Spiderwoman’s KCHBR Tips || Section 3: South Fork Basins

Spiderwoman thru-hiked the Kings Canyon High Basin Route in 2017 with her partner, The Brawn. These are her “tips” about the route, a term that does not do justice to their comprehensiveness and detail. The information has been split into eight posts to improve readability:

She has shared all of her photos from her trip, available here.

Charlotte Lake

Kelby, The Brawn, and I started our KCHBR thru-hike loop at Onion Valley TH and walked to Charlotte Lake from Kearsarge Pass. Kelby planned to hike with us to “PR-51” at LeConte Ranger Station and we would all hike over Bishop Pass together. Kelby would leave in his rental car to catch a plane back home and the Brawn and I would pick up our resupply at Parchers Resort.

Building up to late afternoon thunder and drizzle

We passed several picturesque campsites as we walked toward the west end of Charlotte Lake. All were unoccupied. The sites’ older-style bear lockers gave me the impression that bears figured out the human food/Charlotte Lake connection a long, long time ago.

Skurka mentions “Rick Sanger”. This guy’s name keeps popping up on my radar. I first heard of him in Eric Blehm’s The Last Season. I was reading it while simultaneously walking through the Sierra on my ’09 PCT thru-hike. Then guess who I met while walking through the Sierra on my ’09 PCT thru-hike? Yep.

Rick was fantastically charming. Told us some cute details about just having gotten married. He for some reason sat down to hang out and goof around with us – he let my friend Alex pose with his walkie-talkie – this was all instead of asking to see our permits or bear canisters. He was A-class lovely, warm and light and smiley, so I didn’t know if mentioning The Last Season would be weird or not, so I chose not to. The next time we crossed paths was on my ’11 SHR thru-hike. I saw that he had signed the Frozen Lake Pass register just before I was there. I can’t remember if it was that morning, or the day before? Anyway, of all the rangers, Sanger’s name is mentioned in the KCHBR guide. In such a big world, it feels grounding to cross paths, even if it’s just an ephemeral experience in my own head, with the same characters time and time again.

The trail was obvious past Charlotte Lake’s outlet…until all of a sudden it wasn’t. This was the spot where “the trail crosses to the south side of the lake outlet”. Even knowing that we should be looking for a stream crossing we still had to drop our packs and look around when our trail petered out in an open flat grassy area. I went to get water and followed the path of least resistance through some light brush to reach the small stream. And wouldn’t you know it, that path of least resistance ended up being the use trail.

Further along, thunder boomed as we got our first view of the striking granite tower that is Charlotte Dome. Kelby was telling us about his fun climb of it some years earlier, and was trying to remember how he’d approached it, because it wasn’t from the direction we were walking. Then we met a couple walking back to their camp at Charlotte Lake. Bird and Bill from SoCal. They had the best energy. They were grateful to be out there, had an air of professionalism yet were down to earth, and were wonderful conversationalists. I was like, here we go again, meeting the crème de la crème, and needing to say good-bye so quickly. That’s one of the most difficult parts of thru-hiking – the schedule trumping relationship building. But in this case, we got a very unexpected 2nd chance…

The trail is indeed “less obvious” for quite a stretch through the “open lodgepole forest”. It was nice having 3 people to spread out and look for clues. Knowledge that we had both a baseline to eventually catch us if it came to that (the creek that passes just to the east of Charlotte Dome) and that the mapped trail showed our goal was to contour at a steady elevation helped us through the forest when we weren’t finding trail or cairns.

After crossing “the creek that flows from the base of Mt Gardiner”, Kelby, seeing how diligently I was following the cairns, was helpful in pointing out that this was where we “leave the climbers trail and all the cairns”. You’ll soon see the avalanche debris to the right. Indeed, just follow its west edge and it’ll soon be over. Your reward is a nice uphill walk through stately old growth. I led, and did eventually “intersect the old trail”, but lost it here and there. The trail wasn’t necessary anyway. While standing back at the upper margins of the “debris field”, before entering the dense tree cover, I got a sense for the lay of the land and the general area the pass would be. It was neat finding the way up to the pass for us, navigating based impressions and feelings I was being fed by my brain’s memory of the earlier view. Good stuff.

