Week 8: Misery! Muir! Money! (Kearsarge Again, LOL, + Miles 793.3-922.9)
Hot Take Time
Doing the Sierra while hiking the PCT sucks.
Whoa. Hear me out! The section is incredible. The hike of a lifetime! The goddamn crown jewel, as they say. The scale of the mountains and the challenge they present shrink your mile-crushing desert ego and force you – no, inspire you – to hike harder. The lack of roads and telephone poles and storefronts put you in a raw and disconnected environment most of us have never experienced. There’s nothing to buy in the Sierra, there’s no cell service for the most part. The age of the mountains makes you realize how fleeting your time on earth is. Sitting at places like Rae Lakes watching a deer munch grass, or sitting atop Muir Pass at the stone hut looking at an endless snowfield – those are the visual and spiritual reasons for which I’m on trail. Things like that, dare I say, humble you.
But at a certain point, you absorb the scene, shout, “DAAAAMN,” snap a picture, and head on. The Sierra sucks because it’s but a small fraction of the long-ass trail you’ve committed to hiking, it’s going to snow in Washington sooner rather than later, and you have to keep moving.
The Goddamn JMT
(Sub-Title: Will I Ever Stop Talking About the Desert?)
One could argue that the whole trail is like that. That in the desert everyone is grinding forward, perpetual motion, progressing towards our shared goal as fast as new legs will allow. But in that sandy sweaty stretch where the total distance is still incomprehensible, the frenzy is the fun Waking up before sunrise is normal; pitching a tent at midnight is normal; saying “fuck it!” and leaving shade when it’s still hot as hell because you just want to move is normal. Is any of it normal? Absolutely not. But there’s rarely anyone else out there to serve as a barometer so it becomes de facto regular.
Much of the PCT in the Sierra, however, overlaps with the John Muir Trail, which is laden with John Muir Trail hikers. It takes all of an hour, tops, to conclude that PCT hikers and JMT hikers are not the same. Simply put, JMTers are having a good time and we are not. WHOA! You’re protesting. “Me, Bubble Boy, not having a good time? I’m having the time of my life! Mexico to Canada with the tram, sleeping with my food, double zeroes just cuz, posting pix on the gram…this is real, brah!”
Did I have an objectively magical time in the Sierra? Absolutely. But we hiked past place after place after place saying, “I’d love to come back here one day and enjoy it.” We sat, sure. We took long breaks on passes, camped early near glittering lakes ringed with mountains, and watched the reflection of the pine trees grow into the center of still water, crystal clear. But there was no moment in the Sierra without an undertone of antsiness, the awareness that time, though slower out there than at home, was passing quickly and we’d have to hike on.
Part of this is food-related: I’d need a BV1000 – which doesn’t even exist? – to fit everything I actually want and need to eat to go at a speed slow enough to also enjoy short hiking days and long camp afternoons. The JMT hikers just do it, a small price to pay for the privilege of being in this setting for a few short weeks. They don’t have to deal with the ironic breakdown of a long-distance hiker’s ability to do anything but walk. Carrying a heavy pack is intolerable; we’ll be in town taking the fucking wax pull strips off our Babybel cheeses just to lose a couple grams. Ever tried using a hair dryer in a motel room? Your arm will be on fire after, like, two minutes. My legs might be steel but everything else is rubber.
But the JMTers are luxuriating out here! I remember getting water at a stream around three pm one day, another ten miles on the docket, and watching a group of four JMTers sitting in chairs playing motherfucking cards. They have freeze-dried meals and whiskey and cigars and shirts that don’t have the outline of their dirty-ass armpit sweat. They have smiles on their faces and portable checkers. What do we have? Dead eyes and a ferocious desire to get to town?
A challenge with long-distance hiking is you hike so much it can have moments where it loses the novelty. The JMTers are on vacation in paradise, having a passionate fling, falling in love every time they turn a corner. PCTers have passed the honeymoon phase and are at the point where we find our lover’s charming quirks annoying. How dare that moon sparkle like a diamond in the sky? Like any relationship, once the newness has passed, you have to find ways to spice it up and rekindle your love. I guess you could say that going into town is the long-distance hiker edition of going to a sex shop with your partner to spice things up. VVR is a magenta vibrator.
Can we talk about passes? The PCT, being graded for pack animals, actually goes over the lowest part of the mountains. Except Whitney, which isn’t even on the actual PCT, you summit almost nothing. I didn’t know what passes were before this summer. When I learned what they were, I thought they were stupid. Where’s the glory in going over the lowest part of the mountain? Now I love them because the PCT has made me lazy! I want to do no work and get all the accolades.
The High Passes of the Sierra Nevada:
- Pinchot: Weird ascent. Known as a long slog of a pass, I banged it out quickly by hiking with a superfast dude who, within ten minutes of meeting me at a water source, told me the very awkward and specific details of an on-trail hook-up-turned-ghosting situation with someone I realized I knew. We hiked about three and a half MPH up the mountain, made possible only because I didn’t get a word in edgewise as he poured his heart out over seven-ish miles. It was uncomfortable but Pinchot is long and I wanted it to be over so I locked into the two-person peloton and sucked it up. A mile from the top, there was a creek flowing through high grass with flowers so I sat there pretending to meditate until he got bored and hiked away. Oversharing in nature! We hate to see it.
- Mather: The FarOut fear-mongering was out of control for this pass and I was nervous. In reality (because “The App” is not reality) there was no snow anywhere and it was a short, easy ascent, not counting the gasping for air when I got over 11,000 feet.
