Rae Lakes Basin / Upper Rae Lake to Bishop via Kearsarge Pass (3.9 PCT Miles + 7.6 Bonus Miles)
We reached the three Rae Lakes in late afternoon of Day 89 and found ourselves a sweet little campsite on the peninsula between the upper and middle lakes with views of both the Painted Lady and Fin Dome. On the final approach up the valley, there had been significant cloud build-up and it looked like it was going to storm on us again. It was surprising how quickly the sky changed over just a couple of miles. We had sunny and mostly clear skies passing Arrowhead Lake, and in little over an hour it was completely grey and grim. A cold wind picked up strength as the clouds thickened, and we both thought back to the forecast we heard when leaving Mammoth, calling for possible precipitation today and likely precipitation tomorrow. At this temperature, any precipitation would likely arrive as snow. We rushed through evening chores so we could dive into the tent on short notice if necessary, stomping our feet and clapping our hands to fight off the deep chill. By the time we had settled into our campsite and pitched the tent, the skies were already clearing. That cold chill wind kept blowing, and had some strong gusts. It was cold enough that the water in the line of our gravity feed filtration line started freezing before the water had a chance to run through. That night we kept the reservoir of water for our tea, coffee, and brekkie under the tent vestibule but in the morning still found it filled with chunks of ice. In spite of crazy wind gusts overnight and a few light snow flurries late in the evening, the morning started out clear and calm. This did not mean it was warm, and as we broke camp we were bundled up in all of the layers that have become de rigeur for the past several days. I knew it was cold when Huckleberry even broke out her wind jacket and warm hat!
We passed by several coots swimming on Upper Rae Lake, presumably in the process of migrating somewhere a bit warmer, as we started the approach to the pass. The climb up was breathtaking, and not because of the elevation. While the general Rae Lakes Basin and surrounding region is familiar from several previous trips, we've not been up to or over Glen Pass since our JMT trek nearly a decade ago. As we've seen on every October morning, all of the small waterways were covered in ice ranging from fine feathering crystals to thin top layers to solid sheets. The characteristic mottled pink-black-brown-white coloring of the Painted Lady, a distinctive peak that presides over Rae Lakes, was also present in the slopes that surrounded our path up to the pass. After the initial climb surrounded by Lodgepole and Whitebark pines, we arrived at a bench that expanded into an expansive and nearly treeless basin. As we climbed higher up the rocky switchbacks we could see a series of 5-6 granite-bound deep blue-green lakes dotting the basin and glistening in the morning sun. Awestruck, we wondered if any might have favorable campsites nearby for a return visit in the warmer months. Looking back over our shoulders, we had an unparalleled view of the peaks beyond Cartridge and Mather Passes and towards Dusy Basin. The wind had returned not long after we started hiking this morning and steadily picked up strength as we climbed higher on the exposed slopes. The sky was grey with an almost soft-focus quality to the south, and as we neared the pass we could tell the low clouds were more like a thick mist swirling around the ridgeline but dissipating as they crossed to our side.
Along the trail there were many small alpine plants that were eking out life where they could in the more protected nooks and crannies of the the talus. Most of these were long past their prime, having going to seed or already senescent for the season. However, in one little crevice I found a purple aster still in bloom. It's truly incredible to see the persistence of life above 11,000' in the Sierra Nevada. I'm always amazed by small details such as this. Huckleberry knows when I call out "taking a photo" and she sees me get down on hands and knees, I'm probably taking a poor-mans macro photo of some flowers using my phone. Any hiker seeing this will have no problem figuring out how I got my trail name.
Glen truly is one of the most stunning Sierra passes along the PCT for the sheer grandeur of its views. All around are numerous layers of peaks, funky crags and angled blocks along the ridges, and jewel-like lakes. The pass itself consists of a knife-edge walk with little keyholes in the surrounding talus that that give glimpses of the terrain ahead. With the gusty wind we experienced, I can only imagine how harrowing it is to walk this stretch in winds like we experienced last night, or in wet and stormy weather. We took shelter behind a large block of granite where we could enjoy the views and ate a quick snack before heading down the north side. Above these peaks to the southwest the grey mass of clouds generating the thick mist looked much like the sky on a cold winter's day just before a snowstorm. Although we didn't get much precipitation yesterday, our most recent forecast said it was likely today and the sky seemed to concur. We hastened down the north side. No sooner had we dropped below the edge of the ridge but we were immediately out of the wind, and it was uncannily calm and quiet all around us. Below us the trail snaked down the slope in a series of switchbacks that would rival Lombard Street in San Francisco. Above us the clouds continued to thicken, looking like a change was afoot. Dropping down we passed a gorgeous blue gem of lake surrounded by pink granite that Huckleberry aptly named the Vermillion Cirque. We passed more protected small shelves with gnarled Lodgepoles and several bone-dry tarns, then entered a series of long, dry slopes guarded by Huckleberry's beloved southern Foxtail pines mixed in with more erect Lodgepoles. On these slopes we took the trail for Kearsarge Pass, headed for our resupply and zero in Bishop.