Whoa. The “north side” of Gardiner Pass looked steep and had a plug of icy snow in its middle. Standing at the edge with the wonderful mid-morning sun on our backs, peering down into the shaded notch, I think we all took a couple gulps and thought let the route begin. After putting on microspikes and taking out ice axes (Kelby and I brought axes, The Brawn, having a markedly different perception of and relationship with risk, did not), Kelby stepped over the edge and led down the chute. Luckily there was just enough moat for us to squeeze down along the edge. Our microspikes + axes would have been worthless in this situation if it’d been solid ice all the way across the chute. Kelby remarked that we would have to have had front pointed down it with 12-point crampons. Having been in similar mountaineering situations, too, I completely agreed.

For safety, before I made each small move down the chute, I was relying heavily on getting as much purchase as possible into the ice with my axe’s pick. But the shape of the axe’s head was starting to really hurt my palm (I was using my CAMP Corsa. Was wishing for a BD Raven Pro). Next thing I knew, Kelby was taking off his gloves for me. And they weren’t minimal, typical thru-hiker gloves. These were big, fluffy, cushy – proper gloves. He wouldn’t let me decline, so we compromised. He ended up with one, and I ended up with the other. So sweet. Such a considerate teammate! That started a chain reaction – made me want to look for opportunities to help him if he could benefit from something extra.

On the descent to “Lake 2906”, the trail is indeed “obvious in many places”, and it also wasn’t an issue when we lost it. The creek and tarns provided an obvious handrail in this open terrain. We did get into a bit of “brush”, and more than a bit of mosquitoes. Boy were they excited to smell us. Poor Kelby was really irritated.

Once at “Lake 2906”, the advice to “follow the east shore to its north end, then hike east” to intersect the trail was spot-on. The terrain on that quick little walk east was that of walking on the edge of a steep, slabby granite drop-off. The Brawn and Kelby weren’t convinced, so they hung back at the lake while I scouted ahead and found the trail. The trail was indeed further west than it appears on the map, so it was an easy shout back to them to come on. The trail from there does indeed “steepen considerably” as it descends through stately old growth; you’ll definitely want to be on it.

Navigating from “PR-31” east to where the mapped trail recrosses Gardiner Creek was the most confusing cluster of the entire trip. We expended a lot of energy trying to stick to the mapped trail and it was such a mistake. I hope someone in the near future attempts staying “on the south side of the creek” as they proceed east from “PR-31”. I hope that it is “more practical”, and I hope they contact Skurka with feedback so he can include it in future updates. If I were doing this section again, I would stay on the south side of Gardiner Creek after reaching “PR-31”. I can’t imagine any scrambling through there that would be worse (time and energy and frustration-wise) than we experienced crossing to the north side.

So here’s what happened. We lost the trail after crossing to the north side of the narrow, rushing Gardiner Creek. (I can’t remember how we crossed – it must’ve been on large rocks?) It was an extremely brushy area. Literally impenetrable in places. There was this very distinct, dried out, large depression immediately to the west that looked like it was once a tarn, and should definitely be represented on a map, but was there any such landform depicted on the map? No… and was there a tarn where one is drawn on the map? No… (“satellite imagery”). Oh it was such a frustrating stretch through there.

Kelby and I scouted up the area on the map that is white, and on the ground is a steep talus + brushy slope. We climbed high. Up Up Up. We gave it a hearty effort. Thinking we were wrong, The Brawn stayed low and enjoyed taking some pictures of wildflowers. They were awfully pretty. The Brawn kept contouring east, and Kelby and I descended to meet him. We hopped across a fairly flat boulder field and entered the “flat forested area that holds standing water for much of the summer”. We walked over to the tranquil, flat-water that was Gardiner Creek up here, and, since we couldn’t find a better way, took our shoes off to cross the crotch-deep cold water. It was a fitting way to kinda cleanse ourselves of the last couple hours of pointless exertion.

The trail was not obvious to “PR-32”. We really tried to stick to it though because navigating through the woods here wasn’t straight forward. The 3 of us would spread out, move along super slowly, and one of us would eventually find a cairn, or a foot or two of evidence of a trail long abandoned. We’d reward each find with a genuine squeal and grin and Kelby would chime in with his new high routes are fun! (Dogged by pointless fatigue, dispirited by never ending woodlands views, I had said to Kelby earlier that day: high routes are fun. They’re not usually like this.)

We used the lake directly south of mapped “PR-32” as the point at which we stopped looking for trail and turned north to head for “PR-33 King Col”.

Once we popped out of the woods we had a great view of the towering ridgeline running from west to east. King Col was up there somewhere. We stood there for a long time trying to match up terrain features to our map. The Brawn’s interpretation had him advocating for ascending straight north toward terrain he thought was in the “King Col (central)” vicinity. Kelby and I weren’t seeing it that way though. Very, very unfortunately, 2 opinionated voices were louder than 1, and we all headed east-northeast up the valley that terminates on the southern flanks of Mount Clarence King.

