|Ritter (left) and Banner (right) Peaks - Mammoth Lakes Area|
Hiking the John Muir Trail - 2016
John Muir is widely considered the father of the National Parks System. His early work to protect wild lands was fundamental to the creation of the public green spaces we now know and love. No area was more impacted by his work than the Sierra mountain range in California. It is through this “range of light” that a trail has been established in his name. The 220 mile track extends from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney traveling through no less than five jurisdictions. The JMT is America’s most popular hiking trail and has a place on every long-distance hiker’s bucket list.
I had been hoping to attempt a solo hike on the JMT in 2017 so I had been planning, prepping gear lists and reading about the trail all spring and summer of 2016. I also knew my friend Michal K. had secured a permit for September 2016 and we traded emails about the hike regularly. I got an email from Michal about 3 weeks before his trip saying his hiking partner couldn’t make the trip and could I swing the trip on such short notice. The conversation with my wife ended with her saying “I don’t know how you can say no.” Thanks honey!
The original plan called for no re-supply along the route, meaning we would be carrying all of our food for our trip from the start. My gear list is at the end of the post for those that are interested. Pretty simple: about 16 pounds of base weight (that’s stuff you carry all the way like the tent, clothes, hygiene stuff, stove, etc.) and 19 pounds of consumables (food and fuel). Including water, my pack weighed around 35 pounds at its heaviest and got about 2 lbs. lighter each day as I ate my way through the food bag. I often describe hiking and any ultra-distance human-powered travel as “a roving eating contest.”
Trip Log – Thoughts and Recollections
Day 0 – Getting to the Trail Head
Michal and I decided that this was the hardest day of the trip. During the hiking season, there are lots of mass transit options, but we were hiking in the shoulder season (the time right before or after the peak season) so transit options were limited. Ultimately our plan was this:
a. Fly into LAX in the evening and drive TWO rental cars to Lone Pine, CA.
b. Leave car 1 in Lone Pine and drive car 2 to Yosemite Valley about 4 hours.
c. Drop Michal off in Yosemite Valley to secure our permit while I drove car 2 to Merced Airport.
|Yosemite Valley From Tioga Road|
|El Capitan from the Valley Floor|
Once we were on the trail the stress of getting to the trail head melted away. Michal had secured a permit to summit Half-Dome so Day 1 include a few bonus miles. On the hike up Happy Isles we met a guy coming down and inquired if he had summited Half-Dome. He replied that he had, in fact he had spent 9 DAYS climbing the front face! After we parted ways, Michal and I joked that he was probably a famous climber putting up a new route and we should have had him sign something.
|Half Dome Viewed From Happy Isles Trail|
|Half Dome the approach trail (the faint line up the middle are the cables)|
|Viewed from just below the cables|
Coming down the approach trail Michal and I bumped into the ranger who had hassled us at the trail head. She stopped us and asked if we were the hikers who's permit she had questioned. We replied that we were. She admitted that she had misjudged us and clearly we could hike the itinerary we proposed. The whole episode made for good laughs for the rest of the hike.
|The valley viewed from Half Dome summit|
We got a late start on our second day due to post office not opening until 10 a.m. The good news is we got to have hot breakfast at the Tulolumne Meadows grill. The first day took us up the Lyell Creek valley and over Donahue Pass. I was surprised by how difficult Donahue proved to be. This was our first trip into the alpine zone and at 11,000 feet I probably should have expected it. In the evening we crossed over Island pass and camped at a pair of lakes just south of pass.
|Alpenglow on mountains east of Island Pass - Mammoth Lakes area|
Day 3 took us through the lake region near Mammoth. This area was crawling with hikers and we shared trail with a lot of folks. This area is very accessible from paved roads and with its stunning beauty its easy to see why its teaming with people.
|Thousand Island Lake with Banner peak in background|
On our fourth day we finally found our trail groove. We established a routine that we would use the rest of hike: break camp early and be on the trail by 6:30 a.m, hike 6 miles before breakfast, stop for lunch around 1 p.m., and then hike until around sunset. That morning at our breakfast stop we bumped into a trio of hikers doing a section of the JMT NOBO (hiker speak for north bound). They complimented our efficiency at whipping up breakfast. One person in their group lamented that he had broken his Kindle on the first day and other two in the group mentioned how grumpy he had been without reading material. We parted ways, but not before Michal traded the first half of book he was carrying for an extra summer sausage the other group was carrying! I’m always amazed at the generosity of the trail.
