If the High Sierra holds treasure, the Rae Lakes are sparkling gems that find their way into our dreams and whisper to us would-be treasure hunters to come find them. The lakes aren’t the kind of treasure you can hold in your hand, or take with you; instead you hold them in your heart and leave them for others to be amazed by. I’ve passed by the Rae Lakes on several trips, and been close enough on others that I often thought about them. Doing this 43 mile loop as a self supported run has been something I’ve wanted to do for years. There’s something about the difficulty that heightens the experience. It was finally time. There’s a very small and select group of people I know who are down for adventure, so I put the feelers out, and we made it happen. That’s what we do!
Destination: Rae Lakes Loop
Trail Head: Road’s End
Distance: ~43 miles round trip, ~7600 ft cumulative elev gain
Remoteness: Usual crowd on JMT/PCT
Motivation: Do a challenging loop with the beautiful Rae Lakes as the centerpiece
My Gear and Clothing Used
Shoes: La Sportiva Akasha
Running Vest: Ultimate Direction PB 2.0
Water Filtration: Sawyer Mini Filter with squeeze bag
Hydration: 2x 20oz bottles
Headlamp: Bosavi (finally broke it, time for a Zebra Light)
Shorts: Patagonia Strider Pro
Gaiters: Dirty Girls
Trekking Poles: Didn’t use (should have brought them)
Camera: Sony RX100
It’s Go Time! Sep 8, 2018
Only a few weeks off running the Ute 100, and just a couple of weeks into the school semester, I’m feeling the pull of the mountains. Neither Dan or I could remember just how we ended up deciding to do this, but we both agreed that seeking adventure was good enough of a reason. Dan drove down to my place from Truckee on Friday afternoon, and we jumped in the car to make the long drive to Road’s End. Some hours later, and after a stop for dinner at the School House Tavern, we rolled up to the familiar dark trailhead to cowboy camp by the car. It wasn’t too late, maybe 8:45, but still really warm outside, upper 70’s. That wasn’t a good omen; hell with it though, we were stoked!
5:00 AM is a very decent time to wake up; we threw down some quick breakfast and coffee, did a last minute gear check, stowed the food and beer in the bear lockers at the trailhead, then set out for whatever experience the day had in store for us. You never know what you’re going to get when you strap all your food, layers, and gear on your back, and your running shoes on your feet to do something tough – but you know it’s going to be an experience that demands you to be present!
This loop starts at about 5,000 ft elevation, and climbs to 12,000 ft. Dan and I decided to do the loop counter clockwise, which seems to be the preferred direction for runners due to the longer, more gradual downhill on the opposite side of Glen Pass. As we made our way up the switchbacks where the climbing first begins, the mosquitoes descended on us. I was a bit surprised that this late into the season they were still out in force. The temperatures were quickly warming though, and that was a bit concerning, blood suckers be damned. Making the climb from Road’s End to Glen Pass while it’s cool is the obvious preference. Beating any potential thunderstorms is also a necessity. It was getting hot by the time we hit the exposed area around the Charlotte Lake junction; I was getting real uncomfortable.
Getting up to the pass was the usual slog. The early day heat made it a solid stretch of getting our asses handed to us. It doesn’t help that the section between 10,000 and 12,000 feet is entirely exposed. Finally we got up there, running low on water by then. As I sat there on a rock, a guy walked up from the other side of the pass and said hi to a few of us that were up there. I looked at him, and instantly recognized him… “Andy?!” I said, is that you? We hadn’t seen each other in over 12 years. I tend to be the type of person who meets a lot of people, I just enjoy making connections, so it’s not unusual that I run into people. Running into them on high mountain passes is a little random though, even for me! Ok, I did bump into Andrew Miller in an even more remote backcountry location, after he won Western States a couple years ago; that was also odd. I guess the backcountry is where you go to find good people. Seems legit. Anyway, we talked for a few, then agreed to meet each other there again in 12 years. I will try Andy, just hold up your end buddy!
As we crunched down the talus on the other side, Dan and I both felt the wobble in our legs. Big step up’s and step down’s become the theme, and it’s punishing on the quads. The lakes greeted us with restoring energy of their cool water, and just enough shade to have a quick lunch before setting out again. Fin Dome keeps watch over the lakes basin, a behemoth stone guardian of ancient times. The water captures all the colors of emerald, turquoise, and sapphire. Gold sunlight glints off it as the breeze coaxes the glassy surface into a ripple. The King Spur rises toward the sky in the distance, a rugged wall of barren rock, contrasted against the rich beauty of the lakes. It’s hard to leave, but we have to keep moving. I will be back, I know I will.
The descent from the lakes is gradual, the downside to that is, we remain above 10,000 feet for miles. It’s not until mile 25 or so that we even break 9,000 ft – and it is HOT at that elevation. At the suspension bridge it feels like upper 80’s, maybe hotter. There’s doods in the river. There’s JMT hiker chicks in bikini’s. What the hell is going on?! The step-down’s and rocky trail continues to pound our legs, and my stomach is dancing around like it might flip flop at any minute. All I can think is “why is it so hot??”. Somehow, this downhill section wasn’t going as well as we had hoped; things were just starting to pile on. Reality had set in for both Dan and I that neither of us were recovered from the Ute. Who’s idea was this again?
We’d been chasing another group of runners all day. They had about an hour head start on us but we finally caught up with them. It turned out that we weren’t the only ones with bad great ideas! It’s always good to find like minded trail friends. They ended up getting back to the trailhead a little ahead of us as our pace slowed toward the end of the day. We were losing the light, and we also lost the trail for a good 15 minutes! Somehow we ended up on a spur trail that led to an area of blown down trees. We talked our weary legs into climbing over the downed trees, and then up the hill to get back on the trail after looking around unsuccessfully for a while. After that it just became a matter of one foot in front of the other, and swatting mosquitoes away again.
You have to be driven to do days like this, but equally as important, you have to have the right people. As we shuffled out, Dan and I talked about why we do it: to get out and see beautiful places, because things worth having are worth working for, because you have to seek out adventure it doesn’t come to you, because the feeling of success is that much richer after a tough day, and because the lessons we learn are lessons we can draw from on days that require us to reach inward. As hard as these days are, and as good as it is to finally see the end of the trail, that feeling is the fleeting one and it’s not long until we’re dreaming of the mountains again and of living a life rich with experience. We chose this, because we love it.
Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify. – Henry David Thoreau
Rose and Thorn
The thorn was the mental struggle that comes with realizing it’s not going as well as I had hoped. The realization that I was not fully recovered, not liking the heat, and that the trail was working my legs over, dampened my spirits at times. Remaining present and appreciative the gift I was experiencing was an imperative thing, and it took a little energy to reframe those negative thoughts. The rose (roses), of course, were the Rae Lakes. Such beauty that can restore your spirit. -JD