Weekly newspaper of Three Rivers, California, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

Bighorn Plateau and Mount Whitney (center). (Click arrows for additional photos.)Walking across the Bighorn Plateau.WAG bags and the accompanying instructions.Crabtree Meadow Ranger Station in Sequoia National Park.Campsite at Crabtree Meadow.A group of backpacks that are definitely going to Guitar Lake!Bighorn Plateau.

Hiking the John Muir Trail: Day 24

By: 
Sarah Elliott
There is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. (Christopher McCandless, Into the Wild)

 

This is a continuing series about a mother-and-daughter thru-hike on the John Muir Trail (north to south) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from July 19 to August 13, 2015. 
Previous installments and more photos are here.
 
Day 24: Tuesday, August 11
Shepherd’s Pass trail junction to Crabtree Meadow
9 miles
 
Early into this trip, Jennie realized she had a substandard sleeping bag. Most nights were spent with her feet underneath my sleeping bag in an attempt to be warm.
 
I hadn’t suffered a cold night yet. Until the previous night. I fell asleep shivering; it was the coldest I had been so far.
 
It  wasn’t the coldest temperature-wise, but it was windy, we arrived at camp after sundown, and I cooked dinner while still in my hiking shorts. My daily rinse at the creek was in the dark. 
 
All of this caused me to be cold enough that I couldn’t warm myself. We slept in until the sun’s rays were on our tent, 7:20  a.m., what a treat.
 
We enjoyed a leisurely coffee/tea time and a small breakfast. We were days away from completing this thru-hike and the food stores were getting low and being rationed.
 
We packed up and were on the trail at 10 a.m. It was a day of ups and downs as we climbed and descended the final ridges that stood between us and Mount Whitney, the terminus of the John Muir Trail.
 
After crossing the narrow but swift Tyndall Creek and passing the junction of the trail that leads to the Tyndall Creek Ranger Station, we climbed past the Tyndall Frog Ponds and up and around Tawny Point to Bighorn Plateau (elevation 11,430 feet), a large, flat, sandy, mostly non-
vegetated, windswept plain. To further highlight this incredible plateau, there is a 360-degree view of the Great Western Divide, the Kings-Kern Divide  (which we had crossed via Forester Pass), the craggy eastern Sierra escarpment, and our final destination: Mount Whitney. 
 
There is a perfectly round tarn on the plateau, and it had whitecaps because the wind was so strong. There were no namesake bighorns here; the only sign of life was two ravens huddled on the ground. Most likely they were grounded due to the high winds that were buffeting the plain.
 
The wind was fierce, threatening to freeze us or knock us over.  It was impossible to walk in a straight line. When a foot was lifted to take a step, the wind would violently blow it to the left. These were some impressive gusts that were pushing our bodies, considering we had more than 30 pounds on our backs.
 
At the time, we weren’t sure if the wind was a weather event or if it is a perennial occurrence on this tableland. We would find out later.
 
We descended the plateau to the Wright Creek drainage. We were in and out of a lodgepole forest that is interrupted by expansive, sloping meadows.
 
We crossed Wright Creek, unremarkable in this drought year, but it could be deep and present a challenge in wet years or earlyseason. A short climb later, we entered the Wallace Creek drainage and the Kaweah peaks emerged onto the western skyline. Then it was another descent on a sandy hillside and the junction with the High Sierra Trail from Crescent Meadow appeared. 
 
That’s when the realization hit that this trip was close to its conclusion. We could have hung a right and headed west and walked home via the HST, but we continued south where the HST merges with the JMT and the two become one to the summit of Mount Whitney.
 
We crossed Wallace Creek, which could be another doozy of a crossing during high water. And back uphill we went.
 
A large meadow presented itself — Sandy Meadow, which perfectly describes the terrain of the entire day: sand and meadows — and we followed the trail along its upper end. 
 
It was another up and another down and we reached the Crabtree Meadow trail junction. This is where the JMT and the Pacific Crest Trail part ways: the PCT continues south to Mexico; the JMT turns east toward Mount Whitney.
 
As we turned toward Crabtree Meadow, we met Ranger Rob Pilewski as he was heading out on patrol. He’s been a backcountry ranger for Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks for 20 years at least  because we first met him at Little Five Lakes when our kids were young. 
 
And because Rob’s life isn’t idyllic enough, his wife, Laura, is also a wilderness ranger who was currently stationed about six miles south on the PCT at Rock  Creek, and the couple spends  their winters in Yosemite as the winter rangers at snowbound Tuolumne Meadows when Tioga Road is closed and the visitors have all gone home. 
 
In less than a mile, we turned onto a short spur trail that leads to Crabtree Meadow. At this junction we picked up our human-waste bags from a beat-up Rubbermaid bin. Also known as WAG (waste-alleviating gelling) bags, these are a double-bag system made from a puncture resistant material that’s spill-proof, hygienic, and can be disposed of in a regular garbage can.
 
WAG bags are required within the delineated  boundaries of the Mount Whitney Zone — from Crabtree Meadow on the west to Lone Pine Lake junction on the east. A steady increase in visitation proved too much for this fragile ecosystem to handle with toilet paper being left behind in the shallow soil and the most popular campsites smelling like human feces.
 
So these days, anyone entering the Zone (except for northbound PCT and JMT hikers because there is no place to deposit the bags) is required to do their business into the plastic bag and carry it out. Some play by the rules; some are too out of their element and don’t.
 
We descended through forest cover and entered the meadow area by fording another creek. Crabtree Meadow is a popular place to stop en route to or when descending from Mount Whitney’s west side. As I climbed out of the creek drainage and got my first look at the expansive dirt
flat dotted with foxtail pines interspersed with dome tents of every hue, it reminded me more of a concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park than the remote, roadless backcountry of Sequoia National Park.
 
We set up our tent in the trees within view of the ranger station, Rob’s summer home. We  found a  sunny, secluded spot along the creek where we lounged until the sun dipped behind the trees and it was time to cook dinner and begin the evening camp chores.
 
To  be  continued...

 

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