The Rae Lakes Loop: Day Four (The Big One)
Dawn could not come soon enough.
Part of the reason we had pushed so far along on the third day was so we could get as close to Glen Pass as possible, so that we could tackle it as early in the day as possible. Our concern had been the unseasonable heat, which had plagued us through the first three days of the trip. We expected a long, hot slog.
But we awoke to ice. So much for that.
In the night it got down at least as low as 30 degrees…from the amount of ice on the tents in the morning, possibly lower. We awoke to a frosty wonderland. For the first time this trip we could not wait for the sun to finally arrive.
Are equipment was mostly soaked, and most of what had been soaked was now frozen stiff as a board. Even the bear canisters were frozen. There was no chance of a quick start now; our gear had to first be thawed out, then dried out. Not that we were in much of a mood for it anyway. It had been a rough, cold night, and this had done little to improve my cold.
The one bit of good news is that the storm had entirely departed during the night, leaving us with the clear blue skies more common to the Sierra Nevada for today’s hike. It also meant we could quickly dry out some gear. We spread out gear out on every rock and shrub in the camp and waited for the sun to come. The effect looked like a travelling gypsy camp…but it worked. Before 10 am or so, all our gear had been defrosted and dried.
But we had lost some precious time, and the exposed climb to Glen pass still promised to be a hot one. We had to get going; many miles remained before our next checkpoint. The next place we could reasonably camp after the pass was Charlotte Lake, but that was a serious detour off the trail. We were hoping to push to at least to the intersection of the Kearsarge Pass Trail, if not to Vidette Meadow. This was only perhaps six miles away, but it was mostly hard country ahead and we had lost time already. We were quite anxious to bet going before it the day turned warm.
Immediately after the uppermost of the Rae Lakes the trail passes the turnoff to Sixty Lakes Basin (which we sadly did not get to see) begins a steady climb away from the basin, attacking the lower headwall of the ravine. There is no shade and little cover along this section. A half mile of so in it comes to a rocky wasteland and a series of smaller, clear blue alpine tarns. From here, the first daunting view of the pass is achieved.
We had reached the gates of the Alto Sierra – the high mountains, as the early Spanish Explorers had called them. There was no nieve (snow) to be seen, not even on the highest peaks…and so calling them Snowy Mountains (Sierra Nevada) seemed odd.
Though it looked quite frightening at first, the more I studied Glen Pass, the more I became convinced it was really no serious obstacle at all. We could see the actual cut of the pass high above, like a notch in the rock…huge cairns stood out in plain sight, as did the dot-like forms of hikers resting beside them, at what seemed like an impossible distance away.
But the approach was straightforward enough. What at first glance looked like an imposing, almost vertical pile of rock proved upon careful study to be a more gradual incline traversed by switchbacks. Not gentle, exactly, but not overly steep either. I estimated we could be on the top in 45-50 minutes. My companions seemed somewhat dubious, so I offered to lead the way.
We plodded upward. Since the trail was almost entirely exposed to the sun, our plan was to proceed at a slow pace taking one switchback and maybe half the next before resting in whatever piece of shade afforded itself. The trail was less steep than figured, and the footing, while loose and gravely in places, reasonably sure. We made steady progress. Soon, we were high above and looking down on the Rae Lakes Basin. It is a grimly beautiful country populated by rock and little else.
Then and very suddenly, there before us was the pass. Just as it had seemed impossibly distant before, now it seemed ridiculously close. Just another switchback and a walk across the long, narrow arm of a ridge would take us there.
It seemed an absurdly modest ending to what had promised to be an arduous day but…there we were! In minutes, we stood atop one of the six mountain passes of the John Muir Trail over 11,000 feet…the knife edge rampart of Glen Pass. Beyond was country we were glimpsing for the first time. I strained my eyes for a glimpse of distant Whitney, but it was not to be seen.
We sat for a bit, enjoying the view, and chatting with some JMT thru hikers, a trio coming south out of Yosemeti. They told us that the previous nights rain had been the first seen in over two weeks on the trail. Go figure.
We lingered for a while in this glorious spot – the pass is a lip of rock no wider than six, seven feet wide at any point, giving a great feeling of exposure. But we had to get going eventually. We still had a long way from a good campsite…the back side of Glen Pass is steeper than the one we’d come up, and no good campsites would present themselves for well over a mile ahead. And, the first few of these would be waterless…our best bet was to push further. The route descriptions promised sites near the intersections of the Kearsarge Pass/Bullfrog Lake trails. We had our hopes set on these, if there was still room.
The descent from Glen Pass was definitely steeper than the ascent but not so bad that my knees could not handle it. We passed in close proximity to a half drained small lake, then down through a winding rocky chute to a partially wooded ridge that afforded good views over Charlotte Lakes. Soon we reached the intersection with the Charlotte Lake Trail, but our way did not lie along that doubtless very scenic route…ours was straight ahead.
In a broad meadow the Kearsarge Pass Trail appeared, coming in from the Onion Valley. This trail is the only other one where an entry to the Rae Lakes Loop is possible, this from the western side of the Sierra Crest…but at the cost of additional miles in. It is also be possibly to stage resupply here at the Onion valley Campground, but again, only at the cost of extra miles.
We went past this to the Bullfrog Lake trailhead, where the guides said some sites were to be found. Here, we found the JMT hikers already in camp, but they assured us some good sites remained just down the trail. We briefly debated continuing on to the flats of Vidette Meadow but nixed the idea. Just ahead was a another steep downhill that we preferred to leave for the following day. It was already late enough in this one.
We had crossed the hardest section of the Rae Lakes Trail, but sadly we had left the most spectacular scenery behind. What day three had lacked in good weather, day four had made up for. There was still plenty to see on day five, though, and we had all of that ahead of us. From now on, almost every step we would take would be downhill.
Up Next: The Return of the King