Friday, September 20, 2013

JMT Chapter 2 - Days 6 through 11

Back again?  Good, glad to know I have piqued your interest!  A few words about my fellow hikers.  Ron, as you know, started out with me from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley because he, like me, wanted to complete the full, official John Muir Trail.  On the evening of Day 5, we met up with the rest of the SYMG (Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides) hikers - Russ and Karen from Washington St., Midge, also from Washington State, Sarah from Georgia, David from Vancouver, Dave from Sonoma, Bill from Illinois, Younga from NYC, and Steve from Houston.  With Mike Nix, Ron, and me - that made 12 hikers and 2 guides.  Quick story about Steve from Houston - he's a corporate attorney there and married to a very successful doctor who is a department head at the University of Texas Medical as we were chatting, I told him that I had been a patient at MD Anderson (which is part of the UT medical system)...he asked who my doctor there was and I said "Michael Keating".....he chuckled and looked down - then said to me "you're kidding.....Michael Keating is one of my best friends".  Some say "small world"....I say "God's world".

On Day 6 we set out very early - the SYMG guys put out effort to come and get us at our posh accommodations at the lodge and picked us up at 5:30 am....we were driven down to the campsite and had breakfast before setting out at about 7:30 am.  The above photo of our motley crew was taken that morning as we hiked up Lyell Canyon towards Donahue Pass, which is on the border of Yosemite National Park.  Most of the day was pleasant enough but the weather turned nasty late in the afternoon. By the time we got to our campsite at about 9,500 feet, there was some rain and a lot of wind.  We got our tents secured and in the evening the wind abated enough for me to get some fishing done in the glacial tarn that was near our camp - pictured below:

I took 5 or 6 fish out of that little pond - my best session to that point.  It was cool because I had a little audience - 3 or 4 fellow backpackers, who appreciated the beauty of fly fishing.  The next day (Day 7) we crossed over Donahue pass and out of Yosemite, into the Ansel Adams Wilderness.  One close friend told me after my trip was over that she thought that we were in Yosemite the whole time - we actually passed through the heart of Yosemite, then the aforementioned wilderness, the Sierra National Forest, the Inyo National Forest, the Devil's Postpile National Monument, the John Muir Wilderness, Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, and finally the Golden Trout Wilderness.  But - back to Day 7 - here I am on the pass:

The JMT is all about mountain passes - there are at least 10 major passes on the trail, from a low of about 10,800 feet to a high of 13,200 feet.  And they tend to get higher as you go from north to south.  Each pass involves crossing from one 'drainage' into another - so when you crest the pass, you see a new landscape unfold before you - it's very dramatic - and since you have to work so hard to climb up there, it's very rewarding.  I think this photo captures it well.

Day 7 turned out to be a very, very difficult day.  We passed by one of the most beautiful peaks along the trail - Banner Peak, which sits above the gorgeous Thousand Island Lake - as the weather deteriorated.  No rain just yet, but black clouds were gathering towards the south, our direction of travel.  This is something like what we were seeing:

It would get much worse.  Compounding the weather problem, we had a hiker in the group who could not keep up, so we had to stop repeatedly and wait for this individual to catch up - sometimes it would take 10 minutes, and at times it took 30.  This slowed us down so much that we were not able to make our intended campsite - the thunderstorm broke upon us 2 miles short of our destination, so we had to find an emergency camp.  We got into our tents at around 4:30 PM as a 5-hour thunderstorm boomed and flashed overhead.  Our guides prepared a hearty soup somehow during this storm and brought a hot bowl to each of our tents around 6:30 pm.  I cannot tell you how much that soup was appreciated!  It stopped storming around 10 pm and by morning the skies were clear - but instead of a 13 mile hike the next day, we had 15....which was going to be a challenge.

Day 8  - on the way to Red's Meadow

Our destination on Day 8 was a place called Red's Meadow, which is a campground that is accessible by car from interstate 395 (plus some backroads).  After a long, 15 mile day of hiking, we arrived at around 4:00 pm.  We were able to get showers ($9 with soap and towel!), an adult beverage, and SYMG put on a great dinner, as one of their staff drove in to meet us.  While the group was less than thrilled to have a 15 mile "death march", as someone dubbed it, the creature comforts eased the agitation.  Unfortunately, Steve, Dr. Keating's pal, had to hang it up because of the trouble his knee was giving him (no, he was not that one who could not keep up).  So our group went from 12 to 11.  I "bought" Steve's tent from him - as it was a couple of cuts above the one I had borrowed from SYMG.

