Lake Virginia to Bear Creek: 36 miles in four days
August 16th: 13 miles from Lake Virginia over Silver Pass to Mott Lake Junction
August 17th: 10 miles into Vermilion Valley Resort along Lake Edison
August 18th: 13 miles back to JMT/PCT via Bear Creek Cutoff Trail
August 19th: Rest Day on Bear Creek
spence here: it was great to have second breakfast/lunch at lake virginia. we even set out our portable solar panel to charge up the camera. we climbed up from lake virginia (10,338 ft) over a nice saddle where the view of the cascade valley was stunning. around a bend we first glanced tully hole–a green bowl with mountains surrounding it, seemingly to have no way in or out. we followed the trail and found the way in and out–about 14 switchbacks carved into the side of a gravelly slide. i was very thankful to have trekking poles for the gravity on that particular slope was strong! it was mid-afternoon at that point and the sun was baking my brain! i descended quickly and behind me billy took a series of amazing photos as we got closer and closer to the green meadow with fish creek running through it. what a miraculous fairy-tale place.
taking a break on a bed of pine needles at fish creek, we worried about the impending clouds and getting up and over silver pass before the thunderstorm. the scenery was so spectacular however, we still took our time, trying not to miss anything, and trying to remember all the smells, sights and opulent forest.
the steel bridge over fish creek must have quite the construction project. did people hike in those beams? helicopter? unicorn? who knows, but it was fun to speculate and admire once again the ingenuity and work that has gone into this trail system. we climbed some more as the clouds gathered, darkened and the wind picked up. the forest slowly thinned as granite rock took over the landscape and we continued climbing. our trail opened up to massive expanse of rock, glacial peaks, small alpine lakes and the storm! our trail was well marked with cairns, which was a good thing because it looked as if there were several ways over the mountain–so many peaks. it looked as if monsters’ jagged teeth had pushed through the earth’s crust–with 10 or so pairs of jaws, which way was our trail going? the rain started coming down a bit more, everything went grey and the wind was fierce. the lightening seemed to be just west of our trail, so we decided to go for it and trust that we would be okay on the pass (10,750 ft). its not like there was any cover to be had anyway. at one point, after a flash of lightening billy looked back at me and said he felt a current through his metal hiking poles, through his hands and arms. oh boy. we tried hiking faster, and even though i was hungry and my legs were like noodles i felt we had to get over the pass as there was no where else to go–dinner time and rest was safe on the other side. we passed a family going the other way–they had just crossed–and that reassured the both of us that we weren’t crazy to be doing this in a storm–or just less crazy than we thought. i paused slightly at the pass as we crossed over, trying to take in this god-like circumstance–it definitely felt surreal–before we boogied down another set of switchbacks in the pelting rain.
eventually we stopped as the rain let up, to have a big pot of soup behind a garden of more granite that acted as a windbreak. strangely, at that moment a very fit but very tired-looking woman stopped to talk to us who scarcely had any warm clothes on, a tiny backpack and a mostly empty water bottle. she said she was trying to break some sort of record, hiking/running from vermllion valley resort to red’s meadow in less than 3 days. sadly, she said she wasn’t going to break the record as she was already behind. she seemed to pause, as if we were going to be able to help get her out of this predicament. i felt bad, knowing the trail she was about to go up and at this late hour. it was obvious, however, that she had nothing really to sleep in and was just going to push on through without rest or much food. what a way to go! we didn’t have much to offer her at that point and i felt as if i had let down a fellow hiker in need.
we descended the trail further after that to a small camp called pocket meadow. it was basically a trail junction with a few flat spots beneath a crazy granite staircase–1,000 feet in a half mile. ouch! i felt so very lucky again, to be going down that trail instead of up. i awoke early on my sister’s birthday the next morning, sad to not be able to wish her a good one, but excited at the prospect of getting to vermilion valley resort for a cafe meal, some re-supply food from the free “hiker’s box” and a days rest. it was at this time i started to feel the effects of altitude sickness, although i didn’t know it at the time. i wasn’t hungry anymore, felt slightly nauseous and had a headache. i attributed this to our long strenuous hike the day before and to our narrowing/boring food choices. i felt more than sluggish on the pass, felt grumpy on the way down and felt chilled the rest of the day. little did i realize it was about to get worse.
vermilion valley resort was very welcoming to backpackers. the owner himself gave us a quick tour, talked about the cafe offerings, showers, backpacker camp and store. we could have a beer free from the hiker cooler, camp for free and run a tab while we were there and pay at the end. i was exhausted and thrilled. we had some time before the cafe opened for dinner so we had a few beers, bagels, cheese and chips. on our trip we had become obsessed with the card game cribbage, and so we commenced to playing for 2 hours. we set up our tent in the busy back packer area and hung out at the outside covered bar as more rain came and went. other hikers were similarly passing the time. at dinner, all the options were meat, so it was then i decided to break my vegetarian ways. i was hoping the baked chicken would help me to feel more nourished and less puny. as the night wore on, we turned in but couldn’t sleep as all the workers were whooping it up at the outdoor bar.
