I had always wanted to hike the John Muir Trail but due to the time required, never had enough free time available to squeeze it in. Having done portions of the trail over the past several years, I felt I was ready to try the whole trip in one shot. Gordon, a good friend and regular hiking partner, signed on as well and we were all set to plan for our adventure. My goals for the trip included completing the trail, climbing a number of peaks along the way, and getting in shape for the 2007 Sierra Challenge. I successfully achieved these goals but not exactly in the way I had planned (see the end for a synopsis of our plans). With a vehicle prepositioned at the Whitney Portal (we were hiking north to south) and our packs dropped at Tuolumne Meadows, we were ready to start. The night before the trip, Gordon and I were ensconced in a tent cabin in Yosemite Valley with my wife Caren, who I had beguiled into driving us to the starting line.
Day 1: The Day Hike (~25.4 miles, 7300’ el gain, 2700’ el loss).
Day 1 should have been easy and relatively speaking, it was. Armed with only day packs, we quickly set off at the start surrounded by swarms of tourists headed for Half Dome. With the exception of an unexpected detour of a couple of minutes up the Glacier Point trail by accident (disappearance of tourists clued us in), we reached the junction of the JMT with the Half Dome trail in about two hours where we briefly mused whether to climb Half Dome. Good sense prevailed and we continued our trip up through Yosemite’s high country, finally reaching the backpackers campsite in Tuolumne meadows just before 4PM. It was here that I discovered that I had left our JMT permit in the car and thus had to hike an additional 1.5 miles round trip to get another copy. A dry chicken sandwich and a beer served as our last touch with civilization for a while (or so we thought). Day 1 Pictures
The approach to Cathedral Pass with Cathedral Peak in the background
Day 2: Backpacks are heavier than day packs (~23.0 miles, 4500’ el gain, 5500’ el loss).
Lyell Canyon is probably the easiest and prettiest place to start a backpacking trip as you can find in the Sierra. We encountered several hikers about five miles in when a man joined us from our route ahead. Seems that a bear had destroyed his bear container and taken all of his food so he was hiking out to resupply. Now we carried the same conditionally approved light weight Ursack container (Spectra with liner) instead of my much heavier Garcia container. Having suffered bear losses in the past, I wasn’t excited to hear this news but we shrugged our shoulders and continued hiking. At slightly over 10,000’ Gordon’s commitment to climb every peak with me evaporated and I hiked up alone to conquer Mt Lyell (13,114’) and Mt Maclure (12,880’). I aimed for the notch but liking the glacier, headed straight up to what appeared to be the last snow bridge over the bergschrund below the peak. Good thing too as I saw a father and son team struggle with the 4th class section required if climbing Lyell from the notch. The team and I hit Lyell’s ridge about the same time and we hiked to the top together where we had a pleasant chat at the summit. Leaving them after 10 minutes, I headed towards the notch (back over the snow bridge) and climbed Maclure’s very enjoyable 3rd class knife edge ridge. I quickly returned to the notch, ran into the father and son team on the glacier (they thanked me for showing them the snow bridge), and pushed hard to get back knowing that Gordon would be hiking up looking for me (I had exceeded my time limit). Finding Gordon, I learned firsthand of the pleasure of putting a backpack back on after a hard climb. We climbed over Donahue Pass (11,040’) and made our way down to a campsite at Rush Creek where mosquitoes tormented us for the rest of the night. Day 2 Pictures
Mt Lyell & Mt Maclure from Donohue Pass
Day 3: Lesson not learned (~18.5 miles, 6500’ el gain, 7100’ el loss).
