The British are coming
It was a cool morning in Mammoth, maybe 55 or 60 degrees by the time our Kayland Zephyr boots hit the earthen colored, chalky mountain dirt. In our time away from the trail, I had the chance to rest physically and satiate what I thought was an insatiable lust for hamburger. Even the egg-white McMuffin I ate for breakfast, when you extrapolate the contents, is a form of hamburger. I was happy.
At the Cold Water Trail head I rifled through my backpack and pulled out the series of 13 maps from Tom Harrison's JMT Map Pack. I purchased it with my dividend at REI back in 2007. Extensive enough to contain the side trail that we were hiking back in on, I made notes of landmarks, topo lines, and distances we were about to be facing. We were 6.8 horizontal miles and 2,000 vertical feet away from the John Muir Trail's junction with the Duck Lake trail which we were about to embark upon.
The first backpacking trip I ever did was up in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend. We got to the visitor center, told them we wanted to backpack, and they asked how far we wanted to go on the first day. I said "6, 7 miles."
We settled on an awesome site that was only 3.5 miles in. Toll Mountain. 1800 or so feet in elevation gain. 3.5 miles. Cake walk. I was even slightly disappointed.
Somewhere in the West Texas Mountains around mile 2 with my 35 liter pack that was crammed full of heavy junk, I was cursing my life. I'm glad we didn't go 7 miles. I would have died. It took us hiking with headlamps in the dark for us to finally reach our destination after going painfully slow all day. Back then, 3.5 miles was incredibly hard. 7 miles in a day was a pipe dream.
And here we sat in California, 6 years and a couple of months after that initial backpacking trip that arguably started this whole infectious desire and in that moment, 10 something AM in Mammoth Lake, we were almost 7 miles from the trail that we wanted to be on. Game on.
Admittedly I was in better shape now (and 100lbs lighter) and I had better gear, but regardless of how ready you feel or prepared you are or how well conditioned you may be, miles and elevation are still daunting on paper. In reality, it's only a product of labored breathing, one foot in front of the other, and time. It is not hard or stressful or bad. Nor is it easy. It's trekking. It's part of the human condition; It's living. It is uniquely fun.
And so we went down the Duck Pass trail, one foot in front of the other past some 9000ish foot Sierra lakes.
Having thought only 2 days earlier that we had met our end and we were done, I was elated to be back on the trial. My Achilles hurt still. I was so happy to be back hiking and ready to intercept the JMT that it didn’t much matter.
I'd decided in regards to my ankle problems and pain to adopt the following policy- rock it til the wheels fall off. If it snapped, broke, dislocated, fell off, then I'd stop. There were times on this segment as well as others later where I thought it would break; I expected the tendon to just snap in half at a moment's notice. Most of the time, it was a nagging blunt pain that was punctuated by seconds of sharp intense fire like sensations that would then linger on. I knew there wasn’t any way to escape it. I took Aleve. I tried to walk without moving my ankle much. One foot in front of the other.
About 2 hours or 4 miles in on this trail we came to Barney Lake. We were still some 3 miles from sniffing the JMT. And I've never been an advocate for anything named Barney. Stores, people, dinosaurs. Don't like it. Barney Lake is the only exception.
The winds were stiff at Barney Lake. It was about 71, 72 degrees by noon which made it perfect hiking weather. We stopped a good while at the Lake and enjoyed the Caribbean colored waters, ducks, and soft sandy seating. Back towards the east, from whence we'd come, smoke was settling over the town of Mammoth. The past 2 days had seen increasing amounts of smoke start to roll in.
Even at our start in Tuolumne more near the epicenter of the fire, conditions were clear. The weather and the winds were such that we'd finally been chased down by the haze and burnt pine tree particulates. It smelled like a camp fire. And visibility was 5-10 miles. F'n hunter with your illegal fire...
Immediately after Barney Lake, we start our ascent up a cirque that leads us to Duck Pass, the high point of the day. After Duck Pass, we'd walk a pretty even grade of 2 miles back to the JMT. This climb was the first real test of the day; a fair ascent of 800 or so feet in our newly reloaded, optimized packs, on my broken ankle, and in our freshly refueled and rested bodies.
