Oct 1, 2020 at 11:02 pm #3678136
In early July of this year, I did the Rae Lakes loop as a day hike. I did this five years ago, nearly to the day; I blathered about it here.
Those familiar with the trip reports I’ve written in recent years are undoubtedly aware of the fact that my primary goal in writing such trip reports is not to document useful information for would-be hikers; my primary goal is to capture the thoughts and emotions that roll through my mind as these endeavors unfold. These trip reports—rambling and meandering though they may be—help me relive these adventures years later, sometimes reviving forgotten moments with surprising clarity.
I find it challenging to articulate how meaningful these outings into the Sierra are to me. When I try to find the right words, it nearly always ends up sounding hyperbolic—these are, after all, just walks in the woods. I’m not trying to grandstand, but there’s something else there; something bigger and influential and (hyperbolic warning!) life-changing. I don’t think it’s as simple as empowerment or accomplishment, and I don’t think it’s solely the byproduct of immersion in the natural beauty of the undeniably grandiose Sierra.
Well, here I am, struggling again to find the words. I think I can at least rest assured that some among you share the same sentiments, and understand what I’m struggling to say—maybe you could articulate it better than I can.
I warned you this may be rambling and meandering. What am I trying to tell you about?
Ah, right, Rae Lakes. Ahem.
But wait—now I realize that the entire forward I’ve just written may seem misplaced in a trip report about the heavily trammeled Rae Lakes loop. It is scenic in spots, to be sure, but there is so much else out there—so much more that is marvelously remote and pristine and elusive. I visit those places—I love those places; I visited those places this year, and if I get around to it, I’ll surely write a trip report or two.
But this trip report is about the day when I decided to go hike Rae Lakes loop again as a day hike.
The decision to do so was, to be very sure, a last-minute decision.
On Wednesday, the seed to go visit the Sierra was planted by frequent hiking partner Andy, when he mentioned that his wife and kids were out of town for the weekend, and he was available to go to the Sierra. I hadn’t been to the Sierra this year, due in large part to my general acquiescence that COVID is a thing, and although our collective social contract isn’t exactly written down in black ink anywhere, it seemed like the time to frolic joyfully in the mountains wasn’t quite upon us. It is of course true that from an epidemiological perspective, walking through the mountains isn’t a particularly risky activity. I softened my stance on going, but remained undecided as we discussed potential destinations.
Andy floated an idea for a trip in Emigrant, but I’m just not so enamored with the Sierra that far north. It’s lovely, but it lacks the grandeur of the Sierra further south; the periodic east-west slice-and-dice of the wilderness by ribbons of highway north of Yosemite seems to dissolve the magic for me.
On Thursday, Andy proposed Brewer. We’d day hike it, out of Roads End. But I looked at maps and elevation profiles, and shook my head. I couldn’t find a way to do it that didn’t look like it would end in a death march. This was my first time up to the Sierra this year, and I haven’t been hiking much—I wasn’t looking for a 16-18 hour day. Besides, the lofty summit of Brewer sits at an imposing elevation of 13,570 feet, and depending on route, it requires an undoubtedly sluggish 3.5 to 7 miles of cross country travel to reach the summit, depending on route choice (and the same again, of course, on the way back down). That, for me—coming from sea level—is a recipe for AMS.
I countered with the Rae Lakes loop, but Andy wasn’t interested in trail miles. We options from the Copper Creek trailhead—we could climb Munger, and do some XC exploring in Granite Basin. In the end, it didn’t really grab us; we frequently use the Copper Creek on backpacking trips, due to ubiquitous permit availability—ascending it on a day trip didn’t seem sufficiently opportunistic.
Then, it was Friday—I apologized to Andy for my waffling on whether or not I’d go in the first place, and he decided to go to Emigrant. He kept the invite open for me to join him, but I was still unenthused with a visit to the northern Sierra.
On Friday night, I slowly started packing things, not sure what I was doing. Would I go somewhere? If so, where? I had been so busy with work that I hadn’t had time to think about this. My knee had been hurting for several days—would I drive to the Sierra just to hobble around a bit? And our tax return—I still hadn’t done my taxes. And the forecast for Saturday was HOT. 109 degrees in Modesto! The low Sierra—where I would undoubtedly be spending a large fraction of my time—would be an oven.
