TR: Rae Lakes Loop September 2016 (counter-clockwise)

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TR: Rae Lakes Loop September 2016 (counter-clockwise)

Post by mapster » Sun Feb 26, 2017 4:48 pm

DAY ONE:

After visiting SEKI in late May of 2015 and doing a couple of short out-and-back, 2-3 day hikes, my wife and I decided to come back in 2016 and hike the Rae Lakes Loop.

We live in Nashville, so although we weren't near any trails to simulate the altitude we would encounter in Rae Lakes, we thought it would be beneficial to take a trip of similar distance and elevation gain along a section of the AT in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which we did in September 2015). Although it was stunningly beautiful in its own right and proved to be an excellent test of our equipment and abilities, it just doesn't compare to the majesty that is the Sierra Nevada range. Our 45-mile hike in GSMNP did helps us determine that:
a) We don't want to ever stay in shelters again if at all possible
b) We needed to trim some weight off our equipment

So, in addition to numerous local training hikes over the spring and summer, we acquired lighter backpacks, shoes, and a tarp tent. We knew we were ready as we were going to be.

We had debated whether we wanted to try the clockwise (more traditional and reputably easier) or counterclockwise (which might possibly be easier on our aging knees), but fate (and procrastination) intervened and the only permit available for mid-September was for the counterclockwise direction. We accepted the counterclockwise challenge and stepped up our step-ups as part of our training.

As for the trimming of the weight, below is a shot of some of our new gear, which includes the Hyperlite Windrider 3400 for me and the ULA Circuit for her (both about 2 pounds), and (not pictured) a Z-Pack Duplex Tarp Tent (about 1.5 pounds). Our total weights were 28 & 23 pounds, including food and water. We also switched to lightweight trail running shoes, which made a huge difference and did not sacrifice support. It was my first BP trip without getting blisters.
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So, after spending the night at Grant Grove getting acclimated, we headed out to Road's End to pick up our permit. As the ranger was filling out the paperwork, he asked us where we planned to stay each night; when we told him either Junction (12 miles away) or Vidette Meadow (15 miles away), he sized us up and wrote down the former. My wife, who appears demure but can be a bit competitive, accepted his lack of confidence in our abilities as a friendly challenge. After obtaining our permit, we were on the trail by 8:00 on a beautiful Sierra morning, heading up Zumwalt Meadow.
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After a couple of miles we crossed the South Fork Kings River, along with a few more crossings of the various arms of Bubb's Creek, and started up the switchbacks.
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We soon passed hikers coming down who had spent the night at the Sphinx Creek campsite, which was actually unexpectedly pretty. We also passed a few older gentlemen heading up a few miles for a day hike. They said they lived in the area and hiked this or similar trails about once a week (jealous!). They also alerted us to a weather report forecasting snow at higher elevations. We had been without Internet, so we were glad to have the warning.
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After Sphinx Creek we passed an older couple (about our age, but whose trophy-sized packs were aging them quickly), who said they were also heading to Vidette (not sure if they'd started on the trail that morning or had spent the night at Sphinx Creek). They didn't look like they were having as much fun as we were, and we privately hoped that they weren't overextending themselves.
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We had lunch below Charlotte Dome and continued on our way under beautiful skies. But out of nowhere we noticed a few clouds forming over some of the higher peaks to the east. By the time we got to Junction Meadow just before 3:00, it was quite cloudy, and we had heard reports (from descending hikers) of snow above 10,000' on the trail ahead.
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Our destination (Vidette) was at an elevation of 9,500', (another 3 miles and 1,300') so we figured we'd be below snow line, if it continued. We were tired, but both felt we had enough in the tank to continue on after a short break and refuel. Back on the trail we soon passed numerous hikers retreating from the upper sections of the mountain, most still with their rain/snow gear on, telling tales of snow in their eyes and limited visibility.
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But soon the clouds started dissipating (we never did get rained on) as we plodded up the trail, hoping to see a meadow around the next bend. But soon we were there and saw only one other camp set up, and we found a beautiful site on the edge of the meadow with the creek nearby. It was 5:00 and the temp dropped quite a bit, but we had the right amount of clothing and soon Susan had a roaring fire going.
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We were spent from the mileage and 4,500 feet of elevation gain, but the evening light was magnificent and we were so elated to have made it this far on the first day, especially with Glen Pass ahead of us on Day 2. And especially with Ranger Rick thinking we couldn't.
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TR: Rae Lakes Loop September 2016 (counter-clockwise)

