Day 3: Kearsarge Lakes Trail to Arrowhead Lake, or I Thought I Felt Bad Before the Lentils (5 miles)
Because of the early night, we were up and out by 9:15 a.m. The rapid-fire pace of our early morning activities was a source of some concern, and perhaps even introspection. (Are we budding LDHs? Will we soon be shedding every possible comfort in order to be able to go one more mile? Who are we really?) These are hard questions, questions that easy-going and fun-loving MountainGuys are loathe to ask. Actually, that’s not true. The questions are easy. It’s the answers that are hard. Fortunately, we are also easily distracted, and on the John Muir Trail there are distractions aplenty.
The John Muir Trail is perhaps the busiest trail in North America. There are signal lights at all the major intersections, but with so many hikers on the trail, accidents are bound to occur. We saw an overturn accident on the switchbacks coming up from Vidette Meadow the previous day (an angry girlfriend was rumored to be involved), and just ten minutes into our hike we passed a four-hiker pileup at the junction leading off to Charlotte Lake. Apparently the uphill hikers failed to yield, but fortunately there were no serious injuries. Emergency personnel from the Charlotte Lake and Rae Lakes ranger stations were on the scene to sort things out and help with the insurance claims. The timing of the accident could not have come at a better time, for us anyway, because it put an immediate end to any existential questions that we might have been wrestling with, and we were able to just focus on enjoying the hike and greeting the many hikers headed in the southbound direction.
Enjoying the hike
Over the course of the morning, we observed a number of curious characteristics that were shared by the long-distance hikers we encountered. First and foremost, they were all in a hurry, but insisted on stopping at each chance encounter to tell us why. Second, all of the hikers referred to the John Muir Trail as the “JMT”. With all day to talk about walking you wouldn’t think that an acronym would be called for, but you’d be wrong. The JMT hikers all had a story to tell, and their stories always involved how far they had hiked yesterday, how far they were going today, and where they figured they’d end up tomorrow. Eighteen miles and two significant passes was the average JMT daily regiment. Finally, after dutifully describing their self-inflicted hell, the LDHs would announce that they had to rush off in order to keep the pace. These chance encounters became a trifle tedious, but they did serve one useful purpose: any lingering doubts about our LDH status evaporated at the first mention of an 18-mile day.
Glenn Pass is the only pass on the Rae Lakes loop, and it sits just about in the middle of the loop. At 11,978 feet, Glenn Pass is about 7,000 feet higher than the Roads End trailhead, which explains a lot about why we were feeling so spent each night. We reached the top of the pass about 11:30 in the morning. There was one other group of hikers at the top when we arrived, but three more groups reached the summit in the brief time that we were there. Since we had passed four groups that were heading down as we were hiking up, the large number of hikers was not just a chance occurrence.
Part of the view from Glenn Pass.
Without doubt the view from the top of Glenn Pass is phenomenal. Everything is above treeline and the mountains are barren, windswept rockscapes. The view to the north stretched out probably 50 miles, and to the south perhaps 30 miles. Glacial moraines were filled with ice-blue water, and on the north-facing slopes small patches of snow still lingered. The sun was bright in the cloudless sky. The rock slopes were many colors—red and yellow, white, gray, black. Glenn Pass is a spectacular spot amid a spectacular landscape, and even the disturbingly large number of people congregating there couldn’t dim the beauty of the land itself.
Photo shoot at the top of Glen Pass. Rae Lakes in the background.
We had originally planned to have lunch on the pass, but the crowds convinced us otherwise. After a quick snack and a brief photo shoot, we shouldered our packs and headed down towards Rae Lakes, our intended destination for the night. The north side of Glenn Pass was considerably steeper than the south side, and the rubble-strewn trail was a broken ankle waiting to happen. Despite that, Oliver gleefully set out to ski down the trail, and while that may sound like a bit of an exaggeration, it is so only because he was not wearing skis. Over the years, I have become accustomed to watching Oliver’s pack disappear down the trail ahead of me, but even so I was amazed to watch him go. He glided and jumped and ran and cut and slid, demonstrating a fearlessness that would put your average lion tamer to shame. Though the steep section was only about half a mile, Oliver reached the bottom easily ten minutes before I did, and Dan was a couple of minutes behind me.