I halfheartedly texted a few friends about joining me, but they didn’t reply. It didn’t really matter. They surely wouldn’t be able to drop everything to go, anyway.
The afternoon slowly turned into evening. Still moving with lethargic non-committal, I emptied my wife’s minivan—one of my Jeep’s tires had a slow leak that is not confidence-inspiring. I threw water and bedding in the back of the minivan. I still didn’t know what I was doing, but if I did something, I’d probably drive up that night and try to catnap along the way.
I did decide that if I went, I’d go somewhere that required no planning. I hadn’t done any and certainly wasn’t going to do any now.
I mentally revisited my list of reasons not to go, but didn’t find any of them particularly compelling. I inconclusively pondered whether the absence of a reason not to do something was a sufficient reason to do it. But at this point, I was moving on autopilot of sorts.
Then, it was 9 PM, which is around the time I prefer to leave on endeavors like this. I shrugged, and told my wife that I was going—I’d go do the Rae Lakes loop. It requires no planning, and is on trail; sticking to trails was consistent with my desire to be accommodating to my knee, as well as to align with the general principles being espoused by SAR organizations regarding “risky” backcountry activities. Banging out big trail miles hadn’t been my thing for a few years—I’ve been spending more and more time off-trail. Why not try a big trail day again? It would get my legs in shape for upcoming adventures.
In hindsight, it was a strange decision to make on a whim, and a strange hike to use as a tune-up hike. The last time I hiked this hike—five years ago—I had been hiking extensively beforehand, with several backpacking trips under my belt, and numerous 20-40 mile local dayhikes.
This year, I had been running pretty frequently, and had been doing long runs on the weekends that necessarily incorporated some walking. Was that enough?
Well, it was going to have to be. There are no shortcuts out of the Rae Lakes loop. I didn’t let my mind acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that such things can easily devolve into the very 15-20 hour death marches that I was hoping to avoid. Google tells you as much, when you seek out others’ experience on this day hike, but I tried not to listen.
I finished stowing my gear, and pulled out of the driveway.
I’m only two miles from my house, and not even on the highway when I pull into a left-turn lane to do a U-turn. I’m going home. This is stupid. What am I even doing? You don’t just drive up to the Sierra and do a 41 mile hike on a whim. It’s stupid. I have no desire to do this—no volition. These things require volition.
Knee, COVID, work, taxes, heat… Taxes, heat, work, COVID, knee… Fitness, suffering, heat, suffering…
A fleeting pang of motivation strikes me, and I pull back into the roadway. I’ll drive to the highway, at least. I don’t know why. This is all still stupid.
I get to the highway, and get on the onramp, and decide that I’ll drive to Tracy. If I turn around in Tracy, then this was a really stupid drive, but not nearly as stupid as what I was about to do.
I put standup comedy on Pandora, and zoom past the off-ramps in Tracy. I guess I’ve committed, at least, to driving to past Tracy.
And once you’re past Tracy, you might as well keep going.
It is just after 1:00am when I pull over in Sequoia National Forest. It is time for my catnap.
I stand outside of the van in the warm night air, in awe of the dramatic, deafening silence. I had forgotten this.
I decide that even if all I did was sit here and ogle the stars for fifteen minutes, this trip would be worth it.
When my alarm rouses me at 4:15am, I hit snooze once, then twice. The sleep is too good. I’ll just go faster today, and sleep more now. No problem.
As I drive along the meandering descent into Kings Canyon, sipping now-cold espresso that’s accompanied me on this journey, I wonder about the day ahead. I try not to have expectations, but it’s hard not to be apprehensive. Last time I did this, I was in sublime hiking shape, but I wasn’t running at all. Maybe I can run a bunch of the trail, on the descents? That should speed up the descents—Paradise Valley should be a delightful jog. The ascent of Glen Pass would, of course, be a long ride on the struggle bus. It always is, coming from sea level. I don’t have the hiking economy I had in 2015; I know that.
How will it feel? I decide not to answer this. It will be my longest day in the mountains since… Gulp. Since last time I did this. That is not particularly reassuring.
I could still just do something else. I could climb Munger, or Palmer… I could climb Glen Pass then turn around. But I don’t give these serious thought. I don’t know exactly when I committed to it, but at this point I’m mentally ballistic on completing the loop. Or at least trying. In the press conference in my mind, I’m not taking any questions.
