JMT part 7: Good old Muffintop
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July 22, Day 15: Salley Keyes Lakes - Aspen Meadow
From Salley Keyes Lakes, Annavitte, Karin, Zoe and I decided to hike the downhill to Muir Trail Ranch as fast as we could. This resulted in a 5-mile, hour and a half charge that lead us to the gates of the remote little ranch in the High Sierras.
Muir Trail Ranch
At Muir Trail Ranch, you pick up a resupply bucket that has been packed in many, many miles in by horses. Each bucket costs 65 dollars to send, and is part of the planning that has to happen in advance of the hike. We picked up our 4 buckets at the little store and proceeded to spread out across an entire picnic table. It took several hours to sort through the buckets, and it felt like some sort of weird Christmas. It was exciting to see what kind of food we would have for the next 7 days. Some of the food, however, was stuff we had decided we didn’t like so much. There was great discussion about whether or not to abandon some of the less popular foods. There was smoothie mix, which only Dad was drinking, freeze dried veggies (too bulky and we had too many of them) and salsa mix (the flavour was too limey).
Food, glorious food! Photo by Rick Strimbeck
Luckily, Muir Trail Ranch has a solution for this sort of thing. They have set up a long row of labelled buckets, each filled with a different category of discarded hiker items. This was even more like Christmas - I scored more sunscreen, and a tiny container of moisturizer for my poor, dry skin. We also found an assortment of new flavours of energy bars.
The energy bar bucket. Photo by Pennie Rand
I got a little sick of all the shouting involved in sorting the food, so I wandered over to the little store and sent a postcard of Evolution Valley to Audun. I had a feeling the postcard might not reach him before he came to California after I finished the JMT (it didn’t). We hadn’t actually been to Evolution Valley yet, but I couldn’t find anything better. It was strange, knowing the long journey this postcard would go on, first by horse, then boat, then down to some tiny village and all the way to Norway.
Leaving MTR we had 96 energy bars and 60 packets of oatmeal, for the record. My pack weighed 45 lbs. The terrain around the ranch reminded me of a Western film, like you half expected to see a cow skull among the dry grass, baking in the sun. We hiked over to the river for an extended lunch, to let the heat of the day pass. We went swimming in the frigid river, and walked over to Blayney hotsprings.
Mom and Pennie ford the river to Blayney Hotsprings
You can barely see them until you almost fall into them. There’s a big, grassy meadow that seems suspiciously wet, and you follow a path of crushed grass. All of a sudden there’s a big hole in the ground, filled with murky water. The nicest pool was the furthest out, but the water was much clearer. We soaked for a few minutes, but I thought it was too hot and felt dizzy when we got out.
Blayney Hotsprings. Photo by Pennie Rand
After lunch we hiked back up to the main JMT and headed back into the wilderness. The trees up to Piute Creek were incredible, so hard to capture how dramatic they are in pictures. From the bridge at Piute Creek, we thought we had 1.5 miles to where we planned to campe, which we thought was in an area called Aspen Meadows. My understanding was that those of us who hiked fastest would hike ahead to the campsite and start cooking dinner (it was already past four o’clock).
Annavitte near Piute Creek
So we motored ahead, and passed a small aspen grove. “We must be nearly be at Aspen Meadows!” someone remarked, and we charged on. The whole group was together, except Matt and Penney who were lagging behind. Our campsite description called for us to cross a bridge, and then stop at a site directly after the bridge. So we kept going, expecting to see a bridge after ever turn along the trail. We also never came out to any open area that resembled a meadow. After a while, we had clearly passed through all of the aspen groves. So we stopped, and waited for Matt and Penney. While waiting, we found a discrepancy between the campsite descriptions and the bridge we were looking for - it was in fact more than a mile passed Aspen Meadows.
Matt and Penney were not happy. Or ‘disappointed’, as people say in grown-up speak. We should have stopped much earlier, and made a decision to continue as a group. There was bad communication about when we would stop; they thought we would stop at Aspen Meadows, we thought we would stop at the campsite. It was not a happy moment, and I felt very much responsible for it because I had been looking and the map and making decisions to continue.
To make a long story short, we ended up camping at a sort of crappy campsite at the edge of Aspen Meadows. We were really close to another group of three hikers, and Zoe and I decided to pitch our tent near where they had hung some of their food to keep it out of the reach of bears.
