Hopkins Pass to McGee Pass, John Muir Wilderness

John Muir Wilderness Backpack 
Just under 50 mile moderate 5 day backpack with an approximately 2 mile section of off trail travel. 

“The Curse Of McGee”

“OW! #@*&a;!!!!!”
Upon hearing his oath, I spun and quickly surveyed Gary to see what injury he had incurred.   Asking him if he was okay, and quickly assessing him head to toe, I was instantly relieved not to see blood spurting out, or bones sticking up anywhere.   Gary had slipped down a steep little section of creek bank on slick wet granite while filling his water bottles, but seemed perfectly fine. I complacently turned back to what I was doing … I wouldn’t be so complacent later.

Ever wonder if you got “way out there” and got hurt, what you would do?   How resourceful would you be?   How would you get out of there?   Well, we got to find out one backpack trip in Aug of 2005.   Off trail in the John Muir Wilderness of California, Gary tore the meniscus on the inside of his left knee.   For those who have been unlucky enough to do this, it can be an excruciating and incapacitating injury.

A meniscus tear is a common knee injury.   The meniscus is a rubbery, C-shaped disc that cushions your knee.   Each knee has two menisci (plural of meniscus) one at the outer edge of the knee and one at the inner edge.   The menisci keep your knee steady by balancing your weight across the knee.   A torn meniscus can prevent your knee from working right.   And a meniscus injury is definately not one you want to have happen in the backcountry of the High Sierra, miles from your car and civilization.

Most trips for us are begun on the west side of the Sierra.  Not for any other reason than that the drive to a trailhead is much shorter for us since we live west of the Sierra.    However, simply because we usually do start on the westside, this trip we decided to take a much longer jaunt in the car over to the eastside so that we could journey up trailheads we had never previously explored.    After studying my maps exhaustively, I presented three potential trips to Gary to look over and decide upon.   And he picked the one that was my first choice as well.   We were all set.   By the night before we left,  maps were made on my computer with our trip highlighted in yellow.   We packed all our food, repackaging everything in baggies so as to fit more supplies in less space per usual.   Checklists were checked and double checked because if you suddenly remember twenty miles down the trail that you forgot something like TP or your toothbrush, there is no running over to your local 7-11.  You just do without!

And, we had a dusy of a trip planned!  The first day would be on trail, then the next day in the area of Big McGee Lake, we would detour around the lake and make our way up a cliff face that would potentially have a very old use trail to help us navigate…and if not, then map and compass would be our guides.  Once on top of the cliff, we planned on camping for the night, then heading down into Hopkins Lake Basin…a lovely spot in the Sierra we had seen a few pics of and gazed at on the map countless times but had never been to.   From Hopkins Lake Basin, we had a very high mileage trip planned that would take us on and off the John Muir Trail as we explored various basins and lakes traveling in a big giant loop North and then East back to our car.   All told, our trip would be close to 100 miles.   Best laid plans…

We actually were able to leave town the night before after packing.  And we got as far as the middle of crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains before making a late hasty car camp.  Early in the morning we had our last civilized breakfast, donned our packs in the trailhead parking lot and taking one last look in the car to make sure we left absolutely nothing in the car that had any scent to attract bears, we locked up and headed up the trail.

We shared the trailhead with a pack station called McGee Creek Pack Station,  thus we followed a well made and marked trail for the first part of the morning.  Many backpackers bemoan having to share the trails with horsepackers as horses turn the dirt to fine dust that coats everything as you hike, but,  horse packers also spare nothing in clearing trails and they leave beautifully maintained clear trails to hike on.  So, we enjoyed an easily navigated trail all the way to our first lake, Steelhead lake.   Here we doffed our packs and set up camp for the evening on a tiny little bluff above the lake… far enough to get us the required few hundred feet from the lakeshore…a requirement standard in most parks and national forests made in an effort to leave the fragile lakeshore ecosystem intact and enjoyable for all those who follow…and high enough off the lake to get us a bit of late afternoon sun.  That first night was not the most spectacular campsite as I prefer wide open views, but, we had the place to ourselves which created quite an idyllic spot to unwind.  First night camps are often not the best, as it can take a day or so to reach the true high country, but anytime out in the backcountry by yourselves is always quite special!

In the morning sun, we dried our gear which is usually a little wet from dew, and headed on up the trail again.   I don’t remember this piece of trail having a whole lot of uphill…but there must have been some as I remember being very grateful for a nice granite bench midmorning to drop my pack on and slowly sink down for a rest!   Before long though we had reached our jumping off spot …Big McGee Lake.  We wound our way slowly around the north shore, stopping frequently to try and guess where we’d be climbing up the wall on the opposite side.

 

Somewhere on the left wall, we’d be climbing over…

It often seems so impossible, that there is actually a way to get up to the top when you are looking at what appears to be quite vertical cliffs.  Somehow though, as you get closer, the cliffs soften and start appearing less steep, and eventually your route presents itself as quite doable.  We were however in suspense quite some time as we  had to get around Big McGee and then another smaller tiny little lake just up canyon from Big McGee before we could find our path.