The Brawn and Kelby wore themselves out by hopping across an extensive side hill of boulders. We knew from the map we were supposed to be high, so they stayed high, dammit. I thought to myself, screw this, I’m making up for that one morning on the WRHR by Bewmark Lake and I’m headed for a carefree walk on the fairyland down below.

I ended up traveling so much more efficiently, so much faster, that they became little specks in my rearview. It was touching watching The Brawn stop every dozen feet and look back, straining to locate me. I stopped once I had a definite grasp on our location – I was near the two sizable tarns. Cool! King Col must just be north up the slope. But on closer inspection, the chutes we’d have to ascend were incredibly steep and filled with unstable-looking rubble. And there were multiple chutes to choose from. Hmmm.

As I stood there studying the map, analyzing the terrain, studying the map, analyzing the terrain, it suddenly became cold. Like, really cold. Strangely cold. I dove into my pack and changed into all my warmest layers. Then it dawned on me. It’s the solar eclipse! Neat! It was already a whitish overcast sky, and the amount of overall light only decreased slightly, but the temperature plummeted. Kelby and The Brawn caught up and shivered into their spare layers. Kelby kept exclaiming I was outsmarted by a girl! I was outsmarted by a girl! That’s right.

Bundled up in our long johns, puffies, raingear, warm hats, and mittens, we stood there and talked through the navigation situation. We ID’d where we stood on the map. We were oriented. But where were we supposed to go from here? We kept studying the mapped ridge between “PR-33 King Col” and Mount Clarence King, and comparing it to the terrain in front/above us, and it just wasn’t coming together. We took foorrreeeevvvvveeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrr. Brrrrrrrrrr. Confusinggggggg. Argggggggg.

We were nearly convinced, like high 90s%, that we were supposed to just head directly north from where we stood in order to find King Col. So a lot of our time standing there was trying to figure out which debris chute to ascend. They were all nasty looking. Like, for reals. Like, there was a high possibility of injury. None of us was gung-ho. Not one of us thought that ascending any one of those chutes was appropriate for a backpacking route. We must be off course.

Thankfully that very real, very immediate threat kept stalling us, because I kept going back to this one mapped feature that we DID NOT WALK, and that looked like a virtual red carpet entrance to King Col. On the map, the red carpet is between “King Col (central) and “PR-33 King Col”. It spans from 3400 to about 3580 meters. The contour lines are widely and evenly spaced in a west-southwest to east-northeast direction and give the impression that once up there it would be like walking up a broad, nicely angled slope that would terminate smack at King Col.

I advocated vigorously: WE DID NOT WALK THAT. WE DID NOT WALK THAT. Kelby and The Brawn definitely agreed. Relieved, we were like f’ya, let’s get the hell outta here and go find it. We turned. And walked back. And yes, they stayed down in the fairyland with the smart woman.

We laughed and apologized to The Brawn for the extracurricular jaunt up to the base of Mount Clarence King. He was rightfully smug with repeated I told you so’s…to this very day in fact as I sit here writing this (we just had a cute little exchange).

Some hours later, back standing approximately between “PR-32” and “King Col (central)”, we headed up The Brawn’s slope. This slope is open, composed of talus + brush that was easy to weave through, and is sandwiched between trees. We also chose this slope because it hugs the east end of the ridgeline that spans from “King Col (west)” to “King Col (central)”. YOU CANNOT SEE THE RED CARPET FROM DOWN BELOW. You can’t see it because the escarpment-like terrain on its southern edge hides it from view when you’re standing below it looking up.

That blocked view was exactly what messed us up. Studying the data in camp the night before I read “confirm your approach with a GPS”. I totally appreciate how much a GPS would have helped in this tricky navigational situation. Time is a critical commodity out there. I knew though that we’d make it through and later I’d regard it as a learning opportunity – albeit a forced, cold, confusing, time consuming, and stomach clenching one (thinking about those awful chutes we thought we had to climb).

We weren’t making our miles, so we’d most likely suffer from dwindling food supplies as the days went on. But just how late we’d be to our resupply was tbd. We were starting to think about early bail out options onto the JMT by this point.

The red carpet’s mellow, consistent grade and fool-proof navigable terrain was a well-deserved opportunity to daydream all the way up to King Col. I was excitedly anticipating the upcoming “crabwalk” challenge (and had been since seeing Wired and E’s bad-ass ’16 photo, you two rocked it), so it was invigorating to be able to settle on a maintainable pace and just stride it out, all the way up to…what the f#?!

