In the chilly hours of morning we folded our tent, rolled our rain fly and gazed up toward the steep climb ahead. There are higher passes along the John Muir Trail (JMT) and starker elevation gains than the 1,660 foot rise between Starr's Camp and that summit, but Muir Pass is more than numbers. Atop it sits a hut dedicated to the man himself, John Muir. The lakes on either side of the pass, Wanda and Helen, are named for Muir's daughters. Hikers traveling from the north can see the hut, like a beacon, for well over a mile before they ever reach it. Unfortunately, the weather can change in that relatively short time, even in the heart of the summer, from blue skies to torrential downpour.
After my backpacking partner, E.B., and I reached the Muir hut around noon on the penultimate day of July, 2016, we encountered multiple long distance hikers who'd been caught in golf ball sized hail storms alongside Evolution Lake, a fate often worse than any rain short of a hurricane. As we hiked northward, beyond Wanda and Sapphire Lakes clouds hovered, but never thoroughly threatened. In fact the clouds gave way to a beating sun, as unforgiving as can be at 11,000 feet.
A word here about Helen and Wanda Lakes: actually a phrase, don't camp there. The Muir hut and the sibling lakes may sound endearing, but this area is nothing more than a rock strewn moonscape. Almost the entire Evolution Basin area, north of Muir Pass, a ten mile expanse of elongated lakes on granite, remains above 11,000 feet in elevation. Even at the northern extreme, the end of Evolution Lake, campsites are only forty feet below that benchmark elevation. If you're prone to altitude headaches or gut tightening heed the immortal words of that noted mountaineer Elmer Fudd, “Be wary, wary, wary.”
Let me put it in a more first person manner, I've found no finer location to dry heave at than the shoreline of Evolution Lake. Sun, over exertion, and elevation limited my entire supper menu on July 30th to a half cup of powdered milk mixed with water. Yes, that was after the dry heaves.
East of Evolution Basin. one can see from whence the name derives. Mount Huxley, Mount Mendel, and Mount Darwin all stand more than 13,000 feet above sea level. Mt. Darwin tops out at 13, 830.
Beyond, or more properly beneath, Evolution Lake and Basin the JMT descends amiably into Evolution Valley where the path lingers for miles beside Colby and McClure Meadows. For those seeking help, or those just wanting to seek reassurance, a back country ranger station rests on a slight knoll above McClure Meadow, still green in 2016 as July pushed into August.
In an earlier piece on the JMT I mentioned Eric Blehm's book, The Last Season, which focuses on long time back country ranger Randy Morgenson and his colleagues. One of those fellow rangers was George Durkee. His 1994 end of season report from McClure Meadow Ranger Station still exists. His overview concerning the summer long living quarters at McClure's ranger cabin includes, “A drought year. Came in June 10 via Florence Lake and found the cabin in good shape --no sign of any major mouse infestation over the winter with some evidence that a martin was checking the inside of the cabin occasionally... . Nonetheless, I used a backpack pump to spray the entire downstairs with a solution of Clorox and water. In spite of reassurances by the park safety officer regarding Hanta virus, the McClure cabin is a hazard due to a 50 year accumulation of mouse feces. Most of it is extremely difficult to get to because of wire mesh put up to prevent mice from getting into the cabin. The attic should now only be cleaned by someone in full Hazmat gear. I consider it unsafe and will not do it.”
Durkee goes on to make recommendations about the meadow itself, “This year I've pulled about 10 previous year end reports for the McClure area and did a literature review. Hard as it is to believe, each year shows some of the SAME recommendations for the area. It should be noted that 2 of us (Morgenson and myself) have each spent over a cumulative year (Randy 2 years!) in that area. There is one recommendation that stands out year after year (since Graban in 1977): 1) CLOSE MCCLURE MEADOW TO STOCK USE! (Graban, Gustafson, Durkee, Brennan, Scatteregia, Morgenson [fellow back country rangers]). "McClure Meadow is one of the most unique examples of an alpine meadow in the Sierra. Even after twenty years of fairly strict grazing regulations, it still shows much evidence of poor recovery... . in the summer heat--even a week after a stock party leaves--the entire meadow smells like a corral. [This] is a major source of complaints by hikers. (Durkee 1981) The National Park Service seems embarrassed to make management recommendations based on aesthetic grounds. Park visitors have an absolute right to view meadows in all stages of maturation: from the first green shoots to the 'knee-high grasses, ripe and open panicles drifting on the moving air, luminous-bronze in the backlight.' (Morgenson, 1989). They do not get this moving experience if the meadow has been browsed to [golf] putting green length and smells like a corral.”
Though the present day ranger at McClure Meadow was as friendly and helpful as Durkee or Morgenson the National Park Service does not move quickly or with complete environmental thoroughness. In 2016, a first glance at stock (primarily horses and mules) grazing regulations for McClure Meadow starts with the underlined phrase “Closed to grazing;” however, it continues with, “until Evolution and Colby Meadows reach capacity.” Essentially that means that when the two nearest meadows in Evolution Valley are grazed out, the same process can begin at McClure. The only concession to the decades old wishes of the rangers who know Evolution Valley best is that stock teams can spend just one day per trip eating down McClure Meadow.