October 10, 2015
I do a lot of tossing and turning in the long night, twelve hours of darkness. Earplugs dulling the rustles and snaps of nighttime forest capers enough for me to sleep, until a cold wind picks up and I wake shivering in my 10 degree sleeping bag though it is still above freezing. Finally, I wake to daylight, sticking my head out of the tent to check for large mammals before leaving my little haven. Packed and on the trail by 8 am, I have a big day ahead of me. The pass looms huge and unknown. How will I fare at 11,000 feet just one day out from sea level?
I keep following Ilillouette creek, until even the puddles have disappeared; only a bed of dry cobbles where the trail crosses the creek. Golden leaves lit up by the morning sun cheer the way. All morning I rehearse in my head the conversation I hope to have with people up at Ottoway lake: “I have seen more bears than people in the last 24 hours,” I will say. “How many bears?” They will ask. “Just one!” I will reply.
From the junction, the last three miles to the lake go easily. Ups and downs offer respite from all the climbing and there is even water in Ottoway creek. More human footprints here too. But there are no people at the lake. Just me and the dialogue in my head. The lake itself is spectacular, just enough inlets and islets to be interesting, just the right size to be impressive but still have the looming peaks feel wild and close. Trout swimming in clear turquoise water. I stop for an early lunch along the shore, resting for what is to come.
The ascent is relentless, but efficient: two sets of serious switchbacks directly up to the pass at 11,000 feet. I pause many times to take photos-as-excuse-for-breathing breaks. The trail surprises me, heading toward inhospitable rocky towers that look disconcertingly unstable. Still, I make it to the top by 1:30, and as always, there is a way through.
The slopes of the far side are a shocking namesake Red. I sit at the top, looking down upon the very beginnings of the Red Peak Fork of the Merced River. A few tiny tarns and trickles among the boulders. The very last snow melt puddles of a severe drought. The way down is spectacular, view after view, so many tempting lakes just off trail. I am cruising on the downhill. Or am I? I fail to make the next junction at the time I expected. I begin to worry I have taken a wrong turn, or somehow missed the next sign. But there’s no app for this, like for the PCT, and no one anywhere to ask.
Just after 5pm I am incredibly relieved to see the sign-marked junction at Triple Peak Fork. I might be slow today, but I am not lost. The creek is full but barely seems to be flowing if at all. The still surface multiplies the gorgeous evening light channeling through the east-west valley. I want to stay in this pretty place. But I had planned to walk until 6 today, to minimize the hours alone in a camp that will be at too high an elevation to have a fire. So I press on.I have instant regrets. The trail moves farther from the creek, which seems increasingly dried up. Then it gets rockier and nowhere seems promising. I check out a few potential sites, but always move on. I hit the switchbacks after 6pm. There’s supposed to be a packer camp down there somewhere by a bridge. Daylight is fading fast. But I smell smoke. A campfire! I think hopefully, or maybe a forest fire, I think with dread.
I make it to the bottom at 6:40, it is already dark in the woods. I am at the bridge, but see no sign of the packer camp and definitely no sign of a campfire. Exhausted by what has amounted to an accidental 20ish mile day with considerable elevation change, I pitch my tarp right beside the trail, a good 97 feet short of the minimum distance required by my permit. I gulp down some soup for dinner, fill a bottle from a creek puddle topped with leaves and duck into my shelter.
I do yoga in the darkness, conserving my only batteries. I forgot to pack spares. My aching feet are strangely comforting. Evidence of a good hard day of hiking, and a distraction from all the little noises. Do more miles like this tomorrow, and I will be done a day early. But maybe the push to keep going will lesson as I make my way back to the more populated reaches of the park.