John Muir Trail, 1971, Second week, Reds to South Lake
Second week, JMT 1971
After we got our food supplies at the Reds Meadow Resort food drop we had to pack our trail lunches, which included meat (salted and sliced dried beef ) from a glass jar, a chunk of cheese about 3" x2" x 2", one chunk per day, peanuts, raisins, candy bar, and iced tea mix. After our experience the first week, a lot of our people were buying extra food such as powdered milk, cereal, French bread, instant pudding, bread mixes for baking, and extra candy for lunches. By 3 PM or so clouds had built up and by 4 PM we were ready to take off. We wanted to get away from Reds Resort a few miles and make camp before it rained.
The packs were heavy but everyone was in good spirits on the climb away from Red's Meadow Resort. A few miles up the trail we found a small spring and hurriedly made camp, putting up tube tents and making fires. We had a good meal of fresh meat and vegetables before retiring early to bed. Everyone was in good shape for rain protection before it started raining , tents up and gear covered.
Mike and I put the ends of our tube tents together and had a long talk about the route of the coming week, and general happenings. We had a very large distance to cover, and would require some 15 mile days. Everyone was getting in good shape, but Madelyn seemed to be having a hard time and Nancy was having problems with her boots. Madelyn was fairly steady in hiking, but just very slow. I was more worried about Nancy’s ankles. We would be entering the Evolution Valley and that would be a point of no return for us. Once there, we would be in very bad trouble if anything happened and if her ankles were bothered by the easy first week, they probably would only get worse during what we started to call Hell Week.
This was the first of increasingly hard days. Next day we had eight miles to go to Purple Lake and a lot of elevation to gain, so we got an early start. We spread out but kept a steady pace past Red Cones and on. Madelyn was really slow and I stayed back with her. We mozzied along all day and got to Purple lake two hours before dark. There the fishermen, long deprived of fishing, were off doing their thing. Everyone was quite tired and fearing rain, most slept in tube tents.
A lottery has developed. Wes and Steve Jepson have a three man tent (the only tent in our group) and so will allow one person to sleep in it on a night threatening rain. Lots were drawn, and numbers assigning turns to sleep in it. I got a very low number, so I’m of out of the lottery. High numbers were Chuck and Nancy. Now they can wait till they think it will rain and use their tent turn. They can also save their turn and sell it for food. Chuck used up his turn this night, and it didn’t even rain.
As evening deepened around Purple lake the clouds were doing some fantastic things to the peaks on the other side of the lake. They swirled and lifted, revealing peaks then engulfing them, sometimes letting in brilliant shafts of the now orange setting sun.
Day 11 of our trip: Big day ahead. Twelve miles and Silver Pass to cover. Yikes, 4 miles more then yesterday, and that day just about did Madelyn in. We tore out of camp like lions, sprinting past Lake Virginia over the ridge and down down down 1300' into Tully Hole. I was last to leave camp, and hiked along till I caught up with the Mob at the hole. Here we realized that Steve wasn’t among us. He had left before I, and I even directed him to the trail. This was a key day and a several hour delay would blow the schedule of the week to bits. There was an alternate trail that he could have taken, so Chuck and I were going to do a pincher movement, Mike staying with the group. Just before we started the search good old Steve came ambling down the hill. He had gotten off the trail and had been trying to catch up all morning.
Much relieved, we continued and caught up with the others for lunch at Squaw Lake below Silver pass. Mike pulled something in his groin when stepping over a stream, but it seemed to be better after a rest and lunch. The lake was small and nice, just below the big ice fields that we would be climbing in the afternoon to get over Silver Pass.
Nancy was having problems and so was Madelyn, so they took off early. They burnt out on the pass and were really wiped out by the time the top was reached. We were really strung out now, and Conrad, Steve, John and I were pretty far back. We were angling down, hoping to make Quail Meadows by dark. Several miles the other side of the pass Steve said that he hadn’t seen Mike come over the pass. I didn’t even know that he’d hurt himself at that point. John, Conrad and I headed back up, leaving our packs at a fisherman’s camp. At the pass, no Mike. We went down the other side and found Mike where Steve had left him, not far from Squaw Lake. He was OK but couldn’t carry his pack up the ice field. John carried his pack up and we kicked steps for him and he slowly reached the top of the pass.
