I need to write this down because I want to remember this trip in every detail. It’s one of the most precious times of my life. So rarely does life play out as beautifully as it did when I hiked the John Muir Trail…
The fall of 2012 I was bored. My boyfriend, Jason, and I had returned from climbing Denali earlier that summer and were in the midst of post-expedition depression. I become impatient when I don't have something big on my calendar, and we brainstormed over what would be our 'next'.
I had wanted to hike the John Muir Train since the first time I learned about it, Jason and I knew one day we'd take it on. By the fall of 2012 I was 32 and almost felt ashamed that we had put off such a classic so long, and it only felt natural that the task would become our next adventure.
But we had no intention of hiking it in the standard 20 days with 30 pound packs - we would fastpack it, averaging a marathon and 5,000 feet of elevation gain a day, sporting 15-28 pound packs.
I had recently run the Leona Divide 50 Mile and recalled that I ran the first 35 miles in 7.5 hours. Somehow I reasoned that if I could trail run 35 miles in 7.5 hours, carrying nothing, I’d certainly be able to hike 32 miles in 10 hours… with 16 pounds on my back, averaging 5.5K gain, for seven days in a row. Optimistically blind logic. In time this goal would change.
We planned our trip for the first week of September 2013, when temperatures are still warm and the days mostly sunny. We started our training in earnest in March and would trail run or hike every other weekend for the next six months. We ramped up our mileage from 12 to 25 miles a day. We ate up elevation, busting out 7K and 10K days (Split Mountain, 7.5K gain, and Cactus to Clouds, 10K gain). And we tested our overnight systems on two and three day overnight trips (Rae Lakes Loop, Backbone Trail and Evolution Loop). All in all, it was one of the most memorable summers of my life, crossing off epic hikes every weekend, hiking with friends, day hiking 14ers, and gaining a level of endurance that makes you feel invincible. By the end of the summer we felt we did more in a season than most people do in years. We felt alive!
A month before we started the JMT I had no reason to doubt that we would complete it. We had never stuck so closely to the plan. We felt ready. Then came a blow out of nowhere – I lost my job. As a freelance artist my job is never entirely secure, but after a solid two-year working relationship with the company I was at I felt safe. A month before leaving for the JMT the company abruptly decided to outsource almost all their work to Vancouver. In an instant my life became drenched in doubt and uncertainty. My running and hiking became as much a form of stress relief as it did enjoyment. There was never a better time or worse time to be hiking the John Muir Trail.
Perhaps it was negativity from having lost my job, or the insecurity that taunted me, but I started to doubt I could finish the 222 miles of the JMT in seven days – 31 miles a day. We had learned a lot that summer, and I learned that I can handle back to back 25 mile days, but 31 pushed me just a bit too far, and in that extra effort I felt the joy would be lost.
I thought about all the big adventures I had failed on in recent years – the 508, the Tour Divide, and most recently, Denali. Perhaps it was my own potential that I wasn't seeing brought to fruition in my life, but it bugged me. For years I obsessed with finalizing something, trying to attain some level of cred. Finally I was in perfect position, ready for an adventure that was entirely in our grasp, and yet still larger than life. Now, with the loss of my job - a job I loved, a job I was good at - I felt that all was lost. I could not fail again. My confidence and sanity both seemed to hangin the balance, contingent on the outcome of our journey.
I settled on completing the JMT in nine days. Jason acquiesced.
Getting to Yosemite
It's a strange feeling waking up on the morning you are to start on such a journey. Energized. Similar to the excitement of the first day of vacation, but with added dread - anxiousness loomed overhead. Over the next two days we would leave our car at the end of the JMT and make our way to Yosemite. We had put a lot of effort into making this trip possible and many things would have to fall into place to make it work. As an incessant task master I had to remind myself to let go and surrender to the conditions, and not lose sight of purpose of this trip - to enjoy life.
We drove to the Whitney Portal and parked in the long term parking lot. Everything we had in our backpacks and on our bodies would suffice us for the next eleven days. I had just one t-shirt, one pair of shorts, one pair of underwear... I had one of everything. Except socks.
We did a final gear check before locking the car and putting a stash in the bear bin, including toiletry products and deodorant that we would not be taking along on the trip. Au naturale. Our food was all set for the first four days. We decided we would only stock up once along the route at the Muir Trail Ranch, exactly halfway. We mailed two buckets (literally) of food weeks earlier, but the Ranch sent us confirmation that they had only received one of them so far. My bucket was nowhere to be found, which worried us slightly.
Another looming problem was the ever growing Rim Fire, Yosemite National Park's largest recorded wildfire. Just the day before, the park closed down Highway 120,which is the only way to get from Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite Valley. We had no way to get to the start of the JMT till they reopened the road. Much was uncertain.
The first order of business was to hitch a ride the 12 miles back to Lone Pine. We walked along the road for about a mile and a half, longer than we've ever had to walk while hitch hiking. A man named Jim from Mammoth was our chafer to town. He would be day hiking Whitney With his daughter the next day and was scoping out the parking situation and kindly offered us a lift.
After many thanks we parted with Jim and headed for the Lone Pine McDonald’s where the new bus stop had been moved. I savored a McFlurry and was bombarded with memories of my youth working at a McDonald’s, while watching out the window for the Eastern Sierra bus to Mammoth. You know you're in a small town when the bus driver is actually helpful and stops by her house quickly to get something from her husband.
We gazed out the window watching the sun set over the ominous Sierra Mountains as the locals got on and off the bus. Each mile we drove north we knew we would have to retread south. We were worlds away from home, yet we were in a world that felt like home. So many weekends we escape to the Sierra that we feel a small part of community.
As the bus drove past Convict Lake I gazed over the line of blue water and imagined being there: the yellow setting sun, relaxing by the calm water lapping against the shore. I wanted to be there more than I wanted to face the proposition I was headed toward. I thought of my co-worker who frequently fished at Convict Lake. Jason and I had never been there, like so many places we continually pass but do not know. We’re always moving, always pushing, rarely relaxing and just enjoying. It made me think of fishing with my Dad as a little kid and how much I enjoyed it, as much for the bonding time as for the sport. Something stirred in me in that moment, driving past the lake. I wanted to fish. But I wasn't a fisherman! I resolved to learn fishing - fly fishing -once we returned from this crazy roller coaster ride.
That night we stayed at the Shiloh Inn and ate dinner at the Mammoth Chart House, toasting to success over Riesling and shrimp, while wearing Capilene tops and Houdini pants. At every opportunity Jason gleefully told others about our adventure ahead. For the first time since I was ten years old, I couldn't finish my dinner – I was nervous.
We were going to take the 11am bus to Yosemite but Jason’s guts told him to take the 8am bus instead. Later we found out that the11am bus was cancelled due to the fire – lucky us. On the bus we met a trio of guys who were day hiking from Tuolumne to Agnew Meadows. The Yosemite Rim Fire had been burning for about a month at that point and the park was empty - we were the only ones on the bus. The bus driver said the Rim Fire dramatically reduced visitation.
When we got off the bus at Tuolumne the air smelled like smoke. An opaque white line of smoke marked the northern horizon. ‘As long as it doesn't blow south,’ we said naively.
From there we headed over to the permit office and were first in line for the 11am acquisition of permits for the following day. We made some friends after sitting in the queue for two hours, including a surfer college student. He was bright and interesting, constantly commenting on the wonders of life. A physics student at Santa Barbara, he had a very laid back, stoner aura, but at 21 this kid had his shit together. He and two other friends were also attempting to fastpack the trail in ten days. To be so young and not be afraid to tackle such lofty goals is a rare thing. I couldn't imagine experiencing something as large as the John Muir Trail at the same time you're allowed into bars for the first time. I was jealous of their ambition compared to my own at that age. We were hoping we’d see more of these kids on the trail but never intercepted them.