I think this newfound resolution is because I’m excited for the experience—the whole thing; the beauty and the difficulty. I have been plodding around on baked East Bay fire roads for the last three months. I am anxious to walk through the woods; through wilderness, alone. I am excited to climb along Bubbs Creek—the very same “deciduous corkscrew” that I often scowl at. A long day on the trail—will it be easy? I think maybe it will. I don’t know why. I’m probably not justified to think that. But from the comfortable seat in my car, sipping espresso, it’s pretty easy to think that.
The day use parking lot is strangely full when I pull in at 5:30am. Are overnight users are allowed to use this lot now? Last time I was here at this time, there was only one or two other cars.
My final preparations are quick—shoes on, gaiters on, sunblock on, eat a banana and a granola bar. I stuff some more food into my pack—I don’t know how much I have, I just threw some in—“enough,” is what my brain said. This whole thing is kind of dreamlike, in some ways. Why am I being so cavalier about this? I have no rain jacket, no compass, no maps, and some unknown amount of food. I sigh, as though I have no voice in these matters, then lug my post-hike food off to the bear box. I grab trekking poles—double check that the car is locked—and then, that’s it. Time to hike.
I glance at my watch; it’s 5:49am. Even if things don’t go great, I should be back before nightfall. Of course, if things go very poorly, then—well, the sky is the limit. But I have a headlamp and windpants, and it will be obscenely warm—an unplanned bivy wouldn’t be the most uncomfortable experience.
The Rae Lakes loop starts with a flat, two-mile, sandy connector trail that joins the trailhead to the loop. I jog the trail, wondering about the same things that I always do along this stretch: What is in store for me? What will I be thinking—what will I feel like, when I am here again?
I climb the gentle switchbacks, and soon pass the Sphinx junction. As I had hoped, I am immensely enjoying the cool woods and babbling creek. It is a stark contrast to the baked East Bay fire roads. Really, it is quite awesome—National Parks are quite awesome.
I pass a few tents as I ascend. I don’t see any of the occupants—they are, presumably, dozing within.
Where the trail flattens, I jog. It is a slow, measured jog, and I can feel the effects of the elevation, even though I am only at an elevation of 6k feet. I keep things mellow and controlled—I have a lot of miles left today.
Soon I cross Charlotte Creek. I lose the trail as I cross it, as I seem to do half the time that I cross it. I pause for water, then find the trail, and then I am moving once more. Slowly, methodically, gently upwards.
I look forward to Junction Meadow. I know that above Junction Meadow, the world will open up, and there will be vistas and views. Soon I am there—I glance upwards at the imposing spires of Mount Bago. But above Junction Meadow, the climbing starts to get real. The air is thinning; I abandon any pretense of jogging, even on the flat trail, and hike robotically; methodically.
Looking back from above Junction Meadow, I spy the gorge formed by East Creek, with the summit of Brewer looming far above. It is imposing, to be sure, but it is also already behind me. It makes me reason that perhaps Brewer isn’t out of reach for a day hike. Of course, its summit is at a gasp-inducing 13,570 feet. No momentary rosy-eyed optimism is going to change that.
I bask in the general sunny splendor as I walk along the trail above Junction Meadow. There are switchbacks on exposed hillsides, and it is growing warm. The first rays of the day greet me—I had been sheltered by the steep walls of the canyon until now.
Just before I arrive at Vidette Meadow, I come across a one-liter Gatorade bottle in the middle of the trail. It is full of water, sitting upright. I look around, but cannot see anyone who might be its owner. I decide not to take it with me, owed in part to the low probability that its owner may be nearby, and in part to the fact that I have no easy way to carry it.
I note a pain in my left foot. I realize that it’s been there for a while. I am wearing shoes that I haven’t worn in 9 months—maybe that wasn’t a good choice. It is too early in the day to be feeling these kinds of pain, but sometimes they melt into nothing. I hope that will be the case today.
As I turn left out of Vidette Meadow towards Glen Pass, the climb begins for real. This—in concert with the ever-thinning air—slows me. I’ve been here before; I know this. I’m at 9,500 feet, and this—for me—is where the brakes come on. How I wish I could be acclimated! But these wishes are worthless. I keep my pace restricted, and amble methodically upwards.