When we reached our packs on the other side of the pass we divided up his pack and slowly headed down, with Mike carrying only his empty pack frame. After a while John and Conrad left us, traveling ahead to bring up a cookset and food in case we didn’t make it to camp. Without weight and going downhill, Mike’s pulled groin seemed to improve and pretty soon we were moving along at a pretty good clip. I was prepared to stop and camp for the night whenever he had had enough, but he only got stronger.
By the time it was dark we were moving at a slow steady pace, taking stops to rest Mike’s groin muscle. An hour or so after John and Conrad left us we had crossed a river and were doing switchbacks when we heard voices. We yelled, thinking it was our people at Quail Meadows. We continued down, and shortly met John and Conrad at a large river, the north fork of Mono Creek I think. They had been unable to cross it, after searching up and down for a log or rocks to use to cross. We were really tired by now, and just said screw it! We would just wade it and to Hell with it. John took one end of my 120’ climbing rope across, with our flashlights shining on the rushing water, and used an ice axe for balance. (We didn't have hiking poles in those days).
In the middle it was over knee deep and moving fast. The ice axe helped with balance and he made it across and tied the rope to a tree. Then Conrad and Mike went across, tied to the rope and so fairly safe. I went last, the way lighted by flashlights from the other side. It was pitch dark, the water was like ice and the current really strong.
On the other side we all felt tired and weak, and now wet, and slowly trudged the ¾ miles or so to camp, where we were greeted with surprised looks. The three of us had hiked 17+ miles that day, the others 12 miles. If was now ten o’clock and they had eaten long ago, assuming that we would camp with Mike somewhere. The girls made cocoa for us and we had some soup before bed. The girls had really had a hard day also and Madelyn especially. It was especially disheartening to learn from the early group that there was a bridge over the river not far from where we forded it.
Day 11: The plan would be for Mike and Madelyn to go out to Lake Thomas A Edison to the west, a hike of 5-6 miles. There they would call someone from Lancaster for a ride home, and come back up with the next food drop at South Lake, both of them thus missing the super mileage of Hell Week, and hopefully recovering to rejoin us later. I was hoping Nancy would go with them and take the rest of the week off.
If there was a Vermillion Valley Ranch, or a Muir Trail Ranch, we didn't know about them. There was no internet to look things up, no JMT reference book that I knew of, and I don't think there was enough JMT traffic to support places like that as a business.
Sunrise on Quail Meadow was beautiful. We were in fairly low elevations again, and the meadow was a carpet of grasses and flowers. During the night, Nancy had decided to go home with Mike and Madelyn.
Wes and I headed down to the lake with them, and left them on the shore to wait for a ferry which we learned later never came. Wes and I said goodbye and then rocketed up the trail after the others, our destination - Lake Marie. After going straight up a mountain for an hour or so, I passed Chuck, coming back after a compass he had left at a rest stop a ways back. He told me the others would be at lunch by now, so I cruised on, passing his pack shortly where he had left it.
The lunch spot was at a ranger cabin on a very nice stream. The ranger was a wilderness patrolman, and Chuck and I talked to him a long time about how he got the job, what his duties were, and how we could get the job, etc.
This is how we crossed streams in those days: barefoot, no hiking poles, ice cold water. And we LIKED it that way.
We reached Lake Marie before sunset, and camped with a fantastic view of the Seven Gables and the Silver Pass area we had just crossed. We were going through this country much too fast to really discover it. But it couldn’t be helped this week. Next time, make a food drop at Lake Thomas A. Edison and go more slowly through the Evolution Valley. It would be worth the time.
At Lake Marie, the fisher folk were pulling out monsters because it was apparently the spawning season with many big fish gathering around the outlet. Steve was doing the best, and since Steve and I were in one cook group we said that we’d get supper ready if he just kept pulling them out. Every cook group had a fisherman and got some fish for supper and breakfast. This lake was quite beautiful and would be very nice for a layover day. The fishing continued, with everyone having good luck. We were in cook groups of 3 now that Mike, Madelyn and Nancy had left, and we had more food than we could eat, and nobody complained about that.
