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Rae Lakes Loop

Day 5 of 6

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Thursday, September 13th
Rae Lakes to Vidette Meadow
7.6 miles
1720 vertical feet (ascent)
2750 vertical feet (descent)
7:12

We got up at 6:00am the next morning, and it was freezing. Literally. We'd left our clothes out on the rocks to dry, but instead they were frozen stiff. The sky was completely clear and there hadn't been any wind the previous night, but it was certifiably cold. There were ice chips on our cookset and on our tent, as well.

Painted Lady reflecting in Rae Lakes

Monica and Hugh and the guys from Virginia all left before we did. The East Coast pair were still getting ready when we left at 8:40am. Our original plan was to hike up Glen Pass and camp on the other side at Charlotte Lake. But now I was beginning to have second thoughts. After seeing the lakes at Sixty Lakes Basin and being a bit disappointed, I began to think Vidette Meadow would be nicer. Besides, everyone else would be there. But we could leave that decision for later. For now, we had Glen Pass ahead of us.

Fin Dome reflecting in Rae Lakes

We again crossed the isthmus, but now took the left fork on the JMT up toward the pass. We immediately stopped to take off some clothes. While it had been freezing only a couple hours ago, the clear sky made for a warm morning. I stripped down to shorts and t-shirt, then applied sunscreen while the East Coast pair passed us.

The southernmost of the Rae Lakes

Jean heading up towards Glen Pass

We continued on up the switchbacks, slowly but steadily. We climbed higher and higher above the southern Rae Lake. There were hardly any trees now. Only bushes and occasional flowers. After climbing about 700 or 800 feet, we reached a plateau where we ran into everyone -- Monica, Hugh, the guys from Virginia, and the East Coast pair (who looked like they were going to rest for awhile). Before us now was nothing but bare granite. A lake sat in a granite to the west, with peaks behind it, and Glen Pass to the south. I could see people walking on top of the pass -- it would turn out to be a couple who'd passed us while we were putting on sunscreen.

The group starting off from the plateau. Glen Pass is straight and center (and above).

Several lakes on the north side of Glen Pass

While the sun was still out and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, it began to get a bit chilly because of the wind. I stopped to put on my fleece. I then joined the others on the trek up to the top. The trail switchbacks easily up the face of the mountain. As we went higher, the views of the surrounding area got better and better. The air also got thinner and thinner, but no one had any real problems. We all went at our own pace and made it to the top. For Hugh and Jean, this meant practically running to the top, as they seemed most acclimatized.

View looking east from the top (combination of two pictures)
(Click image to view full size)

The view from the top is, as you would expect, impressive. Directly to the south, a small lake sits in a bowl backed by an impressive wall of granite. The trail on the other side of the pass is visible, switchbacking down to that lake. To the north, Rae Lakes backed by a range of mountains. To the east and west, peaks loom one or two or three hundred feet higher than the pass. The pass itself is narrow, about 10-20 feet wide, perhaps 200 feet from the trail leading up to the trail leading down. The view is nice, but if I had to compare, I would say that the view from Mount Dana is much better. I think it's the color of the rocks. While the mountains surrounding Mount Dana have a dark brown tint, the mountains surrounding Glen Pass all look like Mount Whitney -- a rather boring dull granite color. But I wasn't complaining.

Looking back toward Rae Lakes from Glen Pass

Lake on the south side of Glen Pass

It was cold at the top, and I put my jacket on. But it wasn't quite as windy as I would have expected. Steve decided he had to go above 12,000 feet (Glen Pass sits at 11,978 feet), so he scrambled up to the peak on the west side of the pass. Kenny nearly gave us a heart attack by pretending to fall off the trail as he came up. I have to say I was impressed with Kenny -- he's 57 years old, and he seemed to be having a blast. Every time I saw him, he had a big smile on his face. And I've never met anyone who took more pictures than I do -- until I met him. He took along 56 rolls of film! By contrast I took 14 rolls of 36 exposures each (equivalent to 21 rolls of 24 exposures each). I ended up using just under 12 rolls.

Everyone on the summit

While we were on top, I took out my pulse oximeter and measured everyone. If I recall, Jean had the best blood oxygen level, around 90%. everyone else was in the mid to high 80's, except for Scott, who had a reading of 75%! He didn't have any symptoms of altitude sickness, however. Our pulse rates were all around 100 - 110, except Monica and Jean, who were in the 90's.

Steve, Kenny, and Scott

Monica and Jean

After taking some group photos, Jean and I started the rapid descent down the switchbacks on the other side of Glen Pass. We extended our trekking poles and descended rapidly. If you're planning on filtering water in the lake, be forewarned that the trail doesn't pass right next to the lake. You'll have to do a short detour to get to the lake. It's only a couple minutes of detour. We had plenty of water, so we kept on going.