- Muir: I had acid reflux and altitude-anxiety-slash-caffeine-induced heart palpitations ascending the most beautiful pass of the entire hike. I made the huge mistake of telling Crisis, my hiking partner and occasional nemesis, that I didn’t feel well, for which he made fun of me over the next 1700 miles. (Hysterical women from sea level, amirite? Getting all worked up about the potential for high-altitude pulmonary edema! Ridiculous.) There was snow and so I can officially and hyperbolically tell people I post-holed in the Sierra when though I’ve had harder snow traverses in parking lots at home.
- Selden: My notes say “easy and fairy tale-esque.” All I remember about Selden is that it was standing between me and the VVR ferry.
- Silver: My notes say “hard and hot.” I think this was because I was depressed to leave VVR, plus we got a late start and I was hungover from two beers. Also, I hate that it’s my first summer as a single lady in, like, forever and the only “hard and hot” event I’ve had to write about was fucking unmemorable Silver Pass.
VVR a.k.a. Money Money Money
A note to future hikers: The PCT is expensive and the Sierra is even more expensive. If you’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail and thought you could spend less out here, you might have a financial nervous breakdown. Yes, it’s fucked up. I paid something like $13 for a milkshake at Red’s Meadow, $11 of which accounts for the milkshake and $2 of which accounts for the tip. On that note, I have been hiking at a turning point in American economic history, not because of inflation and supply chain issues and the resulting increase in prices but because this was the summer that everywhere invested in the white card reader with the iPad that they swivel around and prompt you to leave a tip while the whole line watches with bated breath. It’s genius! I’ve spent so many years having people sign little slips of paper, making it easy for them to shroud their shame and stinginess behind a cupped hand. Now, though, your cheap ass is on display! I dare you to leave less than a dollar! As a restaurant industry person, I’m karmically obligated to overtip even when the service is horrible. But this swivel iPad thing has me leaving 40% on random things you probably shouldn’t have to tip on just so that the stranger behind doesn’t think I’m an asshole. I literally tipped on a t-shirt in Belden.
(Seriously, though – I don’t know how normal people live in California and I’m from the NYC suburbs. I paid $1000 for a windowless room in the East Village. I regularly bartend at places where a Hendricks martini is $25. I will pay $7 for a croissant at the farmers’ market and not blink an eye. But California is obscene.)
Anyway, the Vermillion Valley Resort is in the middle of the Sierra Nevada and the only thing anyone ever tells you about it is that it’s expensive. I’m here to say that VVR is fabulous. You can camp and charge devices for free, there’s a massive hiker box, and the resupply is the same as everywhere else. There is dinner and breakfast for purchase but you are not obligated to buy it. Honestly, the worst thing about VVR is it’s full of long-distance hikers complaining about how expensive it is while continuing to order more food and buy more beer.
And I’m sorry but what’s the criteria for expensive? The place is in the middle of absolute nowhere. You’re paying for the novelty of going to a version of town when you’re less than two days from Red’s Meadow and Mammoth Lakes, for whatever cockamamie logistics had to happen to get the food into the establishment, for potable water, for the ferry that they keep running even though the lake level is super low because hikers hate hiking.
Also: Everything. Everywhere. Is. Expensive. We could talk about Big Shower, a.k.a. the slew of places that charge upwards of $10 for a brief rinse in tepid water. We could talk about the $20 Hiker Burger that is ubiquitous in every town but is just a Costco patty with mushy bacon and a wet onion. Are there ways to do this hike on the cheap? Absolutely. But almost everyone – even the people loudly talking about how broke they were, got the Red’s Meadow milkshake. People who are broke don’t talk about it; what we have here is the white-people-playing-poverty situation, which is super annoying. Hashtag Sell Your Duplex. Blah.
Red’s Meadow and Beyond
Town, as always, was a blitz! We took the bus from Red’s Meadow into Mammoth Lakes where trolleyed around frantically doing all our chores before the last bus left town heading back to Red’s Meadow. The campground at Red’s had a fire ring where we had our only barbecue of the hike. We roasted vegetables and veggie dogs and drank cheap Prosecco and probably spent way too much time talking about gear but in a surprisingly pleasant way. It was, dare I say, fun. I almost felt like I was on the JMT.
Despite the challenge of the Sierra and the occasional frustration of not slowing down, the truth was I had done shorter days from Kennedy Meadows to Red’s Meadow. My mileage had decreased significantly, to the high teens, with only a handful of days in the 20s. But the high passes were done; we were about to enter Yosemite. I dragged myself away from the resort and its wifi around noon on the fourth of July with the plan to get to South Lake Tahoe with relative speed. What would that mean? What was speed? Could I go faster? Or had I peaked at the end of the desert?
I can tell you where and when I didn’t peak: On the 4th of July leaving Red’s Meadow and hiking the 16 miles to Thousand Island Lakes. I was initially excited to see Devil’s Postpile, a rock formation of basalt columns, shortly after heading out. But it was hot and I had to take a side trail that was packed with people and my food-logged pack felt like an adult human was trying to shove me into the earth’s core. Maybe this affected my opinion of Devil’s Postpile but I was underwhelmed and mad about the extra mileage. Then there was a burn scar, which didn’t make the heat less palpable. Writing this now, in September, after traipsing through so many burn scars, it seems stupid that I was so affected by a relatively small one. But at the time I didn’t realize how many we’d encounter, how normal charred trees and ash clouds would be. I stopped multiple times to take off my pack and gorge on food. I had over-resupplied in Mammoth Lakes, especially considering I’d hit Tuolumne Meadows the following day. But the gut wants what the gut wants!
My mood improved as the sun sank lower in the sky and the temperature cooled. I arrived at Thousand Island Lakes as it was getting dark. My notes for that night read, “Camped in what looks like Switzerland.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean but I think I had a good time.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.