Day 4 Summary: Continue hiking off-trail arriving closer to the PCT/JMT and Donoghue Pass. Visit Marie Lakes as a day-hike. The hailstones, snow, and thunderheads were extra!
We woke up late to a clear-skies sunrise. All the clouds from yesterday’s thunderstorms were gone without a trace. But we figured that there would probably be more later on in the afternoon. An easy bet to make in the Sierra.
The reason we woke so late was partly that we didn’t have all that far to hike that day, but mostly because it was cold! There was frost on the tent, and we stayed snuggled down next to each other in the sleeping bag, hoping that the sunlight would soon strike the tent. But it wasn’t meant to be. So we got dressed and began another day.
We enjoyed the view and ate breakfast from our special glaciated-granite spot. The rock was polished from the ice, and we wondered what it would have been like back in the Ice Age when the entire Rush Creek drainage was a gigantic glacier. It made us even colder just thinking about it.
Then we finished packing and got everything ready for our second day of bushwhacking.
Panorama Video from our campsite
It turned out that the cross-country travel was relatively easy. No cliffs or mountains or tedious scree-climbs. Just high rolling country with meadows and streams and fine views of the surrounding mountains. It was actually a lot of fun! The main challenge was to stay roughly at 10000 feet elevation the entire time, as this was Vicki’s main requirement, so there wasn’t a whole lot of route-finding involved. Simply side-hill for miles, for the most part. Near the end I finally convinced her to climb a couple hundred feet over a long ridge that would have been a lot more work to walk all the way around. Along the way we stopped at one of the creeks that drains the Lost Lakes and had a break and some snack. But we didn’t stay long, as we wanted to get to camp early.
We never made it to the Pacific Crest Trail that morning. Instead, we found an old abandoned trail and some excellent but tiny alpine lakes with plenty of flat places to camp. With fine views, as well. So we set up the tent and ate lunch. We hung out and made sure that everything was situated exactly the way that we wanted it, as we intended to stay here for two nights.
We took a brief nap and lounged around in the tent, reading our books. I wandered nearby and took some photos. We decided that we really liked this spot, even though the views couldn’t really compare to the ones we had yesterday. Oh well. You aren’t guaranteed supreme awesomeness every day in the Sierra. But you can usually get something close.
But we didn’t hang around too long, or let the afternoon disappear without a trace. We had plans! Adventurous plans! Our goal was to hike a short ways down the PCT, then hike uphill to visit the Marie Lakes. They were a series of high lakes that formed the headwaters of Rush Creek. When researching this trip, I had wanted to spend the night up in those lonely lakes, but Vicki decided otherwise. We decided to leave the heavy packs in our base camp and go light and fast to the lakes. And that’s what we did.
Video of us crossing the stream on the PCT on our way to the Marie Lakes Trail
At first, everything was wonderful. Warmth and sunshine. Lakes and streams. A downhill trail. We wandered along the PCT for a mile or so and had fun crossing the stream that came down from Donohue Pass, the same one that went past our campsite. Then we reached the Marie Lakes Trail, and we began to gain elevation. It was a bit tougher, and we started to sweat. But it was still excellent. Vicki was getting a bit overheated, so she found a private spot near the creek where she took off her shirt and soaked it in the icy water. She whooped out loud as she put it back on. It was cold! But it felt good soon enough, and helped to keep her cool as we continued up the steep trail in the sun.
But before we knew it, everything was NOT wonderful. The sun was gone!
As the clouds filled in, threatening and gray, the wind picked up, bringing cold air down from the snowy slopes above us. Vicki’s soggy shirt had suddenly become a liability. We ducked behind a bushy pine tree to get out of the wind and brought out our rain gear. We always try to be prepared for foul weather, even on sunny day-hikes, and this was no exception. Vicki put on her goretex jacket, which blocked the wind, but it didn’t do much for the soggy shirt. She was still cold. And worried. We were a long way from our cozy tent. And that was when I realized that I was actually wearing two shirts (both long sleeve and tee) as well as my raingear. I was quite comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. So I stripped down to my bare chest and handed her my dry t-shirt, an exact duplicate of her soggy one. It didn’t take long before we were both topless, laughing at each other. Topless in a Sierra Thunderstorm! It was ridiculous.
But the levity didn’t last long. We dressed as quickly as possible, and even put on our rain pants. Mostly to block the wind, but it seemed likely that it might rain soon enough. Staying dry would be crucial or we’d become hypothermic for sure.
And then, to re-generate some of our lost heat, we began climbing like mad. “If you want to get warm: Get moving.” That’s good advice, regardless of the source. The climbing was steep, and the trail was faint, as not many folks come to visit these cold lonely lakes. Before the shirt-swap, we had been contemplating a retreat to camp. But not now. “Onward, into the storm!” became our new motto.
As you might well imagine, it probably wasn’t the best motto to have, especially not on a day like this. Because it was all-too-likely to prove true!