in the morning i didn’t feel as refreshed as i had hoped, but was excited about the trail. i still felt sluggish and so we decided to hike an easier, different trail back to the jmt, called bear creek. what a wonderful choice! i want to go back and hike this loop again, as bear creek was spectacular! the trail was mellow, the creek was clear and cold and i felt happy hiking along it. the flowing water over sand, boulders, through bushy manzanita and around huge rooted trees felt magical and was sparkling. i felt a little nauseous and not very hungry, but the surroundings did wonders for the outlook of our trip.
Billy here. The switchback straight down into Tully Hole was a spectacular introduction into the lands we were about to traverse over the Silver Divide. Hiking down the gravelly cliff was hot and slow going, even with poles, but the gorgeous stream snaking through the pristine meadow was fantastical. As we continued further along Fish Creek, we stopped along the water’s edge and dunked our head and feet, grabbing a snack under the trees. Clouds were gathering ominously, so we were banking on getting over Silver Pass before a rainstorm. A young, fit hiker came pumping our way, having just come over the pass. He had gone 15 miles already and was hoping to make it to Reds Meadow by nightfall. I believed he would probably make it, seeing the shape of his calves. He was rather incredulous that we would make it over the pass before the coming storm however, so we set off at a clip.
Coming up to Silver Pass was incredible. We crossed Fish Creek on a steel foot bridge – such an amazing construction project so high in the wilderness! The creek kept dropping further below us until it was hundreds of feet down a chasm spilling into Cascade Valley. The mountainous axeheads of granite did shine like silver, white rocks glistening with ice even in the increasing gloom. I felt that we were entering a superhuman realm – gleaming white rocks jutting into each other at extreme angles while western juniper and pine grew right out of the stone. The junipers were like witches, bright and mischievous. The land spoke to me more clearly than anywhere since the Benson Plateau or the Waucoma Ridge in Oregon. The woods seemed peopled with sprites and elves, all sorts of woodland spirits. The lakes here have terribly racist names near Silver Pass like Squaw Lake, Warrior Lake and Chief Lake. I began to think a lot of cultural appropriation of the Native People and the challenges it poses, especially to Americans of European heritage. It is true that the land spirits are different here and the Native people know them as my ancestors must have known the elves and trolls of Europe. We rounded jaw after jaw of granite, not knowing where the pass would actually be, steadily climbing upward as it began to rain. We passed white ridges, bridges of rock, alpine lakes, massive granite walls. Soon enough it began to pour and Cascade Valley suddenly opened below us across shining expanses of rock that was our trail, marked by tiny cairns. I was thankful to see horse manure across the flat, cracked wedges of stone, for it helped me to know I was still on the trail. Seeing the misty rain empty into the valley, under which Fish Creek snaked in a silver gleam filled me with energy to make the journey over the pass. The thunder kept rolling and the teeth of the divide flashed. The pass, which I kept thinking was over the next rocky knoll, seemed to grow more distant with each switchback. I began to think that maybe this was an idiotic idea, but we were already at 10,000 feet, and the pass was close now. I felt a jolt in my wrist and wondered if I was building up a charge through my poles. I became very afraid and doubtful. The hair on my arms were standing on end, but maybe this was because of my fear. Then I saw a woman and her very young daughter, maybe six, stumbling down from the pass towards us in rain ponchos. They seemed so nonchalant about the storm that I felt less crazy about being here. A little ways later I met the grandfather. He asked me to fix his poncho for him, as it had blown off of his pack and half of his body. I stood there on a rocky precipice fastening his poncho as thunder roared around us. He thanked me and we continued past one another. The storm was increasing. I suddenly became aware of the silver Thor’s Hammer pendant I was wearing. I knew rationally that metal on the body was a bad idea in a lightning storm, but somehow, something gave way in me. I was emptied of all human fear and doubt. A resolve and strength entered me and I knew I would will myself over this pass through harm’s way. I was reminded of what Thor represented to my ancestors, a protector, giver of rain and thunder. Thunder and lightning fixes nitrogen to the soil and fertilizes the fields. Here near the top of Silver Pass I could feel the nourishing power of the storm, the valley waiting for the needed water. I looked around at the world below – lakes, forests, valleys, distant mountain ridges, and felt that the mountain was the forge and lightning the spark that fertilized the earth – destructive and creative in one burst – bringing nitrogen and fire. My heart grew soft like a ripe fruit and tears came to my eyes. I felt awed and humbled. As I neared the final pass the wind and rain picked up and chilled me. Tears were still streaming easily as I crossed the divide and saw the sunny John Muir Wilderness extend before me to the southern horizon in sloping granite to the valley: new lakes and valleys and sun dappled mountains. I felt that I came over the pass with a changed life. Something hard in me melted. I felt grateful to be humbled at Silver Pass.