The combination of renewed enthusiasm, rest, and replenished glycogen stores proved to be a magic one. We didn’t sprint up the mountain, but we climbed steadily and I felt amazing at the top. Not tired, not labored. Being fortunate enough to have made some steep climbs earlier on in our hike, I was elated at how the climb from Barney Lake unfolded. It's not possible for me to quantify how or what was different, but I was surprised when I made it to the top of Duck Pass high above Barney Lake and was feeling as good as I did. I took it as a good omen as the smoke continued to thicken.
Since day 2 I'd been making mental notes of my favorite places on the trail and really, favorite places I'd ever seen. Truthfully it started on Day 1 with the lakes below Donahue Pass. That was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. Day two my favorite was the blue bird meadow. By day 3 Thousand Island Lake had topped everything prior and an hour later Emerald lake surpassed everything. Day 4 and Rosalie Lake bested everything else that my eyes had gazed upon. Today my favorite place I'd ever been, the most beautiful place I'd laid my eyes on in the world that I've discovered was Barney Lake. An hour later, it was Duck Lake.
As we came across the Pass at 10,979 feet, Duck lake and a little subsidiary, Pika Lake came in to view. Duck Lake was massive. A huge, deep blue body of water that floated in the valley below us. Its terminus at the far end just dropped off into the smoky Sierra Nevada valleys and peaks below. At about 2 miles long, we walked on the western edge of the lake and peered down in to the deep, crystal sapphire waters. Some birds that looked like gulls flew around. We saw no one on this stretch of the trail. We stopped at the outlet of the lake to replenish our water supply and then we crossed over the outlet stream and started dropping down the final fractions of a mile to reach the John Muir Trail. As we were heading southbound and down the Duck Lake trail we passed two guys, mid twenties with thick foreign accents. We'd seen them days earlier on our trip but I didn’t really recognize or pay them much attention. They were JMT hikers because we'd passed them, and they'd passed us a few times. I suppose they were just going to check out Duck Lake. And it was a good choice, since it was the most beautiful spot I'd ever seen. And I'd seen a few good lakes in my day (or past 5 days) The foreigners went north as we rested. I elevated my legs hoping it would help my ankle feel better. It didn’t. After a snack, 10 minute break, and water, we walked 50 feet and saw the JMT Trail junction sign.
In that moment, it seemed easy. All it took to get back on the trail was
A- deciding to do it.
B- walking for a little bit.
Oh, and, by the way, the walk to get back to the JMT is going to make you go by these beautiful places with insane mountain views, solitary vistas, and fairy tale lakes.
Saying that continuing on through the pain and unknown was worthwhile is an understatement. A large understatement.
Having moved the car to the end of the trail was a great relief as well. All of the uncertainty and time constraints of logistics were gone. We could just walk. Walk and eat. Walk and eat and sleep. Repeat.
It was getting later in the day by the time we made it to Purple Lake. Purple Lake rested 2.3 miles down the John Muir Trail after the Duck Lake trail junction. We'd gone a total of 9.1 miles since 10am. It was not getting dark yet, but we were looking for campsites within a decent range. In the guidebook Lindsey decided to carry, the author wrote of Lake Virginia as having many good campsites. Lake Virginia, though, was still 2 miles away- at least another hour. We purified water from Purple Lake and chatted with a solo hiking gentleman. He was going the same direction as we were and looking for campsites just like us. He went on down the trail to Lake Virginia and we too decided to press on through the ever thickening smoke, dimming sky, and cooling atmosphere.
The miles past Purple Lake passed in a flash, and soon we were descending towards a picturesque lake as the sun's light rays highlighted the higher granite peaks around us in an orange hue.
As we started walking down the trail towards the lake we saw our friend from Purple Lake, the man was in his 40s maybe, a wise face with mostly dark hair, some gray. He and I both wore legit wilderness beards by this point. He started hiking early in the morning, hiked until the evening. I wonder what he was out there looking for. I liked him, though. He seemed to have an ethic to him that jived with me; like he was out there for solitude and wanted to leave no impact. Almost like he didn’t want so much as the mountains to know that he was there. He wanted to be small and marvel at what there was to see. I can appreciate that. He was still very friendly. He'd set up camp in a thicket of trees to protect himself from the winds. We walked on about 100 yards past him and found the only other little grove of wind battered vegetation that could serve as a camp site. We set up there on the east side of a little influx stream.
Besides for the ghost man and us, there was one other group camping at Lake Virginia.
