JMT Day 19: Thunder and Lightning, Very Very Frightening

[to Purple Lake, ~9 miles hiked]

We both had a hard time falling asleep, because the area we’d camped in was incredibly quiet, and the complete silence sounded weird. [Yes. We had become so used to the sound of running water at night that it had become really hard to sleep without it. -Cyn] Then, just as I was starting to doze off, I heard a huge noise like a cannon, and Cyn popped up out of her sleeping bag and exclaimed, “The fuck was that?!” But we couldn’t figure it out. Eventually I decided it must have been a rockslide, though it didn’t really sound like one, and drifted back to sleep.

We got a late start, and headed out toward Silver Pass around 8am. I was glad we hadn’t tried to push on to Silver Lake yesterday, because although it was extremely beautiful, it was quite exposed there, and I would have been even more nervous about the potential storm. I was feeling strong on the initial climb up to the pass, but then we hit a false summit that we hadn’t expected, and we both felt a bit deflated by it. Cyn was hot and tired, and the false summit set off some crankiness. A southbounder passed us here and said brightly, “You’re almost there!” and I knew this well-intentioned encouragement just exacerbated Cyn’s crank [It’s true. In my head I was thinking, yeah I’ve already hiked well over a hundred miles. I know I’ll get there. Certainly there’s some internalized stuff coming up here since I am especially grumpy when I hear this from a person who is significantly younger and smaller than me, which this person was. I hear it as patronizing, whether it’s intended that way or not. Basically there’s no winning with me when I’ve already hit crank mode. -Cyn] We decided to split up for the last segment. I charged on up the last set of switchbacks ahead of her, anxious to finish climbing so I could sit down and enjoy the breeze.

Silver Lake in the morning.
Silver Lake in the morning.

At the top, the main trail continued on ahead, but just to the left a side trail led up a bit further to a flat space with lots of boulders to rest on and gorgeous views of the lakes below. I took the left, looking back toward Cyn to make sure she saw me turn off. Bishop Pass Guy was already here, filming a panoramic view. Not long after Cyn arrived, we were joined by two other northbounders and a lone southbounder. This was one of my favorite passes for conversation — I think Cyn and I were probably the youngest of the group, which was unusual on this trip so far, and we all had a nice chat while eating our snacks. The SOBO hiker, whose trail name is CatDog, told us she’d done the PCT last year but altitude sickness had forced her to skip the Sierra portion. So she was back this year with preventative medication, to complete the last section of her thru-hike. The NOBOs, a couple who’d started the trail just a day or two after us, had recently moved to Venice, Florida. I took to calling them The Venetians. We all discussed the helicopter rescue from yesterday. There were some rumors of appendicitis, and also of food poisoning from a burger at Red’s Meadow. This last possibility caused me extreme distress (I’d been anticipating one of those burgers for several days now!) until I realized the timing didn’t square with food poisoning at all. Whew. [Even if it had, I would have taken my chances. Nothing was coming between me and that cheeseburger. -Cyn]

Looking south, near the top of Silver Pass. I think those hikers must be The Venetians, whom we'd meet at the top!
Looking south, near the top of Silver Pass. I think the two hikers in this shot must be The Venetians!
Looking north from Silver Pass. So much pretty.
Looking north from Silver Pass. So much pretty.
Enjoying Silver Pass (elevation: 10,754 feet), one of our last passes of the trip.
Enjoying Silver Pass (elevation: 10,754 feet), one of our last passes of the trip. Wow, we were really pretty dirty at this point.

Finally, we tore ourselves away from the beautiful views and all parted ways. I was sad that CatDog was heading south, because I’d enjoyed chatting with her. On our descent, a hiker heading up called out “Hello, kindred souls!” and this greeting felt just right. Midway down, we heard distant yelling above us, and turned to see a couple of hikers way at the top of Silver Pass, yelling and waving their arms. I waved back, but they didn’t stop. This was confusing, and we spent the next mile worrying that we’d left something crucial on the pass. I must have asked Cyn to check for things in my pack at least four times. But we had all our stuff, so I have no idea what the yelling was about. [I’m still wondering what that was about. There was no one near us on the trail at that point, so I think they had to be waving at us. But I guess we’ll never know why. -Cyn] As we continued on, we leapfrogged with The Venetians a bit, and passed two separate hikers who warned us that the Fish Creek and Tully Hole areas below were overrun with mosquitos. I’d heard this about Tully Hole, so I’d been dreading that stretch, but all through our long descent to Fish Creek, the bugs were pretty mild. I didn’t even need to wear my headnet. I did step in some horse poo, though. When I complained, Cyn encouraged me to think of it as an act of trail maintenance, spreading the poo around to help it dry and decompose faster, improving the trail for later hikers. Hmm.