Leaving camp about 7:30AM, we pushed over Island Pass (10,170’) and were rewarded with views of Banner Peak over 1000 Island Lake. We reached the Ediza Lake junction about 1130 and decide to camp there instead of pushing on to the planned campsite after today’s excursion. At noon, Gordon and I (yes, I talked him into it) head up the Ediza Lake trail to summit Mt Ritter (13,157’) and Banner Peak (12,945’). We did well, reaching the Ritter-Banner saddle (12,000’) after a lunch break of hummus and crackers and a very steep snow couloir climb. This very couloir climb was the only reason that we had decided to drag our ice axes and crampons with us for the entire trip. After a short break, we headed up the talus slog to summit Banner Peak. Back at the pass, Gordon begged off on Ritter which I chose to ascend via Clyde’s Route. We expressed concern for each other’s safety as I looked down at the icy couloir he would have to down climb face in and he looked up at the vertical chute (in reality a nice 3rd class route) I would have to ascend. I reached Ritter’s summit just about the time he reached the base of the couloir, success for both. Except, I now had to descend the nasty SE route off Ritter, not a fun experience. Rejoining Gordon above Lake Ediza, we trudged into camp about 9PM with just the memory of dusk to guide our footsteps. Day 3 Pictures
Banner Peak from Island Pass
Day 4: Another big day (~24.5 miles, 4700’ el gain, 3500’ el loss).
We had a couple of miles to make up today so we pushed out hard and fast. Several ups and downs finally led to a steady downhill ride into the Devil’s Postpile. We reached the Reds Meadows resort just before lunch where we ordered greasy food, bought needed supplies (I bought a foam sleeping pad as my Thermarest valve failed the second night), and I lost my wallet. After lunch, we marched up through the burned-out hill side and ran into a solo female teacher doing the JMT as well (I include this only because my wife thinks we were traveling in desolation). A pleasant chat and we pushed on for another 11 miles before collapsing along the banks of Duck Creek. Day 4 Pictures
Fire swept forest above Reds Meadow
Day 5: Slowing Down (~20.8 miles, 3300’ el gain, 5600’ el loss).
Today we left early as we wanted to finish earlier than we had been. We were also looking forward to reaching our first cache of food located just below Quail Meadows. We reached Silver Pass (10,920’) by noon and made our way down to JMT junction with the Lake Thomas Edison trail. Emptying our packs, we headed towards the lake and found our cache inside two bear cans, kindly supplied by the generous folks at the Vermillion Valley Resort. Gordon filled his pack with the resupply of food while I put the now empty bear cans in my pack. I headed down to the lake while Gordon headed back to camp. After dropping the cans by the ferry station run by the resort, I returned to camp to feast on our rewards from the cache. We slept well that night. Day 5 Pictures
Day 6: Gordon goes afterburner (~21.8 miles, 4200’ el gain, 4300’ el loss).
We each were allotted a pound of gnocchi the previous night and I could only eat half so Gordon finished up my dinner. Anyways, that’s my explanation for Gordon’s stamina on this day because he took off like a bat out of hell doing 3+ miles an hour up Bear Ridge (and carrying all of the food). I struggled to keep him in sight but he easily outpaced me. I finally caught up with him on Selden Pass (10,880’) at 1PM and we started the long drop into the valley below. We pushed past our intended camp site and finally settled just above the Muir Trail Ranch along the Upper San Joaquin River at just after 5PM. By now, Gordon was running on fumes and after eating and cleaning up, we collapsed into the tent. Day 6 Pictures
Marie Lake from Selden Pass
Day 7: Entry into Evolution (~15.2 miles, 3500’ el gain, 500’ el loss).
Not a long day for us but definitely one worth remembering. Hiking up the valley, we entered the Evolution Valley and saw striking beauty surrounding us. Certainly, the Hermit standing over McClure Meadows was one of postcard picture views for the trip. Reaching the end of the valley, we struggled up the bench to the Evolution Basin. Along the way, I picked some wild green onions to go along with the dinner and we settled into a gorgeous campsite next to Evolution Lake. With daylight remaining, I hiked a short ways up the trail and onto a ridge to figure out the routes we would use to climb Mt Darwin and Mt Mendel the next day. These two peaks dominate the basin and are popular destinations for mountaineers. However, most people climb them from the other side so my home work was cut out for me. Day 7 Pictures
The Hermit (right) looming over Evolution Valley
Day 8: Secor (~8.7 miles, 5400’ el gain, 4800’ el loss).
