JMT, Day 17: All The Lakes

This past summer, we hiked the John Muir Trail in California. For an overview of our trip, and links to other posts about it, go here.

September 10, 2015
Silver Plateau to Lake Virginia


Packing up feels sluggish this morning as I keep getting distracted by the view. Stuff sleeping bag; gaze at valley below. Sadly deflate air mattress; peer at sun coming up over mountain spires. One for me, one for you.

Alas, the thru-hiking siren calls and the miles insist we pick up the pace and move along.

Our pass of the day is Silver Pass, a short jaunt further up the valley. We stop and enjoy breakfast by Silver Lake, which, feeling charitable, offers up a few fleeting mirror lake shots that we snatch up with our cameras before the wind returns and ruins the illusion. There are some birds catching bugs by doing this spastic dive bombing maneuver that is the opposite of graceful; each time, we crack up and overdub cartoon sound effects to their flailing descents.

It is a brief, gentle ascent the rest of the way up Silver Pass fueled on Caramel Latte Via, truly the ridiculous breakfast of hiking champions. I am reasonably certain the energy boost is more from the sugar than the caffeine. It functions like grown-up kids’ cereal and I feel jacked up and invincible as we clamber over the top and peer into the next valley.

A stark white granite bowl stretches out before us with pockets filled with bright sapphire waters. Motivational fantasy metal about scaling mountains to fight the evil sorceror Zargothrax blasts from my iPod. It’s a perfect moment. For the whole hike, I have been starting Gloryhammer’s “Tales from the Kingdom of Fife” album roughly an hour before hitting the top of each pass to get pumped for the climb. At this point, it has a Pavlovian effect and I swear my body has a secret mode I now think of as “the Gloryhammer Gear.” I timed Silver Pass perfectly and the dramatic conclusion of the album, “The Epic Rage of Furious Thunder,” plays as I crest the top and bounce down the trail in time with the music.

Unstoppable. Strong. My legs are twin Hammers of Glory.

21530251585_85fbc19df2_oThe sunny weather? Not unstoppable. Blue skies have been encroached upon by clouds and it’s starting to spit rain. While passing Squaw Lake, I stop to chat with a northbound solo lady hiker deadset on getting to Vermillion Valley for a resupply and a glass of golden motivation.

“I really need a beer,” she said. Forcefully. I do not question the veracity of this statement. So far on her trip, she’s lost her hiking poles and tent stakes. In addition, her Steripen water purifier has ceased functioning.

“Have you ever tried to get through thunderstorms in Yosemite using your limp tent as a tarp?” she asks, still maintaining a sense of humor despite her woes. Not wanting to get in the way of this woman and her beer, I wish her well and we go our separate directions.

The descent down to the Fish Creek Footbridge is frustrating, slow going with some of the roughest trail conditions we’ve seen. Huge roots and rocks prevent our usual downhill cruising speed and it’s a relief to get to the footbridge at the bottom. Deciding to give our ankles a break, we stop for lunch and enjoy our sausage and Snickers calorie bombs.

Bells ring in the distance and we are joined momentarily by a line of pack llamas and their handlers. Despite the fact that the llamas are being led forward on rope tethers by accompanying humans, it’s clear who is really in charge. One particularly sassy llama, an Oreo-colored lady bearing a nametag identifying her as “Sunshine,” throws us some serious side-eye through half closed eyelids as she passes. Sunshine is not amused. Sunshine finds the indignity of bearing her human’s belongings too much to bear. Sunshine is likely leading a pack animal insurrection.

Sunshine might shank a bitch if you get too close and she’s not in the mood for dealing with your shit.

Happy to be un-spit upon (and unshanked), we pack up and head towards our next landmark, Tully Hole. This mile follows Fish Creek upriver and is flanked by aspens aflame with autumnal colors. In the late afternoon, the air carries a new chill and smells decidedly of fall. The brief green flash known as alpine summer is winding down already, as is the remainder of our trip.

At Tully Hole, the trail leads to a meadow before catapulting upward into switchbacks carved into an exceptionally steep…hill? Robin is only a few switchbacks ahead but I have to tip my head all the way back and crane my eyes to see him above me. This stretch is completely exposed and gives a sense of immediate progress ever upward as each switchback reveals more of the jagged mountains rising above the valley below.

About halfway up, a plump marmot skids onto the trail about 10′ in front of me, waddles forward in a hurry, then cuts down the trail coming to rest on a flat rock affording expansive views of the valley. He looks in both directions, the plops down flat on his belly and surveys the scenery; I can only assume he was late for his evening post. We take in the dusky golden light together for a few moments before I resume my climb. These moments have become normal, but no less satisfying.

Robin is waiting for me at the top and we descend down towards Virginia Lake together as the sun begins to set. It is an enormous body of water; after so many petite alpine lakes it seems almost like an inland sea. Spying several tents on the far side, we nab a choice spot to ourselves where we’re at.

We cook dinner on the lake shore and scarf down instant mashed potatoes with olive oil and smoked paprika. The evening’s entertainment is watching our fish friends leap for their dinner. In time, the sky darkens and we turn our attention to the stars and watch as the Milky Way stretches in a milky swath above us. It looks like gauze floating in an ink pot.

One by one, headlamps across the lake extinguish. And, soon, ours do too.

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