West Vidette, above Vidette Meadow
The three junctions with Kearsarge Pass trails are supposed to come in quick succession, but they do not feel quick today. That is ok. I am not racing anything. But I look forward to being on top; I look forward to mellow jogging through the spectacular Rae Lakes. That will be empowering! But for now, there is just sluggish gasping.
The heat is already oppressive—it brings with it that prescient sense that later, it will be really hot. The direct sunlight on the exposed climb exacerbates this omen. I plan to pause at a tarn, below Glen Pass. The tarn is at 11,500 feet. I remember this distinctly, because last time, I thought it was at 11,200 feet, and was extremely disappointed to discover that I had an extra 300 feet to climb.
I pass the place where I think I should leave the trail for the tarn, because it is too low. I will not be tricked again! I say to myself.
But then I’m climbing switchbacks on the headwall of the canyon—and there the tarn is, visible, now below me. I have missed it again, this time overshooting. I sigh and continue upwards.
I arrive at the pass, where I find company. There are several backpackers resting here. I pause, drop my pack, and relax.
I chat with the hikers on the pass. One is doing a section hike on the PCT from Kennedy Meadows to Tahoe. A group of four are backpacking the Rae Lakes loop.
“What are you… Where did you come from?” They ask, with a suspicious gaze towards my small running vest.
I tell them, and they are flabbergasted. I try to deflate their awe; I tell them that these things get easier the more you do; I tell them that I backpacked the Rae Lakes loop in 2009 in 6 days, and it was the hardest thing I ever did—that THAT Adam wouldn’t believe that such a thing could be done in a day, either. But here I am, and it’s not that astounding—did you know that there are people that can run 100 miles? THAT is astounding!
But my deflections do not work; they are awed, and no weaselly, humble-braggy justifications I can offer will mitigate that. It is, I admit, a pat on the back to be looked at as some kind of superhuman athletic specimen.
“What time did you start?” One of them asks.
“A bit before six,” I respond, as I push a button on my watch to look at the time. I realize I have no idea what time it is—I have paid little attention to my pace.
I am surprised to realize that it’s a few minutes past 10:00am; I made the climb in around 4h 15m. That’s an HOUR faster than 2015. I guess I do have some hiking economy.
I do not linger on the pass for too long; I am feeling a bit dizzy, owed perhaps to the altitude, or heat, or lack of sleep. I begin the descent, which is a fairly technical rock-filled affair, at least from a prospective runner’s perspective. I am unable to run, but I make good time regardless. As I descend, I mentally double-check my math—am I off by an hour? But I am not.
I stop along the descent for water, where a streamlet crosses the trail. This time, I dunk my hat as well—it is time to begin yielding to the heat of the day.
As I reach the bottom, the trail smooths, and becomes runnable. I begin a mellow jog along the trail, but the air is still too thin to sustain this, even on descents. In a stuttering fashion, I hike/jog my way past the spectacular Rae Lakes, gazing upwards at the venerable peaks that loom overhead.
Middle Rae Lake and towering friends
As I proceed downwards, I notice a sensation in my chest. What is that? Pain, dummy.
When I breathe, it hurts a little. And when I run, it hurts a little. They are sharp poignant pains, that throb when I jostle my innards, and throb when I inhale deeply. As I jog, they get worse and worse. I stop jogging—chest pains are the kind of thing that I won’t mess around with.
I send off an inReach message, in case I am teetering on the innocent verge of a major cardiac event. This is not a totally new thing—in 2016, I developed some bad chest pains after a day of rapidly ascending, and sucking thin air. The doctors did doctor things, and ultimately diagnosed me with viral pleurisy. It was an unsatisfactory diagnosis, since it essentially just meant that I had a cold. I’ve tried to be conservative, since then—I thought I was keeping things controlled this time—but I obviously went faster than intended. Maybe I was working too hard.
I hope that if I get lower, my chest will get better, so I continue on my way, ambling past lower Rae Lake, towards Arrowhead Lake.
Then, a ranger is there. I pause to talk with him. It is Mike, the backcountry ranger stationed at Rae Lakes. We chat for a few minutes. He—like all backcountry rangers I’ve met in SEKI—is both friendly and professional.
