9/1 14 miles Onion Valley to Dollar Lake
We had dropped off our resupply at Independence Inn, so that was easy. Innkeeper Jim brought us back up to the Onion Valley trailhead at 6:45 am for a proper early start. Amazing he was willing to drive us so early! That never happens.
We hiked over Kearsarge Pass back to the JMT and headed up Glen Pass. It was a lot of climbing. We walked down and along beautiful Rae Lakes, reminiscing about 2016. Puff Puff recollected that she’d struggled up this Pass, I recollected I was called a goddess by some older, slower hikers.
We got to Dollar Lakes and I pitched my tent in the same place I put it in 2013, 2014, and 2018. A couple hours later a ranger came by and asked us to move. I said we would of course but pointed out it wouldn’t make any difference unless actual restoration work happened. I don’t disagree that people shouldn’t camp next to the lake and asked if he’d like me to move some obstructions to the nice flat, hammered tent sites. After he left, that’s what I did the next morning, for all the good it will do–people will just move them out of the way. I should join a volunteer crew next summer, this park doesn’t have any volunteers that I’ve ever seen, although I have thanked professional trail crews out here.
9/2 16.1 7-5pm
We were both dreading the climb up Pinchot Pass. We’d had similar experiences in 2015 on the PCT, it’s just a long, awful climb, and we’d both wound up camping on the uphill after not enough miles and way too much fatigue. Together in 2016 going SOBO, this was a day that went on forever, we had camped at the bottom of Mather Pass and we went up and over Mather, then up and over Pinchot Pass, one of the few times we camped after dark. We kept pushing because of the wind and cold, Puff Puff’s tent was jury rigged and we needed to find wind protection. I lagged way behind. But in 2016, I woke up the next day and absolutely stomped it, going up and over both Glen and Kearsarge Passes.
So we grumbled and just got it done, it was an easy down from Dollar Lake to the suspension bridge, then 5 hours to the top of Pinchot. The last bit is a short set of switchbacks, like Forester and Glen before them so I waited at the top as it started raining at 1 pm. We started to hustle on the way down as thunderstorms moved closer and closer. Wind, rain, then skin breaking hail. I stopped to pull on my rain pants and yelled at Puff Puff as she passed me, “Run!” Each woman for herself in a bid to survive, it was hypothermia cold, the lightening was right on us and we were totally exposed on slab granite. She was out of sight in seconds and then I too ran downhill to the lake and trees. Down, down, down past the lakes and down to the river, the tree sheltered hole with a river run I g through it, between Pinchot and Mather. We found the campsite I’d talked about, protected. It started to rain shortly after we got our tents up, protection from both the horrendous bugs and the rain.
As I lay in my tent I heard a bear bell, turns out it was on a horse with a rider who was herding a mule train ahead of him. Much later, 11-ish, I heard a bear bell again, but I either fell asleep or I didn’t hear the mules heading back the other way. I love mules on the trail, they work hard and do their job, and have sweet faces and adorable personality quirks that the packers learn to manage.
9/3 16.9 miles
I woke up to the sight of 3 deer across the way munching some mushrooms. A good start to a beautiful day. I felt great and pretty much lead to the top of Mather Pass, passing two couples going our way. What a difference a day makes in the Sierra. Mather was clear and I didn’t mind waiting a half hour for Puff Puff and taking time for photos and contemplation. She blazed out downhill and I didn’t catch her for hours, which I didn’t mind. So many favorite spots on this trail, so many memories. We decided to camp at Grouse Meadow where I’ve never camped before. It feels like there are a lot of people on the trail in this section, I know there’s several side trails leading to the JMT. I met Just Jeff, finishing up the PCT in the Sierra which he had to skip due to the big snow year, and his trail friend from Germany I think, Christine. We camped just past them and zipped ourselves into our tents pretty quickly again away from the mosquito hell. Well after dark, some dork came hiking by with his speakers blasting Jimi Hendrix, probably thinks All Along the Watchtower is going to scare some bears. Funny, I’ve seen a bear right here before and they already know to hightail it to higher ground, Jimi or no Jimi. At least the dork had good taste in music.
