Day 1: Lyell Canyon Trailhead to Rush Creek Crossing (15 miles via Donahue Pass)
Spirits were high, backpacks were heavy, the meadows were beautiful, blisters formed quickly, storms moved in, steep climbs and elevation gave me lead legs, ran into Ellie a friend from Berkley who was three months into the Pacific Crest Trail, electrical storms grew louder, cribbage in a tent for an hour, storms and moods cleared up, Donahue Pass was conquered, the Rush Creek basin glowed in the evening light, the trail down was long, hunger struck, the creek crossing was finally found, the mosquitoes attacked, and Annie’s Mac and Cheese with a foil pack of salmon saved the day.
Day 2: Rush Creek Crossing to Johnstown Meadows (15 miles via Island Pass)
“Was that the pass? Let’s get a group shot just in case?” … Five minutes later … “I think this mound is slightly higher, maybe it’s the actual pass. Lets take another photo.” And so it went for at least a half hour and alas no marker was ever found for the true highpoint. Island Pass is a gentle crest of sub-alpine environment dotted with small lakes and backdropped with a stunning vista of Banner Peak (12,936ft). I claimed the first swim of the trip with a plunge into Thousand Island Lake and was quickly joined by Kate and Sarah. Carl’s aversion to cold water was prominently displayed at this lake and numerous others during the trip. There’s are few things I have ever seen that man shrink away from in the out-of-doors, but cold water is his nemesis. Climb out of lake – drop down to lake – climb out of lake – drop down to lake and repeat for the rest of the day as we headed past Emerald, Ruby, Shadow, and Trinity Lakes. Swirling clouds and just enough five minute drizzles and hail bursts to necessitate taking rain layers and off numerous times. Johnston Meadows was at the bottom of a long wooded descent on loose soil that made for quick walking but a lack of views lead to no sense of progress as we continued to drop further and further down and the trail intersection was a welcome sight when finally reached. Sitting on a log above the river while dangling bare feet in the icy waters capped off the day, as did the Thai Chicken and Katmandu backpackers meals we ate with increasingly large spoonfuls as we passed the bags back and forth while swirling feet in the clear water.
Day 3: Johnston Meadow to Deer Creek (10 miles via Devils Postpile and Red’s Meadow)
Enjoyed a quick stop at the Minaret Falls overlook just below where we had camped before dropping a few miles down to Devils Postpile National Monument. We dropped packs and took the short loop trail around the Postpile itself. Informative signs informed us that the basalt columns were formed as lava cooled and shrunk. Distributing the resulting stress in the material in the most efficient way possible caused the lava to fracture into the exposed vertical hexagonal columns, a process known as columnar jointing. And thus began our group’s fascination with the geography of the Sierras, but informative signs were few and far between for the rest of the trip and our speculations were based on small tidbits of half recalled plate tectonics, glacial geology, and rock morphology. Please recommend any good books on Sierra geology that you know of. After Devils Postpile we made quick work of the trail to Red’s Meadow Resort and Pack Station. We sat down at the cafe with our friend Bruno, a Belgian engineer roughly our age who had chosen the JMT as his first backpacking trip and whom we had first met shivering in line for a permit in Yosemite. He informed us that his arrival at 3:00AM in the dark had let to a lonely few freezing hours hiding from glowing animal eyes and the cold in an all too smelly bathroom. We downed continually refilled cups of cheap muddy coffee while we somewhat patiently waited for 11:00AM when lunch would be served. Turkey club sandwiches for the whole table, followed by milkshakes that Sarah bought for as is traditional for one to do when everyone has forgotten that it is your birthday … oops, sorry bout that Sarah! Leaving Reds Meadow, the trail climbed through a burn area full of lush green ferns that caught the afternoon rays and lit up like neon lights against the backdrop of charred tree trunks. We camped two miles over the top of the climb at the Deer Creek. Directly across from our site was the swanky trail ride campsite and its amenities (table with tablecloth, cast iron pots, chairs, etc). Bruno found us in the late afternoon having hung behind at Reds to enjoy a second lunch. We all relaxed and played cards before cooking a dinner of mashed potatoes complete with a flower and dry pine twig with 23 burning needles for Sarah’s birthday. A raucous rendition of happy birthday closed out a perfectly enjoyable day.
Day 4: Deer Creek to Fish Creek (xx miles via the Tully Hole)
Made quick work of the five water free miles to Duck Lake hiking and chatting with Bruno about his bike tour the past summer in Scotland and learning about his family back in Europe. A short drop down from Duck Lake brought us to Purple Lake where we took an early swim and lunch. From the lake a switch backed climb took us over the saddle and high point for the day before dropping us down to Lake Virginia, a truly spectacular lake nestled into a high flat basin where a whale tooth shaped rock bestowed us with our group name and the first of many trip hashtags – #backcountrywhales. The following descent into Tully Hole lost nearly 1000ft in a few short miles and left us with burning quads. We regained a few hundred feet of elevation alongside Fish Creek and found a campsite nestled below a large boulder field a few miles below Squaw Lake. We chased the warmth of the setting sun further and further up the boulder field eating dinner and playing cribbage on flat topped boulders until we were out of sight of our camp (and more pressingly the food that we had left out). Back at camp we swatted bugs and attempted to learn how to play Euker from Carl before calling it a night.
