I awoke to a cold breeze on my tent walls, only 20 minutes to my alarm. Now's as good a time as any for some oatmeal, I thought, and made my way out of the tent. The darkness held Sallie Keyes in an almost orange glow as my eyes struggled to make out the details, the sun still the better part of an hour away. Timmy & Katie's gear was more extensive than mine, and once breakfast was made, I was only minutes away from hitting the trail. As I sipped some chai, the caffeine a welcome addition to the morning, and the glow of the sun began to brighten the horizon, Timmy & Katie held to their word and hit the trail at 5 am sharp. Later, Timmy would share that the motivation to do so wasn't only because of the burger and beer(s) a mere 16 miles away, but because Hopper had bet against them being on time the night before, and they'd heard. To my credit, I'd expressed uncertainty. Sometimes it takes me 10 minutes to get on trail, sometimes it takes two hours-- you never know! I told the two that I'd meet them further up Selden Pass, wanting to finish my tea and fill up on water-- Hopper, laden with a long food carry, was skipping out on VVR and would meet us at Lake Virginia the following night.
The wispy clouds began to catch real light as I progressed up Selden Pass south, within earshot of Timmy & Katie, who were making incredibly good time. Timmy had crunched the numbers for the pace we'd need to hold to make it to VVR by lunchtime, and was holding steady to it per his watch's GPS. I made slow gains on them, but still was a minute or two behind them as we crested the top of the pass. This goes down in my mind as one of my favorite passes of the whole trip. Selden Pass north is an array of dazzling lakes, scattered among granite shelves and flats, the trail cascading down the slabs, winding along lakeshores. The sun had yet begun to rise above the mountains as we started our descent, the early light reflecting off the lakes at an angle that had them serve almost as mirrors, silver tracks of light amongst the darkness. A southbounder I'd met at MTR described spending a zero day here, floating in the lakes on an inflatable sleeping pad. I was, and remain, torn; the allure of a zero in a scenic spot like this is undeniable, but to not cover any ground for a whole day-- I'm not sure it's for me.
Selden Pass north, at dawn.
The attitude was light as we sped down the slopes-- averaging about 3.5 miles an hour, we were making great time. While I don't usually hike in this way, the stats from Timmy's watch were an interesting data set to compare to how fast I usually think I'm going. Turns out I was pretty close! As the day opened up and the sun began to come down, we kept the energy up with frequent, brief snack breaks. I munched on some trail mix and my newly replenished beef jerky as we walked. Timmy and Katie's experiences on the trail were fascinating to me-- they'd both done the trail multiple times, with other folks, and together. Between the two of them, they were coming up on 10 JMT thrus, which was incredible to me. They had an understanding of the flow of the trail that I was still developing, and I appreciated their insights greatly. Something I found most interesting is how different hikes were perceived differently, how opinions on places were dependent on time of day, of weather, of smoke, of food, of snow; I watched myself forming these opinions too-- even in the present moment. I found Selden Pass stunning, but Evolution Lakes, a markedly similar area, hadn't done it for me, maybe because of the clouds, maybe because of ankle pain. We pressed on toward VVR.
The lake level was at historic lows for this point in the season-- Lake Edison is a reservoir, and water levels are distributed between Florence Lake, Edison, and assorted other water storage sites. For whatever reason, the lake was nearly drained currently, and the ferry across was out of commission for the season. It's a 16 mile, +2k'/-4.5k' journey either way-- but the ferry dock leaves hikers 5 miles further down the JMT than the turnoff to Bear Ridge, to say nothing of the detour to VVR itself. There's three trails to be used: Bear Ridge, a lake-south direct route that adds the least additional distance, but does so at the cost of additional climbing and notoriously poor footing; Bear Creek, a longer, flatter route that drops a hiker off a few miles further from VVR itself; and the lake-north nameless trail connecting Quail Meadows and VVR, a no-go for northbound hikers entering VVR due to the additional distance. We chose Bear Ridge-- the most direct route that would deposit us closer to burgers. While during the hike I deemed this a mistake, looking back now, knowing that the shuttle wasn't picking up at the Bear Creek trailhead, we got lucky! In a normal year, if you're committed to not using the ferry, but you have assurance the shuttle bus is running, Bear Creek is better (and faster!) than Bear Ridge.
The Bear Ridge trail quickly climbs above the dense forest below, exposed to the sun and to the heat. It's a dry stretch from the JMT to VVR, though our group was moving fast enough that we hadn't filtered water in a meaningful way since Sallie Keyes. I had filled up my dirty bottle during a stream crossing, but hadn't even slowed down to do so, filling up in stride. Timmy and Katie had something like seven liters between the two of them, so they were set for the day. I suppose this is as good a time to cover my philosophy on water as any.
Water is the most important and the heaviest thing you're carrying on a backpacking trip. A liter of water is 2.2 pounds of weight-- ultralight backpackers talk a lot about grams/dollar savings, where your weight savings become more expensive as you cut mass. It is free to carry less water, but carrying too little is also one of the fastest ways to get in trouble in the backcountry. In the Sierra, where water is abundant, there's very little risk. The "dry sections" are under ten miles, compared to parts of the CDT or the AZT, where they can be 20, 30 miles or more. It's also worth noting that the water in the Sierra is snowmelt, and some folks may be comfortable drinking water at high elevation sections unfiltered. For folks who don't know what water to filter and what not to-- always filter! For contrast, much of the AZT/CDT water is cattle stock, or "cow water"-- but hey, in a dry stretch, hikers will take what they can get. I use a Sawyer Squeeze mini, sacrificing some flow rate for weight savings, and two 1L SmartWater bottles, cutting ounces at the cost of not being able to put boiling water in a Nalgene. No tea-to-go for me! I filter water from the "dirty bottle" straight into the clean bottle using the Sawyer, or drink from the dirty bottle through the Sawyer. The whole system is cheap, efficient, lightweight, and flexible. And in the Sierra, it's very rare to need more than 2L at any time during the year. Much of the time, I kept only the dirty bottle full. But I digress!