While waiting in line we talked a lot of strategy with other hikers. We were in Tuolumne but were hoping to get permits to start at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, the official start to the JMT.
As much as I would have liked to cut 24 miles off the trip, it didn't feel right. If we did finish the trip it would have an asterisk next to it: *Didn't hike the entire John Muir Trail. It was a no brainer, we'd start our hike in Happy Isles, and we’d have to employ the only way to get there that was available – our feet.
We located a trail on the topo app on my phone, starting at Olmstead Point and heading down Titus Canyon to the valley. It would add ten miles to our trip, and we’d have to hike it that afternoon, but it was the only way to get there. After a good deal of back and forth with a stonewalling park ranger, Jason eventually got a permit for Tuolumne for the next day, with the caveat that we would have to assure them we could day hike the 28 miles to the intersection with Vogelsang to be out of the Tuolumne Meadow zone to camp.
After a bite at The Grill, and dashing off the shuttle bus to stash our cache at the Cathedral Lakes Trailhead bear bins, we arrived at Olmstead point. We ran our fingers over the metal relief map and looked across the smoky expanse to Cloud’s Rest. This was it. Kinda. We started our odyssey hiking down the trail to Yosemite Valley. Ten miles down. It got hot. And it got smoky. Half Dome stood dominant to the south of us, beckoning another adventure, but for now I was only thinking about getting to the bottom. Ten extra miles - it killed me to think we had to lengthen the trip, every mile counted, but there’s no other way we would rather do it.
Yosemite Valley was so empty due to the wildfire that we figured we could probably find a hotel room for our last night. Our choice tastes lead us to the Ahwahnee Lodge where we couldn't afford a room, and were not properly dressed for the restaurant. The bearded guy at the front desk helped us book a tent-room at Curry Village. He had to wear a dress shirt and vest as his uniform, but his goatee and long hair evidenced a more bohemian lifestyle, someone like us. He asked what we were up to and we told him we were starting the JMT in the morning. I’ll never forget his reply. He looked at us earnestly and said, 'You're going to love it.' It’s the same wistful look that everyone who has done the trail wears while reminiscing. I didn't quite believe him. We had a lot to do and I couldn't keep from being stressed. I wanted to believe him and it was clear from the look on his face that he loved his time on the trail.
At Curry Village passing throngs of families and giggling little girls on the walk to our tent-cabin reminded me of a warm summer night with my childhood friends. These people were forming memories. Everyone having a good time outdoors. It made me happy. We showered our last shower and tried to sleep amid the chaos.
Day 1 – Yosemite Valley to Vogelsang Trail
I awoke at 3 am to the coughing of the guy in the next tent in utter silence. A pin drop. I reached for my bag and cringed at every single crinkle of my bear bag. I was in hell. If we turned on our headlamps and started to get ready we’d surely wake everyone up around us.
We gathered our bags and crept to some picnic tables away from the tents where we started getting ready. By the red light of our headlamps we forced bites of muffin into our knotted stomachs. Anxious. I remember taking my birth control pill that morning and looking at the week of pills ahead. Eight more times I would have to wake at this hour and go through this torture. It seemed impossible. Why the hell am I doing this?
It was 4:30am and pitch black when we started the short mile walk to Happy Isles - we wouldn't see twilight till about 6 am. Ash caught in our headlamp beams and Jason questioned if we should cover our mouths - the air smelled much smokier than it did the evening before.
Soon we came to the sign - thee sign that Jason had been waiting for. The one that every thru hiker must pose by and snap a photo, marking either the official start or end to their JMT adventure. This was a religious experience for Jason. Ten years earlier, as we hiked Half Dome, he watched a pair of dirty hikers finish their trek. It was a moment he didn't forget, and one he said he’d always strive for. Now it was our turn, and we posed for our own photos next to the sign anxiously smiling. Last systems checked and ready to go. We stood there with 24 pound packs on our back, five days of food and hoping to average 25 miles a day. Nine was our magic number. Jason and I gave each other one last wide-eyed look, took a deep breath, and took our first step.
Soon we were reduced to the familiar rhythm of our breathing and the clicking of trek poles on pavement. I was happy to leave the craziness of the trip’s prologue behind and return to what I know. This is I can do.
The air smelled horribly of smoke. As the sun rose it became apparent that the sky was full of haze, the wind must have changed overnight. As we neared the top of the falls we noticed we couldn't even see the back of Half Dome. We were trapped in a bubble. By the time it was 7am it should have been full daylight, but the atmosphere was blanketed with a thick layer of brown smoke that turned the sky into continuous twilight. We couldn't see very far in any direction. We wet our buffs and wore them over our mouths in a meager attempt to help filter out particulates in the air.
Soon I began to become worried and we debated what was the smart thing to do. We had no idea what the Rim Fire was doing, perhaps it was headed our way. The wind had obviously changed direction and was blowing the smoke directly into the valley. What if it stayed like this – we would be hiking in smoke for days. Was it smart to continue? Was it healthy? Jason turned on his cell phone and caught a weak signal. The NOAA website revealed that indeed the wind was blowing south but would change direction the next day. We resolved to push on for the rest of the day and reassess the conditions tomorrow.
Aside from smelling smoke all day, day one was easy. Strong fresh legs with an easy 10 mile warm up the day before, we blasted by the falls, passing Half Dome in less time that it took us when we were 24 years old.
Around Sunrise Camp we passed our first backcountry ranger who asked for our permit. She mentioned she had been on her beat for three days now, so we updated her with the status of the fire and
At lunch time we passed a twenty something kid who asked if we were fastpackers, he probably guessed as much from the diminutive size of Jason’s pack. This kid was headed to the valley finishing up an impressive six day fastpack of the JMT. He asked if the smoke continued to be this bad down in the valley. This was his first time to Yosemite and he was understandably upset about having saved the best for last, only to not see anything at all.
Around Merced Lake we met the only other hikers that day wearing something around their face to protect from the smoke. They were four older hikers who brought paper welding face masks. They agreed with us that hiking in the smoke was probably not the smartest thing to do, but they also didn't want to let it ruin their entire vacation (a month later in October the government shutdown of 2013 would ruin thousands of people’s vacations). I often thought about the firefighters and hotshot crews battling the blaze right in the midst of smoke and ash. They often spent weeks or months working 12 hour shifts in such conditions. Once I thought about it from that angle I felt a bit like a pansy, frightened by having to breathe in smoky air for a day. Nevertheless, the conditions were not ideal. It was so smoky we couldn't see Cathedral Peak or the Eichorn Pinnacle from the trail, no more than a half mile away. Through the haze you could look directly at the sun, a bright red ball stapled unnaturally to the sky.
At the Cathedral Trailhead we picked up our cache and ate dinner at The Grille. Once back on the trail, a very energetic guy approaching us pointed at Jason and excitedly asked, ‘Are you guys fastpacking?’ He was also a fastpacker, and would finish tomorrow in eight days. As his hiking partner approached us, our excited friend eagerly explained to him that we were also hiking the trail in under ten days - I felt flattered by this man. Not only did he identify us as fastpackers, but he seemed excited to meet us. At this point we weren't even sure we could finish in less than ten days. I felt like we were being welcomed into a small clan, each high miler quietly scoping out others along the trail. At the end of the day, every camper along the trail is a backpacker, regardless of how many miles you cover. But I suppose it’s just natural to seek out others who share your goals.
A few more miles till sunset and we found a great little campsite overlooking the never-ending meadows along Lyell Creek. Around the last two hours of daylight we both started to complain that our feet hurt. If only we knew what we were in for.
Day 2 – Vogelsang to Trinity Lakes
We woke to clean smelling air, promising that the rest of the days should be smoke free. As the sun rose we anxiously looked to the sky – they were blue! The wind had changed direction, and would stay that way for the rest of the trip. Five miles in we passed Terry, a guy who we met at the permit office two days before – he was just waking up. He couldn't believe we had hiked over forty miles since we last saw him, 45 hours ago.