Post by mapster » Wed Mar 01, 2017 7:58 pm

Day Two

Vidette Meadow to Rae Lakes, 7 miles

Since we weren’t quite acclimated to the 9500’ elevation, neither of us had slept very well. But in spite of the temperatures in the mid to upper 20s, we were comfortable enough. I was concerned about the filtered water I’d left in my water bladder, and when I got up in the middle of the night to empty my other bladder, I made sure to jostle the Platypus around to break up the ice. It was pretty slushy in the morning but not frozen solid.
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Susan soon had another fire going, and since we only had a 7-mile day ahead of us to our destination of Rae Lakes, we were in no hurry and were content to let things warm up before hitting the trail. After breakfast and coffee, we left camp about 10:00.

The junction with the PCT/JMT was right across from our camp; we took a left, headed north, and immediately started climbing. We were feeling the soreness of the previous day’s efforts in no time (truth be known, we felt it as soon as we tried to get out of the tent), but soon the views made it all worth it, as East Vidette made its conical presence known, along with Upper Vidette Meadow extending to the southeast in its approach to Forester Pass.
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We couldn’t have asked for better weather. After climbing about 1,000', the trail reaches a bench that includes Bull Frog and Charlotte Lakes and meets the trail to Kearsarge Pass. At this point we were glad we had already climbed the invigorating death march from Junction to Vidette the day before, and we rewarded ourselves with a midmorning snack of hard-boiled eggs and bacon jerky.
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Up until this point we had been hiking relatively close to water, with Bubb’s Creek alongside us most of the way, as well as a couple of small streams that crossed the trail, which afforded us the luxury of making our packs lighter by never carrying more than a liter or two. We also made a point to drink as much as possible at each water stop rather than carrying the extra weight. But soon after passing east of Charlotte Lake, we climbed above tree line. The grade was steady as the trail got rockier and the air thinner. The effort was making us thirsty, and we knew we needed to be drinking more water to combat the effects of altitude. Lucky for us, we had asked Ranger Rick about water sources on the approach to Glen Pass, and he pointed out on our map a couple of small lakes on the south side that were “right next to” the trail. So we had planned on refilling there in order to keep our loads light for the ascent of the pass. As we got close to said lakes, we soon realized that “right next to” meant about 100 yards down a nasty stretch of foot-grinding rocks, with a return climb up to the trail for some extra-credit vertical footage. The mandatory side trip wasn’t as taxing physically as it was mentally (although Susan’s foot with the Morton’s Neuroma would beg to differ). Susan, who is a Plan-B kind of gal, suggested we pretend that we actually wanted to enjoy our lunch break down by the lovely pool and exclaimed with sincerity, “Who gets to do this! Aren’t we lucky?” But we sure wished that we had grabbed water at that last little stream we crossed on the path back at_(insert specific place here)_
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The seemingly endless steps and switchbacks weren’t that bad, although when I look back at the photos now, I am impressed with our effort. I was under the impression that the approach of the counterclockwise route up Glen Pass was the hard part, when in reality the difficulty came from the altitude and having to ascend after a 15-mile day of constant climbing. We kept telling ourselves: “This is a short hike—only seven miles or so!” but there were times Susan later said that she was thinking she was having no fun at all and that she didn’t really love hiking anymore and started comparing it to childbirth. Not being able to see the trail’s route to the top of the pass was the hardest part for Susan. She kept pointing at skree slopes and asking me, “You don’t think we have to go up that way, do you?” By the time we could see the path to the pass, we were pretty much already there.
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A brisk breeze at the top welcomed our overheated selves, and we felt the personification of summer meeting winter, with the ones coming up from the south sweating like a ho in church encountering those from the north all bundled up like a Southerner seeing snow for the first time. We stayed long enough to add an extra layer, visit with south-bounders, take a few shots, and made our way down a path of rocks. We compared both sides of the pass and agreed that we preferred the counterclockwise ascent, but we loved the views from both sides. Simply stunning.
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Our arrival at Rae Lakes was later than we had calculated, so we made haste to secure a good campsite, not knowing how crowded it might be. I wish we had spent more time exploring upper Rae Lakes, because it seemed to be an idyllic setting.
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But each forward step produced more and more beauty, and we set up camp at middle Rae Lakes at about 4:00 with a pristine view of Finn Dome and Painted Lady, both perfectly reflected in the calm lake. For two whole seconds. Then a wind appeared out of nowhere off the lake and blew right through our tent as if we were cowboy camping.
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The nearby rocks were great shelters, but our tent wouldn’t fit behind them, and we were already shivering so much we were uncomfortably numb. So with much letdown for having to leave our primo spot, we relinquished it to a couple of lucky bivy sackers and quickly set up camp further inland in an equally fabulous and spacious place decorated with boulders lit by a supermoon.
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Re: TR: Rae Lakes Loop September 2016 (counter-clockwise)

