SHR Day 17 – July 19
Barrett Lakes to Kings River Crossing
Oreo Slug Camp to Triple Rain BS Camp
Passes: Potluck Pass, Cirque Pass, Mather Pass (trail)
Compared with today, yesterday’s danger and discomfort was just the warm up. After a slow and tedious start transformed the morning into lunchtime in the blink of an eye, the foul weather stormed back, catching us off guard and out of options. Even being back on trail couldn’t quench the terrible feeling of extreme exposure when lightning started to flash. Humbled by the excitement and happy to be alive, SpiceRack and I made good use of the JMT to turn in some cruiser trail miles and make a new friend. Summing it up makes the day sound terrible, but it wasn’t. It was hard and there was more lightning than I prefer to have around, but there was also plenty of sun, swimming, and resplendent mountain country. Plus, I had a burrito for breakfast. It’s hard to get too down about a day that starts with a burrito.
The sliver of a view that I could see below the tent door revealed the Palisades buried in clouds. After all the doubt that the rain brought yesterday, I was not stoked to see a bunch of cloud already hanging around. We were going to need all the dry friction we could get to make it safely back to the JMT this morning. To my delight, after I actually rolled out of bed and put on my soaked shoes, I saw that while there were clouds, yes, their hold on the morning was tenuous. They were hanging out on the peaks, but a clearness that eluded us yesterday pervaded the sky. There would be sun today, and it was coming soon. With relief lightening our disposition, Spice and I brewed up some tea to celebrate. I ate the last of the town burritos, devouring with it any doubts that we would make it.
I refused to complain when I started to sweat under the hot sun during the climb up to the “inconspicuous saddle” that preceded Potluck Pass. Never again on the SHR would I complain about the sun, I told myself. We made it to the saddle, figured out that it was too inconspicuous to be the inconspicuous saddle, then finished the climb to the real inconspicuous saddle. The route finding up ramps and boulders was convoluted and slow, but at over two weeks in, we didn’t give it much thought.
From the top, we targeted Potluck Pass. We contemplated the story behind the name “Potluck” as a series of easy granite benches lifted us to the conspicuous saddle connecting North Palisade with a sharp fin to our right. Although we were confronted with a few hundred feet of cliffs on the southern side, we were feeling pretty good about our progress so far. We were on top of one more pass, and the weather was holding. The view on top was ominous, but also pretty darn epic. Densely packed peaks scratched the fluffy underbelly of the dark clouds that covered the world in a foreboding darkness. A mile to the west, plenty of dark clouds drifted north, unfurling banners of gray rain below, but it was all sunny skies for us.
Six tiny figures below, moving with a humbling slowness among the lumpy terrain, eventually gave Spice and me a hint as to where we should focus our attention in getting down the other side. From above, it’s darn near impossible to see where descending a cliff will take you, so we were pleased to see the other hikers start ascending an adjacent scree slope. One cliff down, then sideways to the sand. We were home free. We exchanged pleasantries when we met the others halfway down. Just you’re typical friendly NOBO SHRers, still mostly fresh from the start of their journey, though hungry for the hot food in Bishop. We repaid their helpful beta by directing them to the correct cliff band above.
A short break at the bottom recharged us for the next pass. Cirque Pass did not pose a significant challenge, just a breathless slog up slab ramps under heavy loads. It was faster going than talus, and I was grateful for the dry rock to speed our ascent. The mountains ahead were intimidating, daring someone to push a route across their sharp ridgelines. Knowing that the SHR dodged them to the east gave me great comfort, though I vowed to return for further exploration, at least on a map.
While the descent down the south side of the pass back to the JMT was short, it took us darn near forever to make it. Easy grassy flats left us cliffed out, using a series of waterfalls to guide us down a series of 50ft walls. I doubt it was the fastest route, but we made it step by step, slip by slip. It was frustrating, beautiful, and mostly safe. Palisades Lakes and the JMT were tantalizingly close below, moving closer with a confusing slowness. When we finally did reach the lake shore, there was no question; we were stopping to eat lunch and swim. 3.5 miles in five hours to start the day.
We had sun for just long enough to accomplish our goals before all hell broke loose. Now that we were on the JMT, I was feeling a little overconfident about the weather. Even if it rained, we could hike and make the miles. Even the thunder booming from three different directions didn’t bother me too much. “It’s just dry lightning,” I joked in a ridiculous accent shortly before I put on my rain jacket. I even made up some ridiculous theory about how the mountains ahead of us were slicing the storm around us. Ha!
As we hiked on granite slabs around the lower lake, a warm rain started to fall, thunder sharpened to a crack as the delay between flash and tumult shortened from 12 to 2 seconds. This was no joking matter now. The trail transformed into a river as the rain intensified. Less than a mile ahead, a bolt streaked to the floor of our valley, touching down at a point lower than us. “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck,” I said to no one in particular. Spice started running, I followed, keeping my distance to prevent the 7-10 split (sorry for the bowling reference). Searching for any sort of cover, I called her back when the cliffs next to us flattened out, leaving us the highest objects around. With the storm directly above us now, we crouched on our foam sleeping pads as the sky ripped apart above us. I stared at my feet, watching the lightning reflect off the puddles of rain, no delay separating the thunder now. Marble-sized hail pummeled my shoulders and blotted out the horizon.
For ten minutes we crouched. I was strangely calm, resigned to letting the storm do what it would do. Eventually, the delay between flash and rumble creeped wide enough for us to go for it. I was shivering as I followed Spice through puddles of ice water up the trail. By the time we reached tree cover, the rain was less then a sprinkle and the lightning was no longer visible. We made it. For now. There we met Akshat, a JMT hiker, sitting petrified with a spooky look on his face. He stopped hiking, he told us, when he saw lightning strike the ground 50 yards ahead of him. Freaky. After inviting him to join us for the up and over Mather Pass ahead once the weather improved a little more, we pushed on to treeline before setting up our tent to wait for a shred of blue sky.
Akshat broke up our snooze session when he hailed us from the trail. Yep, the sky was looking better. Time to get moving. Spice and I hiked with our new friend up on the increasingly rocky trail. Clouds still covered the sky, but their punch was used up. Sunlight shone through in flowing waves across the broken walls of granite. My layers dried, and by the time we were headed down the other side, I was in my normal hiking garb; just shorts and a shirt.
Upper Basin dazzled me with its grand scale. It was just as big as I remembered it while screaming through on the PCT. My gaze inevitably retraced my route up the north slope of Split Mountain, where the twin summit sat shrouded in mist. I’d always claimed this as one of my favorite places in the Sierra, and now that notion was confirmed. A wide smile split my beard as I followed in Spice’s wake, catching up with our new friend and ogling at the crazy views.
By the time we dipped below the treeline near the Kings River, Spice and I had officially left the SHR behind when it turned west to Lakes Basin. We were fully on the SoSHR now. We left Akshat to camp, and were just considering hiking on for 2-3 more miles when the rain and hail bushwhacked us out of nowhere. This final soaking squeezed out every last bit of enthusiasm we had for hiking that day, so we set up our tent on the first flatish spot we could find. The mood in camp was not the most jovial. We were in desperate need of a good dryout after the last two days. Eating cold beans in silence as fat raindrops turned our tent into a popcorn machine was a somber way to finish the day.