Jean descending the switchbacks from Glen Pass

We passed several groups of hikers coming up the opposite direction. All of them looked spent as they headed up the steep switchbacks. I have to say that the trail heading up Glen Pass from the south is much more difficult than from the north. I would not want to do the Rae Lakes Loop in a counter-clockwise direction!

Valley near Charlotte Lake

Charlotte Lake

After we passed the lake, the trail spit us out of the granite bowl and out into the open. The trail then curves around to the left, providing views of Charlotte Lake below, to the southwest. The lake is elongated and non-descript. We made the decision then to continue on to Vidette Meadow. We continued our descent, stopping at a trail intersection for Kearsarge Pass. We stopped to rest for a while. Just before we hit the trail again, a solo backpacker came down the trail we'd just been on. The old man muttered something and we eventually got it out of him that he had heard the news about the World Trade Center and had decided he couldn't go on anymore. He was hiking out to the Onion Valley trailhead. He was obviously distraught and it was a bit unsettling to us. We had no intention of hiking out, but we couldn't help but think of all the innocent lives lost.

Trail intersection for Kearsarge Lakes

Center Peak (center) and East Vidette (right)

It's too bad our minds were so occupied, because in a few minutes, we would witness some of the most awe-inspiring views on the trip. As we started a long descent of a series of steep switchbacks, we had a wonderful view of East and West Vidette peaks, as well as Center Basin. The basin was visible in front of us to the left, a sloping valley of green topped by tall granite peaks. In front of us to the right were the 12,000+ foot peaks of East and West Vidette.

Center Peak

Center Peak and East Vidette again. If you look closely, you'll see the trail near the bottom left.

While I gawked and took photographs, the East Coast pair passed us on their way to Junction Meadow. Eventually the views ceased and we entered a lush green area surrounding a stream following the trail. We criss-crossed the stream a few times. On either side, Jean recognized wild garlic growing. We could have filtered water here, but the shade of the trees kept us cool, so we didn't need much water. Besides, we were now very close.

East Vidette and West Vidette

We reached an intersection with the trail toward Road's End on the right, and the JMT trail continuing to the left, continuing on toward Forester Pass. The map makes it look like Vidette Meadow is on the left fork. So that's where we started to go. After a short while, it seemed like we were headed away from the meadowed portion, and we hadn't seen either of the two bear boxes which seemed to be on the map. I took off my pack and, radio in hand, began to look for the bear boxes while Jean waited. I saw two women stopped near the trail intersection, but I headed in the opposite direction. As I was beginning to lose hope of finding the bear box in this direction, I ran into a couple of guys at a creek. They were the companions of the two women and had just got here themselves from the same direction as us. One of them had a guide book, but it wasn't helpful in finding the bear box. Defeated, I turned around.

We returned to the trail intersection to find a man in his 50's sitting down, resting, waiting for his slower companions who were coming up from Sphinx Creek camp. They were headed up toward Charlotte Lake today. They still had a long climb ahead of them. Jean now took her turn, taking a radio and heading down the trail toward Road's End, in search of the bear boxes. We left a note at the trail intersection for Monica, Hugh, Steve, Scott, and Kenny, telling them where we were going. We hadn't seen them since Glen Pass, but they had planned to camp at Vidette Meadow.

University Peak above Vidette Meadow

We didn't have to go far before we found the bear box and unmarked camp sites. There was already one person set up there. As we started to set up our tent, the man we'd seen at the intersection came over, along with his friends, about 8 of them in all. They'd decided heading up to Charlotte Lake today would be a bit much, so they were joining us at Vidette Meadow tonight. There's not a lot of space in the area -- all the good sites are close to each other, so it'd be a little cozy tonight.

Bubbs Creek

Since they were traveling in the opposite direction, the men had seen the TV reports themselves and knew a bit more about the disaster. One of them told us what he knew, about the hijacked planes and up to 10,000 dead. I think it was good to hear more details from someone who'd been out "in the real world," rather than filtered horror stories passed on from person to person. He was much calmer than the person we'd seen earlier in the day who was packing out. That first guy gave out a sense that the world was coming to an end, but this calmer guy gave out a sense that life goes on. It was horrible, but life goes on... I was sure we'd be immersed in the details when we got back home. It wasn't going anywhere.

