Total Miles: 86.1
The Sierra Nevada—literally, “the snowy mountains”—has recently begun to challenge its very name. In the past twenty years or more, the cyclical nature of snow and sun in these mountains has become anything but cyclical.
The mountains themselves are a seeming paradox that is easy to overlook when you’re understandably mesmerized by their beauty. The paradox goes like this: for a mountain range that is so predictably sunny and dry, what explains the abundance of water, so much so that one could quite reasonably hike the entire John Muir Trail with nothing but a 1-liter water bottle?
The answer is that these mountains got their name for a reason. Historically, when hikers aren’t climbing all over them during the summer months, a deep snowpack is accumulating on their slopes during the winter months. The problem? Those snowy winters aren’t so snowy anymore, at least not regularly.
Take the winter of 2021-2022, which can more accurately be described as a tale of two winters. Early winter storms pounded the Sierra, piling up a snowpack 160% of normal by January 1st. With the new year came an entirely different story, however, as January, February, and March were the driest in over a century, leaving the total snowpack well below average yet again.
(For some outstanding aerial satellite images of how the snowpack has radically dwindled in recent years, check out NASA’s earth observatory page for the Sierra Nevada.)
Aside from the implications for California’s water supply, and the unusual lack of snow on the trail for this time of year, a drier Sierra also means a Sierra that is more at risk for the kind of devastating wildfires that have raged in similarly low snow years of late. It’s also one of the main reasons we abandoned our plans of “yo-yo-ing”—hiking from one end to the other, only to then turn around and hike it in reverse—the John Muir Trail in August rather than the one-way hike in July that we ultimately settled on.
All of which made the smoke that stretched across the horizon this morning so disappointing, though not surprising. Without any way of knowing the details of how and where it started, we’re left to guess and at least be thankful that it’s a safe distance from the trail.
Turning a blind eye to the distant fire we could not control, we made the most of another picture perfect summer day in the Sierra. The steady stream of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers traveling the opposite direction continued like clockwork. Some would stop and smile, exchange pleasantries or chat, while some would hardly muster a grunt of acknowledgment as they brushed past.
With snow all but gone, the trails of the Sierra are left to bake under an unforgiving sun until the next winter snows blanket them again. The result is a trail that goes from damp and muddy with the last of the melting snow, to dry and dusty in a flash. With each step, small mushroom clouds issue upward, coating your legs with a fine dust.
Actual fire may have been burning in the distance, but little flames of color also would appear beside the trail, often courtesy of the bright red blooms of paintbrush. It should be no surprise, then, why I refer to the Sierra Nevada—and the mountains of the west, in general—as “The Land of Dust and Fire.”
The reward waiting at the end of each of today’s climbs, was another picture perfect lake set beneath a new layer of toothy granite towers.
The last, and tallest, climb of the day was up and over Silver Pass, the second of the JMT’s eight major passes. Leaving behind the shade of the forest for the lunar landscape of the alpine, there was nowhere to hide from the big yellow orb in the sky. The water that pooled in lakes of emerald and sapphire, and cascaded down polished granite all around us was a cruel contrast to the heat that the sun radiated down onto our backs—especially when it was within sight, but not within reach.
It felt only fitting then, when at last we had crested Silver Pass and descended deep into the drainage on its far side, to celebrate by soothing our feet in the therapeutic waters of an icy cold stream.