As we started hiking up toward Donahue Pass I was trying to keep up with Jason, who was going too fast for me. I had to remind myself to cut the cord – I must go my own pace. After slowing down a bit I felt better.
Hiking up toward Donahue Pass I noted how predictable the transitions are as the terrain evolves:meadows ringed by forest trees, which slowly grow shorter and hardier the higher you climb up, till the only green left are the shrubby plants that choke the cascading water escaping an alpine lake, giving way to pure rock and wind.
Our legs were still fresh and lively, we practically flowed up Donahue Pass. I loved the dark blue sky that morning, solow it seemed I could touch it, while the sun lit up the mountains behind us.
Around Garnet Lake we got off trail for the first and only time of the trip by following the group of hikers in front of us, and not heeding the trial that continued around the lake. Lesson learned, blaze your own trail and don't follow the crowd.
The area around Thousand Island Lakes was beautiful, as Banner and Mount Ritter loomed large overhead, and it also had an unexpected amount of up and down. By the time we finished the three thousand foot descent down to Shadow Lake our feet were on fire! I didn't know how much more my dogs could take, so we stopped at the lake to soak our feet in the cold water for a little relief. The pain took us by surprise – we had done a lot of training for the JMT and couldn't understand how we were in so much agony so soon. It was only day two – how on earth would my feet be able to take seven more days of this? At the end of the day, when our feet were screaming like this, Jason and I would often laugh thinking back to our original seven day plan that included a 44 mile day. We had no idea what we were up against – no idea.
As I soaked my feetsies in the lake I remembered back to the bearded guy at the Ahwahnee and his strong words of prediction – you're going to love it. Right now, where I was, feet on fire, hungry and tired, growing cold as the sun disappeared – I wasn't loving it. I had no connection to him or what he was talking about. We are having different experiences, I thought, and mine is not worth having. If this is what hiking the John Muir Trail is like, why would anyone do it?
We made due with a mediocre campsite by Trinity Lakes, although with the low water level that season it was more like a swamp that clogged up our water filter. As we set up camp and the wind howled, it was getting cold, and I was in a bad mood instantly. I felt burdened by the night, and by the unspoken promise that all nights might be like this. We were heading for the unknown and I didn't know what to expect and felt trapped by the permanence. I certainly know what it’s like to push myself to discomfort for a 100 mile race or for a long weekend in the Sierra, but never nine days. It’s the first time I truly understood the saying, the illusion of permanence is the root of all suffering.
Day 3 – Trinity Lakes to Lake Virginia
The next morning our first water source was dried up, which meant we were out of water with six miles till Reds Meadow. We had to stop at a little swampy lake, mysterious and eerie in the morning dusk as the fog hung over it. By this point our brand new filter was already bricked and we wondered how we'd be able to pump it for seven more days, since we stopped to get water about three times a day. While pumping water Jason found a coin from India on the ground. We speculated how it got there, and Jason put the coin in his bag so it could continue its journey.
En route to Reds Meadow we detoured off the trail a little bit to pass the Devils’ Postpile National Monument. So many times in the past we intend on visiting this site but never did. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd finally see it while embarking on the JMT.
In Reds Meadow we got breakfast and snacks, washed our faces, pooped on toilets, and filled our water bladders at faucets. We charged our phones in the restaurant and frantically emailed the Muir Ranch to confirm they received my bucket for our arrival in two days – they did not. The throng of hikers all about was awesome, and PTC emblems started poking up along the JMT blazes. I felt like a real backpacker. We noticed a girl who appeared to be hiking solo. Jason asked if I would ever hike the JMT solo. Although I've gone solo on mountaineering and cycling trips before I felt a trip of this
Day three was the most boring day of the trip; the landscape is the least breathtaking. We took lunch on a rock overlooking the gorge by Duck Lake. We passed 13 people, the least amount of people of any day of the trip. Ten wore shorts, three wore pants. When crossing a creek Jason stood in the middle and proclaimed, 'If I were a horse I'd just shit in the middle of the stream,' because that’s what horses did – they shit wherever they wanted. The entire JMT is basically a trail of horse poop. People have to bury their number two six inches deep, but mounds of horseshit cover the trail we walk on, clinging to our boots and poles, and become the dust in the air, sticking to our skin. It’s all part of the nitrate circle I guess, but I'm not happy to be a part of it. Another annoyance of the equine are those weird grazing gates that block the trail, each one different and waiting to clothesline the inattentive hiker.
We hiked past Purple Lake, as it reflected the blue sky and red rocks, making it purple. Jason was in love. Up the last push of switchbacks I spotted my first pika, my spirit animal. I looked up at the million colors and rugosities and crenulations in the rock wall above us and pictured a watercolor in my head. An impossible task to capture, one I should take on.
That night we camped along Lake Virginia and enjoyed what little warmth we got from the last of the sun sneaking through cumulous clouds. We found a large boulder poking out into the lake that made an impeccable dock for dangling our feet in the freezing cold water. From the dock we bathed for the first time in three days. We couldn't have asked for a better campsite, high on a hill along the lake, hidden in the trees. I re-taped my feet, placing fresh strips of Leukotape on the top of each toe. I discovered Leukotape just a few months before, and it is by far the best athletic tape ever invented. How I went my entire collegiate and adult years without learning about Leukotape I have no idea. The tape I put on my toes that night lasted the rest of the trip.
Day 4 - Lake Virginia to Lake Italy trail intersection
We woke around 4:30, a little later than ideal, and we continued to wake by 4:30am for the rest of the trip. We were always moving by 5:30am. Sunrise was around 6:30am. That first hour in the dark was always magical. There’s something of a prowess I feel knowing how many miles I cover by sun up, and watching the land come to life, passing camps waking up, making breakfast, breaking down tents. The morning of day four it was sprinkling with heavy humid air. The sky was inky blue-black, and waaay, way in the distance a mountain summit shone like it was on fire, as it caught the first of the day’s sun, as it peeked over the horizon, scraping across the murky sky. Perfect unparalleled palette. Unrepeatable. The rugged peaks in the distance teased us with what was to come.
Silently we slinked up Silver Pass. Along the trail we found an orphaned rake, probably left from a maintenance crew or backcountry ranger. It’s presence reminded us of the world we had left. We passed an older couple who also got an early start. It was gloomy and cold and sprinkling. We ate up the miles. We passed an eccentric older man who might have been albino. He was almost halfway done and twenty days into his JMT hike - a whopping five miles a day. We all move at our own pace. As we passed him he said our gait was elegant, like a dancer. We passed a trail maintenance crew working the crazy switchbacks and moving boulders. They said they were out for a two week stint. We thanked them for their work as I silently scolded myself for not doing more trail maintenance.
We took lunch at the bottom of the switchbacks in a forested area and put our feet up onto a fallen tree. We felt bad; our feet hurt early that day, and Jason’s tummy hurt. The descent to the bottom of Lake Edison felt like it took forever. The lake was so low that summer that the ferry couldn't run and they were shuttling hikers to the cache spot.
The ascent up Bear Ridge Was super steep and we trudged on putting ourselves into a plodding trance. We passed a father and son who noticed and said, 'Wow. You’re in the rhythm.' We would later say the same to them. Jason got a weak cell signal and sent out an email to Muir Ranch announcing our arrival the next morning. We could only cross our fingers and hope my cache was there.
On the descent from Bear Ridge the sun came out. That was the first day that seemed like it would never end. We planned on camping at the junction with Bear Trail and Italy Pass and kept guessing that we may have passed it. Jason was whooped and was having problems with his quad, though he didn't tell me at the time. When we finally got there it was difficult to find a good campsite. As we scoped for a site I heard Jason scream from behind me a rageful 'FUCK!' I turned around to see Jason holding up half of his trek pole - in one foul step it had broken in half.