Mom took matters into her own hands, and marched over to the group: a tall skinny guy, a shorter, chunkier guy, and the chunky guy’s girlfriend. “Could you guys move your bear hang?” she said brusquely. “We’re putting our tent there.” She pointed. They came over to move it, and I whispered to Mom, “Don’t you think that came across kind of rude? I mean, we are kind of camping on their site…” “Oh, I didn’t think of that,” she said. She went to talk to the chunkier guy, who was taking down the bear hang.
“I’m sorry if that came across as a little rude,” she apologized.
“No, that’s alright, safety first!” the guy said, although he seemed a little miffed. Later he came over to the patch of ground where we were eating dinner and offered us peppermint schnapps. So all was forgiven and forgotten. So we thought...
July 23, Day 16: Aspen Meadows - Sapphire Lake
After Muir Trail Ranch, the JMT climbs for 20 miles. 20 miles of relentless uphill to Muir Pass. Today would take us into on of the areas often referred to as the most beautiful and remote on the JMT - Evolution Valley.
The obligatory photo of lush Evolution Valley
After the Aspen Meadows miscommunication incident the day before, we spent a lot of time detailing to everyone exactly where we would stop next, and in how long. It did seem like overcompensation, but as Pennie pointed out, we were so far out that there was really no room for mistakes. I hadn’t had cell coverage since Mammoth Lakes, a week previously. In fact, I had left my cell phone in the van at Mammoth Lakes.
The hike up to and into Evolution Valley really was stunning. Long sets of perfectly graded switchback winded endlessly uphill, with us constantly guessing, “which shear face will the trail go up now?” Evolution Valley was lush and green, with rocky talus slopes towering above us. We wound along the river, and took another long lunch break to swim and rinse out our dirty clothes. The peaks above us are all named after the scientists of evolution, although Lamarck (whose theory was basically completely wrong) is also included in the group.
Evolution Lake. Photo by Pennie Rand
As we headed around the upper Evolution Lake, I heard a shout of “coming through” and quickly jumped to the side of the trail. A tall, skinny man with a beard, bare-chested and carrying and tiny ultrarunning backpack, flew by me. My curiosity was peaked. “Where are you going?” I shouted. “Lamarck!” he replied. And then ran on like the wind was carrying him, jumping over a rock and giving a small whoop of joy.
I trudged on. I wanted to be Crazy Ultrarunning Dude, as we referred to him later. I wanted to be fast and light and free. But I was bounded by my heavy backpack, subjected to go slow for many many days. I was really tired as we approached Sapphire Lake, where we had planned to camp. The campsite we were headed for was down the hill from the trail, near the mouth of Sapphire Lake. Dad, Mom, Zoe and I were ahead, so I sent them down to nail down the campsite and then headed back to see if any of the Rands needed help with their packs. Without my pack, I ran. I flew. I was Ultrarunning Dudette. The feeling didn’t last long; they weren’t far behind us and soon I was headed up to camp with them.
The campsite at Sapphire Lake.
Karin and I slept out under the stars that night, behind a large boulder by the lake, among the mountains. The weather was perfect, and Karin knew an impressive number of constellations. It was my best night’s sleep on the JMT.
Stars over Sapphire Lake. Photo by Annavitte Rand
Early morning near Sapphire Lake
July 24, Day 17: Sapphire Lake - Bishop Pass Junction
Headed up from Sapphire Lake. Photo by Pennie Rand.
It was sad to leave the beautiful campsite at Sapphire Lake, but we had Muir Pass ahead of us. Above Sapphire Lake is Wanda Lake, perhaps the most beautiful high alpine lake on the JMT. The water was sparkling light blue, and the sunshine made it impossible not to stop for a swim. I thought I would take a quick dip before anyone else even noticed I had stopped, but Zoe, Annevitte and Karin caught up and joined me. The water was as magnificent as it looked, except, oddly, some gigantic frogs that jumped into the water with me.
Karin and Annavitte in Wanda Lake
The trail climbed gently up to Muir Pass through a moon landscape of rocks. At the top of Muir Pass is a cool hut; we clambered to the top to pose. I couldn’t eat on top because the altitude was making me queasy. Muir Pass was the first time we were over 12 000 feet (double check). Everyone except Mom and Pennie headed out for a side trip up Mt Solomons.
Muir Pass Hut. Photo by Pennie Rand.
