Day 5: 9 miles from Deer Creek to Virginia Lake

I had trouble falling asleep last night. My feet were in pretty rough shape by the time we reached camp so as I tried to fall asleep I kept feeling sharp pains from the balls of me feet up to my ankles. Eventually I fell asleep but awoke with a splitting headache. I managed to sleep through it mostly though. The night was much cooler last night. I had to wear my fleece layers. Under my sleeping bag I was sweaty but without it I was too cold so I opted for sweaty. We slept in until 7 this morning. All the PCT hikers were long gone by then. We moved slowly as we tore down camp and got more water.

The first hour of hiking was hell as usual. I’m feeling good overall though. Brian is still struggling a bit but he’s getting better. Mornings seem to be the worst for him. Every few feet he stops to catch his breath and reassess where he is. He’s back and forth like a yo-yo. Let’s go back I’m done. There’s no way in hell I’m quitting. In the meantime I feel completely helpless. I can’t help him and I can’t convince him to quit or to keep going.

Things got much better though. Brian was starting to feel more like himself again after a couple of hours which enabled us to have a serious discussion about our trip. But more on that later. The late morning was a continuation of most days. There were some amazing views of the snow capped mountains to our right and where we were walking was very hot and dry. Around 9,500 feet we all started to struggle with our breathing. I put in my headphones and tried to ignore the sensation in my chest. It’s not as terrible as I thought. It’s different to have to work so hard to catch your breath but it’s totally manageable.

We ran into Stephen and Rachel during one of their breaks. I’m definitely sensing some tensions between Brian and Stephen. Stephen wants to move faster so they can make it to Whitney in their shorter timeline and Brian doesn’t think he should have to push himself because he scheduled plenty of time for us to enjoy the adventure. Brian wanted to stop and camp by a beautiful lake while Stephen wanted to push onward. I felt stuck in the middle and just wanted everyone to get along. This is exactly why hikers are discouraged from hiking in groups. It’s hard to get a consensus from everyone.

Mountain Lions!! Two of them! Brian’s walk suddenly grinded to a haunt just about .2 miles before we reached the stream where we planned to have lunch. He was looking up the left of the path up the steep hill. He must have startled the mountain lion because she was only about 100 feet off the trail before she ran further up the mountain. Brian got a great look at her cub as it trailed behind her too. By the time I caught sight of her, she was hiding in the shade about 200 feet up the mountain so I wasn’t able to get a picture. It’s so ironic we saw them today because yesterday evening while I was walking alone as I always am, I suddenly got this feeling I was being watched. I kept looking behind me thinking a hiker was coming up on me and I would need to step out of his/her way. But no one was ever there. Then mountain lions popped into my head. I tried to remember what I learned about them in Yosemite. They live in the sub alpine region of these mountains. But I couldn’t remember at what altitude the sub Alpines are. Now I know. This altitude! We’re at about 10,000. For the rest of the hike to lunch I kept my headphones out and asked Brian to go a little slower to close the gap between us a bit more. He assured me that while I may be the size of a child, with my pack, I wouldn’t be appetizing to a mountain lion.

When we got to the stream, we saw Rachel and Stephen but there wasn’t much room for us so we ate under a big tree a bit further up stream. When we were done eating I walked back downstream to talk to them but they were just about to leave. Thy took a very short lunch break. We spoke briefly and they took off. Stephen said he’s moving much slower now due to the higher altitude so I guess that’s why they were in a hurry. Last night they said they liked the idea of us all taking a siesta but today they don’t seem interested in that. Brian and I had only been resting for a few minutes so we stayed behind and took our time. We talked to several other JMT hikers who also sought shade under our tree. We really enjoy talking with other hikers. That was our favorite part of both of our other long distance hikes so we are glad when we can do it here. FYI the JMT has far fewer people on it at any given time than the Appalachian Trail. And certainly fewer than on the Camino. While we talk to a lot of people, if you come out here for solitude, you can absolutely have that.

There was a pretty steep incline as soon as we got back on the trail (seriously this hike is all up hill) and right at the hottest part of the day but we took it super slow. Eventually we wrapped around the mountain and suddenly saw storm clouds bubbling up over the mountain across the valley. There wasn’t much we could do but keep walking. There wasn’t a tent site for three more miles and there’s no way off the trail since its on a steep slope. We finally started to descend a bit but the progress was just as slow because it was very rocky and we didn’t want to twist our ankles. I’m always impressed with how fast PCT hikers walk. They’re at a near jog regardless of the terrain. It’s really impressive to watch.

