JMT Part 6: That's nothing!

This is part six in my series about hiking the JMT. You can read the rest here: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8, Part 9Part 10


Can’t get enough of our trip? Check out my dad’s trip report on

July 19, Day 11: Duck Creek - Squaw Lake

The vogue joke of the times was ‘oh, that’s nothing’ - riffing off the Monty Python skit where a couple of Yorkshiremen sit around and trade increasingly outrages stories. It got to the point where you couldn’t even remark, “It looks like it’s going to be a nice day!” without someone exclaiming, in a fake Scottish accent (someone the Yorkshiremen became Scottish!), “Oh that’s nothing! When I hiked the JMT, the sun shone so bright I got a third degree burn on 95% on my body!” The trouble with jokes like these is that they are very very funny, until all of a sudden there not. And in this particular group dynamic, my saturation level was lower than everyone elses’.


Leaving Duck Creek, I finally snapped, “That’s not funny!” at poor Zoe (sisterly love, I know). Then I pulled ahead, leaving behind the awkward silence of 7 people who were really enjoying themselves. This time I can’t even blame it on the hanger. 


 Snack Break at Virginia Lake.


The mood blew over, and by the time we reached Purple Lake (spoiler: not particularly purple) we were snapping pictures and laughing again. The trail climbed steadily up to another gorgeous alpine lake, Virginia. We stopped for snacks, and ended up taking a half an hour break because the group was so spread out. It was sunny and beautiful and I kind of felt like just staying right where I was, to enjoy this incredible place. But it was still early, and we had to get as far up imposing Silver Pass as we could go.


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Switchbacks down to Fish Creek. Photo by Pennie Rand


Sharp switchbacks descended down to Fish Creek where we stopped for lunch and the obligatory freezing-cold swim/bath. I downed some crackers, but stayed away from the tortillas and peanut butter, which had consistently been making me queasy and dizzy after lunch.


Sierra lilies near Fish Creek.


As we headed up Silver Pass the weather started to turn, a collection of grey clouds dotting the sky. We all jumped into our rain clothes and stuffed vulnerable items into our packs, expecting another hell-hail flash-flood storm like we had experienced before as the first rain drop hit. But we only got a light shower. All the same, we decided to stop at Squaw Lake for the night. Better to camp a little short of the Pass than go over in lightning and thunder. 


 The camp at Squaw Lake


Squaw Lake was a popular place to camp, and we admired the variety of light weight tents around us. I can’t believe some of those wimpy tarps propped up on trekking poles can hold up in any sort of weather! 

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 Lean on me. Photo by Pennie Rand


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Rolling trail burritos Photo by Pennie Rand


There was a beautiful show of dark clouds and orange sunbeams all evening as we enjoyed our trail burritos and chocolate mousse. Matt serenaded us on the mandolin, making up the Silver Pass Song, and we went to be early, anticipating a long day.


Sunset, looking down the valley from Squaw Lake.


July 20, Day 12: Squaw Lake - Bear Creek Trail


In the 13 miles from Squaw Lake to Bear Creek, we were hit by two thunderstorms.

The Dad alarm (involve him making different noises and shaking our tents) went off at 5:30, and tousled heads emerged in the dawn light to see that a single person Big Agnes tent had popped up during the night. We were making a lot of noise, bustling around and getting ready to leave, so I was surprised when the owner of the tent emerged. I expected some grizzled thru-hiker emerge to tell us to pipe down, cause he had been hiking till 2 am. What I didn’t expect was for a small backpack, already packed, to be chucked out of the tent, before a chipper brunette in a down jacket and shorts sprung out. She was a PCT hiker, but seemed surprisingly down to earth compared to all the others we’d met so far. (No offence, but most of the PCT hikers we met either seemed like soul-searching hippies or party animals or both). This PCT hiker had been hiking with another girl who had pushed through to Red’s (they were hiking the opposite direction as us) during the night. Wow, I thought, There’s hiking and then there’s hiking! I longed to be a fast, lightweight hiker, to be going far every day. But as I shouldered my heavy, still-uncomfortable pack, I knew the 13 miles we had coming today would be enough.

