Day 1 of any backpacking trip is the one you see the most photos of. Pictures of people smiling and laughing while the mountain sun bounces off their tanned, not sunburned, skin next to burbling mountain streams. People still look like they could walk off and directly into a local bar without anyone batting an eye. If scratch and sniff photos were a thing, you could still smell the cologne they applied before leaving the car that morning. People still look like they do if you were to meet them in their every day setting.
Days 2 and/or 3 are the days that the people fade away from the camera. People start to look more like hobos than people with full time jobs, less like upstanding citizens and more like someone you would give change to, less tanned and more sunburned, less good smelling and more, well, you know in the parlance of our times, “earthy.” If you do see a photo of someone sitting next to that same burbling mountain stream, there are less smiles and more looks of fatigue and thank god we stopped walking for a minute.
Around Day 4 people start looking like full time hobos. The sunburn turns into a crusty tan, the backpack is carried as if it has become part of them, the bipolar facial expressions cycle between euphoria and death is imminent. The stench either becomes familiar, matching the appearance or has faded into a smell of BO covered with dirt. The body has given in to the mind’s insistence that momentum must be maintained, stopping isn’t a relief until it signals the end of the day.
It’s on day 2/and or 3 that you find out if the people you trusted to hold their shit together in the backcountry, will in fact hold their shit together in the backcountry. You find out if this big idea of a trip was in fact a good idea or someone’s cruel joke in the form of a death march.
Where are we headed?
We would start the day out by continuing to follow Mono Creek. This would lead us to an intersection with the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. A section of which none of us had done and the thought of being on the JMT again, was exciting. We would follow the JMT for most of the day as it paralleled Silver Creek. This would take us through Pocket Meadow and to Silver Lake. And then over Silver Pass.
Dropping from Silver Pass would take us by Squaw Lake, Papoose Lake, Chief Lake and Warrior Lake. Yes, there were a lot of lakes. It would also require us to drop down the snowfield at the top of Silver Pass. Coming up to where we would begin to drop was a bit nerve racking. It felt like we were walking up to the edge of earth and about to drop off into nothing and it was covered in snow. I’m not sure what the actual trail looked like, but I would guess there were multiple switchbacks that we crossed as we kicked in steps and hoped that we weren’t about to go sliding into the abyss.
We then continued on the JMT to Tully Hole and began slowly climbing up toward McGee Pass. We walked right past our campsite and then I made everyone turn around and come back to it.
The dust of the trail will always make one feel dirty. You get used to, but you still feel it, see it, smell it. When you are on a multi-day trip, you start to look for hobo bathtubs. Places that you could slip out of those grimy clothes and into some freezing ass cold water and leave what’s been accumulated over the past few days.
Our day consisted of two significant climbs that could be considered one long climb if you look at the map and elevation profile. The first was to get out of Mono Valley. This was a switchbacky climb with waterfalls and rocks everywhere. It seemed like we just kept crossing the stream. It was this first climb that I began to feel the elevation. My breath was a metaphor for catch me if you can.
Once at the top, we found the stream cascading over the edge and through some deep pools in the rock. It was time for second breakfast. The yard sale that is the setting for lunch when backpacking quickly spewed over the rocks. The sun was hitting us and the warmth felt good. Soon the idea to take a bath was mentioned and 1 by 1, we all found our tub and did what we could to remove the filth. The water was cold, like take your breath away and make you scream like a little girl cold. But it was worth the wash that we had.
From our bathtub stop, we continued on and made our way up to Silver Lake.
Somewhere along the trail, it became apparent that I was starting to fall apart. After about the 83rd time that Freedom Toes asked me if I was ok, I had a moment of clarity and took a pill. Breathing is good. Air is good. When those two things cease, it’s not fun. Trust me. The section between bathtub and Silver Lake is pretty hazy probably due to the hypoxia I was experiencing.
Silver Lake is a destination that will make you reconsider the trip. You’ve climbed, you’re tired. There’s this beautiful lake and at the end of the lake is a giant cirque and you realize that Silver Pass as over that cirque. You kind of have two options, continue or sit down and build yourself a hut. We chose the former and made our way up to the snow covered pass.
Then we dropped. And what was a day filled with climbing became an afternoon filled with descending.
There was a nice little campsite at Tully Hole, the problem with said stop was that none of us were ready to be done for the day. My concern with continuing had a whole lot to do with my breathing. We peeled off of the JMT and headed up. And up. Pretty soon we were looking for campsites in a long narrow valley next to the stream and the trail continued upward. We came to a spot that wasn’t ideal but was suitable. And then we kept going. Once my watched ticked past 9800 feet, my brain said no. I told everyone I was turning around and would meet them the next morning. I returned to the site we had past. And then so did everyone else.
Being on the JMT
We were all excited to hike a section of the JMT that none of us had been on before. The significant word in that sentence is the “were.” Our first day was spent in almost complete solitude. This was also how much of the morning was until we hit the junction with the JMT. From that point on, we had plenty of companions. It wasn’t particularly busy but after spending a day of not seeing anyone, seeing someone every 15-20 minutes felt like a god damn traffic jam. When we turn back off the JMT at Tully Hole, we were all relieved to leave the crowds behind us.
P. L. and R.