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Tag: Sierra High Route

Post John Muir Trail — Last Day — Virginia Lakes Day Hike

Virginia Lakes Day Hike, onto the Reno Airport, then back to Bellingham

Miles hiked — Approximately 9

This is it, there is no way around it. At the end of this day, I will be on a plane flying home to Bellingham and my JMT adventure will be over. I am sad to know this when I wake up on this last day in Bishop, but I’m ready to face it. Ready for one more day of adventure and hiking, and ready to return home and back to “normal life”….whatever that means at this point.

I make another egg scramble for breakfast, just like the previous day. Today over breakfast, I pick up Dave’s Book,  The Sierra High Route: Traversing Timberline Country, by Steve Roper.  It’s the same route the guy from the rental car place was talking about, and the same route that I encountered backpackers doing when they would drop down from the high route to the JMT. The route is about the same distance  as JMT, 195 miles, but at higher elevation and mostly off trail, and with many more passes to cross, lakes to encounter, and much, much more seclusion.  It’s an intriguing idea, doing this route, and the idea again enters my mind for future consideration.

But for this day, I will pack up my stuff, and head up Highway 395 North towards Reno. I have one stop planned along the way. Just past Lee Vining is a turn off to the Virginia Lakes Road, and there I will go to find my last day hike in the California Sierras. I know nothing of Virginia Lakes except how to get there, and I have no real agenda except to hike for as long as seems reasonable before I have to turn around to get to the airport in time for my 7 pm flight.  It’s an easy and straightforward adventure.

After goodbyes and heart felt thank you’s to Dave and Michelle, I am on my way by 8 am. I stop at the corner market for fresh fruit, and I hop back in the Prius rental. I am liking the car, and the gas gauge hasn’t moved despite yesterday’s trip to Bishop Pass! It’s under two hours to the trailhead, and, even with all my putzing around, I am on the trail by 10:15. The trailhead is just under 10,000 feet, and the day is mostly clear, but cool and windy.  It’s a day for extra clothes, headphones and an audiobook, lunch, and more great scenery.

Beautiful vivid sunset at Big Virginia Lake, Eastern Sierra Nevada. California, USA

Beautiful vivid reflection at Big Virginia Lake, Eastern Sierra Nevada. California, USA.

The trail is advertised as popular and crowded, but there is hardly anyone there on this late August weekday. It starts at Big Virginia Lake, with Little Virginia Lake just beyond. The trail is easy and straightforward, passing five lakes in a mile and a half. The others are Trumbull, Red, and Blue Lakes. I am not sure what the colors mean. I pass a few folks, but not many. The colors of the surrounding hills and peaks are fantastic, reminding me of the North Cascades in early Autumn. Views open up as I go. It’s another great day hike, and I am super happy to be here.

View from Burro Pass

Looking down into Green Creek Basin

Eventually the trail crosses between Frog Lakes and steepens to ascend Burro Pass. The pass is 11,120 feet and a pretty typical pass — barren, dry, semi-steep switchbacks over loose rock and boulders. I will miss these California Sierra Passes, and it makes me sad to be doing my last one. Everything about this day has a “last” attached to it — last day hike, last pass, last stream to cross, last lake to traverse, last peaks in the distance to gaze at. I try to appreciate all of this and not let the “lastness” get to me.

On the other side of Burro Pass, the trail drops back down. I am in the Hoover wilderness headed for Hoover Lake. I wonder if a vacuum cleaner aficionado discovered the area…? Regardless, it’s beautiful, and I follow the path down into Green Creek Basin for about a mile and a half. I don’t know exactly where I am going, but run into a couple with a dog coming up. I ask them what’s ahead, and they tell me the trail will split to head up to Summit Lake, or drop down to Hoover and another Lake. I wish I could keep going. I want to do Summit Lake. But I know I have to catch a plane, and I don’t want to risk being rushed. I think on another backpack trip where we did “one last hike” and very nearly missed the plane, and another that was so incredibly stressful getting to the airport that I couldn’t even sit with my hiking partner on the plane. Such stress is definitely NOT what I need or want on this day.

Looking down to Hoover Lake

So I stop on the steep switchbacks, find a large rock to sit on, and eat my leftover chicken (cold, from last night’s dinner), fruit, and an energy bar. It’s another last…my last lunch on the trail. I want to make all this last forever, and I try my best to burn the image of Hoover Lake and Green Basin into my head and heart. While it’s not as mystically magical as some other spots I have recently been, I know it is the last such view for awhile. I stay 20 minutes and take it all in.

