September 4, 2014
Distance: 13 miles
Traveled: Lake Virginia to Quail Meadows
“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierras
It was one of those mornings where you’re laying perfectly warm and comfortable in your sleeping bag, but no matter how much you try to ignore it – you have to pee. You have to venture out of your warm heavenly nest, to the icy tundra outside to pee. By far, it was the coldest morning on the trail. Below freezing. The world surrounding Lake Virginia was glittery with ice crystals.
After peeing, I grabbed my stashed bear canister and scurried back to the warmth of my tent. Cold like this was definitely expected in the Sierras in September – it can snow any month of the year (and it usually does). I had heard several stories of people waking up to frozen lakes in August and 15-degree nights. I was anticipating these cold snaps, and opted to bring my 15-degree Mountain Hardware UltraLamina bag and my sleeping bag liner (which I generally use to just keep my bag from getting nasty with my filth, but also adds a little extra warmth). I still slept that night with my puffy jacket, and beanie, and gloves on…so needless to say, I was glad to have suffered the extra ounces to carry my warmer bag.
During my contemplation overnight, I had decided I needed to part ways with Friz and Patrick today. In no way did 24 miles sound appealing today (which would also entail conquering Silver Pass and Bear Ridge in the same day…which would be a hell of a haul). I procrastinated in my warm tent for as long as I could, and went through my morning routine of getting ready for the day, deflating things, and stuffing things in sacks. By the time I emerged, Friz and Patrick were up and about. We were all groaning about the cold, fumbling with stoves, and bear canister lids, and zippers with frozen fingers (one of the Start Ups would later tell us that their thermometer read 25 degrees that night). As the frigid breakfast pow-wow commenced, I told them of my decision. I would go back to my 16-day plan and fall behind them today. I was feeling pretty sad to say goodbye to them – they had become my trail family.
After a few moments of silence, Friz said that he too had mulled it over and he decided he was going to stay back with me. He would finish a day later than he had planned, and would reschedule his flight home. Every cell in me was so happy and thankful that Friz was changing his plans to finish this trail by my side. Patrick was still unsure what to do. His debate as to what to do with his short schedule still did not have a winning side. Speed up, or slow down? Should he put priority on finishing, or enjoying his remaining days in the wilderness at a more leisurely pace? He would have to make his decision today.
I think we all felt newly energized for the day after finally having a plan. The bitter cold felt less cruel. With the rising sun the frost disappeared, and with packs on backs we walked forward into our 7th day on the trail.
The trail wound upward around the northern side of the lake, and eventually dropped quickly down into Tully Hole and Fish Creek. The view was beautiful. Our spirits were high.
Anita caught up to us as we were stopped taking photos, and we flew down the trail together talking (on this hike I was slow as molasses on the uphill, but downhill I felt like I could fly – I suppose they balanced each other out in the end). The morning sun was hot, and when we reached Fish Creek, we all stopped to shed some layers – Anita continued on.
About 5 miles into the day I reached Squaw Lake. I was blown away. Though it was small, Squaw Lake truly stood out as one of the most beautiful lakes I had seen on the trail this far.
Friz and Patrick, who had gone up ahead of me, were already there at the lake taking a break – as were Anita and Chops. Friz was snacking, Patrick was soaking his feet, and Chops was going over his maps with Patrick and telling him of his exit-trail options in case he decided bail out early. Anita was fretting over whether she should head off-trail to Vermillion Valley Resort. Friz continued making his way up the pass shortly after I got there, and the rest of us followed a bit thereafter. 2 more miles to the top of Silver Pass – feeling oh-so-good compared the the crappy day before!
I met up with Anita at the junction with the Goodale Pass Trail. She decided to veer off to Vermillion Valley Resort, though she was worried about the navigation as the JMT Harrison Maps cut off the complete route. Thankfully, I happened to have the Mono Divide Harrison map she needed, as I brought it so I had a map of the route to Iva Bell Hot Springs (which I didn’t end up going to). I gladly relinquished those dead ounces of map to her, and we exchanged inReach numbers so we could stay in touch while she was off the trail.
I caught up with Patrick shortly after parting ways with Anita, and we finished the walk up the pass together. On the way, he told me that after talking to Chops, and looking over his maps, that he had decided he would hike on with Friz and I to the Bishop Pass Trail junction and would exit early. He figured he’d rather take his time on his last days out on the trail, rather than killing himself to summit Whitney in 6 days. I was so happy our little trail family would be staying together – when I woke up this morning, I thought for sure I would be solo for the next 10 days.
Finally we reached the top of the 10,895 foot pass. Friz not only had already made it to the top of Silver Pass when we got there, but had found a roost.
We were pretty sure he was now the Keeper of the Pass, and he reminded me of this guy from Monty Python:
The view from the top was incredible, and it felt so good have checked another big pass off our list. Unlike Donohue Pass, which was full of anticipation and looked out over the landscape to which I was headed – Silver Pass was full of reflection, looking out over where I had walked over the past 3 days.
