And then began the Day of the Long Climb.
Truthfully, it wasn’t particularly longer than the approaches to other high passes, but the need to do such long miles made this section seem extra uphill.
The trade-off for the difficult pitch was that the Evolution Valley is absolutely gorgeous. Even though (as oft mentioned before) it was a low-water year, Evolution Creek thundered down through multiple waterfalls, deep green pools alternating with eerily blue rapids. Each turn of the trail brought another panorama of rock-strewn lakes as I climbed above the treeline: long Evolution Lake itself, the aptly named Sapphire Lake, Wanda Lake, Lake McDermand, Helen Lake, and a dozen others unnamed on the map. The great towers of tumbled boulders returned, these more gray and stark than I’d seen since Selden Pass, but stretching further grasp the sky.
I also met another hiker, and an answer to prayer, that would deeply impact my hike. All night my concern was that, if I were to bail out at the Bishop Pass trail, I would need to contact someone to let them know of my change in itinerary. I hadn’t had cell service in days, though, and was still having no luck. My best hope at this point was to get to South Lake where there was a picnic area and try to get a ride into Bishop and contact someone from there.
As I was climbing up the valley, I kept playing leapfrog with another hiker, a fit woman who, amazingly, always had a smile on her face. My instinct was my usual: be friendly but keep to myself to avoid either annoying someone else or being annoyed by him or her. But as I huffed up the hills, I kept ruminating on the idea that the hike was supposed to provide me opportunity to stretch myself, to reach out and connect in some small way. Girding up my courage (needing much more for this than for being alone in the wilderness for a week), I started chatting with Mary on the next rest. We talked amiably about our starting points and destinations, our experience of the trail, our families, our shared desire to worship and meditate in the glories of the wild.
When I mentioned that I was trying to head out early and hadn’t been able to contact anyone, Mary whipped out a satellite phone and practically insisted I call my family. After some tricky electronic maneuvering, I did eventually get through and managed to briefly outline my plans to my wife before we lost connection. Mary even accepted a hug from a sweaty man as thanks for her kindness, which made a world of difference to me.
Onward, then, slowly switchbacking through the hot sun and cold cloudshade until I gasped up to the top of Muir Pass at 11,973 feet (which I thought would be the highest pass I’d cross; it turned out I was wrong). The afternoon sun was tempered by cold winds whipping around the fabled John Muir Hut which sat at the top. Far larger than I had imagined, the stone building was as solid as the surrounding mountains, though rather sparse and chilly inside. It was also a crossroads of hikers from both sides of the pass, and soon half a dozen people were milling around. Oddly, this felt rather crowded, and I moved on after a short lunch.
The downhill was a welcome relief from the previous ascent, but the trail southward was made up of and continually cluttered with endless loose stone and huge boulders. The going was fantastically uneven for miles, and often the trail was difficult to find amidst long expanses of unbroken rock strata. (Twice I got lost and had to go crosscountry to find the trail again.) Once below the treeline things smoothed out a bit and probably the most magnificent forest I’d yet seen filled the narrow valley. Down, down, and down I continued, passing a crew of rangers who had been doing trail maintenance on their way up to the pass and other hikers I’d seen earlier in the day setting up camp. Finally, as the darkness began to make navigation difficult, I set down in a fine horsecamp on the bank of the Middle Fork Kings River just south of Big Pete Meadow, having made about 16 miles, only one short of the trailhead for which I was aiming. I set my alarm for 5am and listened for the herds of deer I’d seen several times in the evening, but fell asleep before any approached the camp.