Tuesday, September 9, 2008

JMT - Reds Meadow to Muir Trail Ranch

As we walked back from the hot-springs showers toward the JMT, Brian took a step and suddenly felt shooting pain in the back of his left heel. Until this point, we’d been really lucky in terms of blisters or other injuries, but this pain was so bad that Sarah was questioning whether we could go on. After resting for a few minutes, though, Brian gingerly continued hiking, taking care not to bend his ankle too much or step too hard on his lame foot.

After the resupply, we were now carrying five days of food. On average, you can figure about two pounds per person per day for food, so our packs had gained about twenty pounds combined. The additional weight probably contributed to Brian’s heel injury.

Leaving Reds Meadow now, we began the long slog uphill through a burn area from 1988. It was hot with little shade, and our packs were heavy.

We continued uphill and were eventually rewarded with views of the Red Cones.

About six miles out of Reds Meadow, we set up camp at Deer Creek.

It was a bit earlier than we’d stopped on other nights, but we were approaching a six-mile section of trail with no water and we didn’t feel up to tackling that before dark. Given the upcoming waterless stretch, Deer Creek was a popular spot to camp, with at least three other parties.

We cooked dinner and Brian made a small fire that helped keep the mosquitoes at bay. We hadn’t brought bug spray with us because it was late in the season, and except for a few brief periods at the ends of several days, this turned out to be a good bet. Unfortunately, we still had to hang a bear bag this night. We had just slightly more food and toiletries than would fit in one bear can and we hadn’t wanted to carry two bear cans before the next resupply. We found a high branch and counterbalanced the bear-can overflow, all the while swatting mosquitoes. When we were finished, we hurried back to the tolerable-mosquito-count zone around the campfire. Sarah soon jumped into the tent while Brian continued reading a paperback that he’d brought, burning the pages as he finished them to lighten his pack load for the next day.

Day 5 finished with us having hiked 9.2 miles, our shortest day of the trip, for a total of 64.7 miles.

The next morning, we continued along a mostly wooded ridge, with occasional views into Cascade Valley.

It was slow going because Brian’s heel continued to bother him. After trying several things, we decided to tape his ankle, in hopes that would help.

Eventually, we reached the end of the waterless section, crossing the Duck Creek outlet. We took our time filtering water and having a snack. From there, we continued uphill. There we saw a trail crew and two women with five dogs! Cresting the hill, we began our approach to Purple Lake.

Purple Lake was a beautiful alpine lake, though not purple as advertised.

After cooking our lunch at Purple Lake, the trail again headed up. Along the way, we passed a “rock glacier” (apparently, there’s actually ice under there somewhere).

Over the next hill, we were rewarded with yet another beautiful lake, Lake Virginia.

We took yet another break to filter water. Filtering water for two active people in the heat of the summer takes a lot of time each day, especially since we were trying to filter no more water than necessary each time, to reduce the weight of our packs. As we left the lake, we took a few more photos.

The lake was edged with colorful rock.

Up and over the next ridge, we began the long descent down many switchbacks into Tully Hole.

From Tully Hole, the trail followed Fish Creek for awhile before crossing it. The trees on the other side of the creek were growing out of the rock.

Finally, we started our last ascent of the day, this time up to Squaw Lake, which our guidebook described as having beautiful campsites with late day light. Along the climb, we finally saw some hikers – it had been a quiet day on the trail. A couple of the hikers told us that if we made it to Silver Pass, there was cold beer! Imagine, cold beer miles into the wilderness! Brian was quite excited, but it was getting late in the day, so we stuck with our plan of staying at Squaw Lake, just below the pass, and crossed our fingers that there would still be beer left when we made it up to the pass the next day.

Here’s the view just before Squaw Lake.

We reached the lake close to sunset and pitched our tent. The campsite lived up to its billing – it was amazing!

As the sun continued to set, the views were amazing in all directions.

The light on the rocks was especially pretty.

