JMT 2019 Day 7: Zero Day at VVR

September 10, 2019
Moseying about VVR
Day miles: 0 mi
Cumulative miles: 66.7

On my zero day at Vermilion Valley Resort, I didn’t even journal. (I took some notes the next day when I got back on trail.) A “zero day” is hiker lingo from a day where you hike zero miles. I had actually planned to take a “nero”, a day where you hike nearly zero miles, but was ahead of schedule.

It was wonderful to wake up, not have to pack up and just wander over to the main building, and order hot breakfast. I think I got both the classic bacon, eggs and pancakes and a breakfast sandwich. I had been craving savory breakfast. The pancakes were the best! Then, I got a shower and did my laundry. I fetched my resupply and packed my food for the next section of trail. I hung out at a picnic table, drank a beer, ate a bag of potato chips, and chatted with other hikers. There was a good mix of PCT hikers, JMT hikers and veteran Sierra hikers hiking loops they’d made up themselves. I pet sat a wonderful trail pup named Darwin when his mom went to take a shower. I took a nap. There is no wifi at VVR (though you can pay to use one of their computers), so I walked out onto the dam for AT&T cell reception and texted friends and family that everything was well. I did some yoga on the beach. I ate a giant fried chicken sandwich for dinner. All these mundane little things felt like absolute luxury. It was a perfect day. (Except I got stung by a bee, more on that later.)

This vortex of two nights and a day at VVR, including paying for my resupply pick-up and taking the ferry both ways cost me $195 and I tipped them $40. The VVR crew was excellent and it was an amazing hiker-friendly experience. Highly recommend resupplying and taking a zero at VVR!

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Contemplated helping in the kitchen… but then decided I really just wanted to luxuriate in doing nothing. There already were resupply chores to be done.

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Sorting through my resupply. What do I want to eat? What do I not want to eat? A theme for my hike is I have packed too much food. I leave all my oatmeal and a bag of peanut M&Ms in the hiker boxes.

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Food for 7 days packed in my bear can and the first days’ food set aside to be packed at the top of my pack. 8 days till my next resupply in Independence!

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Wandering out onto the dam for cell service. Lake Edison was formed by Vermilion Valley Dam in 1954, is named after Thomas Edison and owned by Southern California Edison, the power company.

JMT 2019 Day 6: Silver Pass

September 9, 2019
Squaw Lake to Vermilion Valley Resort (9.5 miles)

After the long hiking day yesterday, I thought I might sleep in. But I woke up at 4:30 am, realizing that if you go to bed at 8:30 pm, by 4:30 you have probably had a solid 8 hours of sleep. I got up for a pee, fetched my bear can and boiled water for coffee while packing up things in my tent. I ate my breakfast of Probar & coffee sitting on the granite table next to my tent, with my feet dangling in my quilt foot box and the quilt buttoned up behind me, looking like some sort of mermaid, except half-human, half-fat caterpillar.

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Bag packed and leaned up against the granite “table” at my campsite

It’s a bit warmer than the previous morning, but there are still thin clear sheets of ice along the shores of Squaw Lake and Chief Lake when I begin hiking. I start hiking at about 7:45 and reach Chief Lake in about an hour and a half, just as the sun comes rising over Chief Lake. I find some nice flat slabs of granite, roll out my Thinlight pad and do some sun salutation into the sun. I decide I should make this a routine, hike until warmed up and then stop to do yoga and stretch.

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View from my yoga spot on the banks of Chief Lake

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At the top of Silver Pass I meet a PCT thru-hiker from Belgium named Weatherman, and we take some pictures of each other. Descending the south side of Silver Pass, the landscape is very reminiscent of the Gallatin and Madison Ranges in Montana (where I had done all my training hikes in the summer), only without the moose and grizzlies. Then the trail follows Silver Creek down into the forest flanked by smooth granite formations like those in Yosemite.

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Silver Pass

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Hello, southwestern Montana! (Actually, basin south of Silver Pass)

Mid-morning, I stop and take break where the stream runs over bare granite and ice my feet in an indentation in the rock that makes a perfect little footbath. The water is painfully cold. I eat salami wrapped in a tortilla.

Then it’s down, down, down an endless set of rocky switchbacks. At one of the stream crossings, I meet a couple with the best hiking pups ever, each carrying its own backpack and following faithfully right behind the heels of their owners. I stalk closely behind this group because the sight makes me so happy until we part ways at Mono Pass junction. (Between Yosemite and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks is the dog friendly portion of the JMT and it was always a treat to meet people’s furry friends on the trail.)