“We’re seeing more people do that. Are you going for the FKT?” He asks.
I guffaw involuntarily. I feel so sluggish that it sounds ludicrous to hear the question asked of me with a straight face.
“No, it’s not really my thing. I’m just here to enjoy myself.”
As I continue on, I mull over several aspects of that interaction.
We’re seeing more people do that.
That can’t be good. Hopefully nobody is causing problems? Hopefully my like-minded brethren are espousing LNT principles?
Are you going for the FKT?
That a backcountry ranger knows about FKTs, and asks about them, is a collision of worlds. I mean, rangers like Randy Morgensen would’ve probably lambasted me for racing through a wilderness like this. I don’t agree with that viewpoint (I frame it as: If you want to go for a 40 mile run, where’s a beautiful, scenic place to do it?). Nonetheless, to hear a ranger discuss it is a surprise.
No, it’s not really my thing. I’m just here to enjoy myself.
Am I being honest? Maybe that response is rooted in insecurity; Leor Pantilat holds the FKT at just under 7h 30m. On my best of days, wholly acclimated, I couldn’t approach that time. But if the time were in reach, would I go for it? Are FKTs my thing? I sure like watching them unfold, and definitely enjoy talking to the people who attempt them—they are incredible feats of human athleticism. But are they for me? I guess it’s not really a question I need to answer. Today isn’t about FKTs or speed. Maybe some day I will think about such things. I do know that I certainly don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone else.
It is relaxing to ponder these topics as I saunter down the canyon; first past Arrowhead Lake, then Dollar Lake. I pause frequently to absorb the familiar but still awe-inspiring views of Fin Dome, Painted Lady, Dragon and Diamond Peaks and the like.
Beyond Dollar Lake, I pass the telltale NPS sign that notifies me that I’m now below 10k feet. I hoped my chest would feel better here, but it does not. I sigh, and abandon running. The views ahead distract me—they are are magnificent! I am staring straight at the monolith that hosts Window Peak and Mount Ickes, and their remote drainages. It is now well-trammeled territory for me.
The monolith that is home to Window Peak, Ickes, and more
Eventually I arrive at the suspension bridge. I scramble down to the shore, drop my pack, and climb in. The cold water is infinitely refreshing. It is a trade I’m willing to make for the blister threat of wet shoes and socks.
After a few minutes, I pull myself from the water, and mix some Gatorade, then promptly chug it. I realize that I’m probably dehydrated; I haven’t urinated since … the Charlotte Lake Junction? Everything was an ideal straw color then. I try to drink water, but realize that I’m fighting waves of nausea. I’ve been doing pretty good on keeping up with eating for most of the day, but it’s certainly slowed in the last hour.
Oof. I am not feeling magnificent. The bath was rejuvenating, though—I grab my pack, and dip my hat once more before heading up and over the suspension bridge.
The next segment of trail is the crux of the route, in my head. It’s a 5.5 mile featureless, dry roller-coaster along the South Fork Kings. The trail stays high and above the river, never offering any convenient opportunities to get water. It is predominantly slightly downhill, and I hope that my rejuvenating bath plus the lower altitude here will be enough to overcome the chest pain, but those hopes are quickly dashed; I start by jogging downhills and flats, but the pain grows; soon I am only jogging the downhills. After a mile, I am only hiking.
I plod onwards, looking frequently at the cumulative distance on my watch. I don’t know exactly how long the loop is—I think 40.5 or 41.5 miles. So, I still have lots to go. I have 15 miles. 15 is a lot of miles, given my general discomfort.
I pass hikers going the opposite way. They have a shell-shocked, glazed look in their eyes—as they always do on this stretch.
“Are we almost to the bridge?” Most of them ask.
I commiserate with them. None of us, in this moment, are having fun.
The nausea continues to waver in and out. I am not hungry, though I should eat; I will regret it later if I don’t. I try to nibble here and there at Clifshot Bloks, which have never disappointed me before.
I do the mathematical gymnastics of progress monitoring as I go—Soon I’ve gone 1.7 miles from the bridge, which is almost a third of the way along this stretch. Then it’s 2.0 miles, which is definitely a third. A while later, I check again, but it’s only 2.08 miles—damnit. But, the tenths keep ticking away—soon I’m halfway. Then I’m three quarters. But the progress is so slow. It wouldn’t be so bad, if only I could run. Stupid chest. Stupid lungs.