His right quad was in pain. We weren't sure if my food cache would be at Muir Trail Ranch when we arrived there in a mere 14 hours, and the only crappy campsite we could find was covered in giant black ants. In one quick hour someone turned up the volume. Things had never seemed so bad.
Day 5 - Lake Italy Trail Intersection to Evolution Lake
The morning of day five was delicate. Jason Wasn't feeling well, combined with the situation of his broken trek pole. Meanwhile there was the very real chance that my food cache hadn't yet arrived at Muir Trail Ranch. If my resupplies weren't there we would have no choice but to stop and wait till they arrived the next day, blowing our nine day attempt out of the water. We were starting to feel the fatigue of so much on our minds and over a hundred miles on our and feet.
Each day to help pass the time we would count people along the trail. For example, we might count how many people we passed were wearing hats. This was the first morning that we were so preoccupied that we didn't care to play our little game. (The results of our days of counting are in the 'Training & Stats' section.)
For the time being Jason duck taped the hell out of his trekking pole using a stick as a splint. We planned on seeing what we could find at Muir Ranch, hoping they might have a spare pole lying around. I tried to do my part in giving him my poles for the start of the day, and in doing so learned just how much I've evolved to rely on my poles, especially when descending. The jury is still out for many people on whether trekking poles actually benefit a hiker, but I bought off on the technology after many years of scorning them. And, did I mention, after many years of knee pain. Using poles properly on descent does alleviate pressure on the knees. As an avid distance runner I've run up to 50 miles without poles just fine, but I often have stiff and sore knees the next day. Poles help lighten the load on my feet on every big down step, especially with weight on my back, and any wear I can save I'll take – life is short. The purist in me hates the idea of relying on a technology, and inexpensive one at that, just to do something as simple and pure as hiking. But this purist’s knees are placing bets on mechanical advantage for now.
We stopped at a sign around Rosemarie Meadow. It was made out of old wood and it was difficult to make out which way the arrows pointed. Signs are a funny thing in the backcountry, you develop a fondness for signs, and every time you arrive at one it feels like a tiny victory. A few precious words and an arrow show the way, marking the difference between where you want to be and getting lost. We trust them, they are our guides. They become welcome sights for the weary traveler, sometimes revealing good news or bad. Your eyes learn to seek out their silhouette; with so few man-made objects in the wilderness their form starts to jump out at you. And the avid hiker can identify their location, as each park and national forest has their own distinct shape and material.
We tried to take it easy going over Seldon Pass. Marie Lake stunned us in its beauty, little nooks and crannies everywhere, and private islands. I waved to waking campers and felt a wash of warmth and camaraderie. I daydreamed about returning here one day with others. Down Seldon Pass the little lake of Sallie Keys appeared picture-perfect as the yellow sun rose behind it, and the straight trail lined with trees felt like a city park. Feng shui in nature like this is special.
The descent was brutal with Jason’s broken pole. The looming uncertainty put me in an intolerable mood, I was mad at the world which meant I was mad at Jason – I just wanted to get there. Finally we made it down the cutoff trail and arrived to learn our fate...
Muir Ranch is an oasis in a desert. Pass through a wood gate and you are greeted with a green grassy meadow with lazy napping dogs, staffed by friendly college students. They have a sundries shop, charging stations, and rooms for the night complete with a tour of the grounds. They had large tables, communal food bins, even a trekking pole corral so you don't lose your poles. Surprisingly the one necessity they don't provide we're bathrooms, which proved a burden for my bladder.
I handed in our check tags to retrieve our two buckets and watched eagerly as the girl vanished into the holding shed to see if my cache was there. She returned with two buckets! ALAS! We let out a huge sigh of relief, exhausted from the anticipation. My bucket had arrived that morning she said. Everything was on schedule. Unfortunately, the guy who arrived after me was not so lucky - his bucket had missed that day's cutoff and would arrive the next day.
Jason and I had both mailed ourselves 15 pounds of food, enough for five days and some extra, and after four days on the trail we had some major sorting to do. The ranch's setup for sorting through food couldn't be more perfect. They have huge tables for spreading out gear all arranged under sun tents. Sorting through the food I had packed for myself weeks earlier I winced at the bowling ball of food. It felt impossibly heavy and I whined at the thought of adding the weight to our then-empty 12 pound packs. Give-and-take bins for hikers made it an easy decision to cut a few pounds of food knowing it wouldn't go to waste and another hiker would use it. In fact, the bins were so overflowing with extra food and supplies that veteran hikers knew to save their pennies and simply resupply out of the free bins.
Jason asked one of the girls working at the bucket shed if someone there could help him fix his trekking pole. To our amazement we met Pat, the boot mender. At 84 years old, Pad is everything I hope to beat that age. Still mobile, and sharp as a tack, she said she prides herself on being able to repair most people’s boots, but rarely had she worked on broken trekking poles. After a lot of analysis of the break in the pole she hobbled over to her shed to see what she could find, emerging with a near perfect metal pipe and some string to tighten it. The pipe worked out great. Pat explained the extensive process in getting all the buckets to bucket shed, estimating that each bucket was touched by a minimum of 15 people en route, the last of which crawled overland on a WWII era Mercedes Grog.
It was a busy place, with hikers arriving and leaving every few minutes. There was every type of backpacker you've already met before on the trail – the solo young man finding himself during his break from school. The thirty-something rough and tumble female who can hang with the guys. The leather skinned middle aged guy who’always got a story to tell. Or the engineer who hikes in button down shirts. These are my people. I felt like I had met all of them before and could sit down and have a conversation with any of them. At the same time we felt alienated from this group - many of the hikers all seemed to know each other. Almost all of them were solo and had been moving at the same pace for days, if not weeks. That aspect of the trip was a loss to us; we hadn't been in lock step with anyone on the trail thus far.
Before leaving we threw our packs onto the scale to behold our new burden. Fully stocked with food and water for the rest of the trip, my pack was 28 pounds. Jason’s was 29. One guy’s was 70.
After an unanticipated three and a half hours at the ranch, with our feathers on our back, we made way to the intersection with Piute Pass Trail, which would finally be on familiar ground. The monotonous stretch along the river tortured us, and the added weight on our feet made them scream. Our foot pain became so bad that we decided to do the inevitable – we took ibuprofen. Once we took the first pill we knew we'd have to take one every day for the rest of the trip.
Talking to the group was energizing. They were amazed at our objective and at the pace we were setting. It was different now on day five than back on day one and two, when people merely wished us luck on our goal – now we were doing it.
It was getting late and we still had nine miles to go, up. We didn't want to get off pace, we agreed one day of having to pitch tent in the dark was worth it to stay on track, so we pushed on. We hiked miles along the Evolution Meadows, glowing gorgeous golden in the setting sunlight, the last of the day’s warmth. I was jealous of the hikers we passed, bundled up for the night, eating warm meals, at amazing campsites along the grassy lakes of Evolution Meadows. Fly fisherman waded in the water to catch dinner. The sun reflected off their lines creating silvery whips above their head as they cast their flies. I wanted to be them – no timeline, no schedule, no hurry.
The sun was nearly down as we arrived at the bottom of the switchbacks that would lead to Evolution Lake. One last caffeinated gu and we were off. The mountains were purple as the sun set behind the horizon, and we burned our inner diesel, hiking at a sustained pace we didn't think was possible. Heavy packs not even felt, tired feet not registered. We were in a tandem zone when we needed it most. We looked at each other and giggled in astonishment, exclaiming about this unbelievable, limitless energy. ‘This is what it’s all about!’ we said.