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I reach Ediza Lake junction by 2 pm, so I decide to take the 4:45pm Edison Lake ferry to Vermilion Valley Resort (VVR) half a day earlier than planned. I meet some folks already waiting for the ferry by the bear box around 2:35. They mosey down to the ferry dock while I spread out my tent and ground sheet to dry in the sun. The sun out by the ferry dock is harsh, so I roll out my foam pad to nap in the shade of the trees by the bear box.

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Lake Edison ferry dock

I am laying prone on my mat using my freshly dried tent as a pillow when Ellen rolls up. We catch up. She’s been having trouble with the cold due to old frostbite injury and managed to lose one of her two pairs of shorts and hasn’t been able to swap out her outfits as she normally likes to do. I tell her I saw her shorts at Red’s Meadow and was hoping I would see her there and I am super glad to see her again going into VVR.

Around 3:50, Ellen and a section hiker we have been chatting with head over to the ferry dock. I am rolling up my foam pad and putting my hiking boots back on when another familiar face appears, it’s Larry! He made it from Red’s in less than two days, camping last night at Lake Virginia. It turns out that the usual ferry is out of commission, so the boat captain has to make multiple trips across the lake in a little skiff and can only take 5 people at a time. My dilly-dallying in the shade puts me on the third and last boat, so Larry, another hiker and I share our life stories as we wait for our ride.

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Putting 5 hikers and their gear in this little boat is pretty sketchy…

We finally arrive at VVR when it is starting to get dark. We get the spiel, get our tabs set up, go set up camp (JMT and PCT hikers get two nights free camping and a free beer at VVR) and I eat a steak dinner. Showering will have to wait till tomorrow.

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The boat ride to VVR was a bit more thrilling than anticipated…

JMT 2019 Day 5: Hidden Gems

September 8, 2019
Deer Creek to Squaw Lake (15 mi)

It’s a frosty morning. Sitting in my sleeping bag poking at my oatmeal, I come up with a theory that the reason it takes me so long to get out of camp every morning is I don’t really want to eat my oatmeal. I wake up around 6 but can’t seem to get on the trail until 8. I wish I had savory breakfast, that I had packed something like cheesy grits with bacon bits. I have never had issues with oatmeal before, but I decide to experiment with eating Clif bars for breakfast the next couple of days and see if that speeds up my morning routine.

There is a 5 mile dry stretch between Deer Creek and Duck Lake, one of the longest dry stretches on the JMT, so I start the day carrying just over 2 liters of water. I see a sooty grouse as big as a chicken and then some cute California quail with their little bobbing head plumes, twittering and running about in the manzanita. Too bad Dan and Dakota aren’t here to get them for me for my dinner and I’ll have to eat a dusty looking ziplock of Mountain House instead.

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I take my lunch break at Purple Lake, then head on to impressive Virginia Lake. Virginia Lake is as clear and blue as Lake Towada (caldera lake in Japan famous for its bright blue color, which is the pride of the small town where I lived for two years after college). I would have and should have swam in Virginia Lake, except I was still relatively clean from yesterday’s shower.

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Purple Lake

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The trail skirting beautiful Virginia Lake

From Lake Virginia, the trail descends to the headwaters of Fish Creek, which was true to its name, full of small mountain trout until the river began to descend steeply in rapids and waterfalls. There were a few nice campsites along Fish Creek and I thought about how if you planned to fish along the trail you would plan a different itinerary and camp at Minaret Creek and Fish Creek, etc. instead of the high alpine lakes I have a preference for.

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Fish Creek

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Bridge across Fish Creek

After crossing Fish Creek over a nice steel bridge, it’s a slogging climb up towards Silver Pass. Squaw Lake sits hidden atop a shelf and when you finally step up there, it feels like a magical secret world.

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Squaw Lake is hidden up there!

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View from the top of the climb

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Squaw Lake from my campsite in golden afternoon light

My tent site is a gravelly patch behind some stunted pines. It is not quite flat, but I will tuck my backpack under my sleeping pad to help level the floor. 15 miles is the longest distance I have hiked in a day so far, and I am looking forward to having a short 8 mile day tomorrow where I can fully enjoy Silver Pass and its lakes.

