A pass a day

I had originally planned on taking a zero day at Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR), but changed my mind. Arrival time that morning was about 10 am having hiked 5 easy miles. That meant I had plenty of time to relax and get ready to head out again. All the usual resupply issues: food, laundry, clean up and high calorie meals were quickly taken care of. Plus, while VVR is nice, there was nothing much to do there. All power was from a generator that shut down at 9:30 pm and restarted at 7 am. There was no TV or phone service at any point, and Internet was $8 an hour. The lake was low enough that there was no water near the docks.

I did take considerable time refilling the bear canister. I did not send any resupply package further down the trail to Muir Trail Ranch and so I would be leaving VVR with approximately 130 miles worth of food. (I figured on eight days.) I could carry my first day’s food separately, but the rest needed to go into the Bearikade. Cramming 7 days of food into the 650 cubic inch canister was not easy. Eventually I made it happen though the odds of running low on calories were pretty good. As it was, I needed to stand on the lid to close it. My pack was going to be heavy.

In the morning, VVR staff took me, James and Thomas to the Bear Creek Cutoff Trail. We could have gone back the way we came in, but the staff recommended the route, saying it was a beautiful hike. It’s actually a bit longer than backtracking would have been and again, I’m not a purist. 

Bear Creek
Bear Creek

The route was definitely a gorgeous hike. The rain over the previous couple days had Bear Creek running strong with photo quality cascades and falls for miles. The climb out of Edison was steady, but not painfully steep. Overheating was not an issue as the sky was partly cloudy and temperature remained brisk. 

With the extra miles, I was thinking of ending the day at Marie Lake. It’s a beautiful spot just short of the Selena pass. Once I stopped walking though, the cold wind just ripped through me. Any spot flat enough for the tent was exposed. It was obviously going to be a cold night and a windswept lake near 11,000 feet was not the place to spend it. I did step off the trail to get some water. When I turned around, there was a coyote walking down the trail maybe 50 feet from me. 

Marie Lake
Marie Lake

Wind was just howling over the pass. I continued past Heart Lake as there was no cover either, finally dropping down to Sallie Keyes Lakes around 10,000 feet. The drop was just enough to get out of the wind, with trees and the high wall of the pass for protection. It might have been the prettiest campsite I’d ever been on, up to that point. 

Sallie Keys Lakes
Sallie Keys Lakes

The weather was clear and very cold overnight. I brought the water filter into my sleeping bag and kept it in my pocket through the morning. There was significant frost build up on the tent fly. I had cold granola for breakfast only because I wasn’t sure the stove would work at that temperature. Got rolling about 7:30 with long a downhill and passed by the Muir Trail Ranch cutoff well before noon. It seemed to have made sense not to resupply there so soon after VVR. 

Kings Canyon National Park was impressive from the beginning. The trail started up a massive gorge right on the edge of a drop to the San Joaquin River. There was a hand written sign warning of wildfires and smoke, suggesting that hikers should turn back. The smoke wasn’t bad, so I pressed on. After a few miles the trail cut over to Evolution Creek, a stream that was dropping straight into the gorge with an impressive waterfall. The trail worked its way up a cliff and though the creek had settled down, I still had to switch to sandals when trail crossed it. This was the one spot on the trail that I had to wade. Once I made it to McClure Meadow, I decided to stop even though it was only 4. Besides still being tired from the previous day’s mileage, the camp spot and views of upcoming mountains and pass were as pretty as they get.

McClure Meadow
McClure Meadow

In the morning I got rolling by about 7 am. The trail soon started the long climb to Muir Pass. Met two guys early on. One was 75 years old and other 76. They had been doing the JMT for 13 straight years. The 76 year old’s trail name was Tin Man because he had two titanium knees. They talked about walking slow, but it was still pretty impressive. Overall the stretch was a hard climb but the views were outstanding. Beautiful lakes sat all along the way. At one point, the breeze had quit, no birds were in the area and there was no water running. Just absolute silence. So rare; for some people they may never know what complete silence is like. Made the pass and only shelter on the trail about 1 pm. The shelter had tremendous views in all directions. There was never a cloud in sky the entire day, just a bit of smoke. The trip down had lakes, streams and the stark beauty of the high mountains all along the route. Ended up camping in Grouse Meadow.