Day 6 - Evolution Lake to Upper Paradise Lake
To bed in the dark and to rise. It was cold and windy. We broke down camp like a well-oiled machine,this was our sixth morning and our system was down pat. We would wake with the alarm at 4am and hit snooze once. It was never a good snooze because I'd always end up lying there thinking about what I had to do once the alarm rang. While Jason made oatmeal - his insistence for a hot breakfast - I'd lie an extra twenty minutes in my sleeping bag and munch on a bar, having to pee really bad, and would sort through my bear bag for the days allotment. Then came the clothing change out of thermals and into the day’s gear. It was always cold in the mornings. One of us would stuff the tent while the other stuffed the bags. There are always a million little tasks to do, whether it was remembering to check the map, grab the drying clothes, put on gaiters, load your food pockets for the day, mix your drinks, braid your hair, sanitize your hands, or lube your nether regions. We were always moving between 5 and 5:30 and would usually have to stop in the first few miles to pump water, the never ending bane of thru hiking.
That morning as the sky brightened we passed Sapphire Lake and overtook another couple. We exchanged photo ops and chatted – they were doing the Evolution Loop hike which we had done a mere three weeks earlier. They talked about their desire to do the JMT and their admiration of us. How funny it was to be able to say to them, ‘Don't wait. Just do it.’ Six days prior we were novices to this too, but here we were.
Hiking this morning was pleasant. I felt confident on the familiar trail, and strong. We were passed by a trail runner going north with the tiniest backpack – perhaps on a supported trail run? I was
We stopped for lunch along the stream in one of the meadows right before Le Conte. It was a good lunch. It was a great day. The sun shone brightly. Jason dragged a log over for us to elevate our feetsies. We both took a power nap and ate our usual Nutella on tortillas – the real tortillas full of fat, and the size of a pizza pan. Jason got butt ass naked and bathed in the stream. I also washed up in the freezing cold water. It felt divine to wash the dust off my calves and freshen up my arm pits. During lunch I’d always take my dirty pair of socks from the day before, wash them in the stream and then hang them on my pack to dry in the sun along with my wash cloth. The first few seconds of putting my feet in the ice cold water was a painful endeavor until they numbed up. Every soak helped shrink up those blood filled capillaries and gave temporary relief for the next hour or so. While soaking my feet I spotted a baby rainbow trout just a few feet away from me. I had never seen a fish in the wild so close to me, just hanging out. This stream was living. I wanted a fishing pole at that moment, like the fly fisherman we'd seen almost each day since we started.
It was exciting to see the sign at the Le Conte Ranger Station. This marked another start upon untrodden territory. The last time we were at this sign we met a husband and wife hiking the JMT with their two little boys, age 9 and 11. Absolutely amazing. They had been on the trial 11 days. The couple seemed interested in what we were doing and asked if we were hiking the High Sierra Trail, which they had done the previous summer. They were all covered up, wearing long sleeves and pants, gloves, brimmed hats and neck gaiters. They had to be dying of heat. The littlest kept asking his mom for a drink. I was jealous and the amount of sun damage they were escaping, while I stood there in short sleeves and spandex, but resolved that there was no way we could sustain our pace all bundled up like that.
The last stretch of the day was the long canyon walk to the famed Golden Staircase. At the next intersection we popped an ibuprofen. We hiked through a burnt out section of trees and wondered what happened there. We tried to spot the backside of Middle Palisade as we approached the bottom of the Staircase. It really is a trail engineering marvel. Out here, in the middle of the wilderness, many men puzzled together a maze of steps winding up a choked canyon, solely to deliver passage to hikers. The fact this was done in the 1930s blows my mind even more. Later in the trip, descending Forester Pass, we would see a plaque mounted in memory of an 18 year old trail worker who lost his life during a rock blast - just for a hiking trail -out here where so few people come. It makes me wonder what the amount of tax dollars and manual labor adds up to, considering how few people use this recreational corridor. The ratio between effort and use seems so large. What it proves is how important access to these remote places is, and it speaks volumes of the originators who had the foresight to know the importance a recreational opportunity like this is in building a great society and country. Access is the key. Without these trials these environs do not exist.
Appropriately, we hiked the Golden Staircase in the golden light of the waning sun. By the time we got to the top at Lower Palisade Lake the sun was cutting a sharp shadow on the ground. We passed a fly fisherman wading in his pants, casting gorgeous turns silently over the water. I wanted so much to rest and relax with him instead of rushing to find a campsite. This is where we first introduced ourselves to Joe, who we had been leapfrogging with all day. He was extremely friendly and optimistic, and I got the feeling he was wildly naive to the backcountry (and the world) despite his awesome mileage. He also tried to hook us for a ride home when he finished which we found odd and annoying. Nevertheless, it was nice chatting with him that evening while we looked for campsites.
With found ourselves hiking all the way up to Upper Palisade Lake before realizing the trail did not tangent the lake. We immediately stopped to camp in situ and were directed to a perfect little nook
Day 7 - Upper Paradise Lake to Arrowhead Lake
I pensively ate a bear claw, which had been sitting in my food cache for two weeks, as we flew effortlessly up Mather Pass. At the top it was golden crystalline! The air seemed gin clear. We gazed south to Pinchot Pass, eight miles away. We would stand atop it in three hours. On the backside of Split Mountain we discovered a note a hiker left on a rock along side the trail with a contingency plan and time; it was for later that same day. Hope he made it back in time.
The approach to Pinchot’s summit seemed never ending. As I surpassed an older man near the summit he remarked he was breathless. I cheerily explained, ‘Well, we are at 12K.’ To which he grouchily remarked, ‘Not yet.’ At the top we met two jolly women, I forget their names, but I loved them. They were extremely funny and Jason quickly was throwing zingers with them like old friends. We would later learn that they were a couple who quit their jobs and were traveling for the year. Two days earlier when they were at Palisades Lake they witnessed the helicopter rescue, which we remembered hearing. A twenty something guy hiking with his father developed pulmonary edema. They humorously recalled how they were unknowingly bugging the backcountry ranger for the weather report as she was calling in a helicopter rescue for the half dying man a few feet nearby.
The descent from Pinchot Pass was the worst part of the trip, the worst section of the trail, and the most boring, hot, and endless stretch of morale-demoralizing descent. I don't even want to think about it.
We looked upon the Woods Creek Bridge crossing with blessed eyes and threw middle fingers in their. Worn by the long day and high elevation gain, hiking up the last push to Arrowhead Lake I was in a fragile mood. For the first time on the trip we both pulled out our ipods to distract our minds. Perhaps it was the magnitude of the day, or the familiar ground we tread, but I felt elated and emotional. I could hardly sing along to Lord Huron without crying. I knew we were near the end, and perhaps I realized we would both complete our goal. It was the moment the cork in the bottle burst free, and it all came rushing out in a confused wave of tears
The miles tick away. Digging deep for every last drop of energy, I chanted Jason’s mantra that he made up for this trip, and I swear it made every step easier. I never hit rock bottom and therefore never employed my end-all mantra, 'Make it to morning'.
That night at Arrowhead Lake we shared close quarters with campers by the only bear bin, and camped atop piles of – what else – horseshit. I saw a man’s bare ass. While Jason pumped water he watched a fisherman cast his line and pull in a fish six times in a row.
That morning I took comfort knowing we'd only have to break down camp one more time. My feet were always stiff and extremely sore for the first mile or so in the morning. Each step I took felt like I was painfully squishing all the blood out of my feet. It wouldn't be so bad if I didn’t develop tiny blisters on my pinky toe – blisters are the worst and take a while to numb up. Surprising I got them considering how hardened our feet were.
Glen Pass was absolutely windless and still. We swiftly moved through the last of the familiar ground. Once we passed Kearsarge Pass we would be on new terrain till Mount Whitney, exploring new terrain was always great for the mind and motivation. At Vidette Meadows we knew it was on – the climb up Forester would begin. We took a breather and each reached for our ipods, perhaps looking for distraction to the inevitable suffering. I often listen to podcasts or audiobooks which keep my attention and require some active thinking, but this morning I put on music so I could just zone out and lean on the beat. At that time Jason was listening to the new Nine Inch Nails album and offered me a listen. We often listen to new music on excursions as a form of new stimulation, and inexorably the music becomes linked to the memories. For the rest of my life whenever I hear Hesitation Marks I will pleasantly be reminded of the JMT.