One of the lakes just north of Silver Pass.
One of the lakes just north of Silver Pass.
Snack break.
Snack break. If you look closely you can see the salt lines on Cyn’s shirt.

I think this is Fish Creek.
Pretty sure this was taken from the Fish Creek footbridge. [It was. -Cyn]
After observing a llama pack train (!!) near Fish Creek, we passed through Tully Hole, but didn’t realize how stunningly beautiful it is until we began to climb out of it. This was a long climb, with a couple of seemingly endless switchbacks at the end, but we stopped regularly to gaze down at the amazing scenery below. [I couldn’t stop myself. This was one of my favorite stretches of the trail. So freaking gorgeous. –Cyn] Two guys coming down were having a very focused discussion about corporate management strategies; against the peaceful views all around us, this conversation topic felt quite incongruous to me (but to each their own…). We noticed that the clouds were increasing and gradually shifting from white to grey. But we heard no thunder, so decided to just be grateful for a bit of cover from the sun.

En route to Tully Hole.
Beautiful running water in a forested area past Fish Creek.
Looking back down at Tully Hole.
Looking back down at Tully Hole.
Climbing out of Tully Hole, and wondering what those clouds might turn into.
Near the top of the climb, wondering what those clouds might turn into.

Once we made it out of Tully Hole, it was flat and downhill to Virginia Lake, where we decided to break for lunch and assess the incoming clouds. They had now amassed into a giant wall that, while still relatively far off, looked very dark and imposing indeed. On our way around the lake, we rock-hopped across a wide, shallow stream. I’d been pretty surefooted so far, but here I misjudged the very last step and slipped into the stream, soaking both of my feet. I reflexively leapt back onto a rock so fast that Cyn never even saw me go in. The Venetians passed us as we packed up after lunch, and we exchanged some guesses about the weather. Cyn and I had been prepared to camp at Virginia Lake if things got gnarly, but we only felt a few sprinkles and decided to push on. Looking back as we left, we noted that a group below was setting up a tent right in the middle of the meadow (deeply uncool, especially since there were some great low-impact sites just a few yards further around the lake) and had with them a giant U.S. flag that they’d already posted next to their tent. [We of course spent a lot of time guessing how much that thing weighed. -Cyn]

Old, old PCT trail marker on a tree.
Old, old PCT trail marker on a tree.
Hiking down to Virginia Lake. Even with our weather worries, this was a spectacular lunch spot.
Hiking down to Virginia Lake. Even with our weather worries, this was a spectacular lunch spot. (The real storm clouds are not pictured, off to the left of the lake.) [I can’t believe what a beautiful day this was. I wish I had had time for lake swimming here. -Cyn]
Big rockslide area on the way to Purple Lake.
Big rockslide area on the way to Purple Lake, dark storm clouds behind us and blue skies ahead.

On down we went, toward Purple Lake, and just as we arrived at its southeastern edge, the rain started in earnest. So, okay, I guess we’re camping now. But where? Between the handful of southbounders who’d also decided to wait out the storm here and the rocky ridge along one long side of the lake, there weren’t many spots to put up a tent. The rain came on stronger. It wasn’t fully storming yet, and still warm out, so this was actually fairly refreshing. But thunder was rumbling, and I was anxious to get our tent up as soon as possible. The Ram Lake Trail intersected here, and we tried our luck down that, having exhausted the potential camping sites adjacent to the JMT. After a short hike and a stream crossing, we found some protected sites overlooking the far side of Purple Lake. Just as I finished piling rocks on our stakes, I looked up to see a beautiful sun shower, which briefly distracted me from my thunderstorm anxieties. Inside the tent, we listened to big booming thunderclaps and watched lightning flash. The wind picked up mightily, whipping across the tent, and I was relieved to find that our little shelter held up well against the huge gusts. I know Cyn was freaking out about the lightning, but the wind was by far the most intense part for me. [I was definitely freaking out about the lightning. I became really afraid of lightning after a very close call many years ago, and I was so worried about dealing with that on this trip. The tent helped me pretend I had some sort of secure shelter, and I put in my earbuds and cranked up the volume until it passed. -Cyn]

The storm ebbed for a bit, came back through again, and then finally moved off, revealing blue sky in the distance. We emerged for a quick dinner, noting for the first time how very lovely our campsite was — great views of the mountains and the lake. Also, home to three tiny birds who had clearly enjoyed some human-food scraps in the past, since they hopped all around our tent for hours and even ventured into the vestibules. We had successfully weathered our first real Sierra Nevada thunderstorm. And although our clothes and bodies were truly filthy at this point (trail laundry, lake swimming, and wet wipes can only do so much), we were now just a day and a half from Red’s Meadow, where we could indulge in real showers, laundry, burgers, milkshakes, and (still very important to me) apple juice. I fell asleep to the sound of the rain-swollen stream rushing below, feeling quite content.

–Toby


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