SHR Day 16 – July 18
South Lake Trailhead to Barrett Lakes
Green and Beige Feast Camp to Oreo Slug Camp
Passes: Bishop Pass (trail), Thunderbolt Col
Out of town and back to trail. I wish that I could say that we had a strong start to the final leg of the SHR, but today was our toughest yet. Considering the conditions, I think that we did pretty darn well. However, the weather got the better of us, forcing an emergency bivy, and for the first time I wondered if it would be possible for us to make it to Horseshoe Meadow. That’s not a great way to start a 7+ day section. With a lot of on-trail miles coming up, I’m hoping that we can make up for any complications caused by continued foul weather. Rain is fleeting in the Sierra. It’d be crazy to turn back now.
After another surprisingly wonderful night of sleep in a motel bed, SpiceRack and I made moves to the breakfast buffet at 7am. We assembled paper plates of variably textured beige lumps, the only color coming from the wild onions that Spice had picked three days earlier. It might not have been healthy, but I thoroughly enjoyed each bite. Back in the room, we ate more food and put the finishing touches on our packs. Each of us gasped when we picked them up to leave. How did this get so heavy? There must be too much food in here. But I trusted my process, I trusted my legs and shoulders. We checked out, said farewell to Stripes and Jet Fighter, dropped our extra stuff at the hostel hiker box, then dropped our packs on the side of the road to wait for a ride back to South Lake.
Fifteen minutes later, we were loading our packs and bodies into an old VW Bug. Richard was a 50-year Bishop local and no stranger to giving hikers like us rides to the trailhead. We stopped at his home to change out the VW for a Prius, then began the steady climb back into the mountains. Richard was a gem, and we were heartened to hear his validation that we were living life the right way by doing the things we wanted to do while we still had the ability to do them. That’s the idea, anyway. It’s true, that someday all this hiking and living free might come back to bite us in the ass, but I don’t think there will be any regrets even if it does.
Back at South Lake, Spice and I crammed the last of our town food: salad, an apple, a burrito, and some curry. Under a full ceiling of cloud, with a belly fit to burst, I followed Spice south, up the trail to Bishop Pass. We made slow, but steady progress with our heavy packs. Actually, compared with our off-trail pace, we were flying despite the full loads. The weather forecast called for rain showers today and tomorrow, and so far, it wasn’t looking too bad. Even when it started to sprinkle, the warm weather and T-shirt-clad day hikers gave me confidence that nothing more would come of it. My optimism persisted even after the sprinkle turned to rain, convincing us to hunker down beneath a tree and put on our rain jackets.
By the time we had made it the six miles back to Bishop Pass, the weather was improving. We turned off the trail, pointing generally south towards the not-yet-visible Thunderbolt Col, around the foot of Mount Aggassiz. The lichen-covered rocks were slick with the stored moisture, but the unblemished stones were already dry. Hopping on talus and unstable scree was ponderous work with such heavy packs, but we made steady progress.
So far, we were singing the clouds’ praises. The cool day was a welcome change from the blazing sun and heat of the past two weeks. Wind whipped, and the gray covering crashed against the Palisades, obscuring the lofty summits in the foam of an upside-down sea. You see, the clouds brought more than respite from the harsh high-altitude sun. They also brought visual drama to an entirely new plane. Jagged peaks, usually alone with their monopoly of the horizon, now clashed with soaring swirls and lumps of subtle texture. Although the rock would ultimately win out, a primal cautiousness kept my focus on the fickle sky, both in awe and afraid.
Thunderbolt Col came into view on the other side of a disheartening down and up. The down was quick and easy. Spice and I took a break at the bottom to filter water and enjoy the sun, which now poked through windows of blue sky. Clambering up the final quarter mile to the col made me feel slow and heavy, which were both true characteristics. Massive black boulders required hands and careful feet to navigate. There was no “right way” to go. No fast way either. Foot by foot, we worked our way up and over.
Before we could get there, the clouds rolled back in and with them, the rain. It was light at first, just enough to have us grab our rain jackets again, but steadily thickened. The oh-so-important friction between rubber and rock degraded rapidly. Hands cooled quickly on wet stone. With growing urgency, we made it to Thunderbolt Col, eager to see an easy descent on the south side.
It was easier than the up, with more benches than boulders, but it was going to suck with wet rock regardless. It was windier on this side too. Moving with the slowness of a corgi on ice, we started the descent. However, as the rain intensity increased we became soaked and chilled. In a matter of minutes we went from warm and dry, to plummeting towards hypothermia. We looked at one another. We need to set up the tent. Now.
We found a tiny flat patch of sand amongst the cliffs and boulders, just big enough to hold our tent. The rain came down even harder, unwilling to let us go, as we threw up our shelter and piled inside. Never before have I been so grateful to be carrying a free-standing shelter. We would have been in a dire spot if it required staking out. There was no time. There was no space. Inside we sat in miserable silence. Any words were drowned out by the drumming staccato on the taught fabric. But we were warm-ish, or at least not getting any colder.
Not knowing how long this would last, our situation felt bleak. Even if the rain relented, the nature of this terrain wouldn’t allow for safe travel until the rock had a chance to dry. With rain in the forecast tomorrow, it was possible, I thought, that we would need to hunker down for the duration. Can we afford to lose a day? Man, this freaking sucks. There were less than five miles of cross-country hiking between us and a long section of JMT. If we just got enough dry time to make it there then we would be home free. Following a trail in the rain isn’t always fun, but at least it’s possible and relatively safe.
We waited for about 30 minutes before the rain and sky lightened up. Not totally, but enough to get us moving. Even though it was evening, we couldn’t stay where we were. We needed to get to Barrett Lake for water and flat camping. It was visible now, below us, where before there was only gray. We packed up the tent, now sodden and heavy with a mixture of water and gravel, and resumed our careful descent.
The wind quickly chilled us. As soon as we started, our jaws clattered together worryingly. There was no more humor in this pair of hikers. We just wanted to get down, to get warm. Soon the terrain eased up and the rain ceased. Sun streaked across the mountains ahead and even on the far side of Barrett Lake. Five minutes later, it was gone, but we were there. We sat for a few minutes, seemingly through the worst, yet still mired in despair.
The decision to camp right there wasn’t obvious until it was. It was after 7pm, we were soaked and miserable, we were next to a big beautiful lake, there was enough camping to host an army of hikers, and we were hungry. Need I say more? Once we pitched the tent and got water boiling for mac n cheese, my mood was climbing and stable. By the time Spice got back from gathering water, she was whistling responses to the local birds.
With bellies full of barely thawed frozen burrito and hot mac, we bedded down feeling a little bit better about ourselves. I, at least, felt optimistic again about our chances. All we need is a dry morning and we’ll be back on trail for the next round of rain. And our packs will get lighter everyday. Yep, that sucked, but we made it. I fell asleep watching the stars (stars!) emerge from the darkening sky through the bug mesh. What a freaking day.