That day was dominated by Forester Pass. It felt like we spent all day ascending and descending its flanks. We took lunch on a sunny rock by the creek, fueling up for the four thousand foot ascent ahead of us. I did not want to get up, but we were diligent in sticking to our allotted time frames. Despite how tired we felt our bodies delivered what we needed them to. We never felt totally fatigued or wasted, dare I say we were fast charging up Forester. Another engineering marvel, the trail on the south side is almost vertigo inducing, clinging to the sheer walls as the trail zig zags its way to the basin below. At the pass we met some international hikers, Germans, who took in the view with a cigarette. Later they passed us on the plateau as we lay on the ground with our feet sticking straight up to the sky. Anything to drain the blood out of our bloated feet, but how do you explain that to a confused passerby? They gave us a chuckle.
The jaunt down to the Tyndall Creek Frog Ponds was magical. The sun was still high in the sky, as we pointed out Williamson and Tyndall, and tried in vain to spot Whitney, finally making the connections in our minds and on maps. When we got to the Frog Ponds we had plenty of sunlight to lounge a bit and relax. The setting was beautiful and I felt a contentment seldom rivaled.
In the evening, once we layered up, one of us would set up the tent while the other started pumping water. Soon both of our little stoves would be going, courtesy of my brother Mike who makes stoves for fun – he must have made a hundred before our trip, testing different venting patterns and capacities. After dinner and dessert we'd scour for the perfect tree for hanging the bear bags, but on this night we had the luxury of a bear bin. Then it was contacts out, study the map for tomorrow, alcohol wipe the armpits, re-braid my pigtails fortnight-mode, hats, gloves and vest on, and the lights out. We never had trouble falling asleep. We were out like a light by 9:30 or 10pm at the latest.
Our camping neighbor that night, Tom, was an extremely nice guy who rounded out the perfection of the evening. He was not afraid to waltz right over to our camp in the middle of our dinner and make himself at home. We didn't mind. Tom had lost his hiking partner to sickness in the middle of the trail, and was toughing out the last half in an unexpected solo trip. He was writing a blog that we later found online - it seemed he lost his motivation and joy the last few days of his trip and just wanted to get the hell off the trail! A familiar story of many weary through hikers.
Day 9 - Tyndall Frog Ponds to Mount Whitney
A great morning. There are few mornings like this is life, knowing you'll be granted almost certain success. The hard work is done, you're coasting.
The hike up to the Bighorn Plateau and across the plain felt otherworldly – it didn't even feel like the Sierra but like we were transported somewhere else. Huge rolling expanses that beckon you to run valiantly, crying, while carrying a flag, or to tear up the terrain in a pickup truck in slow motion.
Right outside of the Crabtree Ranger Station there was a huge container of wag bags – as I had guessed – despite the Yosemite Ranger’s insistence that ‘they ran out.’ I begrudged the extra four ounces.
Guitar Lake was beautiful, surrounded by in imposing amphitheater of rock walls. I tried to guess where the trail wended but was utterly lost in this new terrain. At a nearby campsite we watched sneaky marmots snatch food items out of a careless hikers backpack. Jason called to warn the owner but the site was empty. Despite it being hot and sunny, puffy clouds were gathering around the summit and bodeus to keep up the pace. Each switch backup to Trail Crest was a test in patience – I knew around one of these turns we would be deposited onto the Main Trail, with only two clicks to the summit. We were both in our own little worlds, listening to music, just enjoying the moment and trying to soak in every last detail – in a few hours this epic would end - not just the last nine days, but the last seven months of training, planning and toiling. Eleven months earlier our journey was nothing but a nexus of an idea in our heads, and soon it would be history.
The last bit of MainTrail, past Mount Muir, was all new to us. We hopped from rock top to rock top elegantly passing hikers who looked near death. Jason was ahead of me. A woman coming down from the summit asked me if I was part of the nine day JMT party. I said I was. ‘My hat goes off to you,’ she said. ‘That’s amazing.’ Struck by her kind words I felt a pang of emotion and started crying. Once near the top, Jason said, Well, I guess this is it,’ and pointed to the summit hut clearly in view above us. I immediately started crying. We were there. The last few minutes we basically jogged to the top, impatiently passing others. The Last few steps we grabbed each other’s hand as we approached the finish line. I placed my hand upon the hut. It was 2:30 pm. We were done.
The miles, they have ticked away.
This was my second summit, and Jason’s third. We spent about an hour on top, resting, eating, taking photos, signing the register, and being amused by the emotionally hardened backcountry ranger (with a Polish last name like mine). Watching the excitement of others as they tag the top for the first time never gets old, whether they are newbie weekenders, hardcore day hikers, or fellow thru hikers. I couldn't help but get excited thinking about bringing my friend Jim up here next spring. Jason got the idea of bringing back a pebble from the summit to give to his god son, with the intention that his mission would be to return the rock to the mountain one day when he grew up; a great way to inspire a kid and give them a worthy goal.As Jason and I pointed out the fourteeners to fellow fastpacker Joe, I realized how thoroughly we had come to know this place, and I felt proud. Now we can add another notch to our belt. I spent a good amount of time taking in the view of the interior Sierra – it felt different now. I looked north and could identify Forester Pass, so far away. We were there 24 hours ago. Months before the JMT, in one of my women’s athletic apparel magazines I read an interview with an athlete who said one of her life goals was to hike the John Muir Trail. I read that and wondered if I had what it takes to hike the trail, to make it all work out. It was an earnest question, not merely rhetorical. I had stopped short of my goal so many times in the last few years, I wondered if I was tough enough to live up to the level I chased so eagerly. It was fulfilling to finally know the answer to all my doubts and demons.
By this time the summit was becoming enshrouded with clouds and it began to rain, so I put on my hard shell and readied myself for a couple boring hours finishing up the last 11 knee pounding miles to the Whitney Portal. As everyone fled the worsening weather on the summit there was one hiker coming up the trail. I looked at him and was shocked to see a familiar face. After a few stunned seconds it hit me – it was Bob, the guy we had met on Split three months earlier. He spotted me and gave me a huge, sly smile. ‘What are you doing here?’ I demanded. Turns out our new friend Bob had been following our Spot tracker and decided to intersect us while he was in the area. He even brought us a beer to celebrate our success, our first alcohol in nine days. What a guy! Bob said he couldn't believe how coherent we were after what we had been through, and I assured him it was still the adrenaline from the summit and that we'd be crashing soon.
Once we passed Trail Camp the sun came out and we chatted with the Whitney hikers passing us on their way up to camp. Many asked eagerly if we had made it to the top. Jason Regaled some with our true achievement, but to most people we just said yes and left it at that. One guy made a comment that we'll have sore feet tonight. ‘Where are you coming from?’ one woman asked. ‘The John Muir Trail!’ I excitedly answered, hoping to floor them. All the hikers in the group seemed impressed. ‘Wow, all fifty miles!’ she remarked.
Somewhere around Outpost Camp I thought we were almost done when Jason discovered we still had three miles to go. I groaned like child at the thought of having to slog another three miles. It would take forever! The crash I predicted to Bob had arrived; my body was robbed of all energy. I took a caffeinated gu and resolved to push through all pain, wasting every last bit of energy I had to be able to get of my goddamned feet! I charged ahead and Jason followed suit. One by one we overcame hikers and blew past them. I probably looked like a crazed person. In fact I was a crazed person. After a few miles at the quickened pace it felt like my legs were on autopilot. I've felt this sensation a few times before in my life, as if you can’t stop. Momentum is a powerful thing.
