty I see in the Sierra comes with a cost, and today was the day I had to pay up.

Bluejay, Pathfinder, and I were heading to Independence, where resupply boxes we had shipped ahead were waiting for us. Getting there was not an easy effort.

First, we had to walk up and over two passes. The second one was part of a 7.5-mile side trail away from the PCT. Then we had to take a 30-minute ride into town.

DateFriday, September 20, 2019
WeatherVariable cloudiness with temperatures from near freezing to low 50s, occasionally breezy
Trail ConditionsRugged and sometimes steep climbs up two passes with long descents
Today's Miles4.4
Trip Miles2034.8

Although I could have avoided the extra trouble of going off the trail, this would require carrying many more days of food. Each day of food adds at least two pounds to my pack.

Add also the two-pound weight of the bear canister I'm required to carry, and it's easy to see why I wanted to resupply off-trail.

We set our alarms for 4:00 this morning to give us an early start. Our shuttle driver was scheduled to pick us up at the trailhead at 3 p.m., and we didn't want to risk missing him.

Bluejay and I left our campsite on Middle Rae Lake at 6 a.m. Pathfinder followed a short time later and soon caught up.

The trail circled around that lake and past Upper Rae Lake. This was the second time I had walked to the end of the lakes. The first time was yesterday when I foolishly walked past our campsite.

Immediately after leaving the shore of Upper Rae Lake, the trail began to climb toward Glen Pass.

I could see in the dawn light the mountains surrounding the lakes. Other mountains beyond them were obscured by low clouds.

The thick clouds billowed up from the lower part of the canyon. They looked like a wall of smoke rising from a catastrophic forest fire, but I knew they were just clouds.

Just before the sun rose above Black Mountain, its light struck puffy clouds that hovered above. Brilliant hues of yellow, orange, red, and violet captured in the clouds looked like balls of fire. The colors, in turn, were reflected in the shimmering lake below.

I fell farther and farther behind Bluejay and Pathfinder on the climb because I made several stops to take photos, but I didn't mind. I wanted to capture this stunning sight as best I could.

By 7:15 a.m., the sun had risen well above the mountain peaks. When I looked back to the lower canyon beyond Rae Lakes, I saw that the low clouds still had not lifted.

The trail continued its climb toward Glen Pass, and I continued to stop for photos. The next views in my camera lens were of small glacial ponds. The trail passed at least six of these.

I was enjoying every moment of the climb until the last half mile. The trail began making several switchbacks because the mountain's slope became significantly steeper.

In the full distance of the climb from Upper Rae Lake, the trail went up 1,400 feet in 2.1 miles. It was all steep but most noticeably so near the end.

When I looked up, I could see Pathfinder and Bluejay had already reached the pass.

I needed 30 more minutes than them to reach the top of the pass. They were gone by the time I reached a knife's edge ridgeline across the pass.

Before beginning the descent from the pass, I looked back again in the direction I had come up. None of the three Rae Lakes was in view now. I could only see the ponds I passed. Farther away, low clouds continued to rise as though they were blowing up from the ground.

Looking ahead to the south, I saw many mountains of a range called the Great Western Divide, which included eight peaks above 13,000 feet. Most were around seven miles away.

Among these were North Guard and South Guard. Between them stood Mt. Brewer, a mountain named for the man who led a geological survey team in this range.

William H. Brewer was a renowned chemist and botanist when he was asked in 1860 to survey the geology of California. A rare spruce tree, Picea breweriana, is also named for him.

As I began the descent from Glen Pass, I came upon a pika. Its short limbs and round body made it look like a fat mouse. Its ears were almost rabbit-like. Unlike mice and rabbits, a pika doesn't have a visible tail.

Pikas prefer cold climates. That's why they are mostly found at high elevations. Though I have made many high-altitude hikes, this was only the second time I had seen a pika.

A few minutes after leaving the pika, I met two humans, Foxtail and 3 Bean. They were going northbound and told me they were doing a flip-flop hike similar to mine. They started from the Mexican border in early April.

The trail entered a wide glacial valley leading far to the west, but soon it turned southeast, not west.

The trail then curved around a ridge extending from Glen Pass. Looking ahead, I saw more low clouds like the ones earlier beyond Rae Lakes.

When I reached the side trail leading to Kearsarge Pass, I stopped for a short break. Then I continued toward the pass.

The mileage listed for today is only 4.4 miles. That only covers the distance from Rae Lakes to the trail junction. From there, I walked 7.5 more miles to the trailhead on the other side of Kearsarge Pass. These miles are not included in the total because they aren't PCT miles.