I got to the cornice first. Thought, well, I’d better put on a warm layer, cause this doesn’t look like it’s gonna be straight forward. The cornice was huge. It was extensive. It spread all the way across the top of the pass, and drove the point home by sliding up either side. There was no hint of hey, if I explore over there, that might go. Kelby and The Brawn arrived, dropped packs, and we got to work finding our way around the obstacle.

We started on the right. The Brawn got the farthest around and down (while tolerating my continuous stream of be carefuls, are you kidding me, you’re killing me, oh my God stop, it’s not worth it, you could slip, DO NOT FALL). And even with all that scrambling around, and doing stuff I cursed and made clear, in no uncertain terms, I would NOT follow him on, he still wasn’t able to find a way to drop into the chute.

The chute was filled with rock-hard snow that extended, in a continuous sheet, from one cornice edge to the other, and then down into the chute. Put another way, it was steep hard ice with no way to get down onto it except jump from an unstable height (unstable edges of steep dirt + rock). That would have resulted in a screaming-fast suicide ride. So that wasn’t an option. Even if we had been able to get onto the ice, there were no moats in the upper part that we could have tucked ourselves into. Furthermore, microspikes and ice axes were patently inadequate to prevent or arrest a fall on rock-hard, steeply-angled ice.

The only thing to do was check out the left side. But we could see from our vantage on the right that the left was even worse. Still, The Brawn and Kelby thoroughly checked it out. They were trying so hard to make it happen.

Kelby and I mourned our loss by standing on top of the cornice, peering down across the valley we wouldn’t be descending, and waxing poetic about the gear we craved: a rope, harnesses, ATCs, biners w/slings, pickets, 12-point crampons, ice tools, ect. That’s not asking too much. I mean, we wouldn’t have complained if we had to substitute ice screws for the pickets.

Admitting defeat was bizarre. It was like a bad dream. It hurt. It was like, we don’t turn around, we’re thru-hikers. We’re mountain-experienced. We’re scrambling-experienced. We’re hardship-experienced. Our m.o. is to figure things out. We’re creative thinkers. We use our bodies to translate our creativity and mettle into agile action. Forward action.

But yet again, we turned. And walked back. Turning around to go forward. Sounds like a life lesson. Thru-hiking offers lots of surprise opportunities for getting in touch with the big life lessons.

Luckily, Skurka described a couple options to take if “King Col is an absolute no-go”. He writes “avoid these other options” if possible. Yes, having been-there-done-that, get yourself over King Col if it’s at all humanly possible without mountaineering equipment and a rope belay. There are plenty of pucker-worthy, drop-packs-and-scout-ahead, down-climb-exposed-minor-cliff-like-terrain, bush-whacking, vegi-belaying, wondering will-this-even-go moments if you descend the valley below “King Col West and King Col Central”.

We hauled it back down the red carpet and got to “King Col (central)” in no time. Kelby and The Brawn were ahead of me this time and were busy scouting a way over the pass by the time I got there. Ewww, yikes, it wasn’t going to be easy. But it would go. At the top of the descent, it’s a mix of stable and unstable blocks at a steep angle, but quickly mellows out as you gain the upper valley floor.

With packs dropped, we each scouted lines we hoped would let us down the initial section, but we kept getting stymied on exposed stuff that either didn’t have at least one solid hold, was too far of a drop to lower ourselves, or was blocked by a huge chunk of unstable rock to be avoided at all costs. We finally settled on a passage, scrambled back up for our packs, and went for it.

We could see that the terrain let up only a couple dozen feet below us, and we’d been crawling along super carefully up to this point, but now we were confronted with a rock obstacle that turned out to be the crux of our chosen line. It required passing off balance in front of a jutting out boulder, feet on a steep rock face, no handholds, no way to see your feet. 100% air below. Seriously.

The Brawn went first, made no comment about it, just did it, just crept forward as we’d been doing all along. In other words, non-issue. Next it was Kelby’s turn. He started, then quickly pushed himself back to me. What the! I suggested he pass his pack to The Brawn. Not having it, he tried again. And, nope. I whispered to him be careful following The Brawn, he doesn’t know fear. But he stubbornly tried again, this time with more commitment, and got more or less stuck off balance in the middle of the move. Couldn’t move hands, couldn’t move feet. Just stomach pressed to the boulder, back jutting out off balance, palms pressed up against the underbelly of the boulder, unable to see feet that were smeared against out-of-sight rock.