I know each turn of the Whitney Trail like the back of my hand, so I was well aware of where we were as we hiked out. It was growing dark as the day came to a close. Soon we were back at the start, walking through the Portal in disbelief and astonishment. No more miles to walk. We stood again at the Mount Whitney Trail Sign and got our picture snapped by a friendly woman.
After the friendly woman took our photo Jason and I gave each other a hug and a kiss. It was over. I grabbed our cache from the bear bin where we had stashed our food and deodorant ten days before. We walked back to our trusty steed and gave the final test… she started right up. We called the Dow Villa to book a room – they had availability. And the last item on the never ending checklist was to secure a reservation at Season’s for dinner –we would just about make it there before the kitchen closed if we rushed.
We dashed to Lone Pine where summer was in full swing, as Whitney hikers walked up and down the street. At our hotel we did a 'first rinse' of the nine days of grime. Goodenough for dinner.
I felt contentment and at peace with myself and the world. It’s a feeling I wish could never be washed away, a glow I can carry about myself for the rest of my life, but slowly this dammar varnish will be gradually scratched away by the evils of the world. Soon I will forget this feeling and will return to reality. I’ll return back to my world where I don't have a job, and bills must be paid. Back to grocery shopping, making dinner, and doing laundry. Oh! But to have these memories, these precious, precious memories, it makes it all worth while.
Sitting in the booth, Jason and I sat in silence and gazed out the window. There wasn't much to say, but there was a lot on our minds. Ever-moving for nine days we didn't have much time to stop and ponder. Now with the task complete I felt like I had all the time in the world. This can be a blessing and a curse. The biggest burden in accomplishing a goal is not always in the thing itself, but in the inescapable low you encounter after. A year of dreaming, seven months of training, endless logistics, nine days of pushing… it all ends in an instant. In a way I'm free, at the same time I’m lost again, needing to attach myself to another dream. Sometimes I wonder why I partake in these big adventures, only to comeback and have to start all over again. But inevitably, I come back, looking for a new challenge, a new reason.
The sense of accomplishment and confidence I had at that moment may be the greatest of my life. Of the million things that could have fallen out of place on our trip, I'd like to think that it was our optimism and perseverance that pulled us through, yet I know it was also a great deal of good luck. It’s by rare syzygy when life plays out in such flawless accord, and flawless it was. Such experiences are rare. My memories of that entire summer fill me with nothing but happy thoughts, it is a bright spot in my mind that I often revisit, trying to remember the moments of ecstasy and beauty beyond words, lest I forget what it meant to me in that moment.
It was all for something – it was for me. And I have the privilege to keep it in my back pocket and pull it out when I choose, either to regale friends or simply to remind myself of what perfection feels like. For the rest of my days I can say, 'I hiked the John Muir Trail, and it is the one of the best times in my life.'
In the months that have elapsed since the JMT I've observed changes both physical and mental, and more melodramatic people might say spiritual too.
Physically Jason and I felt amazing. The morning after we completed the JMT we woke up in the hotel room feeling as if we had run a 50 mile race the day before – very stiff, sore knees, and an overall malaise, but not much worse. Overall, we felt pretty damn good, and most importantly, we could have gone for a jog or a hike if we had to – we still had fuel in the tank, which proved to me we developed great fitness but didn’t diminish ourselves to nothing over the course of the nine days. At the end of every day we felt whooped, but never truly wasted. When you’re truly wasted you shouldn't, and wouldn't, have the energy to do it the next day. We pushed ourselves to the edge, but it was a reasonable edge, maybe more like a few feet from the edge, and we never went over. After the hike we asked ourselves if we could do it in seven days. The answer is yes, but, I believe it would have pushed me up to that very razor sharp precipice, if not over it, and may have resulted in failure.
We drove home the day after we finished, and for the next two days we didn't leave our house, embodying the epitome of laziness. We slept in, napped, went through our photos and caught up on the news. Probably the most glorious part of completing an expedition is the calorie deficit you encounter, which I personally feel gives me the right to eat copious amounts of whatever I choose, for the day or two, or ten, following the trip. I definitely ate way more cookies than is wise, and drank an extra glass of wine daily that I would normally never do. Is it healthy? No. But there are few times in life when I feel true gluttony is earned, and even fewer times in life when the calories don't show.
Truth told I lost only one pound of weight over the course of the nine days. Over the entire six months of training before the JMT I lost five pounds. And in the four months that have elapsed since the conclusion of the trip I've gained back a few pounds, lost some muscle, and my body fat percentage returned to normal.
The tip of my right big toe went numb the last few days of the hike, and it remained numb for about a month. Another scary side effect was the stiffness the hike incurred on both of our Achilles tendons, and overall foot sensitivity. Every morning when I woke up and got out of bed, it was impossible to put my feet on the floor and walk without hypersensitivity. My Achilles felt like it became a rubber band, and I would have to walk gently and stretch it till it slowly warmed up. This Progressed for about two weeks. In the days immediately following our finish we intended to go for easy hikes and to walk around to keep the muscles supple, but we never actually did. I believe this lack of movement and stretching immediately after the hike added to the stiffness.
Upon returning home I immediately bought a good fly fishing rod and learned to cast.
Gear choices and setups are in a constant state of flux, change according to the demands of the trip, and will never be the same for every person. But for those who are interested, here is a broad gear list of my essential items.
Base weight: 13 lbs
- 50L Osprey backpack
- Western Mountaineering SummerLite sleeping bag (1lb 3oz)
- 5 panels of a Thermarest Z-lite sleeping pad
- Hexamid tent (single man, 1lb, trekking pole reliant)
- Black Diamond carbon Z-poles
- lightweight stove
- Snow Peak Titanium cup and spoon
- Platypus bladder bowl (old water bladder cut in half)
- 2L water bladder
- 22oz bottle
- MSR HyperFlow water filter
- Bear bag
- John Muir Trail Atlas (mini map booklet)
- Sports Shield (lubricating wipes)
- Dirty Girl gaiters
- Wash cloth
We brought a light weight tent and thin sleeping bags, unlike many fastpackers who just bring warm sleeping bags and a ground cloth, and forego the hassle of a tent. The tent we used, the Hexamid, weighs one pound and fits both of us, and each of our Phantom Sleeping bags only weigh a pound. So in our case, ounce for ounce, it was actually lighter to bring the tent instead of our warmer heavier sleeping bags and ground cloths or bivvies.
I brought my Osprey Aura 50 liter backpack. The pack itself weighs three pounds which pains me to think about. But, after testing many different packs, I choose to go with what felt most comfortable – my hips and back thanked me at the end of the day. As for Jason, he used the Osprey Hornet 46 liter, which only weighs a pound! But in exchange for saving heft this pack offers almost no back support or weight to hip distribution, it lies directly on your back, but this didn't bother him in the least. The only way to know what fits you best is to try it out.
Whether or not to bring a stove is an area of great debate. If you're fast packing and want to go light, a few days without hot food won't kill you, and might be worth the weight and space savings, as well as eliminating the hassle of cooking and cleanup. On many training hikes I went sans stove and ate cold ramen noodles for dinner, no boiling water needed. Unlike me, Jason has to have a hot breakfast and hot dinner to feel good, and he brought his stove. As I slurped down cold noodles I could smell the aroma of his piping hot dinners and steaming soups. So, when it came time to decide for the JMT I chose to bring a stove. We use lightweight aluminum stoves that weigh virtually nothing and don't take up much space, but on the downside, require a lot of attention to use safely. Considering how lightweight many stoves and container fuel are today, I believe the choice is more contingent on how much time you want to waste rather than an issue of weight. If you’re fastpacking 14 hour days you might much rather eat cold uncooked packaged food in a few minutes, than spend 30 minutes to prepare, eat and clean after a hot meal. But for me the comfort and taste of hot steaming ramen and creamy mac and cheese won me over.
Weather & Clothing
We went the first week of September of 2013. The weather was picture perfect.