I was starting into a pattern. Climb to a pass in the morning, then head downhill as far as possible to set myself up for the next day’s pass. It was 11 miles to the top of Mather Pass, a climb of 4,000 ft. The last 500 of it were in just a half mile through boulders. Very tough climb. Once at the top, I could see the campsite I had planned on was just in open rubble. Decided to keep walking as the lower I got, the better I felt. Ended up going between 17-18 miles. As I was setting up camp Mike and Tao stopped by looking for a spot, so we shared. They were just doing a portion of the trail, leaving through Kearsarge Pass Trail. They told me rain was forecasted to hit in a few days. I had heard that before and didn’t think much of it. Then they mentioned that rain could mean ice and snow on Whitney and the trail down was “gnarly.” Their reasoning for leaving through Kearsarge Pass was they didn’t want to take a chance on being snowed in between Forester Pass and Mount Whitney. I hadn’t even considered that. Great. As with the smoke issues, I decided to press on.

Got a 7 am start to climb up to Pinchot Pass. After a mile or so downhill the climb began. This one was about 2,000 feet, much better than the last, but my legs were already tired from the big climb the day before. I topped out by 10:30 and the far side looked like a desert. The trail dropped 3,500 feet till the climb started for Glen Pass. Pretty interesting suspension bridge over Woods Creek at the bottom. It seemed like a good place to take a break. Was feeling a bit worn, but knew I should climb a bit to make the next day’s climb a little shorter. 

As I put on my pack, a woman crossed the bridge and started ahead of me. Eventually catching up, I asked the usual questions; when did you start (days after I did), how far you going today (30 miles). It turned out that Jen was an ultra-marathoner and shooting to hike the JMT in 8 days. She had written for Trail Runner Magazine and knew many of the folks in the sport I’d only read about. Talking about the sport energized me and we took turns pacing up the climb towards Glen Pass. By 5:30 we had made it to Rae Lakes, several miles farther than I’d planned for the day. Jen had a snack, put on her headlamp and pushed on to clear Glen Pass 3 miles up trail. She often ran through the night and clearing the pass after dark would be no big deal. I ended up with a 20 mile day and that was plenty for me. Rae Lakes was another incredibly beautiful place to camp. I also took the opportunity to take an extremely fast dip in the lake. If the water had been any colder, I think it would have been solid.

Rae Lakes
Rae Lakes

The day’s hike started out of Rae Lakes about 7. Beautiful sunrise. Walked about 5 minutes and a bear ran across the trail. Slowly walked forward and saw both cub and mom sitting at a campsite by the trail. It looked like they were there for the day. I stood and talked to them for a while before they finally moved on and I could too. 

Fellow campers
Fellow campers

The climb up to Glen Pass had numerous false summits and took till 9:30. Met Evan on the way down. He was about 20, diabetic and running out of food. I gave him a candy bar which seemed to help his situation. He still had a few options in his bear canister and was trying to finish quickly before all his food was gone. Although he wanted me to climb Forester pass with him, I was shot and stopped mid-afternoon about two miles short of the pass. I was shooting for a big hike in the morning to get near Whitney in one more day.

The spot I stopped looked like the last good camping option before the pass. There was a stream and several small tent sites among the few trees growing at 11,000 feet. Apparently I wasn’t the only person thinking that way. Over the next few hours several folks I had previously met on the trail pulled into the area. Richard (Florida), Frick and Frack (brothers from Los Angeles), Mike (Illinois) and a group of four from Northern California set up camp with the tentative plan to summit Mount Whitney in two days.

There were some pretty entertaining conversations that evening as we watched a storm hitting the higher elevations just above us.  Luckily, we stayed dry. Richard and I decided to get an early start in the morning so we’d be over the 13,000 foot Forester Pass before any afternoon storms could build.