Soon enough, some big drops began striking all around us. They were rare at first, but we knew it wasn’t going to get any better. We began looking around for some kind of shelter, like a cave or an overhanging rock, but there weren’t any obvious ones. Standing under a tree (not that there were any this high on a ridge) wasn’t a great thing to do, lightning-wise, so we shouted out our motto and hiked on.
Then the hailstorm began. Complete with thunder. And plenty of freezing cold wind.
Video of a Sierra Hailstorm as we continue climbing.
Video of half-inch hailstones
Hail on the trail
Now, sane people who listen to the advice of experts will always obey its dictates. Namely: Don’t expose yourself to lightning strikes during a thunderstorm! Stay away from tall trees, exposed ridgelines, and mountaintops. In other words: Retreat from danger! Live to hike another day! Don’t be a fool!
Sadly, this advice was in direct contradiction of our motto.
We comforted ourselves with the thought that there weren’t any tall trees, and that we weren’t precisely on top of the ridge. In fact, the trail stayed about twenty feet below the top as the ridge as we continued to climb ever higher.. So we were perfectly safe.
At the height of the storm the wind grew freezing cold and gusty. It was biting us right through our wind-proof gear! We headed directly into it with our hoods tied tight, our hands in our pockets, and our faces cast downward. Vicki was just shouting to me that we had to turn back, that this was crazy, that it wasn’t worth it, when I spied not far ahead of us a sheltered spot! “Look! Let’s hide in there!” I shouted over the wind. There was a yard-thick slab of granite that had slid off the ridgetop and propped itself against a wall, forming a cave-like triangle of space large enough for the two of us to shelter from the wind in its lee.
And that’s exactly what we did. We both agreed that it was the greatest thing ever. We hugged each other for warmth and laughed as we listened to the wind whipping by. Huge hailstones continued to fall and we agreed that it was much more pleasant to watch them bouncing on the ground than to have them striking us on the top of our heads.
Just the same, standing still in a cave didn’t exactly generate warmth, so as soon as the storm’s fury seemed spent, we came out and continued up the trail. At this point, we were absolutely, positively going to check out at least one of the Marie Lakes. So we hiked onward.
We checked out the lower lake. There was snow in patches all around it, and one large bank of snow calving, glacier-like, directly into the water. The trail ended vaguely around here, as everything was granite slabs and boulders. We looked across the way and saw a cascading waterfall feeding into the lake. We knew from the map that there was yet another, higher Marie Lake up there just above it, but we looked at both the time and the terrain and decided that we weren’t going to attempt it. The still-threatening clouds certainly helped us in our decision. So we took lots of photos in a very short time. We also got a chance to peek over a saddle on the ridge we’ve been climbing and looked far down below us at the uppermost of the Rodgers Lakes and tried to make out some of the distant mountains, as well.
We kept up a good pace on the way back, as the clouds were still dark and it was all downhill. Vicki’s favorite kind of hiking. Along the way yet another storm moved in, with more thunder and plenty of virga trailing down beneath the roof of clouds.
And that was when it began to snow! Snow! In August! Only in the High Sierra.
It was a very light snow, barely a flurry, but it made us laugh anyway. Vicki started dancing along, singing in the snow. It was a bit magical, to tell the truth. Even thinking about it now makes me chuckle.
Snowing in August!
Just the same, as with most afternoon Summer thunderstorms in the Sierra, this one was short-lived. It seems like forever when you’re caught in it, with freezing air and gusting winds, but in reality it doesn’t last all that long. By the time we got off the ridge things were clearing up, just like they did the day before. Interestingly, when we turned around and looked back up the valley, we could see that all of the higher peaks and ridges were dusted with snow and/or hail.
All in all, I thought we were pretty lucky: It may have been freezing cold and windy, but at least we didn’t get soaked by a torrential downpour. Definitely one of our better day-hikes, and it certainly made for a better story.
We hiked back up the PCT and got back to camp with plenty of daylight left. Just the same, the temperature had started to drop and we both crowded into the tent and put on our warmer layers and night clothes. We strung a clothesline and Vicki hung up her still-soggy shirt to dry overnight. Then she whipped up some hot chocolate and sipped it contentedly, getting the heat back into her core, smiling broadly, with her cold hands wrapped around the hot cup.
We decided to take our dinner over to our personal pond, where we had a fine view of the clouds turning colors in the sunset. Alpenglow lit the peaks to the south as the temperature dropped. We decided that we’d had enough cold weather for one day and retreated to the tent earlier than usual, snuggling down into the sleeping bag for warmth. We talked about the day, and about our plans for tomorrow, when we’d be hiking south along the Pacific Crest Trail to Thousand Island Lake, which promised to be a relaxing day, as we wouldn’t be carrying our big packs. And then we went to sleep.
For more Day 4 photos and videos see my Flickr Page.
For an interactive topographic map including our GPS tracks see my CalTopo Page.