SHR Day 9 – July 11
Purple Lake to Laurel Creek
Fart Camp to Thunderstorm Camp
Passes: Shout-of-Relief Pass, Bighorn Pass
Mosquitos may have marred the opening hours of the day, but even my morning grumpiness could not survive the joy I feel just by being out here. A couple more miles on trail, and past one of my favorite lakes, helped us warm up the legs before we got back to traveling cross-country up and over the mighty Silver Divide. SpiceRack and I agree that a beautiful lunchtime swim was the highlight of the day, and a second row seat to a massive thunderstorm gave us a thrill even though the passes were mellow. Back in the high country, where the only crowds we see are of granite peaks, pristine lakes, big mountain ants, and mosquitos.
Purple Lake might be one of my least favorite places in the Sierra. I don’t know why exactly, but I’ve never had a great time there. I was hoping this visit might be different, but it might be my worst visit to date. It’s beautiful and big (not purple though), sure, but has ended up as a cruddy side-note on three trips now. Oh well, fourth time’s the charm, right?
I slept terribly, for starters. It was way too hot, which meant that neither I, nor the mosquito hordes went to sleep. I left the tent a few times, to pee and stake out the tent doors when rain inexplicably started falling from the starry sky, and about 10 mosquito managed to follow me inside each time. When it was finally time to rouse ourselves, we discovered about five lethargic mosquitos hanging out in the corner of the tent, fully-gorged and distended with our blood. I consider myself a peaceful man, but squashing those bugs gave me great satisfaction.
The day improved dramatically once we got moving. I put away my hot wind layers when we left Purple Lake for good to go up and over to Virginia Lake, which just so happens to be one of my favorite places in the Sierra. The JMT/PCT corridor was expectedly busy with all kinds of hikers who might just agree with me. The wide lake was calm on the windless morning, reflecting the peaks of the Silver Divide. Campers drifted with the tenderness of morning around the meadowed shores. A carpet of red paintbrushes smothered the lake’s inlet.
Then it was a big down to Tully Hole, notorious for vicious mosquitos as I found out on my PCT thru-hike. Spice and I took a short rest on the switchbacks above, dunking our hats in an icy creek, before diving in. At the bottom, we took a left off the JMT onto the McGee Pass trail. We wound through the trees to a place called Horse Heaven, where we finally left the trail to find our own way across the Silver Divide.
Mired in the low swamp and trees, route finding was slightly convoluted at first, but we made it up some lumpy granite to Izaak Walton Lake in good time. On top of the next bench, we dumped our packs at Cotton Lake for lunch and a swim. Spice had the good idea of swimming across the whole lake, and of course, I had to go too. The water was warm by mountain standards, but I was chilled by the time I squelched through the mud back to shore. Fortunately, the bright sun was more than capable of broiling me back to a stable temperature. A hearty lunch followed. Fuel for the next pass.
Clouds built, then darkened as we slogged through our food-induced loginess up an unremarkable slope of grassy ramps and scree covered talus. I kept looking back at the south side of Red Slate Mountain, remembering my trip around it a few years prior. It had been a big mountain in the distance on Day 5 of the SHR, and now it was behind us. The layered tie-dye of red, black, and cream talus gave me plenty to ponder as I caught my breath.
By the time we reached Shout-of-Relief Pass, lightning was striking the Ritter Range behind us. Up ahead the dark clouds were extending wispy tendrils into the high atmosphere, disclosing their immensity and making me nervous. For the time being, we still had sun, not to mention awesome views ahead to the massive granite spires of the Mono Divide. Still, with one more pass ahead and not wanting to push our luck, we sat for just long enough to figure out our route around a crumbly basin to Bighorn Pass, less than one mile away. A comment on our map about route finding in this section had confused me for days, but it finally clicked, not five minutes too soon. Everything fell into place, the puzzle made sense. We did not need to drop 500ft to Rosy Finch Lake.
We heard our first rumble of thunder as we neared the saddle of Bighorn Pass. I peaked my head over, ready to retreat, to gauge the distance of the danger. The Mono Divide was getting hammered, but the time between flashes and subsequent rumbling was long enough for us to feel comfortable kicking off our shoes to watch the show for a few minutes. The sun was still on our backs, lighting up the valley below and the next ridge over, but it was nothing except for featureless gray beyond that, occasionally being ripped apart by forks of lightning. We ate some gummies, happy to not be one ridge over.
The descent to Laurel Lake took some careful navigating between cliffs, but was straightforward. At the bottom of the canyon, we strolled south for about one mile before settling down on a sandy circle surrounded on three sides by stunted pine. It was only 5pm, and I was pooped. I stared blankly up valley at Red and White Mountain towering above, feeling the hot sun, listening to the rushing Laurel Creek and the wind. I turned my gaze to the huge red ants swarming my shoe insoles, wondering what they were freaking out about.
This was a good place for us to stop for the evening. So far, it had been difficult to shake the urge to hike late into the day, Spice and my default setting after racing winter on the CDT, when every extra mile added up and a single day could mean the difference between making it through the mountains unscathed or getting shut down by feet of snow. This SHR trip is free from that weather window pressure, so stopping before sunset is acceptable, even encouraged.
It felt good to retire 5pm. With clearing skies, we set up to cowboy camp. Then Spice dragged me to the creek to soak our feet and eat corn nuts. Beans for dinner. I watched the setting sun work some color magic on the towering spires of Red and White, and the dissipating clouds fade from pink to gray. Lying down, I was asleep before the sky turned fully dark.