9/4 16.4 miles to Evolution Basin
Glorious! Since the sketchy weather day coming down Pinchot, we’re a tad aware of the building clouds as we head up Muir Pass. I’ve probably said it before, but there are some nationalities on the trail that I really like, not that there are nationalities on the trail that I don’t like. If you’re hiking, backpacking, we share a common language. We leap frogged with 2 Korean guys, one of whom was having knee problems and going slow according to his partner who we passed as he was waiting. Puff Puff and I heard a tremendous squawking of birds behind us, crows maybe, and joked with each other that that was the last time we’d see Bum Knee again, the vultures were eating him already. (For the rest of the JMT, everytime we’d hear a bunch of noisy birds again, we’d make a crack along the lines of “Hiker down.”)
We got to Muir Hut just before the storm hit, but it was not a big deal and petered out pretty quickly on the descent after the obligatory photo session. Today I counted 100 SOBOs and we passed 5 NOBOs going our way. Our goal, early or late, was to camp at Evolution Lake. We both remembered this place from 2016. A few campsites are just places to pitch your tent and rest. This place though—pellucid, luminous, serene, when we were together here before. Last year, also perfect, I camped here in the still, cool Sierra air. We lucked out again, pitching camp before a spectacular storm rolled through, with winds so fierce I was hanging onto my tent from inside as a stake popped out and the poles flexed hard. The sky darkened over the mountains, not a solid bank of black, but layers and layers of neutral grays and blacks, and the wind pushed that dank smell of wet granite up my nose. It blew and rained fiercely, flash flood amounts of water that poured under and around our tents, the sandy gravel and granite providing no resistance. And then, it was like that game the teacher played with us as school kids– rub your hands together for the sound of the storm gathering, snap your fingers for the sound of raindrops on the tent, clap and stomp for thunder, then snap fingers, rub hands together and stop. The clouds lifted and lightened, the setting sun lit up rock and clouds and lake and it was over. We came out of our tents, laughing and cheering as I made little sand check dams to direct the runoff away from my tent. It was spectacular. Oh this place, these mountains own my soul.
9/5 18.5 miles
We made quick work of the downhill to Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) the next day. MTR does a brisk business in holding resupply buckets for hikers and every time I’ve been here before (I usually rent a cabin for a rest day and the family style meals) the extra food and supplies have filled buckets to overflowing with anything you might need to hike on for a few more days. This year though we walked the extra couple miles in to a weird vibe. I had sent my resupply box to Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) a couple more days ahead but we hoped to get a few more calories to tide us over. The pickings were slim, partly due to a couple who were grabbing every freeze dried dinner that hit the table, so much so that they’d filled their packs and were now filling 5 gallon buckets. They claimed they were going 250 miles to their next resupply. Weird. Fortunately, Craig and Scott, from the Whitney/Forester section, had redirected Scott’s girlfriend’s resupply to Puff Puff, since the woman couldn’t hike the trail and she’d already sent the bucket. So cool. We also saw Just Jeff and Christine again, and she was giving all her spare resupply to Jeff. Anyway we kept going, thinking to get part way up the climb to Selden Pass. Puff Puff talked me into getting up all the switchbacks (“You’ll be glad you did when it’s over.” And I was) and we found a lovely little campsite in the trees near water, a complete contrast from last night’s campsite high in the granite) and camped early again at about 5pm. This is the second day that she’s dogged my heels, insisting that I take the lead, even when I say I’d rather follow. I find it annoying and a change from all the days that came before and how it was in 2016. Oh well.
9/6 24 miles we think, who knows? To VVR
VVR is well off the JMT/PCT and there are 2 different trails to get there from the southside of the trail. I’ve hiked down to and up out of there on Bear Ridge Trail I think it’s called but in 2015 Puff Puff, Growler and Cool Breeze took a different cut-off at Bear Creek Trail so we decided to try that. It cuts out a PUD, in this case a pointless climb up switchbacks, followed by a really long down. The maps were a little vague about the mileage but we figured we could camp along the way if it was too far. Up and over Selden Pass and along gorgeous Marie Lake, then down past my favorite secret campsite (shh, only Tarcey knows where it is), just below which Humpty Dumpty took a big fall, tripping over a root or rock going downhill. It hurt my knees, forearm and finger but since Puff Puff was on my heels I didn’t yell “F**k” as much as I would if I was alone, I didn’t need to overly alarm her, it hurt but after the quick little assessment your brain does, I knew nothing was too bent or broken. I took a few minutes and got her to go ahead for awhile.