East Vidette rising above Vidette Meadow

Meanwhile, I should tell you about Vidette meadow itself. It's a large meadow backed by the peaks of East Vidette and West Vidette. Pine trees line the edges of the meadow, and surround the camp. Bubbs Creek runs through the meadow and near the camp. While I was over by the creek getting some water to filter, Monica, Hugh, Scott, Steve, and Kenny came into camp. It was all one big happy family now. Monica wanted to have another camp fire tonight (we were below 10,000 feet -- around 9500 feet), but there's not much dead and downed wood at the camp.

Alpenglow on University Peak

So after dinner, we walked around outside of the camp, looking for twigs and branches on the ground. All of us working together retrieved quite a lot of fuel. We got the fire going before sundown, and soon we were all gathered around, including a couple guys from the other group, and Travis, a student from Cal Poly SLO who had been camped here when we arrived. He'd been out fishing all day.

Steve and Kenny joined us for our camp fire chat -- I think this was the first time all week they stayed up past 8pm. We talked about all sorts of things, including bears. Travis mentioned that a bear in the area had come into camp the previous night. Jean was saying how scared of bears she was when we heard a sound. Monica asked what it was, and Scott said: "Those are my bear bells!" He'd attached bear bells to his pack, and now they were making a sound -- which either meant his pack was moving by itself, or it was being dragged away by a bear!

Camp fire at Vidette Meadow

Before anyone else could react, Jean jumped up and turned on her headlamp and went toward the sound. She yelled out that she could see the bear's eyes and followed the sound. Scott said that his keys and wallet were still in the pack. I was afraid the bear would just keep walking out into the forest. He started to walk up the hill on the other side of the trail next to camp. Hugh and I chased after Jean, who was still ahead of us. I was a bit worried she was getting too close to the bear by herself. There's safety in numbers. When Hugh and I reached her, she was throwing rocks at the bear, who had finally stopped and put down the pack. He began chewing on something as Scott came up behind us. I told Jean to stop throwing rocks when it became obvious that the bear was simply going to sit there and eat whatever it was he'd found. He only wanted the food, not the pack.

We stood there and waited, with our lights shining toward the bear. We were maybe 20 or so feet downhill from the bear. He finished off the food, then slowly started walking up the hill, away from the pack. When he was far enough away, we went up to retrieve the pack. Apparently he'd found some sort of bar that Scott had forgotten was in his pack. There was bear slobber on the pack, but it was otherwise none the worse for wear. Kenny came up the hill with his camera, but it was too late; the bear was gone up the hill, out of sight.

Scott took the pack back to camp, and we all double-checked our packs to make sure no food was there. I took my keys and put them into the tent just in case. We unzipped all our pack zippers so if the bear found anything, it at least wouldn't ruin our packs getting to it. I vowed that the first thing I would get when I returned would be bear bells. Without the bear bells, we never would have known that the bear had sneaked into camp, only 30 feet away from our camp fire. We might never have found Scott's pack, then.

Eventually we returned to the camp fire, a bit shaken but excited to have seen a bear. But that wasn't the end. The bear returned to retrieve a bottle of oil from Kenny's pack. The bear went out to the meadow and proceeded to pierce the bottle (which Steve found the next day) and drink all the oil from it. We went after the bear en masse and kept our lights on it, but it simply went about its business, eating whatever it found. It was completely unafraid of us, but also un-aggressive towards us. it simply wanted food. I fear, however, that over time this will change. It's only a matter of time before the bear becomes more brazen and starts entering people's tents in search of food. It's a small step from there to actually attacking people while they're eating. I'm afraid the bear may eventually have to be removed. Let's hope not.

The bear entered our camp a couple more times, but didn't find anything to eat. I attempted to take some pictures, but unfortunately I didn't bring my big flash, and the built-in flash combined with 50-speed film wasn't strong enough. All I got was the reflection of his eyes. Next time, I'll arm myself with 400-speed film.

Later, after we'd returned to our tents, I heard the bear just outside our tent, rummaging through Jean's pack. We'd later find that he'd ripped into an empty ziploc bag which had contained Jean's dirty socks! But he didn't take anything. There was nothing there. After he was done with the pack, though, he walked past the front of the tent. It was quite eerie to see the bear's shadow going by, but not being able to hear a sound. His padded paws were so quiet on the forest floor. He moved effortlessly.

Convinced he wouldn't find any food in our camp, I went to sleep. Now, I usually sleep on my right side. But for some reason I was sleeping on my left side. A couple hours later, I heard a noise in front of me and jerked awake and yelled "Bear!". But then I heard a voice "it's just me!" It was Jean. My switching of sleeping sides had disoriented me. :) Whatever's in front of me is usually just outside the tent, but since I'd switched sides, it was just Jean.

Later that night, Jean said that she heard the bear just outside the tent on her side, sniffing. She couldn't sleep after that.


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