The Brawn and I assailed him with urgent pleas to take off your pack, take off your pack. Kelby shrugged out of a strap, The Brawn grabbed it and swung it off Kelby, giving him the center of gravity he needed to shift his weight and finish the move. I already had my pack off, handed it over, made the move, and part berated/part praised The Brawn for his insane move. In my experience scrambling after The Brawn, 99.9% of sketchy situations turn vanilla when my pack is taken out of the equation.

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but Kelby was not carrying a lightweight kit. And his pack didn’t seem to fit comfortably – to the point where, amazingly, he hiked with his belt unbuckled for the majority of the time. You know it’s bad if your heavy pack carries more comfortably with the hip belt unfastened. My heart went out to him. The Brawn and I both started out with packs that were way too heavy for our ’16 WRHR thru-hike, so I knew from experience what he was enduring: less safe scrambling, more feelings of sketch, more wear and tear on the joints, and decreased stamina. The Brawn and I have both lightened up since last year and omg does it make a difference. We changed out our packs, tents, and sleeping pads.

As we made our way down the upper part of the valley Kelby asked me if I was tired. I said not really. But I instantly felt badly for saying that, cause looking at him as I answered, I realized why he asked: he looked whipped. He looked like someone who had been stomping around on broken down mountains all day, with too heavy a pack, and without eating or hydrating. Ah, this was an opportunity to support my teammate.

Settling in for a good stretch of R&R

I called it and we soon stopped at the good-sized lake and took advantage of the late afternoon sun – set up camp, relaxed, and took a quick dip in snowmelt-fed lake. I hoped the nice long span of hours would give Kelby time to eat, hydrate, rest his legs, and that he would feel as supported as I did when he lent me his glove on Gardiner Pass.

We were cheery and recuperated as we took off down the valley the next morning. It was a gorgeous day for a walk and the only concern we had, and mild at that, was crossing Woods Creek. As I strolled down the center of the long, steep, narrow Sierra valley, I recalled the first time I ever set foot in the Sierra. It was on my ’09 PCT thru-hike. I remembered standing down on the trail and craning my head to gaze at the long, steep, narrow valleys up above. They were alluring. I thought they must hold the best kind of secrets. Giant trees. Hidden lakes. Untrammeled snow fields. Healthy meadows. Craggy dead-end cirques. I was curious about it all: how old were those trees? Were there fish way up there? Were the snowfields permanent? What kind of animals call the highest alpine meadows home? Is that cirque an impassable dead-end after all?

In all your hundreds of years of life, has an admiring hand ever touched you?

And now I was up here, in the heart of the wild, unnamed Sierra backcountry my newbie self had pined over 8 years prior. I felt so lucky to have the desire to be out here and walk through, and thus commune with, one ecosystem’s version of the truth. As in, the truth that’s revealed by an absence of direct human intervention. That truth is my alter. I was feeling so good, so well rested, so connected with the meaning of life, so full of purpose at having the opportunity to be a sweet, conscientious, and engaged teammate. Damn, life was good!

Until it wasn’t.

The descent started getting a little tricky. We were on the left of the creek because travel through the forest, although steep and slick from epic stacks of needles (even concealing rock drop-offs, those were extra fun obstacles), was more consistent and less time-consuming than weaving through the minor cliff-like slabs over on the right. Eventually, our creek-left descent starting getting really steep. I advocated for trying the right side. The Brawn wasn’t convinced and hung back while Kelby and I tried making our way through the brush that engulfed the creek. It was the kind of brush that when we stepped off the creek’s bank, we were just thrashing up in the middle part of the bushes, the ground and water several feet below us. It felt impossible, and we didn’t swim through the branches long enough to find out for sure. We met back up with The Brawn and continued our cautious way down the ever-steepening slabs on creek-left.

Our collective sense of foreboding had been growing. For quite a while now, the only thing we could see was what was immediately in front of us on creek-left, and what was immediately beside us on creek-right. This was our “final descent to Woods Creek”, and the terrain simply dropped off too steeply for us to see what it was doing much below our position. We recalled Skurka saying that this steep descent “should be manageable”. Should be. Uh-oh. We were moving so slowly, concentrating so hard on being careful, and we could even see a portion of Woods Creek valley because of how steeply the terrain below us dropped away toward vertical. But we wondered if we would ever make it down there? Would this even go? Seriously, would this go?