We had a group meeting to discuss the plans for the week and confirmed a plan first proposed at Purple lake. The facts were that we wouldn’t be able to make the next food drop by staying on the JMT and going over Bishop Pass to South Lake. We could only make it by going cross country over the crest and down to Lake Sabrina, then getting rides around to South lake by Saturday. The hike Wednesday was the key to the whole ball of wax. We had to get over Selmer Pass and as deep into the Evolution Valley as we could, at least to its first meadow.
Day 12: We got kind of a moderate start, crossing Selmer Pass at 10:00 or so, hiking through Heart Lakes and Sallie Keyes Lake, and down down to the South Fork of the San Joaquin river that flows out of the Evolution Valley. The day was nice and cool with pleasant cloud cover but no rain. We met lots of fishermen and saw little of each other, we were so spread out. Some people wanted to visit a hot springs off the main JMT (Blayney HS near Muir Trail Ranch), but were unable to cross the river to reach it. I don't think Muir Trail Ranch was in business as a hiker way station at that time. Chuck had bombed far ahead and we never saw him until we all got together at the first meadow in the Evolution Valley. Then we hiked as a group to a good campsite close to Evolution Lake. The day had been more then 12 miles but we all felt pretty good. I think we were getting in shape and the extra food didn’t hurt any.
Day 13, Thursday: This day we would see what we were made of. After 4 miles on the JMT, we regrouped for a snack around Sapphire Lake and started on the cross country jaunt over a notch between Mt. Darwin and Mt. Haeckel. The “pass” was "Hungry Packer Pass" but one malcontent in our group called it "Shit for Brains Pass". Chuck had been over it twice and Mike and I had been over it once. When we did it, we came from the other side and called it “one way pass”. We would be going the wrong way on One Way Pass today. We called it “one way” because the tilt of the rock caused all the ledges on the other side to slope downward, and they were covered by loose gravel on the rock, which made the footing very treacherous. There was no trail, and it was climbing over boulders all the way. A fall backward was very possible, and would have been very bad.
We stayed together and headed first to a cirque lake below the notch (lake 11,808 on the topo), and from there straight up approximately 900 feet. Some of the hikers had little experience on this kind of stuff but everyone remained calm and put one foot in front of the other. Steve was shaken because of the exposure and the imbalance of the heavy packs, and we were all much relieved when we did the last grab and step onto the flake summit.
On the other side, a snow field extended from the top and continued into a glacial-blue lake (lake no. 12,345 on the topo) covered with snow and ice. The snow covered all the sloping gravel-covered steps that Mike and I had experienced, and after a short rest we all glissaded and/or "boot skied" down to the lake. From there it was boulder hopping for an hour to Midnight lake, where we camped for the night. We figured we were in pretty good shape to get to Lake Sabrina the next day. A short hike would get us there, and from there we had a day to get to South Lake and our food drop. The camp at Midnight lake was quite a rest since we knew that we had done the hard stuff of the week, and the hardest week of the trip. The Mob really did well on the 2nd and 3rd class rock route.
We slept in and consumed as much food as possible so we wouldn’t be carrying it down with us. Before we left for Sabrina in small groups of 2-4, we put on the cleanest clothes we had, Conrad sporting a never-before-worn red jersey. The rest of us made do as best we could. After starting we pretty much bombed down to Lake Sabrina. Since it was a long weekend lots of day trippers and weekend backpackers were coming up the trail as we bombed down. We must have looked a sight, with patched clothes, filthy packs, tanned like Indians or burned and peeling, two weeks of beard, etc.
Chuck and I bombed down together, getting comments from clean hikers like “there’s another one Mommy,” or “a fellow just like you passed a minute ago”, referring to Conrad. Also “there’s another muscle man,” referring to tank tops or fishnet shirts I guess. We stopped and talked to several people but usually just passed with a greetings. At Lake Sabrina we entered a new world. Conrad and I walked on the wooden dam, passing fishermen and little kids and feeling like visitors from another time. We dropped packs and regrouped at the cafe for lunch, taking over several tables and keeping the cook busy for quite a while. We consumed a lot of food.
The plan was to hitchhike in groups of 2-3 around to South Lake, where we would regroup at the dam and spend the night. As we had a boisterous lunch we got to talking with some fishermen who offered us a ride to South lake. Four of us loaded up, Conrad and Kevin already having gotten rides and left. The young fisherman turned to be a Vietnam vet, and proceeded to fill us in on his Army days. In the middle of Claymore mines and humping 9 day patrols we saw Conrad and Kevin on the roadside. Their ride had gotten them halfway and then took another road. The vet stopped and we somehow crammed two more packs and people into the car.