JMT 2019 Day 4: Trail Magic

September 7, 2019

Trinity Lakes to Deer Creek (12.6 mi)

I manage to rock hop across Minaret Creek without getting my feet wet. The creek crossing is at a peaceful little bend where cute little trout appear suspended in place where the current is mellow over smooth rock. (Trout on the JMT are non-native and have decimated native amphibian populations. More info here.) Shimmying between two trees on the other side of the river, I find a package of Backpacker Pantry Pesto Pasta with (real Alaskan) Smoked Salmon and a Pro Bar, that must’ve fallen from someone else’s pack when they did the same shimmy. I decide I can’t just leave food on the trail, because bears (duh!), and this stuff is fancier than the food I packed, so I pack it up with the intention of swapping it out with a couple of my meals at Red’s Meadow. Trail magic!

The descent into Red’s passes through an area where a crazy windstorm uprooted massive trees in 2011. The gnarled root bases of some of the blown-over trees are twice as tall as me. It would’ve been absolutely terrifying to be on the trail when the trees were toppling. The trail is pumice sand, soft on the feet, and, since it descends in elevation, nicely shaded by forest.

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Blow-downs

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View of Devil’s Postpile from across the valley. Jackie and I detoured over there in 2017.

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Sierra gooseberries, which Lizzy Wenk said I would see on this section of the trail. On trail, the incredible detail of the Wenk JMT guidebook really enhanced my experience in little moments like these. The berries are edible and I did try a couple. The berries are like tiny passionfruit when you burst the spiny shells open.

I arrive at Red’s Meadow around noon. First, I go find the hiker boxes, which are in one of the bear boxes at the campground. I drop off my extra food and score some soap, shampoo and conditioner. There was some good stuff in the hiker boxes, including a brand new Sea to Summit SOL emergency bivy, which I seriously consider taking. (Totally didn’t need to for the JMT, but would like to add one of those to my winter ski touring pack.) Then, I went to the store to get shower tokens. You have to get a minimum of 5 $1 tokens for 5 minutes to start the shower machine. So, I got 10. I stripped down in the shower and washed all the clothes I was wearing, except my pants. Wet everything down and soaped up during the first 5 minutes of shower. When the shower stopped, I took my time and scrubbed everything thoroughly before rinsing off in the second 5 minutes of shower. I put on my extra hiking t-shirt and hung my wet clothes on the deck outside the shower building, next to what looked like Ellen’s red shorts.

I looked around for Ellen but didn’t find her; instead, I found Larry getting into a car with his wife to go into Mammoth. Ellen and Larry had both stayed at Red’s the night before, and Ellen was back on the trail. I went to the Mule House Cafe, got the weather forecast and ate a cheeseburger with Endless (who I had met down by the hiker boxes) and his PCT trail family. Then, I went back to the store and bought a beer and some postcards. Finally, I went and collected my mostly dry clothes from the shower building. I meant to leave Red’s by 2 but ended up staying until 3 because any stop into civilization turns into a vortex! However, it was worth it because I stayed long enough to poop in a real flushing toilet!

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Comforts of civilization

The trail south of Red’s climbs up through a hot shadeless burn, which is annoying because I don’t want to sweat because I am freshly showered. When I get to Deer Creek, which is a very popular camping area, Kathryn and David, who I’ve seen a few times on the trail, wave me over to join them at their campsite and I accept. I intend to be more social in the evening, but there are so many mosquitoes, I just eat my dinner and retreat into the safety of my tent.

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Even the supposedly not-so-scenic parts of the JMT are incredibly scenic.

JMT 2019 Day 3: Alone on the JMT

September 6, 2019
Thousand Island Lakes to Trinity Lakes (9.4 mi)

I wake up to my watch alarm at 6:15 and after a couple snoozes get up to witness the morning light show on Banner Peak, still shrouded in cloud as it was in the evening.

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I manage to leave camp even later than yesterday, even though I did not poop before packing up! (#thousandislandlakeproblems) Part of this is because I am only able to start my day after packing and unpacking and repacking everything in a panic, thinking I’d broken my only hair rubber band and not being able to find a replacement. I have to fish the snapped hair rubber band out of my garbage ziplock and tie it back together. (Later in the evening I will find my spare hair rubber bands in my electronics bag…. not with toiletries or first aid where I looked.)

I reach Garnet Lake at 9:30 am and take my first break for the day, then break for lunch around noon at Shadow Lake. I climb the Shadow Lake switchbacks with Don and Mike (who I distinguish by the fact that Don is carrying two solar panels, and Mike, one) who make it much more bearable.