I guess I can add to my single worded title but for those who have struggled to follow RJ Secor’s route descriptions, I think you know which words I’ve left off. I talked Gordon into joining me today, expecting him to climb only Darwin (13,831’). We head up the correct chute on Darwin’s West Slope as described by Secor and even took the correct branch when the chute split. Near the top (or so we thought), the chute split again – something not mentioned in Secor’s description. The right branch looked good so I talked Gordon into following me. Bad mistake, Gordon. We hit a wall that required some intense 4th class work and a 5th class move, something we hadn’t bargained for on our purported 3rd class route. Somehow we climbed onto the ridge that was the culmination of the approach to Darwin’s giant plateau. We shuffled to the top of the plateau where we gazed across to the summit block on a detached pinnacle, a view worth making the climb itself. Having come this far, I dropped down the notch and looked at the pinnacle. I had contradictory information on how to climb the pinnacle so I chose what I thought was the easiest approach. To my astonishment, I was standing on top in less than 10 minutes. Gordon snapped a picture of me and we headed back down (the correct way – left at second branch). I traversed over to what I thought was the correct chute for Mendel (13,710’) based on Secor’s description. Heading into 4th class territory again, I was somewhat ticked when I reached the top of a notch and not the crest as promised by Secor. Evidently I wasn’t the first to be fooled as a giant cairn marked the location of the notch (helpful on the return), left by some other duped climber. I dropped into this new chute which did lead to the crest and a very interesting ridge climb to the summit. I returned the same way choosing not to test Secor’s description and follow the new chute to the bottom (I thought I had seen cliffs from below). Sadly, this common sense approach was not repeated several days later on another mountain. Returning tired, we moved camp several miles up to Wanda Lake where we would homestead for a couple of days while I explored the Ionian Basin. Day 8 Pictures
Mt Darwin's plateau -- detached summit pinnacle in the background
Day 9: Ionian Basin (~12.0 miles, 5700’ el gain, 5700’ el loss).
This was purely an exploration day of an area that gets few visitors due to its distance from civilization. I left camp at about 6:30AM, reaching the base of Mt Goddard’s (13,568') NE ridge by 7:40AM, and the summit by 9:20AM. While Darwin and Mendel dominate the Evolution Basin, Mt Goddard (13,568’) stands out by itself and has fantastic views in all directions. I descended Goddard’s SW slope into the roller coaster terrain of the Ionian Basin. Filled with lakes, rock fields, and meadows, I don’t think I saw one tree in the whole area. Reaching a lake that I needed to circumnavigate, I found myself stopped by a cliff. Instead of climbing over, I chose to take my boots off and walk past the cliff in apparently shallow waters. Within 5 minutes, the sharp flat shale that makes the Basin a pleasure to walk on (in boots) sliced a nice, deep cut into my foot. I staunched the bleeding and bandaged it as best as possible and then continued towards my next goal, Scylla (12,956’). Scylla is one of the two peaks that “guard” the entrance to the Enchanted Gorge (per Secor, the only thing enchanting about the Gorge is its name). The view from Scylla was awe inspiring -- looking down at her companions, the Three Sirens and across the great abyss to her consort guard, Charybdis. I quickly descended planning to return to camp via Wanda Pass (12,440’). Noticing that Mt Solomons (13,043’) is only 600 feet higher than Wanda and drops you at Muir Pass on the JMT, I switched plans at the last minute and ascended Solomon’s’ south ridge. I literally missed the boat (and the pass), descending via a steep unpleasant scree face on the north slope and finally making it back to camp by 5:30PM. Gordon had been suffering under the relentless sun (no trees at Wanda Lake) and I made the decision to cut the layover schedule by one day, sacrificing my plans to climb Warlow, Fiske, and Huxley. But I had one more visit planned to the Ionian Basin. Day 9 Pictures
Ionian Basin from the summit of Mt Goddard
Day 10: Triumph and despair (~16.8 miles, 3800’ el gain, 6500’ el loss).
