Two days in a Mammoth hostel felt like a life sentence. Don’t get me wrong, having a comfy bunk, a hot shower, some real meals, and WIFI to contact friends and loved ones was great but I just couldn’t wait to get back on the trail!
Prior to my arrival in Mammoth I’d completed a six day segment from Yosemite with a friend but from here on I’d be solo. I was up at 6am on the morning of day seven eager to jump on the trail but a post office errand and a laughable series of incorrect bus stops and narrowly missed transfers meant I didn’t hit the Lake George trailhead untiI 10:30a. Like an animal let off its leash I raced up the climb and before long had out-hiked all the day trippers. When I gained the top of the ridge I savored the Mammoth Crest views in complete solitude.
I bent south passing through Deer Lakes then headed cross-country toward Duck Lake, eventually making the connection with the John Muir Trail. I arrived at Lake Virginia, my intended campsite for the night, far earlier than anticipated and decided to explore the west side of the lake. I found a serviceable campsite near the lakes outlet, pitched camp, took a refreshing swim and enjoyed the warm afternoon sunshine. It felt great to be back in the wilderness.
Despite only being a third of a mile off trail, initial progress on the morning of day eight was terribly slow as I navigated around the complex cliff system that butts up against Lake Virginia’s southeast shore. Finally back on trail I used the descent to consider whether to head off trail and cross the Silver Divide or simply stay on the JMT and head over Silver Pass. I waffled back and forth but my arrival at Tully Hole forced a decision and I put the JMT behind me to head up Fish Creek for a new experience.
I immediately began to second guess my decision. As I searched for the outlet of Izaak Walton Lake it became clear that I’d missed it and instead had remained on the wrong side of Fish Creek’s deep gorge. To remedy this I was forced to climb another few hundred feet, make a less than ideal creek crossing, then a tediously long contour back to the route’s correct general area. Finally reaching the lake, I wasted little time in commencing my next navigational blunder. I misjudged the direction of the bench I needed to attain and mistakenly over climbed the basin. Another ponderous traverse corrected the error, costing a good chunk of time and energy.
Thus I’ve learned this is the nature of off-trail travel; sometimes the route finding and progress go swimmingly, other times you’re uncertain, misdirecting effort and moving painfully slow. When things go sideways patience and a calm, cool head are keys to preserving the needed mental energy to get back on track, and a dash of humor to remind yourself “Hey, if nothing else I’m building character!” doesn’t hurt either.
Reaching the aptly named Shout of Relief Pass at 11.4K’ felt like a major accomplishment. The views of the Silver Divide were wonderful and thereafter the route finding was more straightforward. I contoured high above beautiful Rosy Finch Lake to Bighorn Pass then down-climbed to Laurell Lake picking up a faint use trail from there. I ended the day in an excellent campsite along Mono Creek, completely spent and a little miffed at having lost so much time, but a sunset swim in the creek followed by Thai Curry Couscous greatly improved my mood.
I began early on day nine, anxious to get back on the JMT and complete the grind up to Bear Ridge before the day warmed up. By midday it was already hot and had become increasingly impossible to resist the beckoning of Bear Creek’s many alluring swimming holes. I stopped and jumped in with all my clothes on, taking care of laundry and bathing in a single motion. Reinvigorated after a swim, lunch and a rest I pushed on to one of my favorite spots on the JMT. I arrived at Marie Lake in the early afternoon, hiked around to the east shore and resigned myself to a repeating cycle of reading (yes, I bought a 500 page novel), swimming, and napping in hopes that an abbreviated, rest filled day would re-energize me for a big effort the next day.
I was on trail by 7a on day ten. It was the first morning I had to wear gloves, the weather seemingly putting summer in its rear view mirror and turning the early morning temperatures a notch lower. I was over Selden Pass before I knew it and decided last minute to swing by MTR to see what the hiker bins held. Turns out there was enough food and supplies there for a small village. I was able to swap out a partial fuel can for a full one, grab all the instant coffee I wanted (still can’t comprehend how someone thought they had too much coffee), and eat half of a gallon ziplock bag of homemade M&M cookies someone had abandoned.
Leaving MTR I was very happy to not have a full resupply on my back for that slog up the San Joaquin River. I hiked persistently, taking no breaks, and slowly began to reclaim the morning’s lost elevation. By late afternoon when I’d reached Evolution Lake I would have been happy to call it a day but the popularity of the lake meant there were no campsites unclaimed. I continued on then went slightly off trail and found a great spot on the slabs above the lakes inlet. I’d put in about 23 miles so the dip in the creek before sunset felt well earned, dinner tasted especially delicious, and sleep came effortlessly.
On day eleven I woke up completely smashed. I knew I didn’t have too far to go and that most of the day would be downhill so I allowed myself a leisurely morning not getting on the trail until 9a. I worked my way up higher passed briliiant Sapphire and Wanda Lakes. At the top of Muir Pass I had a snack and explored the Muir Hut before continuing on.
I’d forgotten how exposed, steep, and rough the trail was on the descent to LeConte Canyon. By the time I reached the junction with the Bishop Pass trail I was pretty empty and dreading the two hour climb to Dusy Basin in the 85F heat. I bumped into another hiker who was contemplating the same situation and we chatted, reinforcing each others opinion that it’d be better to tackle the pass in the morning. Just as I was getting comfortable with the idea of setting up in one of the overused LeConte campsites my new hiker friend stood up quickly and stated “It must be done!” then hurried off in the direction of the trail up. I laughed because I knew he was absolutely right; I’d be much happier camping up high and after filtering some water and having a snack I too was headed up the trail.
My eventual campsite in Dusy Basin near the gentle creek with the backdrop of setting sun bathing the surrounding peaks validated my decision to tackle that final, unwelcome 2K’ and reminded me of that loose, unspoken contract we have with the mountains; if you put forth the effort you’ll typically be rewarded.
On day twelve I came across one of the more bizarre things I’ve seen in the backcountry. Within twenty or so minutes of cresting Bishop Pass I started to smell rotting flesh. It soon became clear where the stench was coming from as the trail made its way right through a large amount of decaying deer carcasses interspersed within the rockfall and rubble. It was a strange sight to say the least and after asking around I learned a herd was coming over the ridge as part of their normal winter migration but the couloir was icier than usual causing 78 deer to slide hundreds of feet to their death. I took pause and pondered the sometimes cruel side of nature.
Reaching the trailhead and the South Lake parking lot I met an older gentleman just finishing a weekend trip who was kind enough to give me a lift. I’d planned two nights in Bishop to resupply, rest, get that pizza and cold beer I’d been fantasizing about, eventually grow tired of front-country comforts, get antsy in yet another hostel, then anxiously charge back to the trail to tackle the last segment to Mount Whitney!
This hike took place in the second half of August 2018.