(UPDATED) JMT THRU-HIKE ENDED BY MASSIVE WILDFIRE IN KINGS CANYON NP

Note:  this is my very initial trip report.  I will undoubtedly add more details on our logistics and lessons learned as I get to it.

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As our plane flew from LAX to Mammoth Lakes you could look out the window and see the flames of a huge wild fire in the mountains. Wow, I thought, glad that’s not where I’m going!

Farther north, as we approached Mammoth Lakes I was hoping the pilot was familiar with this small landing field – as you couldn’t see the runway from the smoke!  Rumors were that this smoke was from a ‘smaller’ fire that was pretty much contained, nothing to worry about.

The next morning as we got ready for our shuttle to Lone Pine the sky was clear again and all was looking good, very good!

This was the acclimatization part of the trip.  Twelve hours or so and one night at Mammoth Lakes (7900′), drive to Lone Pine, Ca (3700′), hotel overnight, visit the Motion Picture Museum celebrating the hundreds of movies filmed in the Alabama Hills or on the vast prairie with the Sierras in the background.  Then shuttle to the trailhead at Cottonwood (10,023′).

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One night about 1  mile past the campground, then a short day over Cottonwood Pass (11,145′) and 1 night at Chicken Spring Lake (11,280).  I was going to make damn sure I acclimatized right for this trip.  Last summer (2014) in the Bridger Wilderness of Wyoming, I rushed it and spent several days feeling like shit before I finally got my full wind, and then the trip was about over!

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These first days were great, if not really hot, even at 11,000′.  Not the cool nights forecast.  If it did get cool, it was always just before dawn (duh) after a long night of burning up.  Well, maybe, that’s what you get when you bring a no-shit 20F bag!

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Anyway, the skies were blue and the days clear and very warm.  Surprising how intense the sun can feel at 11,000′ and the temps only in the 70’s!

When we finally got to serious walking, the sky was still blue and all was good with the world.  I could breathe great and felt great!  The time spent getting used to the altitude had really worked, it’s great being retired and having plenty of time!

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My only complaint, if one has complaints in the MOST SPECTACULAR SCENERY IN THESE UNITED STATES, is that this early section of the PCT (we would not hit the JMT until we reached Crabtree Meadowns), was also a horse trail, very sandy and as I walked behind Rich, I was literally getting covered by the dust he was kicking  up, a very fine, brown dust.

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(I’m going to summarize to get this posted)

When we reached Forester Pass (13,200′) the smoke to the north west had become pretty evident.

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South of the pass, skies were pretty clear.  Up on the pass, around noon, smoke had filled the valley, killing any chance of epic photos.

This started the trend we’d see for the next few days, clear early mornings, little or no wind, then about mid to late morning, the wind would pick up bringing in the smoke.  Around noon the smoke was all around and just past noon, the sun was blotted out.  Around midnight the smoke dissipated and one could see the stars again.

Our highest camp at this point was just below Forester Pass, at 12,500′, WOW!.  Even the smallest of camp chores left me a bit winded.

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Very few photo ops descending into Bubbs Creek and Vidette Meadow.  As we got further into the valley, the smoke got worse and it seemed, to me, much hotter.  This is when I started to really drag for the first time.  At the time I felt it was the heat draining me, but it was the smoke/heat combination.

We were headed ultimately over Kearsarge Pass (11, 834′) to Onion Valley trailhead, where we’d link up with our shuttle into Independence, Ca for our first resupply.

So because I was dragging, we went on past Bull Frog Lake and set up camp at one of the upper Kearsarge Lakes, so we could hit the pass early, leaving us enough time to meet the shuttle the next day at 1pm.

Here we met a group who confirmed the rumor we heard about a very large fire here in Kings Canyon NP which was filling the entire area with smoke.  This turns out to be the “Rough” fire, which is still burning out of control, causing evacuations, a full week later as I write this.

We consider bailing, but decide to wait until we get to the hotel in Independence before making any decisions.

As I said, we decided to get u  p early to give us enough time to get over Kearsarge Pass and down to Onion Valley trailhead to catch our shuttle at 1pm, else we’d have to hitch hike down to Independence (16 miles).

We got up at 4 a.m. (YIKES!) and hit the trail about 5:30 a.m.  Funny story, around 5-ish, just after having a bite to eat with headlamps – in the pitch dark -, I hear, the, um, call of nature, so off I go, being able to see only what my headlamp reveals, down among the rocks and boulders to find a nice ‘spot’.  Well wouldn’t you know it, each time I find a good boulder to go behind, there’s a tent that popped up in the night, other hikers leaving the smoke I guess….so I, trying to be courteous and not leave any morning breakfast ‘surprises’ take off once again, in the dark to find solitude, each time with an increased sense of urgency, ahem.  Each time I’m looking back to glimpse the reflective tape on Rich’s bear vault to keep my bearing and not get too lost.  We’ll after – doing my duty – I look back and find that Rich has apparently moved or packed his bear vault because the reflection which I could still make out at over 100 yards had disappeared, what to do now?  I called out and thank goodness Rich heard me and responded.

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So anyway, we hit the trail, thankfully full of energy and surprisingly make the pass by about 0630 (about 1 mile and 800′ elev gain), snap some photos at the top then make the 5 miles to the trail head by about 9-ish, great time, but now a long wait(?), luckily I had cell reception and got hold of our shuttle who had just dropped off that mornings fare, who then turned around and picked us up about 30 minutes later (yeah!).

They had our room ready (Mt Williamson Hotel) so we were able to get our clothes washed, our resupply food was waiting in the room, and take much needed showers!

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That afternoon the mountains became obscured by the smoke (Rich’s photo’s above) and our hostess (Strider) and owner of the hotel was telling us about the fire and the fact she was using a respirator to deliver food resupply further down the trail!  That about did it for me, I was in no mood to hike in the smoke.  The fire was forcing evacuations and had burned by then several homes and businesses in the area and was (is) marching closer and closer to the JMT.  Rich later decided that in this case, discretion was definitely the better part of valor and decided to bail with me.  Rich is an extremely strong hiker/mountain climber whose trail name should be ‘Superman’.

To be continued….

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