Saturday, October 1, 2016

Hiking the John Muir Trail - 2016

Ritter (left) and Banner (right) Peaks - Mammoth Lakes Area

“I am losing precious days.
I am degenerating into a machine for making money.
I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men.
I must break away and get out into the mountains
to learn the news.”    – John Muir

Hiking the John Muir Trail - 2016

Full picture album is posted on my Flikr page:
Background – The John Muir Trail
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. 

Genesis – Opportunity Knocks
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!

Everything on Your Back – Gear and Food I Carried
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.
         d. Take the mass transit YARTS bus from Merced back to Yosemite where Michal was camped.
The end result of this plan was 600 miles and 11 hours of driving in less than 24 hours. The good news is we were driving through the beautiful landscape of the eastern Sierra.

Yosemite Valley From Tioga Road

El Capitan from the Valley Floor
 Day 1 – Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows – 33 miles; +14,500/-6,500 vertical feet
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

At the turn off to Half-Dome we had to check-in with a NPS ranger. She asked us a few questions and immediately informed us “that we were 100% in violation of our permit.” We, of course, knew that we were o.k. but she wasn’t convinced. Apparently we had confused her. We described our itinerary and told her we had cleared this with the ranger in Yosemite valley when we secured the permit, to which she replied “That’s great, but I’M the ranger now.” After a tense 15 minute conversation, she completely reverses her initial ruling and decides we are, in fact, legal and within out permit limitations. She sends us on our way with a shot of adrenaline coursing through our veins, but no worse off. The crisis averted, we hiked up and discussed the incident. We decided that the Yosemite rangers probably see every kind of unprepared hiker on a daily basis so perhaps “guilty-until-proven-innocent” as a default policy may not be unreasonable. The whole impasse stemmed for her disbelief that we could hike 30 miles in a day.
Half Dome the approach trail (the faint line up the middle are the cables)
The last 1,000 feet of Half-Dome is legendary: cables are strung up the final approach and hikers pull themselves up hand-over-hand to the summit. I have to admit I felt quite intimidated standing at the foot of the last pitch. I arrived a minute before Michal and I looked back at him at the foot of the climb. He gave me a thumbs up which I took to mean, “go now before we talk about it and both loose our nerve” so up I went. The face of the rock has been polished smooth by the feet of all the hikers who’ve gone before us. I was quite surprised by how much upper body effort was required to make forward progress. By the time I got to the top my forearms where pumped and cramping. 
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

Day 2 – Tuolumne Meadows to Island Pass – 19 miles; +3,295/-1,691 vertical feet
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 – Island Pass to Deer Creek – 26 miles; +4,023/-5,143 vertical feet
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
Garnet Lake
This is the day we met a hiker we dubbed “huge pack girl.” She was carrying a 60+ pound pack and carrying enough food for a 30 day hike! Due to her pack weight, she was limited to about 6 miles per day. But man did she have a good spirit! And one heck of a strong spirit and a strong body despite her slight frame. Very impressive!!!
It was about this time that I realized I had made a pretty big error in my planning. Hikers and climbers have a saying: “you pack your fears.” Meaning the stuff that goes in your pack reflects the risks you think you may encounter. And the stuff you pack TOO much of reflects what you are afraid of. I have to admit that during the prep period before the trip I was most concerned about being hungry on the trail. This is the longest trip I’ve ever been on without re-supply. We would carry all our food from the first day. By the third day it was apparent I had packed TOO MUCH FOOD.

Day 4 – Deer Creek to Bear Creek Trail - 31 miles; +6,480/-6,496 vertical feet
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
Day 5 – Bear Creek Trail to Evolution Lake - 28 miles; +4,910/-4,117 vertical feet
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 
About a mile from where we intended to camp for the night we met a trio of hikers who were spending a month hiking the JMT. We chatted with them for a few minutes when I asked, “are you guys interested in come Kind bars?” I had been building up a stock of uneaten food each day and I was desperate to dump some of what I was carrying. They said they were and I spilled out about a pound of bars on a rock. In about 30 seconds all of the bars were gone. The trail had generously reduced my pack weight.

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

The Muir hut was exactly what I had visualized when I read the descriptions: a homely little hut in a stark landscape. Built in 1931 by the Sierra Club, the hut looks like something out of a Tolkien novel. We snapped a few pictures and proceeded down the very technical decent into Kings Canyon.
John Muir Hut on Muir Pass
Helen Lake south of Muir Pass
Michal on Helen Lake
The afternoon of Day 6 was the first time we experienced any bad weather. A cold steady rain started to fall as we climbed Palisade Creek Valley toward the Golden Staircase which leads to Palisade Lakes. We stopped below the steps to evaluate our options. We really wanted to get up the steps before camping to cut a 3,000’ climb in half. We decided to cook dinner and wait and see. That night we pitched the tent in a strong wind and added some additional guy-lines to prepare for an exposed and windy night. Just as we climbed into the tent the wind picked up and sleet and freezing rain started in. The tent was buffeted for hours and sleep came in fits and starts. It would be our longest night on the trail.
Bundled up on Mather Pass
Day 7 – Palisade Lake to Taboose Creek campground - 26 miles; +3,303/-9,991 vertical feet
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
We hiked in the shadow of the mountain and as we made the pass we emerged into the sunshine. The cold wind was still gusting, but the warm sun felt great. We dropped into the valley and stopped for breakfast and to gather more water.

Trail to Taboose Pass looking north
View from Taboose Pass looking west
At breakfast, we discussed the progress of our trip thus far.  Looking at the map we had a fairly easy 10 mile hike to the parking lot from the Taboose pass trail and another few miles on a dirt road would get us to a camp ground and access to a shuttle to our car in Lone Pine. We were at a point where we had to decide how our trip would end. Continuing on would take us a bit deeper into wilderness which would pressure us greatly to get off trail in time to catch our flight home. We hadn’t had any contact with our families since we stepped on the trail. Michal carried a SPOT satellite locator and we had transmitted our position and status several times each day. They knew we were o.k. and moving well. However, we didn’t know how we would deal with the fallout of a missed flight. We agreed that we had experienced what we came to do. We could have pushed on to try to make the terminus, but in the end we wisely decided to take the exit trail and save the last 50 miles of the JMT for another day. The trail will be waiting for us.

Trail from Taboose Pass to the desert floor descends 6000' in 7 miles 
We made it to the car-camp ground around sunset. We chatted with some guys who were setting up camp and were planning to enter the John Muir Wilderness the following day via the path we took out. We asked where we paid for camping. They informed us that you pay $15 per car but since we didn’t have a car we were welcome to share their spot. The trail is generous. The wind picked up to a gale as we set up our tent blowing across the desert floor. We felt like we were in a sand blaster. Seeking shelter to light our stove, we retreated to the only available wind break: the latrine. We set up our stove in the privy, with the door propped open to prevent an accidental methane ignition and camped out on the leeward side of the building to eat. A few car campers gave us the stink eye. One fella escorted his wife to use the facilities. He kept a watchful eye on the two obvious deviants. We made a way to our car the next morning and spent the day doing some touristy stuff in Lone Pine and the Death Valley National Park. Death Valley is as different from the High Sierra as any two climates could be. Breezy cool passes and luscious meadows give way to dry hot windless desert. In 48 hours we see the extremes.
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.

We live in interesting times. It’s not hard to look around and see a lot of ugliness. There is ugliness in the way we treat one another. Ugliness in how we speak about others. Ugliness in the way we use and abuse the great inheritance we steward in the natural world.

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.

“Everybody needs beauty…places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.” – John Muir

My 2016 JMT Hike Gear List:
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
 (5 lbs)
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