Soon enough, we were forced to conclude that creek-left was an absolute no-go; our marginal route deteriorated to near vertical slabs. So this was what we weren’t seeing as we descended. We had been pushed to the creek’s (brush-free) edge by this point anyway, so moving over to see what creek-right had to offer in the way of descending options was our immediate task. 30 fingers and 30 toes were crossed by this point. If the right side wasn’t going to let us down, our fate was a back-track all the way to Charlotte Lake and the JMT. Come on Should-Go Canyon. Please let us pass!

The creek here (and above and below this point) was merrily pouring down hundreds of feet of near vertical, slick slabs. It was one of those thin but tall waterfalls you see when you’re say, a JMT/PCT hiker standing on trail and looking up, or out across a valley, at the steep granite walls. But this time we were on that wall, clutching the granite to keep ourselves stuck to it, looking down toward the trail we’d give anything to reach…not to mention all balled up by this point that Should-Go Canyon was not going to go.

Those nagging details aside, our little waterfall was pretty up close, and we did fortunately land at a safe place to cross it. On first glance the crossing situation looked sketchy, but then a series of flat platforms perfectly placed for bomber footing materialized. This wouldn’t require negotiating anything slick, sloped, or overly dangerous. Just a little balance and nerve was all that was needed. In fact, the more I looked at it, the more fun the challenge looked.

That was how The Brawn and I perceived it. But Kelby had a very different, very valid reaction to the situation. He was like hey, this is a waterfall, it is slick, and it’s certain death if we wobble, can’t regain our balance, and slip. He told us about a couple that died in the Sierra earlier in the season while attempting a similar water crossing. The knowledge of their death was heightening his aversion to the risk. He talked about needing a rope to do it, but since we didn’t have one…

Trust your feet

The Brawn crossed. I crossed. No problem. Super safe. Then The Brawn went back for Kelby. But poor Kelby was frozen. He was refusing to cross. The Brawn had Kelby’s pack on, but Kelby was refusing to stand up and step into the waterfall. So I shouted across to hang on, that’d I’d be right over. Kelby was like no, no, don’t risk coming back. But we needed to get him up and moving, so after The Brawn dropped Kelby’s pack off on creek-right, we both hopped back on over. With smiles, encouragement, promises that he’d be safe sandwiched between me and The Brawn, and a let’s-get-the-inevitable-over-with attitude, I helped him stand up and face his challenge.

I could tell that he knew, after only a couple steps in, that he was going to be just fine. It was truly inspiring watching him trust his feet and turn fear into a beautifully executed crossing. I’ve so totally been there. I’ve been frozen by fear, embalmed in its paralytic juices, and it is simply the worst, most gripping of feelings.

I have a thousand percent compassion for folks that are confronted with a particularly challenging outdoor situation and get sketched to the point of freezing, thinking they’re scrambling to their death, and react sanely with thoughts of turning around (I was assailed with adrenaline in a similar way while descending West Gulley on our ’16 WRHR hike and crossing the slab in Coyote Gulch on our ’14 HDT hike).

It’s so inspiring having a front-row seat to watch someone have the mind control to rise above it and execute when there’s no other option (obviously only when it’s not suicidal to step into the moves). It’s especially inspiring when that person is your teammate, the person whose safety is as much a priority as your own, because what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Now my teammate and I both get to reap the ongoing rewards of their increased mental toughness. And mental toughness can only be earned the old-fashioned way: through getting out there and having experiences.

Creek-right. Smiles and hugs and relief all around. Okay, let’s see if Should-Go Canyon is gonna let us go.

We landed at some minor cliff-like slabs, so our first task was to figure out how to get around or descend them. The Brawn and I scouted and had to settle on a difficult scramble first up, then down, these obstacles. They were featureless slabs. No handholds. Steeply angled. Exposed. Kelby’s shoes (he wasn’t wearing approach shoes – The Brawn and I both were – their sticky and stiff soles literally allowed us to do stuff Kelby couldn’t) and heavy pack kept him from being able get past this section. So The Brawn shuttled his own pack forward and came back for Kelby’s. Kelby stuck right behind The Brawn, and I stayed close to Kelby.

Poor Kelby was shook. He was like rope…rope…rope…. Fully committed smearing was the only way we were gonna stick to the rock, so we looked like 3 very focused, very serious crabs. First up, then across, then down. O*M*G. It was one of those situations you get yourself in the middle of, then you’re like, this is too dangerous, but you’re in the middle of it so it’s too late to change your mind and then you’re like, what’ryougonnadoaboutit, don’t freak out, okay, calm, calm, calm, my palms are sweating, that’s fine, my feet are fine, my feet are solid, solid, just press into your feet, that’s right, press, you’re okay, see, you’re good, press, press, spider, ha, yeah, like a spider.

