Mineret Lake to the Ediza/Garnett lake junction cutoff ~ 13.8 miles, 3000 feet of elevation change
Cutoff junction to “Whirlpool campsite” ~ 9 miles
On the third day of walking under grey skies as we listened to the applause of the thunderous clouds, we had begun to grow weary of the storm that refused to stop following us. Are those clouds with all that noisy applauding cheering us on or taunting us?
The day before, we walked through cloud bursts, sun bursts, and chilly air intermixed throughout the day. Despite a long day under cold and wet conditions, I was impressed with the kid’s attitudes. They hiked and chatted and played trail games. No complaining. Just continued excitement for the accomplishment of this JMT goal.
This third day of hiking, the sun won out for center stage for the morning, lightening the mood as we hadn’t had that much sun since the trip started. We easily reached the pass and enjoyed a flower lined trail all the way down to Garnett lake. By the time we reached the bridge to cross the outlet of the lake, we felt our first raindrops and paused just long enough for one photo. On we climbed up the pass to drop down into Thousand Island lake where the clouds were even thicker, limiting us to a short twenty-minute break to eat a snack and snap another photo.
Our goal was a stealth camping spot positioned about one and a half miles south of Donahue pass that we had discovered two years earlier. This spot had quickly won our hearts that year as the warm, sunny skies of our time there highlighted the massive peaks that surrounded us in a magnificent 360 degree view. Listening to the kids describe this spot made me smile, realizing that these moments were memorable to them too. They had nicknamed the spot “whirlpool” and began to reminisce about it as we narrowed the gap between ourselves and our resting spot for the night.
“I just loved that campsite! Tons of slab!” Cade said.
“Remember how I discovered that whirlpool after soaking my blisters in the stream? We sat there for hours and watched pinecones, twigs, and bugs get sucked into that whirlpool! I can’t wait to see it again!” Bekah added.
It had been two years since we were there last as evidenced by their longer legs and their unstoppable hiking pace (Cory and i could not keep up with them!) Taller, faster, and more efficient at setting up camp yet still completely captivated by this unplugged place. I started to realized that perhaps these deeply shared memories is what was creating the cordial chatter between these two siblings that seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time rivaling against each other when at home or in past years on the trail. These deep roots, created together, revealed the beautiful strands that wove an intricate fabric of sibling bonding.
And more bonding was in store at the memorable whirlpool site and that is what lured them forward in an excited pace, to reconnect with a fun memory. The dark clouds also pushed our pace and allowed us to arrive at camp by 1:30, famished but before any rain fell. Four and a half hours was a record pace for clicking off over nine miles. Long legs and dark clouds could really do wonders to speed away trail miles. The gorgeous scenery of these special nine miles also made the day go fast, too fast really. It was the kind of scenery that we wished we could have dawdled through. These storm clouds were starting to really get on our nerves.
As we ate, the clouds gathered up the final momentum they needed to unleash the first clap of thunder, cutting even our lunch short. No resting allowed. Like a well oiled machine, the kids got busy setting up their tent. Things happened fast, not allowing time for directive conversation. The rain began slowly but heavy enough to motivate my retreat into the tent. Cory hung around by the stream, getting water but this storm was picking up momentum fast. The winds got stronger and the rain began to pelt our tents. Suddenly, Cory was at the tent’s door, unzipping and squirming in.
“It’s getting too wet out there! I need to come inside!” he said, dragging into my dry sanctuary mud and wet puddles.
“Really?” I asked squirming away from him to stay dry and resuming my journaling. No sooner had I looked down to start writing did a flash of lightening race through the sky followed within moments by deafening thunder.
“Woah, that was close!” I said with a furrowed brow. “Are we OK here?” I asked thinking about our location on the edge of the forest, on a plateau halfway up Donahue Pass.
“Yeah, we’re fine.” But just then, another flash accompanied, simultaneously by a thunderous explosive boom, brought forth torrential rains and Bekah’s fearful cries.
“Daddy!! DADDDY!! I’m so scared!” We barely could hear her screams even though we were only less than ten feet away as the thunder crashed and the rain pelted the ground with such ferocity that all other sounds were drowned out.