Reluctant but  resigned , I turn around and head back. I keep telling myself to relax, this isn’t the end of my hiking career.  It IS, unfortunately,  the end of a fun, successful, and hugely meaningful trip. The mile plus back up the pass flies by, and it’s all downhill from there. Back to the car, step by step, analyzing each rock and foot placement, being extra careful that I don’t turn an ankle or have a slip or fall so close to the end. I am amazed that I have done this whole trip, all 250 plus miles in total, with no real physical mishaps. I want to get back to the car unscathed and whole, both physically and mentally.

There are more cars at the trailhead when I return, and it’s still wickedly windy. I want to organize everything for airport readiness, so when I drop off my car it will be a simple process. Everything I put outside the car to organize inside either blows over or blows away. I find myself chasing empty water bottles and even clothing that flies away with each wind gust. It’s humorous, my determination to do it all here. Change clothes, get everything packed back up. But I would much rather do it here in the wind than in the chaos and finality of the rental car lot. It’s another way to prolong my stay in the beauty of the mountains for as long as possible.

Finally I am dressed in the only airline clothes I have (a lightweight skirt that I carried all the way on the JMT so that I would have something to wear besides my preferred hiking shorts, which are running shorts that are too short for comfort in real life!) And I have clean upper layers thanks to Dave’s washing machine,  so I feel moderately put together and ready for the trip home.  It’s about 2.5 hours of driving to the airport, and I will be one step closer to of the end of my journey.

My previous audiobook conveniently finished at trails end, so I start John Grisham’s “Gray Mountain” for my drive to the airport. It’s fitting in that it’s about a young corporate lawyer who ends up trying to find herself and make a difference deep in Appalachia. I can relate, as I sometimes feel like the mountains are my home and I have to struggle to fit in back in my real life. It’s the opposite problem she has, but it helps me put into perspective that who and how we are in our environment is a matter of choice. Always. And while the mountains has been my environment for weeks, I must make the adjustment now to my other life back at home.

Everything goes smoothly at the rental car place and I arrive at the airport in plenty of time. A totally lame salad from some coffee shop serves as dinner. It actually makes me miss my backpacker meals! I have a layover in Portland, and my plane won’t arrive in Bellingham until 10:50. Thankfully, my daughter Shannon has agreed to pick me up so it’s an easy ending. I survive both flights, and Shannon is there to meet me curb side after I’ve claimed my bag. It’s great to see her, and I give her a big hug…even though she doesn’t much like hugs. It’s cold outside, and Shannon tells me summer has abruptly disappeared in the last day or so. Back to 50 degrees and cloudy, and I know I am really back on my home soil now.

My welcoming committee: Sapphire (left) and Indigo (Indie)

Shannon has driven my car to pick me up, so I only have to drop her off and then it’s 20 minutes back to my house. The place is dark and quiet when I arrive just before midnight. The welcoming committee is my cats, who have been without me for almost a month. Thankfully they remember me, and seem moderately excited to see me. It’s weird to be back, and I remember similarly how weird it was to be back from JMT 1. I assure myself that I will readjust, and that all will be well in time. It’s nice to stand in front of my own sink, look at my deeply tanned and newly washed face, and welcome myself home! I am proud of my accomplishment, and tell my reflection just that before heading for bed. As I climb in to my blessedly queen size bed, I realize that it’s an anticlimactic and fittingly simple end to this whole adventure. I am safely home in bed after my fantastic event, and, somehow I know, life will go on.

Highlights of the Day

The last hike to Virginia Lakes

Virginia Lakes Trail

I could have just driven straight to the airport and hung out in Reno, or any of a number of other options for this last day. But I did what fit ME the most, and that was to take a hike. I am not a gambler, never have even been to Vegas except to fly in and out of. And the idea of crowds and people overwhelms me. So I chose wilderness, high elevation lakes and peaks, and as much solitude as I could get on the last day. I could have saved myself $100 bucks by taking the bus to the airport, which is what we did on JMT 1. But six hours on a bus and missing out on a hike just wasn’t going to work for me. I am grateful to Dave for the suggestion of Virginia Lakes, and grateful to the trail for being so close to the highway! It made for a fantastic diversion as I wrestled with my thoughts about coming home, and gave me something tangible to hang onto for my last day in the Sierras.

Coming home…

Paradoxically, the other highlight of the day was getting home. It was great to walk in my door, see that the cats were still alive and thriving, dump all my backpack stuff on the floor, and sleep in my own bed. In theory, I could stay on the trails forever. In actuality, it was a relief to be back to the comforts of my own living space.

