Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light.
Le Conte Ranger Station to South of Upper Basin
Miles: 20.1 Elevation Gain: 4226′
Trip Miles: 145.5 Elevation Loss: 2752′
Mather Pass, 12,100′
Max elevation: 11975 ft
Min elevation: 8159 ft
Total climbing: 4557 ft
This day would bring with it possibly the hardest climb of the trip. But while we were packing up camp, having breakfast, and hopping back across the water toward the trail in the morning, we didn’t know that. We did know, though, that we’d be climbing the Golden Staircase later. We just didn’t know we’d also make it over Mather.
We continued down the valley under smokey, overcast skies. Another hiker mentioned that there were three fires close enough to blow their smoke over us, but I didn’t get much more information than that. At one point, a helicopter rushed by overhead in the direction of Mather Pass. As we approached the end of the valley, we could see up in our future. Lots of up.
Then there it was, the Golden Staircase. Along the right side of the trail, a waterfall cascaded down the steep mountainside. We started climbing big, granite steps and more switchbacks than I could count. Along the way up, first above, then beside, then below, there was a large, shallow cave cut into the side of the hill. It reminded me of the cave where we’d given coca leaf offerings before our trek in the Peruvian Andes. Without coca leaves on me (I knew I shouldn’t have left them at home!), I made a mental coca leaf offering to the Sierra for my mother’s health. Then I continued climbing up to Palisade Lakes.
Along the way up the steep climb, we encountered a conservation corps crew doing trail maintenance on some of the granite steps. I thanked them for their awesome work, duly impressed with both the quality of the work and the setting they were doing it in.
Before long, we were nearing the top of the Golden Staircase and Lower Palisade Lake. Breaking the relative silence, beyond a rise just in front of me, the helicopter reappeared, taking off from some spot just beyond. They must have been evacuating someone. I hoped it was for something simple like a broken ankle and nothing worse.
Crossing Palisade Creek, the outflow from Palisade Lakes, Carlos asked if we should take a break. I suggested we continue on to the lake before stopping. He took off ahead, as always, and soon we were at the lake. But he kept walking, passing the lake. Thinking he’d stop at the far side of the lake, I followed. The trail had different plans for us, though. Instead of following the shore of the lake, the trail continued to climb. A little while later, already far above Lower Palisade Lake, we took a break where a small stream cut across the path.
We’d thought about stopping for the day at Lower Palisade and keeping the day shorter since we planned on going over both Mather and Pinchot passes the next day. At this point, that wasn’t an option any more. Mather loomed high above us, beckoning us to conquer it. So we finished our drinks and food and kept climbing. The Golden Staircase was tough and steep. This was also tough and steep. We were well above the tree line. There were shrubs that gave way to grasses as we climbed. And the grasses gave out as we got even higher. Granite scree and boulders were all around us. The top grew closer, but peaks still towered on three sides.
Finally, we made it to the top. Two other JMTers were with us when we got to the summit and one more was just behind us. The group of us relaxed after the climb and took in the spectacular views back down toward Palisade Lakes. They seemed like small pools from this distance and height. Over the pass was a wide, seemingly flat, barren basin dotted with a few small lakes, and in the distance, pines crowded together in a wide valley.
One of the hikers had started down the other side while we were still taking our break. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, but he was already just a speck on the granite scree far below. We soon followed in his footsteps.
We came down into Upper Basin, peaks reaching toward the sky on all sides. Carlos said it looked like Desolation Wilderness times 1,000. It did. Through the basin, it was a gentle, scenic downhill. Before long, we were back among the trees. We didn’t have a specific destination in mind. Well, we had. Lower Palisades Lake. So, at around 4:30, we started scouting for a good spot.
The basin had just started to fold in on itself and become a valley. A creek ran along the left side of the trail, just down an embankment. We scouted off trail, over a little hill, and down toward the creek and it paid off. We found a perfect camping spot. Based on the number of other people we’d seen on previous nights and the quality of the location, we were sure we’d have neighbors. No one else appeared all evening, though, and we had this wonderful campsite to ourselves.
We washed off in the creek. There was a perfect little pool below a small waterfall for us. After doing our evening water and camp duties, we fed ourselves and soon we were drifting off to sleep to the sound of the rushing water making its way to South Fork Kings River. It was a happy night. We’d gotten over Mather and the next day seemed brighter without having to deal with two passes.