Day 67: Welcome to the Golden Staircase

Our days are absolutely defined by passes: going up, being on top, and coming down them. They’re our landmarks, our goals, and our nemeses, all at once. This section of trail has a mountain pass every 10–30 miles; most passes are at or over 12,000′, while the valleys in between range from 8,000′ to 10,500′. Today, for example, we climbed Mather Pass, which is 12,100′ high, then descended to the valley, at 8,100′, in between it and Muir Pass, which is also 12,000′ high.

I say this because when you’re out here, that’s almost all our minds are focused on long-term: where’s the next pass, how far is it to get there, and where should we camp with respect to it? Ideally, you want to camp just before you get to a pass, so that you can climb it early in the day — not only is this more fun (because you’re less exhausted when you get up there), but it also means any snow up there is harder and won’t swallow up your footsteps quite as much. It’s not always possible, though: we’re eleven miles from Muir Pass tonight, and it’s four thousand feet above us; that’s not the kind of climb you just rip off in a couple of hours. Rather, it’s the kind of climb that might best be described as “intimidating” and “overwhelming”.

To our delight, this morning, after we’d been hiking for only a couple of hours, we came across our good friends Sarge and Stump breaking camp! We’d thought they were a day or more ahead of us, but it turns out they were a lot closer than that, and the coincidence of an early start for us and a late start for them let us see them. It was great to reunite, once at their camp, and once at the top of Mather Pass. It turns out we just missed Dilly and Dally up there, too — apparently they mooned us from the top, but we were too far away to see properly. Hopefully, we’ll run into them again soon, too. We’re really hoping for a big reunion at Vermilion Valley Resort, our next rest stop in a few days.

Coming off of Mather Pass, we faced a section of trail we’d known well from the John Muir Trail: the dreaded Golden Staircase. The Golden Staircase is about 3,000′ of ascent, much of it via stairs built into the trail by trail crews. (These are stairs made out of big rocks they’ve moved into the trail and hewn to work like stairs.) At first, it might sound like stairs are a good thing, because they do make ascending easier than it’d be without them. But they actually aren’t, because trail crews only make stairs (which are a ton of work to create) when they have no other option — i.e., the trail is so steep that they have to. So it’s called the Golden Staircase because it’s steep and long…not two things any hiker really looks forward to.

But wait! We did the Golden Staircase on the John Muir Trail when we were headed southbound, and, of course, we’re headed northbound on the PCT. This means we were going down the staircase…much better, right? Well…definitely better, but far from great. Heading down for that much time just destroys your knees, making you actually, genuinely yearn for some uphill. It was pretty rough on us, and we were really grateful to reach our campsite this evening.

Going back through this trail that we remember is a bit of a trip, too: while I of course don’t remember the entire thing or anything close to it, I’ll sometimes look over and recognize one particular spot where perhaps we stopped to have lunch, or a waterfall that seems very familiar, or the vista from a certain point. It’s weird doing it all in reverse, and on “turbo mode” — we’re doing nearly twice as many miles per day as we did on the JMT.

But I’m glad we got that first crack at all of this, too, because it means that when it gets overcast and rainy — as it did for much of this afternoon — I don’t feel that bad about not seeing things in perfect light, because we already saw so many of them on that trip. This trip, we can appreciate what does happen to come our way, and use our memories for the rest.

In fact, more than anything, I’m excited to see something new, once we reach Tuolumne Meadows in another week or so and are off to sections of trail I’ve once again never been on before. In the mean time, we’re headed north at an impressive clip. And…best of all, a good friend of mine from home will be meeting us at VVR to hike with us for a bit! It’s going to be a true joy to see him again, and to get a chance to feel a little connection with the “outside world” like that. It truly should be wonderful.

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