Lessons of the Day

All good things must come to an end…

It had to happen, and it happened with ease. My JMT trip ended as it started — with everything falling into place. I am not sure why everything went so smoothly for me on this trip. Sure there were a few glitches, but all in all, things fell remarkably into place. I felt blessed and watched over each and every step of the way. I don’t mean that in a religious sense, but definitely in a spiritual way: I knew I was intended to do this trip. And even though I was alone for much of it, I never felt lonely. I always had the sense that I was just where I needed to be, and knew that things would work out. And they did. Going to bed on the last night, I similarly knew I would be OK with moving ahead.

Or do they?

All that day and in the days following, I kept thinking about how I would share my trip with others. I came up with this plan, a day by day recounting which you have just finished reading. And the next step of sharing my trip is already in progress. I am currently taking a 9 month writing class, with the trip as the basis of an upcoming memoir. So while I will leave the JMT for awhile in my blogs to come, inevitably, I will circle back. Stay tuned for more information on the book as it develops. And I will keep you abreast of plans for my next big trip…maybe the High Sierra Route, back in the Sierras which I have come to love so much, and now call my second home.

In some ways, the journey has just begun!

 

 

 

 

Post John Muir Trail — Bishop Pass to Dusy Basin

Day hike to Bishop Pass and Dusy Basin

I wake up early at Dave’s place in the small twin bed. I haven’t slept great, but it’s still so nice to find myself in a bed and not a sleeping bag in a tent. I meditate in bed until 5:00 am, as I don’t want to wake Dave and Michelle too early. Dave’s house is small, and I know they will likely hear me get up. Or at least Gigi the dog will!

Gigi in her natural element. Photo courtesy Dave Grah

My breakfast!

I am excited to make breakfast at Dave’s. Dave and Michelle brought home eggs and veggies last night per my request. I carefully and methodically assemble my scrambled eggs with salsa, broccoli, zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, a multitude of spices, and even guacamole! It’s quite the ensemble for my first breakfast off the trail. My creation takes up an entire plate, and only loosely resembles something like an egg scramble when I am done. I am just getting to the table with eggs and coffee when Dave comes out. He is suitably impressed with my huge breakfast. So am I! It makes me happier than I can express to have the luxury of this amount of food and a warm environment in which to eat it. I enjoy every bite.

We chat about the plans for the day. I plan to rent a car, and Dave will drop me at the rental place in town on his way to work. Bishop is small, and there isn’t much option for renting a car. But I have found one for $161 for two days that will get me two day hikes and a drive to the airport. While more expensive then taking the bus, it’s worth it for the independence and flexibility. I have basically two full days, as my flight does not leave from Vegas until 7 pm that following night

My plan for this day is to drive to South Lake Trailhead, 20 miles from Bishop. I will take that trail all the way to Bishop Pass (six miles in) and drop down into Dusy Basin. This is a somewhat common exit pass for hikers on the JMT who are going into Bishop to pick up food or provisions. I will likely see people doing what I have just finished doing. But today, I will be hiking  free and easy, with only a day pack to carry. I am stoked.

I pick up my Toyota Prius rental, and I am off. I have my headphones, a downloaded audiobook, lunch, water, chlorine tablets for additional water, camera, clothes, and the usual sunscreen and lip stuff. I stop at the corner market for some fresh fruit to accompany my remaining backpack lunch extras. I contemplate life as I drive to the trailhead. Everything seems so different, even being in a car. It’s a mixed “different,”  as I love and appreciate the ease of things, but I am very aware of how much I still want to be on the trail. The scenery is gorgeous, as the mountains come closer with ever mile. Soon I will be right back in my desired environment — enveloped in sunshine, and wandering into miles of peaks, lakes, streams, and all the beauty of the Sierras.

The trailhead is surprisingly full for a Tuesday morning. I know a lot of the cars are overnighters, as this trail is a feeder for multiple over night trips and nearby peak climbs. I have never hiked this trail, and I am excited. I hook up my headphones and audiobook, hit the bathroom, and I am off. It’s still a noticeable luxury to sit on a toilet seat, even at a trailhead privy!

When I hit the trail I am already into my book and I don’t feel like talking. I hope my headphones will discourage people from making conversation. I have to pass several parties right away, as they are taking their own sweet time and I am raring to go. Soon I pass two older men. They talk to me, even though I have headphones on. I politely take one off. They make some comment on how if they were as young as me, they’d be moving as quickly as I am. I tell them I am not that young. The ring leader wants to make a bet that he is at least ten years older than me. Sure, I say playing along so they will leave me alone. He wants to bet a quarter, and I say OK. I am not in the mood for games and just want to keep moving. But they have sped up since I passed them and keep talking to me. He asks how old I am, I say 52. “Ha! I knew it! You owe me a quarter! I am 63”. Close enough, and whatever I think. I don’t have a quarter and I tell him that.  He starts hounding me, telling me I am a bad bet. I dutifully smile and laugh, apologize, and move quickly ahead, thinking I am done with those guys.