Post by ERIC » Wed Mar 01, 2017 9:31 pm

Well done so far, thank you! Keep the report(s) coming!
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Re: TR: Rae Lakes Loop September 2016 (counter-clockwise)

Post by mapster » Fri Mar 03, 2017 8:48 pm

Day 3:

Deep sleep eluded us once again, with the full supermoon burning through the tent walls and the altitude still outpacing our acclimation. But it was not as cold as the previous night, and we did get some good rest. We woke at dawn and walked down to the shore with cameras in hand in anticipation of a glorious sunrise. There weren’t any puffy clouds to add drama, but we weren’t disappointed as the sun washed over the Painted Lady.
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We visited with the other early risers enjoying the ever-changing palette over the lake, and we met the bivy campers who had swooped on our initial primo campsite. We realized that we had already briefly encountered them the day before, after we had made our water run down to the lake below Glen Pass, as they passed us during our subsequent lunch break back on the trail. They too had stopped for lunch a little farther on, and we then passed them while they ate. Turns out they had started at Roads End the same day as we did but a little later and so didn’t have time to make it to Vidette, and stayed at Junction. So they had a big second day and were feeling it, but they looked like they could manage.

When we first started researching this trip, we noticed that in most reports there seemed to be an urgency to finish the trail within 3–4 days. Five-day plans were rare; not many trip reports included a leisurely itinerary, or if they did, they were amended on the trail. I often feel the struggle within between the part of me that enjoys the workout, "how fast can we travel the most miles," versus the part of me that enjoys the aesthetic, “how often do we get a chance to camp in this most beautiful setting?” Often the decision is made for us when the mosquitoes get bad or the altitude messes up our sleep or our home-cooked dehydrated chili has grown mold on it or we’re uncomfortably dusty or our gear is rain soaked. Then the hamburgers at Grant Grove start calling our names, and that's when it becomes a race to the finish.