|Marie Lake from Seldon Pass approach trail|
On Day 5 we passed into what I considered to be the most breathtaking section of the trail. We descended into the San Juaquin River valley. This brought us into Kings Canyon National Park. The trail following the river offered incredible views of aspen in fall yellow and tall stands of lodgepole pine. The walls of the canyon towered overhead and I felt quite small and insignificant in their shadow. Reaching Evolution creek, we continued up the Evolution valley. Yosemite Valley gets all the attention in the Sierra but Kings Canyon is 100 times more spectacular . It's only unknown because you can’t drive a car to this spot and, therefore 99% of the populous never sets eyes on it.
|Heart Lake looking from Seldon Pass|
|Sequoia on the slopes above San Juaquin River|
|Sallie Keys Lake|
Day 6 – Evolution Lake to Palisade Lakes - 28 miles; +5,388/-4,853 vertical feet
If the hike up Evolution Valley was the most spectacular day of the trip, the hike over Muir pass was a very close second. Day 6 dawned bright and we got an early start taking in sunrise views of The Hermit and Evolution Lakes on our way up to Muir Pass and the John Muir hut. The night before we had camped a thousand feet below our originally planned stopping point because of threatening weather we had seen from the valley below. Now on our approach to the pass, we meet a couple of hikers coming down from the pass. They looked a bit beaten down and worse for wear. They recounted their story from the afternoon before getting pinned down in hail and snow storm and spending a night in the Muir hut. We departed feeling glad we didn't press on to the basin the night before.
|Wanda Lake in Evolution Basin|
|John Muir Hut on Muir Pass|
|Helen Lake south of Muir Pass|
|Michal on Helen Lake|
|Bundled up on Mather Pass|
Morning dawned bitterly cold with fast moving clouds giving way to bright sunshine in the south, our direction of travel. We broke camp as fast as we could and proceeded up the last 1,200 feet of the climb to Mather Pass. It was cold. I wore all but one layer of clothing from my pack. With the clothing and the body heat generated from climbing, my body was warm, though my hands were very cold. I wore my dirty hiking socks on my hands to shield my skin from the bitterly cold wind. As we neared Mather pass, I reached back for my water bottle and noticed something odd. The combined cold temperatures and wind chill was enough to partially freeze the water in bottle.
|Looking toward Pinchot Pass|
|Trail to Taboose Pass looking north|
|View from Taboose Pass looking west|
|Trail from Taboose Pass to the desert floor descends 6000' in 7 miles|
|The Taboose Creek Campground Diner|
All in all this hike was the biggest and best adventure I have ever undertaken. I’m extremely humbled and in awe by the incredible natural asset we hiked through. I’m extremely grateful to my wife for her good spirit and support during the run-up to this adventure. I appreciate the latitude in vacation notification policy afforded by my employer and also their sincere support. Lastly, I’m extraordinarily thankful to Michal for inviting me to share in his trip and for sharing the trail with me. It was one heck of an adventure and I’m looking forward to the next adventure we share.
But for all the ugliness, we ARE capable of choosing beauty, both in nature and in ourselves, at an individual level. And we have unprecedented access to share, spread and protect that beauty like no other society in history. So I’ll move forward, a little different than I was before this experience and I will try to choose beauty more often than I did before.
|Sleeping/Shelter:||20deg down bag|
|(5.6 lbs)||Half of Northface 2 person tent|
|Big Agnes torso length inflatable mat + 1/4” yoga mat|
|Clothing (worn/carried):||1 pair running shorts, 1 pair hiking pants, 1 pair compression shorts|
|(2 lbs/2 lbs)||1 Long sleeve shirt, 1 Short sleeve shirt, 1 pair sun sleeves|
|Fleece cap, balaclava, visor, bandana, gaiters, eyeglasses, sunglasses|
|Dryducks rain jacket and rain pants, Altra Olympus trail runners|
|Packing:||ULA Olm 2.0 Backpack, 2 pack liner bags, 1 stuff sack, Garcia Bear Canister|
|Cooking/Hydration:||Aluminum cookpot w/ lid and stuff sack, fuel canister|
|(1.2 lbs)||Cup & spoon, Reused MH envelope (food bowl), 1L bottle, 1L Platypus|
|Sawyer Squeeze filter + Camelback hose and bite-valve|
|Essential Gear:||Hygiene kit, SA Vitrox knife, first-aid/foot-care/repair kit, compass, map set|
|(1.5 lbs)||Fenix L01 flashlight w/ 1 spare battery, IPhone 5, external battery|
|Food/Water:||Breakfast: Steel cut oats w/ dried cherries and powdered milk|
|(19 lbs/2 lbs)||Lunch: Tortillas, Almond butter or tuna on 2 day rotation, beef jerky|
|Dinner: Couscous, powdered potatoes or cheesy grits on 3 day rotation|
|Snacks: Kind bars and homemade trail mix eaten on the move|
|Other: Sbucks Via instant coffee, cocoa powder, powdered milk, brown sugar|