We got to the junction and she followed me onto trail new to me, and forgotten to her. It follows Bear Creek, more or less, then turns off uphill (dang, really?, the lake is below!) before eventually coming out at an uninhabited campground accessed by a dirt road, about 14 fairly quick miles from the JMT. We figured we’d head down to the dam and walk the shorter route along the edge of the water to VVR. But I’d read that you might be able to get a ride so we semi-had our hopes up all day even though it’s definitely not the height of summer anymore. Nobody, no traffic, no campers so we started out on the dirt road when a pick up truck appeared behind us. If we’d been 2 minutes slower, we wouldn’t have got this amazing ride from Dave who was hauling hiker resupply boxes and buckets to VVR! I figure the trail gods had accepted my blood sacrifice and gave us Dave. Puff Puff said although a little old for her, Dave is the love of her life.
There’s a backpacker’s campground in front of the store, a laundry and shower room, some motel rooms, tent cabins, RV park, and a cafe–everything a hiker needs. And it was packed, so many tents pitched. I asked about a room but hit the jackpot with a wall tent with 4 cots for $70 with the shower/laundry building blocking the raucous party developing at the fire pit and deck outside the cafe. Dinner, shower, laundry done and we spread out in our comfy canvas kingdom.
9/7 14.8 miles VVR to Virginia Lake
So I had no idea it was her birthday today. It really would have been useful information and maybe besides paying for the cabin, as usual, I could have bought her breakfast as a gift, or a Twix. We had a comfy night and a good breakfast, then got on the first shuttle boat ride to the north end of the lake where a mile long access trail connects to the JMT/PCT. If you have ATT, which I don’t, you can get a connection on the lake. It felt annoyingly like the real world as I looked around at the 12-15 other people on the boat all staring at their phones. There was a small crowd of hikers waiting at the landing to get on the boat and our small crowd getting off. Puff Puff was intensely involved with her phone so I said I could see she needed time with her phone and I’d go find a tree to pee behind and wait. Which is what I did: I walked to the junction and waited quite awhile. She finally came up, and yelled, all in a huff, that I hadn’t waited. It was unfair. Hikers wait for each other typically at junctions, water sources and summits. Coming down from Mather, she hadn’t waited at any of those places, but no big deal, I wasn’t mad, we know where we’re going, right? If someone isn’t waiting where you expect them, you go the next logical place. I apologized for not specifically adding “at the junction” to “I’ll wait.” It made no difference to her. So I walked off irritated and stunned by her anger, then stopped further up to get some water. She passed me with a glare and I didn’t see her for hours, getting angrier with every mile. A SOBO asked me, “How’s it going?” and instead of my usual cheery reply I said, “My hiking partner is pissed at me and I have no idea why.” She replied, “Well, that’s her problem, don’t make it yours.” Which made me think. I saw Puff Puff sitting with Just Jeff and Christine a bit below Silver Pass and nearly walked by but Jeff called me over. I said, “Are you done being mad with me?” and it was obvious she wasn’t so after a short break I hiked to the actual pass and stepped off to look at the view. I turned around and Puff Puff was waiting. I tried to start a conversation about choosing to be angry or choosing not to be angry and that I wasn’t interested in continuing with her if she chose to be angry about some bullshit. I struggled to understand, then acknowledged again that I failed to verbalize where I would wait. Of course I added something not so gracious about her inability to verbalize anything and how difficult it is to read her mind because of that. I think of it as “British reserve.” I apologized but we’re still yelling and she’s sobbing and I say, “I’m not going to hike with someone who’s mad at me. It’s your choice.” “Don’t put this on me!” What? But this explained it all: “It’s my birthday and I’m 37 and I don’t want to be!” We calmed down and kind of made up and kept going. Are we OK? I hope so. [I have to add that as I edit this post a couple months later, that her version of this day, which she also posted well after the hike, hurt me, the way she describes the day and my character. She claims it’s honesty but no, it’s her personal diary, a good place to vent but why share to the public things that hurt your supposed friend. Two sides to every story I guess but the disconnect between what she says in her blog and how she represents on trail is mind boggling. In 2016, her blog posted weeks after the actual events and only reading them would I discover some heartache or physical misery she’d gone through, not to mention a complete catalogue of her every wee or poo, without ever saying a word to me, the person she spent every day with.]
9/8 15.2 miles to Red’s Meadow
We camped last night at Virginia Lake, again making it just as the weather hit. We were up on the same knob where Tarcey camped in 2013, and where Puff Puff, Growler and Cool Breeze camped in 2015. We were awkward with each other but trying to get past the anger. I think we’re going to be OK.