Eventually, I see the obvious canyon junction ahead, at the confluence of Woods Creek and the South Fork Kings. Ever so slowly, it gets closer, and then, after a confusingly long flat section through a humid bog, and I emerge beside the river.
I hadn’t decided what I’d do here. The bridge is washed out. I heard that there was a log crossing 0.25 miles to the west, but I’m pretty firm in my opinion that I can’t be arsed with looking for it.
There are two backpackers on the other side of the river.
“Where did you cross?” I shout.
“Right here. Just walked across,” he responds. “Be careful, the rocks are mossy!”
It’s good enough for me. I plod across, then sit next to the backpackers, who are filtering water on the riverbank. I eat and drink, and chat with them. They are hiking the loop clockwise, and are paused here for a break, but will continue along the monotonous stretch that I just completed, to camp at the suspension bridge tonight.
“Bring water,” I tell them, mentally failing to combine my observation that they are filtering copious amounts of water into 2L bladders with the words that come out of my mouth.
We chat about climbing, backpacking, REI and COVID. I do not linger for long—my chest is making me antsy, and consequently, I want to be done.
“That part was the worst section, so basically, I figure that I’m done now,” I tell him. We are both unconvinced.
But all I have is Paradise Valley, then the drop to the Bubbs/South Fork Kings confluence, and then the two-mile sandy trail.
However, as soon as I am moving, it is not so good. My chest is no better. This—the most runnable trail on the loop—is going to be a hike. I resign myself to hiking, noting that even hiking doesn’t feel so grand at this point. My hiking muscles are not used to hiking; they haven’t done much hiking this year. Today, I’ve asked them to do a lot of hiking, and I’m going to ask them to do a bit more.
By and by, I inch my way through Paradise Valley. First Upper—then Middle—then Lower Paradise Valley. As always, the rolling trail includes a few more climbs than I think it should. I stop in Lower Paradise Valley, for water, or a break, or something. I don’t know. I need a pause. I’m not done and I won’t be done if I stop, but I just can’t keep going right now.
I’m still fighting nausea, but I force more water down, with some Gatorade to boot. Maybe I should’ve taken some electrolytes today? I don’t know. I never have before, on anything I’ve done, baked east bay fire roads in an oven, or otherwise. Gatorade is supposed to have electrolytes, isn’t it? Or is it just sugar water?
After my reboot, I am slightly refreshed. I proceed, but it is slow going. The trail turns into an infinite granite staircase. My arms are sore—I have used trekking poles all day, and my arms are not used to this. My foot aches, but it is not so bad—it never got much worse than it was earlier in the day.
Soon I catch up to a descending hiker. I follow her for a bit, and then she lets me pass. A minute later, I hear her calling after me. I pause.
“Did you do the whole loop?” She asks, as she catches up.
I look at her confused. “Yes. I mean, I’m going to. I’m not done yet.” I feel like it is too early to celebrate, despite what I may have said in Upper Paradise. My watch tells me that I still need to descend 1,500 feet, and that is not nothing.
She asks if I saw two other runners—her husband and a friend started just after 6AM. I tell her no—I haven’t seen any other like-minded fools today. She tells that they were aiming for a 12 hour day. I realize that I haven’t done any of the cursory math I’d usually do; I’m not sure what time it is, or how long I’ve been doing this. It doesn’t really matter, I ultimately decide—I have to get to a place in space, not in time.
We hike together for a bit—we talk about running. Her husband is a legit ultrarunner who has run Western States, among many other things. I tell her that I have never raced, and she tells me I should; I explain that I would, if I could stay uninjured, but I’m not that jazzed for the competition. Then I ramble a bit about cyclists and competition and ultra runners and camaraderie, and I’m sure it doesn’t come out very coherently—at this point, I am sleep-deprived, baked, and desiccated, though cheerful to have the company. I note that—chest pain aside—I seem to have pulled myself out of the low moment that had weighed on me for the last hour or so.
She leaves me to continue on my own pace, and I pick up the speed, with more jogging. My chest isn’t better, but it’s not any worse, either. Soon I pass Mist Falls, and then I am passing soap-scented day hikers. I am surprised that I can smell their soap—I thought that was only a thing after you were out for days. Maybe I just smell really bad? Fresh scent notwithstanding, I am surprised by their tenacity to hike in this heat.
