by Malcolm Macdonald, August 24, 2016
Three of us, the brother/sister team of Nick and E.B. along with yours truly, started our planned ninety-five mile trek on the John Muir Trail late in July. I can't remember leaving anyone behind on a backpacking trip before, but by the second morning it was pretty clear that the combination of a serious chest cold and nasty looking blisters were going to be too much for Nick to continue for another week and a half with no relief from the trail. He opted to turn around, hike up to near the top of Dusy Basin, camp a night there, then hike over Bishop Pass and down to our original trailhead at South Lake. Fortunately, Nick's car was the one we'd left at South Lake.
Starting late at 10:30 in the morning, E.B.and I switch backed our way down three miles or so to Le Conte Canyon and the John Muir Trail (JMT). From there we faced a four mile slog, ever upward, in the afternoon soon, hoping to get a campsite at Starr's Camp, located atop the steep drop into Le Conte Canyon. Starr's Camp is the next to last place to camp before ascending another four miles or so to 12,000 foot Muir Pass.
Starr's Camp provides for at least five tent sites tucked amid stunted lodgepole pines at a sharp bend in the trail. Northbound it would be easy to walk right by, the tent sites are more or less invisible from the beaten path, though only a couple hundred feet from a relatively shallow stream perfect for soaking your tired feet or dunking your entire body.
Starr's Camp is named for Walter “Pete” Starr, the author of the timeless Starr's Guide to the John Muir Trail, a volume compact enough for any hiker to carry with them. Pete Starr was an accomplished hiker, backpacker, and mountaineer of the 1920s and 1930s as well as a Stanford graduate and attorney in the firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro in San Francisco. Before he was thirty this disarmingly charming young man had spent his spare time successfully summiting at least forty prominent peaks in the Sierra and the French Alps. He disappeared in 1933 while climbing alone in the Minarets, a collection of sawtooth-topped peaks on the east side of the Sierra, not too many air miles from Mammoth Lakes. Missing in the Minarets, by William Alsup, is a compelling account of the search for Pete Starr. That search was defined by the dogged skills of fellow mountaineer Norman Clyde who refused to stop climbing and looking for Pete Starr even after everyone else had.
The equipment that Starr employed in the mountains of the Prohibition/Great Depression era was far different than today. He climbed without pitons or safety ropes. Whether backpacking or mountain climbing Pete Starr wore nothing more elaborate than tennis shoes. Those lightweight shoes didn't seem to hold Starr back. In one four and a half day hiking trip in the Sierra, he traveled more than 140 miles on foot.
While we trudged up from Le Conte Canyon at 8,740 feet toward Starr's Camp at 10,320 feet in elevation we were passed by a jogging summer ranger, asking on the fly if we'd encountered anyone in trouble just below Muir Pass. We answered that we were headed that way ourselves, but hadn't heard anything alarming from southbound hikers we'd met.
Summer rangers are posted in small cabins or tent cabin stations every twenty miles or so along the John Muir Trail (JMT). Usually arriving in June and staying until October (or the first heavy snowfall) they perform many thankless tasks, from picking up garbage to answering pointless questions from hikers who walk into the mountains without a map or a compass (E.B. and I possessed both) as well as providing lifesaving work for injured or hopelessly lost hikers and climbers.
A strikingly detailed book on the life of a longtime Sierra summer ranger named Randy Morgenson can be found in Eric Blehm's The Last Season. Morgenson, the son of an expert on all things in nature throughout Yosemite Valley, served as both a winter and summer ranger in the Sierra for about thirty years, including Le Conte Canyon along with stations just north and south. Morgenson was among the first to recognize the value of protecting the Sierra meadows from over-camping. Ironically, there are many similarities between Missing in the Minarets and The Last Season. After a lifetime in the Sierra as well as a nearly year long sojourn in the Himalayas, Randy Morgenson, legendary for finding and rescuing others in the High Sierra went missing himself in 1996.
Despite this confluence of doom in the Le Conte Canyon and Starr's Camp area E.B. and I pressed onward.
(More on the JMT later in the AVA. The author's website is: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)