Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

September 11, 2016

Backpacking the John Muir Trail, Part 2

DAYS 4-7   Red's Meadow to Muir Trail Ranch

Our fourth day on the John Muir trail was a clean, fresh start to the trip.  After lunch, dinner and breakfast at the Red's Meadow cafe, plus a couple of showers, a nice bed, and a rinse of our clothing, we set off for another three nights along the trail. We didn't need to smash our food to fit it in the bear canisters, but we still left a small pile of candy bars for the cleaning lady in our hotel room that we knew we couldn't eat along the way!

The trail out of Red's Meadow climbed gently for miles, passing through a burned section from the Rainbow fire some years before (named after waterfall near there).   Although we had no passes to climb today, we were starting at only 7,600 feet of elevation, the lowest we would get along the whole route.   There was no where to go but up, but at least it was a gradual up.   Once through the burn, we started long, lazy switchbacks up a hillside, passing two red volcanic cones on either side of the trail.  I found the day quite scenic, in a woodsy sort of way.  I even saw a weasel!

But the woods get old, and what I was really hoping for was a nice flowing stream with smooth rocks to sit on where we could take a nice mid-day break.  Hurrying to camp every day just to get bored waiting for the sun to set is a little overrated.

At Duck Pass Trail we found a nice rocky stream to take a break just when I felt like I was lagging.   I  sat on a rock and soaked my feet and legs in very cold water while we enjoyed the sunshine.   We also went about the myriad of tasks to keep us moving later in the day.   Although today we had time for a long stop, it's not always the case, and it pays to be efficient with gear.  So we purified water, dug out more snacks, put on sunscreen, found the lipgloss, and made sure we had what we needed handy so we wouldn't have to stop later to dig it out.

This time, it was only a few more miles to our camp for the night at Lake Victoria.  There was some steep hills (up and down) in our way, but the scenery got more scenic, and we were there by mid afternoon.  So were our friends, Fabrian and another couple, who had stopped there to cook lunch and have a swim.  Brrrr.   I never did manage to submerge myself in these freezing cold lakes.

The big meadow to the north side of the lake had many camping spots, hidden here and there by rocks and trees but dominated by the mountains around us.   We hung out and visited with everyone for a while, and commiserated on a sprained ankle.    Finding a nice campsite was simple later...we simply walked around the lake until we found one overlooking the lake.  It wouldn't always be that nice, or that easy.

By now our camp routines were getting pretty streamlined.  Jim would put up the tent while I got water bottles filled all the food stuff together.  Then I could sort out my supper, tea, olive oil, breakfast oatmeal, and coffee.   Every bit of gear and food would come out of our packs, and we used trash bags to keep it out of the dirt.  Inside the tent went all clothes, inflated air mattress, foam pads, headlamps, etc.  The empty pack went under my feet, not that it gave much padding!  We would then boil up hot water for each meal, add some olive oil for flavor and calories, and let them sit and rehydrate for a while.  In the meantime we boil up more water for tea.  We didn't always want to drink it, but it's a good way to get rehydrated after a hot day of hiking.   It's also a nice way to keep my hands warm as the air cools down.  After our evening meal, I would collect all the breakfast stuff (oatmeal, hot chocolate/coffee, spoons, ziploc cozies (to keep oatmeal warmer), and the stove.    Sometime before or after that, we would usually soak our feet again, and get our snacks ready for the next day.

Morning was the whole cooking routine over again, while we juggled packing with brushing our teeth and sipping coffee.   It was really hard to wake up before the sun came up....getting up into the cold and dark from a tent was hard for us, apparently.   Try as we might to speed up, the whole changing clothes/packing/cooking/eating/call of nature process in the morning always took us between 70-90 minutes every day.     Some people, to make this process faster, don't cook in the morning, just eat a cold breakfast bar or Carnation instant breakfast.   In fact, some people who want to go really fast don't bring a stove at all, just ready to eat foods and drink mixes.   It does take time to cook, but weight wise, I think dehydrated meals make up for the weight of the stove after a few days.  Plus it's just nice to have a hot meal out there.  Not to mention hot chocolate...my favorite!

That evening, we wowed a family of women hikers with show and tell of our light gear, and they vowed to chuck a few things at their next resupply so they could walk lighter and easier!   We enjoyed encountering other backpackers, but didn't usually see them more than a day before we passed their next campsite and continued further beyond.

So it was usually between 7:30 and 8:30 each morning when we finally rolled out of camp to start walking.  Day 5 was no exception, but we only had 13 miles to go.   Silver pass was in our way, at 10,900 feet, then it was down to Lake Edison Trail for the night, again dipping below 8000 feet.   This would prove to be a hard mental day for me.  My legs, which were still a little sore from the first few days of hiking, still hadn't recovered, and I just didn't feel like going fast at all.   The elevation first dropped us down 1000 feet, then up 1500, then down 3000.   Where's the flat, nice trail, I asked Jim rhetorically?!?   I tried to enjoy the high alpine lakes and the views behind us, but I was just having an off day.