As I descend, I watch the elevation melt away on my watch, and soon, I am at the bottom. It is flat and then I am there, at the junction! The Bailey Bridge is near the junction. I jog across the bridge, and then down to the water for the briefest of dips—I’ll take another back at the trailhead. It is so hot today that a thorough cleaning of myself here would be pointless.
I conduct myself along the two mile sandy section in a controlled jog. My chest hurts, but it’s not so bad. Not bad enough to melt away some of the happiness that I’m feeling. No long day in the mountains is complete without high and low moments, and today certainly had those. I wondered how I would feel when I returned here, to the two-mile sandy trail, and here I am, with a mixture of emotions: I’m disappointed in my chest, but accept that it’s something that I need to learn to manage or do better with; I’m excited about the great day I had; happy that I could do this very hard thing on legs that have done little hiking this year; proud that such is my comfort in the mountains that although leaping into something like this on a whim may bump against the envelope of my comfort zone, it is pretty clearly well within it; and most of all I am grateful, for the ability and opportunity to go out and do things like this.
It’s been five years. I hope I can do this again in five years.
Then there are cars, and I’m done. I stop my watch at the trailhead. I’m surprised to note that the loop only took me a little over ten hours—10h 03m. That’s about 2h 15m faster than 2015.
So I guess that’s another thing to be content about, though it isn’t everything, or even a big fraction of anything.
I bathe in the South Fork Kings, then return to my car, and grab my food out of bear box. Soon I’m on the road—AC cranked—winding my way out of the canyon, behind sluggish weekend drivers.
I’m a sun-scorched under-slept mess, but four cans of Coke that I stashed in the bear box keep me awake on the drive.
On the way back, I do the hardest thing that I have done today; I drive past the Black Bear Diner in Madera without stopping.
By 8:30 PM, I am home, less than 24 hours after I left. Rae in a day, indeed.Oct 2, 2020 at 9:36 am #3678172matthew kModerator
That was a fun read. Thanks for sharing it. :)Oct 3, 2020 at 11:56 am #3678286wansun sBPL Member
Always a pleasure reading your trip reports especially re Rae LakesOct 4, 2020 at 12:09 pm #3678415Oct 14, 2020 at 10:13 pm #3679780A DBPL Member
Awesome write up. Thanks for sharing!
I tell them that I backpacked the Rae Lakes loop in 2009 in 6 days, and it was the hardest thing I ever did—that THAT Adam wouldn’t believe that such a thing could be done in a day, either. But here I am, and it’s not that astounding
This is interesting to me. What brought you from the 2009 person to the 2020 person? I am fascinated with the idea of moving through these amazing areas without always being able to set aside days or a week at a time to do so. Was it just a matter of deliberate training, taking a different approach to what can be accomplished in a single long summer day, or something else?Oct 19, 2020 at 11:33 pm #3680362
@ardavis324-2-2 – Great question!
The short answer is that it was just a natural consequence of exploring the Sierra in the way that I found that I enjoyed the most. Over time, I found myself wanting to hike farther and farther, and as I did so, it became easier and easier. Eventually, Rae Lakes loop as a day hike became an easy thing.
The longer answer:
The 2009 me had precious few hiking miles under his belt, and was visiting the Sierra (and really, mountainous terrain) for the first time (I’m from Wisconsin; we are not “mountain people”).
Over the next few years, I just found myself wanting to hike farther, with a light pack. I had become fascinated with the Sierra, and wanted to explore all of it–every trail, every drainage, every peak, every pass–and see them all multiple times, so I could piece it all together in my head, into a contiguous place. I didn’t do that much in that regard, however–I essentially just went backpacking one week every year, with my wife, and she didn’t have the same enthusiasm for hiking long days, so we generally kept things shorter.
In 2013, I hiked the JMT with my dad. It was great in the way that most JMT hikes are great, and I was enamored with the “remote” places like Upper Basin and Pinchot Pass that we visited, that I hadn’t visited previously.