The gently sloping and relatively firm JMT behind us, the trail became loose, rocky, sandy, or sharp in alternating sections. Steep climbs on loose rock yielded to tiring, sliding descents down loose sand and pine needles, a constant risk to the integrity of our ankles. I mentally tracked the progress we may have made on Bear Creek as I went, concluding that we'd had covered the extra ground faster than the sandy steeps of the Ridge trail. But the three of us made great time, nearly jogging at times to keep up our pace. As the ridge faded behind us and the startlingly low Lake Edison came into view, we knew we were getting close. We made bets on what would be on the menu-- although frankly, despite all three of us having done a great job planning our food, any hot meal from non-reconstituted ingredient, cooked by someone else, would do. It was clear why the ferry wasn't running-- islands rose from the middle of the lake where there normally were none, and tree stumps broke the surface in many places, lying silently in wait just below the surface in many more. As a reservoir, Lake Edison's bed had been clear-cut, but the treacherous stumps remained. We picked up our pace as we felt the difficult trail drawing to an end. Even if we were subjected to the 2.5 mile roadwalk, it would be flat, firm footing.
And here was where an immense run of luck began. Looking back, our entire journey to VVR seemed almost cosmic in the way that everything worked out. As we tumbled out onto the parking lot from the steep trail, a kind-faced main stood beside a pickup truck-- where y'all headed? -- a godsend for our tired legs (and anticipation of burgers). Paint Your Wagon (or Paint, for short), is the ferry captain for VVR, and was currently in charge of distributing signs around the area saying that the shuttle was no longer running to the Bear Creek trailhead and that the ferry was closed. He said he'd heard our chattering just up the trail and decided to wait around a few minutes to see if we wanted a ride on his way back to VVR. We were thrilled with our luck, and gratefully accepted the shortcut to burgers.
Thank everything holy for Paint!
Timmy felt validated in that the pace he'd set had let to this fortuitous turn of events-- we'd crushed 16 miles on awful trail in under 6 hours, and that effort deserved some reward: a free beer (for all thruhikers stopping at VVR) followed by many, many more. Paint, an avid thruhiker himself, gave his take: as someone who's benefited from a lot of trail magic, I try to be a part of someone else's serendipity as often as I can. I think that's something I want to keep with me in life off the trail-- there's a lot of wisdom in those words!
Arriving at VVR, I made my way toward the backpacker's campground, free plots of land just out front of the store and restaurant. But before all else-- free beer! The three of us scoped out the choices, and I rejoiced in the selection of IPAs. Next down the list was burgers-- and I cannot emphasize enough how good a burger is after a week on trail. Even in civilization, the extra-thick patty and array of topping would've made an amazing meal. The cook, Santa, explained later: listen man, I just cook burgers the way I want burgers. We all benefited from this outlook. Timmy went to reserve a yurt, one of the very few touches of civilization along the trail. On all of Timmy and Katie's thrus of the JMT, they'd wondered about the yurts, and on this trip, they'd finally resolved to try one out. Instead, for hardly any more money, Timmy returned with a booking for the Big Tiny, a gorgeous cabin on the lakeshore-- one with a built in shower and every amenity one could ask for. And, beyond generously, they offered me space in the extra room.
I can't begin to explain how good this tasted.
In an effort to repay them (Timmy, if you're reading this, let me venmo you!) I returned with another 6 pack of beer, and the rest is history. Or, my memories of the night were. I jest, I jest-- mostly. Around the fire, I had the chance to meet RoguePhotonic, one of the all-time great contributors to highsierratopix.com-- the compendium for Sierra info. He's compiled more info on backcountry passes than nearly anyone. Where Secor may have given a location, name, and description (and deemed literally anything Class 2), Rogue has shored up the info with pictures, trip reports, recommendations, and anything more one could want. It was a genuine honor to meet someone whose painstaking research has informed so many of my trips.
VVR is a unique place-- hikers on their tenth zero abound, hotel california-esque. Many repeat visitors end up working there-- nearly every employee I met was a thru-hiker, some who had fallen in love with the place, some who had been called by the owner cross-country, asking for help in the kitchen. Many thru-hikers picked up part-time work to support their bar tabs-- some dish washing or wood chopping gets you a dinner, or a handful of beers. I don't mean any of this in a negative light, rather, it adds to the feeling, that everyone there is temporarily getting to partake in this almost absurd party in the woods, and that everyone there gets it. And nearly at the center of the JMT, the COVID risk was nearly zero. While mask etiquette was still pretty good, especially in cramped areas, the fear lessened, everyone a week or more into the woods. The few folks entering the backcountry there were given a wide berth. Timmy, Katie, myself, and other thru-hikers drank well past hiker midnight. And even in a year where trail culture was altered in many ways by the pandemic, there was a glimmer of it, a spark of hope, as stories were told round the fire.
Stats for the day:
15.8 mi (6 hrs!)