Day 5: Fish Creek to Quail Meadow (10.6 miles via Silver Pass)
A chilly morning without any sun made us appreciate the climb to Squaw Lake that got our blood pumping. From the lake, Silver Pass was easily gained with us trading jokes the whole way up. Having made it to the pass before 10:00AM, spirits were high and we traded photos as other groups made there way over the pass. A long descent to Quail Meadows awaited us and we began with the switchbacks off the pass and the trail lessened in steepness as we skirted Silver Pass Lake. We followed the outlet stream as it formed itself into shallow fast moving sheets of water tumbling down the smooth exposed bedrock feeding the lush ferns of Pocket Meadows, our lunch stop for the day. Our campsite for the night was at the bottom of the valley and we descended through Aspen groves that reminded me of the Rocky Mountains causing a twinge of homesickness that I was not expecting. An efficient morning and afternoon of descending put us into camp in the early afternoon and we all split ways to wash, journal, and relax by the river. Carl’s IT band flared up on the descent and put him in serious enough pain that he was unsure of his ability to finish the entire trip, a challenging chronic pain he has had for years and a tough decision to be faced with. No immediate risk of not making it to Muir Trail Ranch in two days, our resupply point and the easiest bail out point, but understandably clouded and frustrated moods among the two of them. I picked a bouquet of wildflowers and drilled a hole in a piece of bark to stand the flowers in and left it on Sarah’s backpack while they were at the river in what I hoped would be a well received message of understanding. Laid out in the sun on a warm flat boulder with Kate while sipping on cold coffee and sketching the bridge over the river. I took advantage of camping low down to spend a clear night sleeping outside and fell asleep to the bright moon and stars that managed to shine through.
Day 6: Quail Meadows to Marie Lakes (xx miles)
A 2000ft climb out of Quail Meadows made for a stout morning wake up and began quite possibly our roughest day of the trip. Nausea from elevation, painful IT band issues, and extremely tight calf muscles struck our our group and made for a rough start to the day. A rocky descent of 1000ft directly after finishing the big climb didn’t bolster spirits either. Nor did the 1500 more feet we then had to gain to the pass. Intense sunlight, a rugged dusty and rocky trail littered with mule shit, a gradual climb without views in the forest, and a miscalculation of distance between trail intersections lead to a late lunch along a mosquito infested river. My backpack exploded as I searched for mosquito proof pants, jacket, and face net – all of which were of course hidden below my bear can and tent. Everyone dealt with their misery and stuffed food down as quickly as possible setting a record for our shortest lunch break. Just as the trail approached tree line, a magical change in ecosystems and geology that always boosts my spirits, we hit a layer of smoke from a nearby forest fire that you could taste in the back of your throat and made your eyes water. Kate and I donned bandanas over our mouths and trudged onward. We finally climbed above the smoke into the alpine environment where a cool breeze and smooth trail thankfully welcomed us to Marie Lakes. We camped near the inlet of the lake, just below Seldon Pass, and watched the fish as we washed and relaxed after the trying day. Carl and Sarah made the decision that it was not smart to continue further past Muir Trail Ranch given his knee pain and everyone stayed out as long as the dropping temperature allowed watching a final high alpine sunset illuminate the distant peaks, a suitable reward for the long day.
Day 7: Marie Lakes to Muir Trail Ranch (xx miles via Seldon Pass)
Woke to a slight frost and dead still lake reflecting the distant peaks. Boiled water for breakfast with chilly hands and watched the sun’s slow progress down the opposite side of the valley and across the lake until it reached our campsite and provided us with warmth and energy to get going. The pass was maybe a mile and few hundred feet away and we were the only people on top so early in the morning. I’d saved a single Pop-Tart for this last pass before our resupply and we quickly renamed Seldon Pass as “Pop-Tart Pass” as I triumphantly held the final Pop-Tart Lion King style off a suitable Pride Rock. From the pass we had 3000ft to lose to get to Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) and our three glorious buckets of food. With images of fresh Pop-Tarts and hot springs dancing in our heads, we trucked down the switchbacks into the open hillside where we could see the river very far below and were reminded just how far down 3000ft actually was. Eventually we found the cutoff for MTR, and a mile later we were at the stone resupply hut that was filled floor to ceiling with resupply buckets. Better than Christmas I tell you. We unpacked our buckets in the shade and began the process of turning 5 peoples worth of food into 3 peoples worth of food. Just as we began, who should appear but Molly and here 6 cold beers! Having driven, hitched, boated, and hiked her way to meet us she earned big hugs from all! Much rejoicing!! We all raided the free hiker bins snarfing down snickers bars and Pop-Tarts that others could not cram in their bear cans feeling like little kids in a candy store (or elves in Santa’s workshop, my metaphors are inconsistent at best). Eventually our shade turned to sun and we finished repacking and made the trek to our campsite with the heaviest packs of our trip – 8.5 days of food on board! Spend the late afternoon across the river in the group hot springs pool with a number of other JMT and PCT hikers and traded stories while hopping between the hot springs and the so called “warm lake” that was only a short distance and muddy trail away. Enjoyed a luxurious dinner of Trader Joe’s foil packets of Indian Food and instant rice before swapping jokes (Which side of a cheetah has more spots? … The outside!) at a communal campfire.