Jim was going strong, found a hiker on the trail to talk to, and pulled ahead of me easily.  The descent seemed boring, I wasn't going very fast, and I didn't want to go fast, darn it!  Finally after the pass I told him to go ahead and find us a camp spot.   I thought I was going down forever, as I took big steps down the rocky trail and tried to think of reasons why I was out here walking, days from the nearest trailhead with uncomfortable sleeping gear and boring food.   I stopped to soak my feet, and finally meandered into camp some time later.

Our camp spot was actually really beautiful, deep in the woods, near a loud stream and the bridge junction to Vermillion Ranch on Lake Edison.  We didn't need a resupply here, so we would never even get to see the lake, which seemed quite large on the map.    I revived myself with my favorite dinner of the trip, smoked Salmon mixed into instant potatoes....and wished I had sent more of that in my resupply!

There were plenty of other people in camp, including all the usual faces we had been talking to along with a group of women on the 10 mile a day plan.   We also met Foreman, who was the first guy to have our same fast itinerary.  He had tried the trail twice before, quitting once for blisters, and getting driven out by a fire the second attempt.  Between the two, he had lost at least 50 pounds and gotten a lot lighter and faster.   He was anxious to finish this time, and we would camp together several nights along the trail.

I was ready to go the next morning on Day 6, which was lucky, because our first steps down the trail were on to the infamous Bear Ridge.  This steep ascent was the reason why we had stopped the night before, not wanting to go up in the afternoon heat.    In the cool morning, it wasn't so bad, even if it was 2000 feet of switchback ascents through the deep forest.   It was also the driest stretch of the trail, with about 5 miles without water.   That wasn't too tough for us for drinking, but the streams and lakes were some of the most scenic parts of the John Muir trail...this was dusty and rather monotonous.

At the top we met Ron and another guy taking a break.  We added him to the collection of people who would be heading to the Muir Trail Ranch resupply the same day as us, which was tomorrow now.  Ron claimed to be slow on the trail, but he seemed to underestimate himself.  Every time we met up with him later, he was already ahead of us, or passing us while we took a break!

Jim had been building me up for the cabin we had reserved at the Muir Trail Ranch.   With private hot springs, our resupply bucket, breakfasts and dinner cooked by award winning chefs, and a real bed to sleep in, I was looking forward to it.  Although let's face it I was excited to do anything rather than eat another boring meal out of a ziploc bag and sleep on the hard ground!  

So we would be walking longer today, in order to have a short walking into the Ranch the next morning.  This made sense to me, but scenery on the second half of the day was really gorgeous and I wanted to stop and camp in many places instead.  For our midday break, we found a river running over smooth rocks, with perfect places to walk into the water and soak while eating a snack.  It was cold water but warm air, and we stayed for quite a long time.   We were joined by Foreman and the couple with the sprained ankle, and passed by Ron (of course).

We eventually all continued on, finally arriving at Marie Lakes, probably my favorite place on the whole trail.  The lake was just gorgeous.  There was even a small rocky cove where the water "might"  have been a little warmer.    Unfortunately we couldn't camp here either....but the views of the lake just kept getting better and better as we powered up and over Seldon Pass, still just short of 11000 feet.  From the crest, it was only a couple of miles to Sallie Keyes lakes, where we finally found a campsite near the outlet of the lake.  Ron and Foreman joined us there, along with a lady heading Northbound.   We would see Fabian passing by early the next morning, and all get back together at the Ranch while happily sorting through our resupplies.

Sallie Keyes Lake might have been one of the warmer lakes, but it was windy and overcast when we arrived and I wasn't having any ideas of swimming.  After a soak, I put on my waterproof gear and down vest (I have trouble staying warm enough when it's windy and I'm tired) and sat on a log at the lake outlet.   There were trout swimming around all the submerged logs in the perfectly clear water, and I was mesmerized.

Day 7 was almost a rest day for us, otherwise known as a NERO (near Zero) day.   We just had 5 miles to get to Muir Trail Ranch, where we could get a shower, soak in the hot springs, wash our clothes, eat real food, and rest.    In those 5 miles, we dropped almost 2,500 feet of elevation in some never ending switchbacks.  Jim had walked ahead faster, and I found the sign junctions somewhat confusing, but eventually found my way down to the ranch.  Oddly enough, a horseback tour passed me, going up to our campsite for a day trip...that's a lot of up and down, even on a horse!

Arriving at the resupply point, it was entertaining to watch all of our newfound friends sort out the food they thought they might want to eat and had sent themselves a month ago.