In around 2014, I started hiking solo, and that really led a bit of an explosion in how I explored the Sierra. It was around this time that I started to feel comfortable in the Sierra, and naturally, that comfort made me more willing to push things a bit, both in terms of distance, gear, and aggressiveness in exploring some more remote places (where, at that time, “remote” to me might mean “off the JMT.”) I realized that there was no reason I couldn’t visit places like Pinchot Pass on a weekend; I could do things like 60-80 mile loops in 2-3 days. And in 2015, I did these things, and it was tremendously rewarding. It was also, at times, hard.
In 2015, I finally decided to hike Rae Lakes loop as a day hike. It had been on my mind for a while, but was still pretty unfathomable to me–to leave on the Rae Lakes loop, with no pack on my back. Such commitment it takes! But I did it; and it was rewarding in the sense that doing a hard thing was rewarding, even though it ended up not being very hard (although some knee pain arose ten miles from the end, and it wasn’t a particularly welcome companion).
In these years, I never really focused on distance as a metric that matters–I was still simply motivated to explore EVERYTHING, and hiking long days enabled more exploration. By this time, I had kids, and a demanding full-time job. I had little free time, but hobby #1 was exploring the Sierra.
I’ll note that people often say one can see more by going slower. I don’t argue otherwise–I’ve taken slow trips as well. I can enjoy both. At this point, I was enjoying moving faster.
So that was sort of it–the answer to your question, at least: Over a handful of years, I found myself wanting to hike further, and did so, and for every long hike I did, the next one became a bit easier (or more likely, I’d go a bit further, and make it just as hard as the last one :) ). My goal was not explicitly to hike big miles, but it was to be able to explore nooks and crannies of the Sierra in weekends and shorter trips, which were more amenable to my lifestyle.
In 2016–wanting to explore places in the Sierra that trails don’t touch–I tugged myself off the ribbon, and started exploring off-trail. That led to another explosion in how I explored the Sierra, and since then, I’ve focused most of my trips on exploring off-trail places. As a consequence of all the fast, long-day hiking I’d done in 2014-2016, I found myself able to ride the “conveyor belt” of trails to quickly access XC areas, then explore off-trail.
So the trips I took in 2017 to 2019 were generally shorter in terms of distance. I didn’t “pound out the trail miles” except when I needed to* to access the remote areas I wished to explore. Over those years, I thought about hiking the Rae Lakes loop again, just to see if I’d gained in fitness, or if things had become easier. But given the choice, I always gravitated towards climbing a new peak, or exploring some other area. And I still have many places to visit; by my last count, although I think I’ve hiked over 2,000 miles in the Sierra, I still have many places to explore.
* I’m looking at you, Bubbs Creek Trail
So–this brings us to 2020–and this particular hike. The circumstances that led me to repeating Rae Lakes this year was a peculiar combination of not really wanting to commit to solo off-trail travel, plus not having time to plan anything. I needed to dip my toe in the Sierra again in a way that was mentally easy, and ironically, the Rae Lakes loop dayhike was the thing that checked that box.
I warned you this was the long version! But you might’ve expected this, given the trip report you already read :).
If you still haven’t quite had enough, there is an even longer version–this saga is spelled out in my trip reports from 2014 to now, which are reasonably well-catalogued here: https://ontheswitchbacks.wordpress.com/trip-reports/
I should warn you, they’re all about as wordy and uninformative as this one.Oct 24, 2020 at 8:24 am #3680863A DBPL Member
@awhite4777, thank you for that thoughtful response and link to your other trip reports.Oct 24, 2020 at 1:35 pm #3680908Mike MBPL Member
We (several others from around the country on a trail running forum) were “scheduled” to do the loop this August. Plans were laid well in advance of Covid. Several had campsites reserved, several (me included) had a room reserved at King’s Canyon Lodge. Several had airline tickets purchased (I was close). I think it was January or February and we slowly were notified that our reservations for camp sites/lodge room, were being canceled. It wasn’t long after that they we decided we’re going to have to bag the idea.
Sooo- it’s still on the to do list (and my personal bucket list), maybe next year???
MikeNov 5, 2020 at 11:17 pm #3682595
I remembered that you were thinking about doing it this year! Sorry to hear that COVID waylaid those plans.
I was glad to hear, of course, that you still got out and about in your neck of the woods… 2020 was a good year to stay local (unless “local” also meant “on fire”).
- You must be logged in to reply to this topic.