Our original plan was to enjoy the camping aspect of backpacking and take an extra day at Rae Lakes to explore Sixty Lake Basin, but our legs said NOPE, and besides, we wanted a good night’s sleep unaffected by altitude insomnia, as well as the freedom to make a fire below 10,000 ft. We, too, felt the urge to scurry along, especially when we reached the gradual, sweet downhill section. But we decided that instead of scurrying back in 4 days, we would keep the 5-day plan and lollygag the rest of the way back. So after basking in the Rae Lakes dawn and breaking camp, we hit the trail about 9:00 under a beautiful blue Sierra sky and headed north and downhill toward our destination of Woods Creek.
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We soon passed Fin Dome, and Arrowhead Lake – spectacular country with numerous camping opportunities. And the trail – the trail was like butter.
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We took our morning break on the south shore of Dollar Lake – could have stayed there all day – and then pressed on. We passed the junction to Baxter Lakes and Baxter Pass Trail to the east. We were glad to be going downhill, and passed numerous hikers ascending mightily in the opposite direction, knowing they were looking for respite from the constant grade and remembering fondly our first day and half on the trail.
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Not too long after passing through a drift fence gate, we stopped to chat with a solo British hiker heading south. She asked us about “Feen Dome,” which was still a ways off. As I looked back up the direction we had come, I was astonished to see a mother bear and her cub, about 25’ off the section of trail on which we had just travelled, vigorously digging for tasty treats. All I could manage to say was: “Ooh – bear!” We were probably about 40-50’ away and managed to remember to take some photos.
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Just then our bivy neighbors from Rae Lakes rounded a corner on the trail behind us and were about to pass the bears, which like us they did not see. With some waving of arms and frantic gestures, we managed to get their attention in time for them to stop before getting too close. The momma bear did stop her digging a couple of times to look in their direction, but she just went back to her work.
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Susan was a bit anxious to vacate the area, so we moved on down the trail and were soon at our destination (around 2:00), on the south side of Woods Creek. Not long after, our bivy friends pulled into camp; they had waited a little while on the trail until the bears moved on, so we were relieved to see them. We shared a festive lunch over tales of communing with wild carnivores and such. Their destination that evening was Paradise Valley, so they had to mosey along in order to get there before dark, and we shared contact info so that we could send them photos of their close encounter of the Ursidae kind.

Since we arrived at camp so early, we were able to explore the area and hiked a short way up the JMT on the other side of the fabulous bridge. After combing the area for the best campsite possible (actually, all the campsites seemed to be good), we chose campsite #3 (I think – 3rd one east of the south end of the bridge), which was beautiful and right next to a creek. We had our hearts set on a homemade dehydrated chili supper, but to our horror noticed that it had developed a bad case of mold (still working on the learning curve of dehydration methods--adding vacuum seal next time). Luckily we had one extra lunch which was not quite as tasty, but did the trick.
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We ended the day enjoying our campfire and watching the JMT traffic and late arrivals to the area. We were both so glad to have disciplined ourselves to stay at Woods Creek in spite of the temptation to hike further that day.

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Re: TR: Rae Lakes Loop September 2016 (counter-clockwise)

Post by robow8 » Sat Mar 04, 2017 9:39 am

I'm really enjoying your report. We did a CCW loop in early August. Junction Meadow to Rae Lakes was a grind! But we did spend the next night at Dollar, taking a dip in the lake and lounging about!

Can't wait for the rest of your report.

And the only bear we saw was across Woods Creek below Mist Falls.

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Re: TR: Rae Lakes Loop September 2016 (counter-clockwise)

Post by sekihiker » Sat Mar 04, 2017 4:05 pm

Thanks for posting all the photos. They really bring back the memories.

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Re: TR: Rae Lakes Loop September 2016 (counter-clockwise)

Post by mapster » Sun Mar 05, 2017 5:48 pm

Robow8 - glad you're enjoying it! Yes the water and campsites at Dollar looked mighty inviting.

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Re: TR: Rae Lakes Loop September 2016 (counter-clockwise)

Post by mapster » Sun Mar 05, 2017 5:50 pm

Sekihiker - you bet! Yes we really enjoy going through all the photos and recalling the details and highlights for the TR.

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Re: TR: Rae Lakes Loop September 2016 (counter-clockwise)

Post by rbrowndos » Sun Mar 05, 2017 9:35 pm

Wonderful story and pics- Planning on a Rae Lakes Loop in Early August. Any advice, or what you wish you have done or not, is surely appreciated.

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Re: TR: Rae Lakes Loop September 2016 (counter-clockwise)

Post by mapster » Mon Mar 06, 2017 7:05 pm

rbrowndos wrote:Wonderful story and pics- Planning on a Rae Lakes Loop in Early August. Any advice, or what you wish you have done or not, is surely appreciated.
Thank you! We can't think of much we would have done differently. Spending a lay-over day exploring the Rae Lakes and 60 Lakes areas would have been nice, but so was a good nights sleep at a lower altitude. If altitude isn't bothering you much up there, I would try to work that in, with a back up plan if needed. A couple of things that really paid off for us: lighter gear, and some serious training in the months leading up to it. We're both cyclists, which is great cross training - so saddle time, and just a lot of trail miles on the weekends.

Happy trails!

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