I took my time leaving Lake Virginia-- the tranquility of the early morning held some of the magic of the last night's sunset, and it's a phenomenal spot for a zero should I ever be in the area with time to burn. And at a certain point, I should chalk up the beauty of a location to the location itself rather than to extenuating circumstances. Maybe all it boils down to is that the lake is really, really stunning. Timmy and Katie got an early start out of camp, in order to pick up Katie's brother in Mammoth for the final leg of the trail. Hopper and I took some time, getting some pictures and a nice breakfast before heading out. It was just difficult to tear myself away from this view:
Lake Virginia at dawn, the water still as could be.
The water was incredibly calm, a sandy sloped entry, beyond inviting. If I didn't get cold so easily I'd have considered swimming, but by the time I really gave it some thought, it was time to hit the trail. The trail leaves the bowl holding Virginia, up and over a small ridge, before depositing hikers into the valley system that continues all the way to Mammoth. The trail hugs the valley edge, gaining and giving up distance from the valley floor as the floor drops and and rises alternately, circumventing a fair amount of altitude change. While pretty, if I were to be in this area again, I'd give the Rim Trail a shot, a more elevation-intense and panoramic-view-prone trail. Where the JMT hugs the valley walls, several miles east, the Rim Trail hops along the predominant ridgeline of the Mammoth Crest system, overlooking the little valley of the JMT and Fish Creek, as well as Crater Meadows and Mammoth Lakes. It may be a fun alternative to one of the more monotonous sections of the JMT. I don't envy the folks breaking up this section into multiple days, and while there's many places I would've spent more time in on the JMT, this section of trail was not one of them. A detour to Duck Lake (included by way of the Rim Trail), Peter Pande Lake, or a bagging of one of the many peaks in the area may lend some interest to this section; that said, I'm not sure anything exists in the final approach through Red Cones that would make this section stand up to the rest of the JMT. As per usual, I digress.
First up was Purple Lake, a mosquito-infested gem with a fun water crossing, two logs converted to a bridge. I ate a snack, filled up my water, and gathered more bites than I cared to count. I debated the detour to Duck Lake, but the weather was already starting to sour out of frame-- awfully early, 9 am. I had a bad feeling about it, and pressed on the direct route to Red's, my second resupply.
Purple Lake's southwest shore.
It was at this time that Hopper and I began playing leapfrog with Maximus, one of the only PCTers I'd seen. For someone in his age bracket (>60, though I forget precisely) he was booking it. Actually, for someone in any age bracket, he was booking it-- while Hopper and I passed him a couple times, he always cruised on by moments behind whenever we stopped for a break. That's the thru-hiking way-- less precisely about speed than about time and consistency on trail. The striking thing here, though, is that Hopper and I already hiked very much at this end of the spectrum-- though as I'm recounting this, I recall that we stopped to chat with a lot of SOBO hikers that day. Perhaps we weren't up to our usual speed standards with a relatively easy, all-downhill day ahead of us.
Maximus is an incredible hiker and an incredible person-- he has unparalleled experience as a luthier, and has worked on guitars for many of the greatest players out there. A self-taught silversmith, he applied many of the tricks of the trade to guitar-making for the first time in the industry. I greatly enjoyed his stories of the work he'd done, working his way up through the field via amazing hard work-- he's an inspiring character. He was hiking partially in memory of his father, which was the origin of his trail name-- and while I know he was working on youtube videos, I've been unable to find any yet. If I do, I'll edit this post and add them here!
The view developing as we approached Mammoth.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the burnt orange landscape of dormant high-altitude grass. In a way, it's the Sierra's very own fall colors, and certainly the closest anything on the west coast gets to a real seasonal change. In a land of evergreens, it's a sign of the times, a foreground that lends a certain gravity to the mountains behind. I was glad when the trail left the interminable edgewalk, pictured in the top row above. When you're that high above the same view for that long, the distance you're covering doesn't feel real, doesn't feel impactful. Who knows how far I've gone in the last hour-- that same mountain across the way certainly doesn't. In a sense that's almost a relief, in the truest sense-- the pressure, if any remains at this point in the trail, has lifted a little. May as well keep putting one foot in front of the other.
As the three of us pressed on downhill, loosely hiking together, the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse as the relatively static view passed us slowly by. The granite spires across the valley floor below us changed quickly from a brilliant white to a dark grey, the forest from a bright green to a murky brown. The sprinkling started immediately, and my fear of the rain drove me onward. And though I'd dodged the majority of the precipitation thus far, my luck had run out. The rain fell harder and harder, and I pushed ahead faster and faster. Hopper, I'll just meet you at Red's, man. The trail runs out of ground atop a steep cliff, the final descent down to Mammoth. My pack carrying only the meals I replaced with VVR food, I ran down the hill, hoping the rain would hold on for just a minute. As I reached the edge of the scars of the Rainbow Fire, the last flat section until Red's, I realized the rain had other plans.
Storm over the regrowth of the Rainbow Fire.
From the edge of the forest to Red's is only [me CalTopo-ing the number] a mile and a half. Honestly, that's about as far as it felt. As I reached the edge of the protective trees, the storm broke for real-- big, heavy droplets came down. Out of the trees, the wind was blowing hard, driving the rain sideways into my eyes, driving me off the trail. I covered this 1.5 mi, according to timestamps on my camera, in a little over 20 minutes, which is a pretty quick pace with any kind of pack. I have the weather to thank for my expediency. It was a shame in some ways-- the regrowth from the 1992 Rainbow Fire is fascinating and beautiful, the undergrowth vying for space in the newly vacated rolling hills, skeletons of trees left standing like toothpicks. I would've liked to spend more time here-- but the immediate needs of "god please anything dry" took precedence. There was no shelter to be had with the wind, and Hopper (who had held the pace after all) and I jogged towards Red's. Coming down the horse tunnel under the tall pines, hooveprints carving deep ruts in the earth, I felt like I was finished a race, ecstatic to be somewhere dry. Real buildings were in sight-- real shelter.
I found a dry-ish patch under a pine in the middle of Red's, and propped my pack against the tree, covered it with my rain jacket. I had planned to camp at the Red's backpacker camp, but as the storm raged on, the idea of setting up my tent in the damp seemed less and less appealing. I stalled for time, waiting out the weather: I ordered a burger from the grill, got a beer after wandering the store for the better part of an hour, and picked up and sorted through my resupply bucket. As with the first one, my food had remained in perfect condition-- which was frankly shocking, given that this was my first time making my own meals. As Hopper, Maximus and I sat in the weather, the hotel room that Timmy and Katie were in sounded pretty appealing. Eventually, after a few hours at Red's, we got a ride with Taylor (Katie's brother who'd be joining for the last leg) back to the hotel, where the three of us split a room.
We had grand aspirations for the night after some hot showers, feeling energized-- but the 12 beers Timmy got didn't quite find their purpose. As the clock went on 10 pm, we knocked out, exhausted from the day, up past our bedtimes. Not one to waste (LNT) I packed up 3 pints for the road. Ultralight if you don't count the 3 pounds of beer in my mesh pocket. In retrospect, I think the hotel was the right call. We had no way of knowing how long the storm would last, and I needed the opportunity to tape up my nylofume stuff sack, which had torn horribly on the rougher edges of my bear can. Without that liner intact, my gear had no hope of staying dry in the rain. I went to sleep confident in my ability to weather whatever the trail ahead may bring, with dry gear, a warm bed, and 3 pounds of beer. For those keeping score at home, that makes beer heavier than any single item in my gear list. Priorities.
Stats for the day:
+1500' / -4100'