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Trail Angels, Magic and The Golden Staircase

Part of my preparation for backpacking trips includes research. If there is trail guide or book, I’ll read it cover to cover. I get a topo map and study it. I google the area looking for articles, blog posts, YouTube videos and movies such a Mile… Mile & a Half about hiking the John Muir Trail. I watch, then watch over and over again. I go through my pack, make lists of what I have and what I need. I check my jet boil, tent, sleeping bag and first aid kit to make sure everything is in order and functioning. I study my Wilderness First Aid books, and books about medicinal and edible plants in the area I’m going just in case of an emergency. Like a good Girl Scout, I want to be prepared.

There is the saying “If you want to make God laugh, make plans.” I’ve learned many lessons on the trail. One difficult but important lesson is that nothing ever goes exactly as planed or turns out like you pictured. In the book Deep Survival, the author Lawrence Gonzalez lists being willing to change your plans as one of the most important survival skills.

Often, when I’ve been in a challenging situation, I’ve had to make a quick decision or act of faith that very well saved my life. It is at times like this when Trail Magic happens and the Trail Angels appear.

Allow me to tell you a story about the Golden Staircase.

In 2018, my sister and I planned to hike the second half of the JMT Bishop Pass to Mt Whitney, hiking 12-14 miles and one pass a day. We had my brother-in-law scheduled to bring our resupply at the weekend or 7-day mark at Kearsarge Pass.

From the first day, we got behind our planned schedule. When going over Bishop Pass, we walked through a section where there was a terrible accident the previous October that caused 100 mule deer to slide on ice to their death down a rocky ravine. There was a pile of deer carcasses with random bones scattered on the trail. It smelt strongly like rotting flesh! This really freaked us out. At the top of the pass we encountered our first snow and ice on the trail. We took that as a sign and didn’t want to end up like the deer below, so we took it super-slowly and went around on the boulders which added extra physical exertion and time. Our original plan was to do 14 miles - 7 up to the pass and 7 down to Le Conte Canyon. This would set us up to do The Golden Staircase the next day. On the way down my legs started to give way and we decided to stop for the day and planned to make up our miles the next day. The blessing here was camping in Dusy Basin and the most beautiful sunset.

We got up early the next day and started the 5 miles down, down, down to Le Conte Canyon. In the city I can knock off 5 miles in less than two hours. This trail was not what I remembered from years ago when we went up, up, up and exited. It was slow going due to slippery rocks underfoot, what seemed like a million switchbacks, and the unexpected heat. It took us 5 hours to do 5 miles. When we got to the lowest elevation on the JMT and the intersection along the Kings River I had to take a break to cool off. I was wearing faux jean leggings and they were suffocating! I took out my medical scissors from my first aid kit and cut them off at the knee. I turned the lower leg portion into arm sleeves, soaking them in the cool water. A woman asked me if she could film me for her blog as she had never seen anyone do that. I agreed and asked about her blog. She was a descendent of John Muir and was writing a blog and book about him. I was very eager to hear more. She shared that her uncle never went hiking or trekking. He meandered. I love that! All this chatting and soaking our feet in the river was Trail Magic but it also put us more behind schedule. We got going and by 5:00p.m. we were exhausted. We still had not made it to the Dreaded Golden Staircase which was our goal for the day. Everyone we talked to and in all my research said it was one of the toughest sections of the JMT Trail.

This section was the last section to be completed and is a marvel in engineering -cut out of the granite walls in the gully of Palisade Creek. The steps seem to go up indefinitely. My sister and I just could not do it that day. We stopped and camped thinking we will make up our miles the next day. As we finished setting up camp, along came a bear! We started yelling “Go away! We have zero patience for you today!” as he was heading our direction, smelling our beans over Fritos topped with baby bell cheese. We were able to scare the bear off and we quickly ate and called it a night.

Up early, we climbed the Golden Staircase, Mother Nature’s stair-master! Many of the stairs are made of a Golden colored rock. It was hot as hell climbing in the sun all day. We could see the beautiful and refreshing water of Palisade Creek but it was too far down the cliff in the deep gully to reach. Our legs were burning with lactic acid as we took giant steps up short switchbacks. Just when we were ready to give up, we saw the beautiful green tarns of Palisade Lake and thought we had stepped into paradise or maybe heaven. A pack of Boy Scouts fishing and swimming in the lake invited us to share their swimming hole and eat trout they cooked in garlic butter. If there was ever a time I’d been tempted to eat something with eyeballs it was then. My sister enjoyed the beautiful meal and I enjoyed the beautiful sunset.

At this point we are two days behind schedule with three passes to cross before our resupply. We set out around 7:30a.m. following the pack of scouts up to the top of Mather Pass. It was a beautiful climb with a pack of coyotes’ playful howls echoing off the canyon walls. I was a little scared going down as the switchbacks were very slippery, walking on sandy shale, and it was a steep drop-off with nothing to stop you from falling if you lost your balance.