Two miles before our tent site we came across a beautiful lake. Purple Lake. We kicked off our shoes and socks and took a nice long break. The clouds were moving in the opposite direction so we weren’t worried about them anymore. As we sat there we watched all the trout raising across the water. It was beautiful. We also watched a massive osprey swoop down, dive into the water and pull out a big fish. Then I leaned against my pack, tipped my hat over my eyes, and took a nap in the cool breeze.

The last two miles weren’t too bad because the air was nice and cool. Brian seemed to be feeling much better so I practically had a spring in my step. Things were looking and feeling good. Since no one was around, I began singing to my music, though I would call it wheezing instead because I had no breath. Finally we got to our site and saw another even more beautiful lake. Virginia Lake. We found Rachel and Stephen all bundled up in their winter gear and basking in the sun. Just as Brian and I are starting to enjoy the cooler air at this higher altitude, they’re getting uncomfortable. We threw our packs down a little bit away from theirs and kicked our shoes off. Brian immediately started putting his fly fishing rod together while I sat back and watched the little picas run around. They’re like little mice that live at higher altitudes. Speaking of which, we are now at 10,500 feet. Anyway, they won’t survive much longer due to global warming so I tried to get a picture of one. This trail really highlights what happens to our surroundings when we don’t take care of the planet.

We set up our tent between some trees on the beach and made dinner. Since I only ate half of my Good to Go meal from last night I finished it tonight. I was concerned it wouldn’t taste good baking all day in my bear canister. It was great! Better than the first time around. What this means is I can get away with carrying half the food I originally anticipated by stretching out my meals across two nights.

After we had dinner, we walked over to Rachel and Stephen’s camp. Brian and I made a very tough decision this afternoon that would impact them as well. For the last three days, we have been talking nonstop about how we can get them to mount Whitney within their schedule and we just can’t pull it off. Not at my pace. The original plan that all four of us agreed on would be fine but when they told us the night before we started that they had four fewer days to finish, that meant we would have to make up for over 50 miles in a shorter timeline. We thought of every possible alternative and there is just no way to make that happen. In addition to the pressure we’ve been dealing with to move faster, the trail is just not what Brian and I expected. I won’t go into detail here but if you’d really like to know more about the reasons behind our decision, I’m happy to tell you. But what it comes down to is this place is beautiful for sure but for the amount of work you have to put into it to see it all, you really have to be in love with it. And as much as we have tried in the last week, we’re just not in love with it.

I started the conversation by asking how they’re liking the trail and they said they’re really enjoying themselves. There was no sugarcoating the next part and I had been dreading it for the last two hours. “This trail isn’t working for us guys. So here’s what we’re going to do. We are going to hand our permit over to you. You can go all the way to Mount Whitney and no one will bat an eye at you. And you’ll be able to go at your own pace. I can’t see any other way you guys can finish your hike.” Rachel asked, “what about you guys? Don’t you want to finish?” I explained to her that Brian and I have both long distance hiked before. We don’t need to walk the entire length to feel like we accomplished something. We came to see the Sierras and that’s exactly what we did and we feel good about it. I emphasized that it’s important that they have their long distance hike and I refuse to get in the way of that. There was awkward silence for an excruciatingly long period of time. Stephen finally said that he wasn’t upset or even disappointed. Honestly I think he was down right happy about it. He wants to put on the miles and Brian and I don’t hike like that. He’s the type that wants to see how much ground he can cover in a day. We’re the type that wants to take our time enjoying the day. Rachel said she actually liked the pace we hiked and that Stephen was too fast for her. I felt bad because I think we helped moderate him and without us, he may push her harder than she’d like. She kept coming up with suggestions for how we can all stay together (which I found very touching) and with each one we explained to her how we already considered that and why it wouldn’t work. We stood there in more awkward silence until Brian handed Stephen the permit and he secured it in his bag.

Brian and I considered so many alternatives over the last few days and none of them sat well with us. But when we came to this option, suddenly we both felt tremendous relief. We knew it was the best decision for all of us. But that didn’t make it any easier. I wanted to cry knowing that they’ll be going on without us. But the truth is, even if they did stick with our original schedule, we’ve both seen enough of the JMT. We’ve hiked 60 miles of it and that makes me feel good.

Trying to move on from what was a horrible conversation for me, I asked them if they wanted to join us fishing. The four of us walked down to the water and three of us talked while Brian waded out in the ice cold water. He didn’t catch anything but we saw fish jumping out of the water all around him. Before going to bed, we all took one last photo together. We all agreed to stay in touch and we told them they are going to have the time of their lives. There’s nothing more fulfilling than long distance hiking.

Tomorrow, Brian and I will start hiking the 15 miles back to Red’s Meadow where we will decide what to do for the next three weeks of our vacation.

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