As we made progress towards Kearsarge Pass and the Onion Valley Trailhead beyond, the wall of thick grey sky continued to advance in our direction and completely obscured the peaks to the southeast. We had planned to cross Kearsarge Pass this afternoon but camp at one of the lakes below it, enjoying an afternoon of wilderness leisure as our friend Cynthia is scheduled to pick us up at the trailhead tomorrow in the late morning. With the changing weather, we decided that if we saw any hikers headed out, we would continue all the way to the trailhead and see if we could catch a ride into town tonight instead. We've never been over Kearsarge Pass before because it is a popular access point whose quotas always fill in peak season. Walking the ~7.5 mile stretch of trail from the PCT we could see why it is so popular, as it was jaw-droppingly gorgeous and not terribly challenging. Even with the threatening snow fast engulfing the peaks to our south, we enjoyed the beautiful high lakes just along treeline below us that would be an easy hike from the pass. We kept our focus on Kearsarge a Pass, readily visible as a small notch in a tawny slope far ahead of us. The sky over the pass was clear and blue, but the wind was picking up as the storm system encroached and it felt like a race to the pass. During the summer, this trailhead is one of the most popular trailheads along the Eastern Sierra, so it's no worries for a PCT hiker to find a ride to town. However, after Labor Day and certainly on a stormy Monday in October, the convential wisdom has been that it is iffy at best to hike out expecting to catch a ride, and there is no cell service at the trailhead. Undaunted we pushed on and shortly before the final climb towards Kearsarge Pass we met two JMTers heading to the trailhead and on to Bishop. The universe provides. One of them was local and they would have a ride meeting them, and while they didn't guarantee there would be room they also didn't say no when we asked if we might squeeze in. We thanked them and kept going to stay ahead of the weather. We reached the pass where the wind was howling, the grey clouds met us there, and errant snow flurries started flying around us. There was a casual backpacker heading in to Rae Lakes for a few days who was well aware of the current conditions and let us know that today was to be the worst of it, with positively pleasant mountain weather forecast over the next several days once this system clears. We wished him well and headed down from the pass with the snow following us and growing heavier along with a strong and cold gusty wind. There were numerous lakes along the trail and many favorable-looking campsites. We figured that in the height of summer, this region must be a zoo, though today they were all deserted. On the way down we passed 3 more dayhikers, a fly fisherman and two more groups of backpackers heading out. The first pair of backpackers asked us if it was windy up top, and we might have looked a little baffled since the wind was cold and strong right where we were standing. Huckleberry told him that not only was it more windy the higher you got, but it was also currently snowing down to the lakes. He seemed somewhat surprised but continued on.
We were surprised to have seen so many people, nearly a dozen in total, before reaching the trailhead. We arrived and ate some more snacks, waiting for the couple that had a ride to Bishop but also keeping an eye out for another kind soul in the meantime, as they weren't a sure thing. In the end, there were actually a few different folks who offered rides within 30 minutes of our sitting there in light snow flurries. One would take us only to Independence (the closet town, where we could catch an evening bus to Bishop), another was talking her car-mates into squeezing two skinny hikers in as they were headed past Bishop anyway, and the final one was a retiree from Independence dropping off two hikers he had picked up in town. He seemed eager to take us at least to Independence, and when I offered gas money for his time and trouble, he was more than happy to take us all the way to Bishop. This would be an 80-mile round trip for him, so we were most grateful. It turns out that Michael has lived in this area for decades and spent many summers camping in these mountains as a kid. He showed us the remnants of the old dirt road to the trailhead and informed us that he recalled being on this paved road when it was brand new, in 1963, with his dad brought the family up in a VW bus. Additionally, he comes from a whole family of Trail Angels. Two of his brothers maintain a water cache near Tehachapi for PCT hikers and he told us to be sure to say hello from him when we pass by. This year alone, he has shuttled over 700 hikers up and down from Independence to the trailhead, but said that he rarely sees any SOBOs. That's probably because most of us think that it's impossible to catch a ride into town this time of year! Fortunately for us, that conventional wisdom proved to be dead wrong today.
We arrived in Bishop a day earlier than expected, and we are both thankful for a night in town given the wintry conditions in the mountains as we left. Over dinner at a local pizza joint, sipping Mammoth Double Nut Brown Porter, we thought about reaching the milestone of 90 days on trail. We have about 30 days left in this adventure and it seems crazy to think both that we've been on trail for 3 months and also that we have only a month to go. We look forward to our third zero of the hike here in Bishop, with a chance to change out some worn gear and clothing, resupply, and catch up with our dear friend Cynthia who will be here tomorrow to meet us (at a hotel in Bishop instead of a snowy trailhead parking lot outside of Independence). Day 90 came to a close with us sleeping in a bed, dreaming of our zero day and then looking forward to being back in our mountains heading south. More adventure awaits, with Forester Pass to cross and then Mt. Whitney to summit (weather/conditions permitting) and then onwards to the unknown. We will be leaving our beloved stretch of the Sierra Nevada and entering uncharted territory once again. Apart from a few miles down by Lake Morena (near the border) the entire trail south of Whitney is unknown to us and feels like a blank slate. We can't wait to see what we might find.