“Hunny, it’s OK. We will be fine!” we called out to her. The rain was flowing so heavy that it would have been dangerous to let her get out of her tent to come to ours as she would have gotten soaked and chilled. With hypothermia being a number one killer in the mountains, we knew our priority was keeping everyone as dry as possible so we hunkered down and waited for the storm to lighten up. Nearly 45 minutes passed before we sensed a subtle let up in the rain, allowing us to let the kids quickly escape their tent to enter our small two-man tent.
And that is how we remained, cramped in our little tent, the four of us trying to find a place for all our legs and arms to rest as we waited for an indeterminate amount of time for the storm to pass. Thunder crashed as the lightening hit all the surrounding peaks. The cell was right over our heads, producing hail and mini rivers that were flowing under our tent, creating mini puddles on our tent floor. We laid every one of our egg crate pads down to create a dry space between the tent floor and our bodies, again, doing what we could to stay dry.
Despite the dampness and chill in the air, listening to the kids recount their time alone in their tent warmed my heart a bit. “Oh mama, I was so scared I was just clinging to Cade and he kept saying to me, ‘It’s going to be Ok Bekah. We will be fine. It’s going to be OK.” I looked at Cade, the older brother who can’t keep his hands to himself as he taunts his younger sister, just quietly smiled as he caught my eye. “What a great kid!” I thought. I smiled back at Cade.
“Are your sleeping bags wet guys?” I asked them, knowing that when the storm hit it was too loud to yell out reminders to them. We sat helplessly in our tent hoping they were making good decisions. Their response reminded me that in a blink of an eye they weren’t the 9 and 11 year olds they were the last time we stayed at “whirlpool” campsite.
“Oh yeah, my bag is dry. I stuffed all my clothes and sleeping bag in my plastic liner bag and then put that in my backpack.” Bekah assured us. And Cade had followed suit. They kept all their items in the center of the tent, avoiding the wet walls. And they did all this without one reminder from us. Just like mini-pros. And they cuddled up together to keep warm and to feel safe.
Later I’d learn that despite Cory’s seemingly confident air that we were going to be fine, he too felt a bit nervous at how close this storm was hitting. Lightening is unpredictable and being in tents does not offer an ounce of protection. Only about 60 folks die a year from lightening strikes, but nearly 600 suffer injuries from lightening strikes each year. Only five people have died in the Yosemite National park area over the last 100 years. Still, if you happen to be one of those five, then the statistics matter not at all.
During the four hours we hunkered down in our tent, the storm remained strong. Storms generally are shorter than this one was, but it decided to hang out on this gorgeous ridge, showing off it’s might for hours while we killed the time with some readings of Mma Ramotswe and games of Blackjack. Probably due to a bit of claustrophobia, I felt a bit light headed towards hour three and tight in my chest. The rain had lessened a bit and I had to get some fresh air so I braved the elements and darted for a tree. Even with the shelter of the branches, I was getting wet and chilled and realized I needed to go back into my cave. Would this go on into the night and into the next day? How long is this going to last?!
Cory decided to make us dinner which was so kind of him to do. “Hey, we can just eat a cold dinner – lunch stuff. Really, it’s OK! Stay dry!” we all said to him in various ways. Perhaps he just needed out of the stuffy confines of the grey tent too, because despite our pleas, he disappeared into the rain to make dinner. It was so wonderful to eat warm food a half our later and mid dinner, the rain let up to a mere sprinkle, prompting my evacuation of the tent. Within a few minutes, the rain had stopped completely and a bright rainbow formed against the eastern dark black sky. Overhead, blue sky began to crowd out the black clouds and for 10 minutes, the sun shone through the clouds before disappearing behind the ridge for the night. “The sun has come!” I sang loudly with both my hands thrown high in the air.
It turned into a lovely evening, with beautiful pink clouds swirling with blue sky. It was as dramatic as the storm had been. We began to investigate the area and went over to the famous whirlpool section of the stream. We had talked about this quaint attraction off and on for the past two years but the storm had swelled this little stream into a raging river. It had risen from an ankle deep stream to a mid-thigh high river, pouring over the whirlpool spot in a raging waterfall. All the streams were flowing hard. We learned the next day in talking with people we’d pass on the trail that the river had risen four to five feet in sections, overflowing onto the trail and making some areas impassable.
We went to bed that night warm and safe knowing that if the next morning was not a blue bird, cloudless day, we’d hike out to Tualamne and catch the YARTS back to our truck instead of continuing all the way to Happy Isle. We needed some time to dry out and relax as this trip had been nothing short of a sprint every day as we tried to beat the storms that raged.