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.