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Ready to go at 7 am sharp! Photo by Pennie Rand


An hour after leaving camp, we had switchbacked our way to the top of the pass. Zoe was ahead most of the time. As the member of our group who is least athletic in her daily life, there had been to concern as to whether she would struggling with hiking with a heavy pack, day in and day out. But Zoe seemed to take to the heavy pack like a fish takes to water, and was among the strongest of the group.

On Silver Pass we were treated to another view far into the distance in both directions. Behind us was a rugged landscape and blue sky, while ahead was endless even larger, sharper mountains, and ominous dark clouds. Mom spent the whole time on top searching for cell phone coverage to get news of our dog, Sebastian, who was being watched by a friend in Norway. As far as I know we had no cell phone coverage between Mammoth on day 8 and Whitney Portal on day 25.



Moon landscape up Silver pass.


The dark clouds amputated our stay on top - we had many miles to go! I drank some more spring water on the way down from the pass. It tasted great, and I hoped my adamance to the whole purification thing wouldn’t backfire (we were purifying the majority of our water).

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The top of Silver Pass. Photo by Rick Strimbeck


The trail brought us down another succession of switchbacks down to the valley, in gorgeous juniper and other fur trees. The trees on the JMT continued to fascinate me. Some of them were so twisted they looked as though they had been braided.



Dad on the descent.


The bad weather hit us on the way down, but luckily the storm didn’t last long. I got pretty damp, although we were in the trees when the thunder and lightning came. We stopped for a quick lunch at Quails Meadows, and met some other JMT hikers, including Susanne, who had been leapfrogging us. Two hikers we had met before had turned around on their way up Bear Ridge, where we were headed, because of the bad weather. They were headed out off the trail to Vermillion Resort (known as VVR) to treat themselves to a night of luxury. Little did we know that he was planning to propose to her!


We headed up the steep climb to Bear Ridge, still in the sun (would be fun to have a picture of the zig-zags on the map!). The trail was sharp switchbacks dug into the almost impossibly steep slope, but a forest of trees still managed to cling to the slopeside. I was not having fun going up. My backpack was heavy and uncomfortable and I was going slow. I put in my headphones and hung at the back of the group.

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Headed up Bear RidgePhoto by Pennie Rand


Finally the slope flattened to a more reasonable grade. Still the switchbacks continued. This seemed odd to me, in this flat terrain where you could easily go straight up. But that’s clearly how they build trails there!


As we traversed the top of the ridge through the trees, we saw enormous grey storm clouds headed our way. Fast. When the storm hit 10 minutes later, we decided to bunker down under a stand of large trees for a while. This second storm turned out to be not as bad as it had first appeared, but the parents swapped travel stories for 15 minutes before we continued. I was glad to keep hiking; it had been cold sitting still.


We were only supposed to have a 1.6 mile descent to the next trail junction before we looked for a campsite, but this stretched seemed way longer. I tracked the whole JMT on my tiny bicycle GPS, charging it off of a solar panel (check it out on Strava). This day the GPC recorded 15 miles where we should have hiked a total of 13. Dad was incredulous, “It must be wrong!” Later we discovered that this section had been corrected in terms of length in the newest JMT guidebook, and this section was in fact 2 miles longer than the guidebook let on to.


There were beautiful flowers on the descent, almost reminding me of a garden. Silvery mist shimmered over the grey and white granite of peaks across the valley.


We finally reached the junction, bone tired, and found a campsite a couple of hundred meters down the Bear Creek Trail by the roaring Bear Creek. There was a beautiful swimming hole, and Karin and I took a freezing, refreshing dip. There was also a fire pit, and for once we were below 10 000 feet and allowed to have a fire. I was sent out to collect wood for a fire, and I found tiny wild strawberries as I wandered. We had a big blaze going to no time, which mad up for the intermittent lack of sun and helped keep the rampant mosquitoes away.

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Mandolin around the fire. Photo by Pennie Rand


Dad was making white bean soup for dinner, but for some reason decided to use less water than in the instructions and thus served the soup as a kind of mush. He also suggest that we top it with some ghee, “to add to extra calories.” The ghee we had was pretty salty though, and the three tablespoons I cleverly added plus the concentrated soup tasted awful, like eating lumpy, warm butter with chunks of flour. I could barely choke it down, but I knew I needed the calories. 