We started scrambling up the rocks, some of which were a bit tippy. Karin felt exposed and uncomfortable, so everyone but Dad and I turned after about 300 vertical feet. Once Dad and I were alone, we climbed fast. The slope was probably 30 - 40 degrees, covered in boulders and talus all the way to the summit ridge. It was hard work, and occasionally a little scary when rocks shifted under us, but it felt good to be limited by my lungs rather than my heavy pack.
Dad on Mt Solomons.
The view from the top was amazing. Looking back, I think Mt Solomons was one of my favorite places on (well, actually off) the JMT. It felt like the path less travelled, like we were seeing something truly special. We ate some of the special beef jerky that some friends in Vermont had made for us on the trip, signed our names in the tiny book and even saw a butterfly that landed on Dad’s hand.
A book to sign on Mt Solomons! Photo by Rick Strimbeck
The beef jerky and the butterfly.
Some of the rocks on the way down were definitely sketchy, or “leg breakers” as Dad called them, but we descended fairly quickly, and were back at Muir Pass 20 minutes behind the group that had turned.
The way down from Muir Pass was a long, 8-mile slog to the campsite at the Bishop Pass Junction. There was an enormous number of switchbacks, and the sun heated up the trail like a convection oven. Everyone seemed tired that evening, and I felt like I had been baked.
Annavitte and Zoe headed down to Bishop Pass Junction.
July 25, Day 18: Bishop Pass Junction - Lower Palisade Lake
Matt and Pennie left us to hike out to the car over Bishop Pass for a three-day break. We got a late start as a result of all the shuffling - this was our last chance to send excess items out to the car. I wasn’t feeling very motivated by the time we left the camp. It was definitely a day of trail blues; I just wanted to get the miles of the day over with and relax. But miles don’t pass more quickly by wishing.
Then I found the most twistiest old juniper tree on the JMT, and everything seemed worthwhile again.
World’s twistiest juniper tree
It was another hot day, and we stopped to swim and enjoy lunch in the shade before starting the climb up The Golden Staircase. We later learned that this section is so called because it was the final section of the current Pacific Crest Trail to be built, the golden nail as it were. At the moment, it just sounded ominous. We met the three guys whom we had practically camped on top of at Aspen Meadows. “Are you ready for the Golden Staircase?” they said. And I guess we were, because we had no choice.
Before the Golden Staircase. Photo by Annavitte Rand
The Golden Staircase turned out to be a set of the craziest switchbacks we had seen so far, so built into the hill you couldn’t imagine a trail going that way without them. It was hot, but I got into the climb. We had agreed to camp at Lower Palisade Lake, just over the top of the Staircase.
Where is the trail? Photo by Rick Strimbeck
As I started to see the top, I sped past Zoe, just to see if I could. Despite her being quite the pack mule, I could still keep her at bay. The hose from my water bladder made a gurgling, empty sound just as I crested the edge of the face. I expected to see Lower Palisade Lake right away but was disappointed. I was parched, and considered trying to hike down to the creek I could see below me and purify some water. I kept thinking, Over the next rise I’ll get to the lake.
After what seemed like a hour but was probably far less than one, the trail finally flattened out and I arrived at the long sought-after Lower Palisade Lake. I sat down to wait, purifying a bottle of water. Zoe, then Karin, then Mom slowly trickled in, and we started looking around for a campsite. Mom walked crossed the stream at the neck of the lake, and as she came back, the chunky guy and his girlfriend whom we had met at Aspen Meadows came cruising up the trail.
I heard the chunky guy say, “just keep going, I’ll catch up,” as he turned off trail and headed towards Mom. At first I though he was going to get water, but all of a sudden he was talking to Mom and his body language was aggressive.
Apparently he told her that she was “ruining his JMT experience” and that “this isn’t Nancy’s [Mom’s] trail”, yelling at her for a good 5 minutes. Mom’s crime? Passing him and his girlfriend on a narrow section of trail on the way up the Golden Staircase. They were hiking with headphones, and so were startled. I guess some people’s JMT experiences are ruined more easily than others.
Sun set at Lower Palisade Lake. Photo by Rick Strimbeck
Everyone was taken aback by this behavior, not least of all Mom. We agreed that he must have had some other issues (heat? his girlfriend passed him? he proposed and she said no?), but that his behavior was unaccpetable. Our revenge? His trailname (at least according to us) is now the most descriptive Muffintop. Also every time we passed each other for the rest of the JMT, every now had the right to claim that their JMT experiences were ruined.
Zoe reading at Lower Palisdage Lake. Photo by Annavitte Rand
- The Wild Bazilchuk