Gordon and I shouldered our packs at a decent hour and made our way up to Muir Pass (11,960’) where we ran into an older gentleman from NY that we had met at the beginning of the trip. Just below Muir Pass, I handed Gordon my pack (most of my stuff was in his already) which he would take several miles down trail to camp while I continued my explorations. His job was to also retrieve cache #2, which we had vacuum sealed and partially sank in a lake near the JMT. I hiked over Black Giant Pass (12,200’) and down into the east end of the Ionian Basin. After some route finding challenges, I summited Charybdis (13,096’) at 1130AM taking a series of reverse angle pictures from the day before. I made my way back to the pass and was on top of Black Giant Peak (13,330’) by 2PM under gray, overcast skies. To date, we had perfect clear weather and today it was drizzling on and off. I vainly hoped it was temporary. I descended Black Giant traversing across its face (thinking it would save time and it never does) reaching camp by 4:30PM, looking forward to an easy evening and a resupply of good food. Gordon met me with disappointed eyes and informed me that animals had gotten into our cache and left nothing but a handful of vitamin C tablets. Our vacuum packed food packs had too much air to completely sink so we had piled rocks on top to submerge the packs. Unfortunately, we hadn’t considered the curiosity of smaller animals (chipmunks?) getting through our (undisturbed) rock barrier and destroying five days of food. After spending an hour picking up trash, he had returned to camp to await my return. We decided to pack up and head down to LeConte Ranger hut and see if the ranger could do anything for us. “On extended patrol” said the ranger’s note and we went to sleep in despair and under rain trying to figure out how two days of food could last us the remaining 90+ miles we had to go. Day 10 Pictures
Charydbis guarding the entrance to the Enchanted Gorge
Day 11: Change in plans (~12.6 miles, 3600’ el gain, 2400’ el loss).
We were determined to finish and knew we had to resupply. Just several feet from our tent was the terminus of the Bishop Pass / Dusy Basin trail. While neither of us relished the idea of hiking an extra 12,000’ pass (twice!), we knew we had no choice. Leaving the tent and sleeping stuff, we headed up and out with dirty clothes, a big bag of trash (the remains of cache #2), and vague ideas on how we would get to town. We quickly covered the ~12+ extra miles and 3600’ of extra gain, exiting at South Lake at 1230PM. A kindly fishing family gave us the 30 minute ride into Bishop where the 95 degree heat hit us like a ton of bricks. Resuppling at the local sporting good store, market, and tasty Mexican restaurant, we settled into a rough night at the local Ramada Inn. It felt strange to be back in civilization after 10 days but fresh laundry and catch-up phone calls were great morale boosters. Day 11 Pictures
Looking up LeConte Canyon from the Bishop Pass trail
Day 12. Back to the JMT (~23.4 miles, 5300’ el gain, 4300’ el loss).
We had big plans for today and we paid a gal to pick us up at 7:30AM and haul us back up to the trailhead. By lunch, we were back at our tent and quickly packed up for the second part of the trip. We did notice that the area had received a lot of rain overnight – things to come? Our plan was to do 11 more miles that day (after the 12+ miles to get back in). After a slight descent and then the arduous climb up to the Palisade Lakes, we reached our campsite at 6PM just in time for a nice swim in the cold lake (something I tried to do every night). Rejuvenated and spirits rekindled, we looked forward to a rewarding remainder of the trip. Day 12 Pictures
Clouds swirl around Norman Clyde and Middle Palisade peaks
Day 13. Norman Clyde day (~16.8 miles, 6200’ el gain, 5500’ el loss).