“I’m never eating ghee again!” I gasped as I swallowed the last spoonful from my bowl. This was immediately translated into a charming song called “Ghee O.D.” on Matt’s mandolin. Zoe, Annavitte, Karin and I rounded off the evening with renditions of most of the songs form Oklahoma, as well as some from White Christmas. Be your own entertainment


July 21, Day 13: Bear Creek - Salley Keyes Lakes


We had planned to be ready at 7:30, so we were woken at 6 by Dad’s bird squawk and tent shaking. We had cream of wheat for breakfast, which I thought was terrible, tasteless and the consistency of glue. Then I proceeded to pack my things, and I was ready, at 7:30. Unfortunately, no one else was. So I sat down at read my Kindle until 7:45, at which point it looked like everyone was almost ready. So I stripped down to my t-shirt and shorts and put away my book. Alas, I had to wait another 15 minutes, and it was really cold standing around in shorts. 


At least we went fast when we got going. We took off like a freight train, and soon passed our friend Susanne. She moves slow and steady where as we bolt, get spread out and then stop and regroup.

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River crossing. Photo by Pennie Rand


The climb to Selden Pass was gradual and easy, through boulder-strewn forest and then out in to the open, alpine landscape.  We arrived at Marie Lake below Selden Pass around 11 am. Annavitte, Karin, Zoe and I were in the front, but I called a halt. The lake was just too pretty to pass up. The weather was beautiful, so the whole group took a break to go swimming before heading up the final climb to the pass. 


Karin above Marie Lake.


On top of the pass, I must confess I was looking forward to the short hike down and a relaxing afternoon at Salley Keyes. But Dad would have none of it. “It’s the perfect circumstances for a side trip! Let’s go there!” he said, pointing at a peak on the ridge above us.


“Have you even looked at the map, Dad?” I said. It seemed like a kind of an ill-conceived plan to me, but I went along with him anyway. Someone had to make sure he didn’t trip on a rock in his eagerness to get on top of something and die.


So we headed up the rocky ridge from Selden Pass, headed for Mt Senger, unsure of how this wonder turn out. Once I got over my slight anxiety at starting a side trip I wasn’t sure I wanted to do, it was fun. We scramble up a rocky slope which gradually grew steeper and then turned into a pile of boulders strewn across the mountainside. We managed to find a pretty good route, with not too many loose rocks and a minimum of hard moves. Finally we approached (what seemed like) the top of the ridge. I could see the blue sky on the other side, and i felt my throat tighten at the anticipation of a shear drop. It wasn’t as shear as I imagined, although I wasn’t interested in falling down it. It was another pile of steep rock, extending down towards the Salley Keyes Lakes where we would be headed later.


The top of the ridge was impassable; we either had to scramble around the side we came, which became a pretty smooth slab, or go around the backside. I peered over the backside an spotted a series of ledges up the ridge. We manoeuvred over there, including a fun sort of spider move to get onto the ledges. But two ledges up I felt too exposed. The ledges were covered in loose rock, and the consequences of sliding were not good. So we turned, at about 11 700 feet. 




We picked our way down, grabbed our packs and trotted down to Salley Keyes Lakes. We found the rest of the gang, all set up. I read for a while, and then Annavitte started doing her strength training routine. I joined her, and then she said, “I wanna to pull-ups! Let’s find somewhere to do pull-ups!” Which resulted in this:



A Finnish woman, hiking alone and clearly lonely, had wandered over to our camp and was chatting with mom. She had a bad stutter, which made it hard to hold a conversation. I wonder if she knew how lonely the JMT would be when she set out?


Later that evening, man was fishing in the lake, and Pennie wandered over to ask if she could fish too. He walked off to do something else, and she cast and managed to get the hook stuck on something in the lake. Hilarity ensued, ending in Matt swimming out into the lake to unhook the fishing hook. Poor, unsuspecting fisherman! Pennie didn’t ask to fish more.


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Salley Keyes. Photo by Pennie Rand

Tomorrow would be the big resupply at Muir Trail Ranch.


- The Wild Bazilchuk