On the 5th morning of our trip, we would arise early and usually quietly, each person lost in their own thoughts in anticipation of the day. Being day 5, our packs were lighter by a dozen meals, our legs were stronger, and we were more acclimated to the altitude. Yet none of this made much difference when we crossed the Roaring River Bridge and hiked the forty or so switchbacks up out of the river gorge. This first stretch was always disheartening, as the steepness of the trail promised a long hard day. By the time we would take our first rest, allowing everyone time to get up the ridge, half of the clothing donned in the cool of the Roaring River camp was shed and stuffed in packs and a silence usually prevailed as each hiker took an inner inventory of their resolve. In truth, they would have just done one of the more difficult sections of the day. The trail from the river would rise another 50 feet or so in the next minutes and then settle into a very long switchback. The trail up Avalanche Pass is actually one very extended switchback, running south for a few miles, moving gradually upward, but not distressingly so. By lunch, we would have gained altitude but not paid much of a price for it. He trail was not much more than a pleasant uphill walk. To make it more interesting for me was the fact the this area of the wilderness had burned in about 1980 and each year I was able to gauge the annual restoration of the forest, as new trees grew from the ashes of old and some seemingly dead trees surprisingly came back to life. While I always pointed this out, it was never met with much enthusiasm that I can recall.
The spot chosen for lunch was carefully selected, as it was next to a cold, small stream. After lunch the real ascent would begin. The trail would rise more sharply as it began to climb to the pass. Because of the length of the switchback, now headed north, the rise was steady but kind. The trail was always shaded until we neared the top and, just when one was struggling to get a good lung-full of 10,000 foot air, a small breeze would move up the canyon, setting the aspen in motion and raising our spirits. Getting closer to the top, one could see how the pass got its name, as a steep incline of scrambled rock was visible on our left. The amount of time required to reach the pass after lunch varied significantly. The slowest hikers, two sisters from Brazil as I recall, took about three hours (and several years off of Lane’s life). The fastest by far were two boys, Seth and Jamie, in two separate years, who made it in under an hour, the equivalent of running up the hill. A reasonable ascent seemed to take just over 90 minutes, a hike slightly marred by the disappointment of a false peak…one was looking at blue sky, then the trail turned left for a few hundred yards. Additionally, reaching the pass, while greatly relieving, was a bit disappointing, as the pass itself just seems like a high point on the trail.
Once everyone had dropped their packs, we would wait for the last hikers to reach the summit, cheering them on as they came into view. We would then lead the group about 100 yards north to a rocky point where one could get a true sense of where we were: 10,400 feet in the air, at least 6,000 feet directly above King’s Canyon, with a hundred mile view to the north toward Yosemite. Below our perch was a rockslide that ran several hundred yards and then disappeared over the horizon to the canyon below. This moment became a true photo opportunity and I wish that I had copies of the many group pictures taken at this summit, though I do possess three prized pictures of my own kids standing proudly on the same flat slab of granite which hovered over the view below.
Once we swung our packs back on, there was a small sense of joy knowing that nearly every step taken in the next 24 hours would be downhill. Yet the walk down to Sphinx Meadows was always more than bargained for. While just a bit over three miles, the realization begins to set in that a downhill hike can take more out of one than an uphill hike. By the time we would hit the Ponderosa lined beauty of our final camp, there would be few, including the leaders, who had much left in their legs. The Moraine Meadow camp was truly perfect: wide flat spaces between huge trees; lots of firewood, two good campsites with rock fire rings in place, and a meadow to meander. While there were often bears in the camp, we would have little food left so the bags were easy to secure. On the final night, few tents would be erected. We would lie on the generously soft beds provided by the needles of massive trees and spirits would always be high.
Two memories of this spot are etched in my mind. The first was from my early years when we had a number of Iranians in the school. For some reason, I had about six of them on my trip. They would sleep together each night with their heads to the middle, forming a sort of star on the ground. Though I had warned the group of bears over the past days, they were beginning to think that I had been having them on, as no bears made themselves evident. On our last morning, I arose early, set a small morning fire, and lowered our food bags from the trees above. As the bags hit the ground, I turned to find two bears standing 15-20 feet from me, seemingly delighted that I had just delivered breakfast to them. I quickly began to bang my Sierra cup against the closest pan and holler to the boys that if they wanted to see a bear, this was their chance. The result was one of the most humorous visions in my memory: six Persians, zipped tightly in mummy bags exploding in every direction like massive earthworms or Mexican jumping beans, all screaming in Farsi, trying to either flee or get an arm free to grab a camera. The bears, not as amused as I, retreated from the camp in shock, looking over their shoulders at the disturbing scene of squirming nylon and dust cloud which, they, as I, may never forget.
The second memory is quite different. After perhaps 20 years of descending to the shaded Ponderosa camp, we arrived to find a massive pile of giant trees. What had once been a majestic stand of Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine looked more like a game of pick-up-sticks for giants. Trees were either snapped in two or simply uprooted and cast over each other in a random pile. The suggested violence of the scene was startling, as one imagined the intensity of a storm that could wreak such destruction. We carefully chose places to sleep that night, lying exhausted, saddened and amazed. For the first time at this camp, we were looking at stars as we turned in, each of us lost in the satisfaction that the Pass was behind us and tomorrow would take us into Kings Canyon , to friends and to home.