Big McGee Lake

Eventually though, we were around the water and bending our necks back staring up at the top of the cliffs.  Then, as luck would have it, we actually managed to find a bit of the old use trail to start us off.   So we started climbing.    Old “use trails” are not nearly so nicely engineered as latter day trails that have been dynamited and engineered exquisitely.    No, use trails are just that…used spots in the terrain.

A bit of old use trail on Hopkin’s Pass

 

Signs of another traveler in McGee…

One person…perhaps an early native american…or maybe an animal, explored their way up a cliff or mountain.  Then another person perhaps followed that first person’s occasional footprints.  And eventually, there is a bit of a worn path where fragile alpine plants give up the battle, and rocks get kicked out of the way, and dirt packs down by years of being stomped on.   There often is not much tell tale sign of the path except intermittent dirt patches well packed down while often there is a fairly decent albeit narrow dirt trail to show you the way.  The trail we found on this day’s journey was somewhere in the middle.  There were obvious worn pieces of path…and then spots where we ran out of trail, like a game trail petering out,  causing us to stop and scratch our heads as we looked high and low to see if we somehow wandered off the trail or if it was still up ahead and we just needed to locate it.  And not being an engineered trail with long switchbacks to save your legs, this trail was steep with narrow short switchbacks necessitating we rest our burning calve and thigh muscles frequently.  All the while, we both kept silent watch on a steep overhead cornice that we were just hoping upon hope would not block our path with an impassable sheer vertical block of ice right at the top!

 

Hopkin’s Pass Cornice, looked more passable the closer we got 

Finally though we got right up to the bottom edge of the cornice and Lo and Behold….a final switchback taking us off to the side of the cornice and over the top of Hopkins Pass!  YEA!  Once on top we dropped our packs to enjoy the fruits of our labors and savor the view and some well deserved snacks!

 

Dee (top) and Gary (bottom) enjoying the well desrved view!
 
 

It was once we headed down off  south side of the saddle we were on that we started following the creek Gary was destined to meet.   Passing Upper Hopkins Lakes, the saddle fed into a wide shallow bowl with Hopkins Creek running roughly down the middle.   Stopping to fill our water bottles, depleted after the climb…is when Gary slipped on the slick granite and tore his knee.  It would only be after we got home to a Dr that we would realize the extent of the damage.   But, the pain and swelling let us know right away that something was amiss, and we used our bandanas to create a makeshift support wrap. Erroneously  figuring a good night’s sleep would fix his knee right up, we searched for a camping spot for the night.   Lower Hopkins Lake had been our destination, however, the downhill hike to the lake was out of the question, so we found another idyllic little spot at the edge of the trees and enjoyed our view of the lovely meadows around us.  In the morning, Gary’s knee was no better.  Darn!  Now faced with a decision…we tossed around our options. First off, we could turn around and go back the way we came.  Problem was, though we had actually come up a pretty nice use trail, it was a steep climb with a little bit of negotiating. Also…no backpacker likes to backtrack! And…no backpacker likes to jettison a trip.  I would have supported Gary in whatever decision he made though, but he chose to continue.  Like I said, we had no idea his knee was as damaged as it was til much later, or we might have chosen a different option.  We just kept thinking his knee would improve “the next day.”   So, we looked at our maps and weighed the trail options.  Our original trail of 100+ miles, partially off trail, was OUT! However, there were shorter versions of our trip available that would keep us now on maintained trails. So, we packed up and headed off down to intersect the Mono Creek Trail…and from there, to hike on out to the John Muir Trail.     As we hiked on, our days were slow now, as Gary was very careful not to twist or turn his knee.  Nights, his knee was propped carefully on his extra clothes.  Every morning his knee was wrapped with bandanas.  And, after breakfast and packing, Gary hobbled down the trail with walking stick in hand to lean on.  Creek crossings were extremely problematic as slick stones present challenges for non handicapped hikers.  But, we managed to make headway.  Once on the John Muir Trail we made better time and hiked steadily north ignoring all side trails.  Bemoaning our inability of doing any off trail exploration or side trips, yet still we were thrilled to be in the High Sierra Backcountry!  We enjoyed Pocket Meadow and a favorite secret campsite just south of Silver Pass

Dee enjoying our secret spot south of Silver Pass

and camping near the John Muir Trail before dropping down towards Tully Hole, a deep grassy seemingly enclosed bowl. We were amazed not to run into any other hikers for days. After oohing and ahing over a huge wasp nest on the trail,

Wasp “Paper” Nest

we continued down the trail and entered Tully Hole. Tully Hole and Horse Heaven pastures evoke images of trappers and native americans spending long ago summer days using the Tully for conditioning their stock.  Letting them graze on the tall sweet grasses as they set their traps,  made arrowheads from obsidian flints and sat around campfires laughing and telling tall tales.   As it turns out, Tully Hole is not the enclosed bowl it first appears to be,  it actually has three trail accesses…the John Muir Trail South and the John Muir Trail north….and the route we took out to the East and McGee pass.  The next section of trail was clearly seldom traveled, and in the next couple of days as we headed East towards McGee pass, we would wonder why not!   A more diversified terrain you won’t find in the Sierra.  More solitude you won’t find.  And we were priviledged to travel by extremely beautiful lakes, meadows and plateaus on our journey back out of the backcountry.