After a short break, Patrick and I headed down from the pass together, into a beautiful open alpine meadow.
As we rounded Silver Pass Lake, Slippers noticed some animals scurrying along the shore of a small unnamed pond to our left. At first, they looked to be foxes, but after watching closely we realized they were coyotes. I had never seen coyotes during the bright of day before. One was standing in the lake watching us as we approached, and the others, weary of us, headed to the shelter of the rocks on the tallus slope behind them. Some crappy photos of the coyotes:
This day felt so so good. After the trudge of the day before, this day was a welcome respite. Everything felt perfect – and I was so grateful for it all.
It was also on this day that we began to joke that we were finally seeing our first clouds on the trail. After days of perfect blue skies, we now noted the few minuscule clouds that drifted overhead, barely large enough to cast a shadow. We angrily expressed how offended we were at the now ‘bad’ weather, and we insisted to the universe that we expected a full refund for this hike due to inclement weather.
A few miles later, the trail met up with Silver Pass Creek. Friz was found there on a dry granite slab in the middle of the creek bed, under the cover of pine trees. An ideal spot for lunch. Our lunch breaks were quickly becoming my favorite moments of the day. Dusty hot shoes came off. Feet were soaked. Bellies were filled. Legs were rested. Blisters were tended to. Cold mountain water was sipped. Remaining miles were counted. Maps were studied. Sometimes we would have a Special Lunchtime Episode of “Wenk Storytime” and I would read aloud Elizabeth Wenks description of the trail that lay in front of us. Occasionally, eyes were closed and short naps were stolen. These were the moments when I realized I no longer had any idea what day of the week it was (and didn’t care to find out), when Friz would remind us that we would all otherwise be at work right now, and when we would all keep in perspective that while others sat at desks in front of computers and went to meetings, all we had to do with our day was walk.
Lunch today would also bring an important milestone. Thanks to the old-lady-slippers that Patrick bought in Mammoth (ehem, “camp shoes”), that he was now happily lounged in creek-side, Friz could not help but bestow him with trail name of Slippers (and he shall be referred to as such from this point foreward). There was no arguing this name – as for Patrick and his fuzzy white “shoes”, this name was simply his trail destiny.
After nearly an hour, our shoes were back on and we were in the home stretch for the day. Only 4 more miles.
After passing a large picturesque meadow and cascades and waterfalls, a huge view opened up and we looked down upon the valley to which we were headed. DOWN we would go.
This was one of the steepest downhill sections on the trail, and one of those downhills where all you can think about is how much it would suck to have to come up it. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind, when we crossed paths with two hikers headed in the opposite direction. I did not envy them. It was steep enough that my downhill wings were slowed to cautiously navigate every step, and once at the bottom, my knees and ankles were much relieved to escape unscathed. We ran into the Start Ups in the valley….we hadn’t seen them since leaving Lake Virginia this morning, and I still have no idea how or when they passed us!
In the valley there were glimpses of fall color starting to appear. We passed through the first small aspen grove along the trail. A couple of the aspens had a few small handfuls of yellow, nervously twitching, leaves. Though it was nothing more than a brief glimpse of yellow, it was enough to get me excited for the change of season.
We made camp near Quail Meadows, at the last spot before the climb up Bear Ridge in the morning. We had been talking about (and dreading) Bear Ridge all day, and our plan was to get up before dawn while the morning was still cool, and conquer the climb of switchbacks up the 2000 foot ridge. There were rumors that there was good cell reception at the top of Bear Ridge, so Slippers and Friz were eager to get to the top early with hopes of letting friends and family know of their change of plans.
By the time we settled into camp it was still pretty early. Friz and Slippers went to the river to soak their feet, while I took advantage of the light and spent some time organizing and cleaning and catching up on some journal writing. I decided to have a ProBar as a pre-dinner snack, and made a gruesome discovery – my ProBar was moldy. I checked the expiration date, and sure enough it was long expired. I dug out the rest of the ProBars from my Bear Canister – most of them bore dates that warned they had seen better days. My heart sunk. These were my highest calorie snack, and I was banking on eating at least one (and sometimes two) everyday. It was my own dumb fault. These had probably come from the food supplies I didn’t use from my JMT attempt the previous year. I had my resupply packages mailed back to me after I bailed the trail, and dumped the non-perishable items (which obviously were perishable) in a bin. I reused much of that food, and didn’t even notice these were long expired. Ugh. I had no idea how many expired bars would be awaiting me in my resupply at Muir Trail Ranch, and in the last stretch of the trail I needed the dense calories of these bars. Ugh.
Despite the moldy setback, my spirits were still high. After a quiet evening, a warm dinner, and a perfect long sunny day wandering the Sierras, we all turned in early trying to ignore the creeping bit of dread in the pit of our stomachs over our morning climb…Bear Ridge awaits.