The morning of Day 9 was cloudy and drippy - after the storms of Day 7, my mood was about as low as it got.  One of the reasons I always come back to the Sierra Nevada and to Yosemite is that the weather is almost always perfect.  I was having trouble dealing with this wet stuff - I figure if I want wet weather, I can get it in my own state of North Carolina.  So I went off on the trail that day grumbling and trying to talk myself into a better mood.  This is a great picture of that - low, heavy clouds but with a rainbow.

Day 9 turned out to be uneventful - no bad weather, no major issues.  We camped at Duck Creek.  The next morning, Day 10, however, there were some issues - "Terri" got us up at 4 am so that we would get to our camp, Chief Lake, before afternoon storms had a chance to build.  Fine - so we were on the trail at something like 6 am - and we arrived at Chief Lake at about 1:30 - fine again - but the winds were going at 30 mph strong, gusting to 40.  It was extremely difficult to set up tents in that wind.  Also, our campsite was very high on the ridge and very exposed, so some of us were thinking - "we have hours of daylight and we could get lower on the mountain and get out of this wind"....but we submitted to the wisdom of the leaders.  I fished in the wind and landed 8 or so nice trout.  I would wait for a pause in the gusts and then fire a cast into the lake - and the fishing was good - 8 fish in an hour!

Chief Lake was our last night before coming to the second and last campground, which is called the Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR).  Very unfortunately, that evening, after dinner at Chief Lake, 3 or 4 of our company got very ill, sick to their stomachs.  When we set out for VVR on the morning of Day 11, Bill and Sarah were devastated with digestive issues, and Russ was also in trouble.  We had a 9 mile hike to what we were led to believe was going to be a boat ride (across Lake Edison - 6 miles long) the rest of the way to VVR.  When we reached the 9 mile mark - the boat landing - there was no boat.  "Terri" calmly announced that we would have another 6.2 miles to walk to the campground.  This did not go over well!  Many questions were asked about how the boats were scheduled, who had committed that we would have a boat, what actually happened, etc. etc., to no avail.  We marched along Lake Edison, on a trail that was very poorly constructed, going up and down the mountain, for 3 more hot hours, arriving at VVR around 4 pm.

VVR is a great facility, very rustic but with laundry and showers, a restaurant, camping shop and a lot of nice folks.  However, there was a lot of grumbling in our company.  To Carlos' credit, he stopped us along the trail before we arrived and made an impassioned apology for the incoherence and inconvenience of the boat issue and the awful 6.2 mile trail along the lake....while "Terri" stood with her head down, 50 yards behind the group, which clearly indicated to me that something was very wrong.  Well, I am going on here, but.....I'll try to get to the point.  We had a great evening at VVR including a steak dinner.  The next morning at about 6 am, "Terri" approached several of us individually and said she was leaving the trip and leaving SYMG, effective immediately, and that Alex Steiner would be taking over leadership of the trip, also effective immediately.  In addition to that dramatic news, 4 members of our group decided that VVR would be their exit point (Bill and Sarah due to stomach issues, David due to general misery, and Younga due to her inability to carry the required weight).  So we lost another 4 hikers and a lead guide!!

Early morning on Day 11,  enroute to VVR - just over Silver Pass

There was good news, however - I knew Alex from many conversations I had with him prior to the hike (he mans the SYMG office in Oakhurst, CA and guides 1-2 trips per year).  As a son of the great state of Wisconsin I had grudging respect for Alex ;-), and I actually felt great that SYMG was bringing an all-star off the bench to lead our trip.  In addition to this strong staffing decision that was made, the president of the company, Ian Elman, and his #2 man, Colby Brokvist, made the 3 hour drive out to VVR from Oakhurst at 4 am to apologize to us, to affirm their commitment that the trip would continue and exceed our expectations, and to explain what would happen next.  As they say, every company messes up;  what distinguishes one company from another is how they handle their mess-ups.  I was very impressed  with how Ian handled this situation.

As for "Terri" - she came to a place where she did not feel like she was where she should be - that she did not want to be guiding trips in the Sierra Nevada.  She took abrupt action and fortunately Ian and SYMG were able to recover, and strongly.  She is a young lady with many talents and I wish her all the best in whatever she decides to do.  Her whole life lies ahead, and my prayers are with her and she seeks the path God wants for her.

Too many words, not enough pictures - but this was the "GREAT DRAMA" of our trip.  So, on Day 12, 7 hikers and 2 guides - Alex and Carlos - set off from VVR to take on the final, very rugged, no way out, extremely remote, final 15 days of the JMT.  Don't miss the next chapter!

This was taken at Chief Lake - early morning on Day 11, Orion rising before dawn....

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