Saddlerock Lake selfie!

The scenery is magnificent. I pass signs for lakes with names like Treasure Lake, Marie Louise Lake, Bull Lake, and my favorite, Chocolate Lakes. If I had more time I would explore them all! But I stick with my plan to do a straightforward trek up to Bishop Pass, then drop down into Dusy Basin for whatever amount of time I have until I have to turn back. I have promised to make dinner for Dave and Michelle tonight, and I don’t want to get carried away with my day.

I continue to Long Lake, which is, indeed long (.7 miles). It’s also beautiful, and I stop for an energy bar by it’s shores. I take fifteen minutes or so here, unfortunately long enough that the two men catch up. Thankfully, they just say hi and “You still owe me a quarter!” and go on by. I know I will pass them again in just a few minutes. The elevation gain on the trail to Bishop Pass is quite gradual, only 2200 feet over six miles, and the miles sail by.  I enjoy listening to my book and passing people as I go up and noticing others as they go down. I’m sure some of the latter are JMT hikers heading for resupply, and I smile especially warmly at those carrying backpacks. No one knows I’ve just come from there. One solo gal asks how far to Bishop. I say maybe four miles, trying to remember how far I’ve come. I learn she is also a solo JMT hiker, headed to town for supplies. For her, I happily take off my headphones to converse!

Saddlerock Lake

Trail heading up Bshop Pass, Hurd Peak in back

Crossing Bishop Creek before heading up Bishop Pass

Long Lake leads to Timberline Lake and Saddlerock Lake. They are all sublime, and I am grateful to waltz among them. Next is Bishop Lake, at which point the trail ascends the pass. Like other passes in the area, the final switchbacks to Bishop Pass are somewhat steep, open, dry, and rocky, but thankfully short. It’s an easy pass, or seems so after all the one’s I did on the JMT. I top out at 11,972, with views of Mt. Goode, Mt. No Goode, and Mt. Agassiz all welcoming me to the pass. I only stop briefly here, as I still want to drop down into the basin.

From Pass — Spearhead Lake and Long Lake

Dusy Basin is as lovely as advertised. I can see why so many people come here. It’s like a mini version of the JMT. Peaks, lakes, streams, and fantastic granite rock formations are everywhere. I am overwhelmed by the feelings of freedom, joy, and pure gratitude that I am here. I drop down for about an hour, the amount of time I can spare before turning back. I see a weather station by a very small lake, and this looks like a good place to stop for lunch before I head back. I see just one other guy on the opposite side of where I drop my day pack and prepare to shed boots and eat lunch. I still have my headphones on when I settle, but take them off to eat and enjoy silence.

In Dusy Basin, with Columbine Peak (right) and Mt. Giraud (left)

No such luck. The guy, who upon examination is really quite strange, is listening to some type of broadcast. Very loudly. It sounds like a football game, or some type of sporting event. I am puzzled and watch him for a bit. He is clearly in his own world, and it actually looks like he is playing with himself. This instantly gets my attention, and, for the first time on my entire JMT trip, I feel nervous and not safe. I can see two other people off in the distance, so I know I am not in jeopardy of this guy harming me, but his behavior is totally off for the setting and it really upsets me. I am already without boots by this time, so I stay where I am but eat a very quick lunch. I am sad and distressed that the guy and his weird behavior and loud broadcast have pretty much ruined my lunch.  I am determined not to let it ruin my day though,  and I pack up and head out as quickly as I can.

On the way back up to Bishop Pass, I think about this guy. I feel lucky that I have not had encounters on this trip with men that scared me until this day. I know they are out there, but I have luckily escaped them until today. The first two men were annoying, but harmless. This last guy, I don’t know. It does make me think about how much I hike alone, and I wonder (not for the first time) if it is always safe.

Long Lake and Mt. Goode. Photo courtesy Dave Grah

As I get close to the bottom of the trail, I encounter the first two men again. I decide to play nice, and I ask them about Chocolate Lakes, which I learn sits below the Inconsolable Range.  I am incredibly drawn to the names of the lakes and the range, and I am still considering a detour there. They say it’s back up  trail, I have missed the turn off, and it would be another mile of backtracking, plus two miles round trip into the lakes. I don’t have time to do that, unfortunately. Reluctantly, I thank them, say a final goodbye, and continue back to the car, certain I will come back another time.

