On Day 3 we awoke to cloudy skies, but fortunately it made for a wonderful sunrise over Darwin Bench and The Hermit. Our day included a lot of mileage, but less than two miles with a full pack on our back. After sunrise, breakfast, and packing up, we picked our way down the John Muir Trail, a mere few hundred feet and short scramble/use trail trek below our campsite. Upon connecting with the JMT Freeway we turned south towards Evolution Lake.
At Evolution Lake, we made our way to my favorite campsite area and set up under clearing blue skies. It was warm and sunny and the campsite was perfect, overlooking Evolution Valley. I’ve stayed here before and knew what we had ahead of us come sunset. After setting up an enjoying a break we reorganized ourselves for a long dayhike and took off for Muir Pass.
Muir Pass is at the head of Evolution Basin, about six miles from our campsite. It’s a nice and gentle hike through the Basin, and I was looking forward to going through in this direction having come through in the opposite direction in 2006. Above us, clouds and sun battled for dominance, but nothing looked especially threatening as we climbed – most of the clouds were too thin to turn into any kind of storms in a short period of time. My Sierra experience told me we had plenty of time to make the pass and get back towards camp before anything really happened. Yeah, I should have listened to that one little voice in the back of my head that said, “hey, it’s the Sierra, stupid. Anything can happen.”
We enjoyed the beautiful hike past Sapphire Lake, then Wanda Lake. Every once in a while we’d be bathed in sunlight, then a cloud would move in and shade us again for a while. The sky had been behaving this way for quite a while, so when I felt a couple of drops when I was a few switchbacks below the Pass it caught me off guard. It wasn’t like I wasn’t expecting it to rain eventually, I was just surprised it was starting already. It stopped in seconds so I figured it was nothing. And it didn’t rain again – no, a few seconds later it started to hail. Great. The clouds still weren’t too dark – it most definitely didn’t look stormy. Being close to the pass, I scurried up the last few switchbacks and found shelter in the most welcome Muir Hut at the Pass.
The terrain around Muir Pass is one of the most exposed areas on the John Muir Trail, and the Muir Hut was built in the 30s by the Sierra Club as an emergency shelter. I’ve been told you’re not a true Sierra backpacker until you’ve ridden out a storm in the Muir Hut, so I’m happy to say I’ve finally achieved that milestone.
The hail and rain was on and off as we sat in the hut and chatted with other backpackers. We felt the temperature drop, and when I eventually poked my head out the clouds had darkened. NOW it looked stormy. Remember, we were dayhiking from camp, so we didn’t have our full backpacking kit. We had our basic insulation and rain layers, some snacks, and basic emergency gear. But our warm sleeping bags, cook gear and hot food, and shelter were back in camp at Evolution Lake, six miles away.
Dark clouds would roll off of Goddard Divide and into Evolution Basin one after another, broken up briefly by patches of lighter sky. As we sat in the Hut we discussed two major points: 1, we wanted to get back to camp before dark. Although we’d set off around noon with more than enough daylight for our 12-mile dayhike, we were burning a lot of time sitting in the Hut doing nothing. We had headlamps, but camp meant dry clothes, a warm sleeping bag and tent, and hot food. I didn’t want to put that off too long. And 2, although it was cold and hailing, it was not actually storming – there was no lightning and only light distant thunder. Around 3:00 David decided to head out. Pavla and I followed at about 3:30. Even if we got cold and wet and miserable on the six miles back to camp, we’d be comfortable once we got there. We realized that sitting around in the Hut, although dry, wasn’t getting us anywhere and we were getting cold by sitting still.
So we ran down Muir Pass into Evolution Basin. It was lightly hailing but for the most part, it was fine. The air temperature had dropped, but the jogging/fast hiking along with the hail bouncing off of me kept me warm and relatively dry (but OUCH those pea-sized hails HURT when they smack into bare skin! Yes I was in shorts). But then there was a flash. I turned around to ask Pavla if that was what I thought it was and she was already counting. Five seconds until the thunder, I think. A mile away. Not good. We were somewhere in between Lake McDermand and Wanda Lake. For those of you familiar with Evolution Basin, this is NOT a place you want to be in a lightning storm. Exposed with nowhere to hide.
We booked down towards the somewhat lower terrain near Wanda Lake and found a protective wall of boulders to hide among. It started hailing harder, but we were a bit above the lake and the slushy puddles, and had stashed the conductive poles and materials. Luckily, we only saw a couple more bolts of lightning – seven seconds, then nine. The storm was moving away from us – from Goddard Divide into the Darwin Range. And behind the storm we could see lighter colored sky. We decided to keep moving, but not before Pavla took this video of us getting pelted with hail.
While we had waited, about two inches of hail/snow had fallen, so the rest of the hike was through deep slush. My feet got soaked. But somewhere between Wanda and Sapphire Lakes the lighter sky made it above us and we felt the wonderful sun on our backs again. It was absolutely magical. The bright sun breaking through the clouds made the snow-covered terrain glow and colors in the rock and plants pop. The storm was still hanging over the Darwin Range, wreaking its havoc on the area we had been in the previous day. The only footprints in the snow were ours and I felt like the only person in the world. It was an incredible, memorable experience. The Sierra once again reminded me how wild and unpredictable she is, and luckily it was with a relatively mild fall storm.
Back at camp we had some time to dry out. It was clear to us that a cold front had come through and pushed out the weather system that had been hanging over us for the three previous days. By sunset the skies were free of clouds and it was colder than the previous nights even though we were at the same altitude. We enjoyed an amazing sunset over Evolution Valley, bathing Darwin and Mendel in a gorgeous orange glow, and then headed to bed dry, warm, and happy.