(Kelby was our house guest recently – spring ‘18 – and he said you know a lot of the stuff we were descending after the waterfall crossing was 5th class, right? Starting with that slab immediately after the crossing. Falls in those situations are really violent things.)

The next hours (how many?) were spent like that. The Brawn would scout ahead while Kelby and I waited so long we’d actually sit down and get as comfortable as the terrain would allow. The Brawn was the most capable of our team to search ahead for the safest route. He was the strongest both mentally and physically, so tag, he was it. Plus, the sketchy scrambling sequences he was exploring were fun bonuses for him.

His protracted scouting up, down, and around was taking its toll though; he was looking tired. His face became more and more expressionless, his eyes were losing their spark, and he was actually looking pale. After spending a handful of years and backcountry hikes with him, I’ve learned that he doesn’t really compute feeling tired/worn down the way I do, or most people I know. His brain just doesn’t seem to register it. He just keeps pushing. He’s an animal. Sometimes my insistence would work and he would sit quietly with us for a few minutes before we continued down his route. I’d rub his shoulders, put water and food in his hand, and we’d thank him sincerely.

Not knowing if there was an impassable cliff up ahead and out of sight was what worried us the most, so when we finally descended to a point where we could, for the first time descending Should-Go Canyon, see the entirety of the terrain below as it swept at a shallower angle toward the creek, we absolutely HOWLED, HUGGED, and HIGH-5’d. It went. I finally took a deep breath.

A giddy creekside celebration brought to you by The Brawn

At this point, we were standing on the upper lip of a brush-choked talus field. This wasn’t bushwhackable brush. It was a healthy stand of tall, thick, mature Manzanita. It would have been dangerous, bloody, and spirit-crushing if we’d had to negotiate that last obstacle on our way to Woods Creek. Luckily for us, the still-steep creek bed that we’d crossed earlier was filled with a jumble of rocky debris down here and it provided a veg-free passage. Scrambling down it was a godsend.

Then we passed through a narrow strip of flat meadow, then a dark alley of creekside trees, and then we greeted the creek. Howled, hugged, and high-fived some more. Kelby spoiled us by filtering our water and we got right to work scouting – because once again, we had an obstacle to get through: the creek, “another difficult ford”, was swift, deep, and fairly wide where we landed. It looked too swift to safely wade across.

We started out scouting upstream toward “Castle Dome Meadow where it has a relatively low gradient” but were quickly (less than a couple minutes) blocked by near-vertical rock jutting down into the water. As far as we could see upstream, the bank was basically vertical rock, so finding a crossing upstream wasn’t an option.

Things were starting to feel less and less high-fiveish again. Time to get serious. Kelby and The Brawn dropped their packs and I hung back to pack-sit. As they walked away, I implored them to walk as far downstream as they had to. We had to find a safe crossing.

Sitting down on flat, comfortable ground for the first time in hours felt alien. Suddenly being alone felt alien, too. Those sensations, coupled with the rush of Woods Creek in my ears, was very relaxing. Things were going to be okay; they would find a safe place to cross. I closed my eyes to bask in the serenity that was not knowing and not being able to do anything about it.

Not too long later, maybe 20ish minutes, the guys were back. They wore long faces and their shoulders drooped. I searched their expressions for any sign of hope. Nothing. They just looked back at me with flat eyes. Someone started to talk, and that’s all it took: open mouth grins and squinty eyes transformed their faces. They got super animated and bouncy and told me to grab my pack and follow them. I was like, what? What?!

They had found a crossing. They nearly sang out it’s a log crossing!!! It wasn’t necessarily the fact that they had found a log crossing that got them so pumped. Rather, it was the size of the tree, the fact that they had nearly turned around before The Brawn spotted something vague around a bend in the distance, and that they saved the day by finding exactly what I was looking for that gave them their thrill. Here’s a shout-out to all you strategically placed trees…whether by Mother Nature (or by the Park Service ’17 ???. For the safety of all the folks – Rae Lakes Loop is well-loved – missing the washed-out bridge over Woods Creek further downstream).

Kelby just a couple steps away from unfettered access to the JMT highway, his car, and home

If you descend Should-Go Canyon and Woods Creek is too sketchy to ford, turn downstream and walk approximately 10 minutes through minor bushwacky forest until you come to the large tree crossing.