As we got out at South lake an old man in shorts bounced up to us.
“Where are you fellas headed?” he asked.
“We’re going to spend the night here and then go to Onion Valley.” I replied.
“It just so happens I’m the camp host, and I’ve been saving a group campsite for a group just like yours.” He was a Sierra Clubber from way back, with pins from the Sierra Peaks Section and the 100 Peaks Section in his hat. It turned out that I had met him on an SPS trip with the Sierra Club. He knew a lot of the older SPS climbers, like Wally, Glen Lougee, Ed Lane, Dan Eaton, and just about everyone that I could remember in the SPS from being on a few trips with them as a guest of Wally.
The old time mountaineer was Ed Alcott. He and his wife were working for the Sierra Club and Forest Service here at South Lake as camp coordinators. We told him about our trip, and he said he could tell we weren’t the usual weekenders by the equipment. Alcott was at one time a real pioneer of mountaineering, with tremendous experience in climbing all over the Sierra, and he remains active in leadership in the Sierra club and especially the SPS and 100 Peaks Sections of the Los Angeles chapter.
He showed us a campsite that was hidden from the crowds at the parking lot. It was on the lake shore and so hidden among rocks and trees that no one ever found it. We settled in for the night and Ed and I talked about climbing some of the same Sierra peaks. When Chuck arrived he knew Ed and they talked about Chuck’s upcoming expedition to Peru. When Ed left to join his wife at their trailer for supper he sent his greetings to Wally and wished us a good trip.
It was still fairly early in the afternoon so Chuck, John, and I got everyone’s clothes together for a trip to the Laundromat. We filled two packs with very nasty clothes, and headed for a laundry 5 or 6 miles down the road. We arrived at the small town laundry and put our clothes in the machines, 4 of them. Chuck put all his clothes in, and was left naked. John and I kept out our track shorts. John and I went to the one café in town to get soap and ice cream, leaving Chuck jaybird naked in the Laundromat.
We walked into the café wearing only track shorts, bearded and probably pretty nasty in appearance. We had a cone, bought soap, then I bought a cone for Chuck and hit the road back to the laundry. In the laundry Chuck was hiding in the back room. Apparently a lady had surprised him in his birthday suit, and he thought she was returning with the cops at my approach. He had gotten Conrad’s half washed sweat pants out and was wearing them around.
He took his cone and ate it sitting on a washer reading a book. I took a chair and planted myself at the door as a lookout, and wrote some letters. I wrote to Sue and thanked her for the candy and food she had sent up with the last food drop, and wrote of the happenings of two weeks to Beth.
We were a pretty odd trio. I was on the porch of the local laundry wearing track shorts. John was in track shorts, down at the café rolling dice with the customers, and Chuck was sitting in soaking wet sweat pants, eating an ice cream cone that melted over his knuckles, and reading the Wall Street Journal. The final touch was when Chuck looked up and yelled “Number 1!, Number 1! My stock has gone up since last week!!”. Just then his washing machine started to buck and I broke out laughing at him.
I went down to the café and John joined Chuck at the machines. The water in the front loader had turned brown, and looked like root beer. At the café I had a delicious apple pie and milk. Fantastic! John came back down and said that Chuck had ordered dinner at the café on the hiway for us, and four of the Mob had come down to eat supper also, leaving only Conrad and Steve at the packs.
We gathered at the café (Bishop Creek Lodge) and Chuck and I had showers and washed up. Dinner was baked chicken with all the trimmings, plus a really nice looking waitress -- all for $3.50.
We got a ride in the bed of a pickup back to camp, and I forgot my papers and Starr’s guide in the pickup when we got out. Damn! At camp, Conrad and Steve were pissed. We really hadn’t planned to have a wonderful dinner while they ate dehydrated food, honest. They didn’t buy it and were pissed as hell. They threw their scalloped potatoes in the ground and stamped on them, threw their dehydrated peas at us and were only more infuriated when one of us would grin and pat his stomach or burp. All John could do was lean against a tree and grin contentedly, holding his stomach aching with chicken and potatoes.