When I reached the bottom of the steep section, Oliver had taken his pack off and was laying down on a big, flat rock next to a small stream. It was a lovely spot, and offered a degree of privacy that would have been impossible at the top of the pass, especially since we had crossed paths with four more groups that were heading up as we were heading down.
By the time Dan showed up, Oliver and I had gotten out the lunch buckets and were struggling to figure out what to eat. Now Dan is usually a reliable lunchtime player, but on this particular day he was not much in the mood. He said his feet hurt, his head hurt, and he wasn’t really feeling all that well. So he spread out his sleeping pad, laid down, and took a nap. So at least this part of his behavior was normal.
Oliver and I enjoyed our lunch of salami and cheese bagels, trail mix, and dried fruit, then, out of solidarity with Dan, decided to spread out our pads and lay down. Of course, the two of us were ready to go, but we figured that our ailing companion could use the rest while we simply reveled in our non-LDH status.
Even with the long lunch, we were skirting Upper Rae Lake by 1:30. Dan had napped for the entire break, and it was clear that he wasn’t feeling well. Still, he is a gamer, and though struggling with some of the effects of altitude sickness, did not want to be the reason that we would have to settle for a less-than-excellent campsite.
Rae Lakes are big alpine lakes, and as one hikes down the trail off the pass, there are spectacular views of the lakes and surrounding mountains. The green edge of the shoreline melds into light blue shallows, but quickly turns dark blue where the water turns deep. In the shallows one can see large fish lazily swimming about waiting for some attention. I longed to give it to them, but we were determined to get far enough down the trail to make a layover day possible on either day four or five. The trail from the pass follows the shoreline of Upper Rae Lake along its western and northern edge, and from there passes around the eastern side of Lower Rae Lake.
Between the two lakes, a couple hundred yards off the JMT, is a good-sized campground. Hikers are required to camp in designated sites and use the large, steel bear boxes to store their food. Although the Rae Lakes are spectacular, this is not a wilderness site. There is a ranger station at Lower Rae Lake, and the area was home to at least half a dozen groups at the time we passed through.
This was also the site of one of the most disturbing moments I have ever experienced as a MountainGuy. As we rested briefly, for only the tenth time that day, we met a group of three LDHs who were hiking the JMT and planned to go over Glenn Pass and hike to Vidette Meadows, making for a 22 mile day.
Now, backpacking is not a clean sport, but there are standards. Nonetheless, one of the members of the LDH party was sporting a pair of shorts that were so blackened by dirt and body oils that they were translucent. No doubt these shorts served as a fine bear repellent, and if the guy ever took them off they would probably crawl of their own volition under a rock where they could decay in peace. Even Oliver, fashion maven that he is, was horrified by what he saw, exclaiming, “Guys, if I ever wear a pair of shorts that disgusting just shoot me.” Done.
Our campsite that third night was at Arrowhead Lake, about a mile past Rae Lakes. We had toyed with idea of hiking into Gardiner Basin, which sits in the middle of the Rae Lakes loop, but without any good information about making the cross-country trek out of the basin and down to the trail along Woods Creek, we opted to stay the loop. As we passed the trail junction into the Sixty Lakes Basin, which would also have been our path into Gardiner Basin, Oliver noted with a wry smile that it was a bit surprising that we did not have any good information, since the LDH who had sought so hard to join our encampment that first night had managed to talk about virtually every trail option we might encounter, except, of course, the trail we indicated we were interested in taking.
Campsite at Arrowhead Lake, Fin Dome between the trees.
Arrowhead Lake is shaped like an arrowhead. Perhaps that’s why they call it that. We were camped at the northern end of the lake, opposite the pointy end. From our campsite we had a great view of Fin Dome, which caps the ridge that separates the Rae Lakes trail from the Sixty Lake Basin, and of Dragon Peak and Mt. Gould off to the south. This was again a pretty private site, but there were at least two other groups sharing the lake that night.
Dan climbed into his tent as soon as it was pitched. He did not emerge until dinner, but was sorry he hadn’t just opted to continue sleeping. Dinner was an experimental mix of lentils and rice. It was a menu filled with promise, but a sad failure in the act. It might even qualify as one of the worst MountainGuy meals ever. Lentils do not soften very quickly at 10,200 feet. We made the best of it, but were it not for bread and cheese, we would have all retired to bed hungry.