Stepping onto the JMT was like passing into another dimension. Safe and certain trail was underfoot, time/speed/distance was willing to be calculated, and a steady stream of fellow outdoorsy humans were chatting us up. We must’ve looked a bit off somehow, because the first group that passed had a concerned-meets-perplexed look on their faces when they asked, where are you coming from?

We found an established camp and settled in. Kelby had been making noises about possibly leaving the route here and walking out on the JMT. We were going wayyy slower than we’d planned, so our food supplies were running low. Plus, Kelby had a plane to catch, a business to run, and surgeries to attend to so there was no way he was going to be late, or just barely making it out but too wrecked to be functional.

He made the wise decision that he would part ways the next day. Luckily, he’d brought a Tom Harrison overview map so he had what he needed to walk himself the 40+ miles out, and I talked him through what to expect in terms of the passes he’d be crossing. He was about to walk over Pinchot, Mather, and Bishop Passes. No small potatoes. Mileage-wise, he still had two thirds of his trip in front of him.

The Brawn asked me if we could even continue. I ducked into my tent to figure it out. After worrying the data with a fine tooth comb and divvying up our remaining calories, I excitedly called out yeah, we can do it. And if all goes well, we’ll only run out of food the night before our last full hiking day! We even had an insurance plan. If getting over White Fork Pass took too long, we would bail out the JMT via the mapped trails along Bench Lake or South Fork Kings River.

The next morning saw us walking under a blue, still sky as we enjoyed our last couple miles as a unit. Then, at the junction of the JMT and White Fork Creek, a passing JMT’r offered to take our picture (the trail was crowded with people, smiling people, I loved seeing everyone getting after it out there). With hugs well wishes plans for future adventures promises to text when safely to the car and more hugs, Kelby was off. His parting shout: HIGH ROUTES ARE FUN!

Can I just say…it’s SUCH a noticeable difference when one moment you’re a group, and the next one of your partners is suddenly subtracted. No amount of mental prep can prepare the body for how that feels. It’s just odd and bewildering and made me feel low-grade angsty. That was a feeling I had to deal with on previous hikes, too, with the fluidity of trail families and all. I’m a tender heart, I love good people, and I bond hard.

The walk from “A-WFK-00” to “A-WFK-02” was stunning. It represented everything that a high route is in my mind: a clear rushing creek, gnarled old growth trees, a mini canyon, moving up and into a nearly vegetation-free alpine bowl ringed by towering peaks bearing captivating colorful striations, and nothing but your inconsequential soul nestled between rock rock and more rock and a forever sky. I was like Kelby, come back, here it is, we’re finally here, this is what high routes are all about!

Break time. The Brawn found something even more appealing than eating.

Skurka writes “the tight canyon near the bottom of the route is its worst section”. Just in case it helps with planning, nothing registered as “worst” to me. I found that lower section to be pretty and, despite a heightened need to stay safe while negotiating a brief section along the creek on a steeply angled scree-covered bank, trouble-free.

IDing White Fork Creek Pass in general terms was fine, but pinpointing which low dip on the “subtle bumpy ridge” was the exact pass wasn’t obvious. We carefully matched up the surrounding terrain features to our maps in our effort to narrow options down and land on the vague, and correct, low spot. Skurka’s “bronze-colored vertical band” wasn’t obvious – there were a few of those – but that didn’t matter too much because we just chose the best looking bronze-colored line (which was probably his) and moved forward.

Bronze bands ahead

Phew, what a slog up. It was steep and loose and had my full attention. There was no sketch factor, and in terms of making forward progress versus just sliding backwards with each step, I can’t imagine doing it without poles. I kept thinking angle of repose.

Descending off White Fork Creek Pass was a neat experience in that neither of us had done something quite like that before. It was indeed a long “ski” down to the bottom. It was impossible to move down this steep, rock-strewn slope without the entire area, both above and below us, starting to slide. So we just slid with it and had fun. The rocks eventually would cover our shoes and creep up our ankles so thank goodness for gaiters.

If thru-hikers had an Olympics, talus skiing would be a popular event

We saw some bucks near the lakes (WL 3478) and were wondering why they were so high. Once down in the “Standing water, not just marshy” it was obvious: mosquitoes. They were bad. Really bad.

The afternoon weather patterns seemed more dynamic than a decade ago


  1. Alan on December 29, 2022 at 1:16 pm

    Nice story. Right, I clearly relate to the creative problem solving which comes in handy when exploring the beautiful outdoors.

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