An easy day to Red’s Meadow where Noreen and the best dog in the world, Walker, is going to meet us and camp. We got there at 2pm and I took a shower and did laundry, ate in the cafe, and had some good conversations with some Canadians heading SOBO on the JMT. One of them, Ken, says he and his 21-year old daughter plan to hike the PCT next year, starting from opposite ends and meeting on the trail. Cool!
Noreen and Walker brought us beer! Pizza! Twix for Puff Puff! We camped together in the nearby campground and it was so good to spend some time with my friend! Plus, I’m still laughing over her question, a first for me after all these years of hiking in a Purple Rain skirt. “Do you wear underwear under your skirt?” Noreen! Yes!
9/9 15.6 miles via JMT not PCT
We all ate hot breakfast at Red’s. Well, not Walker. Then we said goodbye and took the JMT, not PCT, route across the river. There was a lot of up and lots and lots of hikers. We passed tons of tents pitched already by 3 pm. It was getting really windy and I hoped to camp in the trees somewhere with a little wind blocking. So we stopped on the near side of Thousand Island Lake and huddled in our tents out of the cold.
9/10 21.6 to Tuolumne Meadows
Craziness! The original plan was to camp in Lyell Canyon at least 4 miles before getting to Tuolumne Meadows, then walk in the next morning, get breakfast at the Grill, try for a Half Dome permit and continue out towards Cathedral Lakes. But we made good time over Island and Donahue Passes and it’s pretty much down or flat all the way to Tuolumne Meadows. Just Jeff was at the top of Donahue talking with Puff Puff. Christine stayed in Mammoth for free at a trail friend’s place for a few days so as not to get done too soon before her flight back to Germany. Jeff needs to get to Tahoe to finish the PCT before his flight, I don’t see how he can make it in the time left. We met 2 women Katlyn and Hannah, hiking the JMT before starting grad school, obviously trail runners. We’d met them before and one of them heard my name as Cat Pee, which made Puff Puff laugh. I think it’s funny too, because of course the thought runs through most people’s minds when they hear my trail name is Catwater. Duh.
Puff Puff kept on ahead and Jeff and I walked some miles together with the new revise plan, get to the Grill before it closed at 6 pm. I saw the NPS Restoration crew is just volunteered with before starting this hike on the trail and they recognized me! That was fun! I showed Jeff the trail to the campground and we got to the Grill with plenty of time to spare. Burger! Puff Puff was there, not having waited for me at all. We ate and found the backpacker’s campground and settled in for another cold night.
9/11 18.3 to Cloud’s Rest/JMT Junction
We ate a hot breakfast at the Grill when they opened at 8 am, then walked over to the Wilderness Permit office on the off chance that there might be Half Dome permits for the next day or maybe the day after that. Most of the permits are by lottery months in advance but they hold a few back for walk ins. Holy moly, we got the last 2 for tomorrow! I’ve been up the cables a few times, but Puff Puff never has. The PCT and JMT separate at Tuolumne Meadows so if you’re on the PCT it’s a side trip to Yosemite Valley, just like it’s a side trip off the PCT to the top of Whitney. We hefted our packs and headed out over one last Pass–Cathedral. We got a great tip from a woman heading the opposite direction and camped near the junction of the JMT and Clouds Rest Trail, which lines us up for a quick hike to the Half Dome trail in the morning and hopefully up the cables before the crowds get there and it looks like the 1898 Gold Rush over Chilkoot Pass in Alaska.
9/12 up Half Dome, down to the JMT by 9:30, Happy Isles by 2:30 pm
Well that was the perfect day to be on Half Dome! We got down to Happy Isles, got on the shuttle bus, got off at Camp Curry and a while later Jim, Joan, and Annie met us. Jim drove us up to Noreen’s beautiful rental, Cloud’s Rest Cabin, in Foresta, which she is gifting us for 2 nights until Saturday when we’ll catch a ride to Fresno with Jim to put Annie on the plane home to Alaska and to put me in a rental car for a few days. I’ve got some business to do in Calaveras County, a visit to my stepmom Merry in Davis, and a Mumford and Sons concert in San Francisco with Tarcey. Then I fly home to Alaska. Puff Puff will tag along until San Francisco and experience a bit more of California and people I love. Her flight home is a few days after mine and she has a trail friend who will host her for a few days.