Climbing out of Tully Hole we climbed from 9,500 feet at Tully Hole to elev to 11,900 feet at McGee Pass, also known as Red Slate Pass.  Along the way, we passed an obvious spot Native Americans had stopped in their travels routinely as there were tons of obsidian chips and a few arrowheads littering the ground.

Should you be lucky enough to find this lovely spot too, please leave the arrowheads for the next lucky hiker to ooh and ah over!

Somewhere before McGee pass Gary’s knee was really bothering him.  We spied a lovely little peak with a flat spot on top just big enough for a groundsheet and bags, and incredible views…and a nice little stream below.   After going back and forth on whether we should take advantage, we finally decided to take the rest of the day off here… one of only a handful of days we’ve ever taken as a layover day.  We just could not march through this lovely spot enjoying it only for the few minutes it took to get from one side to the other.  As it turned out, we made the best decision, for in the morning we entered the lovely, but austere and rocky McGee Pass and canyon area.

The lovely but austere and inhospitable McGee canyon area

It would be awhile before we had views again like what we had had…except on the pass itself.  Even still, the trail was absolutely stunning the next day as it wound in and out and around the McGee Pass area…but would not have made the most hospitable camping spot. And, Gary had really needed the rest for his knee, so we had been wise to take a half day the day before as pain was his constant companion, and the care it takes to navigate the backcountry while injured had been taking it’s toll.

Once over McGee pass, Gary and I enjoyed the wild volcanic colors and the twisting and turning trail and actually made pretty good time. This might have contributed to Gary’s downfall later on….

As we were getting closer to the car, perhaps a half mile away, Gary suggested I hurry on to the car and open it up and cool it off so he could get comfortable soon as he got there. I didn’t see the warning signs. I had watched him struggling with the pain and trying to keep his knee immobile as much as possible and just figured he was drained. In reality, Gary had something much more serious going on.  But, not realizing this, and knowing we were following a well marked path we had been on a few short days before, I left him to hike out as he asked, and I sped on down the trail to the car.  The car was insufferably hot having been sitting in the hot sun all day.  But by the time Gary arrived, the car was open and windows down and the hatch up so he could take off his pack and sit a bit.  I got excited when I saw him, and told him I had everything ready…but my excitement turned to a fear that twisted my guts when I looked at his face.  His glazed eyes and pasty skin made it clearly obvious he was on his last reserves and was not doing well.  With his not very maneuverable knee, Gary had slipped once again in a final creek crossing just short of the parking lot and twisted his knee all over again.   It is a testament to his innate determination that he was able to get back to the car on his own!   I helped him get his pack off and fall back into the back of the car to sit a minute and recover.

It was then his eyes rolled up in his head and he left me!  The parking lot was empty except for a carful of 3-4 college aged kids,  and I yelled at them to come help me.  By the tone in my voice, they knew to come on the run.  As soon as they got there I started telling them what I needed them to do.   I honestly did not know at this point if Gary was alive or not, but as terror stricken as I was, my years of telling others what to do in medical emergencies took over and I gave them exact directions.  We got Gary out of the car and laying flat on the pavement.  I prevented them from putting clothes or anything else under his head and explained that I worked at 911 and needed him flat with his head tilted back, and then I started checking for breathe.  It was then that I saw it….a little flutter of an eyelid.  At this point,  I just did not care what those kids were thinking or how personal a moment this was for us when I was telling Gary to stay with me!   Finally,  he opened his eyes and looked at me and I knew I had him back.

I don’t know who those kids were, but without their help, I don’t know what would have happened as Gary was in a pretty dire straits and needed  his airway opened up by tilting his head  back, so I will always be grateful for their help!   They waited a few minutes to make sure all was okay with us and we thanked them profusely, and they went on their way.  By this time, Gary had managed to get in the passenger seat of the car and we started driving down out of the mountains.   We discussed seeking immediate medical help,  but Gary said he really just needed food.  So we stopped at a favorite stopping place of our’s,  “Whoa Nellie’s Deli,” and had steak salads before heading on home.  As it turns out, we should have seeked medical attention, for we later found that Gary had had a blood clot from his injury that had caused the later problems!  When we got home, the Doctor Gary saw immediately put him on blood thinners for 3 months and diagnosed the meniscus tear.    In hindsight, though we thought we were being conservative in our actions…we had risked all to complete our trip.  We ended up making a 9 day trip into 5 and cut 100 miles of on and off trail travel down to 50 miles of all on trail travel.  But, if we had it to do over again, we would be even more conservative and most certainly hike out the fastest route we could possibly find and abort the trip in seeking medical attention….maybe….:)

Don’t let our experience in McGee scare you off…the  phenomenal beauty of this area justifies visiting!

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