Along the edge of the tent was a long row of buckets of extra food and toiletries.  We all pawed through these rejects for odds and ends which other people had brought too much of or had gotten sick of.    Our own resupply was pretty standard fare;  oatmeal for breakfast, candy bars/peanut butter/nuts for snacks, and Mountain House dinners.   My favorite dinner was Pad Thai, but I hadn't sent any in this resupply.   I really didn't like Beef Stroganoff but had three of them waiting for me :(  

With food laid out over every surface, we exchanged between hikers because everyone was bored with something or had packed too much.  Ron exchanged a bottle of wine for a hunk of cheese.   I gave away my 3 stroganoff dinners to a guy who said it was his favorite meal (?), and ended up with Ramen noodles, instant potatoes, and hard salami instead.  I changed my tea packets (sick of the flavor) for other varieties, and got a few more drink mix packets, which helped me drink more water during the day.  I also found the holy grail of snacks I had been wishing for, Nutella and Cheetos!  Our best tip of the day came from a Norwegian hiker, who said he was adding instant potatoes to his mountain house meals.  He dumped extra packages of potatoes into the buckets so I appropriated a few.  I did that almost every night the rest of the trip, and it was always  a winner.  But most of the giveaway buckets were filled with homemade or mystery packages of food.  Labeled or not, you're never sure what they are!   I think the selection might have been stripped more than usual, as a girl the day before arrived, but not her resupply bucket.  She managed to scavenge enough food to continue on just from the bucket extras.  We did go back later in the day and find a huge unopened package of pepperoni sticks, which turns out to have been my favorite snack ever.  We returned about half the package to the buckets and I sorely regretted that a few days later....

Once everyone had leisurely sorted their resupplies, they moved on to camp further up the trail.  Our cabin was ready too, so we could then wash our clothes, wash ourselves, explore the camp, and hope for the dinner bell to ring.   Two natural hot springs flow through, and were built into little private japanese garden pools complete with bathing area, views of the mountains, and privacy.  We chose the cooler of the two baths and soaked for a while.  It was so heavenly that we went back after dark to do it again!

Chicken Paella, salad, fresh bread and apple pie was on the menu for dinner, served buffet style in the small cook house.  We swapped hiking stories with our neighbors and enjoyed the fresh food and the fact that we were sitting on a chair to eat it!

Third and final section coming up soon...

Gear list at about 13 Pounds base weight
Z-Packs Arc Blast backpack        19 ounces
Z-Packs Duplex tent         19 ounces
Enlightened Equipment Enigma 20 Quilt         18 ounces
Katabatic Gear Bristlecone Bivy        7 ounces
Thermarest NeoAir XLite air mattress        8 ounces
Gossamer Gear Thinlite 1/8 foam pad (for under air mattress) 2 ounces
Bearikade bear cans  (one Weekender size, one Expedition size)  31 and 36 ounces
Jetboil stove with one canister per resupply 16 ounces
Clothing included shorts, t-shirt, arm warmers, rain jacket, rain pants, wool sleeping clothes, gloves, extra socks, beanie, sun hat, down vest, flip-flops, and a fleece sweater.   Extras:  foam sit pad, lighter, toiletries, aquamira, 1 and 2 liter platypus collapsible water bottles, 1/2 liter Nalgene for hot drinks, watch, knife, book, headlamp, bandanna, map book  etc.   All of this weighed about 6 pounds

"I'm gonna work you like a rented llama!"
Day 1 Tuolumne to Marie Lakes Trail  17 miles  8 hours
Day 2 Marie Lakes Trail to Rosalie Lake   12 Miles  6 hours
Day 3 Rosalie Lake to Reds Meadow 9 miles  3 hours
Day 4 Reds Meadow to Lake Virginia 15.5 miles  8 hours
Day 5 Lake Virginia to Lake Edison Trail 13 miles  7 hours
Day 6 Lake Edison Trail to Sallie Keyes Lakes 16 miles 8 hours
Day 7 Sallie Keyes Lakes to Muir Trail Ranch 5 miles 2 hours
Day 8 Muir Trail Ranch to Wanda Lake 18 miles 10 hours
Day 9 Wanda Lake to Deer Meadow 16 miles 8 hours
Day 10 Deer Meadow to Sawmill Pass Trail 21 miles 12 hours
Day 11 Sawmill Pass Trail to Vidette Meadow 17 miles 9 hours
Day 12 Vidette Meadow to Shepherd Pass Trail 12 miles 6 hours
Day 13 Shepherd Pass Trail to Guitar Lake 11 Miles 6 hours
Day 14 Guitar Lake to Whitney Portal 11.5 miles 6 hours

The 1992 Rainbow Fire aftermath
Red Cone

Lake Virginia

A doe and two fauns look at Jim on the trail

A perfect spot to soak feet and relax

Sallie Keyes Lake
Hot springs at Muir Trail Ranch

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