It took us all day to get down below the tree line and find a camping spot near water. We were still two days behind and we were determined to make up the miles and get over Pinchot Pass the next day. We got going early, packing up a wet tent from the rain. As we hiked, we heard thunder and as we gained elevation the storm gained intensity. At Marjorie Lake a high elevation basin the lightning began. My sister wanted to go for the pass because we were already two days behind and if we didn’t make up the miles we wouldn’t be on time to meet her husband with our resupply. This was of great concern to her. He had never backpacked before and we were getting low on food.

This was the first time we had a fight on trail. She insisted we cowboy up and go, and I said no. She made her case that Tim would be waiting two days for us and be worried and we will run out of food and starve. I said it’s better that he wait then we never show up because we are dead. We also both could lose some body fat, so we were not going to die of starvation! Back and forth we

went. She called me slow and said I talk too much to strangers and take too many photos. I declared I was not there to race from one end to the other, but to experience nature in all her glory!

“Ka-Boom” went the thunder right over head and lighting right after. We found a nook under a low Clark’s Nutcracker tree and threw our packs in there and climbed in after. We put on our rain gear and hunkered down facing Lake Marjorie and the mountain behind it. Suddenly, we saw the water rippling toward us and the hail started hitting us in the face. My sister put up her sleeping pad to block it as it was pelting us really hard! There was more crashing thunder and the sky was lightning up like fireworks. We heard what sounded like a freight train. What the hell? An earthquake? I looked out from behind the pad saw the rockslide coming off the mountain and into the lake-cirque...this went on for several hours.

The storm finally passed late in the afternoon. The rain really cooled us off physically and emotionally. I agreed with my sister that it was safe to hike and get a closer to the pass while we still had sunlight and I promised I would get up before dawn and get going without coffee so we could make up our miles. Surprisingly, we got to the top of Pinchot Pass more quickly than I expected and without caffeine! We were making up some miles speeding downhill when storms came in again and we found ourselves tucked under some River Birch trees with a family of Chukars - mom and her 5 little chicks! Earlier that day we met a Trail Angel that let us use their satellite Garmin Reach to text my sister’s husband to alert him we were two days behind. Now with the storm and having to shelter in place we would be three days behind.

We made it to the Woods Creek suspension bridge late and soaking wet. A large group of backpackers had a big fire going. We asked them if we could join them to get warm and dry our clothes. They welcomed us and we made new friends. The next day we had to get over Glen Pass. As we climbed up-up-up, once again the storms came crashing in. We hunkered down in the dense forest waiting hours for the weather to settle down. We knew we would not make Glen Pass that day as we were running out of daylight. This meant we were 4 days behind and were VERY low on food! My sister was in a panic because her husband, our food resupply, had to be back to work on Monday, so we had to get him the message that we wouldn’t be there the Saturday or Sunday he was expecting us. We crossed paths with our first national park ranger that day. We explained to him our dire situation and he let my sister use his satellite phone. No answer so she left a panicked message with thunder crashing in the background.

We made camp at Rae Lakes as the storm passed and the sun set. It was so beautiful but hard to enjoy because we were hungry and had little reserves. The large group we meet the night before were camped close by. We approached the group who were sitting and eating their dinner. My sister and I got up our courage to ask them for food. We explained our situation and how we got behind and asked if anyone had anything they could spare. They all got up and went to their tents and brought back handfulls of food and dropped it in a pile! Chocolate, crackers and cheese, nuts, coffee, chips, jerky....we were so touched and thanked them as they were thanking us. Apparently, they had all packed too much food for their 4 day trip and did not want to carry the heavy load up to the 11, 926 foot pass. A Trail Angel win-win!

Armed with extra food and having sent the message out saying we were not going for Whitney so there was no need to bring resupply. We planned to exit at Kearsarge Pass/Onion Valley Trailhead in another two or three days. We felt relieved.

The next day, we got up early heading for the pass with our large group of new friends. Glen Pass was extremely challenging and at the top there was little room to rest. This was the most crowded I’d ever been at a pass and I didn’t like it. There were way too many people standing on the cliffs taking selfies! I insisted we rest at the bottom of the pass instead. We took a few photos and put on our packs to get down before the traffic behind got moving.

Exhausted, we picked our way down the rocky steep trail and switchbacks. Looking down we saw this woman running up. My sister said “where did she come from? Where’s her pack? Why is she running? Who does this blankety-blank think she is...” Then, we heard someone screaming “Mom! Lucinda! Mom” That ‘blankety-blank’woman running up the mountain with no pack was my niece! She caught up to us and my sister started crying. Holly was there to rescue us and bring us food. She got word from my brother-in-law that we appeared to be in some kind of danger. All he could hear in the message we left was that we ran out of food and we were 4 days behind and coming out. Holly was so worried that she had hiked over 30 miles to find us. Sometimes the Trail Angel is not a stranger, but your very own sister’s daughter!

Holly and our friend Mike set up camp with lots of delicious food for us and we spent one more stormy night in the back country watching the stars and thanking our lucky stars and Trail Angels for providing.

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