JMT Day 18: Switchbacks, Thunder, and Helicopters, Oh My!

[to just south of Silver Lake, ~9 miles hiked]

We woke up early, and packed up quickly, ready to get up and over Bear Ridge and to the next water source several miles away, or so the map said. Just like yesterday, though, we passed several viable water sources on our way up to the ridge. But since we had stocked up the night before, we didn’t need to stop and made really good time.

The top of the ridge was forested with little underbrush and lots of purple flowers. It was magical up there. We passed a number of people who must have hiked up from Mono Creek that morning. I did not yet know how impressive it was that they were at the top of the ridge this early in the morning. One was a cheery boy scout type who asked us how far he was from the trail junction. Unlike the last possible boy scouts we passed, he did not make me cranky. His positive attitude was refreshing.

On the other side of the ridge, we started a stretch that a lot of SOBO hikers rank as their least favorite. The northern side of Bear Ridge is just a ton of switchbacks, with few places to sit and very little water. For us, the trail was nicely graded and pretty free of rocks, so we could make good time on the way down. But most of the people we passed coming up seemed thoroughly miserable. Again we felt a little guilty to be going downhill on this stretch. It really did seem like a brutal climb. But as we were descending we also talked about the fact that this was really what the Wonderland Trail was like last year. We actually had a lot of debates about which trail was more challenging. The JMT is longer, and has fewer resupply points, higher altitude, and some brutal climbs. But this sort of stretch of very long, very consistent switchbacks was less common on the JMT, whereas on the Wonderland that was the bulk of the trail. We were pretty much always going either straight up or straight down, whereas the JMT had many more gradual or flattish stretches. I’m not sure we ever really solved that debate. Maybe it doesn’t matter. “Easy” is not really a word that exists in backpacking.

Toby making his way around a tree that had fallen across the trail on those endless switchbacks.
Toby making his way around a tree that had fallen across the trail on those endless switchbacks.

Eventually we made it down to Mono Creek. We stopped for a much-needed Pop Tart and coffee/nuun break. Then we begrudgingly got back up and put our packs on. We knew that we had about a mile of gentle uphill and then lots of climbing to set up for Silver Pass the next morning. This part of the trail was very crowded, because we were near the turn-off for the Vermillion Valley Resort and some other easy entrance points. We started passing lots of very young people with external frame packs and each time they said the exact same things “Hi, how are you? Where are you headed today?” It was so consistent that we were a little weirded out, but eventually we passed some folks in their early twenties who seemed to be in charge of this group. Maybe they had developed some conventions for how to talk to other backpackers.

Mono Creek was so beautiful.
Mono Creek was so beautiful.
One of the rare places on the JMT with an actual bridge.
One of the rare places on the JMT with an actual bridge.

A lizard friend we spotted just after the creek.
A lizard friend we spotted just after the creek. [We saw a snake here too! It’s back in the shadows somewhere. It did not care about us even a little. –Toby]
Then we started climbing for real. As per usual, lots of giant steps, lots of oppressive heat. We were doing okay, though. We were pouring sweat but plugging along, just wanting to get a few decent miles under our belts so that we could stop for lunch. [I can’t believe Cyn didn’t take this opportunity to make fun of me, but I’ll do it for her: somewhere in this section, another hummingbird dove toward my face! I freaked out again, and Cyn laughed and laughed again. At least I wasn’t holding a cup of hot cocoa this time. –Toby] [OMG how did I forget about that?!? HAHA. I’m laughing all over again. Those hummingbirds had it out for you! —-Cyn] Eventually we did find a lovely lunch spot right next to Silver Pass Creek where the water ran fast over granite slabs. We sat in front of a boulder that jutted out of the water, creating a little quiet pool that made it easy to gather water and soak our bandanas to cool off. Toby handled the water while I made hot lunch (this had become our habit, to eat our dehydrated meals at lunch to give ourselves a longer break, and eat our cold meals for dinner). I was feeling a little guilty that Toby was doing the water, which I found annoying, and thanked him for doing it. It turned out that he would much rather handle the water than make the food, so we were good. [“We’re perfect together!” I declared at this point. “Yes, someone should make a dirty romantic comedy about us,” Cyn said, then hastily added, “Not dirty as in sexy, I meant actually dirty.” She gestured at our filthy clothes and dust-covered legs. “Yeah, I knew what you meant,” I said. –Toby] We sat watching the water and ate (I think ramen for me), rested a little in the shade, and then got ourselves up for the last few miles up to Silver Pass Lake.

Shade break!
Shade break! I lived for shade breaks on this trip. [I believe you specifically asked me to document this experience of a rare, blissful breeze-shade combo. –Toby] [Oh how I loved a breeze-shade combo. They so rarely happened together. –Cyn]
Our beautiful lunch spot.
Our beautiful lunch spot.

Resting while Toby does. . . something. I don't even know where he'd gone off too. I was too comfy to notice.
Resting while Toby does. . . something. I don’t even know where he’d gone off too. I was too comfy to notice. [I was taking photos of you, duh! –Toby]
The first half mile or so was beautiful, winding through mountain meadows. Then we started climbing again through a spot that almost felt like a mini Golden Staircase, except this time we were going up. It was very exposed and the heat was getting to me and suddenly I felt incredibly nauseated. I could feel all of that ramen sitting in my stomach and that combined with the sun and the climb was getting to me. Hard. Toby was as usual very patient, and we made our way up this stretch with regular breaks to settle my stomach. It was not fun, but it was happening. As we were climbing, we were passed by a woman with two horses, and were extra impressed that the second horse wasn’t even tethered to the first; it was just following calmly behind the lead horse. [There was a lot of horse poo on the trail today. And the poo always seemed to be in the sections where finding good steps was the most challenging, so you had to navigate tricky rocks and poo at the same time. I told Cyn that I was feeling very Chris Traeger about all the horses. –Toby] We also chatted with a guy we came to call Bishop Pass Guy, simply because he told us that he came on on Bishop Pass and was going NOBO for about a week to Reds Meadow. He was so nice and we commiserated about the heat. I said sometimes I liked passes better because at least there was a reward when you got to the top. He said, “Yeah, but they are all a pain in the ass.” I liked him instantly.