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Garnet Lake

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Shadow Lake

 

I look for familiar faces at Rosalie Lake, and not finding anyone, continue on the Trinity Lakes and set up camp around 4 pm.  Most of my trail friends are headed to Red’s Meadow for the night. I didn’t plan to stop at Red’s and Trinity Lakes is the last established campsite in the Wenk book before Red’s Meadow. According to the book, you have to hike 4 miles past Red’s for a decent campsite. Trinity Lakes are three little marshy ponds. My tent site is nice and wide open; it’s easy to stake tent stakes into the ground. But it’s relatively hard to gather water that’s pretty stagnant and a tiny, tiny bit murky, less than ideal for the JMT, where clear water flows over granite most of the time.

Waiting for your food to rehydrate is when some company would be nice. Otherwise, it is nice to be camped alone after 3 nights at popular campsites. The Guthook app suggests that I may have cell phone reception in this area, and indeed I am able to post a couple photos to Instagram. I do a bear can inventory which confirms I have a too much food. I have not been hungry on the trail so far and it is the idea of lightening my pack that motivates me to eat. I decide to stop by Red’s Meadow and drop off some stuff… and find myself very much looking forward to having a burger for lunch!

JMT 2019 Day 2: My Hiking Superpower

September 5, 2019
Upper Lyell Base Camp to Thousand Island Lake (8.6 mi)

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There is a break in the clouds and warm sunshine to bask in when I reach the outlet of Thousand Island Lake around 3 pm. I filter some water and and relax on the lake shore contemplating whether to camp here or continue on. I have been leapfrogging with Larry and Ellen all day, and they have been trying to convince me to hike a bit further than planned and camp at Garnet Lake instead of Thousand Island Lake, which Larry pish-poshed as “Thousand Camper Lake.” It is still early, but storm clouds have been threatening since I crested Donohue Pass at 9:25 am.

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View from Donohue Pass

It hadn’t rained yet despite the ominous dark clouds and I had bragged to Larry and Ellen over lunch about my ability to make it not rain on backpacking trips. Larry exclaims, “You’re not supposed to talk about such things!” Ellen pipes up that she never filters or treats her water and she has never gotten giardia. Larry is aghast that we would so nonchalantly curse ourselves.

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Heading toward the dark, volcanic Ritter Range

When I finally decide I will stop hiking for the day and camp at Thousand Island Lake after all, the clouds close in and the temperature drops. I put my fleece back on.

Larry is not wrong, Thousand Island Lake is a super popular place to camp. The nice sandy campsites Jackie and I occupied two years earlier are already taken, and I walk further around the lake away from the other people and pick an exposed, rocky spot for the view as a light rain begins to fall. I retreat into my tent planning to nap, and of course the sun comes out and turns my tent into a sauna. Banner Peak is shrouded in a cloud, but as the clouds blow across the lake towards me, the sun appears to burn them off. Make up your mind, clouds! I just want to nap! Then, it suddenly starts to rain in large droplets that pummel the ground with such intensity that they spray sand all over everything. It rains so hard that water bounces under the vestibule of my tent and I have to stuff my sleeping bag back into my drybag/packliner to keep it from getting wet. Rain is followed by a bit of hail.

It cools down and I am lying comfortably in my tent when there is a commotion outside as what sounds like a group of 10 weekend backpackers from the city contemplate setting up camp right behind me. There is not enough room for all of their tents, thankfully, and they move on. And so, it turns out to be a good decision to camp at Thousand Island Lake instead of hiking through intense downpour and hail to Garnet Lake.

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Cons of Camping at Thousand Island Lake:
This is the hardest place on the JMT to find a good place to poop. There probably are a thousand campers at Thousand Island Lake every summer. It’s part of a beautiful backpacking loop from the Mammoth Lakes area. Behind every tree on the slope north of the lake near the campsites is some sign that a cathole has recently been dug. Or worse. Thousand Island Lake seems to be a place where a lot of beginner backpackers camp and I saw travesties like a bunch of rock piled on top of naked poop and toilet paper. Thousand Island Lake really needs a toilet because it is so popular. Some Silicon Valley tech billionaire should endow a pit toilet, like the public restroom in Bryant Park in NYC. (Bay Area friends, write your friends.)

Pros of Camping at Thousand Island Lake:
The view. Memorialized and made famous by Ansel Adams. You can only to fully enjoy the view and its infinite changes at sunset and sunrise if you camp here.

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6:32 AM

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6:37 AM

 

Video: How to JMT | How to Pack a Backpack

As COVID-19 skill building, I made a YouTube video! In the first of a series of videos I imagined while hiking the JMT, I present “How to JMT: Pack a Backpack”:

Future topics may include how to:

  • dig a cathole
  • prevent blisters
  • use your pack to level an uneven sleeping spot

You can read more about the gear I used on the JMT and my gear philosophy (totally not fussed) at this previous blog post.