Days were warm with highs reaching the 80s. Nights got cold, dipping into the 40s. We had one morning at a higher elevation that we woke to frost. Most mornings pre-sunrise were pretty nippy – I’d always start hiking wearing a long sleeve,hard shell jacket and pants. For the most part I was fine wearing a t-shirt and shorts for the bulk of the day. When we stopped to camp I’d immediately put on my pants and synthetic down jacket. We brought very light sleeping bags so glove liners, neck gaiters and a hat were paramount. I brought both a vest and my synthetic down jacket which was a little overkill; I never needed to wear both at the same time.
We had one day of light rain for a few hours, but no significant precipitation. Wind was normal for the terrain.
- North Face Running T-shirt
- Lululemon Spandex shorts
- Patagonia Capilene long sleeve
- Patagonia Houdini pants
- Patagonia Micro Puff vest
- First Ascent synthetic down jacket
- Marmot Super Mica jacket
- Mountain Masochist trail running shoes
- Brimmed hat
- Wool scarf & neck gaiter
- Glove liners
- Warm hat
Food & Water
We resupplied once in the nine days, so we never carried more than five days worth of food in our packs. We made use of the fact we were in Tuolumne the day before we started, and left a cache of food in the bear bins at the Cathedral trailhead. This saved us about eight pounds of weight on our back for almost all of the first day. We also knew we'd be eating at The Grille in Tuolumne and The Mule House Cafe in Red’s Meadow, so we made sure to nix packing those meals. Packing this exactly means you have very little wiggle room for error though.
We each mailed 13 pounds of food to Muir Ranch, enough for the last 4.5 days. We both cut out some food and left it in the communal food bins at the ranch. When we finished the trail I only had about a few goos, some granola bars and an emergency dinner left – I packed almost the exact amount of food I needed to finish the trip. This is both good and bad, depending on how conservative you like to be.
I packed around 2700 calories for myself for a day. At the end of each day I ate almost all of my allotted food, and would force myself to take in the calories even when I wasn't hungry, but this was rare. For me, the key to eating enough is to bring food I like, which doesn't always include the healthiest of foods.
Many people don't bother with sports drinks but I couldn't get by without them. They provide a large dose of my salt and calories, and sometimes protein and caffeine. At the end of every day I downed a bottle of recovery drink, which is nothing more than a quick source of carbs and a bit of protein for weary muscles, but also with glutamine and magnesium. Another aspect I love with bringing different sports drink powders is the variety of flavors, everything from your usual fruit punch to coffee and strawberry-vanilla. Certain drink mixes, like Perpetuum or hot chocolate mix, have a chalky base to them, which settles my stomach and breaks the monotony of sweet clear drinks. Being able to alternate between water and sports drinks keeps your palette from getting bored, encourages you to drink, and keeps you better hydrated.
We stopped to filter water three times every day – first thing in the morning, at lunch, and every night. We each drank about five to six liters a day for drinking and cooking. We chose to use the MSR HyperFlow water filter, it’s our favorite of the pump filters. We were close to bringing a Steripen, but if you're using a bladder as your main water containment you don't save much time sterilizing your water as you walk away. Plus, due to the Rim Fire, much of the water sources were hazy from ash, which made us happy we brought a filter which would remove remove silt, instead of a purifier or pill which would not. The drawback to these microfiber pumps is keeping them flowing smoothly. Our pump stiffened up significantly from the dirtied water, and by the end of the trip was nearly impossible to pump, even with frequent backflushing.
I brought an 86 ounce capacity for water – a 2 liter water bladder, and a 22 ounce sports bottle for sports drinks. There are many water sources along the JMT, I rarely had all of my containers full. Despite the plentiful water supplies, we did run into some tight spots due to low water conditions that year. Twice we anticipated refilling at a water source marked on our map, only to find it entirely dry. So, despite the plentiful water and trip reports of people carrying only 1 liter of liquid at a time, you still have to be cautious.
Food weight: five days of food, 12 lbs
Water capacity: 86 oz (2.5L) or 5.5lbs fully topped off
- Dried cranberries & fruit leathers
- Sour cream & onion Bunny crackers
- Zone Bar, Larabar, Kind bar
- Pistachios with salt
- Sour Patch Kids
- Sun Chips
- Shot blox
- Caffeinated goo
- Pop Tarts
- Pastries, small muffin or scone
- Tortilla with Nutella or almond butter
- Lipton Soup Mix
- Smoked salmon fish packet
- Freeze dried dinner
Transportation & Permits
If you can get a ride to Whitney Portal public transportation can get you to Yosemite Valley, as long as you’re not in a rush.
From the portal you can walk or hitchhike down to Lone Pine. From there we took the Eastern Sierra Transit bus to Bishop, and then transferred to another bus to Mammoth Lakes. Depending on what time you arrive in Mammoth you’ll probably have to wait till the next day to catch one of Yosemite National Park’s shuttles. Their YARTS bus system has shuttles that drive all the way down to Mammoth twice a day during peak season, at the time of this writing (they stop service around Labor Day Weekend). This bus can get you all the way to Yosemite Valley.
If you already have permits you can pick them up at the Wilderness Office in the valley. If You didn't reserve a permit, like we didn't, that’s where things get tricky. In any case, if you're trying for a walk-in permit, know that they are in high demand and it may take a day or two to secure one during peak season.
Reyes Peak – 14 miles, 3500’ gain
Chief Peak – 14.5 miles, 4200’ gain
Cucamonga Peak & Big Horn Peak – 12.3 miles, 4500’gain
Hines Peak – 20 miles, 5K gain
Baldy Loop – 19 miles, 7.5K gain
Cactus to Clouds – 18.5 miles, 10.2K gain
Split Mountain – 15 miles, 7.5K gain
Rea Lakes Loop, via Kearsarge Pass – 48 miles, 10K gain
Backbone Trail – 66 miles, 9K gain
Evolution Loop – 70 miles, 10K gain
Day 1 was when the wind started to blow the smoke into Yosemite Valley. We counted hikers who wore protection on their face from the smoke. Of the 77 hikers we passed that day, only four hikers (not including us) covered their face with a mask of some sort to block the smoke. Of our nine days on the trail we passed the most people on days one and nine.
Day 2 we counted hikers with trekking poles. Out of 67 hikers we passed that day, 47 hiked with two trekking poles, 4 with one trekking pole or a walking stick, and 16 with nothing.
Day 3 we counted pants verses shorts. We only passed thirteen people this day, the fewest of any stretch of the JMT. Out of 13 hikers ten wore shorts, three wore pants.
Day 4 we counted men verses women. Out of 35 hikers 20 were men and 5 were women, for a whopping 4:1 ratio of men to women.
Day 5 we became lazy and lost all ambition to keep tallies.
Why I wrote this
I am typing this four months after our trip. It’s taken me till now to develop the hindsight and appreciation of what happened.
I wrote this down for myself. I feel the need to say that, lest someone think I mistake trip reports for novellas - once I started writing I couldn't stop, such was the pleasure of reliving our trip. Jason persuaded me to put it on the internet for others to read and learn from, as we did with so many other amazing blog posts and trip reports. I’m merely adding one more to the pile, and hope that in the smallest way, it may answer someone’s question, help logistical planning, or inspire another soul. It’s my tiny way of giving back to the amazing community of people who dare attempt such deeds.
Shortly after our trip I knew I must try my best to record what has amounted to one of my most precious times in my life. Every day that passed I feared my vibrant memories were slowly fading, till all I would remember is a general sense of emotion, and none of the details. Weeks after our trip I’d take up the pen only to be so overwhelmed with where to start that I foundered and wrote nothing at all. As with any big task the most difficult steps are the first ones. And if you're dreaming of a JMT trip, I urge you to take some first steps of your own.
This trip report is also online at TheMilesTickAway.blogspot.com