I awoke at 4:30AM to climb Norman Clyde Peak (13,920’) towering over our camp. NCP is part of the serrated Palisades region of the Sierra and I’ve wanted to climb it since I viewed it from its higher cousin, Middle Palisades Peak, last year. Once again, I was armed with Secor’s brief description on the climb. The approach was spot on and so was the chute location. I found the notch he mentions and dropped into the wide chute that takes me to the top. Except it didn’t. I hit some stimulating rock made even more exciting by the recent rain. I pulled myself up finally to the lower of NCP’s summits, confused by where I was. Had I climbed the 4th class variation? I followed the knife edge ridge to the true summit deciding then and there to reverse Secor’s directions to get back. Terrible mistake. I dropped into his supposed wide chute and followed it downwards looking for the notch. With cliffs suddenly appearing below me, I gingerly moved west into the next chute (and not over an easy notch) planning to follow it all of the way down per his description. Dead end with more cliffs below me. Forced to reclimb 200’ of 3rd and 4th class, I find a challenging route over the arête next to me into the next chute over. This one finally looks familiar and I find the notch. I get back to Gordon at 11AM, 2 hours late, and utter just one word, “Secor”. How could he have forgotten to mention two key chutes? I struggle on the backpack knowing we have a ways to go and half of the day gone. The plan is to climb Mather Pass (12,073’), drop into South Fork of the King’s River (10,039’), and then climb Pinchot Pass before finding a campsite. Rain and fatigue at 4:30PM stops us just shy of Pinchot Pass in what is an extremely tiring day for me. Day 13 Pictures
Sunset reflection just north of Pinchot Pass
Day 14. Hell day (~24.0 miles, 5200’ el gain, 6400’ el loss).
Not really but it was very long and we had some miles to make up. Cache #3 was located at Upper Vidette Meadows in a bear box but we had a sinking feeling that it wouldn’t be there. Evidently, there’s a rule that you can’t cache food in backcountry bear boxes for more than 24 hours, something that wasn’t marked on the box and that we were unaware of until I received the permit (in retrospect as I write this, I should have contacted the USFS while we were in Bishop). We hiked over Pinchot Pass (12,138’), dropped into Woods Creek crossing (8492’), and made our way up the beautiful Rae Lakes Basin over Glen Pass (11,942’). By now, we were zombies headed for our reward at Upper Vidette. We got there shortly after 6PM only to find the box empty with a note from the ranger. If we came up to his place 3 miles back and 1000’ up, we could have our food. No thanks. We did light a huge fire that night and rearranged our plans for the last time. I cut 6 more peaks out of my plans and planned for an early exit. Day 14 Pictures
Vidette Meadows with Junction Peak and Forester Pass in the distance
Day 15. Near the end (~20.8 miles, 7300’ el gain, 6900’ el loss).
Once again, I awoke early and climbed East Vidette Peak (12,350’) near camp. Nothing much to say except it was a fun way to wake and prepare for the highest pass on the JMT. Back at camp shortly after 9AM, we packed and hit the road for Forester Pass. At 13,057’, this pass was taller than five of the peaks I had climbed to date. Arriving under darkening skies at 1PM, I told Gordon to go on to camp while I climbed Junction Peak (13,888’) from the pass. Returning just after 3PM, I felt the first drops and hurried after Gordon. Rain started coming down hard at the bottom of the pass and I hustled onwards to find Gordon about a mile from camp, worried about my safety on the peak in rain. We got to camp and I suggest to him that we push on thinking that the next stop was lower in elevation (it was but first we had to climb 500’ to a saddle). We finally stopped at 6PM at Wallace Creek where mosquitoes immediately ambushed us, but we no longer cared. Day 15 Pictures
Sunset from Mt Whitney
Day 16. The end of the line (~12.5 miles, 5500’ el gain, 1400’ el loss).
We awoke at a leisurely time and left camp at 9:30AM. We ran into Erika, a roving ranger, and explained our cache #3 problem. She radioed in and made arrangements for me to pick it up 12 days later during the Sierra Challenge. We continued on and got just above Guitar Lake when it began raining on us. Not wanting to hike Mt Whitney (14,494’) in a storm, we rigged a temporary shelter from the rain fly and waited 3 hours for the rain, then hail to stop. At 4:30 PM, we continued our ascent towards Whitney. At one point, there had been some plans to climb Mt Muir and Keeler Needle along the way but the goal of reaching the top was too strong. At just before 7PM, we reached the end of the JMT on Mt Whitney and celebrated with dinner and hot lemonade. After watching a glorious sunset, we settled in the summit shelter and went to sleep. Day 16 Pictures
A fitting way to end the trip
Day 17. Postscript (~5.2 miles, 200’ el gain, 6300’ el loss).