Feeling soon returned to my frozen wet hands as we descended and the sun grew long. We were tired and hungry, trudging wet over boulder and pine past Silver Lake. Finding a flat camping spot seemed challenging. Soon the descent challenged our knees down into Pocket Meadow, where we climbed narrow granite steps a foot tall 1,000 feet to the Mott Lake Junction. The trail to Mott Lake looked ridiculously steep and scrambling. We were very tired and dusk was upon us, so we camped at the only flat spot we could find only a few yards from the trail.
The next morning we hiked down through Quail Meadows and took the Mono Creek Trail toward Vermilion Valley Resort along Lake Edison. The lake was extraordinarily low, exposing all the clear cut stumps left underneath from the man made lake. Finding our way in from Mono Creek Trail seemed trickier than it looked from the map because the trail wasn’t very well marked. Someone had etched in “VVR” for Vermilion Valley Ranch into some wooden posts rather faintly so that was a clue. We took the right fork up toward the horse camp when the shortest path would have been to the left toward the parking lot. Vermilion Valley was a funny little hiker’s paradise in the middle of nowhere, an interesting mix of good old boy and hiker bourgeois. We walked up to the main building, being strung with lights and complete with an outdoor bar and tools hung on the wall, seemed every bit a party barn and somewhat odd in the middle of the woods. Spence said it reminded him of the bars in the middle of nowhere in the series Twin Peaks. They were very friendly and we filled up on food and beer, playing games and hanging out with the other hikers. One hiker told me an unfortunate story about how his hiking buddy couldn’t join him because he had broken his leg a few days before departure by tripping over his dog in his living room. Safer to cross a mountain pass in a storm than to walk across your living room sometimes. He then went on to describe how a marmot stole his pants while they were drying on a log, which he then was able to retrieve, only to find that they had been shredded beyond repair, so he had to walk back out in his thermals. I suppose I would rather have a marmot eat my pants than break my leg on my dog in the living room as well. I was thoroughly convinced that adventure was by far much safer than city life at this point. We nearly completely resupplied out of the hiker barrels, where hikers dump their extra food when they have sent themselves too much in a package, which the resort also accepts. They have numerous binders full of hiker photos and stories going back to the ’90s. The owner was extremely friendly and enthusiastic. A fire started up in a barrel and soon the local hands were hooting and hollering. We had forgotten it was Friday night. Some local rowdies were harassing three young cowgirls who were working for the horse camp. Generators were going full blast and the local drunkards were shouting till what seemed a late hour, since our tent was set up in the backpacker’s area near the outdoor bar. So, despite the loveliness of the resort, we only stayed a night and set out next morning along the Edison Dam to the Bear Creek Cutoff trail on the south side of Lake Edison to get some peace and quiet.
Bear Creek was the most beautiful creek of the trip to me. It was crystal clear, filled with little falls and surrounded with stony domes and trees. We took a dip in the creek in the noon sun and had lunch on the warm rocks. Not surprisingly, we had missed another forest fire by a week on Bear Ridge nearby, as we learned from a ranger when we asked about the helicopter out surveying the extent of the burn. So we were still thankful when more clouds and rain came through as we climbed the stony ridge near the creek. Soon though, the rain lengthened, pouring and flooding out the trail. Spence’s shoes became soaked and I was thankful again for my choice to wear sandals on the trail, a choice I never regretted once through the end of the hike. Soon everything on our person was dripping, Spence wasn’t wearing his rain pants and he realized his pack cover wasn’t totally waterproof. The trail became a boggy stream. We decided to find a spot to pitch camp early and dry out. Even though we were soaked and tired, I was getting excited about surmounting my own ideas of limitations and getting through the next more challenging group of mountain passes, including the highest one on the Pacific Crest Trail, Forester Pass at over 13,000. I was somehow rejuvenated on Silver Pass with a determination. So when the hikers in front of us turned back to tell us that the stream was too swollen to cross safely, I was not discouraged. We poked around to find the flattest spot we could find to camp and ford the creek the next day. That night, Spence was getting chills and sweating.
We hiked up past the creek the following morning easily as things had soaked in and the sun came out. We decided to take a rest day to dry all our things out in the sun on the rocks and relax since Spence wasn’t feeling so great. The rain came in and went throughout the day, so we took turns playing cards in the tent and laying out on the rocks when the sun came out. Trying to go to sleep that night I laid awake with an unshakable feeling of looming disaster. I kept thinking of a bear breaking into our van or something of the sort. Something would turn us around.