As we cooked dinner and Brian filtered water, little fish jumped all over the lake. The only bummer for the evening was that Brian untaped his ankle and discovered two large blisters, one on the top of his foot and one on the back of his leg, either from hiking all day with his foot taped up or perhaps just from removing the very sticky tape. Ouch!

Day 6 ended with us having hiked 14.9 miles and having completed 79.6 miles of our journey so far.

In the night, we got up and were treated to an amazing display of stars. Up so high (10,300’) with no trees to block the view, there was a huge expanse of sky to view the stars. The moon hadn’t yet risen, and the stars and Milky Way were stunningly bright.

In the morning, we had another 900 feet or so to climb up to Silver Pass. Sarah paused while Brian took her photo looking down on Squaw Lake.

The trail passed a number of tarns sprinkled in the rocky landscape.

It also passed Chief Lake, which offered mountain reflections in the morning light.

Here, we spent a while chatting with an older gentleman named Ken from Minnesota who was hiking the trail on his own. We later heard that he was in his 70s. He had all-new very lightweight gear and seemed to be having a great time. Despite being unsettlingly unsteady on his feet, he was covering about as many miles a day as we were.

With one last look back at the tarns, we finally crossed over to Silver Pass.

Oddly, the official Silver Pass is slightly downhill on the other side. We stopped at the top anyway and took a photo looking out at the landscape we were about to traverse.

Then, we descended to the official pass, where, lo and behold, there was the much anticipated cold beer, in a soft-sided cooler that even had some ice in it!

It was only 8:30 am, but Brian decided that it was never too early for beer in the wilderness. He happily sat down to enjoy his PBR. While we were sitting there, a guy in a Hawaiian shirt came up from behind one of the nearby tarns, carrying a large backpack. When he got to where we were sitting, he opened the pack, which was entirely filled with snow and a few more beers. He was the “trail angel” responsible for the beer. As he restocked the cooler with beer and snow, we chatted for a while.

He’d already answered one of our questions – where does the ice come from to keep the beer cold? Every morning, he headed up from his campsite to a snowfield to collect snow to restock the cooler. Our next question: How did he get so much beer this far into the backcountry? We figured he must have had a mule carry it in. But no, people had lugged it all up there in packs – 320 cans of beer plus soda and hot dogs. He’d made four trips in and out on his own, and he’d also enlisted friends to take trips to help him out. At this point, he’d been handing out goodies for nine days, and he was leaving tomorrow. We’d arrived just in time! Even better, we arrived at the end of his stay, and he had too much beer left. He planned to drink a lot of it himself to avoid carrying it out, but he also offered a second beer to Brian, which he gladly accepted.

Apparently, this was the third year he’d done this. The first two years were at the Muir Pass hut, but the park service got grouchy about him being there – something about leaving beer sitting out on a trail that could be traveled by minors – so he moved to forest service land. What a cool guy.

Eventually, Sarah tore Brian away from the free beer and we continued on with our day. Next, we passed Silver Pass Lake.

We also passed this dome, whose name we can no longer recall.

From here, we went down into the North Fork River valley.

At this point, we were at the trail junction for the Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR). VVR is a popular resupply point for JMT hikers, but it requires a couple-mile hike and a water shuttle ride to get there. It’s also not that far away from Reds Meadow so we decided to skip resupplying there in favor of Muir Trail Ranch, which is a little further along and closer to the trail.

As other JMT thru-hikers headed off the trail for a hot meal and an evening at VVR, we were left to climb the endless switchbacks up Bear Ridge. It was mostly forested, but we got an occasional view.

At length, we finally topped the ridge and started getting views in the other direction.

We also got our first view of Seven Gables.

We stopped at Bear Creek on the other side of the ridge and took a quick dip in the brisk water before setting up the tent for the night.

Soon after we set up camp, we met a couple of guys who’d started the JMT just four days ago. Crazy! We were on Day 7 at this point. Today’s total mileage was 14.2 miles, for a total of 94.3 miles.