Saddlerock Lake in early summer. Photo courtesy Dave Grah

Despite the miles hiked that day (14 or 15, I am guessing), I have ample time to stop back at the market to get stuff for dinner. I arrive back at Dave’s about the time he and Michelle get home from work. I make chicken, rice, a vegetable and a huge salad for dinner. It’s another very mellow evening, as they prepare for a sailing trip over the upcoming Labor Day weekend, and I relax with a book I’ve borrowed from Dave. I go to bed early, preparing for one last adventure on the drive to the airport (Virginia Lakes) before flying home.

Highlights of the Day

Off Trail — The simple stuff  — Plus the sense of knowing what I had done.

As I’ve said, it takes awhile for the novelty of everything to wear off. I made sure to enjoy all the small things of the morning — at  Dave’s (like making my fabulous breakfast!), at a coffee shop in Bishop while waiting for the rental care shop to open, and at the car place with other waiting customers.  In town, I noticed both my sense of wanting to share my victory with the world (I wanted to tell the barista and anyone else who cared to listen “I just finished a solo hike of the JMT!!”) AND my sense of having a secret sense of accomplishment that I wanted to keep for myself. With the barista, I chose the latter. But at the car place, one of the other customers waiting on their vehicle was a man, approximately my age, who had made a half-hearted attempt at the High Sierra Route (HSR), the 195 mile route that loosely parallels the JMT but is mostly off trail, with many more passes at much higher elevation, and is much more physically challenging. He and his son had made a stab at it, and quit after four days out! I shared that I had just finished the JMT solo. He was impressed and said that would have been a much  more realistic adventure for him and his son. I was impressed that they even attempted the HSR, and the idea of doing that route crossed my mind, not for the first time…

On Trail — Being back so quickly into my preferred environment.

Upper Dusy Basin

In some ways, it felt like I never left. I was able to pick back up right where I left off, and do a day hike that I had always wanted to do and explore a basin I have heard so much about, from both Grah brothers (Dave and Oliver). It was just as magical as they said it would be. My transition from trail to life was tremendously eased by this day hike. I got to spend hours in bright sunshine, in an environment I absolutely love, and by myself (mostly), and in my own world. I also got to listen to a book, which I did not do at all on the JMT. While I have mixed feelings about listening to anything out in the wilderness, over the past several years I have softened my position on this, and find the distraction of a book incredibly welcoming at times. After 20 days of silence, I was in that space.  Also, as mentioned, I enjoyed seeing the JMT hikers headed out the pass for provisions, and especially the solo woman with whom I briefly conversed. It made me feel that sense of community to go along with my preferred solitary mode.

L to R Mt. Agassiz, Mt. Windhell, Thunderboldt Peak, North Palisade

Lessons of the Day

There ARE people out there to be careful of…

So this is a tough one for me. I do a lot of hiking and now backpacking alone. Of course I am not always alone, as others are usually present But sometimes those others raise suspicion or even downright alarm, as in the case of the one guy by the side of the small lake right near the trail through Dusy Basin.  I can probably count on two hands the number of times I have felt alarm out in the woods or on trails by my home. And I have been doing this regularly for over 20 years! But it made me realize that there are dangers out there, and, sadly but for real, more so for women than men. SO MANY people asked me before JMT if I was worried about encountering strange men on the trail. My standard answer was that I was more afraid of animals (especially bears!) than men by a long shot. Partly that has to do with how safe I have felt and continue to feel on the trails, even as a woman alone. BUT, this incident got my attention. It won’t necessarily change anything about what I do, but it does raise my awareness of the risks out there. Like anything else, we all must choose what risks we take in life. For me, the very small risk associated with hiking alone continues to be one I am willing to take, with caution of course, because the payoffs remain so very great.

Follow your instincts…

Dusy Basin with Giraud Peak

I can’t begin to cover this fully at the end of an already long blog, but this day, like so many others, was all about that. I knew I needed a diversion, an activity, and one of great pleasure at that, to take up my first full day back. The idea of lounging around Dave’s house all day, while pleasant in and of itself, was very anxiety producing for me. So I took action to do what I knew would work for me to ease back into real life…and that, of course, was to go on a hike!  I similarly followed my intuition about WHERE to go, as I wanted a particular environment (similar to JMT), and one that I am not likely to get back in the Pacific Northwest. And it had to be long enough that I could go for awhile, and turn around when I needed to. And it needed to have some challenge, but not so much that it stressed me out. Bishop pass and Dusy Basin was perfect for all those things. It brought me all the calm, peace, joy, beauty, and sense of (another) accomplishment that I needed and wanted on my last full day of vacation before my return home.

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