At 1:30AM, the door of the shelter opened and closed rather quickly. Groggy, we weren’t sure of what happened until 3:30AM when a guy came in and asked to join us saying it was too cold outside. We made room for him and he lay down and went to sleep. We learned later that morning that he came up to watch the sunrise but left his camp 4 hours away at 10PM. Go figure. Up at 5AM, we saw a line of headlamps coming up the trail – fellow hikers eager to see the sunrise on the tallest mountain in the continental U.S. We packed, ate breakfast, and were treated to the spectacular sunrise we hoped for. Immediately after that, Gordon and I headed down the Mountaineers Route to avoid the crowds on the main Whitney trail and possibly shorten the trip. The upper couloir was wet and slick while the large lower couloir was filled with rocks and wet sand. After that, the North Fork use trail beat up our bodies until we picked up the regular trail a mile from the end. After washing up, we treated ourselves to the Whitney Portal Store's famous 10” pancakes (they actually measure more like 18” and are an inch thick). An outstanding culmination to a great adventure. Day 17 Pictures
While things didn’t work out as expected, we actually did put a lot of thought into the trip. The first step is to have a great partner that you’re compatible with. Gordon filled all of the criteria for such a partner and then some. I also knew that the days of 50 pound packs were over so I did everything to lighten the load. Minus food and water, my packed weighed in at about 21 pounds including some extraneous gear that I (or my wife) thought necessary including ice ax, crampons, short rope, ATC & biner, sling and 10’ of webbing, solar charger (mostly for Gordon’s IPOD), and satellite phone (that had issues finding satellites). Gordon’s was slightly heavier as he wanted some more creature comforts. We had one set of Harrison paper maps but I loaded every map, plan, elevation plot, trip report, and route guide on my camera memory card for easy access and made a duplicate for Gordon (we both use Panasonic DMC cameras). This allowed me to access a hundred pages of catalogued information instantly. For food, we made our own dinners using freezer bags and quick prepare meals available at the grocery store. This kept the volume, weight, and price down for the trip. To keep weight down, we tried to cache our food in no more than 5 days worth at a time. I’ve already discussed the results. Cache #2 would have worked if we could have sank it as planned. This would have been accomplished if we had properly prepared the food for vacuum storage. Too much trapped air led to too much buoyancy. Cache #3 would have worked if we had either hid the cache in bear cans (which we could have carried out or retrieved later) or contacted the ranger earlier. Finally, the car shuttle plan worked by convincing my wife to drive me up after we dropped my truck off at the Portal. In return, I took her to visit a friend and Napa Valley as part of the trip.
A TR to place directly into your memoirs! You guys are animals Tom. Great that you not only hiked the JMT but were able to pick up so many peaks along the way. I convey to you my congratulations and envy. Have fun on the Sierra Challenge. Sounds like you're really ready for it fitness-wise.
Glad you were able to finish the JMT in spite of the food problems, thanks for the report. I hope to go back and do the JMT again sometime when the trail is visible, as well as take time to do some of the peaks. When we hiked the PCT, we left Kennedy Meadows on June 11, 2006 and got to Tuolumne Meadows on June 29th, with an exit via Kersearge Pass to Independence to resupply. I'm going to link your report to my PCT page, will be a nice addition. Vic
Thx Vic. As a postscript, I returned from a day hike to Charlotte Lake yesterday after a great conversation with Ranger Phil on the illegality of caching food (NPS has lots of abandonment problems). Turns out PCTers raided all of the food well before Phil got there (he just got the box). If PCTer "Penguin" reads this, I am amused but you owe me at least a dinner.
"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world."
--Oscar Wilde on Absinthe