Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.
Rae Lakes to South of Forester Pass
Miles: 17.2 Elevation Gain: 5181′
Trip Miles: 181.5 Elevation Loss: 3489′
Glen Pass, 11,980′
Forester Pass, 13,200′
Max elevation: 13074 ft
Min elevation: 9642 ft
Total climbing: 5374 ft
Like many of the previous days, in the morning we didn’t know what we would put ourselves through on this day. Of the whole trip, this would be the highest elevation gained in a single day, over 5,000 feet. Maybe the deer that trotted through our campsite in the morning could have stopped and warned us. The cool, grey morning was the perfect pass climbing weather. We appreciated that as we woke ourselves up with the last mile and a half skirting around the rest of Rae Lakes admiring the Painted Lady, a colorful peak backing the lakes. Along the way, we ran into Brian, the guy from the last two passes and the night before (finally getting his name!). It looked like the three of us would be hitting another pass together. After that little stroll, we started the climb up Glen Pass.
Glen was different than the previous passes. They all had a long, sloping basin, walled on three sides by giant peaks, leading toward some dip in the peaks ahead which would be the pass. Glen certainly had plenty of giant peaks, but there wasn’t a clear basin leading to a dip. It was difficult to even tell where the pass was on the way up.
The trail climbed steeply out of Rae Lakes leaving the trees behind, then mercifully flattened out for a short section just above some still, clear, alpine lakes. There were several other hikers on the way up. Passing a group of them on this flat section, one of them asked if I was with the other guy also in a blue shirt. I confirmed that I was and he wondered if he should have also worn a blue shirt to get super pass climbing powers. I certainly didn’t feel fast or powerful, especially with Carlos always ahead of me on the passes, but at least to this guy, I was zipping upward. Then the true climb began.
From that flat section, the trail made its way up what seemed to be a vertical wall of boulders and scree up toward a rugged, rocky ridge. From here we could see where the pass was, and it wasn’t a gentle saddle between two higher points. It was a thin ridge still high above. As I pushed my way up the rocky switchbacks, it felt, like many of the passes before, like we were Frodo and Sam climbing Mt Doom, fighting our way up a barren, rocky, and steep path.
The upward battle finally reached its end and we were on top of the pass. The pass itself was a narrow, rocky ridge, jagged where the top of the mountains pierced the sky. The view north showed us the climb we’d just made, Rae Lakes in the background, small, nameless pools higher up, and miles of Sierra stretching out to the horizon.
We rested and chatted with the other hikers on top for a little while before dropping down the south side of the pass toward another small lake. Brian said that he was planning on making it over Forester Pass later in the day, but Carlos and I agreed he was crazy. Sure, we had originally planned to do Mather and Pinchot in the same day, but Forester was over a thousand feet taller than either of those and the trail up it was long. We told him we planned on finding a spot at the flat area near a creek just short of Forester. His dwindling food supply was prompting him to make as many miles as possible.
From the top of Glen Pass it was about 5 miles down to the low point for the day, in lower Vidette Meadow. On the way down we passed a solo hiker slowly making her way up the incline. I placed her in her 70s, but Carlos thought she might be in her 80s. Whatever her age might have been, she was an inspiration, and I hope I’m still exploring the Sierra when I reach it. This steep, dry descent was one of the longer stretches without water – perhaps between 3 or 4 miles. When we finally reached a creek, an outflow from Bullfrog Lake, we stopped and had some food.
While resting there, Brian came upon us. We chatted again about the prospect of crossing Forester. When I pointed out on the map where we planned to make camp that night, he agreed that it might be a saner idea to stay there, too. He took off down the hill and we followed after finishing our lunch.
When we reached the bottom of the descent, lower Vidette Meadow, there was a pair of hikers hanging out at a campfire. The area looked inviting, but we had much further to go that day. After a quick hike through Vidette Meadow, the long ascent began that 7 miles later would lead to Forester. The clear skies we had at Glen Pass had clouded over, which would make this climb more bearable.
Several miles later, on the way up, we came across a hiker coming in the opposite direction. He let us know that earlier in the day he’d met a ranger who had told him that there was rain in the forecast for the next day. I asked if she’d told him if they’d be typical afternoon thunderstorms or the unusual, extended rain I’d read was hitting the Sierra this summer. Unfortunately, he had no further information. Armed with that tidbit of information, we started to question our plan.
We continued heading up the trail as the clouds continued to thicken overhead. Eventually we made it to the flat, open meadow with the stream where we’d planned to make camp. It was high, over 11,000 feet, and exposed, so it would be cold. The last few trees, a little way back on the trail were already being used as shelter by another hiker who’d set up her tent there. It would put us in a good position to make the last 3 miles to the top of Forester in the morning, though.
There were two options ahead of us: stay there for the night, or head over Forester. It wasn’t quite 2:00 yet, so there was plenty of day left to hike. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Sierra, though, and being caught in one on the highest pass on the trail didn’t sound like a good idea. If we stayed, though, we risked waking up to a rainy morning and a long, wet slog up to the pass.
As we were debating the merits of both ideas, Brian came up the trail. He quickly informed us that he’d changed his mind back to his original plan and took off in the direction of a waterfall that marked the first ascent up to Forester. It didn’t take much more convincing. Ever since we’d heard the forecast, we both really knew we’d be going over the pass.
With that, we set off in direction of Forester. From the clearing where we’d stopped, we couldn’t see the pass yet. The highest ground we could see was the top of a waterfall where the creek came down the mountain. Getting there was the first goal. I figured once we reached that vantage point, we’d be able to see the pass, another 1,000 feet up.
Getting to the top of that waterfall did bring more into sight, but it was hard to tell where the pass was. The peaks, still far ahead, had many dips in them and which one Forester was wasn’t clear. Continuing up toward the peaks, eventually the trail cut back north around the side of a cliff. It climbed the side of the cliff to its northern end. From there, switchbacks brought us back south up the spine of the cliff.
From there, we could see where the path was leading. It went up what looked like a vertical wall to one of the higher, shallow dips in the peak ahead. Carlos and Brian were ahead of me, so I could see what lay ahead. They were several switchbacks closer to the top, and I kept chasing them. As we got closer to the top, some small hail began to fall. I just hoped we could get over the hump before anything more came down.
A little while later, all three of us were on the top of the pass. We’d climbed over 5,000 feet so far, including both passes. The intermittent hail had let up for the last push toward the top, but now the precipitation started to come back in the form of snow.
Looking down the nearly shear wall on the south side of the pass, we spotted some large lakes in the basin. In the distance, there was more precipitation and we wanted to get down and hopefully set up camp before it hit us. We made our way quickly down the steep southern side of Forester as more snow started to fall. I was grateful it wasn’t rain.
Down in the basin, the snow had stopped, but there was still a system coming toward us. The closest trees looked to be several miles away and there didn’t seem to be enough time to make it to them before the storm hit us. So, Carlos and I turned off the trail toward one of the lakes we’d seen from the top of the pass while Brian continued on to brave the storm on the trail. I quickly set up the tent while Carlos started filtering water at the lake’s shore. Just as I finished throwing the packs in the vestibules, the snow started to come down. I called Carlos back from the lake and we hopped into the tent to wait out the storm.
After a little while, the snow stopped and we got out to finish our evening duties. The surroundings were a lunar landscape with lakes. It was a surreal environment. We were still at 12,200 feet of elevation and exposed, so we knew it was going to be a cold night. Bundled in our warmest gear, we hopped into the tent proud of tackling two big passes in one day and happy with thoughts of a pass-less day ahead of us the next day.