The side trail may have been an off-ramp from the PCT, but it was also a gorgeous section.

I saw ahead of me 13,589-foot University Peak, which was partially obscured by clouds. Below me was Bullfrog Lake.

The lake was a spectacularly rich blue, a color as intense as any I've seen on the PCT. Unsurprisingly, the area around the lake had become so popular, camping had to be restricted to prevent over-use.

The trail to Kearsarge Pass remained high above the valley floor, but I had to climb higher still to reach the pass.

On the way, I passed a team of horses. They were carrying supplies, much like the team from Muir Trail Ranch I saw four days ago. They must have been well-trained and experienced horses. This was not an easy trail to walk but they handled it without a stumble, which was more than I could say.

Admittedly, I don't have four legs or someone leading me with a rope.

The final approach to Kearsarge Pass was the steepest I had climbed so far in the Sierra. When I reached the top at 11:45 a.m., some hikers were relaxing and enjoying the view.

“Is this Forester Pass?” I asked breathlessly, using a variation of my joke yesterday at Pinchot Pass.

A long descent followed as I continued on to Onion Valley, which is where the trailhead was located. The trail down was made easier by several switchbacks.

When I saw a hiker ahead of me cut across a switchback, I used my best "dad" voice to yell at him. Cutting across a trail like that damages the trail and promotes erosion. Hikers who do it are being lazy.

He looked at me sheepishly as I gave him a stern dad frown. He didn't reply, then sped ahead to avoid further disapproval.

Farther down the trail, I met a trail maintenance crew. They were carrying a lot of tools and personal gear, and were leaving the trail. Their seasonal employment was finished.

They worked for California Conservation Corps, the oldest and largest organization in the U.S. created to work on environmental projects and respond to disasters.

I told a couple of crew members I yelled at a hiker who cut across a switchback. They laughed and thanked me.

When I reached the trailhead at 2 p.m., Bluejay and Pathfinder were nowhere to be found. After looking for several minutes, I decided they must have hitched a ride into Independence.

There was no one around to give me a ride. I had already paid for a shuttle and knew the driver would arrive at 3 p.m., so I just sat and waited.

Before long, a woman came out from a van parked near me. It was Buffy, whom we met at Red's Meadow. She told me she had been waiting a couple of days for Say It Again. I told Buffy I thought Say It Again might have gone to Vermillion Valley Resort. She was now likely behind Bluejay and me, and maybe would arrive soon.

Buffy told me it was possible to get a cellphone signal if I walked down the road a quarter-mile and got in a better line of sight with the desert floor of Owens Valley. This proved to be true. A text message from Bluejay confirmed she and Pathfinder had hitched a ride into town.

My van driver arrived on time. On the way into Independence, he told me a JMT hiker had died after falling on the descent from Mather Pass. The accident happened three weeks before I crossed the pass.

I was at Mt. Williamson Motel and Basecamp in Independence by 3:30 p.m. After collecting the resupply box Kim sent me, plus loaner clothes and a complimentary beer, I went to our cabin and took a shower.

The motel had a well-stocked hiker box. Before Bluejay and I left to meet Pathfinder for dinner, we picked up a few extra items.

While we were gone, the owner did our laundry.

Independence is tiny, with a population of less than 700, but it can't grow any larger. Under-handed deals made in the early 20th century have locked its boundaries in place.

To obtain and control water rights in Owen Valley, Los Angeles officials acquired all of the land surrounding the town. The deals allowed Los Angeles to take all of the water from Owens Lake. Once the water began to flow south, the lake was drained dry by 1926.

The scheme to divert Owen Valley's water was a central part of the story of the 1974 fictional film Chinatown.

After meeting Pathfinder at his motel, we walked to a Mexican food truck that was parked along the highway. The food was authentic and tasty.

We then walked to one of Independence's two convenience stores. The resupply box Kim had sent me already had enough food to get me to Kennedy Meadows in five days, but I bought a couple more snacks. Pathfinder also gave me some snacks from his resupply box that he no longer wanted.

The extra calories I picked up at Muir Trail Ranch had helped me avoid running out of energy. I wanted to repeat that for the next section.

While lying in bed tonight, a surprising thought came to mind. This was the first time I had slept in a real bed since South Lake Tahoe. That was 18 days ago. The next time I sleep in a bed will be after I've reached the end of the Sierra.

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn't have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

From "Smoke on the Water" by Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Jon Lord, and Ian Paice (Deep Purple)

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