Two days later, after a 16-mile detour that touches the JMT, I’m back on sketchy terrain. This time, I’m navigating a labyrinth of cliff bands above Lower Palisade Lake. The exposure and slick tundra ramps require all of my focus, and I’m whipped by the time I pitch camp near Cirque Pass.
That night, camped on a granite slab next to an unnamed tarn, surrounded by the immense, parabolic ridgelines of the Cirque Crest, my solo tent looks awfully tiny. Staring up at the peaks, their tips glowing in the fading sun, I feel a twinge in my gut that I haven’t felt since a six-week solo on Alaska’s North Slope, 15 years ago.
The spasm of uncertainty is ironic, because the JMT is just three miles back, and I’d encountered 65 people on it in just three hours. In two days, I’ll be at South Lake, one of the Sierra’s busiest locales. And at least 10 million outdoorsy Californians live within a day’s drive of the trailheads here.
But proximity is deceptive, especially in the mountains. Four formidable ridges rise between me and the nearest parking lot, and very few of the JMT’s hordes ever venture into these trailless cirques. It occurs to me that steepness, obscurity, and difficult routefinding make more effective wilderness boundaries than legislation or mere distance.
The next morning, I cross Cirque Pass on monster granite ramps, then Potluck Pass via a 40-foot rock climb. I drop down into Barrett Lakes, threading my way around tadpole-filled pools beneath the jagged, wizard-castle spires of the Palisade Crest. Days pass, and I settle into the trail’s rhythm, my legs and lungs growing stronger. Clambering over tremendous boulder piles beneath North Palisade, I finally reach easy terrain at Bishop Pass. It’s day nine, time for my first resupply.
From the ridge, I can almost smell the pizza at Parchers Camp, a cabin resort only six miles downvalley. But I’m immersed in my wilderness reverie, so I make quick work of the detour, sorting supplies and heading right back out. Soon, I’m breezing down through pastoral Dusy Basin, its meandering stream cloaked in deep emerald grasses.
The placid creek rolls over a brink into the deep V of Le Conte Canyon, and I follow it on a magical descent spiced by long slab waterfalls, the twisting bonsai trunks of Sierra junipers, and conical peaks of the Black Divide lording over the far side of the gorge.
I hike on for two more days, September getting colder and the snowfields hardening beneath a nightly rain of shooting stars. Lacking an ice axe or crampons, I cross the Glacier Divide via bouldery Alpine Col rather than steep, icy Snow Tongue Pass. That night, I watch huge thunderstorms rake the open tundra, swallowing the colossal ocher pyramid of Mt. Humphreys in orange-sherbet veils of rain.
Weasels scamper through the rock piles as I crest Puppet Pass, drop into deep French Canyon, then climb again to Feather Pass. On the ascent, I run into the first person I’ve seen off-trail in 100 miles of hiking. John Miles is a young painting contractor on an eight-day solo. We chat and compare notes, two kindred spirits, but soon branch off, anxious to be back in our own spaces.
Dropping into Bear Lakes Basin, I stumble upon the most evocative country I’ve encountered. This rocky alpine bowl merges every Sierran archetype–blond granite, clear water, airy vistas, rushing cascades, and flowery meadows–into one died-and-gone-to-heaven setting. Isolated ledges and pockets of tundra are scattered around the azure pools, a perfect maze of meditative perches, each poised at a scenic vantage point, beckoning me to linger. I push on up to the highest pond and camp at 11,760 feet with a sweeping view of Seven Gables and the stairstep lochs below.
Lapping waves rouse me around midnight. A waning moon paints a shimmering silver path across the black water. Low clouds hover above, creating an apocalyptic sky washed in deep blue. The scene is raw and harsh, beautiful in a primeval way, and very cold. The season is sliding toward winter, and my ultralight gear barely suffices. The chill drives me inside, where I shiver until dawn, sleeping in full Gore-Tex.
Shout-of-Relief Pass is a welcome landmark. Supposedly, it’s so named because the next 25 miles to Devils Postpile National Monument–and my second resupply–are easy. Sure enough, two fast days later I’m gable-walking down the high pumice ridgeline of Mammoth Crest as hawks whiz past on howling gales.