The view on our climb. It might have been feeling terrible but it sure was pretty.
The view on our climb. I might have been feeling terrible but it sure was pretty.

Such a goofy picture of me but we were trying to capture how giant the steps were on a lot of climbs. This does not look nearly as big as they felt, but with a 30 pound pack, they felt pretty tough.
Such a goofy picture of me but it’s the only one we have of the giant steps that were on most of the climbs. This does not look nearly as big as they felt, but with a 30 pound pack, they felt pretty tough. [Bishop Pass Guy was coming up behind us, so my photography was rushed. I agree this photo doesn’t do justice to the height of these steps, though you can see this was above knee level. –Toby]
A little while later we noticed that the horses had stopped ahead of us, and the rider was talking to two young women, one of whom was sprawled on the side of the trail. Once the horses moved on, we kept walking, and a man just ahead of us stopped to talk with the women too. We were curious about what was going on, and as we passed it was clear that the person sitting on the side of the trail was sick or hurt. We debated whether to stop, but realized that we didn’t have much to offer aside from Immodium and Aleve, both of which seemed like less than she needed. The man they were talking to seemed very well prepared and had a satellite phone, so we decided to move on instead of crowding them. I’m still not sure if we made the right call there.

Additionally, as we were hiking the clouds began gathering and were starting to look ominous. We hadn’t seen anything that looked like it had actual storm potential on this trip, and while the clouds looked far off, I didn’t trust my ability to gauge the threat. So when we got to the top of the switchbacks, we spotted a potential campsite and decided to sit for a bit and see what the weather would do. We still had a few more miles planned, but we thought if the weather got bad we would just set up camp there and do extra miles in the morning instead of climbing up into more exposed areas. Also I needed to try to quell the nausea. Not long after we settled in, two rangers came booking down the trail in the opposite direction. They asked if we were the ones who needed help, but we told them we thought the people they were looking for were another quarter mile ahead or so. Twenty minutes later one ranger came running back up the trail and we asked if they were okay. He shouted back over his shoulder that they were calling a helicopter. We were certainly concerned for the women but were also so glad that they were getting help. What had made her sick would be the topic of conjecture and rumor on the trail for days to come.

The weather seemed not to be changing much so we decided to try to make it to Silver Pass Lake after all. Again this stretch started out nice and easy, winding along a large mountain meadow. [It was nice except for a giant horsefly that kept buzzing my head and then bit my arm. So I wound up sprinting some of this section to get away from it. –Toby] And then it just got irritating. For some reason we were bonking. It had felt like such a long day and we wanted the lake to get here already. We were also very low on water at this point and were starting to worry about how much farther we had until we could refill (for the record we were in no actual danger other than just being very thirsty for a while, but since we were both already cranky, that sounded awful). Our GPS trail app still wasn’t working and we couldn’t tell if we were close or not. We finally passed a person coming down the trail and asked how far the lake was (rookie mistake, but sometimes I can’t stop myself). He said about half a mile. Okay, we could do that. We kept going for about half an hour, which even at our slow pace was definitely more than half a mile. There was still no lake in sight. And he had said that the lake was off the trail a ways and I was starting to worry that it would be a repeat of Twin Lakes where we could see them but they were very difficult to get to. Finally just to the left of the trail a little stream appeared. It wasn’t a lot of water, and therefore not the world’s best water source, but it was flowing and we had our filter. There looked like lots of flat open spaces just beyond the stream. We debated trying to find a low impact site back there. And then we heard thunder. That was it. Time to call it for the day, lake or no lake.

We took a left off the trail, hopped over the stream, and started scouting around. There were no established campsites but lots of places that would work and wouldn’t damage any vegetation. We carefully evaluated trees to see if any looked likely to topple in a storm, and to make sure we weren’t camped next to the tallest one in the area, but that we also weren’t totally exposed. It’s complicated stuff trying to figure out where to camp in a storm. Toby got to work setting up the tent while I ran back to the stream to get water. We could see the dark clouds off in the distance and they seemed to be rolling toward us fast. I got back and filtered while watching the skies, and once we had some water we dove into the tent to escape what we assumed was going to be a downpour. And we waited. And waited. We journaled and tried to encourage a large, noisy fly that had gotten under our vestibule to leave so that we didn’t have to listen to the buzzing. She refused. We named her Harriet. I got kind of fond of her despite my annoyance. [I was convinced this was the same fly that bit me earlier. But now I felt sorry for her, stuck in the vestibule. “Fly down, Harriet, fly down!” I kept imploring her. Poor Harriet. It was not until the next morning that I realized I’d inadvertently named her Harriet the Fly. –Toby]

After about an hour we had to admit that the storm probably wasn’t going to reach us, and we came back out of the tent for dinner, and ate the last of Toby’s Oreos for dessert [I can now confirm that mini-Oreos are an excellent treat for the resupply bucket. –Toby]. We laughed at ourselves for being so nervous, and I was a little annoyed that we hadn’t made our planned miles. And yet this spot felt extra private and we were happy to have the space to ourselves. We would find the lake in the morning.


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