Saturday, May 25, 2013

Rae Lakes Revisited

With a long weekend stretching out before us, Sierra and I could not resist the temptation to spend another weekend on the PCT. This time we headed for the Onion Valley Trailhead west of Independence. We planned to hike over Kearsarge Pass, join the PCT, follow the PCT over Glen pass, then glissade and hike to Rae Lakes.

Although Memorial Day weekend is a popular time for people to camp, hike, and fish, few people brave the snowy, high mountain passes so early in the season. We expected to have the trails mostly to ourselves. We were wrong.

We met our first hikers in the little town of Independence. French Toast and two other PCT hikers stood next to Onion Valley Road waiting for a ride. I quickly pulled over, and we somehow managed to cram five packs and hikers into my little Rav 4. French Toast and friends estimated that there are about ten other PCT hikers ahead of them on the trail, and a similar number who were either already at or just arriving at Kennedy Meadows when they left. But the herd is far behind, and probably won't arrive at Kennedy Meadows in droves for two or three more weeks.

Cars almost filled the small parking lot next to the trailhead, and were already beginning to park in the larger lot when we arrived. A few hikers dotted the trail, and we saw several more as we began hiking. Most were day hikers, although we saw a few hardy backpackers exiting after a nine day trip.

The hike to Kearsarge Pass was virtually snow free. Approaching Glen Pass, we started seeing patchy snow covering the trail about a mile before we reached the top. Long, spear-like icicles dangled from rocky cliffs, a testament to the enduring cold at the higher elevations.

Significant snow clung to the north side of Glen Pass. Unfortunately, the snow field, while covering a large area, was very thin, with rocks and boulders protruding through at regular intervals. Although we brought ice axes and were excited to glissade, the snowfield did not look safe for high speed sliding. We resigned ourselves to hiking down the steep, slushy snow, trying to follow the path of footprints set by those who came before us. Snowmelt seeped into our shoes, and an icy breeze chilled our fingers. When the snow occasionally petered out, we were left to scramble down wet, slippery rocks.

About a mile before we reached Rae Lakes, the trail was finally snow free. A few brave flowers poke through the sodden ground next to the trail, but prime wildflower season is yet to come. In the bright side, this means that prime mosquito season has not yet arrived either.

We reached Rae Lakes already chilled to the bone. We set up camp quickly, happy to slip into our warm down sleeping bags as soon as the sun slipped behind the western ridge.

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