Saturday, August 23 we woke up to another cloud-free morning. We started the day with a climb through Upper Bear Creek Meadow.

Shortly, we came to Rosemarie Meadow.

From here, the landscape turned rocky again, as we continued the climb to Selden Pass.

Just below the pass was Marie Lake. With its islands, Marie Lake was reminiscent of Thousand Island and Garnet lakes.

Finally, we climbed up to Selden Pass, stopping to take a parting shot overlooking the lake.

At the pass, a man was flying a kite. How fun!

We again met up with Minnesota Ken, and he took our photo in front of Marie Lake.

On the other side of the pass, there were more lakes. First, there was Heart Lake, which had butterflies gathered on the flowers nearby.

Then there were the Sallie Keys Lakes.

After all those lakes, we were in the trees again and on our way down to our next resupply at Muir Trail Ranch.

We planned to camp at Blayney Hot Springs near the ranch and pick up our resupply first thing in the morning. When we got there, oodles of people were camped nearby. Presumably, some were hiking the JMT and others had just hiked in for the weekend. We decided to cross the San Joaquin River to see if we could find a quieter spot on the other side of the river. There were fewer people there and we did manage to find a decent site.

The area was definitely overused, and there were unfortunate reminders of previous visitors such as toilet paper behind boulders. Ick. We walked over to the hot springs pool, which we’d been hearing about for days from other hikers. Unfortunately, it was a stagnant pool with more trash around the edges. There were two men in it, but you could only see about an inch of them below the surface because the water was so murky. Disappointed, we decided there was no way we were putting ourselves in there.

Day 8 finished with us having hiked 13.7 miles for a total of 107.1 miles! Woo hoo, we broke the 100-mile mark, and we were just about at the halfway point!

In the morning, we packed up and walked over to the ranch to pick up our resupply bucket. We were there around 7:15 AM and the ranch didn’t open until 8:00 AM, so we spent a while sitting at a picnic table out front.

When the ranch hands finally came out to help us, we realized what a huge resupply operation they have. Buckets shipped to them have to be packed in by mule from the nearest trailhead. We’d shipped two buckets. From the looks of their supply shed, dozens of other hikers had shipped buckets as well.

Shortly after we arrived, several other hikers showed up, so the ranch opened early, and ranch employees started locating our resupply buckets. All of the employees were quite nice and helpful, and we chatted with several of them about our hike so far. In addition to letting us dump our trash, which they have to burn or pack out, they also have a dozen or so buckets of useful stuff that hikers have left behind, deciding that they didn’t want to carry it the rest of the way. The buckets contained everything from rolls of toilet paper, bug spray, and batteries to Mountain House dinners and random repackaged or homemade foods. Sarah promptly found a large Kit-Kat and some Oreos. Yum! Otherwise, we had plenty of our own food to cram into our packs, so we let other backpackers dig through the goodies.

One couple of hikers had run out of food a couple of days ago. They were voraciously digging through the buckets and when we left were chowing down on a huge pile of food they’d found. We also saw Minnesota Ken again for the last time of our trip. He was looking exhausted and complaining of open blisters. He was planning to hang out at the ranch for a couple of days before continuing his hike. We hope he made it safely home.

It seems that how much you look forward to a resupply totally depends on how little food you had prior to the resupply. We were dreading the extra pack weight, but other people we met were clearly relishing all the food.

Cramming all of our food – nine days worth – into our packs was no small feat. We’d also shipped a second bear can. Until now, Brian had been carrying our only bear can, but now, much to Sarah’s dismay, she had to carry one as well. We finally got our bags repacked and started off for the second half of the John Muir Trail. We’d heard from various people that the scenery in the southern half of the trail was even more amazing than the first part! Although our packs were heavy, we were excited to see more beautiful places!


Aaron said...

Here's one for beer man... cheers! :P

Steve said...

Thank you for a fine account of your hike. I'm hoping to finish the trail over the next couple years - already have done a third. Your photos bring the trail to life, missing only the mosquitos and the sweat!