On the morning of day 2 when we met Greg he spoke of a couple who was about our age doing exactly what we were doing. They were a few hours in front of us he said. Greg also told of a larger group of British guys doing some kind of training exercise. I thought to myself on Day 2 "glad the British guys are in front of us and we don't have to deal with them."
On the shore of Lake Virginia, literally the shore, a tent city was being erected by a loud boisterous group of stubborn or stupid men or boys. They spoke in thick accents and even at 150 yards away from us, their words were mostly loud and clear. Lindsey and I ate near the shore and watched the sun set. Across the lake on our right, a fireball erupts from a stove and loud laughter ensues. This raging inferno goes on for a bit. Loud annoying British talk goes along with it. After these Neanderthals have figured out how to singe the food they put over their carbon fueled inferno, they wash their dishes in the lake. The loud clanking of cutlery resonating in aluminum bowls and cups. This high pitched tin sound cut through the crisp mountain air and was faintly reminiscent of the salvation army bell ringer.
I hoped a bear would come gnaw on one of them just to give them a reality check. Not kill, don't get me wrong. Just eat a good hunk off of one of them.
These were not young guys, but not old. Probably late 20s, early 30s for some of them. Some of them in great shape, some of them more barrel shaped. There was one token black guy. He didn't seem like he cared much to be out there.
Lindsey and I finished watching the sun set and we got into the tent as temperatures dropped in to the low 40s. Across the lake, the boisterous British buffoons babbled on about the queen or whatever they talk about.
In full disclosure, the head of the department I worked in back when I had a real job was from England. He, much like this group, had 0 regard for anyone other than himself. If the agency I worked in was going to get an enema, they'd put the tube in his office. I had not much tolerance for the group from the outset as their behavior reminded me of this bulbous mound of incompetency. The groups lack of regard for rules, hiking ethics, and practices made me dislike them.
They camped on the grass 50 feet from the lake. Against regulations. Dumped food in the water. Against regulations. Almost started a grass fire. Guessing against regulations. Were super loud and annoying. That's just general douchery. I know there's awesome, respectful British folk out there. 0 for 7 here.
What I don't understand is that in this group of 6 or 7 guys, assuming a generous lima bean-sized brain in each one- they collectively have the smarts of a squirrel. Maybe Scrat, from Ice Age. They don't know much, but here are a few givens that they must know regardless of their cranial incapacitation-
- There's a list of rules, regulations, and laws. You cannot be out there without having received them from a ranger. Ranger dumbs everything down and spoon feeds you this crap like you're a retarded squirrel (I see why, now.)
- This is not the mother land. You're a guest in a different country. You do not own the soil, you aren't immune, and you're not above the laws.
- You're outnumbered out here by "locals" from America who are enjoying the trail and trying to abide by regulations to keep it from becoming a bear killing ground or a dump like state parks and city recreation lands.
Show some god damned respect you sanctimonious, self important, depraved, insolent monkeys.
This wouldn't be the last we saw of them. In retrospect, I should have thrown a bunch of acorns maybe. Or called Keith. Keith would have loved chasing them. Bet he wouldn't know what to do when he caught one, though. Silly Keith.
On this day, day 6, their slovenly presence wouldn't be enough to detract from the show of the sun setting on Lake Virginia or the stars slowly rotating around the pinnacles that enveloped us on all sides of our tent.
And as we went to sleep, I decided that Lake Virginia was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen.
Notes from the Trail
VIRGINIA LAKE OVERNIGHT.
NEW MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE.
DID WELL TODAY. 11+ MILES.
MOST STEPS PAINFUL. HOPE L ACHILLES HOLDS UP.
THINK IT WILL. HAVE PLENTY OF ALEVE.
FEEL GOOD AND WELL RESTED.
DID LAUNDRY IN BATHTUB OF LONE PINE. THINGS STILL WET.
BASE LAYER WORKS WELL.
WEIRD PEOPLE ON THAT BUS…(Lone Pine to Mammoth shuttle)
OFFLOADED GEAR @ LONE PINE. PARKED CAR IN LOT.
PACK IS LIGHTER. FEELS BETTER.
CAME VERY, VERY CLOSE TO QUITTING @ RED'S.
LOGISTICALLY ENDED UP BEING BRILLIANT.
NOT SURE WE FINISH, BUT GLAD TO BE BACK.
2 NIGHTS REAL SLEEP WORKED WONDERS.
19.6 TO VERMILLION. 6.7 TO SILVER (pass)